Friday, May 31, 2019

May Site Update

The previous ten reviews have been archived and cross-linked on the main Brightdreamer Books website, and various minor errors have been dealt with as I found them.


Ocean Meets Sky (The Fan Brothers)

Ocean Meets Sky
Terry Fan and Eric Fan
Simon and Schuster
Fiction, CH Fantasy/Picture Book
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Today, Finn's grandfather would have been 90 years old, and the boy misses him terribly. The old sailor always talked about a magical place far away across the horizon, where the ocean meets the sky, but of course they never went there. Building a small ship of his own, Finn dreams his way to a sea of wonders.

REVIEW: The story may seem simple, but the images are gorgeously imaginative. It almost could've been a wordless picture book (and is indeed wordless for a few stretches.) Finn and his guide, a familiar-looking great golden fish, visit islands of books and giant shells before taking flight toward the moon, amid a host of wild flying vessels from dirigibles to whales to dragons. One of those picture books that can be revisited just for the sense of wonder.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Drawn Together (Minh Le) - My Review
The Antlered Ship (Dashka Slater) - My Review
Teacup (Rebecca Young) - My Review

Monday, May 27, 2019

Coda Vol. 1 (Simon Spurrier)

Coda Vol. 1
The Coda series
Simon Spurrier, illustrations by Matias Bergara
BOOM! Studios
Fiction, Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Once upon a time, in a land of enchanted castles and magical elves and immortal dragons... the forces of darkness won and destroyed everything.
The survivors wander a post-apocalyptic wasteland, bands of looters and thieves and the odd attempt at restarting civilization with little but the dregs of the magic that once flowed freely. Amid this ruin roves the nameless bard, astride a mutant (not to mention psychotic) "pentacorn." He seeks the means to rescue his true love from a terrible demonic curse... but he himself is the first to admit that quests and happy endings were always empty fairy tales, even before the world ended.

REVIEW: A post-apocalyptic Fairyland is an interesting concept. I wish I'd had more engaging characters (and maybe a less threadbare plot) to follow through it. The bard (known as "Hm", his only answer when asked for a name) tries to thread the antihero needle of cynicism and determination laced with sarcasm, but just comes across as a selfish jerk, making his dedication to his cursed wife feel out of character. At some point his pithy observations and commentary start sounding like adolescent nihilistic whining rather than the voice of an older and justifiably jaded man. At times, the story feels jerky. There are some nice (if grotesque) elements, but ultimately the parts just don't come together like they should.

You Might Also Enjoy:
King: The Graphic Novel (Joshua Hale Fialkov) - My Review
Fairy Quest Volume 1: Outlaws (Paul Jenkins) - My Review
Fables: Legends in Exile (Bill Willingham) - My Review

Bitter Seeds (Ian Tregillis)

Bitter Seeds
The Milkweed Triptych, Book 1
Ian Tregillis
Fiction, Fantasy/Sci-Fi
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: During the brutal Spanish Civil War, British agent Raybould Marsh is sent to collect a defector who claims to have information on a new German weapons program... a man who goes up in flames before his very eyes. Not long after, Marsh sees a dark woman with wires running to her skull, who winks as though she knows him. This is his first contact with the Reichsbehorde, humans brutally manipulated into manifesting unusual abilities such as immolation, telekinesis, invisibility, and more. With his mentor and superior Stephenson, Marsh becomes part of the Milkweed project, a top-secret military group charged with finding out more about these superhumans... and, more specifically, finding a weakness, as the drumbeats of war sound louder. But the only way for Britain to fight back seems to lie with the hidden community of warlocks in their borders, such as Marsh's college friend Will Beauclerk - and the price for such assistance is steep and bloody.
Klaus and his sister Gretel came to the farmhouse laboratory of Doctor von Westarp as starving children, and became among the handful to survive the man's cruel treatments and experiments. Now Klaus can temporarily render himself insubstantial, but it is Gretel and her precognition who becomes central to the growing Third Reich and its war effort. Soon Klaus starts to wonder just how trustworthy she is - and if she has any master other than herself.
As threat blooms into open warfare, Europe is rocked by the collision of two unnatural forces that could spell the death of whole nations, even humanity itself.

