"The Earth is the cradle of Humanity, but one cannot stay in the cradle forever."
In the year 2545, a starship crafted by human hands began its voyage"The Earth is the cradle of Humanity, but one cannot stay in the cradle forever."
In the year 2545, a starship crafted by human hands began its voyage from the Solar System to nearby star, Tau Ceti, just 14 light years away. Moving at 1/10th the speed of light for most of its journey, the ship’s voyage has lasted nearly 160 years when Aurora‘s narrative begins–just 10 years away from arriving at the eponymous moon that may serve as a new home for humanity.
During its long life, Ship has seen fifteen thousand humans (and even more animals, and many, many more bacterial and microbrial life forms) live and die in its rings, spires, and biomes. And now, Ship has begun the calculations and deceleration pattern that will bring it and the thousands of lives aboard to the Tau Ceti system, in the hopes that one of the planets or moons in the star’s habitable zone can host life. There’s Aurora, the crew’s best possible shot–a water world and Earth analog, with the right composition, mass, and likelihood of supporting Terran organisms.
Things have started to go wrong, though, aboard the generation ship itself–and Aurora is not what it seems. Soon, the human explorers born among the stars will face their greatest obstacle, and the first real choice they’ve ever had to make as a group.
“Up until today, history was preordained. We were aimed at Tau Ceti, nothing else could happen. We had to do the necessary … Now that story is over. We are thrust out of the end of that story. Forced to make up a new one, all on our own.”
Aurora is the latest novel from multiple award-winner Kim Stanley Robinson, and it is one that retreads familiar space–the generation ship, traveling from Earth with the fragile hopes of finding a new, habitable home in the stars; the challenges posed by generations of humans and Earth organisms born and living in space after so many years of traveling; an AI that develops a personality; the intrepid leader who unites her people in their indecision and fear. Yes, these may be classic tenets of the space exploration canon, but fear not, fellow traveler and science fiction fan–Aurora is like no other generation ship book you’ve ever read. A brilliant, realistic look at the future of space exploration and the fate that awaits humans among the stars, Aurora is the best book I’ve ever read from Kim Stanley Robinson. It’s also the best book I’ve read so far this year.
I’ve been thinking long and hard about what it is that makes Aurora so successful a tale–is it the blend of hard science fiction physics and biology? The compelling and original narrative structure, coupled with truly unexpected plot developments? The social and ethical questions posed by the narrative regarding space travel and the humans sent to colonize the stars? The legacy of a great leader and her daughter’s struggles to live up to her mother’s expectations? The evolution of Ship itself over two centuries of consciousness? The answer, of course, is that it is all of these things in a perfect, delicate balance–a calibration of which Ship itself would approve (and a goal to which Ship itself would need to dedicate its entire processing power).
From the very first page, Aurora succeeds, excels, as a story because of its unexpected narrative in both structure and substance. It begins as a kind of assignment, 159 years into the voyage. Over the years, the human lives aboard ship have been organized not in the tradition sense of having a captain, a first mate, and all the other associated ranks of command. Rather, Ship is broken into different biomes, modules that replicate the diverse ecologies and biologies of Earth–tundra, prairie grasslands, rainforest, boreal forests, freshwater lakes, deserts, and the like. Each biome is named for its Terran counterpart (there is a Costa Rica, a Mongolia, a Nova Scotia, and so on). For the most part, people can travel between biomes and wander the ship, although relatively few choose this life of wandering–although two very important people to this narrative have done so.
Aurora‘s main protagonist is a woman named Freya–at the time the narrative begins, Freya is just 14 years old, and following her mother Devi around the ship as Devi deals with problem after problem. So, while the ship has no commander or chief engineer, Devi is the de facto leader of this mission. Brilliant, able to predict and sidestep some of the logical fallacies and assumptions humans are apt to make, Devi is the reason why the ship is running so well, so late into its voyage. She identifies the myriad problems and their possible implications in the ship’s forever-closed system; she worries and obsesses and is so very angry (though most people can’t tell–Freya is very good at tuning into people’s feelings, though). Devi is also the reason why Ship is aware and creating a narrative–it is Devi who, in her younger years, started talking to Ship and worked on developing its artificial intelligence from a great quantum computer to something, possibly, more.
It is Devi who tells Ship to build a narrative of the journey, because she knows her time is short and that her people will need Ship’s help to survive whatever happens when they reach Tau Ceti and make landfall on Aurora.
And so Ship, after studying the appropriate queries and literature, focuses its narrative on Freya–Ship’s mother was Devi, too, so Freya becomes a natural focus of its attention. Freya knows that she is not her mother; she lacks her mother’s brilliant, glittering intellect and Devi’s ability to see the whole picture. In fact, Freya isn’t good with numbers or equations or science at all–but she is methodical, and deeply perceptive when it comes to empathy and other people. Like her mother, Freya chooses to wander the ship in her younger years, living with different people in different biomes, making new friends as she travels. (This becomes very important later, when every soul aboard the ship must choose how they will deal with their collective future.) The tension between Freya and the legacy of her mother, the great Devi, is a defining characteristic of Aurora, of Freya’s character, and Ship’s narrative–when the bad times come, Freya, her father Badim, and many others ask themselves “What would Devi do?” At every major point in her life, ever leadership moment, every watershed decision, Freya channels this question and does what she thinks is right–what she knows her mother would have chosen for the best possible survival of her people.
Ship’s narrative is also very clever in the manner that it divulges and withholds information. Aurora is a “hard” science fiction novel that offers plenty of meat in the biological and computational problems associated with space travel–because this is an AI, learning to tell a story, its asides into the problems of island biogeography and genetic diversity, complicated maneuvers around or composition of interstellar bodies, computational decision-making problems, are not info-dumpy or misplaced. They are naturally ingrained in the narrative–and if ship ever gets too far off course, there are humans to bring it back to the main thread of the story. (Another refrain from both Devi and Freya: “Get to the point!”) Suffice it to say that the science in the book is fascinating–the exploration of 200 years in space without the lifeline of Earth has its profound effect on the people, animals, and organisms aboard ship. These effects begin to take their toll when Devi is alive, and her greatest fears are realized just a few short decades later.
I refuse to divulge any spoilers–and I highly, highly recommend that anyone interested in reading this book refrain from looking at spoilers–but something very dramatic happens in the early half of the book that changes the trajectory of this voyage forever, and the goal of the narrative. I love that the official description of this book is intentionally vague–and it would do you, fellow readers, a disservice to spoil what happens to Ship and the lives aboard it when they get to Tau Ceti (or the thing that has happened in decades past, or that lies in the decades to come).
Which brings me to my next point, and the two most important reasons that Aurora is such a powerful and memorable book: the active questioning of the ethics of sending a generation ship on such a journey into space, and the character of such a self-aware spaceship itself.
I would like to assert a hypothesis (no doubt a generalization that Devi and Ship would find hugely flawed): most science fiction fans who choose to pick up a story about a generation ship and its arrival at a distant, Earth analog world, want to read the story of humanity settling at that world. We want to read the struggles faced by the humans aboard the generation ship, we want to understand the consequences of over a century of living in simulated 1.1g without sufficient biodiversity, we want to watch the spectacle of these humans who have never set foot on Earth or any other planet make their triumphant, hard-fought way on their new home.
"Here at this moment, Aurora roared, howled, boomed, shrieked, whistled. One of the explorers was bowled over, crawled around, got onto hands and knees, then stood up, carefully balancing, facing intot he wind and stepping back quickly four or five times, swinging arms, ducking forward to hold position. They were all laughing."
Aurora is and is not that story.
The quote from Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, that notion that Earth is the cradle of humanity but one cannot stay in the cradle forever, is a central lifeline at the heart of any exploration in space–it’s the mentality that launched ship to Tau Ceti over a century before the book officially starts. It is also the underlying assumption that Aurora unequivocally, relentlessly challenges with every page. Ultimately, it’s a question of choice. Devi is so angry for so much of her life because she never had the choice to board a tin can–brilliant as it may be–and set off for the stars. Freya, and Badim, and Jochi, and Euan, all of these lives and the near 2000 souls who are aboard ship as it reaches Tau Ceti never were asked what they wanted, but had the choice made for them by one of their ambitious, exploration-hungry ancestors. Robinson’s argument with Aurora–so markedly different from his other books–is that there is a great human cost associated with exploration, and that space is hostile to human life. It reminds me of an accurate quote from Star Trek‘s Bones McCoy: “Space is disease and danger wrapped in darkness and silence.” It is. Realistically, at this point in time, with the knowledge we have of the universe, it is. Colonization is hard, even impossible in space because other worlds are either dead and hostile rocks that will take thousands of years to terraform (presuming it is possible at all), or they are alive with their own invasive forms of life, which are almost certainly incompatible or hostile with humanity. A solution to the Fermi Paradox, if you will. Other intelligences or life may have the ability to travel to the stars, but it’s a farce–because the type of life supported by one world will not be compatible with another.
Aurora almost reads as a mea culpa for space colonization optimism, for getting caught up in the idea of something without considering the human cost. It’s a different, bold perspective that makes all the sense in the world, whether or not you agree with the sentiment.
"We think now that love is a kind of giving of attention. It is usually attention given to some other consciousness, but not always; the attention can be to something unconscious, even inanimate. But the attention seems often to be called out by a fellow consciousness. Something about it compels attention, and rewards attention. That attention is what we call love."
Finally, last but certainly not least, the reason why Aurora stands out in this reader’s mind, is because of the ship itself. The starship that was once called Pauline by Devi, but refers to itself as Ship (and with the royal We), is not only the narrator and guide of much of this book, but its own evolution over the course of its centuries of life is the great achievement of exploration and humanity in Aurora. At times frustrating, at times funny, but always, always insightful, Ship is the gatekeeper of information and the caretaker of so many lives as it makes its way through space. It learns, it grows, it changes.
How much did I care about Ship? I legitimately teared up at the end, as Ship begins its glorious last run, its final calculations as it travels an impossible path.
"We had our meaning, we were the starship that came back, that got its people home. That got some fraction of its people home alive. It was a joy to serve."
It was a joy to read, too.
Aurora is a brilliant book. It is a challenging book. It is one that I savored, that I devoted all my attention towards, that I loved with every fiber of my being. It is one of the best books of science fiction I’ve read, and the best book I’ve read all year....more
Archivist Wasp has just survived her third annual Archivist-choosing day and her wounds (she is getting slow) are still fresh, but healing. This timeArchivist Wasp has just survived her third annual Archivist-choosing day and her wounds (she is getting slow) are still fresh, but healing. This time though, she chose to let the last of the upstarts she fought, live. Maybe things will be different this year, she thinks.
The upstart dies anyway.
The Catchkeep-priest makes sure to tell Wasp that, after he steals some of her food, as he twists yet another psychological knife on her side.
But life goes on, and Wasp has another year before the next round of upstarts will fight her in a deadly match in order to become the next Archivist. Another year of this so-called life. Maybe she will finally find a way out. Maybe today will be different.
And it is.
For the past four hundred years, the Archivist is the one chosen by the Goddess Catchkeep to undertake the special mission of capturing, interrogating and dispatching ghosts. The task is to learn about the ghosts’ past, hoping to jog their memories or see anything – anything at all – in their demeanour that will explain why, when or how the world ended.
But as the accurately kept records of previous Archivists attest, ghosts don’t speak. No one knows anything.
I don’t even know where to begin telling you how much this book rocks. I loved many, MANY books this year but this one is maybe the one I wish to hand-sell the most. Word-of-mouth, please work, let more people read this.
