Let me preface this review with a warning: I loved this book. Intensely. Fangirlish gushing ahead.
It is the year 2129, and Earth has changed. It is a peaceful place, without war or strife, and everyone lives a comfortable lifestyle of leisure thanks to a largely robotic workforce. While robots handle the bulk of humanity's needs, there are some very key professions that still require a human touch; namely the arts/entertainment, athletics, certain elements of science (especially manned space exploration), or teaching. As such, society has been rejiggered into three main classes: eenies, mineys, and meanies.
The eenies sit atop the social pyramid - these are the celebrities, the uber-talented, and the super-geniuses. In order to become an eenie, one must pass a few incredibly difficult tests - they must excel in their studies and pass their culminating PotEval tests with flying colors; or they must be talented beyond compare in any entertainment field (sports, acting, singing, etc). Those that don't measure up become eenies are mineys, who comprise the majority of society as the plugged in middle class that is happy to consumer entertainment on a massive scale, and whose living is subsidized by the government (don't feel bad for the mineys - their yearly income is the equivalent of $2M in 2010). Those adults that do not fall into those two major classes of society (eenies or mineys) are meanies - convicted sociopaths, thieves, killers, and other assorted dangerous criminals.
Susan and her friends are the teenage children of eenies - and due to the strict laws that govern this new Earth, even the children of the elite have to work for their inheritance. This motley crew call themselves moes, aka losers. They aren't talented enough or automatically famous enough to become eenies, and the deadline for them to make the jump to eenie status is rapidly approaching (i.e. if they don't achieve a high enough recognition score, maintained for a full month by the established age deadline, they are screwed and destined to be mineys). Instead of becoming eenie by way of exceptional talent, Susan decides to go along with her almost-boyfriend Derlock's get-famous-quick scheme - to stowe away aboard the Mars-bound ship Virgo, thereby breaking the law but instantly becoming so famous that she and her friends will be immune from any nasty consequences. Though the plan is dangerous and technically illegal, Susan and the rest of her moe friends know it will work. And everything goes basically according to plan...until Virgo is rocked by an unforeseen explosion, killing the crew and knocking the ship off course and out of orbit. With finite resources and slim chance of rescue in the cold vacuum of space, Susan and her friends struggle to survive aboard their crippled ship, and with each other.
Dudes. DUDES. I freaking adored this book. Let me put it out there first by saying that I am an unabashed dork for exposition done well, and I love me some good hard science fiction. Losers In Space is predicated on the current laws of physics - in the words of author John Barnes as he explains his brand of SF, in our universe when Superman leaps over a building in a single bound, he must drill a hole into the sidewalk when he lands. In Losers In Space, the Virgo cannot be "rescued" by interplanetary rescue boats because there is no way for them to know where the ship is, and it would take months - even years - for a rescue ship to come from Earth or Mars to intercept Virgo in her off-kilter new orbit.
(I hope I'm getting this right. I might love reading this stuff, but a scientist I most assuredly am not.)
Guys, I freaking LOVE it when there are rule systems in place for speculative fiction - not that I don't love the Roddenberry brand of scifi, but it is infinitely cooler to read about space travel in the context of the actual laws of physics and plausible technologies. THIS is where Losers in Space excels. John Barnes not only creates a world that is plausible in terms of societal structure (albeit with cheesy nomenclature - eenie, meenie, miney, moe, anyone?) and space exploration, but also makes sure to explain the principles behind the technology and the rationale behind our intrepid heroes' plight.
Don't let this talk of science and explanation turn you off, though. For those that are not interested in the principles of space travel, you'll be happy to learn that all of this explanation and exposition is not included in the story proper. Rather, Barnes allows the narrative to proceed with minimal science lecturing - those details and explanations are parsed out into separate sections ("Notes for the Interested") that are interspersed throughout the story. If you're interested in the blatantly infodump-y science lecture, you read the note. If not, you can move on and enjoy the overall story without being subjugated to a physics lesson. (I liked reading the notes, even if I had a hard time comprehending all of the principles. Your mileage may vary!) It's a very clever, elegant solution that should appeal to readers of all ranges of scientific expertise, and I really admire that.
But enough of my babbling on incoherently about the virtues of footnotes and hard SF! What about the story and the characters? In these respects, Losers in Space also totally rocks. I love the concept of the world and the rationale behind these "losers" taking to a drastic scheme to get famous quickly by doing something very stupid - hey, these are celeb-brats trying to get on the "meeds" (think...TMZ/YouTube of the future) as quickly as possible, with the least amount of effort. I love the concept of this utopian - but really, ultimately dystopian in a sort of Eloi-ish way - world, where conflict has been eradicated at a fantastically high cost.
Once the drama in space finally hits and Susan and her friends are struggling to stay alive and figure out their best chance for survival and rescue, I loved the tension that unfolds between the new crew members. This is where character comes in too, because while each of our protagonists starts out the book as decidedly UNlikable, they grow and change so dramatically when they are forced to take their lives into their own hands. Susan, our narrator heroine, in particular has an astonishing character arc, metamorphosing from apathetic hot brat chick to capable, brave, and keenly intelligent leader.
Honestly, there's very little NOT to love with Losers In Space. There's a dramatic, action-packed plot, involving some truly great characters with their own flaws and strengths. There's the satirical quality of the book, explicating our own society's fascination with fame and infamy (and, though I don't agree with it, some not-so-subtle commentary regarding Intellectual Property and the current judicial system). Of course, there's the glorious plausible well-researched and impeccably explained science. Wrap that all together, and you get one hell of a book.
I loved Losers In Space truly, deeply and passionately. Chalk it up to another book on my Top 10 of 2012 list. Absolutely recommended to readers of ALL ages....more
“Yes. Is that so hard to believe?” Is it because we’re girls? I want to say. You think a bunch of girls are not capable of something like this?
This review starts with a confession (rather appropriately too, since the book also starts with its main character confessing that she is a murderer): I came into this book knowing very little about it but still expecting it a great deal from it after it was so highly recommended to me. And it was sort of disappointing to start the book by finding out that I was reading yet another Mean Girls Gone Wrong YA novel. But the more I read, the more I wanted to read and soon, disappointment turned into compulsion and eventually, into love. The more I think about Fury the more I find things to like about it.
In theory, Eliza Boans has everything: looks, riches, a good education, a bright future. But she is at a police station being interrogated under suspicion of murder. How, when, where did things go so wrong? Fury is Eliza’s account of a murder and the events that led to it.
Right off the bat it has to be said that Fury has a set up that begs for suspicion of disbelief in terms of criminal procedure. I mean, this teenager is sitting at a police station being interrogated by a doctor (not a detective) , still clothed in her bloody attire hours after being arrested (aren’t her clothes EVIDENCE? Were the CSI officers on vacation?), without a lawyer or a phone call. Furthermore, the doctor is able to take her out for meals OUTSIDE THE POLICE STATION even though it is clear that she is a suspect.
I am willing to bet that how much a reader will appreciate Fury relies not only on how much each reader is able to suspend that disbelief but also on how they will feel toward Eliza and the characters. Because you see, Fury is populated by a plethora of completely, utterly unlikeable characters. Mostly everybody in this book is a little shit – pardon my French.
Eliza herself is an unapologetically privileged brat. She is the head of a Mean Girl clique, attending this ultra posh school and living at a walled suburb for the extremely wealthy and which is basically cut off from the rest of the world. She is angry (at her absent mother most of the time), envious, not nice at all, she mistreats people, she thinks of herself as the big cojones of her small group of friends (and acts as such) and she manages to make ALL THE WRONG DECISIONS. Some of them with dire consequences. She also shows NO REMORSE whatsoever for what she has done (even if there are mitigating circumstances).
Because at its heart, this is a story about poor little rich girls. They are either abandoned by absentee parents or expected to succeed at all costs. There is pressure from school, from society, from their peers. The story takes place in a school environment full of cliques, bullying and a ruthless pecking order. Not to mention that the suburban paradise they inhabit is not paradisiacal at all – in fact, I often thought of the word “dystopian” when thinking of its walled wealth, separated from the rest of the populace in many ways but still connected via its basic humanity.
There is also an astute commentary on rape culture in this book. The rape culture that fails people so often, which allows these girls to feel like they have nobody they can to talk to, that allows them to feel ashamed or scared to go to a doctor or to seek help because hey, the first question they are asked either involve the clothes they were wearing or what they had been drinking. A rape culture that worships boy stars, in which adults utterly fail the kids they should be taking care of. It is sickening and truly heartbreaking.
This is without a doubt a really tragic book in many ways. Not only for what happens to certain characters (OH, NEIL) but also because of the way they feel about those events. It is really easy to see how Eliza would feel like this:
I was thinking that if it really was my fault, if every reaction could be traced to an action before, then at the very beginning would be me at the canteen queue with my twenty-dollar note instead of my packed lunch. In turn I could blame my mother for not caring enough and maybe I could blame my father for making my mum stop caring. Maybe all this was supposed to happen. It had been happening all along. It was too hard to try and stop it now. In a twisted way, there was cold comfort in that.
Like she had no choice. Of course she did, but the tragedy here is her thinking that she did not. Furthermore, there is the question of the narrative and the way Eliza slowly divulges the facts that led to this murder. It is all really suspenseful and even though it is easy to guess WHAT happened, the reactions that ensue are really what matters here. It is also through her narrative that we see other sides of Eliza and of her friends. They are clever and extremely loyal to each other and through her narrative, little by little, we see what matters to her, how she is broken up by what happened. It is really, really clever the way the story is written and in the end, I was able to sympathise with such an unremorseful character. She is a fantastic character even if she might not a likeable one. She actually reminded me a lot of one of my favourite unlikeable YA characters of all time, Bindy Mackenzie (Australian authors tend to write such awesome ContempYA…something in the water, I guess).
Shirley Marr managed to turn this into not only into a compelling story but also one that I loved so much, with the awesome writing, Eliza’s voice and her story which, as familiar as it is also allowed great commentary on society. Because of those I was able to suspend my disbelief willingly and happily and enjoy a story that I would not otherwise (really not a fan of poor little rich people stories) . And I didn’t even mention: the many, many connections to Jane Austen AND the fact that these girls take upon themselves the roles of the mythological Furies. The cleverest thing of all? The open ending in which YOU have to decide what happens to Eliza – and that will probably be based on how you feel about her, her friends and their actions.
So here I stand taking my hat off to the author: kudos, Ms Marr. ...more
This is a book about Jack Lund’s life – as it is, or how it was or perhaps how it will be. In case you are wondering whether I lost my mind, Mr Was isThis is a book about Jack Lund’s life – as it is, or how it was or perhaps how it will be. In case you are wondering whether I lost my mind, Mr Was is a time travel story. It is crafted around 5 mysterious notebooks found in a briefcase lost at sea and it opens in chronological order (or does it?) with the first notebook. Jack is a 13 year-old boy, trapped in a home with an abusive, alcoholic father and a loving mother who wants to believe in the few redeeming qualities of her husband. It all starts when Jack and his mother travel back to Memory, her childhood town, to visit his dying grandfather. After his death, the family moves into the grandfather’s grand house where mysterious things have happened (or will happen). There, Jack finds a door that takes him 50 years back in time. At first travelling in time is nothing but a fun pastime until tragedy strikes Jack’s family in his own timeline and it becomes imperative that he goes back in time in order to prevent it.
To say more of the summary would unforgivably spoil the book and its many twists. Suffice it to say that in terms of plotting, Mr Was is as brilliant as any time travel book should be. Equally brilliant is its clever choice of narrative format as a presentation of these notebooks (written by Jack or mostly by Jack) as a journalistic-type of story constructed as fact. As awesome as the plot development and the narrative choices are though Mr Was truly succeeds when it comes to its main character and its thematic core.
Jack’s departure to the past effectively means leaving his own timeline for good but that is a sacrifice he is willing to make and is a good qualifier about his character and about how much his family means to him. Unfortunately for Jack, his temporal displacement is only the beginning of his troubles and there is a lot he goes through until he gets to the point he wants. It has to be said that there is a certain amount of predictability in the plot: because Jack’s time travelling is only temporal displacement (as opposed to time AND space), it is fairly easy to guess who, exactly, are the people that Jack is meeting back in time. The fun part is to be able follow him and see how it affects his life (and the lives of those he meets). I also LOVED how the author basically played around with the idea of the Grandfather Paradox.
I do use the word “fun” and “play” with a lot of caution. Because Mr Was is a freaking tragic book. Peter Hautman does not hold back from all the possible repercussions of messing up with time and he also does not pull punches when it comes to realistic portraying how time travel completely messes up the life of his main character. But Mr Was works not only as a mystery and as a thriller but also as a Contemporary YA work about a young boy and his family; and the portrayal of Jack’s family and their dynamics of abuse is painfully graphic and genuine.
Which brings me to Mr Was’s universal themes and how the author explores certain ideas. Can the past be changed? How about changing the future within one’s own timeline? Can things be altered? Can people change – Jack’s father’s promises of change are accepted wholeheartedly by both Jack and his mother but can that change happen without help? Are Jack and his mother wrong in trying to forgive the horrible abuse they suffer? How about love? Can a person control who they love or fall in love with? The proposition here is that all of it is irrevocable but is it really?
All that said, a few other things are worth mentioning. First of all, there is no explanation about the mechanics of time travel (how does the door work? Why? How come its time travel skills cover only batches of 50 years each time?) but I didn’t feel this deterred my connection to the novel. In fact, most of the best time travel stories for me are not those that necessarily explain how it happens but that brilliantly – like this one –develop what can happen once you do it. Secondly, Jack is a 13 year old boy who grew up in the 90s – as such he plays games, watches TV and he is really good with a Mac. He goes back to the 40s, and starts work as a farmhand and not once does he seem to feel the huge difference between the two timelines – he doesn’t seem to miss any of the 90s’ amusements a boy his age used to enjoy. Granted, he has a huge motivation for being in the 40s which could explain why he doesn’t feel the historical backlash. Still, the novel felt oddly lacking in that front.
Despite those minor criticisms, Mr Was is a thought-provoking, gut-wrenching, incredibly diverting time travel story. And it has cemented Pete Hautman as a new favourite author. ...more
Cardsharp. Gunslinger. Outlaw. Decked out in black and studded with silver from head to toe, Jett Gallatin cuOriginally Reviewed on The Book Smugglers
Cardsharp. Gunslinger. Outlaw. Decked out in black and studded with silver from head to toe, Jett Gallatin cuts a stunning figure. With his fine black stallion and well worn slick pistols, Jett looks like the kind of young man that boys want to emulate, and girls want to sweep them off their feet. What most folk don't realize, though, is that everything about Jett - from the slightly flamboyant wardrobe to the tightly and slightly higher holstered double pistols - is painstakingly crafted to create and project a persona so that no one will ever suspect one devastating truth: Jett Gallatin is a girl.
When the Civil War came, it claimed Jett's twin brother as a soldier, leaving Jett and her family behind on their New Orleans plantation. With the defeat of the south came plundering Yankees and the end of the kind of life Jett always knew. To make any sense of this new world, she decides to leave her home and search for her lost brother, under the guise of a man - a game that the twins used to play when they were children, now a necessary way of life for Jett as she travels alone across the wild frontier of the west. Jett's last stop takes her to the one-street (but rapidly growing, thanks to the new railroad) town Alsop, Texas - but the town doesn't stay quiet for long. Not an hour after she rides in and makes the usual inquiries at the town saloon does trouble come roaring in after her - a hoard of impossibly strong, impossibly alive zombies attack the town. Guns and weapons have no effect on their terrible onslaught, and soon the town is overrun, all her inhabitants dead. Jett, thanks to her trusty steed Nightingale, is barely able to make it out alive.
