Monday, September 18, 2017

Starfire: A Red Peace (Spencer Ellsworth)

Starfire: A Red Peace
(The Starfire trilogy, Book 1)
Spencer Ellsworth
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: After years of fighting, the vat-born crossbreed soldiers of the Resistance have thrown down their former masters, the blueblood Imperial humans... but the killing doesn't stop. John Starfire, Resistance leader and possible embodiment of a prophecy tied to the extinct Jorian race, now puts the entire human species in the cross-hairs - but he seems to have a particular obsession with one blueblood and his escaped children.
Jaqi, part-Jorian daughter of escaped crossbreed slaves, had just come into port at a backwater ecosphere when she heard the news of victory. Maybe she can finally settle into a normal life, even learn to read... but it's not more than a few hours before she's on the run again, with a hulking Zarran warrior, spoiled young bluebood fugitives, and a strange black box everyone seems evil bothered about getting their hands, claws, or other appendages on.
Vat-born Araskar became a hero in the Resistance, now honored with a prestigious role as Secondblade in John Starfire's forces, but for all the grafts and synthskin holding his body together, his mind's about to fall apart. Only the bliss of his pink pill stash keeps him going, as victory brings no end to the carnage and the vat-grown lives wasted around him. When he starts to suspect Starfire's motives, he faces a test of loyalty and a decision that could shape the future of the entire fractured galaxy.

REVIEW: Starfire: A Red Peace hits the ground running and rarely slows down, a space opera full of battles large and small. There's a distinct George Lucas flavor to the universe, with the crossbreed (clone?) soldiers and the fall of an empire and and long-hushed talk of a Force-like energy (known as Starfire) that enabled miracles, not to mention a universe full of strange sights and aliens that are more than white humans with bumps on their heads, but Ellsworth makes it his own, giving the reader a pair of flawed, jaded characters to follow. As Jaqi finds herself in over her head, being chased about by Resistance Vanguard soldiers without knowing just why, Araskar comes to question the very nature of the fight he was practically born into; though an adult, he was only pulled from his vat five years ago, a mass-produced soldier who has only ever known combat. The prophecy angle was a slight bit wobbly, and the near-nonstop fighting came close to inducing fatigue, but on the whole it's a fast-paced and very imaginative story with some nice mind's-eye candy along the way. I'll likely be keeping an eye out for the second book.

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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Emilie and the Hollow World (Martha Wells)

Emilie and the Hollow World
(The Emilie series, Book 1)
Martha Wells
Strange Chemistry
Fiction, YA Adventure/Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Sixteen-year-old Emilie only meant to run away from home. She didn't intend to become a stowaway on a voyage through the aetheric currents to the long-rumored center of the hollow world. But a mishap trying to get to a ferry lands her aboard the Sovereign and right in the middle of an adventure wilder than anything she's read about in her books, full of strange sights, lost civilizations, rival philosophers, magic, betrayals, and more. Now, all she has to do is survive long enough to return to the upper world...

REVIEW: Emilie and the Hollow World is a bit of an odd duck as stories go. Emilie's adventure has a throwback feel to it, like something out of Jules Verne or Edgar Rice Burroughs, set in a world where magic is real and science (or something like it) is in the hands of often-wealthy "philosophers." The Hollow World is full of strange sights and wonders and dangers aplenty, straight from an old adventure yarn. And therein lies part of the problem; those older stories, while often brimming with imagination, didn't always have the deepest characters or most compelling plots, both of which modern readers tend to expect - especially most young adult readers. Despite being sixteen (indicating this was written for a young adult audience), Emilie just plain doesn't feel like a teenager. She could just as easily have been thirteen or fourteen, though these days even middle grade audiences tend to expect a little more complexity in their characters and plots. Emilie's world, for all its wonders, feels strangely thin, particularly the surface world (where the only two types of people in existence seem to be pale-haired northerners and "nut-brown" dark-haired southerners, perhaps a deliberate simplicity to make the unique races of the Hollow World seem all the more exotic), and her reasons for leaving home come across as contrived - partly because Emilie is more of a plot construct than a whole character, the plucky adventuress runaway who weasels her way into an outsized adventure among real-live grown-ups and proves herself the heroine every boy and girl reading her secretly wants to be. None of the other characters have much more to them, either, several feeling rather extraneous, and the magic system feels haphazard and oddly convenient to the plot, particularly the properties of the aether. There's at least one more book in the series, but I doubt I'll go out of my way to track it down. While Wells demonstrates admirable imagination in weaving this homage to elder-day adventure tales, I guess I just want a little more than Emilie can deliver.

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Sunday, September 10, 2017

Charismagic 0 (Vincent Hernandez)

Charismagic #0
(The Charismagic series, Issue 0)
Vincent Hernandez, illustrations by Khary Randolph
Aspen Comics
Fiction, Fantasy/Graphic Novel
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: For centuries, magic has hidden from mortal men - but an ancient enemy is about to break free from the Void, the exile dimension. With his release, nothing will be safe, and nothing will be the same... particularly the life of one Las Vegas stage magician, Hank.

