Saturday, September 22, 2018

Ghost Talkers (Mary Robinette Kowal)

Ghost Talkers
Mary Robinette Kowal
Fiction, Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: As the Great War wages in Europe, England employs a secret weapon: the Spirit Corps, mediums trained to take reports from soldiers killed in action, making for near-real-time intelligence on enemy troop movements. American-born Ginger is one of the mediums working at Le Havre, where most soldiers think she and her mostly-female colleagues are no more than hospitality workers, while her British fiance Ben works in espionage.
For all the death and danger that surrounds her daily, Ginger still wasn't ready when Ben reported to her as a ghost - not killed in battle, but murdered by traitors in their own ranks.
Unlike most ghosts, who depart beyond the veil, Ben lingers, tethered to Ginger by unfinished business on Earth. With evidence that the Germans are figuring out the existence of the Spirit Corps, the danger is rising daily. Finding Ben's murderer may be the only way to stop a looming disaster - but a ghost's memories fragment the longer they remain on the mortal plane, and Mary was never trained for spywork. Nevertheless, she's his only hope of finding peace, and the only hope of saving the Corps.

REVIEW: Kowal's alternate-history story brings a fresh horror to the face of war, where soldiers are expected to not only give their lives but part of their afterlives to the cause that killed them. As a medium, Ginger experiences more death than most, receiving reports and last messages from dead soldiers and even reliving some of their final memories countless times in a day. Still, the murder of Ben hits her hard, as does watching his lingering ghost slowly disintegrate into base emotions. Hindered by the sexism of the day (with racism also present, even if, as a white woman, she only sees it when confronted with it), she nevertheless steps up to the task of finding Ben's killer and unearthing the network of traitors in their midst. One of the culprits is a bit obvious, but overall Kowal does a good job raising questions and ratcheting up tension over whom to suspect; even the ability to read emotions in auras doesn't help when one can't read the thoughts behind the emotions. It's a well-paced story of the horrors of war and the power of love.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Carnacki, the Ghost Finder (William Hope Hodgson) - My Review
Ghosts of Belfast (Stuart Neville) - My Review
The Screaming Staircase (Jonathan Stroud) - My Review

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Incriminating Evidence (Rachel Grant)

Incriminating Evidence
The Evidence series, Book 4
Rachel Grant
Janus Publishing
Fiction, Romance/Suspense
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Rootless archaeologist Isabel only ever had one point of security in her life, her brother Vincent... until he was murdered eleven months ago while working with the mercenary group Raptor, a death quickly covered up by the new CEO as an unfortunate training accident. So she's come to the small town of Tamarack, Alaska, ostensibly surveying timber land but actually sneaking onto Raptor territory (in spite of a restraining order) to seek evidence. This is how she stumbled across the wounded man - and into more trouble than she could've imagined.
Former Army Ranger Alec scarcely remembers the past day. He'd come to Alaska to see to his newly-acquired business, Raptor - only to wake up, wounded and disoriented, in the middle of nowhere with a strange redheaded woman. When he finds out who she is, he wonders if she's the one who landed him there to begin with: it's no secret that Isabel blames Raptor for her brother's death, and even got the compound shut down for two months, a black eye on both the company and his own ongoing political campaign back home in Maryland. If anyone has a motive to attack him, it's her. But he soon becomes convinced that there's more to her and her claims than he first realized. A rival mercenary group, an experimental infrasound weapon, a possible stalker, rogue agents in their midst, and more create a recipe for disaster - though the greatest risk may be to a pair of hearts who pick the worst time and place to fall in love.

REVIEW: I've only read one other Evidence novel, which I enjoyed enough to prompt me to pick up this one when the ebook was on sale. (I have no idea why Book 4 was offered at a discount and not others, but that's why I'm just a reader and not a publisher, I suppose.) Like many romance series, it's not so important to read them in linear order; aside from some character crossover and thematic resonance, this works as a standalone. It has many of the same elements I enjoyed about Concrete Evidence, the first book in the series: strong yet flawed main characters who balance rather than overwhelm each other, crackling sexual tension that progresses naturally, a suspense-filled plot that stands on solid research, and enough unpredictability to keep things interesting even if the relationship is a foregone conclusion. It reads fast and comes to a satisfying resolution, which is what I wanted when I picked it up. I expect I'll keep an eye peeled for the rest of the series, if they ever decide to show up on sale.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Fix-Up (Tawna Fenske) - My Review
Concrete Evidence (Rachel Grant) - My Review
Bound to the Bachelor (Sarah Mayberry) - My Review

Sunday, September 16, 2018

The Girl With No Name (Marina Chapman)

The Girl With No Name: The Incredible Story of a Child Raised by Monkeys
Marina Chapman, Vanessa James, and Lynne Barrett-Lee
Pegasus Books
Nonfiction, Autobiography
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Mid-1950's Colombia was a land of little law, where murder, kidnapping, and child abductions were commonplace. In a small mountain village, a girl eagerly awaiting her fifth birthday sneaks out of the house to steal pea pods from the garden. Before she knows what's happening, a hand grabs her, and a cloth is pressed over her face.
She would never see her home or her family again.
Abandoned by her abductors deep in the jungle, the girl would soon forget almost everything about her past - her parents, her language, even her own name - as she struggles to survive. Her only teachers and companions for years are a troop of capuchin monkeys. Inevitably, she eventually returns to the human world to be among her own kind... but lessons learned in the wilderness would mean the difference between life and death, even far from the jungle.

REVIEW: This is one of those stories that seems almost impossible, like something out of Kipling, but which apparently actually happened; the tales were pieced together from Marina's memories by her children, with some research help from a ghostwriter, who confirmed what points could be confirmed. (Marina never does recall her birth name or family, and even her exact age is a matter of speculation.) It avoids overly anthropomorphizing the monkeys who proved so instrumental to her survival. While individuals take on distinct personalities, they still remain animals, and there's still an unbreachable barrier between species; they accept the girl's presence and associate with her, but never seem to truly consider her one of their own, and even when Marina learns their "language" and the ways of their troop she's always an outsider. Somewhere deep down she knows she's human and belongs with other humans, though her own species turns out to be the greatest danger she faces in her wild life (her return to civilization finds her sold as an essential slave to a mentally unstable brothel owner, and her prospects scarcely improve after that.) The story moves fairly fast, painting a vivid picture of the green, living jungle and bleak, filthy cities where she must survive before finding true freedom and belonging. Marina's is an interesting story, with more chapters - such as how she wound up married and living in England - still to be told.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (Frans de Waal) - My Review
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (Frederick Douglass) - My Review
The Jungle Book (Rudyard Kipling) - My Review

Saturday, September 15, 2018

A Darker Shade of Magic (V. E. Schwab)

A Darker Shade of Magic
The Shades of Magic series, Book 1
V. E. Schwab
Fiction, Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: In four worlds, four Londons once stood side by side, accessed through the magic that all shared... but things changed with the fall of Black London, consumed by its own hungry powers. Now the ways between worlds are closed to all but the Antari, blood magicians marked by one pure black eye, of whom only two remain: Holland of White London, and Kell of Red London. (Grey London, in a grey world of soot and machines, knows so little magic its people think the term a lie.) To keep the evil of Black London from spreading, it was declared that nothing may cross between save letters between the royal houses. But Kell has managed to keep a small side business in the three Londons by smuggling trinkets across the borders, a kernel of rebellion against the chains of duty. He never handled anything truly dangerous - until he came into possession of the black stone, a forbidden relic of terrible strength, on a visit to the dangerously power-hungry rulers of White London. He flees with it to Grey London, and into the path of a most determined young woman.
Lila may be a simple street thief and pickpocket, but someday she will be a pirate queen and sail the world. When her nimble fingers lifted the rock from the strange man's pocket, she was disappointed in her take - but soon she learns more than she ever wanted to know about the other Londons, and about the stone's clever, dark powers, and about the man whom she robbed and to whom she soon owes her life. She could have walked away, probably should have walked away, but Lila isn't about to turn her back on the greatest adventure in her life... nor can she turn her back on magic, now that she knows its scent and strength and undeniable existence.
Their alliance was one of reluctant necessity, but it's going to take both Lila and Kell to deal with the trouble unleashed by the black stone, troubles that may see all three Londons go the way of their lost sister city.

