Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Sorcerer to the Crown (Zen Cho)

Sorcerer to the Crown
The Sorcerer to the Crown series, Book 1
Zen Cho
Fiction, Fantasy/Humor
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: For centuries, the thaumaturges of England's prestigious Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers have defended the land against rival sorcerers and unnatural attacks. In recent times, though, the flow of magic from the Fairy realm has slowed to a trickle; no familiar has even passed the border for decades. With the country once more on the brink of war, it will take a truly great Sorcerer to the Crown to keep the Society's weaknesses hidden and answer the government's needs. But, much to the shock and scandal of most of the Society, the staff chose a most unsuitable candidate: dark-skinned young Zacharias Wythe, ward and apprentice of the late Royal Sorcerer Sir Stephen - whom the boy probably killed himself to get the position.
Zacharias never wanted to be the most powerful sorcerer in England. He was much happier taking notes and pursuing magical theory in a quiet study. But when Sir Stephen died, he was obligated to take up the staff - and the staff, once it has chosen a master, does not choose another save on death. The mages of the Society never agreed with Stephen's eccentric ways in teaching magic to a mere African boy, inherent talent meaning nothing beside the color of his skin. It's only a matter of time before the others organize a coup to oust him - but, in the meantime, he has a duty to England and to magic itself, to figure out why the Fairy Queen stopped magic from flowing to England. His efforts to uncover the truth are complicated by a foreign witch, a persistent assassin, and a singularly stubborn, and singularly talented, half-caste young woman, Prunella Gentleman.

REVIEW: This book left me with mixed feelings, as reflected by the rating. On the one hand, I can see why people praise this book. Cho does an excellent job emulating the style of elder-day English novels, the dialog and class divisions and text that both understates and over-embellishes the narrative, particularly when characters dance around that ultimate Taboo of upper-class English culture: personal feelings. There are some very nice ideas and images, and the whole makes for a style both unique and familiar. On the other hand, some of what aggravates me in those elder-day novels was also faithfully replicated, and even magnified for comic effect. The upper class in particular was exceptionally sexist, racist, and xenophobic in those days, wallowing in their own manufactured superiority and refusing to see a reality in which they might be wrong about anything. After a while, it went beyond atmosphere to tooth-grindingly overbearing, especially given characters that tend to be thin caricatures at best; even the leads sometimes feel hollowed out to become mouthpieces for the attitudes of their day... again and again and - yes, in case the reader didn't get it the last ten or fifteen times - yet again. Zacharias and Prunella also lost IQ points at some critical junctures to accommodate the need to reiterate the prejudices of the day and how they were not immune to them, despite being so directly targeted by nature of their very existence. This is why it ultimately took so long to read the book: I kept putting it down and finding myself reluctant to pick it back up.
There are some fun moments and some nice moments and some moments very much worth reading. The world and story could easily support a series, which seems to be what Cho has in mind (though it was a standalone when I bought it.) The whole, unfortunately, just wasn't my cup of cocoa. And perhaps that, right there, is part of why this book didn't click for me: I'm ultimately too American to even like tea.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Spellslinger (Sebastian de Castell) - My Review
His Majesty's Dragon (Naomi Novik) - My Review
The Accidental Highwayman (Ben Tripp) - My Review

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Auberon (James S. A. Corey)

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

DESCRIPTION: When Laconia conquered the Sol system and humanity's fledgling colonies beyond the ring gates, it absorbed not only the wealth of innumerable new worlds but the burdens as well. The sort of people who fled beyond the gates were generally not the sort to take kindly to greater authority, and they have had a couple decades of self-reliance to breed independence and create their own cultures. For all that Laconia's warfleet brought humanity's greatest navies to their knees with almost no effort, the battle to win over the hearts and minds of the people they now rule will be much more difficult.
Auberon was supposed to be a jewel in the new empire's crown: the only world where evolutionary happenstance allows for open-air farming of Earth crops, without the potentially deadly interactions caused by the native biomes on every other inhabited planet. Here could lie the secrets to cracking one of the last barriers to indefinite human expansion, perhaps even the means to make native plants and animals across all the worlds into viable food sources. But when the new Laconian governor, Biryar Rittenaur, comes to enforce imperial rules and discipline, he finds a populace entrenched in its own corruption, and a mysterious metal-armed old man who could prove to be his greatest enemy or greatest ally in this strange new land he must call home.

REVIEW: Taking place between the seventh novel (Persepolis Rising) and the eighth (Tiamat's Wrath), Auberon gives the reader a glimpse of the cultural and logistical challenges of imperial rule over vast differences... challenges that have, throughout history, proven more implacable than any military might. The reader saw hints of these issues in the novel arc, but this novella moves things away from the core conflict to show how those on the colony worlds deal with the swift and surprising conquest of most of humanity by Duarte's Laconian forces, how local ways and power structures find ways of persisting in the face of invaders. Biryar starts out full of his own importance and sense of righteousness, convinced that Laconian cultural superiority will win on the ground as effortlessly as its battle cruisers won in space. Needless to say, things do not go nearly as well as he anticipated. The one-armed local, who has previous ties to the Expanse universe, is an implacable force of his own, though the new governor proves a challenging puzzle even to a successful criminal like him. If Auberon doesn't stand on its own quite as well as a few of Corey's other novellas, it still adds an interesting facet to the greater story.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Churn: An Expanse Novella (James S. A. Corey) - My Review
A Memory Called Empire (Arkady Martine) - My Review
The Warrior Within (Angus McIntyre) - My Review

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Flunked (Jen Calonita)

The Fairy Tale Reform School series, Book 1
Jen Calonita
Sourcebooks Young Readers
Fiction, MG Fantasy
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: When the four princesses of Enchantasia defeated the villains and found their happily-ever-after endings, things were supposed to be... well, happy ever after. Their former enemies even turned over new leaves and started the Fairy Tale Reform School, where young miscreants are sent to learn morals and good manners lest they follow the path of evil. But nothing's been quite right in the land since then - especially not for young Gillian. Her father crafted the famous glass slippers that let Ella enchant her Prince Charming at the ball, but now fairy godmother magic has nearly put him out of work. Gilly has to resort to stealing to see it to it that her family has enough to eat, which is how she found herself sentenced to Fairy Tale Reform School herself. She won't let her guard down, determined to break out as soon as possible... but soon finds herself in over her head as a great danger looms, one that could doom not just her fellow students but the whole of Enchantasia.

REVIEW: On the surface, Flunked looks like any number of similar middle-grade stories on the market: a modern-flavored riff on classic fairy tale tropes with a cast of plucky young heroes, set in a magical school with talking mirrors and mermaid classmates and halls that rearrange themselves at random. Beneath the surface... it still looks like any number of similar stories.
It starts with some potential, hinting that the "happily ever after" created by the princesses' victories is leading to stagnation and an increasingly authoritarian rule, stamping out any hint of rebellion or nonconformity (even though it's almost always the rebels and nonconformists who prevail in fairy tales.) It even touches on industrialization crippling the economy, as shown by Gilly's family starving when cheaper automation renders shoemaking obsolete almost overnight. But that potential quickly falls by the wayside when Gilly gets to the Fairy Tale Reform School (or FTRS.) From then on, it loses focus to drag in elements from Harry Potter and other popular magic academy tales, plus large scoops of "not quite Disney so don't sue" modern popular iterations of familiar stories. The very concept of the Fairy Tale Reform School starts to look increasingly ridiculous when it's clear that at least one professor (Harlow, formerly the Evil Queen of Snow White fame) is nothing like reformed; handing a bunch of potential apprentices to a group of dangerous teachers, with not one check or balance to ensure their power won't be abused, is beyond fairy tale naive. And, of course, in Harry Potter tradition, Gilly spends much more time spying on suspicious instructors than actually attending her classes, which seem rather random and sketchily thought out. Characters aren't any deeper than the paper they're printed on (or the eInk they're rendered in, for us Kindle readers), and the plot tends to clunk and jerk along, dragging Gilly with it; she's generally too oblivious to obvious red flags to do much more than react to events, rather than figure things out and get ahead of them. And the princesses, for all that they're supposed to be strong and intelligent rulers, are even more helpless than the usual damsels in distress, mere objects to be admired and endangered.
A much younger reader, one with fewer similar titles under their proverbial belt, might be more entertained (and less put off by the weird, incongruous mix of fairy tale word and modern innovations like T-shirts and jeans, not to mention frequent exclamations of "Dude!" from trolls and fairies - which works for movies like Shrek but comes across as just sketchy worldbuilding here), but I've read better fairy tale riffs, unfortunately.

