Monday, October 19, 2020

Voyage of the Basilisk (Marie Brennan)

Voyage of the Basilisk: A Memoir by Lady Trent
A Natural History of Dragons series, Book 3
Marie Brennan
Fiction, Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Lady Isabella Camherst has been the subject of rumor and scandal for years, ever since she dared declare herself a scientist (so unladylike, especially in proper Scirland) and dedicated her life to the pursuit of knowledge about dragons around the world. Her latest venture is certainly something only a madwoman would consider: setting forth on a sea voyage aboard the Basilisk around the globe to observe as many species of dragons and their relations as possible, from the arctic sea serpents to the tropical fire-lizards. With her, once more, is her companion and fellow scientist Tom and - for the first time - her young son Jake and his governess. As usual for Isabella, though, what started with clear and sound intentions quickly goes askew, thwarted by nature and politics and the wild, inscrutable ways of dragonkind, in a voyage that will become renowned the world over.

REVIEW: With distinct echoes of Darwin's voyage aboard the Beagle, Isabella's journey draws the reader further into her Victorian-flavored world undergoing its own age of discovery and enlightenment. As in previous volumes, she proves to be a dauntless, if not infallible, woman, often stumbling (or outright charging) into thorny predicaments. Around her grows a cast of friends and allies and the occasional enemy, though more enemies due to politics than personal matters. The subplot of preserved dragonbone - a potential breakthrough building material whose secret was discovered in the first book, but which could lead to the wholesale slaughter and extinction of dragons unless a synthetic substitute can be devised - continues, as the ramifications of previous failures and industrial spies lead to international fallout that complicates her voyage. On a personal level, Isabella still stumbles with social niceties and personal connections, as she attempts to bond with a son who (thus far) shows no interest in science or her personal passion for dragons. The adventurous story has few, if any, lulls, moving decently from the first page to the last as it traverses half the globe and introduces yet more dragons and their mysteries, while further exploring the legacy of the lost civilization known as Draconeans whose ruins can be found worldwide. I look forward to future volumes, book budget pending.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Natural History of Dragons (Marie Brennan) - My Review
His Majesty's Dragon (Naomi Novik) - My Review
The Waking Fire (Anthony Ryan) - My Review

Thursday, October 15, 2020

The Wendy (Erin Michelle Sky and Steven Brown)

The Wendy
The Tales of the Wendy series, Book 1
Erin Michelle Sky and Steven Brown
Trash Dogs Media LLC
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Like many of the foundlings who appeared overnight in 1700's London, Wendy Darling had no idea who her parents were or where she'd come from, but she does know where she wants to go: to sea, as captain of her own ship, living a life of bold adventure. Even though everyone tells her girls are good for nothing but marrying and mothering, she clings to her dream, learning navigation and fencing and other useful skills from a friend. At 17, Wendy takes her first step out into the world from the almshouse where she was raised when she joins the Home Office... but their mission is something she had never suspected. It turns out that England is under attack, and has been for years. Fiendish winged men known as the everlost raid and murder and steal away children, presumably to drink their blood. (All this is kept carefully under wraps, of course, lest the public panic.) Only women and dogs are sensitive to the smell of magic that precedes their arrival - and it's a toss-up which one is considered the more human to the men of the Home Office in general and their ruthless Captain, a man named Hook, in particular. Thus Wendy finds herself shipped off to Dover, but even though she proves herself worthy to the men in her platoon, she's still treated as a delicate and excitable object... until the day of their first everlost encounter. That's when she meets him, their leader, a mercurial young man whom she finds oddly enchanting and who, in turn, seems strangely enchanted with her: the one they call Peter Pan.

