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Ragnarok, the end of the world in violence and freezing winter, fortold in Norse mythology, is coming...but instead of taking place far off in long ago Scandinavia, it's about to take place in the modern US. And there's just one little problem--the Norse gods, who were fated to fight in the great battle against the forces of darkness, are dead.Loki's Wolves
But they have descendants.
, by K.L. Armstrong & M.A. Marr (Little Brown, 2013), is the story Matt, a thirteen year old boy who's grown up in South Dakota knowing that he's descended from Thor. What he didn't expect was that he would have to play Thor's part in Ragnarok...and what is worse, the elders of his family are certain that he has no chance of winning.
Guided (cryptically) by the Norns, Matt is determined not to give up, and sets off to gather together descendants of all the gods. The first kids he meets, though, are descendants of Loki--a boy named Fen and his cousin Laurie, and they've never been friends with Matt. Far from it. But though Loki fought with the bad guys in the original story, if Matt can learn to trust these two unlikely allies, maybe they can work together in this new version of the story....
And so the three of them set out, on a quest to gather certain magical items and find the rest of the god-descended teenagers they need--Odin, Fri. But it's not a walk in the park--already the forces of darkness are beginning to work against them...and, as this first book comes to a close, the stakes are getting very high indeed...
Of course, it's hard not to compare this to the Percy Jackson series, and indeed, fans of those books will welcome this series--more mythological fun and mayhem! But Loki's Wolves is somewhat different in feel. For one thing, the focus of the book is on three distinct characters right from the beginning, so there is more character-driven tension, and less immediate mythological mayhem. And here we are immersed more gradually in the struggle at hand--this first book is more a gathering of characters, setting the stage for the Real Adventures to come (although it is not without excitements).
My own response--a fine start with a great premise, and I'm looking forward to seeing what happens next.
I'm happy to be a stop on the Loki's Wolves Blog Tour, in which questions are asked and answers given by the authors. My assignment was to ask about two of the god-descended teenagers-- Reyna and Ray, descendants of Frey and Freya.
He launched into explaining the myths: “The twins are Frey and Freya. In the old stories, Freya is the goddess of love and beauty. Frey is the god of weather and fertility. We need to find their descendants, who are apparently also twins.” Matt paused. “Two for one. That’ll make it easier.”
- Loki's Wolves, page 148
Me: In this first book of the series, the twins Reyna and Ray are somewhat shadowy figures--Fen calls them "Goth Ken and Goth Barbie," with good reason--they aren't exactly bubbling over with rich, nuanced demonstrations of personality. Will we get a chance to know them as individuals later in the series? Will they get to play a more central role, bringing into the story the characteristic of their ancestral deities, Freya and Frey? And will we get more insight into their particular powers?
Kelley: Yes, we definitely don't get a full picture of Ray and Reyna in the first book. They're the most wary of the descendants, unwilling to commit fully to the group and so, unwilling to reveal more of themselves. In Loki's Wolves, the other characters don't have a chance to get to know the twins so, by extension, neither does the reader. Once they become a true part of the team, we'll get to see their real selves. At the same time, they'll learn more about themselves and their powers.
Me: And why did you decide to make them Goth? I'm having trouble imaging Freya and Frey, deities of love and procreation and warmth of all sorts, as it were, as morose Goths hanging around a cemetery! We haven't been told much about their backstory--just that their dad's a (relatively) rich casino owner, and I'm wondering if there's something that we haven't been told yet….
Kelley: Goth culture is known for its emphasis on morbidity and death, but also seeks to find light and happiness in the dark parts of life. Ray and Reyna are two kids struggling to come to terms with their past and their present--their heritage as gods of light and fertility combined with lives of commercialism and cynicism (as the children of casino owners) They've discovered their affinity for magic and without the proper background regarding their heritage, they associate those powers with the dark arts and have embraced that side of themselves. Like many very young goths, they feel alienated and confused, and they're seeking to find their way.
Me: I'll look forward to finding out more about them! Thanks very much, Kelley and Melissa!
The other stops on the blog tour are:
(disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher)
Hammer of Witches
, by Shana Mlawski (Tu, 2013, upper middle grade/YA).
Young Baltasar has grown up in late 15th-century Spain, a time when the Spanish Inquisition was going strong, listening to the stories told him by his uncle Diego--many of which were drawn from the Jewish heritage Diego and his wife ostensibly renounced when they chose to become nominal Christians (it was either that, or living in terrible fear of discovery--Ferdinand and Isabel did not want any Jews in Spain). But of all his uncle's stories, Baltasar thrills most to those of the brave warrior Amir al-Katib, who fought for the Christian kingdoms of Europe, was betrayed by them, and ended his life fighting on the side of the Moors who were being driven from Spain. Or so Baltasar has always believed.
But that's not actually how Amir al-Katib's story ended. When a sinister oranization, known as the Hammer of Witches, dedicated to fighting witchcraft with any means deemed necessary, imprisons Baltasar, he is questioned under threat of torture about Amir. And he intensively responds with a gift for magical storytelling he didn't know he had--and raises a golem, who carries him home.
Where, of course, the nice folks (not) from the Hammer of Witches know where to find him.
Now his aunt and uncle are dead, and Baltasar is on the run. But he's not alone for long--his uncle has passed on a slim golden chain that belonged ot Amir al-Katib himself, and, much to Baltasar's wonder, it summons an Ifritah--a girl who is have spirit, half human, and full of magic. And when the Ifritah, Jinniyah, takes him to Baba Yaga for advice, Baltasar finds that a great evil is about to head west from Europe across the sea...and that he might be able to thwart it.
And so Baltasar and Jinniyah sail off with Christopher Columbus....a journey wherein the little fleet is beset by magical enemies. But Baltasar can answer each magical creature with one of his own; the real evil (obviously to the modern reader) doesn't come until land is reached, and the Columbian consequences begin.
So. It is tremendously exciting, what with magical adventures, the voyage of exploration, the fact that the Hammer of Witches has a spy embedded in the voyage, the mystery of Amir al-Katib (which plays a large part in the story), and Baltasar's own growing control of his storytelling magic. In particular, Baltasar's time spent with the Taino people, who are describe in rich detail, and who seem much saner than the Europeans, is worthwhile reading.
Just about any reader who likes excitement will appreciate the high-stakes, fast-moving story; those who are Readers to begin with will especially appreciate the strong link here between magic and storytelling. It is a fascinating take on the story of Columbus' voyage, one that respects the Taino and gives them equal agency to the Europeans. There is a strong young female character, too, to round things off gender-wise, and to my surprise it wasn't Jinnyah but someone else....
I didn't find it a perfect read, though, primarily because Baltasar is a very distant first-person narrator. He's awfully good at describing (his words made beautifully clear pictures in my mind), but not so good at sharing enough of his feelings to make me care deeply about him as an individual. And, in fact, at one point I actively disliked him--after the aforementioned girl character witnessed the rape of Taino women, it was creepy of Baltasar to kiss her uninvited, and then, a few pages later, jokingly say to her that "we both know you're dying for another kiss" (page 286).
I was also disappointed by the fact that Jinniyah, the Ifritah, doesn't end up having much of a role in the story--I kept expecting her to be responsible for some major twist in the plot, but she never took center stage, and was often shunted off onto the sidelines.
Still, there was much to enjoy, and it was refreshing to read a book whose main character not only embodies the clash of cultures in 15th century Europe between Judiasm, Christianity, and Islam, but offers an unflinching look at the horror Columbus' voyage unleashed on the native peoples he encountered.
For another perspective, here's the Kirkus review
Note on age: This one felt rather tween-ish to me, which is to say for readers 11 to 14. Baltasar himself is fourteen (though, I think, a rather young 14), and a few specific instance of violence, including what happened to the Taino women, pushes this beyond something I'd give to a ten-year old.
disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher
The Sterkarm Handshake
, by Susan Price (Scholastic, 1998).
Imagine that, round-about our present time here in the 21st century, capitalist entrepreneurs have discovered how to travel in time. The thought of all the natural resources back there in the past, waiting to be exploited, makes them happy.
One of the time tunnels they have constructed leads to the sixteenth century in the wild boarder lands between England and Scotland. The Sterkarm clan who rule the patch of this land are fierce, treacherous, loyal to each other and not giving a damn about anyone else, and they are cognizant that the time travelers have much to offer (the aspirin tablets are a hit).
Andrea is a young anthropologist, embedded back in time among the Sterkarms. Literally--she and Per, the son of the chief are passionately involved. For Andrea, deemed unattractively large by her own society, it is nice to be lusted after, and Per does genuinely care for her....it might even be love (although I couldn't help but wonder about how much her emotions were colored by her new desirability, and this made me uncomfortable).
But all is not well. The problem with greedy exploitation is that often the people being exploited fight back, and things go sour. The trouble in this case begin when Per, gravely wounded fighting off raiders (all in a days work for the Sterkarms), is taken by Andrea to the 21st century. The director of the company, a nasty piece of work, wants him as a hostage. Per escapes, makes his way through the tunnel home, and then he and his people declare war on the 21st century, burning what they can of the tunnel.
