Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third book in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, was released in 1999, with a movie based on the book following in 2004. Because of the huge international nature of the series, there is not just one publisher for this book. In the UK, you can get your copy from Bloomsbury. US readers will be buying from Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, and Canadians from Raincoast. The book is illustrated by Cliff Wright in the UK and Mary GrandPré in the US.
A bit about plot! Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban takes place during Harry’s third year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. A huge aspect of this book is Harry—and, by extension, Ron and Hermione—getting into and out of childhood scrapes. In order to get them into even more trouble than they had been capable of in the previous two books, Rowling provides the three friends the Marauder’s Map of Hogwarts via the Weasley twins. This map, only to be used when one is up to no good, shows every room in Hogwarts and how to get into most of them, as well as everyone in Hogwarts as they move about. Hermione, due to her scholastic zeal, is given a Time Turner so she can add hours to her day and take all of the classes offered to her year. As always, Harry’s invisibility cloak is useful in getting Harry into places he is not allowed to be, like Hogsmeade village. Looming over everything is Sirius Black's escape from the prison Azkaban, the wizard who was arrested for the deaths of Lily and James Potter. It is believed that Black is after Harry as the ‘Potter who got away.’ In true Rowling fashion, every scrape connects with every scrap of information beautifully, so that these adventures build a foundation that Harry uses to solve the problem of Sirius Black at the end of the book.
The end of childhood For me, this book is special because it’s the last book where Harry really and truly is still a child. He's a precocious child, of course, but most of the troubles he finds in this book have far fewer consequences than when he gets in trouble later on in the series. Instead of focusing so heavily on life and death situations as the later books do, Harry runs away from home on the Knight Bus, gets to school by stealing a flying car, wanders around Hogwarts with the help of the Marauder’s Map, and sneaks into Hogsmeade under his invisibility cloak. While all of these acts of discretion build to the confrontation between Peter Pettigrew and Sirius Black, in and of themselves, they are childish pranks. Sirius’ kiss by the Dementors is averted with the arsenal of tools and skills Harry and Hermione have amassed over the last three years. This becomes the crowning achievement of their childhood rather than the end of it.
The beginning of the next book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, ushers Harry into adolescence by forcing him to act older than he is as a fourteen-year-old competing with seventeen-year-olds in a potentially life threatening tournament. The series takes a much more serious, darker tone after this, as what little childish innocence Harry has left is stripped away from him.
Why should you read this book? Although you’ve most likely either already read this book and/or seen the movie, if you haven’t yet, I recommend it. This book is a fun, innocent romp through childhood, which is aided by the fact that Rowling is still being contained in small ‘child friendly’ length books. For me, this is the book where Rowling’s worldbuilding and writing style really solidify before she expands in Goblet of Fire, which is almost twice as long. I found the weakest points of the first two books to be slightly clumsy writing. In Prisoner of Azkaban, that’s gone, what with a writer who herself is coming into maturity. As part of that maturity and shorter length, this book has a very tight, cohesive plot, perhaps the tightest of the series. Overall, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a great read, and my favorite of the series.(less)
Frost Burned is the seventh book in the Mercy Thompson urban fantasy series by Patricia Briggs. There are also three full-length novels and one novella in the companion series Alpha and Omega, making this the eleventh prose installment overall in this universe.
Mercy, a shape-shifter living in the Tri-Cities of Washington, has recovered from the events of her honeymoon, and is dealing with the fey cutting all contact with humans following the events in Fair Game (Alpha and Omega). That is, until her husband Adam and the rest of the werewolf pack are abducted. Mercy needs to rally what forces she can to get them back in one piece and figure out who is behind the plot.
A middle novel In every series, there are books that don’t change the game but fill in small details and explore dark corners of the universe. Most of the time, these books are laying the groundwork for the next game-changing novel. That’s what Frost Burned is. There aren’t a lot of changes for Mercy and Adam that happen as a result of this novel. Rather than major shifts in character, characters are, instead, further refined. We find out a little more about characters we don’t see often, and there are a few plots with side characters that reach their next step while a few new ones begin. But there’s nothing ground breaking or earth shattering here.
That’s not to say that Frost Burned is not an entertaining or worthwhile read. In order to have "peak" books, you must have slower "valley" books. There are surprises in store for you as the book shows what allies Mercy can find, how those allies interact with each other, and who the main villain of the book is. I won’t say more than that for fear of giving it away, but this book is set up to be the start of a longer, universe-wide plot arc, even as Mercy’s personal life calms down for a bit.
Really about the secondary characters From time to time, I enjoy it when an author gives some spotlight to secondary characters. And Briggs shines the light on a lot of them in Frost Burned while still leaving Mercy prominently in the role of protagonist. Not only do these secondary characters make appearances, but many of them get to grow and change as characters. It’s so easy as an author to have secondary character growth happen offstage, and it’s wonderful to read an author who’s not afraid to have it happen on the page. And to manage the growth of multiple secondary characters at the same time without losing track of the main plot? Brilliant. If you’re expecting a messy book from what I just said, don’t. Briggs runs a tight ship even when the whole team is on the page. And for fans of Alpha and Omega, there’s even a secondary cross-over character who gets some serious page time.
Why should you read this book? Patricia Briggs has fairly earned her place as one of the cornerstone authors of urban fantasy. While Mercy Thompson is not one of the longest or oldest series out there, it is one of the best-selling. For lovers of urban fantasy, I and many others would list Briggs as a must-read. That being said, this is the eleventh book between two intertwined series. If you haven’t read at the very least the majority of the previous Mercy books, you will be lost. I would also highly recommend a quick read of Fair Game, if not all of the other Alpha and Omega titles. You’ll be richly rewarded if you do, and a bit lost if you don’t.(less)
Clockwork Princess is the third book in Cassandra Clare’s The Infernal Devices trilogy, which is a prequel to The Mortal Instruments series (originally a trilogy, Clare has signed for an additional three titles). Clockwork Princess follows Clockwork Angel and Clockwork Prince.
Tessa Gray is an American girl lured to London by the dark magical forces of Mortmain. She escapes their clutches with the help of two Shadowhunters, Will and Jem. With the help of Will, Jem, and their allies, she sets out to find out why she has been targeted and to stop Mortmain from destroying the Shadowhunters.
No real surprises If there is a young adult author out there who gets nearly as much flack as Stephanie Meyer, it’s Clare. She’s been dogged by plagiarism accusations (to my knowledge these have never been backed by litigation) since her fan fiction days under the name Cassandra Claire. Since then, she’s come under attack for writing the same story three times. While I can’t speak for The Mortal Instruments, I will say that I’ve been struck by The Infernal Devices’ similarity to her fan fiction. I’ve read in several places that these same similarities can be seen in The Mortal Instruments. Further, this is a young adult novel and follows several standard tropes, most spectacularly the love triangle.
Clare also hasn’t grown as much as a writer as I could hope for in Clockwork Princess. Everything was foreshadowed so thoroughly that nothing was deeply surprising. At no point was I on the edge of my seat wondering how it was all going to work out. The only plot twist I didn’t predict was the exact form of the deus ex machina at the end because I didn’t have enough information from earlier in the trilogy to make the connection (hence the deus). Had I been familiar with The Mortal Instruments, I may have seen it coming. However, I knew some form of deus ex machina was coming because there’s a whole lot of sameness in this book.
No, I don’t hate the book Clare has always had skills as a writer. She’s very good at making conflicted yet sympathetic characters whom readers can invest in. Her Shadowhunter world in The Infernal Devices is well built, with a lot of places she can explore in future books. All of the pieces that first attracted me to Clare’s work are still in Clockwork Princess; I just expected more from this book than what I got. It feels like Clare is resting on the accomplishments she’s already made instead of moving forward to seek new ones and grow as a writer. Granted, with how well her books are selling, I don’t know how motivated I would be to push myself were I in her shoes.
Why should you read this book? The Infernal Devices is an entertaining young adult steampunk fantasy. There aren’t a lot of those, which makes the series worth reading just based on that. Clare is a talented storyteller, and her tales do stick with you in a good way after you set the books down. However, this is a young adult series, and does suffer somewhat from the constraints of its target audience and publisher enforced restrictions. It is a simple, quick read that may not satisfy lovers of door-stopping tree killers. And it is ridiculously similar to Clare’s other works, which bored me. Had the trilogy been longer, I don’t know that I would have stuck it out.(less)
Catherynne M. Valente is currently best known for her young adult Fairyland Series, but she’s also won awards for her adult novels The Orphan’s Tales:...moreCatherynne M. Valente is currently best known for her young adult Fairyland Series, but she’s also won awards for her adult novels The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden and Palimpset. Her writing is utterly unique from concept to style and always a treat. So we here at The Ranting Dragon were really excited to hear about her latest release, a novella entitled Six-Gun Snow White. Released back in January, it’s proved to be a difficult commodity to come across. Subterranean is a specialty publisher, and many of its titles are only available in print for a limited run. The 1,000 signed and numbered limited edition print copies of Six-Gun Snow White have long since sold out directly from the publisher, though e-book copies are still available and print copies are available from specialty dealers.
You all know the tale of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” if not directly from The Brothers Grimm than from Disney and other children’s movies. Valente takes this classic tale and moves it to the American Old West. Snow White is the daughter of a wealthy white man and a Crow woman. When her father remarries a white woman, she finds herself neither white nor Indian in a world that prefers you to be either one or the other.
Incredible authorial voice When I say that Valente doesn’t write like anyone else, I mean it. Sometimes she can even figure out how to not write quite like herself, either. Half of the novella is told as a narration from Snow White, telling how she came to be and the events of her early childhood. Snow White’s language is a fantastic achievement and feels very authentic to someone living on the west coast of the United States in the late nineteenth century. Moreover, she doesn’t speak with an upper crust vocabulary, but with the drawl of someone from the working classes. Her speech is full of old sayings and flowery metaphors common to older forms of English, and I found it a delight to read.
Around the half-way point, Snow White decides that telling the whole story herself is too much of a burden and turns everything over to a third-person narrator. The language shifts, but rather than changing to a modern narration style, Valente shifts deeper into a traditional storytelling style that’s more often encountered from aural storytellers than written ones. Valente draws you deep into the tale and doesn’t let you go easily.
Intriguing changes, but no real surprises What I disliked most about this book is actually what initially drew me to it: the fact that it is a retelling of “Snow White.” I know this story inside out and backwards. I’ve read and seen a lot of iterations of the tale. While Valente makes some changes that are interesting, I wasn’t floored by them. They didn’t illicit new emotional responses to the tale from me. The farther I got into the book, the more I was reminded of Jane Yolen’s Snow in Summer, also a retelling of “Snow White,” even though the retellings have little to do with each other. In short, this is still a fairly basic retelling of “Snow White” with no attempts to disguise it. By the time I got to the real twists at the end, I had lost deep interest in the tale sometime before.