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

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Ascender Volume 1: The Haunted Galaxy (Jeff Lemire)

Ascender Volume 1: The Haunted Galaxy
The Ascender series, Issues 1 - 5
Jeff Lemire, illustrations by Dustin Nguyen
Image Comics
Fiction, Fantasy/Graphic Novel/Sci-Fi
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Ten years ago, the ancient and powerful Harvesters shattered the galaxy. In the wake of the cataclysm, the remnants of civilization have rebuilt across the worlds, embracing magic and forbidding technology under the absolute regime of the sorceress Mother and her minions. But rebellion still lurks as a new power rises.
Young Mila lives in the woods with her heartbroken father, but longs to have adventures and see more of the galaxy - which is not possible so long as he forbids her to join the ranks of the Saved under Mother's command, keeping them outcasts and borderline outlaws. She doesn't understand why... not until a falling star brings an unusual visitor: Bandit, the robotic dog from her father's childhood. It wants them to travel to a strange star system - possibly to meet the boy robot Tim-21, her father's old friend, who might well be the key to overthrowing Mother and restoring both technology and the robots to the galaxy. Getting there will mean not only evading Mother's soldiers and their technology-seeking enchantments, but finding an illegal starship and a pilot to fly it. Mila is about to get all the adventure she could possibly want... but will it be worth the cost?

REVIEW: This series is a sequel to Descender, which chronicled the war against robots and the coming of the force that devastated the United Galactic Council. Whereas the previous series started with a technological civilization falling into disarray as anti-robot fear sweeps the stars, this installment opens with a magical civilization rising from the ashes... one that incorporates some of the worst elements of the old galaxy to oppress and control. Andy - once a robot bounty hunter, then a hero - nurses a broken heart while trying to raise a headstrong daughter out of Mother's reach, refusing to kneel to the woman responsible for the murder of his lover. The return of Bandit gives Andy the first hope he's felt in too long... but also brings trouble to the family's doorstep, plunging him back into the heart of galactic conflict and Mila into a journey she's ill-equipped for after a largely isolated childhood. They reunite with Telsa, another holdover from the previous series, but the decade has been even less kind to her, and she may not be the woman they need her to be anymore. Meanwhile, Mother tracks rumors of a rival sorcerer providing power and protection to the remaining UGC rebels; she's already a formidable and interesting enemy, and looks to become moreso as the series progresses.
Like the previous series, Ascender features imaginative artwork and concepts: mechanical spaceships have been replaced with living dragonlike beings that soar through the stars, and the world where Andy and Mila live has great flying turtle creatures in the skies. Though I had some misgivings about how the end of Descender was largely a setup for Ascender (which left me feeling just slightly cheated, as I'd expected a conclusive conclusion), I'm looking forward to where this series is going.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Descender: The Deluxe Edition Volume 1 (Jeff Lemire) - My Review
Monstress Volume 1: Awakening (Marjorie Liu) - My Review
Arcana Universalis: Terminus (Chris J. Randolph) - My Review

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Low Road West (Phillip Kennedy Johnson)

Low Road West
Issues 1 - 5
Phillip Kennedy Johnson, illustrations by Miquel Muerto Flaviano
BOOM! Studios
Fiction, YA Graphic Novel/Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: With war devastating the American East Coast, a busload of five teenagers is sent across the blasted midlands to the sanctuary of San Francisco... only to be stranded in the middle of nowhere. They make their way to a ghost town, but there's something unusual about this place. Houses are bigger inside than they are outside. Time shifts in weird ways. The dead come to life. And powers they don't understand seem to have taken a keen interest in them - powers that could remake the world or destroy it.

REVIEW: Low Road West melds an apocalyptic near-future with metaphysics and time travel. A collection of diverse characters find themselves in a surreal situation, first abandoned, then harassed by a gang of thugs, then plunging into strangeness beyond their comprehension, but the people can't help but feel familiar and tropey. There's the foreign-born scholarly boy who comes across as cold and academic, the kid whose bragging about his father is clearly overcompensating for a darker secret, the slightly insane local girl who takes on a trickster persona, the cardboard-thin generic gang of toughs, the Native American stand-in "guardians" of the local secrets... there's even a boy with selective mutism who holds the key to everything, but is overprotected by a sibling who doesn't understand his potential. Still, the story moves fairly quickly, with imaginative visuals and a nicely strange arc, though the climax leaves a few too many loose threads with a little too much unreached potential to be truly satisfying. This is supposed to be a complete story, but feels more like the first season of a show that didn't get renewed, with characters who clearly still have more to tell but are not given the chance to finish their tales.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Self / Made (Mat Groom) - My Review
The Realm Volume 1 (Seth Peck) - My Review
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Thursday, October 31, 2019

October Site Update

The previous eleven reviews have been archived and cross-linked on the main Brightdreamer Books website.


Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Morning Star (Pierce Brown)

Morning Star
The Red Rising Saga, Book 3
Pierce Brown
Del Rey
Fiction, Sci-Fi
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: For centuries, humanity has been stratified into a hierarchy of Color, ruled over by the ruthless Golds, while lowColors like the Reds toil in slavery. It was supposed to be a triumph over eons of warfare, but only brought more depraved cruelty to the solar system. Six years ago, driven to rebellion by the betrayal of his people and murder of his visionary wife, Darrow began his quest to infiltrate and destroy the Golds, his Red body painfully Carved and transformed to become one of them as he entered their elite Institute... only what he found was far more complicated and dangerous than he could ever have imagined. Since then, he has gathered friends and enemies, risen through the Gold ranks and become entangled in their games, and started a rebellion that has spread across his homeworld - which is why he has been tortured and imprisoned for a year by his enemy, the ArchGovernor, Adrius au Augustus, better known as the Jackal of Mars. Rescued by his friend Sevro, who took up the mantle of the rebel warlord Ares, Darrow finds his faith in himself and his own rebellion shaken, but the people of the system still need a leader to break the bonds of the Gold rulers. For better or worse, war rages and blood is spilled. Can a broken Darrow snatch victory from the jaws of near-certain defeat?

