Category Archives: Reviews

Hot Off the Press: Room by Emma Donoghue

Room by Emma DonoghueWhere I got it and why: I’d gone down to the library to stock up on comic books, but alas, all I could find was this book I’d put on my List because it won the Bord Gáis Irish Book Award…

Recommended? Dear god yes. This book is incredible.

Summary: graciously provided by Goodreads

To five-year-old Jack, Room is the entire world. It is where he was born and grew up; it’s where he lives with his Ma as they learn and read and eat and sleep and play. At night, his Ma shuts him safely in the wardrobe, where he is meant to be asleep when Old Nick visits.

Room is home to Jack, but to Ma, it is the prison where Old Nick has held her captive for seven years. Through determination, ingenuity, and fierce motherly love, Ma has created a life for Jack. But she knows it’s not enough…not for her or for him. She devises a bold escape plan, one that relies on her young son’s bravery and a lot of luck. What she does not realize is just how unprepared she is for the plan to actually work.

Review: Room is told entirely from Jack’s point of view, which is an absolute stroke of genius for a book that could otherwise so easily become a melodramatic mess. I don’t think I’ve ever read a five-year-old written so convincingly. Jack is smart, curious, devious, adorable — even I liked him, and I don’t usually care for children, fictional or otherwise. Oh, and Jack is brave, incredibly brave for carrying through his Ma’s escape plan while he still only vaguely understands that there is something to escape to or from.

I’m a little afraid of giving away too much of the plot, because I read this book in three large gulps (interrupted only by food and sleep) and I remember it largely as a glorious experience of discovery. Rather like being a five-year-old, actually. Not everything discovered is good, and certainly Jack doesn’t like it all (he’s not terribly fond of wind the first time he meets it), but it’s all thrilling.

My favorite thing about Room, though, was Ma. Although she has a name and I’m sure it’s mentioned in the text, Jack thinks of her just as Ma, and, with good reason, she’s thought of herself as Ma for the past five years – five years spent in awful captivity. She’s twenty-six, but the last time she was in the world she was nineteen and just going to college. Now she’s a mother and a victim and a survivor and a celebrity, and while she doesn’t handle it all perfectly or with absolute grace, she handles it, and I think that’s really the most important part. She handles it, and she’s amazing, and (not to spoil you or anything) she and Jack are going to be okay.

For a book with such a bleak premise, Room is really amazingly uplifting and optimistic. (I shy away from that horrible word “heartwarming,” but I think it’s that too.) Don’t mistake this for a Lifetime movie; it’s plenty gritty and awful in parts. But Room is absolutely one of the best books I’ve read this year, and possibly one of the best books I’ve ever read at all.

 

Room by Emma Donoghue was published by Little, Brown & Company on September 13th, 2010. Find it on: Goodreads, Indiebound, Barnes & Noble.

New to Me: Review of The Zombie Autopsies by Steven C. Schlozman

The Zombie AutopsiesWhere I got it and why: This is what happens when I browse the library bookshelves: I go in for one book, I come out with five. And anything zombie-related.

Recommended? Only if you’re a huge zombie completest (or if you need a quick dose of zombies – this is a fast read at less than 200 pages).

Summary: It’s 2012, and two-thirds of humanity has been wiped out by ANSD – the zombie virus. In a last-ditch attempt to find some hope for humanity’s future, the UN has organized a scientific research station on an isolated island. These are the last reports from Dr. Stanley Blum, whose fate remains unknown.

Review: I wanted to like this book. It’s a fantastic idea, a story of the zombie apocalypse told through the journals of a medical researcher. The book is framed as if you are a member of the UN commission that is going to be making recommendations based on these papers, so it includes some notes from UN officials and appendices like the journals of some of the other scientists and the text of the Treaty of Atlanta which determined that zombies are officially no longer human (and may thus be experimented on without ethical qualms). I was pleased to see that more than one person in the book mentions that, Treaty of Atlanta aside, there are plenty of ethical issues going on here, but how can you be expected to care about ethics when the future of the humanity is at stake?

And that’s the point of zombies, isn’t it? You become so terrified of turning into them that you might stop being human before they get you anyway. Of course, there’s a big difference between even shady medical research and eating the brains of anyone and everyone you come across, but.