Why you should read this book Anything by Valente is a treat as she’s one of fantasy’s foremost modern authors. If you enjoy her work, are a connoisseur of re-told fairy tales like I am, or like more literary fantasy that uses instances of indirect storytelling, you’ll find something to like here. However, if you only like reading print editions of books, this may be an expensive investment as used copies are currently available from $40. And this is a novella, so even if you read rather slowly it’s a quick read.(less)
Kitty Rocks the House by Carrie Vaughn is the eleventh chapter in the Kitty Norville series. The urban fantasy series follows title character Kitty, a werewolf public radio DJ that shocks the world by becoming the first paranormal celebrity. As you might imagine, there are folks who aren’t too happy with her for shining lights into their darkness.
Kitty’s back in Denver from the scientific conference in London where she warned the world about the vampire Roman’s Long Game. She and the vampire Master of Denver, Rick, are busy receiving envoys from potential allies against Roman when a strange wolf appears and attempts to join the pack. Kitty has her hands full defending her position as Alpha while Rick mysteriously disappears.
A focus on characters rather than action Urban fantasy books can be frustrating for a reader because they feature a ton of action in a relatively small 350 or so page book. Books typically open right before trouble starts, and finish as soon as it’s ended. One of the strengths of the Kitty books is that Kitty herself is so outspoken that the reader has no trouble following her personal growth through each book. However, it’s been a while since Kitty’s had the space to sit down and reassess who she is and why she does what she does. The challenge of bringing newcomer Darren into the pack provides Kitty with a chance to reaffirm her beliefs.
Kitty Rocks the House also lets us see more of a few old characters, as well as some new ones. Spending a lot of book time around the pack lets us see them for the first time since book number eight, Kitty Goes to War. Cormac and Amelia are really starting to jell as a team, and Detective Hardin is back.
Not the highlight of the series The really good long running urban fantasy series all seem to experience peaks and valleys in terms of books that leave you on the edge of your seat, and ones that are quieter reads. Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files does it; Patricia Brigg’s Mercedes Thompson series also does it to a lesser extent. Kitty Rocks the House is certainly one of the lulls in action for the Kitty series. This is not a bad thing, as the slower pace and lower stakes let Kitty re-ground herself and deepen her character for the reader. However, it did not leave me reaching the end of the book dying for book twelve to find out what happens next.
Why should you read this book? Kitty Rocks the House is not one of the highlights of this series. At book number eleven, with twelve (Kitty in the Underground) due out at the end of July 2013, it’s also not a good place to jump in having never read any previous titles in the series. That being said, it’s also not a good book to skip. Kitty does a lot of growing here, and there are some major revelations about vampire culture that will be important in future books. And while I wouldn’t list this as one of my favorite books in the series, it was an enjoyable and worthwhile afternoon read.(less)
Anne Bishop broke onto the fantasy scene in 1998 with Daughter of the Blood, the first book in the Black Jewels trilogy. That trilogy is fantastic, so much so that we feature it on our "Twenty Must Read Finished Fantasy Epics - An Introduction to the Genre." However, Bishop’s other work has been a mixed bag. Tir Alainn was a decent trilogy, but didn’t have the same punch that made Black Jewels so ground breaking. Later installments in the Black Jewels universe left me feeling like I was reading fan fiction, even if they were by the original author. The first two installments in Ephemera aren’t bad... but I disliked the third one so much that I wasn’t sure I was ever going to give Bishop a chance again. Written in Red was my one last chance for her, and I’m so glad I took that gamble.
Meg Corbyn lives on an Earth very, very different from ours. The terre indigene rule the world, and in Thasia( what we would know as the Americas) humans lease land and resources from the set of peoples that include vampires, shapeshifters, and elementals. Terre indigene and humans do not get along well and don’t understand each other. In every large human settlement there is a Courtyard, where the local terre indigene live and where human law does not apply. In every Courtyard there is a Human Liaison. Rather than being a diplomatic figure, they are more of a mail clerk responsible for making sure deliveries are made and sent on time between the two societies. Meg Corbyn is on the run and desperate, and the open job of Human Liaison to the Lakeside Courtyard sounds like a great place to lay low for a bit. But what happens when those hunting her find their prey? And what will the residents of the Courtyard do when they realize their Liaison is more than they bargained for?
Classic Bishop Elements Anne Bishop is known for dark worlds inhabited by misunderstood and outright abused characters. Written In Red is par for the course. But where in previous books society itself is twisted, here it’s not. There’s nothing inherently wrong or evil about the terre indigene, just very much not human. They don’t understand humans, and very few humans have ever given them a desire to learn more. Human society isn’t inherently warped either, just quintessentially human. There are good people doing the right things for the right reasons, and there are those who are out for everything they can get away with no matter what the cost to everyone else. And while Meg has seen her share of abuse in the past, it hasn’t left her dark and emotionally scarred like Jaenelle (Black Jewels) or Sebastion and Belladonna (Ephemera) are. Bishop hasn’t tried to recreate anything she’s done before, leaving Written In Red to feel fresh, new, and exciting while still being something that no one else could write.
Unique worldbuilding Rather than being dark epic fantasy, Written in Red is an urban fantasy, and utterly unique in that genre. Meg’s world isn’t one step off from ours, it’s five or six. Bishop has taken what other authors in urban fantasy have done, and taken it much, much further. Most authors have had vampires, werewolves, demons, and more living alongside humans for centuries... but usually hiding from the humans for most of that time. Here, these peoples have never hidden from humans, and have in fact dominated human history. The United States doesn’t exist because early settlers didn’t find Native Americans here... they found more terre indigene and had to deal with the native population in a far different way. This subtle but profound change is unique, and I like how Bishop was able to take this and create something so complete. While I dislike her use of place names that are just a step or two away from ours (such as Atlantik rather than Atlantic), it did serve as a way to designate that this world that isn’t ours is still shaped like ours.
Why should you read this book? Because Bishop seems to have found her ability to write again (sorry, I really had issues with A Bridge of Dreams). In Written In Red you can once again see all the talent that was showcased in Daughter of the Blood, even if the tale isn’t as sweeping or as dark. Bishop has left plenty of room for further installments while still giving this novel a satisfying ending. Overall, this is a good read, and I am so happy to see Bishop back in the game and growing again as an author.(less)
Breaking Point is the second installment in a young adult trilogy that started with Article 5 by Kristen Simmons. The final book has not yet been scheduled for release.
The United States as we know it has not survived a brutal civil war followed by widespread economic turmoil. For some Americans, the answer to deep factionalism is to unite the country under a single conservative state religion, and the Constitution is replaced by a series of Articles which ban things like gay marriage and children out of wedlock, enforced by a militaristic government. Though Ember Miller was born over a decade before the War, her status as the underaged child of a single mother is viewed as treasonous. She and her mother were arrested and Em was sent off to a rehabilitation center in Article 5. Instead, she escaped and joined the resistance movement.
A strong follow-up to a great debut I adored Article 5. While the series bears some resemblance to Atwood’s classic A Handmaid’s Tale in the deeply conservative religious dystopian concept, in execution it’s vastly different. Em’s society is still in transition from the world that we know to a grim new reality. Women remember a time when they could work outside the home and wear jeans. Men remember when their best option for employment was not as a soldier for the Federal Bureau of Reformation. As such, Em doesn’t feel that she or her mother have done anything to even be ashamed of, much less arrested for, and does not accept the reality that the FBR is trying to impose. There is a lot of visible friction between the populace and the government. Breaking Point picks up three weeks after Article 5 closes, hits the ground running, and never looks back. All of the things I liked in Article 5 (world building, characterization, pacing) are present in Breaking Point.
On the note of characterization: Simmons is flawless at it. She has her masters in social work, and that means a lot of time spent studying psychology. This is evident in her characters. Chase has one of the best presentations of post-traumatic stress disorder that I think I’ve ever read. Em’s grief cycle is impeccable. Even secondary characters have believable backstories that deeply inform their behavior during the story, and the changes they make during the book are fully supported on all counts. Even the masses of society follow well documented psychological norms for people going through deep economic stress in a totalitarian regime. If you’ve bought into the idea that young adult fiction is filled with characters that are superficial a la Twilight, I need refer you no further. The craft Simmons brings to her characterization is on a rare level, regardless of target audience or genre.
Not all roses That’s not to say that Breaking Point doesn’t have its issues. This is the second book in the trilogy, and Em is figuring out how to move on now that her original plan from Article 5 has reached its conclusion. However, events in the wider world are moving faster than she is, forcing her to react faster than she can effectively plan. While Em is definitely moving in a single direction and acting as a distinct protagonist, the urgent drive from Article 5 is lessened. Breaking Point is really about Em reassessing who she is, what she wants, and what she’s prepared to do to get it, rather than about Em actually doing anything. I am confident, however, that this means that we’re going to see Em really blossom and come into her own in book three. I would warn you, however, that if you dislike book two of three dark endings, leave this one alone until the final book is published.
Why should you read this book? Breaking Point doesn’t take place hundreds of years in the future; the roots of its potential reality are all around us. More so than many dystopias, its message is an active warning of things to come. Simmons is a strong writer with some real talent I look forward to enjoying in the future. Best of all, her work stays away from a number of young adult tropes that have cropped up lately, making it feel fresh and unique. I can’t honestly think of a reason you shouldn’t read this book or Article 5.(less)
Across the Universe is the debut book by Beth Revis. A sequel, A Million Suns, followed in 2012, and the trilogy finished with Shades of Earth in early 2013.
Hundreds of years in the future, the spaceship Godspeed is en route to a new planet awaiting human colonization. At its launch, 100 military, medical, and scientific personnel are cryogenically frozen. Meanwhile, the rest of the crew creates its own society as generations pass during the trip. Seventeen year old Amy joined her military commander father and biologist mother as one of the cryogenically frozen, scheduled to awake once the Godspeed reached the new planet. Instead, she wakes fifty years early. Confronted with a wildly different society than the one she left, Amy must also figure out why she woke early and uncover Godspeed’s close-kept secrets. Her life, and those of her parents and the other frozen crew, depend on it.
An ambitious debut Across the Universe isn’t just one genre. There’s a heavy dose of hard science fiction in place with not only a fully functioning spaceship, but advanced communications technology and genetic manipulation. Revis has done a good job researching these technologies and making them function realistically and believably within the environment she’s created. Mixed in with this is a highly dystopian society that has come about as the pressures of having several thousand people live in a highly contained space for generations take a massive toll on the non-frozen crew. Finally, this is a young adult novel with the requisite love story, though thankfully without the overdone love triangle. The execution of the novel fulfills the promise of the concept. The technologies in place inform the dystopia, and vice versa. These in turn shape the relationship between Amy and the seventeen year old Elder, as well as Amy and the entire rest of the ship. While Godspeed is a highly isolated world, it’s highly interconnected within itself making for a rich and detailed story. In fact, this really didn’t feel much like a debut for me. Revis had taken such care with her craft that many of the sharp edges often found in first books weren’t obvious here.
