Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Review: Unconquerable Sun, by Kate Elliott

 Unconquerable Sun, by Kate Elliott

a review by Rich Horton

Unconquerable Sun is the first in a new Space Opera trilogy from Kate Elliott. Thus it joins a quite remarkable list of recent Space Operas, many or most by women -- books from Arkady Martine, K. B. Wagers, Ann Leckie, Elizabeth Moon, Elizabeth Bear, Aliette de Bodard, Kameron Hurley, Karen Lord; though of course by men too, such as Yoon Ha Lee, Tim Pratt, John Scalzi, and Gareth Powell. I am confident that that list could be much longer. 

How does it stack up in this company? The short answer is, very well. For the longer answer, I will start with my reservations: it cannot be said that the book avoids certain Space Opera cliches. The title character is a Princess, to begin with -- of a comity that calls itself a republic. (And, yes, the book does eventually explore at least somewhat the contradictions implied therein.) Beyond that, well, the main characters are all very special people, At least three of them (none of them the true central characters, but all important secondary characters) are repeatedly described as implausibly physically beautiful. Beyond that, the characters collectively are remarkably accomplished. As for the plot and action and space battles -- there is a good deal of coincidence and good fortune driving events. Let me add -- every one of these statements is true of many many Space Operas, going back to the beginning. (Indeed, it's true of many books, period.) One might say it's part of the DNA of the genre. We know what we're getting into, and we shouldn't complain.

Well, that last paragraph reads a tad mean. And I don't really want it to come off that way. Because given all that, Unconquerable Sun is both terrifically exciting, and full of neat ideas, unexpected revelations, and characters we really like being with. It is, I think, a very succesful piece of SF. It doesn't really break new ground, but it uses its familiar tropes expertly, and I will certainly be reading the rest of the series.

What is the book about? The title character, Princess Sun, the heir to the throne of the Republic of Chaonia, is 20, and as the book opens has just returned from leading a successful military action against Chaonia's principal rival, the Phene Empire. Over time we learn that Chaonia is a smaller federation of Solar Systems, and that Sun's mother, the Queen-Marshal Eirene, has managed to expand its reach, and forge alliances or at least detentes with important polities. Sun is her heir, but her position is perhaps precarious, because her father, Prince Joao, is a Gatoi, part of a ship-dwelling group who often serve as mercenaries for the Phene. Eirene, who already has several consorts, may be pursuing another marriage. And the rival Lee family, who control the security apparatus of Chaonia, have their own interests in the heirship. All interesting enough (and to be honest, pretty standard.) 

Sun quickly finds herself sidelined to a tour of shipyards, and is furious. Meanwhile, we are introduced to further points of view. One is Persephone Lee, twin sister of one of Sun's formal "Companions", Perseus Lee. Persephone, however, has escaped her family, and secretly enrolled at CeDCA, a military academy, and is about to graduate. Another POV, in chapters headed "A Dispatch from the Enemy", is Apama At Sabao, also a young military trainee, but for the Phene Empire -- and she is suddenly sent on a secret mission to make a surprise attack on Chaonian installations. The fourth major POV character is Zizou, a captured Gatoi mercenary. He has been taken in an attempt to study -- and hopefully subvert -- a treatment that Prince Joao believes the Phene give to the Gatoi, greatly enhancing their strength but also including a compulsion to fight to the death, and to always blindly obey the orders of their Phene commanders.