A few miles away, Jett runs into two unlikely allies in her quest to figure out just what kind of undead menace is sweeping through the southwest, and why. Honoria Gibbons is a beautiful, highly intelligent, and extremely unconventional young woman - the only child of a very rich (and also very eccentric) man, Honoria has had the time and the means to devote her life to the pursuit of science, and she has no qualms about traveling alone as a woman in the west, thanks to the incredible invention of her auto-tachypode (a horseless mechanized transportation device). White Fox, with his dark skin and his horse saddled in the Indian style with just a single blanket and rope for bridle, could easily be mistaken for a Native. And in truth, he is - a young man that was orphaned as a child, White Fox was taken in and raised to be one of the Meshkwahihaki, or Red Earth people. Now, a scout for the tenth Cavalry out of Fort Riley, Kansas, White Fox is a Buffalo Soldier seeking out mysterious disappearances of whole towns and caravans in the area.
Together, Jett, Gibbons, and White Fox will find their paths converge, and will work to discover why people are disappearing and to what sinister end.
Dead Reckoning is, at first glance, a melange of very familiar tropes: one part steampunkish western (but really NOT steampunk - one steampowered contraption does not a steampunk novel make), one part girl-dressed-as-boy to survive/get information, one part plucky unconventional-but-effortlessly-beautiful heroine, one part orphan-raised-as-Indian, all mixed in with zombies. The elements are all very familiar. That said, there is plenty of fun and even some innovation to be found in Dead Reckoning, especially with regard to Jett Gallatin (whom I consider the true hero of the piece - Gibbons and White Fox are great, to be sure, but this book really is Jett's). Easily, the best thing about Dead Reckoning is the character of Jett. Most times when I read a book about a girl dressed as a boy (or when the trope is depicted on the big screen), there's always a level of disbelief - these are usually very pretty girls that hack off their hair (or some of the more disingenuous put on a wig), and almost automatically are taken as slightly odd but passable young men. Contrasting this sort of half-assed attempt at passing as a man against the very calculated and intelligent Jett and her impersonation: Jett very carefully decides to draw attention to herself as a gunslinger and an outlaw (naturally she has the speed and straight shooting to back herself up). She smiles at pretty girls to complete the facade, and she knows when and from who trouble is coming thanks to her very keen and observant eye. For Jett, her very survival depends on her facade - and her facade is very, very good. Too, Dead Reckoning explores the effects that this impersonation has on Jett's identity - even though her new friends know she is a girl, Jett lives and breathes her role, to the point where she doesn't ever stop talking or acting like Jett. It's fascinating, and very genuine, really.
In contrast, the other two characters of Gibbons and White Fox are also strong, but somewhat less impressive. Gibbons - beautiful, brilliant, and highly eccentric - is a very familiar type of character in and of herself. The rapport that builds between this woman, who has no problem going around as a single woman in uncharted territory, and Jett is an interesting friendship (though Honoria's constant, unceasing referral to SCIENCE! and RATIONALITY! is a bit grating at times). White Fox on the other hand is a character that barely gets screentime in comparison to the book's two heroines. What we do learn of White Fox, his past, and the motivations that drive him, however, is well-conceived (if very sad).
On the plotting front, however, things are slightly less impressive. I love zombies and I love westerns. The mixture of the two is always a fun thing - and essentially that is what Dead Reckoning is. Fun. The story proper, involving Crazy Cultists and MoneyxPowerxRespect, is well written and competent, but small in scale and predictable once we catch our first glimpse of New Jerusalem and its inhabitants. That said, predictability and smaller scale novels aren't necessarily bad things, and there are enough twists on the features of this particular type of zombie - more in tune with The Serpent and the Rainbow than Night of the Living Dead - to make up for any shortcomings in terms of basic/banal plotting. And isn't that the important thing the having fun while reading part? I think so. Ultimately, Dead Reckoning is an enjoyable novel with a great protagonist and a diverting storyline. Should Jett, Gibbons and White Fox team up again for a future adventure, I'll certainly be there....more
For all seventeen years of her young life, Tess has been certain of just a few things: that her father is a bOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
For all seventeen years of her young life, Tess has been certain of just a few things: that her father is a brute that takes out his rage on his wife and daughter with his fists, that she would rather grow old alone or run away to the confines of the forbidden Dragonswood rather than be married off to any man, and that she must never ever reveal her secret ability to see the future in fire. Beyond the beatings, fear and hate Tess has for her father, the blacksmith, her family has also been torn by tragedy - her six baby sisters and brother have all died, consumed by inexplicable illness. Then, when the beautiful and fierce Lady Adela rides into Tess's small village on a crusade to expose, torture, and punish witches, Tess's small, unhappy life will be plunged into greater darkness. Tess is accused of being a witch, guilty of killing her family and hexing others, as well as consorting in the Dragonswood with Satan. Though Tess vehemently opposes these charges, she is taken away for terrifying questioning. Under Lady Adela's cruel torture, Tess betrays the names of her two best friends, Poppy and Meg, confessing that the three of them had gone into the forbidden Dragonswood.
Escaping her own trial by wit and luck, Tess and her friends must now flee their village, before the witch hunter can find them. Under the guise of lepers, the three girls leave their homes and search for help. Then, the women stumble across Garth, a woodward charged with guarding the Dragonswood for the King - and a man that Tess has seen with her firesight. Garth offers sanctuary, but Tess finds it hard to trust in his aid. She knows that Garth is hiding something - what she doesn't know, however, is that his secret, and her own secrets, will change the course of destiny for the entirety of the Wilde Island Kingdom - human, fay, and dragon alike.
Well...wow. Dragonswood is an amazingly potent novel, with rich imagery, vivid characters, and a refreshing tendency against the obvious. This is a book that could so easily have been a formulaic regurgitation of any number of pale romantic YA fey/fantasy novels on the market - but instead we get a careful, atmospheric novel that has its own happy ever after, but that comes at a price. In many ways Dragonswood is reminiscent of one of my favorite fantasy authors, Juliet Marillier. The Wilde Island kingdom - a subset of Britain (I'm assuming?) - feels very much like the isolated and magical Sevenwaters, where the fey are meddling, fickle with their favor, and utterly dangerous with their own plans and machinations. Like Sevenwaters, Wilde Island has its own potent prophecy that will change everything, though the cost of that prophecy, and the truth of its form, is deceptive. It is this prophecy that is the impetus for the story (though our protagonists hardly realize it); it is this outlawed tale that changes the destined paths of our heroes in Dragonswood.
And truly, what would a tale called Dragonswood be without those eponymous beasts? Fear not, dear readers - here be dragons. And they are wonderful. There is an intricate balance of power between the dragons, the fey, and the humans in this kingdom, and I love how the royal line (the Pendragons, naturally) is descended from dragons and takes on their appearance with scales on some part of their bodies.[2. Though, I'll admit that I wasn't aware that this actually was book 2 in a series until after reading Dragonswood - and then I found out that book 1 deals with this dragon-human heritage and that backstory. Needless to say, I've purchased that book, Dragon's Keep, and I'll be diving in very soon.] For all that these iconic creatures are very traditional in their appearance and portrayal in this novel, Ms. Carey's imaginative story and gorgeous writing make these mythologies feel fresh and exciting. In addition to featuring these different characters, there's also a loose bond to the Arthurian legend, as Merlin, the Pendragon clan, and they fey of lake and wood, all are woven into this book.
As for the characters, I both love and am skeptical regarding protagonist Tess. Something that bothers me intensely in many historical novels is the imposition of very contemporary and learned attitudes. In Tess's case, she begins the novel with the mindset of someone born a millennia later - she's fiercely independent, will bow to no man, and yearns to make her own money and way in the world. While of course this is admirable and doubtless there may have been women with these same ambitions in the twelfth century, Tess's singular defiance of convention feels false. This criticism said, as a heroine I did love that Tess is not infallible - from the opening chapters, she betrays her friends! But her actions are human and understandable, and I loved the genuine passion behind her actions, even when she makes her missteps. As for Garth, he's also somewhat contemporary and forward thinking for his time, but to a much lesser degree than Tess, and I had no trouble believing in him as a character. Like Tess, Garth is not a perfect person and guilty of any number of understandable faults - his attention to beguiling beauty, his judgmental behavior when he learns of Tess's betrayal. I love that these two characters are flawed, but ultimately with their hearts in the right place, and I love the way their stories intertwine.
What else can I say about Dragonswood? It is a beautiful, historical fantasy novel that delivers happiness without being saccharine, and introduces a haunting world where myths and legends cling desperately to their slipping power. I loved this book, and it is a shoo-in for my Notable Reads of the year - even possibly a top 10 pick. ...more
In the 22nd century, Captain Ramachandra Jason ("RJ") Stone and a small crew of five others embarked on a perOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
In the 22nd century, Captain Ramachandra Jason ("RJ") Stone and a small crew of five others embarked on a perilous but hopeful journey to the stars - spending the 10 light-year journey in cryogenic sleep en route to Alpha Centauri B. When RJ awakens, however, he is not surrounded by his fellow travelers on the surface of a new Earth-like planet four decades later, as planned. Instead, the Captain finds himself the sole survivor of Wayfarer One's unlucky fate, but approximately 12,000 years later. Early in its mission, the Wayfarer was hit by a micrometeoroid, which damaged the primitive ship's internal logic and neglected to wake up its crewmembers. Now, twelve millennia later, RJ Stone is a man out of time and thrust into a world that is nothing like the one he left behind.
In his long, long sleep, humanity has changed drastically. Earth - ravaged by environmental change, overcrowding, and still suffering from the aftershocks of a devastating asteroid impact - has changed in composition and size. The very definition of humanity has changed, to include all sentient creatures of Earth-life origin - no longer limited to biological homo sapiens bipeds. With advanced technology and the creation of a threshold connecting star systems formerly tens and hundreds of light years away by a network of portals (wormholes), humanity has grown peaceful, but somewhat complacent. RJ Stone's arrival changes all that - and a daring project to reach across the galaxy and find non-Earth origin sentience on the first-ever FTL starship, the Further, will finally be undertaken, with Stone at the helm.
I haven't had the pleasure of reading any of Chris Roberson's prose work prior to Further (though I have thoroughly enjoyed iZombie and Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love), but I now see that there is a deficiency in my speculative fiction diet - because this first novel in a new SF series? Yeah - it's pretty awesome.
Further begins with a very familiar staple in the SF canon - the good ol' Rip Van Winkle caper, with a hero that has Slept!Too!Long! only to awaken to a world that has drastically changed. It is the manner of the changed world, the definition and evolution of humanity, and the fun ease with which Roberson writes, however, that makes Further such a compelling read. Introducing readers to a far-future iteration of humanity, where definitions have shifted to include any form of sentience - animal-based, mechanical, or otherwise - I found myself instantly captivated by this vision of future civilization. Through the lens of a somewhat relatable contemporary character (for, though Ramachandra Stone is from the twenty-second century, post-devestating asteroid impact, his views and interpretations are close enough to our own contemporary world), we witness how these perceptions of what defines intelligent life change over the millennia. And there's something very natural and acceptable about this evolved perspective of sentient life. Ramachandra's own views, his quickness to label fellow sentients as robots, chimps, or birds instead of human is offensive to all those in this distant future but perhaps more in-tune with our own current perceptions and prejudices. (I also appreciated the juxtaposition of Ramachandra's own Indian and American background leveraged against this future vision of discrimination.)
From a writing and science perspective, Further also does a solid job. While the story's pacing is a tad uneven and tends towards heavy exposition, especially in the early chapters,I do appreciate Roberson's attempt to integrate some scientific explanation for his future world - in which humans have taken to adopting animal features and robot, bird-watching space probes are considered human. And while some of the harder science elements are there (the use of the ship Further's working Alcubierre Bubble/Drive, for example), Roberson isn't as detailed as a Larry Niven or Stephen Baxter. Rather, Further focuses more on character and the personal journey of Ramachandra as he tries to adjust to his new time and role in the Human Entelechy. The novel's main conflict is perhaps a bit muddy and comes late in the book - featuring a few one-note villains - but I don't hold that against the novel. The exposition and world, the character of Ramachandra, and the introduction to this very strange future is the meat of the story, and I truly enjoyed it all.
In the vein of Roddenberry's classic USS Enterprise, the Further and her intrepid crew have many, many adventures ahead of them on their ongoing mission to explore strange new worlds and boldly go where no member of the Human Entelechy has gone before.
And I, for one, am very excited to continue to ride. ...more
Little orphan Maud Flynn knows that she is most certainly NOT a good girl and she has been told so by many people. Plus her impertinence and her naughLittle orphan Maud Flynn knows that she is most certainly NOT a good girl and she has been told so by many people. Plus her impertinence and her naughtiness have landed her in constant trouble at the orphanage where she lives. This is why, more than anybody else, Maud is surprised when a charming, rich old lady called Miss Hyacinth and her sisters decide to adopt her out of all the children in the orphanage. Given this opportunity to leave that horrid place and to have a better life, Maud vows to be a good girl – as much as a possible. Even if it means not questioning the sisters when they tell her she is to be a “secret child”, hidden from everybody else, never to leave the house. Why would she want to anyway, as she has everything she needs: beautiful new clothes, as many books as she can read, as much food as she wants and the lovely attention of Miss Hyacinth?
Happy to be wanted, enamoured with Miss Hyacinth and eager to please, she even agrees to help out (not that she has any real choice on the matter) the sisters in their Grand Scheme. Hyacinth, Judith and Victoria might look like perfectly upstanding ladies but are in fact, con women who hold fake séances, preying on grief-stricken wealthy patrons. Time passes and Maud gets to know her adopted family better – and realises that her new life is not as perfect as she would like it to be.
A Drowned Maiden’s Hair: A Melodrama is a brilliant example of how a very conventional Gothic story, with very traditional tropes can still be a damn good novel. This is an excellent Gothic melodrama, one that knows exactly that it is one and as such it plays to the strengths of the genre (the melodrama! the villainy! the atmosphere!) to the maximum even as it never deviates from a fairly predictable Gothic-inspired pattern. On the surface, there is nothing new about it: it features a Feisty Orphan, Dastardly Villains, Fake-Séances, and a perfect happy ending after a lot of drama and loads of ups and down.
In this particular case, I would say that what makes A Drowned Maiden’s Hair: A Melodrama a perfect case study of how using conventional tropes and sticking to the traditional of a genre is not a bad thing per, is how its characters are lovingly developed, especially Maud. Maud is so much more than a Feisty Orphan. She is feisty, yes and also stubborn, clever and impertinent but it is very clear that mostly, she is just a lonely girl who desperately needs to be loved. It is really interesting really, how Maud has internalised – after so many years of hearing abuse – the idea that she is not good and therefore she cannot possibly be loved. That being good in her mind is equated with prettiness (which she is not) and unquestioning behaviour is quite possibly one of the saddest things I have ever heard. Not being able to trust the adults in her life because they have always failed her, believing that she is indeed less valuable than other children because of that, makes for a really heartbreaking read. Another point of interest is how Maud is an avid reader and the vast majority of books she reads (most of them classics) serve only to reinforce this idea: every single child in those books is extremely beautiful and perfectly good.
Her story arc takes her through some serious heartbreak but also through a lot of growth, especially when it comes to developing not only her own sense of right and wrong but also of self-worth (her love cannot be bought by riches or superficial endearments and promises). There is also a beautiful relationship that develops between her and another character that is better left for the reader to discover. Suffice it to say that because of this relationship I have seen the best use for an Ouija Board ever.
The other characters are superbly developed as well: the three villains of the piece have different layers and motivations and their relationship with Maud develop in different ways. Although they are all very clearly demarked as villains (no black and white there) there is depth to them (which to me, makes them all the more horrifying).
A Drowned Maiden’s Hair: A Melodrama also presents an intricate study of child abuse: from obvious neglect and horrid experiences at the orphanage to that kind of abuse that is mostly psychological– what she undergoes with the sisters, who pretend to be kind and give only material attention to her whilst neglecting her thirst for love is just horridly insidious. Every time Maud wished for a hug and had to refrain herself was just gut-wrenching. That she goes through it all with verve and an unbroken spirit is just the cherry on top. Oh little Maud, let ME adopt you.
