Three years ago, Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith went public with a post about a post-apocalypic YA novel they had written together. During theThree years ago, Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith went public with a post about a post-apocalypic YA novel they had written together. During the submission process, they received a response from an agent who offered to represent the book, "on the condition that we make the gay character straight, or else remove his viewpoint and all references to his sexual orientation."
Their post led to a great deal of discussion about the need for gay characters in YA literature. The agency in question also posted a rebuttal.
So that's the backstory. The book eventually sold to Viking Juvenile, with a publication date of November 2014. I'm happy to have gotten my hands on an advance copy :-)
Stranger definitely has a western feel to it, as noted in the publisher's summary:
Many generations ago, a mysterious cataclysm struck the world. Governments collapsed and people scattered, to rebuild where they could. A mutation, "the Change," arose, granting some people unique powers. Though the area once called Los Angeles retains its cultural diversity, its technological marvels have faded into legend. "Las Anclas" now resembles a Wild West frontier town… where the Sheriff possesses superhuman strength, the doctor can warp time to heal his patients, and the distant ruins of an ancient city bristle with deadly crystalline trees that take their jewel-like colors from the clothes of the people they killed.
Teenage prospector Ross Juarez’s best find ever – an ancient book he doesn’t know how to read – nearly costs him his life when a bounty hunter is set on him to kill him and steal the book. Ross barely makes it to Las Anclas, bringing with him a precious artifact, a power no one has ever had before, and a whole lot of trouble.
I liked this one. There's a lot of imaginative worldbuilding going on, particularly around the different powers people develop and the new forms of wildlife. The crystalline trees are awesome and terrifying. Also: telekinetic squirrels. They don't get a lot of page-time, but just the fact that there are telekinetic squirrels makes me happy.
Smith and Brown rotate chapters through five (I think) different PoV characters, which was a little tricky to keep track of in the beginning, but I think it worked well. I'm less thrilled about the different font used for each PoV, but since I was reading an ARC, I'm not sure the publisher will keep that quirk in the final version. It might not bother you, but it distracted me.
There's a lot going on here. You've got the eponymous stranger Ross Juarez, a loner with a bit of PTSD who finds a sense of community for the first time in his life ... but there are those who don't want him around, and others who just want to use him. There's the larger conflict with a power-hungry king who's been conquering neighboring towns. There are multiple romances. There's internal political struggles between a family trying to create their own dynasty as leaders of Las Anclas and the changed sheriff who messed up their plans.
There's also an ongoing story about discrimination and prejudice. You have open hostility and fear, and some of that fear is almost understandable, given the damage changes can do when people can't -- or don't -- control them. Poor Ross gets fear and suspicion from both barrels, as a stranger and someone with a suspected change.
I'm impressed by how well the multiple relationships, stories, and characters all come together. It did feel like there were some loose ends when I finished, and I'm hopeful those will be addressed in future books. But Stranger provides enough closure that I didn't feel cheated. It's a good ending, one that makes me want to pick up book two.
Oh, and yes, there are several non-straight couples in the book, and they're treated with the same respect and variety as the straight couples. Surprisingly enough, I did not burst into flames, nor did my own heterosexual marriage immediately crash and burn. Go figure....more
Itäranta is a Finnish author, and as I understand it, she wrote the book in both Finnish and in English, and it’s been published in both languages. SpItäranta is a Finnish author, and as I understand it, she wrote the book in both Finnish and in English, and it’s been published in both languages. Speaking as an author, let me tell you, that’s pretty badass.
Here’s the publisher’s summary:
"In the far north of the Scandinavian Union, now occupied by the power state of New Qian, seventeen-year-old Noria Kaitio studies to become a tea master like her father. It is a position that holds great responsibility and a dangerous secret. Tea masters alone know the location of hidden water sources, including the natural spring that once provided water for her whole village. When Noria’s father dies, the secret of the spring reaches the new military commander … and the power of the army is vast indeed. But the precious water reserve is not the only forbidden knowledge Noria possesses, and resistance is a fine line. Threatened with imprisonment, and with her life at stake, Noria must make an excruciating, dangerous choice between knowledge and freedom."
This book was at times powerful and beautiful and tragic and depressing and triumphant. There’s not a great deal of action. The pace is almost leisurely at times, even as the tension ratchets every higher. Day by day Noira goes about her business, watching helplessly as the military imprison and execute others in the village for water crimes. The waiting builds suspense and fear far more effectively than any series of graphic action or violence would have. There’s also the contrast between the horrors Noira witnesses and the beauty of Itäranta’s writing.