Crafty dystopia Some dystopias come about because of a power hungry dictator. Some come about because of religious fanaticism. The third major theme of dystopian creation is massive internal strife within a society. On an enclosed spaceship, where such strife can spell the end of the mission and the lives of everyone on board, you can imagine that such a situation cannot be afforded. On top of that, limited space and resources have also placed a cap on overall population. However, because that population is so small, having a large enough genetic variety to avoid birth defects becomes an issue. Revis has really put thought into her dystopia, adding in how the advanced technology of a space age society will shape the eventual dystopian result. While not exactly subtle, the effect is much more multifaceted than many other dystopias I’ve read.
Why should you read this book? Because it’s unique. While it is a young adult book, there’s a lot of depth to the characters and some really top notch world building. There also aren’t a lot of newer hard science fiction books out there, especially when you look at the youth market. While in no way would I really compare Across the Universe to a Golden Age classic, it has enough merits to stand its ground with ease in the modern market. The addition of the dystopian society within the science fiction world really makes this book shine, and the execution leaves very little to be desired. So if you enjoy hard science fiction, dystopias, and/or teen fiction, this book belongs on your to-read list.(less)
Insurgent is the second book in the Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth. The trilogy will complete with an as-yet-untitled third book in fall 2013, followed by a movie of the first book, Divergent, due out in 2014.
The world as we know it is gone, replaced by a strictly caste-based society in the ruins of Chicago. Tris Prior was born into Abnegation, a faction that believed that the old world fell due to unending selfish acts. She has now survived to be initiated into the Dauntless faction, which believes in courageous action and a military lifestyle. But even before the ceremony and ensuing celebration, Tris Prior's new world is torn asunder as the factions fracture into civil war. In order to save her friends, Tris has to embrace the things that make her different from everyone else she’s ever known, as well as answer questions about why her society was built the way it was.
Twisting, turning action As in Divergent, Roth’s mastery at action scenes is apparent. There are a lot of tightly written action scenes that really drive the book, and they start almost immediately. Tris is not given any time to recover from the last of her trials as a prospective member of the Dauntless faction before the civil war breaks out. This moves action from the stronghold of Dauntless into several different parts of this dystopian Chicago and allows both Tris and the reader to get an inside look at the factions that have remained a mystery thus far (Amity, Candor, Erudite), including a group of Factionless living in the ruins between the faction strongholds. Everything is very tightly plotted, with lots of details to keep track of and a lot of decisions for Tris to make.
Breakneck Pacing My major issue with this book was the sheer speed at which the action happened. Tris was given very little time to stop and think about what was happening around her. She has people dying around her, sometimes as a result of her actions. She receives a lot of new information about not only what it means to be Divergent, but about her own family. And the action never lets up, almost forcing her into making the typical decisions of a sixteen year old rather than allowing her to grow to meet her challenges more fully. Tris is personally targeted by the Erudite faction and has trouble dealing with the incredible stress she is under, which causes her relationships with other characters take a huge hit as the book goes on.
Why should you read this book? Second installments in trilogies tend to be the darkest, and Insurgent certainly follows that pattern. The momentum from Divergent is increased, with an edge of your seat cliffhanger at the end of Insurgent. If you enjoyed Divergent, or like dystopian literature in general, Insurgent is a good bet. However, if young adult literature leaves you feeling annoyed, you may want to pass this by; both books are filled with YA tropes. If you don’t like to be left hanging at the darkest moment in the story, I might advise waiting to pick up this book until the final volume in the trilogy is published.(less)
Divergent is the debut book of Veronica Roth and the first book in a trilogy. A movie version of the book is tentatively scheduled for a 2014 release. The sequel, Insurgent, was released in 2012 with the untitled conclusion to the trilogy scheduled for a late 2013 release.
Beatrice "Tris" Prior lives in a futuristic world where society has been divided into factions. Everyone is born into a faction, and around age 16 they get a chance to change factions if they so choose. Beatrice was born to Abnegation, a faction that believes that our current society fell apart because of the selfish actions of individuals. They spend their time in service to others, foregoing all forms of entertainment, adornment, and ambition. During her aptitude test, Beatrice shows compatibility with three different factions, not the normal one or two aptitudes all other members of her society show. She must choose the path her future will take, while not being able to confide in anyone just how different she is.
A carefully crafted high octane read One of the first things I noticed about Divergent was its attention to detail. Each of the factions are thoroughly different from each other. Even though we only get an inside look at two factions (Abnegation and Dauntless), we get enough of a sense of the remaining two that we understand what they stand for and how they are fundamentally different from the two that we do see firsthand. Roth has done a good job of not cluttering the work up with unnecessary detail. If she’s drawn your attention to something, there’s a reason. Roth is also very good at action scenes, keeping the tension taught and the pacing through them just right. The fact that Tris is in constant danger is never lost, and the points in which she is in greater or lesser danger are nicely paced for a satisfying read.
A few words of caution There are a few weak points in Divergent, as I expect in a debut novel. Roth’s biggest stumbling block is characterization. She’s focused so much on the action of the book that the characters doing the action have gotten lost. Tris is a strong protagonist, but there’s room to deepen the reader’s understanding of her. The secondary characters are all much more two dimensional than I care for, making them little more than accessories to Tris’s journey. While Tris’s love interest, Four, does play a huge role, his motives are deeply hidden. Part of this is the fact that Divergent is very strongly from Tris’s point of view, and she has no idea why Four does many of the things he does. But the fact remains that too many secondary characters are lacking in good characterization.
Divergent also suffers some from the genre that it’s in. Young adult literature tends to be shorter than its adult counterparts, and so the scope of Divergent is smaller than I would have liked. While this book is dystopian, not a lot of time is spent dealing with the dystopia. Instead, Tris is struggling to define who she is and to earn her place in the Dauntless Faction. The questions of why society has changed to this model, how Tris is going to deal with her inability to entirely conform to society's demands in the long run, or how Tris might change her society all go unanswered. Some young adult literature challenges its readers with content, and is only young adult because of the age of the characters involved. Divergent isn’t one of those books, and is very much only Act I of III.
Why should you read this book? If you enjoyed The Hunger Games or dystopian literature in general, this is a pretty safe bet. While very much teen fiction, Roth has a good grasp of pacing and is a strong hand at action. For all of its understandable flaws, I was quite eager to pick up the next installment when I finished Divergent.(less)
Joanne Bertin’s debut book, The Last Dragonlord, was published back in 1998. Two years later, the sequel, Dragon and Phoenix, was released and those of us who’d read them eagerly awaited more. And waited. And waited. And eventually I gave up hope of ever getting my hands on the third book that was promised when Dragon and Phoenix was released. Imagine my shock and glee this past November when I saw on the coming releases list a little-heralded title by an author many people have forgotten about, but whom I remembered very fondly. Finally, twelve years after I had read the previous book, I could have the next adventure!
Bard’s Oath is the third book in the Dragonlord series, and opens about a year after the end of Dragon and Phoenix. Linden, Maurynna, Shima, Otter, and Raven are planning to meet up at a large horse fair, the first time they’ve all been in one place since their last adventure. But what fun would it be for us readers if something didn’t go horribly wrong? Raven is framed for murder by someone wielding dark magic, and it’s up to his friends to clear his name and catch the true murderer before he’s handed over to the hangman.
A captivating world Bertin, even after her hiatus, is still a fantastic worldbuilder. The Five Kingdoms are richly detailed with a host of original characters and differing cultural values. The Dragonlords are a small group of were-dragons, and because of their magical abilities (including incredibly long lives), Dragonlords are considered to be a rank above royalty and serve as international arbiters in the Five Kingdoms. After all, who wants to argue with someone who can change into a dragon and eat you if you piss them off? Much of the action in this book takes place in a kingdom called Cassori, which is a hyper-rank-obsessed realm. So you can imagine how handy it is to have a trio of Dragonlords on your side when you’re a common man in legal trouble like Raven. More so than in previous books, Bertin takes some time to fill out the social mores and obligations surrounding the official rank of Bard in the Five Kingdoms, which was nice to see.
Writing is not like riding a bike! There are some issues with Bard’s Oath that I don’t recall being there in the first two books. At this point in the series, Bertin has a large cast of characters, and there are many points of view. For a book that’s 430 pages long, having eight or more characters who get point of view at least once is overboard (at least for me). As there was in Dragon and Phoenix, there’s a separate storyline in Bard’s Oath that only connects with the main plot fairly late in the book. However, where in Dragon and Phoenix the secondary plot was essentially a separate book that just happened to be bound in between episodes of the main plot, here the secondary plot is not terribly compelling. Its tie-in to the main plot line is fleeting and a thing of convenience, and for that level of convenience I’d say that you could have skipped the entire second plot and been just as content. The first half of both Bertin’s previous books tend to drag a bit as she sets things up in small pieces here and there. Bard’s Oath drags more than that. However, I will say that the second half of the book was tightly paced and well done. I’ll blame the initial clutter of the novel on the fact that it took twelve years to write. There are passages which are nice and fun but don’t really add to the plot. This is something I’d expect out of fan fiction, but when there’s such a gap between books, I can’t entirely fault the original author for doing it.
Why should you read this book? This is not a good book to pick up on its own. Bertin doesn’t go back and connect the dots or do any explaining for potential newcomers. Why can Linden shape shift into a dragon? What’s a Llysanyin? Without reading the first two books, you will never figure these things out. However, since the first two books are worthwhile reads, this is hardly a chore. For those of us who have read the first two books (albeit a few years ago) Bard’s Oath is a fun return to a well-loved world (at least, I love it well). While it’s not the masterwork I had hoped for after twelve years’ wait, it has certainly whet my appetite for more! Let’s just hope the fourth book doesn’t take another twelve years. But even if it does, I’ll still happily read it.(less)
Blood’s Pride is Evie Manieri’s debut novel, and the first in a proposed series. The Shadari people have been conquered by the Norlanders and are now slaves in their own land, mining ore that the Norlanders use to make magic blades. For twenty years the Shadari have dreamed of freedom while the Norlanders dream of escaping the desert and returning in glory to their homeland. From the sidelines a third people, the Nomas, watch. When the Shadari hire a famous mercenary known as the Mongrel to help overthrow the Norlanders, they get more than they bargained for. For the Mongrel has close ties to all three peoples and her own agenda that has nothing to do with anyone else’s.