REVIEW: Bitter Seeds adds supernatural elements to the horrors of World War II, creating an unrelentingly dark and bleak tale filled with people who do terrible things, sometimes with the flimsiest of rationalizations. That, indeed, is war in a nutshell, but reading about it for pages on end, no breaks, no humor, knowing that any happiness is doomed to create an even greater despair... it wears on a reader, at least this reader. Nobody is particularly sympathetic (save maybe Klaus, in very brief snatches), nor are they supposed to be; war brings out the worst in everyone. The plot veers downright Lovecraftian at points, with "Eidolon" entities outside of space and time and reality as the source of warlock "magic" - in truth, merely a blood-soaked negotiation with inherently hostile things whose only true desire is the extinction of all life forms as abominations against the nature of the universe. The German superhumans, on the other hand, were created by nothing but the ingenuity and raw brutality of humankind, torturing numerous children to death for every success story - and even those successes tend to be broken or mentally unbalanced. Between the two sides, there can be no "good guys," no winners to root for, nobody who won't sell their own souls to the Devil - literal or figurative - in a heartbeat, then sell the souls of anyone who happens to be in sight to sweeten the deal. Tregillis presents some interesting ideas and truly horrific moments, capturing some aspect of the raw evil wrought by war, but overall I found it too depressing and, on a base level, too repelling to consider reading onward in the off chance of a less-than-horrific conclusion.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Gunslinger (Stephen King) - My Review
Ghost Talkers (Mary Robinette Kowal) - My Review
A Darker Shade of Magic (V. E. Schwab) - My Review

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Lumberjanes Volume 6: Sink or Swim (Noelle Stevenson et al.)

Lumberjanes Vol. 6: Sink or Swim
The Lumberjanes series, Issues 21 - 25
Noelle Stevenson, Shannon Watters, Kat Leyh, Grace Ellis, and Brooke Allen, illustrations by Carey Pietsch
BOOM! Studios
Fiction, MG? Fantasy/Graphic Novel/Humor
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: As their summer at Lumberjanes camp continues, none of the girls at Roanoke cabin - April, Mal, Jo, Molly, and Riley - can complain of boredom; between dimensional portals, were-bears, mermaid bands, godlings, and the odd dinosaur encounter, there's never a dull moment at Miss Quinzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet's Camp for Hardcore Lady-Types. When April sets out to earn a group badge for knot tying, they meet the camp's newest counselor, Seafarin' Karen - an encounter which, once more, pulls the Roanoke girls into an adventure full of magic, danger, and friendship to the max.

REVIEW: The series remains a light, fun, and quick read, never short on humor or adventure. There are greater arcs - the secrets hidden by the former camp counselor/were-bear, the unknown forces at work in the forest (beyond the dimensional portal "issue" it seems to be experiencing), the possible fates of the girls after camp - and some incremental character development, but for the most part each volume works as a standalone. Like the previous adventures, I found it enjoyable, with fun characters new and old.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Bloody Jack (L. A. Meyer) - My Review
The Tea Dragon Society (Katie O'Neill) - My Review
Lumberjanes Volume 1: Beware the Kitten Holy (Noelle Stevenson and Shannon Watters) - My Review

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Only Harmless Great Thing (Brooke Bolander)

The Only Harmless Great Thing
Brooke Bolander
Fiction, Sci-Fi
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: In the early 1900's, the job of painting radium watch dials belonged to girls... but they sickened and began to die. Even as the companies tried to discredit their tales of radiation poisoning, they sought alternate workers. They turned to elephants, who were still considered animals despite their trunk sign language having been known since the 1800's. But, though elephants can absorb more radiation before sickening, they still eventually die of it - until one elephant, Topsy, has had enough.
Generations in the future, a scientist struggles to convince an elephant matriarch to cooperate with a plan that will, if it succeeds, potentially outlive the human race - and save at least some elephants forever.

