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 [ 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)
Uglies / Pretties / Specials / Extras, by Scott Westerfeld

Tally can't wait until she turns sixteen: then she'll get the surgery to become Pretty, move to New Pretty Town and enjoy constant entertainment and parties, and—most importantly—be reunited with her best friend Peris, who, being a few months older than her, is already Pretty and enjoying his new life without her. But while she's waiting, alone, for her sixteenth birthday, Tally meets Shay. Shay is the same age as Tally, and is an exciting daredevil with a fascination with history of the old Rusty civilizations... and she's not as enthused as Tally about getting a shot at being Pretty. But when Shay runs away, Tally finds out that everything's more complicated than she had suspected.

The Uglies series is fairly distant-future science fiction, set in a world that sought to resolve the inequities of human life and the problems of ecological depredation (after "our" society collapsed and burned, literally) in two ways. First, most human needs (both material and emotional) are satisfied by the city; second, the city makes everyone look the same: everyone is Pretty. (You may be thinking, as I was, that that's overly simplistic, but the book does know that. It's just that Tally doesn't know that, not from the start.) But the price of being both beautiful and well-cared-for is relying wholly on the city, and its omnipresent monitoring, and its secretive leaders.

Tally doesn't care about that at the beginning: she's fifteen, almost sixteen, and she misses her friend, and she wants to join the 24-7 party going on in New Pretty Town. This probably makes her sound pretty shallow, but it's a) pretty believable to me, and b) part of her character trajectory in a way I find very satisfying. One of the things I liked about the book is the way Tally matured and grew throughout, not only in terms of learning about the society she lives in but also in that she discovered strengths and a moral core of her own. And she does it gradually, rather than by large Important Epiphanies. To put it another way: she grows up. And a big part of how and why she grows up lies in her tumultuous friendship with Shay.

While reading this, I wound up thinking a great deal of the "Female Friendship in Fantasy" panel at Sirens. Tally and Shay are best friends, and yet they wind up at odds with each other regularly (sometimes in romantic conflicts, but often not). While I might have preferred a bit less in the way of romantic conflict, I did like that that wasn't the only thing they wound up arguing over, and I liked that the relationship between Tally and Shay was the most important one in the books. That's not something you see all that often. And it did remind me of a few of my friendships over the years. (I also liked that neither Tally nor Shay was wholly right, when they argued. Often one was partly right and the other was, too, or one was perhaps more purely morally right while the other was more pragmatic, or both had totally sympathetic reasons for being at odds. And it wasn't all about "girl rivalries:" they really were friends, which made the times they were at odds all the more affecting.)

I also appreciated the way the plot snapped along, lively and compelling. I kept reading on because it was really hard to stop.

The series isn't perfect: the story stumbled a little before it caught its stride (I wasn't totally hooked until the second book, Pretties), and I wasn't always sure of motivations of certain characters, and—while I liked the romances, actually—I wasn't as enamored of the romantic rivalries (although they were thankfully not the focus of the story). But the books do a good job of keeping up tension and interest without becoming repetitive or overly grim, and I read the whole quartet in about two days. The plot just zips along. I like that.

The other thing I noticed was Westerfeld's hand with invented slang. I know that any discussion of invented slang tends to be very personal and hard to quantify beyond "it worked for me" or "it didn't work for me"—and I know that there are certainly people for whom the slang in the Uglies series didn't work—but it did work for me. (With the occasional exception, but overall, it worked.) I found the slang believable as slang, and I didn't have any trouble following it.

It's hard to speak of anything but the first half of the first book in anything but the vaguest terms without spoiling, partly because the end of each book contains a major hairpin turn. (I am, in retrospect, glad I am reading them now that the whole series is complete.) So I'll continue under the cut, with the understanding that there are potentially book-breaking spoilers for all four books there.

Spoilers have spinning flash tattoos )

Recommended, especially if you like science fiction that explores social issues and social programming.