The actual book doesn’t follow through on the excellent setup, unfortunately. Written by an epidemiologist, The Zombie Autopsies tries to give a medical explanation for the stereotypical traits of George Romer0-style zombies, but it falls short. (Which is not to slight Schlozman’s medical knowledge; I just don’t think it’s possible to give a feasible explanation for how a human body in that state of decay can remain functional.) The failed attempt at hardcore realism put me off: I prefer my creatures to be either entirely believable or just plain supernatural, and this middle ground destroys my suspension of disbelief. It’s not a bad book, by any stretch of the imagination, but once that suspension of disbelief is gone, it’s not coming back, so I can’t wholeheartedly recommend this.

New to Me: Review of Fallen Grace by Mary Hooper

Fallen Grace by Mary HooperWhere I got it and why: from the library, pulled from The List.

Recommended? Not in particular. If you like Victorian melodrama, this might suit you better than it did me.

Summary (graciously provided by GoodReads):

Grace Parkes has just had to do a terrible thing. Having given birth to an illegitimate child, she has travelled to the famed Brookwood Cemetery to place her small infant’s body in a rich lady’s coffin. Following the advice of a kindly midwife, this is the only way that Grace can think of to give something at least to the little baby who died at birth, and to avoid the ignominy of a pauper’s grave. Distraught and weeping, Grace meets two people at the cemetery: Mrs Emmeline Unwin and Mr James Solent. These two characters will have a profound affect upon Grace’s life. But Grace doesn’t know that yet. For now, she has to suppress her grief and get on with the business of living: scraping together enough pennies selling watercress for rent and food; looking after her older sister, who is incapable of caring for herself; thwarting the manipulative and conscience-free Unwin family, who are as capable of running a lucrative funeral business as they are of defrauding a young woman of her fortune.

Review: I should have liked this book. It’s a story set in and around the Victorian funeral trade, a subject I find endlessly fascinating. It features the horrible treatment of “fallen” women in the Victorian age, along with characters with mental illness. There’s a certain amount of, well, melodrama in all of these aspects, but handled well I usually enjoy them.

Alas, it was not meant to be. Hooper uses an interesting device throughout the book; each chapter opens with a snippet of print, either an advertisement from a newspaper, a calling card, or something of that sort. Chosen well these could add a great deal of atmosphere to the story; in this case they were used as signposts for the plot, telegraphing plot twists so far in advance that there was only one twist I didn’t see coming as soon as the groundwork was laid. (And even that one, I threw up my hands and said, “Oh, of course!” because in a story this tidy, it couldn’t have been anything else.)

There’s a difference between tidiness and tightness in plotting. A tight plot is one where everything falls into place, not by the invisible hand of the author but because you look at the characters and their situation and can’t imagine anything else happening. A tidy plot, on the other hand, is one where everything – everything – that happens is connected and all the loose ends are tied up in a nice little bow. I hate a tidy plot; it makes the whole story seem fake. Dickens – the inevitable comparison for stories about destitute Victorian orphans – could get away with it because he wrote such huge, sprawling stories with so many characters in them, but a 200 page YA novel cannot support that kind of tidiness.

Fallen Grace could have been saved by interesting characters, but alas, Grace herself is singularly ineffectual. She spends most of the book reacting to events, and the few actions she does take are the direct result of conversations she has with someone else. I had hopes for Lily, her mentally disabled sister, but after a couple of establishing scenes from her point of view she mostly disappears from the narrative as an actor. I finished the book out of a desire to see if anything unexpected would happen, but alas, it did not. The book wasn’t painful to read, but I require more than just acceptable writing (with, admittedly, interesting historical details) in my novels.

 

 

Hot Off the Press: Review of The Tempering of Men by Sarah Monette & Elizabeth Bear

The Tempering of Men by Sarah Monette & Elizabeth BearWhere I got it and why: as an uncorrected proof from Tor Publishing in exchange for a fair and honest review. Thanks, guys!

Recommended? Absolutely! Particularly if you’re a fan of vikings, wolves, or telepathic animal companion stories. And especially if you read Pern as a twelve-year-old and went back to it later, and found yourself looking at it and thinking, “I’m not sure this has been very thoroughly thought out.”

