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.