Monday, December 31, 2007

The Dream of the Stone

By Christina Askounis.

I found this after reading her short story "The Novice" online. (I found it through Mir.)

It might be bad that the first comparison that comes to mind is to A Wrinkle in Time. Let's see, an evil shadow that's spreading through the universe? Check. A pseudo-scientific method of traveling to other planets? Check. Mysterious old lady who likes to quote Latin aphorisms before disappearing? Check. You get the idea...

That said, the writing seems pretty solid. I noticed that she does a good job of describing the settings and characters, although some are a little cliched, especially the villain. The plot is fairly straightforward, without any of the nasty surprises I've come to expect from authors, but it does have a few twists. It does transparently reference Christianity, with the 23rd Psalm and at least one line from a hymn making an appearance, but even so the characters are not perfect.

In the end, I may have enjoyed this most for the nostalgia factor. The original plan was for it to be the first book in a trilogy, but that seems to be on hold for now.

Saturday, December 29, 2007


By Scott Westerfeld. Sequel to the Uglies trilogy. (Westerfeld writes in his dedication: "To everyone who wrote to me to reveal the secret definition of the word 'trilogy.'")

Aya, a 15-year-old "kicker" (basically a blogger) living in a city with a reputation-based economy, searches for the story that will bring up her face rank—a measure of status that doubles as purchasing power and will save her from babysitting and schoolwork. She stumbles onto a Special Circumstance when she follows a lead regarding a secretive group, the Sly Girls, who try to keep their reputations low key despite the dangerous games they play.

I finished this book in a single afternoon, but I don't know if I would have enjoyed this as much if I hadn't already known about Aya's world from reading the trilogy. It seemed faster paced than some of Westerfeld's other books, but that could be because I read it faster. It did seem a little lightweight for being more than 400 pages long. One particular action was described in almost the same words at least three separate times, a bit repetitious even if the action in question is exciting.

Religion plays a tiny role in the world, which I am starting to notice is a common theme in Westerfeld's books: not that I expect a book to center around it, but it seems to barely exist in his worlds.

In the end, this was an exciting story, but somewhat disappointing because it wrapped up a bit neatly (and perhaps too easily) and didn't leave much to think about afterwards.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Secret History of Moscow

By Ekaterina Sedia.

When Galina's sister turns into a jackdaw after giving birth in the bathroom and flies away, Galina joins a policeman and a street artist to find her sister. (The policeman wants to find answers.) They fall underground through a reflection in a puddle and run into various persons who all turn out to be helpful, at least after they manage to tell their own stories.

Despite the poignant and disturbing ending, this book seems more like a patchwork of Russian myths and allusions to Russian myths (without explanations) than a cohesive story. Almost every chapter focuses on a different character's personal history, and somehow the plot gets lost in between—we never get a satisfactory explanation for why people were being turned into birds. I'm not sure even a sequel would redeem this one, although the ending might make a good prologue to a different book, but I think the author does show promise. Someone to keep an eye on, at least.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Risen Empire and Peeps

This post is actually about two different pairs of books, both by Scott Westerfeld:

The Risen Empire and The Killing of Worlds, really one book in two bindings. (The epilogue from the first book is reused as the prologue for the second book.)

Peeps and The Last Days, which is actually an honest sequel about different characters. (The ones from Peeps only show up after the halfway point.)

After reading these two close together, you might get the impression that Scott Westerfeld enjoys the ways large-scale biological systems work. The Risen Empire (hereafter used to refer to the entire story) contains repeated references to cats and how they allowed the human race to evolve at various stages. Peeps contains repeated references to parasites and how they allowed the human race to... well, okay, that isn't quite true. A lot of the parasites in the book are (a) pretty nasty to their hosts and (b) not very interested in humans. When every other chapter except one talks about a different type of parasite, though, you could say biology is a pertinent subject.

So what are these books actually about?

The Risen Empire is an enjoyable space opera set in the eponymous space empire, which is ruled by a god-king, the Risen Emperor. You see, the twist to immortality is that you have to die before the (presumably artificial, but it isn't completely explained) symbiont which provides life can bond with your body. The problem with immortality is that it is used to reward the emperor's loyal servants (typical lifespan without the symbiont and with good medical care: 200 years) and they are slowly accumulating all the wealth in the empire... and are not interested in change. As a result, other groups of exiled humanity not under the auspices of the Empire are advancing rapidly technologically, while the Empire falls behind. The Rix cult is the group in question here.

I enjoyed this book a lot. It has a classic feel (there's nanotech, but it can't do everything, unlike the nano in The Golden Age) and still manages to have an interesting plot and lots of surprises. (There is a good one in the first chapter.) For most of the book, you know about the existence of the Emperor's Secret, something which could bring down the Empire, but not what the secret is. (At least, I didn't quite guess it before it was revealed.) Sadly, there are several potential plot threads left dangling for sequels to pick up, and Westerfeld's FAQ states that he'll maybe write them someday, when he's rich enough and secure enough to not need or want the money and attention he gets from writing young adult books. Oh well.

Onto Peeps: this is a vampire story, although it isn't obvious in the first chapter. The story: vampirism is caused by a parasite that infects humans, and Cal Thompson is one of a few rare carriers who are genetically immune (at least partially) to the effects of the disease. But the girls he kissed before he found out he had it aren't...

If you're bothered by parasites and rats and other gross things, don't read this. Also, it's labeled young adult (The Risen Empire is somewhat adult), but the parasite encourages behaviors which lead to it spreading: biting, scratching, kissing, and all that that implies. The Last Days is an honest sequel that starts off on a different path with some teens forming a band. Is it a problem that their singer has the disease and the world seems to be ending, err, sorry, there are just some waste disposal problems, we'll have them figured out in a few months? The tone is very different from biology major Cal's clinical narration, which I think is a plus.

I enjoyed Peeps a little more than The Last Days, but you might as well read them both together. Also, I hated the plot twist near the end of Peeps. It's one of those things I should have seen coming.

It's important to know where to end: The Risen Empire does a better job of that than Peeps or The Last Days, I think. And now I'll do the same.

Saturday, December 01, 2007


By Laini Taylor. First book in the Faeries of Dreamdark series (the series title is, in my opinion, a little too prominent on the cover, overshadowing the title and wonderful illustration).

Updated on 12/2/2007 to add some more points I wanted to make; see below.

This is a wonderful, fantastic and clean book. Magpie, a hundred-year-old faerie teenager(?) (apparently 100 years for a faerie is more like a very mature 14 or 15 for a human, although I'm only guessing based on how she acts and how the crows call her a child) has been hunting and bottling devils when she stumbles upon one that doesn't seem to follow the usual rules and has to (wait for it) save the world. Despite the cliche, I enjoyed this book quite a bit, except that a decidedly unbiblical creation story* plays a significant role in the plot.

I laughed at quite a few places, too. Hopefully the next book comes out soon—humans, especially, (playfully called "mannies" by the faeries) were mostly absent from this story, although there was a paragraph or two of painfully obvious environmentalism.

I also loved the illustrations and wished there were more, except that the faeries look decidedly grim in some of them.

I think I found this from an interview Shannon Hale did with Laini Taylor, and the recommendation was seconded by R. J. Anderson more recently.

* SPOILER for those who really want to know (highlight to read): Djinns created the world by weaving everything into a magical tapestry that shuts out the darkness.

Update: Some additional thoughts:

  1. Humans are really missing from this world; there are a few token appearances and mentions of monkeys coming down from the trees, but humans don't seem to be really present (i.e., they have no important function, good or bad) in the world of the story. I have a hard time believing fairies can live all over the world (as they do in this book) and not have relationships with at least one human, somewhere, sometime.

  2. Not all the token cliches are used, which I think is a good thing. While the fairies are tiny (apparently -- although one suspects in some of the scenes that they might change size, because I can't imagine the djinns or the monsters being so tiny, or a tiny fairy being able to easily carry a human-sized bottle), they aren't noticeably allergic to iron (although that might just be because there isn't much iron in the story).

  3. There are some awkward moments in the story (the heroine asking "Oh, did you hear some story the creatures have about someone who will save the world?" "Um, nope, can't say that I have.", which is actually kind of funny), and other places where you know (from prior experiences of How Stories Work) that the characters are walking into trouble. This is one of the things that drives me crazy reading some books, though it wasn't bad here; I hate to read things where someone says something stupid and just keeps digging a deeper pit for himself and eventually gets into well-deserved trouble because of it. Those are the parts I skip over in some parts because they're painful (or at least painfully embarrassing) to read.

  4. There are some really dark things, but not very many. The magic mirror actually scares me more than the main (titular) villain does. You'll see.

  5. I liked the illustrations, although the fairies seemed much grimmer in them than they were portrayed in the prose, especially in the cover art. Did I already mention this?

  6. This book probably belongs in the home grown fairy tale category; while the mythos is not what you could call biblical, I think it is clever due to its simplicity and effectiveness. She does a good job building a story on top of her background story of creation.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Several books at once

I'll try to be brief.

