Words have power. But imagine if you belonged to a species where words are thoughts, people can be part of language, and you can even get high on vocaWords have power. But imagine if you belonged to a species where words are thoughts, people can be part of language, and you can even get high on vocals.
Such is the idea behind "Embassytown," which easily takes the prize for the weirdest science fiction novel in... well, awhile. China Mieville (who is known for writing really bizarre dark fantasy) set his sights on other planets in this book, and it's an intelligent, multilayered tale whose aliens are truly, complete, utterly ALIEN. The problem? The underwhelming main character.
After many years as an immerser, Avice Bennon Cho and her new husband Scile return to her home city of Embassytown. Embassytown is a place where humans coexist with the exot species known as the Hosts (or Ariekei), and because the Hosts need two voices working in tandem to communicate, genetically-engineered twin "doppel" Ambassadors have been bred to speak to them.
However, something strange and sinister is happening in Embassytown with the arrival of EzRa, a new Ambassador. Scile practically vanishes from Avice's life as he pursues his linguistic obsessions, a strange new cult appears, and a conspiracy arises. Soon the entire planet is dying from a deadly addiction that cripples the Ariekei, and there may be no way of saving Embassytown...
Giant multimouthed coral/horse/fish/tree "exots," umbrellas and purses literally growing on trees, and mind-linked twins who are regarded as one person. Even the social norms of the future are what we think of as unconventional with open bisexual marriages being the norm, and children in Embassytown being raised via a gang of "shift parents."
Yeah, China Mieville has a dazzlingly weird imagination, and he has definitely come up with a science fiction story that kicks aside the genre cliches. He spends the first half of the book carefully setting up the disastrous events, and then spends the SECOND half dealing with the disastrous fallout. And he doesn't give it a pat convenient "back to normal" solution, but brings in some truly unexpected, weird plot twists.
The major problem is Avice herself. It's like Mieville just needed a pair of eyes to observe everything in Embassytown, and didn't feel the need to really flesh her out. She feels very remote and distant, and Mieville has a bad tendency to just TELL us what she feels or experiences rather than SHOWING us. Why is she even the narrator?
It's a shame, because there are a LOT of interesting characters in it -- the increasingly fanatical and ultimately tragic Scile, Spanish Dancer, CalVin, EzRa, the "split" Ambassador Bren, and countless others. You really feel their emotions, even the exots who are too weird to understand.
"Embassytown" is a science fiction book by China Mieville, which tells you basically everything you need to know. Weird, inventive and wildly intriguing, but not for casual readers or fans of fluff sci-fi. ...more
This book is a collaboration between two of Australia's best-known authors -- Garth Nix, author of the brilliant Old Kingdom trilogy and Seven Keys seThis book is a collaboration between two of Australia's best-known authors -- Garth Nix, author of the brilliant Old Kingdom trilogy and Seven Keys series, and Sean Williams, a sci-fi/fantasy author who has written a bunch of Star Wars books.
So with that pedigree, you would expect "Troubletwisters" to be a heckuva fantasy novel, younger readers or no. However, it's merely "good," not "excellent" -- Nix and Williams spin up some truly evocative, sometimes horrifying fantastical situations, and have lovely prose. But the good vs. evil conflict feels kind of simplistic.
After a bizarre incident destroys their house, twins Jaide and Jack are left at their Grandmother X's house, in a small seaside village. The twins soon realize that there's something strange about this place, with doors no one can see and cats that talk -- but then even stranger things happen, with hordes of insects attacking them for no reason.
Eventually, their grandmother has to explain what is going on -- it turns out that an ancient, nameless Evil is trying to devour everything in our world, and her town is one of the places where it can break through. Now the twins must call on their own burgeoning "troubletwister" powers, or risk losing everything...
"Troubletwisters" suffers from being rather... typical. The plot is your basic "kids go to a strange place and discover they have special powers to stop the Forces of Evil" storyline, and both the Evil and the good guys are rather vaguely outlined. So for the first hundred-or-so pages, it feels like we've been here before.
But the plot and writing really take off once the Evil's nature is revealed, and the pedestrian concept blossoms into a fantasy thriller. The Evil is especially creepy -- a whispering, creeping horror that appears as a writhing mass of possessed creatures. Nix's talent for eerie horror comes in handy here, and it gives a real sense of urgency as the twins uncover their unique powers (and a hidden room of magical artifacts).
