Tuesday, December 31, 2019

December Site Update and Year in Review

The month's reviews have been archived at the main Brightdreamer Books website.

As the last dregs of 2019 slide down the drain of time, it's also time once again for the Reading Year in Review, an admittedly-haphazard look back.

January started with a book that forever changed how I looked at the woods out back, Peter Wohlleben's The Hidden Life of Trees. It also turned out to be my most prolific reading month. High points included a prequel in Seanan McGuire's Wayward Children series, In an Absent Dream, and Katherine Applegate's exploration of extinction in a fantasy world, Endling #1: The Last. I also finished off Nnedi Okorafor's ambitious (if occasionally metaphysical) science fiction trilogy, Binti, and explored the often-harrowing Children of Blood and Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi. There were a few disappointments - I was less impressed than I'd hoped to be by Alex White's deep-space fantasy A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe and the choose-your-own romance of My Lady's Choosing (Kitty Curran and Larissa Zageris), and Sebastien de Castell's Spellslinger felt oddly flat - but overall it was a decent month.

In February, I revisited Andre Norton's Fur Magic, a favorite from childhood that lost some luster with adult eyes but retained an imaginative premise. I also returned to Marie Brennan's dragon researcher Lady Trent with The Tropic of Serpents. The high point of the month, though, would have to be The Copper Promise by Jen Williams, an exciting sword and sorcery adventure in the vein of Leiber's classic Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser with some refreshing twists and updates.

I kicked off March with the seventh Birthright graphic novel by Joshua Williamson, continuing the adventures of the boy-turned-warrior Mickey as the darkness he tried - and failed - to defeat in a fantasy world follows him home to Earth. I also explored the anthro noir graphic novel Blacksad, by Juan Diaz Canales, and sampled another series by the prolific Seanan McGuire with the urban fantasy Discount Armageddon. Brandon Sanderson ventured into young adult science fiction with Skyward, with mixed results, and Carrie Ann Noble's The Mermaid's Sister left a lingering fishy taste in my mouth I still haven't completely rinsed out. I also found myself underwhelmed, despite the promise and the hype, by Charlie Jane Anders's All the Birds in the Sky, despite it exploring some interesting ideas. Fortunately, the month also brought me the seventh installment of James S. A. Corey's Expanse series, Persepolis Rising.

April included another Expanse novel, Tiamat's Wrath, which did not fail to impress. It also brought me Mary Robinette Kowal's The Fated Sky, the second of her "punchcard-punk" alternate history science fiction tales positing a space race that didn't sputter out after the moonshot, this time sending astronauts to Mars aboard Apollo-era rockets. And I found myself more impressed than I'd expected to be by Martha Conway's historical adventure tale Thieving Forest. More than one read fell flat this month, unfortunately; Fritz Leiber's classic Swords in the Mist felt stretched by sticking to a single major plot arc instead of the shorter adventures his sword-and-sorcery heroes tend to excel at, and Heidi Heilig's For a Muse of Fire just failed to hit my story sweet spot for some reason, though it had some very good moments. But, then, I found myself unusually amused by Leah Gilbert's silly picture book A Couch for Llama, so my literary opinions aren't to be taken without salt.

In May, I reviewed my first-ever audiobook, an excellent rendition of Adam Rex's middle-grade alien invasion romp The True Meaning of Smekday (prompted by a badly-bruised tailbone; it's impossible to sit long enough to read with a bruised tailbone.) Brooke Bolander's award-nominated tale The Only Harmless Great Thing lived up to the hype, delivering a thoughtful, tragic, and profound story of interspecies exploitation. And Jonathan Stroud's middle-grade horror series Lockwood and Company continued to impress with The Whispering Skull. Disappointments included the graphic novel Coda, by Simon Spurrier, and while I appreciated the premise and writing of Ian Tregillis's Bitter Seeds, I found it just plain too bleak to pursue through the trilogy, especially given the bleak reality I must return to when I close a book these days. Similarly, John Scalzi's The Collapsing Empire was an unfortunate case of "wrong book, wrong time" given certain world and national events.