Soon events transpire that bring all these threads together -- Sun's group of companions is attacked, and Perseus Lee is one of the victims. Persephone, on the verge of graduation, learns she has not truly escaped her family, as she is summoned home to replace her brother as one of Sun's companions -- and also, to her horror, to take up a position as her Aunt's heir to the Governorship of Lee House. Zizou is stolen by the Lee family, in an attempt to embarrass Sun, and so also her father -- but Sun manages to gain his loyalty instead. Realizing that she is potentially under more direct attack (possibly from rival factions in Chaonia -- not just from the enemy), Sun and her group of companions make an escape, and for perhaps implausible but terribly exciting reasons manage to be in the right place at the right time to at least blunt the surprise Phene attack ... and, and, and -- the action is truly nonstop from this point, very nicely done, truly gripping. Mixed into this, of course, are the personal relationships of these characters -- especially those in Sun's entourage. Sun herself has taken her companion Hettie as a lover, which is frowned upon. Sun's mother has several, to some extent dynastic, marriages. And Persephone Lee (my personal favorite character by far) begins to form a bond with another character that will clearly be a fulcrum in coming books. 

I have said little about this stellar milieu. It seems the result of a diaspora from a poisoned Earth (most likely), which founded the Celestial Empire, based around a set of stars connnected by a "beacon network" -- which seems to be a set of artifical wormhole connections left by an older race. So far, so familiar, to be sure -- and the next fillip, that the Celestial Empire collapsed when a subset of beacon connections failed reminded me of Scalzi's Collapsing Empire. This is not a complaint -- all these elements, this furniture if you will, are part of the toolset SF writers use, and they are used nicely here. One element Elliott adds is another means of faster than light travel, rarely used because it's much slower than the beacons -- but also independent of them. The humans who have settled these stars use some degree of genetic engineering. For example, it goes unremarked that children are routinely born to same sex couples using genetic material from both parents (and even a third.) Cloning is forbidden in Chaonia, but it's clearly possible. The Phene Empire is more eager to use this tech -- most Phene have four arms, for one thing, and some (including Apama's mother) were born with a sort of armored shell. They have developed as well another, creepy, capability which looms very large towards the end of the novel. Much of this is not really fully developed in this book, but it has the clear potential to be a major issue in the rest of the trilogy. And it's all well handled, integrated into the book with the seamless skill of a veteran SF writer.

An important subtheme of the book, and presumably the trilogy, is exploring -- at least to a degree -- the injustices in even the supposedly "good" polity of Chaonia. (Note that how "good" Chaonia is, and how "bad" the Phene empire are, at least is not a matter of black and white.) Some of Sun's companions, or their "CCs", give us -- and Sun -- some insight into the contradictions in Chaonian society, and indeed Apama's situation hints at some ethnic prejudice in the Phene Empire. I suspect these aspects too will be more important in future volumes.

So, as I said, this was a tremendously fun read. The start is a little bit slow -- but for good reasons I think -- and once the engine of the plot is ignited, it's fast moving and involving. It's unashamedly full bore Space Opera, with as I've noted some of familiar implausibilities and conventions of that subgenre, and they are nicely deployed.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Old Bestseller Review: The High Hand, by Jacques Futrelle

The High Hand, by Jacques Futrelle

a review by Rich Horton

Here's a return to the kind of book I started this blog to cover -- popular fiction, often forgotten, from the first half of the 20th Century. Often the books I cover in that category were bestsellers, but I'm not sure The High Hand sold particularly well. It was first published in 1911 by Bobbs-Merrill, but my edition is the 1912 reprint from Grosset & Dunlap. (Grosset & Dunlap were primarily reprint publishers, and indeed they filled a function analagous to that of mass market paperbacks beginning in 1940 or so.) The book is signed on the inside front cover and facing page by Mrs. Alfie Brown, and "? J. Brown", the latter signature dated 7/14/1912. It is quite a short novel, in the range of perhaps 50,000 words. This book is illustrated by Will Grefe. Grefe's illustrations are quite nice, in very much the typical style of late 19th and early 20th Century illustration as reprsented by the likes of Harrison Fisher and Charles Dana Gibson. 