Lilli Thal's Mimus, translated by John Brownjohn. When a medieval king is betrayed, his son is given to the enemy king's court jester as an apprentice. I skipped parts as too painful to read because it was easy to foresee that things were only going to get worse because of what Florin, the prince, did. My notes say I found this because carbonelle mentioned it in a comment on superversive's blog; I must have foolishly thought I could easily find the reference again. I forgot about it until I spotted it at the library and remembered the title. There's no (fantasy) magic and there are quite a few references to God and the church, but the church (at least the one Florin enters) is not all that you might hope—they throw him out because, being a jester, he lacks a soul.

Julie E. Czerneda's Survival. First book in a trilogy, it doesn't end very satisfactorily. On the other hand, it wasn't so engaging that I'll be miserable waiting for the next two installments to show up. It reminds me of Slonczewski's books (probably because both authors are biologists) but wasn't as good, in my opinion. Maybe the others will change my mind. The premise: Dr. Mackenzie Connor, a salmon researcher in a near future where humanity has joined an interstellar union of species, ends up drawn into an investigation of the destruction of an entire region of worlds, called the Chasm, from which all life has gone. Dr. Connor protests mightily that she only knows about salmon, but is forced to cooperate by higher-ups and the disappearance of her friend Emily Mamani. There is a lot of build-up and description for not much profit, and not enough humor in most of it, as opposed to the charm of investigation and discovery that appears in some other books. It remains to be seen whether the second and third volumes will compensate. I found it because Kristen Britain (author of Green Rider) mentioned Czerneda in an interview and this was the only book the library had on hand.

Jessica Day George's Dragon Slippers. An orphaned girl is given to a local dragon by her aunt in the hopes that a knight or prince will rescue her and marry her (and, not insignificantly, her aunt) out of poverty. The dragon turns out to have unexpected qualities, so she bargains to leave it alone in exchange for a treasure from its hoard... which turns out to be a shoe collection. Shod with a fine pair of slippers, she sets out to make her fortune... Charming and sweet, but there were also some really tense moments. I liked it. Definitely in the original fairy tale category.

Theodore Sturgeon's More than Human. Three novellas fixed up into one book. Classic sci-fi with telepaths, teleports, and telekines, all three of which probably resulted in my enjoyment of sci-fi as a child, and of this book. They don't seem to feature much in modern sci-fi, unfortunately. The language is, at times, somewhat vague, and for quite a while near the beginning you may wonder where the story is going—so many characters are introduced without apparent connection to each other, it's a little hard to keep track. One of them is mentioned for a page and then disappears until 100 pages later. I also disliked the philosophy shown in the ending.

Lois McMaster Bujold's Cordelia's Honor. Omni-bus of Shards of Honor and Barrayar, this is my first read in the Vorkosigan canon. I think I liked Shards of Honor somewhat more than Barrayar, which was much more serious, but both have many moments of humor. It was painfully obvious who was going to fall in love. I also wondered, when Cordelia was sneaking around on Barrayar (a planet whose population is mostly of Russian descent), how there could be so many people with bright red hair that she would not be immediately noticed. As Bujold writes in the afterword, Barrayar is a book about parenthood. If clandestine activity is involved, well, that must be part of being a parent. Ha.

George MacDonald's The Princess and the Goblin. Classic. I read the version illustrated by Alan Parry and couldn't help noticing that the illustrations often seemed to be a page or two later than the part of the story illustrated, which is a bit unfortunate. Reading this brought back so many memories (I think I saw the movie as a child). I couldn't help wondering which parts were abridged.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Blood and Iron

By Elizabeth Bear.

This is a dark novel of faerie along the lines of Tithe and Wicked Lovely and even Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, at least the parts of that book that deal with faerie. I stayed up late reading it, which is why I'm mentioning it, although I'll also mention that the reason may only be that it twigged on one of my personal buttons, a lack of volition; faeries can apparently bind and control each other through their names and do so as a common practice, and the main character (which I will call so despite the presence of numerous viewpoint characters) is under such a binding.

This does not feel like the first novel in a series: numerous characters and conflicts are introduced very quickly (by page 20, I was wondering who all these people were already and how they were going to end up related to each other), and there are a lot of unexplained issues in the background. There is at least one line that I couldn't make sense of. Also, the ending goes into what is presumably a little prelude to the second book before stopping. There's also a lot of implied sex.

So why did I enjoy it? There is an extremely effective point of view change at a critical moment (I hesitate to say more about that). There is at least one other really shocking moment. Flipping to the end of the book wasn't enough to give away how things ended: the middle of the story is actually important.

I don't know. From one perspective, it's an exciting adventure and political intrigue story, well-written. From another, it has a ton of characters, a lot of whom aren't really fleshed out for us, and some really disturbing elements that I'm hoping the second book will redeem.* I found I liked it better than I thought I would, so you might too.

On a mostly unrelated note, I wonder why the author is using a pen name instead of her real name; the copyright page says "Copyright Sarah Kindred writing as Elizabeth Bear." Yes, I actually do usually read the copyright page. Scary, huh?

* Wondering why saying "God" hurts faeries is actually only a minor one emotionally (for me), but I suspect it's very telling on their relationship to Heaven and Hell, upon which the second book promises to reveal more.

Update (12/10/2007): I found the sequel (Whiskey & Water) disappointing. The omniscient point of view makes it very hard to keep track of which characters know what at what point, and her self-professed short story style doesn't help (but read her post, it's interesting and argues for a different perspective.) I also didn't have much in the way of guesses about motivation or even what's going on early on; there wasn't enough information, misleading or otherwise, for me to even formulate a plausible hypothesis. Her use of unfamiliar legends and myths may not have helped (Fionnghuala goes from the seeming wise-woman of the first book to become someone else entirely without any warning or hints that I picked up on, although to be fair I may have read the book too quickly.) And I agreed with some other reviewers who said the book started too slowly—I think that the author let a lot of the tension that was present in the ending of Blood & Iron drop simply by letting seven years pass. I really didn't want to finish the book, but I forced myself in the hope that it would get better. Also, there were too many gratuitous sex scenes.

Saturday, November 03, 2007


By A. E. Van Vogt.

Exciting adventure, but something is definitely missing in the way the characters behave. Foreshadowing (even false foreshadowing) seems distinctly absent. The science fiction tropes are also dated (hypnotism plays a big role again, as in Cordwainer Smith and Isaac Asimov's fiction of the same period and in Van Vogt's World of Null-A), and the ending is a little weak, possibly reflecting initial publication as a serial novel: perhaps Van Vogt wasn't sure he was finished with the story.

The problem with the characters is that the main ones seem too credulous for superhumans who are both (a) supposedly several times more intelligent than an adult human and (b) aware that humans lie. They seem to swallow every successive thing that someone else tells them, despite supposedly having a fantastic grasp of human psychology due to their ability to read minds. (The superintelligent superhumans as main characters idea is also reminiscent of the only other Van Vogt book I've read (mostly), The World of Null-A.) Also, we see less of the other characters than we'd like; even Kathleen Layton appears mostly in the beginning and then fades away as Jommy Cross takes center stage as a mostly solitary actor, with a shadowy "organization" in the background chasing him but little interaction with other people.

Despite this weakness in the characters and the dated nature of the science fiction (hypnotism, mind-reading and antigravity in the same world with super-strong steel, newspapers, and "radiotelephones"), this is still a pretty good story for its length. (Short, if you're in doubt.) Brevity is a virtue, supposedly. There is also no mention of God or religion, if I remember correctly; the majority of people are treated as a mob without individual thoughts or perrsonalities, easily manipulated by the ruling powers through their irrational fear of slans. What is a slan? Read it and find out—if you trust the author that much...

There is a sequel (at least partly) by another author.

The Englishman's Daughter: A True Story of Love and Betrayal in World War I

By Ben Macintyre. (A post at Wittingshire pointed me to it.)

Non-fiction story of seven English soldiers who were stuck behind the lines in France during the English retreat in 1914 (during the Great War); one of the soldiers falls in love with one of the village girls, hence the title (you are told this in the prologue), and eventually the soldiers are caught by the occupying German army.

Pretty good book, but it seems a little short to cover two entire years of life. 80 years later, however, I guess the author may not have been able to come up with enough confirmed detail to flesh out the story more. I also disliked the epilogue, agreeing with the villagers that he interviewed in it that it was better left in the past.


Book 2 of Elizabeth Knox's Dreamhunter duology.

This book starts off slowly with a recap of the previous book, but quickly picks up speed beginning with the second chapter. Knox's writing reminds me of John C. Wright's—mysteries from the first book are well-planted seeds that grow into explanations here, and the ending is quite complete except for one plot thread which the author obviously intended to leave open.

Once again, I noticed how most of the characters are so distinct in personality and actions, but I also noticed a few nameless throwaway ones. Also once again, the historical details (especially the inclusion of a certain major scene) are very convincing. The atheist vs. Christian debate continues and plays a role in the ending.

There is also premarital sex, although in the oblique fashion that, when I was younger, made me take a (children's) book to my parents and say, "I think it's talking about sex!" and then have to present my five different pieces of evidence from various pages to convince them. Well, actually, I don't think it was that oblique in this book. I don't know what the typical historical attitude towards it would have been, but the Hames and the Tiebolds are certainly not typical families.