Jaide and Jack are pretty likable preteen protagonists, and they shine the brightest when setting out on their own separate adventures (such as Jack being trapped in a sewer with the Evil). Grandma X is a fun "eccentric" character, with her pogo sticks and amnesia tea, but it's also obvious that she's a force to be reckoned with, and the mildly arrogant cats make good "guides" for the twins (as well as a source of dry humor).
"Troubletwisters'" biggest handicap is the Percy-Jacksonesque opener, but the latter two-thirds blossom into an excellent dark fantasy -- and promises to become even more interesting in the future. ...more
The Downsizing left knowledge and technology hopelessly crippled -- including the complete loss of flight technology.
So guess what "A Web of Air" is aThe Downsizing left knowledge and technology hopelessly crippled -- including the complete loss of flight technology.
So guess what "A Web of Air" is all about! The sequel to Philip Reeve's "Fever Crumb" takes our Engineer heroine into an unfamiliar land, and confronts her with the greed, ignorance and cruelty that hampers scientific development. There's a palpable sadness and bittersweetness to the tale, which is marred only by hints of anti-religious bias.
Two years have passed since Fever, Fern and Ruan left London behind them, and the Engineer girl has been working at Persimmon's Ambulatory Lyceum (a traveling theater). But while they are staying in the city of Mayda, Fever encounters a tiny glider. The glider leads her to the eccentric young inventor Arlo Thursday, who is trying to create a flying machine.
Unfortunately, there are people in Mayda who are after Arlo -- some want to steal his inventions for themselves, while a shadowy figure wants to destroy anyone who attempts flight. And even as Fever begins to fall in love with Arlo, she finds that she may not be able to trust anyone else -- and the greatest treachery may come from where she least expects it.
"A Web of Air" is a rather tragic book -- betrayals, teen love, conspiracy and a lost technology that might be destined to STAY lost. In fact, the entire novel is imbued with the glimpses of a world that has not only been lost, but forgotten or relegated to myth. For instance, a popular folk legends tells of Niall Strong-arm, the man who romanced the moon goddess in his fiery chariot.
Reeve also shows us a darker side of his postapocalyptic steampunk world, which is changing radically as London acquires its new wheels and structures. His writing is strong and colorful, lightly painted with echoes of lost civilization, but he really stabs you in the heart sometimes with the sadder scenes, such as the fate of poor Weasel or the lengths Fever must go to help Arlo.
But the book does have one big flaw: religion. Reeve basically depicts all religion as being baseless lies (ironic, considering what we learn about the Engineers), and ALL followers of it are ravening illiterate morons. It leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.
Fever takes a huge step forwards toward.... well, being a psychologically normal person instead of a fanatical engineer. How? She falls in love with Arlo, first with his scientific brilliance and then with his lost, adventurous spirit. Reeve shows her slowly softening up with time, and he also fleshes out countless other characters beautifully -- whether it's semi-sentient seabirds or cold-blooded assassins.
"A Web of Air" has some unfortunate implications, but is otherwise a strong, bittersweet postapocalyptic tale -- certainly a worthy sequel to "Fever Crumb." ...more
Morpheus of the Endless has had many trials throughout the ages... but none quite as strange as the one he must face in "The Sandman, Volume Four: SeaMorpheus of the Endless has had many trials throughout the ages... but none quite as strange as the one he must face in "The Sandman, Volume Four: Season of Mists." The fourth collection of Neil Gaiman's classic Sandman series centers on sudden changes in the world of Hell, and the terrifying choice that the Lord of Dreams must make -- who does it go to?
After a disastrous meeting with the other Endless, Morpheus goes to Hell to set free his onetime lover, Nada. But when he gets there, he finds that Lucifer is tired of being the lord of Hell, and is shutting the whole place down -- and he gives ownership of it to Morpheus. In the meantime, the souls of the damned are roaming Earth, and the anguished demons have nowhere to go.
Morpheus isn't interested in ruling Hell, so soon various powers appear to claim Hell -- Norse, Japanese and Egyptian gods, a trio of powerful demons, Order, Chaos, a Faerie diplomat, and a pair of angels are sent to watch the proceedings. Threats, bribes and tricks ensue, leaving Morpheus with a seemingly-impossible choice to make.