It is rebuilt, and the 21st century comes to make war in the past. It seems as though its an uneven match--heavy artillery against bows and arrows. But arrows can kill, and the Sterkarms have years of experience with treachery and guerrilla warfare...
So it basically stopped being fantasy neo-colonialism (interesting), and became a military sci fi story (not my cup of tea), and by the last hundred pages I was skimming because everyone was running around bashing each other etc., and I ws really tired of hearing about Andrea's predicament (torn between two conflicting loyalties, and not wanting any one to be killed, and not wanting the boy she's been sleeping with to be a ruthless killer even though he clearly is etc).
And did Andrea, intelligent anthropologist, save the day with intelligent anthropologizing? No. She went to pieces, and was all "Oh Per if you love me you will be kind and do something and not kill the people from the 21st century." Disappointing.
What it needed was more characterization and less fighting, in my opinion. The bad guy was one dimensional, and so uninterestingly bad that there was little point to him. Per and Andrea are two dimensional at best. In as much as they are already sharing a bed by the time we meet them, there is no subtlety to their relationship, and I never believed that they were actually in love with each other as people, as opposed to fond bedmates (I have nothing against affectionate lust enjoyed by both parties, but it's not as interesting as the tension of love being realized), and like I said, I didn't need Andrea's dilemma drummed into my head quite so much. A few minor characters come to interesting life, most notably Joe, a homeless Sterkarm descendant of modern times, who travels back to find a better life for himself--his is a fascinating little side-story. But this wasn't enough to actually make me care all that much.
Final thought--loved the premise, and thought the story was fascinating. If the book had been about 150 pages shorter, I might well have enjoyed it lots. As it was, it kind of oozed over the edges of its central story, and I lost interest.
However, don't necessarily take my word for it---The Sterkarm Handshake won the Guardian's Children's Prize
, and got lots of critical acclaim, and is pretty much a classic of military/capitalist time-travel.
, by Kiersten White, is a book so gripping that it held my attention while I read almost all of it cover to cover while waiting for my car to be fixed--and given that I was in a hideously uncomfy plastic chair, in anxious circumstances viz the fate of the car, this says a lot, I think.
If I had to sum it up in one sentence, it would be "a psychological mystery/thriller, with a smart, fierce heroine, similar in vibe to The Hunger Games
but with a narrower focus viz world-building, cast of characters, and premise."
But since I generally allow myself three paragraphs, or so, here they are:
Two orphaned sisters, each with a psychic ability, are imprisoned in an institution masking as a magnificent school. For Annie, the older sister, who is blind, the "school" offered all the educational opportunities she craved. And so, though every preternaturally honed instinct in Fia's mind screamed that it was wrong, the sisters were enrolled.
Those who ran the school were at first only interested in Annie's ability to see the future. But when they realized just what Fia's gifts entailed, and how easily she could be controlled by threats to her sister, they knew they could never let her go. And so Fia is made into a tool of violence, sent out on criminal missions for her mysterious masters...and Annie is a hostage.
If it goes on much longer, Fia will break. But Fia is about to find out who she can trust...and to finally chose her own path for the first time since her nightmare began.
So the story is told in the present, as Fia is beginning to follow a path that might lead to escape, but there are plentiful flashbacks that tell of violence and tension and really gripping psychological manipulation verging on horror, and some scenes from Annie's perspective as well. By the time events come to a head, the reader knows both sisters pretty well, and I felt nicely invested in Fia and her situation, curious about the mystery behind the "school," and anxious to know how it all played out.
My one reservation is Annie. She's the older sister, but her parents set up (with the best of intentions) a kind of nasty dynamic of Fia being the one to look after her, because of Annie being blind. And Annie has lived her life accepting this, not fighting much against it. She does have spurt of being an Active Participant in events toward the end, but mostly she is "passive blind sister," and her journey to active participation isn't desperately well-developed. (In plain English, Annie annoyed me).
Once sentence summary: Gripping, disturbing, and a good one for the YA reader who wants wants a thrilling read, starring a kick-ass heroine, that is neither a Dystopian with a capital D (although the particulars are far from Utopian) or a paranormal romance (although there is a whiff of love story).
Will I read it again? Perhaps, though it isn't a book I'll keep assuming I will want to. I can easily imagine, though, being happy to read it again if, in two or three years, I went back to the car repair shop and someone has left a copy of it there....
disclaimer: ARC received from the publisher, left by accident in car repair shop (I think), finished with the help of a library copy.
Note on cover: I do not think the young woman on the cover is a good representation of Fia. Her eyes look a tad to limpid, and it is not clear that you are about to read a book about a teenage girl who is forced to kill. However, the UK publishers of Mind Games decided to make sure there was no ambiguity:
Yesterday's book (The Menagerie) was one I happily recommended to nine-year olds wanting fantasy fun; today book I can also recommend whole-heartedly, but it is very different...one I think that has as much cross-over appeal to adult readers as it does to the YA readers to whom it is marketed.Fearless
, by Cornelia Funke (Little, Brown, April 2, 2013, YA), is the sequel to Reckless (my review
), which told how Jacob, a boy from our world who became a treasure-hunter in a mirrorworld where fairy tales are true, sacrificed himself to save his younger brother. And now Jacob, waiting for the fairy curse to strike that will end his life, is on the greatest treasure hunt of his life, this time looking for the last thing he hopes can save him. It is a weapon crafted by an evil witch king long ago, full of powerful (and potentially horrible) magic...and Jacob isn't the only one hunting for it. Pitted against him every step of the way is another treasure hunter, one of the stone-skinned Goyl, and their race across an alternate Europe of magic come true might well kill them both.
Fortunately, and heart-rendingly, for Jacob, he is not alone--Fox, the shapeshifting girl who almost broke my heart in the first book, is with him, and here in this book they both have come to understand that their love for each other is the bedrock of their lives. But Jacob is dying...and so desperate fear tempers their relationship. They have saved each other countless times before, but now they are stretched so painfully thin by this most horrible quest that hope would seem impossible, if the alternative was not so unthinkable.
Note: The relationship between Jacob and Fox is so real, so immediate, so beautiful, and so rooted in their complex pasts that I can't think of any other romance that comes close (except that of Eugenides and Irene, in Megan Whalen Turner's books). But it is not a physical romance (understandable, given the circumstances) so those looking for swoonish kisses should look elsewhere.
Unfortunately for Jacob's opponent, the Goyl Nerron, not all travelling companions are a good thing. Nerron is saddled with a nasty teenaged prince, along with his ass of a tutor, and a bodyguard--an inhuman Waterman, with motivations of his own, and their internal power struggles add a somewhat grimly diverting second layer of conflict to the story. Despite the handicaps who travel with him, Nerron pushes Jacob and Fox at every turn....but fascinatingly, though he seems at first to be the ostensible "bad guy" opponent of the piece, and though up to the last minute the suspense is killer, he is still nuanced, and even sympathetic....
So what we have, to summarize, is killer characters in a killer story. Added to that are episodes of fairy tale-ness that made bright vivid pictures in my mind--for instance, the book includes one of the most memorable Bluebeard retellings ever.
That being said, this isn't a fast read of magical zipping-ness. The pages turned slowly, not because I wasn't interested, but because I was so absorbed, even when I wasn't in places where I wanted to be. Those place weren't the dark scary exciting bits, of which there were many, and which I did enjoy, but rather those times when the burning ache of Fox's and Jacob's desperation surfaces. Though they must be fearless, they can't help but fear.
So no, not happy escapist fun. Not a book that kids would necessarily appreciate, though many teens might. I mysef found it a darn good book (mainly because I love Fox so very much!). I think it has stuck in my mind so firmly that, although I can imagine re-reading it, I won't need to for a long while.
Here's another review, at In Bed With Books
disclaimer: ARC received from the publisher for review
Yeah for reading books that have been sitting around the house, possibly crying in corners, for far too long! Finally I have read Sarah Zettel's Dust Girl
(Random House, middle grade/YA, June 2012), and I found it good. It is good because although the barest bones of the story are familiar--girl finds out she is half fairy, the opposing sides of the fairy realm fight over her while she figures out how to use her magic--the particulars are very unique indeed.
Callie's mother won't let her go outside the Kansas hotel she runs, in case her skin gets dark and people suspect her father was black. But then the dust comes (this is the 1930s) and there's almost no-one left in town to care. Still her mother won't give up and leave, though the food and money are running out, and Callie is choking her life out on dust, because she's waiting for Callie's musician father to come back.
Then Callie plays the piano for the first time. And her playing awakens the magic in her, and a dust storm like no other comes, blowing her mother away and bringing into town the first (and most truly horrible!) of the magical adversaries Callie must deal with. (Just to give you a taste--they are grasshopper creatures in human guise, and they are very....hungry).
