Overall Satisfaction: ★ Intellectual Satisfaction: ★ Emotional Satisfaction: ★ Bechdel Test: Pass Johnson Test: Pass Will I read more by this author? Maybe...moreOverall Satisfaction: ★ Intellectual Satisfaction: ★ Emotional Satisfaction: ★ Bechdel Test: Pass Johnson Test: Pass Will I read more by this author? Maybe. Definitely not with this translator.
I loved Andreas Eschbach’s previous novel, The Carpet Makers, currently his only other novel translated into English. It was very much an idea-driven science fiction novel, old-fashioned in a very good way, fitting nicely in the tradition of Arthur C. Clarke and Larry Niven and Isaac Asimov. And the translation by Doryl Jensen was superb, the prose clear and spare and elegant in a way that made the eventual mystery reveal more powerful.
Unfortunately, I could not even finish Lord of All Things.
It is a much more modern novel. The Carpet Makers was episodic, each chapter essentially a short story of its own where the connection between them was simply that each story brought the narrative a little closer to the big reveal of the ending. Lord of All Things, on the other hand, is a continuous narrative, following Hiroshi Kato’s life from his childhood in Japan to his college years at MIT to what I assume will be his adult life as one of the world’s leading robotics experts.
The Carpet Makers’ strength was Eschbach’s (and Jensen’s) skill with building atmosphere, and with dispensing clues to the central mystery one by one at exactly the right pace to keep the dramatic tension rising. The strengths required by the story Lord of All Things seems to be telling are very different – this novel needs Hiroshi, at the very least, to be a compelling character, a character with charisma (for the reader, if not necessarily for the other characters around him). And with the number of words devoted to setting each scene it also really needs a writer with the gift of capturing a sense of place, the specific details that make it the French Ambassador’s compound in Tokyo or an MIT frat house instead of just a generic place where rich people live or place where college students get drunk. And for me, Eschbach failed at both of these elements, failed so miserably that I could not stand to read more than 160 pages of the 647 page novel.
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. . .
I was disappointed in the first book of Balogh's Survivor's Club series -- it was uneven, and spent so much time setting up the series that the two le...moreI was disappointed in the first book of Balogh's Survivor's Club series -- it was uneven, and spent so much time setting up the series that the two leads got short shrift. This is a much stronger entry -- the leads here are just plain likeable, incredibly sweet, and I would happily read another 300+ pages of them setting up house because they are just so engaging together on the page. There was very little of the "oh, woe is me, will he/she ever love me as I love him/her?" angst, and I was grateful because it was making me far too happy to simply read about them being happy.
Unfortunately, where in The Proposal Balogh simply descended to didactic speechifying on the nature of trauma and recovery, here I felt she was almost offensive in her handling of Vincent's blindness. In scene after scene she hammered home how he wasn't letting his disability limit him, or affect his outlook, which is all well and good, except for the ". . . like all those other disabled people" that seemed implied after every sentence. In that context, the focus on Vincent's good nature seemed to veer too far towards "inspiration porn" for my taste.(less)
The Taming of Ryder Cavanaugh, the penultimate novel in Stephanie Laurens' massive twenty-two novel Cynster series, is immensely satisfying, both for...moreThe Taming of Ryder Cavanaugh, the penultimate novel in Stephanie Laurens' massive twenty-two novel Cynster series, is immensely satisfying, both for itself and for the way it concludes the series. Laurens has her formula, as all prolific romance authors do - strong-willed men with a strong protective streak matched with strong-willed women adept at wielding the power appropriate to their station and gender, engaging in courtship that is as much battle as dance - and that formula is on fine display here. It is overly long in the middle and her descriptions are (in my opinion) too flowery and poetic, but those failings are also common to Laurens' style. What was surprising about this book was how dark the resolution to the B-plot was - though murder attempts on the principle couple are fairly common in both this series and the Regency romance genre in general, the emotional impact of who the villain was and how the villain was dealt with surprised me, and made the final sex scene feel just a bit off. But the epilogue, which brought back the entire Cynster clan for their annual family reunion, hammered home (heavy-handedly, but in a good way) the way that the series has always joyfully embraced the idea of families being more than the sum of their parts. It is a deeply optimistic series, and reading this novel just made me want to go back and reread the first (Devil's Bride) again.(less)
I received a copy of the ARC through GoodReads First Reads program, which means the photography was all in black and white, so I cannot judge it entir...moreI received a copy of the ARC through GoodReads First Reads program, which means the photography was all in black and white, so I cannot judge it entirely accurately.
The first half of the book is made up of mostly Alex Harris' photography. Harris has a good eye for nature photography -- the landscape photos were stunning, even in black and white, finding a stark beauty in the woodlands and swamps surrounding Mobile. Unfortunately, I found his photographs of the people of Mobile rather underwhelming -- they showed everyday people doing everyday things, but there was nothing striking about the photographs themselves and the stories behind the photographs (which Harris devoted a fair amount of text to explaining) were fairly banal and sometimes heavy-handed. But as I said, my copy of the book is in black and white, so it is possible the photographs are more effective in the finished product.
