coraa: (werewolfy)
This was one of my Books & Breakfast books, and it's one of the kind of books that I'm never quite sure how to review. Because I really enjoyed it! But I have no idea whether my enjoyment of it will translate to anyone else, because I enjoyed it for pushing a very particular set of my buttons.

To talk about this, I have to back up a bit and discuss The Werewolf Problem.

I love werewolf books, in theory. Werewolf: The Apocalypse was my first RPG, and I played the hell out of it, and Werewolf (old and new) remains my second-favorite set of games. (Changeling, game of my heart, is still #1.) While everyone else who gamed in my area was about blood-drinking and backstabbing, I was more about howling at the moon and ripping my enemies in half. I love Blood and Chocolate and Sergeant Angua and Elfquest (where, okay, they aren't werewolves per se, but close enough) and the Brecilian Forest quest in Dragon Age.

And then, with the supernatural romance/new urban fantasy explosion, there was a big upsurge of werewolf books!

And they let me down, man. Because I quickly came to realize that having werewolves in supernatural romance was often an excuse to have a male character who was either a) a creepy stalker, or b) a raging, possessive, controlling jackass, who in both cases a and b tended to have crazy double standards for gender into the bargain, and somehow it was Okay because it was because he was a (were)wolf! It totally wasn't his fault! He couldn't help being a stalker or a jackass and a hypocrite on top of that because *insert bizarre handwavey discussion of wolf behavior here*. Often with "bonus" scene in which the male werewolf bites and turns the human protagonist in a distressingly rapey way.

(Side note: Wolves are not like that "naturally;" claims that they are are based on outdated and rather poor science, based on wolf behavior in artificial situations. It is just as thin an explanation to me as every "well men can't help being dicks" explanation. If you like a romance in which the guy is a gigantic dick, own that. Don't blame the wolves!)

So I have slogged through many a werewolf romance in which the guy is a werewolf and the girl is a human and the werewolfyness is an explanation for him being a raving jackass. (Occasionally the girl is a werewolf too, but then there's usually some handwavium about how he's stronger and more dominant because he's a male werewolf, and my eyes roll out of their sockets.) I liked some of them, I retain a fondness for Bitten by Kelley Armstrong despite its faults, and Mercy Thompson (who, okay, were-coyote, but close enough), and a few others. But mostly I decided that the genre and I wanted different things out of werewolf books.

And then I read Nightshade (no, I had not forgotten that that was the ostensible topic of this post!), and let me tell you what, within the first chapter or so it was established that the main character, Calla, was a young female werewolf who actually hunted! And fought! And was strong! And was going to be alpha of her new pack! And was totally cool with that—and so were her packmates.

So: yeah. Sold. I had been looking for a werewolf book with a strong female werewolf who was smart and tough and assertive, and I found one, and that was basically all I needed.

There are also some interesting deconstructions of some of the things that do bug me about werewolf romances. Some of the characters expect that Calla will be "feminine" and will eventually submit to the male alpha... and that attitude, as it turns out, is not natural in the wolves-are-just-like-that handwavium, but is just as artificial as similar attitudes about human women. Calla has to make some tough choices: while she resents her parents trying to protect her, it turns out that they aren't trying to protect her due to generalized parental overprotectiveness, and she needs to face that she is genuinely putting herself and her pack in danger. Also, I found Calla's relationship with her younger-but-not-much-younger brother entirely plausible (I myself have a younger-but-not-much-younger brother, with whom I get along well), and rather charming. Even more, I appreciated that her younger brother didn't have any cliche grumpy "I am a DUDE and should be ALPHA instead of YOU" angst: he occasionally fights with his big sisters, but he also accepts her as alpha.

It's not a perfect book, by any stretch. There's a love triangle, and I know a lot of people (myself included) are getting kinda bored of love triangles. The book is awfully talky in places (and I hear the sequel is worse). It's set in Vail, CO, but was written by someone who actually hadn't been to Vail, and it kinda shows. And one of the members of the love triangle has a kind-of-ridiculous set of useful skills, on account of how he apparently deliberately modeled himself on Indiana Jones, right down to the whip. (I admit it, I laughed when he broke out the whip.)

But.

Female alpha werewolf, running around on the mountaintop, hunting and fighting, solving mysteries, and being a stone cold badass. It hit me where I live, is what I'm saying. And if you like that kind of thing too, well, maybe it'll do the same for you.

Nightshade, by Andrea Cremer
coraa: (bookworm)
Ever since Diana Wynne Jones passed away, I've been doling out the new-to-me books a few at a time to make them last. This is one of my most recent "new" reads.

It's clear from the beginning that magical things are going on at Melstone House, because Andrew is first informed that his grandfather has died and left him the place by his deceased grandfather's ghost. But Andrew can't figure out exactly what's going on: why everyone keeps referring to his "field-of-care," what document he's supposed to be finding among his grandfather's voluminous papers, or why Aidan Cain has run away and sought him for help. But he'd better figure it out quickly, because something sinister is rapidly encroaching on the property...

This is what I think of as a very typical Diana Wynne Jones book: set in a world almost but not quite ours, with a large cast of highly eccentric characters, a scale that is small but with potentially far-reaching results, and a protagonist (or protagonists) who is always just one step behind the rapidly-unfolding (and rapidly-complicating) plot. That said, "typical Diana Wynne Jones" is in no way a criticism. This book contains many of the things that I like about her as an author, particularly the large, eccentric, mostly-likeable cast of characters and the way all the tangled plot threads tie up at the end in a big, messy climactic ending. DWJ does the "gloriously chaotic ending" better than pretty much anyone I can think of.

Some of the things that I liked about the book are hard to talk about outside the spoiler cut, like the way it plays with a certain set of tropes. Let me just say that it manages to deal with some common tropes in way that are a little uncommon without hanging a big "I am subverting this trope! Look at me subvert!" sign on it.

The book did some other things that I think of as classic Diana Wynne Jones, and again, in a good way. It is very funny, in some places funny enough to make me giggle out loud. The humor is character-based, which is my favorite kind. And that ties in with another thing I appreciated: serious emotional subjects are handled with a sensitivity and a deft touch that makes them feel honest without being sledgehammer-like. There is one scene where a character grieves, and it felt completely real to me, but it wasn't like wading through a quagmire of angst.

I wouldn't say this was one of my very favorite DWJ books. It's very light, and again, it's doing something she has done many times. But good DWJ is great by most other standards, and this is definitely good. I'd recommend it, especially as a book to read if you're having a bad day.

Spoilers have a magic stained glass window. )

Enchanted Glass, by Diana Wynne Jones
coraa: (bookworm)
Howl's Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones

After Diana Wynne Jones passed away earlier this year, I started rereading some of my favorites of her books. (Not in any kind or orderly or organized fashion; for that, see [livejournal.com profile] swan_tower's DWJ project.) It's hard for me to actually decide what my favorite DWJ book is. Archer's Goon is a possibility, Charmed Life is a possibility; Witch Week is a possibility. But Howl's Moving Castle is a strong contender for favorite. It's also one of the earliest DWJ I read: after Archer's Goon but before Charmed Life.

The book is set in a mildly fairy-tale-esque world—fairy-tale-esque enough that its protagonist, Sophie, knows that (being the oldest of three children instead of the youngest) she is not meant for great things, and is only going to get into trouble if she sets off to seek her fortune. So she settles into the boring but sensible work of trimming hats at the hat shop her father owned before he died. But the Witch of the Waste arrives on Sophie's doorstep with a curse, and sets her off to seek her fortune (and cross paths with the wicked magician Howl) whether she planned it or not.

