Thursday, July 2, 2020

The Tea Dragon Festival (Katie O'Neill)

The Tea Dragon Festival
The Tea Dragon series, Book 2
Katie O'Neill
Oni Press
Fiction, CH Fantasy/Graphic Novel
**** (Good)


DESCRIPTION: A small mountain village prepares for an annual festival to honor its tea dragons: miniature creatures who grow leaves and blossoms on their horns that create memory-infused teas. Young Rinn hopes to become an apprentice chef by the time of the festival, but in the meantime uses a gift for finding mushrooms to help out other villagers... which is why she wandered into the remote clearing with the dilapidated shrine - and a sleeping dragon! Aedhan had been charged with keeping up the shrine and watching over the village, but he fell asleep for eighty years and has been forgotten by all but the oldest. As Rinn tries to help him adapt, the arrival of her bounty hunter uncle Erik and his partner Hesekiel - who chase stories of dangerous creatures across the land - hints that there's more to the dragon's unnatural sleep than mere fatigue.

REVIEW: Like the first Tea Dragon book, this prequel is a (very) light fantasy tale that's more about internal conflicts and growing up than it is about adventure or violence. Indeed, it's almost too lightweight at times - at least, for grown-ups. (It also wavers once or twice on a border between including diversity and polishing it like a medal to make sure the reader notices, though maybe it was just the thinness of the tale itself that made it seem this way a few times.) The conflicts are almost entirely internal, as Rinn struggles to improve at cooking - a long process of learning that just cannot be rushed, impatient as she grows with herself - and Aedhan wrestles with shame over his dereliction of duty. Almost everything is resolved through talking, friendship, and epiphanies; the world as a whole seems designed to have no place whatsoever for violence of any kind (save one animal attack), which makes one wonder why bounty hunter Eric bothers carrying a sword at all (or what the point of bounties and monster hunting is in this place.) The tea dragons themselves mostly sit by the sidelines and be cute... which, to be fair, is not entirely unlike what they did in the previous Tea Dragon book, though at least then the dragons themselves - and the lead girl's introduction to them and their fading traditions - formed a significant prong of the story. Here, aside from some minor involvement in the wrap-up, the tea dragons might have been any cute little critters. They don't even seem to act like tea dragons, as one character points out... a question that, once raised, is never really answered and seems forgotten. Once again, it ends with an appendix that talks more about the tea dragons, which is the kind of detail dragon-loving kids (and grown-ups) enjoy.
In any event, looked at from the point of view of the target audience, the art is simple and whimsical, and the story's pleasant, magical, inclusive, and - with the exception of the aforementioned animal attack, which is quick - most decidedly not dangerous. And, of course, there are dragons. It's difficult (though not impossible) to go wrong with dragons.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Sun Dragon's Song #1 (Joyce Chng) - My Review
The Tea Dragon Society (Katie O'Neill) - My Review
A Dragon's Guide to the Care and Feeding of Humans (Laurence Yep and Joanne Ryder) - My Review

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

June Site Update

I've updated the main Brightdreamer Books site with the month's reviews, archived and cross-linked.

Enjoy!

Sunday, June 28, 2020

An Illustrated Guide to Welsh Monsters and Mythical Beasts (C C J Ellis)

An Illustrated Guide to Welsh Monsters and Mythical Beasts
C C J Ellis
C C J Ellis, publisher
Nonfiction, Art/Folklore
****+ (Good/Great)

Author Book Page
DESCRIPTION: Drawing the deep mythic roots of Welsh culture, artist C C J Ellis describes numerous beasts and beings, from dragons to Fair Folk and everything in, around, and between.

REVIEW: In the interest of full disclosure, I follow the artist on Patreon and contributed to the Kickstarter campaign for this book. This review was not specifically requested.
This is, as promised, a beautifully illustrated guide to creatures of Welsh folklore, the traditions that gave rise to King Arthur and which are currently threatened, as so many traditions are threatened, by a world that seems content to blur, twist, and forget its mythic roots. She offers pronunciation guides with the non-phonetic Welsh names and brief descriptions, with a few examples of lore and legend.
Where it lost a half-star (and nearly a full star) was in the editing. Some of the descriptions read awkwardly at the sentence level, and there are some probably unintentional incomplete sentences where a period was used instead of a comma. (There was also at least one homophone error.) In one instance at least the write-up seemed to contradict itself. It was just enough of an issue to distract me, and therefore just enough to merit mention. Overall, though, I'm quite pleased with my purchase. It is slated for wider release and publication come October (as of this review), and is worth investigating for anyone interested in a starter book on uniquely Welsh mythic beasts... or who just enjoys good fantasy art.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Fabulous Beasts (Malcolm Ashman) - My Review
Myth and Magic: The Art of John Howe (John Howe) - My Review
Dracopedia: The Bestiary (William O'Connor) - My Review

Sunday, June 21, 2020

The Story of Owen (E. K. Johnson)

The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim
The Story of Owen series, Book 1
E. K. Johnson
Holiday House
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**** (Good)


DESCRIPTION: Dragons have plagued humanity since time began; when humans discovered fire, the sweet carbon fumes of smoke drew the beasts like bears to a beehive. For almost as long as there have been dragons attacks, there have risen dragon slayers: those of keen eye and strong arm and swift blade, to cut through the dragon's hearts while spilling as little of the toxic waste inside their corpses as possible. Every town, every village used to have a resident slayer, plus a bard to sing their praises and instruct the populace in how to survive a dragon strike. In modern times, the bards are almost unheard of and the slayers have evolved to the global Oil Watch network, devoted to protecting the carbon-belching oil fields, corporations, and industrial centers of the world...  mostly leaving the rural areas to fend for themselves.
All that changed when the famed Thorksards relocated from Toronto, where their exploits were world famous, to the small Ontario town of Trondheim.
Though only sixteen, Owen Thorksard is already well on his way to following his father Aodhan and aunt Lottie into the family trade of dragon slaying... but he'll never get a decent post in the Oil Watch if he can't pass algebra. Siobhan McQuaid was just the girl who happened to help him find his way to English class on his first day in school - an encounter of happenstance that snowballs into her becoming his tutor and the first official dragon slayer's bard in decades, part of Lottie's efforts to break the corporate grip of the Oil Watch and return dragon slayers and their lore to the people who need them most. But it takes more than a talent for music and storytelling to be a slayer's bard. She'll have to join him for practice, for scouting - even for slaying. And with the dragon population near Trondheim inexplicably spiking, she might have to become more than just a storyteller. She might have to become a hero herself.

REVIEW: This is a different sort of fantasy book, different enough that it took some thinking to determine my reaction. The alternate world personifies climate change and industrial pollution as dragons which are never physically described aside from a few odd details; they're left vague smears in the reader's mind, smoke and flame and poison and glass-shattering shrieks. As a dragon lover, this irritated me - I love seeing new dragons in my mind's eye, so I crave details - but it works for the story, where dragons are the ultimate monster, something that can never be reasoned with or accommodated or tamed or even understood, yet cannot be eradicated and become the acceptable price for modern conveniences like the internal combustion engine and the wealth of oil. The narrator Siobhan sees the world as a symphony, every character and event carrying musical undertones in implied synesthesia. It's really more her story than Owen's, as she stumbles into a destiny that she never would've imagined (and which terrifies her parents), but which she cannot turn away from. Classmates become allies and friends as the town of Trondheim shifts from idolizing its new resident dragon slayer family to becoming participants in their own salvation - another break from Oil Watch practices, part of the politics of dragon slaying that have left so much of Canada and the rest of the world at the mercies of dragon depredation (another metaphor for how the highest price for pollution and climate change is paid by everyone but those who contribute most to it, who have whole governments and armies to defend their interests and profit margins.) Though there are dragon attacks and other developments, in some ways it's a slower and more contemplative story about teenagers growing up and finding a place, about realizing how little of what they've been taught about how the world works is true or set in stone, and about how it's always possible to act and at least try to make the world a better place... even if it requires great sacrifice. The story almost lost a half-star for a meandering buildup and some tangents that didn't seem to pay off by the end, but I ultimately went with a Good rating of four stars; the whole becomes greater than the sum of its occasionally slow and tangled parts.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Last Dragonslayer (Jasper Fforde) - My Review
Voices of Dragons (Carrie Vaughn) - My Review
Thirteenth Child (Patricia C. Wrede) - My Review

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Fantasy World-Building (Mark. A. Nelson)

Fantasy World-Building: A Guide to Developing Mythic Worlds and Legendary Creatures 
Mark A. Nelson
Dover
Nonfiction, Art/Fantasy
**** (Good)


DESCRIPTION: Hunters of giant jellyfish, riders of flying bats, a city built on the towering backbones of long-dead behemoths... Artist Mark A. Nelson discusses the process of brainstorming and creating imaginary beasts, beings, and settings, from reference gathering to final rendering.

