An incredibly ambitious book, and one that didn't pull any punches. I'm not sure why it's in YA other than I'm sure it sells better there than in stra...moreAn incredibly ambitious book, and one that didn't pull any punches. I'm not sure why it's in YA other than I'm sure it sells better there than in straight SF/F, proving once again that marketing is just marketing and YA isn't really a genre--but I digress. I created a new category just because of this book ("something rich and strange"), but I think that doesn't do the book credit. I wouldn't want anyone to think the book was inaccessible, and the strangeness has more to do with the uniqueness of the book than any weirdness. It's a little like Graceling in that "rich and strange" bit, though different still.
I picked this up because it rang some Tamora Pierce bells. (It may even have said something about Tamora Pierce in the marketing material.) I didn't get the full on sensawunda about the book that I did when I first read Tamora Pierce, but I was also 11 when I first encountered Pierce, and if I were any less jaded, perhaps I would have with this one, too. Times have changed; I don't find "girl dressed as boy" subversive the way I once did; but the stakes are still high for a girl dressed as a boy in this world, and Goodman doesn't leave it at that simple level. There is a transexual character in the novel (a "contraire") who is a biological male that identifies as a woman who helps explore a lot of the ground left empty between Pierce and now.
The take on gender is interesting and complex; Eon takes what is essentially a steroid to help disguise her femininity, which is triply interesting, as is the fact that this is a world where male and female magical/spiritual energies have real and lasting impact.
The other fascinating thing about this book is that there is a true economic impact from the magic; and beyond that, it's macro-magic--turning aside monsoons and floods, controlling earthquakes, very little petty magic.
My only complaint--and it's hard to complain about in a book that is jam-packed with wonderful details that I wouldn't want to give up--is that I had a little bit of a hard time connecting with the main character. Or any character. Everyone is out for themselves; the one or two characters (depending on how you count) that Eon helps for reasons that don't have to do with mutual survival remain largely unexplored. The characters I liked most (the contraire and her bodyguard) never quite slipped into the role of full friendship with the main character the way I wanted. All the build up in that regard never quite paid out; what one wants most for a character constantly alone, constantly guarded, and constantly on the run, is a moment of true peace, a promise of real and lasting friendship, acceptance and understanding. I don't think I would have enjoyed Pierce's Alanna as much if she hadn't had George, Jon, Raoul, Cort, Faithful, etc. (less)
This book knows where I live. The concept alone was enough to inspire jealousy, and I totally felt I had to scr...more**spoiler alert** This book floored me.
This book knows where I live. The concept alone was enough to inspire jealousy, and I totally felt I had to scrap my odd-eyed character in another book after I heard about this (though he wasn't a graceling by any definition). Vaguely reminiscent of Megan Whalen Turner's Attolia books crossed with Tamora Pierce, and yet, perfectly its own thing.
I was surprised to find that the semi-obligatory love story had so much emphasis--there are declarations of love less than half-way through the book--but it was incredibly refreshing to discover that there would be no marriage, no kids, in the end, and it wasn't a matter of giving anything up, it was a matter of choice. The relationship is complex and interesting, and when the male lead has a crisis at the end of the book, it is not solved by the love of the female protagonist. She is there, she is supportive, but love is not the panacea, and it's a sad, sad thing that I should have to be astonished that an author managed to make that so.
Early on, I was worrying that the book might fail to pass the Bechdel test, as there was a preponderance of male characters and almost no females, and it actually does mostly fail that test, to whatever extent it can be applied to a book with a female lead; there are only three (or four) female characters of any importance besides Kasja. The first is a good, supportive but traditionally-minded female servant who doesn't make too many appearances or carry on any significant conversations; the second is the male lead's mother, who naturally doesn't talk to Kasja about anyone other than her son in her brief appearances; and there is a child, Princess Bitterblue, who does manage to talk to Kasja about things other than Prince Po and her father. (There is also a female ship captain who shows up late in the game, and mostly passes the test.) Now, granted, the book is about a woman functioning in what is obviously mostly a man's world, and further, about a woman living in a kind of isolation because of her gifts and her reputation, but it's still a tiny bit disappointing.
Nonetheless, the book is astonishingly good. It is a testament to the author that I almost cried in relief after Kasja and Bitterblue came through the mountain pass safely.(less)