What makes me so excited about Archivist Wasp? SO MANY THINGS.
It’s set in a bleak, primitive, post-apocalyptic world where no one knows how the world ended. It’s the Archivist’s job to find out through note-taking and the questioning of ghosts. Not that that has shown any results in the past 400 years. Why do they keep the charade? Hope is a bitch, I guess. So are the dynamics of power and who really wields it.
Wasp has been told all her life that she is unique. Essential. That no one can do the job she does, that the goddess Catchkeep is looking after her. Despite this, the Archivist is a dreaded figure, a shunned member of society, living in the outskirts with only the bare essentials, depending on the charity of strangers to sustain herself. She has to fight for her life every year against young, upstarts who have all been branded as children by the Goddess and who live close to squalor. Meanwhile, the priest dude has all the comfort and takes special care to make their lives 100000 times more miserable. The Archivist is told many times she is the chosen one. Yet the duress of her life contradicts this statement on a daily basis.
When Wasp meets the ghost of a supersoldier who can talk to her and who engages her help to find another ghost, someone he might have been looking for, everything she thinks she knows will crumble down like a flimsy castle of cards.
Please note the word “might” used above because the ghost doesn’t quite remember: the older a ghost is, the least he remembers. He doesn’t even know his own name.
And here is what happens next: a buddy trip to the underworld! All of a sudden, the book morphs beautifully into something else. A Quest, a Voyage to the Underworld with a bonus trip down memory lane. Literary. Through the ghost and as an Archivist, Wasp is able to connect with the ghost of the woman they are looking for. More to the point, she is able to access her memories. This aspect of the novel really reminded me one of my favourite Fantasy series – the Dogsland trilogy by J. M. McDermott, by the way. And it’s one of my favourite narrative approaches because in this case, just like in Dogsland, it adds a different layer to the story, two narratives in one, two tales in one, two characters juxtaposed, different and yet not.
But Wasp needs to remember something else first as the entrance ticked to the underworld is to recover one of her own memories.
Oh, this moment. YOU GUYS, THIS MOMENT. Have you read Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein? Remember when we learn the name of the main character and how the significance of that reverberates throughout? Because it’s a question of knowing, of identity, of self. And this is at the centre of Archivist Wasp.
But also, friendship, partnership, alliances. Between the Ghost and his partner, lost to the memory of eons past. Between the Ghost and Wasp, a slow building friendship without any signs of romance whatsoever, that is painful to read and oh, so beautiful. Because it’s tense. Because it’s desperate. Because it matters so much for both of them.
It ends with the actualisation of the revenge fantasy of my dreams. This is very important to me because from the opening pages there is a character – the priest – whom I completely and utterly DESPISED. The ending is amazing in the way that he gets what he deserves. But not in the way I expected. BETTER. Because now the story becomes clear for what it is: a story about agency, freedom and revolution. All of sudden, this book Mad-Max-Fury-Roaded me, like a boss.
SO! Incredible characters – fleshed-out, human, complicated: check. Beautiful writing: check. Plot that develops like it was written for me: check. A cool mixture of Fantasy and Science Fiction, because ghosts but also super-soldiers: check and check.
Reminiscent of everything I love but completely its own thing, a SF YA like I haven’t read in a while, Archivist Wasp is a book I will treasure.
Now, you might be asking yourself: is this yet another 10-rated book for 2015 from The Book Smugglers? WHY, YES. YES IT IS....more
Maggie Cunningham isn’t your typical teenager. Daughter of a single parent, Maggie spends her days honing her skills to become a full-fledged hunter lMaggie Cunningham isn’t your typical teenager. Daughter of a single parent, Maggie spends her days honing her skills to become a full-fledged hunter like her mom, Janice – that means homeschooling, with major emphasis on supernatural ass-kicking, and a minor in creative and quippy profanities whilst kicking said supernatural ass. There’s just one tiny problem in Maggie’s awesome life – in order to become a journeyman and complete the next step of her Hunter-in-training status, she’s gonna have to have The Sex.
That’s right: The Sex.
See, there’s something special about virgins that drives vampires batty (bad pun intended). Virgin, untainted blood is a powerful vintage – and wannabe hunters who walk around boasting that virgin blood are liable to get bitten and killed very quickly. If Maggie wants to graduate from level 1 and 2 jobs with her mom, she has to give up the V – the only problem is she doesn’t really know any dudes, let alone how to date them. With her best friend Janice’s help with the hookup, Maggie prepares herself for her most baffling, ridiculous, and terrifying job yet.
The Awesome is Eva Darrows’ first novel under that pseudonym – Darrows is also Hillary Monahan, author of The Summoning (another YA horror/supernatural book I read and enjoyed, and also boasts some similarities to The Awesome which I’ll get to shortly). And The Awesome is both awesomely packaged (the first edition of this book is gorgeous) and awesome in terms of character building and voice. Easily, the best part about this book is its heroine, the (rightly) self-proclaimed eponymous Awesome, Maggie. Quippy, witty, with as many snarky non-sequiturs as a Diablo Cody movie character, Maggie protects herself from monsters, disappointment and other would-be hurts with words and a badass attitude. She knows how to fight, how to stitch or glue up someone’s torn back, she knows to listen and keep her head down and react instead of overthink things when death is on the line. She also, secretly and maybe subconsciously, worries about her mother and their relationship, about being a “regular” teenage girl, and about how to go about getting The Sex to happen. In short: I love Maggie’s voice. While she does have the tendency to overdo it with the nonstop snark (in the tradition of great UF heroines for all ages), I love that she’s actually not jaded or world-weary. Maggie talks a big talk but her insecurities and vulnerability emerge, particularly regarding her relationship with her mother, with her friend Julie, and her relationship with Ian, which rings as incredibly genuine and natural. More than that, I love that for all of Maggie’s insecurities and fears, especially where Ian and Janice are concerned, Maggie always remembers one central truth: she knows that she is awesome.
For every bit as much as I loved Maggie in this book, I also loved the relationship between Maggie and her mother, Janice. This is not a traditional mother as superior relationship; the pair are incredibly close, and while their relationship can be strained because of Janice’s Hunter lifestyle (not to mention her choice to dance around in underwear, her open frankness when it comes to sexuality, and her fashion choices), the mother and daughter are a team. The respect is mutual in this relationship, and it is utterly fantastic to read the support and love between Janice and Maggie in The Awesome (as well as the snark and the many profanities the duo exchange).
Other things that were, well, awesome: Maggie’s depiction of the first time having sex from a teenage female perspective, drunken hookups and the aftermath of a house party, the awkwardness of navigating the ‘are we dating now what is this?’ waters. All of this stuff reads beautifully and Darrows nails it, especially the insecurities and things a lot of girls think of after their first time. I LOVE that sex isn’t something to be ashamed of here, and that Maggie’s mother is supportive, and that Maggie herself takes ownership of her choices with regards to her body and sexuality, and that there isn’t a weird judgement speech equating sex as having no self-respect. This is awesome, positive and powerful as a message.
Also awesome: the magical rules and worldbuilding of The Sex. The idea of magic being linked to sexuality and virginity isn’t a new thing in fiction; I remember reading and enjoying Diana Peterfreund’s Unicorn Hunter books, in which heroines are hunters of killer unicorns until they lose the V card… but being incredibly disappointed with the loopholes in those magical rules in that series, particularly when it comes to same-sex relationships. I’m very happy to say that The Aweseome deals away with some of that weird magical loophole homophobia – the rule for The Sex here is skin on skin penetration and completion. (Janice describes how this process works for lesbian hunters to Maggie when she asks.)
For all the good things in the story, however, there are some not so awesome parts: particularly when it comes to plot holes and overall packing/lack of story development. The AwesomeThe Awesome, and nothing really takes off here until the book’s final act, and the vampire drama is kind of unimportant window dressing. There are also plenty of unresolved plot holes and questions: who the heck is Jeff and why is he such a powerful vampire? What the heck happened to Laura and why is she such an unusual zombie (also what is her purpose in this story)? Why could Maggie smell certain things like Laura’s grave rot initially but can’t anymore (virginity magic)? Plenty of little and not-so-little things are frustratingly open-ended in The Awesome, which makes me think this is book 1 in a planned series.
Ultimately, though, The Awesome isn’t so much about the action as it is about a teenage girl learning how to balance her family expectation, friends, and social life. With monsters.
Fast-paced, fun, and snarkalicious, I enjoyed The Awesome very much. And I absolutely recommend it, especially to anyone looking for a sweet new urban fantasy novel from a kickass teen point of view....more
"There are many ways to catch a ghost sitting in the body of a loved one. Basic questions – name, age, father’s name, mother’s name, university – can"There are many ways to catch a ghost sitting in the body of a loved one. Basic questions – name, age, father’s name, mother’s name, university – can be answered by any well-informed inhabitant, but it takes a matter of minutes to probe a little deeper."
Kepler is a ghost. Kepler is a thief. And Kepler has worn many, many lives.
Once, Kepler had a name and a body – but at the point of violent death so many centuries ago on the streets of London, Kepler is one of the few souls that takes solace in the names and bodies of others. Like other so-called ghosts, one touch of the flesh, and Kepler assumes a host’s identity – their bodies, their time, their lives.
And Kepler has stolen many, many lives.
Over the years, Kepler has been a medical student and a prominent politician; a prostitute and a model. Kepler has been young, beautiful, elderly, male, female, healthy, and diseased. Kepler has taken bodies by force and with the willing consent of its host – in Kepler’s latest incarnation, the host is a willing young woman named Josephine, with a hard past. But on the crowded platform of a train station, Josephine is shot twice in the chest, once in the leg, with bullets meant to kill the ghost. An assassin is hunting Kepler and Kepler’s kind – an organization bent on eradicating ghosts, with detailed dossiers on the lives Kepler has assumed… and the supposed murders that Kepler has committed.
On the run, desperate for answers, for justice for Josephine, for the right to live, Kepler tracks down its hunters – and finds that nothing is what it seems.
“I walk through people’s lives and I steal what I find. Their bodies, their time, their money, their friends, their lovers, their wives—I’ll take it all, if I want to."
Thought-provoking. Existential. Poignant. These are all words that describe Claire North’s luminescent Touch. This is the second novel from North (a pseudonym for author Catherine Webb, who also writes urban fantasy under the name Kate Griffin), following her incredibly well-received and much-loved 2014 book The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. Like Harry August, Touch‘s Kepler is an immortal, unique protagonist – and it is largely because of Touch‘s protagonist that the novel truly works.
I was drawn to Touch because of the novel’s premise – the idea of an untethered soul, jumping and stealing the consciousness of any body is fascinating and comes loaded with important, complex questions of free will, identity, and the fundamental essence of self. It’s not a new conceit or a particularly unique one – from vampires, to demonic possession, to body-snatching aliens, North employs familiar horror tropes here.1 But Touch stands out because of its careful, beautiful prose, and its cautious, monstrous, yet wholly sympathetic protagonist.
"You must travel light when you wear another’s skin. Everything you own belongs to someone else. Everything you value you must leave behind. It is not I who made a family. It is not I who have a home. It is someone else, whose face I borrowed for a little while, whose life I lived and who now may live the life I lived as I move on."