June started on a sour note when I found myself underimpressed by Samantha Shannon's The Priory of the Orange Tree. Things picked up with K. Arsenault Rivera's Asian-flavored fantasy The Tiger's Daughter and Arkady Martine's A Memory Called Empire. In anticipation of Netflix's adaptation, I ventured into the written world of the Witcher with Andrzej Sapkowski's The Last Wish, at the time considered the entry point to the series, and had sufficient mixed feelings that I still haven't started watching the show. Conversely, having enjoyed Netflix's adaptation of Altered Carbon, I read Richard K. Morgan's book, and while I found it decent I have to admit I enjoyed the arc from the Netflix version better. (I'll admit some minor influence from a shirtless Joel Kinneman here - I'm human, after all - but the plot tweaks also felt more satisfying, particularly the conclusion.) And, after seeing it go through the library again and again when so many autobiographies and memoirs fade after brief spurts of interest, I tried Trevor Noah's Born a Crime, a memoir of his childhood in South Africa, and very much enjoyed it. The month also contained a reading of Wesley King's Dragons vs. Drones, which ties with Snakes on a Plane for the most accurate title I've ever encountered.

July kicked off with a graphic novel about magic-wielding dogs fighting forces of evil in the Appalacians, Evan Dorkin's Beasts of Burden: Wise Dogs and Eldrich Men. I ventured back into the retro-future world of Arabella Ashby in David D. Levine's fantastical romp Arabella and the Battle of Venus, which mostly entertained. And I did my patriotic duty by actually reading The Mueller Report, a long and thorough and very unsettling probe of distinctly shady behavior in the highest offices of America that still remains largely unaddressed. Max Gladstone led me into some very surreal territory with the investigation of a god's murder in Three Parts Dead, and Rick Yancey's The Infinite Sea turned an alien apocalypse into something approaching poetry with his prose.

In August, I finally got back to Jeremy Whitley's "princess who saved herself" with Princeless: Find Yourself, which picked up the pace after some dithering in previous volumes. I also ventured back into Catherynne M. Valente's Fairyland with The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, which lived up to the high bar set by the first Fairyland installment. And Megan O'Keefe's debut space opera, Velocity Weapon, proved exciting and interesting. I also sampled a genre classic with Clifford D. Simak's Way Station, which can't help showing some age around the edges but retains an impressive premise and great mind's-eye-candy moments.

September started with a stumble of a story, a disappointingly formulatic return to the Mistborn world in Brandon Sanderson's The Alloy of Law. It also brought one of the year's best and most imaginative reads, Tyler Hayes's The Imaginary Corpse, a story of a stuffed yellow Triceratops solving the murders of forgotten imaginary friends. Amazon Prime's impressive and amusing miniseries prompted me to finally read the Neil Gaiman/Terry Pratchett classic Good Omens, and Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice presented a unique take on artificial and collective intelligence.

October's best read was by far Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl and its impressive exploration of fandom. Jenn Lyons's The Ruin of Kings had admirable ambition and scope (and some great, primal-force-of-chaos dragons), but ultimately left me too exhausted and lost in name-tangles to truly enjoy. I also felt let down somewhat by the wrap-up to Brian K. Vaughan's graphic novel series Paper Girls, though the seventh installment of Noelle Stevenson's Lumberjanes proved fun.

I visited the world of James S. A. Corey's Expanse yet again in November with the newly-released novella Auberon, and again later in the month with The Art and Making of The Expanse, in preparation for the mid-December release of the fourth season of the television show based on the series. (As of this writing, I've already watched it through twice.) While I found myself nonplussed by Jen Calonita's "fairy tale reform school" in Flunked, I greatly enjoyed the twist on Hansel and Gretel offered by the darkly spooky Nightbooks, by J. A. White. I also finally found the first volume of Jeff Lemire's Ascender, his follow-up to the graphic novel series Descender, on the digital lending service hoopla, and am looking forward to continuing the adventure in the post-disaster galaxy.