A vast array of details One of the first things you notice when reading Blood’s Pride is the attention to worldbuilding. All of the action takes place in a small city-state called the Shadar. The Shadar is set between the ocean and a soaring cliff face. At the top of the cliff is a desert. Sounds simple, right? Except that there are three distinct peoples living in this area. Each has its own religious beliefs, its own magic, and its own weaknesses. While in Blood’s Pride Manieri only gives us the history of the Shadari, it’s very clear that the Nomas and the Norlanders also have their own complex histories that will influence the series’ plot in books to come.
The characters are also complex and well fleshed out. We have major characters from all three cultures, and they all react to their situation in ways that make sense for someone in each of their positions. However, all of these major characters are in some way breaking away from their society. Sometimes it’s ideology that has made them an outsider, sometimes it’s circumstance, and sometimes it’s growing beyond the bounds of what is acceptable to one of the cultures. However, this makes it a bit harder to understand how each of these societies work because the characters through which you learn about them are busy breaking the molds.
Maybe too many details Not only is there a large array of major characters, but there are six characters who get point of view. Those points of view are also not neatly separated at chapter breaks, but sometimes change from one paragraph to the next with little transition to help the reader out. On one page I’m following Isa as she walks one way down a hallway, and then suddenly I’m following Rho going the opposite way, and I need to back up to figure out where Isa went and why I’m not with her anymore. I’ve said this before in previous reviews, and I’ll say it again: I hate bouncing in and out of so many characters’ heads. I’m also not a fan of transitions between points of view that aren’t smooth enough that they take the majority of the work away from the reader. I don’t like to have to think about which character’s head I’m in. This may not bother a lot of other readers, but it bothers me. So many details also meant that I was left with a lot of questions about all three cultures. Why do the Norlanders dislike physical deformities? I don’t know. There are a lot of things I don’t know because so many bases had to be covered relatively quickly.
I’d also call the sheer breakneck speed of the plot problematic. The entire 528 page novel takes place over the course of about a week, with the majority of the action taking place over two or three days. No one in the novel has time to take anything in and make a carefully considered decision. There aren’t a lot of relaxed points in the pacing. While those can make a book feel longer, they also provide good stopping points for a book that’s going to take even the fastest reader a bit of time to get through. There’s also not a lot of time for convincing character changes in that small of a period. Instead, the changes that do happen are not the result of the events of the novel but of events that have happened previous to the novel’s opening, which means the reader doesn’t get to really relish those changes.
Why should you read this book? Blood’s Pride is a strong debut, for all the problems I found with it. Many of my issues with Blood’s Pride stem from the fact that I am a very picky reader, and that I see enough talent in Manieri’s work so far to know that if she puts in the time and the effort she can become the kind of author that we at the Ranting Dragon are avid about. But she’s not there yet. However, with a richly detailed world and a lot of well done action, Blood’s Pride is still an epic fantasy well worth reading.(less)
The Hunger Games is still huge, two years after the trilogy reached completion. So it’s no surprise that dystopian fiction is all the rage in the young adult market, with a number of strong contenders for readers’ interests. Dan Well’s Partials series is one such, of which Fragments is the second installment.
In the late twenty-first century, the world is nigh unrecognizable. A war with genetically engineered soldiers, termed “Partials,” devastated the human race at the same time a virulent new plague, RM, ravaged the population. 35,000 humans now live on Long Island; as far as they know, they are the only humans left on Earth. To make matters worse, the survivors are all still carrying the deadly virus, which has killed every single infant born for over a decade. Kira Walker was only five when the old world fell apart, and she’s dedicated her training since to finding a cure for RM. The answer lies with the Partials, who are now facing their own extinction due to a built-in expiration date. It’s up to Kira to figure out how these two problems fit together and, at the same time, answer a growing list of questions about her own origins.
The stakes are high In Partials, it was clear from the beginning that humanity was in dire straights. However, the stand-off with the Partials on the mainland of North America is concluded, the Partial Dr. Morgan tearing apart Long Island in search of Kira, hoping that Kira’s genetic oddities may solve the Partials from extinction. This has exacerbated the problems of human and Partials not being able to live without each other, but not being able to live with each either. However, Kira isn’t on Long Island, having left on a quest for answers in the ruins of the world that was. Instead, it is her old friend Marcus whose point of view is used to show the conflict on Long Island as it heats up.
To me, what’s happening on Long Island is almost incidental. The real meat of the book is Kira’s journey, first to Manhattan and then cross-country to Denver. Joining her are Samm and Heron, as well as a new companion, Afa. Where Partials was a bit more dystopian than post-apocalyptic, Fragments is the opposite. Kira is outside of her society now, and traveling through a world ravaged by the sudden disappearance of humans. Wells does a fantastic job of painting what the world would look like when Mother Nature starts to take the world back from human interference, and just how detrimental some of our activities are. Overall, this is a book about consequences, and how there may not be any good choices to make.
A marked improvement While fellow reviewer Aaron loved Partials, I found it pandering and annoying. I will grant that a large part of my issue with Partials was that I did not agree with many of the pre-industrial elements of the society on Long Island. When I was constantly being thrown out of the book by how fast horse drawn wagons were zipping around the island, it was really hard to enjoy the story. Fragments breaks away from these annoyances for the most part, if only because most of the travel is not being described in distance over exact measurements of time. Marcus spends the book desperately trying to apply bandages in a war zone, and Kira is on a long distance trek where how far she travels in a day just isn’t that interesting or important. I also found Fragments to be paced better than its predecessor. The cast is smaller, and the relationships are more sharply defined. When, at the end of the book, Kira looks back on the decisions she made at the beginning of the book with regret, it’s because she’s matured and not because she’s had sudden insight into the fact that she may not be strictly human.
Why should you read this book? Fragments lives up to the promise that Partials made but didn’t quite fulfill. It’s a tightly written adventure with lots of grey areas and very few black-and-whites. For fans of The Hunger Games or dystopian and post-apocalyptic literature in general, this is a fantastic choice for your next read. There’s lots of lovely twists and turns to savor, and the ending left me on the edge of my seat, wanting the final book right now! However, this is a young adult book, so there is a bit of dumb teenager floating around as well as the ubiquitous love triangle.(less)
Revenant Eve is the third book in Sherwood Smith’s ongoing Dobrenica series, which also includes Coronets and Steel and Blood Spirits. The series follows Kim Murray, a young modern American woman who finds out her grandmother is actually the long-lost princess of a small European country called Dobrenica. This isolated country is also brimming with magic, so when Kim walks into a fairy tale, it’s not just in finding out that she’s royalty.
In the third book, Kim is busy preparing for her wedding when she’s suddenly blasted back over 200 years into the past. She’s been called to serve as a spirit guide for her ancestress Aurélie during Napoleonic Europe. In order to get home, Kim needs to get Aurélie from Jamaica to Dobrenica and then save Dobrenica from an unknown trouble, all while Aurélie just wants to return to her family in Jamaica.
The Age of Empire A lot of my fun with this book was following Aurélie through the age of Empire and the beginnings of Napoleon’s campaign to conquer everything he could. While Kim remains the narrator for this installment in the series, the protagonist is really Aurélie, as it is her choices and actions which drive the novel. Kim can’t move anything while a spirit, and can communicate only with Aurélie (with a few exceptions), which limits her ability to affect the world around her. Aurélie starts out as the daughter of a female privateer captain, comes of age in an English country house, then serves as a lady-in-waiting to Josephine Bonaparte before finally making her way to where she needs to go. Each place she goes, Smith has done her homework. The English countryside feels different from Paris, and the characters inhabiting those two places act differently. Revenant Eve is not really an alternative history, as the Haitian Revolution and Napoleon’s rise to power happen in the book as they happened in reality. Aside from the fact that Dobrenica doesn’t exist and the narrator is a spirit guide, this could very easily be read as historical fiction.
A word on magic One of the key elements in fantasy is the magic system in use. Many staff members here at the Ranting Dragon love a Sanderson-style system: one where there are clear rules and a delineated process. Smith doesn’t use that kind of system in her Dobrenica series. How Kim ends up getting pulled out of her own time is never explained, particularly since Kim herself has no clue. There are no explanations for magic here other than the fact that it’s magic. If this bothers you, the bright side of this is that Aurélie has no inherent magical ability of her own and is living in a world that, for the most part, discounts the very existence of magic, so magic doesn’t play a large role for most of the book. Rather than being mages who actively use magic, the characters are more often the victims of magic working in ways beyond their control.
Why should you read this book? I’ll be honest: Sherwood Smith is one of my favorite authors. I love her prose and how she develops characters. As an added bonus, Revenant Eve, even though it is the third book in a series, could be read as a stand-alone novel. While there are a few things that aren’t explained in this book, the main part of the book features brand new characters. I’m fairly certain that the few things you’ll have to guess will not greatly affect your enjoyment of the book. Overall, this is a fun book, perfect for when you want something light, but not utter fluff, to while away an afternoon with.(less)
The Alchemist of Souls is Anne Lyle’s debut and the first in the Night’s Masque series. It’s an alternative history set in Elizabethan England. When English explorers reached the New World, they not only found Native Americans, but a mythological race of beings called the Skraylings. They’ve become major trading partners of England, but not everyone wants to see those ties tightened. Mal Catlyn is a down-on-his-luck gentleman with a sword, and someone at Court has remembered his name despite his chosen exile after family scandal. Mal is chosen to be the bodyguard of the much anticipated Skrayling ambassador, but protecting him from assassination may take second place to avoiding political traps.
A world on the brink of change Elizabeth I’s reign of England saw that country move quickly through the Renaissance into the Age of Exploration, and in The Alchemist of Souls that change comes a bit earlier than it did in reality. I would estimate that this book is set in the 1590s: Elizabeth is elderly, leaving much of her country’s day to day ruling to her Privy Council, and Shakespeare is the lead playwright after the recent death of Christopher Marlowe. However, several portions of London have been taken over by Skrayling merchants offering fantastic wears from the New World. Skraylings have been around long enough not to elicit a great deal of comment from the average Englishman, if they haven’t received total acceptance. Added in to this shifting era are the religious tensions that were running rampant through Europe at the time. Elizabeth I is the Supreme Head of the Church of England, but neighboring France and most importantly Spain remain Catholic followers of Rome. To be Catholic, as Mal Catlyn is, is to live in constant fear of being called a traitor to your country. On the other side, Protestant reformers like the Puritans are slowly gaining ground in pushing for further reforms to Church of England.
One of the things I loved about this book is the level of detail that Lyle has given to her version of London. While things are just slightly off, she’s left a lot of historical detail in, which lends her world a lot of weight. There are the appropriate people in the appropriate places doing the appropriate things, from crowds of everyday people to the guards at the Tower of London, and she doesn’t take a lot of shortcuts with where her characters need to go and who they need to talk to.
