Sunday, June 16, 2019

Endling #2: The First (Katherine Applegate)

Endling #2: The First
The Endling series, Book 2
Katherine Applegate
Fiction, MG? Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Once the runt of her pack, Byx has become the endling - the last known living member - of her species, the doglike dairnes. The humans of Nedarra, under the warlike leader the Murdano, hunted them to extinction for their ability to tell truth from lies. Worse, not one of the other sentient species of the world acted to defend the peaceful dairnes. Old legends spoke of a floating island where some of her kind might survive... and now, at long last, she is almost there. But the land is still on the brink of war, and the Murdano isn't the only despot seeking power through wanton slaughter. Whether she wishes it or not, Byx is now caught up in greater problems - and, if she finds any more survivors of her species, they may be in greater danger than ever if revealed.

REVIEW: An excellent, fast-paced sequel, Endling #2: The First suffers mostly from being the middle book in a probable trilogy, beginning and ending partway through a greater arc. Things pick up almost exactly where they left off, with Byx and her companions - the would-be warrior queen Khara, the boy thief Renzo, the brave little wobbyx Tobble, and the great hunting felivet Gambler (and, of course, the dog named Dog) - journeying north to the realm of Dreyland in the hopes of finding the floating island they seek... but Dreyland proves at least as dangerous as the kingdom they just left, and the island does not prove to be the sanctuary Byx had dreamed of. Once more, the world in general and war in particular are shown in all their complicated shades of gray; even those acting for the best reasons find themselves unable to avoid the thorny realities of conflict. War means death, whatever one's intentions, though sometimes one has no choice but to fight back. (Of course, I expect no less from Katherine "Animorphs" Applegate; she has yet to write down to her audience in any of her works that I've read, even if some grown-ups would prefer blunted corners. The journey is not a bloodless one.) More wonders and dangers are revealed in Applegate's marvelously inventive fantasy world, and the friendship of the core cast only grows stronger through adversity. Byx in particular has come a very long way indeed from the insecure daydreaming pup she was at the start, though she still has a long ways to go if she means to save not only her species, but the world: one of the overall lessons of her journey and the story itself is how all lives and people are connected, and the loss of one will inevitably affect all, even if they deny it. I'm looking forward to the next installment. (There has to be another one, right? Applegate wouldn't just leave threads dangling like that...)

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Endling #1: The Last (Katherine Applegate) - My Review
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Saturday, June 15, 2019

The Tiger's Daughter (K. Arsenault Rivera)

The Tiger's Daughter
The Ascendant series, Book 1
K. Arsenault Rivera
Fiction, YA? Fantasy
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: When they were born, Imperial heiress O-Shizuka and Qorin nomad Shefali were marked by destiny to grow close as two pine needles, despite their different lineages. O-Shizuka's Hokkoran ancestors conquered half the world, and only Shefali's warrior queen mother kept them from slaughtering the Quorin of the steppes as they had so many others. Bad blood still flows thick between their people, not helped by the decadence of the current emperor and the resurgence of dark powers that were once contained by the Wall of Flowers in the north. The two girls, princess and warrior, may be all that stands between humankind and the darkness of the Traitor's blackblood minions - but destinies as grand as theirs are never without tragedy, and the price of victory may be higher than either wishes to pay.

REVIEW: The phrase "star-crossed lovers" is thrown around an awful lot, especially in romances. It seems any couple with even the slightest obstacle between them gets branded with the term until it loses its original meaning: two people who must fight the very heavens for their love, and may not succeed even then, but for whom walking away is simply not an option. Here, Rivera returns the meaning, the beauty, and the tragedy to the phrase in a truly epic love story literally touched by the gods.
Told largely in a letter from Shefali to O-Shizuka that recounts their adventures, from first meeting through later journeys and victories through defeats, the chemistry is tangible from the very first moments and lasts throughout. Both characters have flaws and strengths and personalities that occasionally clash, and more than once they hurt each other (mostly unintentionally), but beneath that is a bond that transcends mortal flesh, as unquestioned as the rising of the sun. As they grow up and grow together, a rich tale unfolds in a complex world inspired by Asian cultures, from the divine courts of Hokkoran through the nomads of the Silver Steppes and even the conquered yet proud jungle kingdom of Xian in the south, among others. It is a world of shamans and priests, of demons whose black blood infects any touched by it, of royal decadence and common poverty, of past grievances and current prejudices, of gods and legends and truths that bleed into myths even within one's own lifetime. The characters are equally rich and nuanced, with family and fate and love in its myriad forms driving much of the story, where even divine powers do not preclude great failures and tragic miscalculations; powerful as love may be, there are some futures it cannot change, some hearts that can never be together. (Does that include the leads? Sorry, I don't deal in spoilers, but I will say that this is not one of those romances where a happily-ever-after is an easy given.)
This is one of those books that keeps you coming back for more, where you're practically counting the minutes at work until you can get home and return to its pages. It's a beautifully told story in an excellent world that I'll happily revisit in the future; I've already added the sequel to my shopping list, and am debating adding the third title preemptively.

