Overall Satisfaction: ★★★★★ Intellectual Satisfaction: ★★★★★ Emotional Satisfaction: ★★★★★ Read this for: The themes. Don't read this for: The plot. Bechde...moreOverall Satisfaction: ★★★★★ Intellectual Satisfaction: ★★★★★ Emotional Satisfaction: ★★★★★ Read this for: The themes. Don't read this for: The plot. Bechdel Test: Pass Johnson Test: Fail Books I was reminded of: Just the rest of Valente's work. Will I read more by this author? Of course!
I really, really liked The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. But much though I liked it, I could tell it was never going to be my favorite of Catherynne Valente's works, and after rereading it and then reading The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There I remained firm in that belief. Much though I adored Valente's world-building, much though I relished Valente's ever-muscular prose, much though I delighted in Valente's unexpected bits of poignancy, there was still a simplicity of outlook at the core of both books that kept me slightly at a distance. In both books, no matter how sympathetic Valente made the villains, September was still able to draw a very clear line: this is right and this wrong, and this is a thing I could never do, no matter how hurt I might be.
It is an outlook I understand in books aimed at children and teenagers but which, as an adult, I find. . . somehow inaccessible. It is not relaxing to me, as I assume it is for other people; instead I find it very slightly invalidating.
So while I expected to enjoy The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two, I did not expect to be greatly moved by it. . .
This novel is incredibly satisfying, despite being fairly uneven technically. The characters are charismatic; the mystery, though fairly simple, maint...moreThis novel is incredibly satisfying, despite being fairly uneven technically. The characters are charismatic; the mystery, though fairly simple, maintains an excellent sense of tension due to the stakes; and the world is fascinating, lovingly detailed, and fairly unique among fantasy worlds. I stayed up all night to finish this, and immediately wanted to read the next in the series. (Sadly, neither of the two other Astreiant books are available in any of the library systems I have access to.)
It's actually a little surprising to me, how much I enjoyed this book, because there were several elements of its execution that normally irritate me. Scott & Barnett had inconsistent control over POV -- most of the book is told from a tight third-person viewpoint centered on either Rathe or Philip, but every once in a while they slipped into a third-person omniscient, or switched POV from Rathe to Philip mid-section. Now this isn't uncommon, particularly in fantasy from the 80s/90s, but it always bothers me. The prologue, which let the book pass the Bechdel test on the very first page, was in the POV of characters that did not appear again until a couple hundred pages in, which again isn't really uncommon in high fantasy novels, but again, usually gets under my skin.
And oh, the info-dumping! There are a LOT of passages that are just the characters thinking about how their world works, how peoples' stars affect their chances in life, what the various political factions think of each other, all things that people don't actually think to themselves in real life but which they do in fantasy novels because the authors have put in a lot of work into building their worlds and want the reader to see it. Normally this is a cardinal sin to me; I would much rather just be thrown into the world and forced to figure out what's going on for myself. But here I was willing to forgive it, because the world was legitimately fascinating. The entire social order is built around astrology, so everyone knows the time of their birth down to the hour or better, and their stars determine what careers will suit them, and they go to astrologers often to get readings for what their near-future might hold. There are masculine stars, which encourage people to wander, and feminine stars, which encourage people to settle, so for the most part women hold political power by virtue of being landowners while the militaries and trading companies are dominated by men, but plenty of men have feminine stars and plenty of women have masculine stars. Stars also determine when it's propitious to marry or have children, so same-sex relationships are common and same-sex partners can have legal standing entirely separate from marriage, which is (I think) heterosexual and focused exclusively on property.
This is what perplexed me most about Scott & Barnett. On the one hand, as I said, there were quite a few heavy-handed info-dumps about astrology and politics, and I was fine with them because they were interesting, but I still noticed them. But the world-building around gender and sexuality was just as interesting and different from the norm as the political and magical systems, and Scott & Barnett conveyed that information in my preferred fashion -- the characters simply used the terminology as was appropriate, and I was left to infer what it all meant on my own. I don't know if one author handled the politics/astrology and the other handled the gender/sexuality, and that was the cause of the difference, or if they left the gender/sexuality world-building mostly oblique so that it could fly under the radar of more conservative fantasy readers; but either way, though I did not mind the info-dumping, I wish the astrology/politics world-building had been handled as subtly as the gender/sexuality world-building was.
