Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Cabinet of Wonders

By Marie Rutkoski.

A fun adventure story, tight prose, strong characters, creative worldbuilding. Basically, I think the writing is pretty strong, and refers to some important truths about relationships (mothers and friends) without getting bogged down in angst. Petra is an impulsive, get-up-and-go kind of person, but it seems her heart is in the right place. The characters are unique, possibly larger-than-life, and even the (obvious) villain seems more heartless than evil. (I also want to say that Dr. John Dee is creepier in this book than in any other book I've read where he appears, and certainly doesn't match the gentle incarnation in Midnight Never Come.)

My chief concern about this book is that I'm not finding that much to think about after finishing it. This might be because of quibble #1: the book ends in a place that looks sort of like a happy ending, but is really just a stopping point if you think about it. It's clear that there will be Consequences in future books, and the author mentions at least 3 more planned on her site.

My second quibble is that this book is set in medieval Bohemia, and there's no mention of the church, God, or religion that I can recall. (Upon skimming through again, I found one reference to an angel figure in the clock, and there might be more.) There's even a story about the woman who halted the burning of magicians 800 years previous, but no explanation of why they were burning them in the first place. I don't know much about Bohemian history, but it struck me as an odd omission especially when discoveries such as heliocentrism are included in the story.

Overall, a fun story that isn't completely unrealistic; I'd recommend it.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

E-mails lost

FYI: If anyone tried to send me an e-mail since Thursday night, it is most likely lost due to the power outages up here.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Octavian Nothing, volume 2

By M. T. Anderson. The full title is The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves.

As indicated, a review of the second volume.

My initial reaction is disappointment; the resolution of Octavian's childhood, and ending of the book, though open, is less optimistic than I hoped. In a book about slavery and freedom, war and death, however gilded in flights of philosophy, this is perhaps no more should be expected, but as a reader I prefer less dismal endings.

The theme is one of hypocrisy; the surface never matches what is underneath, even in Octavian's own case (to the reader's bitter surprise on his behalf, although his own emotion is better concealed). Both the British governors and the rebels speak of liberty to all, but care only for their own.

The historical detail continues to provide fascinating insight into the uncertainty of the rebellion and the British army's plight stranded months from home. I suspect this perspective will prove the most lasting element of the book in my memory; I did not often hear about American atrocities in high school history, except in the treatment of Native Americans. These revelations point to my own hypocrisy, which continues to trouble me.

I also admit to appreciating the spiritual matters touched on; Octavian is Christian to some extent, and even the atheist Dr. Trefusis's casual blasphemy near the end of his life tells of a serious concern for what may come after.

Overall, not a cheerful book, but neither is it frivolous: the attention to history cannot help but highlight questions about the present.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Octavian Nothing volume 1 redux

I have only finished rereading the first part of four in this volume, and already I am newly eager to discover what happens in the second volume.

The writing in this book is wonderful, and is reminding me of the difference a
strong voice can make in a story.

I believe I mentioned the first time the sense of the fantastic that is drawn out of natural events. Octavian opens:

I was raised in a gaunt house with a garden; my earliest recollections are of floating lights in the apple-trees. [...]

The men who raised me were lords of matter, and in the dim chambers I watched as they traced the spinning of bodies celestial in vast, iron courses, and bid sparks to dance upon their hands; they read the bodies of fish as if each dying trout or shad was a fresh Biblical Testament, the wet and twiching volume of a new-born Pentateuch. They burned holes in the air, wrote poems of love, sucked the venom from sores, painted landscapes of gloom, and made metal sing; they dissected fire like newts.


We go on to meet the larger-than-life characters of Octavian's childhood: his mother, whose royal dignity never falters despite her chains; his tutors, who sardonically comment on the times while doing little to change them; the passionless man who owns him, and Octavian, whose presence is always felt, even when off-stage.

On rereading it, I am also picking up more subtle threads: Octavian's mother cannot be as happy as she appears; does her hand betray delight, as Octavian takes it, or fear for her son, the chain by which she is bound?

I hope to have more to say after volume 2.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Graceling

By Kristin Cashore.

This is the first book I've really, really enjoyed in quite a while. The quotes on the back are all just about right, though I found it interesting that all the quotees were women.

Unlike the usual "girl dresses up as a boy and proves herself as a fighter" story (ahem) Katsa has no need to prove herself. She's unnaturally gifted—Graced— in the fighting arts. One of the things I like so much about this story is that her real struggle is to be able to control herself, her anger, and her pride, and that she realizes her need to do so.

The humor is also the way I like it, as she wrestles a mountain lion ("That thing could have killed me!") and considers the creature a gift.

What I disliked (and what perhaps reminded me of Fire Study, along with the incredibly gifted protagonist) were the vague but steamy love scenes. I kept looking at the "14 and up" on the back cover (well, only twice).

In the end—it was quite enjoyable and, despite the promise of further books on Cashore's blog, feels like a complete story by itself.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Feed

By M. T. Anderson.

So there's like, this kid, and he goes to, like, the moon, and has a really unmeg time except that he meets this girl—

I'm already tired of that. This world in this book is definitely a dystopia and I saw the ending coming a long way off, despite hope that I would be wrong. I suppose the interesting thing about it is how you say "That would never happen"—and then have to ask yourself how much of it could actually happen. (Like a caricature, it stretches real concerns into grotesque shapes while leaving them recognizable.)

The teen characters are too much like some teens, which is to say, kind of boring and obsessed with their feeds. (How many people do you know who check MySpace or Facebook constantly? The feed is the same thing, brought to you by a chip in your head.)

As far as being a tragedy, I think it lacked some of the beauty other tragedies have, although it seemed just as inevitable. It reminded me of The Wreck of the River of Stars, with both the inevitability and the flawed characters creating their own doom. Unfortunately, here the characters (except for Violet and her dad, and sometimes Titus) aren't even interesting. There are hints of a larger plot going on in the world but the story never seems to follow up. (Perhaps there's a sequel?)

Despite a couple moments that made me gasp out loud (and the question Violet wants the answer to) I didn't enjoy this book that much. But I suspect that wasn't the point, anyway.

Apologies for the rambling review; I'm a bit out of practice and don't feel like proofreading right now. I'm still looking forward to Octavian Nothing Vol. 2 (came out a week ago).

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

On recommendations

There are sure to be spoilers for Agyar within this post.

I've withdrawn my post on Agyar for now. Here is the reason:

Despite the amazing transformation Agyar's character goes through by the end of the book, I am troubled by the amount of violence I let slip through with the words "not for children." In the case of Agyar I did and do think the book is brilliant on a human level, but right now I don't trust my judgment. The truth is, Agyar is a callous murderer who has very little qualms about most of what he does, considering "most" humans cattle who exist to feed him.

I think I've gone too far over the line towards accepting books that make some good point on the basis that the ends justify the means. The trouble is, I don't know where this line should be. I've become desensitized to violence and sex in books, to the point where I read a line in a different book last night that should have been shocking but I instead felt nothing about—except concern that I should have been shocked and revolted.

That's why I am withdrawing that post, and probably should withdraw many of the others I've made: I don't trust the judgment that led to them.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Daggerspell

By Katherine Kerr. Found via Kate Elliot, called it Kerr's "fabulous Deverry series."

Of course, I've only read the first book, so that's all I can talk about. (Right?)

This strikes me as a trashy sword-and-sorcery page-turner.

The sword-and-sorcery part should be obvious: there are swords and there's sorcery.

The trashy? For one thing, the story centers around a group of characters who are being repeatedly reincarnated and brought together to remedy the wrongs they've done to each other in past lives. (Supposedly, everyone is reincarnated, but the vast majority of people who must exist to support these central characters in their quests are mostly invisible as far as the story goes.) For another, the sorcery is of the sort that makes me more suspicious of the "good" guys than the bad ones (I had a similar reaction to Melanie Rawn's book Exiles, and never read the second in that trilogy). For a third, there is a not insignificant emphasis on lust (Kerr uses the word many times) and incest, even imaginary incest. While this isn't an automatic negative, I dislike the way she handles it.

The dialog is often either wooden or incredible, in the sense of being too corny to believe.

But for some reason, I kept reading. Some of her characters (well, Cullyn and Jill) are decent enough that I wanted to find out what happened to them. Sadly, others (including ones she tried to portray as decent) are less sympathetic. They are also, arguably, so different between reincarnations that you can see this as the author punishing the sons for the sins of the fathers: they often seem to be fundamentally different, with only one or two traits in common with their past selves. In fact, while reading, I toyed with the idea of interpreting it as Nevyn being deluded and looking to redeem his past mistakes with people who had nothing to do with them, but this is not the obvious interpretation.

So: recommended? Not really. Despite the pageturner factor, there are so many other good books to read that I don't think this one is worth the trash. It also worries me that it's the first book in a fifteen book series, although I believe not all the books directly concern these characters.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Random Acts of Senseless Violence (not a review)

This is not really a review, but I just finished this book by Jack Womack and it's eerily similar to current events. I'm finding it a little bit hard to keep them in separate categories.