And then there’s the worldbuilding. The book is set in a post-apocalyptic Finland. Rising sea levels and other environmental catastrophes have eliminated most sources of fresh water and a serious, if uneven, regression in technology. We never get the full details about what happened, because Noria — like most people — doesn’t know the truth. She knows only the stories she’s been taught. But over the course of the book, she uncovers bits and pieces…
I’m sure that aspect of the book will come across as preachy to some, and there’s certainly a message here about waste and overconsumption and the environment. But given that we don’t even know the full details of what happened, it felt like a reasonable example of “If this goes on…” to me.
There’s also beauty here. The way Noria contemplates every detail of the tea ceremony, and the ideas and philosophy behind it. I don’t know enough to say whether or not the author’s description is accurate, only that it was beautifully written. There’s love as well. Noria’s relationship with her friend Sanja, who works as a plastic smith (digging up and repairing old plastic for the village) is a powerful source of conflict. While they love one another, the secrets Noria guards and the struggles they both face just to survive would strain any relationship....more
Ancillary Justice has gotten a lot of buzz since its release. The book won the Clarke Award, the BFSA Award, made the honor list for the Tiptree AwardAncillary Justice has gotten a lot of buzz since its release. The book won the Clarke Award, the BFSA Award, made the honor list for the Tiptree Award, and is a Hugo Award finalist for Best Novel. I’m pretty sure it was also a Nebula finalist, tied for an Oscar, and won this year’s Super Bowl.
It’s an ambitious book, spanning centuries of future history. The protagonist Breq is all that remains of the Justice of Toren, an artificially intelligent ship with thousands of ancillaries — human bodies all controlled by the ship’s mind. Justice of Toren was essentially a single entity with thousands of bodies, and Breq was one of those ancillaries.
This isn’t a Star Trek-style Borg hive where individual personalities are subsumed into a collective; the host bodies are basically dead, without minds or personalities of their own. They’re “corpse soldiers.” Justice of Toren is one being who gets caught up in political crossfire and finds herself reduced to a fragment of what she was: a lone human body, limited and alone.
The first part of the book alternates between present and past, plunging the reader into the story and slowly providing the background. This is not a book you should try to skim. After I finished reading, I found myself wanting to immediately go back through the opening chapters again and pick up on everything I’d missed the first time.
I love the way Leckie plays with identity. Anaander Mianaai, the long-lived Lord of the Radch, is similar to Breq in that Mianaai has many human bodies, all linked. I won’t spoil things here, but I really liked the revelation of where the ongoing political conflict originated, and Mianaai’s role in it.
A lot of the conversations and reviews I’ve seen focus on Leckie’s treatment of gender in the book, both as a cultural construct — gender is treated differently depending on which culture Breq is immersed in at the time — and as a source of personal confusion. What is gender for a being with hundreds or thousands of different individual bodies? Breq often stumbles over gender identification and pronoun use.
It creates an interesting effect when a character Breq has referred to as “she” is then described as “he” for the next part of the book. I found myself rethinking their interactions, the dynamic between them, and more.
I don’t know that the book does anything truly new or revolutionary with gender, but it certainly does more than most mainstream SF these days, and I appreciate the way Leckie thought about it throughout the story.
Leckie also examines colonization, the destruction and assimilation of cultures, the drive for continued expansion and conquest, and more. It’s powerful and often painful. Aspects of that cold, calculating cruelty are what eventually launch Breq on her quest for vengeance.
I have mixed feelings about Breq’s mission. She’s out to kill as many of Anaander Mianaai as she can, but she also knows she probably won’t be able to take out more than one or two of Mianaai’s bodies before being caught and killed herself. Given that Mianaai has hundreds or thousands of bodies, I kept wondering what’s the point? Given the setup, that’s like avenging yourself on someone by cutting her fingernail.
It may be that Breq was simply lost and knew full well that this was a pointless mission, one that was little more than suicide. But if so, I wish that had been made a little bit more clear. (Or maybe I just missed it.) I do like that the ending went in a different direction, and how that set things up for the next book.
I should also mention the character of Seivarden Vendaai, who ends up accompanying Breq. Vendaai undergoes a powerful transformation as well, being a soldier a thousand years out of her own time. She’s a snob and a drug addict, completely burnt out and bitter. I very much appreciated seeing her growth — and at times, her backsliding — over the course of the story.