Not all fun and games First and foremost, this is a very ambitious debut, and in some ways I think that got the better of Lyle. There’s a lot of worldbuilding, a trio of viewpoint characters, and a complex plot driven by several characters with varying agendas. For me, this works best when most of the plot will be carried through a series of books, thus giving time for everything to fully develop. Instead, Lyle ties up a lot of the plot threads rather quickly at the end of the book. I was really enjoying the tension she had built, but the last few chapters of the book really felt like a needlessly hasty conclusion. While I still enjoyed the book, that ending took this from being a really exceptional debut to being a debut where the author bit off more than she could chew.
Why should you read this book? This is a fun romp through Tudor England, filled with mythical creatures, swordsmen, and theatre-types. The characters are well-rounded and compelling, and there is a very real urgency to the plot. Overall, it’s a good read for all of its faults. Being a debut, I’m hopeful that it will be improved upon with the second book, Merchant of Dreams, out now from Angry Robot.(less)
Tanya Huff is a well-known author in the speculative fiction community. While she’s best known for her Blood series, which was later adapted for television under the title Blood Ties, her other works span from epic fantasy to space-age military science fiction. The Silvered is her most recent release.
Aydori is a small country that used to be separated from a massive empire by two duchies. Problem is, that empire just gobbled up those duchies in record time and is now camped on Aydori’s border. While the empire bases its society on science from the age of the industrial revolution, Aydori is protected by classes of shapeshifters and elemental mages. Under the cover of invasion, the Emperor sends a small, elite team of men to kidnap six mages and bring them to his capital. Except Mirian Maylin, the sixth mage, has no intention of sitting on her hands, and eludes capture with the help of shapeshifter Tomas Hagen. Together, they set out to rescue the other five mages from the clutches of a mad emperor.
A richly built tale Tanya Huff has been publishing full length novels since 1988. She knows not only how to world build, but how to build magic systems and do phenomenal characterizations. Her experience shows on every page of The Silvered. Aydori and its neighbors have a steampunk inspired feel, even if technology is the purview of the protagonist’s enemies. Society has a very Victorian feel to its etiquette, both in Aydori and in the empire. Not only are the characters fully fleshed out, but they fully interact with their world on a level that many authors doen’t use. Mirian isn’t let to go wandering across an empire without having narrow escapes, dirty clothes, and blistered feet. She has to steal fresh clothing, find ways to blend into the changing lands around her, and constantly strategize. She’s mired in the realities of her world, and this really makes the story live and breathe. The system of magic Mirian uses seems like it’s not a thoroughly plotted system a la Sanderson once you really get going. But don’t be fooled, the magic is more complicated than most mages know, and there are consequences for breaking the rules in the way Mirian does. I love the fact that here is a magic system where you can break the rules, yet the magic still works and doesn’t just fizzle or go boom. The consequences are more subtle, and perhaps pricier, than that.
A word of warning Do not expect to be able to do anything else while reading this book. The Silvered really got into my head and refused to let go. The back and forth banter between Mirian and Tomas is believable and endearing. The time spent from the point of view of Danika Hagen, one of the captured mages, and Captain Reiter, one of the men sent to capture Mirian, are well spent, informative, and also entertaining. I never wanted to put this book down, and I stayed fully invested in the story from start to finish. Unfortunately, it’s also a standalone book. If Huff ever decides to write a sequel, it will likely land on my most-anticipated list.
Why you should read this book? Books this good don’t come along that often. The Silvered is a well-planned, well executed adventure tale. I loved it. Completely. I can’t think of a single reason why you shouldn’t or even might not want to read this book.(less)
Cory Doctorow is almost as well known for his blog and internet activism as he is for his speculative fiction. So it’s no surprise that he combines the two in his latest release for youth audiences, Pirate Cinema.
Sixteen-year-old Trent McCauley loves creating illegal films by editing together clips from other people’s work. Unfortunately for him, in his near-future Great Britain the penalties for illegal downloading are harsh. When his entire family is cut off from the net (and therefore their access to jobs, social welfare programs, and school), Trent runs away to London. Needless to say, he’s got a lot of growing up to do, and a lot of thinking about how the world works and how he wants to change it.
Very near future I may not be as much of an internet activist as Doctorow is, and I’m not up to date on current UK internet laws, but there’s a lot in this book that feels eerily close to laws that either have already been passed or have been proposed in the US. It was actually hard for me to feel the ‘near future’ dystopia of Pirate Cinema. Doctorow has done a simply superb job anchoring his book in current reality, so much so that it almost reads as contemporary fiction. This gives Pirate Cinema a lot of power, because unlike several popular teen dystopian novels, Trent and his world are very easy to relate to. This takes an immense amount of skill, and is the biggest testament to Doctorow’s writerly chops in this book.
Screw the man! Save the empire! In the mass of life-and-death teen dystopian novels crowding our shelves today, it was really nice to find a throwback style story of a group of teens doing teenage things to fight back against the system. Trent and his buddies don’t have to kill anyone or beat people up, and their lives are never in danger. Don’t get me wrong, they always have something to lose, but they face landing in jail rather than death. They fight back using some very creative civil disobedience, and really do use the system against itself instead of moving outside of the system to utterly destroy it. While Trent does leave his parents’ house, it’s because he feels deep guilt over what has befallen them because of his actions. They didn’t kick him out, and they aren’t going to disown him if he ever decides to go back. The adults that are present in Pirate Cinema tend to be smart and supportive, giving excellent advice and generally not being people Trent and his friends need to hide from.
Warning: soapbox! So, Doctorow has an agenda in this book, and it’s hard to miss even when just reading the title. There is a lot of exposé where a character is explaining how the various laws and technology to enforce those laws work to Trent. There were several places in the book where I just sighed and thought, “Here we go again,” because Doctorow really does hit you over the head with a clue-by-four to pound in his message. Granted, I’m more educated about internet laws than the average person, but the sheer amount of soapboxing in this book pushed me out of the story overall. Which is a shame, because Pirate Cinema is a good story. However, I can see that, for Doctorow, the story is secondary to the message.
Why you should read this book? Pirate Cinema is a fun teen near-future dystopian, and when was the last time you heard that? The message is clear, and it is an important one not just for teens but for all of us. Doctorow gives us a very bleak picture of what can happen when the financial well-being of a few gets in the way of the good of all. If you’re not familiar with internet and copyright laws, no matter where you live, this is an excellent and entertaining way to educate yourself. Best of all, I don’t have to give out any ‘content may not be suitable’ warnings. This is a solid teen fiction appropriate for that target audience (twelve or thirteen and up).(less)
Stormdancer is Jay Kristoff’s debut novel, and what a debut it is! If you’ve been reading the Ranting Dragon for any period of time, you’ll know that when we first saw the covers (US and UK) for this book we all went a little crazy. Then the genre: Japanese steampunk. The synopsis of the plot isn’t bad either.
Kitsune Yukiko is the teenaged daughter of the Shogun’s Master of the Hunt. Except since the widespread use of blood lotus and its destruction of the natural environment, there’s nothing left to hunt. Then word comes of the first sighting of a particular mythical creature in seven years: a thunder tiger (arashitora) has been sited over the last forest left in the Shogunate. Yukiko’s father is sent to capture the arashitora and bring it back alive, and she tags along. But does the emperor really deserve to ride a mythical thunder tiger when his people are starving in the streets of his capitol?
Fantastic writing I know I’m a bit of a nut about writing style, but with some authors I really don’t care what they write so long as I can read it. Kristoff is well on his way to being one of that elite company. His prose is simply beautiful, and that mixes very well with the culture he’s writing about. Stormdancer is an original English language work, and there aren’t a lot of those that capture the essential feel of Japan the way Kristoff does. His simple elegance in description is something to be savored.
Incredible world The world-building in Stormdancer is lovely. While Kristoff is relying on his readers having some previous idea of Japanese culture, it isn’t much. He explains several of the myths that are crucially important to the storyline, and it does help to have an idea who Kitsune the multi-tailed fox is. If you’re a Japanese culture aficionado, I’m certain you will catch a lot of subtext that I missed, but I don’t think that’s necessary to be able to enjoy this book. Yukiko is also a very relatable character, one who is intrinsically rebellious. While she sometimes does the right thing for not-quite-the-right-reason, she’s often conscious of why she should be doing what she’s doing. For this first book she’s only fifteen, and I am looking forward to seeing how she grows up.
This is a debut I always like to be fair in my reviews and point out whatever little things I didn’t like. For Stormdancer, it really is nit-picky. I felt the pacing was a little fast and that Kristoff could have taken a little more time building suspense and exploring the different parts of the word that Yukiko travels to. Already in book one, I know that there’s more world hiding behind the scenes and that I’ve been hustled past something truly fantastic that I want to explore now, not in book three. Additionally, some of the transitions between some parts of the book are unnecessarily abrupt. With how well Kristoff’s mechanics are, I am hoping he will find some more finesse in that area in the future. (I told you, I’m picky!)
Why you should read this book? I knew before I picked this book up that it was going to be on a lot of do-not-miss lists for 2012 releases, and after reading it I think it justly deserves a slot on those lists. Stormdancer is not only unique and ambitious, but it delivers on its promises. It’s enchanting in a way so few books are; it sucked me in and transported me to a world that is nothing like mine and yet I was comfortable and happy being there. I honestly can’t think of a single reason why you shouldn’t read this book. And if I need to tempt you further, I offer these two words: chainsaw katana.(less)
In addition to the novels, graphic novels, television show, and role playing game, there are The Dresden Files short stories and novelettes. The majority of these are collected in Side Jobs, which was published in 2010. It contains a story set before Storm Front and Welcome to the Jungle, and ends with a novella set just after Changes.
When we were initially discussing our The Dresden Files extravaganza, Garrett and I talked a bit on how we wanted to review Side Jobs. Because of timing in the publication schedule and the sheer amount of other Dresden material we collectively got our hands on, I only get one review to do for Side Jobs, not the potential three I could have taken up. So instead of talking about how much I loved each of the entries in Side Jobs, you’ll get a brief synopsis of some of my favorites.
“Something Borrowed” It’s a big day: Billy and Georgia are getting married, and Harry is filling in as best man after Kirby lands in the hospital following Dead Beat. Except the bride is late, and no one can get a hold of her. Did she just get cold feet, or has something nefarious happened? As usual, there’s no one better than Harry to find out. “Something Borrowed” was initially published in the anthology My Big Fat Supernatural Wedding.
“Day Off” Here’s the question asked in “Day Off,” originally published in the anthology Blood Lite: what does a professional wizard and member of the White Council get up to on his day off? Well… a lot of things that have nothing to do with rest and relaxation. While nothing Earth-shattering happens, Harry has to fight off a wanna-be wizard, help out a pair of Alphas, and just generally never get around to doing the things he wants to do. This is farcical on a scale that the Dresden Files seldom gets to, and it’s a lot of fun. “Day Off” takes place between Small Favor and Turn Coat.