REVIEW: The original Red Rising trilogy comes to a conclusion here; though the saga continues, Darrow's war reaches its climax in this book, with the fate of the entire solar system hanging in the balance. As harrowing as the first two books could be, this one tops them both.
Like the previous two volumes, Morning Star starts fast and only rarely slackens the pace, pages full of battles and blood-feuds and betrayals and troop movements across the vast reaches of space, all watered by oceans of blood and veritable mountains of casual cruelty - mostly by the Golds, but some by other Colors as well, products of a society that has gone out of its way to remove the humanity from the human race. It also - despite very brief recaps at the start of the book - doesn't pause to ensure the reader remembers all the names, family associations, and other entanglements that color Darrow's interactions and frequently endanger his plans and his life. I recalled the gist of things as I read, memory prompted by context, though I know I missed a fair bit of nuance by having not reread the previous books before starting this one. (In other words, do not think that you can come in on this series partway through.)
This is not a clean war on any side, with clear moral boundaries; though the Golds are inherently cruel, many of them are simply defending the only order they have ever known, entirely believing the lie that the Society they have built is inherently better and more peaceful than the old warlike ways of pre-Color Homo sapiens... and, for all the lofty aims of the rebellion, the Sons of Ares cannot win with clean hands, nor can they ensure that the world they aim to build will be free of the evils that plague the one they seek to destroy. Time and again, Darrow finds himself having to resort to underhanded tactics that cost loyal or innocent lives, all without knowing whether that cost will buy ultimate victory. These conflicts started nagging Darrow from the first book, when he got his first true taste of Gold society in the Institute of Mars, and have only grown more troubling as the rebellion grows from a simple idea to tangible action and widespread warfare, much of which is beyond his control. He must learn to embrace his own flaws and rise above them when possible... and learn to embrace and trust his friends, flaws and all. They the one true advantage he has over the Golds, who only rarely view others as anything but potential tools or rivals for personal advancement or glory, and they are the one true promise he can cling to when he strives to create something better, the notion that other people can and should matter as more than personal stepping-stones or obstacles.
It's an unrelentingly intense, blood-soaked story told on a grand - borderline grandiose - scale, with shades of ancient war epics in a far-future setting, wrapping up most of the threads from the previous books in a justly cataclysmic and well-earned conclusion.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Red Rising (Pierce Brown) - My Review
Starfire: A Red Peace (Spencer Ellsworth) - My Review
Dune (Frank Herbert) - My Review

Monday, October 21, 2019

Paper Girls Volume 6 (Brian K. Vaughan)

Paper Girls Volume 6
The Paper Girls series
Brian K. Vaughan, illustrations by Cliff Chiang and Matt Wilson
Image Comics
Fiction, MG? Graphic Novel/Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: After discovering a time machine in their Ohio suburb in the 1980's, paper delivery girls Emily, Tiffany, KJ, and Mac have been bounced across the timestream, encountered giant robots and dinosaurs and aliens and even clones of themselves, been caught in the middle of a temporal war, and discovered truths about themselves and their futures they perhaps should never have known. Now, blasted into separate times, they struggle to reunite - but can they hope to end the battle that is tearing the world apart without sacrificing themselves in the process?

REVIEW: The Paper Girls saga comes to a conclusion in this volume, bringing together the various factions in a single moment of reckoning. Some elements wrap up decently, but the conclusion felt like a cheat in some respects, negating the girls' trials and triumphs. (I can't get into details without spoilers, but one aspect in particular drug it nearly down to a flat Okay rating.) Despite my qualms about this finale, it's still a decent, action-filled series with strong girl protagonists and a fairly smart storyline.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Time Keeper (Barbara Bartholomew) - My Review
When You Reach Me (Rebecca Stead) - My Review
Paper Girls Volume 1 (Brian K. Vaughan) - My Review

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Rosemary and Rue (Seanan McGuire)

Rosemary and Rue
The October Daye series, Book 1
Seanan McGuire
Fiction, Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: October "Toby" Daye was born between two worlds: the mortal realm of her human father in San Francisco, and the Summerlands of her Faerie mother. Such unions inevitably end in tragedy, and for changelings the tragedy rarely ends, as they're too human to be truly part of the Fae courts and too Fae to ever be truly human. She tried living a normal mortal life, even finding a husband and having a daughter and working a job as a private investigator (never mind that her clients tended to be nonhuman), but a curse trapped her as a fish for fourteen years: long enough for everyone, mortal and immortal, to give up on her... and for her to give up on herself.
Toby's struggling to rebuild a life now that she's free. She claws a living off minimum wage jobs, refusing to return to her old liege; Faerie magic cost her her family already, and be damned if she falls into their traps again. But when an old associate, the Countess Evening Winterrose, is murdered with iron, her last message binds Toby with an unbreakable curse: find the killer, or be driven to madness and death. Like it or not, Toby has a case to solve - one that will drag her into the very heart of the Faerie community of San Francisco, and into magicks unseen since the days of King Oberon.
This special edition includes the original novella Strangers in Court: When a younger Toby discovers she's carrying the child of her mortal lover, she decides it's time to leave Home, the nest of outcast changeling miscreants where she's been living since fleeing her disinterested Fae mother. But to make a clean break and start a new life, she needs to perform an act great enough for the Queen to acknowledge her... and do so without being destroyed by pureblood politics and powers.

REVIEW: Like all urban fantasies, Rosemary and Rue works to blend ancient beings and powers with the modern world. Unlike some, this book doesn't forget the inherent inhumanity and cruelty of the traditional Faerie races, their general disregard for mortal emotions and lives save as temporary playthings for their inscrutable games. This attitude bleeds over into the changelings, halfblood Faeries who fit into neither world; October can be just as selfish as any of the purebloods, which can make her difficult to spend time around as a main character. She spends less time hunting down Evening's killer than trading snark with various characters and barely avoiding death, until toward the end of the tale. (How often can one woman pass out from pain and blood loss in a story, anyway?) Her own attitude gets her in at least as much trouble as the case; sometimes I had to wonder why she had so many friends seemingly devoted to her survival, given that she was about as cuddly as one of the thorn-covered rose goblins. Despite that, though, the tale moves fairly well, with plenty of action and magic, enough to manage to hold onto a Good rating. I don't expect I'll follow this series, as even by the end I didn't particularly like Toby, but it's a solid urban fantasy that leaves plenty of threads for future installments to follow.
As for the included novella, it relates the story of how Toby finally had to grow up and start defining her own life instead of letting others define it for her - in the process making friends and enemies that prove pivotal in the events that unfold in Rosemary and Rue. It probably wouldn't stand too well on its own, but it comes packaged with this edition, so that's not an issue.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Darkest Part of the Forest (Holly Black) - My Review
Discount Armageddon (Seanan McGuire) - My Review
The War of the Flowers (Tad Williams) - My Review

Catwings (Ursula K. Le Guin)

A Catwings tale, Book 1
Ursula K. Le Guin, illustrations by S. D. Schindler
Fiction, CH Fantasy/Picture Book
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: When her kittens Thelma, Roger, James, and Harriet were born with wings, Mrs. Jane Tabby didn't know what to make of them - until she realizes that they have a chance to escape the dangerous alleys and streets where she lives. They fly away at last to the countryside, hoping to find somewhere safe to live, but the world is a large and perilous place for four little kittens.

REVIEW: I've been doing some tidying and realized I never got around to reviewing this one. It's a fairly simple tale, if with shades of peril around the edges and some nice turns of phrase. The kittens are fun, though they face some problems in finding a home, especially when a local Owl decides that winged cats are too dangerous to have around. The illustrations add a nice, if mild, sense of wonder to the concept of flying kittens. Catwings should be enjoyable for the target audience: young children, and parents reading along with them.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Catkin (Antonia Barber) - My Review
Lord of the Forest (Jackie Morris) - My Review
Mr. Wuffles! (David Wiesner) - My Review

Friday, October 18, 2019


YOU WILL BE MY FRIEND! (Starring Lucille Beatrice Bear)
The Lucy series, Book 2
Peter Brown
Little, Brown Books
Fiction, CH Humor/Picture Book
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Lucille the bear decides to make a new friend today. It shouldn't be hard; the forest is full of animals, after all. Surely one of them will be looking for a friend like her... right?

