Book Review: The Golden Scales, Parker Bilal

Book Review: The Golden Scales, Parker Bilal

The Golden Scales

Mystery: The Golden Scales, Parker Bilal

Seventeen years earlier, a young British mother visited Cairo in search of the father of her toddler daughter. Failing to find him, she returns to her hotel room. A delivery arrives for her: an envelope full of cash…and heroin. The woman loves her daughter, but the temptation of the drugs is too much for her. When she awakens, her daughter is missing, lost somewhere in the streets of Cairo.

 

Inspector Makana has lived in Cairo for seven years after fleeing Islamists in his native Sudan. He gets by financially as a private investigator, although the income is poor and sporadic at best. Then a man shows up in his home and takes him to the apartment of perhaps the wealthiest man in Egypt. A star soccer player is missing, the star of the team he owns, and he wants Makana to find him.

 

Despite the lengthy time difference between these crimes and the lack of any obvious connection, Makana comes to believe there is a connection between them. Discovering that connection might solve the crimes. It might also get him killed.

 

Parker Bilal is a pen name for author Jamal Mahjoub. Better known for his literary novels, Mahjoub uses the Bilal name for his Makana mystery novels. The Golden Scales is the first of the series, which now has at least six books. I am late to this party, but I am glad my library had the book on a display. Perhaps you can’t judge a book by its cover, but my local library (www.schlowlibrary.org) does know how to judge a good book. I am glad they put it on display, I am glad I checked it out, and I am looking forward to reading more of the series.

 

Makana is the sort of world-weary detective familiar to mystery fans. I am not sure if “Arab noir” is a genre, but if it isn’t then Makana could be the beginning of a trend. Makana may physically reside in Cairo, but Khartoum is never far from his thoughts. His wife and daughter were killed there. In Khartoum, before the Islamists took power, he was a respected homicide detective. In Cairo, he rents a raft (it does not really deserve the designation “houseboat”) and is constantly behind on his rent. His sense of right and wrong, though, demand that he do his best in every investigation and follow the leads wherever they take him.

 

Good mysteries give enough clues to let the reader solve the case along with the detective. Great mysteries still leave some twists at the end. This one gave enough clues in the body to let me solve much of the mystery, but also left a few twists to change direction on a couple of matters in the last few chapters. To my tastes, that makes for a perfect mystery novel.

 

I have never been to Cairo, but Bilal does a wonderful job of describing the city, from the jinn that wind through the empty lots (as a child in Colorado we called them “dust devils”) to the traffic that chokes the city with smog to the towering enclaves of the rich to the sprawling slums of the poor. Cairo has between 15 and 20 million residents, putting it into the top 20 largest cities in the world. That certainly gives it plenty of stories to keep any novelist busy.

 

Whether you are a fan of noir, a fan of mysteries, interested in a well-written story, or want to read evocative descriptions of an ancient/modern city, The Golden Scales is a great place to start. And since it is the first in an ongoing series, the fun does not have to stop there. I am definitely looking forward to moving on with this series.

 

The Golden Scales

Book Review: The Golden Scales, Parker Bilal

Quote: George R. R. Martin on Books & Swords

Quote: … a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge. George R. R. Martin

a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone if it is to keep its edge. George R. R. Martin

Quote: … a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge. George R. R. Martin, A Game of Thrones Book 1, A Song of Ice and Fire 

 

For more on George R. R. Martin see http://www.georgerrmartin.com/

and Quote: Sleep is good, he said, and books are better. George R. R. Martin

 

For a books with swashbuckling sword fights see

Book Review: The City of Brass, S. A. Chakraborty

Book Review: The Kingdom of Copper, S.A. Chakraborty

 

Book Review: The Night Tiger, Yangsze Choo

Book Review: The Night Tiger, Yangsze Choo

The Night Tiger, Yangsze Choo

Fiction: The Night Tiger, Yangsze Choo

Defying categorization, The Night Tiger falls somewhere in between mystery and fantasy and historical romance. Yangsze Choo’s second novel is beautiful, with memorable characters and a compelling plot full of twists.