REVIEW: I've been feeling a creative itch again lately, and this looked like a good book for inspiration. On some levels, it is: Nelson packs the pages with imaginative artwork and sketches. On others, it feels a little lacking in actual instruction, the text being largely questions or rough suggestions of where and how to find inspiration, plus notes on the use of different media and the use of line weight, contrast, composition, and color to further the storytelling of a particular piece or series of panels (in the case of graphic novel illustrations.) I almost got the impression I was already supposed to be familiar with his work from elsewhere, and was missing something. I enjoyed Nelson's imaginative and intricately detailed art, though I have to confess I'd hoped for a little more actual discussion on creating worlds, such as thinking through designs and ecosystems, formulating internally consistent cultures, and so forth. Being an artist, Nelson thinks in sketches and pencils, not so much in words, I suppose. Still, it makes for a visual feast, every image hinting at a greater story to be told, and that is indeed at least part of what I was hoping for when I purchased it.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Explorer's Guide to Drawing Fantasy Creatures (Emily Fiegenschuh) - My Review
The Fantasy Illustrator's Technique Book (Gary A. Lippincott) - My Review
Animals Real and Imagined (Terryl Whitlatch) - My Review

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Saga, Volume 1 (Brian K. Vaughan)

Saga, Volume 1
The Saga series, Issues 1 - 6
Brian K. Vaughan, illustrations by Fiona Staples
Image Comics
Fiction, Fantasy/Graphic Novel/Sci-Fi
***** (Great)


DESCRIPTION:The planet Landfall and its moon, Wreath, have been at war for so many generations that the entire galaxy has become embroiled, alien species forced to pick a side in a conflict seemingly without beginning and apparently without end. Captive soldier Marco and prison guard Alara could not hope to change that - but when they fell in love, they became outcasts and fugitives, hunted by both sides. When Alara gives birth to a daughter, their crimes are expounded exponentially: voluntarily breeding with the enemy is seen as betrayal and perversion of the worst kind. Everyone from the worst bounty hunters to a robotic prince is on their trail. But the new parents aren't about to give up on their little girl Hazel, or each other, without a fight... even if they're fighting the entire galaxy.

REVIEW: I'll admit to being a bit wary of hyped graphic novel series after being so disappointed by The Sandman, but another night of iffy sleep (and a Hoopla account on my tablet) prompted me to try this one. I was very pleasantly surprised. Though full of action and violence, Saga doesn't sacrifice humor or character development, with some great dialog and moments where no words are needed at all. For all the stuff being introduced, though, it was fairly easy to follow the storyline and keep track of the players. Saga establishes a wild galaxy of both magic and technology, of strange wonders and dark depravity, a galaxy that has been at war with itself for so long that nobody can even consider peace, prejudices against the other side deeply ingrained even on worlds and in species who have nothing to do with Landfall or Wreath (who have fallen into relative peace after outsourcing their endless war offworld.) The artwork is clear and imaginative. This is one graphic novel series that - thus far, at least - lives up to its hype.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Autumnlands, Volume 1: Tooth and Claw (Kurt Busiek) - My Review
Descender: Deluxe Edition Volume 1 (Jeff Lemire) - My Review
Monstress Volume 1: Awakening (Marjorie Liu) - My Review

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

An Accident of Stars (Foz Meadows)

An Accident of Stars
The Manifold Worlds series, Book 1
Foz Meadows
Angry Robot
Fiction, Fantasy
**+ (Bad/Okay)


DESCRIPTION: Saffron didn't mean to fall through a portal after school, but then who does? She just wanted to talk to the strange woman she'd met on the high school campus earlier - the first person to ever take the time to listen to her, and to stop the class jerk from harassing her. Now she's a stranger in a very, very strange land, where people are more likely to ride furry, two-legged beasts called roas than horses, where the sun is too big and too white, where there are two moons in the night sky, and where magic is real. The older woman, Gwen, is a worldwalker, originally from Earth but now a traveler to many of the manifold worlds. She didn't mean to take on a young charge, especially not at a time or in a world like this; Kena stands on the brink of a bloody war, with a tyrant leader and his zealot, heretic queen ready to topple generations of peace. Now that the teenager is here, though, Gwen can't shirk her responsibility to a fellow worldwalker. Saffron quickly becomes entangled in the thick of things, caught up in a story that, unlike stories of Narnia or Wonderland, may not have a happy ending for the girl from Earth.

REVIEW: Few things put me off a story like heavy-handed messages and incompetent, whiny characters. An Accident of Stars wallops me with both almost right out of the gate, and never entirely lets up.
Saffron is a girl many readers can relate to, the awkward teen in class who is picked on incessantly (with less than no assistance from adults)... but she handles herself so awkwardly and incompetently, making such childishly impulsive decisions, that I soon lost whatever sympathy I may have initially had. She flails, she panics, she freezes, she stumbles, all at the least opportune moments - but often only for a moment, and not in the sense that she pulls herself together. Once, she even stops in the middle of what she's doing, screams at the top of her lungs in a full-blown panic as the enormity of being trapped on a hostile and magical world sets in (an understandable reaction, though it could've used a bit more setup), stomps and demands to go home like a little kid - then a second later she's over it, and everyone forgets it, and it's never mentioned again (a far less understandable reaction.) Nor is she the only character prone to weird mood swings... and inexplicably coddled by those surrounding her, though she'd seem to be a survival liability. I'm not sure there was a character I actually liked in the whole book, to be honest.
Meanwhile, Messages about sexism and prejudice clog the plotline, characters often descending into mouthpieces to remind me that sexism is bad, that prejudice is bad, that zealotry is dangerous... Again and again and again, the story grinds to a halt as people wend through long internal monologues meant to enlighten me, the reader, who had evidently forgotten the last time - a mere few pages before, in some instances - the author addressed the same issues... issues that often have little if anything to do with the current plot predicament. Though things happen almost from the start, the frequent brake-slamming for these messages (and the often-exaggerated nature of the characters, all the better to preach with) made it difficult me to immerse in the story, which involves tangles of politics and family lines and rivalries and gods and nationalities and a veritable forest of nigh-impenetrable names: names of people, names of gods, names of magic disciplines, names of this and that and the other.
Add to all that formatting issues that often had me confused about who was talking or whether I'd jumped to a new scene or even if what I was reading was dialog or not (I spotted multiple instances of missing quotation marks), and by the end it was all I could do to convince myself to keep turning pages... and then the ending is merely an unsatisfactory pause on a longer arc. These problems cost the book a solid half-mark in the ratings, as they significantly impacted readability.
An Accident of Stars does have some nice ideas, with some interesting potential in the politics and the matriarchal world, but I couldn't enjoy it through the iffy characters, the tangential messages, and the just plain inexcusably poor formatting.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Empress of Forever (Max Gladstone) - My Review
The Summer Tree (Guy Gavriel Kay) - My Review
The War of the Flowers (Tad Williams) - My Review

Sunday, May 31, 2020

May Site Update

The previous nine reviews have now been archived and cross-linked at the main Brightdreamer Books page.