REVIEW: I admit that this one took a while to grow on me. The premise is intriguing from the outset, of course - not just two parallel worlds, but four, each with their own charms and dangers - but Kell starts out a bit flat and broody, as does his counterpart Holland. (With Kell's broody nature and the way his hair was described as falling over his eye, part of my mind kept envisioning him as an anime character, an impression that took some time to shake and admittedly never quite vanished.) The people he interacted with, mostly royalty, seemed fairly simple as well, and the cruelty of the siblings in charge of White London bordered on caricatured. As for Lila, she's hardly warm and cuddly herself, and her first interactions with magic aren't necessarily intelligent given her street-honed wits. Eventually, though, I managed to immerse in the tale as the pace picked up. It's a violent and dark story with a high (and somewhat gruesome) body count, fairly fast-paced once it gets its feet under itself, ratcheting to a tense and bloody climax. (There is a noted tendency for characters to be repeatedly beaten, stabbed, thrown, and generally punished to borderline ridiculous extremes, including massive blood loss, without them actually collapsing longer than the paragraph break... but, then, there is just a whiff of old-school pulp action tale underlying the plot, and of course with magic - blood magic in particular - one can't get too hung up on the physical limits of the human body, I suppose. Still, I was almost chuckling now and again toward the end as the characters racked up concussion upon contusion.) Though the story arc wraps up in one volume, threads are left dangling for future adventures... adventures I might consider following if I found the sequels at the right price.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Invisible Library (Genevieve Cogman) - My Review
Stoneheart (Charlie Fletcher) - My Review
The Dark World (Henry Kuttner) - My Review

Friday, September 14, 2018

The Dream of the Thylacine (Margaret Wild)

The Dream of the Thylacine
Margaret Wild, illustrations by Ron Brooks
Allen and Unwin
Fiction, CH Picture Book/Poetry
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Caged in a zoo at the end of its life, the last living thylacine dreams of its lost freedom.

REVIEW: Another quick read during a slow stretch at work. This isn't so much a story as an illustrated freeform poem, juxtaposing harsh, often blurred black and white photos of the last known thylacine (Tasmanian tiger) in captivity with bright, dreamlike illustrations of its "memories." It is not a happy story - extinction never is - but a sadly touching one, even as more species teeter on the brink. If you read it with kids, be prepared to discuss why thylacines are no longer alive today, and what one might do to attempt stopping its fate from befalling others.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Heart of a Tiger (Marsha Diane Arnold) - My Review
Last of the Giants (Jeff Campbell) - My Review
A is for Activist (Innosanto Nagara) - My Review

Monday, September 10, 2018

WE3 (Grant Morrison)

The We3 series, Issues 1 - 3
Grant Morrison, illustrations by Frank Quitely
Fiction, Graphic Novel/Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: It was a program meant to end human death on the battlefield, replacing soldiers with cybernetically modified animals. But now that funding has been secured, the prototype We3 unit - the dog 1, the cat 2, and the rabbit 3 - is to be terminated like any obsolete technology. Only nobody asked their lead scientist/trainer... or the animals themselves, who have a rudimentary grasp of English thanks to their enhancements. The three former housepets escape, fleeing across the countryside in search of a place, a concept they but dimly recall: somewhere there is no need to run or to kill, called "home."

REVIEW: Though a bit jumbled at times, this is a quick-reading, if often gory, story in the vein of Richard Adams's Plague Dogs. The animals leave a red trail in their wake, often at least as much because of extreme measures used to hunt them down as their own actions, though they aren't overly burdened with human senses of morality; the dog 1 knows he should protect people, but does not hesitate to kill to keep his "pack" safe. After a while the gore becomes numbing and some of the action sequences are a bit hard to follow, and if you think too much about the premise things get shaky (why use stolen housepets when the shelters are overflowing with animals nobody would miss?), but there are moments of true emotional resonance. Overall, it's a dark examination of how inhuman the human species can be.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Autumnlands Volume 1: Tooth and Claw (Kurt Busiek) - My Review
The Call of the Wild and White Fang (Jack London) - My Review
Mort(e) (Robert Repino) - My Review

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Sparrow Hill Road (Seanan McGuire)

Sparrow Hill Road
The Ghost Roads series, Book 1
Seanan McGuire
Fiction, Collection/Fantasy/Horror
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: The Phantom Prom Date, the Girl in the Green Silk Gown, the Spirit of Sparrow Hill Road... around every camp fire, in every truck stop and greasy-spoon diner, people know the tragic story of the sweet young girl from the small town who died before her time, hitchhiking her way across North America. Some say she leads drivers to their deaths, some say she saves their lives, but none of them know the truth, and if they did they'd never believe it. Some stories, you have to die to believe.
Rose Marshall was sixteen when she was run off the road by Bobby Cross, a man who bargained for immortality at the cost of harvested souls - but she got away before he could claim hers, and she's been running from him ever since. Now she's a hitcher, a ghost of the twilight Americas that lie just beneath the skin of the living world, tethered to existence by unfinished business as she haunts the highways and diners and the hidden ghostroads. It's not the greatest afterlife, but she's seen enough to know there are fates far worse than death... such as the fate that awaits her should Bobby Cross finally get hold of her. Only Rose is getting a little tired of running away, and though she may be forever sixteen, she's not the same sweet, innocent small-town girl she used to be.

