Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Spellslinger (Sebastien de Castell)

The Spellslinger series, Book 1
Sebastien de Castell
Fiction, Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: A Jan'Tep is strong. A Jan'Tep is loyal to clan and family. A Jan'Tep wields magic both to strike and defend. All his life, fifteen-year-old Kellen has striven to live up to the expectations of his people and especially his father. All his life, he has failed, mostly because his magic has failed. Not one of the six bands on his forearms, indicating the six powers over which a Jan'Tep sorcerer may exert control, has burst to glowing life, while his younger sister Shallan is well on her way to being the youngest confirmed mage in clan history. Worse, what little power he can hold grows less by the day. If he cannot pass the four mage trials by his birthday, he will be declared Sha'Tep, a powerless servant, relegated to menial tasks in the household - or, worse, sent to the mines, the ultimate shame upon the family. Hard as he struggles, he cannot seem to live up to anyone's expectations, least of all his own, but knows no other way to live... until he meets the woman with the flame-red hair.
Ferius has a strange accent, peculiar customs, and the most bizarre ideas - like the notion that the Jah'Tep aren't really the greatest people in the known world, with the strongest magics. Her pockets hold foul smoking-reeds and myriad cards, each of which holds mysteries that Kellen, for all that he should be above such outsider nonsense, cannot help wanting to unravel. Everyone else in the clan is convinced that the woman is a spy at best, or an active traitor at worst. When the clan prince dies and a strange illness weakens the magic of Kellen's fellow initiates, even more suspicion falls on the stranger. But Kellen can't believe she's to blame. His efforts to uncover the truth lead to secrets too dangerous to expose - secrets that will rewrite how he thinks of his family, his clan, and the powers upon which the Jan'Tep have built their reputation.

REVIEW: At first, this reads like a fun, witty tale with an underdog hero struggling to come of age under difficult circumstances. Somewhere along the way, though, things stop being quite as fun... or, rather, the tone remains somewhat fun, but the story and characters become less so, and not in a good way. Sarcastic characters have to still be likable, but I came to resent being stuck in Kellen's head. He's just too obtuse, requiring multiple mule kicks to the cranium to drive anything into his brain; I lost track of how many times he was surprised by the level of sheer sadism his people, particularly his peers, could inflict. (And they are, indeed, sadistic, torturing animal and human alike in terrible ways, again and again and again. I got the point early on; later instances started feeling repetitious, driving the nail of "They're Not Good People!" in with fierce hammer blows long after the head of the nail vanished into the wood.) The supporting cast isn't much deeper than Kellen, unfortunately, and the girls - despite his sister Shallan's prodigal abilities - have a way of degenerating into helplessness at key moments. Even the stranger Ferius needs rescuing by the fifteen-year-old not-quite-mage more than seems strictly necessary, for all that she teaches him a few of the tricks he uses to rescue others. Speaking of rescues, de Castell seems unusually verbose and slow in relating these pivotal moments, even when Kellen's in the middle of a firefight where every millisecond of hesitation could be the difference between life or death. I kept wanting to reach into the book and give him a shove to get moving, already.
Aside from all that, it's a not-bad story of growing up, learning to see past the lies on which reputations and histories are too often built, even whether or not it is ever justified to let rage and vengeance run loose, but by the end I was mostly turning pages to finish, not because I was deeply absorbed in a somewhat-telegraphed conclusion (that, despite several gratuitously gruesome deaths, goes out of its way to spare key players, presumably for future installments.) Even the title term, "spellslinger," hardly ever comes up in the text; it doesn't even get mentioned until maybe the three-fourths point in the book and hardly figures into the plot at all, so it seems a bit odd (and, yes, a bit of a spoiler) to name the story for it. Spellslinger can be fun and moves fairly well (if sometimes in circles), but I couldn't help feeling it should've been better.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Traitor's Blade (Sebastien de Castell) - My Review
The Flaw in All Magic (Ben S. Dobson) - My Review
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Sunday, January 13, 2019

In an Absent Dream (Seanan McGuire)