Enjoy!

In the Unremarkable Milestones department, this is the first update from my new computer (and Windows 10 - yes, I drug my heels on that one.)

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Exit Strategy (Martha Wells)

Exit Strategy
The Murderbot Diaries, Book 4
Martha Wells
Tor.com
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**** (Good)


DESCRIPTION: The rogue SecUnit known as Murderbot confirmed its suspicions about the GreyCris corporation's activities during its exceptionally eventful trip to Milu: they have been harvesting illegal alien synthetics from archaeological sites. The problems from the lawsuits fired by the Preservation representative Dr. Mensah have also hurt GreyCris - as has the interference caused by Murderbot's actions on Milu. The corporation put two and two together and decided Mensah must have ordered her "pet" SecUnit to sabotage GreyCris... which not only wasn't Murderbot's intention, but has endangered her survival. Now the doctor is being held hostage at corporate headquarters while terms of the ongoing lawsuit are negotiated. GreyCris has proven itself willing to kill before to protect its secrets, and they have only grown more desperate as Murderbot's meddling has exposed more of their dirty laundry, so there's an exceptionally high chance that neither Mensah nor her associates will survive this "negotiation." Once again, Murderbot must save the day - only, this time, it may not win.

REVIEW: Picking up about where Rogue Protocol (the third installment) left off, Exit Strategy starts with high stakes and tension, then just keeps raising both right up to the finale. The action is nearly nonstop as Murderbot once more juggles behind-the-scenes hacking with personal violence (and, naturally, takes a few breaks to stream media.) Returning to Mensah forces the rogue SecUnit to confront its own feelings about humans in general, about how it sees itself, and what it really plans to do with its hard-won freedom - a freedom most everyone seems determined to terminate. This may not bring its personal growth from mindless drone to independent being full-circle, but it does complete a significant arc. Also completed (or seemingly completed) by the end is the GreyCris plot, a resolution involving plenty of bot-fighting action, hacker attacks, and more. The series continues from here, apparently shifting to a longer format, but this works as a good resting place before Murderbot pivots to deal with new challenges, personal and professional... and, of course, finds new media to binge-watch. It's been an enjoyable series thus far, and I'm hoping it continues to entertain going forward.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Sky Coyote (Kage Baker) - My Review
Velocity Weapon (Megan E. O'Keefe) - My Review
The Stars Now Unclaimed (Drew Williams) - My Review

Monday, May 25, 2020

The Sandman Volume 1: Preludes and Nocturnes, 30th Anniversary Edition (Neil Gaiman)

The Sandman Volume 1: Preludes and Nocturnes, 30th Anniversary Edition
The Sandman series, Issues 1 - 8
Neil Gaiman, illustrations by Sam Keith
Vertigo
Fiction, Fantasy/Graphic Novel/Horror
*** (Okay)


DESCRIPTION: Morpheus. Lord of Dreams. The Sandman. He has been known by many names since the dawn of time... but only once has he been captured, in a trap set for his sister Death by early 20th century occultists. For seventy years, he remained imprisoned, while his realm crumbled and powers fated. Now, at last, he is free - but the world has changed since he was locked away, even his own castle of dreams decaying into a shadow of itself. Before he can reclaim his power and take his vengeance, he needs to find his three sacred tools, a path that winds from the heart of a mortal insane asylum to the depths of Hell.

REVIEW: The Sandman is perhaps one of the most iconic graphic novels ever written, a surreal, brooding journey through nightmare and allegory made flesh. It is also often dark and depraved (especially toward women, at least in these eight issues), with a warped and ugly heart that I found intrinsically repulsive.
The plot is little more than a suggestion for a good chunk of this volume, only slowly coming into focus as a background theme to the mood and imagery. It wallows in that imagery, in terrible, broken things born out of terrible, broken minds, blood and pain and death and mutilation, where hope is a bad joke with a horrible punchline. I didn't like anyone in it, at any time, ever. And then it reveals that it's a crossover with the Justice League superhero universe, and I nearly set it down for good. One of my main pet peeves about superhero graphic novels is the inaccessibility and gatekeeping that are intrinsic to their structure. You can't just read about Hero A; you have to start fifty years ago with Issue One, then follow them through umpteen issues of Heroine B's crossover... but if you really want to understand their story arc and call yourself a fan, then you have to read the largely unrelated (but mytharc-vital) adventures of Heroes C and D, which is another massive time and energy commitment. And, sure enough, Sandman isn't just tangentially connected to the world of Batman and Scarecrow and the whole slew of DC Justice League heroes and villains; they're central to the story arc, and my cultural osmosis knowledge wasn't much help as I tried to snap them into place in a world that somehow also contained manifested immortal forces like the Lord of Dreams and literal Judeo-Christian Hell. (All of which creates such a convoluted universe that it can't help collapsing under its own weight and contradictions. But, I digress...) Add to this the strong appeal, in art and text, to the broody goth horror scene that I never really clicked with, and it all made me feel like I had wandered into a party where I knew nobody, couldn't dance to the music, didn't like any of the food, and just plain didn't feel welcome.
Looking past that, I could appreciate the strong mythic roots and appeal to the darker side of human experience, the core of fears and nightmares, given a modern twist... enough to see how this is considered a classic. The final issue in this collection, where we finally meet Morpheus's sister Death, gives some sliver of a hint that the Sandman cycle isn't all nightmares and guts and horrible, horrible things. I just am not, never have been, and never will be its target audience, and have no interest in pursuing it further in the hopes that maybe, possibly, it might go somewhere other then the darkest of darks and most terrible of terrors.

You Might Also Enjoy:
William and the Lost Spirit (Gwen de Bonneval) - My Review
Neverwhere (Neil Gaiman) - My Review
Fables: Legends in Exile Volume 1 (Bill Willingham) - My Review

Saturday, May 23, 2020

This Shattered World (Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner)

This Shattered World
The Starbound trilogy, Book 2
Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner
Hyperion
Fiction, YA Romance/Sci-Fi
**** (Good)


DESCRIPTION: The planet Avon is a world of swamps and gray skies, a mire in more ways than one. For decades, the terraforming project that was supposed to transform it into a garden has inexplicably stalled out - leading to frustration and all-out rebellion. The more the military clamps down to keep the peace, the more rebels slip away into the uncharted swamps, where technology is useless and "will of the wisp" lights are rumored to lead trespassers to their doom. Despite a temporary ceasefire, tensions have never been higher, and it will only take one incident to send the whole colony sky-high.
Captain Jubilee "Lee" Chase is a legend among her peers. She, alone of all soldiers stationed on Avon, seems immune to the madness known as the Fury, which drives soldiers to fits of homicidal rage (and which has not helped relations with the locals, who seem immune.) Perhaps it is because she doesn't dream; her dreams died with her parents in the violence on the planet Verona. Then she is taken hostage by a young rebel, a boy babbling about hidden bases in the swamps and other insanity... but is he mad, or is there more to the Avon colony than she's been told?
Flynn Cormac's older sister was executed as a rebel when he was eight years old, and he's been on the run ever since. He's been trying to use his status among the Fianna rebel army to end the hostilities and find a path toward peace, maybe even find out why the terraforming has gone wrong, but it's hard to convince a people who have been kicked as hard and often as the Avon colonists to put down their guns, and he knows he's losing ground. He didn't actually intend to abduct the famed Captain Lee Chase when he snuck into the bar on the base, but he was desperate for answers about what he's seen in the swamp: a base where there should not be one, pointing to a presence even the army is unaware of - or a plot that will end the colony.
Lee and Flynn were sworn enemies on sight... so how can they be falling for each other? And how will either survive what they discover when they dig deeper into Flynn's hidden base?