The book itself? Masterfully written, but definitely not happy. "Violent" and "chilling" are probably more appropriate words. Not for kids even though the narrator (really a diarist) is a 12-year-old girl, and I doubt I'll ever suggest it to anyone who doesn't specifically ask for this kind of book. The cruelty isn't even as twisted as possible, unlike some other books I've read; it's scary because it seems to result from people just not caring anymore.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Explosionist

By Jenny Davidson. Found via Justine Larbalestier.

This alternate history starts off unexceptionally, but a little over 100 pages in becomes engaging and completely horrifying. The year is 1938 and Sophie Hunter is a 15-year-old student in a Scotland preparing for war. The twist (highlight it if you want to know what makes this an alternate history) is that this Scotland is part of the Hanseatic League, whose control over munition production is the only thing guaranteeing their freedom from the united Europe Napoleon's victory at Waterloo created.

This book is a disturbing juxtaposition of the normal (Sophie's friendships with her classmates and others) and the extraordinary (secret pscyhological experiments, hypnotism, ghosts and mediums, eugenics). Sophie's placid acceptance of some of these horrors only makes it worse.

I'm ambivalent about recommending this. On one hand, it's effective and well-written: it's amazing and thought-provoking how different the world Sophie lives in is. On the other hand, I don't believe the spiritual aspects (seances, mediums, automatic writing, astral projection, hypnotism) are good, although Sophie, though initially reluctant, seems to embrace them. This book seems to be one where I greatly enjoyed the writing (and the suspense) and detested some of the content.

The author is apparently planning a sequel, titled The Snow Queen, and possibly a third book as well.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

A Posse of Princesses

By Sherwood Smith.

Somehow charming despite some infelicities of language and description, especially noticeable early on.* Parts of the plot were also a little transparent, although I didn't guess what was going on immediately, but for some reason, I ended up liking it. I suspect my inner critic may have been turned off when I read most of it so that I just ended up enjoying the romance.

While fairly light reading, Rhis also grows personally during the course of things. (Others, perhaps, not so much.)

In the end? I think this is pretty good light entertainment, not very challenging—maybe good for a "rainy day" read—but not completely fluff either.**

* What is a "dining room built on two or three levels?" Is it on two levels in some places and three in others, or is the viewpoint character not sure? To be fair this line is probably what bugged me most about the entire book, although the word "nacky" comes in second and the fact that everyone of importance is a prince, princess or other peer third.

** The other thing, which the author may or may not have control over, is that $22.95 seems too much to pay for a 300 page YA book, even if it is hardcover and printed on very nice paper. Maybe it's intended to be a library edition? The paperback looks to be a more reasonable price.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Adoration of Jenna Fox

By Mary E. Pearson. Found via Laini Taylor.

This is a book that focuses on a single sci-fi conceit (or maybe one and a half, depending on how you count them) and tells a highly emotional, disturbing story. Honestly, though, I was more disturbed by the ending's moral implications (even in a non-SF world) than by what the technology made possible. This is a book that I will probably keep thinking about for a while (where "a while" is probably the next few days :). Story-wise, it seems pretty tight, although the semi-poetic interludes on the gray pages were a little weird.

Don't read the copyright page Library of Congress summary or find out what book it reminded me of unless you want to be somewhat spoiled.

In the end, I'm somewhat ambivalent about recommending it because of the moral spookiness. There isn't a whole lot of plot: it's all about Jenna's recovery and discovery of herself after an accident her parents won't tell her much about. If you like that kind of very focused story with few characters (and even fewer that matter), then you might like this.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

[ot] Comic: Afterlife Blues

OK, this is less off-topic but still somewhat so: Afterlife Blues finally started! Yay! (It's by the same authors as the smart and funny sci-fi comic A Miracle of Science, which has been finished, i.e., complete, for a couple years.)

[ot] Tomatoes

This has nothing to do with books (I refer to Google and experienced relatives for information on gardening), but:


There are 12 plants there, in case it's hard to tell. :) (Next year I am definitely planting them further apart, if I get a chance to keep gardening, and I may plant fewer and try growing some other things besides... tomatoes. FYI, this is my first year gardening.) I planted the seedlings early June, but so far only two tomatoes have actually ripened... and I had to cut away something like 2/3 of each because they had gone bad. Ugh. Another one is visibly ripening now, but who knows about the rest?

I haven't pruned them much at all either, and the stakes are obviously somewhat impromptu. If I do this again I will probably get cages for all of them and put them on much earlier: even the ones with cages on them now are falling over. Because of the tangle of leaves it's hard to see why, but they are really not stable at all, and I seem to have to push them back towards upright every morning when I water the plants.

I may start another blog if I keep wanting to do off-topic posts like this one, since my other (non-Blogger) blog is so dead. I'm not sure what I would call it, though... (I'm tempted to try myotherblog.blogspot.com but it's probably taken.)

Friday, August 08, 2008

Millicent Min, Girl Genius

By Lisa Yee.

Witty, funny, sweet and poignant, err, pungent, sniff—sorry, it must be my allergies. Millicent is an 11-year-old genius who doesn't know it. Well, she knows very well that she's a genius; what she doesn't seem to realize is that she's only 11 years old (emotionally and socially*) and, you know, not exactly ready to choose the life of solitude that she seems to be headed for. So it must be a good thing that her mother just signed her up for volleyball and tutoring in addition to the college class on poetry that she really wants to take... right?

Great book. I must admit, having just looked it up on Amazon to double-check the spelling of the title, I am a bit disappointed that there appear to be sequels, because they might not live up to this standard.

For comparison: It reminds me most strongly of Hilary McKay's Casson family series.

* Paraphrasing: "How could you be alone when you didn't leave time for aloneness in your schedule?"

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History

By Katherine Ashenburg, and non-fiction (an exception for me!). Found via Stephanie Burgis.

Basically a light, easy to read history about the Western theory and practice of cleanliness over the last 2,500 years or so. Entertaining and even funny to read (though perhaps the humor comes from awkwardness regarding the subject), though I had my doubts as to whether the strength of a few assertions was supported by the source material. (I didn't actually check, of course—that would be work.)

A pretty good light read, and probably shorter than it looks: the margins are fairly generous.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Simon Bloom, The Gravity Keeper

By Michael Reisman. Found via Sara Beth Durst of the great Into the Wild, who liked this book a bunch more than I did.

Cute and somewhat funny by the end, but the humor in the beginning seems to fall flat in the face of pedantic language and a lackluster narrative voice. It's possible that someone less familiar with science or science fiction might find the infodumps more tolerable, but that person isn't me (and my little brother's comment was "Not as good as I expected", so I wasn't the only one).

The basic story: Simon Bloom discovers a magical forest, and no sooner has he gotten to the center than a grimoire drops from thin air onto his head and knocks him out. Only it's labeled "Physics, Teacher's Edition" or some-such. This may be magic with a science twist (perhaps science fantasy would be a good label), but, despite what Simon thinks, it still looks like magic to me. Various adventures involving a cloaked figure, a mysterious new principal with a hair-do that might be alive, and puns with more setup than punchline ensue.

In the end, this book wasn't too bad (and it looks like there's plenty of room for sequels), but it seemed a little too simple and bland for my taste, although it does pick up some close to the end.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Eiden Myr trilogy

By Terry McGarry, and consisting of Illumination, The Binder's Road, and Triad.

As it turns out, that story "Kazhe's Blade" that I liked from Sword and Sorceress XXI was an excerpt from the second book in this trilogy. "Trilogy" is a loose word here, because while all three books are about the same place, the first and second concern only slightly overlapping groups of characters. (The third brings the two together.)

Illumination is largely the story of Liath, an illuminator, whose powers fail her shortly after she successfully passes her trial. She heads off to see the Ennead, nine mages who loosely govern the land, in hopes that they can help her, but she's not the only person experiencing disaster. Blah blah blah, and she goes off on a quest.

This book has the not uncommon problem where the main character gets herself into trouble when she should have known better, although in this case Liath is a true idealist who simply can't bring herself to believe that people would be evil. Of course, Bad Things Happen.

While parts of the worldbuilding are very strong—the culture of the island is based on farmers, wrights, smiths, and other necessary laborers—the history behind it all is a bit fuzzy for my liking, in all three books. I'd like to see books about the world Eiden Myr exists in: what happened to it when all the magic effectively withdrew to a private island? Did they develop science and industry? Do they remember the mages? Or did the world plummet into a dark age and never recover, as is weakly implied?

The Binder's Road takes place six years after the events of Illumination, but doesn't mention Liath's name at all. (Liath is mentioned a few times, just not by name—I thought it was funny how the author did that...) Three sisters take center stage here, with powers stranger than magecraft: they can shape wood, hear ghosts, heal wounds with a touch, but as orphans they have to hide their powers from exploitation.

This book is of a similar style, but not a direct sequel to Illumination, which was disappointing until I got to like the new characters. I thought the ending should have been a chapter sooner than it was, but perhaps the author avoided that because that ending would only have been meaningful to people who had read the first book. (In the foreword for Triad, the third book, the author explains that she wanted readers to be able to pick up the story anywhere.)