In an Absent Dream
The Wayward Children series, Book 4
Seanan McGuire
Fiction, YA? Fantasy
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: Since she was a little girl, Katherine Lundy had always kept quiet and followed the rules, and didn't even mind that her only friends were books. Then, when she was eight, her feet - tricky things, feet, prone to following one's heart even when one's head is certain it knows where to go - led her to the tree that shouldn't have been there, with the door that couldn't exist. Beyond lay the bizarre wonders of the Goblin Market, where people are as apt to have feathers or horns as hair and where the merchants sell all manner of things imaginable and unimaginable, tangible and ephemeral. Even here, there are rules: never ask questions, always give fair value, and remember the curfew. Katherine is good with rules, so she feels right at home - moreso when she makes her first friends, the orange-eyed girl Moon and the woman known as the Archivist. But the Goblin Market is not a place to travel lightly, and fair value for a girl's desires may be counted in coin Katherine cannot understand.

REVIEW: Like the other Wayward Children books, this novella spins a story of wounded childhood and worlds found and lost, of bright wonders that hide dark secrets and bargains with unseen costs. Lundy is not the girl readers met in the previous installments - not yet. First, she must pass through a lonely childhood and multiple journeys to the Goblin Market, and learn some valuable, if painful, lessons on happiness, friendship, belonging, and fair value for a life. As before, McGuire almost weaves poetry in her prose, yet without sacrificing clarity or readability for the sake of a turn of phrase. The end result is a tale that feels both fresh and timeless.

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Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Name of This Book is Secret (Pseudonymous Bosch)

The Name of This Book is Secret
The Secret series, Book 1
Pseudonymous Bosch
Little, Brown Books
Fiction, MG Humor/Mystery
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Some secrets are fluffy, frivolous things, like whether the guy on the news uses hair dye. Others are heavy and hurtful, like why your best friend stopped talking to you in math class. A few, though, are outright dangerous, such as the one this story is about... the one that already may have killed one man, an old reclusive circus magician. With a secret like that at the heart of the plot, it's no wonder why the author can't even tell you the real names of the boy and girl in this book, or where they live. But "Cassandra" and "Max-Ernest" don't have that luxury. They have to live through their first encounter with the magician's notebook, and their first meeting with the sinister man and woman who will do anything to get their hands on the old man's secret.
Just by picking up this book, you may be putting yourself in great danger. But that's not going to stop you from reading, is it? All right, go right ahead - but don't go crying to the author when things go terribly, horribly wrong...

REVIEW: Some time ago, I read the final book in this series, and found it fun enough that I figured I'd start at the beginning someday. Pseudonymous Bosch follows a trend epitomized by such middle-grade authors as Lemony Snicket, gleefully ignoring storytelling protocol to talk directly to the reader and intrude upon the tale. It generally works here, though once in a while Bosch comes across as a bit heavy-handed. (Then again, I'm not the target audience.) Cass, a junior survivalist convinced all manner of horrible things are about to happen (though nothing so horrible as what really does happen), and Max-Ernest, a motormouth who aspires to be a comedian despite not understanding jokes, start out as amusing caricatures in a simple-looking story, but as the tale goes on - despite authorial interruptions - they take on more roundness, and their enemies turn into rather nasty people indeed. Peripheral characters, as one might expect, are somewhat exaggerated, but do their jobs in the plot well enough. While I personally enjoyed the final book more than this one, and am on the fence about whether to read on (not quite my thing, but it reads fast, has fun with itself, and delivers a decent ending), The Name of This Book is Secret was a pleasant little diversion that I don't regret reading - no matter the risk.

