Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Eternal Sky trilogy, by Elizabeth Bear

I haven't been inspired to blog much lately: a lot of books I've started but not finished, or finished but not been very excited about, and when the weather is lovely and the garden needs constant attention, a book has to be pretty exciting to drag me into the basement to write about it.

But I forgot I hadn't written about this series, which I finished last month. (And it's so hot outside that the basement is a cool, pleasant place to be right now!)

I tend to avoid adult fantasy because it's all the same—please, no, not another inn! YA has been a refuge and a nurse log for original thinkers because it's creating itself as a genre and doesn't have all the weight of Tolkien (May He Live Forever) resting on it. When I discover a truly original adult fantasy I have to jump up and down and shout about it.

Range of GhostsShattered Pillars, and Steles of the Sky  are truly original, epic, adult fantasy. (And this trilogy would be fine for YA audiences, as well*.)

The setting is fantastic, in all the meanings of that word. It's based on Asia: not just part of Asia, but the whole thing: deserts, steppes, mountains, jungles and fabulous, colorful empires that sound a little like Mongol, Persian, Chinese, Russian and lots of other cultures I don't even know about, but with new and fascinating magic and gods. So intriguing and interesting and well-developed! Here's Elizabeth Bear talking about how she deliberately set out to write something not Euro-centric:

I wanted these books to focus on the cognates of cultures that epic fantasy so often marginalizes–those mysterious Easterners, usually portrayed as a swarthy, untrustworthy threat on the borders of our heroes’ empire.

As a Euro-descended Westerner raised on Celtic and German fairy tales, I found it delightfully refreshing to read a novel that is completely different. And so imaginative! Not just one original magic system, but a different one for every country, with rituals and language and trappings that might be inspired by Buddhist or Hindu or Islamic imagery but are entirely new. World-building rests in the details, and the world of Eternal Sky is full of evocative objects with symbolic potential. Here is Bear talking about all the different kinds of books in her world, including books that blind those who read them. (No spoilers, but oh, that concept creates a plot thread that will wring your emotions and hang them out to dry!)

Rich and varied characters inhabit this wondrous world, and we get to meet them and learn each of their histories and secrets.  Temur, heir to the Padaparashna Seat, who stumbles off a battlefield with a remarkable horse, and then has to figure out what he's going to do about having survived.  Once-princess Samarkar, the wizard who gave up her fertility to find her magic, and then finds love. Edene, the steppe warrior-girl who starts off needing rescuing and ends up . . . well, I don't want to spoil it, so I won't say, but it's not where you expect her to end up! By the end, I think Smarkar and Edene have taken over as main characters from Temur, and I love their character arcs.

I love all the strong women: Hrahima the warrior tiger-woman who refuses to believe in her god; Yangchen, ambitious second wife of an emperor. Tsering-la, wizard without magic. Bear is obviously trying to upend gender stereotypes, and she does it gloriously. Take note, authors: we want more characters like these ones! (Kudos to Bear for showing nursing mothers going about their business as if having a baby was no hindrance—but I had to laugh at the idea of strapping a baby on your back and riding into battle. Babies would somewhat hinder that business.)

The love stories are brilliant: flawed, confused people cleaving together with the best of intentions and behaving maturely about it even when it gets complicated. Love that focuses more on tenderness than passion--oh, how refreshing!

There are all kinds of subplots that could have been novels in their own right—I did sometimes forget who people were, and I thought some of the subplots were tied up a bit too quickly or not really tied up at all, but it all added to the richness of the world.

Bear's writing is gorgeous, every sentence a pleasure to read, every description vivid and sensual.
This—this was how empires ended. With the flitting of wild dogs in the dark and a caravan of moons going dark one by one.
I can't forget to mention the animals, both real and fantastic: wonderfully depicted. Great dragons.

I will be searching out Bear's other writing (I have read the first book of her Jacob's Ladder trilogy, which was brilliant and fascinating and original and I didn't understand it at all. Maybe I should try again . . .) There are two novellas set in The Eternal Sky's world, so going to look for those now. (And apparently there will be more novels—not sequels, but same world.)

The Eternal Sky trilogy is a really good Thai curry: maybe a yellow curry with chicken and potatoes. Sweet with coconut milk, spicy, satisfying, and redolent with cilantro and lemon grass.

*The characters are adults and deal with issues such as childbirth and politics, which YA tends to leave alone, but the sex is off-stage, and the violence is realistic (there's a war going on) but not gory or gratuitous.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Happy Canada Day!!

Actually this is in Kananaskis Provincial Park,
but it's right next door to Banff
Yay Canada! Yay picnics in the park and bands playing music by the beach and people wearing red and white, and knowing that there are parades and fireworks going on (even though we don't really enjoy parades or fireworks so we don't go).