And December was a very low-volume reading month, owing largely to me spending far too much time and energy on holiday projects. Worlds collided with mixed results in Todd Matthy's Robots Vs. Princesses Volume 1, and I was somewhat let down after years of anticipation when I finally got to Rachel Hartman's Seraphina. Marlene Zuk's Paleofantasy took on recent trends that offer an idealized, often imaginary vision of our prehistory as the answer to what ails modern society. I wrapped the month with an enjoyable exploration of one of my favorite film franchises in Linda Sunshine's The Art of How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World.

Thus wraps 2019. I'm looking forward to unearthing fresh gems as I dig into my towering to-be-read pile and add more titles to my ever-growing list.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

The Art of How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (Linda Sunshine)

The Art of How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World
Linda Sunshine
Dark Horse
Nonfiction, Art/Media Reference
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: The third and final film installment of the How to Train Your Dragon series follows former-misfit Viking Hiccup and his Night Fury dragon companion, Toothless, as they struggle to achieve their dream of a world where dragons and humans can live together. They've successfully convinced the Berkians that dragons are friends, and turned the village into a sanctuary for hunted dragons... but they're running out of room and resources, and making themselves more of a target for dragon hunters. The solution may lie in old legends of a "hidden world" beyond the horizon, from which the dragons originally came. But even as Hiccup determines to find this paradise, Toothless becomes distracted by a female Light Fury... and Berk becomes targeted by a ruthless hunter determined to finish exterminating the Night Furies once and for all - and, with them, Hiccup's dream of peace.
This exploration of the art of the movie includes forewords and notes from voice actors and production staff.

REVIEW: The movie was a spectacular animated experience, both visually and emotionally, and this book is a perfect homage as it explores the creative process that translated it from pencil sketch and story notes to the finished product. Unlike many animated movies, this franchise successfully aged up the heroes, physically and emotionally, and this book gives insight into that process. Even the dragons do some growing up, particularly Toothless (who remains perhaps my favorite movie dragon of all time.) The ending was sweet and sad and satisfying, and reading this book brought it all back. (Though, in the interest of full disclosure, I was listening to the soundtrack from the first film as I wrote this review; about the only area I could fault the second and third films on was somewhat less absorbing scores, but that was probably just me.) From concept sketches to finished screenshots, this book is a must-have for fans of the movie and of modern animation in general.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Art of How to Train Your Dragon (Tracy Miller-Zarneke) - My Review
The Art of How to Train Your Dragon 2 (Linda Sunshine) - My Review
How To Train Your Dragon: 3-Movie Collection - Amazon DVD link

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Paleofantasy (Marlene Zuk)

Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live
Marlene Zuk
W. W. Norton and Company
Nonfiction, Science
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: From "paleo" diets to barefoot running to "natural" child-rearing and family structures, countless modern trends look to our ancestors as the ideal model of human lifestyles and behaviors. Surely, the argument runs, the environment we evolved to fit in for hundreds of thousands of years is a better fit for us than all this newfangled agriculture and city-dwelling, which must be to blame for most (or even all) of our modern stresses and ills. Back then, we were perfectly suited to our place in our world, and it in turn was perfectly fitted around us - right?
Not so, says evolution.
Since the first single-celled organisms started reproducing and passing on genes, life has been less of a spiritual quest for harmonic perfection than an eternal ad-hoc balancing act of survival, every competition won bringing one up against new challenges, every innovation fraught with unintended consequences. Humans are no different from other lifeforms in this respect, and our past was no less full of problems than our present, if different problems than some we face today. Author Marlene Zuk explores and explodes the myth of a golden paleo past, as well as the notion that we humans are somehow beyond the processes of natural selection and evolution that brought us to where we are today.

