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.