Saturday, April 15, 2017
Fire Study by Maria V. Snyder
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Book 3 in the series. It picks up right where book two left off. You definitely want to read the first two before reading this one. Fans of the first two novels will be very happy with this book.
In this book, Yelena faces her toughest adversary, yet. Not only are the rogue magicians practicing blood magic, they are in league with a spirit (demon?) from the fire realm - the underworld. He is attacking Yelena through fires, and she is unable to protect herself. In addition, the Council of Sitia and the First Magician continue to be suspicious, and outright hostile to Yelena. She has to find a way to conquer the fire spirit, and to combat the increasingly powerful evil magicians. As usual, she manages to do so, but not without many dire encounters that she barely escapes. She has more lives than a cat!
And that brings up one of my complaints - Yelena doesn't seem to change much, despite all she's gone through. Yes, she does grow as a magician, but as a person she remains foolishly headstrong and stubborn. I got a little tired of Yelena rushing headlong into situations, only to have her miraculously rescued, or for her to get out of some situation - yet again - by the skin of her teeth. It got pretty repetitious after three books.
And - my biggest complaint - once again the author is using Earth terms and phrases in a completely made up fantasy world! At one point, when Yelena was reading someone's mind, she sees in his memories that he was "sodomized." Uh, that term comes from the ancient Biblical city of Sodom, and the myth about men raping other men there. On EARTH. In THIS WORLD. There is no way that in the world of Sitia/Ixia that they also just happened to have an ancient city called Sodom, that also just happened to have a myth about male rape. This is just lazy, lazy world building. Additionally, the author uses the term "voila" - the FRENCH term for "ta-da!" But, it gets worse. She can't even spell it correctly; she spelled it "wal-ah." For an author who has an MFA, this is completely inexcusable!!! Lazy world-building PLUS bad spelling!!!
It's a darn good thing that the author is otherwise a pretty good storyteller. Pacing is always good, the story has a good mix of tension and light humor, with just a splash of romance. But any fan of REAL fantasy, who has read the likes of Patrick Rothfuss or George R. R. Martin will be just as irritated as I am with the poor world-building. Readers who just want a fun, diverting semi-fantasy, semi-romance read will not be disappointed.
Friday, April 7, 2017
Magic Study by Maria V. Snyder
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Book two in the "Study" series continues where book one (Poison Study) left off, with Yelena heading to the Magician's Keep in the southern province of Sitia, where she will not only receive training in her magic skills, but she meets her long-lost family. We learn a lot about the different clans in Sitia, some living in the jungle as with Yelena's family, some living on the plains, etc. We also learn that even though the Master Magician, Irys, supports Yelena's training, not all of the other 3 Masters do. Nor does her brother, Leif.
Nevertheless, Yelena begins training, only to be caught up in the hunt for a magical serial killer, preying on young women. Yelena's headstrong nature continually causes her problems with Irys, and the council of Sitia, and it also places her in danger more than once. But, of course, our intrepid heroine always survives. Nevertheless, I appreciated that each time Yelena branched out on her own and got in trouble, there were consequences for her. This helped to mediate the 100% success rate she has.
Naturally, being a romance-tinged fantasy, Yelena's lover, Valek, manages to secrete himself in a delegation from Ixia, and they have many secretive trysts. Not only are they trying to find the serial killer, but the purported heir to the deposed king of Ixia falls for Yelena, which complicates his desires to mount a military campaign against the current Ixian ruler.
All in all, the story moved along well, and the author again does a good job with secondary characters. I thoroughly enjoyed how Yelena was able to communicate with horses, and how her own horse becomes a player in the story. The simple-mindedness of the equine characters seemed fitting, and added a bit of levity to the book.