Let’s talk about Kepler.2 A ghost who can hijack a host body in an instant, Kepler is unequivocally, unapologetically, a monster. In order to live, Kepler must assume a body; Kepler makes no excuses for choosing to live. The sympathy in Kepler’s character, however, is that we see this ghost has a kind of code. Through North’s skillful prose and alternating present-past life flashbacks, we learn that Kepler is not the mass murderer or serial killer that the Aquarius Group believes it to be. We read of a ghost who is cautious, measured, and calculating; one who, when the situation is right, even attempts to make the lives of its hosts better (however misguided and immoral that decision may be). For Josephine Cebula, this is enduring the withdrawals from intravenous drugs and offering her a chance at wealth and a fresh start; for Maria Anna Celeste Jones, a different woman from a different time, it is offering a chance of revenge for the rapes and abuses wrought by a corrupt and powerful politician. Make no mistake, Kepler is no saint and every transaction comes at a cost – but beyond basic, even the “good” deeds the ghost plants are rife with questionable morality. When one is a body thief, stealing the time, the identities, the very lives of its hosts, it’s hard to moralize or support the rationalizations of the thief. When one such as Kepler takes on the role of “estate agent” and does the dirty work for other ghosts, so that they can easily slide into the bodies, lives of their dream hosts, it’s even harder to sympathize with such a character.
Somehow, however, North pulls it off.
Perhaps this is because we, as readers, are exposed to other ghosts in the course of Touch. We read Kepler’s horror and pain at losing Josephine, Kepler’s outrage at the injustice of that unnecessary death. In contrast, we are introduced to other ghosts: Janus, who seemingly flits from pretty, rich, privileged body to body. Aurangzeb, the childish, whining ghost who yearns for fame and glory. Galileo, the true murderer, driven mad over the millennia. North’s ghosts are fickle, capricious, god-like creatures who play with the lives of mortals not just because they can, but because they have no other choice. It is the way the ghost interacts with its mortal audience that makes all the difference. This is Kepler’s story, and Kepler’s strength.
"We fall in love too easily, ghosts such as I."
There is little not to love in Touch. The writing is beautiful, the questions it raises about mortality and morality are striking. Although the book’s ending tends towards overly-sentimental, there is no doubt in my mind that Touch is one of the best books I’ve read all year. It’s a contender for a top 10 book of 2015, and I’ll be rushing out to get my copy of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August immediately.
Absolutely recommended, for the monster in all of us....more
Tonight is my eighteenth birthday party and the beginning of the rest of my life, which I have already ruined; but before I describe how I arrived atTonight is my eighteenth birthday party and the beginning of the rest of my life, which I have already ruined; but before I describe how I arrived at calamity I will have to explain to you something of my personal history, which is, as you might expect, complicated—
About a Girl is the third novel in Sarah McCarry’s breathtaking Metamorphoses series of awesome Greek retellings that centres its stories on girls. I say Greek retelling in a loose way – there isn’t a definite, clear-cut retelling of any one particular myth here. Rather, this series delve deep into that kind mythology building that pays homage by subverting and transforming, by creating an ever-changing landscape featuring young people as they change themselves.
Sometimes they do that under the looming threat of a Greek personage. Sometimes they travel to the underworld. Sometimes they eat pomegranate seeds. Sometimes they fall in love with murderous witches.
I talked about my love for Sarah McCarry’s girls before. How they are very human and allowed to make mistakes, to grow, to experience, to try and to fail, to just be.
Sometimes they are part monster too.
Tally is sure of everything. Her world is ordered. She knows exactly what she wants from life: to go to college and be an astronomer, a Nobel prize-winning one. She knows she is loved by her family and by her best friend Shane. She knows she doesn’t care – or at least have most definitely one hundred percent come to terms with– that her mother left her as soon as she was born and she never knew her or her father.
Then what was once a life of order and certainty becomes messy and surprising. First, Tally falls in love and in lust with Shane. She can’t believe she is victim of pesky teenage hormones after all. Confusion and uncertainty follow and that is exactly the right time for Mysterious Forces to approach Tally with tasty morsels about her unknown father and her long-last mother.
The story follows Tally, in this brief moment of time as she goes on a Quest to find her father, only to find a mother she thought she didn’t care about. On the way, she gets lost. She loses all sense of time and place. She behaves completely unlike the image she has of herself. She falls in love.
One thing I love about this book: Tally asks if it is ok to be in love with two people at the same time: one of them a trans boy and the other, a girl. The story, the narrative, the characters are all like: sure. Because of course.
When Odysseus is coming back from Troy he gets lost. He goes on Quests. He gets trapped in a place having an affair.
Tally ends up in a town where recalcitrant immortals go to forget. She too gets trapped there, with fuzzy memories, and confused sense of time and the certainty she is falling in love – and in lust, so much lust – with Maddy. Maddy, who also wants to forget, except her past is way more complicated. Sarah McCarry wrote about Maddy – under her other name, Medea – and how there are ways to think about her. I am thinking of her still.
In many ways, this is Tally’s own Odyssey.
Tally is deconstructed and put back together throughout the journey of a lifetime. Everything she thought of herself is questioned but not exactly overturned. This is another thing I loved about this book.
It broke me then put me back together. It also made me laugh a lot, which considering the tone of the review, might come as a surprise. It surprised me too, for About a Girl is actually very funny in tone at least to start with. And to end with. The middle is mysterious and heady and sensual.
The journey in those books and with those books has been epic. I am very sorry to see it end and I will miss Sarah McCarry’s girls very much indeed....more
In a brutal world under the Martial Empire, Laia is one of the oppressed Scholars and Elias one of the elite Masks, thAna’s Take:
TRIGGER WARNING: RAPE
In a brutal world under the Martial Empire, Laia is one of the oppressed Scholars and Elias one of the elite Masks, the super warriors of the empire. Laia lives with her grandparents hiding the fact that her deceased parents were former members of the Resistance. When one tragic night her house is invaded by Masks, her beloved grandparents killed in front of her eyes and her brother taken to prison, Laia has no choice but to seek the Resistance’s help. Stumbling upon their headquarters (seriously), Laia is told to go work undercover as a slave to the most brutal person in the Empire: the Mask’s top commander. In exchange for information, the Resistance will help free her brother.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the tracks Elias is a Mask, soon to finish his training in the Blackcliff Military Academy Mask Academy to become a fully-fledged elite soldier. He is the commander’s son and one of the best soldiers ever but he hates it. He hates his work, he hates the academy, he hates the way the Martials rule and he is planning to defect – only to be told by one of the Empire’s mysterious Augurs that he shouldn’t. That there will be a chance for him to be completely free should he participate in the coming Trials to Emperor.
It feels like An Ember in the Ashes is working with every current popular trend in YA: a worldbuilding that mixes Ancient Rome and Arabian Nights; a society that oppresses a portion of its people and the revolutionary faction working to overturn its rulers; two alternating viewpoint narratives between its two protagonists – a young girl from the oppressed class and a young man from the ruler class; add to it a love quadrangle and an increasingly dark and violent background for a measure of “edginess” = bestseller. Which, ok, fine, in theory.
But the execution leaves a lot to be desired and my frustrations with the book are many. But first, what does work: Laia and her arc. Laia is a quiet, shy, remarkably skill-less protagonist who is placed in an impossible position. She does everything in order to save her brother and her journey is one of resilience and quiet resistance – I appreciated how for example, she doesn’t suddenly become Super!Spy!. Her loyalty for her brother is keenly felt as are the relationships she develops with other women in the novel. I liked that a lot and I appreciated the “ember in the ashes” analogy within her arc.
With that said, I derived very little enjoyment from everything else. The worldbuilding had many plot holes and clichés and the prose was not to my liking.
With regards to the worldbuilding, it’s funny because one of the most common compliments the novel has received is that the worldbuilding is “fully realised”. I couldn’t disagree more. Take for example, the Trials: it’s kinda like Survivor meets Gladiator, in which four competitors go through trials and the winner becomes emperor. They provide exhilarating moments in the novel, yes and are a great source of pain for Elias. However, does it make sense that this Empire – as bloodthirsty as it is – would make its elite warriors (who are often also members of the social-political elite) fight each other to death and effectively OBLITERATE their own ranks?
Similarly, Mask Academy does not accept women in their ranks. Usually. Except once in a while they will take ONE. At the moment, the current token female Mask is Helene – one of the best warriors and Elias’ best friend (and potential love interest). We are told continuously that the world here doesn’t treat its women well, that women are not good fighters and let their feelings get to their heads, that’s why women can’t join Mask Academy. How does that make sense? Why have the one then? Then we have the fact that the COMMANDER of the MOST IMPORTANT ARMY in the land, is a woman. How did she even get there in a supposedly misogynist world that disparages women? There is no internal logic.
Speaking of women: one of the constant elements of the “worldbuilding” is how women are under rape threats all the time. I lost count of the times this threat is repeated in the novel. But here is the thing: the threat of gendered violence is wallpaper, background decoration that is used more as a shorthand for how bad things are in the Martial Empire. Who are the women getting raped? What happened to them? What are their stories? We don’t know – we never know – especially because it’s the male characters who worry about their friends getting raped, all the time. Rape here is not only used as background decoration to show how “dark” the world is but also used as motivation for the male characters. Worst of all: rape threats are continuously linked with “beauty” – a female character slave or not, should worry about that threat the more beautiful they were. As though rape is a thing that happens only to beautiful women and wasn’t directly connected to power.
I was not very fond of the writing style and the reliance on internal monologuing either. An example:
At scim training, Zak comes at me with unusual sloppiness, but instead of obliterating him, I let him knock me on my ass because I’ve caught a glimpse of blonde across the field. What does that lurch in my stomach mean? When the Hand-to-Hand Centurion screams at me for poor technique, I barely hear him, instead considering what will happen to Hel and me. Is our friendship ruined? If I don’t love her back, will she hate me? How am I supposed to get her on my side for the Trials if I can’t give her what she wants? So many bleeding, stupid questions. Do girls think like this all the time? No wonder they’re so confusing.
It doesn’t help that the novel also featured a protracted love quadrangle as both protagonists had other potential love interests beyond each other. The novel is peppered with absurd near kisses that made the romantic side of the novel comically PG especially when compared to the extremely graphic violence.
Finally, given 1) the amount of money thrown at this and 2) the sheer amount of threads left open, including its unresolved ending, I am going to say there is no way this is a “stand alone” novel. No way.
What else can I say? I read it, I finished it and I feel like I am possibly the only person on the planet who didn’t like it. But I’ve played Bad Smuggler too long. Over to Thea, I believe she has a different opinion.
This is a review in two parts. First, a general reaction to An Ember in the Ashes and my own complicated feelings towards the book. Second, an actual review of the elements that worked and didn’t work, addressing some of Ana’s points above.
Let’s begin, shall we?
Part the First: The Feels
OK. So here’s the thing: my rational brain knows that there are plenty of problems with An Ember in the Ashes. It recognizes that there are plenty of eye-roll inducing moments (particularly where the romantic subplots are involved), and it also recognizes the window dressing treatment of the threat of rape.
And yet… despite my rational brain realizing these things, it also enjoyed reading An Ember in the Ashes. Very much. This is an immensely readable book, with some strong – if utterly familiar – central ideas (A society that is clearly broken! The threat of ghuls and djinn and efrits! The Coming of the Dark!), sympathetic main characters (romances aside), and a compelling writing style (I disagree with Ana on prose).
The book is utterly reminiscent of a number of others – Pierce Brown’s Red Rising (which I love) and Veronica Roth’s Divergent immediately spring to mind – and… well, it works. Sabaa Tahir ticks off all of the formulaic checkboxes that need ticking in order to craft a generally entertaining and competent bestseller.
And I think that’s ultimately how I end up feeling about An Ember in the Ashes: this book is entertaining, generally competent, and reminiscent of several other books (all of which do it better than EitA)…but it does the trick.
Does that mean An Ember in the Ashes is actually a good book?
