Thursday, January 31, 2019

January Site Update

The main Brightdreamer Books site has been updated, archiving and cross-linking the month's reviews.


Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Fire & Heist (Sarah Beth Durst)

Fire and Heist
Sarah Beth Durst
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Being a wyvern isn't all it's cracked up to be. Just ask sixteen-year-old Sky Hawkins. Sure, there's a whole cult celebrity following for her kind, and her were-dragon ancestors flew the skies and changed the course of history when they revealed their existence, but these days the most her kind can manage is to breathe a little fire and smoke... and Sky can barely do that. She doesn't even get out of going to high school - which wasn't so terrible before her family was stripped of half their wealth and most of their status by the wyvern Council of Aspen, Colorado after her mother's last failed heist... after which she disappeared, tearing the heart out of the family. Now shunned, Sky's father won't let her or her brothers steal so much as a nickel from a piggy bank, let alone pull off the sort of thefts on which wyvern society prides itself; one more failed job could see them permanently cast out from their own kind. Then her former boyfriend comes to her with information: he knows what Sky's mother was trying to steal when she disappeared, a strange jewel from his family's vaults. If Sky can finish the heist her mom started, maybe she can have it all back: her family's wealth, the Hawkins honor, her friends, and most importantly her family. She just has to pull off a job that bested an expert thief like her mother, using nothing but a handful of amateurs and shaky intel... and all without alerting her father or overprotective brothers.

REVIEW: This is a fast-paced tale of modern-day dragons (if dragons in human form) and jewel thefts, if not an especially deep one. Sky sometimes feels a little immature for her age; at times, I couldn't help wondering if the tale had been aged up to young adult from an earlier, middle-grade-geared draft, as it went out of its way to avoid having serious harm come to anyone despite grave threats. The characters feel thin around the edges, too, though they do their jobs in the story competently enough, from Gabriela the fantasy-obsessed human to Maximus the somewhat shifty wizard, even Sky's trio of brothers who can be either major pains or major assets, depending on whether or not Sky can persuade them to her cause. Still, the story has some fun with itself, even as it telegraphs twists and messages and occasionally draws itself out overlong, and the heists themselves are nicely tense. It technically wraps up by the ending, if with (likely deliberate) series potential packed into the final chapters in a few unresolved threads and themes. All in all, Fire and Heist makes for a quick and entertaining read, establishing a world I wouldn't mind revisiting - just maybe not at hardcover price next time.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Last Dragonlord (Joanne Bertin) - My Review
The Stone Girl's Story (Sarah Beth Durst) - My Review
The Elvenbane (Mercedes Lackey and Andre Norton) - My Review

Monday, January 28, 2019

Binti: The Night Masquerade (Nnedi Okorafor)

Binti: The Night Masquerade
The Binti trilogy, Book 3
Nnedi Okorafor
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: In a year, the Himba girl Binti has changed in ways she could scarcely believe: leaving her insular home to attend the interstellar Oomza University, surviving a massacre in space, acquiring alien Meduse DNA giving her jellyfish-like tentacles instead of hair. Now she has changed again, through the tribe of her father, whom she used to consider savage Desert People. In truth, the Enyi Zinariya have harbored their own alien secret since long before the outside world ever met a true offworlder, and now that secret has been woken in Binti's blood. If she was considered outcast and unclean by her Himba kin before, she's barely even human to them now. Worse, the Khoush and Meduse seem determined to restart their long-running war, a conflict that may already have killed her family while she was out in the desert. As a master harmonizer, Binti only wants to bring peace, but first she must find peace with the changes already shaking her life to the roots.