REVIEW: I knew, going into this, that it was a reshuffling/retelling of J. M. Barrie's classic children's story. I did not know just how tonally confused it would end up being, with canon and original characters randomly recast and sprinkled about in a story that never quite seems to get a bead on what it's aiming for.
It starts off quickly with a nice, breezy voice, establishing Wendy as a girl determined to take charge of her own destiny in defiance of everything 18th century England expects of young women... then it makes her so silly and internally inconsistent I was rolling my eyes at her more often than I was rooting for her. Or maybe my eyes rolled themselves; Wendy's facial features and body parts seem exceptionally prone to acting on their own, evidently without consulting her, in a literary trick that wore out its welcome long before the book ended. The authors also hammered home the "secret kiss in the corner of her mouth" line that Barrie used so sparingly, and with direct ties to the story arc and climax. Here, there's far less plot relevance to the term, and at least half the mentions of her face mention the "secret kiss" as a visible thing... maybe because every male (save Captain Hook) is irresistibly smitten. Yes, for all that the story tries to establish "the Wendy" as her own girl, forging her own destiny and earning the respect of her male peers, she is pretty much reduced to object status, a prize to be claimed and heart to be won, an animal to be coddled and patted on the head and not to be really taken seriously as a person. Nobody can think of her as a comrade and friend, evidently... not even Peter.
And here we get to one of the other major trouble spots: Peter Pan himself. The book tries to establish him as a possible romantic subject, but it runs into several stumbling blocks. First off, the canonical Peter Pan was inherently incapable of grown-up love; it was one of the defining features of his character. Secondly, the authors come at it with the same often-silly children's book voice that the rest of the story uses, making their attraction feel less like genuine chemistry or mystique and more like little children playing dress-up who blush and giggle and secretly cringe at the thought of cooties when forced to play-act gooey love stuff. Third... I have no idea, even by the end of the book, just what Peter and the everlost are in this world. They act like the lost boys, the perpetual kids playing pirate games and having adventures - but apparently they also raid England, kidnap children, and casually slaughter countless Home Office soldiers, all with the same tally-ho grins of their playacting, as though they don't get the concept of death at all. They also are described as having inhuman teeth and the ability to materialize hawk wings to fly with... though pixie dust still may be involved... sometimes... maybe...? The authors completely dance around the everlost, what they're doing, or why they're doing it - which makes no sense, given that they are Hook's sole obsession with the Home Office and Wendy is (sometimes) portrayed as a determined researcher who stops at nothing to get to the bottom of whatever subject she sets her mind to. (She's also aided by the only two nonwhite men in the entire book, who exist entirely to train the white English girl in service of her goals, which has some iffy racial connotations if you look at it for more than a second.) This is a massive hole in the middle of the story, made especially blatant when the whole plot centers on the everlost and Wendy's conflict when torn between her duty to England and Hook and her feelings when confronted with Peter in the flesh. The end is a jumble of whiplash loyalty shifts on the part of Wendy, concluding on a note that isn't particularly conclusive, though not a cliffhanger; it just sort of ends, unresolved, halfway through yet another tonal pivot, as though I'll automatically pick up the second volume to find out what's going on and who will claim the Wendy as the ultimate prize.
There were some nice moments and decent ideas swirling around in the depths of The Wendy. Unfortunately, my suspension of disbelief kept crashing into the ground.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Peter Pan (James M. Barrie) - My Review
Peter and the Starcatchers (Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson) - My Review
The Librarian: Little Boy Lost (Eric Hobbs) - My Review

Friday, October 9, 2020

Middlegame (Seanan McGuire)

Seanan McGuire
Fiction, Fantasy/Horror
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: Roger was a young boy when he first heard the girl's voice in his head, helping him solve his math homework. When Dodger needed help with spelling, he returned the favor. It seems impossible, or at least highly improbable, but the two share something akin to telepathy, though they live a continent apart and have never met. But there is more than mere coincidence at work. Though they don't know it, the two are the work of an alchemist who seeks control over the universe, part of an experiment that stretches back more than a century and has already spilled an ocean of blood. If they ever grow into the powers they were created to manifest, they may well doom themselves and the world... unless they can take control of their own fates. But how can they hope to do that when they don't even know who, or what, they truly are?