REVIEW: Winner of the 2019 Nebula award for Best Novelette, The Only Harmless Great Thing translates the plight of the Radium Girls (real-life victims of corporate greed and misogyny, hired to paint glowing watch dials and exposed to lethal levels of radiation licking the radium paintbrushes to keep the points fine, after which the company owners tried to blame syphilis for their deaths) to an alternate history where humans have learned that elephants are self-aware and can speak - but are still considered animals to be exploited. It also taps into the generational power of storytelling to preserve (or distort) truths, and creates an elephant culture centered around tales shared from mother to daughter and aunt to niece, based around how actual herds work. (In fact, elephant matriarchs are the evident keepers of migration memories at the very least, and herds do visit the remains of their dead. For all we know, there may be more truth to this tale than we yet realize - or will ever realize.) Topsy and the radiation-poisoned girl Regan bond over their common exploitation at the hands of men, while in our time the scientist Kat struggles to solve a riddle that even now vexes us: what to do about radioactive waste that will outlast our civilization at least, and quite likely our species. It's a soul-twisting tragedy on multiple levels, a story of inhumanity and sacrifice and how our short-sighted species creates far more evil and sorrow than we can ever realize, both of which will linger long past our own time on this world.

You Might Also Enjoy:
River of Teeth (Sarah Gailey) - My Review
Eyes Like Sky And Coal And Moonlight (Cat Rambo) - My Review

Sunday, May 19, 2019

The Collapsing Empire (John Scalzi)

The Collapsing Empire
The Interdependency series, Book 1
John Scalzi
Fiction, Humor/Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: In time almost lost to record and memory, humans reached out from their insignificant homeworld and discovered the Flow, a "current" enabling faster-than-light travel... but, like a river of sorts, ships can only get "on" or "off" at certain "shoal" points. Though the Flow connections to and from Earth were lost generations ago, the human Interdependency thrives, a network of worlds spread across hundreds of light years ruled by the emperox, the church, and the merchant guild monopolies that keep each colony dependent on the others for survival. For all that rides on the Flow, however, few have bothered to study and understand it. It's always been there for humans to exploit, after all, and surely it always will be.
Recent disruptions in Flow transit have created shipboard rumors, but nobody in the upper echelons seems to be listening. Too many people in power have too much money riding on the status quo remaining status quo. But the rise of a new and unprepared emperox, a power grab by the Nohamapaten guild, a rebellion on the far-flung world of End, and a secret researcher's chilling conclusions will force the Interdependency to face the one thing it never wanted to see: the unstoppable collapse of the Flow network, leading to humanity's inevitable extinction.

REVIEW: In part, I admit that this book is a victim of timing. I read it as my nation and our world are facing down apparent inevitable collapses which have been coming, warned about and ignored for years, decades, generations even... and I'm watching as, like the people running the Interdependency, those in charge (and arguably most responsible for us standing on the brink) choose a profitable extinction over costly survival. (In the afterword, Scalzi claims that his choice of title, The Collapsing Empire, was not intended as a deliberate commentary on current affairs, but one has to wonder if there wasn't some subconscious nudging at work.) So, despite this being a humorous (if somewhat blackly humorous) take on empire building gone mad and ignorance/wishful thinking trampling science and fact until it's quite literally too late, at times I had to force myself to laugh. It didn't necessarily help that I never connected with most of the characters, or a world that was blatantly built to profit the few at the expense of the many (and the now at the expense of the future.) There's also a minor flaw in the overall plot, in that this is clearly just a lead-in to a larger series; the ending feels incomplete and a trifle dissatisfying, without much of an in-book arc to conclude. There's some sharp commentary and clever (occasionally curse-heavy and crude) humor, but ultimately I felt no compulsion to read onward. The whole just struck a little too close to my reality, I fear.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Sky Coyote (Kage Baker) - My Review
Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers (Grant Naylor) - My Review
The Android's Dream (Jon Scalzi) - My Review

Sunday, May 12, 2019

The True Meaning of Smekday (Adam Rex)

