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The month's reviews have been archived at the main Brightdreamer Books website.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