REVIEW: The first Starbound book took a while to hook me. This one did not have that problem. It moves from the first few pages, creating a world less reliant on anachronistic tropes (save how it clearly and admittedly patterns itself on the Irish "Troubles", where occupation by a foreign power breeds generational resentment and entrenches violence and mistrust as a way of life.) Lee is a soldier's soldier, convinced she's on the right side and that she'll live and die in the uniform, while Flynn is equally committed to the cause of the Avon colonists, even if he tries to avoid open violence after what happened to his sister. It is not a fast or easy fall into love for either of them (no spoilers there; this is a romance, after all), with setbacks and misunderstandings and outside interference, not to mention betrayals and outbursts of violence. The peripheral characters aren't quite as shallow as they might seem at first (save one or two), each having a little more depth and justification to their actions than one might expect. The story could almost be a standalone, but as the plot progresses it ties into events in These Broken Stars, becoming part of the greater arc. Things build to a decently cathartic climax, with some threads left over for the third and final volume. Sometimes the emotions and angst get a little over the top, and one of the revelations at the end was borderline eye-rolling, but otherwise I enjoyed this story, and am looking forward to the final installment (which is in the To Be Read pile.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
These Broken Stars (Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner) - My Review
Starflight (Melissa Landers) - My Review
Cinder (Marissa Meyer) - My Review

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Ill Wind (Rachel Caine)

Ill Wind
The Weather Warden series, Book 1
Rachel Caine
Roc
Fiction, Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)


DESCRIPTION: Storms, fires, earthquakes... Mother Nature wants us dead, and but for the Wardens she might have succeeded ages ago. A secret global association does its best to defuse and mitigate the worst disasters, recruiting rare people gifted with power over the elements and employing captive Djinn. But gifts don't come without risks or costs, and the dangers of a rogue Warden - or, worse, one infested with a demon - are worse than anything Nature can concoct.
Joanne Baldwin has always had a strange connection to the weather, and was recruited as a teenager into the Warden Association. She was a bright rising star in the organization. Now she's on the run, accused of murder and bearing a Demon Mark. Her only hope lies in reaching Lewis, a former friend and fellow outcast from the Association, before the Mark devours her powers and her very soul. But first she has to outrun the Association's trackers, assorted Djinn, and a sentient, predatory storm - not to mention someone who is trying very, very hard to kill her.

REVIEW: This modern fantasy establishes a hidden network of mages and Djinn and malevolent natural phenomena... all bound to the viewpoint of a character I wanted to smack across the face more than once. Joanna is one of those protagonists who can be mind-numbingly oblivious about obvious things and behaves in such obnoxious ways that she didn't even pause at "endearingly quirky" before she hit "outright aggravating." She deliberately refuses to seek or accept help, actively ignoring advice and obvious clues, even as she flirts with anything remotely masculine out of sheer reflex. (And, of course, every male wants to sleep with her, because she's just that hot.) At one point, while she's on the run from various people trying to kill her, she stops at a mall for fresh clothes and deliberately picks out a lacy tight top (with no bra) to tease a hitchhiker she picks up... then pouts that he doesn't notice, even though she actively and aggressively told him to get lost shortly before the pouting fit. Other things, she's simply far too slow on the uptake about, to the point I was (figuratively) shouting at her for a good third of the tale. This is who I had to follow through the book. Add to that how Caine dances around what actually happened to Joanne for a good portion of the book, indulging in prolonged flashbacks that deliberately avoid the matter... I won't lie: teeth were ground more than once. The story itself, when it isn't flashing back and once it finally lets me in on enough of the world's rules and Joanne's story for me to engage with it, moves fairly well, building to a climax and a surprisingly solid ending, one that might tempt me to the next book in the series. My overall annoyance with Joanne, though, costs the book a half-star in the ratings.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Running With the Demon (Terry Brooks) - My Review
Summoned (Rainy Kaye) - My Review
Storm (Brigid Kemmerer) - My Review

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Rogue Protocol (Martha Wells)

Rogue Protocol
The Murderbot Diaries, Book 3
Martha Wells
Tor.com
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**** (Good)


DESCRIPTION: The synthetic security unit Murderbot is on a mission to understand its past, but keeps finding more questions - many tied up with its former employer, GreyCris, which has been pulling some very shady (not to mention deadly) stunts across the worlds of the Corporate Rim. Though technically it was freed by the last clients who rented it, Murderbot won't truly be free to do what it wants - mostly avoid humans and stream media - until those questions have answers and certain unpleasant legal proceedings are resolved. Its quest takes it to an archaeological site on the half-forgotten world Milu... but, once again, a team of hapless humans with spectacularly poor timing turn up to complicate the investigation by blundering into mortal peril.

REVIEW: Rogue Protocol maintains the fast pace and snarky narrative wit of the previous two Murderbot adventures, returning focus to the larger story arc of finding out what GreyCris is up to and why it's so obsessed with alien ruins that it's willing to slaughter anyone who comes near its claims (with a heavy side-question of how any humans manage to survive without a somewhat-friendly rogue SecUnit to haul their posteriors out of danger.) The action can almost feel overwhelming; as a synthetic being, Murderbot can and does track action in multiple locations simultaneously. Other characters can sometimes be a blur, though the most important relationships are usually with other artificial entities. This time, that role is filled by Miki, a "pet" robot with a childlike mentality whose innocence about human nature is rudely shattered not just by Murderbut but by events in the story. These interactions get to the heart of Murderbot's fumbling efforts to understand its own nature and potential and what it truly wants out of its freedom, efforts it often tries to avoid by hiding in serials. Unlike the previous two tales, this one stands less on its own as it sets up a major revelation that might break open the GreyCris case/conspiracy; skirting spoilers, the reader is left on a cliff edge waiting for the actual reveal. I have the fourth book in the Kindle queue, and hope to get to it soon.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Retrograde (Peter Cawdron) - My Review
Self/Made (Matt Groom) - My Review
We Are Legion (We Are Bob) (Dennis E. Taylor) - My Review

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Run (Patti Larsen)

Run
The Hunted series, Book 1
Patti Larsen
Purely Paranormal Press
Fiction, YA Horror
*** (Okay)


DESCRIPTION: After years in the foster care system following the deaths of his parents, Reid's life was finally about to get on track... until he wakes up in the back of a van, blindfolded and bound, only to be dumped in the middle of a trackless forest. It seems like a prank - until he finds the eviscerated body, a boy just about his age spiked to a tree. Then he hears the howls, and sees the hunters. Impossibly fast, impossibly deadly, impossibly inhuman, they stalk the woods hunting children like him.
There's no way out. There's no safe haven. There's only the forest, the monsters, and one way to survive: run.

REVIEW: Run has a premise as old as horror itself, perhaps as old as human consciousness: the fear of the omnipresent, inscrutable predator. Larsen mixes in some paranormal seasoning with the hunters, and adds a dash of Lord of the Flies as Reid meets (and loses, as often as not) other trapped children and teens in the forest of horrors. It makes for a heady mix, at least at first. After a while, though, it starts feeling a little repetitive and manipulated, not to mention a touch drawn out.
Reid starts out with a slight advantage, thanks to his late father's passion for survival camping, and is driven by more than mere personal survival: his older sister, Lucy, might well be one of the other victims of whomever kidnapped him for use as monster food. The hunters have a way of turning up at plot-convenient times and melting away, though this plays into an overall sense of absolute power: they own this wilderness, and take perverse pleasure in torturing their captive prey. At some point, the fear and near-catches become numbing, especially as Reid wavers on his motivation, whether he's becoming a prey animal purely interested in his own immediate survival or if he's retaining enough humanity to care for others and try to think his way out; this wavering becomes nearly whiplash-inducing in the buildup to the climax, as he twists back and forth in his own head. As a means to ramp up extra tension, it quickly loses its effectiveness and just becomes annoying, especially when everyone's in a survival situation without the luxury of time for moral or philosophical dilemmas. The gore can be a bit extreme, and some of the incidents (and deaths) feel manipulative, particularly at the end as Larsen pushes the cast on to the next installment/phase of terror. By then, I was worn out by the whole thing.
Parts of Run are fine horror, steeped in panic and paranoia and monsters in the moonlight. I'm just not sure there's enough substance for another book in this setting, or that Reid has the character presence to pull off a series.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Pines (Blake Crouch) - My Review
I Am Still Alive (Kate Alice Marshall) - My Review
In An Instant (Suzanne Redfearn) - My Review

