Friday, January 31, 2020

January Site Update

The month's ten reviews are now archived and cross-linked on the main Brightdreamer Books website. (Given how this month has pretty much been terrible on numerous levels, I'm actually surprised I managed that many. Hopefully February is slightly less eventful.)


Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Bob (Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead)

Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead
Square Fish
Fiction, CH Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: When Olivia, her mother, and her baby sister come to her grandmother's house in rural Australia, she doesn't remember a thing about the place. After all, she was only five the last time she visited, and now she's practically eleven (well, nearly ten and a half.) How can she be expected to remember the old green stuffed elephant, or the big rock out back... or the little green creature in the chicken suit waiting in her closet?
Bob has waited very patiently for his friend Livy to return. He read his dictionary and played with his Legos and listened to Granny shouting on the telephone. Before she left all those years ago, the girl promised to help him remember who he was and where he came from so he can go home, but now she says she doesn't even remember meeting him. Still, a promise is a promise, and surely Old Livy still lurks inside this new, taller Livy - and now that she's bigger and older, surely she's smarter, too, which can only help.
As the two dust off old memories and try to follow a dusty trail to the past, they rediscover what friendship means - and find out how real magic can be, even to a sophisticated girl of nearly-eleven.

REVIEW: Bob is a fun, fast, light read, with colorful characters (literally, in the case of green-skinned Bob) and humor and just enough adventure. Livy feels torn over having forgotten something so important, even as her mother and grandmother don't seem to realize that, to a girl her age, five years ago might as well have been a lifetime; they keep insisting she should remember things and know people and seem subtly hurt when she doesn't. She's also balanced on the blurry border between young childhood and older childhood, where magical thinking starts to fade and a colder, more adult thought process tries to take hold... but she needs both if she's going to solve Bob's problem. For his part, Bob retains a childlike optimism that Livy will figure everything out, but is more than a simple caricature; he's a fun and dynamic character on his own. He was even able to look on the bright side of five years spent in a closet; he got most of the way through the dictionary, and got in touch with his "inner Bobness." There's a side story about the drought that's devastated the local farms and the neighbors, whose girl used to be Livy's best friend when she was five and feels just as awkward as Livy now that their parents insist they're still pals, for all that neither can really remember the other. The conclusion feels a little rushed, but it's sweet and leads to a nice little epilogue. The whole is a very enjoyable tale of a special friendship and the magic of childhood.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Crenshaw (Katherine Applegate) - My Review
The Girl Who Drank the Moon (Kelly Barnhill) - My Review
Pax (Sara Pennypacker) - My Review

Monday, January 27, 2020

Mythic Creatures (Richard Ellis, Laurel Kendall, and Mark A. Norell)

Mythic Creatures: And the Impossibly Real Animals Who Inspired Them
Richard Ellis, Laurel Kendall, and Mark A. Norell
Sterling Signature
Nonfiction, Mythology
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Birds large enough to carry off full-grown elephants, hybrid lion-eagles hoarding gold in the Gobi desert, monstrous serpents from beneath the seas... Humans have imagined all manner of wondrous and dangerous beasts and beings since long before history. Some were meant to be allegories or religious symbols, some were cases of mistaken identity or traveler tales, but all have inspired storytellers and artists for generations and continue to do so today. From a special exhibit by the American Museum of Natural History, explore mythical animals of the world.

REVIEW: This would've been a great exhibit to see in person, but this book - full of many full-color photographs and reproduced images - is the next best thing. It covers a wide range of animals, venturing slightly beyond the "usual suspects" of mythological bestiaries, though in varying degrees of depth. It also seems to gloss over a few key traits (unicorns, for instance, had rather fierce roots - the embodiment of the intractable wilderness - before being" tamed" as a Christian symbol, for instance), though I suppose they had to pick and choose details to present unless they wanted to write a full-blown mythical encyclopedia set instead of one volume. Many of the images are new to me (some pictures get reproduced ad nauseum if you read enough books on mythical animals), and all are interesting, earning this book an extra half-star. It's a clearly-written and enjoyable addition to any library of mythical beasts and beings.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Here Be Dragons: A Fantastic Bestiary (Ariane Delacampagne and Christian Delacampagne) - My Review
The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures (Jon and Caitlin Matthews) - My Review
Encyclopedia of Things that Never Were (Michael Page and Robert Ingpen) - My Review

Sunday, January 26, 2020

The Tea Master and the Detective (Aliette de Bodard)

The Tea Master and the Detective
Aliette de Bodard
Fiction, Mystery/Sci-Fi
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Among the floating habitats of the Scattered Pearls, the mindship The Shadow's Child struggles to get by, brewing specialized teas that enable humans to function in the depths of space. She used to be a military ship, but a traumatic accident destroyed her crew and left her physically and mentally scarred; now, the very thought of descending into the unreality of deep spaces - one of the primary functions of mindships - paralyzes her. Then the strange woman Long Chau walks into her rented office with a special request: to retrieve a body from the deep spaces. Against her better judgement, The Shadow's Child agrees to work with the abrasive lady... and finds herself pulled into a most unusual investigation, even as she's forced to confront her greatest fears.