Triad is the third book, and starts off with a bang: for three years, superior forces have been bombarding the island. (This is twelve years after the second book.) Their origin and motivation is unclear to the defenders, who are barely holding on, and have been exiled to the coast for their willingness to shed blood in order to defend others, a strange way to reward soldiers for sure.

Honestly, I was disappointed with much of the second half of this book: I didn't like where it was going. The tail end was good but the major decisions leading up to it I didn't like so much. Oh well.

The books have some sex, although it's pretty easy to skip over. (Whenever it's that easy to skip something, it makes me wonder why it was added. Of course, someone I know skips imagery of all types whenever possible, i.e., whenever it doesn't pertain to the actual plot.) The spiritual aspects of it are also pretty odd, with some supposed gods being named but never actually playing a role in a plot that makes strong use of ghosts and the afterlife, at least in the second and third books.

Edited to add 7/27: Actually, the details of sex are easy to skip over (I added the strikethrough above on this edit), but it's impossible to pretend it doesn't happen. Magic is used for contraception, with the so-called "first freedom" applied to women when they reach sexual maturity, and homosexual and polygamous "pledges" (marriages) are, if not common, unavoidable in this story. One of my complaints about the worldbuilding is that, SPOILER, when magic is lost in events leading up to the second book, some of its artifacts are left behind (the triskeles marking trained mages) while some are swept away (the sterility spells on women). At the end of the first book, I was anticipating the threat of extinction due to an entire generation of sterile women, although that wouldn't really have happened since the existing children would eventually mature. End of added section.

Overall: pretty good soft fantasy*, but long (requires a significant time investment) and not really superb.

* Soft being somewhat derogative in that I don't think, even assuming that the magic described existed, a world could ever work the way it does in these books. That is, the society described here is not the logical result of the postulated world-structure, but instead a sort of feel-good utopia which has just incidentally been taken advantage of by evil people. You see the problem? Where do the evil people come from if their civilization is so great, and by the way completely sealed off from the outside world?

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Spell Book of Listen Taylor

By Jaclyn Moriarty.

This book is not at all what I was expecting from the title and the cover. Yes, there is a spell book, but it seems very much an authorial trick to hold the narrative together—otherwise you might find yourself asking (at least for the first 150 pages) what all these people have to do with each other.

The Zing family has a secret. This is not an ordinary secret, but a Secret that requires them to meet in the garden shed every Friday night. What is it? That you don't find out until nearly half way through.

In the meantime, we are treated to the lives of seventh grader Listen Taylor, second grade teacher Cath Murphy, adult Zing daughters Fancy and Marbie, second grader Cassie Zing, and seemingly unconnected interludes about balloonists. I was more or less bored for the first 150 pages or so.

Affairs. The book is shelved in YA (at least in the library here), but there are so many (uninteresting) affairs going on that it made me feel like this was really an adult book that somehow got accidentally sold to a YA publisher.

The book is funny at points, but the spots of humor fall flat until the pace picks up partway through. Even then, much of the humor is dark: "My wife can't make it. Two of her clients called to say they had made a suicide pact and couldn't figure out the catch on the gun."

The narrative organization is also confusing, with the same period of time often being reiterated from different viewpoints with no indication that time hasn't passed until we come to one of Listen's spells, which apparently took effect before she actually cast it.

That's not to say the book wasn't memorable: the Secret, when we finally get to it, is a good one, and ties together many of the previous events. But the book as a whole wasn't really my cup of tea.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Sword and Sorceress XXI

Marion Zimmer Bradley started the series, but she's dead now, so Diana L. Paxson edited this one.

Usually I have trouble reading anthologies straight through; the constant ending of stories and the need to meet a new set of circumstances and characters makes it rough to go straight from one story to the next. For some reason, I found this anthology easier in that respect than many others: either the editor did a marvelous job of selecting stories that fit together thematically and otherwise, or the ideas and worldbuilding are bland and don't require any great effort to adjust to: perhaps it's nothing I haven't seen before...

Since I am inclined to check out further works by some of the authors in here, I'd like to think it's the first, but there is some truth to the claim that readers want to read what they're familiar with.

Some of these stories ended sadly, and some were horrifying ("Red Caramae" blatantly so, "Oulu" more subtly). They are almost all set in historical or pseudo-historical milieus, many of them vague. (Admittedly, it's hard to describe an entire world in 15 pages or less.) The resolutions were often very sudden or seemingly too simplistic. Others made me want to check out further works by the author ("Kazhe's Blade", "Necessity and The Mother", "Step By Step", "Favor of the Goddess", possibly "Rose in Winter", "Ursa", and "Journey's End").

Conclusion: Good place to look for new authors if the particular type of story you like happens to involve women and the supernatural in a non-modern setting. (The magic involved was often very different and wasn't always due to the agency of the protagonist.)

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Into the Wild

By Sarah Beth Durst.

Great fun. Fairy tale references all over the place, and there are frequent laughs. It also doesn't suffer from the problems other books of this type tend to have, like unbearable corniness or having the characters leap into trouble for no good reason. Julie has a good reason.

The story? Julie is a junior high student living with her hairdresser mom Zel. Or, well, Zel is a hairdresser now—but her hair points to her past as a princess locked in a tower in a fairy tale. How she escaped is a secret no one seems to know, even though Zel rescued other characters from their own stories in the process, ending the Middle Ages. The Wild now lives under Julie's bed and likes to eat shoes. But somehow, it escapes...

Though some of the side characters seem a little flat (and it could be blamed on the nature of the Wild's fairy tales), Julie and her family are all lively and well portrayed. (Julie's grandmother, the former wicked witch (and still a witch), even turns the talking frog she gave Julie for her fifth birthday back into the mailman—eventually.) The plot segues from one fairy tale to another at a dizzying pace, although it isn't really disjointed: it feels more like a dream trying to make sense out of disconnected events. And the ending is quite clever.

Definitely recommended.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

how i live now

By Meg Rosoff. Found via RJA and sea heidi.

Great voice. The lack of quotation marks was very noticeable, but their return took me a few chapters to twig on to. This is one of those coming-of-age stories that have been done so many times (in the most general sense), but it stands out. I don't know why I like these kinds of stories.

Starts off strange with a 15-year-old anorexic (but she doesn't like to talk about it) living with her (telepathic) English (first) cousins and falling in love with one of them. That part is weird and sex is pretty unambiguously involved. Then the war (or is it an evolved terrorism?) that's been going on encroaches on their idyllic country lives and in due time Daisy discovers the horrors of war.

As I said, great voice throughout, Daisy comes off as very direct even though she avoids some topics. What actually goes on with the war is somewhat misty, but that doesn't seem unusual considering (1) her age and (2) the nature of war. The falling-in-love with her cousin is kind of weird, and so is the telepathy. (It doesn't really impinge on the larger plot except that Piper is very good with her sheepdog but it is clear that Daisy's cousins, particularly Edmond, can read minds to a greater or lesser degree, or at least hers.) The book is certainly enjoyable, though.

A random thought

This thought is inspired by a frank child: What if True Thomas went around telling people "I can see your underwear"? How much more unfortunately honest could you be in this day and age? (Wikipedia does not appear to mention it, but one version I remember included the curse that he would always be right and never be believed.)

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Black Juice

By Margo Lanagan.

This is an anthology of 10 fairly short stories, but it still took a while for me to read. Like dark chocolate, they're rich but I could only take one or two a day. Most involve dark moments, often juxtaposed with incongruously light elements: a young boy sings at his sister's execution, an assassin kills clowns in a world ruled by clowns, a woman at her grandmother's funeral lives in a world filled with pollution, an "angel" (with horns, red skin, and leathery wings) presides at a grandmother's death, a girl's love is spurned; others, like "Wooden Bride", "My Lord's Man", "Little Pippit" and "The Rite of Spring" were not so dark (unlike the Stravinsky ballet).

My favorite passage is in "My Lord's Man":

I wait to speak, until I know my voice will not shake with anger. "Mullord sees something in you," I finally say, "beyond your beauty and beyond your rage at the world. If he sees it, I believe it must be there."

[...]

"My lord sees something in me, you say. But does Berry see?" She's not jesting; she's asking me for a piece of myself, without telling me how she'll use it: whether she'll toss it away, and Berry with it, or hold it in her heart to fester and poison my life with.

"Why, I see the rage, as we all do. And I see the beauty, for no one could miss that either. [...] But the other thing—I cannot lie to you, Mistress. I do not see it."

We wait at the bottom of the path. The sun creaks a little higher at the edge of the world, and I can see the mistress's face composed, raised to the scrubby hillside, her beauty no less for the absence of its usual color, for the shadows exhaustion has painted around her eyes.

"I will tell you, Berry," she says, her voice broken to a croak, "I cannot see that other thing either."