The text in the first half of the book is written by Harris, and he is an unfortunately bland essayist. As noted, much of the text is devoted to simply explaining the photographs; unfortunately, Harris brings nothing to the explanations that I could not glean from the photographs themselves. The rest of the text is Harris' thoughts on Edward O. Wilson and the process of making the book; again, Harris brings nothing to the table that I could not gather for myself through implication and Google.
The second half of the book is mostly text by Wilson, with just a few of Harris' pictures. It is by far the stronger half, because Wilson is a much more engaging writer. His text comprises a history of Mobile, from the first deadly contact between Spanish Conquistador Hernando de Soto and Chief Tascalusa (the highest ranking chief from the native Mississippi mound-building culture in the area), through American acquisition and the blossoming of a slave-based agricultural economy, all the way to the present day and its still-simmering but much improved racial relations. Wilson also keeps a strong focus on how the natural world shaped historical events and Mobilian culture and a fairly clear-eyed look at the way both the natural world and the cultural history of exploitation of non-white peoples have shaped his own personal history and attitudes.
Wilson takes his own privilege as a white man to heart -- unlike many writers, he acknowledges that he cannot know firsthand the experience of being black in Mobile, and so the sections addressing race in modern Mobile have his own thoughts but also prominently feature interviews and quotes from black Mobilians. I was very pleased to see the way he handled that issue, but wish that he had brought a similar appreciation to gender; both Mobile's history and his family's history as he relates them are overwhelmingly male.
So overall, I was pleased but not tremendously impressed by this book. The photography, the driving force behind its format as an expensive coffee-table book, seemed rather a mixed bag; Wilson's portion of the text was both informative and fun to read but had a significant blind spot; and the rest of the text actively detracted from my enjoyment. Were this a standard hardcover book made up of just Wilson's text and the best of Harris's photographs I would recommend it strongly; as is, it was still worthwhile but a bit of a disappointment.(less)
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 novel is simultaneously deeply subversive and disappointingly conventional.
It obviously owes its premise and much of the feel of its world to Sta...moreThis novel is simultaneously deeply subversive and disappointingly conventional.
It obviously owes its premise and much of the feel of its world to Star Trek. It's set in a universe where the speed of light is no barrier, where there are quite a few practically-human species capable of star flight, whose planets interact the way countries here on Earth do (meaning there's immigration to and from, they form alliances and declare war, and there's trade) and all of them can interbreed. The Sadiri, the victims of the genocide, are definitely Vulcan-like; though they have not rejected emotion in favor of logic, they have epitomized restraint and morality to the rest of the galaxy, and they attribute their superiority in those fields to the way they have developed their telepathy through meditation and mental exercises.
Interestingly, though not particularly relevant to the story, this is a galaxy without Earth and humans-as-such; Earth is apparently under an interdiction, and the rest of the humanoid species have no contact with it other than the occasional snapping-up of doomed groups to be brought into the galactic fold for their useful genetic diversity.
The first sign that this is much more than just Star Trek-influenced cross-cultural-contact SF is the information, right off the bat at the start of chapter two, that Cygnians and Sadiri (who make up nearly the entirety of the cast of characters) possess "eyes, hair, and skin all somewhere on the spectrum of brown." There is one character, late in the book, that I would identify as white; he's so minor that I've forgotten his name, and what role he played.
The second sign is the nature of Cygnus Beta, the planet almost all of the action takes place on, and the home world of the protagonist. It is a planet of refugees, one of which the protagonist says "There isn't a group on Cygnus Beta who can't trace their family back to some world-shattering event. Landless, kinless, unwanted. . ." It is a poor planet, and one that the rest of the galaxy views as superstitious and backward. But it is not the violent, gang-ridden techno-poverty of the sort that is so often fetishized in cyberpunk, and it's not the picturesquely feudal and martial poverty of, for example, Lois McMaster Bujold's Barrayar; it's just the poverty of being a people whom circumstance and hostile action have rendered relatively resourceless.
The third sign is the breezy, confiding tone of Grace's narration. Lord's first novel, Redemption in Indigo, took that same tone; there, it was the obvious choice, a folktale fantasy narrated as it would be around a fire on a winter's night. But that tone, when transposed to a distinctly science fictional setting, becomes in itself somewhat revolutionary. Much of science fiction, particularly science fiction with pretensions at seriousness, adopts an objective tone, a distant faux-historical viewpoint that is meant to give it gravitas. That tone often hides as much as it highlights, encouraging the reader to look away from all the things that are missing (brown people, poor people, oppressed people). Grace's voice, warm and occasionally exasperated and always distinctly personal, makes this book feel real, aliens and telepaths notwithstanding.