REVIEW: This story takes a very original, if somewhat surreal, setting, then forces it into a mold carved by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; yes, Long Chau is essentially Sherlock, and the mindship The Shadow's Child is a massive metal Watson, down to her inability to ever be a step ahead of the infallible (and often cold) detective. The result is a jerky, uneven story that perpetually had me convinced I'd missed a prologue or previous book. The mindships needed more exploration, as did the deep spaces, a form a hyperspace where reality itself - inside a vessel and out - melts and warps, where bodies twist in impossible ways and are transformed into jewel-like stones, and only the drugs of the "teas" enable anything resembling normal mental functioning at all. The world of the Scattered Pearls, with its Asian roots and the ubiquitous miniature bots and other trappings, never quite came into focus as more than a confusing blur, if a confusing blur with bright colors and intriguing shapes. The mystery, therefore, is difficult to care about, let alone solve, with a culture I could barely penetrate and possibilities and motives that seem opaque from the outside. Forcing a Sherlockian framework did not help, and in fact distracted me when I was trying to figure out the unique aspects of de Bodard's invented world. I never got a sense of the chemistry that existed between Holmes and Watson, either, making the partnership awkward and lopsided (even moreso than Doyle's characters.) Eventually, things wrap up and the expected hint of a sequel or series is left dangling at the end. If there are more books, though, I won't be reading on. Despite the intriguing ideas at play, I never developed any real interest in the characters, and their world never felt remotely welcoming. In the end, this is another case of "not a bad story, but not my cup of cocoa."

You Might Also Enjoy:
A Study in Scarlet (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) - My Review
The Ship Who Sang (Anne McCaffrey) - My Review
Velocity Weapon (Megan O'Keefe) - My Review

Terminal Alliance (Jim C. Hines)

Terminal Alliance
The Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse series, Book 1
Jim C. Hines
Fiction, Humor/Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: When the Krakau came to Earth, humanity's dream of first contact finally came true. Unfortunately, a mutant virus had turned the populace into cannibalistic, nearly-indestructible zombies before then. But the Krakau managed to find a cure of sorts; though the restored humans aren't quite what they used to be, intellectually or otherwise, they can at least think and learn and are far less likely to snack on superior officers. Under the protection of the Krakau-led Alliance, they form the Earth Mercenary Corps, becoming galactic shock troops protecting the peace of countless worlds and species. Even among mercenaries, though, not every job requires a gun...
Lieutenant Marion "Mops" Adamopoulos leads a crew of janitors as head of Shipboard Hygiene and Sanitation aboard the EMCS Pufferfish. It's a dirty job, but life's a dirty business, and a pipe leak or blocked sewage line in the wrong place can mess up a spaceship just as easily as an enemy weapon. She never actually thought she'd have to fight for her life, let alone take command. But when an attack by hostile Prodryans takes out the Krakau commanders and reverts the rest of the human crew to their zombie native state, only her team - sealed in personal air hoods for a clean-up job - is spared. Now four human janitors and one low-ranking Glacidae technician may be the only ones standing between the Alliance and a devastating new bioweapon that could forever alter the galactic balance of power.

REVIEW: With faint echoes of the classic Britcom Red Dwarf (where a Liverpudlian loser becomes the last human alive aboard a derelict mining vessel three million years in the future) and Quark (a short-lived Mel Brooks comedy about a spacegoing garbage scow), Terminal Alliance takes a cast of misfit characters and turns them into improbable heroes. The crew can be irritatingly bumbling at times as they struggle to figure out how to even use their ship ("helped" by the annoying computer assistant program Puffy, in a joke for those of us who endured Clippy's antics in older versions of Word.) These antics can get old, persisting long past the point had been made about how woefully unprepared (and undertrained) they are even as it tends to reduce character depth to cartoonish shallowness at times, but they manage to come together and figure things out, and the tale moves well enough despite the sidetracks into goofiness. Beneath the light exterior, the plot has some depth and heft to it: from their initial goal of mere survival against feral crewmates, Marion and the others find themselves forced to question the very nature of the Krakau Alliance and the zombie plague itself (some aspects of which were easy to guess early on, but others being decently clever twists, especially in a genre that still tends to somewhat monolithic alien races.) While it sometimes was a little silly for my tastes, Terminal Alliance turns out to be an enjoyable, action-filled diversion, a nice change of pace in a genre that can take itself too seriously.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Galaxy Quest (Terry Bisson) - My Review
Old Man's War (John Scalzi) - My Review
Red Dwarf: The Complete Collection- Amazon DVD link