I think the thing I love most about this book, have always loved most about it, is how grounded and sensible it is. For instance, Howl has a pair of seven-league boots that Sophie and Michael (Howl's apprentice) use to visit one of Sophie's sisters. Seven leagues is twenty-ish miles... and of course it's hard to steer or navigate if you go ten miles at a step. And the way Sophie justifies sticking around Howl's castle is by acting as a housekeeper... complete with details of exactly how much work it is to clean up after a layabout wizard and his teenage apprentice if they haven't cleaned in years. (It made me want to go do some spring cleaning of my own, in fact.)

The characters are really what make this book. Well, and the setting (I love the odd combination of fairy-tale and realistic of the world, and of course the castle is marvelous). There's a plot involving the Witch of the Waste and a missing prince, but it's really an excuse for Sophie to be clever and sensible and no-nonsense, and for Howl to be brilliant and lazy, and for Calcifer the fire demon to be... thoroughly Calcifer, and so on. Even the more minor characters, like Sophie's sisters and the dog, are so beautifully-drawn even in just a few lines that I feel like I know them, and would happily have tea with them.

This is part of the genre I think of as "cozy fantasy," and it's one of my ultimate comfort reads. It's funny and warm, tremendously readable, and I highly recommend it.

(The Miyazaki movie tends to split the opinions of fans of the book. While it has the same story, in fairly broad strokes at least, it turns the sensibility of the book upside-down: where the book is pragmatic and grounded even in its more magical details, the movie is dreamlike even in its more mundane details. I think that's why it feels so different—at least to me—even though the characters and plot are largely similar. I like both, but they are very much not the same.)

I have not yet read the sequels, partly because I'm afraid that very few things could live up to this book. Those of you who have read Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways: what do you think of them?

And now for some spoilery commentary:

Spoilers express their feelings with green slime )
coraa: (bookworm)
Starting my book-every-couple-days resolution off right...

White Cat (Curse Workers, Book 1), by Holly Black

Cassel Sharpe grew up in a family of workers—people with the inborn (and, in the USA, illegal) ability to perform magic on others by touching their hands to their target's bare skin—but he himself is no worker. His mother is in jail for using her emotion working ability to scam a rich man; his grandfather is a retired death-worker, with half his fingers missing due to blowback from the killings he's done; his brothers work for one of the crime families that both use and protect curse workers. But Cassel's attempt to live a normal life is destroyed when a white cat invades his dreams, literally, leading him to sleepwalk up onto the roof of his boarding school. And worse. It doesn't help that Cassel himself, though not an illegal curse worker, nonetheless has a history that includes a really horrific crime.

It's a noir con artist story, based on a comparatively obscure fairy tale, with alt history and magic and great worldbuilding! What's not to like?

I really enjoyed this book, and a big part of that is because of the setting. There's a lot of urban fantasy that uses the trope 'our world, but magic,' but Black's take (entirely lacking in weres and faeries and vampires) is fresh and interesting—even 'magic is illegal,' not itself a new idea, goes in some directions I hadn't seen before. In this alternate US, not just alcohol but also magic-working was made illegal in the 1920s; unlike alcohol, the criminalization of working was never lifted. Accordingly, by the 'present' of the story, magic is almost entirely in the hands of organized crime families. Everyone wears gloves all the time (except with trusted intimates), because bare hands are as plausible a threat as an unsheathed knife.

The characters were as well-realized as the setting, even though most of them were pretty unlikeable. (I did like Cassel and his friends, and a couple of others, but mostly the cast is a bunch of nasty folk—which I actually appreciated: it undercut the all-too-common fantasy trope of your thieves and assassins who all conveniently have hearts of gold.) They were all solid and believable, and even when they occasionally did stupid things they had plausible motivations.

But mostly I thought the plot was very good, half caper (Cassel's family were all curse workers, but even more fundamentally, they were all con men and women) and half mystery, with a strong dose of magic. If I hadn't known from Holly Black's talk at Sirens, I wouldn't have realized this was a fairy tale retelling, because the feeling of it is more noir, or possibly heist film, or both. It's one of those books where the twists and turns made me think both, "Wow, I didn't see that coming!" and "Oh, but of course!" at the same time, which is quite a trick and also very satisfying to read.

In retrospect, this is a pretty dark book, but it didn't feel dark in the reading, if that makes sense. Nasty things happened, and things happened that made me cringe for Cassel, but in a way that was exciting and compelling, not that made me feel flattened by the Cement Truck of Grim.

This is one of those books that I am glad I wasn't spoiled for, so I'll put my further thoughts under a spoiler cut.

Spoilers pull a fast one on you )

Anyway, highly recommended. Especially if you like stories about con men, or noir, or just urban fantasy with an original and interesting setting. The second book's coming out next year, and I can't wait (but this story ends at a place where I didn't feel like I'd gotten cliffhangered, which I also like).
coraa: (girl with book)
The Dubious Hills, by Pamela Dean

(This is a really hard book to synopsize! That's my way of saying that if the following sounds boring or dumb, that's my fault, not the book's.)

In the Dubious Hills, knowledge is divided up amongst the adults of the community, each of whom have their own purview. Fourteen-year-old Arry has the knowledge of pain, and the soothing thereof, just as her uncle Oonan has the knowledge of broken things and the fixing thereof. The community has thus lived in peace and balance for hundreds of years, relying on one another to fill the gaps in their knowledge. Things begin to shift, though: Arry's parents have disappeared, leaving a hole in Arry's family that she must struggle to fill; pains appear that are not physical and are not easily soothed, and Arry does not know what to do about them. And then there are the wolves who do not act like wolves, black and silent as shadows, who come into the village offering a bargain that will change everything, one way or another.

This was a lovely novel, strange and quiet. It takes a handful of starting premises ("what if knowledge was split up tidily between people in a community, rather than spread out messily among them as in the real world?" "what if magic spells existed and were very effective, but could only be practiced by young children?") and explores them in a way that's very thorough without turning them into engineering. In that way the book is remarkable: we have magic whose nature and origin is pretty thoroughly examined that, to me, still manages to remain mysterious, mystical, even numinous.

Part of the reason for that is that everything is explained slowly, gradually, in pieces; you see the world from the point of view of Arry, for whom all of this is both old hat (she's lived in the community her whole life) and new (knowledge comes to people around puberty, which was fairly recently). The mystery deepens before it's explained, and the whole complex system by which the country runs is revealed bit by bit rather than in infodumps. It's really impressively-done.

The story itself is very domestic: there is magic but no big battles, and much of the book is taken up in conversation. Much of the tension of the book is taken up in Arry's attempt to figure out what is hurting her brother and sister and what (and whether) she can do about it. Most of the magic (which is performed by speaking spells, and the spells are lines from English poets, a touch I appreciated—at one point Con, Arry's sister, creates a glass of intoxicating beverage by reciting, "O for a beaker full of the warm South") is used for little things, like kindling hearthfires and lighting rooms. This makes it sound boring, and it isn't at all: it's just very personal. It's about the fate of home and village, not the fate of the world.

The only other book of Dean's that I've read, and the one I hear talked about far and away the most, is Tam Lin. Tam Lin was a book that I appreciated and admired but couldn't feel attached to, because it gave me the curious feeling of hovering anxiously on the outside of a clique that I was not cool enough for—probably not an unreasonable thing to feel, because, duh, faeries, and certainly more about my own issues than about the book itself, but still uncomfortable enough to put a barrier between me and the book. This had a lot of the things that I admired about Tam Lin, without the parts that I couldn't enjoy.

