The Hidden Family, by Charles Strauss
The opening scene of The Hidden Family revolves around the king sneezing. To be honest with you, I don’t know why. The scene is boring, and it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The characters in the scene are barely mentioned throughout the rest of the book, including the king, and the whole thing feels very out of place. This scene made me incredibly hesitant about the rest of this book, which was unfortunate, because all in all, this book isn’t that bad.
Now, don’t get me wrong. This book is... complicated. There’s some economic and political intrigue, three different worlds that intersect in various locations, but are vastly different in time and technology, and a civil war between the six families of the Clan. There’s also an adoption subplot, a hint of romance, and two assassination attempts. There’s a lot going on in the plot here. But the general premise is interesting and well thought-out, and the characters are the best I’ve seen in a TBE book yet.
The coolest thing about The Hidden Family is the presence of complex, well-developed, female characters who have complex, well-developed relationships with each other. For example, Iris, our main character’s foster mother, is awesome. Iris was a radical civil rights protester in the 1960s, and is still staunchly radical in her beliefs. She is now confined to a wheelchair due to MS, but is very active in the community and in the life of her foster daughter. Throughout the book, Iris always emphasizes to Miriam the importance of being upfront and honest, and in tackling her problems head-on.
Another character, Brilliana, was raised and trained to be a lady-in-waiting. However, in the world Brill is from, that requires some unusual skills. As she put it, when she was growing up, her father, “wanted her to learn the feminine virtues: deportment, dancing, embroidery, and marksmanship.” Brill’s dream as a child was to join the Marines, and her father gave her lots of opportunities to learn how to shoot and fight. She’s pretty badass, without being a stereotypical hot badass character. Also, I looked this book up on Goodreads to see what kind of reviews it got, and in addition to four stars, it also shows up on lists like, “Best Fantasy Books with Strong Women Characters,” and “Speculative Fiction that Passes the Bechdel Test.”
Weirdly, despite the presence of fantastic female characters, who have really cool and complex relationships with each other, the female dialogue in this book is fairly atrocious. It includes many uses of the phrase, “Shut up!” and lots of use of the word “babe,” including, “You’re a babe, babe.” Women fist bump a lot, for no apparent reason? But thankfully the uncomfortable dialogue doesn’t get in the way of the strong female characters and their relationships with each other, which thankfully are not based solely around the existence of men! It’s so refreshing.
Overall, the plot of The Hidden Family was a little overly convoluted, and the female-to-female dialogue left something to be desired, but for the most part, this book was pretty good. My biggest problem with it was that a lot of it didn’t make sense because I hadn’t read the first book, but that’s my own fault (and my husband’s), and not the fault of the author. You wouldn’t expect someone to start reading LOTR with the Two Towers, so why would anyone be expected to start this series in book two? Basically, this book was decent. It was far better written than any book I’ve read for Bibliovile so far, so for that, I have to be thankful.
Harmony, by Jayne Ann Krentz, writing as Jayne Castle
Harmony is actually two different pieces of writing. The first, and the main one, is the novel After Dark, and the second, of which I read about 7 pages, is “Bridal Jitters”, a 50-page novella. They’re both well on their way to being fine before they ruin what forward momentum they have.
After Dark, the main attraction, takes place on a wondrous alien world. Human colonists came through the Curtain, which I understood to be some sort of wormhole that closed behind them, cutting them off from Earth. The cities on the world of Harmony were already built by the strange predecessors to the world, strange utilitarian structures of emerald and massive systems of underground catacombs. Humans develop psychic powers while on the planet, using these powers to navigate the ruins as they follow that common human urge to understand those that came before.
This set up, frankly, rules.
The book, frankly, is terrible.
All that fantastic sci-fi world building sets us in an open world that promises 500 different kinds of stories. We get a murder mystery romance about the two most boring people on the planet. There are no details uncovered, no backstory revealed. Which, you know, I don’t want all of my questions about the strange alien world laid out minute one, but I’d like to join in the thrill of discovery with the characters instead of just going about their day in a world they’ve written off as unknowable.
Our main characters, Lydia and Emmett, are each one of the seemingly two types of people on Harmony. Lydia is an expert in “untangling” the traps and obstacles the aliens left behind to protect their catacombs, and Emmett is a ghost hunter. The ghost hunters typically work as body guards or muscle to the tanglers, protecting them from quasi-electrical ghosts in the catacombs by conjuring their own private ghosts. Once again, that sort of balanced professional relationship that puts us in a world that seems like it makes sense and works well together.
And then they fall for each other for no reason. Blech. They don’t even seem to like each other. They don’t seem to be drawn to each other except when the male character is like “oh, wait,” and then flips the switch on his neck.
The murder mystery isn’t overly interesting, but not overly dumb. There’s so much awesome stuff here to play around with. It’s like when you buy your kid a huge new toy with all the best features and accessories and then they play with the box. But not, like, cute imagination playing, but sitting and then crying because they can’t figure how to get out.
Please, for the sequels to this book, please, have a science fiction story in this science fiction world. But, actually, less science fiction words. I don’t need to see someone playing “frequency ball” or holding a “magna-rez” gun.
All in all, much like the furious murderous man at the end of this book, I just felt like a “freaking SOB”.