So Callie, and Jack, the boy she just rescued from the abandoned jail in town, hit the road, first running for their lives (grasshopper creatures sure are fast!), and then running less fast for their lives while searching for the people they have lost. On their journey they encounter madness and mayhem and magic...all the while moving through the blighted landscape of the dust bowl Midwest.
So yes, I liked it lots--although Callie was Special, she also managed to be nicely ordinary, and her motivations and actions all made sense to me. Callie also had to think considerably about the fact that her father was black--in the racially charged world through which she moves, she can't forget it--yet this aspect of her story was well integrated with the whole, and though sometimes it was underlined, it never felt overly didactic. And, on top of that, it was a swinging, exciting adventure, with (wait for it!) no Romance front and center, which was rather refreshing--it's nice to read a book in which people are running for their lives without getting distracted by their Feelings for each other. Callie and Jack will probably hook up in the future, when they're a bit older, and that's fine.
But what I really loved was the historical part of this fantasy--I don't turn to Dust Bowl fiction for my reading pleasure, and so meeting that historical landscape in my favorite genre was a lovely treat.
Here's what I especially appreciated--America is not treated as a fantasy blank slate, just waiting for the immigrants to arrive with their magics. Instead, the first magical Person Callie meets is Native American, almost certainly Coyote, and this is what he has to say about it:
"Stupid white people. Stupid yellow people, or stupid brown people. Bringing in all kinds of ghosts and little spirits. Can't even tell who's in the game anymore." (p 31).
And so even though Callie's magical journey doesn't directly involve the native magic of her place, at least there's this acknowledgement that there is an indigenous presence. The only other fantasies for middle grade/YA readers set in North American that I can think of simply do not have this (The Prairie Thief, by Melissa Wiley, and Patricia Wrede's Frontier Magic series), and I think they are the weaker for it.
Note on cover: that's the new paperback
cover up at the top; it comes out in June. Some people thought that the cover of the hardback (at right) didn't show Callie accurately as half black (although since she's been passing as white, or at least, her mother thinks she has, all her life, she has to look at least somewhat ambiguous, and I think the paperback goes a bit too far in the other direction....). But in any event, it's nice to have the paperback showing a Main Character of Color, and so good on ya, Random House.
Note on age: This one is a perfect tween book, great for 11-13 year olds. As far as I can remember, there's nothing in it that would be Inappropriate for younger readers (which is to say there's no sex, but I'm not sure how well I do at registering curse words, since I am married to someone from Liverpool and have become hardened), but there are issues of racial and religious prejudice (Jack is Jewish), law-breaking and human unhappiness/human evilness that make it a bit strong for a younger kid.
A few other blog reviews, by people who were reading it ages ago: Bunbury in the Stacks
, Someday my Printz will Come
, and alibrarymama
My hopes were high. Yasutaka Tsutsui is one of the most highly regard Japanese writers of sci fi. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is one of his most popular books in Japan. I had never read any Japanese time travel before, and was tremendously eager to do so.
It's the story of a teenaged girl who acquires the ability to slip back in time. Just a few days back, but still enough to ensnarl her in paradoxes, mysteries, and sci-fi intrigue.
It should have been great! When my copy of the English translation (by David Karashima, 2011, Alma Books, 105 pages) arrived, and I saw the beautiful cover, I was even more eager to begin it.
Uh. Total rats, darn, and whine.
"Morning!" called Kazuo from behind her.
"Oh, morning!" replied Kazuko, considering whether she should tell him all about the incident. Kazuo was a bright individual after all, and might be able to provide some sort of insight. But she quickly decided that it might be better to wait for Goro to arrive so they could all talk about it together.
"Is everything okay?" said Kazuo. "You look a little pale."
Kazuo was always rather attentive, so he often noticed little things like that.
"Oh it's nothing," said Kazuko, shaking her head. "I couldn't sleep much. First because of the earthquake. Then because of the fire! So I'm feeling pretty sleepy today." (p 27)
Maybe most of the blame for the clunky writing and wooden characterization can be attributed to the translator. But the final plot twist at the end, that strained all credulity, must be the author's own, and the way it's presented--future character explains everything at length--is really not sophisticated and sparkling. Plus the future character turns out to be a. 11 years old b. the love interest of this teenage girl, and that was just weird and c. able to conduct mass hypnosis at the drop of a hat on every single person (probably hundreds) with whom he's come into contact in the last few months.
So it was a big disappointment.
The English translation also includes another novella, The Stuff that Nightmares are Made Of. Not only did I find that story clunky as well, but it made me really dislike Tsutsui, because it is never funny when a mother threatens to cut off a five year old's penis with a pair of scissors so he'll be less girly.
City of a Thousand Dolls
, by Miriam Forster (Harper, Feb. 2013, YA)
The City of a Thousand Dolls is a sanctuary for unwanted baby girls. It is a producer of young women schooled (depending on their talents and temperaments) in various houses as mistresses, healers, musicians, scholars, warriors, and even assassins. It is the only home Nisha can remember, though she was six when she was left outside its gate. And though Nisha was too old when she arrived to be placed in one of the city's houses, has a role to file as the matron's assistant, and she has friends, and hopes for her life after she is too old for the City. In short, the City runs smoothly along, with transgressions punished severely, escape forbidden, and everyone in their proper place.
But now the City of a Thousand Dolls is home to a murderer. Girls are being killed.
And Nisha, used to moving freely throughout the city, must find out who the killer is. Her own life is at stake. As she investigates, she finds that there are secrets both within the City and in her own past...secrets that will change her life forever.
I read it in as much of a single sitting as a person with needy loved ones can. I liked it for the setting (I have a penchant for books that stay in one place), I liked it for the difficult concept of the City-is it a place of refugee and opportunity for girls who might otherwise be victims of infanticide, or is it a prison?--and appreciated that the people within the city thought about that issue themselves. I liked the details about small things. And I appreciated the fact that this isn't yet another medieval European fantasy; instead, it is more South Asian in setting and culture. So though the world-building wasn't perfect (and I have some niggling questions about the mechanics of the whole city thing), I was happy to keep reading.
However, there's a disconnect that makes me unable to heartily recommend this one.
To wit, The City of a Thousand Dolls
is marketed as Young Adult, and indeed, because of the whole premise of (some) girls being trained to be mistresses, it's not one to give a naive younger reader (though the author doesn't spell out what being a mistress is all about, and there is no sex within the book itself). But it skews young in plot and characterization, and ended up feeling more middle grade than teen. A teen might find Nisha an incompetent detective (she is no Nancy Drew, but, in justice, she never thought she was), too naive to be credible, and may well find the reveal of Nisha's specialness, her romance, and the denouement of the story, all too much to take (and in fact it was all too much like a kid's wish fulfillment for me to swallow).
And there are cats with whom Nisha has a telepathic bond. Girls having telepathic bonds with cats always makes me think of 10 or 11 year olds, perhaps because when I was that age telepathic cats would have been my own dream come true....
So, uh, I'd hand this to the 10 or 11 year old girl who already is conversant with the concept of women whose role in life is to provide men with pleasure, who wants an exciting mystery/unrealistic romance with bonus telepathic cats.
But like I said, I did find it a page turner....
, by Bethany Wiggins
When Fiona went to sleep, she was thirteen years old and had a family who loved her. Now she's woken up--to a nightmare. Her home is dilapidated and abandoned, and though she's still young, her body isn't child's anymore. She has no memory of the years that must have passed....and no knowledge of how the world she once knew has descended into ruin. And she doesn't know, yet, that the tattoo that's appeared on her arm marks her as one of the infected--a person on the verge of becoming a mindlessly predatory beast.
In Fiona's new world, there are those who live safely behind walls....and those out on the streets, infected and starving, hunted by the ravaging hoards of humans turned monstrous. Fiona, marked as she is, must live as one of the later. Slowly she learns how to survive, with the help of a boy she knew back when they were kids, and slowly flashes of memory return to her. But it's what Fiona can't yet remember that will change everything...if she stays alive long enough.
I enjoyed it, once I got in the swing of the short, action-packed, first person sentences in which it was told (just about ever sentence seems to have an active verb). This is one to offer right away to your handy young Hunger Games fan--it has a similar intensity, mixing ruthless violence with the desperate need to hold on to human feelings when everything seems lost. That being said, I don't think the scenario of Stung is nearly as original, nor as interesting, and it's heavier on the teen romance side of things (so I won't be giving it to my mother for Christmas, like I did The Hunger Games).
However, Stung is a perfectly fine book. Fiona is believable and appealing, the supporting characters nicely nuanced, and the romance is very satisfying. And though I mostly skim through action-packed sequences because, you now, they are so busy
, the great climactic Scene of Action at the end of this one was utterly riveting. Another thing I appreciated--the humans turned monstrous by sickness were actually still humans...not zombies. It's definitely sci-fi, not zombie fantasy.
Disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher
The field of YA dystopia may be crowded these days, but Orleans
, by Sherri L. Smith (Putnam, March 2013), goes to show that new and powerful stories of young people surviving in the face of disaster can still be told. It is a heart-twisting story of riveting intensity.
Rita and Katrina were only the beginning. Storm after storm followed, and the number of survivors in the flood-wrecked delta shrank each time. Then came the Fever--deadly, and incurable, and a threat to the whole country. So then came the quarantine--a wall was built around the Gulf Coast area, just until the Fever ran its course, or a cure was found. Surely, the government reasoned, that wouldn't take long. Then the survivors could be part of the United States again.
But the Fever has held its own, and everyone still living behind the wall is a carrier. Because the Fever affects different blood types differently, some are healthier than others (the O types are less affect). Tribes, based on blood, have formed, and blood is a commodity.
And a fifteen year old girl, Fen de la Guerre, has just promised a dying woman who was the leader of Fen's tribe of O positives, and who was the only person left to her in the world she truly loves, to save the new born infant her friend died giving birth too. For a short while, the baby will be free of the taint of the fever, so if Fen can keep herself and the baby alive long enough to get to the wall, the baby has a chance of being smuggled out to safety.
But Fen knows to her cost how hard it is to survive in the Delta. Her parents are dead, and she herself endured horrors (including rape) before finding a place in the O positive tribe. War between the tribes is flaring up to an even more deadly level than before, blood slavery, sickness, and human predation are rampant, and Fen has little more than hard won survival skills to keep herself and Baby Girl safe. But she has hope....
Then a new wrinkle enters the picture. Daniel, a young scientist from up north illegally enters the delta, obsessed with finding a cure to the fever. He has no clue what he will find behind the wall...but amidst all the horror and violence, there he meets Fen. And Fen, because she can't just leave him to die, and because there's a chance he can help her, saves his life....and they journey together, until they reach the wall.
This all too believable future world might sound tremendously dark, and Fen's life on her own has been full of horror. The story as a whole is gut-wrenching, page-clenching, and not for the faint of heart. Yet it is not depressing
. Because Fen never lets herself sink at all into any self-pity, because she never gives up, because she never considers any choice other than survival, and keeping true to her promises, I couldn't pity her either, though my heart certainly ached something fierce. The brutality is not rendered less brutal by the fact that Fen has kept her integrity, but because she has, and because the reader right in there with her, there's no sense of emotional manipulation by the author. There are bad things. Terrible things. But there is always hope.
There are still decent people in this world--like the Ursuline sisters, still keeping faith and tending to the dead, hope that the ravaged world of the Delta will heal, and, even when I turned the last page, I still had hope for Fen.
And there is one scene in particular, the All Souls' Day parade, that is a tremendous bit of heart-stopping, numinous-filled testimony to the power of the human spirit.
Don't go looking for Daniel to come in and romantically make things all better for Fen. He's a tourist, a babe in the woods, a complication in Fen's mission, and though he does end up with a huge part to play, it's not the part of Fen's lover and protector. Instead, read this one if you want to get to know a girl who is damaged, strong, brave, and sad, who keeps going because there is nothing else to do.
This is one for those looking for multi-cultural sci fi/fantasy--race, but not because it is a story where "race" is important. In this world, people are defined by blood type, so race isn't something we hear much about. It is mentioned, and indeed, there's a sociological twist involving race, blood-type, and tribal identity. Based on the few bits of description of Fen, I pictured her in my mind as black, but skin color is the least of people's worries in this world.
Personal note--Fen narrates her story in the English of the tribes, which doesn't include many verb forms; I was worried that it would bother me, but it didn't.
Read more about Orleans and its creator, Sherri L. Smith, at these other stops on its blog tour:
Monday, March 4 – The Compulsive Reader
Tuesday, March 5 – The Story Siren
Wednesday, March 6 – The OWL for YA
Thursday, March 7** – GreenBeanTeenQueen
Friday, March 8 – I Read Banned Books
Monday, March 11 – Poisoned Rationality
Tuesday, March 12 – The Book Smugglers
Thursday, March 14 – Literary Escapism
Friday, March 15 – Cari’s Book Blog
Friday, March 29 – A.L. Davroe
(disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher.)
Wowzers (and bang goes my resolve to write coldly crisp, analytical reviews of great intellectual rigor). But when a book knocks your socks off, sometimes a wowzer or two is just called for.The Broken Lands
, by Kate Milford (Clarion Books, Sept. 2012, YA), takes place in New York, just after Civil War; the title is both a reference to the raw wounds of the war, and is the name of a hotel on Coney Island. It's on Coney Island, with its crime, poverty, and exuberant energy, that we meet young Sam, making a living beating holiday makers from the big city at cards....
And to this place, through coincidence (possibly) or design, come others. The Chinese firework maker, and his adopted daughter, Jin (who becomes a central character). Tom Guyet, black veteran of the Civil War, now guitar playing Traveller of the roads. And other travellers, those who live lives that cross the borders of what is real. But a sinister evil is drawing close to New York as well. Jack Hellcoal seeks to make New York his own literal hell on earth. And his sinister henchmen have been sent before him, to open the city to him through the death its five guardians.
Sam and Jin become inexorably drawn into this bloody, supernatural struggle. And in a new reality of things impossible to believe, they must believe in themselves, and their unique abilities. Or else the city will fall.....
So intricate is the world building, so scary the story, so fond I grew of Sam and Jin and their friends (and so happy to watch Sam and Jin moving cautiously toward love), and so poignant the flashes of pain from this wounded land and the wounded people I cared for that I fell, hard
, for the book. But so twitchy the book made me--the middle two hundred pages or so of darkness encroaching and things being scary--that though I wanted desperately to find out what was going to happen, I had to keep putting it down! And then so riveted I was in the last hundred pages that I stayed up too late to finish.
In short, I really really liked The Broken Lands
. I couldn't quite love it, because of being made so twitchy (a weakness in me, rather than the book), and because of a niggling feeling that maybe it could have been pared down just a tad), but boy did I appreciate it emotionally and intellectually. The Broken Lands
is a prequel of sorts to The Boneshaker
(2010), though it stands alone, and that one I only was able to appreciate intellectually. Here, though, the characters won my heart (the good guys are good, and well intentioned, and vulnerable, and care about each other; it's about how families can be made from friendships, about healing from emotional pain), and my intellect was more than satisfied by the tremendous, intricate world of Milford's New York, with supernatural tendrils stretching along the roads that cross the country. This one, also, differs from The Boneshaker in that it is most definitely Young Adult-- the central characters are teenagers, with age-appropriate concerns, as it were, and there is much dark violence of a savage kind. This is primarily of the supernatural sort, but there are shadows of human violence too (Jin's feet, for instance, were bound when she was an orphaned child being raised for a single, unsavory, purpose).
Here's what I loved best of all: the supernatural card game based on medieval haigiography. It is my Favorite Fictional Card Game Ever. Here's a bit of it: "By the strange logic of Santine, Sam had defeated the black plague (remembering this time to use a Nothelfer rather than a Marshal), a deluge, and a plague of locusts. He'd lost a few of his cards to torture and apostasy" (pp 372-373). And then Sam gets to counter a play of two Stylites (the dudes that sat up on pillars all day) with a pair of Cephalophores (the saints that get to carry their own beheaded heads in their arms)--
"Walker jabbed a finger at Sam's cards. "What the hell kind of play is that?"
Sam shrugged. "Figured they could throw their heads and knock the Stylites down." Sam had no idea whether this was a legal move, but as far as he could tell it followed Santine's logic" (p 373).
Highly recommend to fans of historical fantasy, paranormal horror that doesn't involve vampires/zombies etc., and teenagers saving the world (or city) while falling in love. Also recommended to fans of fireworks. They play an important part in the story.
Here are other reviews, at The Book Smugglers
, Book Aunt
, and Random Musings of a Bibliophile
disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher
I am writing from New York, where I am busily attending Kidlitcon. Yesterday I attended two lovely publisher previews, at Random House and Harper Collins, where us bloggers heard about many wonderful sounding books (about which more later), enjoyed tasty snacks, and left with generous bags of books. It was then banquet time, where very good company (I sat with Kelly from Stacked and Leila from Bookshelves of Doom, neither of whom I'd met before today), and more tasty food combined to make a very pleasant evening. The Diviners
The particular upshot of all this is that, due to the generous bags of books, there is no way I want to take my ARC of the Diviners, which kept me company on my journey, back home with me. So I am quickly sharing my thoughts.
, by Libba Bray (Little Brown, YA, Sept 18, 2012) --paranormal historical fiction in which the excitement of life as as party girl in New York in the Roaring Twenties turns into the excitement of trying to stop a murderers, would-be Antichrist!