It was, of course, for the gender & sexuality world-building the I picked up the book -- I'm always looking for SFF that has alternate gender roles and more expansive ideas of sexuality than is typical. On the sexuality front this book satisfied completely; as I said, queer sexualities are incredibly common and entirely unremarkable in this world, and that is delightful. On the gender front my reaction was a bit more complicated. On the one hand, it's world where political power is mostly concentrated in female hands -- Chenedolle is ruled by a Queen, all the prospective heirs are female, most property owners are female, and property passes down to daughters. And this is one of the rare books that I placed on my GoodReads "A Passel of Women" shelf -- there are women everywhere in this world, as pointsmen (police officers), pickpockets, tavern keepers, and shady financiers. The preferred gender-neutral sentence construction is "she or he" instead of "he or she." The book passed the Bechdel Test despite having male leads.
But. There was a pattern that I noticed about halfway through the novel, and it's one that I do not like. Despite all the women in the book, somehow, the characters that actually moved the plot were all male. The two leads, of course; but also the butcher that reported the missing apprentice that got the action started; the drunk journeyman that was the main instigator in Philip's changes of fortune; the necromancer that helped Rathe put the pieces of the mystery together; the traders who provided a crucial piece of evidence; the shady businessman who was more involved than he knew. Now, it's possible that this was a deliberate choice by Scott & Barnett. After all, if feminine stars are about stability and masculine stars about change, then it is vaguely in keeping with the focus on astrology for the men to be astrologically more inclined to be the movers and shakers of plot. But really, I'm pretty sure that's a terrible bit of fanwanking on my part; I strongly suspect that despite women having equal or greater power in the world, the men have greater power in the plot because that's how insidious sexism is.
Still, despite all those little critiques, this book was simply fun. I did see where the mystery was headed in advance, but that didn't detract from the tension through the middle of the book because though I knew what was going on I did not know that everything would end well. The climax felt a little rushed, mostly because it wasn't until the climax that I was actually convinced that the astrology-based magic actually had power in the world rather than being superstition, but it was still emotionally satisfying. And despite my reservations about the narrative's gender equality, the world itself is exactly the sort of place I like to spend time, the sort of place I wish was more common in SFF -- one not enslaved to our too-narrow ideas of gender and sexuality, and with swashbuckling heroes and magic to boot. All in all I am very happy I read this, and will be seeking out more of the authors' work as soon as I can.(less)
Despite containing several stories I loved, this collection was a disappointment to me. Sedia is clearly a talented writer, but too many of the storie...moreDespite containing several stories I loved, this collection was a disappointment to me. Sedia is clearly a talented writer, but too many of the stories either took risks that didn't pay off or remained completely opaque to me, even after turning to Google to see if I was missing references. I was also confused by the inclusion of two distinctly non-Russian stories; one is a retelling of a Japanese folktale, the other is a pseudo-African folktale, and both seemed completely out of place in the collection and lacked the depth of history and mythology that Sedia brought to her Russian-set stories. And while Sedia has been lauded as a feminist writer, concerned with the place of women in the world and the power dynamics between women and men, these stories more often than not positioned their female characters as victims. Not agent-less victims, I will grant, and victimized more often by the patriarchal machinery of society as a whole rather than individual men, but still victims. Several of the stories also positioned fatness as grotesque and malignant, and there were hints of cultural appropriation and classism that made me uncomfortable.
Still, when Sedia was writing in what appears to be her comfort zone, magical realist and fairy tale influenced stories set either in modern-day Russia or among Russian immigrants elsewhere in the world, she was quite impressive. "Citizen Komorova Finds Love," "Tin Cans," and "You Dream" were all incredibly evocative, packing both significant thematic and emotional punches into not very many pages. None of these three are happy stories -- actually none of the stories in the entire collection is happy -- but they resonate the way short fiction ought, illuminating little corners of much larger worlds.(less)
This was a well-intentioned novel with a decently evocative sense of place that I found unfortunately too heavy-handed to be enjoyable to read.