I have remarked in these entries that often the biography of these writers is more interesting than their novels. Jacques Futrelle is another example. He was born in Georgia, on April 9, 1875. He became a journalist, starting the sports section at the Atlanta Journal, and continued to the New York Herald, the Boston Post, and finally the Boston American. In the latter paper he published a detective story, "The Problem of Cell 13", in 1905, featuring a "scientific detective", called, "the Thinking Machine", Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen. He wrote a number of further stories of the Thinking Machine, and it is these stories for which he is now best remembered, to the extent he's remembered at all. He left the American in 1906 to concentrate on fiction, and seven novels followed. He died on April 15, 1912, aged only 37. That date will be significant to some -- it is the date of the sinking of the Titanic, and in fact Futrelle, who had a first class ticket, was on his way back to the US on that ship. He refuse to get in a lifeboat, and (so the story goes) basically shoved his wife into the boat, and her last sight of him had him standing with John Jacob Astor, smoking a cigar as the Titanic went down.

Well, then, what about the book at hand? It's really a fairly minor effort. It's not one of his detective stories. Instead it's a political story, reminiscent of a couple other books I've reviewed here, such as Half a Rogue, by Harold MacGrath. Jim Warren is a young man in Warburton, in an unnamed Northeastern state. He has come from humble beginnings to become superindent of a factory, with the prospects of become manager when his boss retires. He's happy there, but when one of his workers suggests he ought to go into politics, to represent the interests of the working man, and to provide an honest alternative to the crooks who have controlled local politics for some time, he gets intrigued. And before long he has what he calls "the big idea", which is not made clear until the end, though we gather that his study has revealed that the crooks are "playing with marked cards", so Jim Warren will mark his own cards, to sweep them out.

The local state representative is one Francis Everard Lewis, who has become suddenly rich after gaining his seat. Lewis controls a legitimately rich fellow representative, Dwight Tillinghast. Tillinghast is a weak man, and Lewis has maneuvered him into the speakership of the legislature, with prospects of becoming Governor in the next election. Lewis has extracted a price, of course -- Tillinghast's beautiful daughter, Edna, being part of it.

Warren and Lewis' longtime fixer, one Franques, strike a deal -- Franques giving Warren the goods on Lewis. Using this information, Warren is able to force Lewis to drop out of the race for re-election, leaving the field clearl for Warren, who runs as the "honest man" who will clean up the corruption in their state. In the mean time, Warren has chance met Edna Tillinghast, and he is intrigued, but she learns who he is, and will have nothing to do with him when she realizes he has acted against her fiance. Warren carries forth in his campaign, winning easily.

And when he takes office, he continues maneuvering, making deals -- dirty deals -- to get plum assignments. These assignments give him the chance to advance the interests of his constituents -- but at a considerable price: he is acting as corruptly as those he had campaigned against. And soon he realizes that the price is even higher, for he is in love with Edna Tillinghast, and she has nothing but contempt for him. Worse, once he realizes that she has finally learned the depth of her fiance's own corruption, she breaks off the engagement. Moreover, Warren's plans require him to force her father out of the race for Governor. And his honesty compels him to confess to Edna his own involvement in underhanded schemes ...

But -- but -- Jim Warren still has his "big idea". With that, even facing arrest when Lewis exposes his corrupt deals, perhaps he can salvage everything! Everything, perhaps, but the love of Edna Tillinghast!

Well, what can I say? It's rather a silly book in many ways. Jim Warren's scheme is convoluted and reasonably speaking would never have worked. The message is sound enough -- yes, politicians, then and now, were as corrupt as the book displays, but still ... The resolution has some outrageously melodramatic elements (especially when we learn Franques' motivation.) And the depiction of women (basically Edna) is as full of guff as one could possibly imagine. That said, it's a quick read, never boring, and I don't regret the time I took with it.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Birthday Review: Old Twentieth, by Joe Haldeman

Today is Joe Haldeman's 78th birthday. It is also my son Geoff's 29th birthday! Happy Birthday, Geoff (and Joe!)

Here's my review of Old Twentieth, written for SF site back in 2005 when it appeared. I've added a couple of things to update Joe's career status.