Definitely a fun, exciting second half with a good ending (although if you like every thread to be tied off and snipped, you'll be disappointed). The attempt to let someone pick it up without having first read the first book, while perhaps well-intentioned, does slow it down somewhat at the beginning, however. Read Dreamhunter first.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Some anthologies

Not a review, since I mostly lack the patience to go through anthologies story by story, but I thought I'd mention a few.

I've been reading some of the stories in Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow's latest anthology, The Coyote Road: Trickster Tales, but while some of them are pretty good, I think their anthology The Faery Reel is still the one I enjoyed the most. (They also did The Green Man and some others that I haven't read.)

I've also been reading Gene Wolfe's Starwater Strains and Strange Travelers. I enjoyed many of the stories in Starwater Strains and almost all of them made at least some sense ("The Game in the Pope's Head" was the exception, but perhaps I just didn't want to understand it since Wolfe introduced it as a Jack the Ripper story). "Viewpoint" stands out as the first story and as an original, disturbing take on "reality TV"; "Empires of Foliage and Flower" is a fable nominally set on Wolfe's Urth, but which really could be anywhere; "Golden City Far" also stands out, as the first and last stories in such collections tend to do. In Strange Travelers, "The Haunted Boardinghouse" caught my attention, as well as the nifty idea of a traffic jam that has lasted for years, long enough for its occupants to begin developing their own unique freeway culture, which appears in the first and last stories in this collection.

Last night I started reading Vera Nazarian's collection Salt of the Air. The writing is pretty good, although I'm not sure what to make of the cover art. $29.95 also seems awfully expensive for such a small book (I checked it out of the library); sure, it's probably a small press, but for that price you would think they could have done a better job proofreading. (For example, the running titles at the top of the page are not always right, and there is a glaring typo in Gene Wolfe's three-page introduction.)

I can't remember what the "other things" I wanted to put in this post were (I knew last night, but alas...), so I'll stop here.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

We the Underpeople

Anthology of six stories by Cordwainer Smith; the stories are "The Dead Lady of Clown Town", "Under Old Earth", "Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons", "Alpha Ralpha Boulevard", "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell", and the novel(!) Norstrilia. (Since it is over 250 pages, I think it counts as a novel, not a novella.)

I found this because Elliot recommended it. For reference, he says in that post that his favorite Smith story is "The Dead Lady of Clown Town" and his second favorite is "Under Old Earth."

But first, a digression. Consider John C. Wright's discussion of his treatment of religion in the Chaos books. While reading them (twice!), I never approached the level of depth and generalization in his analysis (for example, his classification of the four paradigms and what they believe regarding knowledge and divinity). I don't think I would have ever said or thought that Amelia's paradigm was marked by its mystery, by the presence of unknowable things. I paid attention to how things got done, not how the book was written; I am not a student of writing. (Occasionally I cannot help noticing elements such as the abundance of paper and ink simile and metaphor in Alphabet of Thorn, but even then it me until my second read to notice.) The point is that I read books mostly for enjoyment and rarely detect the structures below the surface. (Or even the ones at the surface.) Would you expect a reader to notice all the things that Wright mentions in his explanation? I did not, for whatever that says about me.

This applies to Cordwainer Smith's anthology because I suspect there were such things under the surface that were, in fact, very important to the meaning of the story, and I fear that I did not see them.

I did enjoy "The Dead Lady of Clown Town": it has sympathetic characters and high emotions, although the plot, like many of these stories, seems to wander. (You can read Elliot's more detailed analysis here.) Norstrilia was the other one I really enjoyed, and is easier to describe despite being much longer: a young man buys and visits Earth and gets away alive. (Actually, the author tells you that much within the first few pages; maybe you are supposed to suspect that isn't really what it's about? I am not so cynical in this case.)

All of these stories are set in the same universe and most feature underpeople, genetically- (or otherwise) modified animals shaped more or less into humans who are used as servants, while "True People" are kept perfectly and inevitably happy by the mysterious Instrumentality. These stories are all also subtly or overtly horrifying. Hypnotism, telepathy and drugs are widely used to control people. Sub-par humans are drugged and laugh themselves to death as their brains melt. The underpeople who believe in the "sign of the Fish" and the "three forgotten ones" (let the reader understand) defend their secrets by inducing suicide, memory loss, etc., with no apparent qualms in Norstrilia, a loud contradiction to the spirit of love evident in "The Dead Lady of Clown Town." (Smith also wrote, for his day job, a widely used manual on psychological warfare; there may be a connection.)

Most are very readable stories. Smith's prose is clean and suggestive. (I found "Under Old Earth" to be an exception, since I didn't understand it.) However, the horror underneath makes me reluctant to recommend them; even "The Dead Lady of Clown Town" is suspect. One wonders whether this is only the element of "the grotesque" that Flannery O'Connor wrote about, present to shock the audience into seeing themselves clearly. However, I somehow missed whatever deeper truths might be present to redeem these stories. Since Cordwainer Smith has been dead for 40 years or so, he is probably not responsible for the way the anthology was assembled; perhaps his selection of stories would have included ones that revealed more about each other, since, as I said, they all touch on the same universe. For a story like "Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons" there is no apparent excuse; for "The Dead Lady of Clown Town" there are redeeming elements, but consider finally what happens to Elaine when she is reluctant to go with her "True Love" (this is probably a spoiler but shows what I think is most wrong about this story):

Elaine, her hand to her mouth, tried to inventory symptoms as a means of keeping her familiar thoughts in balance. It did not work. A relaxation spread over her, a happiness and quiet that she had not once felt since her childhood.

"Did you think," said the Hunter, "that I hunted with my body and killed with my hands? Didn't anyone ever tell you that the game comes to me rejoicing, that the animals die while they scream with pleasure?"

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Mississippi Blues

By Kathleen Ann Goonan.

An aside about spoilers: I often include (what I consider to be) mild spoilers in my reviews. Perhaps it's because I'm excited about some details and want you, who will probably never read most of these books, to be excited too, but I've also often found that the impression I got of a book from someone else's review was completely wrong, meaning that any plot details they mentioned really didn't spoil anything at all, because I ended up imagining a completely different context around them. Maybe someone else can comment on why they're so hated?

Obviously, anything below may especially be considered a spoiler for Queen City Jazz, since the events in this book all come after that one.

Back to the book, which is the sequel to Queen City Jazz and in which Verity commissions two river boats, one of which is very short-lived, discovers her pregnancy in humorous fashion, along with other details of greater and lesser importance, and heads down the Mississippi River with the somewhat childlike former population of Cincinnati, which she feels responsible for, having evicted them from their own city. Also, there are Mark Twain clones, one of whom is occasionally reminded that she is not really Sam Clemens by virtue of the fact that he was not female. Many references to the journey of Huck Finn are made.

If you liked Queen City Jazz, you will probably want to read this sequel. It continues with humor and sadness mixed into a somewhat psychedelic journey down the Mississippi River. (What's up with those clowns?) Verity and Blaze return, as well as many new characters: "Lightnin'" Lil, "Diamond" Jack, Peabody, Mattie, Mark Twain, Masa, James, Alice, the Professor, and others who seem to feel a need to hop onto a riverboat. The journey is dangerous and there are doubts about whether Norleans is even there. (Early on, someone warns Verity that her people will probably die from the information plague that is compelling them down the river if they don't get there quickly enough.) So read it if you liked the first one and want to find out what happens next, or possibly if you enjoy stories about river journeys. I admit that I'm reluctant to read the next one because 1) I hear it's a prequel and 2) I don't want to hear about any more bad things happening to the characters.

Friday, September 28, 2007


By Elizabeth Knox. Book one of The Dreamhunter Duet.

Exciting semi-real-world fantasy, but take careful note of that "part one." The book ends suddenly. This book feels like it wants to be set in the real world, but the author wasn't quite brave enough to put it in the U.S., so she made up a new continent and country called "Southland." Maybe it's supposed to be Australia? Another book set near the turn of the century (hand-cranked movie cameras and gas lights play a role), like The Star of Kazan, but this one has an element of magic. Actually, there are suggestions that it's quite a lot of magic.

Twenty-some years ago, Tziga Hame disappeared from the top of a stage coach and was found back along the road with a broken leg. He had unintentionally discovered "the Place", not on any map, where dreams could be found. Special people, known as dreamhunters, could go to sleep in various areas there and bring the dreams back home to share with others, resulting in a burgeoning industry of dreams for hire. Not everyone can get into the Place, though, and even those who can cannot all bring back dreams.

Now, in the time of the book, Tziga disappears, and his daughter Laura and her cousin Rose's family are left to discover what's going on.

I think the best thing about this book is how distinct the characters are. They are all unique; only Laura and her aunt can cross over into the Place, so it's not like everyone is a wizard here. There are figures mentioned that perhaps only 1 in 500 people is able to do so. Rose and Laura's uncle Chorley are not so gifted, but they have their own talents.

