Mastiff: The Legend of Beka Cooper #3 by Tamora Pierce

Mastiff: The Legend of Beka Cooper #3 by Tamora PierceMastiff by Tamora Pierce
Narrator: Susan Denaker
Series: The Legend of Beka Cooper #3
Published by Listening Library on 10/25/11
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult

Book: B+
Narration: A

In the final installment of Tamora Pierce’s Beka Cooper trilogy, Beka (a member of the Provost’s Guard who are colloquially and collectively known as Dogs) is summoned from her bed in the middle of the night by Lord Gershom and sent on a secret mission. She finds herself crossing the kingdom with her partner Tunstall, the scent hound Achoo, the lady knight Sabine, the Provost’s mage Master Farmer, and of course the cat (who is really a constellation) Pounce. The four year-old Tortallan prince has been kidnapped and as Beka and her group follow the trail of a slaver’s caravan, they discover enemies who will stop at nothing in their attempt to take control of the throne. There are physical travails along the path in addition to the concerted attempts by the mages involved in the kidnapping to bring magical weapons to bear on the team.

I’m not sure there is such a thing as a young adult sensibility but this series of books has a lot of the aspects I like to see in novels intended for that demographic. A strong (and in this case female) protagonist who has a discernible arc of character growth, friendships that run the gamut from supportive to combative, a splash of romance with no fated insta-love, an exciting storyline that doesn’t stint on recognizing bad things happen but doesn’t spend too much time describing every gory detail, a core world where gender equality is shown as a given (and so has even more contrast when we encounter a splinter group with the opposite opinion) and lots of adventure to keep a reader interested. Tamora Pierce has created an engaging world with a protagonist whose daily job has the feel of a medieval police station but with magic involved. There are well-developed characters who even speak with their own cant, although it’s easily understandable in context (the downside of which might be, say, your thirteen year-old wandering around the house calling the dog a “craven canker-licking sarden arseworm.”)

As an adult reader of books that fall in the Young Adult category, I found this to be a fun story. All three audiobooks in this series have been great listens and it’s been surprisingly enjoyable to watch Beka’s character mature from a painfully shy and earnest “puppy” in the Provost’s Guard who learned the ropes with the help of two great partners, to a “bloodhound” who was given a chance to work an investigation into counterfeit money, and now to a mature young woman who lives by a code of honor that sometimes requires she make difficult choices. I was initially thrown off at the start of the story because there is a two or three year gap in story-time since the end of book two but I quickly settled in and was swept into the fast-paced investigation. In addition to the great characters, there is tremendous texture to the world Pierce has created (the downside of which might be, say, when I find myself forgetting that calling someone a “cracknob looby” only has meaning if you’ve read the book.)

To add the icing on top of this literary cake, Susan Denaker’s narration is perfect. She utterly embodies the various people in the story, becoming transparent to the listener and allowing them to simply engage with the characters. Her use of varied regional dialects and accents (many with a Nordic sound) combined with the vocal characteristics she uses to differentiate class helps create that immersive experience for the listener. Excellent pacing, the appropriate emotional delivery choice for every scene, and just lovely character voices make this a book I consider enhanced significantly by listening rather than reading.

Angels of Darkness by Ilona Andrews, Nalini Singh, Sharon Shinn

Angels of Darkness by Ilona Andrews, Nalini Singh, Sharon ShinnAngels of Darkness by Ilona Andrews, Nalini Singh, Sharon Shinn
Narrator: Coleen Marlo, Justine Eyre, Renee Raudman
Published by Tantor Media on 10/4/11
Genres: Fantasy, Paranormal, Romance

This audio collection of novellas was a resounding success for me, even though it does not include one of the stories (Meljean Brook’s Ascension) found in the text version. That’s quite a coup considering I usually avoid short-story collections like the plague. All three novellas were very entertaining and the narrations ranged from good to very good.