However - and this is a big however - the author made some really boneheaded errors in other areas, which jarred me out of the fantasy world, and interfered with my overall enjoyment of the book. The problem is the author's use of Earth terms for items that should have Ixian/Sitian names. For example, in one case, a character describes a jacket as having a "mandarin" collar. Uh, "mandarin" refers to Mandarin CHINA, of the real world, Earth. Another example is when Yelena's father, who is an herbalist, discovers a plant extract that causes paralysis - he calls it Curare, which is a real paralyzing poison from plants found in Central/South America. Why in the world would he call it Curare?? In another case, the name of one of the horses is "Rusalka" which is a Slavic name for a water sprite! These are just a few of the times that the author's laziness was a detriment to the verisimilitude of the fantasy world. There really is no excuse for such shoddy world-building.
In all other respects, this is still a fun book. Not deep, nothing too mind-blowing. Just light-hearted escapism, that can be enjoyed as long as you don't look to closely at the details.
Thursday, April 6, 2017
Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is the first book in a fantasy series (now up to 6 books) that also has a bit of romance in it. The story follows Yelena, a young woman who was orphaned and who is scheduled to be executed for murder. She gets a stunning reprieve from death if she agrees to become the food taster for the "commander" - a military dictator of the nation of Ixia. She agrees, and begins her training in poisons under the tutelage of Valek, the Commander's chief assassin. Obviously, romance results, but it doesn't feel too forced, and doesn't come too early in the book. The sex scenes are not graphic at all (very G rated), but they are described with some pretty cliche romance notions. The writing is otherwise pretty solid, as is the world-building.
With any first book of a series, we have a lot of history to go through, but the author handles it well, and it flows organically with the plot. We learn that the Commander took over from a corrupt king, and has established a benevolent dictatorship (people are all cared for and employed, but movement is restricted.) The commander has banished all magicians from Ixia, and one of Valek's jobs is to kill any who are found still practicing. This becomes problematic when Yelena discovers she has magical abilities. She has to decide if she can trust Valek in this, and with other things. I thought their slow-building relationship was quite well done.
The action moves along at a good pace, and the characters are well-done - even the secondary ones. This adds some good color to the novel, and keeps the story interesting. All in all, it was a very enjoyable read, and anyone who loves fantasy should enjoy this one.
Sunday, April 2, 2017
The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye: Five Fairy Stories by A.S. Byatt
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
This book contains five stories, all in the fairy tale vein. The first four read like your standard fables, and contain nothing really different than one would find in a collection of Grimm stories of Hans Christian Anderson. These stories would be suitable and understandable by kids. The last story, from which the book gets its title, is completely different. It’s set in modern times, and concerns an older woman who is an expert on stories, and what happens when she encounters a djinn (genie) during one of her trips. It’s rather slow to develop, but has some unique ideas. This one is probably not suitable for kids, because it focuses a lot on the woman’s desires as someone in the later years of life. I don’t think children would relate - not that I think this book is aimed at kids, but some people might think so, given the title and the genre.
Overall, I was disappointed in the book. None of the stories grabbed me, emotionally or otherwise. Of all of the stories, I probably liked that last one best, because it seemed to be the most original. But this is not a book I’d read again, or one I’d recommend, unless you’re just totally into fables and/or djinns.
Saturday, April 1, 2017
Smoky the Cow Horse by Will James
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
This book is basically Black Beauty in the wild west. Like Black Beauty, it follows the life of a horse from birth to “retirement” highlighting the treatment - and abuse - the horse encounters throughout his life. Instead of being set in 19th century England, Smoky takes place in western America, in the early 20th century. But whereas the purpose of Black Beauty was to highlight the mistreatment of horses at that time, Smoky is more of an homage to the rugged American west, where men are men, and they “break” horses to do their bidding.
The titular horse, Smoky, is born to a semi-feral herd of horses, and is spotted by a horse breaker named Clint who works on a cattle ranch. He captures Smoky and begins breaking him to bridle and saddle, and to eventually being ridden. And while Clint is careful to not break Smoky’s spirit (as we are told repeatedly), his breaking methods would make a modern horse trainer cringe. Smoky remains an aggressive, angry horse who will buck off and attack any rider other than Clint. Despite this, Smoky becomes an excellent cow horse, and Clint is the envy of all the other ranch hands.