A caveat: as is probably obvious even from the titles, this is a series that deals with what it means to be pretty (or Pretty), what it means to not be pretty, what it means to be unusual, and so on. Especially early in the series, Tally is bluntly critical of her own "ugly" (normal) appearance, and longs to undergo her society's coming-of-age surgery and become beautiful. In addition, the series deals with brain modification and brain damage in an unflinching way. This is, absolutely, not something the series accepts uncritically (quite the opposite, in fact), but if you're likely to find a lot of discussion of physical appearance and/or brain modification triggering, well, then you probably ought to know.
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)
Prom, by Laurie Halse Anderson

Ashley's got more important things to worry about than the prom: graduating despite all her detentions, her troublesome boyfriend, her job as a costumed rat at EZ-CHEEZ-E, figuring out what on earth she's going to do with herself once she does graduate. But when the math teacher absconds with the prom funds, her best friend Nat (head of the prom committee) is heartbroken, and while Ashley doesn't care much about the prom, she does care a great deal about Nat. So she signs up to help Nat figure out how to hold the prom after all... a process that quickly snowballs into a comedy of errors.

Despite dealing with what might look like heavy issues (living without a lot of money, the difficulty of doing well in school when you also have to work and watch your siblings, a, um, problematic boyfriend, feeling like you don't have a lot of options for your future), Prom is a funny book—and more importantly, it's funny not because we're laughing at Ashley's problems but because we're laughing, wryly, with her as she observes the sheer ridiculousness of it all. (And also, the serious issues are thoroughly interwoven with sillier ones: Nat's crazy grandmother, Ashley's eccentric father and her believably goofy younger brothers, the mania of the prom committee, her mother's obsession with the prom, and so on.) Ashley is in over her head, but she attacks everything with cleverness and a sense of humor, and even when she was flailing around I was on her side and cheering for her.

It helps that I liked Ashely a lot. And I identified with her. In some ways, she isn't much like me in high school at all (I was a nerdy overachiever, and I knew I was going to go to college), but in other ways, she really is (I identified so well with the working-hard-all-the-time-and-still-having-no-money thing). But I think the biggest thing is that I identified with her because she sounds like a believable teenager to me. Now, I'm probably not the best judge of this, since it's been almost a decade since I was a teenager, but I can definitely tell an inauthentic teenage voice. (This is why, even though I usually love McKinley, Dragonhaven didn't work at all for me.) Ashley felt very real. I also believed her female friendships, particularly with Nat: she clearly loves Nat very much while still seeing Nat's flaws, and she has a great mix of admiration, annoyance and amused tolerance that reminds me of my relationships with my friends in high school.

Anyway, I really liked this. It's a fast read and a funny one without being mindless, and I loved Ashley's voice and point of view. Frankly, if you can check a sample, do, because if you like Ashley's voice I expect you'll like the book, and if you don't, I expect you won't. But, generally, recommended.
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: (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: (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: [ 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: [ 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 [ 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: (bookses)
Dreamsnake, by Vonda N. McIntyre (Link points to ebook at Book View Cafe. Book appears to be out of print in paper format.)

Snake is a healer traveling on her proving year, along with her three serpents. Mist is an albino cobra, and Sand is a diamondback rattlesnake; both have been modified so that, when fed the proper catalysts, they can produce medicines: vaccines, antitoxins, antibiotics. Grass, by contrast, is a dreamsnake, an alien serpent whose bite produces dreams and relieves pain. Snake's three snakes are medical laboratory, pharmacy, and hypodermic all in one. But when Snake heals a child from a desert clan of a cancerous tumor, she neglects to realize that the only snakes they are familiar with are the deadly sand vipers, whose bites result inevitably in a lingering, painful death. And so when she leaves their child unattended with Grass, they, ignorant of Grass's healing purpose, kill the snake to protect the child. Unfortunately, dreamsnakes are rare—they are difficult to clone and even more difficult to breed, their alien biology confounding even the healers—and Snake cannot be a healer without one. So she sets out on a search for atonement . . . and for another dreamsnake.

I read Dreamsnake for the first time years and years ago, when I was in high school. I read it at the time because it had won the Hugo and the Nebula (actually, as I understand it, it won the Nebula twice, once for the original short story "Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand," and then again for the full novel). But most of all I read it because it had a strong female protagonist, one with valuable skills and who set out to solve her own problems. I reread it, when I saw that it was avaliable on Book View Cafe, because I had very fond (if dim) memories of having read it when I was fourteen.