Sunday, January 19, 2020

The Rage of Dragons (Evan Winter)

The Rage of Dragons
The Burning series, Book 1
Evan Winter
Fiction, Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Nearly two hundred years ago, the Omehi people fled their old home and came to a new land across the sea. They fought back the local tribes with their own Gifted and the help of their Guardians, wild dragons who could be compelled to assist them (if for a price.) With their coming, a great curse spread among the savages, destroying their heathen shamans - yet still, they raid and harry despite this clear proof that the Goddess favors the Omehi as the Chosen race.
Tau was born to the Lesser caste, learning swordcraft from a father who rose as far as society would permit him. He thought he would become a fighter in the endless wars, serve his time and earn his glory, then come home to marry the beautiful Zuri and teach his own children the way of the sword - but a series of terrible betrayals strips away his future and his father. All he has left is his ancestral sword and an anger that burns bright as dragonfire. With them, he means to hunt down and destroy the Nobles who broke his life, even if it costs him his own life. But while he trains for vengeance, the Omehi stand on the brink of utter annihilation...

REVIEW: The Rage of Dragons is, indeed, about rage: the rage of a broken heart and shattered family, the rage of social injustice in a corrupted society, the rage of prejudice and xenophobia, the rage of secrets and lies and betrayals. (Yes, there are also dragons - and they can be very enraged themselves.) The reader watches as Tau becomes consumed by his own rage, nursing it into an obsession that raises him far beyond what society tells him he can become, but also costs him greatly and sets him on a path that can hardly hope to have a pleasant destination. He is no prodigy and his victories do not come easy, fraught with mistakes and setbacks; it's through sheer bloody-minded determination and resolve that he breaks through barrier after barrier, and even his victories often leave him in a bleaker place than he was before. He makes few friends and many enemies on his long, battle-filled, and gory journey, and his ultimate decision about how far he means to pursue his vengeance literally breaks him. The culture of the Omehi is well-realized and interesting, if brutally oppressive, with a magic system as ruthless as its military obsession. This is a violent, often dark book, but oddly compelling, and it reads relatively fast. I expect I'll look into the next book when it comes out.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Adamantine Palace (Stephen Deas) - My Review
The Grace of Kings (Ken Liu) - My Review
The Waking Fire (Anthony Ryan) - My Review

Saturday, January 18, 2020

The Fifth Season (N. K. Jemisin)

The Fifth Season
The Broken Earth trilogy, Book 1
N. K. Jemisin
Fiction, Fantasy/Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Countless generations ago, the world ended, destroyed by the fury of Father Earth. The years since have been swept by Seasons of plague and famine and earthquakes and worse, yet through it all, somehow, humans have endured, passing down stonelore and rebuilding comms on the bones of dead civilizations and developing sensory organs to "sess" coming tremors. Some, known as orogenes, even possess the power to calm and shape the unstable earth of the Stillness, the last remaining large land mass of the broken world.
This Season will be different. This time, Father Earth and his "stone-eater" children of living rock will destroy the hated humans utterly. And he will have help...
Essun's shale-plain life in a shale-plain comm shatters when she comes home to find her youngest child dead on the floor, killed by her husband Jiju. The boy's hidden orogene powers must have revealed themselves in the last quake... and now Jiju has taken her daughter away. She will hunt the man to the ends of the Stillness and beyond if she must to save the girl, and reveal gifts she has kept hidden for years.
Young Damaya's parents shut her away in the barn like an animal when she displayed orogeny; "roggas" are feared and loathed, able to destroy with a thought if their powers run wild. Now a Guardian comes to take her to the Fulcrum, where her kind are trained to serve, not harm... and where they are kept always in their place, exterminated if they step out of line.
Syenite thought she might have been on the way to greater things at the Fulcrum when she's assigned to accompany (and breed with) Alabaster, perhaps the most powerful orogene yet trained. But traveling with him forces her to see the darkness beneath the surface of the Fulcrum, the Sanzed empire, and their cracked and angered world. Once seen, she find she can no longer ignore it - but can she hope to do anything to stop it?

