Thursday, December 31, 2020

December Site Update and Reading Year in Review

 The four previous reviews have been archived and cross-linked on the main Brightdreamer Books site. And, as this is the last update (and last day) of 2020, it's time for the Reading Year in Review.

2020 Reading Year in Review

It’s time once again for the Reading Year in Review, where I look back at the books I read in 2020 - a needed escape in a dark and wild and often hopeless time.

January turned out to be my most prolific reading month, with few titles that disappointed. It started with Susan Choi’s beautiful picture book Camp Tiger and ended with the fairy tale of Bob, by Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead. In between were numerous interesting reads. Even my least favorite title of the month, Aliette de Bodard’s The Tea Master and the Detective, had some fascinating ideas and images. The rest ranged from the harrowing Come Tumbling Down (Seanan McGuire), The Rage of Dragons (Evan Winter), and The Fifth Season (N. K. Jemisin) to the humor of Terminal Alliance by Jim C. Hines.

In February, I finally finished the unabridged classic novel Don Quixote, with mixed impressions. High points were A Dragon’s Guide to the Care and Feeding of Humans by Laurence Yep and Soonish, a glimpse of the future that might be (or might not) in emergent technology by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith.

March was a mixed bag, with titles that stumbled at the conclusion (The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t With Her Mind, by Jackson Ford), were victims of age (Cards of Grief, by Jane Yolen), or never quite came together like they should have (Revenger, by Alastair Reynolds.) The best book of the month was Adam Savage’s exploration of creativity, Every Tool’s a Hammer.

I had better luck in April, as the classic The Last Unicorn (Peter S. Beagle) proved its staying power and George Takei’s graphic novel They Called Us Enemy proved eerily timely in its reflection of past efforts to dehumanize Americans by race and origin. The School for Good and Evil (Soman Chainani) examined the often-dark and -warped roots of fairy tales, while Updraft (Fran Wilde) took me to an original and imaginative world of living bone towers above the clouds. Another classic, however, aged poorly, Anne McCaffrey’s Crystal Singer.

May started with the timely horror story of a pandemic that has remade the world in Mira Grant’s Feed, an intelligent (and prescient) start to a trilogy I still need to pursue. Three Martha Wells titles wrapped up the Murderbot novellas in a fun and action-filled fashion; I have yet to get the first full-length novel, but I’m looking forward to future adventures of the artificial construct whose fondest desire is not to become human but to be left alone to stream entertainment. The House of Dragons by Jessica Cluess took familiar parts and made a solid story with them, in a tale of humans and their dragon companions competing to fill the empty imperial throne. There were a few disappointments, though. Neil Gaiman’s classic graphic novel The Sandman Volume 1 was very much not my cup of cocoa, leaving a dark and bitter taste in my mouth, and Patti Larsen’s thriller Run petered out by the end after a promising and adrenaline-filled start.

June was largely a mediocre month with a couple highlights: a Kickstarter art book (going to wider release in September 2021, last I read), artist C C J Ellis’s An Illustrated Guide to Welsh Monsters and Mythical Beasts, and the first installment of Brian K. Vaughan’s renowned graphic novel series Saga.

In July, I only manged three books. Far and away the best of them was N. K. Jemisin’s surreal modern fantasy The City We Became, followed by the conclusion to the retro-future Adventures of Arabella Ashby in David D. Levine’s Arabella the Traitor of Mars. The third title, Kate O’Neill’s The Tea Dragon Festival, was bright and simple but lightweight even for a picture book.

I got more books read in August, starting with a nonfiction book on an essential topic in Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist. Joshua Williamson wrapped up the main arc of his Birthright portal fantasy graphic novel in the ninth volume, War of the Worlds, while Catherynne M. Valente turned her unique way with words to the young Bronte siblings in Glass Town Game. I also ventured into R. A. Salvatore’s The Demon Awakens, hoping to find a new epic fantasy to follow but instead finding another story that can go on without me.

September started with the light humor of Graeme Base’s The Discovery of Dragons and ended with the brilliant, uplifting fairy tale for grown-ups The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune, easily one of my favorite books of the year. I finished off Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner’s young adult sci-fi romance Starbound trilogy with Their Fractured Light, only to find the conclusion subverted by a heavy-handed message. And I took a stab at self-improvement with Jessica Abel’s Growing Gills.