REVIEW: An intriguing concept, I'm not sure why this issue exists. It's like lopping the pre-credit opening scenes of a movie off and marketing it as a separate film, or maybe billing an advertisement as a series opener. It's also a bit hard to read on a Nook tablet screen; zooming in on the text in some of the page spreads made the writing blurry. The extra material means less than nothing, as I don't have an actual story to attach it to. I might read the next volume to see where it goes with its setup, but mostly because it's free on Hoopla.

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Mouse Guard: Fall 1152 (David Petersen)

Mouse Guard: Fall 1152
(The Mouse Guard series, Book 1)
David Petersen
Fiction, MG? Fantasy/Graphic Novel
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: For generations, the elite Mouse Guards have defended the territories from danger and scouted safe paths between hidden cities... so who would betray them? A routine search for a missing grain merchant exposes evidence of a plot against Lockhaven, the Mouse Guard headquarters - and it may already be too late to stop the attack.

REVIEW: Petersen's illustrated tale of a mouse society reads like Brian Jacques's Redwall, only without the blatant sexism and tedium. Like the best anthropomorphic animal tales, it treats its concept, characters, and audience with full respect, giving the mice the bravery and gravity of any human. It moves quickly, with action and intrigue and a decent battle at the climax, with excellent artwork. (As for the target age, I had to guess, based on where I usually see Redwall books in bookstores; the story may be a trifle violent and complex for young kids.) An enjoyable break from a mediocre reading streak, and a series I expect I'll pursue, especially as they become available on Hoopla (a free online lending service available through many libraries.)

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Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Summer Tree (Guy Gavriel Kay)

The Summer Tree
(The Fionavar Tapestry trilogy, Book 1)
Guy Gavriel Kay
Fiction, Fantasy
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: University of Toronto students Kim, Jennifer, Paul, Kevin, and Dave just wanted to hear Lorenzo Marcus's lecture, a rare public appearance for the reclusive Celtic history expert. They had no idea that Lorenzo was actually Loren Silvercloak, a mage from the world of Fionavar, or that he'd come seeking "volunteers" to bring back home as part of a royal celebration, nor could they have foreseen what they would encounter when they arrived. For the realm of Fionavar was the first world crafted by the eternal Weaver, a world of gods and magic... and an ancient evil about to slip its bonds and resume its war against all of Creation. In the coming conflict, all will have a role to play - even five outsiders from another world.

REVIEW: Kay's trilogy is considered a classic, a Celtic-flavored epic with shades of Tolkien. At several turns, this works against immersion by modern readers. The world and characters are archetypes, the university students no exceptions. It's difficult to relate to archetypes, as they are, by definition, larger than life, infused with exaggerated purposes and a sort of innate brooding intensity that precludes indecision or other relatable emotions. Fionavar itself is a world of expected tropes - the generic pseudo-medieval kingdom, the hidden dwarves, the secretive faerielike races (Light and Dark, the former indescribably beautiful and the latter twisted and ugly), the proud riders of the open plains, etc. It, too, felt too archetypal to connect with through most of the book. While the descriptions were vivid, they were grandiose, creating more of a stylized tapestry than a realistic painting, constantly interwoven with histories and names and battles and more that were difficult to keep straight. The whole lacked a certain sense of wonder. Five people who didn't even know other worlds or magic existed are taken for (what seems at first to be) a holiday in a castle straight out of a fairy tale - and the denizens of the castle celebrate the fiftieth year of their king's reign with five otherworldly visitors - but only vague lip service is given to the sense of awe and disbelief and amazement this should invoke on all sides. (Even though they ostensibly know of other worlds in Fionavar, actual visitors from those realms are exceptionally rare, as the powers to do so are hardly common.) Everyone's rather casual about it, often seeming to forget that these students aren't from this world; one of the first things the prince heir does is involve two of these untrained outsiders in a highly risky venture, where their failure could well mean his own death. I get that this was all supposed to be part of overarching Fate and Greater Things and the unpredictable yet inevitable weaving of their threads through the tapestry of existence and whatnot, but it created a barrier to my immersion. Still, I managed to find enough to intrigue me to keep going, and I was getting to enjoy it on its own terms... until I came to the final chapters. And here I risk a vague potential spoiler, but a necessary one to explain my rating. Skip the following paragraph if you wish to avoid it.
I suppose I should've seen it coming (everyone had found their role except one woman, so there's pretty much only one reason for a pretty girl to exist in a world like this one, with a great and horrific evil stalking the land), but it still sent bristles down my spine and pain through my jaw as I ground my teeth at seeing yet another trope played out with rather gratuitous depravity. Yes, such treatment of females was (and, sadly, all too often remains) a staple of the stories Kay was deliberately emulating, and much that was considered acceptable in the 1980's when this book was published gets more scrutiny nowadays, but still... but still...
After the above, adding to the sour taste left in my mouth, the book itself ends with an abruptness that suggests not so much an intentional cliffhanger but a cleaver dropped in the middle of the manuscript. These issues managed to shave off any extra star or half-star that The Summer Tree almost earned earlier. I will admit I'm just curious enough about the overall story (and how Kay will justify those last incidents, if indeed he does at all) to consider picking up the second book - but it would have to be exceptionally cheap. It will also have to be paperback; in case it drops any further into aggravation, regardless of whether it's "authentic" to the style, I don't want to damage my wall plaster.

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