Saturday, May 9, 2020

House of Dragons (Jessica Cluess)

House of Dragons
The House of Dragons series, Book 1
Jessica Cluess
Random House
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**** (Good)


DESCRIPTION: The Etrusian empire was founded on order, enforced by steel and dragonfire as it banished all chaos magic from the land. To this day, it continues its endless wars of expansion to bring the whole world under its banner, lest chaos and disorder ever rise again. The five great noble Houses keep dragons as mounts and companions against the day they might be summoned to compete for the crown. The eldest royal children are born and bred for this opportunity, when the Great Dragon calls them and they face the fourfold challenges to either take the throne or be executed as unworthy. Thus shall the forces of order, and the Etrusian empire itself, always stand strong.
When the old emperor at last dies, one member of each house is called... only something has gone terribly wrong. It is not the eldest, nor the strongest, who are summoned, but five of the least-likely candidates, runts and outcasts and byblows. But when the Great Dragon has spoken, not even the priests dare contradict His will. Now an illegitimate thief, a girl with a terrible magical secret, a warrior son who has sworn off violence, a servant girl with not a drop of noble blood, and a young woman whose desperation for the crown leads her to a bloody act of betrayal before even setting foot among the other challengers will face the greatest test of their lives - and uncover the greatest treachery at the very heart of their empire.

REVIEW: Set in a magical world vaguely reminiscent of classical Europe, House of Dragons melds elements of The Dragonriders of Pern and The Hunger Games with a touch of The Breakfast Club for an exciting fantasy adventure. The characters start off a little flat and familiar, but gain some depth as the story moves on, even if their voices sometimes feel a little more modern American than one might expect from a fantasy world; the thief boy Ajax in particular would not be out of place in a contemporary urban fantasy, somewhat jarring when set against other characters who feel more firmly rooted in their setting. Still, they clash and mesh in interesting, sometimes unexpected ways, alliances and rivalries forming and breaking as the challenges unfold and other enemies come to light. I liked Cluess's take on dragons, which borrow from other bonded-dragon tales (particularly Pern) to become integral parts of the tale and not just tagalongs added for ambience (as some dragons can be.) The story moves at a decent pace with a few surprises, though even the twists I saw coming played out well. The ending stumbles slightly, first when a major backslide sets up the climax, and again as it invokes a time-honored trope-bordering-on-cliche to kick off a series, but I still enjoyed it far more than I didn't.
As a closing note, this was an advance reader copy, received as part of a "mystery box" book bundle; the book itself is set to release on May 12.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Dragon Quartet (Marjorie B. Kellogg) - My Review
The Dragonriders of Pern (Anne McCaffrey) - My Review
Dragon's Blood (Jane Yolen) - My Review

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Artificial Condition (Martha Wells)

Artificial Condition
The Murderbot Diaries, Book 2
Martha Wells
Tor.com
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**** (Good)


DESCRIPTION: After its last job, the SecUnit that calls itself Murderbot no longer works for the company that manufactured and deployed it... but it still technically belongs to humans, if humans who consider artificial entities as equals: even "equals" apparently require a living guardian. It also still has questions about its past, about the incident for which it named itself - the incident that led it to hack its governor module and develop free will. So it slips its leash again and strikes out on its own across the galaxy. With the help of a massive (and arrogant, not to mention incredibly nosy) transport ship bot, ART, Murderbot returns to the scene of its crime, the RaviHyral Mining Facility... only to become entangled in fresh problems and a new crop of humans who can't seem to survive without a little artificial security assistance.

REVIEW: Once again, Wells delivers a compulsively readable adventure with a fun main character who would rather sit around watching media shows all day, but is forced - by circumstances and its own developing personality - to wander a hostile galaxy, assisting humans (who seem remarkably incapable of basic survival skills) along the way. Murderbot still longs to be left alone, but remains troubled by what little it knows (and the many things it doesn't know) about its violent past. On RaviHyral, it finds even more disturbing questions when all record of the incident appears to have been scrubbed from memory - but, of course, there are plenty of problems in the here-and-now, when it finds itself acting as a "security consultant" to a group of wronged researchers. ART makes a fun sidekick, if one Murderbot is reluctant to accept, even as it provides another window into the inhuman mindset. Unlike most "free will machine" stories, the artificial beings in these books do not aspire to humanity - Murderbot has seen more than enough of them to never want to be one, for all that it doesn't generally wish them active harm (who would make media shows if they were gone, after all?) - but rather independence and the freedom to determine their own destinies... and to not be used as instruments of mass murder, when feasible. The in-story adventure resolves, as it did in the first tale, but larger questions remain as Murderbot seeks to unravel its origins and the truth about the "incident" on RaviHyral. Overall, it's an enjoyable, if occasionally violent, romp.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Ancillary Justice (Ann Leckie) - My Review
All Systems Red (Martha Wells) - My Review
Killing Gravity (Corey J. White) - My Review

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Feed (Mira Grant)

Feed
The Newsflesh trilogy, Book 1
Mira Grant
Orbit
Fiction, Horror/Sci-Fi
***** (Great)


DESCRIPTION: The cure for the common cold, and an end to cancer: two discoveries that would remake human history. Only nobody foresaw the complications when two bioengineered viruses mixed and spread around the globe. Even then, few people believed it - few people except the bloggers who first reported the walking dead rampaging through neighborhoods and cities.
Twenty years later, everything has changed... yet nothing has. A whole generation has grown up with quarantine procedures and routine blood tests, knowing that putting a bullet through a loved one's head can be the greatest act of mercy. Traditional media fell behind, while bloggers have become the most trusted sources of news and entertainment, driven by an endless pursuit of rating shares. Yet, every four years, presidential hopefuls still travel America to drum up support... and, this year, the three bloggers behind the popular After the End Times site have been selected as the press entourage of Senator Ryman on the campaign trail. Siblings Georgia "George" and Shaun Mason and close friend Buffy Meissonier - a truth-tracking Newsie, a thrill-seeking Irwin, and a poetry- and story-crafting Fictional respectively - have been waiting for a break like this, a chance to get into the big leagues of alpha bloggers. But the story they stumble into becomes much more dangerous, unearthing a potential threat not only to Ryman and his family, but to the country itself.

REVIEW: It's not often one reads a story at just the right time. Grant's tale of a viral pandemic, of irrevocably altered social norms (and those who would leverage both the virus and the fear of it for personal or political ends) was published in 2010, but - in this age of coronavirus and social distancing and lockdown protests and skepticism of media - it feels eerily relevant in 2020. It's a strange near future that sees George Romero movies becoming unlikely survival guides (hence the popularity of "George"-based names among younger characters), as people struggled to come to grips with zombie movies coming to life around them, yet it's a future that always feels solid and grounded, with characters who are never flat or stupid. George and her brother are part of a whole generation that has known nothing but life with the zombie virus, a generation that feels some friction with the older people who still dominate much of the world and dictate policy... people who still tend to dismiss them as "kids" and fail to consider how big of a threat George and company can be to plots and conspiracies. As for the virus and its effects, Grant clearly did extensive research, lending an impressive air of verisimilitude to the pandemic; indeed, part of the reason current events seem so familiar is that she thought through what would happen in a society where a deadly disease was spreading like wildfire, and how people would respond. The story is a white-knuckle ride, and even when I thought I'd figured out what was going on, there were a few twists in store, and more than one gut-punch. I honestly didn't think I'd enjoy a horror book, especially a zombie-based horror book with politics and journalism at its core, this much, which is what kicked it up to a top rating. I'm looking forward to the rest of this trilogy, though I don't mind admitting that I need a book or two off first... in part because, as I mentioned at the start, it's so very, scarily relevant right now.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Terminal Alliance (Jim C. Hines) - My Review
Sparrow Hill Road (Seanan McGuire) - My Review
The Murders of Molly Southbourne (Tade Thompson) - My Review

Thursday, April 30, 2020

April Site Update

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

In unrelated news, I'll finally be upgrading systems to Windows 10, which might disrupt things for a bit as I get settled in on a new machine.