REVIEW: Like the previous installment, Binti: The Night Masquerade moves deep into metaphysical territory, with themes of growth and change and even the inevitability of war, conflict, and death. Binti still thinks of herself as the girl who defied her tribal traditions to pursue an offworld education, but whether she likes it or not she's become much more, and while she sees herself as a point on which world destinies may turn, ultimately her story is more about her having to make peace with herself, as she becomes both more than she was and less fully human. The purpose of her mysterious edam is finally revealed, as well - and, without spoilers, I'll just say I found it a bit anticlimactic, though I believe that was part of the point: her journey was about so much more than the artifact that inspired it. Okwu becomes more of an active character, and others step forward (or turn their backs) as the tale unfolds amid violence, upheaval, and more changes for Binti and those around her. Okorafor gives imaginative shape to some very complex themes, bringing ancient cultural traditions into a distant future that still needs them (even as some of those traditions continue to hinder progress and growth.) The story came close to losing a half-star for an ending that felt a little vague and drawn out. Overall, though, the trilogy is a unique, refreshingly different science fiction tale that will most likely stand the test of time well.

You Might Also Enjoy:
City of the Beasts (Isabel Allende) - My Review
Wild Seed (Octavia E. Butler) - My Review
Too Like the Lightning (Ada Palmer) - My Review

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Binti: Home (Nnedi Okorafor)

Binti: Home
The Binti trilogy, Book 2
Nnedi Okorafor
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: A year ago, Binti knew who she was: a human girl, daughter of Earth's isolated Himba tribe of Africa, master harmonizer capable of transforming mathematical equations into energy, future student at the interplanetary Oomza University. Now, with DNA from the Meduse in her blood, hair transformed to luminous tentacles like those on the jellyfishlike aliens, she finds not just her body but her mind unfamiliar, plagued by fits of anger. Worse, these fits are damaging her efforts to research her edam, the piece of alien technology she discovered as a girl in the desert outside her village. She needs to return home, to go on pilgrimage with other Himba girls, reconnecting with the holy Seven and rediscovering her roots, before she becomes something she no longer recognizes and destroys everything she sacrificed so much to gain. When her only friend, the Meduse Okwu, travels with her, homecoming may not only open old wounds with Binti's family, but restart a centuries-old war.

REVIEW: Like the first installment in this African-themed trilogy, Binti: Home reads quickly. Unlike the first, it does not stand alone. Binti thought she had made peace with her decision to defy Himba traditions and pursue an offworld education, finding a balance between her old ways and new, but she was wrong. In addition to post-traumatic stress from the slaughter wrought by the Meduse invasion on her outbound journey, she must process how she has changed with Meduse alterations - at the time, the only way to save her own life and possibly prevent further massacre at the university - and the pain she caused her loved ones by rejecting her traditional role in family and community. Meanwhile, the mysteries of her edam, an alien device of as-yet-unknown purpose which seems strangely responsive to her harmonizing skills, continue to taunt her; her inability to crack the puzzle it presents only heightens her frustrations, making it that much harder for her to deal with the problems accumulating at her doorstep. It doesn't help that her companion Okwu - who, in many ways, is too alien to contribute much to Binti's story, despite nominally being her friend - nearly triggers a shooting war just by setting foot (or tentacle) on Earth; the Khoush, dominant race on the planet now, have a long-standing mutual aggression with the Meduse, and the fact that Okwu technically comes in peace means little to those with itchy trigger fingers and long memories of past Meduse slaughters. There are no simple answers, no one moment that fixes everything; Binti must come to grips with her own personal, cultural, and species flaws and prejudices if she's to have any hope of resolution, a journey that blends metaphysics with mathematics and centuries-old tribal culture with far-future tech. The tale takes some time to get moving, sometimes feeling disconnected (especially as I'm coming at the tale as an American; there's an odd flow and rhythm to Okorafor's style that takes some parsing), but ultimately comes together... just before a cliffhanger which was so sudden it came close to shaving a half-star off the rating. Fortunately, I have Book 3 standing by.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Afar (Leila del Duca) - My Review
The Leopard's Daughter (Lee Killough) - My Review
Binti (Nnedi Okorafor) - My Review

Saturday, January 26, 2019

A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe (Alex White)