The True Meaning of Smekday
The Smek Smeries series, Book 1
Adam Rex
Fiction, MG Humor/Sci-Fi
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Gratuity "Tip" Tucci needs to write an essay for a school contest about Smekday, the day the alien Boov first came to Earth... but there's more to write than five pages can possibly hold, and more to say than she wants to reveal.
She was eleven when the Boov arrived, and she knew they were trouble before anyone else, as the first thing they did was abduct her mother. Then they relocated the entire population of America to Florida, claiming the rest for themselves... but Tip doesn't trust their rocket ships, opting instead to drive herself and her pet cat Pig from Pennsylvania. (It's okay - she had to teach herself to drive a while ago, as her flighty mother couldn't always be trusted to run errands, and she only had that one mishap on a sidewalk.) When she reluctantly picks up a mechanic Boov who calls himself J.Lo (and who modifies her hatchback for hoverflight), what started as a simple road trip becomes a cross-country quest to find her mother and save the world - not from the Boov, but from the monstrous aliens who followed the Boov to Smekland (formerly Earth.)

REVIEW: This award-winning title still gets decent circulation at the library where I work, so I figured it was worth a read (or a listen; this is the first audiobook I've reviewed.) From the title and cover blurb, I expected something lightweight, silly even. What I got certainly had plenty of silliness, but with a tooth underneath that occasionally reminded me of Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett, only geared for a younger audience. The Boov have bubble-based writing and some outwardly ridiculous trappings, but their history mirrors humanity in some sobering ways, and not just their tendency to treat the "noble savage" humans as inferior entities to be swept away into the corner of lands that now "rightfully" belong to them; to paraphrase Tip, the Boov are too smart and too stupid to be anything but regular people like humans. Tip is a resourceful girl - she's had to be, with a mother prone to blowing savings on vacuums or forgetting to buy food - but she has her limits, and is pushed to them more than once on a trying road trip with her alien companion... an alien she initially hates, for what his kind did to her mother and her species, but whom she slowly comes to understand. She also has to come to understand the strengths and weaknesses of other people she encounters, from a group of "lost boys" hiding in an abandoned theme park to self-deluded UFOlogists camped out in Roswell. Several lines had me snickering out loud as I listened, though the silliness (almost) never overstayed its welcome, and there were some moments of gut-sluggingly deep emotion. Aside from an occasional sense of meandering and Tip taking a little too long to figure out one element leading to the climax, I enjoyed the ride, not to mention the audio presentation (by Bahni Turpin.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Galaxy Quest (Terry Bisson) - My Review
Bad Unicorn (Platte F. Clarke) - My Review
Only You Can Save Mankind (Terry Pratchett) - My Review

Thursday, May 9, 2019

The Dragon's Path (Daniel Abraham)

The Dragon's Path
The Dagger and the Coin series, Book 1
Daniel Abraham
Fiction, Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: In a world of thirteen human races, from the common Firstbloods through the bronze-scaled Jasuru and enigmatic Drowned and more, unrest is normal. There's always a crown in contention or a trade route threatened or a treaty violated. But the latest squabblings over the future of the Severed Throne at the heart of Antea may inadvertently be the trigger of an age-ending event, the return of a goddess who may be older than the long-extinct dragons themselves. All it will take is the right people in the right places... or the wrong people in the wrong places.
Half-Cinnae girl Cithrin was raised by bankers after her parents died, learning the trade inside and out, but she's never been entrusted with any business - until the bank's wealth needs to be smuggled out of the ancient city of Vanai before foreign troops invade, and Cithrin's the only one available for the job. She's determined to earn the trust of the man she's come to see as her father, but the journey will bring dangers she could never have anticipated... and opportunities beyond her dreams.
Captain Marcus Wester was once a legend on the battlefield, but now manages a small, nondescript group of mercenaries on minor contracts. At least, he used to, until his underlings were locked up, set to be forced into defending a city doomed to fall. Unless Marcus and his second, the Treglu priest-turned-soldier Yardem, want the same fate, he needs bodies to fill out his contract - and a chance encounter with a troupe of actors just may offer the answer. Only what started as a simple job guarding a small caravan quickly becomes much more complicated, and one of the actors is more than he first appears.
Dawson Kalliam used to be best friends with King Simeon of the Severed Throne, but relations have grown strained of late. The world is changing in ways Dawson can't accept, and new forces are rising in the courts - forces that may spell the doom of Simeon and his young heir. With his influence fading, he must take desperate measures - but even those may not be enough to save Antea from war.
Minor lordling Geder Palliako never expected to amount to much, and never really cared. So long as he can chase ideas through old books, he's content enough... but he has obligations to his betters, which send him out on campaign as the laughingstock of his peers. Tricked, humiliated, reminded at every turn of his inadequacies, he will soon find himself utterly destroyed by machinations he doesn't understand - or remade into an unpredictable new power who might shake the very world to its foundations.