 

Ren is a very young houseboy. He claims to be thirteen, but his real age is eleven. After serving one doctor, he finds himself in the employ of another doctor with one goal in mind: to honor his first master’s dying wish. In Malay tradition, a soul wanders for 49 days after death before departing to the next life. If a body is not whole within that 49 day period, the soul is trapped and cannot move on. His master lost a finger to an infection some time ago. Ren’s job is to find that finger and bury it alongside the rest of his master’s body so that his soul can rest. All he knows is that his new master once had the finger.

 

Ji Lin is an apprentice dressmaker and part-time dance instructor. She is trying to earn extra money to help her mother. One of her dancing partners leaves a disgusting package behind…a severed finger. Ji Lin tries to return it to him with the help of her step-brother, only to find out the man has died under mysterious circumstances.

 

Ren and Ji Lin find themselves drawn together, both through circumstance and through shared dreams of a mysterious little boy. Choo does a great job of keeping their stories separate until they naturally come together. The author also keeps the reader guessing until the last moment about the mysteries that pervade the plot, mysteries which encompass the missing finger and several deaths throughout the novel. When it does all come together, the result is very satisfying. But I don’t want to spoil any details for other readers.

 

Chinese and Malay traditional beliefs are woven throughout, but are introduced with solid explanation so readers unfamiliar with those beliefs are not left behind. The five Confucian virtues figure prominently, and the names of many of the characters are taken from those virtues, including Ren and Ji Lin. Their encounters with various dream figures are possibly just dreams, and are possibly more than that. Choo does a nice job of leaving some decisions up to her readers.

 

A satisfying, beautifully written book with a compelling plot and thoughtful characters, The Night Tiger is a book I highly recommend to almost anyone who likes fiction. I loved it.

 

You might also enjoy:

Booklist: Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

 

The Night Tiger, Yangsze Choo

Book Review: The Night Tiger, Yangsze Choo

Book Review: The Tropic of Serpents, Marie Brennan

Book Review: The Tropic of Serpents, Book 2 of the Memoirs of Lady Trent, Marie Brennan

 

The Tropic of Serpents, Marie Brennan

Fantasy: The Tropic of Serpents, Marie Brennan

 

Isabella Camherst can face dragons. She has met with heads of state, with scientists from around the world. She survived the cold steppes and the machinations of local warlords, and as we learn in this volume she triumphed over the savannahs and swamps of Eriga. Early in this book, though, she faces her most formidable foe of all.

 

Her mother.

 

The Tropic of Serpents is the second volume of the memoirs of Lady Trent, a fantasy series set in a Victorian-type era where real men are men of breeding and education, and real women stay home and mind the household. Unless you are Lady Trent. Accompanied by a companion from her previous journey (a man, but not a man of breeding) and by a runaway heiress, Isabella sets forth to the continent of Eriga, home to lions and elephants and leopards and several kinds of dragons.

 

In Eriga she must navigate her way through palace intrigue, through political waters muddied by foreign influences (including those from her home country of Scirland), and eventually through the swamps of the “Green Hell,” the jungle home of a rare and surly type of dragon. She courts danger and scandal and finds plenty of both.

 

Marie Brennan’s delightful character must deal with converting skirts to trousers, being confined with other women during her menstruation, and other issues that are gender related. Brennan does a great job remaining true to the Victorian-era sensibilities, once with Isabella apologizing for the rough language of calling something a “godsend”; one shouldn’t use the Lord’s name in vain, although in fairness that is what the man said and neither the man nor Isabella are particularly religious. The book is at times whimsical, at times serious. Always, though, The Tropic of Serpents is a wonderful story about a very well-drawn character.