During the winter months, Smoky is turned loose with the other horses who are not needed to work the ranch, and he ends up being stolen. The thief is described as a “half-breed” and “dark faced” and we are led to believe he is half Native American and half African American. He’s never given a name, and is constantly referred to as “the breed” by the author, and described as a very bad character, with no redeeming qualities. This blatant racism would be completely unacceptable in a book written today. And it really detracted from my enjoyment of the book.
Smoky ends up as a rodeo “bucking bronc” with a reputation as a man-killer. His life with the rodeo is brutally portrayed, and quite painful to read. After he gets too old for the rodeo, he’s sold again, and again, each time ending up more abused and neglected. There’s a semi-happy ending, but the abuse he suffered for half the book pretty much overwhelms that.
I should also mention that the dialog is all done in western slang, much as Twain does with dialects in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. This lends some verisimilitude to the story, but tends to wear on the reader after a time - it seems much more artificial than Twain’s usage.
I think I tried to read this as a little girl, when I was totally horse crazy, but I couldn’t get through it - which for a voracious reader who read years beyond her grade level says a lot. I think it was probably a combination of the harsh life depicted for Smoky, along with the dialect.
If you give this to your child to read, be SURE to discuss the racism, as well as explaining that horse trainers today would not do as Clint did. But, honestly, I can’t think of a compelling reason to give this book to anyone.
A Trick of the Light by Louise Penny
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I read this out of order, and clearly there were events in previous books that played a major role in this one, but the author does a good job of recapping the event (without seeming obvious) so that I didn't feel like I missed out on too much.
The book is another in the fine series, with Inspector Gamache using his mind, and benevolently directing and mentoring his team, to find the murderer of yet another victim in the village of Three Pines in Quebec, Canada. (For such a small, idyllic place, Three Pines has an outrageous number of murders!) The village and its inhabitants are lovingly portrayed, as always; the new characters introduced are well-written and believable; the mystery is tricky enough that it had me guessing until the very end. There are some sub-plots revolving around a major incident in a previous book, which are affecting both Gamache and his second in command, Jean Guy. This adds to the texture of the book, making it more than just a murder mystery.
And that's one of the things that I like about this series - we really get into the head of Gamache, as well as his team. This personal aspect, along with the wonderful, quirky inhabitants of the village make the story much more interesting than just "who done it." Inspector Gamache is a fascinating detective, his humanity really fleshing him out. I like a detective who is imperfect!
Overall, another great addition to a really good series!
Friday, February 10, 2017
The Prince and the Pauper by Samuel L Clemons
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The Prince and the Pauper
I don’t recall reading this as a child, which is too bad, as I think I would have loved it! I liked stories about knights and such, and while this isn’t specifically about knights, it does take place in “old England” and certainly transports the reader to that time and place.
Most people know the general idea of the story: a young street urchin and a prince (who happen to look alike) end up switching places, each living the life of the other for a few weeks. But maybe, like me, you are a little fuzzy on what exactly happens, and who, specifically, the titular prince is. (For instance, I always thought the swap in position was a deliberate, mutual undertaking - not so.) Clemens places the story at a specific time period, with an actual prince of England, Edward, son of Henry VIII. The author even uses footnotes for citations of actual events or practices of the time. And, as Clemens did with Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, he uses “dialect” to further immerse the reader into the time and locale of the story. In this case, the dialect is sort of a “King James English” with lots of “thee” and “thou” and the like. All of these things serve to make the story very realistic, even if the events might be a bit hard to swallow.
The story begins with a young boy, Tom Canty, who lives in a shack in Offal Lane. His father is an alcoholic abuser, and Tom lives a pretty rough life, as a result. But a priest took an interest in Tom, and taught him to read, so Tom escapes the cruelty of his real life with a vivid imagination. Tom loves nothing more than to imagine himself as a rich prince, living a life of ease and luxury. He is teased by his peers for this, but not severely so - his friends often join in his games of palace and royalty. Tom’s one goal in life is to see an actual, real life prince, so one day he goes to the palace to see if he can spot one. He runs afoul of one of the palace guards, who starts to beat him. Prince Edward sees this, and rushes out to Tom’s defense. He brings Tom inside, and the boys shyly start to get to know one another. They playfully swap clothes, and laugh at their identical looks. Events transpire that lead the prince to go outside, still in Tom’s clothes, where he is kicked out of the palace by the guard who first accosted Tom - the guard not believing the prince’s protestations as to his true identity. Thus begins the adventure for each boy, as each one learns to live in the strange world of the other.
