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Posts tagged ‘fantasy’

Sorcerer to the Crown

sorcerer to the crown by Zen Cho

(Longest absence yet! But I’m hoping to post more often.)

I was traveling around on a vacation last week and I ended up buying two books quite randomly at a bookstore. This book caught my eye, partially because of Naomi Norvik’s recommendation on the cover. I read the first page and was hooked.

Sorcerer to the Crown is Zen Cho’s debut novel.  It’s a fantasy set in Regency England. Zacharias Wythe, a young African-British magician, has just become Sorcerer Royale of Britain, much to the dismay of, well, everybody. While attempting to solve the problem of England’s fading magical supply, he meets Prunella Gentlewoman, a half-white (her background is a spoiler) charge of a girl’s school with a mysterious past and many unfeminine traits, also to the dismay, of, well, everybody.  Together, they’ll face fairies, ghosts, and Wodehouse-worthy aunts to get England set right again.

This book is amazing. It’s written in a Jane Austen-esque style, enough to put you in the Austen mindset but with full acknowledgement of the modern audience – less convoluted sentences, more nods to modern day improprieties, and less modest vagueness.  (I had actually just finished listening to Emma when I read this; it was shocking how much it sounded like Austen!) Cho writes with a charming lightheartedness. Despite the Austen-like style, this is an adventurous fantasy.  The plot twist and turns and takes you on a merry romp.  I bought in completely to both the period setting and the fantasy elements; not an easy task!  It was the perfect escapism book; I read a lot of it sitting in an outdoor hot tub in a garden and I couldn’t have picked a more perfect book for the setting.

Without ever deviating from tone or style, Cho directly portrays the racism and sexism the main characters face.  The book never becomes about racism or sexism, but it never loses sight of the characters’ experiences as people of color.  As all great fiction should, it immerses you in the experience of living someone else’s life; Cho does this masterfully.

And yet, every book has its faults.  In particular,  the pacing on this book is just too fast.  I was expecting it to turn into a trilogy or at least a duo due to the number of plotlines that were popping up and the air of importance around so many of them.  I figured one would get tied up in this book and we’d get a nice big clue about the next one, but instead, nearly everything gets resolved.  It was too much for the second half of the book and I wanted things to slow down.  Everything was plotted well, but I needed more time to explore each of the plot elements – at least one more book’s worth of time!

In short, this book is both fantastic and highly original.  If you’re at all into fantasy, but especially if you love the style of Regency romances and fantasy, or if you’ve been on the hunt for something new, great, and unusual, this book is definitely for you.  However, if you’re looking for elaborate world-building, really value pacing in an adventure/action story, or want a deep dive into the social justice issues intrinsic to her choice of main characters, this, sadly, may not be  the book for you.

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Coyote Blue

coyote blueHi guys! Long time, no post – but I’m finally getting back into the swing of things. (Summer has been insanely busy!) My latest read was Christopher Moore’s Coyote Blue.  

I’ve read and reviewed Moore before and he is a hilarious author, though he can be a bit hit and miss for me – sometimes I can’t put his books down and sometimes I can see that they’re funny but I don’t actually have a reaction to it.  This one hit the spot.  

It’s the story of Sam Hunter, a Crow (the Native American, not the bird) who left the reservation at a young age and became a successful insurance sales man in Santa Barbara.  Unfortunately, Sam’s spirit guide is the trickster Coyote, who decides to enter his life in a major way. 

I read this after a bit of a Native American book kick (The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian and Navajo Weapons, both excellent) and it rounded out the trio rather well.  It’s a fictional work (the other two are quasi-fictional and non-fiction) and though Sam’s relationship with his Crow heritage is focused on, the focus comes more on his spiritual connection and reconnecting with who he is, rather than what it actually means to be Native American or exploring Native American traditions in detail.  