Just a warning: This comic book, despite its brilliant storytelling, left me with a sort of squirmy feeling, because it bases itself on Christian theology that many people actually believe in (heaven, hell, Satan, angels, God, etc). But it isn't in line with those beliefs, so some parts of it come across as... uncomfortable.
However, you should always keep in mind that it is merely fiction. "Season of Mists" is epic in scope -- it encompasses different worlds, dimensions and lands in a seeemingly endless, wondrously terrifying universe. Gaiman is absolutely brilliant at conjuring the exquisite and the grotesque, the eerie and the strange -- and he manages all of those here.
And the art really helps here -- the bleak, raw wastes of Hell, the snowflake beauty of the angels, the visceral grotesqueness of the demons (one is a lumpen creature with a melting eyeless head and toothy mouths for nipples), and the twilit, mildly unnerving realm of Dreaming.
As for Morpheus himself, this story is a surprisingly personal one. He's given a realm he doesn't want, but doesn't seem to have any good way of ridding himself of it (at least, not at first). And the Lord of Dream has to face up to his own misdeeds -- namely, he FINALLY figures out that he was horrible to Nada, and that his punishment of her was cruel. The way their story is wrapped up is painful, but still very touching.
"The Sandman Volume Four: Season of Mists" made me uncomfortable with some of its handling of Christian theology, but there is no denying that it is a richly-imagined, powerful story by a master storyteller. ...more
Sarah Addison Allen's version of the South is a lovely place -- bright sunshine, fruit, flowers and the ghosts of the past (sometimes literally).
So ySarah Addison Allen's version of the South is a lovely place -- bright sunshine, fruit, flowers and the ghosts of the past (sometimes literally).
So you can guess what her fourth novel, "The Peach Keeper," is absolutely soaked with. It's a lush, summery little novel that spins together buried secrets, ghosts, magical realism, romance, and a decades-old mystery. But at heart, it's the story of two young women's struggle to find their place in the world.
The Blue Ridge Madam -- a mansion in the North Carolina town of Walls of Water -- once belonged to Willa Jackson's family, but they lost it when her grandmother was still a young girl. All her life, she has been haunted by this. Now the derelict mansion is being transformed into a high-class country inn by Willa's old classmate, Paxton. Paxton is slowly crumbling under the weight of tradition and family expectations -- as well as her love for her possibly-gay friend Sebastien.
Then Willa and Paxton's brother Colin find a skull buried near the house -- and it turns out to be Tucker Devlin, a devilishly charming salesman who had magical powers and claimed to have peach juice in his veins. Willa begins to unwind the past to find out what happened to Tucker, and discovers some shocking connections to her family past...
When you summarize it, "The Peach Keeper" sounds like a magical-realism murder mystery, or maybe a lightweight ghost story. However, it's not really either -- there ARE ghosts, and there IS a mystery of sorts. But Allen is much more interested in the closeted skeletons of Walls of Water, and in the troubled young woman who need to find their own place in the world.
Her prose is sweet, sunny and full of luscious sensual moments -- smells, delicious food, beautiful clothes, and a sort of misty Southern prettiness. Even in the more plotless moments, Allen's prose draws you into her little world. But she also weaves some tense moments into it, such as when Willa finds a drunk Paxton being harassed by a couple of jerks.
The only problem is that Allen doesn't explore the magical realism angle enough. The "magical, stormy nature" of Tucker and the things he could do -- as well as the ghosts -- are touched on but never a major part of the story.
But her characterizations are uniformly brilliant. Willa and Paxton are both young women who are lost -- one has always felt like an outcast from her own life, while the other desperately wants to escape the "perfect" life she has always led. Romance helps them find their places, with the elegant misfit Sebastien and the charming wanderer Colin.
"The Peach Keeper" is a lot like a peach itself -- velvety, sweet, soft and pleasing to the senses. A truly enchanting little novel. ...more
Every child wants to be whisked away to a magical land, have adventures, and set out on a fantastical quest against a tyrant.
It's a pretty typical faEvery child wants to be whisked away to a magical land, have adventures, and set out on a fantastical quest against a tyrant.
