This book is kind of amazing. It deals with weaponized rape in a thinly veiled African country set in the not-too-far future. But it also has magic an...moreThis book is kind of amazing. It deals with weaponized rape in a thinly veiled African country set in the not-too-far future. But it also has magic and love and humanity. Full review to come, but I highly recommend this novel if you are looking for strong female leads and are tired of white-washed fantasy. Excellent book.
My foray into the fantasy section of the bookstore was due entirely to the arresting cover art of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart. I saw it, opened to about the middle and began reading. I stood there for at least an hour. I couldn’t put it down, and I couldn’t afford it at the time. When my shoulders began to ache from my heavy backpack, and I finally noticed the odd looks the salesgirl was giving me, I reluctantly put the book back, determined to come back for it as soon as I got my next pay check. I cam back about a week and a half later, hoping that it would still be there, not knowing what I would do if it wasn’t. It was. I bought it stuffed it into my already overstuffed bag and went home. I read the whole thing in one sitting. It was my First Book in the adult fantasy genre, and I’ve been trying to recapture that thrill ever since.
I read some YA fantasy as a kid, sure. I even managed to find some of the good stuff, like Tanith Lee. But SF/F was not a section I usually bothered with until Carey rocked my little world. I’ve of course read all of her other books and can’t wait to get my hands on her latest, Agents of Hel: Dark Currents, which comes out tomorrow (once again, I’m broke and thus have to wait till my library reservation shows up). I’ve also tried to find more heroines like Phedre, more writers like Carey. There are few out there. It’s no secret that both the Science/Speculative Fiction and Fantasy genres are dominated by male writers and male protagonists. This is not to say that there aren’t excellent female writers in the genre, or that a male writer can’t write a strong female lead (though, off the top of my head I can’t think of any in the latter category). Only one author thus far has come close to Carey and her heroines: N.K. Jemisin. Her excellent Inheritance trilogy quickly became a favorite (I’ve written about them here, here, and here), and I devoured the Dreamblood duology. Like Carey, Jemisin has written both male and female leads. Unlike Carey, Jemisin’s worlds aren’t stand-ins for some version of Europe. Carey is a good enough author to not completely white-wash her alterna-Europe, but it wasn’t until the third trilogy in the Kusheline Legacy series that the lead could be considered a Person of Color. Race has been a larger focus and theme of Jemisin’s novels, but not necessarily a blunt point of them.
It was only after reading Jemisin’s work that I added People of Color to my fantasy novel criteria, whether it be the author or the characters depicted. I wanted novels written by women of any race that had strong female leads of any race, but I didn’t want novels that upheld or depicted the status quo regarding race relations. I wanted novels that subverted them or challenged them. It’s harder than you might think to find such a novel, especially when you don’t know how to search for what you want. I was aware of Octavia Butler of course, but I also kind of wanted an author who wasn’t American or British, an author who wasn’t from a colonial power. That’s why I love sites like Io9.com, or when authors themselves recommend novels.
I really don’t remember how I discovered Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor (who is Nigerian-American), but doing so changed many things for me. Who Fears Death is the coming-of-age story of Onyesonwu, an ewu child born to a desert wanderer. To be ewu is to be scorned by everyone, to be feared by everyone, to be hated by everyone. To be ewu is to be a child of rape. Onyesonwu is marked as such by her sand-colored skin and hair and her tiger’s eyes, her biological father’s eyes. Onyesonwu’s mother, like the rest of her people. the Okekke, have dark brown skin and the physical characteristics of indigenous African people. The takes place in a post-apocalyptic Africa, though the exact place is not disclosed until the author’s afterword. In Onyesonwu’s world, rape is a weapon wielded by the ruling race, the Nuru, who have yellow-brown skin and straight black hair. Okekke and Nuru religion teach that the Nuru were sent from the sun by the goddess Ani to rule the Okekke people, who in the darkness of the world grew monstrous and destructive. Onyesonwu not only has to confront the everyday racism from nearly everyone she encounters, she also has to confront the everyday sexism of her people. Add to that the fact that she is a sorcerer prophesied to rewrite the Great Book (the religious text that justifies Okekke subjugation and self-hatred), and she’s got a lot to deal with. With the help of her friends, she’ll learn to face anything that comes her way as she journeys toward her past and her future.