REVIEW: I've always been a little skeptical of these trends that claim all the answers to our ills lie beyond a golden, conveniently opaque curtain of time: how things were invariably and universally happier, healthier, and better X generations ago, or Y ages ago... even the notion that life on Earth was perfectly peaceful and harmonious until Z event. It strikes me as the evolutionary equivalent of the old saying that nostalgia is remembering yesterday's prices while forgetting yesterday's wages; it's easy to just look at one side of things through rose-colored glasses and imagine (or handwave) away the less appealing sides lost in the shadows.
Zuk cites numerous researchers and studies as evidence that the answers to the world's ills are not to be found by regressing to a previous era. Indeed, the era that many are envisioning as ideal - often pegged sometime in pre-agricultural Paleolithic times - was likely nothing at all like popular culture imagines it, as indicated by archaeological evidence and studies of modern pre-industrial cultures. That's not to say there aren't numerous problems created by modern life, but that pretending we were perfectly adapted for a world that no longer exists is not only not helpful, but ignores our cultural and genetic history, not to mention blinds us to actual and practical solutions. Zuk has a particular bone to pick with the paleo diet fads, particularly the idea that Homo sapiens has not had adequate evolutionary time to adapt to eating grains or consuming dairy products; numerous studies and genetic evidence show that evolution works much faster than some people seem to think, within a few thousand years in the case of several genetic adaptations, well within the timeframe for agriculture's development. She can get a trifle overbearing on these points, clearly frustrated by how people seem to fetishize a Paleolithic world that's more Flintstones than actual science. (The idea that modern lifestyles alone are responsible for diseases like cancer is its own source of obvious irritation.) The chapters can sometimes feel a bit long, and now and again the tangents into genetics feel thick for an undereducated layperson like myself, though there are numerous footnotes and an extensive chapter-by-chapter bibliography for further research and reading.
On the whole, Zuk effectively makes her points about how mythologizing prehistory does little good, and might even do actual harm, while cheapening the remarkable truth about human origins and the ongoing, marvelous mechanism of evolution itself.

You Might Also Enjoy:
On the Origin of Species, 6th Edition (Charles Darwin) - My Review
Your Inner Fish (Neil Shubin) - My Review
Last Ape Standing (Chip Walter) - My Review

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Seraphina (Rachel Hartman)

The Seraphina series, Book 1
Rachel Hartman
Fiction, YA Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: For forty years, a tenuous peace has kept the dragons of the north and the humans of the south from slaughtering each other. Dragons even take human form to visit the cities of the Southlands, studying the sciences alongside human colleagues - but the two species never truly understand each others' minds, let alone their hearts, and mutual distrust makes for a fragile peace indeed. The young musician Seraphina knows this only too well, for her mother was a human-formed dragon and her father a lawyer for the royal court. Half-bloods like her should not exist, and if she were discovered it would only fan the flames of hatred on both sides to outright violence. Yet as long as she has struggled to hide her secret, she may be the only one who can prevent another interspecies war when assassins infiltrate the heart of the kingdom of Goredd and slaughter a beloved prince.

REVIEW: I've heard great things about this series for several years, and looked forward to finally reading it... until I found myself saddled with a protagonist I didn't care for, in a world largely made up of flattened stereotypes seemingly designed to drive home themes of prejudice and xenophobia and even religious zealotry. Hartman's take on dragonkind lends them a nicely otherworldly mindset - they have structured their entire society around the excision of emotions, even regularly carving up the brains of their own kind to remove "deviant" behavior and memories - yet they often come across less inscrutably alien and more stiff and uninteresting. Humans, on the other hand, are prone to wild emotional swings, emotions being emphasized as the species's greatest weakness (as when turned to short-sighed fanatical hatred under the cult of Saint Ogdo, though truthfully every human in the story seems to have some basic level of prejudice about dragons) and greatest strength (in their ability to create art and - for the umpteenth time in fiction - to love, a force stronger than dragonfire.) It doesn't help that I found Seraphina herself to be irritatingly obtuse as a heroine for long stretches of story, prone to wallowing in angst and conveniently ignoring blatant clues. Things eventually build to a decent climax that nonetheless drags on a little long, as does the wrap-up (which seems to forget a key thing about Seraphina's love interest.) This book only barely earned a half-mark above Okay for some nice concepts that finally played out in interesting ways, which isn't enough to convince me to press ahead, especially not with Seraphina as the lead again.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Last Dragonlord (Joanne Bertin) - My Review
Song in the Silence (Elizabeth Kerner) - My Review
Voices of Dragons (Carrie Vaughn) - My Review