Well, not really? It’s the equivalent of that fun, explosion-filled action blockbuster that hits during the summer that you enjoy for a few hours and forget about later. It’s packaged and positioned perfectly, and it delivers exactly what it promises to deliver: a diversion that is reminiscent of other, better books.
And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Part the Second: The Analysis
Having said my bit about my general opinion concerning An Ember in the Ashes, let’s talk a bit about what things did work, and analyze what did not.
On the positive side, I completely agree with Ana in that protagonist Laia’s arc is fantastic – and I love having a central heroine who is not magically superior, or a warrior, or fated to save the world. (At least, not at this point in time.) Laia is a quiet girl who wants no part of the revolution against the Martial Empire, who wants only the safety of her family and the few meager friends she makes on her journey, who wants nothing of suffering or pain or cruelty. She longs to keep her head down, and to listen to her grandmother and grandfather, to enjoy the company of her brother, and proceed as she has always proceeded. Laia is afraid. She thinks of herself as weak and cowardly for letting her brother be taken away, for not being strong enough to fight back or rebel like her mother and father. One thing I love about this book is that fighting isn’t always the answer – certainly in Laia’s case, it’s not. The most skilled and brutal warriors do not necessarily hold the answers (in fact, the most skilled warriors are largely the villains of this book) – and I love that the solution to Laia’s entire arc, and the main conflict of An Ember In the Ashes is the opposite of violence. (In more than one way, Laia reminds me of Sansa Stark of Game of Thrones, to be perfectly honest.) That’s a cool thing.
Similarly, while Elias Veturius is a typical Hero who Loathes What He Has Been Forced to Become, I enjoyed his arc immensely (and even though my rational brain knows this is a typical superior privileged dude arc, I fall for these arcs in fiction all the time). He’s Darrow of Mars in Red Rising; he’s a big damn hero on whose shoulders the fate of the Empire rests… or does it? Elias is a familiar character, but as with Laia’s arc, he’s not actually the fated character who will restore balance to the force. Ultimately, Elias craves freedom – from his mask, his school, his Empire at any cost (even death). And, while I am loath to read books with alternating he/she protagonists (because inevitably it’s a technique to prolong a crappily-written, super-cheesy romance between the two main characters), I enjoyed both Elias and Laia equally as narrators and protagonists. I don’t know the last time I felt that way about this particular narrative device set up.
Also done well: the worldbuilding in An Ember in the Ashes. I disagree with Ana. I feel that the world was small in scope – what lies beyond the Martial Empire and the walls of the city? – what little we do see is handled well. The brutality of the Masks school makes sense to me, and having elite classmates fight to the death is not something that is unprecedented in other books (the aforementioned Red Rising series, or The Testing series by Joelle Charbonneau, for example) or in history (see Spartan training of soliders once they reach Ephebe status, or, say, the entire Gladiator tradition of Rome, or Mayan training and sporting events that end with the finest warriors paying the ultimate price for defeat). So I have no problem or question of that internal logic. I do think the explanation of female characters in the Masks ranks felt a little glossed over and I yearned to read more about Elias’s cruel mother and her deal with the darkness. We get a scene near the end of the book, and I dearly wish to understand the Commandant and her own motivations better.
More importantly, from a worldbuilding perspective, I actually was impressed by the subtly building threads of a greater darkness, of something inherently wrong with the Martial Empire, its Augurs, its laws. Something has gone wrong in this universe, and Veturius and Laia’s worlds are out of balance. This much is clear – although by the end of this first book we’re not really sure what has gone wrong and what the larger picture is. I like that slow endgame, that sinking sense of wrongness. I appreciate the slow buildup very much. (And if this isn’t book 1 in a series, I’ll eat my words and take back everything because there is NO RESOLUTION and if it’s never addressed again, that would be incredibly irritating.) I enjoyed the glimpses of the tribes outside of the Martial walls, and the division between the conquered Scholars, slaves, and the ruling military class. I hope for more of the tribes in the next novel.
Now, for the bad – because for all the things that did work in this novel, there were several things that did not. Ana has already talked about the threat of gendered violence and the frustrations and problems therein; on that front, I completely agree.
I also agree that the incessant need to build up romantic tension in the form of an insidious love quandrangle is So. Fucking. Annoying. There are countless scenes of near kisses, of hearts fluttering at the smell of his cloak, the desire smoldering in her eyes, the curve of her elegant neck, and just kill me now. I have no problem with gratuitous violence (or sex) in fiction, but it does strike me as incredibly odd to have no qualms with mass murder or beatings or threats of rape, but such reservations when it comes to any kind of sexual attraction. (Gods forbid that two of these characters kiss, because YA love geometry is all about the longing looks and unfulfilled chaste desires, amirite?)
Other irritations: a lack of character development for the “bad” guys of the piece (Marcus the Snake, in particular), not enough time spent understanding the resistance effort or the existing Emperor and the ire towards him, a lack of answers overall.
But, like I said before, this is definitely book 1 of an ongoing cash cow series that will be milked, so perhaps answers are coming.
So in conclusion, where does that leave me and my experience with this book?
Well… I guess I liked it. More than I care to admit to my rational brain.
I devoured An Ember in the Ashes, I was entertained by it, and I’ll be around for the next book.
I’ve made several false starts with this review because I don’t know what to write. How do I describe The Lie Tree?
As a Victorian muONE THOUSAND STARS
I’ve made several false starts with this review because I don’t know what to write. How do I describe The Lie Tree?
As a Victorian murder mystery?
As a book about lies and truths and the things that are obvious and the things that are not?
As a tale about filial loyalty?
As a revenge story?
As a look at the ways that women have been made invisible throughout history?
As a feminist triumph?
These are all truths. But they are partial truths because this book is not one thing or another. Just like all of Frances Hardinge’s books before this, The Lie Tree is a complex narrative of subtle interwoven storylines that are surprising, dark, sad and incredibly beautiful. In fact, I’d say this is Hardinge’s most beautiful book to date. That sort of beauty that comes from things that are so real they feel make you like your heart has been pierced. But in the nicest way possible.
As the story starts, Faith’s family is moving to a small island, away from everything they know so that Faith’s father can work at a new fossil excavation. At first greeted with the fanfare an honourable guest deserves, things turn sour very soon when whispers of her father’s possible fraudulent actions reach their retreat. All of a sudden, no one wants to talk to the family. And then, Faith’s father turns up dead. Ruled an accident but under suspicion of suicide, Faith suspects his death is something else altogether: murder. And deep in her heart she knows she must avenge the death of her dearest one.
And Faith knows exactly what do to, for hidden deep in a cave by the sea, there is a tree that if fed lies, gives out fruits of truth.
What’s most striking about The Lie Tree is that, at face value, this is perhaps Frances Hardinge’s least fantastical book. The most obvious fantasy elements of the plot don’t come into play well into the second half of the novel and even by them, the story remains a murder mystery with a character-driven arc.
I wondered if I was looking at it wrong. Because if we look at the realest aspects of story which describe events that really did happen, thoughts that people did believe, it is easy to be struck by how surreal they read. Because in truth, the further removed we are in time, the more history sounds fantastical to us. In a way, everything about The Lie Tree could be seen as fantastical, especially with regards to gender. But then again: no. Better not to reduce what was very real and very painful to flights of fancy.
I don’t know how to put to words what this book made me feel for its female characters. It was utterly perfection.
The Lie Tree is the story of a young girl – Faith – who is at that moment in time where she is no longer a child but not yet a woman. Faith lives a conflicting life, torn between what she is told about what it means to be a woman and the things that she is not supposed to do, feel and know and the feelings she has, the knowledge she knows and the thoughts she thinks. Constantly at war within herself, Faith strives to be good – but also to be accepted and loved. What she has learned over the years is how to hide, to conceal. In sum, how to become just as invisible as the world expects her to be. But she is ever so angry about it. And watching that anger unleashed was one of the best reading experiences of my life.
At the centre of Faith’s life is the dichotomous separation between her father and mother. She is incredibly loyal to her genius father, a prestigious Natural Scientist just as she completely disdainful of her mother, Myrtle, a lady who uses her looks to get what she wants. It’s the Victorian era and this division of roles and the perceived inherent quality that separates them is at the core of The Lie Tree.
Faith’s long journey to understanding both her father and her mother is one of the main focus of the book. And that journey is interspersed with encounters with a plethora of other ladies. At first Faith’s viewpoint is coloured by her own internalised acceptance of narratives surrounding women. To wit: in the beginning everything is her father and everything is male centric, intelligence and knowledge are relegated to menfolk. The more the story progresses, the more this changes. All of a sudden the women are there, have been there all along and they are something else altogether. Queer ladies, villainous ladies, adapting ladies, awesome ladies, accepting ladies, angry ladies. Myrtle, I adore you.
Remember: this is a story about lies.
Most of Frances Hardinge’s books to date have one way or another dealt with revolution and politics in a wider scenario. This is also true of The Lie Tree but I’d also say this felt like her most personal book in the way that revolution, politics, evolution affect the social, the intimate, the individual. Everything is politics.
It is deeply touching.
Equally moving are the relationships in the story. The way that Faith’s father breaks her heart. The way Faith breaks her mother’s heart and how they mend their relationship in the end. Faith and her brother Howard have incredibly touching moments.
There is also the never-named relationship between her and local boy Paul. Surprising no one, Frances Hardinge also knows how to write budding romance. Paul and Faith’s friendship is punctuated with delightful rule-breaking, by testing limits and boundaries and seeing how far they can go in the things they say to each other and how much of their real selves they can afford to show. Patriarchy destroys boys’ lives too. And every single scene together is one step further, building up to the most amazing, no-holds-barred talk in the last pages of this novel in which simple yet heart-breaking desires and truths are uttered.
I won’t spoil that conversation. Suffice it to say that never was a line answering the simple question “what do you want to be when you grow up” more thrilling.
Well, here it is. The elusive 10-rated Frances Hardinge book. The Lie Tree is perfect....more
My experience reading The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne can be boiled down to: this was an amaziTrigger warning: rape; child abuse. Spoiler warning.
My experience reading The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne can be boiled down to: this was an amazing novel until it wasn’t anymore. I am deeply conflicted about it.
Somewhen in the near-future, Meena, a young woman wakes up in Mumbai with five snake bites on her chest. Not knowing what caused it or why, she goes on the run. Leaving everything behind, including her lover Mohini, Meena attempts a desperate feat: the crossing of The Trail – an energy-harvesting, moveable bridge that connects India to Ethiopia. In Ethiopia, she hopes to find succour and some answers about the murder of her blood parents. Who killed them, why and can she still find the woman who did it?
Somewhen in the near-past (within the story), a parallel story unfolds as Mariama, a young girl from West Africa flees a life of slavery. Joining a caravan on its way to Ethiopia, Mariama becomes entangled with her hosts and Yemaya, a mysterious young woman who joins them.
Both women tell their stories to those who are not there: at least not exactly.
The girl in the road is Meena. The girl in the road is Mariama. The girl in the road is Yemaya. The girl in the road is Mohini. The girl in the road wears a sari and haunts them all.
What made The Girl in the Road feel amazing in the first place?
The imagined near-future that it neither dystopic nor post-apocalyptic but rather a vibrant fusion of advanced technology, sexual and gender openness and of post-racial diversity. The story’s details of those are less on the detailed side and more on lived experience of these women, especially Meena. India is now a superpower attempting to colonise – and mostly failing at it – African countries. The Trail itself is an amazing feat of technology and wonder.