Summary: For once, I think the back cover copy is better than anything I can come up with, so here you go:

In Iskryne, the war against the Trollish invasion has been won, and the lands of men are safe again…at least for a while. Isolfr and his sister, the konigenwolf Viradechtis, have established their own wolfhaell. Viradechtis has taken two mates, and so the human pack has two war leaders. And in the way of the pack, they must come to terms with each other, must become brothers instead of rivals — for Viradechtis will not be gainsaid.

She may even be prescient.

A new danger comes to Iskryne. An army of men approaches, an army that wishes to conquer and rule. The giant trellwolves and their human brothers have never hunted men before. They will need to learn, if they are to defend their homes.

Review: The Tempering of Men is the sequel to A Companion to Wolves, which came out in 2007. It picks up right where Companion left off, at the end of the trellwars, and this is the story of how the wolfcarls and their intelligent wolfish brothers and sisters learn what to do with themselves now. The wolfhaellen were formed to keep men safe from the trolls of the north, but now that the trolls are gone, is there still a purpose to the wolf-and-human packs?

Where Companion was the story of Isolfr learning how to live as part of the pack and how to become the brother of a konigenwolf, a queen wolf, Tempering follows several different characters, all of them being drawn out of their comfortable place in the pack and into new roles. Vethulf and Skjaldwulf are Isolfr’s wolfjarls, the pack’s war-leaders, still learning how to rule together; Brokkolfr is one of the only survivors of his previous pack and is learning his place (and regaining his confidence) in his new one. Between the three of them you have a great range of characters, providing very different points of view on their changing world.

Skjaldwulf is my favorite, though. He’d been in training for a poet before he bonded to a wolf, and it still shows in his sense of the dramatic and his instinct for narrative; he knows he’s in a story, and he tells it as he goes along. He’s frighteningly smart and more ambitious than he gives himself credit for. Although his moment of glory is at the AllThing, my favorite scene was his conversation with the invading Rhean captain. Skjaldwulf is not willing to see his countrymen become vassals to a foreign empire — but he knows that such an outcome would not be all bad, either. His internal tension is enthralling to see.

The cultural details, both historical and invented, are just lovely — the politics of town and wolfhaell, and of the northern and southern alfs; the godsmen and sworn-sons and city jarls. This is a huge, wonderful, complicated world, and The Tempering of Men gives you plenty of opportunity to indulge in exploring it.

Aside from its individual merits, though – of which there are plenty – the Iskryne world is a breaking down and re-imagining of the telepathic animal companion fantasy. Tempering is a little less biting in its way thanCompanion – which introduced the open mating, or what happens when the wolf bitch you’ve been telepathically bonded to goes into heat and all the dogs are willing to fight over her. Iskryne is a wonderful fantasy world, but it’s a gritty one. That doesn’t mean it’s bleak – far from it. The wolves and their men love each other with a love that is adorable to see, and in many ways Tempering is a book about the men learning to love each other as well. (…Yes, in that way, too.)

I love both Bear and Monette’s work, and with The Tempering of Men, they are continuing to work wonderfully well together. (For more examples of their collaboration, check out their short story “Boojum” in the Fast Ships, Black Sails anthology, or the many-author shared-world series Shadow Unit.) And if all goes well, there’s a third book in the Iskryne series scheduled for 2013, An Apprentice to Elves. Hurrah!

Series: Iskryne

The Tempering of Men by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear will be published by Tor in August of 2011. Find it on: Goodreads, IndieBound, Barnes & Noble.

Hot Off the Press: Review of Embassytown by China Miéville

Embassytown by China MiévilleWhere I got it and why: From the library, as soon as I heard it was out. I love China Miéville.

Recommended? Absolutely. I didn’t like it as much as I liked Kraken – I adored Kraken – but like any good Miéville book, this positively blows the top off your head.

Summary: Avice Brenner Cho grew up in Embassytown, a small settlement tucked in the corner of a large alien city, out on the edge of known space. The aliens – the Hosts – can speak no lies, and know no symbolic language: everything they say must be true. When she was a girl, she was made into a simile, so that the Hosts could talk about things that are like the girl who was hurt in the darkness and ate what was given to her. Then she became an immerser, a sailor of that vast unknown that allows travel between distant worlds. When she married a linguist, she went back home to Embassytown.

Now that she’s an immerser, she’s a person of some little importance. She makes friends with the Ambassadors, the only people who can speak with the Hosts. But when their colony’s home world sends out a new kind of Ambassador…well, they had no idea how badly it could go.