 

You might also enjoy:

Book Review: A Natural History of Dragons, Marie Brennan

Book Review: Voyage of the Basilisk, Book 3 of the Memoirs of Lady Trent, Marie Brennan

Book Review: European Travel for the Monstrous GentlewomanTheodora Goss

Book Review: The Invisible Library, Genevieve Cogman 

Book Review: The Mortal Word (Book 5 of The Invisible Library Series), Genevieve Cogman

 

 

The Tropic of Serpents, Marie Brennan

Book Review: The Tropic of Serpents, Book 2 of the Memoirs of Lady Trent, Marie Brennan

Quote: Stephen King on Books

Quote: Books are a uniquely portable magic. Stephen King

"Books are a uniquely portable magic." — Stephen King

Quote: “Books are a uniquely portable magic.”  – Stephen King

 

For more on Stephen King, American author, see https://www.stephenking.com/

 

See our posts on:

Booklist: 10 Books for a Reading Roadtrip Across America

Book Review: European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, Theodora Goss

Book Review: A Natural History of Dragons, Marie Brennan

Book Review: Voyage of the Basilisk, Book 3 of the Memoirs of Lady Trent, Marie Brennan

Reader Roadtrip: Forefathers Book Shop

Quote: There is no frigate like a book, to take us lands away –  Emily Dickinson

 

Quote: Books are a uniquely portable magic. Stephen King

 

Book Review: Voyage of the Basilisk, Marie Brennan

Book Review: Voyage of the Basilisk, Book 3 of the Memoirs of Lady Trent, Marie Brennan

 

Voyage of the Basilisk, Marie Brennan

Fantasy: Voyage of the Basilisk, Marie Brennan

The Memoirs of Lady Trent is a fantasy series that grows more delightful the further you get into it. In Voyage of the Basilisk, the third of the series, Isabella Camherst sets sail to new seas and mysterious islands on board the royal survey ship Basilisk, and seeks to answer questions that were raised about affairs both scandalous and political.

 

She is accompanied on her voyage by her longtime colleague Tom Wilker–professional colleague only, it should be noted–and by her son Jacob and his governess Abby. Along the way she has occasion to study sea serpents in both the arctic and the tropics, and fire lizards on the volcanic islands they inhabit. She also runs afoul of various bureaucracies, as she is prone to do, and inadvertently courts scandal through her (professional and platonic) relationship with a foreign archaeologist. But, people will talk. Meanwhile, we learn more about dragons and their kin, we see her relationship with her son develop, and we learn more about the political intrigues that keep her fellow Scirlings busy and create opportunities for Mrs. Camherst to find trouble.

 

Throughout, we see the challenges Isabella faces due to her gender. Her society, a sort-of Victorian culture, devalues Tom Wilker because he does not come from a family of breeding and nobility. However, a male commoner still carries more weight among intellectuals than a female. Even when that female is from the nobility, and even after that female has proven herself through multiple trips of discovery and papers published. Isabella finds that her notoriety and scandal seem to attract more attention than her scholarly efforts, and despite the fact that the scandals are mere gossip and not based in actual misdeeds she is constantly faced with her alleged affairs being of more interest than her academic affairs. 

 

I was reminded of a recent photo of a scientist involved in a complex space endeavor. The photo went viral because the scientist was “cute,” rather than because she was brilliant. I suppose the value of a photo over that of an article will typically lie in the attractiveness of the subject, but it is a shame that the scientist’s contributions (which were invaluable) were somewhat muted by the focus on her appearance, and as she herself noted, the contributions of her team were largely ignored because of the emphasis on her. I have never noticed a male scientist’s photo going viral because he was “hot,” or really any more than a cursory description of appearance in any male scientist’s profile. That seems to be a burden for female scientists, to be judged by gender and appearance as well as for any contributions they are making to their fields.

 

Lady Trent’s memoirs are designed to put the record straight. The only affairs she engaged in were academic affairs of studying dragons, and affairs of state that she stumbled upon. Her relationships with men were collegial and professional, and if they were friendlier than is proper in staid Scirland that is only because of long association and tight quarters and not because of impropriety. The gossip that may have swirled about her is just that: gossip. It is not true, and it speaks more of the bearer than it does of her or any of her companions.