All in all, a thoughtful book with strong worldbuilding, and a particularly impressive debut. Ancillary Justice is book one of a trilogy. Book two, Ancillary Sword, comes out in October of this year.
I haven’t read all of this year’s Hugo-nominated novels yet, and I wouldn’t presume to pick a winner, but I think Leckie is a strong contender....more
I finished reading Nnedi Okorafor's YA fantasy Akata Witch on the flight to Colorado last week. I then recommended the book to a number of different pI finished reading Nnedi Okorafor's YA fantasy Akata Witch on the flight to Colorado last week. I then recommended the book to a number of different people at the conference. It’s fun, interesting, fast-paced, and just plain good.
I’ve seen a few reviews that describe the book as being inspired by or too similar to Harry Potter. Both are coming-of-age stories about children who discover they have magic. Both protagonists explore a hidden magical community, and ultimately, they both have to face a rather terrifying Big Bad. But none of these elements are new or unique to Harry Potter, and Okorafor’s story and worldbuilding are a refreshing change from most “magical teenager” stories.
I loved the characters, all of whom have distinctive personalities and voices, from Chichi’s bluntness to Sasha’s rebelliousness and American sensibilities to the different mentors and teachers Sunny meets. I also appreciated the excerpts from Fast Facts for Free Agents, a rather condescending but informative book about people like Sunny, who have non-magical parents. The book-in-a-book does a nice job of helping orient the reader while doing the same for Sunny.
It’s not all magic and soccer and fun, of course. Sunny’s world is harsh and unforgiving. The artistic wasp who creates a new sculpture each day will also sting you if you’re not suitably appreciative. Sunny risks being caned for disobeying the rules of magic, and her lessons are potentially deadly. At home, Sunny lives with an abusive father (making this the second YA book in a row I’ve read with an abusive father.) And then there’s Black Hat, a man who’s been murdering children, and whose magic is far stronger than that of Sunny or her friends…
The book is steeped in Nigerian culture and folklore, and recognizes real-world tensions and conflicts without ever feeling preachy. There’s a brief reference to 419 scams, acknowledgement of racism and prejudice in Nigeria and the U.S., and more.
My only nitpicks would be that the final confrontation with Black Hat felt a little quick, and I was disappointed to not see more of a resolution between Sunny and her father. But neither of these things took away from my enjoyment.
Like I said at the beginning of this review, I recommended this book a number of times over the weekend, and I’ll recommend it again. It’s a good story, well-written, with great characters and magic. And I’m happy to say that Okorafor has confirmed there will be additional books in this series.
I will be totally, absolutely honest. I wasn't really expecting to like Shades of Milk and Honey.
It's nothing to do with Kowal or her writing. I've adI will be totally, absolutely honest. I wasn't really expecting to like Shades of Milk and Honey.
It's nothing to do with Kowal or her writing. I've adored other things I've read by her. I've nominated and voted for some of her work for various awards. She's a good writer. But this one just didn't look or sound like my kind of book. The description, "Like Jane Austen wrote a fantasy novel" didn't hit any of my buttons, and I'm afraid the cover art didn't help. (The newer editions of this series have different and much improved artwork, in my opinion.)
I tend to prefer more action in my plots, more humor and fun in my fiction ... which I'm sure comes as a tremendous shock to anyone who's read my stuff. So it took me a while to pull this one off of Mount ToBeRead...
...at which point I devoured the story, finishing the book in three days, and sacrificing a bit of sleep in the process.
There are a few action-type scenes toward the end, but for the most part, this is a relatively quiet book. And I loved it. I loved the characters. I loved the relationships between them, and the way Jane's insecurities crashed into those of her sister, and the conflicts that ensued. I loved the language, which was careful and formal without ever feeling stilted or stuffy.
The magic was particularly enjoyable. In a genre that includes Gandalf and Dumbledore, the glamours of Kowal's world are relatively limited in scope: the manipulation of light and sound to craft illusions. It's seen as a lady's skill, like painting watercolors or playing a musical instrument. But Jane is very skilled and passionate about her art, and it draws you in until a scene about crafting an illusory birch grove is as thrilling as any battle between heroes and goblins.
Certain elements and twists in the story felt a little predictable, but I wasn't reading for the plot twists. I was reading for the sheer enjoyment. And I was kicking myself for not reading it sooner.