Review: Well, China Miéville’s done it again, yet another ridiculously original, mindbending book about the possibilities inherent in the things we use every day. This time it’s language: words and similes and metaphors, communication and understanding. And, ultimately, fiction, that miraculous act of telling truth with lies.

Embassytown reminded me much more of the Bas-Lag books than the newer this-world Kraken or The City & The City. Perhaps it’s just that it’s set on an alien world, with fantastical alien creatures, but I think it’s also that Embassytown is a little more allegorical than Miéville has been lately. This is not a criticism, by the way; it’s definitely not one of those annoying allegories that makes you roll your eyes and wonder what the point of all that was. No, this is more subtle, with lots of twisty turns and plenty of opportunities for alternative interpretations. But it’s hard not to start drawing parallels when you’ve got a story about a war started by political maneuvering by people who clearly had no idea at all about the situation on the ground.

There’s a time jump in the middle of the book that really threw me off, a section that skims over some fairly important events, but aside from that the pacing is excellent, with a nice long introduction to get you accustomed to the world and its people before it starts throwing things at your head. I found that the balance of exposition was just right – the narrative will go along cheerfully without you, letting you scramble to keep up with new characters and ideas, and just when you start to feel overloaded, there’s a chapter’s worth of explanation. This makes the first few chapters kind of tough going, but hold on, it will all make sense soon.

By the end of the book, I was reminded of a comment Jo Walton made on her reviews of Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet, that they were like Tolkein in that very few people will create a fantasy universe only to destroy the unique magic in it. Embassytown does something of the same thing, although in a very different way, and with very little patience for the melancholy that goes along with the way Tolkein does such things. The world changes in Embassytown, permanently and certainly, and no one really knows whether or not that’s a good thing. It is simply a thing that is.

Embassytown by China Miéville was published on May 17, 2011 by Del Ray. Find it on: Goodreads, Indiebound, Barnes & Noble.

New to Me: Review of The Price of Spring by Daniel Abraham

The Price of Spring by Daniel AbrahamWhere I got it and why: From the library, for alas, I still cannot find a copy of this locally. (I’ll just have to order it, I suppose…) The final book in Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet.

Recommended: Oh god yes. A spectacular ending to a spectacular series. You want to read this.

Review: Once again, it cannot be avoided, there will be SPOILERS for this and previous books in this review.

It is fifteen years since the end of the world. The Emperor Otah Machi has been fighting for the survival of his people, and negotiations with Galt are finally going smoothly. With luck, marriages between Galtic women and Khaiate men will be commencing, initiated by the marriage of the Emperor’s son Danat to Ana, the daughter of one of the Galtic High Council. But Otah’s daughter Eiah can’t support his plan — she thinks he’s throwing away a whole generation of women just because they can’t bear children. She’s turned to her Uncle Maati, who is convinced that with female students, he can rewrite the grammar and bind a new andat, one who can restore the world to the way it used to be.

He’s wrong. Nothing will ever be the way it used to be.

They say that good versus evil is a fine basis for a plot, but if you really want to wrench people’s hearts, try good versus good. This book isn’t quite to that level, but it’s close. The Price of Spring alternates between Otah’s and Maati’s points of view, giving the reader plenty of opportunity to compare their diametrically opposed and equally stupid plans. Otah thinks he can just move on without healing any of the wounds caused by the war; Maati thinks he can make the war never have happened. You can see the end from here, and it doesn’t look pretty.

That problem I was having with the earlier books in the series where I’d put it down and forget about it for a week? Not happening here. The pace in this one is perfect, steady and almost doom-laden. Every note I wrote in Goodreads as I updated (and several more that I didn’t bother to type in) was some variation on “Really, Maati, you didn’t see that coming?” And while Otah’s plan for the future is clearly more than a little short-sighted, Maati’s has all the fascination of a train wreck. It’s skillfully executed; you can tell that Abraham has been improving throughout this series, which is always good to see.

There are still two things that bother me about this series, which unfortunately wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t so well-written. First of all, this is a wonderfully-realized, complex world, with several cultures, plenty of variation within those cultures, and all kinds of people within them. And every one of them is straight. Oh, there is finally a mention in this book of someone who might possibly have been less than straight at one point in the past, but that’s it. With such a detailed world, the omission starts to seem glaring.