October only saw five new book reviews, beginning with the superb fantasy (with horror overtones) Middlegame by Seanan McGuire and ending with another Catherynne M. Valente title, the hallucinatory yet spectacular Space Opera. I continued with Marie Brennan’s intriguing tales of Lady Trent with the third book, Voyage of the Basilisk, and was not disappointed... unlike my venture into the Peter Pan pastiche of The Wendy by Erin Michelle Sky and Steven Brown, which never quite seemed to figure itself out.

November was another prolific month for reading. The wordless graphic novel Haunter of Dreams by Claudya Schmidt impressed with its dreamlike visuals. Seanan McGuire turned her skills to younger readers for the first time in Over the Woodward Wall (under pseudonym A. Deborah Baker), in an homage to classic portal fantasies that takes on extra significance for grown-ups who have read Middlegame. The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart made for an intriguing start to a new epic fantasy trilogy, while Grant Snider’s I Will Judge You By Your Bookshelf comic collection once again found the beauty, humor, and poetry in reading and writing. N. K. Jemisin’s short tale Emergency Skin turned a beloved sci-fi trope handily on its ear. Unfortunately, the month wrapped on a low note, as G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen turned into more of a “message” book than I care to read.

And in December, I finished off Rick Yancey’s 5th Wave trilogy with The Last Star, which didn’t quite stick the landing but mostly satisfied. I wandered along The Cloud Roads in the start to Martha Wells’s imaginative and popular fantasy series. And I was left dangling on a cliffhanger at the end of the third installment of Catherynne M. Valente’s Fairyland series, The Girl Who Flew Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two. A Jeff Lemire graphic novel, Sentient, rounded out the month.

Thus concludes my reading year, which, even at its lowest, was far superior to the year presented by reality. Here’s hoping for a better 2021, and more memorable adventures on the page and off.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

The Cloud Roads (Martha Wells)

The Cloud Roads
The Books of the Raksura series, Volume 1
Martha Wells
Night Shade Books
Fiction, Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: For most of his life, Moon has been a man without a home, not even knowing what he is. All he knows is that he can shift shapes, becoming a winged, scaled, and long-tailed hunter... and that the only other shifters he's ever encountered have been the cruel Fell, who destroy whatever they touch. Moon wanders the Three Worlds, always in search of a place to belong among various groups of groundlings, but it never lasts - until at last he encounters Stone, a shifter of his own kind. The stranger tells him he is a Raksura, and offers to bring him back to the Indigo Cloud colony to be among his own race. But his arrival coincides with a dark time in the colony, and none of them trust this strange outsider who doesn't even know how to be a proper Raksura. Worse, the Fell are about; they've already destroyed one nearby colony, yet Pearl, queen of Indigo Cloud, seems open to treat with them. Like it or not, Moon finds himself drawn into the heart of the brewing conflict, one that will reveal an even bigger threat to all the Three Worlds.

REVIEW: The Cloud Roads is a very strange sort of fantasy. It has its roots firmly planted in old-school realms like Edgar Rice Burroughs's Pellucidar and Barsoom or Fritz Leiber's sorcerous Nehwon, creating a vast and wild and untamed world populated with all manner of strange peoples and peculiar ecosystems and untold wonders, littered with enigmatic remnants of lost cultures even more astonishing than what remains. It beckons, it dazzles... and, unfortunately, it threatens to numb, creating a place where it's almost impossible to work out the rules or parameters. The Raksura race is a bewildering combination of multiple castes and forms, not counting their "groundling" (roughly humanlike) and shifted forms, something like specialized individuals in an ant colony, and their chief enemy, the Fell, also has numerous forms. On top of that, I was supposed to juggle numerous names, associated relations, alliances, and rivalries, plus numerous groundlings (races and individuals), all while following a main character who, frankly, could be less than pleasant to be around. Moon serves as a proxy for the reader in his ignorance of the Raksuran ways, but he leans into his lone wolf habits to the point of irritation. If he can't bring himself to connect with or care about Indigo Cloud, how can I, the reader following him through his story, hope to do so? A little too much weight is placed on breeding and fertility; the story gets going when one of the mates Moon was handed at the latest groundling village he was staying with gets angry that he can't sire a child with her, kicking off events that force him to join up with Stone, and the fact that he's a consort - the only sort of Raksura who can breed with a queen - becomes a major plot point. Among all this, the plot lurches along through various encounters and obstacles, constantly distracted by shiny objects in the Three Worlds and blunted by Moon's pessimistic (if learned) assumption that he'll never fit in anywhere, though the tale finally builds up a decent head of steam by the climax. Still, even by the end, I had trouble connecting with Moon and the Three Worlds, which is unfortunately why I clipped a half-star from the rating. I kept catching glimpses of a spark in this book, the hook that would grab me and drag me deep into its wonders, but by the end I just couldn't reach it.

