Friday, July 31, 2020

July Site Update

The month's three reviews are now archived and cross-linked at the main Brightdreamer Books site.

Enjoy! (And hopefully I'll get back to reading more in August... been a busy month.)

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Arabella the Traitor of Mars (David D. Levine)

Arabella the Traitor of Mars
The Adventures of Arabella Ashby, Book 3
David D. Levin
Fiction, YA? Adventure/Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: After helping defeat Napoleon in the Battle of Venus, inventor Arabella Ashby and her husband Captain Singh are hailed as heroes of England, ridding the solar system of a tyrant bent on interplanetary domination... and opening the way for others to follow his example. Shortly after their return to Earth, the Prince Regent offers Singh the opportunity to head a fleet bound for Mars, to bring the planet and its natives to heel under the British flag (and, not incidentally, generate enormous profits for the Regent and the Honorable Mars Company.) Torn between the planet of her birth and her patriotic duty, between her home and her husband, Arabella chooses Mars. But beating the invaders to her homeworld will just be the first daunting challenge ahead, and this time luck may no longer be on Lady Ashby's side.

REVIEW: The (probable) final installment of the Arabella Ashby adventures brings the action back to Mars and squarely addresses Earth's colonial attitude toward the solar system. Araballa, herself a human but more at home on Mars than Earth, is particularly torn, feeling a close kinship to the Red Planet and its people but forced to acknowledge that, as a human, she is - if in some small way - part of the problem. Threading that needle, personally and politically, proves challenging, but Arabella's always been one to rise to a challenge, if not without some failures on the way. Unlike the second novel, this installment (thankfully) trims much of the transit, focusing more on the action. Arabella also isn't quite as helpless for so much of the book; in the thick of battle, and dealing with machinery and clockwork automata, she's back in her element. The action picks up quickly and keeps going through much of the book, and if now and again dangers are telegraphed and luck tends to favor the heroes (if at the last minute), well, it is written in the spirit of retro adventure tales. Something about the ending feels a little neat and quick after the high cost of reaching it, while the epilogue gives the series (or at least this portion of it) a nice send-off. Overall, I enjoyed this story, and the whole Arabella Ashby trilogy, as a fun, fantastical take on retro-flavored adventure science fiction.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Flash Gold (Lindsay Buroker) - My Review
Arabella of Mars (David D. Levine) - My Review
Airborn (Kenneth Oppel) - My Review

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

The City We Became (N. K. Jemisin)

The City We Became
The Great Cities trilogy, Book 1
N. K. Jemisin
Fiction, Fantasy
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: It was an ordinary day when New York City awoke. As the newborn city's living avatar, a homeless graffiti artist barely has a chance to come to grips with what's happening before the Enemy - a malevolent entity from beyond our own universe - attacks. He fends it off, but it is not a clean victory. The entity that calls itself the Woman in White gains a foothold, an infection point that could kill not only New York City but the whole world. If the city is going to survive, he's going to need help. Fortunately, he's not alone.
"Manny" was stepping off a subway on his way to a new apartment and a new life when he realizes he has no memory of his name, or anything before coming to New York City. What he feels is an inexplicable bond with Manhattan's skyscrapers and streets... and what he sees is an impossible enemy spreading pale tendrils everywhere it goes.
Brooklyn Thomason used to be the rap queen MC Free, but she gave that life up to raise a daughter and run for office. Now the rhythms of the street are calling her again, only this time she's not squaring off against rivals on stage or throngs of fans, but something much more dangerous.
Bronca's Native American Lenape ancestors have been here since long before there was a city, yet there are still those who insist she's the one who doesn't belong here: she's not white enough, not straight enough, not this or that or the other enough. When the aging artist feels the call of the Bronx borough, she wants to refuse - she has more than enough on her plate, trying to keep a struggling artist co-op from insolvency and fending off strangely coordinated internet attacks - but some destinies cannot be ignored.
A young immigrant and math genius, Padmini feels the weight of her family's expectations as she pushes herself through college and a degree she doesn't want, but which is more likely to land her a permanent residence in America than what she prefers. When a strange attack nearly kills the neighbor children, she learns that New York City has claimed her as its own, as the avatar of Queens. But she's not even a citizen, and the only thing she's good at fighting is a stubborn equation.
And on Staten Island, sheltered Aislyn has hardly ever left her home. Her cop father assures her there's nothing but crime and filthy dark people and perverts running rampant through the rest of the city; best to stay where things are nice and safe (and white), even if it means giving up whatever nebulous dreams she may have had. When New York City calls her - calls her to protect a city she both longs for and fears - how will she answer?

