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
After reading the author's work and essays over at Feminist Fiction (http://feministfiction.com/), I will be reading her book as fast as you can "gimmAfter reading the author's work and essays over at Feminist Fiction (http://feministfiction.com/), I will be reading her book as fast as you can "gimme"
ETA TO ADD REVIEW
A Wicked Thing is a reimagining of the fairytale Sleeping Beauty, a variant that as far as I understand, combines the Disney version’s Aurora and Perrault’s version. It opens as Aurora opens her eyes when a prince kisses her lips awakening her from a one hundred year slumber and it closes with a question mark.
The in-between is a fantastic, meandering journey in which Aurora gets pulled into a whirlwind of unfair expectations placed on her which include but are not limited to: an entire kingdom that has been waiting for her to wake up to save them all from the bad decisions made by their rulers in the past hundred years; a group of rebels that hope to co-opt her to their side because the dire economic, political and social problems that afflict the kingdom are about to burst into a revolution; the fact that magic is no longer the answer to any of it, even though magic might still be brought back because now she is awaken.
Most of the story though takes place inside the head of the heroine, asking the hard questions: who would Aurora be as a person considering she spent her whole life inside a tower, living under the strain of a curse put on her, forever scared, always expected to behave a certain way by her kingdom as well as her parents? What would she feel when she wakes up after one hundred years to find out her parents are dead, everything she has ever known is forever gone? And that for the past hundred years countless strangers have kissed her lips without her consent? What would she think when she wakes up to learn she needs to marry someone she barely knows and who, for all intents and purposes is her “true love” because that’s who all the history books say he is supposed to be? And that if she doesn’t marry him, she will disappoint all the people who depend on her?
How would all of this affect an 18-year-old girl?
That’s what this story is about and I loved A Wicked Thing wholeheartedly for everything that it is but also for everything that it’s not. Because this is not the tale of a kick-ass “Strong Female Character” who wakes up and takes control and fights evil and wins. And even though I too, love those types of stories, I believe we have all grown used to expect certain things from our heroines and if they don’t meet these expectations, we are too fast in calling them “weak”. The curse of the “Strong Female Character” is that too often only a certain type of “strength” qualifies and those heroines who happen to be quiet, reflective, calm, who happen to not “kick-ass” or for some reason take more time to get to wherever they are going, end up being dismissed as not good enough.
The fact is that for most of this book, Aurora does not know what to do, how to behave, what to think. In fact, she never does. And why should she? She never had a chance, a choice, she has always been what other people made her be, and still after all this, she is still expected to conform and perform a certain way. She spends most of this book uncertain, trying not to crumble under such weight, taking tentative steps to autonomy – yes, even if that autonomy is still limited.
Bonus points for: a queen that is not an Evil Queen and who, as a woman, has similar impositions placed on her. The opposition between Aurora and the queen is one of equals that choose to take different journeys. This is a tale of resentment too, of that type that can fester and then explode when one least expects. Similarly, Aurora meets three different potential romantic interests, two of them princes, one a commoner. Once one of them is not completely straightforward with her? She writes him off and he never shows up again.
It’s not that this is a perfect book, mind you. The politics and social unrest are not developed with the depth these topics deserve; the Evil King is villainous to the point of caricature; and the magical rules of the world are confusing, although I expect the first and last points will continue to be developed in this series.
In spite of those, A Wicked Thing really hit all the right notes for me. Read this if you liked Ash by Malinda Lo and Hunting Monsters by S. L. Huang. Read this because we need heroines like this Aurora and more books that interact with premises such as this one in thoughtful ways.
I read this book and I kept thinking about Buffy’s Cookie Dough speech at the end of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – remember those words?
I’m cookie dough. I’m not done baking. I’m not finished becoming whoever the hell it is I’m gonna turn out to be. I make it through this, and the next thing, and the next thing, and maybe one day, I turn around and realize I’m ready. I’m cookies.
That’s A Wicked Thing’s Aurora: cookie dough. ...more