My review quite possibly makes it sound as though A Drowned Maiden’s Hair: A Melodrama is a dreary, dismally bleak read. It is not – quite the contrary. There are fun parts as well as really heart-warming ones. And I really don’t mean to sound melodramatic but the ending almost made me drown in my own tears of joy. True fact. ...more
**WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS UNAVOIDABLE SPOILERS FOR FEED AND DEADLINE. If you have not read the first twOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
**WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS UNAVOIDABLE SPOILERS FOR FEED AND DEADLINE. If you have not read the first two books in the trilogy and want to remain unspoiled, look away! YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.**
At the conclusion of Deadline, there have been some rather drastic revelations: Shaun is immune to Kellis-Amberlee, Georgia has been cloned by the CDC (oh, yeah, and the adopted brother and sister have had a longstanding sexual relationship). Blackout opens with a bang, much in the same way as its predecessor. Georgia finds herself an unwitting patient of the CDC, and while she knows immediately that she must be a clone (given the memory of her death and the fact that she no longer has retinal KA), she doesn't know why she has been cloned or what the CDC's endgame is. All she knows is that it must have to do with her brother, and it must have to do with a truth that someone very desperately wants to keep covered up. Not so far away, Shaun and the After the End Times team (Mahir, Alaric, Mags, and Becks) are dispatched on a crazy dangerous mission - Kellis-Amberlee has mutated and now can be carried by insect vectors, and after the last tropical storm deadly zombie-making mosquitoes are now on the large and the entire state of Florida is nanoseconds away from being declared officially lost. Shaun - still mourning for his lost sister and hanging onto sanity by a mere thread - and the crew must save Alaric's sister, capture a live mosquito sample for testing, and figure out why the virus mutated - be the cause natural, or manmade.
Alternating points-of-view between Shaun's narrative and Georgia's, Blackout chronicles the last chapter of the Newsflesh trilogy as the Masons paths collide and together they fight to rip the lid off of a conspiracy so huge, it will rock the foundation of the post-Rising world.
I am kind of at a loss when it comes to Blackout. I *loved* Feed. I loved the heavy exposition, the fascinating medical procedural tied to the political thriller. I loved Georgia's frank narration, and I loved how honest and forthright she was throughout. I loved this vision of a post-apocalyptic, zombie-filled world, and the steps humanity has taken to adapt, survive, and to rise.
Needless to say, when I got through Deadline, I was a little less enthused. I still loved the world building and the underlying main storyline, but so many of the things I was so enamoured with in the first book were absent in the second. Most glaringly, Shaun is not half the narrator his sister was. There was also a ton of repetition (not just of pointless story exposition that leads nowhere, but also of key phrases - Shaun drinking a coke, muttering to himself/Georgia's ghost, grinning like a maniac and wanting to punch people in the face, etc) that detracted from the overall efficacy of the story. The political and medical thriller, the underlying conspiracy, is pushed to the backburner in favor of Shaun's (very quickly tiresome) glib narrative as he grapples with grief.
In Blackout, I wanted so desperately for the book to return to the series' Feed roots, but alas. Blackout is better than Deadline, but failed to wow, shock or awe. I liked the alternating narrator conceit, tying the first two books together nicely in an attempt to bring both Georgia and Shaun back together again. That said, I found myself wanting to skip Shaun's narrative entirely - as to me it felt largely pointless and filled with the same tedious repetition I had to slog through in Deadline. The good news is that Georgia's narrative is as wonderful as I remembered from Feed but this time is rife with more internal struggle as she fights to form and understand a sense of self and identity within her new flesh, whilst simultaneously fighting and exposing the Umbrella Corporation-esque corruption of the CDC, and finding a way to escape and get back to her brother. As far as narrators go, Georgia remains one of the coolest, smartest, most capable protagonists I have had the pleasure of reading in a good long while. With regard to the other characters, my main complaint is how similar the majority of the characters sound to each other. Most everyone is a smarmy, fast-talking wiseguy with a mile-wide melodramatic streak, from the doctors to the Newsies. I like the additions to the cast this go-around, but the lack of distinct voices makes for a monotonous reading experience. [1. What's that old adage? When everyone's a wisecracking snarkist, no one is.]
On the story and actual writing front, Blackout also leaves a girl wanting more. Well, actually, wanting less. The biggest issue with Blackout is its unnecessary length - the underlying conspiracy that runs through the trilogy, the truth that Georgia, Shaun and the gang are fighting so desperately to unveil? WE'VE KNOWN ABOUT IT SINCE BOOK 1 (and the beginning portion of book 2)! There is absolutely no need for the book to be half as long as it is, chock-full of repetitive action, driving scenes, medical tests, and so on that have no baring on the actual progression of the story or development of the characters.[2. Especially coming off reading such a fantastically taught and expertly written short novel in Nancy Kress's After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall, Blackout's many excesses were all the more glaring!] Even the little epigraphs preceding each chapter - and I shouldn't call them "little" because there are at least 2 each time, and usually span at least a paragraph a pop - became tiresome and repetitive.[3. On a side note, that's a shame because some of the epigraphs were actually pertinent and reveal more to the story at large - but because 90% of them are pointless filler, the tendency is to want to skip them altogether.] That said, the actual conspiracy itself is a fantastic twist (well, not so twisty since we've kind of known about it for a while), and once the action and story proper actually starts moving along, Blackout becomes a much more enjoyable read.
I can't write this review without addressing the two other significant detractors for me, personally, though. These are the two huge Jump the Shark moments from Blackout: 1. The Relationship between Georgia and Shaun; and 2. The Cloning/Pseudoscience/Shaun's Immunity Revelations. First, regarding the relationship between brother and sister, I simply cannot buy it. Not even in this book, not even with Georgia's 'explanation' (which feels very much like an editorial response to criticism of book 2 and that revelation). I don't care if the nature of their relationship is something that Georgia and Shaun never wrote down - the fact that we are living inside both Georgia and Shaun's heads for the full trilogy means that at some point, in Feed, Georgia could have/should have made some sort of reference to her very intimate, soulmate bond with her non-biological brother. I simply do not buy it (your mileage may vary, of course, but to me this revelation and attempt at rationalization felt inauthentic).
Regarding the second, Shaun's immunity to KA and Georgia's cloning are also 'explained', and while these explanations are within the realm of possibility (this IS a zombie novel, after all), I still can't help but feel a little, well, unhappy with the way things turn out. The reason why Feed was such a powerful, resonant novel is because of its grounding in more tangible science, its taut political relevance, and the medical thriller aspect to the book. We lose that in Deadline and Blackout, which turns to fringe scifi with neural/synapse photography/memory imprinting and cloning of a fully grown human (still not sure how that worked so quickly). Mira Grant does a phenomenal job with making these applied phlebotinum technologies and sciences work, but it's a far cry from the more sturdy applications in Feed (again, your mileage may vary).
All these criticisms voiced, I still finished Blackout and enjoyed the experience, for both the novel and for the series as a whole. The Newsflesh books have tremendous crossover genre potential - I hesitate to label them zombie books because the zombies play such a tangential, minor role to the characters and the true villains of the piece (not to mention the virus itself). While I wasn't wholly satisfied with the way things turned out, and Feed is clearly the vastly superior novel of the trilogy, Blackout is a solid read. And if you've come this far in the trilogy, you're gonna have to finish it. Right? Recommended...albeit with reservations. ...more
After the Fall It is the year 2035. Life on Earth has ceased to be, humanity reduced to a handful of survivorsOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
After the Fall It is the year 2035. Life on Earth has ceased to be, humanity reduced to a handful of survivors trapped together in "The Shell" (a hull built by an alien intelligence that survivors refer to as "Tesslies") that shields its human captors from the desolate wasteland outside. Of the 26 original adults taken into the Shell before the annihilation of life, just a scant a few remain. But hope endures, because these original survivors copulated and gave birth to the Six - children born inside the Shell that have never known any other life or the world outside. These children, now teenagers, were born with defects from radiation exposure, stunted with spindly limbs, rendered sterile and unable to procreate. Shortly after the Six have reached puberty and their sterility discovered, a new technology appears in The Shell. A strange platform lights up at random intervals and allows only the Six to return to a point in Earth's past for a few precious minutes, giving the future survivors a chance to "grab" the things they will need most to survive. With each grab, the Six bring back food, water, supplies, and most importantly, virile, healthy children.
Pete, one of the Six, is just fifteen, but already has become a leader within the Shell and has made a number of successful Grabs. As the original survivors grow weaker and older, Pete's rage grows stronger and he vows to kill the Tesslies that have murdered his planet, destroyed his people, and so coolly ignore their human captors.
Before the Fall It is the year 2013. Julie Kahn is a talented and intelligent mathematician that specializes in patterns, and she is hired as a consultant for an FBI task force, charged with solving a rash of kidnappings in the northeastern United States. Julie's carefully calibrated equations determine that the kidnappings are all interlinked, but she can't figure out why or who might be behind them. As an expectant and then a new mother, Julie gradually understands that somehow, the kidnappings, the mysterious break-ins, and the food and supply thefts are all clues revealing a terrifying united truth about the future.
During the Fall As Julie struggles to make sense of the data, and Pete and the Six travel back to the past on their grab missions, Earth herself is changing. Bacteria mutate, plates shift, volcanoes erupt. The end is coming, faster and more devastating than anyone could ever predict.
Aptly named and coolly effective in its scope and delivery, After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall is one hell of a book. At a slim 200 pages, Nancy Kress's new novel (more of a novella, really) is a harrowing look at a possible future iteration of our planet robbed of life by catastrophic climate, ecological, and biological change. It also happens to be a book with a wonderful science fiction bend, involving a technologically superior race of aliens and time travel, juxtaposed against a more procedural mystery and the slow death of a planet due to dramatic mutation and change. Phew. That's a lot of stuff to cover, but Kress does so with easy skill, alternating past, present, and future in a seamless and tension-building narrative. Following three characters - Pete, Julie, and the planet herself - After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall is an exercise in slow-simmering restraint, building both horror and hope as the chapters progress.
While I love the memorable and original conceit of the time traveling and perspective shifting with each different period of the apocalypse, the story contains more familiar SF tropes, too. The benevolent (or, perhaps, not so benevolent) Tesslies as they watch the violent, destructive Earthlings, are a familiar staple, and the concept underlying Earth's destruction is as well (don't worry, I won't spoil it). Just because the concepts are familiar does not mean they aren't well done, though, as these well worn tropes are handled evenly and well in this particular telling (albeit with a level of predictability in as far as the actual story concludes).
On the character front, we become mostly acquainted with two very different narrator protagonists, Julie and Pete. In the past, Julie is meticulous, intelligent and fiercely independent, remarkably competent and refreshingly so. In contrast to her even-headed logic, Pete from the bleak, stark future of the Shell is raw and violent, and this is where the real meat of the story lies. Pete's is a narrative hard to read at points because of his anger and his limited comprehension. Within the shell itself, Pete's relationships, his obsessions (sexual and emotional), and most of all his impotent rage are very real, tangible things. While it isn't a particularly pretty narrative, it is undoubtedly effective, painting a terrifying, claustrophobic future for humanity - but one tinged with the important light of hope at the end of the day.
Though brief, After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall is haunting, memorable, and a perfect example of how to write a future post-apocalyptic dystopia that is both effectively bleak, but with the all-important factor of human tenacity. Absolutely recommended. ...more
Emma and her loyal dog Petal (an incongruously named rottweiler) are on their usual evening stroll through thOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
Emma and her loyal dog Petal (an incongruously named rottweiler) are on their usual evening stroll through the neighborhood cemetery. After the death of her boyfriend, Nathan, in a fatal car accident the prior year, Emma has taken to visiting the graveyard, wrestling with her solitary grief in the long, quiet hours of the night. On this particular night, however, things are neither solitary nor quiet, as Emma runs into the charming new guy in school, Eric, who is casually walking among the headstones at night for reasons unknown.
Eric is not the only other person in the graveyard, though - an old, haggard woman carrying a lantern approaches Emma and gives her both the lantern and a grotesque kiss before Emma loses consciousness. Then, things start to get really strange - Emma has excruciating headaches, nausea, and then she starts to hear and see things that no one else can. Emma can see the dead. More than that, Emma can communicate with these honest-to-goodness ghosts, and can even bind them to her will. For new guy Eric, who is sworn to protect against necromancers, Emma is a problem that needs to be eliminated. But the more he gets to know Emma, her family, her friends, and the lives she has touched, the harder it is to kill her. Emma is determined to use her powers for good, but as her abilities grow, the lure for more power can be a hard call to resist.
I haven't read a Michelle Sagara West book in a good long while - I remember reading the Cast series and the Sundered books and liking them, so I was intrigued when I saw this paranormal YA title from an author whose work I've only consumed as high fantasy. The coolest thing about Silence is that while the story itself seems familiar and almost pedestrian in an increasingly populated paranormal genre (how many books are out there these days with teenage girls that can see dead people following x traumatic experience?), the writing and the characters make Silence a strong, memorable read.
From a pure plot perspective, there isn't really much new, exciting, or groundbreaking about this first book in a planned series. Silence features a heroine that has undergone her share of trauma, and now can see, speak to, and even control the dead (who of course dwell among us). There's an interesting world of necromancers, ghosts, and power, which is revealed at a nice slow burn over the course of the novel - but this isn't inherently new or anything to write home about.
Rather, the strength of Silence lies with its expertly assembled and executed ensemble cast, and the strange, lilting, yet completely winsome prose.
I adore the fact that this book sounds and reads nothing like your typical YA paranormal novel. You know what I'm talking about, right? The paranormal YA with a shy/slightly outsider-ish/unassumingly pretty heroine, who falls for the dangerous new hot dude, engages in something of a love triangle, and solves a mystery to Save Everyone before calamity strikes? You know the type of novel I'm talking about - cookie cutter, bland, unholy-spawn-of-Twilight boringness. Silence might resemble these tropes in theory, but in form, it far exceeds them. Starring an empathetic heroine in Emma, who is strong in her own quiet way, Silence is not a book about Emma's insecurities or her fawning over her newfound, undying love for Eric. Rather, it is the story of a girl that has gone through some very tough times, has gained some extraordinary and dangerous powers, and is growing as a person over the course of the novel. It's also an ensemble piece, with strong representation from many characters, including a best friend that is so much more than mere background support, a high-functioning autistic boy named Michael that is both Emma's good friend and a litmus test for things that happen late in the book, a queen bee (that cares for her friends, for a change), a mother and a father that are strained but inexplicably present and integral to the story, and of course, two new boys that are bonded by friendship and gradually are accepted into Emma's tangled, close-knit group. I loved all of these characters and the nuances and layers they bring to this otherwise straightforward story.
And, as I mentioned before, I love the actual writing style employed by Ms. Sagara in Silence. Instead of a linear progression or recounting of events so familiar in many of the popular YA books today, Silence is a slightly different animal, posing questions and leaving them tantalizingly unanswered, trading the overt sledgehammer technique for a more subtle technique. I cannot express enough how much I love this.
Overall, I found Silence to be an interesting take on a collection of tried and tired genre tropes. There's enough here to keep me excited for the next book, and I'm excited to see what happens next for Emma and the gang. Recommended, especially for those readers looking for a break from the more monotonous, uninspired blahness of current Paranormal YA. ...more
A Confusion of Princes is a Sci-fi novel complete with space travel, adventurous hijinksOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
A Confusion of Princes is a Sci-fi novel complete with space travel, adventurous hijinks, a dash of romance and an attempt (emphasis on the attempt) at exploration of what it means to be human.
Khemri is an enhanced human being, a Prince of the Empire, expected to do great things once he leaves the secluded temple he grew up at. It is only when he does so that he realises the truth: there are ten million princes all over the Empire and all of them compete against each other to death (although most princes are allowed to be reborn). More than that though and to Khemri’s dismay, he can’t really do everything and anything he wants as he expected – there is a very strict hierarchy of princes, rules he must follow, not to mention the complete obedience owed to the Imperial Mind – a supposedly omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent being. This story is Khemri’s own story – narrated by him - of how he has died and been reborn three times and describing his transformation from a Prince of the Empire into a full human being.
I am slightly conflicted about A Confusion of Princes: I absolutely loved parts of it but felt that ultimately the book fell short of its full potential.