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Never Trust a Dead Man (Vivian Vande Velde)

Never Trust a Dead Man
Vivian Vande Velde
HMH Books for Young Readers
Fiction, YA Fantasy/Humor/Mystery
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Selwyn thought things couldn't get any worse when Anora, the most beautiful girl in town, chose to marry the arrogant Farold instead of him. When Farold is found dead - stabbed in the back with Selwyn's knife - he finds out that things can indeed get worse. Hastily judged and condemned, sealed in the crypt with Farold's body, Selwyn faces a slow and terrifying death.
Instead, he finds - or, rather, is found by - the witch Elswyth.
Bargaining away years of his life, Selwyn gets her to agree to use her magic to disguise him, so he can return home and figure out who the real killer was and clear his name, not to mention the honor of his family. But the more he learns, the longer the suspect list grows, and the less he realizes he knew about his closest friends, his lifelong neighbors, and even his greatest rival Farold.

REVIEW: This is a fast-reading blend of mystery and fantasy, but feels a bit hollow and shallow. Selwyn's a bumbler and a fool, which makes him frustrating to follow as an amateur investigator. Farold, returned to life by the witch to help him in his investigation, is often no help at all; it's quickly clear why the suspect list is so long. Never friends in life, the two nonetheless must work together, though I never really felt the partnership click as I think I was supposed to. At times, the story gets silly, especially when Seldyn must disguise himself as a young woman (and stumbles into an embarrassing family secret), and I never really felt the urgency of the mystery. The conclusion seems obvious, as well, and doesn't quite ring true, for all that I saw it coming a mile away. It's not a bad little tale, and at times it was kind of fun, but I didn't find it particularly memorable.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Flaw in All Magic (Ben S. Dobson) - My Review
Fanuilh (Daniel Hood) - My Review
Dragon's Bait (Vivian Vande Velde) - My Review

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Robots Vs. Princesses Volume 1 (Todd Matthy)

Robots Vs. Princesses Volume 1
Issues 1 - 4
Todd Matthy, illustrations by Nicholas Chapuis
Dynamite Entertaiment
Fiction, CH? Fantasy/Graphic Novel/Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: In the capital city of Harmonia, four princesses prepare to demonstrate their abilities before the kingdom in a recital, using songs and animals to perform magical wonders. But Princess Zara has greater dreams than woodland housekeepers or bird dressmakers. She wants to sing down a dragon - and the only place to find a dragon is beyond the forbidden woods.
In the endless robot battles, the Destructicons and Centurions fight for supremacy... and one robot is tired of it. Wheeler runs away from the Destructicons, from the war, from everything - off to the forbidden woods, where nobody will follow him. Then a strange sound takes hold of him, changing him, and drawing him to the side of a young human girl.
But there was a reason the woods have kept the two worlds apart for generations. And now that robots and princesses have met, neither will be the same...

REVIEW: Exactly as the title and cover promise, this is a story of singing fairy tale princesses and blasting, smashing war robots. Princess Zara and her friends are plucky princesses gifted with songs that work magic, in a world barely a step removed from a Disney movie. The "brave princess" has become its own trope by now, and this graphic novel does little to put its own twist on that, though the heroines are decent enough for the story and world they inhabit, especially to young readers who aren't looking for terms like "tropes" and are just enjoying the tale. Making the music its own form of magic is a nice, if small, tweak, giving princesses some inherent power. The robots are their own trope as well, basically a watered-down version of the Transformers without the transforming (save when princess magic takes hold; when the robots cross into the princesses' realm, they become dragonish beings.) Naturally, things don't go well when Tyrannis, Wheeler's former Destructicon commander, and the rest of the robots tromp into a fairy tale kingdom to retrieve their wayward soldier, but these princesses aren't going to sit out a fight when their home and their friends are threatened. The means by which they fight sort of come out of nowhere, and the explanation for why there are robots in a magical world is best not overexamined. For younger readers, though, this makes for the start of a fun adventure where princess magic and robots collide.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Dragons vs. Drones (Wesley King) - My Review
Once Upon a Cool Motorcycle Dude (Kevin O'Malley) - My Review
Quantum Mechanics (Jeff Weigel) - My Review

Saturday, November 30, 2019

November Site Update

The month's reviews have been archived and cross-linked on the main Brightdreamer Books website.