Onyesonwu is wholly likable and a sympathetic character, and her world is horrible but inhabitable. That’s probably because her world isn’t that different from the place that inspired it. There is magic, yes, and Okorafor does an excellent job describing it, and using it. Okorafor doesn’t shy away from the harsh reality of Onyesonwu world, but neither does she relish in it. Rape is often used as a piece of scenery, something common that happens in the background in high fantasy novels (here’s looking at you George R.R. Martin). Okorafor does too good a job at bringing the horror of rape and its accompanying shame and rage to her readers. This is no casual rape either; it’s weaponized, meaning that the rape that occurs in this novel is part of a military campaign to further break the spirit of the Okekke people. Magic may be pure fantasy in the novel, but this is not. Fantasy and science/speculative fiction have long been an arena to talk about the current societal ills and injustices, and can in many ways be more powerful than seeing the images or the faces of people victimized on the news. It’s the power of a good storyteller to make you care about her characters, to care about what they care about, and Okorafor is a good storyteller. I haven’t yet read any of her young adult novels, but I just got two of them from the library. I am incredibly excited to have discovered Okorafor, and I would highly recommend Who Fears Death to anyone who is tired of the usual fantasy tropes. But be warned, this book is hard to read at times, as only the best books are.(less)
I picked this up at random because it looked interesting and I had some book money saved up. I ended up using part of it in my English 1101 class. My...moreI picked this up at random because it looked interesting and I had some book money saved up. I ended up using part of it in my English 1101 class. My students really enjoyed the section I gave them and really seemed to engage with the style of the writing (we used it during our description/narration unit). The writing is accessible and highly engaging.
The stories themselves are terrible in their simplicity, brutality and beauty. I thought I would just peruse the book and then come back to it later, but I read one entire section in one sitting because I became so wrapped up in one of the stories. I would recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in American history, but also for anyone who has an interest in human history--in the human cost of racism discrimination, no matter what your skin color or ethnic heritage. This is a wonderfully written and researched book. (less)
I came across this book via a recommendation by Kusheline Legacy author Jacqueline Carey. I am so glad I decided to try it! I have never read a book l...moreI came across this book via a recommendation by Kusheline Legacy author Jacqueline Carey. I am so glad I decided to try it! I have never read a book like this before. A bare bones plot summary would say that this is a riff on The 1,001 Nights. There are two central characters; one is a girl who has hundreds of stories imprinted on her eyelids, and is considered cursed by the rest of the palace. Because of this they are afraid to kill her and anger the spirit who cursed her. Instead, they leave her to fend for herself in the vast palace gardens. The other is a princeling who befriends her one night. To say that this is just a new take on the Arabian Nights is to deny the lyrical beauty of Valente's prose. Her words and images flow over each other to create a cascade of imagery and metaphor unlike anything I have ever read. Other reviewers have said that it becomes too much, that the narrative drown in its language, but I never felt that the prose was overwrought; it completely fit both the project and the unique cast of characters who give them voice.
In this book, you will find many familiar tales told from a fresh perspective, as many of the tales seem based out of familiar European traditions. There is however a strong Eastern feel to the over-arching narrative, and this seems to come more to the forefront in the second volume. Valente never lets us get lost in too many layers of narrative, at most the stories run three layers deep at any given moment. I was honestly in awe of Valente's talent as a story-teller, let alone writer, and it is rare for this to happen with me (maybe I am too analytic; well, I am a grad student in English). I encourage you to let yourself be taken away by these stories, to let yourself be swept away by their beauty. This is pure enjoyment. I am excited to have discovered Catherynne Valente and already have several of her other books on my to-read shelf. (less)
I first picked this up mainly based on the cover; I am one of those people who judge books by their covers, and this book's cover is lovely and intrig...moreI first picked this up mainly based on the cover; I am one of those people who judge books by their covers, and this book's cover is lovely and intriguing. I am happy to say that the book did its cover justice. The world is fully realized and well described; I was easily and completely sucked into it. The pacing is fast--by the second chapter, the main character, Yeine, has already left her homeland and arrived at the city of Sky. The pace keeps the story moving and I was never bored. Jemisin's prose is easy and accesible, and her world is quickly but completely sketched.
The characters themselves are easily relatable, even her gods, who are sometimes painted with more humanity than some of the other characters. While the prose, characters, and world may sound rather simple, each is actually fairly complex. There are multiple layers of politics at work in the city of Sky, and I would have like to have stayed in this area for the next book (I am currently reading it, and all I can say thus far is that it takes place several years after the events in the first book, though I know the main gods, at least, return at some point). Even the gods, who are eternal and at times indifferent, are complexly drawn by Jemisin. The build up to the ending felt bigger than the ending itself, but was still satisfying and left me wanting more with these characters.
There is a strong, but not overpowering, element of romance, but the heroine is no sucker for a pretty face (well, that maybe a lie, but you'll have to read it to see what I mean). This is definitely fantasy, but romantic fantasy at its best. I would place it in a category of Jacqueline Carey's Kusheline series, but maybe not quite in that league. However if you want a good, strong female lead, those seemingly rare creatures in fantasy, this is a good book to pick up. (less)
This is, hands down, one of the most frightening books I have ever read. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Although it is set in the near future, o...moreThis is, hands down, one of the most frightening books I have ever read. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Although it is set in the near future, one can already see the beginnings of the dominant mentality presented in this book in our own society. What Atwood describes in the end matter is already becoming realized, as far as women's rights regarding their bodies is concerned. Planned Parenthood, birth control, and a woman's right to reproductive health are being attacked by "conservatives" with more and more force today. This book is a warning from the past about the death of our future.