You can read the first two chapters at Kowal's website, and I strongly encourage you to do so....more
This is an ambitious story. Not only does Duyvis create a believable fantasy world (inspired in part by the Netherlands) with its own messy history, pThis is an ambitious story. Not only does Duyvis create a believable fantasy world (inspired in part by the Netherlands) with its own messy history, politics, cultures, geography, and rules, but she also grounds Nolan’s story in our own world, then successfully ties them both together. In some ways, Otherbound is a portal fantasy, but it’s a portal fantasy with a lot more challenges and complications.
For one thing, when Nolan’s mind is with Amara, his body remains here with no one at the helm. As a child, he slipped into Amara’s world while crossing the street, which resulted in an accident that cost him his leg. Now, Nolan not only has to deal with his missing leg, but in many ways, his connection to Amara is presented as a neurological disability, one he’s constantly working to manage.
Amara’s tongue was cut out as a child, part of her “preparation” to become a servant. Later, she developed the power to heal from any new wounds, and uses this power to protect her princess … a girl Amara can’t decide if she hates or loves. In the meantime, they’re constantly on the run, guarded by an abusive drunk of a man.
Reading through the past few paragraphs, it sounds like this is a grim, gritty, potentially depressing book, and it’s not. There’s plenty of darkness, but Duyvis presents it all without ever wallowing in despair or hopelessness.
I was particularly impressed with how she handled the growing connection between Nolan and Amara. At first, Amara isn’t aware of Nolan at all. But eventually he learns he can control her. The first time this happens, there are layers of assumptions and misunderstandings on Nolan’s part. Without going into details, Nolan is simply trying to communicate with this person, to try to do something about this connection that’s cost him so much. But in the process, he takes total control of Amara. It’s a violation that has echoes of sexual assault, both in the way Amara loses control of her own body, and in her reactions afterward.
That’s Amara’s first introduction to Nolan, and it’s a hard thing to move past. Duyvis doesn’t shy away from the pain and difficulties there, but she does a good job of making both characters sympathetic and understandable as they try to negotiate and learn to work together.
I did get a little disoriented in the beginning as we were going back and forth between worlds, and I would have liked a little more grounding in Amara’s world, but overall I’m very impressed with everything Duyvis accomplished in this book. There’s plenty of action to keep things moving, along with romance, a diverse cast of characters, and an interesting magical system.
It’s a good book, and doubly impressive for being Duyvis’ debut....more
My Zombie Hamster is … well, it’s pretty much exactly what it says on the box. There’s this hamster, you see. And he’s a zombie…
Naturally, there’s morMy Zombie Hamster is … well, it’s pretty much exactly what it says on the box. There’s this hamster, you see. And he’s a zombie…
Naturally, there’s more to it. Let’s start with the official synopsis:
Matt Hunter and his buddies are looking forward to Christmas — actually, they’re looking forward to receiving the latest sword-and-fantasy video game. But Matt’s parents have other thoughts — they give him a fluffy little mammal, a hamster called Snuffles, for the holiday. And his grandmother makes it worse by giving him a hamster cage and wheel. But the hamster isn’t all that cute — at least not after part of its cheek and belly fall right off — without bothering it a bit! And why is it staring at Matt with black beady eyes and a lean and hungry look?
Say hello to Anti-Snuffles, the zombie hamster! Or better yet, run!
This is a middle grade book set in the very near present. The zombie apocalypse has led to a society of walled cities and towns, but aside from the zombie-hunting cops wandering around to make sure you’re still alive, and the presence of life chips that go off when you expire (alerting said zombie-hunting cops to come and dispose of your potentially brain-hungry corpse). On the other hand, Matt still has to go to school, still references present-day pop culture, and still lives a life that’s in many ways pretty similar to most kids these days.
Similar except for the never-named-but-clearly-hinted-at ex-movie star who’s come to town to take charge of zombie security, of course. And the mayor’s big pet contest. And of course, Anti-Snuffles, who may or may not be building an army of undead critters…
It’s a quick read, one the author describes as “a cross between Shaun of the Dead, The Goonies, and The Diary of Adrian Mole.” The short, daily chapters are interspersed with Matt’s lists of things to do, whether it’s his plan for breaking into [SPOILER] or the things he plans to do once he becomes a megamillionaire.
Despite the undead hamster, the book isn’t particularly gross or scary, so it shouldn’t give young kids nightmares about the family pets. On the other hand, reading it as a not-quite-40-year-old, that also meant the stakes didn’t feel quite as urgent to me.
One of my favorite parts was a subplot with one of Matt’s friends, something I can’t really talk about without spoiling things. But it was an unexpected development, and I really enjoyed the way the characters handled it.
It’s a light-hearted story about a boy vs. his undead hamster. What else is there to say?...more