Clemens doesn’t back off from the depredations and difficulties of being poor at that point in time. While he doesn’t go into details, there are beating, hangings, drunken parties, thieving, and so on. This is no happy-go-lucky poverty - this is the real, soul-crushing poverty, exacerbated by the laws of the time. Edward keeps insisting he is the prince, but, of course, no one believes him. He is befriended by a nobleman down on his luck, who takes pity on the poor “fool” and plays along with his “delusions” so as to not upset him. He hopes that by caring for Edward, he can eventually cure him of his madness. The prince encounters many rough characters, including Tom’s abusive father who is chasing him, thinking he is Tom who has run away. The prince’s eyes are opened as to the injustice of the laws, and vows to rectify this when he is returned to his throne.
We don’t spend quite as much time with Tom, who is attempting to fill the place of the prince. He knows he’s an imposter, but at first feels like he owes the real prince the duty to fill his place as well as possible. Later, Tom begins to really enjoy the life of luxury, and hardly thinks of the prince any more. We see his attempts to act princely, and his mistakes are chalked up to a temporary mental illness, that the palace staff hope he eventually gets over. The staff are all told not to mention Tom’s gaffes, but to gently guide him when he seems lost as to what to do.
Eventually, events transpire to bring Edward back to the palace, and he regains his throne. Tom is cared for financially, the prince (now the king) enacts better laws, and the nobleman who befriended him is restored to his estate. It’s a nice happy ending!
I think that any child would enjoy this book, though the dialect may be a bit hard for them. The depiction of life in poverty would be a good teaching tool. I can imagine lots of good lessons coming from this book, if a parent or teacher were so inclined.
Saturday, February 4, 2017
Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is a graphic novel adaptation of the Neil Gaiman story of the same title, first appearing in a short story collection in 2004. I remember reading the short story, and thinking it was quite clever, and kind of a cute idea. I didn’t really think about it being adapted into graphic novel format, but it lends itself nicely to a visual medium.
The story is about a writer, working away at his desk. We “see” what he is writing, depicted in monochrome panels with a script font. His story is what we would consider a classic “gothic” tale, with a young woman arriving alone in the dead of night (in the middle of a storm, of course) at a creepy house. Our writer keeps getting interrupted, however, with his own rather gothic bits of life instances: a dark and brooding butler, a talking raven, etc. The author is convinced his story is rubbish, but he wants to write about “real life” and be a “serious” author. He is finally convinced to go with his heart, and write a fantasy story, and the results are not what one expects, and give us a humorous ending.
The style of the images work very well with the story, giving us creepy ghouls, scary castles, etc. The trick of using monochrome vs. full color, and script font vs. block print is a convenient way to let readers know when we are in the world of the author’s story vs. the “real world.” This is a stellar example of how a graphic novel is not just an illustrated story - a good graphic artist is able to actually tell the story utilizing visual constructs. (A note on the letterer - it is the excellent Todd Klein, who does many of Gaiman’s graphic novels.) In this one volume, we have a trifecta of artists - illustrator, author, letterer - all at the top of their game. The result is a book that both Gaiman fans and graphic novel fans will want to read over and over again.
Friday, January 13, 2017
The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This review is for books one and two in this collection: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms. I will add the subsequent books as I finish them.
In The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, NK Jemisin has created an amazing world and mythology. In the beginning, we are introduced to Yiene, a young woman who lives in a “barbaric” northern kingdom, who is summoned to the ruling kingdom where she learns she must compete for the inheritance of the crown with her two cousins. Yiene’s mother left before Yiene was born and was disinherited, but for some reason her grandfather (the current ruler) has brought Yiene back. Yiene is definitely a fish out of water, as she is thrown into cutthroat politics, both human and divine.