First of all, I loved the narrative voice. Khemri’s voice is sarcastic, funny, self-aware and it was just what made the book such a pleasure to read. As he begins his life as a Prince he is expected to be absolutely loyal to the Empire and to never question anything. He is also designed to fully believe he is the best thing the galaxy has ever seen (his own words). As such and as the book opens, Khemri is arrogant, self-serving, believing regular humans to be beneath him and worthy of contempt. plus, complete unquestioning of everything that he has ever been told. Slowly but surely, he becomes increasingly aware of his and the Empire’s shortfalls. The fact that Khemri is such a complete douchebag is probably part of what I liked the most about the book because it was believable and fitting into the society where he grew up. The main arc – his transformation – is incredibly fun to read because of the world-building (although some parts of that were slightly boring and perhaps too detailed) and the scrapes he gets into. That said, I am not sure I completely bought this transformation but more on that later on.
Another thing that I loved about A Confusion of Princes is its lack of exposition and info-dump. From the start, the reader is dropped into this fascinating futuristic world, expected to fully understand it as we go along and I really appreciated the lack of hand-holding and pandering. I also loved the diversity of gender (princes can be either male or female – although I would have appreciated a gender neutral title; loads of female characters in positions of power), race and sexual orientation (most princes seem to be bisexual) representation. These are presented without making an issue out of it and it’s all the more appreciated considering this is a YA novel.
That said, although I loved the idea of Khemri’s arc being an exploration of what it means to be human at its core, I felt that this very exploration was short-changed by occurring far too fast. It doesn’t take much for Khemri to question his entire life, it doesn’t take long for him to change. I never quite bought his transformation because it was very sudden (and brought forth by an insta-love connection with a human girl). In truth, we were told rather than shown this transformation and as such I felt his change was perfunctory and superficial rather than really profound and affecting. Seriously, there is so much potential to this story but at lot of it was merely glanced over. There is enough material here for at least a trilogy.
Ultimately, although I felt A Confusion of Princes could have been soooooo much better, I still enjoyed reading it a lot and thoroughly recommend it.
At last! A non-divisive review from la casa de Smugglers! I wholeheartedly agree with everything that Ana has said.
A Confusion of Princes is a delightful book, and I truly enjoyed many aspects of the novel - not the least Prince Khemri (later just "Khem")'s narrative. I love the idea of this intergalactic empire, its myriad biologically engineered Princes (of both genders!), and the hijinks that Khemri gets tangled into as he transitions from Prince to understanding the value of life and humanity. On the other hand, while fun, A Confusion of Princes sort of squanders much of its promise, especially in later chapters as Khem's transition from self-absorbed Prince to in loooooove with a human girl feels predictable and forced.
But on to the good: the most appealing thing about A Confusion of Princes is the narration of Khemri and his blithely superior attitude. To be fair, Prince Khemri *is* an imperial Prince and thus has been selected for his genetic compatibility and has been trained since youth to be a superior creature - but it's pretty funny to read, especially when all of Khemri's biological and cybernetic type of advantages are stripped away. On that note, the actual universe, in which Princes are snatched from parents as children and whisked away to undergo modifications and training, and groomed to become candidates for Imperial Greatness, is fascinating. I love the idea of this cutthroat, competitive array of Princes fighting for superiority and status across the universe - oh, and did I mention that they also have the ability to be reborn? Should the all-seeing "Imperial Mind" find them worthy of revival, these Princes can die multiple times and be reborn into cloned adult human bodies. I also love that "Prince" is not a gender-specific term, and that females are Princes, too.
Praises said - there are also some downsides. First, the narrator and hero of our piece, Prince Khemri, is a fantastic voice, but I could not for the life of me stop comparing him to Miles Vorkosigan. And if you, like me, are a Vorkosigan fan, you know that NO ONE can compare to the charming, clever, hilarious Miles. The other, more significant problems were with the tendency to skip over the good stuff. That is, there's the odd sense that things are truncated and skipped over completely. The things that I so desperately wanted to see unfold were glossed over with a few sentences (e.g. Khem's first four simulations in his human - non Prince enhanced - body). And then of course there's the InstaLove of Doom. I didn't quite buy into the immediate attraction and relationship between Khem and Raine (and on a broader level, I don't know how I feel about the tried trope of powerful dude falls in love with human girl who teaches him the value of life and love, blah blah blah. Not my favorite trope.). The most frustrating thing about A Confusion of Princes, however, is this feeling of opportunity squandered. This is a book with a ton of potential and some soaring high points, but it never really manages to deliver on that promise.
That said, despite these misgivings, I did truly enjoy A Confusion of Princes and certainly recommend it - but if you've read this and want something with a littler more oomph, I'd point you to Lois McMaster Bujold and the ineffable Miles Vorkosigan.
On the covers:
We've been discussing these covers since we started reading the book. We assume that the man on the cover depicts the main character who is described thusly in the book:
His skin was lighter than my own and more yellow than brown
My own brown skin and black eyes
She had brown skin like mine
We've been pondering if these covers are whitewashed but the fact is...we can't really tell can we? The UK one could be any kind of guy given the blue shadowy hue all over the cover and we can barely see the model in the US cover.
Odds are this is a caucasian model instead of being brown-skinned, but we don't think we can cry whitewashing because we can't really see the model. We do think we can say that this is a shame because this would have been a great opportunity to use a POC model...but instead we've got is this kind of ambivalent, maybe-he-is-maybe-he-isn't cover. ...more
Thea: Throwback. That is the one word I think of when trying to write this review for The Obsidian Blade. Pete Hautman kicks off a nFirst Impressions:
Thea: Throwback. That is the one word I think of when trying to write this review for The Obsidian Blade. Pete Hautman kicks off a new science fiction series by eschewing traditional linear storylines and expectation, by provoking questions of religion, history and causality, and does it in a way that is a most excellent throwback to old-school b-movie sci-fi. While the actual story is light on actual plot, I love this introductory novel to a strange version of our world where diskos manifest and certain key players can jump through time and space.
Ana: Well, dear readers, I fell hard for The Obsidian Blade and the more I think about it, the more I love it. The Obsidian Blade is thought-provoking AND fun, its time travelling factor well conceived (I can think of no plot holes) and with a brilliant omniscient narrative voice. Most of all, I absolutely, completely adored the self-assured writing style. If I didn’t know any better, I would think this book was written for me.
On the Plot:
Thea: Tucker Feye lives a quiet life in Hopewell, Minnesota with his beautiful mother Emily and his deeply religious preacher father, Adrian. One summer day, Tucker watches his father fix a missing shingle on the roof, only to inexplicably disappear into thin air. Not exactly thin air – into a shimmering disk that appears above the roof. An hour later, a frantic Tucker finds his father walking up the road as though nothing has happened – except his clothes are in tatters (save for a pair of strange blue slippers), his face has seemed to have aged years, and he has a young teenager girl in tow. Despite Tucker’s probing questions and his mother’s fears, Adrian refuses to speak about his disappearance, the mysterious girl Lahlia, or his sudden and absolute loss of faith. Slowly, following Tucker’s father’s return, his mother starts to become increasingly withdrawn, obsessed with rituals, numbers, and nonsensical puzzles – and gradually, she loses her mind.
With doctors stumped, Tucker’s father takes matters into his own hands – and one day Tucker comes home to find his parents gone, with just a cryptic note saying that they have gone to find help in a far away place. Tucker’s estranged Uncle Kosh shows up shortly thereafter, ready to take Tucker away from the town he calls “Hopeless”. Frustrated and seeking answers, Tucker knows that his parents’ disappearance must have something to do with the appearance of those strange, shimmering disks – and when he spies one appear over Kosh’s barn, he plunges in and finds himself hurtling through time and space on a quest to find and save his family.
It is hard to write more about the actual synopsis of The Obsidian Blade without giving anything away (or sounding crazy) because there is a whole lot that goes on once Tucker discovers the diskos and jumps into the past and far, far future – to eras with temples, priests and human sacrifices, to advanced medical facilities, to forests at the end of the world. The idea of these diskos, created at some point in the future by someone known as Iyl Ryn, is a fascinating one. While the conceit of future creatures coming back in time to view some of the landmark events (mostly atrocities) that have occured in human history is not a novel one and plenty of science fiction authors have tread this ground before The Obsidian Blade, it’s a conceit that I think works very well. I love the H.G. Wells-ian, Time Traveler-esque feel to Tucker’s leaps into the far future and the devolvement of humanity (or is it even humanity anymore?) into creatures bent on sacrifice, fixated on technology with the onset of the “Digital Plague”, the perversion of religion similar to the days of the Maya and Aztecs of old, and ultimately, the lack of corporeal flesh and bone. (I also love the classic references to The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Army of Darkness, from a purely nerdy perspective.) All of these elements are exposed in The Obsidian Blade, but nothing is really explained – and that’s ok. This is much more of a teaser, an amuse bouche, rather than the actual entree of the series.
Which brings me to my sole criticism of the book, with regard to plot and story. You know that phrase, waiting for the anvil to drop? THat’s how I felt the entire book. I kept waiting to learn about some jaw-dropping revelation (Tucker is Kosh is Adrian! Emily is Lah/Yar Lia! The Iyl Rayn is an anagram for Lia Ryyn! And so on) – and when that didn’t happen, because the book and the series is clearly building up to a bigger revelation, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed. That said, this clearly is the first novel in a trilogy, and while setting and groundrules are established here, more meat is sure to come in the next two books.
Ana: Unlike Thea I don’t think The Obsidian Blade was light on plot – I thought that not only plenty happened but I also was pretty satisfied with what I’ve got especially when it came to the book’s thematic core. It is a strange little story, this one. The book opens with a short prologue which introduces us to the future history of this world, of our world, a post-digital future where most of humanity is discorporeal and enjoying the profoundly disturbing entertainment of watching the past – key, horrifying events of the past – via portals named diskos.
We then move to the present to follow Tucker, an extremely naive young boy who still plays with his toys. One day his father – a Reverend – disappears in front of his eyes and comes back one hour later looking much older and having lost his faith in God completely. Interestingly, it is the latter that disturbs young Tucker most profoundly. Until, of course, he learns of the diskos and is sucked (literally) into other timelines. But that doesn’t happen much, much later in the book and its first half more or less is dedicated to develop and introduce Tucker, his family and his life in Hopewell. The author takes his sweet time with his and I although there is an element of “introduction”, I thought this was essential to the story in terms of establishing the grounds for the setting and for the characters. It is more than introduction, it is framing and I loved the first part of the novel as much as I loved the second. Of course, this being a time travel novel and all, any minor detail which might seem random, could also mean something extremely important. And of course, we have no idea if any of Future Tucker’s actions have had consequences for his timeline or not. And that is absolutely brilliant.
This first part also establishes the very personal nature of this novel and of this world. Sure, we are talking about the future and changing the world but fundamentally, this is a story about a boy, his family and their relationship with faith and technology. I thought the book to offer a keen, frank, thought-provoking look at our connections with religion (more on that later on) and technology (technology is not inherently bad, it seems to say, but watch out for how we use it). I had no problems believing in the horrible voyeuristic future of their society as being a possible one for our own.
The story itself is fun (like any time travel story has the potential to be) but also incredibly gut-wrenching and courageous. The author does not shy away from delivering punches, from killing people off, from completely exploring the terrible possible consequences of time travel. It also lands Tucker on several horrific historical moments and they are described in gory detail (one of those moment nearly made me sick).
The narrative is delivered by a matter-of-fact omniscient narrator who narrates from several characters’ point of view. At times, I wondered if the narrator isn’t part of the story – from the future, telling what “happened” and in that sense how much can we truly believe this narrative?
And finally a word on the writing. Pete Hautman’s is just my kind of writing: self-assured, competent, with no shortcuts or clichés. It speaks of a seasoned writer whose other books I need to read NOW.
On the Characters:
Ana: The first thing to say is how there is an element of distance between the reader and the characters of the book – I think this stems from the omniscient narrative itself and I don’t think it was a problem per se. I didn’t, for example, love Tucker but that might be because he sounds oddly out of time (no pun intended) and too naïve and childish for a 14 year old. That said, I completely and absolutely loved his interactions with just about anyone else in the book (but mostly with his uncle Kosh, whom I LOVED). His relationship with his father changes and evolves with time as well (hee) and since they are both time travellers, it is really interesting to see how witnessing the same events and undergoing the same experiences affect them both so differently.
Most intriguing of all for me, is how the religious aspect is played out in the book. I am a reader who avoids and dislikes any kind of read that tries to be too didactic or promoting a religion as the UNIVERSAL truth. I do, however, LOVE to see and read books about single characters’ PERSONAL relationship with their faith. I think this book does really interesting, thought-provoking things with the conceits of religion, faith and destiny from a personal point of view. I loved that time travel in this story affects the characters’ lives and their personal beliefs – it is fun to see how Tucker’s father lost all of his faith, whereas Tucker’s has been reinforced. In that sense, no traveller in this story has been left unscathed and they are not simply breezing through time la-la-la-di-da-ing their way through it. There are consequences to their actions and they are both physical and psychological.
I just have one request for the next books – that Lah Lia becomes even more of a central character because holy crapoles was she awesome and that we get to see a bit more diversity? That would just make this whole business all the more impacting and awesome.
Thea: I agree with Ana that there is a certain distance from characters in this book, but I don’t think this is to the detriment of the novel at all. I felt like the character of Tucker is a fantastic protagonist that is both sympathetic, heroic, but not infallible. I love that he has a wildchild sort of daredevil/can’t-sit-still attitude, but underneath all of that is a boy that is desperate for his mother and his father. Can I be a little cheesy and say, there is a definite Star Wars vibe to this book and the relationship between Tucker and his father? There’s a palpable tension, between love, loyalty, and morality, and I love the way this relationship plays out in the book.
Like Ana, I also loved Kosh and the bond between uncle and nephew, and I KNOW there has to be more to this story, and Kosh’s involvement with Tucker’s mother…
And lastly, yes, I love Lahlia/Yar Lia (and her kitten, aptly named Bounce), and I cannot, absolutely cannot, wait to get more of her in book 2. Can I have book 2 now, please?
Final Thoughts, Observations & Rating:
Thea: I truly enjoyed The Obsidian Blade for its wonderful writing, fantastic characters, and scifi throwback appeal. Absolutely recommended…and now I am totally stalking the author’s backlist (there are a TON of awesome sounding books on there! Hello, Godless, Mr. Was, Rash, and Hole in the Sky!).
Ana: I absolutely loved this book from its great opening to its awesome fist-pumpy ending and consider this to be one of the best SciFi YA novels I’ve ever read. It is a Notable Read of 2012 and you know what? I wouldn’t be surprised if it made its way into my top 10 next December. ...more
Hey look, here is Ana being a total party pooper again!
I was super excited about Shadow and Bone with its Russian-inspired setting, its braAna’s Take:
Hey look, here is Ana being a total party pooper again!
I was super excited about Shadow and Bone with its Russian-inspired setting, its brand of magic system and the promise of a lavish world. And in all fairness the first few chapters were quite good. I loved the close friendship between the main character Alina and her childhood friend Mal (and her unrequited love for him) as well as that first introduction to the nation of Ravka and its magic system controlled by the Grisha. The plot gets moving when Alina, Mal and their regiment are attacked and Alina displays an incredible amount of untapped power, saves the day, is made to join the ranks of the Grisha and starts her training at the Court.
Is it when the story moves to the Court and to Alina’s training as a Grisha that things went downhill for me and I ended being utterly bored by Shadow and Bone. It is not that it is a bad book, the writing is fairly competent, for example. But it was all just so familiar and I felt that everything was following super conventional fantasy tropes without really furthering/subverting/doing anything new or exciting with them. You have the poor orphan with low self-esteem, who turns out to be the most powerful person ever in the existence of the always. Her training is full of the expected highs and lows, difficult hurdles to overcome, complete with jealous rivals and a Yoda-type master that even sounds like Yoda (“Tomorrow, little comes early, trains with Botkin”). There is even a very powerful object that will increase her powers. It is just so…samey? Conventional? Not that there is anything wrong with following tropes but I thought this particular story to be uninspiring.
To make things worse, when I am this unenthused by a story, my mind tends to wander and I nitpick…and some of the things that popped into my head were:
Doesn’t the “Darkling” have a name? He kept being addressed and called “Darkling” throughout the book and every time I had this urge to giggle.