So: This book is probably not for everyone, but I enjoyed it very much indeed, and recommend it to anyone who thinks it sounds interesting. It's about knowledge and doubt, and family, and community, and the things outside us and within us that challenge what we know. I love domestic fantasy, fantasy where the magic involved is strange and slow to unravel, and stories in general where the stakes are no less real because they're personal.
coraa: (changeling)
And now, a palate-cleanser in the form of a book I plain loved.

Changeling, by Delia Sherman

Neef is a thirteen-year-old mortal changeling, the human half of the human-for-faerie swap that happened when she was too young to remember. Though there are many changelings in New York Between (the parallel New York inhabited by supernaturals from all the cultures that make up New York City), Neef is the only Changeling of Central Park—in part because the Wild Hunt of nasty, brutish, anthropophagic faeries make Central Park their home. Neef is protected from the Wild Hunt by the word of the Green Lady, the Genius (in the sense of "spirit of a place") of Central Park. But when she runs afoul of the specific, complicated, and unforgiving rules of the supernaturals, she must embark on a nigh-impossible quest... with help only from her rather peculiar faerie changeling counterpart.

I enjoyed this book tremendously. It's YA (or perhaps middle-grade? I'm not so clear on the boundary between those) urban fantasy, where by "urban fantasy" I mean the older Charles de Lint/Bordertown/War for the Oaks school, not the newer vampire boyfriend school. Furthermore, it's one that acknowledges the multicultural nature of the USA, which means that there are not only pooka and selkies but also rusalka, tengu, hu hsien, talking animals, moss women, and kraken. And that's not even counting the Fictional Characters who have enough spiritual presence to show up. I love this type of urban fantasy, so that immediately pleased me.

The other thing that immediately pleased me was Neef herself. Neef is smart, determined, cheerful, and likable; it was a pleasure to spend a couple hundred pages with her. She screws up, but in ways that I found sympathetic, not in ways that made me roll my eyes. And when she screws up, she rolls up her sleeves and gets to work fixing it. I liked that she was a girl/young woman protagonist for whom going on a Quest was a perfectly natural option, and I liked that she was perfectly willing to take it on.

Something else I liked, but it's near the end of the book, so, spoiler cut:

Spoilers crash the Midsummer Dance )

Anyway. I have to make one brief caveat: Neef meets the faerie half of her changeling swap, and the faerie-girl-who-lives-among-mortals has behaviors that look like OCD or autism-spectrum to me. This is mythologically supported (many supernatural creatures are described as having compulsions or as socializing in unusual ways, and the changeling's behavior is explicitly tied to those myths), and I think it's handled very sensitively and well (the changeling is portrayed as happy and content with herself, not broken or in need of saving, and indeed she is as much responsible for saving the day as Neef is), but I know some people have issues with "magical disabilities." Still, aside from that, I'd thoroughly recommend this one. It's quick, light without being shallow, genuinely funny in places, and just plain delightful.
coraa: (changeling)
Lament: The Faerie Queen's Deception, by Maggie Stiefvater

Sixteen-year-old Deirdre is a gifted harpist who regularly plays in competitions and for events such as weddings. Although she is surrounded by music (her aunt is a diva, her best friend James is one of the best bagpipers in the area), her life is fairly normal until she meets Luke—a gorgeous, mysterious, gifted flautist—at a local arts festival. After they play together, she finds herself drawn to Luke... and frightened by his companions, whose appearances are heralded by carpets of clover and the scent of thyme. And she has reason to be frightened, she discovers, as the strange fair folk threaten Deirdre, James, and her entire family.

My reaction to this book is decidedly mixed. In a lot of ways, for what it is, it's a good book: there's a real sense of mystery around the fair folk, there's a twist on the faerie queen theme that I hadn't run into before, and Deirdre's dilemma in choosing between sweet, reliable, mortal James and dangerous, exciting, not-quite-human Luke is well-portrayed. The problem is that I'm not quite in the target audience, which means that my reactions to the book are sort of irrelevant to what is the target audience. Although they're not irrelevant to my general LJ readership, so I'll post them here anyway, with the caveat that I know perfectly well that I'm not the audience for this book, and the audience might love it to pieces.

First: what Stiefvater does right. The book is well-written, vivid, and lucid, and Stiefvater did a good job portraying the oddness of the fair folk. There was a take on the faerie queen that I hadn't ever seen before, and since I've read a lot of faerie fiction, that's impressive by itself. (More on that under the spoiler cut.) And while I am not in the target audience for the 'longing for a dangerous bad boy' thing, I found it believable, and while I wanted to shake Deirdre and ask her wtf she was thinking sometimes, it never edged over into thinking she was stupid. Just infatuated.

My biggest problem with the book (and a problem that has nothing to do with whether I'm the target audience or not) is the fact that Deirdre does so little to move the plot. For most of the book, things happen to her, and she does as other people say. Even when she turns out to have not insignificant magical powers, she rarely actually uses those powers to do anything. They're mostly there to mark her as special, rather than to serve as tools for her to use. I found that frustrating.

And now, onto the things that are not the fault of the book, but rather the preferences of the reader. I'm getting awfully bored with "he's arrogant and keeps secrets from me and he may be evil, I'm not sure, but he's soooo hot." That isn't to say that I don't understand the appeal (I have had bad-boy fictional crushes in my time, and not just when I was twelve, either), or that I think it's morally wrong to have an ambiguous bad-boy romance. I've just seen enough of it that I'm... well, it takes a lot to make it stand out. (Much the same way that the Farm Boy With Secret Past Goes On Quest Against Evil Overlord narrative has to do something pretty exciting to interest me these days.)

The same is true of the fair folk in general: a book has to either do something really unique, or else do the more standard faerie tropes thing remarkably well, to catch my interest. It's not that faerie books are bad. It's that the more of anything you read, the harder you are to impress. I think this is just plain true in general. (Side note: I also think that's why sometimes when a book with science fiction or fantasy themes hits the mainstream, that's why sff readers are often unimpressed with it. Something that's fresh, new, exciting, mindblowing if you don't know the genre might be old hat if you do. And it goes both ways: writing on interpersonal themes that impresses the hell out of sff readers is often yawnworthy to romance readers, who get a steady diet of interpersonal fiction.)

Spoilers ahoy! )

I'm not quite sure what to say in conclusion. I wouldn't say this was a bad book, and if faeries or love triangles including mysterious men of dubious intent push your buttons, it might even be a great book. I just am picky on those points, so it wasn't quite for me.
coraa: (bookses)
Wintergirls, by Laurie Halse Anderson

Lia and Cassie were best friends, sharing secrets and books and milestones, and, as they grew older, also the bond of both wanting to be thin, thinner, thinnest. Then they had a falling-out, and a few months later Cassie died, alone, after leaving many many messages on Lia's cell phone. Now Lia is seeing Cassie's ghost (or perhaps they're hallucinations or delusions brought on by hunger and guilt and depression), luring her deeper into the icy liminal world of the mad, the dying, and the dead.

Wintergirls is a painful, intense, and beautifully lyrical book. (That word, lyrical, is badly overused, including by me, but in this case I think it's absolutely appropriate.) It's also not a book about anorexia: it's a book about a girl with anorexia, and there's a big difference. The main difference is that this isn't a Problem Novel. (If you don't know what a Problem Novel is, count your blessings; if you do, you're probably wincing along with me.) Lia has anorexia, Lia's anorexia is central to the plot and its realities are not shied away from, but the book is fundamentally about Lia. It doesn't use Lia as a puppet in a morality play. And that's crucial, to me.