Thursday, November 28, 2019

Nightbooks (J. A. White)

J. A. White
Katherine Tegen Books
Fiction, MG Fantasy/Horror
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Since he first saw Night of the Living Dead, young Alex has been obsessed with monsters and scary stories. He writes his dark tales in journals he calls his "nightbooks" - until the night he sneaks out of his apartment to burn them all, tired of being the weird kid in school.
Alex never makes it to the boiler room.
On his way to the basement, he finds himself drawn to Apartment 4E, lured by the sounds of his favorite movie and the smell of pumpkin pie. Once he crosses the threshold, his fate is sealed. Trapped by modern-day witch Natacha and her cunning feline familiar Lenore, Alex must tell a new story every night to stave off a fate worse than death... only he's running out of stories, and Natacha is running out of patience.

REVIEW: This modern-day fairy tale crosses "Hansel and Gretel" with Scheherazade and a healthy dose of terror. Alex loves scary stories even as a part of him worries that his obsession is proof of some flaw in his soul: maybe he really is a monster like his classmates seem to think. Finding himself trapped in a scary story of his own proves far less fun than he anticipated, but even then he can't help being awed and even excited by some of what he finds in the magic apartment, where the living room is crowded with creepy artifacts and doors are as likely to lead right back to the room you left as anywhere else. Natacha is a wicked witch straight from an old fairy tale, terrifying and powerful and no easy opponent to outmaneuver; she spies a kindred spirit in Alex long before he admits his own weakness. Alex hopes to find an ally in Yasmine, another captive, but she has her own pains and problems, while the often-invisible Lenore threatens to unravel any escape plan he manages to concoct. Worse, the stress and despair hamper his ability to write the very stories that are keeping him alive. Periodically, the reader is treated to short tales from Alex's nightbooks, creepy confections that tend to dark endings; White does not pull punches or water down the horror side of this story. It moves fairly quickly, through several terrifying incidents and more than one failed escape plan, to a fitting finale. The whole is a memorable tale full of twisted, nightmarish imagery and characters who truly feel the horrors they are forced to endure.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Something Wicked This Way Comes (Ray Bradbury) - My Review
Griffin's Castle (Jenny Nimmo) - My Review
Game Over - Extended Edition (Todd Thorne) - My Review

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

The Art and Making of The Expanse (Titan Books)

The Art and Making of The Expanse
Titan Books
Alcon Publishing
Nonfiction, Art/Media Reference
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: The Expanse, the epic space opera chronicling humanity's leap to the stars and first contact with alien technology and the ragtag crew caught up in the middle of it all, has been through numerous incarnations: first a collaborative multiplayer game, then a best-selling novel series written by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck as "James S. A. Corey", and finally a top-rated television series debuting on SyFy and now continuing on Amazon Prime. Bringing the story to life required massive investments of time and talent from a wide cast of contributors. In this hardcover celebration of the show, explore concept art and behind-the-scenes photos of the first three seasons, plus a glimpse of the upcoming fourth year.

