Fantasy · Humor

Raising Steam

by: Terry Pratchett

Hello! It’s been a bit of a busy month for me – it was my first Christmas away from my family, my grandmother, who I was very close to, passed away, and I moved to Australia for a few months to do an internship.  It’s been super hectic and I ended up wanting something that was both comforting and distracting.  Enter Sir Terry Pratchett’s work, Raising Steam.

Fair warning, this review is going to assume you are familiar with Pratchett and his work.

I’d read about half of it before, but hadn’t finished it.  If you’re not familiar with Pratchett, he wrote this incredible comedic fantasy series, Discworld.  He started writing them in the 1980s and in 2007, announced he had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s.  Raising Steam was published in 2013, the last book to be published before Pratchett passed away.

After his diagnosis, Pratchett’s writing underwent a fairly noticeable (to me, at least) change, and so the last five books he wrote are distinctly different than the rest of the series.  (A major part of that, I think, was that he found himself unable to physically write and begin dictating instead.)  The first time I tried to read Raising Steam and Unseen Academicals, I didn’t enjoy them, to be quite honest.*  But I saw Raising Steam at the library and figured, since it was a Pratchett book – and you can still tell it’s a Pratchett book – and I hadn’t read it yet, escaping to the Discworld might be exactly what I wanted.

I ended up really enjoying Raising Steam, once I stopped expecting it to be a Discworld novel.  With the progression of the Alzheimer’s and the dictation, Pratchett’s work became much less pithy and more exploratory of themes and messages.  Dialogue took up a much greater percentage of the story than previously – characters now orated for nearly entire pages, whereas in previous books, speeches were limited to a short paragraph, perhaps two.   There’s a distinct shift from presenting situations and observations to using the characters inner and outer monologues to explore morality, depth, and meaning.  I don’t think his later books are necessarily deeper or more meaningful, nor are they less; they just approach things in a very different way.

Once I had that figured out, I approached Raising Steam as if it were a proper novel, instead of a wild romp that would somehow work itself out in the end (the usual method to approaching a Pratchett story) and it suddenly became much more enjoyable.  The quality of the writing hadn’t diminished; it had just changed in unexpected ways.

The book follows Moist von Lipwig, one of my favorite Discworld characters, as he works with Dick Simnel, a young engineer who has invented a steam engine.  In his normal madcap manner, Moist finds himself leading the charge to bring Ank-Morpork, and perhaps the world, into a new era.  We see nearly the entire cast of Discworld, though some only for a page.

The character development is also unusual for a Discworld novel.  Usually, Discworld characters develop through finding or fighting their destiny or purpose, becoming who they were meant to be for the former and who they chose to become, for the latter.  Development is action focused and actions have immediate consequences.  In RS, however, there’s a lot more focus on the morality and meaning of decisions than I’ve seen previously, especially for Moist.  (Dick’s development is much more in line with classic Discworld characters.)  One quibble: the characters weren’t as distinguishable as they normally are; the long speeches and and exploratory tone meant that many of the characters’ dialogues were extremely similar.

The plot was funny, and fast, but much less rompy and with far fewer threads to track and fit together.  I felt like I had a clear idea of how everything fit together the entire time I was reading, which is not my expectation from Pratchett, at least not on the first read.  It was also, as I said, less pithy.  The humor wasn’t quick and snappy, but rather depended upon ridiculous (but completely believable) scenarios and the normal satire found there.

And now we get to the difficult part.  I’m not sure how to recommend this book – it’s an excellent comedic fantasy, of course, and I recommend it to anyone who loves satire, humor, and/or fantasy.  If you like Pratchett’s writing, you may like this – like I said, the writing is still good, just different.  But it is missing what I consider to be that essential Pratchett-ness, that pithy humor and that sense of the reader simply being along for the ride. In conclusion, all I can say is that the first few pages of this book are representative of the rest of it, so read a few pages if you’re not sure.  And it is amazing that Pratchett was able to put out a book that is still one of the best of the genre while in the grips of a terrible and debilitating disease.

*I felt like such an ass for even thinking this.

Fairy Tales · Fantasy

Beauty, Poison, and Charm

by: Sarah Pinborough (no image because it’s three books.)

