Fantasy · Humor

Raising Steam

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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.

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Contemporary Literature · Fairy Tales · Fantasy · Fiction

The Emperor of the Eight Islands

emperor
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.

Fantasy · Historical Fiction

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.

Fairy Tales · Teen Fiction · YA

Enchanted

enchanted

by: Alethea Kontis

Blog note: I won a contest over at Ensis Reads, formally Don’t Read! I got this wicked awesome traveling coffee mug (LOVE IT!), and I am going to do a full post with pictures this weekend!

This is the first book in The Woodcutter Sisters series, a book based on the family of Jack and Seven Woodcutter, and featuring modern retellings of European fairy tales – quite a few of them feature in each book.

The woodcutter sisters are seven sisters born to a woodcutter and his wife (naturally).  Each of the girls is named after a different day of the week.  Sunday, our heroine, is the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter – I do love that in this world, that is equally powerful as the seventh son of a seventh son.  Sunday befriends a frog in the woods and thus starts an adventure to change the life of her and her sisters forever.  And yes, this book is based mostly on The Frog Prince, one of my favorite fairy tales.

As a protagonist, I liked Sunday a lot.  She was thoughtful and somewhat dreamy, but she still did things and was very much an active participant in the story.  The frog prince, Rumbold, is also a good character – very flawed but likable.  He spends a lot of time in the story learning to be a man, without having it be the central theme of the story.  I very much appreciate that – I feel like too often a main male character growing into manhood automatically becomes the center of the story.  Here, though, it is an important part without overpowering the story. I didn’t necessarily think he was romantic or dashing or any of the things I like my romantic heroes to be – but I did think he was an interesting character and a good fit for Sunday.

The plot was good, though the pacing was a little weird.  There was a bit too much going on, even though it’s a fairy long YA novel.  It was partly because Kontis was fairly obviously trying to set up plotlines for all the continuing book in the series, plus introduce other characters which have already had their adventures, like her sister Thursday.  (That was pretty irritating.  Thursday runs off to sea and becomes a pirate captain.  I want to read that story!) Three of Sunday’s siblings have already found their ever after; one of them finds it as a minor side plot in this story.  The writing was quite good, but there was simply too much going on.  I feel like Kontis could have worried less about making sure we understand everything that’s happened or is happening to this family and worried more about tightening up the plot.

The book, however, was engaging and I definitely stayed up late to finish it! A great sign.  Unfortunately, it also wasn’t that memorable.  While I definitely want to read other books in the series, I did have trouble recalling what happened in this book while writing this review. I think part of that is so much happened that my brain kinda gave up on it.

The characters were, as a whole, engaging and interesting but Kontis ran into the same problem with them as she did with the plot; namely, there were too many that she was trying to give too much attention to.  That means some of the characters, like Wednesday, became “tells” and not “shows.”  Sunday tells us a lot about Wednesday but the reader never gets to see her behaving in her odd Wednesday ways, so her particular storyline isn’t very convincing or engaging, even though she’s central to what happens in the story.  On the other hand, I completely fell in love with Saturday and cannot wait to read her book.  The characters that Kontis fully fleshes out are done extremely well and absolutely perfect for a YA novel.

The flaws didn’t prevent me from enjoying the story but I do think a strong red pen could’ve turned this story from a book I really liked to a book I’d rave about.  That makes me a little sad, to be completely truthful, though I’m happy I read it anyway.

If you’re into YA novels with a strong fairy tale influence or if you like ordinary teenage characters who have extraordinary adventures, you should definitely pick this one up! If you don’t like the feeling of being plunged into the middle of a series (I know it’s billed as the first, but it doesn’t feel like it), or if you like your fairy tale retellings with a darker or socially relevant edge, than alack! this may not the book for you.

Children's · Fantasy · YA

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.