REVIEW: Jemisin presents one of the most unique and terrible worlds I've read in ages in this much-lauded book. She even manages to pull off a second-person point of view, for reasons that become clear toward the end. Unfortunately, it took me over half the book to begin to care about anyone; not only is it a somewhat slow-burn start (things happen, but caring about why takes quite some time), but the Stillness is so harsh it produces only harsh people who build harsh communities, making the characters difficult to connect with. Until then, my interest in the Stillness kept me reading. Jemisin creates a diverse post-apocalyptic world (or post-post-apocalyptic; the planet has been devastated by innumerable apocalypses by the time the story starts), without the tendency to monolithic cultures that some writers fall back on out of tradition, woven with a deep history (that, naturally, tends to be skewed to always favor those in power and the current Way Of Doing Things.) The closest to an unbiased record of the past is the "stonelore," instructions and records passed down since the first cataclysm, though over the years even those have been lost or misinterpreted or deliberately concealed or destroyed. Orogeny melds geology and science and magic in a unique blend that feels more like science fiction than traditional magic; that and the development of "sessapinnae" organs - an extra sense possessed by everyone, even "stills" (the majority, who lack orogenic gifts) - is why I split the genre. By the end, the three threads have come together, setting up the next volume, in what feels less like a conclusion to a book than a pause in a longer arc. Will I read on? For all that I found the writing great and the world interesting, I'm still on the fence about that, especially if it entails saving a civilization that, frankly, deserves a good extermination.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Range of Ghosts (Elizabeth Bear) - My Review
Jade City (Fonda Lee) - My Review
Mistborn: The Final Empire (Brandon Sanderson) - My Review

Monday, January 13, 2020

Come Tumbling Down (Seanan McGuire)

Come Tumbling Down
The Wayward Children series, Book 5
Seanan McGuire
Fiction, YA? Fantasy/Horror
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: When Jack and Jill Wolcott last left Eleanor West's boarding school, back through a doorway to the haunted world of the Moors, one of them was dead. None of the students thought they'd return, for they'd gotten the very thing so many of them longed for: a chance to go back to the other world where they'd spent their childhoods, where they'd been heroes - where they'd actually belonged, unlike cold and unmagical Earth. Then the lightning door appears, and a stranger carries a limp and traumatized Jill through... only it isn't Jill inside. Jack was betrayed, ripped out of her body and placed in her sister's, as the vampire Master plots to overthrow his archenemy Dr. Bleak and claim victory over the Moors once and for all. Hanging onto her sanity by a slender, fraying thread, Jack must ask her former schoolmates for help before the world she loves and calls home is torn apart. But even though they all were once heroes in their own worlds, the horrors awaiting them in the Moors may be too much to bear, and even heroes can fail.

REVIEW: Another superb entry in McGuire's marvelous Wayward Children series, Come Tumbling Down revisits the twins-turned-enemies Jack and Jill and the Moors, a Gothic nightmare world of vampires and mad scientists and shadowy things with too many teeth, perpetually lit by a watchful crimson Moon. Like the previous volume (Beneath the Sugar Sky, which revisited Sumi's treat-based world of Confection), the core cast from Eleanor West's school once again rallies to help one of their own, each still hoping to rediscover their own doorways to their own happy endings... but Jack's story is a stark reminder that getting to go home doesn't guarantee a happily-ever-after, and fairness is never a concern of the doorway worlds. Nevertheless, heroism seems to be a habit that's hard to break, and sometimes that means walking into the jaws of Hell - or a vampire's lair, or the temple of the Drowned Gods - even knowing it's unlikely one will ever walk out again alive, let alone as the same person who walked in. Once again, McGuire crafts a story that approaches poetry, full of tragedy and moments of humor and beauty (if a dark beauty), with a satisfactory conclusion that nevertheless leaves fresh scars and bruises on the characters.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Neverwhere (Neil Gaiman) - My Review
Down Among the Sticks and Bones (Seanan McGuire) - My Review
Birthright Volume 1: Homecoming (Joshua Williamson) - My Review

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Princeless: Princesses (Jeremy Whitley)

Princeless: Princesses
The Princeless series, Volume 8
Jeremy Whitley, illustrations by Various Artists
Action Lab Entertainment
Fiction, MG? Collection/Fantasy/Graphic Novel/Humor
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Since escaping her tower with her guardian dragon Sparky, Princess Adrienne has quested to free her sisters from their own towers... but they'd all been expecting to go from prisoner to prize/bride. Now, they have to decide what to do with their freedom, even as a greater war looms on the horizon.