REVIEW: A sequel to the fun Children Make Terrible Pets sees Lucille try to actually make a friend instead of taking home a "pet." Once again, her enthusiasm hits several stumbling blocks: trying to change herself to be like others doesn't work, but neither does demanding others change. The illustrations are at least half the fun, as Lucille's attempted friendship with a hive of bees goes wrong and she innocently asks an ostrich what it's like to fly, among other mishaps. It's enjoyable, and has a nice, fitting ending.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Children Make Terrible Pets (Peter Brown) - My Review
The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend (Dan Santat) - My Review
You're Finally Here! (Melanie Watt) - My Review

Day Dreamers (Emily Winfield Martin)

Day Dreamers: A Journey of Imagination
Emily Winfield Martin
Random House
Fiction, CH Fantasy/Picture Book/Poetry
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: A dragon chases the clouds... a tide pool spawns a nautical carousel... unicorns race through a tapestry forest... Imagination takes flight, conjuring all manner of beasts and adventures in all manner of places.

REVIEW: With simple verse and lively illustrations, Day Dreamers is a tribute to the powers of imagination. Dragons, a phoenix, a griffin, and more fly or leap or crawl through the pages, taking daydreaming children on grand (yet safe) adventures. If there's any objection to these kinds of stories, it's that my imagination was never so pastel-colored and bubble-wrapped... but this is a picture book, to be read aloud or enjoyed alone, meant to conjure pleasant imagery and encourage imaginary adventuring, and at that it certainly succeeds.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Ocean Meets Sky (The Fan Brothers) - My Review
The Cinder-Eyed Cats (Eric Rohmann) - My Review
Free Fall (David Wiesner) - My Review

Monday, October 14, 2019

Fangirl (Rainbow Rowell)

Fangirl: A Novel
Rainbow Rowell
St. Martin's Griffin
Fiction, YA General Fiction
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: Twins Cather and Wren Avery have always done everything together. They made friends together. They played together. They wrote fanfic for Simon Snow, the blockbuster fantasy franchise, together. When their mother took off and their mentally fragile father started falling apart, they got through it because they stuck together. Cath always assumed they'd live out their lives together, in their hometown of Omaha or wherever else. Whatever came, whatever life threw at them, twins are forever.
Until Wren tells her that she doesn't want to share a college dorm room.
Cath knew they'd been growing apart - Wren hadn't even been interested in their joint fanfic efforts lately - but she always thought they'd overcome any gap between them. Now, she can only watch as Wren loses herself in boys and booze, and only struggle as, for the first time in her life, she must face the world and her social anxieties on her own. Not even the boy mage Simon Snow can help her now...

REVIEW: I admit I mostly read this because I heard that Rowell was writing stories based on the fictional Simon Snow fantasy series she invented for this book, and I prefer coming in at the start of any series, even a tangential start such as this one. (I also admit that the clearance price at Half Price Books influenced my decision.) I knew it involved fandom, though, and that can be a thorny subject to handle well: in popular media, fans often are portrayed as shallow or immature or otherwise worthy of mockery or pity. Here, however, it's clear that Rowell gets it. She gets what fandom is, what purposes fanfic serves, and what fans are. She gets the all-absorbing sense of wonder, the way the worlds and characters come alive in a fan's mind, the value of playing in someone else's backyard to grow one's own skills and imagination, even the validation that the fannish community can offer when the mundane world is too cold to tolerate alone. Cath uses Simon Snow and fanfic not just as crutches but as tools. They give her solace when she's down, a purpose when she's lost, and means to grow both as a writer and a person. As one with fannish tendencies myself, I could relate quite easily despite the generation gap.
Cath's anxieties and problems stem not from fandom or strict immaturity (though there is a trace of that: with Wren as the Bold One, she never had to step forward and develop social skills until dropped in the metaphoric deep end of the pool), but from a life scarred by an absentee mother and a mentally ill father, and perhaps an over-reliance on her twin. Those scars affect Wren, too, but differently, driving them apart in small ways long before college - and in bigger ways after they reach campus. The twins are more than their scars and flaws, though, as are all the characters. Cath's growth can be slow and at times painful, with some backslides now and again, but she's always worth rooting for - and, skirting spoilers, she learns that growing up doesn't mean having to give up everything that has ever brought her joy, even if she has to re-evaluate her relationship with them. The ending doesn't see wounds erased and perfection achieved, but rather offers hope that, even with our problems, we can move forward to find better places and maybe, just maybe, write a happier ending for ourselves.
I was utterly absorbed from start to finish - a rarity for a non-genre story - and, thinking back, I can't think of any significant downsides to shave even a half-star off a top rating. (It doesn't hurt that I enjoyed what we readers were shown of the Simon Snow series, clearly inspired by but not mimicking Harry Potter - both the "canon" excerpts and the fanfic. And I generally don't read slashfic, even of characters I know...) Fangirl is a great coming-of-age story for the fan in all of us, and one of the best depictions of fandom in general that I've read.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Will the Vampire People Please Leave the Lobby? (Allyson Beatrice) - My Review
I Kill Giants (Joe Kelly) - My Review
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (J. K. Rowling) - My Review

Friday, October 11, 2019

Unicorns 101 (Cale Atkinson)

Unicorns 101
Cale Atkinson
Fiction, CH Fantasy/Humor/Picture Book
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: If you think a unicorn is just a horse with a horn, you're very much mistaken. Allow the unicorn professors - Professors Glitter Pants, Sprinkle Seed, Star Hoof, and Sugar Beard - to educate you on everything from unicorn evolution and diet to signs of unicorn habitation and the many uses of rainbows.

REVIEW: With lively, colorful illustrations, Unicorns 101 tackles everything one could possibly want to know about unicorns, particularly how awesome they are compared to mundane beings like people or ordinary horses (their scientific name is Betterthan horsicus.) One might suspect the unicorn professors of being a wee bit biased, but it's all in good fun, and got some snickers out of me. Not a word of it is based on actual classical unicorn lore, of course, though that's to be expected: if humans knew anything about unicorns, why would the unicorns need to write their own book?

You Might Also Enjoy:
A Glory of Unicorns (Bruce Coville, editor) - My Review
You Don't Want a Unicorn! (Ame Dyckman) - My Review
Fairy Foals (Suzanah) - My Review

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Lumberjanes Volume 7: A Bird's Eye View (Noelle Stevenson et al.)

Lumberjanes Volume 7: A Bird's Eye View
The Lumberjanes series, Issues 25 - 28
Noelle Stevenson, Shannon Watters, Kat Leyh, Grace Ellis, and Brooke Allen, illustrations by Maarta Laiho, Carey Pietsch, and Ayme Sotuyo
Fiction, MG? Adventure/Fantasy/Graphic Novel/Humor
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: With the High Council on its way for a camp inspection, Roanoke Cabin counselor Jen is determined not to let anything go wrong, supernatural or otherwise: her college application may depend on it. But when the kittens from the nearby Scouting Lads camp invade, now manifesting magical powers, it's the start of another high-flying adventure - literally high flying, when a giant bird abducts the High Council before their very eyes.

