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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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