Saturday, January 20, 2018

Scat (Carl Hiaasen)

Carl Hiaasen
Fiction, MG General Fiction/Humor
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: The day Duane "Smoke" Scrod Jr and biology teacher Bunny Starch squared off in front of the entire classroom, Nick and his friend Marta knew it wouldn't end well. Starch was the harshest teacher in the school, rumored to keep pet snakes and a taxidermy collection at home, and Duane... well, any boy who insists on being called "Smoke" and talks back to someone like Starch, even biting her pencil in half and swallowing the pieces, is surely up to no good.
Smoke doesn't even show up the next day for the class trip to Black Vine Swamp, a wildlife preserve in the Florida swamps, where Nick hopes he might finally see the critically endangered Florida panther. But then a wildfire chases them out - and Starch, a teacher who has never missed a day of class in her entire teaching career, disappears.
Did Smoke finally snap and live up to his nickname? Were his threats against Starch more than just bluff? And what was the strange, tannish shape Nick caught on video shortly before the suspicious fire broke out? As he and Marta investigate, they find themselves involved in a tale as tangled as the vines in the swamp, a tale of broken homes and mistaken assumptions and illegal prospecting and self-styled ecoterrorists... not to mention a critically endangered big cat.

REVIEW: I've previously read (and greatly enjoyed) Hiaasen's Chomp, another story set in the Florida wilderness, with a young boy and girl encountering many strange animals and stranger characters. Scat has a similar feel, with two young protagonists surrounded by quirky people and nasty villains and Florida's strange wildlife... a feel so similar I couldn't help sensing a formula behind the story, one that hampered my overall suspension of disbelief. Nick's also a less intelligent main character; with his father recently maimed in the Iraq War, he decides to bind his own right arm and develop left-handedness - an admirable act of solidarity with his one-armed father, but one that makes zero sense when he and Marta are in very dangerous situations, and he doesn't even think to increase the chances of survival by freeing his dominant hand. (But, then, the adults are a bit brainless now and again, too, more caricature than solid characters. Skirting spoilers, I'm also not sure I bought a later plot development involving a trained bloodhound.) Hiaasen writes with love and authenticity (and visible agony) about the highly endangered Florida wilderness, and the peculiar people could be amusing in small doses, but overall I didn't feel it came together quite as well as Chomp did.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Chomp (Carl Hiaasen) - My Review
This Side of Wild (Gary Paulsen) - My Review
Let Them Eat Shrimp (Kennedy Warne) - My Review

Monday, January 15, 2018

The Grace of Kings (Ken Liu)

The Grace of Kings
The Dandelion Dynasty series, Book 1
Ken Liu
Saga Press
Fiction, Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Long ago, the refugee Ano came to the islands of Dara fleeing disaster... and brought their own form of disaster with them. Their descendants carved up the new land into six warring states, which squabbled for generations just as the gods of the nations squabbled - conflicts that only ended under the bloody rise of Xana's Emperor. But not all rest easy under his unified domain, and his reign may not outlast his impending death, with treachery inside his own palace.
Son of a farmer, Kuni Garu was already a troublemaker the day he snuck out of school to see the emperor's procession, with its great silk airships and towering bamboo Throne Pagoda, pass through town... the day he saw the all-too-mortal fear in the old man's eyes after an assassin's failed strike. Nobles, he realized, are but ordinary men, not unlike himself. As he grows up, carefree and on the fringes of the law, that impression lingers, along with his personal vow to always do the most interesting thing when presented with the opportunity. It's only after his marriage to Jia and the crumbling of the empire's strength under a weak and ill-prepared son that he realizes the most interesting thing might carry him to the imperial throne.
Mata Zyndu is the youngest survivor of a long line of honored generals, a line broken by the emperor's armies. He bears the mark of divine favor in his towering stature and double-pupiled dark eyes, and he bears in his heart the stories of his glorious ancestors and their legendary deeds, as related by his uncle. The world, he decides, should be more like those old tales, a world where one hero's sword cleaves right from wrong, where the worthy rise and the evil fall.
Mata and Kuni could not be more different, yet they bond close as brothers with their shared ambitions against the empire. Between them, they might claim the whole of Dara... but can the two disparate visions ever co-exist, or are these brothers-at-heart destined to write a new tragedy on the war-torn land?