Some things I love about Canada:

Anne of Green Gables
Banff National Park
The Group of 7

I know, I know, those are all pretty typical. But they're still great, and I can say I grew up with them; they shaped who I am.

St John's, Newfoundland
The Arrogant Worms
The Trans Canada Highway (which I've driven in its entirety. Twice.)
Newfoundland (where I lived for a wonderful year)
Douglas Coupland
Terry Fox, and the fact that he is pretty much our biggest hero (every elementary kid knows who he is).
We love laughing at ourselves
Our political discourse is boring. Boring is good in politics!
We have really good Thai food (that's what we had tonight). And Italian food and Vietnamese food and Indian food and Russian food and Ethiopian food and  . . .  Let's hear it for multiculturalism!

Anyone else have things they love about Canada to share?

So June passed me by completely (I was in the garden picking strawberries all month)(I swear, it's true! I suffered from "eyes bigger than my stomach" syndrome when I planted two huge beds of strawberries, and I ended up with way more strawberries than I knew what to do with!). But in failing to blog in June I managed to miss the deadline for the Canadian Book Challenge this year, and I was only one book short! The worst thing is that I had actually read the thirteenth book, but was too deep in strawberries to get around to reviewing it. So, one day late, here's my final Canadian book of the year:

Half a Crown, by Jo Walton, is the conclusion to her Small Change trilogy. Set in an alternate history in which Britain made peace with Hitler and is sliding slowly but surely into fascism, the three books are fascinating and horrifying in equal measure. Inspector Carmichael is the hero (anti-hero?) again, and again he shares the narration with a naive girl who at first accepts what's going on because everyone else does, but then gradually realizes how wrong it is. The tension created by the alternating narratives is again brilliant. I hesitated to read this trilogy, because the premise sounded really depressing, but Walton is a compelling writer, and she does a wonderful job of drawing you into the world through the characters, and showing how individual moral choices are affected by and affect the moral choices of a society. Really worth reading. The dense, chewy texture of a real Montreal bagel with a complementary sharp/creamy shmear of Winnipeg cream cheese. (More things I love about Canada!)

John Mutford has way more great Canadian reads on his blog, The Book Mine Set, where he hosts the Canadian Book Challenge every year. I will do better next year, I promise!

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Dreams of Gods and Monsters, by Laini Taylor

This trilogy is up there with my favourite all-time fantasies. It's that good. Zuzanna and Mik—Best. Sidekicks. Ever. They made the trilogy for me.

I confess I was a little hesitant to reread Days of Blood and Starlight (it's been long enough that I knew I needed to reread before starting the third book). It was so bleak, so violent. But then I started it, and there was Zuzanna, fierce and funny and loyal, planning to drop a pee-balloon on Karou's ex-boyfriend, and I knew I was in good hands.

DBS is better on a reread: I've gotten over the shock of all those awful things that happen, and I can appreciate the writing and the characters and the humour and the words, all those gorgeous words. And then it was wonderful to be able to dive right into Dreams of Gods and Monsters.

It didn't disappoint. Look at some of the chapter titles (Taylor is awesome at chapter titles!):

Nightmare ice cream
Bruise the sky
Tilt to panic
Breeds of silence
Hope, dying unsurprised
A candle flame, extinguished by a scream
Cue apocalypse
Pie and dandelions

It's an epic story, and it gets more epic: new characters and settings are introduced, which could be disconcerting in the third book of a trilogy, but they tie in nicely to hints and threads that have been there all along. Characters develop in intense, suspenseful and satisfying ways. There are lots of fist-pumping "yes!" moments, and many great Zuzanna quotes. The ending is not at all what I was expecting (I might write a spoilery review on Goodreads just to get all my feelings out of my system), but it worked, it was awesome, we definitely get our payoff.

I'm kind of assuming that if you're reading this review, you've already read the first two and don't need any explanation of what the books are all about (or that you've given up on me and gone to Goodreads for a synopsis). Laini Taylor's fantasy doesn't fit easily into categories; it's unlike anything else I've ever read. Seraphim and chimaera in a parallel world called Eretz, locked into an endless war of genocide and vengeance, and the only one who can stop them is a blue-haired, human-looking girl whose name means hope. (And the smoking hot angel who loves her hopelessly. Yeah, there's more than a bit of unrequited passion that stokes the pages, but Taylor is really, really good at it, so, yeah, it's pretty good.) Original, fast-paced and intense, and beautifully written.

Having just returned from Provence, I can compare DGM with the strawberry tart that was the best thing I'd ever tasted in my life: I thought I knew what a strawberry tart would taste like, but these strawberries were fresh and sweet and bursting with complex strawberry flavours, and the pastry was so light, so buttery (how can something be light and buttery at the same time???) so perfectly contrasted to the juiciness of the berries, and the custard was silky and creamy, and the whole thing made my brain explode because it didn't have enough receptors to adequately handle the experience. Oh! I want to go back!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

What I read on the plane

Safely back from the south of France; still getting over jet lag, and haven't downloaded pictures yet, but I'll share a few as soon as I do. There's a reason why everyone always says, "Ah, Provence!"