Also good: the prose is clear. There are nice details such as the Fire Watch and the lack of small, portable motors to drive the movie cameras of the time at a regular pace. Every character seems to matter, even if they don't appear for more than a page. (When I get to the end of the second book I may revise this opinion.) The characters don't all believe the same things or act the same way, as I already mentioned. And it's pretty clean. (There are a couple innuendos, but I don't remember anything blatant.)

Lots of fun. You may, however, not appreciate the lack of cool swordfights and dragons, I suppose; a lot of the "action" is verbal fencing or sneaking around or dreaming rather than anything directly confrontational. You'll want to be sure you have easy access to the second book, Dreamquake (in the U.S., anyway), when you finish this one.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Star of Kazan

By Eva Ibbotson. Illustrated by Kevin Hawkes. Discovered from olmue's blog.

Re-reading her review, I'm struck at the Little Princess comparison: it reminded me of that book too. It also struck me as a good book to read aloud. The language is a bit simple (it was in the children's section) but the sentences are definitely manageable. It's also quite a quick read despite being 400 pages.

Best of all, it's a sweet story. (It really is a lot like The Little Princess.) It's also exciting approaching the end: there is real danger involved, although it still seems realistic. (Not everything that could possibly go wrong does, unlike in some books.)

Perhaps I should mention some more detail. Annika is a foundling at the beginning of the 20th century. She is adopted by the two servants in a house in Vienna owned by two brothers and a sister who are professors (of geology, art history and music.) She grows up serving but not unwillingly; the whole city loves her, including the professors. At least, that's what it seems like—there are several places where the narration describes various otherwise unknown people asking what happened to her or hearing that she's back and so on. Then the aristocratic mother she's dreamed of for so long shows up... Annika discovers that aristocrats eat turnip jam and live in leaky houses and don't wear galoshes to show that they're tougher than common mortals. At least, that's her interpretation of the situation. Her friends from Vienna eventually get into gear and save her.

Should I be critical now? At a certain point in the plot, the narration switches back to Annika's friends in Vienna, implying that some time has passed. It seems a little bit sudden since up to then we've seen almost everything as it happens to Annika. The language is simple and clear but somewhat pedantic in places: several times words are defined right after they're used.

Besides the sweet story (I've used that word way too many times), there are humorous moments where I laughed out loud. The story isn't funny the whole way through, but Ibbotson does a good job lightening up heavy moments.

I want to go read The Little Princess now.

Also: new label! Apparently things shelved in the children's section are not "juvenile", they're "middle grade." Or something. This distinction may be too fine for me. (I'm nearsighted, didn't you know?) The important part is that this book is clean. (It's shocking what you can find under "young adult" these days.)

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Queen City Jazz

By Kathleen Ann Goonan.

This book sure knew how to push my buttons. Verity is a young woman being yanked around in a power game through compulsions that she is biologically unable to deny. We are quickly told that she, perhaps sixteen years old, has been visiting a library in nearby Dayton once a year, to be filled with knowledge? memories? that she cannot remember afterwards. Every time, the seductive pull of the Bell changes her refusal into acquiescence.

Of course I'm a sucker for sympathizing with characters who are being coerced not only physically, but also emotionally, mentally, by having their very memories rewritten... something that never happens in the real world, right? This is science fiction, but is, like A Door Into Ocean, more concerned with people than the particulars of the technology. It reminded me of Ceres Storm in the way technology is magical and also in the way the protagonist, for the first half of the book, seems to just stumble her way exactly into the places she needs to be to solve the puzzle and pick apart the twisted knot that Cincinnati, "Enlivened" by nanotechnology, has become.

This book does not seem to have a place for God; one character says that the prayers of past religions were really people talking to other parts of their own brains. I hear that the third and fourth books of this quartet, really prequels, reveal that aliens were perhaps responsible for the nanotech future. (Actually, I got that off Amazon when I was checking to see if any more of the books were about Verity.)

I think I liked this book mostly because of Verity's sympathetic quality: young, bewildered, callously manipulated by forces she barely knows exist. The creative application of technology was somewhat interesting, especially the tie-ins with bees, but the author didn't use very many fresh ideas besides that one. The repeated references to jazz figures were tiring, especially after reading In War Times by the same author. (She makes many of the same references in both books.) The plot was vague in some parts, although I'm hoping the sequel (Mississippi Blues) may clear up some of them.

Overall, I enjoyed it, but I don't think it was truly great.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Winter Prince, A Coalition of Lions, and The Sunbird

By Elizabeth E. Wein.

The Winter Prince is a good (though it seems a little short) take on Arthurian legend, from the viewpoint of Medraut (Mordred). It may have a bit too much angst about his relationship with his mother, but I thought it was well done. You may think I'm biased towards Arthur stories because I also enjoyed Jo Walton's The King's Peace and The King's Name, but it isn't so. (He doth protest too much, right? Better take this with a grain of salt.) I read another Arthurian book recently that I thought was pretty bad. (I am not planning to write a review of it, since I didn't finish it.)

A Coalition of Lions takes Wein's series into original territory. After the disaster at Camelot, the king and his sons are dead. His only daughter, Princess Goewin, travels to Aksum (ancient Ethiopia) to marry her betrothed and reclaim her kingdom from her aunt Morgause. She doesn't find what she expects, though.

In the third book, The Sunbird, she sends her young nephew Telemakos to spy out who is breaking the trade embargo in Aksum and spreading plague.

While all three are shelved as young adult, they do contain violence and cruelty. Wein's heros and heroine are not invincible or even superhuman; they suffer. There is no obvious magic*; these books ring of historical authenticity. (I suspect Wein has done her research well.) Both Aksum and England are Christian countries, but not everyone is well educated. (Medraut describes a scene with his siblings where they fail to recognize a scene from Revelation and says "Don't you even know what you believe in?")

Flaws are perhaps that they seem a little short, especially The Winter Prince. In A Coalition of Lions the great conflict is resolved too easily. Telemakos falters when presented with an opportunity for revenge at the end of his travail.

Still, I enjoyed them quite a bit and recommend them. I'm looking forward to reading The Mark of Solomon, featuring the further adventures of Telemakos, after the second book comes out next year.

* (The one possible exception is that Medraut, whose name means "Marksman", always hits what he aims at. I am labeling them fantasy because that's what Arthurian legend is usually considered.)

Update: Two minor notes. I think I found this book because it was mentioned here, and I also just found the author's LiveJournal.

Sunday, September 16, 2007


By Michael Flynn.

Science fiction set in the Middle Ages. (There is a present day component interspersed with the narrative from the 1300s, too, but it's not the largest part.) The best thing about this book is how real it seems; although I don't know much about the Middle Ages, the author has either done his research or is very good at faking it with realistic details. (For example: the Inquisition had very strict rules for trials, so much so that people were known to commit blasphemy so that they would be tried by the Church courts rather than the secular ones.) The writing is crisp, not vague. The intersection between two different cultures is also very interesting; what one insists at the beginning is true seems to change as they interact with each other.

The story, in short, is that an alien ship crashes in Eifelheim, a village in medieval Germany. The priest of that village becomes the mediator between the aliens and the villagers, trying to help and understand them while serving his own flock. In the present day segments, based on a novella, a historian and a physicist are about to stumble on what happened in that past, but the more interesting portion is the medieval narrative. Despite the sad ending (this is around the time of the Black Plague), the characters, both aliens and humans, have a great deal of pathos. It's especially interesting how the villagers, instead of being cardboard scenery, come to develop their own opinions about the aliens, who look nothing like men (they're described as giant grasshoppers), but inside are human, although foreign.

Recommended. As an aside, I would be interested in knowing if someone who actually does know about medieval Germany could comment on the factuality of the world-building.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Well of Ascension (Mistborn 2)

By Brandon Sanderson. Sequel to The Final Empire.

Overall entertaining, but mostly light reading. Sanderson concentrates more on interpersonal relationships in this book than on further developing the magic systems that he is (perhaps) well known for. There is one scene near the middle that I have trouble accepting as "in character", but it could just be my naivete.

The ending, however, is certainly unrealistic; it feels like Sanderson couldn't think up a better plot device to do what he wanted and so left the gimmick from the first draft (or whatever) in there. It kind of reminds me of the scene in Toy Story 2 in Woody's Roundup where the dog barks and Woody interprets: "Oh! What's that? You say Sparky and the others are stuck in the mine on the other side of the canyon without any water or light?" I may not remember this line exactly, but you get the idea: impossible detail is read into the situation by some of the characters.

I also felt somewhat cheated with regard to the plot mysteries; there is only one that I felt there were enough to clues to figure out early (and I felt like an idiot when it was revealed because it was so obvious in hindsight). The world-building details also seem a little lacking: you see a lot of big-picture things like the color of the sky and the brown (not green) plants, but political structure outside of the city and what the lower classes do inside the city seem formless and void. They can't all be thieves, can they?

This is entertaining fantasy, but somewhat lacking in intellectual satisfaction. Still, it has going for it that it's very clean, the main characters are all somewhat sympathetic (Sanderson is careful to show that the thug character loves and cares for his family), the world is interesting (even if we'd like to know more about it) and the action scenes are plentiful. I am still looking forward to book 3 (as yet apparently untitled), even if the ending of this one was lacking in verisimilitude. (There's a 50-cent word for you.)