The Basic Plot: Evie is a flapper girl, desperate to plunge into life and (this is my opinion) immerse herself in sensory overload so that she doesn't have to think about things she'd rather not thing about (such as her dead brother. Such as the effects of her actions on other people. Especially the effects of her preternatural gift--the ability to hold an object, and see things about its owner). So when her parents send her off to her uncle in New York (curator of a museum of the occult), she's thrilled.
When the first bizarrely grotesque murder victim is discovered, and Evie's uncle is asked by the police for his opinion on the occult elements of the crime, Evie goes along for the ride, excited to see her first New York crime scene. And finds herself into very dark and dangerous waters...because this is no ordinary murder, and no ordinary police force can stop the inexorable progression of killings. Killings that might lead to hell on earth....
And in the meantime, the canvas of New York on which the murders are being played out is as full of characters as a Bruegel painting. All of whom have secrets...
My Thoughts, written in haste because of needing, like Evie, to hurl myself back into the giddy excitement that is Manhattan (although I don't think Evie would be interested in Kidlitcon):
--Evie annoyed me at first, but grew on me. I decided that I liked having a flawed character front and center--she was very believable, but with room to change as she became more mature. And she has her good points.
--the first few murders, before the identity of the murder was confirmed, were very interesting indeed. After Evie and co. figure it out, the next murders are still interesting, but not as much so because we know what's happening.
--there were too many characters of interest with secrets and too many bits of unresolved or apparently extraneous side plot. I really really did not think it added anything to the book, for instance, for Jericho to have the particular secret that he did. I'm sure that it will all be useful in future books, but I do think that The Diviners could have been trimmed and tightened. It was very long (the final version, according to Amazon, is 608 pages) and I don't think it really needed to be that long.
Final Conclusion: Even the snappy dialogue, interesting characters (even though there were perhaps too many of them, they were all interesting), and a creepy, supernatural mystery weren't quite enough to keep the ball rolling as briskly as I would have liked.
For Timeslip Tuesday today, I have an old favorite--The Many-Colored Land
, by Julian May (1981). The cover at left is the cover I have. all other covers are wrong. This one is so much a favorite that I am on my second copy, having read the first to death; I think my mother might be on her second copy as well, which just goes to show. Even my husband enjoyed it. It was marketed to adults, but I think it has lots of teen appeal (I was a teen when I first read it), and as well as being a darn good story, there's a generous sprinkling of paranormal romances (lots of people get to have romances. Some happy, some less so).
So. Imagine that in the future, various alien races with psionic powers have made contact with Earth, Earth having reached a critical mass of psionic inhabitants of its own. Earth is now part of a galactic milieu of calm order; more and more humans are being born with mental gifts, war is over, all is happy. Except that there are some people who still aren't--the deviants, mystics, misfits, eccentrics, criminals, those whose souls are out of step somehow with a galaxy of good feeling.
Then imagine that a French professor invented a machine that allows one way travel back to the Pliocene (six million or so years ago). He dismissed it as worthless, and his widow was just about to dismantle it, when the first would-be time traveller begged to pass through, wanting the chance to explore an unpeopled world. And more and more travellers came...some willing travellers, some pushed back in time because they were too troublesome to be allowed to stay.
Time travel becomes organized; the travellers equipping themselves with what they need for life they'll imagine they'll have (I love reading all the lists of what people are taking back to the past!). They are sent back in groups, after a brief period of bonding. One such group (our main characters in this first book--men and women, old and young) is about to pass through....a group whose members are going to change the past, and in so doing, make the future what it's going to be.
It's not a walk in the park, back in the Pliocene. There are surprises (you know that paranormal romance thing? that's a hint). What the time travellers find will blow their minds (some to the point of insanity). And the reader (if the reader is at all like me) will be riveted.
I don't generally like books with multiple main characters, and story lines of great complexity and fantastical-ness going of hither and thither. My first time through, lo these many years ago, I might have found myself uncertain during the introductory period--there are a lot of characters, and we meet them all individually, and there's a lot to keep track of. But May makes it all work in a masterpiece of plotting and characterization and exuberant imagination. For those who like the mental powers and the paranormal, there's that. For those that like the survival in a strange land, there's that. For those that like their characters put through various emotional ringers, and/or their characters finding love and friendship, there's that too. Magic. Sex. Death. Flying on the wings of the mind. Extinct mammals (so few fantasy books do as nice a job with extinct mammals). Crafting of beautiful things. Generous splashes of humor. Tragedy.
In short, I really cannot recommend this too highly to anyone who wants a sci fi/fantasy adventure of epic proportions, set on a very different earth. But I've read it so many times I can't be dispassionate about it...this first book, and the three that follow it, are and integral and much loved part of my mental map. However, since my mother and my husband, both of whom are less emotional thinkers than me, and both of whom read grown-up books, enjoyed the series as well, I feel pretty confident in my recommending.
(I also don't feel like writing a thoughtful review, because that would be full of spoilers. I hope I haven't spoiled it too much as it is!)
Before I get started on this review, look at this cover. Here is a black teenage boy front and center as the romantic lead in a paranormal YA story. He is not one of an ensemble cast, and he is not shown from behind, or in shadow. I cannot think of one single other contemporary YA speculative fiction book cover that does this (tell me if I'm wrong!). I hope it is selling well, so that having a black main character on the cover can become something normal and unremarkable (I have made a point of leaving it face up around the house for several weeks, to brainwash my boys into thinking it normal. I'm not sure it registered, but you never know). Now that's out of my system, here's the review.Transcendence
, by C.J. Omololu (Walker, 2012, YA) is a type of time travel book that I've never reviewed before--on in which reincarnation is front and center. But since reincarnation in this story is more than just having memories of past lives--it's actually reliving bits of the past, in a vivid, really being there way--I'm counting it as time travel.
Cole (short for Nicole) had no idea that she had lived many lives before her present, teenage cello playing existence until she is beheaded at the Tower of London. Fortunately for Cole, this happened in the past...though the experience felt very real. And also fortunately for Cole, maybe, a handsome boy named Griffon is there to catch her as she faints. He knows that she's more than just a tourist overwhelmed by the history of the place....because he, too, has memories of many lives.
Griffon and Cole are both from the same California town, and their paths cross again. And Cole is caught up in a fluster of teenaged crush-ness, which is a new thing for her, because until now the cello has filled her time very fillingly. But her uncanny visions of the past are happening more often... and Griffon has answers for her that are almost unbelievable. There is a secret cabral of those who remember their past lives exists, and Cole has just become eligible to join the club.
But the energies of her gradually remembered pasts have attracted someone who has born a grudge against her for over a hundred years....a deadly grudge. Murderous, even. So Cole must figure out the mystery of what happened back then, or else she may well not live long enough to be able to settle nicely into her romance with Griffon....let alone sort out her various pasts, and what her future might hold.
This is definitely one for readers who like their teenage romance right up there, front and center. Following along with Cole's first person present narration, the reader gets to share the anxiety, the attraction, the heat of passion (which takes a while to actually heat up, but which is rather steamy once it gets going. Although they don't have sex. Yet.). The reader, thanks to this first person present, also is privy to lots of miscellaneous details and thoughts that don't advance the story all that quickly. It is very much a slow build to the really exiting, "will Cole be killed," part (the realization that she can remember past lives, like Griffon, isn't actually all that exciting--explanation from Griffon that he is special, incredulous acceptance from Cole that she is special too...and repeat intermittently).
In fact, things were so slow to get going that I started and put the book down twice....but I pressed on the third time, and was rewarded with a final third of much more excitingness (the "will Cole be killed"part, and the whole mystery of why). That being said, if you like teenaged paranormal romances, but want to keep the paranormal on the human end of things, this might really work for you.
Fans of time travel might be a tad disappointed in as much as there really isn't any travel qua
travel--there's reliving of things that happened, and as such Cole in the past doesn't have any free will as her modern self. There's no culture shock or paradoxes or other time related entanglements, except for the reverberations of the past into the present. So, time travel fans, be aware that you are going to get more contemporary romance than time slippishness.
All that being said, the final third of the book redeemed the whole for me, and I do recommend it in a mild way to anyone not off-put by my caveats!
, by Jeff Hirsch (Scholastic, October 1, younger YA, 2012)--a good one for the younger reader who enjoys sci-fi and magic mixed together to form a high-stakes thriller.
It's the year 2153; over a hundred years have passed since the cataclysmic formation of the Rift divided Earth into two distinct parts. On one side, a girl named Glenn has grown up in a high tech world, living at the edge of the Rift, with no desire to explore its forbidding, and forbidden, wastes. But when a government raid on her father's workshop ends up with her father imprisoned and no where else to run, Glenn, along with her friend Kevin, flees across the border.
There she finds a world of magic--a place where she is taken under the protectin of a sentient feline warrior, known as Aamon, a place where those with Affinity can feel the magic, and bend it to their own ends. And no one can control the Affinity more powerfully than the sinister figure known as the Magistra, who rules with an iron hand.
