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.