A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe
The Salvagers series, Book 1
Alex White
Fiction, Fantasy/Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Nilah Brio is at the top of her racing career, within a hairsbreadth of the galactic championship. Then she witnesses an impossible murder on the track, when a stranger literally suspends time to kill a competitor - a stranger she barely escapes. Now on the run and accused of the murder herself, Nilah follows the only clue she has, a name the doomed man uttered before Mother's exoskeleton claws crushed his racing helmet: Elizabeth "Boots" Elsworth.
When the Famine War shook her doomed homeworld Clarkesfall, fighter pilot Boots found herself on the wrong side of history, and - despite a brief bout of fame on a reality show hunting for a missing homeworld relic - she's never recovered. It doesn't help that, unlike nearly everyone else in the galaxy, she lacks the brain structure that gives her a magic talent. She scrapes by selling bogus star charts to legendary finds that may or may not exist, but always with just a kernel of truth at their hearts... such as the map she sold to the purported final resting place of the Harrow, a warship of unimaginable size and magic power. But these aren't the ordinary disgruntled customers coming after her for being sent on a wild goose chase through interstellar space: someone's trying to kill her. Worse, she may have to team back up with Cordell, her former captain from the Famine War, whom she never forgave for deserting after the surrender.
To clear Nilah's name and save Boots's life, the two will have to work together, joining Cordell and his ragtag crew on a hunt for the real resting place of the Harrow. On the way, they'll unearth a conspiracy that could destroy the entire galaxy.

REVIEW: This should've been a fast-paced, intense space fantasy, an adrenaline rush with quirky characters and big twists and magic-powered starflight. Should have... but somehow wasn't, at least not for me.
It starts with some promise: the galaxy is powered as much by magic as tech, with everyone having a "glyph" that enables specific abilities, from casting fire to controlling machinery, even to mind manipulation. As for the cast, Nilah's a talented yet sheltered and spoiled child of privilege whose life revolves around racing stats, while Boots is an embittered "older" woman (young forties is old?) carrying scars from a war much of the galaxy has tried to forget. The two of them could've made for a decent enough team. But then Cordell and the crew of the Capricious come on board, and the story's momentum sputters out as it derails into dithering and backstory and drawn out conversations establishing character and friction and relationship potential - rather forced relationship potential, if I may be honest, given that I never connected with any single cast member of the bunch and thus never felt any real chemistry. I actually came to generally dislike the lot of them by the time the action picked up again. Then things start unfolding in fairly obvious ways, and Mother becomes one of those villains whose powers are apparently omnipotent but who seems incapable of touching the core characters, appearing randomly to cause chaos and (in essence if not fact) sneer and cackle menacingly before disappearing. (Then there's the way Cordell refers to Boots as "girlie" and "sweetheart" and other dismissive sexist terms.) By the time major revelations are unearthed, I felt like I was standing behind a thick pane of glass, watching people react to things without being close enough to feel them myself. It builds to a climax I should've been more invested in, followed by a telegraphed ending.
There are some nice ideas and good moments. As I mentioned, there was plenty of potential to work with, and when things move they generally move fast. Despite the many good reviews and interesting premise, though, I just wasn't feeling the thrills of this magic-tinged space romp.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Dragons in the Stars (Jeffrey A. Carver) - My Review
Deathstalker (Simon R. Green) - My Review
Arcana Universalis: Terminus (Chris J. Randolph) - My Review

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Endling #1: The Last (Katherine Applegate)

Endling #1: The Last
The Endling series, Book 1
Katherine Applegate
Fiction, MG? Fantasy
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: The runt of her family, Byx always thought of herself as the least of her dwindling pack: too small, too clumsy, too full of questions.
She never thought she'd be the last. Not just the last of her family or pack, but the last of her whole species, the doglike dairnes.
As the sole survivor of a brutal slaughter by the all-powerful Murdano's human soldiers, Byx finds herself alone in a world that's too big and frightening. Her only companions are a little wobbyx named Tobble and an untrustworthy human girl named Khara - scant help when the Murdano is determined to finish exterminating her kind. Only the most feeble sliver of hope, a half-forgotten legend of an island sanctuary far in the north, keeps Byx from giving up and joining her kin in the afterlife.
Her mother told her it was never wrong to hope... unless the truth says otherwise.