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Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Children of Blood and Bone (Tomi Adeyemi)

Children of Blood and Bone
The Legacy of Orisha trilogy, Book 1
Tomi Adeyemi
Henry Holt and Co.
Fiction, YA Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: As a girl, Zelie Adeboya saw the magic of her people die - and witnessed her mother's brutal murder, as King Saran's warriors slaughter all maji over the age of thirteen. Though she has the white hair of a diviner, though she and her kind are branded "maggots" and treated like animals by the dark-haired populace of the kingdom of Orisha, she will never grow into her powers, never receive the blessing and wisdom of the ten gods and goddesses... never have the strength to throw Saran's boot from her people's back and blade from their necks.
Amari may be the daughter of a king, but she feels powerless as any slave, trapped between her mother's impossible expectations and her father's eternal disapproval. Her only friend is her diviner maid Binta - so when King Saran slaughters her in cold blood, Amari finally finds the strength to act. Binta was killed after Saran tested an artifact on her: an scroll, long thought destroyed, that can re-awaken maji powers in diviners. Amari steals the scroll and flees the palace... running straight into Zelie.
The gods may be silent, but they still have plans. Zelie and Amari may be the keys to returning magic to Orisha and ending Saran's cruel reign... but maji were feared even before Saran struck them down, and a people raised under brutal oppression might do things with their powers that would make even the gods tremble.

REVIEW: With roots deep in African mythos, global genocides, and the legacy of generational oppression, Children of Blood and Bone creates a unique, if dark, fantasy world. A rage burns through these pages, embodied not just in Zelie and the diviners but in Zelie's dark-haired brother Tzain, Amari's brother Prince Inan, the king, and others who have learned hatred and fear of the Other and will do anything - even maim and murder - to defend those they love from threats real or perceived. The legacy of Saran's Raid, the slaughter of mothers and fathers before the eyes of their children and the stripping of their birthright powers, creates a generation primed for rebellion, though that attack stemmed from earlier attacks by maji, a history of blood for blood and pain for pain, until everyone's lives are twisted and scarred by events buried so deep in the past none can recall the truth of them. Zelie in particular struggles with a lifetime of helplessness and anger, tested most sorely by her encounters with Inan, groomed to be a future king every bit as ruthless as Saran... but who finds himself torn when contact with the scroll wakes latent powers in himself, powers he was raised to reject as a devouring evil. Seeds that could become love in several characters, and moments that could lead to a better future for all, become twisted out of shape by the imperfect world they live in and the lives they've been forced to lead, not to mention the question of not only if the maji can be restored, but whether they should be - whether it would empower a downtrodden people to rise above their chains, or create another chapter of retribution and destruction.
It is, by necessity, a dark and often grisly tale, sometimes difficult to read for the rawness of emotions - a rawness that, unlike other titles, remains raw through the story, and isn't soothed away by victories (or set aside in defeats.) There is no "true love" moment that makes everything better, either; if anything, love only makes things more complicated and painful, leading some characters to even worse decisions than they might have otherwise made. In Zelie and Amari's world, even the gods can fail... but hope cannot be allowed to die. Ultimately, though a few almost-too-convenient plot moments and setbacks (and a slightly awkward, not-quite-cliffhanger ending) held it back a bit, Children of Blood and Bone ultimately becomes a very original, very powerful tale of persistence in the face of oppression, optimism in the face of ultimate defeat, and life in the face of certain death.

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Beyond Science Fiction (Michael Whelan)

Beyond Science Fiction: The Alternative Realism of Michael Whelan
Michael Whelan
Baby Tattoo Books
Nonfiction, Art
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: One of the great names of science fiction and fantasy illustration, Michael Whelan has left an indelible mark on genre art... but there is more to his body of work than his iconic book covers. This collection, from an art exhibition, shares his older, familiar pieces and newer works, as he explores his personal brand of peculiar imagery. Presented with a foreword by Robert Williams.