I tagged this post with 'magic realism' because it's a rare example of a book where there's a fantastic element that may or may not be really present, and either interpretation is just as valid all the way through. Lia may really be haunted by Cassie, may really be in the process of being summoned to a beautiful and lifeless underworld of death and madness and rose-thorns and eternal winter, or she may be hallucinating, or she may be delusional from grief or hunger or depression or all of the above. If you need your fantastic elements to have concrete resolutions or explanations, this book is probably not for you, but I loved the way it hovered perpetually between both explanations without selling either short.

The other thing I loved was the fact that the mythic elements were there but weren't overplayed. The parallels between Lia and Cassie/Persephone and Hades are set up from page one, but they don't become heavy-handed or take over the book. They're just there, and they may be in Lia's mind (she is a fantasy reader, after all) or they may be real, or they may be both.

This is a very different book than Prom, which I also enjoyed very much, but I think the comparison actually makes them both stronger. Lia is different in almost every way from Ashley in Prom (Lia comes from a privileged background and Ashley is poor, Lia takes everything seriously and Ashley takes very few things seriously, Lia is obsessed with control and Ashley is mostly fine letting things come as they are), and yet they both struck me as entirely believable teenage-girl voices. And I was both like and unlike both of them, and I identified with both of them. It shows that Anderson has pretty impressive scope and range.

Anyway. This is an intense and lovely book, albeit not an easy one to read. But I finished it in an afternoon, more or less, and so I'd recommend it for sure.

(Those of you who have read other books by Anderson: are they also this good? After two-for-two I'm interested in getting more.)
coraa: (matilda reads)
Archer's Goon, by Diana Wynne Jones

The Goon who showed up at Howard's family's kitchen table, huge legs stretched out to take up the whole room, said he was from Archer, and that Archer wanted his "two thousand." But according to Howard's father, the two thousand Archer wanted was not money but words. And it wasn't just Archer who wanted it: all seven of the family of wizards (or whatever they were) who farmed the town wanted those words, for purposes of their own. And they were prepared to make things quite uncomfortable if they didn't get them....

This was the first Diana Wynne Jones book I ever read, and while I've always been bad at picking favorites, this might be it. (That's your warning that this review is mostly an encomium.) It's part of what I call DWJ's odd standalones—odd not meant as an insult but as a genre designator—a class which includes A Tale of Time City, Fire and Hemlock, The Homeward Bounders and Eight Days of Luke. I say "odd" because they're not quite like anything I've found by anyone else: they are all set in our world, with secret or hidden magic, and the secret or hidden magic manages to be simultaneously very mysterious and very mundane in a way that's difficult for me to explain but that delights me to no end. And then there's DWJ's distinctive dry sense of humor, which permeates this book particularly.

Anyway. Archer's Goon. One of the things that I love most about this book is the way that the plot is a truly satisfying, sense-making, interesting plot that springs fully from character. In fact, it springs so fully from character that, on my first read-through, I was fairly certain that the plot was just an excuse for the characters to be fascinating (and fascinating they are, and often likable too)... and then at the end everything slotted neatly and inevitably into place precisely because of the way the characters had spent the prior two hundred pages being fascinating. It's beautifully done, and it's something I appreciate because I read books for character first, and so a character-driven plot that works so well is immensely satisfying.

And oh, the characters! There's Howard, the main character, who is smart and wry and sensible and daydreamy all at once. There's his little sister Awful, who I love to pieces: she's one of the least-romanticized child characters I've ever seen (she lives up to her name, let's just say), and who is nonetheless quite charming in her own Awful way. There's the Goon, who I came to like a great deal almost against my will, on the first read-through, and who now on re-reads I like from the beginning (which works, too). There's Howard and Awful's parents, who are delightful and infuriating by turns, and who neither solve the problems themselves nor are particularly useless. (Well, Howard's father is kind of useless, but for reasons that are in character and not just 'it's a kid's book, he has to be useless.') And then there are Torquil and Hathaway and Ginger Hind and Archer and Dillian and Shine and on and on. The book has a ton of characters, and they're all distinct and interesting, and some of them I love and some of them I want to punch in the nose and it all works.

There are other things that I love and want to talk about, but they're, hmm, varying degrees of spoilery. Here, I'll give you two cuts: one for things that are mildly to moderately spoilery but that, IMHO, won't ruin your book-enjoyment, and another for things that I suspect you would not want to know before your first read-through. (If you click the first cut, have no fear; I will make it boldingly clear at what point the spoilers switch over.)

Moderate spoilers )

Big bad spoilers )

Anyway, this is a beautifully-plotted book with a lot of great characters, and I'm sad that it's out of print. Recommended.

EDIT: Spoilers welcome in the comments, so be aware of that if you are unspoiled!
coraa: (girl with book)
The Stepsister Scheme, by Jim Hines

Thanks to her own strong and kind nature, and the supernatural help of her dead mother, Danielle de Glas (aka Cinderella) is now free of her malicious stepmother and stepsisters. But even as the princess of the realm, Danielle can't put her troubles behind her, as she soon finds out. Her stepsister returns with new and inexplicable magic powers, attempts to kill Danielle, and then kidnaps Prince Armand. Danielle must rescue him...but fortunately she doesn't have to do it alone. She gains the help of the Queen's most trusted aides and "secret service:" Snow (White), a master magician and expert at mirror-magic, and an incorrigible flirt; and Talia (aka Sleeping Beauty), who used her fairy gifts of grace and poise to become an unparalleled martial artist. And Danielle soon learns that her mother's grace has not quite left her yet. But since the rescue will take them into Fairy, it's possible that even these skills won't be enough.

In other words: Disney Princesses crossed with Charlie's Angels.

I've read a lot of fairy tale retellings. I mean, a lot. All of the Windling/Datlow fairy tale anthologies, all of the Fairy Tale series of books that included Yolen's Briar Rose and Brust's The Sun, The Moon and The Stars, Robin MckKinleys' oeuvre, Tanith Lee's fairy tale books, Donna Jo Napoli, and on and on. You'd think this would make me tired of them, but it actually hasn't.* I still love a good fairy tale retelling. And this scratched the itch in a way I enjoyed very much.

* Well, that's not true. I have grown tired of a certain kind of fairy tale retelling that feels, to me, self-consciously ugly, adding nasty things just to make it more Gritty And Real. Thank you, no. But that's not a problem specific to fairy-tale fiction at all.

First off: the characters. The three princesses are different and distinct, without their differences being used to mark one as 'better' than the other. (This is surprisingly uncommon.) Danielle is genuinely kind and good-hearted in a way that's backed with steel: to be honest, the character she reminds me of the most is Tohru from Fruits Basket. She has the same, well, genuine kindness that Tohru has, and the narrative makes it clear that that isn't meant to be a default virtue for a woman. Instead, it's something that Danielle has to work at, and it doesn't make her a pushover (although Talia might not agree); in fact, Danielle may have the most strength of character of any in the group.

Snow is the magic-user of the group, specializing in (what else?) mirror magic. In that sense she's her mother's daughter, since her mother was a powerful enchantress. Snow is the most conventionally beautiful of the three (Danielle and Snow are both also beautiful, but in different ways), and she enjoys being beautiful. She's also a flirt, and she likes men; this is, as in real life, sometimes to her benefit and sometimes to her detriment. Crucially, her prettiness and her flirtyness don't make her stupid: she may in fact be the smartest of the trio, although she's probably the least world-wise.