You Might Also Enjoy:
A Princess of Mars (Edgar Rice Burroughs) - My Review
Swords and Deviltry (Fritz Leiber) - My Review
Updraft (Fran Wilde) - My Review

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Sentient (Jeff Lemire)

Jeff Lemire, illustrations by Gabriel Walta
TKO Studios
Fiction, Graphic Novel/Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: The ship U.S.S. Montgomery was en route to a colony world when disaster struck: a rogue separatist murdered every adult on board. Now the shipboard AI, Val, must raise the children and continue on its own... a task beyond its current programming, especially when they encounter a threat to both the survivors and the Montgomery itself.

REVIEW: Though there are strong hints of sequel potential, Sentient works as a largely self-contained story. The children and the computer both have to push themselves to acts they never thought themselves capable of in pursuit of survival, plagued by inner doubts and old rules that no longer apply in the wilds of space. Friction between Lilly, the oldest (and therefore captain-presumptive of the survivors) and Isaac, whose mother was the murderous separatist (and who is therefore blamed by association by the grief-stricken survivors), threatens to tear them apart, a fault line that could be a fatal weakness when an outside danger arrives. Though the stars are mostly children, there's a horror undertone to the tale, not to mention several gory deaths, that makes this more of an adult (or older teen) story. The ending feels a little open-ended, but resolves the immediate issues. I honestly can't tell if Lemire intends to continue this or not; as I mentioned, it's a mostly decent wrap-up if this is a standalone, but there is series potential in the larger themes.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Low Road West (Phillip Kennedy Johnson) - My Review
Descender: The Deluxe Edition Volume 1 (Jeff Lemire) - My Review
Quantum Mechanics (Jeff Weigel) - My Review

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two (Catherynne M. Valente)

The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two
The Fairyland series, Book 3
Catherynne M. Valente
Square Fish
Fiction, MG/YA Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: As a girl, September rode to Fairyland aboard the Leopard of Light Breezes, had a grand and terrifying adventure, made friends and enemies, and returned home to Nebraska. A year later, she returned for another adventure, fixing a problem she inadvertently left behind. But it's been a year, and despite what she was promised, September has not seen a twitch of a leopard tale, nor the slightest hint of a strange breeze, or any sign of Fairyland at all, even though she's spent the entire time preparing herself as best she can. Perhaps she's changed too much and grown too old; after all, she's fourteen now, practically a young lady, and every storybook knows that only children get to have fairy adventures. She's even driven a car, the neighbor's run-down old Model A, which is about as grown-up as one can get. But she deeply misses her friends... and wasn't she told that, just as she could never stay forever in Fairyland, she could never truly leave it behind?
While out mending the fence, September has a peculiar encounter, leading her once more to Fairyland... but, just as before, what she finds is nothing at all like she expected. Worse, she's almost immediately designated a professional criminal for her tendency to overthrow crooked queens and marquesses. Along with the Model A Aroostook, which takes on a peculiar personality of its own (after all, in Fairyland, it's been decreed that Tools have Rights), September finds herself swept up in a new adventure, traveling all the way to Fairyland's wondrous Moon - where she faces a most dangerous foe who seems intent on destroying everything.