It's a pretty typical fantasy storyline as well, and it takes something special to make such stories stand out. Catherynne Valente's "The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making" is an enchanting example, filled with delightful nonsense, wryly witty prose, and a wonderfully oddball world that reminds me of a more lyrical Lewis Carroll.
A young girl named September is whisked away from her boring Nebraska home by the Green Wind, who takes her to Fairyland. But September soon finds herself traveling through Fairyland herself, encountering a soap golem, a half-library wyvern named A-Through-L, a wairwulf, the Perverse and Perilous Sea with its golden beaches, The House Without Warning, gnomish customs agents, a jeweled key, a migration of bicycles.
She also is given a quest by a pair of witches -- find the magical spoon that the cruel Marquess stole from their dead brothers. So she and the Wyverary set out to the city of Pandemonium, but soon find themselves (and a flying leopard named Saturday) on a new quest, with overwhelming results for all the people of
Normally, Catherynne Valente has a lush, lyrical, sensual writing style, and there's a fair amount of that in this book ("... the moon slowly fall down into the horizon and all the dark morning stars turn in the sky like a silver carousel"). Her Fairyland is a weird, sometimes dangerous place filled with countless oddball creatures (migrating bicycles!), making her story feel like a more plotcentric "Alice in Wonderland."
But since this book is meant for children, she also weaves in a wry, arch style that reminds me of some classic British prose (“As you might expect, the geographical location of the capital of Fairyland is fickle and has a rather short temper"). This gets a little twee sometimes, but Valente also weaves in a bittersweet thread as the story goes on, as well as some dark, delicately heartrending moments.
It takes a little while to warm up to September, since she is initially Heartless (like many children), and doesn't care much about what worry she might cause her parents. Then again, it's pleasant to have a heroine who goes happily into another world without moping about going home -- and despite being Heartless, September proves herself to be a sweet, compassionate girl who is just childlike enough to accept the weirdness.
Catherynne Valente blends her velvety prose with a quirky magical twist in"The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making." And she leaves the door to Fairyland open... just in case. ...more
Catherynne Valente is an author on the rise, entrancing readers with her luscious, dreamlike prose and her exquisite explorations into magical realms.Catherynne Valente is an author on the rise, entrancing readers with her luscious, dreamlike prose and her exquisite explorations into magical realms. Even her children's stories are like little gold-rimmed gems.
"Myths of Origin: Four Short Novels" brings together four novellas written over the years, from her debut novella "The Labyrinth" to the recent story "Under in the Mere." They're beautifully-written, swimming in exquisite words and images -- and the main problem is that it's often hard to extract a true narrative from it.
"The Labyrinth" is the tale of the Walker, the Seeker-After, a woman who ate the compass rose. She wanders through the timeless, endless Roads of the Labyrinth, where she finds a Hare, a figure garbed in opals, a Crocodile, a Mirror, an erudite Lobster and his keys, and countless other strange wonders. Will she ever find the center?
"Yume No Hon: The Book of Dreams" switches the focus from a mystical world to ancient Japan. The story centers on Ayako, a woman who lost her village long ago, and now lives in a pagoda on the side of a Mountain. Nearby villagers believe her to be a spirit, and bring offerings to her -- but the answer of what Ayako is connects to a vast expanse of goddesses.
"The Grass-Cutting Sword" is another strange, beautiful tale based in Japanese folklore. The tale is partly about the thunder god Susanoo, who is sent to earth in human form by his sister Amaterasu. As he struggles to defeat the eight-headed monster Yamata-no-Orochi, Valente explores the perspective of the Orochi's multiple heads ("I am Eight. We are Eight") and the maidens sacrificed to him.
And finally there is "Under in the Mere," which reimagines Arthurian legends just as adeptly. It follows the perspectives of various characters from Arthurian legend -- the Lady of the Lake; Sir Kay and his thoughts of his brother; the Green Knight; the dancing, dreaming Sir Dagonet; Lancelot and the two women he loved; Morgan le Fay bringing her brother to Avalon; Galahad in a modern world, and others.
WARNING: These books are not easy read. All four are awash in windswept, jewel-toned words that slowly drown you in their beauty, and they often don't have straightforward narratives. "The Labyrinth" is particularly hard to read -- it's a very experimental novel, like someone took a few dozen lush poems and stretched them into prose.