What in the world was this character’s obsession with beauty? If I had to read about one more beautiful, perfect Grisha and how Alina couldn’t possibly be a true Grisha because she was not pretty, I would have done something drastic. I thought things were really muddied in this arena, quite frankly: it is as though Alina aligns beauty with power and to my mind this is only reinforced by the fact that the more powerful she became, the more beautifully perfect she looked. It does not help that the vast majority of characters seemed very similar with their beautiful, perfect white skins. I was not comfortable with the extreme emphasis on beauty and perfection allocated to the characters.
The most frustrating thing is the fact that Shadow and Bone is not entirely without its great moments. As I said, the beginning showed a lot of promise, I actually thought the romance was quite sweet and there were kick-ass fighting moments that were cool but ultimately I was left underwhelmed by the whole thing.
I don’t really have a lot more to say about this one, I am afraid. It completely failed to leave a lasting impression, two days after finishing it and I can barely remember the details of the story.
Conversely, I actually quite enjoyed Shadow and Bone – even though I will agree with Ana on all counts. This is a very familiar story that employs very familiar tropes, including an orphan that is Powerful and Unique Beyond Compare, who Rises Above and Saves the World (well…sort of, as more danger is to come in the next two books). Alina’s tale is a variation on a story that has been told many times before in the fantasy canon – and yet for all of that, I found myself liking this heroine (for all of her insecurities), the romance, the world, and the central conflict of the book.
Alina Starkova (assuming it should be Starkova and not Starkov? I had an ARC so maybe this was changed?) is perhaps not your typical heroine, and certainly not the heroine that I usually prefer. For one thing, she’s insecure as all-get-out – because she has been sickly her whole life, scrawny, and plain, she is incredibly sensitive to the appearance of others, especially the beauty of others. This insecurity plays a large part of her narrative and her thought processes, so with this in mind, it makes sense that she is so ridiculously aware of the beauty of others. I am not a huge fan of novels where EVERYONE is beautiful and people wear beautiful clothes, and much time is spent on said beautiful people getting dressed in said beautiful clothes. And to be fair, there is some of that here in Smoke and Bone when Alina gets to the Little Palace and is ingratiated in Grisha life. But again, I feel like this all stems from her own very deep-seeded insecurities and issues.
I also love the unrequited love that Alina feels for her best friend and fellow orphan, Mal – who has grown up to become a charming, handsome, successful tracker that remains Alina’s best friend (but who will never see her as anything other than a friend, or so Alina fears). Theirs is a deep bond, and I love that we see them both as children and adults, and how they change as their circumstances change, but ultimately that bond remains. On the other character front, I love the character of the Darkling (silly name aside – though to Ana’s point about him not having a name, I think this is because he is so ancient and has gone through many names). Is he conflicted or truly evil? Does his plan have any merit, or is he a cartoonish villain bent on everyone serving his will? I think there’s more to the Darkling than we know, and I’m very excited to see what happens in the next two books.
Beyond the characters, from a pure story perspective, I found myself easily entertained and immersed in Shadow and Bone. The idea of these different magical people – Grisha – and the divisions they cause in court, and how they are treated across different neighboring countries is well done (if familiar). The world-building is sort of pseudo-historical in nature, with very loose (and liberal) ties to an older version of Russia – though again, these ties are dubious in the extreme. As a pure fantasy novel, questionable historical elements aside, I enjoyed the magic, the characters, and the struggle. The conflict at the heart of the book focuses on Alina’s gifts and her ability to one day bring peace to a sundered land – to restore the bleak death of the Fold and bring harmony and light back to a blighted country. Of course, nothing is ever that simple, and many betrayals, schemes, and power-hungry people stand in the way.
While Shadow and Bone may not be groundbreaking, it is a solidly entertaining book and I am excited to carry on with the series. Bring on book 2!
Thea: Into the Wise Dark is the first book I’ve had the pleasure of reading from author Neesha Meminger, though she has been a BookFirst Impressions:
Thea: Into the Wise Dark is the first book I’ve had the pleasure of reading from author Neesha Meminger, though she has been a Book Smuggler staple ever since Ana discovered (and fell in love with) her two prior novels, Shine Coconut Moon and Jazz in Love. Since I’m more of a SFF gal and not so much of a contemporary YA gal, Into the Wise Dark was FINALLY my chance to try Neesha Meminger’s work – and for that, I am very glad. I truly enjoyed the premise of the book, the fantasy elements, the (effortless) diversity of the characters, and setting. While there were some writing issues along the way and some dichotomous characterizations, Into the Wise Dark is a solid urban fantasy novel with a unique twist.
Ana: I was both excited and wary about reading Into the Wise Dark. “Excited” because having loved Neesha Meminger’s previous books so much, I expected nothing less than a good read. “Wary” because this was her first foray into Fantasy and I wondered how this shift from ContempYA to Fantasy would go down. Well, I am pleased to say that it worked really well with a great Fantasy premise, truly great character interaction and an awesome female protagonist. Notwithstanding a couple of hiccups along the way (more on those later), this is another great novel from the author.
On the Plot:
Ana: Pammi has been keeping a secret for a long time. Every night, she travels back in time to the long lost city of Zanum where she has a second family and a boyfriend. The secret is to be kept at all costs so that Pammi can preserve her freedom: her stories of Zanum worried her mother who sent her for a very traumatic psychiatric treatment when she was younger. In the now, Pammi is mostly a lonely, secretive person and despite the attempts of her loving mother to make her more open, it is in Zanum that she truly flourishes.
Pammi is to spend the summer after graduating from high school working as a counsellor at a facility for troubled girls where she realises that her powers are not unique, that there are others like her and that their gift are connected with the Dark – an abstract, yet very real all-encompassing and all-connecting environment. All of it is linked somehow to Zanum –where people with similar gifts thrive until an ancient evil threatens to destroy everything – and everyone – that Pammi holds dear. And it might be all her fault.
In terms of plot, Into the Wise Dark is quite straightforward and it follows an ancient evil that threatens to destroy everything that the main character – whose role to play is central both in terms of motivating the villain and stopping him – loves. What makes it a standout story is the premise of the Dark and the characters.
I loved the idea of the Dark, the different ways of interacting with it as well as the time travel side of it. But above all, I loved the ContempYA elements worked into the novel especially when it comes to the diversity of the characters (in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation) and the friendships between the four main female characters. Of course, there is also that geeky part of me that was over the moon with the connections between Zanum and the ancient (and ok, hypothetical) lost land of Lemuria (seriously, when I was a teenager, I was way into “lost cities” and Lemuria was my favourite lost city of all. Yeah, I was that sort of geek with a favourite lost city. Good times).
On the downside, I thought that parts of the story were considerably slower and that’s explained by a certain amount of info-dump and a tendency to be didactic. It wasn’t enough to annoy me but definitely a “but” for what is otherwise a very cool story.
Thea: From a worldbuilding perspective, Into the Wise Dark can teach many contemporary/urban fantasy novels a thing or two. I love the idea of “Ables” (though maybe not so crazy about the actual nomenclature) and the manipulation of “the Dark” and the different powers that these Ables are granted. Pammi’s particular gift, for traveling back through time by manipulating threads and moving along a spiral in a form of what amounts to astral projection is pretty cool. I also love that Meminger implements solid RULES for her powers – no one is ALL POWERFUL without consequences, and the real world implications of girls leaving their sleeping bodies behind as they use their gifts to travel in time/read others’ minds/etc is frightening stuff (i.e. these girls are seen as traumatized and mentally disturbed, and sent to special clinics to ‘get better’). The lines between conventionally sane and societal expectation are examined briefly but I love the tension here – early in the book I found myself questioning whether or not Pammi actually was suffering from delusions (though she’s not, this is a fantasy novel, not a psychological thriller).
I also loved the setting of the book, as Pammi leaves our current world for a time thousands of years in the past, travelling to Zanum (the ancient Indus River Valley civilization) and making her connections with the people there – who are, interestingly, used to travellers such as Pammi.
So far as actual conflict and story go, however, things are a bit more mundane. Ancient evil stirs, EVIL BAD VILLAIN is responsible, Pammi and her friends have to fight against him for the sanctity of all that is good, yadda yadda yadda. I have nothing against this type of storyline – hell, it’s one of my favorite SFF staples! The backdrop of the unique world and powers that these girls have is more than enough to endear me to the more pedestrian plotting aspects. That said, there were some problems in terms of writing and execution that were jarring to my personal reading experience. As Ana says, there are many info-dumps along the way, and the pacing is uneven because of some stilted transitions and the story stumbled at key points as Pammi moves back and forth through time. I also couldn’t quite buy the entire setup of the institute for traumatized girls – the link between trauma and leadership felt a bit forced and unconvincing to the outside world. Though we do discover that these girls have been selected because of their powers and that’s great and all (in an Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters type of deal), I’m not quite convinced that the actual underlying premise makes sense or why anyone would believe this clinic’s public facade.
Finally, Into the Wise Dark presents things in a very GOOD and EVIL kind of way, with no shades of gray. This is fine, but I like a little more complexity and conflict, especially in a world with powers as tantalizing as those presented int his book.
On the Characters:
Ana: Neesha Meminger has a knack for writing great female characters. I loved Pammi and her mixture of impulsiveness and self-awareness. I loved her circle of relationships. With her mother, a mixture of closeness and distance because of the secrets she has to keep. The one with her boyfriend in Zanum, a relationship that is frank, which includes sexual closeness as well as a honest look at non-monogamous relationships (and all the doubts and desires that might come with it). I loved that theirs was a respectful, loving relationship that was central to Pammi’s life but not THE centre of her life. Above all, l love the relationship that develops between her and the three girls she meets and how this becomes the focus of the novel.
Another thing I loved about the book and the characters: how incredibly self-aware they are. Like for example, questioning the villain’s ridiculous motivation: you know that type of whiny yet dangerous villain who wants to destroy the world because they didn’t get a date to the prom? Yeah, sort of like that. I loved how Pammi totally calls on that. Plus she acts impulsively and does stupid things and questions the fact that no one was telling her the truth – this sort of “let’s not tell the heroine anything so that she has a reason to run into things” always frustrates me and I thought it was fun that Pammi also questioned that and voices it as a reason for some of her actions.
Thea: Ok, by the same token though, Pammi does some REALLY stupid things in the book (largely because she isn’t told the full truth). She’s impulsive and that’s endearing, but her actions have consequences – when she watches a forbidden rite, when she travels back to Zamun even though she’s explicitly told not to because hundreds of lives and the future of the people are in jeopardy, what does she do? She freaking travels back to Zamun. She watches the forbidden rite. ARGH. THEN she realizes that her actions have kind of damned the people she loves and she feels terrible about it.
On the one hand, I love that Pammi actually feels like a real teenager and has this impulsive, selfish streak – it makes her a more genuine character. On the other hand, though, this makes her a very annoying character because of her tendency to screw things up by doing things without thinking through the consequences. And, consequently, Pammi is likeable, but in that annoying-but-you-love-her little sister kind of way. At least for me.
Beyond motivations and questionable decision-making skills, Pammi is given a lot of depth and color as a character, and I have to wholeheartedly agree with Ana’s observations. I love that she has a healthy relationship with her mother (and her mother’s longstanding boyfriend), and I love that Pammi’s culture and heritage as an Indian and an American is effortlessly presented as an integral part of who she is. I also loved the secondary characters of Pammi’s fellow Ables, though they get perhaps less time and attention in the development department. The only characters that left me wanting were the villainous ones, with motivations that are obvious and a little silly.
Final Thoughts, Observations & Rating:
Ana: As you can tell, I truly loved Into the Wise Dark and hope to see more from this world soon – there is a lot of potential here for more kick-ass stories in the same world, with the same characters.
Thea: I enjoyed Into the Wise Dark and definitely would journey back to the ream of the Dark and the women that can explore its depths! Recommended, with only a few minor reservations....more
Thea: Wow. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started Ship of Souls, given its slender nature at under 200 pages (not that I have aFirst Impressions:
Thea: Wow. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started Ship of Souls, given its slender nature at under 200 pages (not that I have anything against slender packages, given that some of the most potent and effective stories I’ve ever read come with deceptively low page counts). I wasn’t expecting the power and poignancy of Ship of Souls, that’s for sure. This is a story that gets under your skin, that makes you feel and ache and love. If I had to sum up this novel in one word, again: wow.
Ana: Word. This is going to be one of those reviews where I fully agree with Thea. Ship of Souls is a seamless combination of Contemporary and Historical with a side of Urban Fantasy that works well on all of its fronts. It is basically a full measure of awesome in a small package and I just loved it wholeheartedly.
On the Plot:
Thea: Dmitri is an eleven-year-old boy that has never questioned how much his mother loves him. His father has never been around, but he’s always known that his mother’s love has been more than enough – together the two of them face the world. When his mom is diagnosed with breast cancer, and dies shortly after, D is left utterly alone in the world and sent into foster care. Desperate to get out of the group home system, D invents a perfect version of himself to impress anyone looking to foster a new child, and finds a home with the elderly Mrs. Martin. Determined to be the most perfect incarnation of himself, D is always on his best behavior with Mrs. Martin, careful to be polite, to help out around the house, and to take school seriously. It is here, at his new school that D meets and forms an unlikely bond with Keem, the popular basketball jock, as his math tutor. It is also here that he meets Nyla, the most beautiful girl in school, who takes D under her wing.
Despite these new, tenuous friendships, D still feels utterly alone, but he takes solace in his trips to Prospect Park and in his favorite hobby of watching birds. One fateful day, he spies an unusual bird – a bird that speaks to D and knows his thoughts, fears, and deepest hopes. The bird is no ordinary bird, but a creature from another realm, named Nuru. Because D has no ties to bind his heart, Nuru has chosen him as her own host to aid her in her quest to free the souls of the dead. But soon, D discovers that his heart might not be so free – and he learns the power of true friendship, trust, and love.
I repeat: WOW. D’s journey in Ship of Souls is breathtaking in its gravity and heartache. While, from a plotting perspective, the actual story proper is a rather small, contained thing, it is not without its taste of the fantastic, drawing a portal between the current world and the ghosts of the past through the magic of a very special park and its historical significance. Do you know what I love the most about Zetta Elliott’s work? In both A Wish After Midnight and in Ship of Souls, Elliott effortlessly weaves history – a painful, grim, but true history – with fantasy. In this novel, she explores one of the first major battles of the British-American Revolutionary war. In 1776, Prospect Park (along Flatbush Ave) was the battleground for British and Hessian soldiers as they fought the Continental Army (led by George Washington) – and this iconic battle serves as a key point for the story. To do this, to add on top of the historical commentary also one that explores the issues of race, gender, and religion in contemporary Brooklyn, this is no small feat. But Zetta Elliott does it all without making the story didactic or dry, by making these threads more than just a Message or underlying theme – each of these facets of identity are a part of our main characters (D, Keem and Nyla).
Most of all, though, Ship of Souls is a story about a young boy as he grapples with the issues of grief, of isolation and neglect, and of love and friendship. But more on that in a bit.
Ana: Yes, exactly! I loved how the story perfectly combines elements of Contemporary YA, UF and History without being excessive or without losing sight that at its core, this is the story of a young boy. Just like Thea, I was awed by how historical commentary (not only about the British-American War but also about African American Slavery) connects with current social commentary on issues of gender, race, religion. In that sense, I think the most impressive accomplishment of Ship of Souls is indeed how it is both self-contained but also part of something much bigger – it is a perfect example of how individual lives are affected by history which in turn affect current cultural and social arenas. And even when the story takes its turn into fully Fantasy territory it is the characters’ backgrounds and personal histories that move them. Another thing worth mentioning is how this story is imbued with a really strong sense of location – be it the Brooklyn of now or then, be it above ground or underground.
And yes, all of it is expertly handled but like Thea mentions, it is not a dry, dull, didactic story – this was a very emotional read for me and I found myself in tears as the book came to a close with its beautiful and heart-warming ending.