REVIEW: Built around ghost stories and urban legends and rooted in travelers' tales as old as the first trade routes, Sparrow Hill Road creates a modern American roadside mythology, where hitchhikers are as liable to be dead as alive, late-shift diners host spirits, crossroads bargains are not to be made lightly, and roadways can take on lives of their own. Rose Marshall makes a decent guide, a gutsy girl whose decades of death have hardened her in many ways; innocence is the first thing to go if one wants to survive the twilight ghostroads. Her adventures are laced with horror and beauty, sadness and humor, with nostalgia for a lost America alongside darker shadows of history that refuse to stay in the past. Rose collects some interesting allies and enemies on the road, all bound in some way by peculiar magicks that even long-time spirits or the most learned of routewitches can't fully explain. Rather than feeling plot-convenient or random, though, they fit the shifting, spectral nature of the twilight America McGuire crafts, which is a feat in and of itself. The rules are both simple and inexplicable, with no need for triple-appendiced magic systems (which have their places in fantasy, but can also overburden a story.) This book collects several short stories about Rose, some of which read as standalone adventures but all of which, especially towards the end, build into a greater arc as her confrontation with Bobby Cross looms ever closer. The conclusion wraps up character growth, even if threads are naturally left dangling for the rest of the series. I guess now I'll have to order Book 2... dang it.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Wish List (Eoin Colfer) - My Review
Neverwhere (Neil Gaiman) - My Review
Every Heart a Doorway (Seanan McGuire) - My Review

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Gods of Risk (James S. A. Corey)

Gods of Risk
An Expanse novella
James S. A. Corey
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: David Draper is everything a good Martian boy is supposed to be: studious and dedicated to a future helping terraform the red planet into a second, better Earth. He also, unknown to his family and schoolmates, has been cooking up drugs on the side for friends Hutch and Leelee... particularly Leelee, who may be Hutch's girlfriend but has been giving him enough hints of interest to keep him hopeful. Rising tensions with Earth lead to terrorist attacks on Mars, raising the risks for everyone involved - but when Leelee calls for help just before disappearing, David isn't going to walk away. He just needs to act without his parents or his fellow students finding out what he's been up to... not to mention without attracting the attention of his family's recent houseguest, his aunt, the former Martian Marine Roberta Draper.
Part of the Expanse series, chronologically placed between Book 2, Caliban's War, and Book 3, Abaddon's Gate.

REVIEW: This side adventure, referenced in a later Expanse novel, works decently as a standalone even as it fills in more details of Martian culture. David's not a bad person, but naive and immature enough, not to mention irritated enough by the chafe of the restrained, straight-arrow life he's expected to lead as a future Martian scientist, to be an easy mark for Hutch. He doesn't quite know what to make of his ex-Marine aunt, but has more to learn from her than he realizes as he finds his own life upended by events beyond his control. Unlike the previous series novella I've read (The Churn), this story felt complete in itself, without the nagging sense that it had been unnaturally shortened or rushed. Here and there it might've used a little trimming, but all in all I enjoyed it as a quick Expanse-flavored tale.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Leviathan Wakes (James S. A. Corey) - My Review
Binti (Nnedi Okorafor) - My Review
Red Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson) - My Review

Art and Fear (David Bayles and Ted Orlando)

Art and Fear
David Bayles and Ted Orlando
Image Continuum Press
Nonfiction, Art
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Art is easy. Being an artist is hard. And making a living out of art... well, that's basically impossible, isn't it? To be an artist of any stripe - actor, painter, musician, writer - is to face many fears: the fears that everything worth doing has already been done, that the next piece will never come, that nobody will value what one brings to the medium, that art will never be worth the cost and will never pay the rent. Those who persevere in the face of those fears create; those who give up never do. But it's not as easy as just deciding not to give in. The authors discuss the process of nurturing ideas, surviving the competition-driven art world, and remaining true to one's vision - even the matter of figuring out one's vision in the first place.

REVIEW: I've seen this title recommended more than once, so when I finally found a half-price copy I figured I'd give it a try. Like many who endeavor to create, fears and uncertainties have been constant companions, enough that I sometimes (too often) let them get the better of me; there's far too much actual dust in my workshed and figurative dust on my story files at the moment. The authors present the seemingly-paradoxical idea that many fears faced by artists are universal, yet each person must find their own path forward if they mean to move forward at all. They also acknowledge that it's not simply psychological, or a matter of shrugging off fears in the name of a Higher Calling; some of those fears are valid and need addressing in the real world, and conquering one does little to conquer another... nor does it ensure that the same problem won't return again. At some points, the writing gets a bit circular and meandering, losing its own thread as it wanders through ideas and anecdotes, enough to cost it a half-mark in the ratings. In the end, it's a decent examination of the forces without and within that can thwart creative endeavors, and an assurance that answers can be found, even if they can't simply be given.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Supplies: A Troubleshooting Guide for Creative Difficulties (Julia Cameron) - My Review
Writing With Power (Peter Elbow) - My Review
Drawing from Your Imagination (Ron Tiner) - My Review

Monday, September 3, 2018

Eclipse Volume 1 (Zack Kaplan)

Eclipse Volume 1
The Eclipse series, Issues 1 -4
Zack Kaplan, illustrations by Giovanni Timpano
Image Comics
Fiction, Graphic Novel/Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Ten years ago, when sunlight turned deadly, firefighter David Baxton became a hero when he rescued the mayor of New York City... at the cost of loved ones. Now a bitter man, he finds himself drawn again into the lives of the wealthy when someone starts using sunlight as a murder weapon in a series of gruesome attacks. What seems like simple fanaticism becomes something much more complicated, something that might lead humanity back into daylight again - or see its last sparks extinguished.

REVIEW: Many dystopian tales take place in shadowy, gritty settings, but this one takes it a step further, when the very light of day melts flesh almost instantly. Humanity adapts, but something vital was clearly lost, something that may never be regained, and men like Baxton feel it all the more acutely. It's a harsh, unique take on the future and extreme climate change, and it works fairly well. The characters can sometimes be tough to tell apart, especially in bulky "iceman" suits (required to navigate in daylight), with some of the plot threads about politics feeling a bit tangled, but all in all it's a decent story that rarely drags. It wraps up with a sense of character progress, even if there are (naturally) several unresolved arcs for future volumes to deal with.

You Might Also Enjoy:
King: The Graphic Novel (Joshua Hale Fialkov) - My Review
Mistborn: The Final Empire (Brandon Sanderson) - My Review
Rex Rising (Chrystalla Thoma) - My Review

Friday, August 31, 2018

August Site Update

And, just like that, summer's over, by the weather if not the calendar.

The previous nine reviews have been archived on the main site, and some minimal progress has been made on Phase II of the overhaul.


Thursday, August 30, 2018

Rebel Genius (Michael Dante DiMartino)

Rebel Genius
The Rebel Geniuses series, Book 1
Michael Dante DiMartini
Roaring Brook Press
Fiction, MG Fantasy
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Since the rise of the Supreme Creator Nerezza, the artists of Zizzola and their avian spirit guide Geniuses have been doomed; only Nerezza and her own monstrous Genius are allowed creative reign. Young Giacomo's parents used to be artists themselves, until Nerezza's troops slaughtered their Geniuses and turned them into half-mad Lost Souls... a fate that led to their deaths, leaving the boy an orphan to scrape a living out of the gutters. But despite deep artistic yearnings, Giacomo never had his own Genius - until an attack by city guards led to its arrival. Discovered by three other children who have their own forbidden Geniuses, he becomes part of a quest to find the three great instruments left behind by the Creator Himself, with which the world might be remade... or utterly destroyed. But others also seek the instruments, including agents of Nerezza and a rogue artist who created the ultimate blasphemy by daring to make his own living servant, a Tulpa. Can an untested, untrained boy like Giacomo hope to succeed where so many others have failed?