REVIEW: The trope-challenging Princeless series has shown some stretch marks, but the previous volume picked up the pace some, so I looked forward to seeing where it was going. This collection, sadly, represents another backslide. Whitley seems to be dithering and fluffing to stretch things out at this point, and even though these adventures all ultimately tie into the greater series, I didn't think the stories needed their own volume. Two of them don't really go anywhere, and one is a story we already knew. The humor also feels spotty. If this had come earlier in the series, I probably would've just walked away, but since it seems there are only one or two volumes left I'll probably stick it out to the end.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Robots Vs. Princesses Volume 1 (Todd Matthy) - My Review
Norroway Volume 1: The Black Bull of Norroway (Cat Seaton) - My Review
Princeless: Short Stories Volume 1 (Jeremy Whitley) - My Review

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

The Black Prism (Brent Weeks)

The Black Prism
The Lightbringer series, Book 1
Brent Weeks
Fiction, Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: In a world where light itself fuels magic, the Prism - able to draft from all colors, from sub-red to super-violet and the visible spectrum between - is the most powerful mage... but at a cost. Like all drafters, Gavin Guile pays for his power in life, but while most run the risk of madness and premature death, a Prism knows exactly how many years remain. With only five left, he has five more great deeds he aims to accomplish.
Then he receives word of a bastard son he never knew he had, just as an unusual number of color wights - former drafters gone mad and inhuman from gifts run amok - seem to be plaguing the land.
Now, the Seven Satrapies and the Chromeria, where light drafters are trained, face a new threat: a self-proclaimed king who would throw down the old ways and the god Orholam Himself. And Gavin, his untested and untrained son Kip, and a handful of others are all that stand in his way.

REVIEW: I've been feeling an itch for an epic fantasy for a while, and this looked like a likely candidate to scratch it. Weeks kicks things off with an excellent magic system based on light and color, drafting a diverse and complex world with plenty of darkness and gray areas, and introduces a decidedly atypical character in Kip. Unlike many would-be fantasy heroes, Kip is no gangling daydreamer who just needs a little light encouragement and obligatory friendly mentor to claim his destiny as leader and warrior and claimant to the attractive mate of choice; he's a flabby boy, a terrible fighter, useless in the matter of romance, and his only initial talent - aside from a tongue that's prone to saying just the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person - is not dying while far more capable people fall around him. Gavin isn't quite the father figure a boy like him would want or need, either, hiding his own great secret that Kip's very presence could expose... but, like Kip, he does try to do the honorable thing when remotely feasible, even if he often judges wrong. Pretty much everyone in this book is trying, and often failing, to do right more often than not, a trait that kept them interesting (and kept me reading) even when I didn't particularly like what they did or how they rationalized it. Indeed, much of the story is driven by rationalized misdeeds and attempts to cover for past injustices without directly addressing or owning them, from the small personal mistakes to the larger crimes wrought by whole nations during war and peace. Things start quickly and keep moving with plenty of action, intrigue, magic, violence, and no small amount of humor, the relatively short chapters (by epic fantasy standards in particular) making the six hundred-odd pages fly by. By the end, the already-blurred moral lines are further smudged, setting up some great complications for the next installment. This was just the book I needed to sate my epic fantasy hunger, though on the down side it does add at least one more long title to my book wish list. (After having tried and given up on a few books before settling on this one, it's a problem I'm happy to have.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Assassin's Apprentice (Robin Hobb) - My Review
The Seventh Tower: The Fall (Garth Nix) - My Review
Shadowmarch (Tad Williams) - My Review

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Camp Tiger (Susan Choi)

Camp Tiger
Susan Choi, illustrations by John Rocco
G. P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers
Fiction, CH Picture Book
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: A young boy's family is going on their annual camping trip, deep in the mountains, but he's not looking forward to it like usual. After this weekend, he'll have to start first grade, which means no more playing with blocks and storytelling time like in kindergarten. This year, however, the family finds an unusual visitor at their campsite, who helps the boy come to terms with growing up.

REVIEW: I've been hoping to corner this one at work for a read, and finally got my chance. Unlike many children's books, the whole family is in on the adventure - the tiger talks, and they welcome it into their camping trip as a special guest - but the boy forms a special bond with the big cat. It's never explained where the cat came from or where it's going, though it doesn't really matter. The boy needs a friend right now, and the cat wants some company. The illustrations earned an extra star all on their own, particularly a beautiful sequence when boy and tiger make a starlight visit to the mountain lake. It's a gorgeous book with a nice, solid story.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Heart of a Tiger (Marsha Diane Arnold) - My Review
Lord of the Forest (Jackie Morris) - My Review
Sir Toby Jingle's Beastly Journey (Wallace Tripp) - My Review