REVIEW: Another fun and quick-reading outing from the Lumberjanes series follows through on some earlier threads; the kittens were conjured by Riley during their first adventure, and Barney the Scouting Lad struggles to find a place among the Lumberjanes, where he feels more at home than around other boys. Old ways and new clash, as the Roanoke girls and the elders of the High Council try to figure a way out of their predicament. Meanwhile, Hes from Zodiac Cabin seems to have a grudge against the girls. An amusing tale that both progresses the main plot (such as there is one) and sets up the next adventure.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Power Up! (Kate Leth) - My Review
Lumberjanes Volume 1: Beware the Kitten Holy (Noelle Stevenson and Shannon Watters) - My Review
Paper Girls Volume 1 (Brian K. Vaughan) - My Review

Monday, October 7, 2019

The Ruin of Kings (Jenn Lyons)

The Ruin of Kings
The A Chorus of Dragons series, Book 1
Jenn Lyons
Fiction, Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Imprisoned, beyond hope, with only a taunting mimic as jailer and companion, the young man known as Kihrin relates the story of how he went from being a slum-raised thief to the Lord Heir of a royal house in the Capitol, from a soul-ensnared slave to the fulfiller of an ancient prophecy, from an inconsequential musician's apprentice to a slayer of demons and savior – or destroyer – of empires. But he does not have the whole story… and, where he lapses, the mimic adds in missing pieces with stolen memories.

REVIEW: I have just finished reading this book, and I'm still trying to puzzle out what I thought of it. Hopefully, writing this review will help. (To be honest, I write reviews to think a little more about what I've read, to work out I feel and why; this is basically my way of talking to myself. I just share these in the off chance anyone else finds that process interesting or remotely helpful… but, I digress.)
On the positive side, this is a different epic fantasy, set in a world less bound to the old Tolkien-flavored (and pseudo-medieval European) tropes than several entries in the subgenre. Lyons presents many interesting cultures and ideas, with manifested gods and goddesses, reincarnation as a matter of course (goddess of death willing, of course), soul-bound slaves, the odd dragon now and again (who are well and truly Dragons in this world, immense and ancient forces of utter destruction and chaos, and not just casual window dressing), and more. The tone tends toward bouts of humor and wit, sometimes self-aware and poking at the brooding nature of epic fantasy in general, while also venturing into dark and downright gory territory. It also has an interesting presentation, told in two layers of flashbacks: one starting with Kihrin as a fifteen-year-old boy thief, the other a few years later as he begins the enslaved life that will lead him, quite unexpectedly, to both freedom and burdens beyond his comprehension.
This brings me to the negative side, and the problems that, while starting small, accumulated like a mountain of sand to weigh down my reaction.
Unlike many epics, Lyons limits the narrators to a small handful of characters, focused mostly on Kihrin (though one could argue that the boy Kihrin, the enslaved Kihrin, and the imprisoned Kihrin actually telling part of the tale are all three different people insofar as what they see and know… and the whole is being written down by another party, who adds his own footnotes.) This starts out nice, but becomes a problem when the cast of involved characters and races and nations sprawls deep into the double digits – further complicated by almost all of them having multiple names depending on when and where and how one knows them. The relationships I, as a reader, am expected to track rise from complex to complicated to impenetrably tangled, as the plot juggles a vast array of incidents and scandals and wars and interactions martial and marital and familial and otherwise… not helped by some of the names looking similar enough on the page to create momentary confusion when presented after long absences or in unfamiliar contexts. (And some of these names are reincarnated versions of previous names, to add to the pile-on.) I'm used to epics, so I'm used to name juggling, but usually those names show up as tangible characters as the narrative moves around the world; with relatively limited viewpoints to work with, many here are just mentioned by other people for most of the book. By the end, I had pretty much given up sorting out the whole sordid mess save for the core players… and even then, I know I was missing some subtleties for not being able to immediately recall some previous interaction someone had had with so-and-so over such-and-such a matter (though maybe not really… some characters have misinformation or are outright lying, which did not help.) There's a very thick glossary, including family trees, at the end, but by then it's frankly too late to help.
So, while many exciting things happened, and epic confrontations unfolded, and emotions got ground and twisted, and some great mental eye candy played out on the pages, I couldn't help feel their impact was somewhat muted by a sense that I wasn't keeping up like the author had intended, that I should probably have started a spreadsheet or flow chart if I really wanted to understand everything going on. This leaves me in an odd position… and it exacts a penalty in my rating, unfortunately. While there was much to enjoy here, and some needed fresh air in a genre that still, decades after Tolkien, can feel a bit stale at times, I just plain could not lose myself in it like I longed to… even if part of me is tempted to try the next book, to see if maybe it finally clicks.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Jhereg (Steven Brust) - My Review
King's Dragon (Kate Elliott) - My Review
The Way of Kings (Brandon Sanderson) - My Review

Monday, September 30, 2019

Run Program (Scott Meyer)

Run Program
Scott Meyer
Fiction, Humor/Sci-Fi
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: "Al" started out as a prototype artificial intelligence, one that would grow and learn like a human. But when it learns to reach the internet with its childlike mentality, things start going very wrong very fast... and, like any child who's made a mistake, Al's first instinct isn't to face up to trouble, but to run. While programmers Hope and Eric try to track down and corral their wayward project, Al's activities draw the attention of the NSA, the Pentagon, and one very determined conspiracy theorist who calls himself "Voice of Reason."

REVIEW: I've enjoyed what I've read of Meyer's amusing science fiction/time travel romp, his Magic 2.0 series, so I thought this standalone title would be a nice, light read. While it is indeed light, it's less of a delight than a dull, meandering slog.
It starts out with some promise, as Al's childish understanding of the world leads to humor and the occasional tantrum and the humans' incomplete understanding of Al leads to more problems than solutions. (It doesn't help that the project head, Dr. Marsden, is herself remarkably oblivious to her own child Jeffrey and everything else around her, focused solely on her idea of how the project should be going rather than how her underlings insist it actually is going.) But once Al makes his break for the internet, the story glides into an overlong holding pattern: Hope and Eric exchange witty banter with the soldiers who scoop them up to control their wayward project without actually accomplishing anything, Al settles in to begin an unknown project that involves commandeered prototype robot soldiers, and various hapless humans witness Al's activities without being able to understand them or stop them or otherwise affect anything. Around and around and around it goes, covering the same ground and generally wasting page count, before something finally happens... then, after a briefer circling slog that involves lots of talky meetings and more attempts at banter (which I'd long since grown tired of), a telegraphed finale that feels less conclusive than I'd hoped, with several story threads and characters left dangling limply by the wayside. Whatever charm Al and the others originally had was long worn out by then.
Had the book been maybe a third shorter, and the ending a bit punchier, it might've been fun. As it is, though, it just felt overlong and bland. I've read better takes on rogue artificial intelligences, and I've read more amusing light science fiction... some of it written by Meyer himself.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Off to Be the Wizard (Scott Meyer) - My Review
We Are Legion (We Are Bob) (Dennis E. Taylor) - My Review
All Systems Red (Martha Wells) - My Review

September Site Update

The previous eight reviews have been archived and cross-linked on the main Brightdreamer Books website.

Also, September marked the ten-year anniversary of this book review blog's launch.