REVIEW: Endling marks noted author Katherine Applegate's first solid foray into high fantasy, a debut that lives up to the high standards set by her other works. Byx makes a reluctant yet determined heroine, weighed down constantly by the tragedy of being an endling: last living example of an extinct race. She struggles with feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and rage, sometimes even unintentionally hurting allies as she tries to process the overwhelming reality of her predicament. Her companions have their own struggles, as well, making for complicated and occasionally strained relationships. The world they inhabit is by turns beautiful and horrible, heroic and tragic, hopeful and embittered, full of original species and races. Humanity's willingness to sacrifice others for our own power and perceived glory is front and center in this story, which tackles a number of thorny topics ranging from extinction to politically-corrupted science. The other governing species are far from perfect, themselves, each with their own cultural and personal hang-ups (not to mention a tendency to pretend that what happens to others is no concern of theirs - until it is, and by then it may be too late.) With lively yet solid characters and a quick-moving plot that doesn't shy away from torture or death (a warning for those considering sharing this book with sensitive readers; nothing exceptionally graphic, of course, but Applegate doesn't blunt edges), Endling makes a great read for fantasy lovers of any age.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The One and Only Ivan (Katherine Applegate) - My Review
The Last Dragon (Silvana De Mari) - My Review
The Green Ember (S. D. Smith) - My Review

Monday, January 21, 2019

My Lady's Choosing (Kitty Curran and Larissa Zageris)

My Lady's Choosing: An Interactive Romance Novel
Kitty Curran and Larissa Zageris
Quirk Books
Fiction, Gamebook/Historical Fiction/Humor/Romance
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: As a plucky yet penniless woman in Regency-era London, your prospects seem limited; indeed, it seems all but decided by your employer, the cranky old dowager Lady Craven, that you're to marry a wealthy acquaintance of hers. Of course he has enough money to keep you comfortable for the rest of your days, but you don't love him, and the thought of bearing him an heir is, well, unbearable. But your best friend, the Lady Evangeline Youngblood, is determined that you can do better.
Will you find a way into the frozen heart of the sharp-tongued Sir Benedict Granville, bane of the ton singles scene? Are you brave enough to win over Captain Angus MacTaggart, who hides the scars of war behind a devotion to orphans? Will you risk the dark secrets shrouding the mysterious Lord Garraway Craven, who scarcely leaves his crumbling manor Hopesend? Or will you take a chance at a different kind of heat by following Lady Evangeline to Egypt on a grand adventure? The difference between happily-ever-after and spinsterhood lies in your choices, so choose with care - or choose with passion.
It all starts, as it so often does in Regency England, at a ball...

REVIEW: I've mentioned before that I grew up devoted to the Choose Your Own Adventure books, and I still have a soft spot for interactive fiction. So, when I needed a palate-cleanser read and I found this title through Overdrive, it seemed like a potentially amusing diversion. Unfortunately, "potentially" was generally as close as it got to true amusement for me.
Written in a style deliberately derivative of generic Regency romances (the ones that know they're just vessels for soft-core titillation, and so don't invest much, if any, effort in characterization or plotting or logic, even as they couch seductions in dance-around words that waver between humorous and simply terrible without ever approaching sexy), the tale takes "you" on a long, winding journey through every genre trope the authors could think of. And therein, I believe, lies the chief problem: the book lacks any focus, tackling Highland romance, pseudo-Jane Austen society seductions amid parlor room verbal jousts, Gothic angst, exotic adventure in Egypt, ghost stories, werewolves, spy escapades, missing wives and returning old flames as plot devices, even venturing into bisexuality as the Egypt-themed branch of the story has "you" fall for Lady Evangeline as well as numerous locals, male and female. It's too big a bite to swallow without losing any semblance of story thread - and even a humorous interactive story needs some manner of story thread to keep the reader interested; otherwise, it collapses into a heap of forgettable and repetitious twists, as this one unfortunately does. "You" weave around, back, up, through, and all over the place, with innumerable opportunities for hook-ups wise and foolish, with everyone from the main cast to the postman. Where you end up is less a matter of making smart or sensible choices and more a matter of luck of the draw, though most endings seem to see you with someone. (I admit I didn't reach every ending.)
If you read a lot of Regency romances, are willing to poke fun at your own genre, and you aren't looking for any follow-through, you're likely to find this more amusing than I did. For me, unfortunately, the joke wore thin early on, though I've read far worse.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Code of Honor (Andrea Pickens) - My Review
The Adventures of Whatley Tupper (Daniel Pitts and Rudolph Kerkhoven) - My Review
Time Travel Dinosaur (Matt Youngmark) - My Review