The novel is set in the first-person narrative of an unnamed woman who holds the position of Handmaid in a near future society known as the Republic of Gilead, in which a fundamentalist religious society has taken control of the formerly United States. Part of the horror of the novel is discovering exactly what this society's power structures are and the different, but limited, roles women have to play. The narrator describes both her current situation and her past, which is terrifyingly close to current American society. Part of the wonder of the novel is discovery, so the plot summary must end here. I will say that it is absolutely necessary to read the end matter, or the appendices.
For all of it's terror, the novel is beautiful as well, and there is a pervasive feeling of lightness, of hope throughout. All of Atwood's novels that I have read have this quality, but it is nowhere more apparent than here. You don't have to be a "feminist" or even a woman to read and be terrified by this book. It is a book that everyone needs to read, so that we can recognize the trends that produce this near-future dystopia and stop them before it becomes to late. (less)
I am about to embark on the most ambitious reviewing project I have ever undertaken thus far; I will be reviewing all 9 of the books in the Kusheline...moreI am about to embark on the most ambitious reviewing project I have ever undertaken thus far; I will be reviewing all 9 of the books in the Kusheline Legacy series. Here goes.
I first picked this up at random in a university book store. It was relatively new and I must have stood there for at least an hour or more reading it. I was immediately entranced, and remain so. I had never been much of a fantasy reader as an adult (however, when I was a kid I read several of Tanith Lee's books, among others, so it wasn't too much of a stretch), but this book made me a permanent fan. Now, I am constantly searching for a heroine equal to Phedre no Delaunay; I'm not sure it's even a possibility.
In the league of world builders, Carey ranks among the highest. Her world is fully realized and feels as if it could actually exists. In part this is due to the fact that it an alternate version of our world, with several almost direct connections (this comes mainly through geography and through religion). I'm sure there is a more concise word for what she does here, but I am not well-versed enough in fantasy literature to know it. Regardless, Carey's world feels livable. The mythology of the world is unique and all encompassing; For each realm Phedre finds herself in, there is a complete, excellently planned history and mythology.
Her characters are wonderfully complex, even as they rely to a degree on traditional high romance traditions (think Arthurian legends). The novel starts with Phedre as a child and continues through her upbringing first in the Night Court as damaged goods to her transformation as the foremost courtesan and spy, though information-gatherer might be closer to the mark. One of the consistent refrains through this frist trilogy is that "all knowledge is worth having." The end of this book leaves us in a lurch for the second; luckily for me the next in the series, Kushiel's Chosen, was due out soon.
I fell in love with her characters and her style. Carey herself has described her style in this series as "baroque," and this is very true. While it may be slightly of-putting at first, by the end of this book, I hardly even noticed it. It fit perfectly with the character that Phedre became. There is intrigue and plot aplenty in this book and in the rest of the series, but never does it feel as if Carey throws things in just because. While some revelations may seem somewhat obvious by the time they are given, for the most part, I was kept guessing. The who might be known, but the how is just as interesting and important. While I would not say these books are fast paced, they never drag either. All are well planned and well researched. I hate to give too much of a summary because it is too much fun discovering the world of these books on your own. If you are looking for an excellently written fantasy series that features an incredibly strong female lead, enough sexy romance to keep your pulse up and a plot to rival anything George R.R. Martin can dish out, this book and this sereis is for you. Fair warning though: there are explicit heterosexual and homosexual sex scenes, and there is also a healthy dose of BDSM themes (it's one of the main conceits of Phedre's character). If this makes you squeamish, it's your loss. The central theme of the book, and the only religious principal Phedre adheres to is "love as thou wilt." A beautiful message enclosed in a beautiful narrative. (less)
I received an ARC of this book that came with a little wrapper and a vellum letter, folded and sealed with a wax-seal sticker inside of the book. The...moreI received an ARC of this book that came with a little wrapper and a vellum letter, folded and sealed with a wax-seal sticker inside of the book. The letter was one of the letters written by the main character's father to her mother. The presentation is what primarily interested me in this book (I still have the ARC with the letter, and never bothered to buy another edition). The narrative itself is compelling, even if it does drag a bit in the section on the cyrillic alphabet. It feels more like Kostova wanted to include some really awesome research she had done for a Doctoral thesis, but couldn't figure out how to work it into the main narrative well enough, so just stuck it in instead. This seems to be a fairly common complaint.
That said, the depth of research is one of the novel's strengths. I was intrigued by the historical figure of Vlad the impaler, and this is one thing that kept me reading. I was also entranced by the descriptions of Budapest. I generally enjoy nested narratives, and this was no exception. Due to the way they were presented in the text, I never got confused as to which storyline I was in. The mix of letters and central narrative aided in overall cohesion, where Stoker's Dracula seemed almost too choppy (I realize that this may be one of its points, but there are limits, and Stoker comes close to them). The romance between Paul and Helen is believable, but the romance between their daughter and a fairly random Oxford boy feels thrown in. That the mystery is started by and centers on, to a degree, an unassuming book was aslo a draw for me. In general, this is a wonderful book and one that I will treasure, safe in the knowledge that I read it and enjoyed it before the current vampire craze. I'm old school, you see? (less)