So, did I get through that whole list of books I brought with me? Well, not quite. And I read a few I hadn't planned on. Here's what got me through all that waiting in airports and riding on trains and planes:

The Lego Movie. Have you seen this? Okay, it's not a book, but I watched it on the plane and it's hilarious! If you have ever played with Lego, or had kids who played with Lego, you must watch this movie!

Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis. Sometimes on a plane you don't have the mental energy to read something new. This one was on my iPod, and it happened to match the mood I was in, and Connie Willis is just brilliant. I had forgotten how funny this one is, even while it's also very sad. Time traveling historian gets stuck in the Middle Ages during the Black Plague; meanwhile a flu epidemic hits Oxford in the time she came from, so her colleagues can't retrieve her. Lovely parallelism, great building of suspense (you could teach a masterclass in pacing using this book), wonderful characters (including Dunworthy and Colin, whom you'll know if you've read her other time travel novels.) A classic. (If you've read it and want to share thoughts about it, I put a few ideas down in my Goodreads review.)

The Innocent Mage, by Karen Miller. This was a random pick from the library. (I have to bring a few paperbacks in case my iPod battery runs out!) It's a twist on the unknown-peasant-is-actually-the-prophesied-saviour-of-the-kindgom story, and you'll like it or not depending on how the main character rubs you. Asher is belligerent, uncouth, rude, obnoxious—and yet somehow he becomes best friends with the prince and is elevated to a high government position. I liked Asher, I believed in his friendship with Prince Gar, and I enjoyed his mostly unsuccessful struggle to fit in with the appalled courtiers. I still don't know how he's going to save the kingdom, because this book ends on a ridiculous cliffhanger, and I only brought the first book with me!

Ha'penny, by Jo Walton. One of the sequels I said I was going to read, and I did, and it's scary good. Also an excellent lesson in how to build suspense. Inspector Carmichael, who dealt with a murder in Farthing, is now investigating a bombing, which may or may not be part of a conspiracy to kill Hitler (this is an alternate-history in which Britain made peace with Hitler). Carmichael's point of view alternates with Viola Lark, who is playing Hamlet in a production that Hitler plans to visit. Each story has its own suspense, but the alternation between the two adds a whole different layer, as the reader watches their tragically ironic collision course play out in slow motion. It's terrifying how believable Walton makes Britain's slide into fascism.

These are all adult books that are perfectly appropriate for YA audiences (Doomsday Book has very realistic depictions of people dying of plague which might be disturbing, and in Ha'penny characters have sex behind closed doors.)

I'm saving the best for last: in fact, I'm going to save them for another post entirely! Yes, I read Laini Taylor's Dreams of Gods and Monsters, and yes, it was as wonderful as I was hoping, and I'll tell you all about it tomorrow!

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Sequels I'm loading onto my iPod for a long plane ride

There's some sequels I'm really excited about that are finally here, and I happen to be going on a trip tomorrow, so these will definitely make the travelling less miserable!

First up, because I've been waiting so long, the conclusion (oh! please tell me it's the conclusion!) to Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone series. And since it's been so long, I'm going to reread Days of Blood and Starlight first. Soooooo excited!

Didn't have to wait nearly as long for this next one, since I only recently read the first two of Elizabeth Bear's Eternal Sky trilogy. Wow. So original, so epic, so page-turningly brilliant. I can't wait to see what happens to every single one of these amazing characters!

And I only just now finished Jo Walton's Farthing (I picked it up as soon as I finished Among Others) and Farthing was so good I have to read the other two in the Small Change trilogy right away. Classic murder mystery set in an alternate history when Britain made peace with Hitler. Delicious stuff.

And here's a sequel I wish I could put on my iPod right now, but it doesn't come out until Oct 28. At least she finally revealed the release date, and this stunningly gorgeous cover!

I'll be on a bit of a blog hiatus because of the trip. Oh, did I not mention where I was going? Ahem. Tuscany and Provence. For a cycling trip. Yeah, poor me! (I might post a few updates for you if I remember to bring the cord for my camera). See you at the end of May!

Friday, May 2, 2014

Among Others, by Jo Walton

I went looking for this book after reading some of Jo Walton's wonderful reviews of speculative fiction on Tor. (Her latest post is an excerpt from a new novel coming out next month which sounds amazing: can't wait!)

I knew I'd love Among Others when I read the premise, and when I finished the book I knew Jo Walton was my long lost kindred spirit and I would have to stalk her until she agreed to become my BFF. (Or I could just keep following her blog and reading her books: less creepy and almost as satisfying.)