On an editorial note, there is a two-page summary of the first book at the back which should have been at the front. That's just my opinion, though.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

The Book of the Long Sun

By Gene Wolfe, in four volumes (Nightside the Long Sun, Lake of the Long Sun, Calde of the Long Sun, Exodus from the Long Sun) or two volumes (Litany of the Long Sun and Epiphany of the Long Sun) or maybe even one SFBC volume.

I actually disagree substantially with the Inchoatus review this time. I found this to be one of Gene Wolfe's most straightforward books, but perhaps I'm too simplistic and not sufficiently interested in what the "true" story really is. I do admit that their criticism about unsympathetic characters has some weight to it, though. In the sequel, The Book of the Short Sun, the characters I found most sympathetic were the aliens. (Note: You should read The Book of the Long Sun before The Book of the Short Sun to get the most out of it.) I also found the sequel to be much more byzantine and confusing.

This is a very Christian book in some ways. Patera Silk, the priest in charge of the most impoverished parish in his city, receives an epiphany from a god known as the Outsider. The Outsider is considered to be a minor god because he is not one of Pas's children, but Silk gradually comes to believe that the Outsider is the god of all gods. References to events Silk was shown, such as "a man riding a donkey entering a foreign city while people waved large, fan-like leaves", are extremely suggestive.

Although I found this fairly straightforward, especially compared to The Book of the Short Sun, it still requires a significant amount of concentration to get through. There are times when characters act on knowledge that they don't share, and some things that just aren't explained at all. The end declares that this book is a record put together by Horn, one of Silk's students, based on his own and other witness's testimony as well as conversations with Silk himself, which casts doubt on certain parts of the narrative. This may be why Inchoatus had so much trouble with it; I don't know. There are also various details upon which light is shed only in the following Book of the Short Sun.

In addition, while I enjoyed it as an adventure, as I said, the characters themselves were somewhat lacking in sympathetic qualities.

This is definitely science fiction, and requires a substantial amount of time to read. You will probably want to have all four books on hand, as the narrative proceeds directly from each book to the next without any obvious logical division in the plot (unlike The Book of the New Sun, which was segmented at least somewhat logically, and The Book of the Short Sun, written as a sort of memoir of past events while also recording the ongoing ones in the life of the (fictional) writer, which was logically divided by where he ran out of paper.) You will probably also want to read The Book of the Short Sun (On Blue's Waters, In Green's Jungles, and Return to the Whorl) soon afterward, while your memory of the events in this book is still fresh. For that reason, I can't really make an unconditional recommendation of this; it is an awful lot of pages to commit to, although they are aguably not wasted pages, as Wolfe rarely or never adds irrelevant details. Still, I enjoyed this quite a bit and parts of The Book of the Short Sun even more.

Saturday, August 18, 2007


Oh, wow, it's been longer than I thought. Nobody say the "H" word.

I haven't read any really great books lately anyway.

Anthologies: I've been striking out on anthologies lately. Karen Russell's St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised By Wolves, and Kelly Link's Magic for Beginners, and Theodora Goss's In The Forest of Forgetting are all either a little or way too strange for me, although the first and last of those did have some memorable imagery. I tend to pick them up because I like the titles. Maybe I should learn better and check out a Gene Wolfe anthology instead.

Sergei Lukyanenko's Nightwatch (translated into English by Andrew somebody.) I was expecting great things after I read about this book in so many places, but in the end it seemed dull and worldly to me. The premise is there are two kinds of forces, Day and Night, and they have a truce with each other that means there's a Day watch and a Night watch (and perhaps a Twilight Watch, since that's the name of the third book) that is allowed to keep the balance between them by, err, fining those who do good or evil deeds to tip the balance. What I got out of it in the end was that the Night Watch, the guys who are supposed to be good, are at least as corrupt as the Day Watch. Depressing.

The Phoenix Guards, by Steven Brust. I'll borrow someone else's description: It's the Three Musketeers in English, with some fantasy elements tossed in (like "flash-stones" instead of guns.) The chief draw is probably the witty and meandering dialogue, and possibly the character interactions that go along with it. Five Hundred Years After is the sequel, not quite in the same line, (although it's still the same characters--they seem to be exceptionally long-lived in Brust's world), and there are more sequels after that but I quit reading the next one when a traveler was about to be consecrated to a dark goddess in the first chapter.

The Woman Who Loved Reindeer, by Meredith Ann Pierce. This is kind of like Eva: a semi-classic, short, YA book. I'm not sure what to say about it except I guess it isn't really that great, even if it's readable, since I can't remember much of it now.

Tamora Pierce's Alanna series. I don't have much to say about Tamora Pierce; most of her books are similar in some hard-to-define way. At least you get what you're expecting after the first couple: comfort reads, basically. Even though these weren't rereads for me.

The Hound and the Falcon, by Judith Tarr. A monk centuries ago who is also an elf deals with his heritage. I enjoyed this more than the premise probably called for. I'd say the monk wanders into heresy about halfway through, though, with the traditional "How can it be bad if it feels so good?" line. Technically an omnibus edition of a trilogy.

Freedom and Necessity, by Emma Bull and Steven Brust. A book written in the form of journal entries and letters between characters. I thought it was supposed to be fantasy—after all, it's published by Tor—but if it really is, it's too subtle for me to see it. It's an 1850s-ish adventure around England with maybe too much philosophy and too little adventure for me to really have enjoyed it. It is completely possible that I utterly missed the point, though.

Territory, by Emma Bull. The Wild West of Tombstone, Arizona, with magic. Very open-ended with the ending. It's well-crafted, I guess, but once again it didn't really strike me.

Water Logic, by Laurie Marks. It has the wit and charm of the previous two books (Fire Logic and Earth Logic—there are some memorable lines in these, or at least one that I remember a year or two later regarding the crossing of boundaries), but also the repeated emphasis on homosexuality being completely normal and accepted. I had forgotten just how much she pushed that button. If you can ignore, overlook, or accept that element of it, these books are perfectly delightful, but I'm not sure it's an element that should be ignored. This series, like the book A Door Into Ocean, deals with how to win peace rather than war. It seems to me the use of magic to make the stones in the former enemies' wall refuse to stand on top of one another kind of defeats the profound points she might be making. But, it is funny having a main character who is a seer that tends to dream of trivial things (or seemingly trivial) in great detail, and then gossip about them. If you judge these reviews by the number of words I put into them, I obviously liked this book despite the objections mentioned above.

The Burning Girl, by Holly Phillips. I picked it up for the name, and it was about what I deserved as a result. Lots of stream-of-consciousness in it. The girl of the title has lesions all over her skin that feather open and bleed when she gets feverish, which is quite often, even though they don't apparently hurt her. She also seems to be the key to traveling between worlds. In the last two pages (I may be slightly exaggerating the lateness of this revelation) you find out why. Not very well resolved, and definitely not clearly written. I don't know whether it is well-written or not because the stream-of-consciousness interfered with my enjoyment quite a bit. It may have been profound but it looked like gibberish to me.

Only Forward, by Michael M. Smith. It starts off sci-fi and (SPOILER AHEAD DON'T READ THIS:) turns into Tam Lin, sort of. (END OF SPOILERS?) Weird book, quite witty at times (the "hero" has things like lethargy bombs that make you feel like you missed a week's worth of sleep), and it has some surprising (to me) plot twists. It also has quite crude language.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick. Not what I expected. This is a huge, fat, heavy book, but most of it is pictures (the author's note at the end says there are 26,000 words.) It's kind of like a movie in book form: one picture for each page turn, for the pages that have pictures, and then some text to interconnect them. But, not everything is spelled out in the text. A boy who keeps the clocks in the Paris(?) train station running repairs the automaton his father had been working on before he died, and finds an adventure. This is sort of historical fiction, though, not magical fantasy.

Betsy and the Emperor, by Staton Rabin. Another historical novel. Tells the story of Betsy Balcombe and Emperor Napoleon once he had been exiled to St. Helena. Includes real events and even dialogue, but the author took care not to read Betsy Balcombe's book before finishing her own "as I feared it would be so charming that it might discourage me from having the temerity to attempt to tell Betsy's story in my own way." Enjoyable, I guess. Makes Napoleon seem more interesting and human, certainly.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Keturah and Lord Death

By Martine Leavitt.

On the surface, this is a lovely young adult romance: a young storyteller gets lost in the woods and comes back with a story she's afraid to tell. As the principal actors note, nobody has ever seen a fairy, but Death has touched everyone. There are some clever story telling elements, too; try re-reading the prologue after you finish the story. (The teller knows her audience, perhaps?)

What I am afraid of is that this book romanticizes death. As Christians, what should our attitude be towards death? Paul wrote that to die was gain, being united with our Lord, but that doesn't mean we should glorify death itself. God has conquered it!

I was going to recommend this book until I started thinking about these things. It is a well-written, lovely, clean young adult book, but I fear the picture it presents of death leaves me with some reservations. You may take your chances with it as you wish.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Water: Tales of Elemental Spirits

By Robin McKinley and Peter Dickinson.