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Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Dragons vs. Drones (Wesley King)

Dragons vs. Drones
The Dragons vs. Drones series, Book 1
Wesley King
Fiction, MG Action/Fantasy/Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: When Marcus was four years old, his father, a specialist with the CIA, walked out the door into an Arlington thunderstorm... and never came home. Everyone said he must've been a traitor who stole secrets and fled to Russia, but the boy won't believe it. He's dedicated eight years to tracking down what really happened. Finally, he thinks he has the key: a series of violent storms on a predictable schedule, counting down to a tempest just like the one his father vanished in. Riding to the center, a lightning bolt carries Marcus to another world - him, and the five drones that were following him.
Dree was born to a family of dragon riders, the protectors of the land. She even had the rare ability to touch a dragon without needing special protection from their flame-hot scales. But it was a different world, and Dracone was a different city, back then. Now the new Prime Minister is pushing an industrial revolution, devouring resources and turning on the dragons that used to be humanity's allies. She had to drop out of school and work in a forge to help feed her family - and she even loses that after a mistake with an experimental metal toy. Only her forbidden friendship with the Nightwing dragon Lourdvang keeps her from giving in to despair. Then, just when things couldn't get any worse, a windburst drops a strange boy at her feet... and deadly metal flying machines start attacking her city.
At first, it seems like a simple, if tragic, accident: the drones must have been following Marcus and got pulled through the portal. But drones don't act without orders, and their strikes are too coordinated to be glitches. Someone seems to want both Dracone and the realm's dragons wiped out, and only Marcus and Dree, with the dragon Lourdvang, can stop them.

REVIEW: I have to give this one credit for the most accurate title I've encountered in quite some time. It is, indeed, a story of dragons fighting drones. It is also a fairly devastating look at drone warfare, the utterly random and impersonal destruction rained down on a populace who cannot hope to fight back, and the hypocrisies of governments (such as, unfortunately, America) that talk about peace and stability while they wantonly torture civilians and raze the landscape for nothing more than simple greed, not to mention the empty promises of economic revolutions. Computer geek Marcus starts out as the average middle-grade underdog, down to his inability to talk to girls, but when need be he steps up his game. Dree struggles with her own past, including the loss of a father who still lives: a former dragon rider, he was crippled when forced to work the docks after the dragon purges began, and has been a meek shadow of the brave hero she grew up with ever since. Even the dragons have their own issues and personalities and cultures which sometimes interfere with the cooperation they'll need if they want to survive this devastating new war. Some elements of the plot require a certain suspension of disbelief - a prodigal programmer boy armed with only a laptop and a girl from a culture that has figured out welding but not gunpowder or microchips deconstructing and replicating drone technology, for instance - but, hey, that's what magic is for, and the action is quick enough that one generally doesn't have much time to overthink. The ending, unfortunately, fouls things up with a cliffhanger; this book does not announce that it's part of a larger series. Also, the belief suspension gets a trifle hard to maintain going into the finale, given a few revelations. Those issues aside, Dragons vs. Drones delivers exactly what it promises, a fast-paced action story where magic and science collide.