Anyone who was ever bookish and didn't fit in and discovered SF at a critical time in their life is going to find a kindred spirit in Mor, the narrator of Among Others. Something terrible has happened to Mor, and she's run away and is now in the care of a father and aunts she's never met, and she has to go to boarding school, and books are the only thing getting her through. Well, books and fairies, though the fairies in the little patch of woods behind the school don't seem to speak either English or Welsh like the fairies back home.

If you've read much of my blog you know I don't really buy in to fairies (oops, I mean faeries), but these ones are different: they're real. I am quite convinced that Jo Walton spent her childhood dealing with them, and I can understand why Sherwood Smith is miffed that she didn't tell her about them.

In fact, just go read Sherwood Smith's review, because I'm finding it hard to put my feelings about this book into words, and 'liminal' is the best word I've heard yet.

I love Mor as an unreliable narrator. The faeries and the magic are absolutely real to her, but all the way through it's perfectly possible that she's making it all up—or that she's insane. Jo Walton says it's real, but the ambiguity makes the reading experience quite delicious. Plus, Mor doesn't tell us things. We know something terrible happened, but we have to piece it together from stuff Mor lets drop. It sounds like it was a climactic battle between good and evil, the kind that a fantasy would normally conclude with—but this fantasy is all about what happened after, when Mor walked away, injured but alive, from a confrontation she thought would kill her. It's about how to keep going, how to survive.

It's also about how to figure out who you are, where you belong, and the unreliability and ambiguity of the narration work so well to depict this.* The scenes when Mor is trying to find her karass are heartbreakingly real. (I finally gave up and googled "karass": it's from Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, which I really ought to read, and it means a group of people who are cosmically connected.)

Oh, the allusions! I want to make a list of all the books Mor reads, go read them myself, and then reread Among Others. I'm sure that would add twenty more layers to all the layers I already got on a first read.**

I've said too much; I haven't said enough. I'm pretty sure that anyone who is following my blog will love this book, so just go read it! (It's marketed as adult, but it makes a perfect YA book. The few references to sex are frank but not explicit. Younger readers might get fewer of the classic sci fi references, but it's a great way to find out what books you ought to read!)

Among Others is one of those fancy constructed desserts made with different kinds of bittersweet chocolate: like maybe a warm Venezuelan chocolate brownie with Mexican chocolate ganache, a dollop of Belgian chocolate mousse and a spoonful of Madagascar chocolate gelato; as you eat it you get all the different textures and temperatures and combinations of flavenoids and they enhance each other in different ways as you combine them differently.

Hmm. Chocolate. Might have to go get some now.

Oh! And Jo Walton is Canadian!!

For more great Canadian reads, click through to John Mutford's blog.

*Slightly spoilery so written in yellow; highlight to read:We don't even know which twin Mor is for the longest time: Morganna or Morwenna! (And there's always the insanity possibility: maybe there never was a twin!)

**There's nothing like recognizing an allusion for creating an instant bond between you and the allluding person (like when I was at a Shakespeare festival in Oregon and the person in front of me was wearing a Shepherd Book shirt).

Monday, April 28, 2014

MMGM: Masterpiece, by Elise Broach

Many years ago I encountered the cockroach poet Archy, author of Archy and Mehitabel, and the image of a bug jumping from key to key on a typewriter caught on a hook in my imagination and hangs there still. I don't know what it is about artistic insects, but the narrator of Masterpiece joins an illustrious line of literary invertebrates (think of Charlotte's Web) that are irresistible.

Marvin is a beetle who lives under the kitchen sink. We are introduced to him when he rescues Mrs. Pompaday's contact lens from down the bathroom sink drain. (How to make a character instantly lovable! (At least for those of us who have ever worn contacts!)) Of course Mrs. Pompaday doesn't realize her day was saved by a beetle: staying out of humans' sight is the most important beetle rule, and Marvin has a large beetle family to remind him not to do anything to jeopardize his family's comfortable life in the Pompaday's walls.

But then young James Pompaday gets art supplies for his birthday, and Marvin discovers a remarkable, un-beetle-like talent.

This book appeals on so many levels. Like The Borrowers, it plays with the notion of small people living on the scraps of human life. I loved the description of the beetles' food, and their beetle-eye perspective on human activities.

Then there's the art heist story: everyone loves a good art heist, and this one has action and suspense and also manages to introduce readers to Albrecht Durer without ever seeming didactic. I loved the passion for art that comes across in different ways from the different characters.

But perhaps what's best about Masterpiece is the beautiful friendship story. I loved the characters of James and Marvin, and the way they were able to communicate without words and trust each other without reservation.

Kelly Murphy's illustrations were perfect.

Masterpiece is your favourite picnic food: maybe a really good potato salad, or cold roast chicken. Hearty and fun.

Check out Shannon Messenger for more great MMGM reads, every week.