“Backup” “Backup” is a novelette that was originally published by Subterranean Press in a limited edition hardcover illustrated by Mike Mignola. For those who don’t like trawling eBay for like-new books, it’s included in Side Jobs. “Backup” is from Thomas’s point of view on a day he secretly follows Harry around and saves his bacon, all without letting Harry know that he’s even there. It’s one of two entries in the Dresden Files that do not feature Harry as the narrator, and chronologically fits between Small Favor and Turn Coat.
“The Warrior” Originally published in the anthology Mean Streets, “The Warriror” is yet again set between Small Favor and Turn Coat. (With all that Harry gets up to between those two books, there should be a full novel in there somewhere!) Harry gets information that Michael Carpenter, former Knight of the Cross, and his family are in more danger than normal. Someone has their eye on the sword Amoracchius, and Harry’s not about to let some thief terrorize a house full of children (not to mention one of his friends) when the Carpenters don’t even have the sword anymore. This story has a definite theme running through it of the unintended consequences, both good and bad, that our actions have on other people.
“Aftermath” This was a real treat. “Aftermath” takes place immediately after Changes and is from Murphy’s point of view. Harry has just been shot and there is little hope that he survived. Unfortunately, instead of investigating with her team, Murphy is forced to sit this one out while she’s under suspension for her actions during Changes. Instead, Bill of the Alphas knocks on her door and lets her know there’s trouble, and without Harry, it’s up to them to pick up the pieces. This is the second of two Dresden pieces that feature a narrator other than Harry, and it’s a wonderful treat to get into Murphy’s head.
Why you should read this book Because somehow you haven’t gotten enough of The Dresden Files and need more things to feed your addiction. Also, because these are a lot of fun. Harry gets to go have adventures that may not be as life-and-death as what we usually see in the books, and Butcher gets to spend some time developing his extraordinary cast of secondary characters. And if at the end of this you’re still looking for more, Butcher has published some more Dresden shorts since Side Jobs was published. You can find a list of the next seven stories on Jim Butcher’s website, as well as an undated announcement for a future compilation entitled More Jobs.(less)
Proven Guilty is the eighth book in Jim Butcher’s bestselling The Dresden Files. In book seven, Harry was made a Warden of the White Council, mostly for lack of other qualified candidates. As a Warden, it is Harry’s responsibility to enforce the White Council’s Magical Laws. Of course, Harry’s never been popular among the White Council, so he’s under extra scrutiny during his first official investigation of magic run amok. It doesn’t help that Harry himself has reservations about his position as a Warden due to his less than sparkling clean past. When someone starts mixing black magic and fairy magic with deadly results, Harry must set aside his reservations and do what he does best.
A nod to the fans Conventions are a huge part of speculative fiction fandom, so it really doesn’t come as much of a surprise that Butcher has chosen a horror film convention as the setting for one of his novels. Molly Carpenter, the eldest daughter of regular character Michael Carpenter, is volunteering for the convention with her boyfriend Nelson. There’s a whole lot of dark magic going on at the convention, and Molly knows enough about the paranormal to call in Harry. Aside from Harry’s signature wit, the off-beat nature of this book comes from its setting among geeks watching zombie movies.
What is the right thing? The book’s title, Proven Guilty, really tells you what this book is about, and it’s not just a play on the American legal philosophy of ‘innocent until proven guilty.’ It’s also about which punishments fit which crimes, and how the right motives can lead to the wrong actions. Molly, even though she has a Knightly father and loving family, is a teenager in a lot of trouble. Some of it’s for the right reasons, and some of it’s for stupid teenager reasons. Molly’s trouble with her family and with her own relationship to the paranormal complicate Harry’s investigation, and reiterate his unease with being a Warden. In previous novels, Harry was expected to follow the Laws, or at least make sure that whatever human laws he broke were done out of sight of Chicago PD. Now he has to be an example and enforce those same laws, and he has to figure out how he’s going to let that responsibility define him.
Why you should read this book? I’m hoping by this point that Cameron, Garrett, and I have convinced you that The Dresden Files are all must reads, and this is no different. The plot in Proven Guilty has a lot of nuance to it, and Harry has to do a lot of self-examination that’s been a long time coming. As always, there are major developments that will define future books, but the real emphasis here is on Harry himself. Harry finds a lot of lines he won’t cross, and has to figure out ways around them. As always, he challenges the establishment in ways that no one else dares to do. Overall, this is an installment that is not to be missed.(less)
Dead Beat is the seventh installment in The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. The series stars Harry Dresden, Chicago’s only professional wizard. He’s a member of the wizardly White Council, a private investigator, and all ‘round hero. He often works with Chicago Police Department’s Special Investigations unit, headed by Lieutenant Karrin Murphy, and this fact has not gone unnoticed by his enemies in the vampire courts. Mavra is once again up to her old tricks, and she’s got dirt on Murphy that would result in her losing her position. Mavra uses this to blackmail Harry into finding her the Word of Kemmler, a necromantic treatise from one of the darkest wizards to ever walk the Earth. Needless to say, this has bad written all over it. Oh, and did I mention it’s Halloween?
Cue the Wardens Up until this book, the Wardens of the White Council have been a fairly back burner group. They show up to hassle Harry and occasionally help him out when they absolutely have to, but are otherwise in other places doing other things. The stakes are really high in Dead Beat, though, as Harry’s not the only one looking for the Word of Kemmler. This time, when Harry calls for help, he actually gets it and a little more besides. Of course, this is after he talks to Mab, the Alphas, Butters, and Thomas. This is the biggest assembly of secondary characters yet, and introduces a few new ones who will stick around for future books.
Cue the ridiculous For me, Dead Beat is one of the most comedic of The Dresden Files. We have Thomas trying to be a reformed White Court Vampire, which doesn’t really work and gets him into all sorts of trouble. Next up is Butters and his one-man-polka-band schtick. Then there’s a scene that would fit right in with A Night at the Museum, except at the Field Museum instead. While this keeps Dead Beat from being unbearably dark and hectic, there are a few places where the comedy threw me out of the story. The over the top slap stick flavor of Dead Beat is the one thing I dislike about it, and has kept this from being one of my favorites in The Dresden Files.
Why you should read this book? There really aren’t any books in The Dresden Files that you can skip. It’s incredibly important to meet Luccio and Ramirez, not to mention how nice it is that Butters finally gets a chance to shine. There’s some backstory relating to Harry’s former mentor, as well as some important character building for Bob the Skull. All in all, this book is not to be missed by fans of The Dresden Files.(less)
In Blood Rites, the sixth installment in Jim Butcher’s bestselling The Dresden Files series, Harry’s acquaintance Thomas brings Harry a client who works in one of the most unlikely industries Harry has yet found himself in: adult film. It seems that the director/producer of a new studio thinks he is the target for a death curse, except it’s the women around him who are dying in unusual ways. It’s up to Harry to solve the mystery before anyone else winds up dead. To top this off, Mavra, a magic-wielding vampire, is back in town and aiming for Harry.
A word of warning Notice the above: adult film industry. While Butcher stays away from the truly dark and dirty, you cannot escape the nature of the film set. Off the set, Thomas is a White Court Vampire, aka an incubus, thus extending the theme beyond the case specifics as Harry becomes unwittingly involved in White Court politics. There’s a lot of industry jargon that gets thrown around, and the entire book is colored with sex in one way or another, though Butcher stays far away from crossing the line into erotica. If this bothers you, this particular installment of The Dresden Files may not be for you. However, I do hope you’re willing to give it a try nevertheless, as Blood Rites has several redeeming qualities.
One of my favorite openings There’s a lot of snark in this book, as one would expect from Harry. It starts out with a bang and just keeps giving as the book goes on. That being said, Harry starts out having a bad day, and the book doesn’t get much better for him as the story progresses. By the end, Harry’s lost a lot of his usual carefree snark, and is just tired and angry (as he has every right to be).
Things get complicated This is one of the more convoluted books in The Dresden Files. Everything is interconnected, and it’s not always easy to figure out how. Even the ‘whodunit’ of the mystery thread isn’t easy to figure out. Every character in this book has their motivations for being present, and some of them are delightfully discreet in how they reveal their motives. Where Summer Knight expanded The Dresden Files out of Chicago, Blood Rites deepens the characters, with both series regulars and secondary characters getting the treatment. For me, it really marks a turning point in Butcher’s writing as he fleshes out more and more of his alternative world and the people who inhabit it.
Why you should read this book? This is a pretty major installment when it comes to Harry’s backstory, and skipping ahead means losing a lot of information that’s outright given to you as well as a few clues that get explained in later books. Blood Rites is also where Mouse, Harry’s second four-legged-companion, makes his spectacular entrance, and it would be a shame to miss it. While I wouldn’t enter into The Dresden Files with this novel, it is a solid installment and a good read all on its own. In fact, I had forgotten how much I enjoyed this book until I went to re-read it for this review.(less)
Ready Player One, the debut novel from Ernest Cline, made a bit of a splash after its publication in 2011, ensnaring readers with its high nostalgia factor for the ‘80s and easy readability for a surprisingly wide audience. Does it live up to the hype? The answer, sadly, is no. But Ready Player One is still an absolute joy to read.
At its most basic level, Ready Player One is a dystopian novel, but certainly not a traditional one. The year is 2044, and the world simply isn’t a nice place to live anymore. Nearly everyone chooses to escape the reality of life by immersing themselves into the OASIS, a virtual world—or more accurately, a virtual universe—designed by billionaire James Halliday. The protagonist of Ready Player One is Wade Watts, a teenage boy who spends much of his time in the OASIS under the name Parzival.
The greatest competition of all time Ready Player One is built upon the premise that upon his death, James Halliday left behind instructions for a massive competition within the OASIS—a hunt for an Easter egg hidden somewhere in the virtual reality; the reward for the first person to find it is Halliday’s entire fortune and control of the OASIS. Wade is one of many OASIS users who took up the search for the Easter egg, becoming someone who is referred to as a “gunter.” Ready Player One opens five years after Halliday’s death, and all but the most devoted of gunters have given up the search for the egg, which has since taken on an almost mythical status. However, Wade soon begins to discover clues that reignite the hunt, placing him in the center of a cutthroat competition where his opponents are willing to take any measure to reach the prize before him.
With so much of its action taking place inside a virtual reality, Ready Player One ran the risk of creating a story without stakes—I’d seen this premise fail in books and movies before, and this was a concern for me when beginning the book. Fortunately, Cline neatly sidesteps this issue in two ways. Firstly, he presents the OASIS as something far closer to a legitimate virtual reality than a simple game; when a user’s avatar is killed, they can’t simply restart the game and jump back in with the powers and skills they had before. Defeat can be very real, and failure can be permanent, even in the OASIS. Secondly, the hunt for Halliday’s Easter egg isn’t contained exclusively with the OASIS. Many of the competitors are willing to hunt down and even kill their opponents in the real world, and it is not always possible for users to keep their identity concealed within a digital realm. These are small but important tools that Cline uses to keep the stakes high, and they aid Ready Player One in deftly avoiding the pitfalls of other stories that have taken place inside virtual realities.