In this world, there is a ruling god, Itempas the Bright, who was once one of three ruling gods. But long ago there was a war among the gods, and Enefa, the goddess of dawn and twilight, was destroyed - and Nahadoth, the god of Darkness and Chaos has been enslaved to the human ruling family. There are also many demigods, who are the children of the original three. But now, only Itempas is worshipped, and those who try to worship the other gods are branded heretics.
Into this mix of gods, demigods, and humans, Yiene must discover her past, so that she can survive her present.
Jemisin doesn’t go easy on the reader - we are thrown into the main narrative, and we only get the backstory as Yiene uncovers it, and through some (at first) confusing conversations Yiene is having with someone - we don’t find out who for quite some time. This slow unwinding of the story made it difficult, at first, for me to really get into the character of Yiene and become emotionally invested. But by about midway through the book, the past becomes clearer, and the trap in which Yiene finds herself is revealed. From this point onward, I was hooked, and sped through the rest of the book.
Jemisin’s brilliance is revealed not just in the world building and plot, but in her depiction of the gods and demigods. Her depiction of them, both physically and through their actions, feels right - the gods don’t act like humans at all, but their actions seem consistent with their being. Picture Greek or Roman gods, mingling with humans, having their own jealousies and spats, but not being human. Really well done!
Now, from this description you might be thinking this is just another “young person discovers their secret destiny” story - nothing could be further from the truth. The narrative is wholly original, as are the characters. (Though I couldn’t help comparing the ruling family to the worst of corrupt ancient Roman emperors.) The entire world is unlike anything I’ve experienced in literature. If you want to get swallowed up by something entirely new in fantasy, this is the place to start.
This is the review for book two (The Broken Kingdoms) - there will be spoilers if you haven’t read book one (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms).
Wow! I practically devoured this book! I was captivated by the character of Oree from the very beginning, and simply could not put it down. Superb writing!
The narrative of this book begins 10 years after the events of the first book. The new goddess - the Gray Lady (who was the mortal Yeine in the first book) is now part of pantheon, taking the place (rebirthing?) Enefa. Nahadoth, the lord of darkness and chaos, has been freed from his captivity, and Intempas the Bright is now wandering the world in mortal flesh, sentenced to pay for his sins of killing Enefa and imprisoning Nahadoth.
The story starts in a far kingdom, where Oree Shoth, a young woman who is blind, lives with her parents. Even though she is blind, she can “see” magic when it manifests in the world, and she paints strange and wonderful pictures that her father tells her to keep hidden. She is close to her father, who has a gift of singing that he keeps hidden - he only sings for Oree, when they are alone. But like most young people, Oree feels trapped in her family and her country, and heads for the “big city” - in this case that means Sky, the place where most of book one occurred.
Sky has been transformed by the growth of The Lady’s tree, which manifested when she transformed into a goddess. The tree encompasses all of Sky, both on the ground and in the air. Oree lives and works in the shadow of Sky, where she sells her handmade trinkets to the pilgrims who come to worship the new goddess. She also continues to paint, but these creations she shows to no one, and does not sell. She has made friends, and even had a lover, named Madding, for a while - a lover who is a “godling”, one of many who are now free after the events of 10 years ago, though they are constrained to live and work in Sky. She now shares her home with a silent man she literally pulled from a garbage bin. Their relationship is purely platonic, and since she doesn’t know his name, she calls him Shiny, because he has the strange trait of glowing when the sun rises. He also has a tendency to accidentally injure himself or even kill himself through carelessness, but he always comes back to life the next day.
Events unfold quickly from this point on. Someone is killing godlings, and as Oree found one of the bodies, she comes to the attention of the religious officials. This escalates to her fleeing, and finding safety in Madding’s house. But the safety is short-lived, and Oree finds herself in a situation that seems to have no resolution. At this point she learns a rather surprising fact of her heritage, and becomes even more entangled in power plays between the divine and the mortal.
Jemisin has a real knack for the portrayal of the gods and godlings. They do not have human motivations or feelings, but these are consistent among them, making their personalities seem quite believable. I also found that I could identify with Oree right away, unlike my experience with Yeine in the first book. This, coupled with the nearly nonstop action meant that I read this book in two days!
