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The month's reviews have been archived and cross-linked on the main Brightdreamer Books site.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


Monday, April 27, 2020

The Stars Now Unclaimed (Drew Williams)

The Stars Now Unclaimed
The Universe After series, Book 1
Drew Williams
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)

The Bone Universe series, Book 1
Fran Wilde
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
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
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