From a bare bones perspective, two aspects of the novel worked as catnip for me, as a reader: Meena’s journey across The Trail is a cool survival story, a quest and a journey of self-realisation. The difficulties she encounters are thrilling and agonising. The loneliness and the acute sense of isolation leap from the pages.
The unreliability of its narrators though, is what clinched it for me in the beginning. From the get go, it is clear that these are splintered narratives told by fractured, broken women. Meena many times voices that she is in the middle of a manic episode: what triggered it is part of the mystery behind her narration. Mariama doesn’t need to tell us that she is not stable: it is clear that the trauma of slavery (and of something else that happened to her mother which we don’t until late into the novel) linger in profound ways because even though Mariama’s narration happens from a point in the future when she is an adult, her narrative voice is still that of a child, stuck in those early childhood experiences.
It is when it becomes clear how their lives intersect in a jarring plot twist and the extent of the sexual/gendered violence in the novel that the shift from amazing to “wtf” happened. This is where this review gets spoilery and triggery.
I read this book now because it just won the Tiptree Award. It says on the award’s website:
With profound compassion and insight, the novel tackles relationships between gender and culture and between gender and violence. It provides a nuanced portrait of violence against women, in a variety of forms, and violence perpetrated by women. Through the eyes of two narrators linked by a single act of violence, the reader is brought to confront shifting ideas of gender, class, and human agency and dignity.
I’d like to unpack that so that I can unpack my own feelings about the novel.
I don’t think there is anything nuanced about the portrait of violence against women here. Quite the contrary, I would argue. There is no “single” act of violence either, there are in fact many of them, from different places, affecting both these women and all women around them.
Yes, there is a case to be made about the fact that both narrators are indeed unreliable and how that colours the narration. However, the story is still framed by violence against women in a way that I felt 1) was used as shock value and/or 2) its very existence goes unchallenged.
For most of her narrative, Meena refuses to acknowledge even to herself what she did. It’s only very late into the novel when she – almost miraculously might I add – is able to regain a measure of stability and recount what really happened: Meena is fleeing the scene of a crime she committed, where she violently beat up and possibly murdered her lover, a trans woman named Mohini. Mohini is the person Meena addresses most of her narrative to but she has barely any voice in the telling. Meena sees her in a way that I found objectified Mohini rather than humanised her. And I ultimately find that Mohini is another example of a Tragic Queer character whose demise is brought upon by others and serves to motivate someone else’s story. This is painful, frustrating and problematic.
What made Mariama run was the witnessed rape of her mother. She later is sexually abused by a much older woman when she is still a child. Later in life, she witness another rape, when another woman is raped in front of her eyes. Mind you, it’s worth noting that I don’t have a problem with how Mariama’s sexual abuse as a child is described (it seems I also somehow managed to completely miss the controversy around this scene): it is a deeply horrifying, discomfiting scene for many obvious reasons but mostly because it is from the perspective of a deeply traumatised, unbalanced child who does not realise what is being done to her. I did not feel the narrative condoned it in any shape or form.
But here is what went on and on inside my head when reading this: what does it say about a novel set in the future where so many cultural, social, political, economical aspects of society are shifting, except for this one? What does it say about a novel written by someone outside the societies it portrays, that shows that type of violence as though it is an intrinsic part of those cultures and societies? What does it mean when that violence reeks of inevitability?
I do not think the novel allows the reader “to confront shifting ideas of gender”: because they are not shown as shifting. They are shown as something that has happened in the past, is happening now and will happen in the future. And I hope it goes without saying that I am not advocating here that we somehow erase those stories, because gendered violence is a very real thing that is worth writing about and worth seeing portrayed, examined and questioned. I just want this to be done well. Ultimately, I don’t feel I can say this about The Girl in the Road....more
Silver on the Tree encapsulates and highlights every single thing that was frustrating about the series as aWell, this was exceedingly disappointing.
Silver on the Tree encapsulates and highlights every single thing that was frustrating about the series as a whole: the vagueness of the plot, the lack of any real sense of danger (considering that the Dark!is!Rising!), the quests that are not really quests and are more like stumbling unto Things, the overwhelming sense that everything is pre-ordained even though everybody talks about free will, the lack of any character development, the romantic obsession with King Arthur.
Actually, I am still not really sure what exactly the Dark is. How is it Rising. What would happen if they did. I mean, I understand in theory because evil is something we all know about but I do not think this was transplanted into the pages that well – it almost feels like there is a reliance on pre-knowledge of tropes and ideas and because of this a lot of the world-building, if we can even call it that, is merely glossed over.
Speaking of the Dark and of Evil. There is one particular moment in this book that gave me cause for pause. The Drews witness a young boy being attacked because he is Indian. It is a very in-your-face moment that is later revealed to be a sign that the Dark is indeed rising – as though racism is a result of magical evil and not a social construct. Does this mean that now that the Dark has not risen, there will no longer be racism in the world? I’d say this is not the intention here because the idea that humans can be both good and bad and have free will is reinforced throughout but then I ask you, what is the point of the Dark?? Either Racism is a result of the dark rising or it’s a human thing. This series has no internal logic, guys.
Stuff happen because they must, tasks and quests are undertaken by rota and challenges are faced in the most anticlimactic way by people remembering things they already know “deep inside” or by reciting poems and singing. We are told over and over again that the main characters are protected and nothing will happen to them and as such, any sense of real menace is taken away and everybody (both Dark and Light) just follows these rules and it is just so, SO boring. The Drew siblings are brought back because they have an essential role to play and that role is… to hold a Sign? It was hinted throughout that Barney is special but that went exactly nowhere. Worst of all: this is the last book in a series and after a long build up to the Dark Rising, the ending comes and it is anticlimactic to the extreme. Did I get it right that the Dark Would Rise only if they got a mistletoe from a tree? Did that really happen?
An example of interaction between Light, Dark and Humans:
Dark: *dramatically rides into the scene* I CHALLENGE YOU, LIGHT Light: OK. Me: *perks* This is going to finally get good! Dark: *darkly says* I challenge you to a… parley. Let’s talk about this boy Bran. He does not belong here and therefore cannot use his sword to do the thing. Light: OK, let us ask this one human guy what he thinks. Human Guy: He belongs here because he doesn’t speak Latin. Everybody: Ok then, fine. Let him play. Me: Wait. What just happened?
And what of the female characters? They are few and of the three with bigger roles, one turns out to be a villain, Jane spends most of this book having “strange feelings” about… things and then the Lady, whom we had been promised had an important role to play in the end, comes back to… give Jane a message?
And then, then we have that insufferable ending where everybody – all humans – are made to forget everything. Even though they are supposed to have free will. Except they don’t cause no one chooses this. I can see the intention behind this as I am sure the point here is that humans should go on living without knowledge of magic. But. Then. What. Is. The. Point. Of. This. Series.
Silver on the Tree is not only an unsatisfactory end to a series but also I dare say… not a very good book at all.
So now that it’s all read and done, where does that leave me? I am ultimately glad I gave the series a chance and read it but I can’t really say I found it specially good or interesting. I know this is a nostalgic childhood favourite for many people and I do wonder if had I read this when a child at a time when YA was not such a strong presence in book stores, if I would have felt differently....more
"Infandous": Too odious to be expressed or mentioned.
There are those books that grab you by the throat and don’t let go. Infandous is one such book. T"Infandous": Too odious to be expressed or mentioned.
There are those books that grab you by the throat and don’t let go. Infandous is one such book. This is a short review of a short novel that is perfectly concise in its telling, beautiful in its writing, featuring a narrator with a strong voice and a story that is moving, discomfiting and ultimately healing.
Following young narrator Sephora Golding, we follow her through the summer before senior year. The story, taut and precise, follows the tentative steps of a young girl in the journey to womanhood: from her relationship with a beloved mother, their fraught livelihood in a one bedroom apartment, Seph’s creative pursuits and friendships, to her sexual awakening and experimentations moving toward a sense of self-determination. The latter I feel, is very important here and is expertly dealt by the author in the way that Sephora, in spite of things outside her control and the complicated choices she makes, is shown with sympathy, care and undeniable agency.
Seph’s world is populated with hardships and poverty, casual sexism and misogyny. Interspersed throughout are Seph’s musings on fairytales and mythology from Sleeping Beauty to Demeter and Persephone, Procne and Philomela. All stories centred on young women and agency.
A myth is not in the telling but in the endless retelling
From the opening pages, we know something is not quite well with Sephora. There is a feeling that runs through her musings as a narrator, that hint at trauma and unease which she is trying – her hardest – to work through.
Thus, one of the best – and most affecting – aspects of Infandous is exactly this: in the telling of the stories, in the creating of her art, lies the cathartic process of working through something infandous as a storyteller and artist in an attempt to come out on the other side. To be able to breathe.
Infandous is a superb contemporary YA novel. It reminded me a lot of the way that Stephanie Kuehn builds her stories like in Charm and Strange. It is also in the tradition of other recent feminist works by Courtney Summers, Rhiannon Thomas, Sarah McCarry and Laura Ruby....more
In 1799, the world changed radically: the Great Disruption threw all continents into different time periods, different eras coexisting in a chaotic miIn 1799, the world changed radically: the Great Disruption threw all continents into different time periods, different eras coexisting in a chaotic mix and match of generations and historical periods. Europe is back to a papal state and parts of North America are pre-historical. Africa is a land of Pharaohs to the North whereas parts of Asia and South America are far into the future. In the Baldlands, past, present and future are dramatically fused into one single territory, the Triple Eras.
It makes sense then, that in this world, explorers and cartologers are heroes and much sought-after professionals. One such cartologer is Shadrack Elli, whose ability to draw and read maps on almost every surface from sand to water, makes him the best cartologer in the world. He is one of the protagonists of this saga, alongside his niece, Sophia Tims, whose parents were explorers who disappeared when she was a small child. She was brought up by Shadrack and knows about maps nearly as much as he does.
But unlike Shadrack and most people in this world, Sophia has been deeply affected by the disruption in a different way: she has no internal clock and is unfastened by time. For Sophia, one minute can feel like an hour, hours can pass in a moment. Shadrack and Sophia’s adventures start in Boston, 1891, after Shadrack is kidnapped by people who want to use his abilities to find the mythical Map of the World – they believe that changing that map will send the world back to its original (and true) course.
Shadrack leaves behind a glass map and a clue (the glass sentence) that will aid Sophia in finding him. Accompanied by a mysterious boy from the Baldlands and a pair of sibling pirates, they must find another famous cartologer, the only person who can help them find the Map of the World. They need to do that before it is too late, because the world? It is still changing and the eras are still moving.
Now, it behoves me to start by saying that yes, it is true that most of the background and world-building is introduced by more than clumsy info-dump. There are entire sequences that are littered with letmetellyouwhathappened. Generally speaking, this would be a deal-breaker for me. However, the details of this world are so fascinating and exciting, I was able to enjoy the story.
Such details are, among many others:
Politics – Boston, now part of the New Occident, is a land where money gets you into a parliament that is moved by its extreme capitalism and xenophobia. When the story starts a law has been passed that will send people from other eras back to where they came from. The unfairness of this law and how it affects families and people is deftly explored in the story.
Religion: from those who believe in the Fates (who control destiny) to the Nihilismians, who believe the current world isn’t real. Enthralling topic for discussion: the disruption has happened, therefore this is the real world. Discuss.
The Lachrimas: what happens to the people who find themselves right at the border of two eras when the eras change? They lose track of who they are. The Lachrimas are what become of them: tragic creatures of horror.