The thr...moreThis was a well-intentioned novel with a decently evocative sense of place that I found unfortunately too heavy-handed to be enjoyable to read.
The three main characters are the sort I wish there were more of in fantasy -- non-white characters who are centered in the narrative and who are clearly shaped by their race but not entirely defined by it. Unfortunately, they are never given the room to come to life. We are given the information encapsulated in the jacket description, and one or two offhand statements that begin the process of humanizing those descriptions (D giving up on dreams of college because his foster mother is unlikely to pay for it; Hakeem trying to figure out how to integrate his faith into his day-to-day life; Nyla's alternately manipulative and supportive relationship with her stepmother), but then the entire rest of the novel is spent developing one of the clunkiest love triangles I have ever had the displeasure of reading.
The setting was similarly disappointing -- there was just enough that piqued my interest for me to know that Elliott had a potentially fascinating world built up in her head, but somehow it never quite translated to the page. (And the "Prologue" completely threw me, with its "I" who was clearly not D but did live in a Brooklyn teeming with both magic and history; I had to read it twice before I figured out that the "Prologue" was really an author's note/introduction and that "I" was Elliott, rather than being an actual prologue connected to the book itself. Major fail on the publisher's part.)
But the element I found most cringe-worthy, that made the book nearly unreadable to me even at 124 pages, was the plot itself -- the magical bird with a glorious mission only D can complete. That was handled with all the grace of a Saturday morning superhero cartoon. Here is a representative sample of the bird's dialogue:
"It's a long story, and I don't have the strength to tell it all tonight. I can, however, share some of my history." "You have endured much for one so young." "You should rest now. You'll need your strength for the task we must undertake." "When it is time, all will be revealed."
Just absolutely the worst sort of not at all informative, vaguely mystical claptrap that always seems to come out of the mouths of poorly realized magical mentors in programs aimed at five year olds. The dialogue was so trite, in fact, that I was kind of hoping that the bird would turn out to be evil, manipulating the vulnerable, newly orphaned and unsure D with the things little kids want to hear. But, unfortunately, the bird was played entirely straight.
The second half of the book was a series of action sequences that, while not tremendously thrilling, were always clear about who was doing what and why. But overall, this felt like a novel that would have been stronger with significantly more space for the non-fantastical aspects of character and world-building, and needed an entire rewrite of the fantasy plot to remove the cliched dynamics and dialogue.(less)
YA -- and middle grade, which is technically where this book falls -- is not a genre I actively avoid, but not one I seek out either. I tend to find w...moreYA -- and middle grade, which is technically where this book falls -- is not a genre I actively avoid, but not one I seek out either. I tend to find well-written YA/MG books charming but slight, ultimately forgettable. But I have been working my way through everything Kage Baker wrote, so I picked up this book on a hot afternoon, when I was in the mood to be delighted rather than challenged.
I was, indeed, delighted. If there is one common thread through Baker's work, through her fantasy in particular, it is a sense of warmth. She did not write epic plots, though sometimes the world was at stake; nor did she write secondary worlds detailed to the point of obsession, though her worlds were certainly unique and memorable. She wrote people, lovely, flawed, human people, struggling to find -- no, to make -- happiness for themselves in a world neither benign nor malevolent but simply indifferent. That warmth is present in spades in The Hotel Under the Sand, and it is exactly right for the age group this book is aimed at.
Unfortunately, I was still left feeling that the book was too lightweight for my tastes. I kept comparing it to Catherynne Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making -- another middle grade book by one of my favorite authors, writing in the tradition of children's books from the 19th century -- and it kept coming up just a little short. For a story to be great, it needs the right balance of light and dark, both triumphs and tragedies, whether they are large or small. The Hotel Under the Sand doesn't have quite enough of the dark. It has a villain, but where Valente made her villain ultimately heartbreaking, Baker's villain is nothing but a caricature.