Glenn is shielded from the force of the Affinity by the bracelet her father had made, a marvel of magic and technology that is the reason for the government's all to fierce interest in her family. But Kevin becomes drawn into the world across the rift, sharing his memories with a boy cruelly executed by the Magistra. And Aamon (Glenn's own cat) was the one responsible for bringing her to power.
As the secrets of this new and blood-soaked land gradually reveal themselves, Glenn is forced to determine where her loyalties lie...and what will happen to her when she takes the bracelet off, and all the wild magic of the Affinity threatens to consume her, just as it did the Magistra. And the arrival of a high tech attacking the people of the Magisterium forces Glenn to decide if she will use her power...or watch people die.
It was a gripping and interesting story, with revelation following on revelation, danger following danger. It's one I'd recommend to the younger YA reader looking for a high-stakes science ficitony/fantasy adventure, especially the reader who isn't drawn to stereotypical other-world-with-magic fantasy--there are strange creatures here, to be sure, but no unicorns or wands! I say younger YA because Glenn presents as being young--she's resisting Kevin's romantic nudgings in a very prickly adolescent not wanting things to change way, her plot arc is still focused on family, as opposed to her own life, and she has not become the fully "strong teen protagonist" type that I be she'll be in later books. And this isn't a criticism--just an aspect of the book that might make it appeal more to a 12 year old than to a 17 year old.
The story is told in tight third person perspective--we see what Glenn sees, and understand what she does. Since she's in a situation that is as confusing as all get out, at times I myself was confused, especially with regard to minor characters. The fast progression from one dangerous encounter to the next allowed little time to fall back and regroup, which was somewhat off-putting to me personally. I like to spend peaceful time with characters, getting to know and care about them when they aren't in danger/disagreeing vehemently with each other/totally self-absorbed, and I get muddled if too much World Building Extravaganza is heaped on top of itself.
However, the tight concentration on Glenn's perspective allows the emotional tension of her situation to come through with vivid clarity, adding intensity to the story. The relationship between prickly Glenn, desperate for order and things that makes sense, and Kevin, busily introducing the disrupting force of romance into her life, and a fine character in his own right, is very nicely done indeed.
Conclusion: I found it an absorbing read, not quite to my own personal taste, but one that I would happily offer to a seventh or eighth grade girl who wants a good speculative fiction adventure (especially the girl who is really fond of her cat. The Girl-Beloved cat relationship is important here). For those concerned about such things, there's quite a bit of violence, but no sex--just one passionate kiss (with Kevin, not with the cat, just in case anyone was confused).
Other reviews: The Book Smugglers
, The Cozy Armchair
, and YA Litwit
disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher
Sometimes even picky readers of historical fiction (ie, me) are allowed to just enjoy the ride, especially when the ride in question is to a steampunk 19th-century London that never was. The Friday Society
, by Adrienne Kress (Dial, YA, Dec. 2012), is a playful mystery/thriller in which three teenage girls--an inventor's assistant, a magician's assistant, and a would-be samurai warrior from Japan find their paths (littered with dead bodies) crossing....and they end up working together, in a sisterhood of mad talent, to foil your basic megalomaniac evil genius plot to destroy London.
(Yay! A one sentence summary!)
So sure, it isn't historical fiction at its most un-anachronistic, but a lot of the fun comes from the author's relaxed and playful use of modern turns of phrase. As in the first two sentences, which made me feel all happy to read the book:
"And then there was an explosion.
It was loud. It was bright. It was very explosion-y."
I liked all three girls--Cora, the serious inventor, Nellie, the beautiful girl who's an ace escape artist, and Michiko, formidable swordswoman confronted by barriers of language and culture. They were each strongly individual, with nicely doled out back-story and motivations and opinions. The point of view shifts between the three girls, which was good, in large part because it gave the reader a chance to get to know Michiko, and hear her thoughts. I liked how Cora and Nellie, even though they couldn't exactly have complicated conversations with Michiko, never treated her as an exotic other--she was a person and an equal. The one real reservation I had, regarding Cora being swept off her feet by feelings of physical attraction to a jerk, proved to be a reservation that the author shared, and not something she thought was ok, which was a relief.
I liked the story--it was enough of a steampunk thriller to be interesting, without the thriller-ness using up too many pages with violent chases etc, which I often find tedious. (nb--people who actually like tightly plotted thrillers that exercise their brains might find it untightly plotted, and might put in some critical thinking type comments here, but I am not that reader).
In short, I liked reading the book! It was just the sort of escapist fun that makes for excellent bus ride reading. This came as a very pleasant surprise, because I did not much care for the author's two middle grade fantasy books. I think her writing has improved lots--I felt here that she was in control of her story, which was not quite the feeling I had gotten in the past.
This week's adventure in reading fantasy books for grown-ups (though it has huge YA crossover appeal) was Norse Code
, by Greg van Eekhout (2009), one I enjoyed very much indeed. It is a swirlingness of Norse mythology in which two main characters try to fend off the annihilation of Ragnarok, and are forced to be very brave indeed. When the story starts, Fimbulvetr, the unending winter, has arrived--three years have passed on earth with no spring. And Kathy Castillo, an MBA student, has been murdered, only to find her newly dead self offered a new life as a Valkyrie. Recruitment for Odin's army has been stepped up, and NorseCODE, a secret project funded by the Aesir gods, is tracking down every mortal descendant of Odin it can. Even ordinary ones like Kathy, now known as Mist.
But Mist goes AWOL. Instead of being a good Valkyrie, recruiting others, she decides that what's really important is finding her way to the kingdom of Hel, where most of the dead end up-- like Mist's sister, also murderd. To get to Hel and save her sister, Mist needs a guide, and the only choice is the Vanir god, Hermod, who made the journey himself once before (to save his own brother--it didn't work out). Hermod is a kind of loner god, not really into the mead-soaked fun and games of his family, and rather preoccupied with tracking down the wolves who are going to devour the sun and the moon....but off they go to Hel.
And then lots happens. Basically, Mist and Hermod team up to try to diffuse Ragnarok, despite all the weight of prophecy and immortal machinations pushing it forward to its deadly conclusion. They don't have much going for them--some help from Odin's eight-legged horse, and a bunch of dead farmers from Iowa (tornado victims) who, along with Mist's sister and the blind god Höd,
have formed a resistance movement in Hel. Odin's all-seeing eye might help if they can get it, and then there's a sword partly forged from Nothing, that might be useful....
So there's a lot happening, and Mist and Hermod don't really know what the heck they are doing for much of the book, and even when they do know, they have a hard time being special enough to do it, and sometimes people die, and Ragnarok keeps on progressing--yet it wasn't depressing! I do not like depressing books, so this was good.
Reasons why it wasn't depressing, even though when the story begins it is never ending winter and it's all grim and one isn't at all sure if one wants to read it:
--Mist and Hermod manage to muddle through at every turn; they keep on trying, even when things look their darkest. This keeps the reader from loosing hope too (I hate it when I loose hope).
--There are lots of little funny bits, little zingers that made me chuckle and longer bits of the author not taking things too seriously but not falling into farce.
--There is violence, and there's at least one graphic mentions of intestines, but it doesn't have the off putting pages of gore and fighting that one might encounter in grown-up books (and some middle grade fantasies)
--I liked the romance. If this were written as a YA book, there would be lots more about the romance, with angst and thrawtingnesses etc. This is a nice grown up romance, tastefully presented--growing tension, followed by brisk mutual enjoyment snatched from despair, conducted offstage. Though I wouldn't actually have minded a bit more conducted onstage.....
--I really liked the farmers from Iowa. Plain People of Middle America ftw!
--It is also not any longer than it needs to be. Clocking in at a brisk 292 pages, there was no wallowing in pointlessness.
In short, Norse Code
is the best Ragnarok novelization I've ever read, and the best girl with bare shoulders holding a sword on the cover book I've ever (though it was my first, as far as I can remember, on both counts, so that isn't saying much), and, much more meaningfully, a cracking good read.
Note: I do not think you have to be deeply conversant with Norse mythology to appreciate it, but on the other hand, I think you need to have at least heard of Ragnarok and Odin's gang and Valkyries etc.
Additional note: Mist is from Mexico--her family immigrated when she was a child-- which is neither here nor there as far as the story goes, but there it is, so I'm counting this as multicultural fantasy, and anyone who has been wanting to read about a Hispanic Valkyrie need look no further.
I very much enjoyed The Name of the Star, the first book in Maureen Johnson's Shades of London series. It's the story of a southern girl, Rory, who comes to London for a year in an exclusive boarding school--only to find herself menaced by of a truly creepy killer who is recreating the murders of Jack the Ripper. Rory begins to realize that there is more to the murders than meets the eye, because it turns out that Rory can see ghosts...and ghosts are involved. She's not alone in that ability, and is recruited by the small unit (3 young people) of London's police force who are responsible for handling the ghostly crimes of London--but will Rory be able to help them track down the murderer, or will she end up dead herself? And in the meantime, there's the whole culture shock of life at a British boarding school....The Madness Underneath
(Putnam, Feb. 26) begins as Rory has more or less recovered physically from the knife wound she got at the end of book one. Her parents agree to let her return to school....but it's not exactly going to be a peaceful end of term experience for her. For one thing, she has a new, unique, ability--her touch can dispel ghosts--and since the devices that were able to do this all got destroyed in Book 1, she is the only actual weapon the small police ghost force has to work with. Her place within that force is uncertain, as Stephan, the leader of that team, is reluctant to recruit her and swear her to a life of secrecy and lies...