REVIEW: Reviewers call this novel "silkpunk" epic, which seems to be an Asian-styled offshoot of steampunk. It is indeed an epic tale, and it has a strong Asiatic flavor, though the world Liu creates becomes its own creation, with many strange twists and trappings: silken airships inspired by giant falcons who use natural gases to soar, giant scaled and horned "cruben" mightier than whales, crafted smoke to dazzle or clear a man's senses, and more, not to mention the often-meddlesome gods of the realm who adopt many guises. To populate this world, Liu presents a wide-ranging cast or many colors and ranks, often with unexpected personalities and roles. Kuni Garu isn't the typical farmboy hero who sets out on a noble Quest to claim a crown; he's a manipulator and trickster, often with little long-term plan, compelled by the sometimes-conflicting urges to help friends, be liked, and pursue "interesting" things. Mata Zyndu makes a good match, each compensating for the others' deficiencies... though the traits that bind them together become the very things that drive them apart, as victory proves even more treacherous than their initial rebellion. The whole is a long, often-bloody story of ideals tested and twisted sometimes beyond recognition, glory sought and occasionally achieved, and people thrown into the thresher of great events, to emerge greatly changed - or not at all. There are a few weak spots now and again, and it took a while for women characters to come into their own, but on the whole I found it an enjoyable and compelling read, a different take on epic fantasy. I expect I'll be tracking down the second book soon.

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Arabella of Mars (David D. Levine) - My Review
Airborn (Kenneth Oppel) - My Review
The Dragonbone Chair (Tad Williams) - My Review

Monday, January 8, 2018

Princeless: Make Yourself, Part 2 (Jeremy Whitley)

Princeless: Make Yourself, Part 2
The Princeless Series, Volume 6
Jeremy Whitley, illustrations by Brett Grunig, Emily Martin, and Alex Smith
Action Lab Entertainment
Fiction, YA Fantasy/Graphic Novel/Humor
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Princess Adrienne's quest to free her sisters has taken her to the Rim, the frigid northern mountains of the dwarves... original home of Sparky, her guardian dragon turned faithful companion. While her friend Bedelia confronts her human mother, who ran away and left her with a drunken dwarf smith father in human lands, Adrienne and a dwarven guide seek out the twin towers of her twin sisters, Andrea and Antonia - who haven't let their captivity get in the way of their lifelong feud.

REVIEW: The previous Princeless installment suffered under excess weight, particularly in the subplot about Prince Ashe. I told myself that if this book felt similarly stretched, I'd give up on the series. Fortunately, this volume gets the story back on track, bringing back the humor, action, and character depth that made Adrienne's previous adventures so fun. It does this, in part, by ditching Ashe's overloaded, overslow storyline altogether. Bedelia finally gets the reconciliation (and recognition) she wanted, while Adrienne must test her mettle against a pair of ruthless bounty hunters (and her patience against her sisters.) The dragon Sparky, too, finally gets a homecoming and a meeting with her own lost mother - but it does not go quite as planned, endangering everyone's reunions. An enjoyable return to form, and one that has me eager for the next volume - and hoping Whitley plans to wrap the tale up soon. (Volume 5's unnecessary padding has left definite stretch marks on the overall plot...)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Fairy Quest: Outcasts #1 (Paul Jenkins) - My Review
The Two Princesses of Bamarre (Gail Carson Levine) - My Review
Princeless: Save Yourself (Jeremy Whitley) - My Review

Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Book of Beasts: Color and Discover (Jonny Marx)

The Book of Beasts: Color and Discover
Jonny Marx, illustrations by Angela Rizza
Fiction, CH Mythology/Novelty Book
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Unicorns, gryphons, merfolk, and manticores, not to mention numerous dragons... Explore more than 90 unusual beasts of fantasy in this annotated coloring book.

REVIEW: I grabbed this hardbound coloring book on clearance, intrigued by the art and the price. It offers a wide range of beasts and beings from many traditions, ranging from ancient Mesopotamia to 19th century America. However, the information, brief as it is, contains some notable omissions and outright errors. (For instance, it describes unicorns as noble and kindly denizens of the forest, when the original unicorns were fierce and quite lethal, save when tamed by a maiden.) It also would've been nice had the text been more clear which culture originated each beast, not always obvious on the less-popular entries. The artwork, however, is bold and imaginative, great for kids who want a little challenge in their coloring books. For clearance price (five bucks), it was worth adding to my collection of fantastic bestiaries and art, though I don't know that it was ever quite worth the twenty dollars it originally went for. (I'm also mystified why it was presented as a hardcover book, which necessitated the higher price. Who needs a hardcover coloring book?)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Tales of Great Dragons (J. K. Anderson) - My Review
The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures (John and Caitlin Matthews) - My Review
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them ("Newt Scamander," with J. K. Rowling) - My Review

Rat Queens Deluxe Edition Volume 1 (Kurtis J. Wiebe)