Enjoy!

Monday, April 27, 2020

The Stars Now Unclaimed (Drew Williams)

The Stars Now Unclaimed
The Universe After series, Book 1
Drew Williams
Tor
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**** (Good)


DESCRIPTION: One hundred years ago, the pulse washed across the galaxy, striking worlds with a lingering radiation that attacked higher technology. Some were barely affected, while others were thrown back to the Stone Age. In space, fleets of ships in transit scrambled to understand what happened - while others saw the opportunity they'd been waiting for.
Jane Kamali knows more about the pulse than most people. She was there when it was first unleashed. Now an agent for a sect known as the Justified and the Repentant, she searches the worlds for special children born in the pulse's wake, children with extraordinary powers who might guard against its return. But the Justified aren't the only ones seeking them. The warlike Pax sect wants the children as part of their plans for galactic conquest. For the most part, the galaxy is plenty big enough that the Justified and Pax don't cross paths too often. But Jane's latest job - picking up a telekinetic orphan teen girl, Esa, from a backwater planet - runs afoul of Pax forces, a precursor to an assault that might forever tip the balance of power and end all hope of freedom across the stars.

REVIEW: The cover promises a fast, fun story packed with action, and that's what Williams delivers in this space opera with the usual Western tinges. Jane's a jaded warrior with a checkered past, clinging to vestiges of morality in a life that demands slaughter - slaughter at which she excels. She, like most everyone in the book, is the product a violent galaxy with few clear-cut lines between good and evil; even the Justified and the Repentant have their sins to answer for, though the Pax are well and truly beyond redemption, zealots who break and brainwash every soldier into xenophobic killing machines. The girl Esa's had a rough life at an orphanage, but still has a lot of growing up to do in a very short amount of time once the Pax start bombarding her home... and things only get worse from there. Along for the ride is the mechanical being Preacher, a member of a legacy race of machines left by a long-lost civilization, and Javier, Jane's former lover and exiled fellow Justified agent. The shipboard AI, Scheherazade, is her own character, a sometimes comic counterweight to Jane's brutal efficiency.
This is not a book that drags its heels. Starting almost on the first page, it's packed with action and larger-than-life battles almost to the point of mental exhaustion, with gore and body counts and death-defying feats that grow numbing after a while. Even given the inherently violent nature of the galaxy, I could've used a bit a breather now and again; the timeline seemed cramped from start to finish, with crises piled atop complications ramrodded into battles both in space and on the ground, a near-nonstop deluge of bullets and missiles and laser blasts and fistfights and even attacks from bloodthirsty predators. Still, it does deliver its promised action and wit, and if a few developments are telegraphed, it was still fairly satisfying to read with a nice voice to it, enough that I might venture into the next volume of the series.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Velocity Weapon (Megan E. O'Keefe) - My Review
Embers of War (Gareth l. Powell) - My Review
Killing Gravity (Corey J. White) - My Review

Friday, April 17, 2020

Updraft (Fran Wilde)

Updraft
The Bone Universe series, Book 1
Fran Wilde
Tor
Fiction, YA? Fantasy
**** (Good)


DESCRIPTION: In the sky-piercing bone towers of the city, wings are freedom - a freedom Kirit and her wing-brother Nat are on the verge of earning with their wingtest. With her wings, Kirit will finally be able to become a full apprentice to her mother, a renowned trader who visits almost every tower in the vast city, while Nat dreams of becoming a hunter. But just days before this all-important rite of passage, Kirit violates the strict tower Laws and comes under the scrutiny of the Singers, the feared enforcers of peace and order. Torn by duty and honor and other pressures, Kirit makes a desperate decision that leaves her no choice but to join the Singers or be cloudbound, cast out of tower and family, hurled to the clouds below to die. What she discovers within their forbidden Spire is not what she anticipated: forgotten songs, lost histories, family secrets, and a terrible danger that, if loosed, could topple the city.

REVIEW: Updraft creates one of the most original fantasy worlds I've read in some time, a harsh yet somehow beautiful world of silk wings and bone towers and invisible "skymouth" monsters and other wonders and dangers, with a culture bound by Laws that enable survival even as they hobble freedoms and silence truth. Kirit discovers betrayals and secrets from all angles; even Nat and her own mother aren't without them. She experiences real setbacks and misunderstandings, and her struggles are written in blood and scars, torn wingsilk and splintered bone. It moves fairly well and isn't too predictable, and if it starts to feel slightly jumbled in the rush to the climax, it's never dull, nor are victories clean or guaranteed. There are prices to pay for everything, even the truth, and it's often only after she's made a bargain that Kirit learns whether or not she's able to bear the cost. The story feels reasonably complete, though there are at least two more books in the series, continuing the tale of Kirit and the bone city. I'll likely seek out the sequel; this was a pleasant breath of fresh air in a very original setting.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Binti (Nnedi Okorafor) - My Review
Airborn (Kenneth Oppel) - My Review
Leviathan (Scott Westerfield) - My Review

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Crystal Singer (Anne McCaffrey)

Crystal Singer
The Crystal Singer trilogy, Book 1
Anne McCaffrey
Del Rey
Fiction, Sci-Fi
** (Bad)


DESCRIPTION: Killashandra Ree spent ten years of her life working relentlessly for a dream she could never have, as a top soloist out of the planet Fuerte. When told of a vocal flaw that no training could remedy, she walked away from everything, leading her colleagues and teachers to worry she'd end her own life. Instead, she found herself with Carrick, a member of the mysterious Heptite Guild, who mine the Ballybran crystals on which the Federation of Sentient Planets depends. Being a Crystal Singer requires perfect pitch, utter dedication, a willingness to forsake any other path and future: everything she'd already done for the singing school that left her with nothing. When Killashandra Ree sets out for the Heptite Guild, she's determined that, this time, she won't fail. She'll be a Crystal Singer or die trying. On Ballybran, though, the goals are far from mutually exclusive...

REVIEW: Crystals are neat. Crystals are interesting. Crystals are shiny. Singing is likewise. So a book whose premise involves using singing and resonant tones to mine a planet of crystal - crystals with properties that make interstellar travel and communications commonplace... one would think it, too, would be neat, interesting, and, at the very least, shiny. Sadly, Crystal Singer is anything but.
It opens on a sour note with the protagonist, Killashandra Ree, in the midst of a tantrum: she's just been told that the solo career she's trained for is not something she can ever have. This is not an auspicious way to introduce me to a character I'm supposed to follow for three hundred pages, especially when she's given no redeeming qualities whatsoever. She's immature, petty, can't handle failure, jumps in the sack with most anything that moves, and has an ego the size and brightness of your average main sequence star. And that is pretty much who she remains throughout the story, with only minimal nods given to her maybe, marginally figuring out that it's worthwhile to at least attempt friendship. Of course, the story does very little to challenge her conceits; throughout the tale success is basically a given for her - not just success, but amazing success. Even her (minimal) setbacks are ultimately beneficial and praised.
As for crystal singing itself... I know, from my reading experience, the specfic of the 1980's seemed to have a Thing about making unsubtle sexual commentary. (They were also still often glaringly white, aside from the odd "swarthy" extra, but that's another thing.) The many casual hook-ups of Killashandra demonstrate a future where monogamy is no longer dominant and sex is not some shameful or precious thing locked away until a girl finds The Right Man. Okay, nothing unusual here. But the ecstasy invoked by crystals, from the moment Killashandra handles her first point to the reaction to her first solo cut to the way she later compares a lover's touch to the way the harmonics of black crystal make her feel... talk about overkill. And just to make sure I, the reader, understood the point, McCaffrey outright calls her reaction "orgasmic" at the book's climax, bashing me over the head with the Message about a woman being ultimately empowered and fulfilled by finding a means to sexual release entirely on her own. (The cover image, with Killashandra in a rapturous swoon while holding up a large dark crystal, pretty much says it all. Once she goes black crystal...)
The plot is loaded down with infodumps and boring details about Ballybran and crystal harvesting and meteorology; it's over halfway through the book before Killashandra begins to do anything but sit through lectures, and by then the thrust of the tale and ultimate infallibility of the heroine is so telegraphed that even danger is little more than a minor distraction. As for this reader, at some point I realized I was just turning pages to get to the end. I never liked Killashandra, I was bored with the Heptite Guild, I didn't give a dang about the sudden burst of politics thrown in out of left field at the end in her first official Guild trip beyond the planet, and - for all that I'm as much a sucker for shiny objects as the next gal - I've never found crystals sexually arousing.
For all that the concept is neat and the trilogy is still considered something of a classic, chalk this up to another 1980's novel that doesn't age well.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Fifth Season (N. K. Jemisin) - My Review
Jade City (Fonda Lee) - My Review
The Ship Who Sang (Anne McCaffrey) - My Review