REVIEW: September's adventures in Fairyland (and Nebraska) continue in this third installment in Valente's delightful series. She's growing up (which is why I put this on the line with younger Young Adult), and though she was always a fairly self-reliant heroine, not so much in need of coddling and protection as many young adventurers in portal fantasies, now she's a more seasoned traveler who willingly accepts more responsibilities. As before, Fairyland reflects the dilemmas and troubles she's facing in her real-world life, facing pressure to choose a future (or have one imposed on her) and leave childhood behind... but does that mean leaving Fairyland behind? After all, the first time she was there, she glimpsed her own child... and her own future (presumed) husband, the marid Saturday. Yet Fairyland seems reluctant to take her back, and must be tricked into allowing her to cross over through a gap in the fence.
Once there, September finds trouble almost immediately, obligated to a quest before she even knows what's going on and saddled with a reputation (not entirely undeserved) for lawbreaking and troublemaking. On the Moon, things get even wilder, stranger, and more dangerous, as she finally reunites with her friends Saturday and the Wyverary A-through-L - both of whom are also growing up, one of them bound by a fresh curse - and discovers the nature of the enemy she faces. As one might expect from Fairyland (and Valente), September's adventures are full of peculiar and unexpected characters and images and ideas, wending through various triumphs and setbacks, moving at a fine pace - right up to the end, which is an unannounced cliffhanger. As a result, several threads and themes feel unresolved, leaving me hanging until I can get the next volume. The book doesn't even leave me at a resting point between adventures, but ends with September in fresh danger. This sense of being left dangling wound up shaving a half-star off the rating; just a bit too hard of a slam on the brakes at the end, a raw cut across the greater series story arc, leaving me feeling that I'd only read part of a book instead of a whole one.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Divide (Elizabeth Kay) - My Review
In an Absent Dream (Seanan McGuire) - My Review
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making (Catherynne M. Valente) - My Review

Saturday, December 5, 2020

The Last Star (Rick Yancey)

The Last Star
The 5th Wave trilogy, Book 3
Rick Yancey
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Against all odds, Cassie Sullivan and her increasingly-small band of companions - her brother Sam, the traumatized young girl Megan, her former crush Ben, the young medic Dumbo, and the Silencer with the alien soul Evan Walker - have survived the winter... but the coming spring will not bring fresh hope, only the end of everything. Come the equinox, the alien mothership will obliterate all remnants of human cities and civilization with bombardment from orbit, using the brainwashed recruits of the Fifth Wave to ensure that future generations will never again cooperate, never again form societies, never again rise from the mud and animal distrust of their fellow humans. But Evan has turned on his own kind, and plans to sacrifice himself to destroy the mothership when the aliens rescue him and the other Silencers before the bombs fall.
While Cassie may trust Evan Walker and his plan, Ben isn't so sure. He has his own ideas on survival, but first he must rendezvous with his squadmates Ringer and Teacup, sent to the nearby Ohio caverns in search of other survivors. Only he doesn't know what really happened this winter, how Ringer's mission went pear-shaped and left her at the mercy of their all-too-ruthless enemy General Vosch - and how, thanks to him, she's no longer quite as human as she used to be. What she has learned about Vosch, the Fifth Wave, and the aliens will change everything... and possibly destroy the last, feeble glimmer of hope the survivors still cling to.

REVIEW: Once again, The Last Star picks up with no recap time, plunging the reader into a harrowing, bloody, and death-filled tale of humanity's last stand against a seemingly unstoppable force. The Others' plan is even worse than simple obliteration; it's the rewriting of the human heart, breaking the instinct of cooperation and trust, turning brother against sister, man against woman, mother against child, and child against everyone. Cassie sees evidence of it already working in her kid brother Sam, now a hardened soldier who has forgotten his ABC's and his mother's face but can build a bomb and pull a trigger like a seasoned killer. In many ways, humanity is already broken beyond repair... and yet, something within them manages to resist, even in the face of seemingly certain doom. Here, Yancey started to lose me, as he skews a bit toward preaching and faith (never explicit, but a notable undercurrent.) There's still a certain poetry, if bleak and dark poetry, to this tale of the end of everything we thought made us human and the discovery of what our species's true weaknesses and strengths are. The action remains relentless and dark, with more deaths and more betrayals and more proof that much of what was lost will never be regained, all culminating in an explosive and devastating finale that feels just a hair too drawn out and over the top. On the other side, Yancey wobbles a bit on the landing, which helped shave a half-star off the rating. All told, The 5th Wave is a decent, if dark, apocalyptic tale.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Three-Body Problem (Cixin Liu) - My Review
Life as We Knew It (Susan Beth Pfeffer) - My Review
The 5th Wave (Rick Yancey) - My Review