Saturday, June 21, 2008

List: Upcoming books

Here are some works-in-progress or upcoming books I'm looking forward to, some of them of a more speculative (i.e., unfinished or possibly even only rumored) nature than others. They are mostly in order by expected release date. Some of them I am looking forward to because I have read previous books by the author, and some because I have read the author's blog or heard mentions of them here and there (interviews, perhaps?)

Notice the absence of non-speculative fiction. (I was going to say complete absence, but I guess Octavian Nothing and Elizabeth Wein's work don't quite count as fantasy if you look at them the right way. I guess it must be vivid books that tend to attract me.)

  • Shannon Hale's graphic novel Rapunzel's Revenge (August) and novel Bayern 4 (in progress, possibly for 2009).
  • Justine Larbalestier's How to Ditch Your Fairy (September).
  • Patricia McKillip's The Bell at Sealey Head (September; I haven't heard anything concrete but the form of the title suggests a sequel to The Tower at Stony Wood; there is a reading available at this fine link which I also haven't listened to).
  • Cornelia Funke's Inkdeath (October).
  • M. T. Anderson's Octavian Nothing: Volume 2 (October).
  • Brandon Sanderson's The Hero of Ages (Mistborn book 3; October) and Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener's Bones (November).
  • Juliet Marillier's Heir to Sevenwaters (November).
  • Jane Lindskold's Thirteen Orphans, first in a series. (November)
  • Bujold's Sharing Knife book 4 (January 2009) and any possible additions to the Chalion series (there should be 2 according to the series structure, but I have heard nothing concrete).
  • R. J. Anderson's book Knife, the Hunter (2009) and book Touching Indigo (nowhere near finished).
  • Laini Taylor's Silksinger (in revision; hopefully for 2009).
  • Pamela Dean's Going North (in revisions; 2009? to be split into two books).
  • Marie Brennan's And Ashes Lie (in progress; 2009?)
  • D. M. Cornish's Factotum (in progress; 2009?).
  • Jane Yolen's graphic novel Foiled (possibly not final title; no idea about a release date).
  • L. Jagi Lamplighter's Prospero's Children (haven't heard anything about a release date).
  • The rest of Rosemary Kirstein's continuing Steerswomans series. (Book 5 is currently in progress, book 6 mostly finished from what I've heard which isn't much.)
  • John Wright's next "book", Count to a Trillion (scare quoted because of his habit of having his books broken into "trilogies").
  • Vernor Vinge's sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep (in progress?).
  • Tom Simon's epic work.
  • Any additional books in Elizabeth Wein's Arthurian cycle.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Ink Exchange

By Melissa Marr. This is not a sequel to Wicked Lovely, just a sideways "companion novel." (I dislike this term because it is longer and more awkward than "sequel", although not as long and awkward as "another novel set in the same universe but focused on different characters which may or may not occur chronologically later in time than the first.")

Very dark and highly emotional, this is undeniably a book about dealing with bad situations: rape, addiction, the shame that comes afterwards, as if it's somehow the victim's fault. (See also Believing bad times equals bad us (Stuff Christians Like).) Kudos to Marr for dealing with these issues in a straightforward way. The book feels very honest.

Moreover, it made me think about my objections to the first book regarding Ash's lack of volition in her situation: while I feel that anything bad that happens to someone in a book should come as a result of their own choices, however uninformed (isn't this traditional for main characters in fairy stories? to say nothing of the hapless people who are turned into frogs and fish), and Ash's life changes without any such choice on her part, Leslie does make choices that, in retrospect, she shouldn't have made. That doesn't mean she deserves what happens to her.

What I do object to is the way humans are like underpeople in this book: Marr makes the faeries so powerful it is impossible, or nearly so, for humans to stand up to them. Why should a fairy king be magically immune to all "lesser" beings?

Recommended with the caveat that these are heavy issues. I consider this book significantly better than her first: the answers don't come nearly as easily.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Midnight Never Come

By Marie Brennan.

Excellent.

This book seamlessly combines history with faerie conspiracy in a chillingly plausible manner. Michael Deven, seeking advancement in Queen Elizabeth's court, is set a puzzle by Walsingham, one of the Queen's spymasters: identify the hidden player in the intrigues of court. On the other side, Lady Lune struggles to survive and regain her favored position in the hidden court beneath the city.

You might call this urban fantasy, but it is very different from the usual. Political intrigue, tantalizing hints of hidden plots (some never revealed), and romance combine to form a book worth savoring, although I should mention that I started it with the expectation of enjoying it and others have remarked that it opens slowly. The ending is quite satisfying, pulling together many of the clues dropped over the course of the novel.

I do have some reservations about whether I would have been as quickly sympathetic to Lady Lune as I was since I read this interview shortly before reading the book, but she does eventually show a softer side.

Definitely recommended, and quite clean except for a relatively minor amount of violence.

As an aside, the pattern inlaid on the cover is quite lovely, as is the book's website. The publisher seems to have gone to some lengths to promote this book.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Temping Fate

By Esther Friesner.

I found this on the shelf next to Nobody's Princess (found through Tamora Pierce) and decided it looked interesting.

This is a goofy book similar to Iris, Messenger, although Ilana is more sarcastic. When she applies for a summer job with the D. R. Temp Agency, she finds herself working for Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, the three fates of Greek mythology, who really just want some time off to spend with their families... or something. Mayhem ensues. And if you think it's a joke, Ilana really is deathly allergic to eggs.

A pretty enjoyable light read, with at least one serious theme.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

List: Books for children

Because I am lazy, here is a list of books that may be suitable for younger readers. In general, this means they are (1) clean (with regards to sex and profanity) and (2) comprehensible. I may update this list sporadically.

A few minutes later: Added Blackbringer and The Secret Country. I also bolded the author's names to make the list easier to scan through.

M. T. Anderson's The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume 1: The Pox Party. Contains slavery and serious themes, of course, but mixed with dry humour. Volume 2 is scheduled for October.

D. M. Cornish's Monster Blood Tattoo. Book titles are Foundling and Lamplighter, with a third forthcoming. Excellent world-building and linguistics. The world isn't as grim as the series title makes it sound, either. Be warned that the whole trilogy will need to be read to get all of Rossam√ľnd's story

Pamela Dean's The Secret Country trilogy. Second and third books are The Hidden Land and The Whim of the Dragon, and all three are intended to be read together. Children playing a game about an imaginary country with their cousins find their way into it in reality. However, I've tried giving this to most of my siblings and they all rejected it because of the "thees" and "thous", so be warned. The Dubious Hills is set in the same world but about different characters, and is probably my favorite Dean book. It might be better for slightly older readers, however—I wouldn't feel bad about giving it to a teen.

Jessica Day George's Dragon Slippers. Comic fantasy, but she does in an excellent job of adding real tension during the latter half.

Shannon Hale's The Goose Girl. Retold fairy tale. Sequels so far (though they are labeled companion novels and focus on different characters, they occur sequentially in time) are Enna Burning and River Secrets. Hale has also written Princess Academy and The Book of a Thousand Days, both independent books.

Patrice Kindl's Owl in Love and The Woman in the Wall. Two humorous books, not directly connected. The second also has some serious themes.

Elizabeth Knox's Dreamhunter and Dreamquake. One book split into two. Contains some sex (not very explicit but there's no missing it) and also torturous dreams. Solid, strong characters and a great historical feel of the early 1900s, even though it's set on a continent that doesn't exist in our world. A sequel would be nice (there is one big loose end) but I haven't heard anything yet.

Laura Ruby's The Wall and the Wing. Wacky humour in a slightly off version of New York City where people fly (but not very well) and monkeys talk. Sequel: The Chaos King.

Brandon Sanderson's Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians. Comedy with an (annoying) narrator who makes a point of cliffhangers, cryptic foreshadowing and digressions in the middle of fight scenes. Sequels are forthcoming, starting with Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener's Bones, which has a great sound as a title. Like Monster Blood Tattoo, the whole trilogy is needed to tell the complete story, although the end of the first book is not much of a cliffhanger. To be honest I should point out that my younger brother found the foreshadowing less cryptic than I did and guessed some of the surprises. Sanderson's adult books are also quite clean, if quite a bit longer.

Delia Sherman's Changeling. Has an idiot moment* but otherwise well done fantasy in an even more off version of New York City.

* That's when you yell at the character "You know you shouldn't be doing this!" and throw the book across the room before skipping several pages to get past the painfully stupid part.

Laini Taylor's Faeries of Dreamdark: Blackbringer. Great adventure with some clever world-building behind it. I'm looking forward to forthcoming books.

Megan Whalen Turner's The Thief and sequels The Queen of Attolia and The King of Attolia. If you haven't heard of these you should have.

Elizabeth Wein's Arthurian cycle, beginning with The Winter Prince. Historical fiction about Arthur's children and grandchildren. Contains several instances of torture and mutilation. In fact, The Empty Kingdom is one of the tensest books I've ever read. Successive books are A Coalition of Lions, The Sunbird, The Lion Hunter and The Empty Kingdom. Note: The last two are really one book and should be read together.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Fire Study

By Maria Snyder. Third book in the series, after Poison Study and Magic Study.