The following three novellas have more defined stories, but they still aren't for people who like nice, defined beginning-middle-end stories. These are for people who like to sink into decadently luscious, scented prose like a luxurious bath, surrounded by flowers, talking animals, mystical dream-lands and dusty jewels. Valente's prose is almost too sensual to stand at times.
"Myths of Origin: Four Short Novels" drowns you in lovely words and eerie, hallucinatory dreams -- just don't expect a story that won't befuddle you. ...more
Lloyd Alexander's "Chronicles of Prydain" have become a classic staple of fantasy literature, a few rungs below "Lord of the Rings" and a few inches dLloyd Alexander's "Chronicles of Prydain" have become a classic staple of fantasy literature, a few rungs below "Lord of the Rings" and a few inches down from "Chronicles of Narnia." In this volume, all six books in his series are brought together, showing all of Prydain's beauty, richness, humor and sorrow as one big book.
"The Book of Three" opens with Assistant Pig-Keeper Taran yearning for adventure -- and getting more than he bargains for when he chases the pig into the woods, and is nearly run down by a sinister horned rider. Soon he teams up with a wandering king-minstrel, a sharp-tongued princess and a furry creature called Gurgi to save Prydain from the power of the Horned King.
"The Black Cauldron" has Taran and the others setting out to destroy Arawn Deathlord's evil cauldron, which turns dead men into unkillable zombies. But other forces are after the cauldron, including three peculiar witches who insist on trading something for the cauldron. What is worse, the company faces treachery from someone in their own camp...
"The Castle of Llyr" ties up some loose ends from the first book, as Princess Eilonwy is sent to the isle of Mona to become a fine lady. But she has barely arrived when she is kidnapped by a minion of the evil enchantress Achren, her "aunt." Taran sets out to save her, but must team up with the young man who wishes to marry Eilonwy -- even though Taran is rapidly falling in love with her.
"Taran Wanderer" has Taran setting out to discover his past, since he feels he can't ask Eilonwy to marry him if he is lowborn. With only Gurgi at his side, he encounters evil wizards, malevolent bandits, and finally learns that his father just might be a shepherd... until a new revelation leads him to learn of his true worth.
"The High King" wraps up the saga, with Taran returning home. But no sooner has he arrived than he learns that noble Prince Gwydion has been half-killed -- and the magical sword Dyrnwyn has been stolen by Arawn Deathlord. Now the heroes set out one and for all to attack Arawn's stronghold and get back the sword -- but how can they defeat a deathless army and a shapeshifting enemy?
Finally, "The Foundling" fills in a few of the gaps with short stories that illustrate the backstory of the Prydain novels. Among the stories are the tragic history of Dyrnwyn, how the wizard Dallben was reared by the three witches (and where he got the Book of Three), and the love story of Eilonwy's parents.
Take two parts "Lord of the Rings," add a bit more humor and comedy, and stir in bits and pieces of Welsh mythology. That pretty much sums up the Prydain Chronicles, which is one of the rare series that is meant for kids, but is as rich an experience for adults. Even better, if they know the origins of the old legends and myths that make up the edges of these stories. Alexander populates this little world with evil enchantresses, deathless warriors, eager teenagers and talking crows, all the while coming up with an original storyline that doesn't smack of lifted legends.
In a sense, the whole series is a coming-of-age story, where Taran learns wisdom, maturity, loss and love. Oh yeah, and that that Chinese curse about interesting times is quite correct. Princess Eilonwy and the bard-king Fflewddur Fflam add a bit of comic relief, but they are also strong characters in their own right, as is the fuzzy sidekick Gurgi, who goes from being an annoyance to a loyal and lovable friend.
"The Chronicles of Prydain" are fantasy at its best, mingling myth and legend with a fast-paced plot and endearingly quirky characters. Definitely not something to miss. ...more
The Sandman has returned to his country of dreams, but his long absence is still showing -- he's gotten his magical items back, but not all of his folThe Sandman has returned to his country of dreams, but his long absence is still showing -- he's gotten his magical items back, but not all of his followers. "The Sandman Vol. 2: The Doll's House" picks up some threads from the first collection of Sandman stories, and while the story is often confusing and scattered, Neil Gaiman's writing is a glittering jewel of sadness, horror and beauty.