That level of personal-ness is ultimately what I found so exciting about this novel. It is 100% science fiction, and the sort of science fiction I always find more satisfying, where the world is messy -- multiple types of telepaths, lots of different cultures and subcultures, the sense that the characters in the novel all have existences extending far into the past and the future, rather than existing purely for the sake of the plot. But it is also incredibly domestic -- ultimately, what the Sadiri need is to find a whole bunch of brides, because in the aftermath of the almost-genocide they were left with an incredibly male-skewed gender balance, and so the plot of the novel is taken up with a quest through Cygnus Beta looking for communities that have higher percentages of Sadiri bloodlines, so that the remaining Sadiri males can look for mates.
And that is where the novel becomes unfortunately conventional. Lord makes a point of how progressive Cygnus Beta is: there is a character of whom Grace says "Lian has chosen to live without reference to gender. This may or may not mean that Lian is asexual, though many of those who are registered as gender-neutral are indeed so. However, it doesn’t matter, because this has no bearing on our mission and is thus none of our business”; various comments indicate that bi/pansexuality is the norm; Grace jokes with her mother that the woman her mother is trying to seduce away from her husband actually wants Grace's mother to join in a triadic polyamorous relationship with the both of them. But there is absolutely none of that diversity of sexual and gender identity represented in the Sadiri and their plight: the Sadiri survivors are (almost) all men, and they are all going to be forced to enter into heterosexual monogamous relationships that are expected to be reproductively fruitful. And no one blinks an eye at that. It is a strange bit of cognitive dissonance, that Grace is so fully enmeshed in a non-heteronormative, non-monogamous society and yet is falling in love with a man from a society so much more rigid without even once questioning how willing his people are to abridge their right to self-determination.
(It is particularly galling, given that this is a science fictional setting, that Lord never addresses any potential technological fixes to the problem of a small, male-dominated survival group: no mention of genetic engineering, cloning, uterine replicators, anything beyond "get boy and girl to have sex, make babies".)
Still, aside from that conventional core, this novel is a delight. Grace's narration makes it a fast, enjoyable read. The quest plot takes the reader through quite a few very distinct subcultures on Cygnus Beta, the same way Isaac Asimov's Prelude to Foundation explores the various sectors of Trantor. There are several call-backs to Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, the Sadiri coming to Cygnus Beta intending to reshape it for their needs but ending up becoming rather more Cygnian than Sadiri in the process. There was also a significant reference to Jane Eyre, which seemed out of place. But most of all, I spent the novel thinking that Lord was doing much the same thing science fictionally as Lois McMaster Bujold was doing fantastically in her Sharing Knife quadrilogy -- they set up rigorous SFF worlds, and then they put those worlds at stake, positioned their cultures on the brink of extinction due to both external and internal forces; then they resolved the stories by having their characters settle down and make babies. This is, of course, an entirely fair resolution; if your culture is in danger of extinction, pretty much the only solution is to have children to carry it on. But it's a solution that sits oddly in the SFF canon.
A note on the cover: When I first saw this cover, my thoughts were pretty much "Hey! The person on the cover is non-white! Yay! But what's with the elephant?" I got to the end of the book and kind of wanted to *headdesk*. The elephant, surprisingly, was entirely relevant, was one of two symbols used heavily throughout (the other was a hummingbird, which made its way onto the British edition cover). But the woman on the cover, who I assume is Grace, has very definitely been white-washed.(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)
Overall Satisfaction: ★★★★ Intellectual Satisfaction: ★★★★ Emotional Satisfaction: ★★★★ Read this for: The characters Don't read this for: The world-build...moreOverall Satisfaction: ★★★★ Intellectual Satisfaction: ★★★★ Emotional Satisfaction: ★★★★ Read this for: The characters Don't read this for: The world-building? The prose? I don't know, nothing stands out as exceptional but nothing stands out as awful either. Bechdel Test: Pass Johnson Test: Fail Books I was reminded of:The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien Will I read more by this author? I will be buying Bujold's books until she dies.
The Vorkosigan Saga is one of my favorite series of books of all time. I've read them more times than I can count, and I frequently am reminded of lines or moments from them in both my own writing and in my day-to-day life. But recent Vorkosigan novels have been kind of. . . lightweight, and I got the impression that this one was going to continue that trend, which is why I am only reading it now, over a year after its release.
And it is lightweight. It's the "Ivan has some adventures not caused by Miles and finally settles down" book. Science fiction romances don't have to be lightweight -- Komarr wasn't, just to give another Vorkosigan Saga example -- but this one definitely is, because while there's plenty of plot happening there are very few consequences to the plot for Ivan, very little risk. (This was my major issue with CryoBurn as well.) There are consequences for Tej, the other major viewpoint character and Ivan's love interest, but they're never really sold as urgent and potentially catastrophic, and because she's new to the series we aren't grounded in her POV by previous books.
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)