The ‘80s factor Perhaps the most talked about aspect of Ready Player One is its ‘80s factor. In the novel, James Halliday grew up in the ‘80s, and his love for the era inspired him to design the entire Easter egg contest around all the books, movies, TV shows, video games, and general pop culture from that time period. As a result, Ready Player One is overflowing with references to the ‘80s, as well as more modern ones. Cline packs in everything he possibly can to satisfy his audience: references that span from Star Wars to Back to the Future, from Monty Python and the Holy Grail to Firefly, from J.R.R. Tolkien to Dungeons & Dragons, and everything in between. These references are often wonderful for their fans, but can occasionally grow tedious to those who aren’t familiar with them.
Popcorn entertainment At its heart, Ready Player One is not a complex, subtle, or particularly deep story. It’s like a big budget, special effects heavy summer movie, except distilled into a written format—the kind of story you want to read when you just want to relax and have a good time. I believe this is what Cline intended when he wrote the book, and, frankly, there’s nothing wrong with that. He succeeds. While the first hundred pages or so can be difficult to get through due to slow pacing, once the book picks up it’s a fun ride all the way to the end. It’s cliché and fairly predictable, but I enjoyed every page of it. Keeping the right mindset is the key to enjoying Ready Player One.
On the other hand, Ready Player One’s most prominent flaw is its writing, and there is simply no excuse for its poor quality. “Show, don’t tell,” is one of the most prominent pieces of writing advice in existence, and Cline seems incapable of the former. Much of this book consists of paragraphs of summary, with Wade explaining his actions in retrospect or providing lengthy explanations of material that is only vaguely relevant to the story. This frequently grinds the plot to a halt, and having to push through these dull passages on such a regular basis tainted my overall enjoyment of the book.
Why should you read this book? Entertainment. When it all comes down to it, Ready Player One’s entertainment factor is the sole reason I recommend it. Don’t expect to be surprised with clever plot twists or marvel at the beauty of the writing, but do expect to have an enjoyable reading experience all the way through. Ready Player One is just sheer fun.(less)
Sharon Shinn is best known for two series: Samaria and Twelve Houses. She also has a number of other books, mostly stand-alone, for both adults and teens, as well as novelettes and short stories in several anthologies. The Shape of Desire is the first book in what has been announced as at least a trilogy, entitled The Shifting Circle.
Maria Devane has had a secret for fifteen years: her boyfriend, Dante, is a shapeshifter who spends at least part of every month roaming the world on four legs instead of two. She’s never minded, until a string of brutal attacks plagues local parks. Has Dante finally lost his mind to his curse, or is it something else?
A very different love story Most romances tend to be rather poetic next to real life. There’s a lot of floweriness to it, and a sense that, now that they’ve met, the lovers in question could never live life without each other in the future. Perhaps you think I’m overstating, but I hope you get my point. This is not the case with Shape of Desire. Maria is a very strong, very independent woman. She’s had to be; Dante is simply not a reliable person because of his uncontrolled shapeshifting. Maria figures out what she wants to do and does it. She could very well get on with her life without Dante in it, and both characters are aware of it. In so many ways, her life would be easier if she did. But she always chooses not to, because she doesn’t want to. This is one of the more realistic portrayals of a mature, healthy romantic relationships that I’ve had the pleasure of reading.
Contemporary literary fantasy Usually when you see ‘shapeshifters’ and ‘contemporary setting’ you automatically come up with ‘urban fantasy.’ This isn’t the case for Shape of Desire, even with the mystery who-done-it plot running through the romance. Shinn’s emphasis here is not on action, thrills, or suspense; it’s on the characters’ relationships and how they deal with the situations they find themselves in. As a result, this is a subtler read than anything I’ve seen in the urban fantasy genre. I enjoyed the slower pace and the more relaxed tension. However, if you’ve picked up this book expecting something akin to Patricia Briggs, you might not find this to be your cup of tea. Maria does not pick up a gun and go hunting a killer; her main concern is if Dante is a killer. She doesn’t get into any fights; she isn’t even a witness to any. She’s an accountant, not a detective. The mystery plot is eclipsed by the tension Maria and Dante have in deciding what the next few years of their relationship are going to look like.
Why you should read this book? I enjoyed this book for several reasons. First, Shinn is a beautiful writer. Her strength is in understated scenes and beautiful descriptions. As a result, this entire book is somewhat understated. I enjoyed the romantic line and felt satisfied by the conclusion reached by both Maria and Dante. Again, however, don’t pick this book up if what you’re really looking for is urban fantasy.(less)
Lynn Flewelling debuted with Luck in the Shadows, the first book in the Nightrunner series, back in 1996. Originally a trilogy, she returned to the series in 2008 for what so far has been an additional three books. The series follows Alec and Seregil, spies, assassins, and all ’round adventurers, as they work for the crown of their adopted home, Skala.
For Casket of Souls, Alec and Seregil are back in Rhiminee and up to their favorite games of spying and thieving among the various social classes. No sooner have they really begun to settle in than plots of treason and a mysterious plague test their skills and their endurance. Meanwhile, the war with Plenimar drags on, threatening the lives of Princess Klia and Beka Cavish.
A few warnings First, by this point in the series, Flewelling has given Alec and Seregil a lot of background—too much to recap quickly and do it any justice. So, as I often say for later books in a series this long, don’t pick this book up first. While you may be able to do so and enjoy it, you will lose a lot of subtext in how the characters relate to each other. There will also be some plot points that won’t make as much sense as they would for someone who had read the previous five books.
Also, Alec and Seregil are a gay couple, and there are a few small, light sex scenes. While the more risqué scenes are easily skipped, Alec and Seregil are very much romantically involved outside of the bedroom. You cannot mistake their complete and utter devotion to each other. If you would be bothered by this, pass this series by. On the other hand, there aren’t many epic and/or high fantasy gay protagonists out there, so if you don’t mind LGBT material, be sure to seek the Nightrunner series out.
A lovely romp While this book still follows the basic format of the previous five books, where Alec and Seregil must save the kingdom using their rather dubious skills, there are a few game changes in this one. First, this is the only book that spends all of its time in Rhiminee, Alec and Seregil’s home and the capital of the kingdom of Skala. Previously, the plot has moved in and out of the city rather than just staying put. As a result, Casket of Souls includes a lot more of the Skalan nobility and political infighting than previous books have. Flewelling also showcases just what Alec and Seregil like to do when not traveling all over their known world, from going to the theater to visiting salons. I really enjoyed this change of pace, and didn’t miss the constant traveling of previous books.
Don’t worry if court intrigue isn’t your thing. The secondary plot takes place primarily in Rhiminee’s slums as a mysterious plague strikes the young poor. As the plague seems to be magical in nature, it’s up to Alec and Seregil to figure out where it’s coming from before the city starts panicking and rioting. Mixed with the ongoing war, and the infighting in the court, things look very bad indeed! There are a few war scenes from Klia and Beka’s points of view as well, which also help balance the book away from the court.
Why you should read this book Again, this is not likely a good choice if you haven’t read the previous five books or if you object to LGBT subject matter. If you have read the previous Nightrunner books, this is a worthy installment that I very much enjoyed. The plots are meticulously done and interweave very well. Or, if you’re looking for some high fantasy that’s a little different, pick up Luck in the Shadows. These are fairly quick reads with a lot to enjoy about them.(less)
Mercedes Lackey is one of the most prolific authors I know of, and I can’t think of anyone who comes even close to her publication schedule in the fantasy genre. She’s best known for her Heralds of Valdemar series, and Redoubt is her latest release for The Collegium Chronicles, set in Valdemar.
Warning: I’m assuming at this point that you’ve read at least one book set in Valdemar for the purposes of this review. If you haven’t, I would recommend that you go read just about any other Valdemar book before this one, as there’s a lot of worldbuilding that Lackey assumes you’re already familiar with; she does not waste her time or yours rehashing it.
Where’s the plot? I’m not even going to attempt to give you a plot summary for this book. I was a little confused when I read the publisher summary, as it was nothing but a review of the previous three books in The Collegium Chronicles. When I started writing this review, I realized that this may be the only way to introduce the book, because of how the book is set up.
The book opens with a lovely royal wedding and a reintroduction of Mags (the protagonist) and his friends and mentors. And then the book slumps almost immediately because there is no conflict directly involving Mags, only Lackey having fun in the world she loves best. Now, Valdemar happens to be one of my favorite made-up worlds, so I gamely read along. Right in the middle of the book, out of literally nowhere, suddenly Mags finds a conflict and the story picks up. But it’s now literally the middle of the book. So this tension and conflict has half the normal time to resolve, making Redoubt feel more like two stitched together novellas than a single, whole, cohesive novel. These pacing and plot issues really killed the book for me.
There were good things, I swear! Redoubt does do a few things well. First, it’s not often than an author lets a protagonist step aside in such a believable manner for the secondary characters to really shine through. What little conflict there is in the first half of the novel revolves around one of Mags’ friends, the Healer Trainee Bear. Lackey is a master at characterization, so it’s nice to see her flex her muscles detailing characters that other authors would leave in broader brushstrokes. Lackey also takes us deeper into Mags’ head, particularly in dealing with his past before he was Chosen. Mags is the most abused and emotionally crippled character that Lackey has ever written—and considering some of her other characters, that’s saying something. I can do nothing but applaud Lackey’s skill as she believably guides Mags through the process of building himself out of nothing piece by piece.
Why you should read this book I love The Heralds of Valdemar. It was one of the first fantasy series I ever read, and I’ve read every single book in the series at least once. That being said, I read Redoubt because of the series, not because there was anything special about it. After reading it, that’s about all I can still say. I’m hoping that in the future, The Collegium Chronicles will really pick up and become something special in and of itself, but I’m not convinced so far. If you also love Valdemar and are looking for a quick read, Redoubt fits the bill; but if you’re looking for Lackey at her best, I’m afraid you’ll have to content yourself with her earlier works. (less)
Carrie Vaughn took the urban fantasy world by storm with her debut novel, Kitty and the Midnight Hour. The series, Kitty Norville, is now on its tenth installment, and Vaughn has become a force to be reckoned with in the urban fantasy world.
Kitty Norville, our titular celebrity werewolf radio host extraordinaire, is back at it again. This time, her travels take her to London for the first scientific conference on paranormal studies. But not everyone is glad she’s there, from religious zealots to master vampires who’d have preferred the world stayed ignorant of their existence. Along for the ride are Ben, Cormac, and Amelia, because for some reason the thought of Kitty going to London alone just doesn’t seem like a good idea.