The other problem I have is with the female characters. They’re great characters, don’t get me wrong – I love Eiah, and the mad poet Vanjit is a fascinating character. The problem I have is more with the overall shape of the story: with one possible exception, there are no female characters who succeed at anything. Anything other than marriage, that is. Idaan tried to take over the throne in A Betrayal in Winter, but was caught and cast out; now she is happily married to Cehmai. Kiyan does a fine job of managing the city in An Autumn War, but that was something she did out of necessity, not a goal of her own. Despite her business success, Liat is portrayed as incredibly unhappy. And then, of course, Vanjit becomes the first female poet and goes mad. It’s a slightly depressing pattern. I do often complain that fantasy is annoyingly unrealistic in its treatment of women, usually preferring to pretend to equality rather than dealing with any issues with the lack of gender equality, but I don’t think the alternative is to leave women with nowhere to go.

Despite these small complaints, I found The Price of Spring a wonderful, satisfying conclusion to an incredible series. I highly recommend it to anyone who likes fantasy with strong, interesting characters and well-rounded worldbuilding. If you’d like to see someone else’s take on the series, check out Jo Walton’s reviews at Tor.com.

Series: The Long Price Quartet

New to Me: Review of Looking for JJ by Anne Cassidy

Looking for JJ by Anne CassidyWhere I got it and why: I needed some good storytelling, and when I want just plain storytelling I always turn to YA. I pulled a couple of books from The List to request from the library, and this was one of them. (I’m sure I heard of it originally from a book blog, but I just can’t remember which one…)

Recommended? Yes, particularly if you like true crime (which this book has much more in common with than a murder mystery, although it is a novel)

Review: Six years ago, ten year old Jennifer Jones killed her best friend. Now Alice Tully is trying to build a new life for herself. She’s got a job at a coffee shop, a boyfriend, and a good shot at normality, but will she get to keep any of it?

This book has the least convoluted plot but the most interesting structure of anything I’ve read recently. The story itself is straightforward, an excruciatingly sympathetic portrayal of a young woman who had killed someone when she was only a child, and how she attempts to deal with that and the normal problems of adolescence. We’re introduced to Alice Tully first, and as her past slowly begins to creep up on her, we flash back in more and more extensive detail to her childhood and the terrible event that defines her life.

Within the first couple of chapters I realized that this book is actually a fictionalization of the famous case of Mary Bell, which I read about earlier this year in Gitta Sereny’s incomparable Cries Unheard. Cassidy changed some details for her YA novel, which I was originally a little annoyed by, since I do think some of them are substantial to the meaning of the case – the victim being much younger versus roughly the same age, the degree of abuse the girl suffered in her home life – but then I realized that what Cassidy did was tone it down to the point where it was actually readable. I know I found Cries Unheard to be extremely tough going, and on reflection I can’t imagine some of those things being included in any novel, never mind a YA novel.

As you have probably concluded by now, Looking for JJ is one of those YA novels people have been complaining about lately, one of those things saturated with darkness. But it’s saturated with something else, too – empathy. This is a story about someone who has done something horrible and knows it, about coming to terms with that and learning how to move on even though she can never forget or atone. It’s also a story about learning how and why she could have done such a thing, and doing her best to make sure she would never do something like that again, even though that means making impossibly hard choices. It’s incredibly grown-up stuff, but as the fact that it’s based on a true story makes obvious, it’s not stuff that only grown-ups have to deal with.

I found this not only a good read, but an important book, the kind of book that librarians ought to keep on the YA shelves because there might be a kid out there who needs it. Looking for JJ is not trying to prove anything, it has no secret agenda or ultimately uplifting message, but it’s a book full of compassion for damaged people. It is an example of the best of what dark YA can do.

 

Summer Anthro Reads

When I was an undergraduate, I meant to be an English major. I loved to read, surely I would be an English major, right? But when I got to college I was placed with the anthropology department for my freshman adviser, and I fell in love. People! An entire discipline about people! Figuring out why people do the things they do! It didn’t hurt that my adviser specialized in the cargo cults of Papua New Guinea, which led her to an interest in UFO movements. We studied all kinds of interesting stuff, I tell you what.

xckd presents: People.