I can forgive the caricature in part because the book isn't really about its plot at all -- the plot is simply the scaffolding that the characters and the world hang on. But what the book is about is grief: it opens with Emma alone and bereaved and choosing to fight for her survival anyway, and it closes with Emma finally able to stop fighting for a moment and cry for what she has lost. Baker handled Emma's grief delicately, captures it in all the times Emma (and the narration) looks away, but she chose to keep what Emma was grieving for a mystery to the reader, and because of that I never quite connected as, for example, I did when reading the same sort of treatment in Patricia McKillip's The Changeling Sea. I grieved for Emma but never with Emma, and so the book remained insubstantial. Charming, but slight.(less)
I found this collection extremely uneven. There were several stories I absolutely hated, which is unusual for me in short fiction: "The Tradeoff," "Th...moreI found this collection extremely uneven. There were several stories I absolutely hated, which is unusual for me in short fiction: "The Tradeoff," "The Right Stuffed," "Nemesis," and "Sharks and Seals." But there were also several that I loved deeply, passionately, without reservation: "Cartography, and the Death of Shoes," "Flesh of My Flesh," "Davy," and "Lift." What surprised me even more was how my tastes broke down by genre: I found all but one of the fantasy stories good to great, and disliked or hated all but two of the science fiction stories. Also surprising (and a little disappointing to me) was that there wasn't a single story where the protagonist liked her body. Still, on the strength of those four stories that I loved I would recommend this collection, and I am grateful to Crossed Genres and the editors Kay T. Holt and Bart R. Leib for making it.
I hate epic fantasy. I hate the Chosen One trope, I hate the perspective switching that's now de rigeur. I have a strong aversion for coming-of-age pl...moreI hate epic fantasy. I hate the Chosen One trope, I hate the perspective switching that's now de rigeur. I have a strong aversion for coming-of-age plots, and love-practically-at-first-sight, and absolutely anything having to do with Fate. This book has all of those things. So why did I read it?
I love high fantasy. You must understand that I define epic fantasy as only those fantasies where the plot involves the saving of the world, while high fantasy is simply any fantasy taking place in a secondary world. Obviously, the two sub genres overlap quite a bit. So while I try to avoid it, I do sometimes end up reading an epic fantasy novel, if the secondary world seems interesting enough.
This one was.
So much high fantasy takes place in a generic medieval Europe, particularly France and the British Isles; a small but visible minority takes place in vaguely Arabian or Chinese settings. I don't think I have ever encountered another fantasy novel that draws on Hawaii for its backdrop, as this one does. It's set in Hawaii only as much as Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Legacy series is set in France or Robin McKinley's Beauty is set in England -- which is to say, Johnson took the names and some elements of the geography and not much more -- but just that much difference was enough to pique my interest and put this on Mt. TBR.
Unfortunately, there is a danger attendant upon breaking that sort of new ground. A fantasy novel set in generic medieval Europe can draw on a wealth of world-building tropes that an average fantasy reader will expect and accept with no further explanation; a fantasy novel set in an unfamiliar setting has to be built from scratch, and the average fantasy reader (at least if the average fantasy reader is at all like me) is likely to interrogate the world-building a bit more closely.
So, for example, I loved exploring the world of Johnson's outer islands -- that world made sense given my knowledge of Hawaii and other parts of Polynesia. But when the story moved to the inner islands, which are temperate rather than tropical, the world started to feel. . . confused. I believe Johnson was trying to evoke Japan, but little European influences seemed to sneak their way in -- a character playing a lute, another character using nightshade and bitterwort in a potion. Of course, this IS high fantasy, and the whole world is made up, so using European-derived items isn't inherently WRONG. . . but when the world feels so different, I found it distracting to see something suddenly the same.
Still, while I became less enamored with the world as the novel went on, I was pleased with the level of technical prowess Johnson showed in this, her debut novel. The pacing was a bit uneven, but I never found the somewhat convoluted plot hard to follow. And while I always felt distanced from the individual characters and their mental/emotional states, I was very much invested in the survival of the world as a whole, and the climax of the novel was therefore intense and effective. The cliffhanger ending (another reason I hate epic fantasy) worked, at least in that it made me want to run out and grab the next book immediately. The only thing that stopped me was the knowledge that this series is that most frustrating of types: doomed forever to be unfinished because it was dropped by the publisher.(less)