Talia is the badass, of course. As Sleeping Beauty, in addition to exemplary beauty and a beautiful voice and so on and so forth, she got supernatural grace and poise from her fairy godmothers. And she uses it... to be an elite martial artist beyond compare, pairing her (super)natural ability with lots and lots of training and practice. She's the physical powerhouse of the group, and also the most suspicious and ruthless, a trait that is probably necessary to counterbalance Daniellle's kind heart and Snow's naivete. Talia, in short, could kick your ass.

The book is set in a secondary-fantasy world that borrows more from fairy tale than from mythology or history. The country they live in, where Danielle is princess, is sort of an alternate France (or maybe France/England); the mountainous country Snow hails from is more like Germany/Austria, with dark woods and high mountains; and Talia is from a Middle Eastern analogue. But most of the action of the book takes place in Fairytown, a place that's an amalgam of northwestern European folk and fairy tales. (Not so much mythology. In other words, you'll see variants on hobs and pixies, but not Tuatha de Danaan. This is actually sort of refreshing, as fairy tale retellings that track things back to Celtic mythology are pretty darn common.)

So, let's see. The book is in two of my personal mental book categories: it's a romp (meaning that it's a pretty fast-paced book with good characters and exciting action, more fun than seeeeeeerious), and it's a bathtub book (meaning that it's the kind of thing I'd read at the end of a hard day, and also the kind of thing that I could happily read in one or two sittings). It's not Great Literature but it's not supposed to be: it's a ton of fun, a fantasy adventure that features not one but three strong female characters, all of whom are different.

Why do I keep mentioning that? Because, outside of certain kinds of YA fantasy, it's surprisingly rare. These days you generally do at least get The Girl (not always, but more than you used to), but usually in terms of major characters The Girl is all you get. Books with more than one female protagonist aren't all that common. Books about more than one woman working together and/or being friends (rather than being romantic rivals) are even rarer. The fact that this book features three such characters is just plain awesome, and that overshadows any nitpicks I might have with the book.

A bit more, spoilery: )

Anyway. Recommended, especially as an airplane or bathtub or bad-day book, and doubly so if you like strong female characters. I bought it on the Kindle, read it on a plane ride, and actually liked it well enough to buy in paper copy so I could lend it to people.
coraa: (post apocalyptic far future medieval ass)
Iorich, by Steven Brust

Though Vlad ought, by all rights, to be staying as far away from Adrilankha as possible, once again his personal entanglements draw him back into danger. This time it's his friend Aliera e'Kieron, who has been charged with using elder sorcery... a capital crime. She's guilty of it, of course, but the more important question is: when everyone has known for years, what's the political motivation for charging her now? And how is Vlad going to keep her from going to the Executioner's Star... especially when, for reasons that are unclear to him, both Aliera and all of their mutual friends are not exactly helping?

Here's a funny thing: I went into Jhegaala expecting to be a bit disappointed in it, because it was a backstory-book featuring only three characters we even knew (except for a brief cameo from Noish-Pa); I went into Iorich expecting to find it satisfying because it deals, once again, with Adrilankha, with Aliera and Kiera and Sethra and Morrolan and Kragar and Cawti and Lady Teldra and all the rest. And yet, while my understanding of what the books were about was dead-on, my responses were completely opposite.

Oh, it's not that I didn't like Iorich. I did. If it were anything but one of the Vlad Taltos series, I would say I enjoyed it very much indeed. It was clever and tense and interestingly political, and of course I enjoy Vlad's narrative voice and his interaction with Loiosh (Loiosh!), and Sethra and Kiera and Aliera and Kragar and all the rest. And I really, really, really liked a lot of the worldbuilding details, of how Imperial law and justice work, and so on. I was looking forward to Iorich for those details, and I wasn't disappointed—plus, the major Iorich character, Aliera's lawyer, I quite liked. We're used to seeing Dragaeran society from the POV of those who are above the law (the upper-crust Dragons, Sethra, the Empress, etc.), from those who are sort of beneath the notice of the law (Teckla and Easterners), and, well, from criminals (Jhereg). Seeing Dragaeran society from someone who is immersed in the middle-class position and whose whole life is within the law rather than above, below or around it was pretty cool.

But the problem is... between this and Dzur, I'm beginning to feel like Brust is stalling. It's not enough to really hamper my enjoyment of the books, but if we get a few more Vlad Taltos books that sidestep the major plot questions raised in Phoenix and especially Issola, I'm going to begin to get impatient.

And I can't discuss any more without getting into spoilers, so assume spoilers for the whole series after this point. )

Anyway, I don't want to make it seem that I didn't enjoy this one. I did. And if you've read the Vlad books this far, you should read it, too. But probably in paperback.

(If you haven't read the Vlad series, be aware that this is one of those series that, IMHO, really has to be read in publication order. Start with Jhereg and work from there.)
coraa: (bookworm)
Thief Eyes, by Janni Lee Simner

(Disclaimer: I know the author and consider her to be a friend.)

After Haley's mother disappears during a trip to Iceland, Haley and her father return, and Haley seeks to figure out what happened. But it turns out that "what happened" is a more complicated question than Haley could possibly know, involving her many-times-great grandmother Hallgerd, an equally ancient spell, the fire spirits that dwell beneath the surface of Iceland, and Odin's own servants. Together with Ari (whose presence is, in itself, another problem: Ari is both sweet and attractive, but Haley already has a boyfriend), Haley must figure out what her ancestor wrought, what she herself has done, and how to resolve it before it tears apart Iceland, and the world.

I have to confess: my first response to hearing about this book was delight that a YA novel had been written about one of the Icelandic Sagas. I first read Njal's Saga (the story that is central to this book, and one of the greatest and most famous of the Sagas) when I was in college, and then reread it a couple of years ago. It's a story of both grand scope and intimate detail, and I'd recommend it to anyone. (Don't go with the free Gutenberg translation, as that's a thoroughly expurgated Victorian one; get a modern translation.)

But anyway! Thief Eyes! As I said, I was delighted (after years of Greco-Roman and Celtoid fantasy) to see a fantasy based on the Icelandic Sagas and Norse mythology. Freki and Muninn, both familiar figures from Norse myth, are distinctive and well-rounded characters... but even more so are the characters from the Sagas: Svan the sorcerer, ancient and amoral, and Hallgerd, who reaches across the generations to avoid a fate she doesn't want.

But the star of the show was Haley, an Arizona teenager who happened to be one of Hallgerd's descendants, who came in search of her mother and accidentally fell afoul of ancient magic, and who then had to find a way to turn back that magic. She was tough and determined, but realistically sheltered and sensitive, and I liked that. I also really liked her relationship with Ari, an Icelandic boy who was sweet and shy and charming, a total geek (he kept making Star Wars references, and I loved him a great deal just for that), and attractive to Haley. But Haley also had a boyfriend in the States, Jordan, and while she was undeniably attracted to Ari, she also felt loyalty to her boyfriend, which I found pretty admirable.

The way that Haley's conflicted friendship-and-proto-romance with Ari reflected her love-hate relationship with Iceland and her ancestry seemed to me to be particularly well-done.

Spoilers beneath the cut )

Recommended. And I also recommend Njal's Saga: find it in a recent-ish translation, and enjoy.
coraa: (book wyrm)
Jhegaala, by Steven Brust

While escaping from his enemies, Vlad Taltos travels to the East, the country of his own people. Though his first priority is avoiding being found by those pursuing him, he also wants to learn more about his mother's family. But his arrival in the town of Burz destabilizes a delicate balance, and leads to a gruesome murder—and solving that murder and getting vengeance soon prove more important to Vlad than staying one step ahead of trouble.