I also liked that Moore pulled from a tradition that is largely ignored in the literature scene, though I can’t say I learned a large amount about the Crow people or their religion. However, Moore did use it to explore something that is both familiar and foreign to every American without romanticizing the culture or othering his main characters.  They were the same wacky everyman that Moore generally writes about.  Sam’s struggle with his heritage and going home, while unique to his situation, is something most people can identify with. (Though, generally not with a crazy spirit guide leading the action.) 

That being said, I did like Anasazi Boys more in terms of using a religious or folklore tradition not usually scene within Western literature.  Coyote Blue was still really good, though, don’t get me wrong. 

The plot was fast-paced but not terribly convoluted.  I had an easy enough time following it and by about halfway through the book, I had reached a “can’t-put-down” state of reading.  Moore used flashbacks and storytelling to great effect – though I like short legends interspersed throughout, I’m not a huge fan of flashbacks but his usage didn’t bother me.  

The characters were actually very well-done.  I wanted to hate Sam, but instead found myself rooting for him.  Calliope should have come off as annoying but instead came off as sympathetic.  And Coyote – you wanted to pity him but rather found yourself amused by his bravado.  Some of the side characters were a little too caricature-ish for my tastes, but they didn’t play prominent enough roles for me to get annoyed by it. 

The humor was good, though expect it to get a tad crude or violent at times (nothing too horrible!).  There are a few one-liners you’ll want to quote to your friends and more than one scene where I found myself chuckling in public, though not outright laughing.  

Overall, if you like comedic fantasy and you’re looking for something bright, funny, and a bit different, you should definitely check this out! If you’re into a humor that’s more wit and wordplay than zany wackiness, or if a hard-to-like main character isn’t your thing, then, alas, this may not be the book for you! 

I Shall Wear Midnight

I shall wear midnightby: Terry Pratchett

Ah, two Pratchett novels in less than 7 days! My mom got them for me for Christmas and I ended up reading them one right after the other, due to my current need for light reading to relieve stress.

I Shall Wear Midnight is the most recent installment in the Tiffany Aching series that Pratchett writes for the young ones.  They follow the tales of Tiffany Aching, who starts off deciding to be a witch in The Wee Free Men and finally comes into her own as a witch in I Shall Wear Midnight.

My favorite Pratchett quote comes from The Wee Free Men, actually. It is sheer Tiffany, though she doesn’t say it, and goes as such:

“If you trust in yourself. . .and believe in your dreams. . .and follow your star. . . you’ll still get beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren’t so lazy.”

Tiffany is a great character.  She’s smart, perceptive, and full of common sense.  I’ve liked her in both books, even as she is noticeably more mature in this one. It’s hard to grow a character well, but Pratchett does it.  Tiffany, from whose point of view the book is told, in third person limited, has a sympathetic yet firm way of looking at people. This is helpful, as a dark force is beginning to turn the population of the Chalk and Ank-Morpork against witches and Tiffany must find a way to save herself without turning against the very people she’s supposed to help.

The book starts off with (spoiler!) a man having brutally beaten his daughter.  There are somewhat extenuating circumstances – dark forces are at work – and this and that happen, but in the end, the man never really receives punishment for his actions.  In contrast, there is a female character who is rather unpleasant, yet still a good person, and she receives a distinct comeuppance.

Don’t get me wrong – there was a whole lot this book got right but… That really didn’t sit well with me.  Perhaps because domestic violence, especially against women, too often goes unpunished in our society. Perhaps because the man who was deplorable but maybe redeemable didn’t require a punishment but the unpleasant yet good woman did; why is it easier to freely forgive a man beating his daughter than a woman being rude?

Anyway, onto things I really liked about this book.  Tiffany, like I said, is amazing, and the whole crew – Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Oggs, and the Nac Mac Feegles – is there.  I loved Tiffany’s insights into growing up female and her interactions with Leticia, the other main female character.  Though they don’t quite develop a friendship, I thought the interactions between Tiffany and Leticia were the best parts of the book.  I especially loved how Tiffany, now working full-time as a witch and making adult decisions on a daily, if not hourly, basis, does not let anyone call her (or Leticia) a girl.