This is an anthology of six stories, three by McKinley and three by Dickinson. Five of them have what I would call happy endings; one of them is ambivalent.

"Mermaid Song." I love the image of the helpless one being helped.

"The Sea-King's Son." Romeo and Juliet where one breathes air and the other...

"Sea Serpent." This is the ambivalent one; I'm not sure I understand the point of it, or really appreciate it.

"Water Horse." This one is also odd, but not quite as bad.

"Kraken." A creature of cold and darkness that isn't what you would think.

"A Pool in the Desert." A story of Damar, this one plants the Homeland straight in the late 20th century. (They watch TV and have computers!) It maybe doesn't make perfect sense and "King Tor the Just and Powerful" gets a little tired after a while, but it's cute like almost everything by McKinley.

All in all, a fairly good collection, I think. Once again, not real deep, but quite satisfactory as entertainment. I should have checked it out sooner, perhaps.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Urchins, While Swimming

This is a short story by Catherynne M. Valente. You can read it online for free.

I don't have much to say about it: there is a little sex, but the story is mostly wonderful and melancholy and spooky all at the same time. It has an atmosphere excellently supported by the little details: "I wash my hands more than anyone on my ward", the dream, her job as opposed to her identity...

Go read it!

P.S. This story was brought to my attention when the author mentioned it was up for an award which the public gets to vote for. Here is the poll, which includes links to the other stories, I believe, and also the author's post, for those interested.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

The Harsh Cry of the Heron

By Lian Hearn. The last tale of the Otori (which is to say, book 4, though not the last one to be told: the back of the book says a prequel is coming out this year.)

Wow. What can I say? I want to say that this is a really good book, but I don't want to give the wrong impression. It is, for the most part, excellent, but it isn't layered (that I can tell) with the huge amounts of symbolism and other literary devices that make authors like Gene Wolfe so great. This is more in the line of an adventure, or "sword and sorcery" story.

It helps if you are familiar with the background by having read the first three books. Although the prophecy is referred to many times, the exact words are not repeated in this book. It also helps if you have some familiarity with Japan and perhaps the rest of the Far East. Lord Otori Takeo (the family name always come first in this book) has become a strong ruler in the sixteen or so years since the previous book, but he was not ruthless enough to completely destroy his enemies. Having raised up a government based on justice and loyalty, he is loathe to undermine those principles, even though his enemies hesitate at nothing in their desire for revenge.

This book contains many sad events; one character even says that the people weep at tragedy, but enjoy doing so. Even so, there is some hope in the ending.

Definitely recommended, but read the first three books (starting with Across the Nightingale Floor) first.

After Hamelin

By Bill Richardson.

Reminiscent of The Goose Girl or Patrice Kindl's books, only goofier.

This is the story of Penelope, the one girl in Hamelin who was left behind when the Piper took his payment. She is deaf when she wakes up on the morning of her eleventh birthday, the day girls in her village traditionally go to see Cuthbert, the wise old sage of the forest, and have him tell them what their gifts are. Well, obviously things don't quite work out that way, and somehow Penelope ends up on a quest to save the lost rats of her... I mean, children of her town.

This is a whimsical book, with singing Trolavians and fuzzy dragons who are excellent at jump rope, but not very deep. Probably good for light reading sometime.

Of course, it's possible that I just have a weakness for books based on fairy tales.

Thursday, May 31, 2007


By Carl Hiaasen.

Pretty quick, entertaining read. Roy sees a boy running barefoot down the street past the school bus stop one morning, and wonders who he is. Hijincks (sort of) ensue. Cute owls are involved. What else is there to say? It isn't blatant fantasy, unlike many of the books I read.

You'd probably enjoy it. It's kind of a Floridian slice-of-life story. (The author's bio says Hiaasen has been writing about Florida since he was 6 or 7 years old.)

The Hunter's Moon

By O. R. Melling.

Review sketch*: Like other people said, it seems rather disjointed with infodumps that don't blend into the story well. Some things happen rather suddenly and without explanation. Whenever a new person is met, the story is conveniently explained to them with a few lines of narrative and no one has any trouble believing it. When Gwen starts to do too well on her quest, something conveniently comes along to knock her down; when she does poorly, somebody comes along to help her. The characters seem like stereotypes, lacking real depth; I especially wonder what goes on in Findabhair's head.

Conclusion: Not that great.

* I must be feeling lazy today to not rework it into a better flow. Perhaps it's better to be more concise, anyway, even though it doesn't flow? On the other hand, you may have no idea what I'm talking about with any of this. Comments welcome.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Magic! Magic! Magic! oi! oi! oi!

Also known as the Magic or Madness trilogy by Justine Larbalestier, consisting of Magic or Madness, Magic Lessons, and Magic's Child. Too bad I like the more fanciful working title better, huh?

In Reason Cansino's world, magic doesn't exist. Reason and her mother have been running from "the witch" (Reason's grandmother) for her entire life. When her mother finally snaps, Granny Esmeralda takes Reason in... and Reason makes the obvious discovery. The dilemma is this: with magic, there are two choices; you can use it and die young (like all the twenty-somethings buried in the Cansino's graveyard) or avoid it and go insane (like Serafina, Reason's mother).

The first book was okay, although it ends on a cliffhanger. The Australian dialect adds some nice flavor ("chunder" has to be one of my favorite words ever). However, the story is perhaps a bit goofy at times, perhaps because it's classified as young adult. The second book contains my own personal dilemma: is a magical compulsion to have sex with someone rape? Then I would call it rape... but the author never even mentions the word or even says in any clear way that what happened was wrong.

So, this is a cute young adult trilogy, and apparently suitably entertaining (my younger sister read through the books very quickly), but I wouldn't say it was truly great. On the plus side, the ending was a surprise, but the level of writing was not very sophisticated, and the author avoided discussing some of the tougher issues that came up. If you don't already enjoy fantasy or teenaged coming-of-age stories, it would probably be better to stay away.


By Peter Dickinson.

I found this story very reminiscent of "Rachel in Love", for reasons that should be obvious shortly after starting the book. It was quite readable, but I didn't think it was exceptional. It's a peculiar kind of dated sci-fi where the future has "shapers" before it gets away from tapes as storage media. This may have bothered me and interfered with my enjoyment of the story more than I am willing to admit.

An okay story, but not really strong. Not really recommended.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Steerswoman's Road

By Rosemary Kirstein, assembly-line worker in a hand-painted watercolor factory, among other things. (She wielded the green brush, if I remember correctly.) This is an omnibus of the first two books in the series, The Steerswoman and The Outskirter's Secret, but this post is really about the first four (out of a planned seven or eight.)

Rowan is a Steerswoman, inquisitive and well-trained. The Steerswomen wander the world, recording observations while answering the questions they're asked. Though they are required to answer, the flip side is that others must answer any questions they ask, or be placed under the Steerswoman's ban and have no question answered ever again.

The first book starts out with Rowan trying to find the origin of some blue jewels that she has found scattered around; oddly, her seemingly harmless quest ignites extreme opposition from the secretive wizards who, incidentally, are almost all under the Steerswoman's ban.

It's hard to say more about the story without giving too much away (the author releases major clues about the world very slowly, on the rate of about one per book), but they are all very enjoyable. Though the genre is labeled as fantasy, it is obvious early on that the magic of the wizards is strikingly similar to... something else. Despite the slow progress of the overarching plot and the revelations about the world, the story shines in the small details of life and especially of Rowan's process of discovery; as someone else said, "She writes so well about the way that people think."

It's also true that you can read one without having read the others; I started with the fourth one, which was the only one on the shelves at the library, and enjoyed it before going back to start from the first one. The author does a good job putting some kind of plot in each book, although almost every answer revealed leads to more questions.

Oddly, despite the confrontations and violence which occur in several scenes, these are fairly relaxing books and, as I said, fun to read. I recommend them.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Mistborn: The Final Empire

By Brandon Sanderson.

Pretty good fantasy. It's set in a dystopia, which is why I waited so long to read it (the author said it was darker than Elantris), but it is not exactly what I'd call dark. Sure, the setting is gloomy: ash covers the yellow sky, there are mists everywhere at night, all the plants are brown, and the world is ruled by the Lord Ruler, apparently immortal and definitely evil. The book itself, however, seems quite optimistic (given that your definition of "optimistic" includes "thousands of people die.") Sanderson, perhaps, isn't that good at maintaining a gloomy, depressing atmosphere, but if he had been I probably wouldn't have enjoyed it that much.

The book is mostly about Vin, a young thief in the capital of the Final Empire. Events conspire to make her part of a plot to overthrow the Lord Ruler... where "events" means "a gang of allomancers." Allomancy is one of the most logical magic systems ever and Sanderson does a good job explaining to the reader how it works, although by the end of the book we discover that there are more secrets he hasn't told us. Allomancy is based on ingesting metals (tin, pewter, aluminum, gold, iron, steel, etc.) and "burning" them to gain access to supernatural powers: enhanced vision, strength, brief glimpses into the future, etc. Unfortunately, that seems to be one of the most logical part of the settings. The social structure of the world itself, with the Lord Ruler in charge of everything, the serfs passively trudging along, and the so-called Great Houses squabbling amongst themselves, is less than convincing. It seems as though there should be more going on in the world, but instead Kelsier (the allomancer who recruits Vin) and his gang are at the center of all the important events. Among other unlikely deeds, they recruit an army of more than five thousand peasants without being betrayed or discovered. Is this likely when the ruler is so powerful that he's been burned to a skeleton in the past and survived?