(It's getting to be incredibly hard to summarize these books without being spoileriffic for earlier volumes!)

If you aren't familiar with the Vlad Taltos books, they're essentially... how shall I put this. They're snarky first-person narratives about an assassin in what is, from the outside, an epic fantasy setting. Or to put it another way: they're high fantasy done as noir. I enjoy them tremendously, mostly for the main character, Vlad, the aforesaid snarky assassin, and for his familiar, the equally sarcastic scavenger-lizard Loiosh. They should be read from the beginning (that is, starting with Jhereg) and in publication order rather than internal-chronological order. In fact, given that Brust likes to play games with the narrative, reading them in internal-chronological order is very difficult.

Anyway, Jhegaala. As many others have noted, Jhegaala is interestingly placed: after Issola and Dzur, with questions of what happened to Lady Teldra and what will happen to Vlad fresh in our minds, Brust skips backwards several years, to the time period right after Phoenix, when Vlad first got in serious trouble. (Well, more serious trouble than usual.) At first, I was teeth-gnashingly frustrated by that, but after a couple of chapters I was sufficiently interested in the mystery of the city of Burz to not be too bothered.

And the book is a mystery story, as are many of the Vlad Taltos books. There's the mystery of why Burz is such a peculiar town, the mystery of the brutal murders, the mystery of who has it in for Vlad and why (besides the obvious). But it's also a story of transformation. One thing about the Vlad Taltos books that I hadn't recognized until it was pointed out by Jo Walton at tor.com is that, in each book, Vlad takes on the characteristics of the house the book is named for. (Each of the seventeen Dragaeran houses have certain psychological and social traits which determine both their individual personalities and their political efficacy.) In Yendi, Vlad had to be sneaky; in Dragon, Vlad was a soldier; in Issola, he negotiated. In Taltos, he was an Easterner, in name, in nature, and in behavior. And in Jhegaala, he transforms: now he is a witch, now he is a representative of the Empire, now he is an assassin, now he is a sleuth. As such, this is a book in which we get to see a lot of faces of Vlad.

It's also a book in which we get to see Vlad among his own kind, in contrast to... well, pretty much all the other books, in which he interacts mostly with Dragaerans. But more about that below the cut.

Spoilers are mild for Jhegaala but book-breaking for the earlier Vlad books. )
coraa: (bookworm)
Immortal, by Gillain Shields

When Evie's grandmother becomes ill, Evie has to go to live and study in Wyldcliffe Abbey School for Young Ladies, a boarding school for upper-class young ladies. Except Evie isn't from a wealthy family: she's a charity scholarship student. Her only allies are her friend Sarah, fellow scholarship student (and possibly-crazy girl) Helen... and Sebastian, the mysterious boy she meets by night. But something dreadful is going on at Wyldcliffe, something that ties together the mysterious death of the school's founder with the more recent drowning of a student.

At first I was kind of baffled by this book, because I was reading it as a YA supernatural romance. Which it is. It wasn't until I realized that it was also a gothic that it started to come together for me. There's a big creepy building with an Ominious History! A mysterious death of a young woman—a drowning in the lake—right before Evie arrives! Strange, half-seen figures and whispered mysteries! Doomful portents by a crazy woman! Attempts on Our Heroine's life by people jealous of her! There's even a gypsy prophecy, seriously. And, of course, Sebastian, who we meet when he almost runs Evie over with his giant black horse, no joke. In that sense it's highly entertaining, and it was fun to play spot-the-gothic-trope.

The problem was that it either needed to be a bit less melodramatic, or quite a lot more. Shields seemed to be trying to walk the line between a semi-realistic modern fantasy and an over the top brooding gothic romance, but the balance didn't... quite work for me. And the tone felt a little off. There's a bit at the beginning where Evie arrives at the school and sees the sign over the door: WYLDCLIFFE ABBEY SCHOOL FOR YOUNG LADIES, but the paint has peeled off, revealing an ominous message. Unfortunately, the ominous message is: WYLDCLIFFE BE COOL OR YOU DIE, which... just felt off for a gothic romance, I dunno.

The characters are a mix. I liked Evie early on, when she was sensible and irritated at the turn her life had taken, and was performing small rebellions to get away from the other students, who tormented her. But she bought into the Romance and Mystery a bit too quickly for me; I was hoping for her to stay more levelheaded. On that note, I really did like her friend Sarah, who avoided the mean girls by planting a garden and riding her horses and being pretty reliably clearheaded... except for the part where her great-great-great grandmother was Romany and left her a bit of second sight. (This should also stand as a warning for those for whom that would be a deal-breaker. It's brief and it's touched on only lightly, but it is there.) But that was so briefly touched on that I just internalized her as "Sarah with the garden and the horses" and liked her quite a bit. The parts where Sarah and Evie were trying to figure out the mysteries of Wyldcliffe Hall were my favorite bits, and I enjoyed them enough to make the read overall very pleasant.

That said... Sebastian. He's a gothic hero, which means he swans around by moonlight, rides a giant black horse (although it's a mare, which is refreshing!), wears archaic clothing, is pale and tormented-looking, and makes vague, mysterious statements a lot. Unfortunately, also sort of a genre staple, he's arrogant and controlling, and he never really gets called on it. Sigh. Again, I think if the book was just a liiiiiiitle bit more melodramatic, I would have found that awesome; as it was, it was just realistic enough that I found him irritating and wanted Evie to hook up with Sarah.

The reason Sebastian makes me frustrated enough to pull my hair out, under the spoiler cut.

Spoilers meet by the lake of drowning at the midnight hour )

Overall, an enjoyable enough book (apart from the hair-pulling frustrating of Sebastian), but nothing I'd recommend people run out and find.
coraa: (girl with book)
Meridian, by Amber Kizer

All her life, Meridian has seemed to attract dead and dying small animals and insects. A bit morbid, but you get used to it. But on her sixteenth birthday, Meridian witnesses a fatal car crash... and everything changes. Her parents hustle her on a bus to see her great-aunt (without even giving her a chance to say goodbye to her younger brother), who breaks the news to her: Meridian is a Fenestra, a person born to help the souls of the dying pass into Heaven, or Paradise, or whatever you might call the benevolent afterlife. But the Fenestra are not alone: the Alternocti have the same mission, but they strive to draw the dying into Hell. And they see the Fenestra as their sworn enemies.

This was a very... odd book. Not bad, and certainly not badly-written, but odd. The cosmology was particularly really strange, although internally consistent. What happens to you after you die seems to be determined by who is nearest you when you die: if you die near a Fenestre or a Sangre (ie, good) angel, you go to Heaven; if you die near an Alternocti or a Nocti (ie, bad) angel, you go to Hell; if you die with none of the above nearby, you reincarnate. It doesn't appear to matter what kind of person you were, or what you did in life, or what you believed in life, or any of that. This is played perfectly straight, and with a surprising unflinchingness: when a small child dies near a mature Alternocti, it's later said that her soul is in Hell. As I said, it's a very... weird cosmology, to me, but it's played totally straight, so I can't fault her consistency of worldbuilding. If there are sequels, I kind of hope they deal with that, and address the question of whether an innocent soul sent to hell by a malicious Alternocti can ever be saved and sent to heaven, or at least put back in the reincarnation cycle. If not, though, this is a really quite fatalistic book, and very depressing if you think about it very long! (Especially since it's implied that Sangre and Fenestra are pretty badly outnumbered, which means more people are sucked to Hell at random than to Heaven, although it sounds like most people reincarnate.)