Interestingly, although Snake was the reason I read the book, I actually feel that I know less about her than many of the other characters. She is very proud and very reserved; I feel like I spent the book seeing through her eyes but not, necessarily, into her mind. Indeed, because Snake had an incisive grasp of other peoples' characters, I often felt that I understood the other characters better than her: the prospectors Jesse, Merideth and Alex; Gabriel, a haunted young man; the scarred and abused Melissa; Grum, the caravan leader.

I've mentioned before that I read for character and worldbuilding first, plot next, and idea last. So when I say that the characters and worldbuilding are fantastic in this book, you will understand why I love it. Though Snake is difficult to understand, it's obviously for a reason: she really is proud and reserved, and that comes through very clearly. And the other characters, major and minor, are sharply and clearly realized like cut gems. The worldbuilding also delighted me—while it's clearly a far-future setting (indeed, it seems to be far-future post-apocalyptic Earth, though I wouldn't swear to that), it's clear that physics and mechanical sciences have taken a nosedive, and biological sciences have taken predominance. Hence the ability to use snakes as portable chemical factories, as well as the fact that 'biocontrol' (a biorhythmic manipulation to control fertility) is expected as a basic skill that every adult should have.

The book isn't flawless, of course. The major flaw is the fact that it doesn't hang together as a single novel very well: it's extremely episodic, with Snake moving from one group of people who she must help to another. Her quest for more dreamsnakes is the thread that ties them together, but most of her stops don't have much to do with that. This doesn't bother me much, since plot isn't my first concern, but it might bug someone who cares more about a smooth or fluid plot than I do. Similarly, I didn't quite... buy the romance; while it was obviously an important part of the book, I didn't understand why those particular characters were so taken with one another, given how little time they spent together. (This is partly not the fault of the book but the result of my own fictional romance preferences; I prefer long-developing romances a la Crown Duel or Graceling, and am dubious about love at first meeting.)

There's no serious spoilers under the cut, I don't think. I'm mostly cutting for length. (Too late, I know!)

Read more... )
coraa: (bookses)
Liar, by Justine Larbalestier

You're getting so many of these because I'm in A Mood and am working through my backlog of books I want to review/respond to.

Micah is a compulsive liar. She tells you so on the first page of the book. She also tells you that she's going to tell you the truth in this narrative... but whether she's telling the truth about that is up to you to decide. And that makes it hard to provide even the most basic summary of the book: which of the shifting mosaic of things-Micah-says do I pull out to try to describe the book? Because almost any of them could turn out to be untrue.

Start with this: I'm fairly sure that Micah is telling the truth about being a teenage girl living in New York. I'm fairly sure she had some kind of relationship, perhaps romantic, perhaps not, with Zach. I'm fairly sure that, when Zach disappears and then turns up dead, that it causes a crisis point in Micah's life. And I'm fairly sure that Micah is ill in some way, although whether the illness is the 'family illness' she describes or not is up to debate.

I'm not sure of anything else that happens in the 300+ page book, and that fact will give you a clearer idea of what the book's like than anything else I could say about it, I think.

I liked Micah, although after her introduction I didn't trust a single thing she said. She's completely unreliable, totally, because she's a compluslive liar, and if you're one of the people who are allergic to unreliable narrators, this book is not for you. It doesn't try to sell you on the idea of an unreliable narrator. Instead, it revels in the uncertain. I don't hate unreliable narrators, but I also am not particularly drawn to them, and Micah's story didn't bug me. But that may partly be the way I read it: on page one I decided that I was going to sit back and enjoy the ride, rather than trying to second-guess and predict what was true and what wasn't. I think I enjoyed the book more that way than if I was distracted looking for 'slips,' but mileage may vary.

I think this was a successful book, in that it appeared to be trying to do something tricky—create an at least somewhat sympathetic narrative about a compulsive liar, in which the reader can't ever be sure of anything, and yet still be emotionally satisfying—and, as far as I'm concerned, does so. It was a page-turner, but won't be one of my favorites, I don't think, just because the narrative was very uncomfortable. Of course, it was supposed to be uncomfortable, I think, which is why: successful book. But one I appreciate intellectually more than I enjoy or love.