Drama, by xkcd.com

Margaret Mead was hugely popular once upon a time. She took her experience as an anthropologist and turned it into a career as a writer, columnist, and speaker. Alas, anthropology isn’t all that popular any more, and a lot of Mead’s own research has since been improved upon to the point where I can’t recommend it wholeheartedly. And Clifford Geertz, one of the great ethnographic writers, died just a year or so after I graduated. But I love anthropology, and I love recommending it to people, so even though there’s no such genre as “popular anthropology” any more, I have made it my project to amass a collection of books  about people I can foist off on people and say, “Here! Isn’t this awesome?”

  • Ishi, Last of His Tribe by Theodora Kroeber (who is Ursula K. Guin’s mother, for the fantasy fans out there). This is an anthropological classic, still fascinating today. Ishi was what they called the last surviving member of the Yahi people of California – in his tribe, it was forbidden to speak your own name. Kroeber wrote his biography, and this is pretty much all we have left of an entire way of life.
  • Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely. More psychology than anthropology, this book is an enthralling exploration of studies on why humans do things that don’t make rational sense. Because we’re human, is Ariely’s conclusion. I love that he argues that we should change our social systems to fit our brains, rather than trying to change our brains to fit our badly-designed systems.
  • Stiff by Mary Roach. I love all of Roach’s books (although Bonk was a little disappointing), but this is still my favorite. Stiff follows the life of a corpse – how forensic scientists study them, how funeral directors care for them, how cemeteries and crematoria dispose of them. Fascinating (if slightly grisly) stuff.
  • Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt. Yes, it’s a study of traffic patterns. Also traffic control measures, drivers’ perceptions and attitudes, and the social history of the American relationship with cars. Vanderbilt has put together a fascinating study of something most of us do so often we don’t think about it any more – and offers some great reasons for why we should.
  • The Great Cat Massacre by Robert Darnton. Another classic of the field, this one in history, Darnton pieces together the culture of early modern France from the texts we have available. Great stuff, from his attempts to understand just why people would find it necessary to slaughter all the cats in a city to his descriptions of – and quotations from – the Rousseau fangirls.
  • The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher, my favorite book for which I can never remember the title. Language is complicated stuff, moreso when you’re a mongolot like me, but Deutscher explains things clearly, with a friendly, casual tone that invites you in to learn what you can. (He even managed to make Hebrew structures understandable to me for a while, which I remain incredibly impressed by.) If you’ve ever had the slightest interest in the history of human communication, you’ll want to take a look at this.

I always used to resent the idea that I ought to read nonfiction to learn something – I read it because it’s fun. Got any fun nonfiction reads to share?

New to Me: Review of An Autumn War by Daniel Abraham

An Autumn War by Daniel AbrahamWhere I got it and why: From the library, since there isn’t a bookstore in town with a copy and I needed it NOW. Third in Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet.

Recommended?: Oh yes. But this is definitely a series you read in order — get the first two first, and look forward to this one.

Review: There is something about these books that causes me to get stuck about halfway through, leave it be for a few days, and then pick it up and drive straight on to the end. I’m not sure if it’s a lull in the action or what, but this is the third time it’s happened. I am so glad I did pick it back up, though, because this book is easily the best in the series so far.

And a warning: we have reached the point where it is inevitable, there will be SPOILERS for the earlier books in the rest of this review.

Some fifteen years have passed since the events of A Betrayal in Winter. Otah is now Khai Machi, responsible for an entire city. He has, scandalously, only one wife, and his only son Danat is sickly. His daughter Eiah, being a teenager, is starting to act out, despite the careful guidance of her beloved Uncle Maati. Into this relatively blissful domestic scene comes Liat, the former lover of both Maati and Otah, with her grown son, who had been raised by Maati when he was small but who is now so visibly Otah’s son that his presence is likely to cause even more scandal. Not as much, though, as the news Liat brings with her: the Galts are going to attempt an invasion.

For centuries the andat, the incredibly powerful beings held by the poets of the great cities, have protected them from the technologically advanced, militaristic Galts, but Galtic General Balatar Gice has dedicated his whole life to destroying the andat. No one, he thinks, should be allowed to have that much power – control over a being who could pull down whole cities with a thought, or destroy the crops of an entire country, or cause ravaging floods and devastation. He has gone into the desert that used to be the old Empire, he has found a poet of his own, and he is going to first destroy the andat and then any possibility that they will ever return, even if that means destroying every one of the great cities on his way.