Rat Queens Deluxe Edition Volume 1
The Rat Queens Series
Kurtis J. Wiebe, illustrations by Tess Fowler and Roc Upchurch
Image Comics
Fiction, Fantasy/Graphic Novel/Horror/Humor
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: The city of Palisade is a beautiful, prosperous, respectable place... or it would be, if not for the brawling, boozing adventurers tearing up the streets between quests. Most notorious among them are the Rat Queens. Hannah the elven mage channels demonic powers while hiding her own mixed ancestry. Dee is an atheist cleric, raised to worship an eldrich entity whose existence she doubts. Dwarven warrior Violet may have turned her back on her people's traditions, but never turns her back on a challenge (or a date.) Diminutive smidgen Betty possesses keen eyes, sticky fingers, and frequently-dilated pupils from sampling illicit substances and unidentified mushrooms.
When the Queens and other troublemaking adventurer groups are set up on their latest quests, sent straight into the jaws of deadly assassins, they come back to Palisade looking for revenge - and find themselves in over their heads as they discover a plot that could destroy the city and the entire world.
This deluxe edition features the first two volumes of the Rat Queens series, plus numerous extras and bonus content, including a quick guide to the Palisade dating scene, a glimpse at the backstory of peripheral orc character Braga, cover art, and more.

REVIEW: The rating may take a bit of explaining on this one. One one level, I have to admit that Rat Queens isn't quite my cup of cocoa, chock full of graphic gore and frequent cursing, not to mention a near-overload of sex and drugs (and orcs and trolls, if I may indulge in a pun.) This is not a comic adventure for the whole family. That said, it's still a very interesting, well-crafted story and world, with characters who delve beyond shallow gender, race, and class stereotypes. The whole is both a hilarious send-up of fantasy/role-playing tropes and a compelling tale of wounded hearts, lost souls, and vengeance gone awry. I'm not sure if I'll venture further into the series or not - this two-volume tale wraps up a decent arc as it is - but I enjoyed it more than I expected to, and I really liked the diverse cast.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Goblin Quest (Jim C. Hines) - My Review
Heroics for Beginners (John Moore) - My Review
Princeless (Jeremy Whitley) - My Review

Friday, January 5, 2018

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart (Stephanie Burgis)

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart
Stephanie Burgis
Fiction, CH Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: The young dragon Aventurine cannot stand being cooped up in the family caverns for another minute, let alone the thirty years Mother says it'll take for her scales to properly harden. It's a dangerous world out there, especially with humans all too ready to shoot arrows, muskets, and even treacherous magic at a body. Cave-bound days are when young dragons are supposed to discover and pursue their passions - philosophy for her brother Jasper, epic poetry for her sister Citrine - but Aventurine hasn't found hers... and is sure it can't be found in the smothering safety of the caves. She's a dragon, fiercest beast in the land, not some weakling little worm!
When she escapes to prove that she can take care of herself, Aventurine discovers her passion... but at a cost. The human she was about to devour tricks her into drinking a strange, sweet liquid: hot chocolate. She falls instantly in love with the concoction. Unfortunately, the man was a food mage, and laced the drink with transformative magic, turning her into a human girl. She may have lost her scales and wings and fire, but a dragon she still is at heart - and that heart now belongs to chocolate. She sets out to the city of Drachenberg to apprentice herself to a chocolatier. But Aventurine has a lot to learn about the world, and even a dragon's heart can be broken.

REVIEW: With a twelve-year-old protagonist, The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart falls in a bit of a gray area between older children's fiction and younger middle-grade fiction. I chose to rate it as the former, a sweet-hearted story of hope and despair and friendship and finding oneself after losing everything (not to mention dragons and chocolate); as the latter, it feels a bit thin, especially compared to other middle-grade fantasies (although well-sweetened with dragons and chocolate.) Aventurine's a dragon through and through, a strong-headed girl full of impulsive fire and impatience with fools - including herself, when she behaves foolishly, a feedback loop that leads to her lowest point. Other characters generally have just enough depth to support their places in the plot, though a few seemed underutilized by the end. There's a little about the making of chocolate around the edges, though it's more about Aventurine proving herself as girl and dragon. The ending's almost a little too neat, though the target audience will likely enjoy it.
For children, especially those who love dragons and chocolate (and are looking for a good heroine), The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart is a delightful read with just enough tooth and peril (but not too much.) For grown-ups, it's a fun little confection one won't regret indulging in, even if it doesn't linger overlong on the palate.

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Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher (Bruce Coville) - My Review
Hatching Magic (Ann Downer) - My Review
Dragon Girl (Jeff Weigel) - My Review