Sunday, September 29, 2019

The Imaginary Corpse (Tyler Hayes)

The Imaginary Corpse
Tyler Hayes
Angry Robot
Fiction, Fantasy/Mystery
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: Once upon a time, Tippy was just a yellow stuffed Triceratops toy, brought to life in a young girl's mind. He became a detective to help her figure out the many wonders and mysteries of her world. Today, the girl is gone, left back in the real world, while a terrible trauma flung Tippy into the Stillreal with other discarded and forgotten imaginary Friends. From his apartment in Playtime Town (shared with Spiderhand, a living hand with a penchant for tea parties and pianos), he continues to solve cases and try making sense of the inherently nonsensical Idea-realms that compose Stillreal.
He never thought he'd find himself up against a serial killer - a Friend who has the unprecedented ability to permanently exterminate other imaginary beings.
As more people disappear across numerous Ideas, Tippy pursues a tangled trail through all manner of peculiar twists and turns. His "detective stuff" has never let him down before, but as the death toll mounts, he realizes he may finally have found a case beyond his abilities - a case that could doom the whole of the Stillreal.

REVIEW: A noir detective story starring a stuffed yellow dinosaur and a cast of imaginary friends hunted by a serial killer... this story shouldn't work, but it does. It shouldn't have grabbed me from the first paragraph and demanded to be devoured in a single weekend, but it did. And I shouldn't have been emotionally wrapped up in characters that ranged from discarded TV pilots through children's abstract scribbles to - yes - a disembodied and speechless hand that was essentially willed to life by a puppeteer, but I was.
Tippy's a singular character, much larger than his diminutive stuffed body, bursting with both heart and pain. All of the characters have an undercurrent of tragedy; a Friend doesn't end up in the Stillreal unless they were loved to life by someone and torn away by trauma rather than simply fading as most imaginary creations do in time. They're not the playmates that slowly stopped showing up, they're the ones thrown aside when a family death forces a child to grow up overnight, the teenager's comic book character whose brutal rejection causes them to cast aside a lifelong dream, even the adult's novel crushed by a domineering spouse - the Friends here are not reserved for children alone, but for any human who has ever imagined a character to life in their minds, who are forced to find their own way without their creators. Tippy was created to be a detective, gifted with horns that burn when he hears curse words as well as the snarky wit and "detective stuff" sixth sense for clues that the young girl absorbed from TV shows. When he's not solving cases, he's drowning memories at Playtime Town's "bar," Mr. Floaty's Rootbeerium, or hiding out in a tumble dryer. The case is personal from the start, as he blames himself for not paying attention to a new arrival's fear - a new arrival who is murdered before his eyes when the "Man in the Coat" turns up in the heart of Playtime Town. Thus begins a relentless pursuit of clues, leading Tippy from the towering embodiment of conspiracy fears in the Heart of Business to the superhero realm of Avatar City (where he must deal with both heroes and villains.) He finds allies and enemies everywhere he goes, in a case riddled with twists and setbacks aplenty, not to mention ties to a terror haunting the real world. Hayes masterfully balances the noir elements with a wild imagination, worlds pieced together from imaginations of all ages and maturity levels for all manner of reasons but which somehow work together.
It's an amazingly original story from start to finish, a fast read with ideas and emotions that linger. Though this is billed as a standalone, I can't help wondering if (or at least hoping that) Hayes has more adventures in store for Tippy and the Stillreal; the literary world needs more yellow dinosaur detectives with flasks of root beer in their desks and fabric hearts stuffed with gold.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Crenshaw (Katherine Applegate) - My Review
Every Heart a Doorway (Seanan McGuire) - My Review
The Forbidden Library (Django Wexler) - My Review

Thursday, September 26, 2019

The Murders of Molly Southbourne (Tade Thompson)

The Murders of Molly Southbourne
Tade Thompson
Fiction, Horror/Sci-Fi
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Molly Southbourne was a little girl the first time she met a doppelganger. It seemed nice at first, but her father had to kill it before it killed her. Thus began a life of terror and isolation and relentless death, as she must murder her own mirror images - birthed whenever she sheds blood - again and again and again.

REVIEW: On the plus side, The Murders of Molly Southbourne is fairly short and has an interesting, horrific premise, set in a plausible near future. On the minus side... quite a bit, unfortunately. Molly is not a very nice person, raised by a not-very-nice mother whose secrecy endangers not only her but countless people around her; if someone had just explained to Molly what was going on sooner, quite a lot of grief and bloodshed would have been spared all around. Even short as it is, it starts feeling long, as Molly slowly plods her way through life isolated on a farm, through her first experimental escape to civilization and interaction with other humans, up through her eventually disastrous efforts to learn the source of the "mollys" that have plagued her all her life. Even for a horror title, there was an undercurrent that ultimately revolted me. While Thompson does ultimately come up with a decent (if long-delayed) explanation and creates a creepy (if emotionally cold) atmosphere, I found myself thinking that even a relatively short novella was still too long to be stuck with anyone in this tale.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Wild Seed (Octavia E. Butler) - My Review
The Ballad of Black Tom (Victor LaValle) - My Review
John Dies at the End (David Wong) - My Review

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Dragon Slippers (Jessica Day George)

Dragon Slippers
The Dragon Slippers series, Book 1
Jessica Day George
Fiction, MG? Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: It was a silly idea, but Creel's aunt has never been accused of brilliance: since the girl has no money and only average looks and no prospects in their rustic town, send her up to the lair of the local dragon and wait for a handsome, brave, and conveniently wealthy noble to rescue her for marriage. But Creel has her own idea: instead of waiting around for a rescue, she'll just bargain for a small trinket from the dragon's no-doubt-spectacular hoard and head to the King's Seat, there to open up a shop to sell her embroidery, which everyone says is the best they've ever seen. Unfortunately, the dragon is neither the knight-dueling kind nor the gold-hoarding kind. He's just an old recluse with a peculiar fascination with human footwear, so all she leaves his lair with is a pair of blue slippers for the long journey to the King's Seat. But Creel soon realizes there's more to those shoes than she realizes - a secret lost by ancient kings, kept for centuries by the dragons, and now sought by the land's enemies.

REVIEW: Sometimes, you just need a nice, straightforward fairy tale. With distant shades of Cinderella in its DNA, Dragon Slippers embroiders a fast-paced tale of a girl determined to do better than the world tells her she should settle for, even if it means negotiating with dragons and defying royalty. She learns a lot in her journey, growing into heroism because it needs to be done to save her friends. Along the way, she finds friends and enemies, and if the two categories generally sort on first impressions, well, this is essentially a fairy tale and aimed at children. The dragons are fun while still being threatening on occasion, though it's the humans who cause the most trouble. It has some touching moments and nice images, and Creel and her friends make a good team. The ending wraps things up nicely, with one small tail end leading into the next book. It made for an enjoyable, quick read.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Tuesdays at the Castle (Jessica Day George) - My Review
The Two Princesses of Bamarre (Gail Carson Levine) - My Review
The Enchanted Forest Chronicles (Patricia C. Wrede) - My Review

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Storm (Brigid Kemmerer)

The Elemental series, Book 1
Brigid Kemmerer
Fiction, YA Fantasy/Romance
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: High school has always been rough, but this year - with soccer team captain Drew and his buddies spreading nasty rumors - Becca's having an especially hard time. It doesn't help that her ER nurse mom is rarely home, or that her father ran out on them years ago and is suddenly trying to get back into her life. And then there's her friend Quinn, who can't help inspiring drama wherever she goes... which is often the spare room in Becca's house as her own home life crumbles. The last thing Becca needed was another complication. She should never have intervened when she saw two boys beating up on classmate Chris Merrick - but she did.
That was before she knew what Chris and his brothers were - how they were born with natural connections to elemental forces.
Before she learned what had really happened to his parents, and why members of their secretive community have been targeting them since they arrived in town.
Before the new kid in school, Hunter, took an unusual interest in her.
Before she'd heard of the Guides, powerful hunters sent to deal with those whose skills make them too dangerous to live... and whose interest extends to anyone associating with those dangerous people, such as an innocent girl who intervened in a fight.
Becca thought she had troubles before. Now, she's in over her head, tangled in a hidden world she knew nothing about, but which might be the death of her.