REVIEW: The author of this book, as the cover proudly announces, was a co-creator of the cult hit animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra... a connection that both explains and does not explain much about this story.
It explains the high visual component of the action, with the colored lights flashing about, the Geniuses with their bright plumage and gemstone-adorned crowns, and even the strong theme of "sacred geometry," the idea that reality can be broken down into a small number of "perfect" elemental shapes that form God's blueprint (more on this in a bit.) This was clearly written by someone used to having their ideas expressed in images, particularly animated images, and I couldn't help wondering if that was the original intent of this story: to be brought to life on screen, where it would've undoubtedly dazzled.
Given what I've seen of Avatar, however, it does not explain the overall flatness of the characters, which lean heavily on gender stereotypes, and how the story keeps explaining itself to the reader (perhaps a legacy of only having words to tell a tale when DiMartini is used to an animation team bringing them to life - it was as though he did not trust his ability to convey emotions without those images, and felt he had to explain again and again what was going on in the character's heads.) Hints of depth exist, but none of it feels authentic, not helped by the immaturity of Giaocomo and the other stars. Giacomo in particular is an annoyingly childish character in many respects, whose great importance (and, at more than one point, mere survival) is more a function of the plot than inherent courage or ability. It's ridiculously easy to sort the good guys from the bad based on first impressions; the one major betrayal was telegraphed early on. But this seems to be a common pitfall of this subgenre of fantasy... and here we get back to the Creator idea that dominates - indeed, stomps down on with an iron heel - so much of the story and the characters and the Renaissance-flavored world.
In my admittedly-limited reading of Christian fantasy - which this undoubtedly is, despite not actually using the words - there tends to be an oversimplification of plot and characters to emphasize Good and Evil, and (in this case especially) make for a fairly simplified creation story that discourages questioning... such as wondering at the seemingly-fickle abilities and blind spots of the god involved. Some few shades of gray trickle in by the end, but not enough to ameliorate the greater flattening effect.
Readers on the younger end of the middle-grade market might enjoy this one, but overall I've read too many other, more involved and interesting middle-grade titles to like it, despite some nice mind's-eye-candy appeal and potential. Which is a shame, as I saw so much more storytelling and character potential in the Avatar series than I saw here. (After reading this, though, I suppose it's just as well I never pursued the show, if it became this heavy-handed and overexplained. Maybe DiMartini just plain thinks more in terms of animation than straight-up writing...)

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Neverending Story (Michael Ende) - My Review
The Unwanteds (Lisa McMann) - My Review
The Rithmatist (Brandon Sanderson) - My Review

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Fairy Quest: Outcasts: #2 (Paul Jenkins)

Fairy Quest: Outcasts: #2
The Fairy Quest series, Outcasts Issue 2
Paul Jenkins, illustrations by Humberto Ramos
Boom! Studios
Fiction, MG? Fantasy/Graphic Novels
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Red and her forbidden friend Mister Woof have made it to the cave of the Mapmaker, but their journey is far from over. The iron-fisted ruler of Fairyland, Grimm, still pursues the rogue characters - and the path ahead is at least as dangerous as the path behind. To reach the real world and their own chance at a happy ending, the pair must follow the Yellow Brick Road through Oz and past Wonderland... but these places aren't the fairy tales they used to be.

REVIEW: I needed a quick palate-cleanser after my last read (and after another bad news day), so I figured I'd return to this series for the second issue. It picks up right where the previous installment left off, with Red and Woof in the sanctuary of the Mapmaker's cavern - where they learn the fate of forgotten stories, a fate that might befall them if they fail. Meanwhile, Grimm and his armies haven't given up pursuit of the pair, even as Wonderland and Oz offer their own threats. Still an enjoyable riff on tweaked fairy tales, with a cliffhanger promising more adventures ahead.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Sisters Grimm: Fairy Tale Detectives (Michael Buckley) - My Review
Fairy Quest: Outcasts: #1 (Paul Jenkins) - My Review
The Enchanted Forest Chronicles (Patricia C. Wrede) - My Review

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Too Like the Lightning (Ada Palmer)

Too Like the Lightning
The Terra Ignota series, Book 1
Ada Palmer
Fiction, Literary Fiction/Sci-Fi
** (Bad)

DESCRIPTION: On 2400's Earth, power structures and societal norms have been radically altered. Humans no longer identify with geographic nations but with Hives of like-minded people. Nonviolent criminals are sentenced to life as Servicers, essentially slaves unable to own property or acquire money and required to aid any who demand it. The family unit has largely been replaced by bash'es, community dwellings of mates and friends. And, ever since the bloody Church Wars, organized religion has been outlawed, priests replaced by sensayers: those trained in the innumerable belief systems and philosophies of humanity who act as spiritual counselors.
Mycroft, a Servicer with access to some of Earth's most powerful individuals, was assisting the prominent Saneer-Weeksbooth bash' - center of the global transportation system that keeps the modern age moving and nations borderless - when he stumbled across a secret that would eventually remake the world: the boy Bridger, whose mere touch and willpower could bring toys, drawings, and mere ideas to life. As one of the few privy to the child's secret existence, he takes it upon himself to defend him from a world not yet ready for him, and to defend the boy from a world he is not yet mature enough to face... but a series of seemingly unconnected events begin to tip the global balance of power. In such chaotic times, secrets will undoubtedly be revealed, for good or ill.

REVIEW: It's not often that I can say a Bad review is a generous rating, but I had to take into account the fact that, in most ways, this story and this reader were completely mismatched from page one. Given that I could not have been the intended audience, take my opinion with a healthy dose of salt.
This is a literary novel to its marrow, a book where the reader is expected to be conversant in eighteenth-century philosophy and ancient politics and numerous other topics I generally find as fascinating as drying cement, and at least as thick to slog through. Without such interest or expertise, it read like the written version of the Codex Seraphinianus, an art book purporting to describe a surreal alternate world that contains bizarre pictures such as multi-headed birds and transmogrifying humans, but with all text written in an entirely invented, intentionally untranslatable script. Like the Codex, I was presented with strange, often baffling images of a world I could scarcely relate to, with walls of words that meant next to nothing to me. This sense of disconnect was not helped by the writing style, which deliberately (and often aggravatingly) mimicked eighteenth-century styles in its slow, description-heavy pace, frequent tangents, and multiple breaking of the fourth wall to address the hypothetical reader, not to mention a general expectation that I'd find anything the narrator chose to describe gripping; at more than one point, I was supposed to be spellbound as various characters calculated statistics. Characters - of which there were far too many, often with multiple names that I was supposed to somehow keep straight - were universally unlikable caricatures, often twisted (not helped by an unreliable narrator who might be insane), with not a single healthy relationship between them. The future world claims to have cast off gender identity, yet time and again gender-based stereotypes (not always tied to anatomical gender) played out in heavy handed ways - some of which was deliberate given the narrator's proclivities and Points Being Made about society, all of which was tooth-grinding. Most of the cast seemed to be terribly important, Hive leaders and such, but be danged if I cared about any of them, especially viewed through Mycroft's writing. It all takes place in a future that's essentially a bizarre update of the Enlightenment, one where radically altered societal norms merely create new markets for deeper deviations and depravities and hedonism under the surface... but, since I couldn't care about the characters, I couldn't care about the world that their actions and power games might save or destroy. What's the plot actually about? Darned if I could describe it even after reading it, as the plot (a dense and convoluted thing involving murders and possible religious cults and a coming global recession and power plays, all only incidentally touching on the miracle boy Bridger) really isn't the point. Like many literary novels, it's more about the themes, the ideas, the mood, and the various topics the author wanted to lecture about via the loose framework of a book. (I was not at all surprised to read that the author is, in fact, a history professor.) Naturally, as the first in a series, the ending doesn't really wrap up much, making it all the more disappointing.
I had heard many interesting things about Too Like the Lightning. It was a contender for major awards. It had lots of positive buzz. And I can see just enough to understand how someone other than myself would be taken with it (enough for me to soften the rating I almost gave it, to allow for my own lack of literary taste): it does create a very unique future, for one thing, with societal changes on almost every level in ways that some authors neglect. But ultimately I could not enjoy it. My lasting impression is that any book where a character who quite literally can conjure life with a touch is relegated to a half-forgotten subplot compared to economic crises and what amount to board room meeting minutes has gone wrong at some point.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Foundation (Isaac Asimov) - My Review
The Three-Body Problem (Cixin Liu) - My Review
Moby Dick (Herman Melville) - My Review