Among the current-day stories, we get some Dream backstory. As part of his coming-of-age ritual, a young boy is told of how a beautiful woman fell in love with Lord Kai'ckul, king of the dream realm. And we see a story of a man untouched by Death, and his ups-and-downs over the centuries as he keeps meeting with his Endless friend.
In the present, Dream learns that a dream vortex has appeared. That vortex is Rose Walker, the granddaughter of Unity Kinkaid (who has slept most of her life), who is searching for her imprisoned little brother. She goes to live at a boarding house full of eccentrics, and is taken under the wing of the mysterious Gilbert (who looks a lot like G.K. Chesterton, and is named "Gilbert").
Additionally, some of Dream's creatures have escaped -- the horrifying Corinthian, who is the guest of honor at a serial-killer convention; Brute and Glob, who have made their own "New Sandman" out of a dead superhero; and Fiddler's Green, who is already close to the dream vortex...
"The Sandman Vol. 2: The Doll's House" is a somewhat messy story -- the two "past" stories feel disconnected from the rest of the book, and it takes awhile for some of the subplots to fully flower. Additionally, I was a little confused by the sudden inclusion of a pair of DC superheroes who have been folded into the world of Dreams -- although their story is the beginning of a much larger, more pivotal one.
And as the story winds on, Neil Gaiman's spellbinding style draws you in -- he fills these pages with bloody horror, love, sorrow, and the occasional glimpse of the lonely lives of the Endless. His style that is all glassy edges and lush poetry, and he pops in some moments of ghastliness (the Corinthan finally taking off his glasses, revealing empty sockets lined with teeth) as well as some moments of warmth (Unity's final shared dream with Rose).
Similarly, Gaiman's characters are a mixture of the lovable and the horrifying -- we get to see Morpheus as he has been throughout the centuries, as well as his flaky, devious sibling Desire (whom I desperately want to sock in the mouth) and the ghastly Corinthian. And he spins up the down-to-earth Rose, as well as a motley band of eccentric characters -- the lace-shrouded lesbians and the creepy yuppies spring to mind, as well as the genial Gilbert.
While some parts of it are clunky, "The Sandman Volume 2: The Doll's House" gradually twines together its many subplots, and sets the stage for what is to come. ...more
The world of Neil Gaiman is a weird, unsettling, whimsical place where strange things are lurking just under the surface... and yes, that includes hisThe world of Neil Gaiman is a weird, unsettling, whimsical place where strange things are lurking just under the surface... and yes, that includes his kids' books. "The Wolves in the Walls" is a perfect example, which mingles Gaiman's slightly eerie storytelling with Dave McKean's equally eerie artwork. It's a perfect story for kids with slightly dark tastes.
Lucy can hear noises coming from inside the walls -- "They were hustling noises and bustling noises. They were crinkling noises and crackling noises." She tries to tell her mother, brother and father, but her mother dismisses the idea that there are wolves inside the walls. After all, "if the wolves come out of the walls, it's all over." So they claim that the noises are mice, rats and bats.
But as time goes on, Lucy continues to hear the wolves "clawing and gnawing, nibbling and squabbling," and feels eyes watching her. And one night, the wolves rip out of the walls, sending Lucy's family running out into the night. And it turns out that wolves are very poorly behaved...
"The Wolves in the Walls" starts out as a very creepy, almost horrific story, with wolves inside the walls and eyes staring from knotholes. But Gaiman's puckish sense of humor comes out in the second half, which shows that the wolves aren't quite as scary as we initially thought. They seem more interested in being the most obnoxious squatters that a G-rated book can show.
And while the story is aimed at children, Gaiman injects some little jokes that seem aimed more at adults ("'What?' said the Queen of Melanesia, who had dropped by to help with the gardening").
Dave McKean's artwork perfectly suits the story as well. It's angular and strangely geometric, with backgrounds that are semi-realistic but strangely distorted, and lots of heavy, murky shadowing. The wolves themselves are the goofiest part of the story, at least when they're partying -- they're rangy-limbed creatures with eyes like glowing yellow buttons.
"The Wolves in the Walls" is a book with both charm and creepy -- in other words, the sort of book that I wish had been written when I was small. Delightful for the more gothically-minded little kid. ...more