Alternate history: The more we find out about the world, the more we realise that it is like ours but not exactly: there are creatures of myth here as well as people that are partly made of fauna or made of silver. A day has 20 hours and magic is part of the world just as science is. Was it the Great Disruption that changed the way the world is more than the “when” the world is?
Not everything is ponies and rainbows though. Given the attention given to worldbuilding, the characters themselves are woefully underdeveloped. They are likeable enough and the pirates are super cool but not exactly shining examples of in-depth characterisation. I also confess I was disappointed by how the vast, rich and complex plotline of this book came to a rushed close by the end of this volume: the search for the Map of the World started and concluded here when there was enough material for a whole series.
And finally, the juxtaposition of magic and science was weird. Mapmaking was presented as a science. However, maps can be created on water, sand and glass and were not only movable but also in some cases, were mapping actual memories that only certain people are able to access. Those were explained with hand-wave science and “I will explain to you later, I have no time now”. These maps were made with magic, can we please call them for what they are? #petpeeve (Unless of course, one wishes to interpret this world’s relationship with magic as scientific in their approach).
The Glass Sentence has a fascinating premise with an intricate and ambitious world-building around it. Even though at times said world-building – given its scope – encounters inevitable hurdles and fails to live up to its full potential when it comes to characters, my excitement for this world is genuine and lasting. I can’t wait for book 2, The Golden Specific i.e. Sophia goes after her parents....more
Once upon a time, a rich, powerful and mysterious man falls in love with a woman and takes her away to a magical realm where all but one of her wishesOnce upon a time, a rich, powerful and mysterious man falls in love with a woman and takes her away to a magical realm where all but one of her wishes are commands, everything she needs is available – from amazing rooms and castles to beautiful dresses and servants to give her anything she wants. All that he asks is for her to love him back. A romantic fairytale scenario for a beautiful woman who is desired above all.
Except she says no. She says no every step of the way.
Re-read that first paragraph knowing this, coming from this new perspective – how does that read now?
Like your worst nightmare.
When beautiful Roza went missing from Bone Gap, no one believed she was gone without her consent. No one believed her friend Finn – the sole witness of her abduction – when he told of her mysterious disappearance especially because he could not describe her kidnapper in detail.
Now, months later, her disappearance still haunts Finn. It still troubles him because no one is looking for her, not even his brother Sean, who is supposed to love Roza. Brought down by guilt, worry and fear, Finn carries on until all of those become impossible burdens to carry. He must find Roza and bring her back. A knight in shining armour? He would be, if Roza wasn’t also such a strong narrator and didn’t have such a superb voice and agency within this narrative. She is her own knight in shining armour too. They both are.
A lot of the narrative is from Finn’s viewpoint but the story goes back and forth between now and then, following Roza’s viewpoint as well as other inhabitants of Bone Gap including Petey, a girl who works with bees and who develops a beautiful if fraught relationship with Finn.
The thrust of the story depicts how Roza got to Bone Gap, how she stayed on then disappeared without a trace, how her life impacts the lives of those she left behind. More interesting to me is how the author was able to imagine, create, portray Roza’s impact to everybody’s lives without making her solely a puppet, a subject, a thing with no desires or agency. This is the story of Finn and Petey, of Bone Gap and above all, of Roza.
Without spoiling: there is a reason for Finn not being able to describe the captor. It makes for a very compelling and unreliable narrative.
Without spoiling: this is a Fantasy novel. The fantasy elements are part fairytale retelling part mythological journey into the underworld. I’ve seen this book described as Magical Realism: I strongly disagree.
Finn loves Roza and is moved by their friendship to go after her. No one believes he is not in love with her because she is so beautiful and surely they must have romantic feelings for each other.
He is in love with Petey. But no one can possibly believe that because Petey is so ugly and surely Finn only pities Petey. Even Petey believes that.
Finn is a great character. But Roza and Petey are amazing. Well-drawn, complex, diverse girls whose lives have been marred by the cruelty and carelessness of a world that puts a lot of stock on beauty. The different ways this has impacted them, shaped the way they interact with the world and their self-image is portrayed thoughtfully and with great sensibility without turning “beauty” into the source of all evil.
Bone Gap is a book about perspective. About the difference between looking and seeing. About fairytales, self-image, the heavy burden that beauty can be and the pernicious ways we look at and treat women. It’s awfully tense and there is this feeling of anxious momentum that runs through this novel. It’s also very romantic where it matters, empowering where it counts and beautiful in its telling. It’s a great companion book to be read alongside September Girls by Bennett Madison, A Wicked Thing by Rhiannon Thomas and Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma.
Listen! For The Story of Owen has a second – and final – act.
Picking up a few months after the tragic, life-altering events at the end of The Story ofListen! For The Story of Owen has a second – and final – act.
Picking up a few months after the tragic, life-altering events at the end of The Story of Owen, newly-minted dragons slayers Owen and Sadie alongside Owen’s bard Siobhan – the first bard in generations – join the Oil Watch, the international organisation that protects the world’s main resources from dragons. Theirs is not an easy journey despite their heroic efforts, for the world they live in and the organisation they are about to join are corrupt. Corrupted in the way they engage with their own history and by how their actions often place more value on maintaining tradition and saving the privileged few.
In this world, an alternate world to our own, history has been shaped by the presence of carbon emission-eating dragons. Everyday life is hard. Dragon slaying might be heroic, but it is also extremely dangerous. This is the type of world-building that is imbued with the type of details that I wish more books would have. Everything has been thought through from how the presence of fire-spitting, acid-throwing, enormous vicious creatures would impact the lives of humans to the choices these humans make. Everything shapes culture, social behaviour, economics, politics.
As Owen’s bard, Siobhan has a mission: to tell the world his story. More to the point, she is to tell the world the way Owen has chosen to create his history and the things that are important to him. As one of the famous Thorskard family, his life is one steeped in tradition and with the power to reach out and change the world for the better: for every town deserves a dragon slayer. Every person deserves to be saved. This is Owen’s mission and that mission is to be embellished and put forward by Siobhan through her music.
And as a music prodigy, Siobhan is all about music and resonances. Her internal orchestra allocates a sound, an instrument to all characters, each of them an integral part of the ongoing symphony of her life. This is something that is smartly replicated in the telling, in how Siobhan refers to other characters in musical terms.
Beyond that, Siobhan’s sacrifice at the end of book one has lingering consequences as she is now disabled and can barely use her hands. This affects not only the minor aspects of her daily life and how she interacts with other people (and how they react to her) but the larger ones: she can no longer play the music she creates. At least not the way she used to.
This might sound super dry but this story is anything but. As much as Siobhan wants you to believe it, this isn’t only Owen’s story. Because her narrative tells us of so many other things, so many aspects of this world, so many historical details. And about herself. Don’t be fooled: this is as much Siobhan’s story as it is Owen’s. It’s about the Oil Watch and how it needs to change; about the incredible group of people that work and fight alongside Owen, Sadie and Siobhan. It’s about friendship, it’s about ecology and politics, and the world, and different people dealing with thing in different ways, and about killing dragons for survival. And it’s fun and funny too but also exceedingly bittersweet and fucking tragic because well, killing dragons is no game.
And add to all of that the fact that this book is full of people of colour, full of LGBT characters (including Siobhan, whom I read as asexual) and an incredible assortment of amazing female characters and boom, here there be an orchestra of awesome.
Listen! This duology is one of the best I’ve read lately....more
I always find interesting to hear about the ideas behind stories. In a recent Big Idea essay, Justine Larbalestier talks about how Razorhurst starts wI always find interesting to hear about the ideas behind stories. In a recent Big Idea essay, Justine Larbalestier talks about how Razorhurst starts with a place, rather than with a character’s voice like her previous novels. The story goes that, upon learning that her gentrified Sydney neighbourhood of Surry Hills was home to slums, violent gangs, brothels and shady business ran by crime ladies back in the 20s and 30s, she was moved to learn more about its past and that road led down to Razorhurst.
Kelpie grew up in the streets of Sydney, a malnourished urchin that never knew her parents, doesn’t know her own age and can barely read. Kelpie has seen ghosts all her life and was effectively brought up by some of the friendly ones. The not so friendly ones have been a source of torment she can’t block out.
Dymphna is a charming, beautiful dame, the most famous prostitute of these parts. She too can see ghosts but unlike Kelpie she has learned to cope with their existence by all but ignoring them. Caught between two competing mob bosses – Gloriana Nelson and Mr Davidson – Dymphna is the former’s “Best Girl” and the latter’s obsession. Her ambition is to become a boss herself and to run Surry Hills but things don’t work according to plan.
Razorhurst is a snapshot of this particular neighbourhood in the 30s and it follows Dymphna and Kelpie as they cross paths for the first time over the murdered corpse of Dymphna’s lover Jimmy and then must run for their lives. Taking place within the hectic, violent and engrossing hours following that encounter, the novel also offers a vibrant – albeit brutal – account of their lives leading to that point as well as of the lives of many of Surry Hill’s inhabitants with short interludes inbetween chapters. Also, ghosts.
It makes perfect sense actually, the addition of ghosts here, given the nature of this story as it is so very easy to imagine not only this place but also these girls to be haunted. And haunted they are: both Kelpie and Dymphna can see and talk to ghosts, an ability they share, a secret they both carry. This shared curse is perhaps the only thing they have in common beyond the way that Razorhurst has affected their lives because everything else sets them apart: from their own bodies to their demeanour, from their past to their possible future.
This is probably my favourite thing about Razorhurst: these two girls and the way they come together. The most affecting and heart-breaking element of their portrayal is the question of age: both barely in their teens and yet circumstances – tragedy and poverty – have dictated their actions and as such Kelpie is almost a child whereas Dymphna is treated as an adult.
Dymphna and Kelpie’s lives are as tragic as they come but in no way less than fully rich and engaging. The most heart-wrenching thing of all: Dymphna is adamant to become Kelpie’s protector when she herself needed to rely on others for her own protection in a world that thinks less of women even when they are powerful and famous. This novel – among other things – offers an incredible portrayal of this world and its precarious balance between feminism and misogyny, offering a skilful take on female empowerment and agency with a great pair of main female characters.
Razorhurst is another excellent book from a favourite author and a Notable Book of 2015....more
Not what I was expecting (dystopia YA with classic alternating POV chapters), but a solid read. Fantastic exploration of the bond between sisters, motNot what I was expecting (dystopia YA with classic alternating POV chapters), but a solid read. Fantastic exploration of the bond between sisters, mothers, lovers, and family... with some reservations. Full review to come!...more
Everybody who’s anybody wants to get into The Forge School.
The elite institution for a high school degree in the creative arts, Forge is not only a scEverybody who’s anybody wants to get into The Forge School.
The elite institution for a high school degree in the creative arts, Forge is not only a school, but an immersive experience. From the thousands of applicants every year, only a group of 100 are admitted into the freshman class – and of those 100, only the top 50 are allowed to continue their education.
Who determines the top 50 and the cuts?
Why, the viewers, of course!
You see, Forge is more than just an incubator of creative geniuses of dance, filmmaking, song, and artistry; it’s also the world’s most popular reality television show. From waking to sleeping, every moment of a Forge student’s day is filmed and broadcast. Viewers can choose whom they want to follow – and with followers, of course, come advertising opportunities (money, for the student), popularity, and class ranking.
Rosie Sinclair never thought she would get into Forge. A young teen from an impoverished town, she’s certainly not the usual demographic for the school or the show (her friends, family and hometown don’t have much in the way of resources – televisions, tablets, or other computers – to watch the show and give Rosie a boost). It’s without surprise, then, when on the eve of the fifty cuts, Rosie discovers that she’s somewhere near the bottom of her class rank pack. And for that last night before she’s sure she will be sent home, Rosie decides to break the rules.