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Fables: Legends in Exile (Bill Willingham)

Fables: Legends in Exile, Volume 1
The Fables series, Issues 1 - 5
Bill Willingham, illustrations by James Jean and Alex Maleev
Fiction, Fantasy/Graphic Novel
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: A long, long time ago in a land far, far away, the denizens of the myriad realms and kingdoms of Never lived out their fairy-tale lives, largely unconcerned with the fates of their neighbors... until the Adversary rose. His conquering armies destroyed everything they could not enslave. Only a small population managed to escape to a strange and distant land known as Earth. Here, forced together by circumstance, they banded together to create the community of Fabletown, granting amnesty for past mischief and crimes. Unaging, living among the mortal "mundy" population in secret, they wait for the day they can reclaim their former lands.
When Snow White's sister, the wild child Rose Red, disappears, her apartment covered in blood, her former boyfriend Jack (of beanstalk fame) is the first suspect; he may have been pardoned like the rest of them, but he's still a trickster at heart, and if he could slay giants then killing a girlfriend isn't a seven-league step. But as Bigby Wolf and Snow investigate, they find the truth isn't as neat as a fairy tale.

REVIEW: This award-winning series re-imagines fairy tales into the modern world, retaining many of their original, darker quirks; those expecting watered-down Disney versions should probably look elsewhere, as the writing draws off the older, more twisted versions of tales. (This is not a children's graphic novel by any means, with gore and sexual content.) Bigby the wolf, struggling to stay on the right side of the law, wouldn't be out of place in a noir novel, a grizzled detective always ready to see the dark side of any given situation, who knows full well that past amnesty did nothing to eliminate the less pleasant aspects of his fellows' personalities. His partner of circumstance, Snow, has risen far since divorcing her cheating husband Prince Charming (who is up to his old ways again, earning a spot on the suspect list), technically the second most powerful person in Fabletown under the largely-figurehead King Cole. Side roles go to familiar figures such as the last surviving member of the three pigs, the former Frog Prince (who still snacks on the occasional fly out of habit), and Snow White's assistant Little Boy Blue, among others. The illustrations are nicely detailed, with many imaginative touches. As for the mystery of Rose Red, I found the conclusion a trifle unsatisfying, but overall it worked, and it did fit with what the reader knew, even if Bigby held a few details of his deductions close to his chest until the final reveal (in a self-confessed "parlor scene" without a parlor, because he so rarely has a chance to gather suspects to reveal a culprit in his line of work.) At the end, a written backstory fills in Bigby's past in Never, and hints at what compelled him to follow the others to Earth and ultimately try his hands (or paws) at heroism after a lifetime of unrepentant villainy. A nice read all in all, though I'm not sure if I feel compelled to follow the series or not; this one reads fine as a standalone, with touches of "pilot episode" setting establishment.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Fairy Quest: Outcasts: #1 (Paul Jenkins) - My Review
Blood for Wolves (Nicole Taft) - My Review
Princeless: Save Yourself (Jeremy Whitley) - My Review

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Furthermore (Tahereh Mafi)

Tahereh Mafi
Fiction, MG Fantasy
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: On the cusp of her twelfth birthday, Alice Alexis Queensmeadow is certain her life can only get better, because it's hard to imagine it growing worse. Three years ago, her beloved Father disappeared with only a ruler in his pocket, leaving her Mother to crumble with despair and Alice to fend for herself against the rest of Ferenwood. In this land bursting with color and magic (the former being a mark of the latter), Alice alone has no pigment, marking her as forever different, forever lesser - and boys like Oliver have always let her know about it. Only now Oliver is trying to get her help for some reason. She's determined to refuse... until he tells her he knows where her Father is: the near-mythical realm of Furthermore, where magic is even wilder - and more dangerous - than anything she's ever known.

REVIEW: With clear nods to Alice in Wonderland in both the main character's name and the nonsense-tinged nature of both worlds she travels through, it's no wonder the plot tends toward the silly and surreal. Unfortunately, so do the characters, to the point where I just plain didn't like them for far too long. Alice is too immature, stubborn, and mercurial to begin to care about, though Oliver's little better, deliberately playing games and hiding things. The worst of the lot, though, is the narrator, who often tries far too hard to be both Clever and Profound, and who jerks the reader around too much and too often. This is a shame, as both Ferenwood and Furthermore have some great potential and bright mind's-eye-candy details (showers of bright "rainshine," night skies exploding with galaxies and planets, origami foxes from two-dimensional realms, and so forth); being forced to experience them through the double-clouded lenses of the characters and the narrator does little to serve them. Things happen, but more often than not because of stubborn, silly, and stupid things Alice does or doesn't do (or Oliver does or doesn't do - he's not entirely blameless in more than one near-disaster), with escapes materializing as quickly as dangers. The conclusion wraps up far too fast and tidily given the peril involved in reaching it, and a couple key plot points turn into limp red herrings by the end.
Younger readers, particularly those taken with surreal wonderlands and the odd clever turn of phrase and less interested in character integrity, would enjoy it more than I did. As for me, despite the potential and a few fun moments, I spent far too much time thinking I should've picked another book from my pile... a bad sign, I feel, when one is reading.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Best of Lewis Carroll (Lewis Carroll) - My Review
The Divide (Elizabeth Kay) - My Review
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making (Catherynne M. Valente) - My Review

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Retrograde (Peter Cawdron)

Peter Cawdron
John Joseph Adams Books
Fiction, Sci-Fi/Thriller
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: "They just nuked Chicago."
With those four words, the first international mission to Mars plunges into disarray. Like the other scientists, Elizabeth came to the red planet for the research opportunity of a lifetime, enduring grueling training both physical and psychological, but nothing could have prepared her for war on Earth. Just when they should be coming together, though, the teams begin to pull apart, as paranoia and nationalism grip the scientists... but is that all that's at work, or is some more sinister game being played? Soon, it becomes clear that the real threat isn't millions of miles away on Earth, in the radioactive rubble of its major cities. The danger is right there with Elizabeth on Mars.