Warning: Grumpy review ahead.

This book was disappointing. I don't know if it's because I've had a couple months to cool off about the series or if I've just become more critical again, but somehow it lacked the emotional resonance the first two books had to support the plot. The plot was weak! OK, I was surprised about who the villain was, but I don't buy a certain character not dying under the circumstances. Instead of making the plot more believable (by having people's actions be more believable), it seems like the author added new types of magic and other gadgets, possibly to distract the reader with shiny.* And a long-standing mystery is cleared up in an offhand way in the last three pages, probably because the next book is scheduled to take place five years later (in fiction) and focus on a different character. Why not just leave it a mystery? People in real life don't get all the answers. Sometimes relationships end, friends part, and they never get a good reason from each other.

I think it could probably have used more editing to tighten up the story. It just seems loose, and while I finished it, it hasn't left me real enthusiastic about forthcoming books in this series.

Also, the sex was too much in my face, even though it wasn't explicit. And, despite that they're said to be in love, Yelena's relationship with Valek seems more about her than him. (SPOILER: She has a stupid moment where she falls apart.)

* Part of the fun of science fiction and some fantasy is doing a lot with a little. Adding thousands of kinds of magic to a world without a good reason is not so much, and worse, it is done in a distracting rather than an interesting way. (Of course, to be interesting, it might require a good reason.) On the other hand, books like Daniel Abraham's Shadow in Summer do impressively much with one (central) magical conceit (poems can harness elemental forces, like sterility, to human wills—but there is a price).

Monday, June 09, 2008

The Dollmage

By Martine Leavitt, who also wrote the lovely, though perhaps macabre, book Keturah and Lord Death.

This is a story; the narrator is very present as a storyteller, much more so than in Keturah. (Keturah has a prologue and epilogue that act as a framing story, with the storyteller sitting at a fire. It's a great moment when you get to the end, are reminded of the storyteller, and realize that the names of the people she told the story to are also the names of the characters in the story. Makes you think.) The villagers live in a picturesque village full of bridges and sheep in a world full of mountains. This is a simplistic view of the world, but it isn't clear how literally we are to take it: even one of the characters points out that to have mountains, you must have valleys.

The Dollmage is the one responsible for keeping her village's story on track; she tries to protect her people from a bad ending through her magic. But the current Dollmage is getting old and, despite her great wisdom, is blind in some ways.

The trouble starts with her resentment of her distant cousin Vilsa. When four children are born on the day the Dollmage declares her successor will be born, she decides that Vilsa's daughter is not going to be the one. (The Dollmage, asking God why four children were born on one day, is told that it is to make her wise.) Years of petty slights and resentment build up, pushing the villagers' way of life to the brink of disaster.

The inclusion of God is an interesting one. Resentment and forgiveness are definite themes, and the villagers' way of life is based on promises: there are promises they are born into (they may kill only to defend their children) and promises they make. The penalty for breaking either is death or exile. As the dolls have power to affect reality, so do words, and the villagers believe that breaking their word will cause them to lose that power, making them no different from the robber peoples who live in all the valleys around them, stealing their possessions and relatives. But little is said about her God directly, and much about how she is to learn wisdom, something that troubles me a bit.

Pretty good, and fairly short, I'd recommend at least giving this book a try. Be advised that there is a rape, although not in explicit detail.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Foundling

By D. M. Cornish; book 1 of Monster Blood Tattoo, etc. (Note that, while imaginative, the edgy feel of the title "Monster Blood Tattoo" doesn't seem to match the mood of the actual book, at least for me.) Also contains illustrations by the author.

Imaginary hat tip to R. J. Anderson and Carbonelle for recommending this.

This story covers Rossamünd's* departure from the foundling society (orphanage) where he was raised and his journey to his new employment. As a sweet, naive, and paradoxically timid and adventurous child, he makes a fairly appealing main character, even if he is perhaps not quite a protagonist.

The characters are all distinct, even if they have shadowy pasts, and the worldbuilding in this book is clever and fantastic, and feels well put together. Instead of merely expositing different ideas, the author gives the sense that they all fit well into the physics, biology and culture of the Half-continent. Of particular interest are the secretive cults that grow or harvest foreign organs for use by humans, either as machines or living prosthetics, and the caustic vinegar waves.

However, the most important instigation in this book is presence of monsters: it is fair to say that the antagonism between monsters and everymen has had a profound effect on history. As carbonelle points out, however, what actually makes a monster is not necessarily as clear-cut as the people of the Half-continent would have it.

Along with these clever ideas comes vocabulary; the made-up words have great verisimilitude, being based on recognizable morphemes (at least to English speakers).

My chief disappointment with this book is that the story ends so soon. While Rossamünd accomplishes what he set out in the beginning to do, there are numerous hints at more to come, and many questions to answer regarding the world and his own past.

Although the strange names and words can be overwhelming at first, requiring a significant investment into the world of the story, this ends up being an enjoyable fantasy adventure story, leaving the reader wanting more but not hanging off a cliff at the end. Recommended.

* Edited to add: The "ü" in Rossamünd is pronounced the same as the vowel in wood, could, should, etc., according to the pronunciation guide.

Monday, May 19, 2008

End of the Spear

By Steve Saint.

This is labeled as the memoirs of Steve Saint, the son of one of the five missionaries who was killed in the 1950s in the Amazon rain forest. Although it took me a while to get into it, partly due to the number of foreign names and relationships, I became quite interested in what was going to happen.

The style is quite informal and easy to read, although it could perhaps have used more editing—in one place there is a section break, with the associated graphic, in the middle of a sentence. The author for the most part did a good job incorporating English translations of the foreign terms without becoming too repetitive. Although he tries throughout to incorporate a little humor, I think it falls flat until the last few chapters, which I found (mostly) hilariously funny. The "mostly" is perhaps the reason for the humour—it helps to offset the tragedy that occurs.

However, there is a lot left out of this story. The airline agent's visit to the Amazon is dismissed in a couple of sentences, with no mention of her reaction. There are other places where he neglects to mention or explain his own reactions or actions. In the last few chapters, he leaves out quite a lot, focusing on the antics of the Waodani tribe members who accompany him back to the U.S. Part of the reason the book is hard to get into is due to the confusing chronology: it seems to start closer to the present day and then flash back to the past, but it isn't entirely clear when things happen or even the order that they happen in.

Despite these drawbacks, the book is quite interesting, but it could have been better.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Saffy's Angel

By Hilary McKay.

This is another one of those books I should have found years ago. Serious, sweet and hilarious. The notorious driving lessons are easy to point to as one of the amusing points, but fried corned beef sandwiches and curry sandwiches ("Should I make the curry very hot or very, very hot?") amuse too, as do most of the things this quixotic family gets up to.

The Casson family is a family of artists, with colorful children: Cadmium, Indigo, Saffron, and Permanent Rose, and parents Bill and Eve. The trouble starts when Saffron, perusing the color chart tacked to the kitchen wall, finds all her siblings' names but not her own. The explanation? She was adopted. Oh, tragedy: suddenly she feels like she isn't part of the family at all. One of the strange things about this book is that after this happens, about five years pass in the space of a couple pages, five years where Saffron feels alienated and her family continues to put up with her, not to mention love her.

The family is eccentric but still a family: they come together when they need to. When Rose finishes her first drawing and the "wicked teacher" who had pretended interest snatches it away and stakes it to the wall far above her reach, Cadmium helps her to steal it back and replace it with a replica, down to the four thumbtack holes. And when the wheelchair girl (quite intentionally) runs Saffron over, she suddenly has the friend she didn't know she needed.

Sweet story, nothing too heavy, lots of humor. Not what most people would call fantasy.

Found via E. Wein, who offhandedly mentioned the series, with a quote, and Sherwood Smith.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Shadow Speaker

By Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu.

I"m going to try a slightly different style this time.

Ejii is a young girl in what was Nigeria with an unusual power: her cat-like eyes give her the ability to see in the dark and speak to shadows. When the shadows tell her she must go on a quest to stop a war, she must decide whether it is worth her own life to do so, for the journeys of shadow speakers are perilous to the speaker.

Upsides: Strong characters deal with a morally complex situation: Jaa favors violence, while Ejii favors peace, but they are both treated as "good guys." The bad guy is also rounded. Ejii's power is cool but even more dangerous than a double-edged sword, as it hurts her even when she doesn't use it. The narrative is lively and enjoyable to read and has much of the same whimsy that was in Zahrah the Windseeker, but with a plot that concerns more than a handful of people this time.

Downsides: Polygamy, if that's a downside for you. Reincarnation. The shadows are called the spirits of the Earth, if I recall correctly, and said to never lie or mislead. At one point, Ejii perceives a mystic "Whole" of all creatures which she calls "Allah." Also, the first chapter with the Desert Magician is strange and seems out of place.

I would recommend this for the strong writing and creativity involved, but the spiritual aspects, reincarnation, and polygamy involved are somewhat troubling to me and good to be aware of.