This is a 3-books series I picked up at the library – actually I picked up the first one and then went back for the next two – and read over the Christmas holidays.  They’re retellings of fairy tales, and while at first glance, I thought they were stand-alones, they’re actually a series that do go in a specific order.  I luckily picked up the first one first and then figured out the order by reading the blurbs.  They don’t actually have an order listed and they were all published in the same year – but they go, in order: Beauty, Poison, then Charm.

I really enjoyed them.  They are incredibly quick reads, all three books are very short, and they’re written in true fairy tale format, so, until the third book, there’s relatively little in terms of complex characters or anything but the most simplistic character developments.  They’re also written fairly simplistically (probably late-elementary to middle school level), but they are definitely adult material; if your kiddos read these be prepared for some awkward questions about sex and violence – both separately and combined for pleasure.

Each book retells one of the major Western fairy tales: Beauty is”Sleeping Beauty”, Poison is “Snow White”, and Charm is “Cinderella.”  There are other, equally well-known fairy tales woven throughout. It was fun to piece together which fairy tales were being told and how they all connected to each other, so I won’t spoil any more of them.

The books follow the adventures of an unnamed huntsman, whose job it is to keep an unnamed prince alive as he’s set out on a “please grow the eff up” adventure by his parents.  Pinborough is really selective about who gets named in this story and who is referred to solely by their profession.  It’s interesting to think about as you read, especially since there’s a deliberate gendered element to the names.

Pinborough is also selective about which characters are developed and how.  Fairy tales written in the classic style can definitely get away with flat characters – a wicked witch just needs to be a wicked witch; a brave prince need only be brave and charming – and Pinborough lets some characters stand just as they are meant to be.  Others, however, are developed more and the development of the character directly reflects both their complacency in, and understanding of, the fairy tale in which they play a role in.

Pinborough uses the characters to criticize and deconstruct the notion of a happy ending and to argue that agency in our lives comes from not perfect character or great beauty, but from a complex and flawed character tempered by life experiences. (Or, if you’re male and royal, from privilege you were born with and do not necessarily deserve.)  Indeed, the most likable character is also the one whose flaws I both related to and was sympathetic of – a very teenaged Cinderella.  Cinderella is, Ella Enchanted aside, my least favorite princess, so I loved that this rewriting forced her out of the “passive, good girl get rewarded” and into someone who was quite real and faced with the choice and consequences of active or passive behavior.

The ideas of true love and romantic relationships are also briefly, but critically, examined.  I won’t go into those notions because it could very easily spoil the book, but Pinborough takes a rather feminist (and much appreciated) lens to the gendered aspect at play here, examining what it means to be a woman, who cannot inherit the throne and must depend on a man for survival, looking for love.

You’re probably waiting for me to get to the sex stuff but honestly, though it was relevant to the plot and thematically connected to the agency of the characters, there wasn’t all that much of it.  When it was there, however it was explicit and, in Beauty, for lack of better word, depraved, in a very intentional way.

Though quite short, and quite simply written, I really enjoyed these novels.  They’re dark and adult, but quick reads and you could easily read them without getting into gender or character analysis.  (That’s my idea of a good time, but yours could be just enjoying the plot line!) There were quite a few twists throughout; they were foreshadowed well enough that I predicted about half of them and with the other half went, “Oh, duh! that makes sense!”

If you’re looking for a quick read that is a little dark and a little twisted*, if you like fairy tales, or if you want a book with some meat for feminist analysis, this is definitely the book for you.  If you’re looking for a cast of relatable characters, happy endings, or prefer prose that’s distinctly adult in style, than, alas, this may not be the book for you.

*I did want to mention that I think this is a hard style to find; this series is very quick and easy to read, but it is not light, fluffy, or appropriate for children.
Children's · Fantasy · Fiction · Teen Fiction · Urban Fantasy · YA

Lockwood & Co: The Empty Grave

the empty grave
by: Jonathan Stroud

The Empty Grave is the fifth and final book in Stroud’s Lockwood & Co series. I had put a hold on it at the library but the bookstore I walk by every day was having a 20% off sale after I’d been waiting for what felt like months, so I gave in and bought it.  (This actually isn’t the cover that I have, but I like it so much better than the UK version.)