REVIEW: Retrograde starts fast and rarely slackens its pace. Several characters remain general sketches, but tend to have a little more depth and complexity than first appears, especially as tension brings out the worst instincts in the scientists (Elizabeth included, sometimes.) Liz and the others prove resourceful, as astronauts by nature need to be, but are not beyond the odd mistake, nor are they beyond occasionally-blinding bouts of emotion. It makes for a dangerous balancing act, even as the death toll and danger ratchet up with every chapter.
The technology is rooted in real-world research and engineering, highlighting the difficulties and possibilities of creating a human presence on Mars. It's not so simple as throwing up a dome and planting crops; the very soil (or regolith, rather) is carcinogenic, and dangerous radiation levels constantly bathe a surface mostly unprotected by atmosphere. Even the possibility of groundwater hardly makes the red planet more inviting. Nevertheless, the technology (or, at least, the theories for such technology) exists, or is within a few decades of existing (apparent rejection of science and progress by a major spacegoing nation's current leadership notwithstanding.)
Toward the end, a couple developments almost strike false notes, leaps that feel a bit forced specifically to jab proverbial knives into protagonist Liz's heart (but, then, that's pretty much a main function of a thriller's plot), and the conclusion leaves the tale open to possible sequels. Overall, though, it's a fast-reading story of attack, survival, and raw ingenuity in the harshest of imaginable environments.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Vacation Guide to the Solar System (Olivia Koski and Jana Grcevich) - My Review
Red Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson) - My Review
The Martian (Andy Weir) - My Review

Monday, August 13, 2018

Words of Radiance (Brandon Sanderson)

Words of Radiance
The Stormlight Archive, Book 1
Brandon Sanderson
Fiction, Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: The storm-swept world of Roshar stands on the brink of destruction... but few are aware of the danger, and fewer still can stand against it. The Knights Radiant, people bonded to the elemental spren and powered by Stormlight, long ago abandoned the world, and in the centuries since knowledge of them has been lost and deliberately obscured. If the world is to survive, the Knights Radiant must be reformed... but how, and by whom?
Highprince Dalinar's visions of past cataclysms drive him to seek the Knights, but an incompetent king and petty, infighting nobles stand in his way. His former friend Sadeas has shown his true colors in a betrayal that turns the highprinces against each other, even as unity may be the only key to salvation. But Sadeas is more than just a selfish, short-sighted man, as so many lighteyes princes are; indeed, he may know more about the coming cataclysm than even Dalinar.
Kaladin Stormblessed, once a slave doomed to die as part of Sadeas's disposable bridge crews, finds himself elevated to the rank of captain, unthinkable for a darkeyes... but he finds no peace in his new rank. His ability to inhale and channel Stormlight, and his bond with the windspren Syl, have changed him irrevocably, though even as he hides his true nature from his new lord Dalinar, he struggles to determine what to do with his powers - just as he struggles with his own hatred every time he sees Dalinar with his new ally Highprince Amaram, the man who slaughtered Kaladin's former companions and branded him a slave when he stole the Shardblade Kaladin himself had earned in battle. Syl insists that he cannot indulge his vengeance, that he must find a higher calling, but Kaladin cannot let injustice stand unanswered - even if it costs him everything he has gained.
Shallan's plan to steal from her mentor Jashah to save her failing family ended in disaster - but Shallan's accidentally-discovered abilities prompted the scholar to keep her on as a student, believing the would-be thief to be an important key to her own research. When disaster strikes and leaves Jasnah dead, Shallan and her newly-bonded spren Pattern must take up her research and mission: to find a lost city on the war-torn Shattered Plains. There, perhaps, humanity might find safe harbor from the coming Everstorm. But first Shallan must master her own Stormlight-fueled skills, and confront secrets she's been hiding from herself for most of her life.
Meanwhile, the seemingly-unstoppable Assassin in White strikes down rulers around the world, sowing chaos and bloodshed and confusion, as another force hunts down the emerging Knights Radiant even as they begin to feel their powers.
The Everstorm is almost upon them all...

REVIEW: Sanderson evidently does not believe in recaps or easing readers back into a world; he drops them in the deep end to sink or swim. Since I didn't reread the first volume before picking this one up, that made for some floundering and confusion, as I struggled for my bearings. Once I regained the feel of the world, though, Words of Radiance proved to be another enjoyable entry in this truly grand and sweeping epic fantasy series. All manner of peculiar cultures and creatures populate Roshar, tied by a deep history whose echoes still shape societies long after the original truths and roots have been forgotten (or deliberately obscured; the dominant church of much of the region did much to distort and destroy that which disagreed with its teachings, as churches are wont to do.) As for the characters, they continue to grow richer and more complex, revealing unexpected strengths and weaknesses that usually ring true. A few developments here and there felt forced, one or two of the new characters didn't quite fit in, and something that occurred in the epilogue (no spoilers, sorry) helped shave a half-star from the rating, but overall I enjoyed this one nearly as much as the first one. I'll have to remember to read the third book sooner rather than later, however, so I don't have to spend quite so long re-immersing when I next return to Roshar.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Rhapsody (Elizabeth Haydon) - My Review
A Game of Thrones (George R. R. Martin) - My Review
The Way of Kings (Brandon Sanderson) - My Review

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Disenchanted & Co. (Lynn Viehl)

Disenchanted and Co.
The Disenchanted and Co. series, Book 1
Lynn Viehl
Pocket Books
Fiction, Fantasy/Romance/Sci-Fi
** (Bad)

DESCRIPTION: In the colonial nation of Toriana, the march of science has done nothing to dispel the power of magic - utter nonsense, according to Charmain "Kit" Kitteridge, but when she gains a reputation for breaking spells, she's perfectly willing to make a business of it. People are reluctant enough to hire a woman, especially a scandalously single woman with no desire to marry, and she can't stand to see everyone, even her best friends, get in such tizzies over stuff she's never once seen work. But her latest job, helping the wealthy Lady Walsh investigate increasingly-malicious attacks from a "spirit" in her home, lands her in the heart of a dangerous game she doesn't understand, forced into company with a longtime-rival deathmage and a local constable, in a plot that might finally make even the great skeptic Kit believe in the blackest of magic.