REVIEW: There's something decadently comforting about a good epic fantasy: the feeling of falling into a bright new world full of magic and wonder and danger, immersing in larger-than-life characters and events where good still has an outside chance of triumphing ultimately over evil (unlike reality, too often.) They're the warm-blanket-and-hot-cocoa-by-the-fire equivalent of stories, a sensory indulgence to be savored. I've been in a mood for that comfort, and this book has been lurking in my reading pile for a while.
Did it give me that nice, warm feeling?
Yes and no.
On the plus side, Abraham presents some nice, shiny epic fantasy ideas, both familiar (myriad cities and kingdoms and races, deep history riddled with mysteries, royal courts split by infighting factions under a weakening king, hints of magic and danger) and unique (a goddess whose worshipers have literal spiders in their blood, a world and races engineered by extinct dragons.) He also presents the sort of characters that don't often get the limelight in epics, notably a banker and an awkwardly bookish noble ill at ease with courtly intrigues (at least, one who does not suddenly emerge as a savvy player in games - martial or otherwise - after a few missteps, or becomes a disposable subplot.) Battles exist on the fringes, but aren't the main story drivers.
On the minus side... I never came to truly enjoy spending time with the characters, and thus had a somewhat dimmed view of the wider world they inhabited. Cithrin's banking angle may be different, but underneath that she's yet another underage girl who often needs men to get her out of self-inflicted problems. Marcus is forever rescuing her from herself, with a growing sense of attachment that can't seem to decide if it's fatherly or... not fatherly, made even more uncomfortable by Cithrin's younger-than-advertised appearance that heightens the existing age and experience gap between them. (Am I the only one tired of that little trope/cliche?) And the nobles were just plain unpleasant to be around more often than not; while I understood where they were coming from (in their in-world contexts), I didn't particularly enjoy my time with them. Prologue aside, the story also takes its own sweet time baiting the hook for the greater series arc, the threat that will ultimately (in theory) drive the narrative on a course that only multiple books can contain.
After finishing, I was left with distinctly mixed feelings. Parts of The Dragon's Path definitely intrigued, but I don't foresee myself returning to this series, save finding sequels at steep, steep discounts - and a book that fails to hook me into a sequel is a book that has, on some level, failed, in my opinion. There are other epic fantasies waiting in the pile, other chances to wrap myself in their familiar comforts and unfamiliar worlds; I'm not sure if I need to come back to this one.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Wizard's First Rule (Terry Goodkind) - My Review
Assassin's Apprentice (Robin Hobb) - My Review
A Game of Thrones (George R. R. Martin) - My Review

Friday, May 3, 2019

The Whispering Skull (Jonathan Stroud)