Old Twentieth, by Joe Haldeman

a review by Rich Horton

Joe Haldeman is a wonder. He continues to produce a novel every couple of years, each compact and intelligent and engaging and involving. [Alas, we have not seen a novel since Work Done for Hire in 2014. I suspect Haldeman may have retired -- and a well-earned retirement, no doubt.] At times he fumbles the ending (as with Guardian), but even in such a case the ride is very entertaining. [My main issue with Guardian is that I was loving it so much, when it switched from a historical novel to an SF novel -- and I didn't want that switch! Perhaps the reader's fault, and not the writer's.] And at other times, he finds a surprising yet internally logical ending that wholly satisfies -- so it was with The Coming, and now again with Old Twentieth. Haldeman also, as with some other veteran authors, has a certain facility with the toolbox of SF: with the classic ideas and again with the latest hot ideas; and he combines them effortlessly and effectively.

In Old Twentieth the ideas Haldeman juggles are immortality, Virtual Reality, Artificial Intelligence, and a variant on the generation starship. He is also, as the title tells us, concerned with the 20th Century, the bloodiest century (though the 21st will turn out to be bloodier, says this novel), and the last century in which death was inevitable.

Central to this novel are scenes of war. We open at Gallipoli, one of the worst battles of World War I. But somehow the narrator escapes certain death, and we quickly gather that he is really using Virtual Reality to experience a simulation of an historical situation. He is Jacob Brewer, whose family was rich enough to purchase an immortality treatment before an horrific war between the lucky immortals and the poorer people who couldn't afford the treatment. He and his mother were among a very few survivors, but a couple of centuries later, the world has recovered, and a stable population of a billion or so lives quite pleasant lives. And they have decide to mount an expedition to Beta Hydrii.

Jake is the VR expert on the fleet of starships. His job is to maintain the VR simulation, which is mainly used for immersive experiences in any number of times in the 20th Century. The story concerns the starships beginning their journey. Jake gets married (a ten year contract -- immortals don't marry for life). And as the journey begins, unsettling things start to happen in VR. The most unsettling thing is that people start dying -- immortals. Another concern is some minor inconsistencies in the VR backgrounds. Jake's insistence on returning again and again to the VR tanks, dangerous as they seem to be becoming, puts great strains on his marriage. And he begins to realize that the VR system itself may be showing signs of independent action...

That's the main arc of the "present day" story: a mystery concerning problems in VR, and potential AI activity. And the resolution to this arc is quite surprising, and quite effective. But the story gains depth -- dare I say gravitas -- from the background supplied by the recurring trips to 20th Century milieus: World War I, the influenza epidemic, the Roaring Twenties, the Depression, World War II, Vietnam, the first Gulf War, etc. These, combined with Jake's memories of his youthful experiences in the terrible war that nearly ended human civilization, provide a dark but oddly hopeful backdrop to the story of an expedition of immortal humans to another star -- a likely one way trip for no reason but knowledge, and a trip that almost before it starts is ominously freighted with the reappearance of the specter of death.

I hope I don't damn with faint praise when I say that this isn't a great novel: just another damn good novel, to add to a long list of damn good novels from Joe Haldeman. He may be the writer I can most reliably turn to for a worthwhile SF novel every time out. Old Twentieth is a great pleasure to read, and it rewards your reading not just with page turning interest but with thoughtful speculation. What more do we want from SF?

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Old Bestseller Review: Three Companion Pieces, by Margery Sharp

 Three Companion Pieces, by Margery Sharp

a review by Rich Horton

In this space I have recently reviewed two of Margery Sharp's early novels in their reprints from the much to be celebrated Furrowed Middlebrow imprint of Dean Street Press, Rhododendron Pie and Harlequin House. As a result I want browsing through Sharp's early books and came across a much less well-known one, perhaps partly because it's slightly out of her usual way. This is Three Companion Pieces, a collection of three novelettes published in book form in 1941. As far as I can tell, it's been out of print for a very long time. 