All of the cover blurbs on this book talk about the amazing ending, which usually puts me off because most of the time, knowing the twist is going to come, I can predict it well in advance. Not so much in this case. The climax of this story hits that perfect combination of exquisite foreshadowing and total surprise – Once you get there you realize there is no way it could have gone any differently, but it was so completely not what you were expecting that it feels like a punch in the gut. In a good way, of course.

Abraham’s characters are exquisite, and as the world becomes more familiar the deeper you get into the series, the characters take their places as the highlight of the book. Otah, Maati, and Liat have all changed so much since A Shadow in Summer, grown both in wisdom and in their flaws, but they’re still deeply recognizable as themselves. It’s the characters who make that ending what it is, because it’s the characters, their drives and disappointments, the whole history of their lives, that make it so inevitable. It’s a wonderful study in how good people can do horrible things in pursuit of good causes, and there is no one, from the Galtic general to the treacherous mercenary, who you can really blame. Everyone is doing the best they can with the options they have, they’re just terrible options. It is, in fact, very like a Greek tragedy; if they were different people it would have gone differently, but they aren’t, so how could it?

In any other series, this would be the end. This book ends with an earthshattering change, but there are possibilities for growth and rebirth still visible. Most writers would have left it there, but there is another book in this series, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Series: The Long Price Quartet by Daniel Abraham

Summer Fantasy Reads

Heck with reviewing books one at a time, sometimes what you want is a big pile of books to lay up. (Especially as it heats up outside and all you want to do is sit on the couch with a glass of iced tea, a fan, and a book. Now that sounds like an ideal summer vacation.) My disappointment at The Unremembered has made me think about all the other fantasy books I’ve loved. Fantasy is such a huge genre; there’s so much you can do, so many exciting worlds you could explore, why read the same thing over and over? While I admit to a fondness for cheesy 80s fantasy (it’s what I grew up on), I can guarantee that none of these books are a Lord of the Rings ripoff, and they will all surprise you at least once. These are my favorite summer fantasy rereads.

  • Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle – published in four volumes in the US as A Secret History, Carthage Ascendant, Wild Machines, and Lost Burgundy. Ash is a female mercenary captain in late medieval Burgundy, and she is going to save the world. Just not her own. This is fantastic alternate history at its very best.
  • Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. This is a classic journey-into-the-underworld type story, but what an underworld! (I bought a copy when I was in London a couple of years ago, because it took me two days to figure out why I was so familiar with the Underground map when I’d never been there before, and then I just needed a reread.)
  • Caught in Crystal by Patricia C. Wrede. Although she’s given up her old life, Kayl’s past hasn’t given her up, and she and what’s left of the friends of her youth have to finish what they started. Wrede was my very first writer crush – I was introduced to her through Dealing With Dragons, a sort of fractured-fairy-tale wonderfulness which you should also read – and I’ve loved this book for years. I doubt I noticed it at the time, but it features not only a female protagonist, but a middle-aged one at that. And yes, she kicks ass.
  • The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. Fantasy thieves and con men. If you are the kind of person who likes that kind of thing, do you really need more? This is the sort of book they mean when they say “rollicking adventure,” and better yet, it’s the first in a series. (Red Seas and Red Skies is Locke and Jean plus pirates, and the third is coming out — someday.)
  • Jhereg by Steven Brust. The first in Brust’s epic Vlad Taltos series, this is still one of my favorites: the story of an assassin and his telepathic flying lizard, and their quest to dominate the underworld of the Dragaeran city of Adrilankha. (At least for now. They’ll have other quests later.) Brust takes fantasy tropes and dances on them, with a hefty dose of wry humor. Get in on it now before the series gets any bigger: he’s churning them out at a rate of one a year, and he’s only got six left to go.
  • Mélusine  by Sarah Monette. Felix is a wizard of the Mirador, flighty, petty, and damaged. Mildmay is a former assassin, now the best cat burglar in the city. Not always the easiest book to get through, with half of it from the point of view of a man who’s gone so insane he cannot reliably identify humans as humans, but it’s a fantastic world, amazing characters, and the series builds most wonderfully.

I find summer terribly nostalgic for some reason, so I love using it to get reacquainted with old favorites. What are some of your favorite summer rereads?

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