REVIEW: In reading this book, I experienced the frustration of being given mismatched pieces from different puzzles and being forced to try to cram them together. On the one hand, Toriana - a steampunk alternate America where the American Revolution failed - is a decently realized setting, clearly with much thought put into its history and structure (a little too much thought, to be honest, as the writing is prone to tangents on this account.) On the other, I'm given the flimsiest and, frankly, least likable characters to follow through it, not to mention numerous other distractions and clutter.
The nominal heroine, Kit, prides herself on defying a sexist, oppressive society and setting her own course... but she's spent her entire life apparently thinking of everyone else in the world as stupid simpletons for believing in magic just because she personally has not seen it.  Yes, Kit is the only clear-eyed woman on a planet of the blind. Even her best friends must be morons in her eyes; it never dawns on her that maybe, just maybe, there's a little more to this whole magic thing until she's repeatedly struck over the head. (Not a spoiler to say magic is real: it's clear fairly early on that she's oversimplifying her reality in her flat denial, especially when she reveals within two chapters that she can see spirits following funeral processions.) Then there are the two love interests, both of whom seem more interested in what she isn't, or what she should be according to society and their personal twisted fantasies, than what she is; deathmage Lucien is a vampire-level stalker, while constable Tommy is such an innocent, straight-laced boy one frankly wonders if he'd ever even honor his wedding night out of fear of impropriety. But, then, Kit, for all her bluster about independence, turns out to be little but a shallow, easily-dominated woman when men finally treat her as women are supposed to be treated: stalked, abducted, and practically pinned down. (The sex scenes, like most of the "romance," felt like they didn't belong in many ways, more of those mismatched pieces being pounded into the puzzle. But, then, there's a whole unpleasant undercurrent to the treatment of women and sex here.) And this isn't even getting into the magical end of the tale, which keeps changing its rules and coming up with new loopholes and twists and things magic can or can't do to the point that I gave up caring. Why bother, when I didn't care about any of the characters involved? The story eventually builds to a tangled mess of a climax, bringing together threads of politics, history, magic, relationships, Kit's personal history (which, coincidence of plot-convenient coincidences, is deeply entwined with unfolding events), and more - only to fall back on the one of the oldest, stalest, most head-smackingly lame tricks in the book to slip out of the Gordian knot it had tied itself into.
In the end, among myriad other questions, I was left to wonder why. Why spend all that time and effort crafting Toriana, only to populate it with shallow sketches of characters? Why shoehorn in a "romance" straight out of the worst old bodice-rippers, where love meant a man showing a woman her place and the woman deciding she enjoys being a thing instead of a person? Why create magic so convoluted that the story has to keep stopping itself to explain new developments the whole way through? Why spend so much time having characters dance around insulting each other or denying obvious things rather than progressing the plot? And why, oh, why that complete cop-out of a conclusion? I cannot answer those questions, but I can answer the question of whether I'll follow Kit's further adventures: not just no, but a resounding no.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Emperor's Edge (Lindsay Buroker) - My Review
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Monstress Volume 1: Awakening (Marjorie Liu) - My Review

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The Expanse: Origins (James S. A. Corey, Hallie Lambert, and Georgia Lee)

The Expanse Volume 1: Origins
The Expanse Origins, Issues 1 - 4
James S. A. Corey, Hallie Lambert, and Georgia Lee; illustrations by Huang Danlan, Triona Farrell, Juan Useche, and Rahzzah
BOOM! Studios
Fiction, Collection/Graphic Novel/Media Tie-In/Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Earthers Jim Holden and Amos Burton, Belters Naomi Nagata and Detective Josephus Miller, and Martian Alex Kamal: perhaps the most famous crew in the solar system, seemingly always at the heart of history-changing events. Fate brought them together aboard the gunship Rocinante, but all of them have histories and secrets that shape who they are and who they might become. In this graphic novel, glimpse their backstories.
Based on the Expanse series, created by James S. A. Corey.

REVIEW: As one might infer from the rating, I had a mixed reaction to this one. It skews toward the TV series more than the novels (understandable, as two of the writers are from the show and the art clearly favors the actors over strict book descriptions), so book purists would likely be disgruntled. (Me, I enjoy both versions: fandom has prepared me well to accept parallel universes as equals.) Indeed, it's very unlikely these would stand well on their own if someone wasn't familiar with the show, making the whole collection feel more like marketing than an independent series of stories.
The stories themselves are odd choices. The weakest is the first, Holden's backstory, which does little to elaborate on events that were mentioned in passing elsewhere. It's strange that the ship's captain and ostensible lead (even in an ensemble cast, the captain tends to be the unspoken lead) gets the least involved entry, and I couldn't help feeling that cards were deliberately being held close to the writers' vests here, to the detriment of the tale. As the first story, it set things off on an awkward foot, as I found myself wondering if I'd overpaid for graphic novel adaptations of lines from the show. Fortunately, the other three entries become more interesting, exploring events that viewers and readers (at least, readers up through Book 5, where I'm at) don't already know and meshing well with existing canon, though I'm no continuity hawk to notice incongruities. The art is serviceable, though I admit that I've been spoiled in that regard with some of my other graphic novel reads, which generally feature more cinematic styles and spreads.
Ultimately, while it offers insights into character development (and likely foreshadows future events), it ends up feeling a little too much like a marketing cash-in for me to give it a full fourth star. (More power to 'em, of course, for having a hot commodity, but it does affect my reaction.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Leviathan Wakes (James S. A. Corey) - My Review
All Systems Red (Martha Wells) - My Review
The Expanse: Season 1- Amazon DVD link

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

July Site Update

I have updated the main site for July, archiving twelve new reviews for the month.

I also started in on Phase II of the overhaul, cross-linking reviews to related themes and other titles of interest. The A and B reviews are done, plus the new reviews.

The Random Recommendations sidebar on this blog also got rotated. (I need to do that more often...)


Monday, July 23, 2018

In Search of Lost Dragons (Elian Black'Mor)

In Search of Lost Dragons
Elian Black'Mor, Carine-M, and Jezequel
Dynamite Entertainment
Fiction, YA Fantasy/Graphic Novel
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: After an unusual encounter, intrepid investigator Elian Black'Mor sets out in search of the world's vanishing dragons. Following a trail halfway around the globe, he finds himself walking in the footsteps of a forgotten civilization, one that calls him ever onward...

REVIEW: As a dragon-lover, I had high hopes for this graphic novel. Those hopes were quickly watered down, if not dashed altogether, by an excess of style and a dearth of coherent plot. The entire book is written in cramped cursive, often on less-than-pristine "paper" or other backgrounds, which made for very challenging reading - not helped by an unclear flow of sentences and paragraphs that often changed angles and sizes and only rarely connected to each other, visually or thematically, in any meaningful fashion. Maybe it would've been easier in physical print, but I was reading on my Nook tablet via Hoopla, and it took some serious contrast adjustment to begin to read some of the entries (and even then I'll admit I guessed at a few phrases, and gave up altogether on others.) Perhaps as a result, the plot seemed scarcely more substantial than that which flows through a dream, frequently interrupted by encounters that might or might not be all in the narrator's head. As for the dragons and other images, they are indeed imaginative, yet after a while there's a certain sameness to the style that detracted from the greater sense of wonder. Add that to my increasing disinterest in the alternate-history world and characters (such as they were) and frustration in trying to follow the journey, and I ended this one more disappointed than inspired, unable to even justify a flat Okay rating.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Dragonology: The Complete Book of Dragons (Dr. Ernest Drake) - My Review
Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time (James Gurney) - My Review
Dragon Girl: The Secret Valley (Jeff Weigel) - My Review

Binti (Nnedi Okorafor)

The Binti trilogy, Book 1
Nnedi Okorafor
Fiction, Sci-Fi
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: On a future Earth, sixteen-year-old Binti defies her family and her Himba tribe's traditions when she leaves home for Oomza University, on another planet. Her mathematical gifts and abilities as a harmonizer have earned her a rare scholarship from the interplanetary school, a chance to become much more than Earth or her family's astrolabe business can offer, and she knows she cannot turn her back on this opportunity even with what it will cost her. But the journey to Oomza is interrupted by the Meduse, jellyfishlike aliens known for wanton slaughter - and Binti alone may stand between them and the annihilation of the university.