It isn't that the plot is simple; it's merely simplistic. It seems to rely too much on coincidence. Still, I enjoyed reading this book, especially seeing Vin grow into a capable young woman. Let's hope the author answers the questions he raises in books two and three (not yet out, unfortunately).

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Latro in the Mist

By Gene Wolfe. (This is an omnibus of Soldier of the Mist and Soldier of Arete.)

Zerothly: (Added) You know what? This is a really awful review. Here is a better one: Inchoatus review.

Zero and a halfly: (Update the Second) These books present parts of a journey more than they do a complete story. While Soldier in the Mist begins soon after Latro is injured, the others seem to begin, and all three end, at indefinite points in the story, with nothing really resolved. Soldier of Sidon, the third one, raised this thought in me: they are mere fragments. Will there be a fourth? I suspect that each one has had a narrative purpose, even if my critical organ is not sharp enough to discern it. (Other reviewers comment on the nature of innocence and memory that is revealed, obligations to society, to friends, to family...) Gene Wolfe has certainly left enough mysteries strewn in Latro's path to easily write more, but because of the number of years that passed between the second and third I doubt many of the ones from the first two books will be revisited. Here ends Update the Second.

Firstly: These are extremely difficult books to read, maybe harder than Faulkner. Latro loses his memory of events after about a day, and so must set down what happened in writing if he wishes to refer to it later. The result is that he has little understanding of what is actually happening to him most of the time. Forgetting names, he calls people many different things, and it is incumbent upon the reader to remember the people whom he refers to. There are also many names for the gods in the pantheon here and many archaic terms, such as peltast, kybernetes, and mantis.

Secondly: These are fundamentally sad books. Despite the frequent moments of happiness and the loyal friends Latro collects, I got the sense that ultimately he was being used as a pawn by the gods for their own games, careless of the hurt they did him. (His memory was lost, we are told, for an unknown offense to a certain goddess.)

I began Soldier of the Mist once before, but gave up when I concluded it was too difficult without a good knowledge of Greek antiquity. It is certainly very difficult and I am going to go look up what others thought it meant after I finish writing this, but this time I was pulled in by the story, wanting to find out what happened. Fast is probably the only way to read these; there are so many details only mentioned once or twice that you would have no hope of comprehension without taking notes, otherwise.

Recommended for someone who really likes a puzzle and enjoys Greek mythology. I can see how this book is great stylistically, but at the same time it's very taxing.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Orphan's Tales: In the Night Garden

By Catherynne M. Valente.

In the gardens of the Sultan lives a girl with dark eyes, eyes bordered about with secrets. She says that a spirit has written tales in those lines and that once she tells them the spirit will return and judge her. This book is half of her story; the other half is In the Cities of Coin and Spice, not yet released.

This book is strongly reminiscent of the 1001 Arabian Nights due to the way the stories are framed and the exotic atmosphere. Valente's imagination produces living Stars, shape-shifters, evil wizards, centaur-kings, and pumpkin trees, to mention but a few. The stories the girl tells unfold like Russian dolls: the witch the prince meets tells a story of her grandmother, who tells a story of the Wolf-Star she met long ago, who tells a story of her dead sisters... and gradually the threads weave together to form one single story, told in many pieces. I suspect this is one of those books where reading twice is part of the design.

So what's wrong with it? Blood, sex, murder, necromancy, mutilation, cruelty and callous hearts, even a place where patricide is elevated to "religion": ugly deeds couched in beautiful language. Despite points of humor and even good things that occasionally happen, these stories are, in the balance, very dark.

Although there is another volume to come, I find that I cannot recommend this one on its own merit. There are some wonderful quotes and a fantastic, exotic atmosphere, but very few wonderful moments.

Dairy Queen: A Novel

By Catherine Gilbert Murdock.

D. J. is fifteen years old and basically runs a farm in this book, on account of her dad being disabled and her brothers being gone. This is the story of the summer when she learns how to talk. (She already knows how to play football.)

The author uses humor well; otherwise, I probably wouldn't have gotten past the first few chapters. I'm still not sure this book is worth reading: it's a fluffy coming of age story (like FIrefly Cloak) without the feel-good fluff part of the formula. It was interesting for the picture of life in a small town and on a farm, but I'm not sure about the rest. It's not too long, so I guess you can read it and judge for yourself if it sounds interesting to you. Football plays a big part, so if you're a sports fan you might like it a lot, but it's really more about relationships.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Titans of Chaos

By John C. Wright.

This is the third and final installment of Orphans of Chaos. (Rumor says Wright is working on a sequel, however.)

This book felt less polished to me than the first two. Perhaps it's only because all of the mysteries have been revealed (mostly), but I missed the witty discussion that seems to have been supplanted by action in this final installment. I also don't understand what went on inside the characters during the final (as in last) confrontation. It is somewhat confusing.

However, the action is certainly stressful and suspenseful. The big battle lasts for over a hundred pages. Where exactly the vast host of foes came from, however, was never quite explained. Probably a deeper knowledge of mythology than mine would provide the answer, but I don't have it and am somewhat disappointed since I found the previous books quite understandable.

Lest I seem too down on this book, Wright does do a good job of wrapping up the mysteries hinted at in the previous books. There are also some marvelous revelations about Amelia's own past which make her seem a bit like a Christ-figure in some ways. (Does that seem excessively vague?) The characters are also well-developed, as they have been throughout the trilogy, but Vanity especially stands out as having grown.

One must keep in mind that Orphans of Chaos, Fugitives of Chaos, and Titans of Chaos were written as one single manuscript, and not intended by the author to be split in this way. This third installment is somewhat lower in my esteem than the first two, but taken as a whole I'd say it's a pretty good story. Unfortunately, there are some sexual references that make it not-quite suitable for children.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

I, Coriander

By Sally Gardner. Found from olmue.

Disclaimer: I need to stop reading so late. I suspect what I think I'm reading may not be what's actually on the page at those hours. So, this review is a little suspect.

I thought this book was magical, but like Ceres Storm, it seemed to me that the heroine was mostly swept along in the course of events. Part of what Gardner does well is the historical setting: it seems realistic without getting dry or being unrelated to the story... the Puritan movement, especially, plays an important part. I also liked the way she treated Christianity: despite the existence of evil preachers and militant Puritans, Coriander still respects Christ and, in fact, this theme is part of a moving scene near the end.

So: the bad part. Most of the characters seem pretty flat. Even those who play an important role, such as Medlar or Hester, we hear little about. It may be that I unfairly judge Hester and that she is merely weak, not flat, but despite her relationship to Coriander (Hester is her stepsister), I don't feel like I have a good picture of who Hester is or what she cares about. She is submissive, to say the least. It feels as if the excellent relationship that Coriander says she has with Hester is told to us, instead of shown. And about Medlar we read almost nothing: despite the importance he plays in the plot, very little is revealed about his personal history or motivations. The same seems to apply to Tycho, and even more to all the villains, who have no depth at all.

This is a good book, but at the same time it's sad because it seems like it could have been quite a bit better. Still, I think it's worth reading, especially if you like fairy tales.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Blue Sword

By Robin McKinley. This is the book that The Hero and the Crown is a prequel to.

This is a pretty exciting book, and, in fact, I was afraid of the horrible things that McKinley might do to her heroine. Maybe I should have known better.

However, it isn't perfect. The events that occur in the ending are past credulity, which is to say, it felt forced rather than natural. Also (I suppose this is more a criticism of The Hero and the Crown, perhaps), some of the elements that were in The Hero and the Crown have mysteriously disappeared from sight. It is probably being too generous to assume that the author had them in mind when she wrote this book rather than adding them when she wrote The Hero and the Crown in order to make a better story.

This book is decent as light, entertaining fantasy, but not as well written as The Hero and the Crown, in my opinion. If you're looking for a more complex plot where the issues aren't quite so clear-cut, you might want to look elsewhere.

There's also a random St. George reference--he's mentioned by name in connection to dragon-slaying! Is Damar really supposed to be part of our world?

Monday, April 09, 2007

Ceres Storm

By David Herter.

I have to say I agree somewhat with the sfsignal reviews (two links): this book does not explain a whole lot. The author has announced his intention to write two or three more books related to this one, but doesn't seem to have produced any output in the last five years or more, so it's questionable whether we'll ever see them.

However, I think the comparison to The Sword in the Stone on the back cover is rather apt: this is a story like The Golden Age where the technology is basically magic. Daric, the young protagonist (hero is too strong a word), is on a bewildered quest of some sort, except that it doesn't really seem to be his quest. There are magic rings that let him breathe in void and a magic cloak that protects him (albeit not very well) and doors between the planets of the solar system that his forebears used to survey their domain, not to mention ghosts and century roses and telepathic spores that dream of the world they came from.