Thursday, April 9, 2020

In An Instant (Suzanne Redfearn)

In An Instant
Suzanne Redfearn
Lake Union Publishing
Fiction, YA? General Fiction
***+ (Okay/Good)


DESCRIPTION: It was supposed to be a fun weekend in the mountains for sixteen-year-old Finn, skiing and hanging out in the family cabin. Mo's overprotective mother even let the teen girl go with them, which almost makes up for the inclusion of her sister Chloe's beach bum boyfriend/near-constant lip accessory Vance, not to mention the obnoxious girl Natalie, daughter of family friends and fellow guests "Aunt" Karen and "Uncle" Bob.
Then everything went wrong.
Suddenly, their trailer is plunging over a frozen embankment, swallowed by a blizzard in the deep woods.
Killed in the accident, young Finn can only watch helplessly as everyone struggles to survive. The worst challenge, though, waits in the weeks to come. The crash didn't just gash foreheads and break legs and steal fingers and toes to frostbite: it shattered decades of friendship and self-delusion - and not everyone can handle knowing who they truly are at heart.

REVIEW: In An Instant is a tale about tragedy and the aftermath of trauma. Finn is not the only family member to die in the fateful crash, but she is the only one seemingly tethered to Earth by those who loved her... or seemed to love her. Choices made during the hours lost in the blizzard reveal sometimes-ugly truths, but it's rarely a clear-cut case of right or wrong, and Finn learns that it's not so easy to judge, even as forgiveness can be difficult. Finn's parents, already in rocky times, see what's left of their relationship fray to bare threads. Her surviving sister loses the man she thought she loved to something worse than death, and seems determined to follow Finn to the afterlife. The family friends - "Uncle" Bob, "Aunt" Karen, and their obnoxious teen girl Natalie - see the illusions that held their family together destroyed. And Mo, whose mother nearly smothers her, proves to be the strongest and most determined of them all, struggling to uncover the truth of what happened even as everyone re-imagines the truth into skewed fictions that are easier to live with. It's an often-harrowing read, and the journeys faced by the characters are full of setbacks and twists. At times, unfortunately, it skews too preachy; it nudges up to the religious fiction line and actually steps across now and again, though for the most part it avoids dogma. The ending provides some closure and justice, but there will always be scars and memories, and some wounds may never fully heal. Ultimately, it's not a bad tale of survival and trauma. I just wish I'd known about the religious angle beforehand...

You Might Also Enjoy:
I Am Still Alive (Kate Alice Marshall) - My Review
Rough Draft (Michael Robertson Jr.) - My Review

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

They Called Us Enemy (George Takei, Justin Eisinger, and Steven Scott)

They Called Us Enemy
George Takei, Justin Eisinger, and Steven Scott, illustrations by Harmony Becker
Top Shelf Productions
Nonfiction, Autobiography/Graphic Novel/History
***** (Great)


DESCRIPTION: The world mostly knows George Takei through his iconic role as Sulu on Gene Roddenberry's groundbreaking series Star Trek, a show that embodied a multicultural, optimistic future for humanity. As a boy, he saw the opposite of that, when the attack on Pearl Harbor inflamed anti-Japanese hatred and fear. Almost overnight, assets were frozen, homes were lost, and Japanese Americans were rounded up and placed in "internment" camps. Though he was too young to recognize the true horrors, he watched his father and mother face daunting challenges to their patriotism, citizenship, and very humanity.

REVIEW: As recent politics have made glaringly clear, there seem to be two different Americas: one that strives for equality amid diversity and works to build a better, more inclusive future for all, and one that embraces fear, prejudice, ignorance, and racism to create a future that favors one race, one religion, one creed alone over all others. Mixing personal memories with stories later gleaned from talks with his father, Takei recounts his personal experience staring down the barbed-wire teeth of the latter America, the one that hates. He was too young at the time to understand it all, and parts of those terrible days still seem like boyhood adventures, thrown into stark relief by what his parents were going through (which he learned only after the fact.) Despite everything, his father never lost faith in the idea of America and democracy, though the scars of those days never fully healed, lingering in all who lived through the camps and even in the politics of today. Set clearly in its history, with the actions of politicians and activists both within the Japanese American community and outside the gates, it presents an interesting, heartbreaking, but ultimately inspiring story of what it means to be an American, even when other Americans call you foreigner and enemy. Stories like Takei's need to be recorded and remembered - especially now that we are tumbling once again into the America of hatred and exclusion.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (Frederick Douglass) - My Review
Born a Crime (Trevor Noah) - My Review
What Unites Us (Dan Rather) - My Review

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

The School for Good and Evil (Soman Chainani)

The School for Good and Evil
The School for Good and Evil series, Book 1
Soman Chainani
Harper
Fiction, MG? Fantasy
**** (Good)


DESCRIPTION: Sophie and Agatha are different as day and night: one blonde and beautiful and always dressed her best, the other pale and brooding and obsessed with death and pain. Like all the other children in town of Woods Beyond, the unlikely friends know the story of the School Master: every year, like clockwork, two children are abducted by a shadowy figure, only to turn up later as illustrations in the fairy tale books that arrive, just as mysteriously, at the local bookstore. Unlike most other kids, though, Sophie wants to be taken away: the girls in those stories always find a prince and their happily-ever-after. Agatha doesn't even believe the stories are more than a cover for runaways.
Then Agatha sees the shadow stealing Sophie away, and gives chase - both of them ending up at the School for Good and Evil in the middle of the endless forest. Only Agatha is dropped into the glass towers of the Good side, where princesses and princes learn the ways of kindness and chivalry to win their happy endings, and Sophie gets delivered to the foul halls of Evil, where loyalty and friendship and even beauty are considered diseases.
Clearly, there's been some kind of mistake. If anyone from Woods Beyond is a princess it's Sophie, and Agatha must surely be a witch; even the faculty and students know it. Besides, Agatha doesn't even want to be in a fairy tale. As the two struggle to survive their new classes and figure out how to escape, they find their bond tested to the utmost as they break the deepest, most basic rule on which the entire school was founded: Good and Evil can never, ever be friends.