 

Just in case there were any doubts.

 

Voyage of the Basilisk continues the approach of first person memoir from a proper Victorian-esque lady. If at times there are long discourses on the nature of dragons, that is to be expected from the writings of a natural historian. Like its preceding novels, Voyage is breezy fun that invites the reader into a fascinating world of proper etiquette and sometimes quite improper dragons.

 

Book Review: European Travel for the Monstrous GentlewomanTheodora Goss

Book Review: The Invisible Library, Genevieve Cogman 

Book Review: The Mortal Word (Book 5 of The Invisible Library Series), Genevieve Cogman

Book Review: A Natural History of Dragons, Marie Brennan

 

Voyage of the Basilisk, Marie Brennan

Book Review: Voyage of the Basilisk, Marie Brennan

Quote: Emily Dickinson “no frigate like a book”

Quote: There is no frigate like a book, to take us lands away –  Emily Dickinson

"There is no frigate like a book, to take us lands away" — Emily Dickinson

“There is no frigate like a book, to take us lands away” — Emily Dickinson, American Poet

 

For more on Emily Dickinson, American Poet:

https://poets.org/poet/emily-dickinson

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/emily-dickinson

 

See our posts on:

Booklist: 10 Books for a Reading Roadtrip Across America

Book Review: European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, Theodora Goss

Book Review: A Natural History of Dragons, Marie Brennan

Reader Roadtrip: Forefathers Book Shop

 

Quote: There is no frigate like a book, to take us lands away –  Emily Dickinson

Book Review: The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, Edward Wilson-Lee

Book Review: The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, Edward Wilson-Lee

The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, Edward Wilson-Lee

Biography: The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, Edward Wilson-Lee

 

In 1492, Christopher Columbus set sail from Spain to find western route to China and the Indies. As everyone knows, what he found instead was what became known as the “New World,” lands full of new people, new plants, new animals, and new opportunities for the Europeans who came. For the inhabitants of those lands the arrival of the Europeans was a disaster, bringing slavery, conquest, disease, rape, and catastrophe. For everyone involved, the world changed in 1492.

 

One thing Columbus left behind in Europe during this voyage was his young son, Hernando Colon. Colon (the Spanish version of the name Columbus) was the son of Columbus’s Spanish mistress, and although the explorer never married his mother, he always acknowledged Hernando to be his son and treated him like a son. In his book, The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, Edward Wilson-Lee tells the story of this younger son of Christopher Columbus, a man who tried for his entire life to live up to his father’s legacy. In some ways, Hernando was a man far ahead of his time. However, when you are the younger child (and not a child from a marriage) of the man who “discovered the New World,” you’re never going to quite live up to your legacy.

 

Wilson-Lee is an excellent writer, and he does a very nice job capturing Hernando from the available source material. Much of what we know about Hernando comes from what he wrote about his father. Hernando idolized his father, eventually writing a biography of him that was part legal defense of his family’s claims for land and power and part historical defense of his father’s role in discovering Hispaniola and other places. Hernando accompanied his father on one trip to the Americas, surviving a mutiny and shipwreck during the trip and watching his father become quite ill during the adventure.

 

Often forgotten in the very mixed legacy of Christopher Columbus is that his legacy was not universally accepted or respected even during his own lifetime or that of his sons. Other members of his own crew tried to diminish his accomplishments, one even racing back to Spain to claim credit for the discoveries they had made before Columbus could arrive. Columbus never received everything promised to him by the Spanish crown, both because of his own mistakes (and those of his family members) and because of European politics interfering with financial rewards and decisions. On one occasion Columbus was returned to Spain in chains–and symbolically he requested that he be buried in those chains upon his death.