REVIEW: In the off chance I ever manage to write a book worth selling, I still dream of having a Micheal Whelan cover for it. Though he is technically retired, that dream remains a dim possibility: he still does the occasional cover commission, as for Brandon Sanderson's Stormlight Archive series and Tad Williams's new Osten Ard books (the latter not included in this compilation.) Mostly, though, Whelan has moved on to visions from his own mind, visions that utilize his ability to realistically render impossible worlds to create some mind-twisting scenes: a child climbing a tubular ladder to nowhere, figures ascending a staircase of impossible scale toward enlightenment, a girl climbing the crumbling ruins of a world not unlike our own, bubble-encased flames adrift through peculiar landscapes, and more. His work remains astounding - if anything, he's only growing more impressive beyond the world of illustration, improvement dramatically illustrated as older works from the 1970's and 1980's are shown with his most recent output. My only real objection is that this book should've been larger, to better do justice to Whelan's details and the textures that tempt one to run one's finger over the page, checking if it's just paper or something deeper. If you're a fan of his art, or just love imaginative realism, this is a must-have book for your collection.

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Myth and Magic: The Art of John Howe (John Howe) - My Review
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These Broken Stars (Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner)

These Broken Stars
The Starbound trilogy, Book 1
Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner
Fiction, YA Romance/Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Lowborn soldier Tarver Merendsen became a war hero fighting rebel colonists, but still knows his place: far below the rest of the passengers aboard the hyperspace luxury liner Icarus. Not that he wants anything to do with the snobby elites, playing their frivolous little games and having endless parties while colony worlds struggle and soldiers die... until he sees her. Unlike the others, she looks him right in the eye, and doesn't talk down to him or see him as a charming novelty. But then he finds out who she is. Despite what his heart might say, he knows he has no chance, nor does he want one, not with the daughter of the legendary magnate Roderick LaRoux.
Lilac, sole daughter of perhaps the wealthiest man in the galaxy, lives in a gilded prison. Despite the money and the silk ball gowns and the prestige, anyone she gets close to must be of proper social standing - and nobody's standing is high enough for a LaRoux. "We only have each other," Father often tells her, and seems determined to keep it that way for her entire life, grooming her not so much to inherit his role as to be a pampered ornament. She didn't mean to engage the stranger in conversation, but something about the unpolished young man intrigued her, even if she knows she can never hope to see him again. Not unless she wants to risk him vanishing as other boys and men have who got too close to Roderick LaRoux's precious little girl.
Then the unthinkable happens: the hyperdrives fail, and the Icarus crashes with all hands... save two, who made it to the only escape pod to clear the wreckage. None other than Tarver and Lilac.
A battle-hardened soldier and a socialite, alone in the wilderness... at first, it's all they can do to keep from killing each other. But there's something much stranger going on than they first realize. For one thing, hyperdrives don't just fail. For another, though the world appears to have been terraformed, there are no sign of inhabitants, and nobody would go to that much trouble just to walk away from a planet. The longer they stay, the more they realize something's very wrong - something that destroyed whoever first colonized this world and the Icarus, and may well destroy them before they can be rescued.

REVIEW: This book had many positive reviews and a decent premise, so I went into it with high hopes. At first, those hopes were met with disappointment. Dated ideas (particularly the idea of fathers owning daughters and their "virtue," though not said in so many words) and other oddly anachronistic details keep the galactic civilization the authors create from feeling too futuristic, and the characters initially come across as little more than stock young adult romance leads: him the nuts-and-bolts, no-nonsense soldier with dirt under the nails, her the silk-and-ribbons society girl who far outranks him socially but seems largely helpless practically. Both prove more than a little slow to learn, with multiple backslides. As I read on, the characters slowly took on some more depth, even if their situation (and the general storyline of opposites attracting amid hardship) brought few surprises (and more than one near eyeroll.) Yet I kept turning pages; if it wasn't spectacular, it was readable, at least. But somehow, imperceptibly, These Broken Stars develops some true depth and originality, taking a few surprising twists on the way to an ending that redeems much (if not quite all) of the earlier flatness. In the end, that strong finale lifted the tale to four stars in the ratings, which may not match many of the glowing reviews I'd read elsewhere but still makes for a respectable showing.