REVIEW: Nobody can accuse Amazon Prime of stinting on promotion. This hardcover art book, released mere weeks before the debut of Season Four (in mid-December 2019), offers fans of the series plenty of eye candy and the smallest taste of things to come. Yes, it's a blatant marketing tactic, but it's also a beautiful and well-made book, featuring many great art pieces sure to please any Screaming Firehawk. If I can fault it for anything, it's that I'd hoped for a few more articles or interviews to add a little meat to the "making" end of the book's titular concept. But, then, I usually want a little more text in these "art of..." books, because I've always found the thought process behind concept art and creativity interesting. (One of those "in another life, wouldn't that have been awesome to do" things... one of many, I'm afraid, but I digress.) The art covers pretty much everything from the first three seasons, from the ships to the worlds to the costumes and the protomolecule; there are some omissions, but a truly comprehensive concept art and making-of book would likely be an encyclopedia by this point, given the intensive designing a show like The Expanse requires. (I do have to say that I noticed a minor mistake in the caption on page 12: it's Holden, not Amos, erasing the Rocinante's logo at the start of Season Three... and, yes, I did double-check the scene just before writing this review. Amos put the art on in Season One, but he and Alex were already inside the ship while Holden lingered on the hull, which is when news went out about Earth and Mars declaring war. And I'm aware that this is probably the most minor of possible nitpicks, but I'm about as oblivious an entity as one is likely to meet, as my reviews can readily attest; the fact that I noticed this makes me wonder what an actually alert fan might find if they went over this with a fine-toothed comb... and if there's one thing fans do, in my experience, it's carry the finest of fine-toothed combs.) Ultimately, I consider myself well satisfied with my purchase.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Leviathan Wakes (James S. A. Corey) - My Review
The Encyclopedia of Fantasy and Science Fiction Art Techniques (John Grant and Ron Tiner) - My Review
The Expanse: Season 1-3 [DVD]- Amazon DVD link

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Dragon Pearl (Yoon Ha Lee)

Dragon Pearl
A Rick Riordan Presents novel
Yoon Ha Lee
Disney Hyperion
Fiction, MG Fantasy/Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Of all the Thousand Worlds ruled by the Pearled Halls, Jinju is one of the least habitable, its terraforming interrupted by the disappearance of the powerful artifact known as the Dragon Pearl. Perhaps that is why Min's family ended up there: fox spirits are supposed to be extinct, making the dusty backwater planet a good place to avoid notice. Even then, Mom insists they not use their powers of shapeshifting or mind-influencing Charm lest they be detected, as fox spirits were rarely welcome even when they were known to exist.
Min longs to follow her older brother Jun into the Space Force as a cadet, to see the countless marvels of the system... and she can't believe it the day the stranger comes to her house and tells her Jun deserted his post on the ship Pale Lightning, haring off after wild rumors about the Dragon Pearl. That doesn't sound like dutiful Jun at all. Something must have gone wrong - something so terrible even his fox powers couldn't get him out of it, let alone bring him home. Min sneaks off to follow Jun's footsteps and get some answers... but the stars are much bigger and more dangerous than she could ever have imagined, and many powerful people are also on the trail.

REVIEW: Dragon Pearl melds Asian mythology and magic with space opera, resulting in a fun, if sometimes frantic, adventure through the stars. It starts with Min acting immature even for a thirteen-year-old girl; her impulsive actions directly endanger her family, with little rationale other than the need to kick off the story as quickly and actively as possible. Still, despite her shortcomings, Min turns out to be a reasonably competent heroine for the most part, facing enemies who aren't always obvious. Her story leads her from her dusty homeworld through numerous space battles and necessary deceptions, plus encounters with various people and other supernaturals (most of whom are more accepted than the lowly fox spirits: Jun's former captain is a tiger man, and one of his fellow cadets is a dragon, both wearing human guise), not to mention ghosts. Asian ideas about energy lines and luck take on tangible form in this universe, as ships are designed with meridians like a living body and vengeful spirits are an acknowledged hazard that can tangibly foul one's luck - and little things going wrong, like tripping on a loose floor tile or a drained blaster battery, can build to great problems. The story moves fast, so fast it almost trips over itself more than once, building to a conclusion that feels too neat in some ways and more like a setup for a series than a finale in others, with some ideas and characters that seemed forgotten by then. By then, Min has grown up and learned more about herself, her powers, and the Thousand Worlds, though her quest to find her brother and clear his name does not go nearly as she'd anticipated. All in all, it made for a decent diversion with some nice images and refreshing ideas.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Fire and Heist (Sarah Beth Durst) - My Review
Skyward (Brandon Sanderson) - My Review
Dragon and Thief (Timothy Zahn) - My Review

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
Coda Volume 1 (Simon Spurrier) - My Review

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?

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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.

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