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Sunday, June 9, 2019

Altered Carbon (Richard K. Morgan)

Altered Carbon
The Takeshi Kovacs series, Book 1
Richard K. Morgan
Del Rey
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: In a distant future, humanity has conquered not only the vast distances of interstellar space, but death itself. Implanted "stacks" record a person's memories, which can be backed up in memory banks, inserted into virtual simulations, locked away for centuries-long prison sentences, needlecast across the stars, or spun up into new "sleeves": living or synthetic bodies, with augmentations and implants available for those with sufficiently deep pockets. Over time, this has led to the rise of a new ruling caste, the Meths, whose lifespans could potentially dwarf that of the Biblical Methuselah for whom they are named. With unlimited power, however, comes unlimited corruption... but even Meths sometimes find themselves in need of assistance from the lesser classes.
Takeshi Kovacs, a ruthless native of the Harlan's World colony, is a U. N. Envoy with a reputation that stands out even among his peers, who are known for extreme tactics. On ice for various crimes back home, he finds himself needlecast to Earth, sleeved in the body of a Bay City police officer, at the behest of one Laurens Bancroft. The job: investigate Bancroft's death, an incident that destroyed his inhabited clone's stack. It looks like a straightforward case of sleeve suicide, one made moot by back-ups, but Bancroft won't believe he pulled the trigger on himself... and the more Kovacs digs, the more he comes to believe that there's far more to the case than meets the eye.

REVIEW: I watched the Netflix series based on this title, and was intrigued enough to read the book. There are significant differences, from smaller details to greater plot points and characters, but the overall atmosphere - a futuristic, interplanetary dystopia noir where even the equalizing promise of death yields to power - remains the same.
Kovacs is the familiar jaded antihero, a professional killer with the faintest nigglings of conscience that sets him apart, if sometimes marginally, from the bad guys, but with a nicely humanizing backstory to add complexity and justification to his dark gray morality. He navigates a dark and gritty Earth that has become a pale shadow of itself, a place that sent all its dreamers to the stars and has seemingly given up in its struggle for equality and come to accept the fickle, if unspoken, rule of the Meths, who quite literally get away with murder on a regular basis (though, of course, murder isn't the crime it used to be now that resleeving is an option - if not always an affordable or viable option.) Morgan explores the implications of stack technology, how it can be used and abused, and how it impacts one's sense of self - indeed, how much of oneself is what can be recorded and how much is embodied physically in chemical reactions, reflex memories, and other intangibles that make us who we are (or who we think we are.) The story also drops hints about the extinct Martian culture whose ruins have inspired endless speculation on their nature and demise, and bits of the violent past of Harlan's World that helped shape Kovacs, including the writings of legendary activist and freedom fighter Quellcrist Falconer. The plot veers through numerous characters, from Meths to street pushers, past people from Kovacs's past and the life left behind by the unstable cop whose body he wears (including, not insignificantly, the man's former personal and professional partner, Bay City Police Lieutenant Kristin Ortega), and from reality to virtual to flashback, much of the journey heavily steeped in drugs and blood. It culminates in a finale that brings some measure of justice, if at a high cost and with not-entirely-clean hands.
The character and location sprawl could get a little unwieldy at times, and once in a while the violence was more numbing than shocking, but overall it was a decent ride. I might read on in this series, especially if I find the sequels discounted.
(As a closing note, I admit that I somewhat prefer the Netflix iteration... which is still not available on DVD or Blu-Ray, despite having been released almost a year and a half ago. This is money I want to spend on top of my monthly subscription, Netflix: why do you not want more of my money? I know you release other Netflix Originals on DVD, so it's not like it's something you just don't do... but, I digress.)

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Wednesday, June 5, 2019

The Priory of the Orange Tree (Samantha Shannon)