If you’re not familiar with Lockwood & Co, it’s a YA series (maybe middle school) set in an alternate reality London, where deadly ghosts have suddenly appeared, called the Problem.  Only children can see the ghosts, so children are employed as agents to combat the Problem.  Throughout the series, we follow Lucy, a teenage ghost hunter, as she works with the Lockwood & Co agency.  In this final edition, Lucy and her coworkers are following clues to figure out what the source of the Problem is, using advice from a ghost that only Lucy can hear, and venturing into some of the most dangerous places in – and out – of London.

So unlike other books in this series, there’s not a big, bad ghost to overcome.  (This actually kept me from locking myself in the bathroom to read the book.*) Instead, Lucy is looking at clues for the Source and who or what is behind the Problem.  Though there is a bad guy, this book is more about answering questions the previous four books have set up.  I really enjoyed this approach – it had enough suspense to keep my heart racing but at this point in the series I wanted my questions answered more than I wanted another epic, hair-raising battle against a Big Bad.  And the questions were answered in a slow manner – not a huge info dump at the end, but enough information for the reader to work out with the characters what’s going on as the story unfolds.

By the way, this book would work as a stand-alone but I would highly discourage it – I think the series as whole works really well and I would encourage any reader to start from the beginning for narrative satisfaction. There’s an incredible amount of world and plot building that is best enjoyed when read in the intended order.

Stroud also does a great job of fulfilling some character issues and mysteries. For example, Lockwood, the owner of Lockwood & Co, is a dashing and romantic hero with a tragic backstory. The entire series is written in first person, from Lucy’s perspective, and it’s in this book that Lucy comes to terms with Lockwood’s unusually strong attraction to, and enjoyment of, danger and what that ultimately says about him.  It’s not overdone, but the reader is forced through the discomforting realizations as Lucy processes a new perspective.

This happens for multiple characters this book and adds a good bit of depth to the series as a whole. (It also happened in the fourth book for a different character, Holly.)  These realizations are mostly driven by a captured ghost that only Lucy can hear, which I appreciate, because it means that we get an age-appropriate reaction to an adult observation.  The children never feel uncannily mature or precociously adult but the reader isn’t forced into a world without any adult perspective. (See: A Series of Unfortunate Events.) This allowed Stroud to explore some character development that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible; yet, the ghost was written so that it (he?) doesn’t come off as the wise old adult.  Rather, he’s a wry, untrustworthy, and mysterious character forced into the role of observer.

Speaking of the ghost, Stroud answers most but not all questions posed by the series.  The questions he leaves unanswered are good ones – he gives the reader plenty to go on in order to develop their own theories.  So on the one hand, I appreciate that.  On the other hand – I want to know!  In general, things are wrapped up nicely; he leaves just enough points dangling that you can’t quite let the series go when you finish it.  Crafty, Stroud.  Crafty.

I absolutely loved this book, both as a standalone and as a completion of an incredibly good series. If you’re not into middle-school/YA, if you like dashing plot-driven adventure books with a satisfying romance, or if you like your horror to be Stephen King-level terrifying, then, sadly, this might not be the book for you.  If you’re looking for an excellent mix of character development and plot line, a creepy but fun ghost story, or are looking for a great female-led adventure series, I can’t recommend Lockwood & Co enough.

*but I still stayed up until 3 am to finish it.
Children's · Comedy · Fantasy · Humor

Dragons at Crumbling Castle

by: Terry “the fantastically funny” Pratchett

I am always delighted to find a new Terry Pratchett book.  Pratchett passed away (from Alzheimer’s disease) in 2015 and though inevitably there will come a day when I have read all of his works, I refuse to hasten that day any more than necessary, preferring instead to have his books delight and surprise me in the finding as well as the reading.

I found this one in the children’s section of the library, as I was searching out His Dark Materials, and, of course, I checked out it immediately.  I’ve said before that I prefer Pratchett’s adult works to his children’s, and while that’s true, his children’s book are still whimsical and absurdly funny adventures worth looking in to.  This particular book is a collection of short stories Pratchett wrote early on his career, reworked a little before publication as a book.

Dragons at Crumbling Castle contained stories from The Carpet People but there were plenty of other stories as well. I really loved the short story format; the quick reads meant the stories were intently focused on plots and absurdities and they made for a great laugh.  Plus, I read this during a 3-day research workshop, so the short stories were about all my brain was up for.

While the writing was simple and the structure much clearer than Pratchett’s normal style, it didn’t feel like I was reading something that was only intended for children.  Rather, it felt more like an all ages-type writing – clean and structured for kids, but cognizant of the fact that adults exist and might indeed be reading this very book.  Very Pratchett-lite; I could feel the zaniness and humor that I associate with him, but the plot lines were much simpler and the characterizations that I so love just weren’t there.