 

Angel’s Wolf – Nalini Singh

Story: B-
Narration: B

The vampire Noel is sent to Louisiana by Raphael, the Archangel of New York. Nimra is the angel who holds Louisiana. Noel was brutally assaulted while working for Raphael and he assumes he has been sent to Louisiana because he is damaged goods. In reality, Nimra requested assistance after an attempt on her life that could only have come from within her court. The two seek the traitor and find themselves irresistibly drawn to each other along the way.

An entertaining novella set in the world of the Guild Hunter series, Angel’s Wolf is an enjoyable romance with a dash of intrigue. I was slightly disappointed at the overall construction of the character of Nimra because I felt there was a lack of consistency between her softer personality and the entire construction of angelic nature that Nalini Singh has developed but it did remain true the male/female dynamics that play out in this series. I actually enjoyed this story more than I did the last two full-length novels in the Guild Hunter world.

I’ve always thought Justine Eyre’s unique sound was ideally suited to giving voice to the tough guild hunters and remote and often cruel immortals who populate Singh’s world and she doesn’t disappoint with this novella. I initially stumbled over Nimra’s accent but ended up being swept into the story. The delivery of some unexpectedly subtle emotional cues capped off a strong narration.

 

Alphas: Origins – Ilona Andrews

Story: B+
Narration: B+

Karina is chaperoning a school field trip when she pulls off at a motel for a pit-stop. When she and her daughter are attacked before they can leave, she is “rescued” by a frightening creature and the group of men who accompany him. She is forced to make a bargain to save herself and her daughter and agrees to be a blood “donor” for Lucas, the creature who rescued her.

Sound like a semi-typical vampire or werewolf PNR-type story? Yeah, not so much and I’m glad of it because I really enjoyed this one. A heroine who makes realistic decisions in a fantastical situation, totally unsexy blood drinking, interesting power dynamics, intriguing semi-sci-fi world-building, a hero whose actions are understandable but not necessarily appealing, and some engaging psychological musings made this a world and characters I would love to read more of.

True confession moment: I’ve listened to Renee Raudman’s narration before (primarily with Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels series) and in the back of my mind I’d think . o 0 (it’s OK but not at all my preferred style).  The fact that I would then go on to listen to the next in the series always puzzled me (I can be a bit slow). With her narration of this novella, I found myself having an entirely different experience. While not dissimilar to her presentation style in other audiobooks, it did come across to me as slightly more subdued and I think that made the difference. It also allowed me to finally identify why I could categorize Ms. Raudman in the “not for me” category but still listen or re-listen to books narrated by her: Renee Raudman simply excels at bringing the listener along on the journey of discovery. I become utterly convinced that events are happening as she reads them and neither she nor I have any idea of the outcome; we discover it together. Combine some well-portrayed humor and emotional content with that particular skill and I enjoyed this audio-novella tremendously. Clearly I need to rethink my categorization of this narrator.

 

Nocturne – Sharon Shinn

Story: B
Narration: B-

Moriah is a woman with secrets but when she encounters Corban, a blind angel, she is unwillingly drawn into helping him. Corban has spent the last two years angry, bitter, and in isolation after a tragic accident took his sight and his faith. When Moriah pushes her way into his life, he is forced to put aside his resentment and start living again.

I really like Sharon Shinn’s Samaria series and I enjoyed this chance to venture back into that world and spend some time with the well-rounded and realistic characters that people it. The romance is a slow-build and it’s really the character development and push-pull interaction between Moriah and Corban that draws and holds my interest.

While I find her voice very appealing, Ms. Marlo either has or employs a very distinct cadence and I found the primary barrier to my being fully immersed in the story the fact that both the narrative and every character had that speech pattern, which inhibits my ability to perceive a realistic differentiation between characters, despite very clear pitch differences. With that said, the narration was still good and there’s such a lovely sense of realism when Moriah voices her amusement that I found myself smiling in response, not just hearing the humor being voiced but feeling it as well.