But when faced with murderous spirits, and a plot by some very sinister folks indeed to capture Rory and use her for their own ends (this was a slightly odd plot, a bit jarring), there's no way for her to just sit quietly at school and worry about her homework....
Though there are many creepy and exciting goings on, this isn't a book full of non stop action. I myself like this--non stop action gives me a headache. Instead, there is lots here about Rory as a person, struggling both with her feelings (toward boys and toward her new ability), and struggling academically. I must confess I became so worried about her academic struggles that I wanted to flip to the end to see if she flunked out or not. But then I got interested in the actual plot of ghosts and mysteries and bad guys, and since it was becoming all too clear that Rory was doomed academically, I was able to focus on what was actually Happening.
But oh, Maureen Johnson, why did you have to give me that one full voltage scene of beautiful romantic tension only to snatch it away from me?
Courtesy of the publisher, I have an ARC of The Madness Underneath
to give away (US only); please enter by next Wednesday, Feb. 13, at midnight! It's my first rafflecopter giveaway; I hope it works. Edited to add: It didn't work. For one thing, it made me answer the question "What makes you smile" which did Not make me smile and for another it gave extra entries for following rafflecopter on twitter. So I am going back to --Please enter by leaving a comment that includes some way to reach you!
The Different Girl
, by Gordon Dahlquist (Dutton Juvenile YA, February 21, 2013, 240 pages) was a lovely character-driven sci-fi change from my regular reading, and I enjoyed it lots.
It tells of four girls, who have lived all their lives on an isolated island under the attentive eyes of two adults who are their teachers and guardians. One girl is blond, one brunette, one redhead, and one, Veronika, the narrator of the story, has black hair, but otherwise, they seem identical. And they never question their routine--it is all they have ever known.
Then a fifth girl comes, the only survivor of a shipwreck. Veronika's world is forever changed by the differences of this girl, and the questions that her presence brings. The world of the island is no longer safe--enemies are approaching, death becomes a real possibility-- and Veronika's assumptions about herself and the other three girls are shaken to their core.
Oh goodness, this is a hard one to review, because the reader's assumptions, and the picture of the island that seems so simple at first, all becomes so much more tangled, and interesting, and beautifully thought-provoking, with the arrival of the different girl. And all these tangles aren't exactly explained, because everything the reader knows is filtered through the lens of Veronika's mind, and her mind is not exactly ordinary. So we don't see the big picture explaining all the whys of this particular world, because Veronika never finds many answers, but we do see her changing, as her peace, both of mind and of place, become progressively shattered.
Those who enjoy really quirky, occasionally frustrating, stories of what it means to be a thinking being may well enjoy it as much as I did. (Those who like stories about girls in orphanages/boarding schools might also like it for that aspect of it!). I myself found it a memorable and gripping character-driven mind-trip. That being said, those who like their world building actually built, with questions answered and things explained, who like books that have Plot front and central point (as opposed to a book like this, in which the central point is one character's experience of plot-like elements she doesn't understand), might well be frustrated.
For those who are curious about the spoilery part of it--it becomes clear pretty early in the book (which I appreciated--it let me in on the whole thought-experiment aspect of the story), and the cover actually shows a rather clever spoiler, and so I will tell what it is (highlight to read)The four girls are robots. They are there on the island to be kept safe from those who wish to destroy them, while they are being taught how to be thinking beings.
disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher.
A sampling of other reviews: Presenting Lenore
, Reading Rants
, and Alexia's Books and Such
The Shadow Society
, by Marie Rutkoski (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, YA, Oct., 2012) is the most gripping book I've read in 2013. The pages turned quickly--my 40 minute bus ride home yesterday took me to page 167, and I almost missed my stop, and my poor children were sent to bed late (my husband being out for the evening) as I finished the last 200 or so pages....(and poor youngest child thought it was Friday, and no one reminded him to do his homework...)
The story, summarized briefly up to the point where the spoilers would be too spoilery:
Darcy was found on the streets of Chicago when she was five years old, with no memory of how she got there or who she is. After being shunted from one foster home to another, she's now a junior, with a foster mother who is keeping her for a second year (a first). But her expectations of a happy year in the company of her three best friends are shattered when an enigmatic, and beautifully handsome, new boy, Conn, arrives....
(ok--I would have liked it better if Conn hadn't been so beautiful. I have never, myself, met anyone with chiseled lips. And it's rather cliched that of course Darcy is going to be strangely attracted to him, and he's going to be all strange to her, in a "what does this beautiful boy want from me way" and I think this part of the book could have been just a tad more subtle. But, on the other hand, the way Darcy's small cabal of friends react is rather nice. Darcy's friends are great. As is the fact that Darcy and Conn spend much time discussing The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. I liked this).
Back to the story.
So there are hints that Conn is odd, it's quite clear that Darcy is different (I'll go so far as to say Special), and even clearer that something is going to happen.
It does. It involves an alternate Chicago, where the Great Fire never happened, and where humans are locked in a war against beings known as Shades, who can disincorporate themselves. It's a war of terrorist attacks, torture of captives, and bitter memories....and Darcy finds herself right in the middle of it.
Things get very interesting indeed. Loyalty, memory, and guilt. Past death and present danger. Questions about whether peace is possible after so much bloody history. And on the lighter side, a new Jane Austin book, discovered after her death in the alternate universe, and a trip to the alternate Chicago's art museum...
And in the meantime, Conn and Darcy, two people almost broken by past atrocity, must negotiate their relationship under terrible pressure.........(there's me reading reading reading all big-eyed and totally engrossed)......
So yes, I liked it very much!
(Here's a quibble--young people today are so selfish. If my sons ever found themselves spending a couple of weeks in an alternate Chicago, knowing that it was quite easy to come and go between the two worlds, but Never Bothering to let me know they were all right, I'd be really cross.)
Anyone in the market for an entertaining fantasy read, one that's lightly fun and amusingly inventive, should consider Growing Disenchantments
, by K.D. Berry (2012, Bluewood Publishing, labeled YA, but suitable for adults). It's not, you know, a World Altering reading experience of Emotional Power, but it is a fine way to spend a snowy day.
It was on such a day that I entered the world of Ragonnard, the new wizard in town, just as the young thief Ganfrey (a girl, and no unskilled) was about to break into his house. Unfortunately for Ganfrey (although it all worked out in the end), Ragonnard's home proved hard to burgle, and she ended up being caught. But he made a deal with her--steal a particular portrait from the king's castle, and all would be forgiven.
That particular portrait, a prison painted to hold a long gone evil wizard, was one Ragonnard had been searching for with a particular passion. Painted along with with the wizard is an amulet of particular power, and Ragonnard's plan is to extract the amulet, bringing it back to real world while leaving the wizard in painted place.
Things don't work out according to plan, and the evil magician is freed. Ganfrey finds herself caught up in chaos as his magic take over the castle, sending the optimistically incompetent king out on to the streets, and freeing the stone gargoyles and animating the statues of long dead kings.
But there are things more serious afoot than the deposing of kings and the philosophical conversations of gargoyles. The magician is bent on revenge on those who imprisoned him 500 years ago, and he won't let time stand in his way. Unless Ganfry and Ragonnard, with the help of a time travelling agent from the future, the court illusionist, Dewdop, and the head of castle security (who spends his free time reading mysteries, and trying to apply them in real life), can stop him, all of time's coherence will be shattered!
Entertaining stuff. I found the characters amusing, although not desperately three dimensional, and the more I read, the faster the pages turned as the excitement of the story grew. The reader has to have a certain tolerance for a bit of slapstick, almost cartoonish in places, and some awful puns (the sentient broom, for instance, is described at one point as a "heaving besom"), and a certain tolerance for plot elements that don't necessarily seem as tidily integrated into the whole as they might have been (time travelling agent from the future, popping up naked every now and then, and not actually doing much that's helpful, I'm looking at you). But if you just sit back and relax and enjoy the ride, it's lots of fun. Not quite up to the level of the Discworld books, which are my current gold standard of amusing fantasy, but a good time nonetheless.
The book is the second in a series (the first being Dragons Away
), but is perfectly fine as a stand alone. It's published in New Zealand, but it's available from Amazon
as both a book and a kindle edition. Disclaimer: I received a copy courtesy of the author (or at least, courtesy of half the author, since this was a team effort).