(Side note: I've seen the book described as if Meridian was herself an angel, or part-angel. That made me cringe a little, but from what I can tell, Fenestra aren't angels at all: they're humans who are sort of like... like an angel's administrative assistant.)

I actually liked Meridian, who was confused, frustrated, and frightened, but in a very realistic way. While she didn't get a chance to do much, it was obvious to me that that was because she was swept up in circumstances beyond her control, not because she was an inherently passive person. At first I was piqued at the climax, in which it (being vague to avoid spoilers) appeared that Meridian was going to be saved by someone else—but then I realized it followed a fairy-tale pattern, where she was saved by people who she had helped earlier in the book. And that's not an ending I mind nearly as much.

I guess, in conclusion, I'm not sure what I think of this book. I liked Meridian, and while the romance didn't grab me, it also didn't strike me as ridiculously improbable or over the top. But the cosmology is very, very, very strange, and I wanted more exploration of the repercussions. Maybe we'll get that in a sequel. (Also the villain struck me as seriously one-dimensional, which bugged me.) Anyway, while I wouldn't strongly recommend it, as it didn't reach out and grab me, it was an enjoyable enough read—certainly I'd rec it as airplane reading.

A couple more spoilery things, under the cut.

Spoilers.... )

Anyway. Recommended with reservations; it's an entertaining enough way to pass a few hours.
coraa: (key faerie)
Fairy Tale, by Cyn Balog

Morgan, a young woman with psychic abilities, has been close to her boyfriend Cam her whole life. But as Cam's sixteenth birthday approaches, odd things start to happen. Cam starts to shrink and sprout wings, and an emissary from Faerie arrives to explain that he's a changeling, and must return to his homeland on the night of his sixteenth birthday. But Morgan desperately doesn't want to lose him... even as she begins to fall for Pip, Cam's human counterpart, who has also returned from Faerie.

First off, what I liked: the idea of the book was a lot of fun, and it was especially nice to see a reversal of the usual trope. Instead of a female character becoming smaller, more ethereal and delicate, with wings and pointy ears, it was a male character (and a football player to boot). The writing style was brisk and lively, and in places very funny; it was an easy and fast read. And I liked the take on the changeling concept, with Pip having to learn how to navigate the human world after a lifetime in Faerie.

The thing that I didn't like, though, was unfortunately pretty big. The main character (who was also the first-person narrator) was, to me, pretty well unlikeable. And in a book like this, that's a real problem.

Now, part of it may just be that this isn't the book for me. I have never been a fan of the Gossip Girl-style book, where the protagonists are deliberately mean and catty to one another... but it's obvious that some people do like that kind of thing very much. It's entirely possible that I'm just not in the book's target audience, because that doesn't appeal to me.

But it really, really doesn't appeal to me. I knew I was in trouble when, in the opening, Morgan's description of her best friend Eden was snide, condescending, and downright cruel. Her best friend. Indeed, basically the only person Morgan isn't nasty about is her boyfriend Cam, because she loves Cam. We're told that a lot, because keeping Cam from leaving her and going to Faerie is her main motivation. But we're not really shown it. I felt a bit bludgeoned with Cam Is Wonderful and Everyone Else Is A Loser, neither of which are sentiments that endear a character to me.

And Morgan is pretty selfish, too. I'll go into more detail under the spoiler cut, but she has to make a major decision that impacts the lives of... let's see, four people, in a huge way. And she realizes from fairly early on that one side of the choice would be horrifying for everyone else but good for her, whereas the other side would be much better for everyone else but inconveniencing for her. To me, the decision, for a character who's sympathetic, is pretty clear: it may be painful and difficult, but it's not hard to see what the right thing to do is. But Morgan waffles on and on and on about it.

Spoilers beneath the cut )

If you enjoy reading about characters a la Gossip Girl who are less than nice to their friends—and don't get me wrong, some people do enjoy that, and the books seem to sell well—you might enjoy this. I don't, so I didn't.
coraa: (changeling)
Ash, by Malinda Lo

Aisling, also called Ash, is devastated when her mother dies. Things only get worse when her father dies as well, leaving her in the hands of her stepmother Isobel. Isobel forces Ash to pay off her father's debts through servitude, and eventually Ash is serving as gardener, housekeeper and lady's maid to Isobel and her social-climbing daughter Ana. Ash's only solace is the Woods... where she meets both a fairy man who knew her mother, and the King's Huntress, Kaisa, who shares her love of the Wood and of fairy stories and who sees past her withdrawn demeanor.

This book was introduced to me as a lesbian Cinderella retelling, which is a totally accurate description, and that description alone was enough to make me read the book. I have long had a fondness for fairy tale retellings, and one that subverted the heteronormative assumptions of most of them sounded delightful. So I was really eager to like this book.

And there are some things I do like about it. I still love the idea. The depiction of the woods, and the fairies, worked for me very much; it's mysterious and dangerous without being over the top. But my favorite thing is Kaisa, who I found very compelling: her position as the King's Huntress intrigued me from the start, and I loved her kindness and courage. I found her completely believable as a love interest, and I liked the slow progression of her romance with Ash. She was a liminal character: not quite part of society, not quite part of the Wood, and I liked her very much.

Unfortunately, Kaisa wasn't the protagonist. Ash was. And Ash, unlike Kaisa, was curiously passive. Part of that, I think, was the shape of the Cinderella narrative: Ash couldn't run away or otherwise materially change her situation, because she had to walk through the paces of the story framework. She bore her trials with stoicism, which is not in itself problematic, but she didn't actually do anything about them. And the way she related to her 'fairy godfather' didn't work for me in ways that I'll describe under the cut, because they're spoilery. Had this been the story of Kaisa, King's Huntress, navigating her liminal position, falling in love, standing in the space between human Ash and the inhuman fairies, I think I would have loved it. As it was, I found myself frustrated that the major character rarely if ever tried to influence her own future.

The other problem that I had was with the prose. I like both "transparent" prose and stylized or ornate. Unfortunately, this book fell somewhere in the middle: I couldn't quite see through the prose to the world of the story (as I would with transparent prose), nor was it quite stylized enough for me to admire the words for themselves. As it was, I felt as though there was a thin but solid layer of glass between me and the characters.

More discussion, with spoilers )

All this isn't to say it was a bad book. I did enjoy it. It's just that I wish Ash had been even a little bit more, well, proactive.
coraa: (book wyrm)
Crown Duel, by Sherwood Smith. (Also available as an ebook version with additional content at Book View Cafe; the BVC version is what I used for my reread. Crown Duel was originally published as two books, Crown Duel and Court Duel, now combined into one very satisfying volume.)

(Disclaimer: [livejournal.com profile] sartorias is a friend of mine, although I first read Crown Duel many years before I met her.)

When Meliara and Branaeric's father, the Count of Tlanth, dies, the siblings swear that they will rise up in revolution against the wicked king Galdran. But, although they expect the other counts and dukes and princes to rise up with them, they end up fighting alone in a guerrilla war doomed to loss. At least, doomed until Meliara falls afoul of a trap and becomes the captive of Shevraeth, one of Galdran's commanders. He delivers her to the capital, but she escapes, and her flight across the countryside is complicated by the fact that politics are a lot more complicated than she expected. And so is war.

I read this for the first time in college and I loved it. And the thing I loved the most about it was Meliara. She's smart, she's determined, she's idealistic to a fault, and she has no intentions of giving up. Ever.