The stories also go everywhere, from King Arthur’s court to a tiny speck of dust to a living room carpet to a time traveling bus.  I think this was probably the best showcase I’ve read of Pratchett’s ability to set you up in a familiar plot line and then, in the blink of an eye, whiz you somewhere completely unexpected and leave you laughing.  Not every story does this expertly – these are some of his earlier works, after all – but many of the stories.  The stories do vary more than a typical collection of short stories work.  All of them work, but some work uproariously well and others just made me smile a little and turn the page.

I loved the illustrations – simple, funny, and very fitting.  I didn’t like that some words were written in a illustrative font; for instance, “huge” might have been written in giant, bold font, and “waggle” was always written in font with offset letters.  But I could imagine this making the book really fun to read out loud with a child.

If you’re not a fan of absurdist humor, simplistic writing, or thematically loose collections of short stories, then, alas, this might not be the book for you. If you have a child in need of some humor or if you want some funny, easy-on-the-brain short stories,  I would highly recommend Dragons at Crumbling Castle. If you are, for any reason, interested in Pratchett’s craft and his development as a writer, I would strongly recommend this book.  I think there’s a lot of insight to be gleaned from these works into how he developed his wonderful voice and style.

Contemporary Literature · Fairy Tales · Fantasy · Fiction

The Emperor of the Eight Islands

by: Lian Hearn

So I walked into a bookstore looking for a pen and walked out with 2 books, one of them being Emperor of the Eight Islands.  The blurb on the back really intrigued me – it sounded liked a darker sort of fairy tale, but set in a fantasy land based on feudal Japan.

The blurb on this one is a pretty accurate representation of the book! I really enjoyed the book – I’ve mentioned this a few dozen times before, I’m sure, but I love fairy tales of all sorts. I liked especially that it was set in a Japanese-based society; I feel like that drew me in more than it would have if it was set in a European-based one, simply for the novelty and the fun of the world building.

The story follows Kazumaru, the son of a lord who dies having lost a game of Go to tengu (legendary Japanese bird-men.) Kazumaru’s uncle takes over the estates and, in the traditions of fairy tales everywhere, does not want to relinquish his title back to his nephew when Kazumaru comes of age.  The story truly begins when Kazumaru decides to run away and find his own fate in the world, a world being torn apart by a civil war and plots for the throne.

Told in third person, the story shifts frequently from Kazumaru’s point of view to many other characters, though Kazumaru’s actions remain the driving force for the plot.  There’s sorcerers, royalty, mystical beings, magic, grudges, love, destiny, and songs about dragon children. Essentially, all the components for a good fairy tale are incorporated.

Hearn’s writing also lends itself well to the style. It actually reminds me a little bit of Robin McKinley – the same sort of slightly distant, almost impersonal approach to the characters, even as the reader learns their thoughts and feelings.  In an extended fairy tale, where the plot is of utmost importance, this style can work incredibly well and indeed I very much appreciated Hearn’s approach.  All of the human characters were complex and well developed and the non-human ones felt non-human because they were less complex.

Though terrible things happen in the story, I wasn’t necessarily emotionally invested in the actions.  This isn’t a bad thing – I like how it gave me clarity and room to think about what was happening.  It also meant I was less likely to rationalize away a character’s behavior, which, I think, is important to this particular story.  The characters, Kazumaru included, often do both amazing and horrible things and this distance allowed me to step away from the good vs. evil dichotomy and not categorize the characters but instead evaluate each action on its own merit.  Though there is a sense of a divine hand in this story, and from that a clear wrong and right, there isn’t such a sense of moral right and wrong and I loved the way the story made me think about each action to see how I truly felt about it.

I don’t know why, but I was somewhat disappointed to find that this was the beginning of a short series.  Though it does work as a self-contained story, there’s clearly room for the next novel – however, I felt throughout that this was a standalone and I have no idea why! I will be reading the rest of the series though.

Also, this is a book where the first chapter is very indicative of the entirety of the story, so if you’re on the fence, you should be able to tell by just reading a few pages whether it’s the book for you.