Note: Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu has also written Zahrah the Windseeker, an earlier book set in the same universe, but more whimsical and less serious than The Shadow Speaker. In Zahrah, all Zahrah has to do is keep following the path she chooses; Ejii is repeatedly confronted with choices where the correct path isn't always obvious or even unambiguous.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Mark of Solomon

Consisting of The Lion Hunter and The Empty Kingdom, by Elizabeth Wein.

I think I've mentioned this series before, but Wein takes the Arthurian mythos in a direction completely her own. The Winter Prince, the first book, is about Arthur's children in Britain, but A Coalition of Lions, The Sunbird, The Lion Hunter, and The Empty Kingdom are all set in and around Aksum (what is now called Ethiopia). These aren't precisely fantasy in the sense of having (overt) magic, but they are fantastic historical fiction.

The Mark of Solomon, especially The Empty Kingdom, is intense. In fact, I find the size of all Wein's books to be deceptive: there is little that could be called excess, or unnecessary to the story. They are dense and exciting. The Mark of Solomon, which the author refers to as The Adolescence of Telemakos, is rendered in a tight third-person from Telemakos' perspective, although there are a few brief interludes from someone else's point of view, and concerns his coming-of-age. In A Coalition of Lions and The Sunbird, he was shown to be a quiet, canny child, and we see here how he grows to assume adult responsibilities.

I particularly noticed in reading these two books how all three titles can be interpreted in several different ways. In addition, there is almost nothing I can point to and say "That should have been fixed"; my only complaint is that the second book is so intense, it perhaps could have used some comedic relief. You will probably want to have it, and sufficient time in which to read it, at hand before reading the last few pages of the first book.

In short: Great, intense historical fiction. Highly recommended. Refreshingly clean, too, although some heavy issues such as torture are referred to, more so in The Sunbird than here.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Angel Isle

By Peter Dickinson.

This book picks up with the epilogue to The Ropemaker repeated as a prologue: Saranja returning home 20 generations after the events in the first book, and finding herself on an adventure very similar, at first, to the first one. The feel of the writing is also quite similar, although with more romance and string theory. However, the world described still feels like it mostly doesn't exist (i.e., doesn't have a history or people doing things outside of the narrative). outside of what happens in these books.

The use of Maja, an 11 or 12-year-old girl, as the main point-of-view character is particularly interesting because of her vulnerability to frequent blackouts. Unlike Tilja in the first book, who had a special immunity to magic, Maja doesn't see everything of importance that happens, and important events often happen while she is asleep or passed out, although she is still vital to the quest.

This book can probably be read alone without missing too much, although there are references to the events of the first book. I have no idea what to recommend it as; despite the size, it's a fairly light read with a flat villain and a not-too-memorable plot. Somewhat enjoyable, but not very deep.

(Slightly?) spoilery quote: "Life as a rag doll isn't all kisses and cuddles."

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Ropemaker

By Peter Dickinson.

The sequel is Angel Isle, but I haven't yet read it.

This is a straightforward quest fantasy. Straightforward isn't meant to imply that there are magical swords, elves, or dwarves, but more that everyone is who they appear to be. No one is on ambiguous moral ground here, at least from the perspective of the protagonists, and they never trust anyone that it turns out they shouldn't have. While fairly enjoyable to read, I don't think there is a lot of real depth, although some is hinted at, such as the Emperor's policies concerning life and death. (If you die without paying your death tax, your progeny is liable to be enslaved and sold to pay the debt.)

The story principally follows four people from the Valley, a region that has been protected from the Empire and from barbarian tribes to the North by a magical barrier for the last two hundred years. When the barrier starts to fail, Tilja and her grandmother and Tahl and his grandfather set out to find the man who initially put it into place, planning to ask him to restore it. Along the way, they learn about the Empire that they've been isolated from for the last two hundred years.

Enjoyable, but straightforward, making only relatively minor references to issues like aging, death, and the corruption that comes from power.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Off-topic: Stuff Christians Like

This is off-topic, but I suspect some of the people who see this might be interested: Stuff Christians Like is a new blog with oodles of keen observations about (... wait for it ...) stuff Christians like. Like the side hug and telling instead of showing, to give a funny example and a serious one.

Beware! Reading this will suck away your time like it sucked away my afternoon—but I think it's worth it.

Poison Study

By Maria V. Snyder.

Poison Study and its sequel, Magic Study, were extremely engrossing despite some annoying typos (missing commas, periods, wrong words). Snyder is apparently one of those authors who asks herself, "What is the worst that can happen to my characters?" and then does it, which can be painful for a reader like myself, but it didn't end too badly.*

Yelena starts as a young woman waiting to be executed. (One of the annoyances I felt is that I don't think her actual age, 20, was mentioned until the very end of the book. She seems older in some ways.) When she's offered the chance to become the Commander's taste tester instead of hanging, she takes it. Unfortunately, one of the Commander's generals, the father of the boy she murdered, would rather see her dead, as would several others.

The real strength of this book is its powerful characters and relationships. While the setting isn't bad, the plot is really character-centered. Yelena is resourceful and intelligent but still tries to do what's right, even when pushed to her limits. What makes it more interesting is that she respects the Commander for establishing order in her country, even though he is a usurper. Valek, the Commander's chief of security, though crafty, is also mostly likable. (He sure made it obvious he was a liar at the very start, didn't he?)

On the other hand, not everyone's actions made sense. The southern magician who tries to kill Yelena early on is a good example. It just doesn't make sense in light of the magician's later actions. (Killing someone tends to be a last resort rather than a first.) There is also intrigue in the castle which is never fully explained: some secret information about Yelena is leaked, but the person she believes responsible appears to be vindicated... or is she?

Overall, the author keeps the tension level** high without making it unbearable, and resolves the conflicts between several of the characters in a reasonable way. (The southern magician is a glaring exception.) However, there is some oblique sex and less oblique rape, so this probably isn't for children. There is also a transgender issue.

This is definitely more character-centered than epic fantasy, although the view opens up a bit more in the second book. For people who like this kind of thing, I think it's great.***

* (Fire Study, the third book in the series, just came out, but I haven't read it yet.)

** (Although it helped lower the tension, at least for me, to have read Sigmund Brouwer's Magnus, a great historical fantasy that doesn't have any magic unexplained by (actual) science. Anybody even heard of this? You will notice a plot similarity that appears in Poison Study's first few chapters if you have read it. And the "great" should be taken with a grain of salt since, although I thought it was exciting, I was significantly younger and less critical when I read it. I should probably reread it sometime and see if I still like it.)

*** (You might argue that there is some "my character is the center of the world" going on here, since Yelena survives this book due to a more-or-less incredible sequence of coincidences and saves, indirectly, many other people in the second book. If you think about it, that means they were also saved as a result of a more-or-less incredible series of coincidences.)

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Comment Box

If you have comments or suggestions about my reviews (are there certain aspects of a book I should be certain to mention, whether fictional, such as theme, style, imagery, etc., or factual, as page count or publisher or the like? links to Amazon or authors' blogs? additional labels to make it easier to find certain books?) or other content you might like to see (or see links to, more likely), let me know here.

Wings to the Kingdom

By Cherie Priest. Second Eden Moore book.

This is a sequel to Four and Twenty Blackbirds, but is only weakly connected. Many of the characters are new (or were mentioned so briefly in the first book that I forgot them), and the several unresolved issues regarding Eden's family from the first book remain mostly unresolved by the end.

When ghosts start appearing on a Civil War battlefield near Chattanooga and pointing mysteriously, Eden decides to check it out... eventually. Because she's curious. Or is she?

I found this book weaker than the first because Eden had a much less compelling reason for being involved. (In the first book, people were trying to kill her.) To be fair, she at first resists involvement, but when she decides to investigate, her curiosity is not convincing enough to convince me that it should have triumphed over her common sense. Much of the tension that was in the first book is lacking here, possibly because several important secrets are revealed early on. I also would have liked for there to be more progress with regard to Eden's family relationships. Her (great?) aunt from the first book was not mentioned at all, to my recollection, and others are mentioned only briefly. This is good for making the book self-contained, but bad because her family was more interesting to me than the monster story that goes on in this book.

You probably only want to read this if you read and enjoyed the first book or if you're really into reading about Old Green Eyes.

Four and Twenty Blackbirds

By Cherie Priest. The first Eden Moore book.

The first page grabbed me with its vividness and the small child narrating. A couple pages later, we suspect the narrator is currently somewhat older, but no idea by how much. The author develops a strong Southern atmosphere with ghosts and complicated family relationships. There's a lot of grit and smells and great descriptions of setting.

This is a ghost story, but a strange one: Eden, our narrator, has grown up with the ghosts of three women, one of whom claims to be her mother. However, they aren't threatening at all (though some of the other beings she encounters are). The real threat in this book is the living.

Early on, Eden implies that reincarnation is involved, mentioning memories of a past life. This is probably what bothered me the most about this book. Although there was a good amount of tension and danger, I didn't find this book exceptionally frightening; Eden is quite capable of taking care of herself physically, and I didn't find the supernatural threats very believable.

