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(Side note: Wolves are not like that "naturally;" claims that they are are based on outdated and rather poor science, based on wolf behavior in artificial situations.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)
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: (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: (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: (bookworm)
Brown Girl in the Ring, by Nalo Hopkinson

This was a fantastic read -- very entertaining and above all very fresh.

Ti-Jeanne lives with her newborn son and her grandmother, Mami, in "the Burn" -- the interior city of Toronto, after both business and government abandoned it and fled to the suburbs. Her life of inner-city subsistence, aiding her grandmother's work as a nurse, herbalist and healer, is interrupted when her baby's father turns up. The father, Tony, has failed to complete an organ-harvesting mission for the powerful and dangerous leader of the Burn's pre-eminent gang, the 'posse,' and the leader, Rudy, is now after him. To escape, he must turn to Mami's potent spiritual practices -- but Rudy is not without power of his own....

I said at first that the book was 'fresh,' and what I mean by that is that it's not quite like any other urban fantasy I've ever read. And I've read quite a bit, from the early-90s elves-in-rock-bands to the badass-women-plus-vampires-and-shapeshifters of the 2000s. But the Caribbean mythic and religious themes in Brown Girl in the Ring were something completely new to me, and wonderful (in both senses of the world). It was very powerful and very real and also engaging because it wasn't the same thing again.

I also liked the way the story of the quasi-post-apocalyptic Burn didn't just focus on the gangs and violence. They were definitely there, and a very real threat that Ti-Jeanne was aware of, but much of the book was about the details of daily life in that world: Mami's herb garden and home remedies, the roti shop, the way food was grown, acquired and prepared, the fact that everyone got around on bicycles. Which isn't to say that the story was quiet -- it was a page-turner, with a lot of exciting action -- but I am a big fan of that kind of detail of everyday life.

I also liked that, while Tony and Ti-Jeanne's relationship was important and complex, it wasn't Ti-Jeanne's only important relationship. Indeed, her relationship with Mami was probably the most vital in the book, both in the sense of being the most important and in the sense of being the most vivid and alive. The book wasn't about romance -- it was about family. It was very much about family.

I also loved that the supernatural characters were just as well-characterized as the human ones.

Anyway. Highly recommended, a page-turning read that wasn't just more of the same urban fantasy.


Running Tally:

Total Books: 22
Fiction: 8
Non-Fiction: 14
POC Author: 7

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