REVIEW: This is an unusual book. Weaving in ancient alchemy, language, mathematics, strained sibling relationships, the pain and isolation of genius children, and even the power of children's literature (a beloved in-world book, Over the Woodward Wall, turns out to have been written by an alchemist with unsavory ulterior motives), McGuire crafts a compelling, often-harrowing story that spans over two decades - and more, if one takes into account the time travel element. It takes a while to get the feel of the story, and the characters, while always interesting, aren't always likable. Events range from simple moments of human interaction and quiet beauty to gruesomely detailed pain and terror; there's a trigger warning-worthy plot point involving one character's attempted suicide and the aftermath. Once things pick up, they move at a fair clip and ratchet up to a very intense finale. I wavered a bit on whether to clip a half-star for a slightly drawn-out ending, but ultimately came down on the side of a full fifth star. The many disparate elements are just so expertly slotted together.
On a closing note, McGuire has actually written and published Over the Woodward Wall as a standalone title under "A. Deborah Baker." The excerpts included here have me itching to get my hands on it.

You Might Also Enjoy:
All the Birds in the Sky (Charlie Jane Anders) - My Review
Down Among the Sticks and Bones (Seanan McGuire) - My Review
The Golden Compass (Philip Pullman) - My Review

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

September Site Update

 I've archived the previous six reviews at the main Brightdreamer Books site.

I also did some light maintenance, including moving another defunct review (a title that appears to have vanished from Amazon) to the Graveyard.


Tuesday, September 29, 2020

The House in the Cerulean Sea (TJ Klune)

The House in the Cerulean Sea
TJ Klune
Fiction, Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: 40-year-old Linus Baker is everything a good caseworker at the Department in Charge of Magical Youth should be: observant, objective, adherent to the 900-plus-page Rules and Regulations volume that outlines what is and is not his concern, and utterly without a personal life, unless his cat Calliope counts. He tells himself he doesn't mind the loneliness, that he hasn't time for a boyfriend anyway - but he also tells himself he's happy in his tiny drab home, sitting at his tiny drab desk, living in a city so dreary the sun hasn't made an appearance in his memory. But at least he helps the magical children in his caseload where he can.
When Linus finds himself summoned to Extremely Upper Management, he's sure he's been sacked, though for what he cannot imagine: nobody writes a more thorough report. Instead, he is sent to inspect an orphanage run by one Arthur Parnassus, a classified place where only the strangest and most dangerous of magical children are sent, from the tentacled sea creature Chauncey to the boy Lucy, the literal Antichrist. For one month, Linus is to live in a guest house on Arthur's island and give his assessment of conditions and of the master himself. He's sure this job will be the death and damnation of him... but what he finds in the house on the cerulean sea is not at all what he expected, and what he learns will shake him and his understanding of the world to the core.

REVIEW: I've read nothing but praise for this book, so I had very high hopes going into it. Those hopes were met more or less across the board in this fairy tale for grown-ups set in an alternate-modern world where magical creatures are segregated and shunned. Linus is the typical bureaucrat, if one who actually cares about his job; he shows great concern for the welfare of the magical children, for all that he still believes in the mission of DICOMY and doesn't think to question why none of the kids in these "orphanages" are ever adopted or what happens to them when they grow up. Indeed, he points out how much better things are now than they used to be, when magical beings were openly hunted down, to near-extinction in some cases. On a personal level, he's sad and lonely and utterly miserable, but he rationalizes away his every nonconformist impulse. Once outside of the city, though, surrounded by the blue of the sea and colors he'd forgotten existed, Linus can't hide from reality or himself so easily, though of course he isn't transformed overnight. A colorful cast of characters comes to life around him, from the emotionally dented children to the mistrustful villagers to Arthur himself, who has a secret that could destroy the orphanage if it comes to light. Linus constantly struggles to regain his old, boxed-in worldview, but the walls keep collapsing as fast as he tries to rebuild them. The whimsical tone is bright and colorful, if with some dark edges and truths swimming in the depths, and the tale has a hopeful tone that change is possible. The ending feels slightly drawn out, but is a near-perfect conclusion. The House in the Cerulean Sea is an optimistic fairy tale, the perfect antidote for a genre that has skewed a little dark in recent years.

You Might Also Enjoy:
My Diary from the Edge of the World (Jodi Lynn Anderson) - My Review
The Girl Who Drank the Moon (Kelly Barnhill) - My Review
Claws (Mike and Rachel Grinti) - My Review