In the end, I think I liked this book more because of the strong atmosphere and characters than due to the strength of the plot. The mysteries surrounding Eden's life are a definite page-turning factor, especially since no one will tell her anything, but several of the conflicts seem to have only a weak basis, and despite the significant amount of tension I didn't find this to be a very frightening story. (I find grotesque horror undesirable in books; although horrible things do happen in this one, the story doesn't dwell on them in great detail either.)

Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Queen's Gambit

By Walter Tevis.

Very good story about chess. Who knew it could be so exciting? While in an orphanage, Beth Harmon happens to see the janitor playing chess in the basement one day... and she's hooked. While she has a significant talent at the game, she does have other problems: she uses the tranquilizers the orphanage handed out to "even their dispositions" to sleep at night, and becomes somewhat dependent on them. She has very few friends and no social life; almost her entire focus is on chess, her idol

There is some sex, although none of it seems particularly gratuitous; it reveals some things about Beth's character. Still, it is explicit enough that you may not a child read this book. There is also some profanity.

This book hints at deeper issues than chess. Beth's dependence on tranquilizers and later alcohol reflect her unhappiness with the rest of her life. Halfway through, she meets another child prodigy whose goal is to be the best by age 16, and asks him what he will do then. The question is obviously one she should be thinking about herself. (And perhaps she is, off-stage, since she thought to ask it.)

Recommended. A note: unlike my usual fare, the only fantastic element in this is Beth's amazing talent for chess, which is arguably not something completely out of the realm of possibility, considering real examples of prodigies. Also of note is the age: this book was published in the 1980s and seems to be set somewhat earlier than that.

This is Sarah Deming's favorite novel (that's how I found it), and she created a Wikipedia entry for it.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Perilous Gard

By Elizabeth Marie Pope. Found via Oached Pish.

Kate Sutton, lady-in-waiting to Princess Elizabeth, is exiled by the Queen to a castle in Elvenwood. The trouble she stumbles into there is all the more chilling for being so plausible: this book could easily be called historical fiction rather than fantasy.

This book took some time to grow on me. It began slowly, but the characters gradually grew in depth. The enemies (if they can be called that) are portrayed more as foreign, with a different (and fatalistic) outlook on life, than as willingly evil; and they are still human, even so. With their people declining, they have very little hope for the future.

Kate is also likable, although she seems to have few interests of her own other than satisfying her curiosity about the mysteries of the castle. She is not too perfect; in several cases she is saved only by happenstance, perhaps by God. In others, she has to accept and work within the situation where she finds herself.

As I said, this book has grown and is still growing on me. (To be honest, there are a few pages in the middle that I haven't yet brought myself to read.) I recommend it.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Sweet Far Thing

Being the third book of the Gemma Doyle trilogy by Libba Bray. The title is taken from the W. B. Yeats poem "The Rose of Battle", which sounds a lot cooler than the title does by itself. (Well, the excerpt of it in the epigraph does, at least. I haven't read the whole thing.) The first and second books are A Great and Terrible Beauty and Rebel Angels.

It's sweet and it's far. What more do you need to know?*

I found all three books in the trilogy difficult to read straight through. Gemma Doyle starts off the very first book (A Great and Terrible Beauty) by lying to teachers in order to ingratiate herself to other students at her new finishing school, and continues on with similar selfish behavior. In one of Aesop's fables, Something Bad would therefore happen, but the unfortunate events in these books are often ascribable to fate rather than consequence. Although she can also be tender and caring, it seems that she is that way (without ulterior motives) to only a few people, her closest friends and her father, until partway through the third book.

This is a Victorian Gothic, a strange hybrid of finishing schools and parties in turn-of-the-century England juxtaposed with sinister spirits and magic in "the realms." Gemma and her friends are least bearable when they have magic at their disposal: they seem to use it at every whim, with no apparent self-control. Part of the tension hanging over the series is caused by the assumption one would make that walking around like you own the world and doing whatever you want will cause trouble, but as I mentioned, most of the trouble seems to come from other causes, although it was aggravated by Gemma's reluctance to deal with it promptly. Instead of keeping the numerous promises that she makes (and breaks) so easily, she entertains illusion and glamour in a sort of fairyland. Her friends are, admittedly, somewhat culpable in her behavior, but most of her growth as a character seems to come fairly quickly near the end. (At least, that is my recollection, although I read the first two books a couple months ago.)

In the end, if you like dresses and games and vicious cliques and intrigue and sinister magic, you may like this trilogy. I did end up enjoying the third book somewhat more than the first two, because the characters were no longer in stasis. However, I probably wouldn't read it again.

* Yes, I more or less stole, err, borrowed this line from Maureen Johnson, who has at the linked location a short video interview with Libba Bray. Short and funny.

The Year of the Griffin

By Dianna Wynne Jones.

This isn't a real in-depth review because I'm lazy, but I'd like to say that I found this book (the sequel to Dark Lord of Derkholm) extremely funny. At least last night. And then it (the plot) got darker...

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Wreck of the River of Stars

By Michael Flynn.

A few months ago, I enjoyed reading Michael Flynn's book Eifelheim. Recently I saw his name again and decided to check out some more books by him.

As you might guess from the title, this book is a tragedy. What's perhaps unique about it is that (almost?) every character has a tragic flaw. While the story has a lot to do with the sailors' attempts to bring the ship safely to port (which chiefly involves shedding enough momentum in time to stop at Jupiter when it's at the right place in its orbit), it also has a lot to do with their backgrounds and characters. In fact, I would say this story is more about the characters than about the science fictional elements, which are more of a backdrop. It starts a little slowly (I had trouble keeping track of all the characters being thrown at me) but picks up steam a ways in.

There is a lot of sex. In fact, I almost stopped reading when the self-destructive ship's doctor decides to seduce the only passenger with her private drug cocktail within the first 10 pages. For some reason I didn't, and I eventually started caring about what happened to the characters—at least, some of them. The Igbo girl particularly is amazingly and amusingly perceptive about what drives the other people on the ship. Even though you know the ship will be wrecked (if not in the sense of being destroyed, perhaps, the crew is certainly destroyed), there is something about this book that keeps you hoping everyone will survive.

If you enjoy tragedies and science fiction that focuses on characters (it was fairly apparent that the captain was going to be a central character in the story when he died in the first few pages), you might like this book. On the other hand, it also has (seemingly) realistic science—no faster-than-light travel or fusion drives that don't require fuel. However, I probably won't be reading it again: the often gratuitous sex ("I can't be pregnant! He's too young to father a child!") combined with the tragedy makes it somewhat unpalatable.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

A Shadow in Summer

By Daniel Abraham. This is the first of four (planned) books in his Long Price Quartet, the meaning of which becomes clear shortly into the story.

The central fantastic premise is clever and original, or at least novel to me. I don't think it's one I've seen before. The magic is based on poetry: a skilled poet can describe a natural force, enslaving it in a human form that can be controlled at the poet's will. The central one in this book is sterility, as personified in Seedless, whom I actually found to be one of the most sympathetic characters. However, if the poet fails to use an original and worthy description, a price is exacted by nature: death.

Unfortunately, many of the characters are not very likeable. Several strike me as spoiled, drifting children who lack perseverance in the face of adversity. Having difficulties in a relationship? Just give it up and find someone else to love. This is what bothered me most about this book. At the end of it, very few people have grown appreciably; in fact, they seem to shrink, stripped of the illusion of maturity. (The Galt's household manager is one exception.) While the world-building is very good (in my opinion, of course), the story is not emotionally satisfying. Perhaps the next three books will change that, but I am not in the mood to see; perhaps when they're all out I'll look at them again.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Singularity's Ring

By Paul Melko.

This book is reminiscent of Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep, idea-wise: many humans in the book's world have been genetically engineered (before birth) to have special glands capable of transmitting emotions and thoughts between small groups (two to five) of people. They are then socially trained to work together as a "single" person, or pod human. The characters were interesting, although I didn't come away from the book convinced, as they were, that they couldn't possibly function apart as individual beings.

However, despite several surprising plot twists (don't read the inside cover, though), the plot seemed driven too much by external impetuses. Every time the main character, Apollo Papadopulos, started doing something, it seemed as if another catastrophe, kidnapping, or intervention appeared to set them on a different path. The story also seemed somewhat disjointed, especially in the first half, with dropped plot threads all over the place. (For example, Manuel's twin sister is briefly mentioned, but never followed up on; the Gene Wars are also left unexplained, although with somewhat more justification, perhaps; and another important plot line is also dropped.) The principle antagonists don't have very convincing motivations.

Typographically, there are several annoying homonym errors: break instead of brake, loose instead of lose, and so on. Someone used a spelling checker, perhaps, but ended up with wrong words instead of misspelled ones.