Tiffany’s narration of the plot was a nearly perfect blend of observations, reactions, and analysis.  Enough mundane things happened that you got a sense of who Tiffany is, and how the village runs, but never get bored.  Then the exciting and adventurous things occur, of course, and while I got swept up in them, I never lost the narrator.  It always felt like Tiffany was present and experiencing and reacting to the events rather than telling a story.

On the whole, it’s an excellent older child’s/YA fantasy book – better than most, I would say.  But – Pratchett’s Aching novels always feel to me like a simpler, slightly diluted version of his adult work; a toning down of the sharpest edges of wit and very little cynicism.  And I just prefer his adult novels.  I read these ones when I have a chance – but I don’t seek them out.

On the whole, if you’re looking for a YA novel with witty observations and great humor, or if you love Pratchett, you should definitely try reading this book.  If you don’t like escapism books that deliberately provoke thought, however humorously, or if you want your Pratchett with an adult edge, then, alas!, perhaps this isn’t the book for you.

Moon Called

mooncalledby: Patricia Briggs

Moon Called is the first book in Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series.  It’s an urban fantasy series, with all the danger, mystery, and adventure implied by the genre.

As an urban fantasy, it works pretty well.  There are vampires, werewolves, and fairies, your usual fantasy mix.  Mercy, the main character, actually draws on Native American lore – she’s a shapeshifter – and is half Blackfoot.  I really liked that (how often do you see a Native American main character?) but Briggs also made her culturally white, which I have mixed feelings about.

Mercy, despite knowing her whole life that she inherited her powers from her Blackfoot father, makes no visible attempt to learn about her heritage.  When your heritage includes strong magical powers you know nothing about, that is a very questionable decision.  I feel like the author is taking the easy way out – she uses a Blackfoot as a main character, but in such a way that she doesn’t have to put any work into making the Blackfoot component culturally accurate, even though it would make a lot more sense if Mercy was actively trying to find out more about her heritage and connect with her father’s family.

(From the [spoiler alert for link] Wikipedia page about her – which you should read, as it’s hilarious – she doesn’t even attempt to find her father’s family until the 6th book, even though in the very first book it becomes clear there’s a lot about her powers she doesn’t know.)

The writing was decent – a little choppy and too much explaining here and there, but not terrible. The plot was well-paced and  it’s a quick and easy read.  I wasn’t terribly motivated to pick it up but once I started reading, I wanted to finish.  There was a bit of romance, which was the main point of nearly every interaction Mercy had with her two main love interests. That got annoying pretty damn fast. There were lots of moments where the sexual/romantic tension was completely unnecessary.

In the end, I didn’t like the book and I won’t be reading any of the sequels.  The book had some major problems with sexism and I’m afraid it’s just a deal breaker for me.

First of all, nearly every adult woman in the book actively dislikes Mercy.  The werewolf women all hate her because she can bear children and they can’t; apparently she was essentially shunned as a young child and teenager.  All of the werewolf women that she’s ever met, apparently, take an immediate dislike to her and treat her coolly.

Just think about that.  You probably know somebody who can’t have kids or struggled to conceive.  Try to imagine them hating a 14 yr old girl because she could, potentially, have children and they can’t.  Now try to imagine a whole town full of women who all hate the same young girl for that same reason.

It doesn’t paint a very flattering view of women, does it? And with the exception of one strong-willed and poor but plucky Latina single mother, who has about two lines, and a teenager, all the women in the book intensely dislike Mercy.  So we have a situation where every adult woman is bad, except for the main character and one Latina character.  (The same thing happens in 50 Shades of Grey and one of the better analysis I read described it thusly: non-white women aren’t competition for men’s attention and thus it’s okay for them to be good people because no (white and thus main character) man would be interested in them romantically.) And I know Mercy is half-Blackfoot but for the most part, she is written as a culturally white woman.

Besides the whole women-against-women problem, we have the men.  The love interests are domineering Alphas – like a wolf alpha – and spend much of their time manipulating Mercy and ordering her around. Her responses are childlike rebellions: mouthing off and cheeky but inconsequential actions.  Adults have serious, potentially relationship-ending conversations about this kind of provocation; only children think that fighting back with cutesy tactics will prove any sort of point.