There are overarching themes that continue from the first book. Though you could read this one alone, reading book one first will definitely enhance the story.
The events of this book take place several years after the last one. It is told in the first person, by the gosling, Sieh, whom we know from the first two books. He is the Trickster, and also the god of childhood and play. He befriends twin siblings, a boy and a girl (Deka and Shahar), children of the ruling “queen” of the Arameri family (the ruling family on the planet.) The three of them make a pact to be “friends forever” and then something cataclysmic happens. Sieh awakens years later, to discover that he is mortal, and, more importantly, he is aging. His body is already that of a teenager, which is anathema to his very being as the god of childhood. He discovers that Deka has been exiled to the school of scriveners (magicians) and Shahar is being groomed as her mother’s heir and the next ruler of the planet. More importantly, he discovers that deep unrest is growing around the planet, and someone is killing Arameri family members, through the use of magical masks. Sieh must try to help Shahar and Deka try to prevent planetary war, while at the same time navigating his maturity, which happens by leaps and bounds, so that he is aging far faster than a mere mortal. Much of the book is Sieh simply trying to understand what is happening to him, and why, which makes this book seem quite personal. Even though the first two books each focused on a single character, somehow what is happening to Sieh seems more intense and personal. Not only is he facing the normal emotions of growing up, he is trying to cope with the fact that his very nature is changing. The plot of the civil unrest and threat of war is quite engaging, and events transpire that leave the planet even more changed than that of the previous book.
For me, this story engaged me from the get-go. Sieh is a fascinating character, and being in his mind as he navigates the pitfalls of what has happened to him, along with what was happening planet-wide, kept me riveted. I felt like the events that transpired were natural to the story as a whole, and the way the gods interacted with each other and with humans continued to be consistent and ring true to the world Jemisin has created. The ending was somewhat surprising, and extremely intense! A good way to end the series.
This novella is quite different in style from the first three books, though it also captivated me from the very first. It’s basically a stream of consciousness story about the “rebirth” or “recreation” of Sieh - or at least a godling who takes Sieh’s place, as part of the theme of the story is this gosling’s attempts to discover who s/he is. It’s a delightful little story, which adds the cherry on top to the ice cream sundae of the series.
Wednesday, January 11, 2017
An Alabama Christmas by Truman Capote
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
I’m a sucker for Christmas books and stories. It probably started in childhood with How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, and has just grown over the years. Every Christmas, I not only reread the Grinch Book, but also Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, The Chimes and The Cricket on the Hearth, and usually some other Christmas books and stories. When I saw this book at a used book store, I just had to have it to add to my collection of Christmas reading. Boy, was I disappointed!!
First of all, the quality of the writing of most of these stories is about what I’d expect to see from a Writing 101 course - half-fulfilled ideas, stilted prose, and even poor grammar!! (For example, using “loose” instead of “lose”.) The only two selections that rose above this were those by Helen Keller and Truman Capote, but even these stories lacked much emotion. I like my Christmas stories to tug at my heartstrings, and these failed to do so, though the Keller story was at least interesting. Some of the stories weren’t half bad, but there wasn’t really any one that made me want to keep this book for rereading.
But these complaints are not what earns this book a one-star rating. No, this book deserves the worst rating because of the story “Christmas on the Old Plantation” by Idora McClellan Moore. This story relates what the author believes is a warm, nostalgic Christmas on a Southern plantation. But the story is full of such awful stereotypes that I had to wonder if I’d been transported back in time to the 1800’s!! There’s the white family who owns the plantation, who magnanimously allows the blacks on the plantation to come to the “big house” on Christmas day to each receive a token gift. There’s the description of the “childlike” blacks celebrating in their own style, and the horrible ways the blacks are portrayed as serving their white “masters” - though, at least the author was aware enough not to call them masters, but it was evident in context. The whole story just turned my stomach.
Do not buy this book. Do not read this book. It’s a waste of your time. There are MUCH better Christmas books out there!