The Whispering Skull
The Lockwood and Co. series, Book 2
Jonathan Stroud
Fiction, MG Fantasy/Horror
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: After the incident of the Screaming Staircase, small-time ghost hunting agency Lockwood and Co. - run by preteens Anthony Lockwood, George, and new recruit Lucy - became famous... temporarily, at least. They still struggle to compete with larger, better-funded outfits of ghost-sensitive children fighting the "Problems", the deadly spirits stalking London's nights for over fifty years. A botched case solved by their rivals in the Fittes agency leads to an informal bet: the next time they go head-to-head on the same haunting, whoever fails to crack it first must take out a public ad praising the other. But that was before they found themselves involved with the mysterious corpse of one Mr. Bickerstaff, a Victorian eccentric whose unwholesome obsession with ghosts led to the creation of an artifact so deadly one glimpse of it can be maddening, even lethal - an artifact that kills one of the thieves who steal it shortly after its discovery. Worse, the haunted skull Lockwood keeps in the agency cellar has become "talkative" again, telling Lucy all sorts of half-truths and tantalizing hints that it might know something about Bickerstaff. If she listens to it, they might crack the case before anyone else dies... or the skull's twisted words might kill them all.

REVIEW: Like the first volume in this middle-grade horror series, The Whispering Skull offers a nice blend of eccentric characters, humor, and spooky ghost-hunting action that doesn't water down terror or blunt corners; though there is no graphic violence or gore, some of the hauntings are downright scary, and there are actual deaths involved. Lucy's Talent of hearing ghosts makes her the only conduit for the titular skull's advice and warnings; even as she knows they can't be taken at face value, given the questionable nature of their source, she can't help but be swayed by them. Scholarly George, meanwhile, develops an obsession of his own as they research Bickerstaff and his "bone glass" mirror, which may answer questions about the Problems and about the nature of death itself. As for Lockwood, his tendency to remain inscrutable, particularly about his past, creates problems that could fracture their agency just when they need each other most. Though ghost-hunting has grown them all up faster than ordinary kids, they do remain children at heart in some ways, not quite as mature as grown-ups might be in similar situations... though, in this world, with maturity often comes obsolescence, as spirit-sensing Talents fade with age (even as the touch of a ghost remains lethal; aged-out ghost hunters often remain on as handlers for younger agents, but can do little to protect or help their charges on the job.) Aside from some moments of plot-extending obliviousness (not quite rising to the level of stupidity, given circumstances, but still subtly aggravating at times), the story moves at a fair clip toward a conclusion that, while not entirely unexpected, nevertheless delivers decent thrills and a nice wrap-up, segueing (naturally) into the hook for the next volume. It made for a good read, all in all, and I expect I'll continue with this series through at least one more book.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Ghost in the Third Row (Bruce Coville) - My Review
Carnacki, the Ghost Finder (William Hope Hodgson) - My Review
The Screaming Staircase (Jonathan Stroud) - My Review

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

You've Got Dragons (Kathryn Cave)

You've Got Dragons
Kathryn Cave, illustrations by Nick Maland
Peachtree Pub Co Inc.
Fiction, CH Picture Book
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Dragons can happen to anyone, at any time. One day, out of the blue, there they are... and they won't go away on their own. Learn how to manage the dragons in your life.

REVIEW: Work was a bit slow today, so I skimmed this off the top of a tote. At the outset, I admit I almost shaved a half-star from the rating; despite the illustrations featuring numerous dragons, it quickly becomes clear that the "dragons" here are being used as a metaphor for anxiety, fear, or other issues that are hard to tackle in a tangible way, especially for children. (When I pick up a book touting dragons, I want actual dragons, dang it!) The boy Ben worries that having a dragon in his life means he's a bad person, until he finds out anyone can find themselves beset by them, including grown-ups - and everyone has trouble coping with them. Ignoring it doesn't help, and it's hard to talk to others, who often don't listen. In the process, he learns how to deal with his dragon, and helps others deal with theirs, with some bits of humor along the way. I wound up forgiving it its use of dragon as metaphor, because this is a book I can see being useful to kids struggling with fears or other issues - useful in a way that doesn't insist one enthusiastically embrace one's "dragons" as opportunities in disguise, when sometimes it's all one can do to endure their existence. At the very least, it's a way to start a discussion with a child who may be having trouble articulating a worry.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Dragon (Jody Bergsma) - My Review
The Dragon Machine (Helen Ward) - My Review
What Do You Do With A Problem? (Kobi Yamada) - My Review