The Priory of the Orange Tree
Samantha Shannon
Fiction, Fantasy
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: One thousand years ago, the unquiet fires in the womb of the world birthed the Nameless One, a great dragon of chaos. His minions, the High Westerns, spread armies of monsters - wyverns, cockatrices, and worse - through all the lands of men, carrying death and destruction and the plague of the red sickness, until the brave knight Galian struck the beast down with the mighty blade Ascalon. Taking to wife the lovely Cleolind, Galian then founded a new religion, Virtudom, based on the six virtues of knighthood and becoming the revered Saint. Their descendants of the line Berethnet have ruled from the Inysh capital of Ascalon ever since, mother to daughter down through the ages, and so long as their bloodline endures, the Nameless One can never return from where he was bound away beneath the earth... or so it is said in the West. In the South, Galian was a greedy deceiver who sought to usurp Cleolind's victory over the dragon for his own gains; she spurned him and fled to found a sect devoted to harnessing ancient powers to hunt the monsters created by the Nameless One. And in the East, where dragons are creatures of sea and starfire, they are honored companions and revered repositories of ancient wisdom.
In the reign of Sabran the Ninth, trouble seems to be stirring. Yscalin, long an ally in Virtudom, has cast off the religion to worship Draconic forces. Wyverns stir from their long slumber to prowl the countryside. And some even report sightings of the feared High Westerns, minions of the Nameless One. Many begin to fear that the ancient evil may return - and that a Berethnet on the throne may not be enough to stop the world from falling into chaos. A sheltered Western queen, a Southern sorceress on a secret mission to a hostile land, an exiled alchemist, an Eastern orphan who aspires to become a dragonrider despite her low birth, and others find themselves caught up in the coming chaos. The truths behind the myths of Galian and Cleolind and the very nature of dragons - East and West - must be discovered, a task that requires breaking ancient taboos and challenging traditions that have reigned for close to a thousand years.

REVIEW: Sometimes I wonder if it's just me. I pick up stories that look great, I read glowing praise from those with far greater knowledge, experience, and general intelligence, and I wonder if it's just me when the story I read fails to live up to more than the faintest glimmer of promise. Am I reading the same book? Am I not trying hard enough? Am I too stupid to see what others see? Am I utterly lacking in literary taste? (I probably don't want answers, here...)
The Priory of the Orange Tree has what should be a great premise, plus dragons. The dragons alone should've kept me turning pages... but I saw far too little of the Eastern ones, and the Western ones did too much monologuing. Characters were largely distant and unlikable, always too aware that they were in an epic fantasy and only rarely feeling like real people. (There was also an unsubtle subtext that the only way a woman can be both good and strong is to eschew men, either by not having romantic interests at all or being bisexual or lesbian... and, frankly, the sorceress Ead could've done a lot better than who she chooses - plus she should've figured out the attraction about two hundred pages earlier. I picked up some weird vibes on relationships all around, here... but, I digress) The writing style was tooth-grindingly aware of its genre; Shannon could not resist throwing around obsolete, medieval terms in the stiff narrative and dialog, often without sufficient context to define them, giving me the impression that the author was showing off research without concern over whether the reader could (or would) follow along. How hard is it to imply that a virginal is like a harpsichord? Why wait multiple pages and instances to bother mentioning that an attifet is a headdress? There's a glossary at the back of the book, but by then it felt like a condescending head-pat. As for the worldbuilding, when I'm over halfway through the book and characters and places are still mostly opaque name soup, something's not right - and I've read numerous epics, so I'm used to mentally juggling large casts spread across vast maps. I also couldn't help feeling that, for all the effort that went into building the Virtudom religion and other story elements, falling back on the old East/West labels for regions and dragons felt a bit lazy. A few elements never quite clicked together with the rest; the technology seems scattershot, and there's a character who is essentially a giant talking mongoose, but - not counting dragons, because dragons are their own thing in fantasy - there's no other hint of nonhuman cultures. ("'Cause magic" feels like an insufficient excuse, when it's implied there's a whole race of them... plus not much ultimately comes of him, so it feels like a waste anyway.) The plot takes some time to get moving, and never quite comes together like it feels it wants to, though the final battle is sufficiently epic (more or less; I still hadn't connected sufficiently with any of the characters to be truly invested in whether their world lived or died.) More than once, I felt the string-jerking of "Divine Forces" at work, twisting events and warping character intelligence and generally making many events feel more scripted than spontaneous. Though the story wraps up in this volume, there's every hint that sequels, spinoffs, or prequels could potentially be a thing (sales figures pending, I suppose.)
There were hints and gleams of promise in the intricacies of seemingly contradictory myths and traditions that ultimately have a similar root. I liked some of the imagery and ideas. And it really, really looked like a story I should've loved. Unfortunately, I was prevented from immersing by general lack of caring about anyone or anywhere in the book. But I suppose that's just me.

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