Which brings me to my next point: The men are constantly losing control of themselves; they become violent and controlled by their emotions.  And it’s all excused because they’re werewolves and thus dominant alpha-males who can’t control themselves. The myth that men can’t control themselves because they’re so incredibly male is not only pure bullshit but extremely damaging in our society.

It isn’t an animalistic thing, because Mercy certainly doesn’t suffer from that problem.  And the women werewolves – few and far between; women, apparently, are too weak to survive the change – aren’t given enough voice in the book, despite its being completely overrun by werewolves, to see if they are controlled by their alpha tendencies. Either way, since the men are constantly losing control over women, and Mercy seems constantly afraid of the men she’s attracted to, it’s not a motif I’m willing to get behind.

The cast, despite having a female protagonist and being set in a world where magic could easily equalize any physical differences between the sexes, is almost entirely male.  The women are constantly having to be protected and it’s heavily implied, especially at the end, that all the “good” men are naturally going to be immediately, creepily, overprotective of any woman they find physically attractive.

To top it off, Mercy notes, several times, how sexist the werewolf society is and how the women werewolves depend entirely on their mates for their social standing. Charming.

It wasn’t all terrible, mind you, but sadly, the good points did not outweigh the bad.

If you like urban fantasy with a well-written female protagonist or tales of vampire and werewolves, you should give this one a try (but think critically about the treatment of women). If blatant sexism is a deal breaker or if you’re looking for a diverse cast and completely fresh approach to the urban fantasy genre, then this book probably isn’t for you.

A Natural History of Dragons

anaturalhistoryofdragonsby: Marie Brennan

Apparently I never wrote or posted a review of one of the most awesome books I read last year.  The funny thing is that I started this review twice but then never finished it. Well, it’s being published today, though I read the book many months ago.

A Natural History of Dragons is the memoir of the fictional Isabella, Lady Trent, the world’s foremost expert on all things dragon.  Set in an alternate version of Victorian England, it is truly one of the best books I read last year, despite my lack of review.

This particular books covers Lady Trent’s formative years, as she begins to develop and pursue her interest in dragons and the natural sciences.  One of the things that I most loved was that Lady Trent did not set out to be a trailblazer and completely revolutionize the world of dragons and women’s role in the sciences.  She just worked towards opportunities and took them when she could.  Don’t get me wrong, the world needs revolutionaries and trailblazers, but a lot happens because of people like Lady Trent, who aren’t necessarily striking a blow for (here) feminism as much as they are following their interests and passions without much regard for the rules.

Within this book, Lady Trent is exploring how to live in a society that does not approve of ladies doing unlady-like things, and is trying to balance conforming to gender roles with being herself.  I like the way the book is realistic about the types of challenges she must face, from outsiders and from the men who are in charge of her life, and also from within, in terms of how she thinks she must behave and how she wants to be able to function inside society.

The plotline itself was a fun adventure.  It had a strong scientific bent that I really enjoyed – not science jargon, just an inclusion of what scientific work is often like. (Detail-orientated, demanding, repetitive, and often boring.) Lady Trent, who has always had an unusually strong interest in the natural sciences, finds herself and her husband presented with an opportunity of a lifetime, to travel to a remote village in a foreign country and study dragons.  Though it’s not at all proper for a Victorian lady to traipse off after adventure, she strikes upon a plan that will let her maintain some of her reputation and most of her adventure, and sets off with her husband for a life-changing adventure.

Lady Trent herself is a practical person, not given to flights of emotion or idealization about the world.  She’s of a very scientific bent, detailed and prone to thinking things through and accepting the realities of the world as she sees them.  She has no illusion as to what studying dragons will do to her reputation or standing in society, nor does she think she can survive outside of society as an outcast.  But she is prepared for adventure and clearheaded; this is no Jane running off to study gorillas, but a Madame Curie, determined and steadfast.

