Night of Cake & Puppets by Laini Taylor

Night of Cake & Puppets by Laini TaylorNight of Cake & Puppets by Laini Taylor
Narrator: Kevin T. Collins, Khristine Hvam
Series: Daughter of Smoke and Bone #2.5
Published by Hachette Audio on 12/5/13
Genres: Fantasy, Romance

Story: A
Narration: A-

Quick Review:

Adorable! An amusing and romantic short story set in the generally more serious universe of Daughter of Smoke and Bone. The dual narration was unexpectedly perfect. Honestly? Don’t bother with the review, just go buy the audio.

Publisher’s Blurb:

In Night of Cake & Puppets, Taylor brings to life a night only hinted at in the Daughter of Smoke & Bone trilogy—the magical first date of fan-favorites Zuzana and Mik. Told in alternating perspectives, it’s the perfect love story for fans of the series and new readers alike. Petite though she may be, Zuzana is not known for timidity. Her best friend, Karou, calls her “rabid fairy,” her “voodoo eyes” are said to freeze blood, and even her older brother fears her wrath. But when it comes to the simple matter of talking to Mik, or “Violin Boy,” her courage deserts her. Now, enough is enough. Zuzana is determined to meet him, and she has a fistful of magic and a plan. It’s a wonderfully elaborate treasure hunt of a plan that will take Mik all over Prague on a cold winter’s night before finally leading him to the treasure: herself! Violin Boy’s not going to know what hit him.

My Thoughts:

I think I’m pretty much onboard to read anything Laini Taylor wants to write but when I heard that there was an upcoming novella about Zuzana and Mik – characters from the fantastic Daughter of Smoke and Bone series – I… er… I may have squeed aloud. A little bit. And pestered @HachetteAudio to find out if there would be an audio version. Some of my favorite scenes in Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Days of Blood and Starlight contain Zuzana. As the perfect humorous foil for the darker material in the book, she got most of the funny lines and I glommed onto her like a raft in the emotional storm that was Karou’s life. I was pleased to discover that this novella lived up to my expectations.

Although we get a short glimpse of the early friendship between Karou and Zuzana, the story is primarily about Zuzanna as she plots her first date with Mik and leads him on a treasure hunt to get to it. Unexpectedly, we also get to hear Mik’s perspective on this adventure. Both characters speak directly to the listener which is a conceit that can sometimes be a bit problematic for me when it’s overdone or seems too clever. In this case it worked perfectly and made me feel like I was overhearing a conversation in a coffee shop the day after a first date.

In addition to the magic of romance, there’s a little of the real magic that inhabits the DoSaB world and they blend together well. As in the full-length novels, Prague comes alive in the story and the atmosphere of one snowy night in that ancient city is a vivid construction in the listener’s imagination. The imagery is beautifully rendered and the phrasing is well-written. This is a sweet, adorable, and laugh-out-loud funny story that’s a perfect companion to the series or a lovely stand-alone listen when you’re in the mood to be charmed.

I was going to include some quotes of the amusing or well-worded parts of this novella but then I realized I’d been cutting and pasting practically the entire book and decided…perhaps not. As a short précis of Zuzana, though, I can’t resist:

“I mean, who would I be if I’d been raised on milquetoast bedtime stories and not forced to dust the glass prison of a psychotic undead fox Cossack? I shudder to think.

I might wear lace collars and laugh flower petals and pearls. People might try to pat me. I see them think it. My height triggers the puppy-kitten reflex – Must touch – and I’ve found that since you can’t electrify yourself like a fence, the next best thing is to have murderer’s eyes.”

and a bit later…

“Anyone with an older brother can tell you: Cunning is required. Even if you’re not miniature like me – four foot eleven in a good mood, as little as four foot eight when in despair, which is way too often lately – morphology is on the side of brothers. They’re bigger. Their fists are heavier. Physically, we don’t stand a chance. Hence the evolution of ‘little-sister brain.’

Artful, conniving, pitiless. No doubt about it, being a little sister – emphasis on little – has been formative, though I take pride in knowing that Tomas is more scarred by years of tangling with me than vice versa. But more than anyone or anything else, it’s Deda who is responsible for the landscape of my mind, the mood and scenery, the spires and shadows. When I think about kids (which isn’t often, except to wish them elsewhere and stop just short of deploying them hence with my foot), the main reason I would consider…begetting any (in a theoretical sense, in the far-distant future) is so that I can practice upon small, developing brains the same degree of mind-molding my grandfather has practiced on us.”

As for Mik…the cat analogy… oh, the cat analogy. It was brilliant and amusing and so well voiced by Kevin T. Collins that I’m not going to quote it but only suggest you listen to it yourself. This novella is well worth a listen and likely several re-listens.

The Narration:

I was concerned when I saw that this novella was going to be voiced by dual narrators. I was please to see that Khristine Hvam would be narrating – after all, she does such a great job with the full-length books in the series – but why did we need another voice? Well, aside from the fact that the story is actually broken out into “Her” and “Him” alternating sections, as it turns out, Kevin T. Collins was awesome as Mik.

Each narrator brings personality and individualization to the characters: from the squeak when Zuzana gets excited about what she’s saying to the tentative uncertainty Mik displays and the way in which Mr. Collins leverages perfect inflections to build the character and his mood and personality in my mind, this pairing was audio gold.

Why the “-” to the A” grade? I heard a little inconsistency in Zuzana’s accent and Mr. Collins uses a lot of breath(iness) to push out Mik’s lines. These were very minor issues as the narration was above average and makes audio the way to go with this story.

Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s Liaden Series: The Books of Before

Crystal Soldier, Crystal Dragon, Balance of Trade by Sharon Lee, Steve Miller
Narrator: Kevin T. Collins
Published by Audible Frontiers Genres: Science Fiction

This is the third post in my four part series about the audiobooks in the Liaden Universe, produced by Audible Frontiers. This review covers the audios in the Books of Before sequence. Crystal Soldier and Crystal Dragon (also referred to as the Great Migration duology) combine with Balance of Trade to make up this sequence which takes place much earlier than the rest of books in the Liaden Universe.

The Plot(s):

Unabridged Length: 13 hrs 56 mins

Crystal Soldier

Years ago, humans divided into two paths. One branch, the sheriekas, sought perfection through their constructs and constant manipulation of genes to make them suitable to each world they found. The other branch, while also practicing genetic engineering, stayed true to the basic human form. After fighting each other to a seeming standstill in the First Phase of war, it seems the sheriekas are back and are nibbling away at the Rim worlds as they drive towards the Inner Worlds.

Temporarily stranded on one of those outer worlds, M. Jela (an engineered soldier) rescues the planet’s last inhabitant – a sentient tree sapling – before his troop lands and rescues him. Cantra yos’Phelium is a smuggler and a loner but when a chance encounter with Jela (and his tree) draws her into the fight against his enemies, the two of them may be humanity’s best hope in a battle against a seemingly invincible opponent.

Crystal Dragon

Unabridged Length: 15 hrs 35 mins

Cantra and Jela are working against the clock to obtain the necessary equations to battle the great Enemy: the sheriekas. Seeking information to be found on the planet Landomist, Cantra assumes the identity of a Seated Scholar in order to infiltrate the scholars’ tower, hauling Jela along under the pretense that he’s a simple servant. Navigating the halls of academia presents unexpected dangers for Cantra, not the least of which is that her past training has altered her in ways that Jela is unprepared for.

Unabridged Length: 15 hrs 33 mins

Balance of Trade

Jethri Gobelyn has spent his life on his family’s trade ship. It hasn’t always been easy being the youngest child of Iza Gobelyn – captain-owner of the spaceship Gobelyn’s Market. After the death of his father, his mother’s resentment of his presence was a palpable presence on-board. When an unexpected chain of events lead to Jethri’s introduction to Master Trader Norn ven’Deelin, who happens to be Liaden, Jethri is offered an opportunity to apprentice on the spaceship Elthoria. Jethri knows a little about Liadens but for a Terran far from home and kin “a little” is just enough to be deadly.

My Thoughts:

While I enjoyed the first two books in this sequence, the primary value to me of Crystal Soldier and Crystal Dragon was as an origin story. There are a lot of characters and background information in the Great Migration duology that enhance your understanding of the rest of the books in the Liaden Universe. Although the plot moves ahead nicely and action sequences are engaging, as stand-alone stories they left me a bit cold. I found Jela to be bland and I’m not sure exactly why. Perhaps it was because he was so consistently proficient and mild-mannered. I tend to like those characters who might (in another genre) be classified as beta heroes but not here. Cantra was interesting enough but I would have liked a more detailed back-story to flesh her out more fully. Part of the lack of investment I had with the story was due to the fact that although we had clear insight within the internal monologues of both Cantra and Jela regarding how much they came to care for the other, I never felt the actual connection because there was minimal acknowledgment of the relationship between them when they interacted with each other. This had the effect of making the relationship resolution less emotionally dramatic than it could have been. Add to that enemies who, for the most part, were vague and amorphous entities for much of the two books and I didn’t feel I had the character details needed to fully invest myself in the story. I was more involved in spotting references to things I had already ready about in the later (timeline-wise) books.

Balance of Trade was an unexpected surprise to me in audiobook form. I read it in hardback but was still compelled to check my shelves to be sure because not only did the story seem new to me, I loved it in audio whereas I only recall feeling “meh” about it as text. Thinking of my response to the first two books in this sequence, I can see a correlation (although I’m not willing label it causation) that leads me to suspect it may be the more intricate ties of friends, family, and kin and how the authors develop that type of storyline that makes up a lot of what I enjoy about the Liaden Universe.

Jethri’s story is a very enjoyable coming-of-age tale filled with family dynamics and cultural conflict brushed with a light glaze of action and danger. Like in real life, Jethri finds both conflict and friendship in each changing situation and his arc of learning and growing from his experiences is natural and well-drawn. The supporting cast of character is wide and we learn enough about most of them to make them easy to relate to as well as integral to the story. All three books in this sequence are worth the listen but I suspect I’ll be revisiting the audio for Balance of Trade in the future.

The Narration:

Although there are some aspects of Kevin T. Collins’ performance that weren’t my ideal in a narration, his was absolutely my favorite of the four narrations in the Liaden Universe audiobooks. There’s a breathy aspect to his delivery at times – having more to do with a certain method of almost huffing out some words (especially in dramatic moments) than anything inherent in his voice, which is otherwise very pleasant – that was distracting initially. That faded for the most part because Mr. Collins seems to be not so much an actor as a story-teller (and I don’t mean that in a negative sense: he isn’t just reading it). It’s an odd distinction and I suppose a narrator is often both but I really got the sense that he liked the story he was telling.

His character voices were nicely distinct and his light tenor and the way he manages female voices by slight pitch changes makes him one of the better male narrators at giving the listener completely believable female voices. When you combine that with his ability to speak from each character’s view-point and experiences as the story progresses, it makes for a very good narration. In fact, his delivery of Cantra’s break-down when she finally cuts loose her emotions sounded so realistic that I’m unable to hear it as a performance but rather as a real person’s response to grief. I was especially pleased with his delivery of the Liaden phrasing, which closely matched how my internal reader performs it. There were several accents used and they were universally excellent although the Irish lilt in the voices of a couple Liaden characters threw me since my experience with the characters in Local Custom leads me to equate that trait solely with Terrans. Overall, this was a strong performance that I really enjoyed.