The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

The Blade Itself by Joe AbercrombieThe Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie
Narrator: Steven Pacey
Series: First Law #1
Published by Orion Publishing Group Limited on 6/3/10
Genres: Fantasy

Story: B-
Narration: A-

It’s been quite a while since I have read what is probably best categorized as Epic Fantasy. I caught a review or recommendation for a later book in The First Law series/world but since I am incapable of starting mid-way through a series, I decided to pick up the first book.  I re-discovered both why I like this kind of multi-tome saga (so much room for character and story development) and why I don’t (so much world and character building needed and not always enough resolution in one book for me). Overall, I enjoyed this book and found the narration to be outstanding. I’ll pick up the second book but I may not rush out and do it right away.

We are initially introduced to Logen Ninefingers. He is a mercenary from the North who, with his companions, has been set upon by Shanka and finds himself alone, on the run, and “…just lucky enough to be alive.” Heeding a summons from a mysterious magus named Bayaz, Logen agrees to accompany him. This begins a journey that takes him from the far North to the kingdom of Angland – a seething mass of people and politics.

Angland is home to Inquisitor Sand dan Glokta. Glokta is a character who engenders quite a bit of ambivalence. A torturer who has himself been a victim of torture by his kingdom’s enemies in his youth, he is a man with a broken body and little in the way of personal power. He is caught up in the political schemes of his superiors and when the magus Bayaz arrives in the city of Adua to claim his place on the council as the long lost First of the Magi, Inquisitor Glokta is assigned to prove him a fraud.

Also in Adua is soldier and fencer Captain Jezal dan Luthar. Jezal is highborn, lazy, and completely self-centered. His regiment commander has placed him in the care of Major West – a lowborn soldier who has been assigned the task of training Jezal for an upcoming fencing tournament. Jezal, however, is primarily focused on gambling, drinking, and (after meeting Captain West’s sister) more amorous pursuits.

As these characters’ paths cross, it soon becomes clear they will be the only hope the Union has of surviving the coming unrest and rest assured, war is coming. Bethod, the new King of the Northmen, is determined to conquer the kingdom of Angland and the whole of the greater Union.

While not bringing anything new and unique to the Fantasy genre, I enjoyed the world Abercrombie has built and I liked getting to know the characters. There was a lot of foundation laid for later books in the series and while there was enough action and intrigue to carry the reader along, the build-up of the characters and the world was extensive and comprised most of the book. That detracted from my overall enjoyment. Glokta is the only character in whom we see any real growth although the potential is there in the other primary characters. His character suffers from an excess of internal monologuing but that does seem to help balance his character in the reader’s eye since the “show” part of his story contains a lot of off-putting torture and general disagreeableness. Bayaz’s history is left under-developed and we just start to get a sense of who Logen is. Luthar is a typical spoiled nobleman and I would have liked to see him lose a bit more of his self-centeredness. I don’t doubt there is a lot in store for these characters but without a bit more development and growth to motivate me to follow their stories, I’m not rushing out to get the second audiobook although I will pick it up eventually.

The standout for me was really the narration. I found Steven Pacey’s delivery to be excellent. He fully-voiced the characters with what was close to a radio-drama style. He paced the dramatic moments well and the emotional tenor of each character came through clearly. With a vast array of accents and nicely varied pitch and tone, I was never in doubt as to which character was speaking. I could even tell when the story switched between characters located in the North and those in other regions as the accent and cadence changed just slightly even during the narrative sections.  Characters’ internal musings were effectively separated from speech by the use of a slightly softer and more confidential tone. Glokta was voiced with a bit of a lisp which never made the dialogue unclear, was accurate for a man missing his four front teeth, and also had the beneficial effect on me of making a not always admirable character more sympathetic. Despite a slight “drag-queen” aspect to the female voices, I found myself nothing but pleased with the narration.

A good story, an intriguing political storyline, and interesting characters who have a lot of potential to develop in future books combined with top-notch narration make this a good listen.