The "three companion pieces" are three novelettes (or novellas), all set in the 19th Century. They are all romances, in that they are about men and women falling in what might be called love, but they are not quite traditional, and indeed in each case to some extent they are mocking, or criticizing, the conventions of romance stories. And, in fact, two of them end quite sadly. The stories are "The Nymph and the Nobleman" (1932, about 14,000 words), "Sophy Cassmajor" (1934, about 15,000 words), and "The Tigress on the Hearth" (1941, about 22,000 words.) At first I thought these were magazine stories, but on closer examination, as best I can tell, the first two were originally published as very slim separate volumes. I believe (though I can't be certain) that "The Tigress on the Hearth" first appeared in Three Companion Pieces in 1941, but it had a later slim edition of its own, in 1955.

In all these editions, including the omnibus volume I have, there are illustrations, by Anna Zinkeisen. The illustrations are fairly simple but quite nice. Zinkeisen (1901-1976) was a Scottish painter, best known for portraits and illustrations of medical scenes (she served as a nurse during the Second World War.) Among her portrait subjects were Prince Philip, and Sir Alexander Fleming (discover of penicillin.) She also did murals, and of course book and magazine illustration. Her sister Doris was also an artist.

So, to the stories. "The Nymph and the Nobleman" concerns Sir George Blunt, a young and fairly dense Englishman on his "Grand Tour". He is in Paris and quite bored when he happens to see a ballet performance, and he immediately falls in love with the head dancer. He arranges to meet her, and she gets the sense that he wants to have a bit of a dalliance, which is all in the usual way of things for her and so she agrees. He carries her off to England, and to her shock she realizes, despite the language difference, that he means to marry her. To her even greater shock, his mother makes no opposition to the marriage! This is where the story breaks with romantic cliche -- for it is quite clear that this alliance is not a love match, and not appropriate at all. And the second half of the story deals fairly realistically with the logical outcome -- George is a clod who has no idea how to take care of his wife, nor even any interest in her; and the dancer is oddly innocent, unable to resist this marriage but terribly sad and neglected, deprived even of her art. The ending is inevitable and quite sad. Sharp's light satirical touch is here, and for a while the story has all the delight of her more contemporary novels; but the conclusion -- while honest and effective -- is in quite a different meter.

"Sophy Cassmajor" tells of the journey from England to India, sometime in perhaps the middle of the 19th Century, of the title girl, only 17 and rather silly. She is going to India to marry an older man, a friend of her father's, and the man seemed nice enough when Sophy met him, so she doesn't seem to mind yet. She has a maid, a farm girl from her neighborhood, who was jilted by the blacksmith, and in something of a premonition, the maid dies of what seems to be heartbreak. Sophy, now chaperoned by a Frenchwoman, Madame Tricoche, meets one of the ship's officers, a fine young man. Soon enough, they think themselves in love -- and perhaps they are! And Madame is not the sort to stand in the way of young love, even if her charge is technically engaged to another. 

Again Sharp is setting up a traditional romance plot, only to upset it. The upset in this case is due to a storm, not to the interference of her family, or her future husband, and Sophy's reaction is perhaps the point of the story, or perhaps the point is simply that sometimes bad things happen. Again I feel that Sharp quite appropriately works out the story in the logical, and not romantic, way, which I think is her point.

Finally, "The Tigress on the Hearth" opens in Albania, with another young Englishman of the Victorian era touring foreign lands. Hugo Lutterwell, however, has manage to get himself in serious trouble, and an Albanian man is trying to kill him. All would be lost, but suddenly a young Albanian woman shows up and knifes the man -- and she and Hugo flee to Hugo's ship. Kathi is her name, and she has decided she is in love with Hugo. And she is a very fine figure of a woman, and Hugo is not entirely displeased ... so they return to England, and they get married, and, as Sharp says archly "at night Hugo found Kathi to be everything a wife should be". 

