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.)