 

The more questionable parts of Columbus are well known to us today. Although he himself was not as personally genocidal as he is made out to be by some, he certainly was not kind or benevolent to the natives he found. He did bring slaves back to Spain and imported African slaves to Hispaniola and other islands. He never acknowledged that he had found a “new” continent but insisted until his death that he had found the route to Asia. He greatly underestimated the circumference of the earth. Some of these issues plagued his legacy even within Hernando’s lifetime. As Hernando fought in the courts (both legal and royal) to preserve some of the promises and gifts made to his father by the crown, he glossed over some of these issues in his biography of his father in order to improve Columbus’s reputation. For this biography, he had one thing going for him that no one else did: the largest library in the world.

 

Hernando was a book collector. By the time of his death, he had over 5000 books. One of those books was his “Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books,” a list of over 1000 books of his that were lost at sea. Hernando created ways of cataloging, organizing, and indexing books that were unlike any that had been tried before. In some ways, he was trying to create things that simply could not exist until the digital age. Hernando also worked on ways to map the world, including ways to measure longitude that were not fully discovered and employed until more than a century later. It is hard to say what his legacy truly was: his library fell into disuse and disrepair after his death, his cataloging and indexing methods simply could not be fully realized until computers came along 500 years later, his tools for measuring longitude were never adopted and had to be independently created much later. What we can say is that just like DaVinci’s helicopter, Hernando had ideas that were beyond his time but which we can now appreciate as being ingenious.

 

Hernando Colon may not have been the most famous person in his family or of his time. But he was a fascinating person, not only because of his father. The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books is an interesting story of an interesting man, one who largely shaped what we know about Christopher Columbus.

The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, Edward Wilson-Lee

Book Review: The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, Edward Wilson-Lee

Book Review: Foundryside, Robert Jackson Bennett

Book Review: Foundryside, Robert Jackson Bennett

 

Foundryside, Robert Jackson Bennett

Fantasy: Foundryside, Robert Jackson Bennett

Foundryside is an epic fantasy set in a new world where technology operates magically through the use of written commands that change the way reality works for an object. Certain rules seem to control how this works: the commands must be written correctly and specifically, and they must be written either directly on the object they seek to influence or they must be written in very close proximity to it. They cannot be written on living beings.

 

Robert Jackson Bennett is no stranger to SFF, having written Hugo and Nebula award nominated books. Foundryside is the first book in a new series, the Founders trilogy, introducing complex new characters into a challenging new world. Bennett sets up a series of complex rules governing the use of magic in this world. He then proceeds to break almost every one of them.

 

How much fun is that?! My granddaughters love building towers of blocks. They love kicking them down even more. Bennett builds a world based on a specific set of rules, then uses the rest of the novel to ask, What if those rules could be broken?

 

Sancia Grado is a thief. She is very good. Maybe the best. When she is hired for a huge amount of money to steal a nondescript box out of an ordinary safe, the deal seems too good to be true. Despite her instructions, she opens the box and finds…a key.

 

A key. That, Talks.

 

With this discovery, we readers realize that Bennett is already breaking the rules of his own world. Sancia is magically enhanced, which allows her to hear the key. Except, humans cannot be magically enhanced. That’s supposed to be impossible. And tools cannot have personalities or talk or have memories. That’s also impossible. Sancia and the other characters recognize that these things are violations of the natural laws they’ve been taught cannot be changed. Figuring out how these laws are being broken, and why, is part of the fun of this novel.

 

Bennett brings together a community of intriguing, often flawed and hurting characters. Sancia is a former slave and a victim of cruel experimentation. She finds common cause with a “founderkin” (essentially nobility in this world) who was the sole survivor of a military catastrophe. Neither of them survived those experiences unharmed, nor do they or other characters escape damage in the course of this story. Not every character survives to the end of the novel. But every character experiences growth and/or change as a consequence of the events within the novel. That kind of character development sets this book apart from more ordinary stories in this or any genre.

 

Exciting plot. Great characters. Fascinating world, filled with rules that were clearly made to be broken, and which Bennett breaks with elan. Foundryside is an excellent book, and gives plenty of reasons to look forward to the next installment in this new series.

 

Foundryside, Robert Jackson Bennett

Book Review: Foundryside, Robert Jackson Bennett