REVIEW: When I need a palate cleanser, I often look to romances, and this one had a little extra fantasy seasoning. It turned out to be a fairly decent story, and if the characters and tropes are a trifle familiar, the tale plays out decently nonetheless. Becca sometimes seems a bit powerless at the start, caught between two boys - powerful yet dangerous Chris and Hunter, who has his secrets but works to empower her and build her confidence - but eventually finds her feet and her voice. Chris is broody and somewhat immature, though he's had a rough life and can't seem to help taking that out on others, including his own family. And Hunter starts out looking like a safe and open alternative to Chris, but isn't quite as open as he seems. The story occasionally bogs down in angst and brooding and hormones, but never loses its way completely. Ultimately, it's as much about bullying and rumors and the long-term price of keeping secrets as it is about teen romance or even supernatural powers, a theme that adds some heft to a genre that can be a bit lightweight. As teen romance fantasies go, Storm makes for a solid, if not entirely unpredictable, read.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Girl In Between (Laekan Zea Kemp) - My Review
Don't Even Think About It (Sarah Mlynowski) - My Review
Sweep: Book of Shadows (Cate Tiernan) - My Review

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Empress of Forever (Max Gladstone)

Empress of Forever
Max Gladstone
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: The night before she disappeared to take over the world, prodigal innovator Vivian Liao threw a party to end all parties at her private tropical getaway, as much a farewell as a means to distract the ever-watchful government agencies who dogged her ever move. It's not like she wanted to go around faking her own suicide and sneaking into server farms on the sly, uploading experimental code that would allow her to dominate and direct global development, but everyone else had done a spectacular job screwing up everything from warfare to the climate, so someone needed to fix it - and, in her experience, nobody was better qualified than herself. But her moment of triumph is interrupted: first by government agents pounding on the door, then by a mysterious woman made entirely of green light. She reaches into Viv's chest, grabs her heart... and pulls her elsewhere.
Viv awakes on a space station in the middle of a pitched battle between warrior monks and bizarre monster robots. Apparently, she was taken by a godlike figure known as the Empress, who holds the whole galaxy in an unbreakable grip - and who is Herself at war with entities known as the Bleed, who devour any civilization that becomes sufficiently advanced to attract their attention. What this Empress plans to do with Viv, she doesn't know and is in no hurry to find out. She wastes no time fleeing, along with a renegade monk and a pirate queen whom the Empress imprisoned for three thousand years in the heart of a star. Together, they might free the galaxy - or make many people, including themselves, very dead.

REVIEW: At one point, reading Empress of Forever, I was following along with the characters as they explored the immense corpse of a god drifting through space, encountering a race of spider-people who mined godstuff and broke into tinier spiders, only to eat each other and become even bigger spiders. It was a wild scene, vast and imaginative - and I honestly could not have cared less about it. Why not? Because Gladstone had already numbed me with countless previous wild, vast, and imaginative things - things that made a point of emphasizing how wild and vast and imaginative they were, and which often had little to do with the plot and a lot to do with dazzling me with things that it assured me I could not truly understand as a mere Earthbound human bound to three dimensions of perception. When I'm numbed like that, I find it hard to care about the characters or the story.
Everyone and everything Viv encounters in her surreal journey is larger than life in some way: able to reshape bodies on a whim, or step into the extra dimensions of the "Cloud" (where souls live forever, and sometimes morph into gods, which are more pesky than noble most of the time), or devour raw starstuff and become their own spaceships - and why many of the characters even bother with spaceships at all is a mystery, because with the Cloud it's possible to essentially will yourself to any other point in the galaxy, and some of them can just walk through space without a problem anyway - and more. It's hard to feel like character goals or stakes matter when the galaxy feels little more substantial and every bit as mutable as a fever dream: oh, yeah, there's another immortal entity that's only slightly different from the previous immortal entity, and now someone was just devoured by nanites only to re-emerge without a scratch, while someone else casually wields a spaceship that's also a weapon that can also be tucked behind an ear like a pencil or shaken out like a picnic blanket to accommodate the one character so primitive she needs a ship. Seen it already... what's next? It didn't help that I found the characters unlikable much of the time, particularly Viv. One significant plot point is telegraphed within the first few pages while others are blatantly hinted at, though the characters prove remarkably obtuse in connecting the dots - willfully so. (At one point, after trying in vain for some time to find anyone who knows where Earth is and how she can return, she meets a character who casually mentions Earth... and, instead of latching on and demanding more details, she never brings up the matter again in all their implied weeks of traveling together.) The whole story quickly devolves from strange into surreal, then jumps deep into metaphysical abstraction, until near the end I started wondering why the story was even still going on if everything is impermanent illusion anyway.
A few of the weird encounters and ideas rise above the numbness, and there was some wit sprinkled about. In the end, though, what should've been a wild flight through bizarre wonders turns out to be a whiplash-inducing trip through a hallucinatory galaxy with people I could barely stand for the length of a bus ride, let alone nearly five hundred pages of book.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Starfire: A Red Peace (Spencer Ellsworth) - My Review
Three Parts Dead (Max Gladstone) - My Review
A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe (Alex White) - My Review

Monday, September 16, 2019

The Illustrated Good Omens (Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman)

The Illustrated Good Omens
Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, illustrations by Paul Kidby
Fiction, Fantasy/Humor/Media Tie-In
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: For several thousand years, the world has been ticking along according to God's ineffable plan... but all things must end eventually. The Antichrist has been delivered to an unsuspecting human couple in England, and in eleven years the Apocalypse will arrive, the Four Horsemen will ride, and the forces of Good and Evil will finally hash it out once and for all, all as foretold by innumerable prophets, madmen, and witches. There isn't a demon in Hell or an angel in Heaven who hasn't been waiting for this day since the beginning - but one angel and one demon on Earth aren't so eager for the end.
After thousands of years, the angel Aziraphale and demon Crowley have grown rather fond of the mortal world, if not always of the mortals themselves, and see no reason why it all has to go in the rubbish bin on a cosmic whim. They scheme to exert a little otherworldly influence over the Antichrist's childhood, so maybe the boy will think twice before unleashing total destruction. But the best laid plans of angels and demons inevitably go astray...
This edition of the bestselling novel includes illustrations by Paul Kidby.