Still, I liked this book quite a bit. The main character, Apollo Papadopulos (really five people who work together as one, most of the time), was quite likeable. Though the storytelling could have been smoother, some of the ideas were quite good; I especially liked the details about the Ring's engineering and the explanation for pods. Others were lacking; the impact of pod minds on sexuality and marriage, for example, was glossed over with a line that sounded like it was from a catechism and some vague sex scenes. Other human relationships, like friendship and parenthood, also seem to have been subsumed by the creation of pods; singletons (some who don't have the pod genetics, others who failed to combine into pods) live in their own enclaves apart from pod society as rejects. The Overgovernment was also left in a shadowy position in the background, despite having a large investment in creating and training Apollo for their mission. Apollo's assertion that "of course" quintets should have five times as many votes because they use five times as many resources as single humans didn't ring true.

If you like the nifty ideas and adventures in science fiction, you'll probably like this book, but don't look too closely at some of the details.

Monday, February 04, 2008

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume 1: The Pox Party

By Mr. M. T. Anderson of Boston.

Recommended, with the slight caveat that there is a second volume forthcoming. Even so, this volume stands very well on its own.

The narrative is composed of accounts, largely from Octavian's perspective, of his early life and accomplishments. It is the eve of the American Revolution, and he is being raised by a household of musicians, artists and philosophers in an experiment to determine whether the African race is intellectually equal to the European race. His restrained and analytical narrative is occasionally interrupted by outbursts of emotion as he relates the treatment of his mother, an African princess, and his own changing conditions as the source of the household's funding changes. While the philosophers (perhaps better called scientists) measure his ingestion and excretion, overlooking the intangible ingredients which make a man, Octavian learns to observe the world around him, and learns, perhaps, more than they would wish.

What he sees are the peculiar events occurring in the name of freedom: old men tarred and feathered, property destroyed and merchants run out of town, slaves fighting for their masters' freedom, all occurring in the name of "Liberty and Property." As Octavian learns, the Liberty is for those with white skin, and others are Property.

This is a good book that I can recommend wholeheartedly.

I especially enjoyed the historical aspect; it was not often in high school, talking about American history, that I was reminded of the horror and caprice of war, even when the cause is righteous. In its latter half, this book brings close the uncertainty that surrounded those who were not elites and leaders, who were fighting to survive in the face of a conflict brought about by an upper class. While the book is fiction, a historical footnote adds that several experiments like the one described above actually occurred.

The second volume is scheduled for October, 2008. Hat tip to olmue for the mention that made me look it up in the first place.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Flora Segunda

By Ysabeau Wilce.

This is a strange sort of book, reminiscent of Alma Alexander's Gift of the Unmage in that a culture somewhat out of the mainstream is represented. It also reminded me of The Ordinary in the way there are so many unexplained threads that probably lead to the short stories Wilce has published in this universe, mentioned on the back flap. It feels like a world where there is more behind the scenery than you get to see in this book.

The story is about Flora Segunda, whom her mother had to replace her first child, also named Flora, who is gone (though perhaps not dead, considering the vagueness with she's referred to). Flora's mother is the General to the Warlord of a subdued nation; what exactly went on between this state and the empire they fought, especially on a personal level between the leaders, is one of the things I'd like to know more about, since it is hinted that things are not exactly what they seem, but never satisfactorily explained.

Anyway, regardless of the political background, this book is concerned with the trouble Flora gets into when she tries to revive her house's magical butler behind her mother's back. You also get the feeling that there's more behind the scenes here with the house's history and her father's past—he lives in the Eyrie at the top of a tower at the top of the house, and it wasn't clear to me in the beginning that he was her father and not her brother, since she calls him Poppy.

Of course, Flora's mother has good reason for locking away the house's butler, and Flora gets into more trouble than she can deal with on her own. The ending seems a little weak, leaving many things unexplained, as I already mentioned. There is supposed to be a sequel, Flora Redux, so perhaps some questions will be answered then, but I suspect more of them are answered in the aforementioned short stories.

It also seems very odd that Flora, nearly 14 years old, sees nothing wrong with climbing under the covers next to her (male) friend Udo, other than keeping his mother from noticing that she's there breaking his curfew, of course.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Other blogs of note

Gentle reader, if you've grown tired and weepy-eyed due to the idyllic pace of life here on Hushabye Mountain... wake up. For the rest of you, here are some other places where fine reviews may be found:

  • 3 Evil Cousins. YA reviews by YA teen readers.

  • Deliciously Clean Reads. The blog that pointed me to Iris, Messenger, although their other reviews haven't managed to grab my attention quite so well.

  • Fantasy Book Critic. High volume with giveaways and author interviews (well, the other ones occasionally have those too), but the idiosyncratic formatting gets on my nerves. And I haven't really been grabbed by any of the reviews, either.

  • OF Blog of the Fallen. Thoughtful reviews focused on fantasy and sci fi.

  • And, finally, Shannon Hale's blog, which doesn't exactly feature reviews but does have some neat interviews with other authors like Libba Bray, Megan Whalen Turner, Sherwood Smith, and so on. Look for the "Squeetus exclusive" posts.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians

By Brandon Sanderson.

+1 for cleverness, but -2 for not going anywhere except to the sequel. Sure, a lot of stuff happens, but it seems to be there more to introduce all the clever ideas you'll need to know for book 2 than to advance the plot or develop the characters. (Well, maybe they are all just supposed to be silly, but there are a few hints of something more...) Also, points lost for foreshadowing that I will probably have forgotten by the time I read the sequel, such as the line about hair dye and the somewhat negative impression I got of a certain character.

On the other hand, there is lots of cleverness: people who have magical Talents for breaking things, arriving late, tripping and falling to the ground, and saying things that don't make sense. Honest. Also, witty observations about how stairs are more advanced than elevators, lanterns than lightbulbs, and swords than guns.

It was also reminiscent of A Series of Unfortunate Events, which I haven't even read, due to the narrator's repeated insistence that he isn't nice.

Cute and clever overall, but it doesn't seem to go anywhere much. Perhaps books two and three will be more rewarding... when they come out.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Some more books

I am accumulating a whole list of books that I have little to say about even though I might have liked them. So, here are some of them:

Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson. Mentioned in several places (e.g., Melissa Marr's blog), I found it quite readable, but a little too obvious with its secrets.

Wicked Lovely, by Melissa Marr. Fairy who always gets what he wants decides he wants a human girl, who refuses. Resolution is a little too facile, perhaps, especially after the darker elements that are introduced (the Summer Girls), but it's good light reading. I think the jacket has a better hook than I'll ever come up with: three rules for what to do around invisible fairies, starting with "Don't stare at invisible fairies."

Terry Pratchett's Tiffany Aching books. I actually read Wintersmith first and then went back and read The Wee Free Men and A Hat Full of Sky. I think I liked The Wee Free Men best; it manages to combine a lot of humor with a credible plot and some serious ideas about dreams.

Kristen Britain's The High King's Tomb. This is the third book in her Green Rider series. There were some surprising twists, some in the form of thwarted cliches, and some unsurprising ones in the form of fulfilled cliches. I don't know if I'll read the next book or not, as I'm starting to think I have better things to do with the time given to me.

Shannon Hale's Book of a Thousand Days. The diary of a maid and her princess, who are locked in a tower for seven years when the princess refuses to marry the man her father chose for her. Well, actually, things happen and it ends up being only two and a half years... I found it a little dryer than some of her other books, but a lot of other people seem to like it a lot. Also of interest is the rejected titles list on Hale's web site, containing gems such as "One Steppe Forward, Two Steppes Back."

Stephenie Meyer's Twilight and sequel, New Moon. (I haven't read Eclipse yet.) Vampire romance in a sleepy, rainy Washington town. My teenage sister loves them. Also, Meyer has some interesting twists on vampires that I haven't seen before.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Voices and Powers

By Ursula K. Le Guin. Voices is the second book of the Annals of the Western Shore (whose Western Shore?), but is only loosely tied to the first book (the two characters who reappear in this one are so changed after at least 17 years that they seem like different people). Powers, the third book, meets up with characters from the first two books only at the very end.

I don't know why I enjoyed this book so much. It lacks the pervasive humor of several of the other books I've reviewed recently. The premise involves a secret library in a city overrun by invaders who hate books, but the knowledge contained within does not, in the end, seem to have much to do with the story, which is more about attitudes towards knowledge and learning. The narrator, a girl named Memer (although it took me 20 pages to realize it was a girl), plays a pivotal role in her city, but one that is more behind-the-scenes and functional than glamorous. I can tell you now, she is not a warrior princess.

I also liked the third book, Powers, but I find myself unable to explain exactly why. It concerns a young man named Gavir who was enslaved as a young child and educated to become a teacher to the children of the house that owns him. It made me think about the nature of slavery, as Gavir sees nothing wrong with being a slave in a house with a just master, and he mentions how the slaves of his house used to mock other slaves who were less well cared for. He later speculates that it was fear that made them react that way.

I recommend these both. I don't remember Gifts, the first book, having a big impression on me, but I suspect I might like it more if I reread it. All three deal with serious topics without much of the levity that has been in the other books I've enjoyed lately. Perhaps there will be another book; there is at least one major hanging end from Powers, mentioned early on and then left for the reader's curiosity to pick at.