Hugo's family, who have been told a very inaccurate story of how Kathi saved his life, gladly welcome her, and soon the couple are set up well, and children come. And in a while Hugo is in line to be the next MP from their country district, despite a relative lack of political talent. But then a cad who had fled their county decades ago returns, and runs a very dirty campaign -- it appears Hugo will lose, despite the clear lack of character of his opponent. However, Kathi has her own ideas -- already demonstrated! -- about how to deal with cads who threaten her husband!

The result of all this is quite cleverly (and, I suppose, cynically) worked out, and the eventual effect on Hugo's future career is very amusing indeed. This is perhaps the lightest -- if also the most violent! -- of these three stories, and it's quite amusing. And, again, set very much in opposition to the standard romance cliches.

Friday, June 4, 2021

Review: Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir

Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir

a review by Rich Horton

Gideon the Ninth is Tamsyn Muir's first novel. Muir is a New Zealand based writer, who has published some outstanding horror-inflected short fiction since 2012. (I've reprinted two of her stories in my Best of the Year anthologies, which says something, I suppose, as in general horror is not my favorite mode.) Gideon the Ninth got a great deal of attention, including Nebula and Hugo nominations, and a Locus Award for Best First Novel. I knew I wanted to read it as soon as it came out, but, well, I'm terminally behind on novel reading. I have finally read the book, or, I should say, listened to it, via the audiobook read by Moira Quirk. My paper copy of the book is in storage, as we are getting work done on my house, so for the first time I will try to review a book via the audio edition (and some online cribbing!) alone. (I mean, who knew that the word I heard as "Lictor" was spelled "Lyctor"? Not to mention I was not quite sure if the main character's name was Gideon Naff or Gideon Nav, though I eventually leaned towards the latter, which turned out to be correct.)

Short version -- so as not to bury the lede! -- I really really liked this book. It's funny but very dark; it's science fiction but also fantasy and horror; the characters are involving and the plot is excellent, with a truly inspiring and deserved climax. (It's been described often as "Lesbian necromancers in space", which is not exactly wrong but kind of misleading. Yes, there are necromancers -- in fact, lots of them. Yes, there are Lesbians, but straight people too, and the fact that the main characters are Lesbians is important in the way that any character's sexuality is important, but it's not quite central. As for space -- well, this is a spacefaring civilization, but the book is primarily set on a single planet, in a single building.)

We open on the Ninth House, which we soon gather is a planet, inhabited by, as far as we can tell, an extremely small population of mostly older people. The sun is called Dominicus, and there are nine houses, each based on a planet. The fact that there are nine planets suggests that possibly the system might be our Solar System, and the Ninth House Pluto -- though I'm not sure this is a necessary conclusion. (For example, the most populous "House" might be the Third House -- could that be Earth? But the First House seems the historical base of this civilization -- could that be Earth? We really don't have enough information yet. Perhaps those who have read the sequel (Harrow the Ninth) have a better idea.) The primary point of view character is Gideon, who was not born on the Ninth House, but who was more or less adopted by them when her mother's spaceship crashed there, and her mother died. She is plotting to escape the Ninth House and join the Cohorts, the Undying Emperor's army. But her hated enemy, Harrowhawk, the Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House, nominal ruler given that her parents have taken an oath of silence (convenient, that, as they are dead) is one step ahead of her. And then a summons comes from the Emperor. Each of the other eight houses (besides the First) are to send a necromancer, along with a "cavalier", to the First House, to train (or compete?) to become a Lyctor, and aid the Emperor in his ongoing war against some -- not well defined (though again I suspect Harrow the Ninth might help) -- enemy. Harrowhawk is of course the leading necromancer of the Ninth House, and there is a prospective cavalier, but, to Gideon's horror, Harrow has other ideas, and she maneuvers things so that the prospective cavalier is unavailable, leaving Gideon as the only alternative. Gideon is already a good fighter, and she gets some special training before they leave for the Lyctor competition.