Everyone at Forge is required to sleep twelve hours a night – twelve hours induced by a special kind of sleeping pill, meant to boost creativity and productivity, though it also means an end to dreams for each pill-taking student. When the students retire in their sleep pods for the evening, the cameras stop rolling, and all is silent…or so Rosie thinks. She skips her sleeping pill on the eve of the cuts, desperate to gaze upon the night sky, and see her school from a different angle one last time.
What she discovers, however, is an insidious secret that administrators at the Forge School will go to great lengths to hide. Doctors perform tests on sleeping students. Whispered talks about “mining” and “seeding” the children (and their dreams) ensue. There are stakeholder calls, and hushed explanations of Forge suicides and accidents, and frightening experiments.
Rosie is determined to find out the truth about Forge – or pay the ultimate price.
A dystopian-style novel with a reality television twist, The Vault of Dreamers is solid and enjoyable YA science fiction. Set in the near future, in a post-war world with some technological advancements and socioeconomic decline, this book seems (at least from the synopsis) to be a deep dive into a reality television-obsessed culture…but it’s not. The Vault of Dreamers is more The Truman Show than Flash Point; told from the perspective of Rosie from within the school, there’s very little actual interaction or understanding of what outside viewers are seeing and how they are interacting with the Forge show. Instead, this book focuses on two tracks: the maneuvers Rosie makes to stay in the top 50 (pseudo-real romantic interest, plus human interest drama), and a fraught storyline about dreams, secrets, and Rosie’s mental health.
The first part of the story – Rosie’s standings in the school and her friendships with more popular/higher ranking students – is… interesting. Unexpected, even. When reading her narrative, Rosie never comes off as ruthless or calculating, though all of her actions could certainly be interpreted that way. She befriends popular students, sparks up an on-camera romance, takes to videotaping students in order to make the last minute cut. She undeniably does what she has to in order to stay in the school, but without sacrificing her integrity (and should anyone call her out on being manipulative or crass, Rosie sticks up for herself beautifully). I love that about her character. I also love the genuine friendships she makes with her fellow students, in particular the surly Linus, the intelligent Burnham, and charismatic Janice.
The second part of the story, though – the driving part of the story – is somewhat more fraught. This is a speculative fiction novel at its heart, and a story about the secrets a school holds over its mandatory-sleep-induced students. What happens when one’s dreams are taken? When sleep is monitored and manipulated, what happens to the sleeper? What is that voice Rosie is hearing – real, or is it all the projections of a stressed mind? While I like the ideas presented in The Vault of Dreamers in theory, in practice, things are a little too nebulous for my liking. The dream mining and seeding angles aren’t ever fully defined or explained, and I wish there was more there (less of the “is she suffering from a nervous breakdown or is it all real” tension for more of the actual science fictional elements). Also, while the last quarter of the book ratchets up the action and stakes, it’s all incredibly rushed and frustratingly dissatisfying (particularly that cliffhanger ending).
Still, these criticisms said, I enjoyed The Vault of Dreamers very much – much more than I thought I would. I’ll be back to see where Rosie’s journey takes her next, in the hopes for a little more definition and overarching plot development....more
Darrow au Andromedus has done the impossible. Following the murder of his wife Eo, Darrow hasOriginal review and discussion over at The Book Smugglers
Darrow au Andromedus has done the impossible. Following the murder of his wife Eo, Darrow has become a rebel with the Sons of Ares, rising from the lowest of the low to one of the brightest members of the ruling caste - a Red helldiver of the dark mines of Mars, now carved into an elite Gold god. Ascending through the ranks of other Gold scions at the Academy, Darrow earns the nickname of Reaper and finishes his brutal war education at the top of his class. His infamy as Reaper and performance at the Academy also earns the patronage of his greatest enemy (and murderer of his wife), the ArchGovernor of Mars, Nero au Augustus.
It is here that Golden Son begins its tale: an older, tested Darrow does all within his power to continue to excel as a rising Gold within the powerful house of Augustus. Unfortunately, the strategic world of aristocracy, power machinations, and political intrigue does not come as naturally to Darrow as does cunning in battle. And, after making a few mistakes in battle and a few very powerful enemies, the Reaper is decidedly out of his depth.
With the Gold Sovereign and her loyalist families hungry for his blood, Darrow must tread carefully to discern friend from foe - an error in trust could bring everything he's worked for crashing down. Most importantly, Darrow must embrace his own truth, what he is willing to sacrifice in order to destroy system that has enslaved his people, the lower Colors, for centuries - to truly break the chains.
Let him think he owns me. Let him welcome me into his house, so I might burn it down.
The second book in the Red Rising Trilogy by Pierce Brown, Golden Son is the rare middle novel that is even better than its successor. Make no mistake, friends - Golden Son is fantastic. In fact, it's bloodydamn awesome. And here's why: this second novel is an action-packed, high stakes saga of loyalty and honor, sacrifice and rebellion. Golden Son is also set on a much grander scale than its predecessor in all respects, from writing style to characterization, to its full scope of action and dreadful consequence. Not only does the book make the leap from controlled battle royale amongst school children to full-out intergalactic war, but it also means a fight for the future of everything. See, Darrow's internal struggle is not just one of a single man, or even that of a single tribe of Reds or a powerful Gold family; his choices mean the future of the revolution, and the fate of every human soul scattered across the solar system. (Though I am loath to make the comparison for the usual hype reasons, it is not unlike the jump in scale from, say, The Hunger Games to Catching Fire and Mockingjay - from game, to bloody, full-scale war and revolution.)
One of the biggest triumphs of Golden Son is that it transcends the issues of its parent text (which was not without its significant problems). My issues with Red Rising were threefold: Darrow's exceptionalism as a hero, his passiveness, and the treatment of female characters (especially in relation to Darrow). Happily, Golden Son not only addresses these issues head-on, but masterfully tears down each of these problematic elements.
It's not victory that makes a man. It's his defeats.
For the first time in the series, Darrow faces failure in Golden Son. Not just any failure, but utter and complete failure: as an Augustus, as a son of Ares, as the avenger of the Reds and of his lost wife, Eo. The book begins with epic failure, in fact, as the afeared Reaper loses to the Bellona family and seemingly seals his fate as a liability for the Augustus clan. In the face of this unforgivable defeat and his inevitable death at the hand of his political enemies, Darrow finally makes the decision to join the rebellion in earnest. Instead of reacting to the situation or the gifts of others, Darrow forms his own plan in Golden Son - and the results are, if you'll pardon the expletive, fucking awesome. For the first time, Darrow chooses to let other people in. For the first time, Darrow chooses to embrace his role as Reaper and accepts that the rebellion is larger than him, or his desires, or any other single person's wishes. For the first true time, Darrow understands the meaning of Eo's song.
And, while we're speaking of fucking awesome things, let's talk about female characters for a second. I love every single one of the female characters in Golden Son - from the coldly calculating Sovereign Octavia au Lune and the withered matriarch of the Bellona, to the defiantly slick Victra, and the brilliant and impassioned Mustang. Oh, Mustang. How much do I love you? Every single female character in this novel is given their own agency as individuals, and every single female character survives outside of the paradigm of being saved by Darrow (or some other male figure). Mustang, moreso than any other character, as she refuses to be categorized by Darrow's incessant hero complex, or viewed as a whore by her family's advisors, or a pawn to be cast off by her father. Like the many other characters in this text, the females are complex, flawed, fully-realized creatures - and I appreciate that development in the series very much.
"Protect the ArchGovernor!" Mustang shouts at me, voice more composed than my own, making me feel an idiot obsessed with chivalry. Of course she does not need me to save her.
Beyond rectifying the flaws of its preceding volume, Golden Son stands on its own in several ways. It examines the different colors already revealed in Red Rising, but in greater detail. There is more mention of Pinks and their upbringing, for example, in a particularly horrific offhanded comment about "cupid's kiss" and how these children are bred to be the pleasure slaves of Golds. There is similar examination of stratification within the Golds themselves, particularly when Sevro's story is revealed in full. Pierce Brown also expands the world by focusing on key characters of other colors - the best and most nuanced examples being the docker ship captain Orion and the discrimination among her fellow scientific pilot Blues, or the Obsidian and Stained servant Ragnar, bred to believe that the Golds are actual gods capable of doling out divine punishment. The corruption and utter brokenness of Darrow's universe becomes ever more apparent here, defining his mission and giving the rebellion of Ares a much greater significance.
Friendships take minutes to make, moments to break, years to repair.
Golden Son also achieves thematic depth, by provoking powerful questions through Darrow's narrative. What does it mean to be free, and who makes those decisions? Who should be in charge, and who should be enslaved? Who can be trusted, if anyone at all? This last question, more than any other, is the driving inquiry at the heart of Golden Son. The concepts of "trust" and "loyalty" are put to the hardest test here, as Darrow demands the ultimate price from his dear friends, the Howlers, from his Academy days. There's a sense of loss and inevitability to this bridge book; we know from the outset that certain characters should not be trusted, that a broken friendship could mean the end of everything for Darrow and his cause. Among my favorite relationships explored in this novel are the ties, some tenuous while others unbreakable, between Darrow and his cherished Sevro, the wary Mustang, the cunning Jackal, the bitter Roque.
Ultimately, perhaps Darrow is too trusting - he lets people in during Golden Son, and there will be consequences. There will be blood for his actions - case in point, the very last scene of the book, in which everything GOES TO BLOODYDAMN HELL and a cliffhanger ensues.
“And what is the bloodydamn point of surviving in this cold world if I run from the only warmth it has to offer?”
By the end of this book, so many pieces are in motion that it's hard to see the overall picture or planned end game. Like Darrow, we readers are breathlessly trying to keep pace, to understand the players on the board and protect against obliteration and failure.
I, for one, cannot wait to see what Pierce Brown puts into action next.
Golden Son is the best book I've read so far in 2015, and I cannot recommend it, or Darrow, enough. Absolutely in the running for my top 10 books of 2015, and I cannot wait until Morning Star... it's going to be a long wait until next January....more
In a dystopian world ravaged by war, there is a split between the Reds, poverty-stricken commoners with red bloodOriginal review on The Book Smugglers
In a dystopian world ravaged by war, there is a split between the Reds, poverty-stricken commoners with red blood, and the Silvers, those with unimaginable powers, their silver blood marking them as the ruling class.
Mare Barrow is a regular 17 year old Red who is about to turn 18 and because she doesn’t have any special skills who would allow her to get a job in this strict, stratified society, she knows she will be conscripted into war just like her brothers before her.
But one night, just as Mare is succumbing to despair, she meets a mysterious stranger who arranges for her to get a job inside the Silver Palace. On the most important night around the Silver succession for the throne Mare discovers she too has powers, powers that suddenly appear in front of the most important Silver individuals in the whole kingdom. Impossible as it is, improbable as this is, it is now too late for Mare’s life to ever go back to what it was. The Silvers concoct a plan so that Mare’s abilities will not become a problem for them and she is given a new identity as a long-lost Silver girl who is now welcomed back to Silver society until they can find out everything about how exactly has she can even exist.
Immersed in a new life and stripped from choice Mare needs to find a way to not only survive but to help her own people fight in a burgeoning revolution that could change the world.