I don’t have the book anymore, having given it away in preparation for the Great Move this month, but it really is one of my absolute favorites and I can’t wait for the sequel, which comes out in March.  I know I ranted on about Lady Trent in this review, but I do assure you, the plot was well-done: adventurous, a little suspenseful, and including a fairly broad range of characters that I really enjoyed; the writing was excellent, and overall the book really worked.

If you like strong female characters, dragons, science, adventure, or are just looking for a good fantasy book, you should give this one a try! If you like characters who are emotional or dramatic, or if you are not a fan of a slightly drier style of writing, then perhaps this is not the book for you.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

ocean at the end of the laneby: Neil Gaiman

I know it’s been a few months since this came out, but my mom bought me a signed copy for Christmas so I held off on reading it until I received the signed copy.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is Gaiman’s latest fairy tale.  Gaiman always writes things with a darker edge, and this was no exception. It was written more along the lines of Coraline and Stardust than, say, American Gods or Neverwhere, with a simpler plot line and less complicated storytelling.  It is an adult’s book, though I would say anyone 12+ could safely read it.  (There is a part or two that might exclude your under-12 crowd; a not-terribly-indiscreet sex scene, or implied sex scene – there’s rather passionate kissing – and a few scary and many suspenseful parts.)

It’s the story of a nameless narrator, who goes back to his hometown in his middle age and finds himself wandering out to his old childhood home and then onto his old neighbor’s property. After a cup of tea and some conversation, he finds himself at the edge of a pond, struggling with half-formed memories.  But then he remembers – it’s not a pond, it’s an ocean.  And both he and the reader are plunged back into the year he was 7, a year of adventures and magic and mysterious others.

I won’t delve much on the plot. It’s good – fast, intriguing, paced well enough that you hold your breath during the scary parts and never quite relax until the end.  There’s lots going on and it’s much less fill-in-the-holes-y than some of his other stuff. (American Gods, anybody?)  Which is nice; this is a short read but also a quick one.  At the same time, it still feels like you’re reading a Gaiman novel; the world is complex and you can tell there’s more going on than he’s letting the reader see.

It’s told in first person POV and we can only see what our 7 yr old narrator sees; it’s not colored, at least not obviously, by the 40 yr old’s recollections.  I really liked the choice of narrator, actually. He’s observant and intelligent, though believable as a child.  He’s very sympathetic and he does have all those moments children dream of having, like rebelling against authority figures and being right while the parents are wrong – though, of course, not in the way you’d expect.  At the same time, he’s flawed and well-rounded.  He’s brave, but not extraordinarily so, which I appreciated.  So rarely do you read of a hero in an adventure with ordinary courage, if that makes any sense.

The neighbors, by the way, are the Hempstocks, three generations of women who live at the edge of the ocean.  They possess great, but not unlimited, power.  The grandmother, Old Mrs. Hempstock, is a woman both comforting and intimidating.  Her granddaughter, Lettie, is practical and extraordinarily brave, in a very matter-of-fact way.  In the non-literary sense, they are the heroes of the story.  I, of course, love strong female characters and this book is peppered with them.  They’re – I hesitate to say well-rounded; not every character needs to be well-rounded – but well-developed.  The reader begins to understand them, and though they may not be terribly multi-faceted and complex, they are immense and deep characters and it is enough.

The book is driven by plot, though not at the expense of the characters.  Though character growth is not focused on – and indeed, I am not sure that many of the characters even grow – it does a great job of exploring the characters, which was enough to satisfy me, especially given the brevity of the story.  In short, it’s a remarkably well-balanced book and I absolutely loved it.  And, it should go without saying that Gaiman is an excellent writer and this was no exception.

If you have been wanting to like Neil Gaiman but find his works intimidating, or if you like darker fantasy books, or if you like child narrators (ug, sorry if that sounds weird), you should definitely give this one  a shot.  If you lean more towards epics or stories where the main character is heroic and saves the day, than, sadly, this may not be the book for you.