On the Characters:
Thea: On the character front, Ship of Souls soars. Dmitri’s narration drives the story, and it is through the connection to the precocious young boy that the novel depends. D’s story is so heart-renderingly open, so painfully honest that you can’t help but fall in love with the character who so needs love in his life. From his mother’s life and death, to his time in the foster home, to his new life with Mrs. Martin, D’s story is one of heartbreaking young loss. Instead of falling into anger, though D compensates by trying to become the Perfect-D, the boy that will always strive to please, to keep his head down, to stay away from others to make sure he isn’t hurt or sent away again. When Nuru tells D that she has picked him precisely because his heart isn’t complicated with any other ties, I felt my own heart break for the young boy. And when D DOES make other connections, to Keem and Nyla, I wanted to pump my fist in the air with joy. THAT is how powerful Zetta Elliott’s characterizations are, especially for her young protagonist.
The other two main characters are also beautifully drawn too, if they get a little less time than D in the spotlight. Hakeem is so much more than his label as a brainless jock – occasionally ostracized himself because he is Muslim, Keem gradually, begrudgingly befriends D through their tutoring sessions. And then, there is Nyla – beautiful and confident, Nyla has more piercings than D can count and doesn’t seem to have any problem changing and challenging people’s expectations or views of her. She also is a loyal friend, that cares for those that others call “freaks” – including D. These three characters form an unlikely friendship, and as things start to turn bad for D, both Nyla and Keem are there to help him, to fight for him, with him. This is awesome.
I am not going to lie, dear readers. I teared up when I reached those last pages, when D finally realizes that Nyla and Keem aren’t just glad to be rid of him, and that they are truly his friends. Elliott’s writing is powerful, and her characters are what make the story so poignant.
Ana: In one of the most heartbreaking moments of this story, D says:
Problem is, most days I just feel numb. When I’m not numb, I’m miserable. And even when I’m not miserable, I’m still alone.
This is an incredibly poignant moment that shows how extremely self-aware this young boy is – D has gone through a lot and prompted by the grief for his mother’s death he tries to detach himself from any deep connections with friends or with his foster mother in order to avoid more suffering. That frame of mind is what puts him in the path of Nuru and that’s how he becomes a hero for the trapped souls. I loved the subtle exploration about heroism, what makes a person become a hero (or not) and how heroes need not act by themselves. It explores the powerful effect of friendships, of opening up to people and of accepting (and offering) help in time of need.
D’s developing friendship with Nyla and Hakeem is deftly handled and even though that friendship does happen quite fast, I didn’t think it was to the detriment of the story. Rather the contrary: I felt the fast, deep connection formed between the three to be believable and I loved all three characters and how well developed they were.
That the author also manages to give strong voices to the long-dead ghosts of the soldiers and of the slaves is a thing of beauty, really.
Final Thoughts, Observations & Rating:
Thea: Ship of Souls is the second book I’ve read by Zetta Elliott, and I think it exceeds its predecessor. Beautiful, heartbreaking, and powerful, Ship of Souls is a book that I want to give to every middle grade and young adult reader. Absolutely recommended.
Ana: Ship of Souls is that type of story that can be quickly devoured in one sitting, but it’s not a fleeting story – it stays, it matters, it has a long-lasting effect. I loved it and it’s definitely a Notable Read of 2012. ...more
Ismae is a young girl who is able to escape the brutality and abuse of her childhood home andReview originally posted on The Book Smugglers
Ismae is a young girl who is able to escape the brutality and abuse of her childhood home and of her new husband by joining a convent where the God of Death is still worshipped and becoming a handmaiden to Death. Blessed with gifts by the God, she trains to become one of his assassins and her newest assignment is at the centre of a palatial intrigue to which she is woefully underprepared.
Grave Mercy is a book with not only a kick-ass premise (NINJA NUNS!) but also a fascinating setting: the pivotal moment in Brittany’s history when Anne of Brittany has become its ruler and must defend it against France oppression. Unfortunately, this book and I didn’t see eye to eye and I ended up putting it aside at around page 350 (of 549). It is a sad day when a book featuring Ninja Nuns doesn’t work for me, but alas.
My problems with Grave Mercy were twofold: first of all there was the writing and then there the small little things that annoyed me. With regards to the writing: I thought there was a lot more telling than showing and an extreme reliance on writing shortcuts.
We are told more than we actually see a lot of what happens in the story not only in terms of plot but also of character development. The most glaring of them are during Ismae stay at the convent where she is supposed to have become this kick-ass assassin. The thing is, we are just told that she has become one – the book lists her achievements rather than showing them and then we must accept it as fact. Similarly all the nuns at the convent are described simply by what they do rather than by who they are. One can argue that the story is not REALLY about Ninja Nuns (what a shame) and more about the political intrigue and Ismae’s internal conflict. And truth be told I completely appreciate the immense potential for conflict between someone who is trained to act on things by simply killing them versus having to act via diplomacy but unfortunately I don’t think that this is sufficiently well developed. In fact, I found myself becoming increasingly bored with this very storyline – it is just so…bland.
But then there are the writing shortcuts too. This is one of my biggest pet peeves: in which we are simply told what is happening to a character with familiar clichéd turns of phrase that are used in order to hastily convey emotions. Take these few examples from Grave Mercy:
"The thrill of success is still humming through my veins
humiliation courses through my veins
certainty flows in my veins
shock simmering in my veins
my blood is singing in my veins
relief sings so sharply in my veins"
Holy Mortain, her veins must be extremely congested with so many things running/humming/singing/simmering/ etc through them. I could continue but you get my drift.
And then there were those things that made me stop and question everything I was reading. It annoyed me that there is a complete lack of questioning on her part about being a killer – even though she has been brought up within a religious environment and joins a convent, it doesn’t seem to occur to her that killing might be a little bit against the usual precepts of her church? I get that this is supposed to be explained by the fact that the God they worship (now turned a saint) is a God of Old and they are following the “old ways” rather than the new church but still, it just doesn’t ring true. Similarly, the book starts with Ismae getting married to an abusive husband. Although they never get around to actually consummating the marriage and she flees soon after it, she had been married at a church by a priest who actually follows her own faith and yet there is nary a thought about these vows and she doesn’t think about that marriage anymore.
Then, there is the fact that when she is about to leave the convent she is given a special knife which can kill a person if only so much it touches skin. So tell me again what is the point of all the kick ass training these women went through if all they need is a Special Magical Knife that kills effortlessly?
Finally, my last nit-picky comment. Something that made me think: I have seen this book lauded as a feminist read because of the powerful female characters and the ninja nuns. But is this really a true feminist read just because of that? I mean, ALL OF THEIR ENEMIES are men. Whenever they are talking about their skills at the convent or speak about their enemies, these are all men. So, in truth, even though these characters are all ninja female assassins, their entire world STILL evolve around MEN. Even their god is a male god. Just some food for thought.
I do appreciate the intentions and think they are laudable especially when it comes to giving power to these powerless girls after they have suffered abuse. I just wish this thread had been better developed beyond “let’s give them weapons and make them kill men”. In fairness, I stopped reading before the ending, so this might have been addressed after all. I just couldn’t care enough to carry on and find out for myself.
Grave Mercy really didn’t float my boat. A shame.
I’m of two minds when it comes to Grave Mercy. On the one hand, there are clearly some significant drawbacks to the writing and pacing of the novel, and I agree with some of Ana’s criticisms wholeheartedly. On the other, I personally LOVE this type of fantasy/spy/assassin/political intrigue with a dash of romance type of story. And despite the book’s missteps (particularly with regard to writing style), I found myself really enjoying – heck, loving! – the book, especially once it hits its stride after the first few chapters.
So, first the bad. As Ana details in her take on the book, the writing for Grave Mercy leaves much to be desired. Personally, I am not a fan of the first person present tense as a narrative choice – especially not in a historical fantasy novel – as it tends to lend a strange robotic quality to the protagonist. Such is the case with Ismae in her narrative. Compounding the problem is the very tell-y nature of the writing. Not only are Ismae’s veins chock full of all sorts of craziness, but she also oscillates between incredibly HOT or freezing COLD throughout the novel. Example:
"A fierce heat rises inside of me and Heat rushes into my cheeks
He pulls me closer, so that I feel the heat rising off his body, warm and smelling faintly of some spice. (THEA’S NOTE: I really, really hate this sentence. The only worse offender: “He smelled warm and musky and undeniably MALE.” Gag.)
His grip is firm,and it is as if the heat from his hand burns through all the layers between us"
And so on and so forth. This is annoying. ALSO annoying is the fact that Ismae’s emotions are plainly TOLD instead of experienced. Not to mention the entire glossing over of Ismae’s training to become a killer assassin badass ninja nun! In the span of 3 pages, Ismae learns ALL THE THINGS and is a badass ready to go on her first assignment. I abhor shortcuts. I want to read about her missteps and training, I want to experience her triumphs and failures! Unfortunately, we are deprived of this early in the novel. Add this to the other issues that are prevalent early in the book – Ana’s notes about the Old Ways/Gods, the dubious message that ALL MEN MUST DIE, the snicker-inducing appearance of a Magic!Knife! – and I can easily understand why some are inspired to put the book down and write it off as a DNF.
All these things said, the book takes off once Ismae is assigned to become a spy in the Britton court, working with (and against, in a nice double twist) the mysterious Gavriel Duval – under the guise of being his “cousin” (which everyone in the palace immediately takes to mean his mistress). HERE is where Ismae comes into her own, where she begins to question the teachings of her God, of her devout sisterhood, and of the “justice” of unyielding death. Here she learns that not all men are evil, and that some – even those marked by her God Mortain – deserve a chance at redemption. Here is where we learn that while Ismae has skill as an assassin, she is not infallible, and lacks grace, finesse and diplomacy. By these latter two thirds of the novel, all the complexity that is missing from the earlier chapters comes into play full force. And I LOVED IT ALL.
I love the idea of this sisterhood of assassins and the fantastic elements with those “marked” to die apparent to the handmaidens of Mortain.
I love the drama that is tearing apart the court, and the devotion that Duval and Ismae have to their young, strong Duchess – the same proud ruler that so many are trying to overthrow, enslave through marriage, or kill.
And yes, I love the love story between Ismae and Duval, as predictable as it might seem, because there is something about these two characters that feels utterly sincere.
So there you have it. A Smugglerific disagreement. I truly enjoyed the book, absolutely recommend it, and cannot wait for more. Bring it on, Dark Triumph....more
In the year 2312, the solar system is a very different place. Humans have terraformed and colonized every inhOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
In the year 2312, the solar system is a very different place. Humans have terraformed and colonized every inhabitable planet, moon and asteroid in the system; humanity has created thriving populations on the Jovian moons, hollowed out large space rocks and reconstituted them as terraria full of endangered animals and exotic life, and has even created a home on the impossibly hostile surface of Mercury. It is here, on Mercury's "Terminator" - a city that glides on tracks across the planet's scorched surface, always in the shade, running away from dawn - that artist Swan Er Hong lives and calls home.*
Swan is happy, if a bit unstable, and wholeheartedly devoted to pursuing the next great thrill - be that ingesting alien biological specimens from Enceladus, "sunwalking" on Mercury's surface, or modifying her body (genetically and mechanically). When her close friend Alex dies suddenly and unexpectedly - way before her time at just over a century old - Swan is devastated. She's not alone in her grief, and finds a number of Alex's other friends, including a persistent Titan named Wahram, all who contact Swan with the same strange request: is there anything that Alex specifically left behind for me?
It turns out that the brilliant, gregarious, and ever-so-paranoid Alex was hiding dangerous knowledge that may have led to her untimely death. Soon, Swan finds herself embroiled in Alex's secretive project and makes a discovery that could change the balance of power in the solar system - and humanity's future - forever.
Nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, Clarke, and Tiptree awards, 2312 has a considerable amount of buzz (and hype) going for it. I had never read anything by Kim Stanley Robinson prior to picking up this novel, so was especially eager to see just how the book stacks up to the competition. And, ultimately...I'm not sure how to organize and convey my feelings for this book (hence, this obscenely late review). At nearly 600 pages - all pretty dense material - 2312 is an impressive and imaginative exploration of the future of humanity and our solar system. It's also a lengthy, oddly whimsical book in its structure that trades plotting or character development for a thorough examination of setting, to mixed effect. But more on that in a bit.
First, the fantastic. There is a reason that 2312 is up for so many awards - these are all thanks to Robinson's breathtakingly imaginative scope for the novel. In 2312, Robinson has created a solar system in which humans have managed to spread and ingratiate themselves, even in the most frightfully hostile environments. Facing the dramatic effects of climate change on Earth, leading to millions of deaths worldwide, humanity has looked to the stars for more places to colonize, live and thrive. These humans have built space elevators, developed techniques to terraform the surfaces of Mars, Venus, and suitable moons, just as they've found ways to protect themselves from deadly radiation and extreme temperatures. The asteroids are up for grabs in a fascinating type of outer space homesteading, and people create homes on the most unlikely locations. The Mercurians, for example, take great pride in their impossible city, forever gliding along the planet's surface between day and night.
But beyond the (awesome, fascinating, science fiction but certainly grounded in science) space colonization and mechanics aspect of the novel, 2312 also excels in its portrayal of the shifts that come along with exploration and colonization. Humanity itself is changing, in Robinson's vision of the future. Those on Earth and Mars - the only two planets that are entirely self-sufficient in space, though newly terraformed Venus is quickly growing in power - form their own societies and fracture apart from the hedonistic "spacers," who have taken to modifying their bodies in new and transformative ways. Swan, like many of her fellow spacers, has installed an Artificial Intelligence unit, called a qube, in her head (her name is Pauline, in case you were wondering). Also like many of her cohorts across the moons, asteroids and planets, Swan is a gynandromorph, a female by birth and identification, but who has modified her body to also have male reproductive organs; as such, Swan has both fathered and mothered children in her life. Wahram, on the other hand, is a self-described androgyn, who identifies as male but has given birth to a child over the course of his long life. These are just two examples of sexuality and fluid gender roles in the universe of 2312 - Robinson has created a future in which orientation, identification, and sexuality are every bit as varied and wonderful as his worldbuilding and setting.
Undeniably, 2312 is a fascinating read, as a sincere exploration of what the future of space colonization might look like 300 years in the future. That said, as an actual work of fiction, and as a story? This is not a particularly effective book. 2312 is more of a survey of the future, with a very, very loose mystery plot (the death of Alex and the mystery of who is behind the well-timed "accidents" that have catastrophic results on certain human outposts). Instead of answering those questions, 2312 takes many detours, explaining and exploring the downfall of Earth or the different outposts humans have created and how they have created them. Really, the plot exists so that our main characters can travel the system and we readers can see just how these different and varied locations have been created and what kinds of people live there. This isn't necessarily a bad thing (at least, not at first), though it makes for a much longer, slower read. From a character perspective, we get a good understanding of Swan and Wahram - our flawed heroes and eventual lovers (it's a very strange, slow-moving kind of love story) - but I'm not entirely sure I buy into these characters as defined individuals. That is, for me at least, even though Swan and her cohorts all have personality quirks and we are told their traits and histories, they never felt cohesive, multilayered or fully real. These are characters that say exactly what they are thinking and react in a linear way without introspection or struggle - they are constructs that are there to tell a larger story about the future, rather than living and breathing entities in their own right.
2312 is a fascinating book. It explores humanity and gender and sexuality and evolution in smart, interesting and earnest ways. This is a book that is, in my opinion, worthy of all of the nominations it has received because it is such a huge undertaking of a book, and I appreciate Robinson's impressive effort to tell the story of a very different kind of future - even though I have conflicted feelings because it doesn't quite deliver in the plotting or character categories of appeal. Let's put it this way: deserving of the nominations, but perhaps not of the award. Still, a fascinating, insightful read, and one that I absolutely recommend.