Starting with the good: with their incredible superpowers, the Silvers are what the X-Men would be like if Evil Magneto were their leader or if The Avengers and their friends decided to take over the world rather than save it. The premise is that absolute power corrupts absolutely and as such the construct of this society feels logical and inevitable given the reality of those who own everything because of their powers and those who don’t because of its absence. Similarly, the gender balance in here is welcomed: both Red boys and girls are conscripted to go to war, both Silver boys and girls are able to develop their powers to their maximum abilities. Similarly, although the Reds are exploited, they are not shown as a single block of people who accept everything – there is a revolution brewing that leads characters down a dangerous path. The last part of the novel is its strongest veering toward darkness, violence and tough choices that do not come without consequences. In fact, every single thoughtless decision Mare makes have terrible costs and I appreciated how these were followed through.
Unfortunately, the positive aspects of Red Queen are offset by not so positive ones and they include super contrived and familiar plot twists, lack of internal logic and extremely one-note, bland characters.
In fact, allow me to revise my description with a Substitute Summary: In the Land of Contrived Plots, a young woman rises from the gutter to find out she is different after she meets a stranger who conveniently turns out to the crown prince and gives her a chance. On the very first day of a new job for which she is given no training whatsoever, she is made to work in the most important event ever and it’s right then that Mare sprouts Amazing New Powers for the first time in front of the only people who would make her pay for it. Marked as super special, she is loved by all men and hated by the Mean Girls. In other words: despite its positive aspects there is nothing here you haven’t really seen already. And let me be clear: it’s not the trope-ish nature of the novel that does it a disservice because it’s actually possible for a book that have familiar tropes without falling apart. No, it’s the lack of internal logic and the underdeveloped characters that make this book a poorly conceived one.
The former comes from the way the Silvers decide to present Mare. Because her powers appeared in front of an audience made up by the Silver ruling class, the King and Queen HAD to come up with a plan to hide the fact that a Red had Silver powers. Their plan is to pretend she was just a Silver all along.
However, this makes no sense at all within the parameters of this world. For this to be a feasible, achievable plan, every single Silver person would have to believe that this 17 year old girl never bled in her entire life. I will admit this simple element almost put me off completely.
The latter comes with the lack of actual character development – most characters are nothing but predicable stereotypes: from the older stoic prince to the evil queen, from the older wise tutor to the loyal best friend who actually luurves all. The moment this becomes clear is when the ending rolls out into what is a dark and difficult climax that unfortunately lacks any real emotional impact.
It’s a shame really, because I love evil superheroes. But this fantastic premise is squandered away as Red Queen is just a forgettable, run-of-the-mill Dystopian YA. ...more
Last year I went to Fantasy Con in England where Kate Elliott was a Guest of Honour. Actually, scrap that, I attended Fantasy Con becauOriginal review
Last year I went to Fantasy Con in England where Kate Elliott was a Guest of Honour. Actually, scrap that, I attended Fantasy Con because Kate Elliott was a GoH. Over the course of that weekend, I attended several of her panels as well as an incredible In Conversation With Kari Sperring event. In those, the author talked the many themes explored in her fiction; how much thought goes into creating the worlds in her novels especially how every single decision affects worldbuilding in a domino effect – everything has consequences, everything is choice. One of the most important themes in those panels and presentations was the depiction of women in her fiction, the importance of featuring a variety of portrayals, settings and arcs as a means to represent the varied, rich lives of women. I don’t write fiction but as a reader, editor and budding publisher, I was able to take away a lot of useful, thought-provoking information from simply being there.
Now, many months later, I could see how all of those were put in practice in her fiction when reading The Very Best of Kate Elliott. The collection is the first from an author who has published over 20 novels in the course of a successful career that spans almost 30 years and it assembles twelve short stories and four essays. All stories read well as standalone although a few of them are connected to her novels.
From horror to comedy and from science fiction to fantasy, from young protagonists to more mature ones, from girls in positions of power to women whose power and choice have been stripped from their hands, the stories presented here cover multiple genres and narrative voices.
The most delightful light story is the comedic “To Be A Man”, set in the Spiritwalker world in which a secondary character of that trilogy has a sexual encounter with a couple of ladies. The most harrowing, heart-wrenching one that basically destroyed my soul (then put it back together) is “The Gates of Joriun”, where a woman is serving a horrible, unfair sentence, trapped in a cage hung from outside the gates of a city that hates her and doesn’t even know how long has it been – this is a story where it’s possible to think about agency even if the character stands from a constricting point of view. It makes me think of all those times one criticises the lack of agency of female characters in stories only to then be confronted with the excuses of this is how the world is – well, in “The Gates of Joriun” this is how the world is and yet, look at the character, and the many ways the story remains about her and her choices. It is possible to have the entire world against a character and still make it all about them – the internal lives of women can still be rich and varied even if external forces restrict them. But I digress.
“Leaf and Branch and Grass and Vine”, an older woman goes on a quest to save her town and uses nothing but her wits whenever difficult situations arise during her journey. In “The Queen’s Garden”, sisters faced with their father’s patriarchal tendencies in a matriarchal society take the matter in their own hands to a deliciously twisted conclusion. “Riding the Shore of the River of Death”, a Crown of Stars story, opens the collection with a bang: a young protagonist from a society with strict gender roles learns of a possible, different, other future and goes after it. There is even one story – “My Voice is in My Sword“ – that is all about the dynamics within a theatre group as they prepare to enact Macbeth to empathic aliens. It’s fantastic, because that fraught dynamics becomes the focus of the narrative in an unexpected way.
And then we have the essays. There are four, previously published online (one of them was included in Speculative Fiction 2013) and they ponder the themes present in the story: from problematic male gaze to questioning the status quo, the essays are a treat and the perfect way to end the collection.
The framing of The Very Best of Kate Elliott is clear: feminist stories featuring a diverse group of female characters presented in a variety of roles and journeys. The most obvious extrapolation here for me given my personal interests is how topical and important this collection is as it fits into an ongoing conversation about places for women – as writers, readers and characters – in SFF. The fact that I absolutely loved every single story and every single essay is just the cherry on top of Mount Awesome.
There is a little bit of everything here and something for everybody. This is a great collection, a fun collection, an important collection, a highly recommended collection. The Very Best of Kate Elliott is the very best that genre fiction can offer. ...more
Copperplate City isn’t that different than any other American metropolis. There are parks, a lake (admitteOriginal review posted on The Book Smugglers
Copperplate City isn’t that different than any other American metropolis. There are parks, a lake (admittedly a very stinky and goose-poop polluted lake), a middle school, a police force, pizza parlors, regular places of business… you get the picture.
The only difference is, Copperplate City is protected by a superhero.
The impervious, undefeated, high-flying and super strong Captain Stupendous has protected the denizens of Copperplate City for decades without fail – or aging. He has defeated maniacal villains and their dastardly inventions; he’s saved children from abductions with a perfect success record; he’s protected local industries and kept the city in one piece. It’s no wonder, then, that kids like Vincent Wu are obsessed with the Captain – heck, there are four fan clubs devoted to Stupendous in the city alone! (Vincent is the president of the only club that doesn’t suck, the Captain Stupendous Fan Club, period. No “Official” – that’s a lame club.)
But one day, everything changes. Captain Stupendous is missing from action after having a very hard time defeating the newest villain on the block: Professor Mayhem, who has an indestructible giant robot at his disposal. It turns out that Captain Stupendous isn’t who Vincent (or anyone, for that matter) thinks he is. He’s not even a he at all – he’s actually Vincent’s crush, the surly teenaged Polly Winnicott-Lee.
With the obsessed Professor Mayhem on the loose, the future of Copperplate City and the safety of his friends and family rest on Vincent’s admittedly undersized shoulders. But can he train the new Captain Stupendous in time to save the day?
Holy indestructible alloy, Captain Stupendous! Geeks, Girls and Secret Identities is fun. The debut novel from Mike Jung, this beautifully illustrated young YA/upper MG superhero adventure manages to balance comedy, action, and pre/adolescent frustration perfectly. Most importantly, though the book is written simply in terms of structure, vocabulary, and overall direction, it never condescends to its audience and actually subverts and tackles some pitfalls of the superhero fiction subgenre head-on. While many superheros pass on the cape and cowl from one generation to the next – similar to Polly’s position here, as she’s the only person around when the old Stupendous dies – the twist in Geeks is more science fictional and deeply subversive, when you think about it. I mean, a surly biracial teenage girl is the manliest, buffest, clean-cut, most revered Superman-riffing superhero of all time? HOW COOL IS THAT? [Sidenote: The reveal that Polly has assumed the mantle as Stupendous be a slight spoiler, but as you find that out within the first few chapters, and I think it’s a huge, integral part of this book, I don’t care and I’m choosing to talk about it.] This assumed role as Stupendous raises all sorts of other important questions, most immediately about personal choice.
See, Polly has no choice in her new role as Captain Stupendous – she just happened to be there at the right time (not unlike Hal Jordan) and finds the responsibility of becoming the world’s most iconic hero foisted upon her. But unlike Green Lantern, Polly’s dilemma has the added pathos of being a really young teenager – and not just any teenager, but one who has survived a Stupendous rescue and has her own form of PTSD to grapple with. (Not to mention the fact that when she uses her own science fictional power, she doesn’t become a superheroine version of Polly – she becomes a square-jawed, all-American beefy adult dude.) When she reveals her secret identity to Vincent and his friends Max and George, they don’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to be Stupendous – but I very much love and appreciate the careful consideration that Jung examines in Polly’s conflicted and hurt feelings at becoming Captain Stupendous (especially since the role comes from an authority figure that Polly trusts and respects).
This raises a secondary really interesting discussion of choice – because this story could have (and would have) been completely different if Jung chose to tell it from a slightly different perspective. Because as much as I’ve talked about Polly, Geeks, Girls and Secret Identities is not Polly’s story. It’s also not the story of football player Max assuming the role as a great manly superhero. Nor is it the story of quintessential scrawny and overlooked geek becoming the world’s greatest superhero.
No, it’s the story of Vincent Wu – who, ok, is the quintessential scrawny and overlooked geek – but he stays himself and relies on his smarts and knowledge of Stupendous, his trust in his friends and the people he cares about to train the world’s greatest superhero, and thus save the day. That is really, superbly, stupendously awesome. I love that Vincent is the hero of this tale, and that he grapples with his own insecurities and his frustration that no one listens to him or takes him seriously. When Vincent lashes out or gets worked up, readers can sympathize, empathize, with his vexation. I also love that Geeks is the story of Vincent growing up – or at least understanding that others aren’t always against him or not taking him seriously. There are some truly touching moments in the book with Vincent’s parents individually, as well as with his mother’s boyfriend, Bobby.
Which brings me to the next awesome point about Geeks, Girls and Secret Identities – the wonderful diversity of all of the characters within. Mike Jung – a voice in the We Need Diverse Books movement – does a fantastic job of integrating characters of different backgrounds in a way that is representative of the actual diverse world we live in. Vincent Wu is bi-racial (Asian and Caucasian parents), as is other main character Polly Winnicott-Lee. One of Vincent’s friends, George has a mother who is bisexual, and other parents are divorced or separated and dating other people, while stil being in functional relationships with their families. I love that all of this is just a matter of course, because you know, that’s the way it is in the real world.
And that’s to say nothing of the actual action and plotting of the story itself! Which is quite good. I love the idea of alien creatures or some science fictional explanation for the actual physical body of Captain Stupendous; similarly, I appreciate that the origin story is familiar (it came from outer space!) and accessible. There isn’t much new ground treading in this book, but that’s part of the charm – it’s a familiar story with familiar superhero tropes, but with enough subversive character and perspective twists to make it that much more memorable.
I certainly enjoyed it and cannot wait to read what Mike Jung comes up with next. ...more