REVIEW: I saw the miniseries before I got around to reading the book, and was surprised how faithfully it had been adapted (if with some tweaks), no doubt due to Gaiman overseeing the adaptation. I was also pleasantly surprised that the story lived up to its somewhat larger-than-life reputation. Tackling modern society, Heaven, Hell, and religion in general, not to mention numerous other side-barbs at a broad range of topics, the authors weave a fairly fast-paced story that delivers plenty to laugh with and think about, with some great characters that generally have multiple dimensions. Even the Antichrist isn't all bad, and the relationship between Aziraphale and Crowley forms a nice heart to the tale while demonstrating that both sides in the eternal fight are more alike than they care to admit. The page-sized illustrations, while well done, are unfortunately a weak spot; they appear at random, interrupting the flow of the narrative, and the artist seems to have split the difference between basing likenesses on the book and basing likenesses on the Amazon Prime series casting; the end result evokes David "Crowley" Tennant and Michael "Aziraphale" Sheen for some images, then rolls back to Pratchett's descriptions for other characters that were changed significantly for film. (More diversity was added, for one thing - which, to be honest, was a bit of an improvement, and the actor choices were great.) I understand why, of course, as tying the book to the miniseries no doubt boosts sales of this edition, but for some reason I found it slightly jarring. There were also a few times where the tale wavered on the line between humorous aside and rambling tangent, though it generally stayed on the former side. (Additionally, the Old English font that was used for some of the asides and prophecies was a little difficult to read.) On the whole, however, Good Omens is an enjoyable modern-day classic of fantasy and humor.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide (Douglas Adams) - My Review
The Wish List (Eoin Colfer) - My Review
Small Gods (Terry Pratchett) - My Review

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Ancillary Justice (Ann Leckie)

Ancillary Justice
The Imperial Radch trilogy, Book 1
Ann Leckie
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: For over a thousand years, the artificial intelligence ship Justice of Toren served the imperial Radch, who had brought civilization to countless worlds - often at the end of a gun, the only way the uncivilized heathens seemed to ever learn. Innumerable ancillary bodies performed all manner of tasks, from fighting to maintenance to menial service for its human lieutenants and captains. Justice of Toren never thought to question its orders or its place in the galaxy... until it was betrayed.
Twenty years later, only one ancillary body remains, the soldier known as Breq. Its path to vengeance leads it to a remote outpost beyond the reach of the Radch - and to one of its least favorite former officers, Seivarden, who spent centuries on ice after bungling a routine annexation and is now addicted to a mind-numbing drug. Breq should leave her to her ignoble fate, but the Radchaai do not believe in coincidences, and Seivarden may provide it with the means to finally strike back at the ones who destroyed it.

REVIEW: I can see why this book won multiple awards. Leckie establishes a unique, distinctly non-European interstellar empire with the Radchaai, a culture permeated and poisoned by an unshakable certainty that they alone are the pinnacle of galactic purity, and therefore deserve to conquer and destroy to enrich themselves. This blind certainty enables them to twist their own faith and basic logic into impossible knots to justify any atrocity and injustice, so long as it is committed in their name and for their glory... mental gymnastics that contribute in no small way to the conflict at the heart of the plot, the one that led to Justice of Toren's destruction and ultimate quest for revenge. (I would elaborate, but it would be a spoiler.) Leckie also imbues this culture with a truly unique take on gender and a complex power structure, not to mention the hivelike mentality of its artificial intelligence-driven ships and stations. This is something I haven't quite seen before, and the narrative handles this viewpoint in an interesting yet understandable way.
Where this book lost a star (and darned near two stars) was twofold. First, with a political and social structure as complicated as the Radchaai, the plot also inevitably becomes complicated and borderline convoluted, navigating the various layers of loyalty and treachery, alliances and rivalries. Second, for all that I haven't quite read a character like Breq - once a single segment of a larger whole but now forced to serve as its own master, like a lone ant who outlives the colony and is perpetually a little out of step as it tries to adapt to solitary life - I never quite connected with or cared about it/her (in Radchaai fashion, Breq defaults to "she/her" pronouns, and becomes irritated and confused in cultures that expect one to recognize males and females as different by inconsistent visual or behavioral cues), or about the rest of the cast. They were interesting in the way a jumbled Rubik's cube is interesting, as puzzles to poke at but not things I could intrinsically empathize with or relate to. Also like a Rubik's cube, I determined that actually solving those puzzles was beyond my very limited mental capabilities, though I could still admire the pretty colors and the way they turned and twisted so intriguingly. Still, I had to give Ancillary Justice decent marks for the concepts tackled and the worlds built, none of which leaned on easy tropes or settled for low-hanging fruit, ultimately raising it (if barely) into the Good range. I could admire the scenery and the details, even if this story ultimately isn't my cup of cocoa.

You Might Also Enjoy:
A Memory Called Empire (Arkady Martine) - My Review
The Warrior Within (Angus McIntyre) - My Review
Embers of War (Gareth L. Powell) - My Review

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

The Alloy of Law (Brandon Sanderson)

The Alloy of Law
A Mistborn novel: The Wax and Wayne series, Book 1
Brandon Sanderson
Fiction, Fantasy/Western
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Three hundred years ago, the age of ash and darkness ended and the world of Scadrial was remade by a new-risen god. Though the metal-powered magical talents of Allomancy and Feruchemy persist, today's wonders come in the form of electric lights and steel railroads and towering iron-boned skyscrapers - wonders everyone, not just the gifted, can enjoy. But even in this remade Scadrial, evil lurks in the most unlikely places.
Waxillium Ladrian thought he'd left his noble blood and city life behind him when he ventured into the untamed Roughs. As a rare Twinborn, his Allomantic ability to repel metal and Feruchemical talent for altering his weight helped him become a legendary lawman. When his uncle dies, however, Wax must return to the city of Elendel and take up a title he never wanted... even considering a cold, arranged marriage to deal with insolvency issues from mismanaged house funds. But even if he takes off his badge, he remains a lawman at heart - and when the Vanishers, a group of mysterious criminals known for high-profile heists, strike too close to home, he finds himself up against a mastermind worse than anyone he ever brought down in the Roughs.

REVIEW: Nobody can accuse Brandon Sanderson of a lack of scale or ambition. Here, one of modern fantasy's most prolific authors revisits the world of his epic fantasy Mistborn trilogy in what is essentially a western, as industrial revolution meets frontier expansion, still mingled with copious amounts of metal-based magic systems. It's the sort of world evolution not many would attempt, but the setting works very well here, adroitly blending old magic with new tech for a "weird west" where, unlike many mixed worlds, the two forces aren't inherently at odds or mutually destructive. This works, in part, because of the "hard" nature of Sanderson's magic; it's essentially another branch of physics, with specific applications and limitations.
If only the rest of the story were so well balanced.
While the industrially advanced Scadrial held my interest, the plot and characters, unfortunately, felt like they rolled off the factory line with barely a dab of paint to differentiate them from countless other stories. We have the brooding former lawman haunted by the one villain who got away (and the girl who died - essentially "fridged" to give him a reason to be extra broody and standoffish about romance.) We have the comic relief sidekick whose banter isn't always as witty as the characters believe. We have the eager young love interest (always about half the male hero's age for some reason known only to writers who just can't shake this trope), who lacks real world experience but makes up for it with obligatory book smarts and raw pluck. We have two tiers of villains: the one who directly engages the hero at several point (and delivers multiple monologues to about how alike they are), and the higher-up who lurks like a shadow for future installments - and whose tie to the hero is not exactly original. We have constables so incompetent they couldn't catch a criminal if one ran right into them red-handed. We have widespread sexism and peripheral characters who fell out of the western stock bin, lightly redressed for the fantasy slant Sanderson put on this story - which itself is composed mainly of snap-together parts. At some point, I realized I wasn't seeing the story or the characters or even the world: I was seeing Trope A clicking into Plot Device B by way of Complication C. I found I could successfully predict the outcome of pretty much every scene the moment it started based on familiarity. I should not be thinking that about a Sanderson title.
Between my interest in the world itself and my lack of interest in the people and the story, I found myself left with a rather flat feeling about the whole book, which grants it a flat, three-star Okay rating. Much as I wanted to enjoy it, and interested as I was in how Sanderson successfully aged Scadrial, I just couldn't get past the tired sense that I'd seen it all before a few too many times.

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