---------- *A Terminator, if you do not know, is that ever-moving twilight zone; a line that separates the day side and night side as a planet or moon rotates. On hostile Mercury, 700K in the sunlight and 94K in the shade, the Terminator zone is the only possible solution for life on the iron planet. (Check out this picture of the Terminator - in color! - from Messenger's third and final flyby of the planet in 2011.)...more
Warning: this review contains spoilers, SmuggleRAGE and Caps Lock of Fury
Trigger warning: rape
Set in magical India, Tiger Moon pays homage to Arabian Nights and Scheherazade by featuring a story within a story. Raka, a young bride married against her will to a powerful merchant who will surely kill her once he discovers she is not a virgin, tells a tale of rescue to a young servant boy (a eunuch, who is not actually a eunuch) called Lalit. She tells the story of another young boy called Farhad, a brilliant thief and reluctant hero who is engaged by the God Krishna to rescue his kidnapped daughter from a demon King. With the help of a talking white tiger, Farhad must cross India in search of an infamous, cursed jewel who will buy the princess’ freedom. Raka hopes that the story of how the reluctant hero Farhad becomes a sacrificing, courageous hero will inspire Lalit to summon the hero within in order to rescue her from certain doom.
At first glance Tiger Moon seems to be an innocuous read for children – it features a talking tiger, a sweeping adventure across the magical country of India with near-deaths, daring escapes and tales of love and hope. Plus a talking tiger whose funny banter with Farhad might just be the one good thing about Tiger Moon. But once you start peeling back its layers and carefully examine the narrative, the topics the story addresses, the meta-text and the way the story wraps up, the result is simply rage-inducing.
I don’t even know where to start: perhaps with the most obvious problem I had with the book. The narrative voice is extremely simplistic and childish. The feeling I had was that this oversimplification had a double objective: to make it accessible to children and to add a fairytale feel to the story. I think it backfired in many ways. I don’t believe in pandering to children and oversimplifying a story tends to lead to generalisations (more on that later) and therefore removing complexity from the story (please note: there is a difference between simple and simplistic. Narrative and writing can be simple and still extremely complex). This also means that the narrative voice was very childish and the characters sound very, very young to the point where I felt I was reading a book about 11 year old characters. Obviously this is not a problem per se, but the characters were much older than that and when they started getting married and having sex, it was extremely jarring as I had pictured them as children. It doesn’t help that for the vast majority of the story, the main characters are addressed as “boy” and “girl”.
That said here is a caveat: the original book was written in German and then translated into English. I don’t know how much of the prose was lost in translation.
But moving on to more important issues.
You will probably have noticed how I italicised the word magical twice so far in this review when in conjunction with “India”. There is an element of exoticising (did I just make this word up?) India that drove me UP THE WALL. Tiger Moon is professed to be a bewitching story set in magical India and from the get go the story is peppered with generalisations, words and descriptions that show how exotic, magical and chaotic India is. Incredibly offensive things like:
“Life is worth so little in India”
“In India, all stories are outlandish”
“Life in itself isn’t valued highly in India”
are presented as truths to the reader. N. K. Jemisin wrote a brilliant article for the blog a few weeks ago addressing this very issue and the following passage exemplifies exactly the problem I had with Tiger Moon:
"Calling something exotic emphasizes its distance from the reader. We don’t refer to things as exotic if we think of them as ordinary. We call something exotic if it’s so different that we see no way to emulate it or understand how it came to be. We call someone exotic if we aren’t especially interested in viewing them as people — just as objects representing their culture."
Also worth of mention and on the point: two roundtable articles published this very week at The World SF Blog in which a group of non-westerners authors and bloggers discuss (among other subjects) the issue of “what are the problematics of some Western writers tackling non-Western settings for their novels, and do they result in exoticism?” . These are quite a propos of this review and fascinating. But note: I want to make it clear that I have absolutely nothing against Western authors writing about non-western cultures. But you have got to be way more careful than the generalist, appropriative tone of Tiger Moon.
But back to the review. You know what else? The exoticism of India doesn’t even MAKE SENSE IN THE CONTEXT OF THIS NOVEL. Because the vast majority of this story is being narrated by an Indian girl to an Indian boy. WHY, in the world, would two Indian people be describing India as though they don’t know their own country?
Which brings me to my final point and the climax of the novel. This is where things get REALLY spoilery and SHOUTY. Up until the last 15 pages of this novel, I was offended and angry, already knowing this was going to be a negative review for the reasons stated above.
The final pages of Tiger Moon took it into full-on WALL-BANGER, ENRAGING, I-need-to-find-Picard’s-screencap-now territory.
The book has 448 pages. On page 433, Raka, the main character is SURPRISE! RAPED by her husband. But this is ok because she is rescued immediately after by Lalit, who is now a hero and it all magically disappears as they ride into the horizon together. There is NO reaction, repercussion, mention, NOTHING about the rape. Nothing. It is like it never happened merely ONE SECOND before they take off. It is completely gratuitous and STUPID and demeaning, it serves the story no purpose whatsoever because it has NO IMPACT on the character. It is problematic because it is gratuitous, it is even more problematic because the story and characters never address it. It made me sick.
Not to mention that the whole book ostensibly pays homage to Scheherazade. But in the end, the whole point of the story is to make the BOY become a man in order to rescue the girl and all the talk about being a “hero within” applies only to the BOYS. Obviously. Because GOD FORBID the girl be the heroine of HER OWN STORY. To the point where the hero is described as a MAN in the end because he has grown so much whereas Raka, the main character and narrator of the story who was once described as strong and fearless, remains a girl and diminishes and lets him FINISH HER STORY. How can you pay homage to Scherezade and miss the CRUCIAL POINT of her being THE INSTRUMENT OF HER OWN SALVATION?
Teenage twins Ysabel and Justin are struggling with the revelation that their father has recently come out as a Male to Female transgender person. TheTeenage twins Ysabel and Justin are struggling with the revelation that their father has recently come out as a Male to Female transgender person. Their family has been strongly affected by it, their father has moved away and their personal lives are in shambles as they don’t really understand what it all means. Now it’s spring break and the two are expected to spend the week with their father so they can talk, using this short time together to try and figure things out. The three go to therapy together, and this father arranges a rafting trip with other transgendered parents and their kids. The narrative alternate between the two and we see the week from each of their perspectives.
Happy Families is a short, focused, highly important book. In terms of plot, it follows the Nicholas family in this moment of transitioning. The book hints at each twin’s personal, separate lives and how this moment impacts on how they behave. Justin for example, has broken up with his girlfriend, because he doesn’t believe she will be ok with his father’s transition. It is obvious that neither twin is happy about the situation mostly because they don’t know how this will impact their lives. There is a lot of questioning which they address over the course of this week and this questioning is the real focus of the novel: what does being a transgendered person mean? Their father wishes to be called Christine: does this mean he is a woman? Does this mean he is gay? Will he be getting surgery? Will their parents get divorced? Will he be dressed up as a woman all the time? How can they go to church like that? How can they go to school when everybody knows about this?
Although the story can be a little didactic sometimes and somewhat restricted to the issue it addresses, this didacticism is more enlightening than informative – I hope this makes sense. I mean that the story is never dry or purely instructive because it perfectly encapsulates this wondrous moment and its mixture of shock, betrayal, hope, shame, guilt, love. I particularly loved the fact that theirs is also a religious family and this is part of their questioning – especially with regards to divorce as their parents don’t believe they should get divorced.
This is quite a serious yet hopeful book and heart-wrenching without being tragic. Despite the fact that at times I felt the twins’ voices were indistinguishable, I truly enjoyed reading it and feel this is an important, accomplished book for teens. Happy Families is not a book that offers easy answers but is one that acknowledges the hard questions and treat them with the careful consideration, compassion and honesty they deserve. ...more
The country state of Sterne: the house of the Torrignton family.
This story begins and ends on the last day of April in 1912, the day Emerald TorringtoThe country state of Sterne: the house of the Torrignton family.
This story begins and ends on the last day of April in 1912, the day Emerald Torrington turns 20. To celebrate, a small dinner for family and friends (Emerald’s stepfather Edward the only obvious absentee) and as the day starts, the entire household prepare for the evening. Florence, the housekeeper runs the show along with Emerald, whilst her mother Charlotte (still a great beauty, remarried to Edward after Emerald’s father’s death) and brother Clovis proceed on their usual self-absorbed ways. Unbeknownst to them all, Smudge, the youngest member of the family is taking advantage of the fact that no one pays attention to her to start her Grand Undertaking. In the meantime, they expect the invited guests: John Buchanan, a rich neighbour who may or may not be interested in Emerald and Emerald’s best friend Patience and her (pleasantly matured) brother Ernest, both budding scientists whose company Emerald enjoyed greatly when they were all children.
But then a train accident occurs nearby and since theirs is the closest house, the survivors – all of them from the third class but for one man, a Charlie Traversham-Beechers – are to be received at Sterne. The uninvited guests –apart from Charlie, now Clovis’ best friend and invited for dinner with the family- are hastily stowed away in the morning room while the family pretends they are not there, hoping they will be gone soon and without too much disruption to their dinner party.
As the night progresses, those hopes are quashed. The survivors grow loud with hunger and neglect; Smudge’s Grand Undertaking goes awry and on centre stage, the dinner party becomes increasingly strange and dark as Charlie entrances and perplexes everybody with his uncomfortable games.
The Uninvited Guests was not at all what I expected but its combination of an Edwardian comedy of manners with a surrealist ghost story (and a dash of adorable romance) worked really well for me. I really do wish I had literary equivalents to compare but alas, it seems that my Edwardian and Surrealist knowledge are informed by movies and TV shows so the best way to describe The Uninvited Guests is: this is like an episode of Downton Abbey directed by Spanish surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel.
There are huge differences between this and Downton Abbey though. Despite appearances the Torringtons are not well-off: their staff has been dwindling over the years with only enough servants to keep the house running, part of their house is inhabitable, their furniture have seen better days and most worrying of all, they are on the brink of losing Sterne to debts. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that their future lies on the hand of Edward Swift, their mother’s new husband whom Charlotte married after Emerald’s father’s death. Although Edward is obviously a good man, Emerald and Clovis resent him. Above all, the biggest difference is that the Torringtons are not aristocrats and although they love Sterne and wish to keep it, this love is new as new is their position in society:
" Charlotte had built her life so that she might avoid third-class train carriages and she wasn’t going to wring her hands over those who made use of them now."
The quote below is emblematic for two reasons. It shows how much Charlotte wishes to dissociate from lower classes as she literally separate social classes by pushing the third class passengers away from their eyes for as long as they can. If the aristocrats of Downton Abbey are portrayed as magnanimous do-gooders who help their servants that is only because they can effectively be separated from them and there is absolutely no danger for those aristocrats to be thought as lower class. There is a lot of danger for Charlotte after she made her way up the social strata.
This is also emblematic of Charlotte’s character. She is completely unsympathetic as a character and yet not completely vilified – not even when her past is revealed. This bit is probably too spoilery but I don’t feel I can write this review without addressing it. I will leave aside HOW and WHY these come into play but there are revelations about her past as a prostitute and these revelations are moved by a need for revenge – as though by revealing the truth about her past, all the other characters are supposed to revile Charlotte. This thankfully doesn’t happen – except for one character that reacts with disgust to this information but is subsequently confronted by his hypocrisy. Charlotte is someone who has incorporated ideals of what constitutes the “feminine” realm as she climbed the ladder: she abhors Emerald’s friend Patience for her intellect and hopes that Emerald will not follow her lead (Patience is attending university : how is that a place for a woman?). Emerald herself has a keen interest on science but has put it aside when her father became ill and the narrative explores – albeit subtly – her present situation which is almost like limbo: where will she go from here? Is there a place in this society for women scientists? So gender and class relations abound in the narrative but in a subtle, clever way and I loved it.
There is a lot more though and I loved the prose:
" ‘This helpless grief over what amounts to a few rooms and a rather poor roof is irrational,’ she began, ‘and frankly –‘ she stopped walking, ‘ – ludicrous.’
She turned her face to the house, the windows of which glowed variously. ‘There’s no use looking at me like that,’ she said to it.
She crossed the gravel, and went towards the other part of the garden, where were the thick borders and sundial. ‘And there’s not even the excuse of ancestry!’ she said out loud again, and indignant.
And it was true; no generations of Torringtons had lived at Sterne. No generations of Torringtons had lived anywhere particularly, as far as they knew. They were a wandering, needs-must sort of family, who made their livings disparately, in clerking, mills or shipping; traveled to France for work in tailoring, or stopped at home in Somerset, Shropshire or Suffolk, to play some minor role in greater projects; designing a lowly component of a reaching Cathedral or girdered bridge. Some had been in business, one or two in service; there was an artist, some soldiers, all dead. All dead. "
In terms of plot, the story starts off light and becomes increasingly tense as the story (and the evening) progresses. Charlie obviously plays an almost devilish role and when he starts his mind games and the story takes a turn to the surreal, the good-natured characters show their potential for cruelty inside. Although there seems to be little consequence to what these characters show of themselves, there is a degree of choice too: the characters pick which face they wish to carry in life and from that moment on, that’s who they will be. It is as though cruelty and darkness are potential, not facts set in stone as the story reaches its climax on a high note.
Although at times I thought the surrealist parts were a bit too extreme (there is some barking involved) and the ending too tidy (I still loved it though), overall The Uninvited Guests was a surprising delight....more
The short version of this review would go something like this:
Such a fabulous premise wasted on clichéd writing, a daft story and stupid insta-love roThe short version of this review would go something like this:
Such a fabulous premise wasted on clichéd writing, a daft story and stupid insta-love romance.
Here’s the long version:
Mia is addicted to lightning. She’s survived countless strikes, her entire body (apart from her face, obviously) is covered in veiny scars and despite the danger and the fact that she has (unintentionally) hurt people because of it, she still craves lightning more than anything. Living in LA – a place where lightning rarely strikes – was supposed to cull her addiction but wouldn’t you know, not only a lightning has caused a 8.6 magnitude earthquake that has DEVASTATED the city but prophecies – from religious cults, tarot cards and the Book of Revelations – predict that MOARS lightning are coming. And they will precede the end of the WORLD. Or at the very least the end of Los Angeles. And Mia and her lightning addiction, as per the prophecies, will be at the centre of it which make her a very sought after person by the aforementioned cults.
There are good things about Struck. The premise of someone being addicted to lightning is cool in itself and strikingly visual – not only when lightning strikes Mia but also in terms of the effects it has on her: her veiny scars, loss of hair, her insomnia. I also thought that the description of a devastated, post-earthquake Los Angeles – with the widespread destruction, poverty and social divide that ensued – to be, if not exactly original, at least gripping. I am not certain if this is a parallel world to ours or if this LA is a futurist one but there are hints that other parts of the world and of the USA are in dire straits as well which presumably explains how the people of LA are isolated and left to fend for themselves. I also liked the fact that Mia would do anything to help her family to survive especially her PTSD-suffering mother (after being under rubble for three days after the earthquake). In terms of character, Mia’s mother is possibly the better developed one with her trauma and the need to find answers and hope leading her to join a religious cult.
Those good things – the cool Sci Fi premise, the potential of a pre-apocalyptic world and its social problems that will in itself help the actual apocalypse to take place – are however, squandered away by focusing the story on the warring cults. One of the Cults is called the Seekers and they think Mia will be the key to STOP the apocalypse as per the Book of Revelations and the visions and Tarot readings of their gipsy ancestors. They are not supposed to be religious but they talk about and mention the Bible so…yeah, I don’t know how that mix works either. The other is called the Followers who well, follow a guy who calls himself simply Prophet and it’s a religious cult of brainwashed people who believe that the apocalypse is near and we all need to repent. To this faction, Mia is the key to BRING on the apocalypse. And everybody can do stuff with or via lightning.
There is a certain immediacy and localised aspect to this story that just didn’t work. If the whole world is going through shit, why is this plot so concentrated in LA? WHY LA as the apocalyptic centre of the world? Is it only because Mia is there? WHY is she so important? Is it only because of how she can take on more lightning than anybody else? BUT WHY? Why is lightning so important to this story? I never bought the premise or understood it beyond: “that’s how it is written in the book so suck it up”. Not to mention that the story is simply not developed enough for me to believe that LA is completely cut off from the world just like that. Everything is just so vague and then we have this entire build up to the end of the world – the whole book takes place within the 3 days preceding it – and then the story is wrapped up easily and inconsequently within a couple of pages.