But what I want to talk about as regards Meliara, really, is her flaws. Because she's one of the most flawed sympathetic characters—or perhaps one of the most sympathetic flawed characters—I've read about recently. If I may make a digression: for many years, I was involved in Pern RPGs online. (Yeah, I know.) And one of the things I came to notice most of all was that people realized that their characters needed to have flaws... but they always created flaws that weren't really flaws. She's got a fiery temper and always defends her friends! (Defending your friends is more sympathetic than not.) She's really beautiful but is painfully modest about it! (Insulting your own gorgeous appearance is just a way of fishing for more compliments.) She's too sharp-tongued for her own good! (An excuse to be witty and sarcastic at the expense of everyone around you.)

"Stubbornness" was often listed as a flaw-that-isn't-a-flaw, because most people see tenacity and sticking to your ideals as a good thing. But Meliara's stubbornness (and she is stubborn to the point of being pigheaded) is a real flaw: she alienates people who can help her, she clings to her interpretation of incidents even when that interpretation turns out to be wrong, she holds her opinions past the point where a reasonable person would recognize that they didn't have all the facts and might want to reassess. She's stubborn as a mule, and sometimes incorrectly so, and often to her own detriment. It's a very real flaw.

And yet it's not an unsympathetic flaw. I recognized, the first time I read the book, that Meliara was letting her own limited experience color her encounters... and yet I also understood it. I have been that person, who lets an old slight color her interpretation of future events. And I admired and liked her for her tenacity, her willingness to endure discomfort for her ideals, even while I wanted to shake her for being so mule-stubborn.

The other thing I loved about the book was the romance. I won't talk much about this outside the spoiler cut, but the romance is exactly the kind I like: between two strong personalities, growing gradually over time, so that I wound up rooting for the romance even before the heroine did.

Spoilers below the cut )

At any rate, I am thrilled that I have A Stranger to Command, the prequel, on my bookshelf to read.
coraa: (changeling)
The Bones of Faerie, by Janni Lee Simner

(Disclaimer: [livejournal.com profile] janni is a friend of mine, although I read The Bones of Faerie before I met her.)

Before Liza was born, the world of faerie and our human world went to war. The war is long since over, but her world bears the scars: blackberry brambles invade homes and strangle their inhabitants, food plants resist the harvest, dandelions bite, and trees reach out with sinister intent. Magic—the latent malicious magic left in the plants, and pockets of wild magic left around the world—is the enemy, as are children with strands of shining-clear hair that indicates the touch of magic. All such things found within the safe confines of the village must be destroyed. Liza knows this; it is her life. But when Liza's sister is born with glass-transparent hair, and her father exposes the child on the hillside to die, everything changes. Liza's mother vanishes... and Liza's own unexpected magic power reveals itself: she is clairvoyant. And so she must flee her father and her village, and go out into the deadly danger of the faerie-touched wilderness.

I know [livejournal.com profile] janni has referred to this book as post-urban fantasy, and that's a label I like quite a bit for it. And a big part of what I like about it is the setting, the post-fantasy-apocalypse North America. It's set, not in a vague post-apoc location, but in the wilderness near St. Louis, Missouri, and though the isolated villages themselves have a culture of their own (a culture born of the vastly changed world they live in), I love that it's actually set in a specific place, that it touches on the atmosphere, the landscape, and the landmarks of a particular place. I don't even know Missouri, and I loved that the book felt set in a specific place.

I also like the way that the book focuses on the small elements of a post-apocalyptic world. The scarcity and preciousness of food; the dangers of injury and illness and the high value placed on medicine; the tremendous dangers of venturing outside the sanctuary of established enclaves. The dangers in The Bones of Faerie are the dangers of traveling in a pre- (or post-) industrial society, but magnified: rather than brigands or wild animals or hunger or exposure, it's the landscape itself that will do you in. I also just like the concept of a fantasy apocalypse: not one where science destroyed civilization, but one where magic did; not one where nature is crumbling in the face of humankind, but one where humankind is crumbling in the face of nature.

That leads me to the other thing I really like, which is Liza herself. She knows perfectly well that the world outside her village has a fairly high chance of doing her in, but she also knows (from bitter experience) that if her 'faerie' gift, her magic ability of clairvoyance, is discovered, she will also be killed. She considers the odds and takes the chance that an uncertain fate beyond the village is preferable to hiding and living in fear within the village. I like that a lot. She's smart, tough, and survival-oriented. Even when the odds are against her, she acts rather than giving in. And so, even though she's not a physical badass in the mold of, say, Alanna or Katsa, she makes my list of awesome girl characters with agency.

No book is flawless, so there are some things that twigged me. I expected more of an explanation of how and why the faerie war started than I got. And I kind of wanted more of an explanation of the fundamental difference between faeries and humans. But those are minor complaints; I'm hoping to see more of the worldbuilding in the forthcoming sequel.

Spoilery discussion under the cut )

And now, on to a book I don't expect to like as much (although, who knows, I could be surprised): Vampire Beach: Bloodlust, which I got in a random YA book grab bag. I can't wait. ;)
coraa: (didymus)
How to Ditch Your Fairy, by Justine Larbalestier

In the city of New Avalon, most people have a fairy—an invisible spirit or power or maybe just a chunk of free-floating luck that gives them a particular ability or advantage. Charlie's best friend Rochelle has a clothes-shopping fairy: when she goes shopping, she can always find something super-flattering that fits perfectly... and that is on extreme markdown. Charlie's mother has a Knowing What Your Kids Are Up To fairy, and always knows intuitively when Charlie's gotten herself into trouble. Charlie's classmate Fiorenze has an All The Boys Like You fairy. And Charlie, Charlie has a parking fairy. Charlie hates her parking fairy and wants to get rid of it, and she also hates the way Fiorenze's fairy is jerking around the boy she likes. But her plan to fix both of those things only makes everything worse.

This was a very fun book, very light. What I think of as a bathtub read. It reads very quickly; I finished it in one sitting. And I found Charlie very likable, even when I had those moments where I-the-reader realized that what Charlie was trying to do was very ill-advised. Like Charlie's envy of the All The Boys Like You fairy. I had enough perspective to realize that that would be more of a nightmare curse than a blessing, but it didn't make me see Charlie as an idiot for not realizing it, since I'm not totally sure I would have realized exactly how bad that could be at age 13 or 14. Similarly, at first I thought Charlie was being kind of whiny for wanting to ditch her fairy (a parking fairy wouldn't be my first choice, but it'd surely be better than no power at all?), but I became more sympathetic when I quickly realized that she kept being dragged along (and, in one case, actually kidnapped) on trips she didn't want to make because people wanted to take advantage of her power.

So, anyway, the book was very character-centric and the plot is almost wholly character-driven. Indeed, the 'external' plot, which involved betting on high school sports, seemed the weakest part to me; its most important influence was the way it affected Charlie, and the parts that didn't involve Charlie directly just seemed to fade off. That didn't bother me too much, because I read much more for character and worldbuilding than for plot, but it felt like that subplot was a bit of scaffolding that could have been excised without much detriment to the book. But that's minor. (Also minor: because I'm a worldbuilding junkie, I wanted more of an idea of what was up with New Avalon, its somewhat-unusual social structures, and why they had fairies when nobody else did? Or perhaps other people did but didn't realize it? But again, the book was so character-centric that I have trouble faulting it for not getting into more worldbuilding geekery.)

Anyway. Fast, fun, light read. Recommended, espeically for plane trips and rainy Saturdays. And bathtubs, if you're a bathtub reader like me.

Some more thoughts, that are spoilery )

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