It’s reunion time! One of the fun parts of this book was all the familiar faces. Kitty stops off in DC for a layover to visit with DC’s master vampire, Alette. Once she gets to London, she’s picked up by Alette’s several-greats-grand-daughter, Emma, who’s doing the vampire version of an internship with the master of London. Joseph Tyler, the werewolf soldier from Kitty Goes to War, is back, as is Kitty’s old fling Lois. The subplot of the book also features Amelia, a ghost who’s not quite possessing Cormac, going home for the first time in over a hundred years. One of the wonderful things about Vaughn’s writing is that, while it’s fun to see all these characters again and get a chance to catch up on what they’ve been doing, they are there with a purpose and for a reason. They fit into the plot, even if you’re not sure how for most of the book.
Kitty being, well… Kitty Vaughn’s one major flaw as a writer is that she’s gotten into a formula with Kitty. I wasn’t surprised by anything in this book; I got just what I was expecting. Now, that’s not in and of itself a bad thing. However, I do feel that in order to keep a long-running series going, the author does need to shake things up every once in awhile. In Kitty Steals the Show, Kitty goes on a trip, talks to people, pisses people off, and generally saves the day. Huzzah! Even when things got desperate, Kitty already had the tools on hand to pull off a miracle right on cue, so I wasn’t doing a lot of metaphorical nail biting. I wasn’t as invested in this book as I was in previous ones, even though I wanted to be.
Why you should read this book Kitty Steals the Show is book ten in a series, so that alone should tell you that it’s not a good book to jump into without doing some prior reading. You’ll be lost, the scenes of visiting old friends will fall flat, and you’ll generally be disappointed. However, the Kitty Norville series is a fun one with lots of witty humor and fast-paced action, so it’s worth your time to read the whole series if urban fantasy is something you enjoy. For those who have read the previous Kitty Norville books, Kitty Steals the Show is an enjoyable installment, if not the best one in the series.(less)
I first heard about Libriomancer a few years ago while attending a panel that included Jim C. Hines at a convention, and I fell in love with the idea of it. As time passed and the book came closer to completion, every time I heard more about it, I wanted it more. It’s an urban fantasy with comic elements from a writer already known for doing excellent comic fantasy (such as Jig the Goblin series and the Princess series).
Isaac Vainio is a small town librarian in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, aka “the middle of nowhere.” In addition to this, Isaac is a cataloger for Die Zwelf Portenaere, an organization which tries to police the magical community and prevent its detection by the mundane world. However, when the troubles of the magical community result in vampires attacking Isaac at work, it’s time to head south and figure out what’s going on.
Unique magic system If you read this book for nothing else at all, read it for its completely awesome magic system. Isaac is a libriomancer with the power to pull things out of books. Now, there are some limitations to this, like you can only use a book so many times and whatever you use must be able to fit through the book, but there’s still the fact that at one point Isaac fights with a lightsaber. For those who like well-defined magic systems, Hines has done a great job of fleshing it out while still leaving a lot of room to grow in future books. Everything is well thought out and clearly presented, and tailor-made for bookworms everywhere.
Urban fantasy… with a twist Two things I associate Hines with are comedy and turning clichés on their heads. For such a young genre, urban fantasy has developed a disturbing number of tropes. First, there are nearly always vampires. There’s usually a love triangle of some sort. There’s lots of frantically running around, there’s a broken-down magical government, and deep ethical choices. Hines has happily completed the check-list while putting his own unique spin on everything (and yes, that includes the love triangle). Isaac is not a character who is likely to become darker as the series goes on—at least, not until the lines between good and bad are frightfully thin. Hines has also populated his world with flavors from other books, like sparkling vampires known as Meyerii. This is a highly referential work, and only avoids being an outright parody of the entire genre by somehow being utterly original at the same time.
As for comedy, Hines has a distinct taste for the absurd. For instance, the idea of a Yooper (someone from the upper peninsula of Michigan) vampire who’s an avid deer hunter is just… bizarre. Every once in a while, Hines likes to hit you with something from left field, but he always times it so as not to break the pacing of the book. When things are dire, he’s not going to try to make you laugh, he’s going to keep you invested in the plot.
A whirlwind tour Hines, like me, is from the state of Michigan, and he literally takes you all over the state in this book. All told, in the course of a week, Isaac drives over 1,000 miles. I’ll be honest: one of the best things about this book, to me, was reading a story set in places I know. I loved all the little things about life in Michigan that poke out here and there, like the sheer terror driving across the Mackinaw Bridge can be. Most urban fantasy is centered in smaller, more densely populated urban areas. I loved the juxtaposition of starting out in very rural Michigan and traveling through the center sections of Detroit after stopping in a college town. I can’t say that any other book I know does that, and it added an incredible layer of depth to the story for me. And luckily for those of you who aren’t from Michigan, Hines did not write dialogue in the Yooper dialect.
Why you should read this book? If you love urban fantasy, or just love anything to do with books, science fiction, fantasy, or any combination thereof, you will find lots of things to like here. There’s some tongue in cheek, knowing references to a whole list of things, a great story and good story telling. The only thing I don’t like is that now I have to wait for the next one!(less)
When the Ranting Dragon was first contacted about reviewing Shadow Show, I was intrigued. A collection of short stories honoring Ray Bradbury? Neat! However, once I got my review copy, I realized how very special this collection is. While Shadow Show was published a little over a month after Bradbury’s June 2012 death, this anthology was not thrown together at lightning speed to commemorate him. This book is actually a carefully curated collection of all original stories and was started well before Bradbury’s death; it even includes a secondary introduction from him. This anthology is meant to honor and celebrate not only Bradbury’s work, but also the influence he’s had on modern literature and current authors.
For those who are unfamiliar, Ray Bradbury was an American author who was extremely influential within his own lifetime. He published twenty-seven novels (the most famous of which is the dystopian Fahrenheit 451), screenplays for movies and TV shows, as well as over six hundred short stories. Bradbury’s earliest work was in the science fiction genre, though he also published in the mystery and horror genres. His work appeared in numerous publications, from niche SF magazines to The New Yorker. This wide diversity has been credited with giving the entire speculative fiction movement greater exposure as more mainstream readers sought out Bradbury’s less mainstream work.
Nothing short of epic Editors Sam Weller and Mort Castle certainly set themselves a herculean task with this collection. How do you celebrate the work of such a prolific and varied writer? And remarkably, there are twenty-seven short stories and two introductions in fewer than five hundred pages. My original thought with this review was to tell you about a few of my favorite stories, but some of them are so short that to spend more than a sentence or two on them would give away the entire story! And I don’t want you to read my three sentence reduction, but the original tale. Don’t worry if you don’t like extremely short fiction; there are some longer, twenty-page stories included as well. They are all exquisitely written by masters at their craft. The SF world is represented by none other than Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, Harlan Ellison, Kelly Link, and Audrey Niffenegger. The authors coming from the mystery, adventure/suspense/thriller, and horror genres also read like a who’s who of modern publishing. You literally cannot go wrong with this crowd.
One of the best parts of this collection is the notes attached to each story by its author. Some are inspired by Bradbury’s work as a whole, but many are tributes to a single short story. For instance, David Morrell’s “The Companion” is a reverse of Bradbury’s tale “The Crowd.” Audrey Niffenegger’s “Backwards in Seville” is in response to Bradbury’s “The Playground.” For those who may be experiencing much of Bradbury vicariously for the first time in this anthology, these notes offer an interesting roadmap to various works they may enjoy. Often in these notes, the authors will tell you just what Bradbury and his work mean to them. For some he served as inspiration throughout their careers, and for others he was a dear friend and mentor. I can’t imagine a more touching tribute for any writer.
Why you should read this book I will be honest with you: short fiction is not my favorite reading. I was sold on doing this review by the list of the authors involved, and I have not been disappointed. If ever there was a short story collection you could not go wrong with, this is it. It’s a literary buffet filled with dishes prepared by award winning chefs. Even if a story is not to your particular taste, you can still sit back and appreciate the craft that went into it. Also, what better way to sample genres you may have read sparingly than with a collection that also includes pieces in genres you’re sure to love?(less)
Wicked City is the second installment in Alaya Johnson’s Jazz Era Zephyr Hollis series, which begins with Moonshine. Set in 1920s New York City, the series follows Zephyr Hollis, a vampire’s rights activist and charity worker who comes from a vampire hunting family.
Wicked City opens six months after the close of Moonshine, during which Zephyr has done relatively little to deal with the aftereffects of her actions. They’ve now collected interest and require some attention ASAP. Not only is she not fulfilling her responsibilities to the djinni Amir, but she’s now under investigation for harboring an underage vampire. In order to stay ahead of the game, Zephyr must enter the realm of politics and do some good deeds for the Mayor without attracting even more trouble. If only it were that simple…needless to say, if you haven’t read Moonshine, it is required to really enjoy Wicked City. Everything here hinges on the previous book, and there are no recaps to catch up with.
A very, very busy book At just over 300 pages, Wicked City is on the short side for fantasy nowadays, and Johnson has packed every nook and cranny of it with plots. So much so that I’m not convinced that all of the plot lines she has going were served as well as they could have been. The pacing is frenetic, and the bouncing between plot lines is not always as smooth as I like. By the time the book ended I really felt that to really do this story justice, the book could have been a good hundred pages longer. I wanted things more fleshed out, with a few more peaks and valleys with the pacing.
I also missed some of the Jazz Era atmosphere that was everywhere in Moonshine. In this book, Zephyr isn’t visiting speakeasies, attending protests, or singing at swanky parties. She’s not even doing a great deal of charity work, as NYC would essentially shut down every summer before the invention of air conditioning. This is the only Jazz Era urban-noir fantasy that I know of, and I wanted more of that little spark that sets it apart from everything else.
Johnson does a fantastic mystery I don’t read a lot of mysteries because I tend to put the puzzle together a little too soon. A good author will give me the pieces, but interest me in how it plays out so that I don’t stop reading somewhere in the middle. I love an author who blindsides me, and Johnson did. While I figured how the murders were done, I did not see the who-done-it, and I seriously felt like clapping when Johnson made the reveal. It was truly masterfully executed and the real highlight of the book. It made up for the lacks I listed above, and let me end the book on a positive note. She also left a bit of a cliffhanger, and I’m impatiently awaiting the next installment to see where Johnson is going to take us.
Why you should read this book Well, first, because it’s unique. The Roaring Twenties were a good time for a lot of people, and make for fun books. Second, because you liked the first book. If you haven’t read Moonshine, you should go read it now and then pick up Wicked City. If you like noir mysteries, vampires, and a dash of historical settings, this is a series for you.(less)