This training happens on the First House, in a huge building (or palace) called Canaan House, that seems in terrible disrepair. There are 7 other "pairs" of candidates (though one "pair" consists of two twin necromancers to go with a single cavalier.) These are a carefully varied lot, with some positioned to be enemies of the Ninth House, and others allies. Each house has a different necromantic specialty -- for some reason the Ninth House is roundly feared, because of their traditional role as guardian of the "Locked Tomb" (which holds the body of the Emperor's greatest enemy) and because of their spooky bone magic. But the other necromancy is often just as scary -- the Eighth House specializes in using the life force of another person (typically the necromancer's cavalier), and the Seventh House requires their necromancers to be terminally ill, using the force of their dying to power their magic. The candidates are all given a room, and almost no instructions -- it becomes clear that their task is essentially to solve a puzzle contained within Canaan House. (Indeed, much of the novel really reads like an account of an attempt to solve an escape room -- to be sure, a much more deadly escape room than those I have played!) 

To this point the novel has been dark in a spooky but not really scary way, rather claustrophobic, and quite funny, the last driven to some strong degree by Gideon's snarky voice. Muir's prose strategy (apparently on purpose) is to use utterly implausible contemporary slang (along the lines of "That's what she said" jokes) to balance the strange far future milieu -- and I have to say that I found that a bit annoying at times. The other "weakness", I thought, was a near complete lack of information about the real nature of this spacefaring civilization -- there is a real sense that this Solar System might have a population of just a few thousand, based on what we see. I'm inclined to let that pass -- I suspect we learn a lot more in the second (and upcoming third) novels; and this novel's focus is what it needs to tell its story. (That said, just a bit more sketched in background detail might have been nice.)

Then the "trials" begin. Harrow abandons Gideon, attempting to solve the puzzles (of which Gideon remains at first unaware) by herself. Gideon trains with the other cavaliers, learning that she's actually pretty good despite her relative lack of cavalier training. She also makes some friends, particularly with Dulcinea Septimus, the languidly pretty and dying necromancer of the Seventh House. She also develops a bit of a crush on the stunningly beautiful Coronabeth Tridentarius, one of the curiously mismatched twin necromancers of the Third House. But then some terrible things happen, beginning with Harrow disappearing. With the help of the scientifically inclined necromancer of the Sixth House, Palamedes Sextus, Gideon rescues Harrow from what seems a death trap; and from then on she insists on helping Harrow with the puzzles, which turns out to be crucial. Soon a necromancer/cavalier couple are found horribly murdered, and the whole trial turns real.

So the book continues, with further sets of scary puzzles, and intriguing knowledge gained from each solution. But there are more deaths to come; and a fraught question: is it allowed for the candidates to cooperate? Or must they battle each other to steal the keys and knowledge obtained? And who or what is doing the killing? There are terrible secrets to learn, such as the means by which one becomes a Lyctor. (There are other more personal secrets, involving Gideon's and Harrow's childhood, and what happened to Harrow's parents and for that matter Gideon's mother. Also of course there is the predictable from page 5 or so development of Harrow and Gideon's personal relationship.) And everything winds up to a tremendous whizbang of a conclusion.

And I have to say -- the climax of the novel is just wonderful. It is a triumph in part of plotting -- we can kind of guess who the villains are early on, but who they really are -- and why! -- is a delightful revelation. There is tremendous action, and some really powerful moments, turning on honest and believable sacrifices. There were a couple of times I was cheering -- and times I was close to tears. This is definitely a book that "sticks the landing". And while it's the first of a trilogy, it tells its story completely, and does not leave us hanging on anything crucial (though to be sure there are still questions we look forward to learning answers to in the subsequent books.)