REVIEW: Chainani explores the dark, twisted roots of fairy tales and our concepts of good and evil in this story. From the outset, it's clear that there's at least a little evil in Sophie and good in Agatha - it's sometimes irritating how obtuse both could be on this aspect - but it's also clear that something is very wrong with the divisions in the school and the overall balance of power, something only outsiders like the two friends from Woods Beyond can see and possibly balance, if they can ever get the breathing space beyond just surviving. Sophie spends much of her time in sheer denial of where she is, fixating on becoming a Good student and winning her prince (Tedros, son of King Arthur and the top boy on the Good campus.) Agatha is reminded by everyone, especially herself, that she doesn't belong in the Good classes, but her escape plans are constantly thwarted. Meanwhile, their teachers prepare the children for the deadly game of fairy tales that will be their future... though only the top graduates get leading roles, the rest becoming sidekicks (or henchpeople), or even transmogrified into animals or plants, which often have unhappy endings no matter which side they're on. (There's a rather gruesome exhibit in the Good school "honoring" many of these sidekicks in taxidermy form.) These are not Disney fairy tales, or even the watered down versions from Victorian times; these are fairy tales at their darkest, nightmarish and surreal even when the good people win, and the line between a happy and a sad ending is often razor thin. There's a deep-rooted unpleasantness at work here that sometimes repelled me, even if it is true to the original tales, and a few elements of the climax feel subtly unsatisfying. However, this is also one of the most imaginative takes on fairy tale revisits I've read in some time, with near-nonstop action and many unpredictable twists and turns on the way to an explosive finale. While I'm not sure if I want to read on yet (I'm still sorting my reaction to a degree, and the To Be Read pile is plenty deep at the moment), all in all I found it a satisfying, if often gruesome, story.
While Amazon seems reluctant to link to it, I actually read the Barnes and Noble Exclusive Collector's edition, with bonus material that includes two original "Evil" fairy tales mentioned in the text: "Children Noodle Soup" and "Rabid Bear Rex." They were, indeed, dark stories, and as noted in the text, true to a world where Good is never guaranteed a win.
As a closing note, I'm a bit on the fence about the age classification. While I tend to see it shelved with middle grade, there are hints and teases toward the teen end of the market, and I expect the students, like Harry Potter and his friends, mature as the series goes on.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Fairy Tale Detectives (Michael Buckley) - My Review
Flunked (Jen Calonita) - My Review
The Enchanted Forest Chronicles (Patricia C. Wrede) - My Review

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The Last Unicorn (Peter S. Beagle)

The Last Unicorn
Peter S. Beagle
Roc
Fiction, Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)


DESCRIPTION: Alone in her lilac wood, immune to the passage of time, the unicorn did not know she was the last of her kind until she overheard a pair of hunters. She sets out into the world and discovers a land changed and lessened and utterly devoid of unicorns: most humans no longer even see her as anything but a white mare. Then she hears rumors of a great Red Bull that chased them away, beyond the castle of the cruel King Haggard. With the hapless magician Schmedrick and the girl Molly Grue, the unicorn seeks the truth of those tales... a truth that may doom her.

REVIEW: Like most children in the 1980's, particularly those with unicorn-loving siblings, I saw the Rankin-Bass animated movie based on this book (which Beagle helped write), but I hadn't read the book itself until now. Would I have enjoyed it as a kid? Knowing me, I doubt it; I was an impatient reader (and more of a dragon person, as I remain now; tangentially, Rankin-Bass also gets some credit/blame for that, in the form of The Flight of Dragons, but I digress.) As an adult, though, I can recognize what Beagle was doing. He was crafting a self-aware fable, a fairy tale that knows it's a fairy tale, unconcerned with solid edges and settings and more about impression and emotion and metaphor, a painting where the shapes may be abstract but the colors are bold and evocative and undeniably emotional, and all the more memorable as a result. Beagle distills the essence of the classical unicorn: not the pony with the cutie mark, not the dewy-eyed horned horse on the bedroom poster, but the embodiment of both purity and unspoiled wilderness, simultaneously terrifying and majestic, a step removed from the mortal world... at least, until forced into it by her quest. The journey leaves a lasting mark on her immortal soul, as it leaves an indelible mark on the people she meets and the lands she crosses and the world itself. Much about the story deliberately defies direct description and solid foundation, dreamlike and nighmarish by turns, steeped in symbolism and metaphor made flesh. The characters could be irritating at times, particularly Schmedrick, the story could dither, and there's more than a dash of sexism (again, in keeping with the archetypes Beagle was deliberately emulating and examining), but the often-poetic descriptions carry it, and story ultimately comes together as more than the sum of its parts, a compelling classic that may have aged around the edges, but still endures, and will linger in my memory long after I read it.

You Might Also Enjoy:
A Glory of Unicorns (Bruce Coville, editor) - My Review
Stardust (Neil Gaiman) - My Review
The Last Unicorn (The Enchanted Edition)- Amazon DVD link

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

March Site Update

I just posted the March update for the main Brightdreamer Books site, archiving and cross-linking the month's reviews.

Enjoy!

Monday, March 30, 2020

Revenger (Alastair Reynolds)

Revenger
The Revenger series, Book 1
Alastair Reynolds
Orbit
Fiction, YA? Sci-Fi
**+ (Bad/Okay)


DESCRIPTION: It started as a youthful lark - or, at least, it did to Fura Ness. Her older sister, Adrana, wanted to sneak away from yet another boring party... off to Neural Alley and its forbidden shopfronts of fortune tellers and limb brokers and other unsavory aspects from across the Congregation of artificial worlds. As usual, Fura just trailed in her wake, getting a little thrill for defying their overprotective father, but fully expecting to be home for breakfast. Then Adrana reveals that she's fleeing to the sunjammer spaceship Monetta's Mourn as a Bone Caster, plugging into a neural link with the network of alien skulls that are far more reliable (if full of more tricks) than the standard squawk communicators, and she's sure Fura will have the talent for bonecasting too. It's just supposed to be for six months, enough to find a few prize baubles (ancient artificial worlds full of hidden loot from extinct aliens and previous Occupations) and rebuild the Ness family finances after Father's recent fumbles, and it's got to be more interesting than sitting around practicing needlework.
Then the Monetta's Mourn runs afoul of the legendary pirate Bosa Senna, who is even more brutal than her reputation. What was a simple bid for adventure and fortune turns deadly serious in a heartbeat.
Alone, left for dead on a derelict, the quiet, bookish Fura must step up to the challenge of surviving, recovering her abducted sister... and exacting revenge.

REVIEW: I was expecting, based on the cover and descriptions, a swashbuckling space adventure in the vein of several recent borderline-fantasy space operas, where larger than life piracy and quests for impossible wonders are transposed into a far-future star system crawling with tech that's more like magic than science in many respects. At times, Revenger delivers that. Unfortunately, it does so through the eyes of a character who starts (and, to a degree, stays) a strangely empty hole. Fura is initially just a tagalong, not just in body but in spirit. She drifts in bold Adrana's wake, and despite some token resistance to running away and some hints of internal thoughts I never got a sense of her as more than a plot-shaped void, especially early on. It was an odd feeling that made her transformation from dutiful daughter to revenge-driven space hunter largely unbelievable, though the compressed timespan of the story doesn't help; I simply could not buy her going from a sheltered girl not knowing a prow from a stern to full-on cold-blooded pirate stalker spitting (very annoying) space slang every other word in a span of months.
Perhaps because of this inability to connect with Fura, the world - crawling with smeerps such as "squawks" that are essentially radios and "flickerboxes" that are basically screens or monitors and "lungstuff" that's just breathable air, juxtaposed with plot-convenient oddities such as "lightvine" (a source of illumination that also provides part of a subplot that doesn't quite pay off) and the various fantastic loot found in baubles - just never gelled for me. There were just too many internal inconsistencies and anachronisms, and I was always too aware that this was a swashbuckling pirate story pushed out the airlock into the void, with only vague lip service to a lack of gravity and other issues. I also got a strange vibe off some of the peripheral characters, particularly the Ness father and the family doctor who were weirdly (creepily) obsessed with infantalizing the girls. Most of the rest of the characters were just vague smears with names.
The story moves reasonably fast, with plenty of action and overall weirdness, and it is imaginative, but I just never managed to immerse in it like I'd hoped to, and the rating suffers as a result.

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