Larbalestier has said that she deliberately wrote the book so that the ending could be interpreted at least two ways (or possibly three). Actually I can think of a dozen ways to interpret the ending without thinking very hard, and I'm sure I could come up with hundreds more if I tried. But I'm going to talk about that under the cut, because it's necessarily spoilery of a few major plot points to do so, and I think this is a book that ought to be read with as few spoilers as possible. (I was told, in fact, not even to read the jacket copy.)

Spoilers below the cut )
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 )
coraa: (girl with book)
Fire, by Kristin Cashore

In the Dells, there are two types of animals: normal animals, which behave as animals do in our world, and Monsters, who have the shape of animals but fantastic colors—and power over the human mind. A brown horse is a horse; a turquoise horse with a snow-white mane, that can snare you with its beauty and destroy you for its own purposes if it so chooses, is a Monster. Fire, named for her red-and-magenta-and-yellow-and-gold hair, is the last living human Monster, but her exceptional beauty and her power over men causes her considerably more grief than joy. Worse, the troubles in the Dells can be traced directly back to her Monster father, who was beautiful and sociopathic, and Fire's quest is as much about proving that she is not like him as it is about ameliorating the damage he did.

This book is both like and unlike Graceling, Cashore's first novel, a book that I recognized as imperfect but still loved. Both feature a superhuman protagonist, but where Katsa in Graceling was a perfect fighter and survivalist, Fire is perfectly beautiful and has powers over the minds of others. (If you want to be very, very overly simplistic about both the characters and gender stereotypes, you could say that Katsa has a 'masculine' power and Fire a 'feminine' one. But it's a whole hell of a lot more complicated than that.) The reason that I don't believe that Katsa or Fire are Mary Sue characters, though—despite the fact that, on the surface, you could make an argument for either one—is that the challenges they are faced with are proportionate to their skills... and their powers cause them as much difficulty as they do advantage.

(As a side note: I am increasingly frustrated with the label 'Mary Sue,' although I think there was some value to its original definition. I think its definition has slipped to the extent that it's now often leveled at any female character who is attractive, interesting or powerful, and I think that's a shame. But that's a rant for another day.)

In Fire's case, this difficulty is immediately obvious. Because of her beauty and her powers, men tend to find her attractive, often beyond their ability to resist... whether she wants them to or not. Anyone who has ever been the target of persistent unwanted attention can already see why this is a problem, but to spell it out: sometimes, yes, the men want to love and cherish her, or obey her, but sometimes they want to rape her, or hurt her or destroy her for not wanting them in return, or simply because they're angry that she has such power over them. And while some women are Fire's allies, others hate her for the way she attracts attention. There's a particularly poignant bit where Fire is traveling with an army, and the army's commander gives her a guard of about twenty people. Part of the reason for this is to protect her from opposing forces, and part of the reason is to protect her from animal Monsters (Monsters crave the flesh of other Monsters beyond all else, which seems to be the only thing keeping animal Monsters from completely overrunning the ecosystem), but she quickly realizes that her entire guard is made up of straight women and gay men, because their main purpose is to protect her from the very army she's helping.

And the funny thing is, this made me identify with her a great deal. I'm hardly such a raving beauty that I drive men insane and provoke fury in women, and yet I've had that experience, of the uneasy realization that someone has an interest in me that I don't reciprocate, and that I can't tell whether they will mean me harm or not, and that I have to be very careful. While Fire's beauty isn't something I can relate to my personal life, Fire's dilemma is.

The other thing about Fire that I like is that she has agency. The path she will take is not clear, and over the course of the book she decides it, figures out what she wants to do and needs to do, and does it, despite the fact that she has to go against the wishes of the other people in her life to do so.

My criticisms of Graceling were the prose and the worldbuilding; the former I found, not bad exactly, but flat, and the latter I found somewhat generic. They've both improved in Fire, but they're both still her weakest points; the prose is still clunky in places and the setting is still medievaloid. But they're also both improved, which is a good sign. I'm hoping that the trajectory continues and the prose and worldbuilding improve again for her third book, Bitterblue, which I'm very much looking forward to.

Some spoilery musings under the cut )


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