But to be honest this is only the beginning of my problems with the book:
1) Although I appreciated how it is shown that a charismatic leader that speaks to the fear and hopelessness inside people and can give them a measure of comfort and control at a time of need, this complexity is completely and utterly undermined by the fact that the leader of said cult has in fact, actual brainwashing powers (brought to you by lightning. No, don’t ask. I don’t know either).
2) The book opens with someone trying to kill our heroine. Which she conveniently forgets soon after by thinking it is only a dream. Of course, this is only because the guy who tried to kill her turns out to be the Romantic Interest who looks like a “European underwear model” with “tortured blue eyes”. Despite the fact that he has indeed been following her, and tried to KILL HER, she doesn’t think he could be a stalker because and I quote:
"A guy like Jeremy didn’t need to stalk."
Take note people: apparently only bad-looking guys could possibly be stalkers.
3) Their relationship has no development whatsoever. They fall for each other basically instantly, she forgets he tried to kill her very easily because he looks good and I quote:
"I let my eyes linger on Jeremy, studying him, trying to decide if I could see past the knife incident to trust him. But the only thing I could think about when I stared at him was how I wanted to keep staring, never take my eyes away."
Someone tries to kill you and that is an incident? Ok then.
But of course, their relationship wouldn’t be complete without SOME angst. Which comes from Jeremy having visions of the future. The visions happened every time he touched Mia and when that happens she passes out. BUT that ONLY happens if he touches her with his hands so they can do everything as long as he doesn’t touch her with his hands and somehow this is still an impediment because he can’t control himself, therefore a reason for EXTRA angst and my brain went into overdrive with GLOVES!!!!!!!!!!! HOW ABOUT GLOVES, IF IT IS ONLY THE HANDS HOW ABOUT GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOVES!!!!
Ahem. Not to mention the fact that Jeremy KNEW what was happening, knew loads of secrets and still he did not tell Mia (for her protection) even though they only had THREE DAYS to stop the end of the world. Oh Lord of the Books, please save me from contrived conflict.
4) The pseudo-science behind the causes of the earthquake:
"There was a geological survey going on at the time—which, ironically, had something to do with earthquakes—and a crew had opened up a hole in the ground that went way down into the earth, supposedly for miles, all the way to the Puente Hills Fault that runs right beneath downtown. Lightning struck straight into the hole, and immediately afterward there was an 8.6 magnitude earthquake that lasted over three minutes. The top seismologists in the world had formulated a theory that, hypothetically, the friction along the Puente Hills fault line might have acted like a beacon for lightning. When the fault was struck, it increased the pressure on the fault exponentially, setting off the earthquake like a nuke buried miles underground."
Let me get this straight: there is an ACTUAL FAULT beneath LA that is due to cause a massive earthquake soon and yet this story needed lightning to set it off?
Not to mention: lightning causing earthquakes? Hummm, how about NO?
Sure, they manage to convey the general storyline, but they get all theOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
Bards almost always get things wrong.
Sure, they manage to convey the general storyline, but they get all the details wrong. Like the names of the people involved. Across four different kingdoms, bards have been singing their tales of great deeds and romance...but lumping all the heroes together under the name of "Prince Charming". Prince Charming is, in fact, four different princes - Frederic (of Cinderella fame), Gustav (who tried to save Rapunzel but she ended up saving him, in reality), Liam (the guy that woke up Sleeping Beauty), and Duncan (Snow White's hubby).
After the magically romantic evening of the grand ball and finding his true love in Ella (Cinderella, that was), things seem to be going just swimmingly for Prince Frederic and his new fiance. However, what is fun for Frederic (picnicking on castle grounds) proves to be not so much fun for Ella, who grows weary of her fiance's penchant for sleeping until noon, his focus on wardrobe, and most of all, his aversion to adventure. Ella leaves Frederic for her own grand adventures - but Frederic is determined to get her back. Embarking on his own grand adventure to win back his beloved, Frederick soon runs into other similarly disgruntled princes who have been, for varying reasons, left behind by their princesses.
Gustav, while tall and strong, has a bit of an inferiority complex compared to his older brothers - and things didn't get any better when he tried to rescue Rapunzel from the clutches of the evil witch, only to get pushed out the tower window, blinded, and saved by the very same Rapunzel after she singlehandedly her witchy captor. Frustrated by the jeers of all of those in his kingdom, Gustav pushes Rapunzel away and sets off to do something truly heroic to earn some respect.
Liam is every bit the handsome, heroic, storybook prince, but after saving Sleeping Beauty and her kingdom from the sleeping curse and besting a different witch, he finds out that his betrothed princess is actually a terrible person that starts willfully spreading malicious rumors about Liam's character.
Duncan is perfectly happy with his wife Snow White and a bit of an oddball. To be fair, Snow is an oddball, too. Their combined oddness makes them a perfect pair, but there's still an adjusting period to go through and things are a little off for Duncan and his new bride.
Together, the Prince Charmings (ok, actually "Princes Charming", as Liam would interject) team up to thwart a nefarious plot from a familiar witch (and a Bandit King and his posse), win back the girl and earn the respect and thanks of their various kingdoms. And they'll have some fun and learn a little something along the way, too.
Charming. In a word, The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom is fittingly, utterly charming. I love the imaginative spin on classic fairy tales and the fitting attention paid to the Princes Charming as they embark on their own adventures to be considered worthy of their respective princesses. Even cooler, I love that this attention to the princes and getting them a fair shake as heroes does not come at the expense of the princesses. Ella plays a major role in the book and leaves her own Happily Ever After in pursuit of something greater - but when Frederic and her friends are in trouble, she rushes to the rescue. (Sure, there are less palatable female characters, but such is life!)
I love the four different types of princes we are presented with in The Hero's Guide and the qualities they add to the story - Liam with his traditional Prince Charming-ness, the goofy and endearing Duncan with his magical good luck, Gustav and his brash pigheadedness, and Frederic with his surprisingly huge heart and devotion to Ella. (My favorite Princes are Duncan and Frederic, naturally.) More than just the characters, though, The Hero's Guide is so effective because of the wonderfully engaging narrative voice and fast-paced plot. The glib narration, employing different foreshadowing (in the first chapter, we are given a glimpse into the twentieth chapter, for example), blending contemporary phrasing with a storybookish touch. The book is illustrated throughout, too, with gorgeous sketches (which put me in the mind of the recent Disney film, Tangled):
Gorgeous, right? And finally, of course, there's a good healthy dose of the absurd, too. An unlikely Bandit King, a gentle Giant, vegetarian Trolls, and a few surly dwarves? Of course there's absurdity involved!
What else can I say? This is a wonderful, delightful middle grade adventure novel that should be read and loved by young readers everywhere. Preferably out loud. With voices. Absolutely recommended.
I cannot wait to follow these particular Princes Charming (and Ella!) on another their next adventure. ...more
Since birth, Gene has known that he must be careful. With the careful guidance of his father and a strict codOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
Since birth, Gene has known that he must be careful. With the careful guidance of his father and a strict code of rules - no facial expressions, no sweating, careful hygiene rituals every day to mask their scent - he has managed to survive in a world where he is the lone outcast. An animal. A meal. A dirty heper.
Should he forget any of these rules, even for an instant, it will mean his sudden, violent death - just as his mother and sister were killed, and just as his father was killed. He lives a simple, solitary existence and avoids drawing attention to himself...until the day a rare Heper Hunt is announced. A tradition that sparks the bloodlust of the people, the Heper Hunt is a dream come true for any normal person. Hepers - those delicious, blood-filled creatures that look like people but aren't people - have long been thought to be extinct, so the announcement of a hunt sets the world achatter. A lottery will be held to select those who will be honored with the ability to participate in the hunt - and Gene's number is called as one of the lucky few.
Whisked away to prepare for the hunt, Gene's life has never been in a more precarious position and it is only a matter of time before his secret is out. His only hope might be with the few Hepers that are the prey for the hunt, and a girl - whom he calls Ashley June - that could eviscerate him in an instant.
The Hunt is a completely...unexpected book. Blending familiar elements from the current crop of dystopian and YA fiction (e.g. vampires, a national lottery that involves a hunt to the death of humans, slightly lovestruck teenage protagonists), Andrew Fukuda's novel is both familiar and distinctly alien, both in substance and in theme. On the most basic level, I loved the otherness of these...well, for lack of a better word, vampires (though they simply call themselves people). There are certain vampire conventions that are upheld - the fangs, the sleeping upsidedown in bat-like fashion, the deathly/combustible reaction to sunlight, the strength and speed - but for the most part, vampires are very different in The Hunt than their traditional counterparts. While they have a set society, in which kids go to school and participate in extracurricular activities, a ruling leader and a governing structure that resembles human civilization, vampires are also markedly different from humans in other ways. Everything from their mannerisms to their diet is slightly different. For example, there is no such thing as smiling or laughing; rather, wrist scratching is used to convey amusement. Vampires have no formal names or singular identities, either; instead, people are referred to by where they sit in class, or the position they hold or occupation they fulfill (even our protagonist remains nameless throughout the book, until near the end when a lost memory surfaces). Other differences abound, too - apparently vampires are terrified of the water (or being submerged underwater), apparently they don't sweat, and so on.
This oddness juxtaposed against the familiarity of almost-human tendencies for the most part works, but to varying degrees of efficacy. There are some scenes which are verge on the comical (most notably, in the vampric version of seven minutes in heaven, elbows and armpits are involved, which is...interesting and I'm not quite sure why or how that works as it's never explained), and on a larger level, I'm a little uncertain as to how this world actually fits together. Do the vampires procreate (and how do they do so)? It also seems like they age like humans, going through childhood and adolescence and then reaching adulthood. They eat regular food, but also like to drink blood (I'm not quite sure how that works either). Upon close scrutiny, the rules and tenets are even more porous - for example, how on earth did our young narrator get through childhood and puberty without a single pimple? How could a female human "pass" for vampire at the onset of puberty, when bleeding on a monthly cycle is kind of a dead giveaway signifying heper status?
Needless to say, there's a lot of suspension of disbelief that is asked of readers.
But *if* you can get past some of the more glaring questions in terms of worldbuilding and plausibility, The Hunt is an incredibly entertaining book, with a solid protagonist. I love the Matheson-esque I am Legend (the original story, not the movie) feel to the novel and to our hero Gene, as he is, to the best of his knowledge, the lone human in a world that is full of a new kind of people. He is legend. With that realization comes a palpable isolation that seeps through Gene's narration - never being able to let anyone in, never being able to relax or let down his guard, Gene is utterly, totally alone. He even thinks of himself as a monster, and wishes more than anything that he was a "normal person". This self-loathing and inversion of "monster" versus "normal" is incredibly clever and I think done very well by Fukuda - this is an effective metaphor for high school, for otherness, and for anyone that has ever felt marginalized by their very nature.
And beyond the strength of character, there's also an undeniable popcorn-ish appeal to the story itself. The training for the hunt, the revelations, and the fast-paced action and story make for a very quick read. There are some pretty outlandish twists along the way (particularly at the end of the novel), but it's all very fun and exciting, if slightly manic and not particularly plausible. I was willing to push aside my skepticism and enjoy the ride.
And ultimately, that's what it comes down to in the case of a book like The Hunt - it's all about how much you enjoyed the experience. Personally? I find myself entertained and my own crazy vampire-action bloodlust sated. I'll be around for book 2. ...more
It has been eight years since the cruel reign of King Leck has ended, but the kingdom of Monsea is far from hOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
It has been eight years since the cruel reign of King Leck has ended, but the kingdom of Monsea is far from healed. Queen Bitterblue, now 18, has been ruling with the guidance of her trusted advisors and aid from her many friends - especially the Graced Survivor, Katsa, and the blind, mind-reading Po - and things in Monsea have progressed. Or so Bitterblue thinks.
While the immediate terror of Leck's madness has gone, his legacy of pain and cruelty remains, touching and corrupting the lives of many in the realm, from castle, to city, to its far reaches. Bitterblue, frustrated with the paperwork foisted upon her desk, pile after endless pile, decides to take matters into her own hands and takes to sneaking out of the castle by night. On the streets of Monsea, she discovers that things are not quite as rosy as her advisors would have her think - and that someone is killing those that would seek the truth of Leck's reign and the inner workings of the palace. With the help of two new friends met outside the palace walls - both of whom know nothing of Bitterblue's true identity - and her older friends Katsa and Po, Bitterblue strives to uncover the truths behind the mysteries that no one wants to talk about or remember.
And along the way, Bitterblue learns what it means to be a true Monsean, a friend, and a Queen.
The long awaited sequel to Graceling and companion novel to Fire, Bitterblue is a largely unexpected and hard-to-define novel. Weighing in at approximately 550 pages long, it certainly has more heft than its predecessors - but for all that extra length, it's actually a far more subdued book than either Graceling or Fire. In truth, Bitterblue is an introverted novel about a young Queen struggling to understand the past and separate the truth from the lies that surround her - lies all born of the best intentions. The thing that is so striking about this eponymous protagonist is how truly isolated Bitterblue is - she has friends she loves and trusts, but they are always out and doing the business that keeps Monsea and the rest of the Seven Kingdoms safe. She's also isolated from understanding just how her kingdom works, what happens in its streets, and how her people truly feel about her, the monarchy, and the future. Even at one point, it becomes clear that Bitterblue knows very little of her own home - the palace is a mystery to her, with her father's rooms locked to the world and bottled up like a dark secret never to be thought of again, the sprawling grounds, secret passageways, and cavernous mazes left dusty and forgotten.
But Bitterblue is above all curious, and this burning desire to understand and become the best leader for her people is what makes the character, and by extension the novel, memorable. Bitterblue's characterization as a young queen and young woman is wonderfully complex and genuine - though she's only 18, you can believe in her ability as a monarch because of her self doubts and her struggle to do the right thing, even when it breaks her heart to do so, for the good of her people and her kingdom.
That said, Bitterblue is also an incredibly conflicted character, starved for companionship and affection (and given her nightmare of a childhood with her abusive, twisted father, one can't help but feel for this young woman - the opening prologue chapter alone is enough to break your heart). There are passages where Bitterblue says and does certain things to keep people close to her - physically and emotionally - for as long as possible. For example, in one passage, Bitterblue tells a white lie about hitting her head so that Katsa will continue to hold her and stroke her hair - it's really heart-rendering stuff, these little memorable moments that show just how alone Bitterblue truly is.
These praises sung, there are many...strange, and slightly unsatisfying things about Bitterblue. First, there is the incredible protractedness of the story. As mentioned before, this is an introspective book that is more about personal growth and truth than it is about action or quests and adventure (compared to Katsa and Fire's stories). There is no need for the book to be nearly as long as it is - there is much back and forth about pointless minutia, with Bitterblue getting frustrated with receiving no answers to her questions, then turning back to paperwork and other mendacity that does nothing to really move the story along. The overall mystery is a small, quiet thing too, that is built nicely over the course of the book but again, need not have been as protracted as it was. As it stands, I can see how many might put down Bitterblue because nothing really happens for so much of the novel. Similarly, while I enjoyed the characters of Teddy and Saf, the romantic angle felt tangential and underdeveloped (not that it truly matters to the meat of the story - but I'd almost prefer that it not have been included at all). The side characters and new introductions are likable enough, but the characterizations felt somehow bereft of the same intensity and depth that we see with Katsa and Po and Giddon and Thiel, and any number of other, older faces.
There are glimpses of brilliance within Bitterblue's tale - I love the centrality of ciphers, the tragedy of books gone forever, burned and destroyed by Leck and his following. I love the different graces we are introduced to in this book (particularly a librarian named Death and his shocking ability to remember every single thing he has ever read). I also loved the way everything ties together in the end, as Katsa and Po's story, and even that of Fire, comes to a head and is resolved in bittersweet fashion. I love the morose beauty of this book that deals with the legacy of pain and grief that follows a truly terrifying tyrant, and while there were some undeniable stumbling points in the meandering body of the story, the ultimate message and experience is a positive one. Bitterblue might not have the brashness of Katsa's Graceling or the dangerous beauty of Fire, but it has an abundance of heart, and that is more than enough to recommend it. ...more