Still, this book is a lot of work reading between the lines, trying to figure out what Daric doesn't realize or know or even care about, and while it ends at a sort of natural breaking point, I wouldn't call it concluded. I won't say it was terrible, like the second sfsignal review, but it lacks substance in some important ways.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Flying in Place

By Susan Palwick.

This is one of the most powerful stories I've ever read. I don't know whether to call it fiction or not; I suspect there is a lot of truth in it. Perhaps it's as Flannery O'Conner said: the supernatural element is needed to wake us up, to make the horror that's really present real to us.

This is a story about child abuse. One day at dawn, Emma escapes from her body and meets her sister Ginny, dead 12 years at 12 years of age, doing cartwheels on the bedroom ceiling. I don't know if it's possible for a story like this to be "spoiled", but Ginny is very important in the course of the book.

I would definitely recommend this book (it's only about 180 pages), but it isn't something to read lightly, as I expected from a novel with "Flying" in the title. Be careful.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Woman in the Wall

By Patrice Kindl.

Wonderful. This book contains all the humor of Owl in Love but at the same time is concerned with a more serious theme: shyness and hiding from the world. Young Anna is so unremarkable that, when her mother calls a guidance counselor to the house to prepare her to enter school, Anna ends up getting carried away in the woman's purse. This invisibility is the only possible fantasy element.

Well, that, and the fact that a seven-year-old taught herself to use power tools and proceeds, in light of the aforementioned traumatic experience, to wall off for herself a private section of the house. She takes a few feet here and there from every room, and her mother and sisters never exactly notice. In time, they seem to have forgotten that she ever really existed and wasn't just a make-believe tale.

Definitely a wonderful book.

The Hero and the Crown

By Robin McKinley.

I enjoyed this book a great deal more than I expected to, having left it on my shelf for three weeks. It's not as bad as the cover makes it look, although I'm sure there are numerous forward references to The Blue Sword that I missed, not having read it.

It's hard to explain what makes this book so good. It's not exactly a literary classic, but it's a very pleasant read in the line of McKinley's other works. Aerin is the king's daughter and, we may assume, the hero of the title, but she spends most of her life hiding from the people who hate her on the basis of her birth. Instead of riding out with trumpets and fanfares, she ends up sneaking away to slay her dragons quietly (literally). Her father, at least, loves her, even if he doesn't know what to do with her.

I'd recommend this as another nice book for a rainy day. It's a pretty pleasant read.

Gift of the Unmage

By Alma Alexander. Book 1 of the Worldweavers series.

I was disappointed by this book. Thea and her friends, family and acquaintances are kind of interesting, but the plot just doesn't hold together. The author's sketchy sense of time, with flashbacks to events that there was no foreshadowing of, made for somewhat disjointed reading. That, along with Thea's pre-birth "choices", makes this book not extremely palatable.

On the positive side, as I said, Thea is a somewhat sympathetic character, but most of the other characters seem pretty flat. The persons who run the "Last Ditch School for the Incurably Incompetent" are a far cry from the jailers of a certain other book, and are in fact laughably incompetent themselves.

I'm left thinking that I must have missed something that everyone else read, because it seems that other people liked this book quite a bit. I did read it late at night, so it would be wise to take this post with a grain of salt.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Dead Rivers Trilogy

Consisting of Freedom's Gate, Freedom's Apprentice, and Freedom's Sisters by Naomi Kritzer.

(Some) Well-written characters, an engaging story... but a fairly standard plot. The author does manage to throw some twists into book three, but (is this a spoiler?) you probably won't be that surprised by what ends up happening after somewhere around chapter 5 of the first book. I thought Kritzer did a good job distinguishing the main characters, especially: they don't act or think identically, even when they are in identical situations.

This could be described as an alternate history: the setting is an ancient Greek empire that lasted, where Alexander lived to a ripe old age. Lauria is a "trusted aide" who, among along with auditing books and inspecting garrisons, hunts down escaped slaves and brings them back to her master. She believes at first that she is free, not seeing the chains that bind her.

The reason the plot is so predictable is because Lauria is such a strong, capable character.

In a way, this is a kind of standard fantasy plot, but I think it's a fairly good read. It does contain explicit rape and the casual acceptance of homosexuality that seems to have become widespread lately and sadly.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Owl in Love

By Patrice Kindl.

Greatly entertaining. I laughed almost the whole way through this. Owl Tycho, our narrator, is a young high school girl who is infatuated with her science teacher. The difference is, she perches on a branch outside his house at night... as an owl. She blithely says ridiculous things. She is very quiet, but perhaps not quite as serious as her demeanor suggests: "You may think I have been blind or foolish about some of the events that have taken place within these pages, but I am not that big a fool."

Fairly short, but comic gold. Read it on a rainy day? Or maybe a train or bus ride, if you feel like explaining to the other passengers why you're laughing so hard.

A Fistful of Sky

By Nina Kiriki Hoffman.

This book is kind of lacking in plot, as I may have seen pointed out on Amazon. For some reason, I loved it anyway: there are some really interesting characters and some interesting character development to make up for the lack of things happening in the external world outside the LaZelle household.

The story? Gypsum is a late bloomer. In her family, that means that she's 20 years old and hasn't shown any sign of developing the magical wish talents the rest of her family has. She's been thinking about going to college somewhere. Of course, the predictable happens. Then ridiculously goofy things happen, until Altria appears, and suddenly the story has wider interest.

I really liked the character of Altria. Her motivations are obscure, to say the least. She raises some obvious questions about the nature of the (real) world, and some less obvious ones about what is actually going on inside her head. Can you take her at face value, or is she just stringing Gypsum along until she gets what she wants (to borrow from her own turn of phrase)? Who knows?

All in all, this is a light, fun read. All in one book, too. There is some bad language and maybe homosexuality; it's not really clear nor explored in depth. I think I enjoyed this better than the Chapel Hollow novels (The Thread That Binds the Bones and The Silent Strength of Stones), which in retrospect were incredibly flat.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Pretties and Specials

By Scott Westerfeld. The other two books of the Uglies trilogy, so read Uglies first.

I will admit that I had trouble putting these books down. I read straight through them yesterday after posting about Uglies. They're certainly exciting enough, so what's the problem with them?

For one thing, God is completely missing. The closest to religion Tally comes is admitting, in a spooky forest, that she understood how people could start believing in spirits. This is an important omission, especially considering the subject matter of the book: what reason is there not to make pretties, specials and so on if humanity is not made by God, in God's image? Perhaps none... the villain of the series certainly didn't have any trouble with the idea.

The resolution of said villain's story also feels lacking. It's hard to say more without spoiling it, but the resolution lacks something.

Definitely an exciting trilogy, these books cover a lot of issues: environmentalism, beauty, human responsibility, brain damage... They make for a good read, but at the end, the story's resolution feels incomplete. Maybe that's why Westerfeld is working on a fourth book, Extras.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007


By Scott Westerfeld.

I was recently reading a book of collected essays, speeches and lectures by Flannery O'Connor. Unfortunately, because I'm such a slow reader, I had to return it before I finished, but she still made some good points. One was this: sometimes writers have to use the grotesque in order to show reality to the reader. We have a filter of familiarity, where we accept things that we're used to, but by exaggerating them writers can get past this and make us think about what the truth actually is. The other thing she said is that we, as humans, need to see changes in a story, specifically redemption. The sacrifice of one's own life for another has a deep impact. I think both of these points are highly relevant to Scott Westerfeld's story.

Tally Youngblood lives in a world where everyone is born ugly. When they turn 16, they're born again into a perfectly pretty body, with pretty teeth, pretty hair, a pretty face, and a perfect life where all they have to do is enjoy themselves. What could possibly be wrong with that? Read the book and find out.

There are some painful moments where you, the reader, will want to yell "No, don't do that!" (At least, I did.) In fact, I sort of skipped to the end and read backwards because of it. The science in service of a few action scenes might be a little sketchy (*cough*hoverboards*cough*). Still, because of the issues he deals with and especially because of the ending, I think the rest of the trilogy is worth reading. Onward and upward...

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale

By Holly Black.

This book is not worth reading, at least in itself. Unfortunately, it isn't always obvious: the main character is sympathetic because she is young and bewildered and tossed about by compulsions (literally, enchantments) that she has no control over. At the same time, though, she seems incredibly childish; she repeatedly gets herself into trouble she could have avoided had she been wiser. And, really, she should know better.

I would also criticize the frequent crass language and profanity, but I can't argue if you say it fits the characters perfectly: it is certainly in keeping with the kind of teenagers they appear to be. However, it doesn't stop me from wishing they were better. As it is, the main character could easily be one of the extras who dies; she seems little deserving of salvation aside from the fact that she is the main character. Her main virtue is either courage or rash foolhardiness combined with impulsiveness. She also smokes, until her physiology forces her to stop...

So why do I say "in itself"? Well, I have hopes that maybe Kaye will grow up in the next book more than she did in this one. (Yeah, so when has that ever happened?) We'll see.

A side note about the subtitle: the book is loosely based off fairy lore, especially Tam Lin (hence the title), but the majority of the plot is not strongly patterned after any specific tale (at least that I recognize).