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Saturday, January 5, 2019

Norroway Volume 1 (Cat Seaton)

Norroway Volume 1: The Black Bull of Norroway
The Norroway series
Cat Seaton, illustrations by Kit Seaton
Image Comics
Fiction, YA? Fantasy/Graphic Novel
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: As a girl, Sybilla and her friends - as many before them - took a gift and an egg to the witch in the woods to ask whom they would marry. Only, instead of a merchant or a lord, the witch told her she would marry the Black Bull of Norroway. Legend tells how the bull was once a man, a knight so fierce his own king grew terrified of his prowess and struck a pact with the Old One to curse him. Surely the woman wasn't serious... or was she?
Years later, the black bull Brom comes to her village - and Sybilla, who never cared to be an ordinary housewife, follows him into the woods and through the mountains, on a quest to break a curse that has ruined many lives, and may ruin hers before she's done.

REVIEW: On the one hand, this story has a certain old-school fairy tale charm, weaving elements of folk stories together into a new adventure with a reasonably bold heroine. On the other hand, it can't help feeling a bit disjointed and illogical, especially as everyone goes out of their way to avoid talking about the curse on Brom and how it is meant to be broken; even Sybilla finally gets frustrated with the dancing. There are also a few places where, had I been reading a physical book, I would've wondered if the pages got stuck together, odd little jumps in a story that already had a certain dreamlike fluidity to it owing to the fairy tale magic at work. The characters work for the setting, slightly flattened and exaggerated, but Sybilla's worth rooting for and Brom clearly is conflicted. It's not bad for what it is, though I don't know if I'll seek out the second volume, even though this one ends on a cliffhanger. Just not quite my cup of cocoa, ultimately.

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Tuesday, January 1, 2019

The Hidden Life of Trees (Peter Wohlleben)

The Hidden Life of Trees
Peter Wohlleben
Greystone Books
Nonfiction, Nature/Science
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Intellectually, most people know that trees are alive: they grow, they reproduce, they even become ill and eventually die. But we tend to think of them as little more than objects. Certainly plants can't see or smell or taste or remember or communicate, can they? Recent research proves that they can do all of that, and more - or, at least, they can if humans haven't messed up their growing conditions, planting them in the wrong environment or cutting off the root networks they build beneath their forest homes or culling their elders before they can raise the next generation of giants. A European forester discusses the fascinating lives of trees and how doing better by our woodsy neighbors might be the key to our own long-term survival on Earth.

REVIEW: In truth, this might be better titled The Hidden Life of Trees and Fungus; one of the integral parts of a healthy forest is the symbiotic relationships the trees (and other plant life) develop with surprisingly vast and complex networks of fungus beneath the soil, networks that allow them to communicate information about water levels and pest outbreaks and other stresses and dangers, even enabling them to share food with ailing neighbors. A lack of appropriate fungus partners might well be responsible for failure of some trees to thrive, particularly when transplanted to unsuitable urban or suburban areas. The findings and observations Wohlleben reports (in easy-to-digest lay terms) are amazing, much of it overlooked until very recently due to our innate tendency to only see life on an animal level and not the inconceivably slow and strange timescale - centuries, even thousands of years - experienced by trees. Much of the research is so new it seems to raise more questions than answers; tests confirm that trees can learn, but nobody can agree just where memories are stored, or how, or even if they're stored in the tree itself or in the root or maybe even the fungus network where so much tree activity takes place. Trees are even responsible for the habitability of inland environments and possibly life in the seas, as well; without chains of forests from coasts to the interior, promoting evaporation and cloud formation, rain would never reach the middles of continents, and leaf litter in streams has proven to promote the growth of plankton, the very base of the oceanic food pyramid. One wonders just how much we have destroyed unknowingly in our long-term (mis)management of woodlands, and how our own future is (again) threatened by our inability to think beyond our own immediate lifespans and needs. The author offers hope for the future, as new awareness and laws attempt to turn the tide around, but when recovery takes forest-scale time - five hundred years, he estimates - one can't help despairing that we impatient apes, with our ever-changing minds and ever-changing political priorities, just aren't equipped to undo the damage we've done. (Even if it proves too late for us to change our ways, though, Wohlleben suggests that trees, with their timeless wisdom, may well endure to grow over our bones.) After reading this, I don't think I'll look at a tree the same way again...

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