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Spellslinger (Sebastien de Castell)

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

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

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

You Might Also Enjoy:
Traitor's Blade (Sebastien de Castell) - My Review
The Flaw in All Magic (Ben S. Dobson) - My Review
The Rithmatist (Brandon Sanderson) - My Review

Sunday, January 13, 2019

In an Absent Dream (Seanan McGuire)

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

DESCRIPTION: Since she was a little girl, Katherine Lundy had always kept quiet and followed the rules, and didn't even mind that her only friends were books. Then, when she was eight, her feet - tricky things, feet, prone to following one's heart even when one's head is certain it knows where to go - led her to the tree that shouldn't have been there, with the door that couldn't exist. Beyond lay the bizarre wonders of the Goblin Market, where people are as apt to have feathers or horns as hair and where the merchants sell all manner of things imaginable and unimaginable, tangible and ephemeral. Even here, there are rules: ask for nothing, always give fair value, and remember the curfew. Katherine is good with rules, so she feels right at home - moreso when she makes her first friends, the orange-eyed girl Moon and the woman known as the Archivist. But the Goblin Market is not a place to travel lightly, and fair value for a girl's desires may be counted in coin Katherine cannot understand.

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

You Might Also Enjoy:
Coraline (Neil Gaiman) - My Review
Every Heart a Doorway (Seanan McGuire) - My Review
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making (Catherynne M. Valente) - My Review

Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Name of This Book is Secret (Pseudonymous Bosch)

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

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

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

You Might Also Enjoy:
Write This Book: A Do-It-Yourself Mystery (Pseudonymous Bosch) - My Review
Bad Unicorn (Platte F. Clarke) - My Review
The Magic Misfits (Neil Patrick Harris) - My Review

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Children of Blood and Bone (Tomi Adeyemi)

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

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

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

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Black God's Drums (P. Djeli Clark) - My Review
Akata Witch (Nnedi Okorafor) - My Review
Shadowshaper (Daniel Jose Older) - My Review

Beyond Science Fiction (Michael Whelan)

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

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

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

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Myth and Magic: The Art of John Howe (John Howe) - My Review
Fantasy Art Masters (Dick Jude) - My Review
The Art of Michael Whelan (Michael Whelan) - My Review

These Broken Stars (Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner)

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

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

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

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The Girl In Between (Laekan Zea Kemp) - My Review
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ExtraNormal (Suze Reese) - My Review

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Norroway Volume 1 (Cat Seaton)

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

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

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

You Might Also Enjoy:
Jim Henson's The Storyteller: Dragons (Daniel Bayliss et al.) - My Review
The Blue Fairy Book (Andrew Lang) - My Review
Fables: Legends in Exile, Volume 1 (Bill Williamson) - My Review

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

The Hidden Life of Trees (Peter Wohlleben)

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

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

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

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The Ghosts of Evolution (Connie Barlow) - My Review
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Let Them Eat Shrimp (Kennedy Warne) - My Review