REVIEW: As concepts go, this is a surreal one, but brilliantly executed. Cities are, by their very nature, forces of destruction with a heavy footprint, but they are also living things (literally, here), an ecosystem unto themselves. They can also, figuratively and literally, be killed. Other cities have faced the threats New York City is and survived - they have their own living avatars, a few of whom step in to help (or attempt to help) - but others have failed... and attacks seem to be ramping up, though none of the other cities seem to know why.
As avatars, each character embodies both the good and the bad of their respective boroughs, a microcosm not only of the city but the country itself - and, like city and country, they face a grave and insidious threat to their very existence, one that works from within to corrupt, to amplify hatreds and crack open divisions, to squelch that which is dynamically alive and replace it with something cold and twisted and utterly dead. They aren't always likeable, and don't necessarily like each other; friction of race and class and gender and more threatens to destroy the fragile peace they establish, doing the Enemy's work for it, a hard look at the inherent prejudices and hatreds and just plain grudge matches that threaten so much of our world today. New York City is a complex place, neither wholly good nor wholly bad, and the avatars embody that as well as individuals can. All of them have been thrown into something way over their heads and somewhat beyond the human ability to grasp. They reach for metaphors as they shape impossible forces to their defense, using the very essence of their boroughs and the city itself... but the Woman in White and the entity "she" represents has its own essence and its own weapons, its own logic and goals, and is not to be underestimated.
It's a bold, strange story, sometimes violent and sometimes painful and often bizarre, but always compelling. This being the first in a trilogy, the ending is not conclusive, but does include a few twists and brings the story to a resting point between battles. I'm trying to think of a downside, but even the point of view I least enjoyed was harrowing in the right way (if that makes sense), forcing the reader into a perspective that's easy to dismiss yet needs to be understood if there's to be any hope for the future (in fiction or otherwise), so I went with a top-notch rating.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Black God's Drums (P. Djeli Clark) - My Review
The Fifth Season (N. K. Jemisin) - My Review
Shadowshaper (Daniel Jose Older) - My Review

Thursday, July 2, 2020

The Tea Dragon Festival (Katie O'Neill)

The Tea Dragon Festival
The Tea Dragon series, Book 2
Katie O'Neill
Oni Press
Fiction, CH Fantasy/Graphic Novel
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: A small mountain village prepares for an annual festival to honor its tea dragons: miniature creatures who grow leaves and blossoms on their horns that create memory-infused teas. Young Rinn hopes to become an apprentice chef by the time of the festival, but in the meantime uses a gift for finding mushrooms to help out other villagers... which is why she wandered into the remote clearing with the dilapidated shrine - and a sleeping dragon! Aedhan had been charged with keeping up the shrine and watching over the village, but he fell asleep for eighty years and has been forgotten by all but the oldest. As Rinn tries to help him adapt, the arrival of her bounty hunter uncle Erik and his partner Hesekiel - who chase stories of dangerous creatures across the land - hints that there's more to the dragon's unnatural sleep than mere fatigue.

REVIEW: Like the first Tea Dragon book, this prequel is a (very) light fantasy tale that's more about internal conflicts and growing up than it is about adventure or violence. Indeed, it's almost too lightweight at times - at least, for grown-ups. (It also wavers once or twice on a border between including diversity and polishing it like a medal to make sure the reader notices, though maybe it was just the thinness of the tale itself that made it seem this way a few times.) The conflicts are almost entirely internal, as Rinn struggles to improve at cooking - a long process of learning that just cannot be rushed, impatient as she grows with herself - and Aedhan wrestles with shame over his dereliction of duty. Almost everything is resolved through talking, friendship, and epiphanies; the world as a whole seems designed to have no place whatsoever for violence of any kind (save one animal attack), which makes one wonder why bounty hunter Eric bothers carrying a sword at all (or what the point of bounties and monster hunting is in this place.) The tea dragons themselves mostly sit by the sidelines and be cute... which, to be fair, is not entirely unlike what they did in the previous Tea Dragon book, though at least then the dragons themselves - and the lead girl's introduction to them and their fading traditions - formed a significant prong of the story. Here, aside from some minor involvement in the wrap-up, the tea dragons might have been any cute little critters. They don't even seem to act like tea dragons, as one character points out... a question that, once raised, is never really answered and seems forgotten. Once again, it ends with an appendix that talks more about the tea dragons, which is the kind of detail dragon-loving kids (and grown-ups) enjoy.
In any event, looked at from the point of view of the target audience, the art is simple and whimsical, and the story's pleasant, magical, inclusive, and - with the exception of the aforementioned animal attack, which is quick - most decidedly not dangerous. And, of course, there are dragons. It's difficult (though not impossible) to go wrong with dragons.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Sun Dragon's Song #1 (Joyce Chng) - My Review
The Tea Dragon Society (Katie O'Neill) - My Review
A Dragon's Guide to the Care and Feeding of Humans (Laurence Yep and Joanne Ryder) - My Review

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

June Site Update

I've updated the main Brightdreamer Books site with the month's reviews, archived and cross-linked.