REVIEW: I've heard nothing but good things about this trilogy and this author, so I figured I should give it a try. Happily, it lives up to the hype, with a strong, intriguing heroine in a far-future world where advanced science borders on being indistinguishable from magic (if I may paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke.) Binti's tribal origins and mathematical gifts mark her as unique even among humans, yet they ultimately empower her, giving her an original perspective that becomes key to the plot. The novella reads fast - I cleared it in under two hours, not counting interruptions - and wraps up enough to feel mostly complete on its own. I expect I'll grab the next book sooner rather than later.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Leopard's Daughter (Lee Killough) - My Review
Old Man's War (John Scalzi) - My Review
Otherland: City of Golden Shadow (Tad Williams) - My Review

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Serafina and the Black Cloak (Robert Beatty)

Serafina and the Black Cloak
The Serafina series, Book 1
Robert Beatty
Fiction, MG Fantasy/Historical Fiction/Horror
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Serafina has always been a different sort of girl. With amber-gold eyes that see in the dark as well as the light, able to squeeze into the smallest corner and stalk the stealthiest mouse, she's been the Chief Rat Catcher at Biltmore Estate for years... all without the estate owners, the Vanderbilts, knowing she's even alive. She lives in the boiler room with her mechanic pa in secret, spending her nights prowling the empty house for rodent intruders - until the night she finds a very different sort of invader, a terrifying man in a malevolent black cloak that devours a young girl right before her eyes. She tells her pa, of course, but he doesn't believe her. The next night, when another child disappears, Serafina just knows it's the Man in the Black Cloak. She realizes it's up to her to catch the most dangerous rat she's ever stalked - or die trying.

REVIEW: I feel very torn about my review. Parts of this book - the opulence of the Gilded Age estate, the creepy villain, the overall horror atmosphere - I liked, and other parts I wanted to like... but it kept getting in its own way. Despite the love of her pa, Serafina's a lonely child who never knew her mother, or any friends; contemplation on both subjects kept intruding on scenes, even when she ostensibly had more urgent things to be thinking of. These musings and longings tended to circle aimlessly, repeating themselves in scene after scene, and when she does finally make a friend - Vanderbilt nephew Braeden, who is also different in his own way, and equally uneasy in human company - it only makes the tangents worse. I wouldn't have minded so much if her inner struggles didn't perpetually trample over otherwise tense and atmospheric moments, interrupting the flow for little to no reason. Then, a good chunk of the way through, a new angle is introduced out of the blue, a piece to the puzzle that feels forced in, then is completely dropped until the climax. The mystery of the Man in the Black Cloak seems a little too obvious early on, even if he remains a terrifying villain; in order to keep them guessing, both Serafina and Braeden experience bouts of stupidity unbecoming a protagonist - particularly Serafina, who does something so remarkably stupid about halfway through I almost dropped the book to a Bad rating on the spot. Despite the frequent tangents (and that incredibly boneheaded maneuver - seriously, I could not believe she could be that dumb, though I can't elaborate without risking spoilers), the story manages to build to a creepy, somewhat gory climax... then stumbles along to a wrap-up that doesn't feel natural, too grandiose in some respects while too oblivious to some complications in others.
In the end, I found just enough redeeming qualities in Beatty's imaginative ideas and ability to create atmosphere to justify an Okay rating, though I won't be reading the next volume in this series.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Griffin's Castle (Jenna Nimmo) - My Review
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Friday, July 20, 2018

A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo (Marlon Bundo and Jill Twiss)

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver Presents A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo
Marlon Bundo and Jill Twiss, authors, illustrated by EG (Gerald Kelley) Keller
Chronicle Books
Fiction, CH Humor/Picture Book/Politics
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Marlon Bundo may be a very important bunny, pet of the Vice President of the United States, but he's also a very lonely bunny... until he meets Wesley. They have so much fun together they never want to be apart. When they try to get married, the Stink Bug in charge tells them they can't, because boy bunnies are only supposed to marry girl bunnies. What's a very important bunny to do?

REVIEW: Another slow day at work, and this one - written as a direct parody of a picture book about the real Marlon Bundo by Vice President Pence, who has notoriously narrow views on equality - was at the top of the bin. As one might expect given the source, it has some pointed political commentary sprinkled throughout; the Stink Bug looks particularly familiar. It's also a timely message about tolerance, and how being different isn't a bad thing; all of Bundo's animal friends are different in their own ways. The illustrations are bright and fun, moreso than what I've seen of the original book. While the political angle will (as one might expect) date this book eventually, the story itself is enjoyable and empowering. We can only hope the stink bugs currently in charge are so easily dealt with...

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Monday, July 16, 2018

Scales and Scoundrels: Treasurehearts (Sebastian Girner)

Scales and Scoundrels Volume 2: Treasurehearts
The Scales and Scoundrels series, Issues 6 - 10
Sebastien Girner, illustrations by Galaad
Image Comics
Fiction, YA? Fantasy/Graphic Novel/Humor
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: In the depths of the dungeon known as the Dragon's Maw, adventurers Luvander, Prince Aki, Koro, and Dorma confront an ancient demon guarding a legendary treasure. Here, Luvander - a dragon cursed to wear a human form - finds answers she didn't expect about the nature of the Maw and her own kind. Leaving the Dragon's Maw and her companions, she sets out across the realm to discover who and what she truly is... and if she needs her scales and wings to claim a treasure worthy of a dragon princess.

REVIEW: After the first volume, I'd expected the series to follow Luvander and her human (and dwarven) companions in their adventures... but Aki, Koro, and Dorma take off after leaving the Maw, leaving Luvander on her own to confront her fellow dragons and explore the realm. Without them, the story starts to feel unbalanced and directionless. More is revealed about her world and the dragons, but I couldn't help hoping that Lu would pick up a new sidekick or two, someone to talk to in her adventures and to help her grow; clearly her time with with the mortals did her more good than all her lone wanderings beforehand. There's still a sense of fun and adventure, but it lacked the focus of the previous volume - and, to be honest, I'm not sure how long Luvander wandering about aimlessly on her own while having brief, episodic adventures will hold my interest for future installments.

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Sunday, July 15, 2018

Afar (Leila del Duca)

Leila del Duca, illustrations by Kit Seaton
Image Comics
Fiction, YA Fantasy/Graphic Novel
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: The girl Boetema and her younger brother, Inotu, struggle to survive in a drought-blasted future, moving from town to town with their artist mother and hack engineer father. After a fall from a tree, Boetema discovers she can astral project into other bodies on other planets in her sleep, experiencing a bizarre array of existences... journeys that carry real consequences, as her interference inadvertently puts one of her hosts and its loved ones in danger. Back home, her life is about to get more complicated, as her parents leave the pair alone for a few months while pursuing job leads as salt shepherds. Her brother runs afoul of a local thug, forcing the children into a dangerous desert crossing alone.

REVIEW: It looked like an interesting and original concept in a unique setting, and for the most part that's what Afar delivers. The artwork and design is very imaginative, almost hallucinatory at times, full of bright colors and unique worlds. Boetema and Inotu make for decent protagonists, occasionally a bit slow on the uptake but always with good hearts and determination behind their actions. At times, the jumps back and forth through worlds can be a bit confusing, and it takes a bit to sort out the Earth side of things - radically altered by an unspecified disaster several generations past - but overall the story moves nicely, even if a few elements felt incomplete by the conclusion. Part of me thinks it could use a sequel, while another would rather leave things as they are; from what I can determine so far, it's meant to be a standalone. Overall, despite a little wavering, I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt with a Good rating, for overall originality and imagination.

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