If you like plot-driven fantasies and a strong fairy tale vibe, you should definitely give this book a read.  If you’re not into violence or if you want a strong, intimate emotional connection to the main characters, then, alas, this book may not be the one for you.

Have you read it? Let me know what you think in the comments!

Children's · Contemporary Literature · Fantasy · YA

His Dark Materials

his dark materials
by: Phillip Pullman

I know I’m late to the game on this one! As a result, I might be a little more lax about hints than I normally am (though I promise not to reveal any major plot points!)

His Dark Materials, if you haven’t heard of it, is Pullman’s most famous work, a trilogy focused on the coming-of-age story of Lyra and Will, two children from very similar and vastly different worlds.  And I mean worlds literally! Lyra is from an alternative-world Oxford, where every person has a daemon, an animal companion that is part of them, yet separate.  It’s heavily implied to be a physical embodiment of something, though it’s the readers job to figure out what that is.

One of the reasons it took me so long to finish these novels was that I do not like it when you switch worlds in a book.  Maybe I’m inherently lazy but for some reason, I find the work of having to pull myself out of one fantasy world and force myself to learn another in the same book/series to be rather unpleasant.*

So I read The Golden Compass (a/k/a Northern Lights) way back when as a teenager, but the series of events at the end of TGC/beginning of The Subtle Knife made me put the books down.  I’ve been meaning to try and finish the series for ages and with all the buzz about Pullman’s new novel, I finally managed to do it.

The central conflict of the book is humans vs. the Authority, the Authority being God (the Christian God) or something very like it. Lyra and Will unintentionally find themselves in the middle of a battle to determine the fate of the world – of their worlds. They go on a epic adventure, discovering new worlds, fighting battles, making friends, and ultimately must make a decision that could change the universe forever.

This book is aimed at, oh, probably pre-teens and I think Pullman excels at writing for the audience. His children are believable and honest; they say important things in a way that is realistic and grave but never precocious or weirdly mature.  I really enjoyed his dialogue, especially in Lyra, who had a lot of grave epiphanies; they always rang true without becoming soppy.  The trilogy is told in third person limited, switching to various characters’ perspectives as needed but the narrator’s voice is always imbued with a child-like tone which helps add to Lyra and Will’s characterization.  This does mean the adult characters are simplified and not partly multi-dimensional but that works with with the inherent voice of the novels.

Pullman’s plot line and characters are both exceptional and his world-building is creative and fantastic.  There are some truly inventive places that come out in the second and third novels and he manages to connect the different worlds so that no one of them feels too disparate.  The praise and fame this series has achieved is definitely warranted.

However, even Pullman’s work is not without its faults and one of the things I didn’t care for as much was how black and white the conflict ended up being.  Perhaps this is just my reading of it, but I feel like a lot of the story line went: Will and/or Lyra is presented with a decision, they struggle with decision, they make decision, decision turns out to be the right decision.  I like my characters to mess up and struggle with regrets and unintended consequences sometimes! That being said, the continuing escalation of conflict allows for a beautiful path to maturity and it was a really joy to watch Will and Lyra grow as characters.  As a coming of age story, I really couldn’t have asked for more.

But – and this is the biggest reservation I have about this novel – Pullman, in three books about religion, never actually takes on the concept of faith.  He plays a teeny tiny bit with it, with a character who is a former nun, and he touches on the concept of having faith in your friends, allies, and yourself, but, at least in my opinion, he never really takes on the concept of having faith in a power greater than yourself. While he tackles the concepts of souls, death, and the essence of life in way that is most satisfactorily thought-provoking, and he critiques the Catholic church in no subtle manner, I do think that by ignoring faith, whether by questioning its inherent moral value or using the lack of it as a critique itself, he has missed a fundamental truth of being a religious person.  And as such, it’s hard for me to take this book from a fantasy book that plays with the ideas of religion/organized religion to a book that uses fantasy to address and critique fundamental issues within Christianity.

In short, if you’re into fantasy and you’re looking for something compelling, adventurous, and deep, I would absolutely recommend His Dark Materials.  If you’re not into children’s perspectives or if you’re looking for something that gets at the fundamental nature of religion, than, alas, this is probably not the book for you.

Have you read His Dark Materials? What did you think? Leave a comment below!

*This is why I gave up on the Pern series, by Anne McCaffrey. One of her books has a really dramatic world switch and I got a paragraph into the switch, closed the book, returned it to the library, and never looked back.