, by Esther Friesner (Random House, April, 2012, middle grade/YA) tells of the childhood of Himiko, daughter of the chieftain of the small Matsu clan. By around 238 AD, Himiko was a queen, but before she reaches that point (which will presumably happen in the sequel to this book), she has lots of growing up to do....and so this is a book for the reader who has patience, one who is interested in the small things of life, and who doesn't demand happenings (in this, the cover is misleading--Himiko looks like an Action-Oriented princess, but that part of her life is yet to come). It's also a good one for the reader who likes historical fiction that explores the lives of little known women--the author's note at the end explains that Himiko's story is based on fact, which pleased me very much.
Himiko is the only daughter of her father, and so is the "princess" of her village. It is a narrow life, as her father distrusts all outsiders, and Himiko is not permitted to follow her dream of become a great hunter like her older brother (and even if she had been encouraged to follow this path, a fall in childhood leaves with a permanently lame leg). Slowly she realizes that her path lies elsewhere, as a shaman for her people. And so, interspersed with various family dynamics, we are told of her apprenticeship to the village shaman, which is kept secret from her dictatorial, xenophobic father, who simply wants to see her nicely married off.
There are shadows of a danger to come, which finally does arrive right at the end of the book. But until then, there's lots of family dynamics, with nicely drawn secondary characters, some interesting descriptions of Himiko's rather restricted life, some magical encounters with spirit world (although not quite enough for my taste), and hints of more story to come.
I myself rather enjoyed it, though at first I was doubtful--- I felt that it wasn't quite necessary to spend so much time with five-year old Himiko (adolescent Himiko becomes more interesting). But even though I did read it avidly, appreciating the different culture, appreciating Himiko's various dilemmas and her growing familiarity with the spirit world, and hoping that it would all work out, I couldn't help but feel that this story is simply the prologue to a more exciting one to come.
And indeed, this is a good time to have read the book, because I am very much looking forward to its sequel, Spirit's Chosen
, which comes out this April, and will not have as long to wait!
note on age: I'd be most likely to give this one to a ten or eleven year old girl, although it is described as being for ages 12 and up. There is nothing in the book that would give your typical middle grade pause, and I think older readers are more likely to be put off by the fact that Himiko is a little kid!
The Lost Girl
, by Sangu Mandanna (Balzer + Bray; August, 2012, YA, 432 pages)
Eva has lived in cozy cottage in northern England all the sixteen years of her life, with her beloved foster mother, and caring guardians dropping in to visit lots. She looks on the outside like a normal, attractive, Anglo-Indian girl.
Eva has been in danger all her life. There are people who think she is an abomination, a monster who must be killed.
Because Eva doesn't just look like an Indian girl--she is a direct copy of one. She was made by a sinister organization of genetic tinkerers to be the exact echo of a girl named Amarra, a girl growing up in far-away Bangalore. If Amarra should die, Eva will be sent to take her place, and perhaps, even to serve as a vessel for Amarra's very essence. Every week the letters from Amarra, full of the details of her life, arrive. When Amarra gets a tattoo, Eva must get one also, so their bodies match.
Eva doesn't want to be an echo. She wants to be "Eva," a name she chose for herself. But those that created her will kill her if she tries to live a life of her own.
Then Amarra dies.
Eva does her best to be Amarra....but there are things that Amarra never told her. And even the best echo cannot truly take the place of a lost child, and Eva is much more than a good little shadow....
At which point, things surge from being a fascinating speculative fiction character study to a life or death drama with stakes just as high as they can get! (with bonus forbidden romance).
Yes, this is one for the lover of character (me). And the lover of Themes being Explored (identity, and the rights we have to our own lives, and whether the created life is inherently monstrous (with many references in the book to Frankenstein) and how grief and love plays out for different people). There was action, too, especially toward the end (our girl Eva and her love fighting the Powerful Bad Guys).
And it was a really darn good read. An all in one evening, great gulping glass of water on a hot day read. Three and a half hours of all absorbing prose. Oh yeah.
It wasn't all rainbows and happy reading, though. For instance, I would have liked more richness to the Indian part of the setting, when Eva is living Amarra's life--I never felt as though I was there.
More critically, the actual premise--that echoes can take the place of a real person--is rather ridiculous; I can't imagine an echo ever successfully filling the void of the dead person. Nor does the whole set-up of the echo creators seem reasonable (even for speculative fiction). Much salt is required to swallow the central point of the story. If that's the sort of thing that bothers you, this might not be the right book for you.
(thanks to Margo Berendsen, who's review
of the book inpired me to get a hold of it!)
I enjoyed The Demon Catchers of Milan
, by Kat Beyer (Egmont, August 2012, YA) lots. I don't remember why I decided to request it from the library, and when I saw the cover, and began reading, I was afraid I was in familiar paranormal romance territory--beautiful girl threatened by demonic possession thinks she isn't pretty and admires the prettiness of the boy she's just met.
But I kept going, and was rewarded by a really entertaining story--Mia, now in Milan, is being protected from the demon who had possessed her by her demon-hunting Italian family (demon hunters of Milan since Milan got going). And the story is mostly:
--lots of Italian food
--a generous cast of Italian family members, with Histories
--some interesting family interactions with demons, etc.
--a bit of conflict between church and demon hunters
with considerable elements of Mia (who seems like she might be kind of special, but who, at this point, isn't all Special in the reader's face) trying to figure out how to:
a. speak Italian
b. go outside without the demon pouncing on her
c. find out more about demon hunting (her family isn't telling her much, because, you know, the demon might succeed in possessing her again and then learn all their secrets).
and a small element of Mia thinking about boys, but not getting entangled in any real romance (she isn't the sultry vixen shown on the cover)
Bonus reference to ancient history (Greeks vs. Persians) which will probably be important in the next book.
So there isn't all that much Action, Adventure, or Excitement (apart from a few possessions of Mia and a few other people), and it's not a Romance, but there is a most enjoyable sense of place and people and family history with enough of the supernatural to keep things very interesting indeed.
And the food is great. Lots of wine is drunk too. I want to go stay with Mia's grandparents and eat and drink.
Short answer: I truly liked it, read in a single sitting (it's only 288 pages, which I appreciated), and am looking forward to the sequel (and though this stops at a good stopping point, many many many things are unresolved, because, you know, five months isn't really enough time to learn how to vanquish a real bad-ass demon once and for all).
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, by Kerstin Gier ( Henry Holt and Co, 2012, YA), is the sequel to Ruby Red
), and you absolutely have to read the first one first, or you won't have much clue what's going on. However, Ruby Red
is lots of fun, so there's no reason not to read it!
The basics of the plot: There's a secret cabral of time travellers whose genes whisk them back in time--to prevent surprise temporal whisking, they have to "elapse" in controlled time travel quite often. Gwen thought that her snotty cousin Charlotte (one of the most objectionable fictional Charlottes going) was destined to be the one who got the gene in her family...an assumption shared by all the other members of the society. So when it turns out to be Gwen instead, it comes as a shock....
There are lots of secrets to this mysterious organization that Gwen isn't being told, and a backstory of betrayals and intrigues that she's becoming ever more involved with (rather relevant backstory, because the thing with time travel is that the characters can go back themselves and become part of it). Gwen is supposedly destined to bring about some sort of milestone viz the secret cabral, and there are, apparently, rouge time travellers who left the cabral who don't want this to happen.
And then there's the complication of Gwen falling hard for Gideon, a young time traveller who might, or might not, have been involved with vile cousin Charlotte--incredibly handsome, full of secrets, and kind of a jerk, what with all his blowing hot and cold.
Keeping Gwen sane as she come to terms with all of this, and travels to the 18th century to meet with the sinister head of the cabral, is her good friend Lesley--sharp as a tack, an ace at Internet searches, and less preoccupied than Gwen (whose mind is full of her Gideon dilemma, she takes on the Mystery Solving aspects of the story. There's also James, the 18th century ghost lurking around Gwen's school, whose good for a few quick lessons in 18th-century life skills. And in this book, Gwen is adopted by the demonic spirit of an ex-gargoyle that only she can see-- a useful, though tricksy, companion....
So all this takes place in just a few days, with the result that the books are full of detail and conversation and many happenings, and a tad short on overall plot advancement. Fortunately, I found it all very enjoyable, so the lack of progress toward actually getting any clear answers to much of anything didn't bother me in the least!
The time travel, in terms of experiencing the past, is not actually a central element in the book--yes, Gwen travels back to the past, most memorably getting so tipsy at an 18th-century soiree that she entertains the guests with a song from Cats, but the time travel mostly serves to introduce Gwen (and the reader) to various characters and plot elements. So this is one to read for the entertainment value of its central character struggling to solve the mystery of a. her destiny, and the whole secret society thing and b. her relationship with Gideon, and not one to read for educational visits to the past....which, of course, is just fine.
(Just as an aside--Sapphire Blue
was originally published in German, and translated by Anthea Bell, the go-to girl for German to English YA fantasy translation. I have read a number of her translations, and I think she must be very good, because each different book she's worked on has a different feel....)