Archive for the ‘Fantasy’ Category

In which we enter a world where libraries have armed agents to enforce late fees and toast parlors are all the rage

Title: The Woman Who Died A Lot

Author: Jasper Fforde

Disclaimer for the uninitiated: What you are about to read is a review of the seventh book in a long-running series. Be warned that reading this review will probably lead to severe confusion and potential psychotic babbling without first having read the previous six volumes. If uninitiated, please direct your attention to The Eyre Affair and prepare to enter the world behind the written word. Highly recommended for all book lovers, very comedic, but may contain dodo birds.

What it’s about: Following an assassination attempt in the Book World, the once-great Thursday Next finds herself mildly incapacitated with a limp and a possible addiction to pain patches. But Thursday can’t stay out of the line of fire for long, especially if she plans to take on the role of Chief Librarian for the Swindon All-You-Can-Eat-at Fatso’s Drinks Not Included Library Service. Plus, there’s the problem on the eminent smiting of downtown Swindon by an angry Deity if her sixteen-year-old genius daughter Tuesday isn’t able to get the Anti-Smite Shield up and running by Friday. Following the eradication of the Chronoguard, her son Friday is now without function and his Letter of Destiny helpfully indicates that he’ll be put away for murder on Friday as well. A bunch of fabricated Thursdays seem bent on replacing her, who knows why, and she now has a tattoo on her hand to remind her that her daughter Jenny is just a mindworm—though why she has it is unclear since Landen’s the one who believes in her anyway, right?

Though I usually enjoy the Book World more than Thursday’s real world, I was pleasantly surprised with this Thursday installment. The key was in Thursday herself, who has changed a lot since her early days of guns-blazing bids for glory. Thursday is definitely showing her age—she can barely stand up without help, let alone draw her weapon on a Goliath agent in a firefight. So this time around, Thursday has to use her smarts and learn to trust others when she’s in a jam. The older, wiser Thursday was a welcome switch for me. I also enjoyed the wealth of library jokes and strongly encourage Mr. Fforde to go into production on his “Don’t Give Me Any of Your Shit—I’m A Librarian” T-shirts as fast as possible.

Would I recommend? Certainly. Longtime Thursday fans won’t be disappointed and may be happy to see this new development in the Nextian universe.


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In which whales fly, lizards talk and World War I starts off a little different than you remember

Title: Leviathan

Author: Scott Westerfeld

What it’s about: Imagine for a moment that bioengineering and robotics had been invented in the early 1900s and taken off at an astonishing rate. The British latched onto Darwin’s findings and before you could say “Dr. Doolittle” they were splicing genes together to create fabricated beasts for labor and war. A whole class of animals has been bred to breathe hydrogen and now creatures of the sea have taken to the sky as giant breathing airships. Meanwhile, the Germans have developed colossal walking machines piloted by men, from two-man walkers the size of a tank to giant roving battle-stations stomping about on eight legs. Scott Westerfeld takes us into this world through two points of view: Deryn, a gifted young airwoman who has lied her way into a post as a midshipmen in the British Air Service on the whale fabricant Leviathan; and Alexsander, the son of an Austro-Hungarian archduke whose wife’s less-than-royal blood has kept Alexsander from being next in line for the throne.

Westerfeld creates a clever bridge between actual European history and the events of his alternative timeline. The novel opens just after the now infamous assassination of Alexsander’s father the archduke, which sparks World War I (though Franz Ferdinand did have children, none were truly named Alexsander). From there we see the battle lines drawn out in much the same way as they really progressed, but this time the conflict is at heart an ideological one between “Darwinists” (nature and science) and “Clankers” (mechanics and religion). Alexsander is forced to flee with a few members of his household as he is hunted by Austrians and Germans who fear his claim to the throne. A stroke of luck sends Deryn on her first mission, as part of an airship crew escorting a female doctor to the Ottoman Empire with precious but secret cargo.

I’ve been meaning to read this book ever since I edited The Steampunk Bible. Though Leviathan is YA, it’s certainly something an adult could enjoy. Part of the fun of it is the giant thought experiment that’s occuring and the intriguing mash-up between history and fiction. The Steampunk element comes in through the futuristic revisions—living airships vs robots—but at heart it’s an amazing adventure story. Deryn and Alexsander are compelling POV characters, one a sheltered aristocrat forced out of his family home and into a world as a fugitive, and the other a common girl trying to gain respect in a man’s world. Though they come from different classes, they have more in common than they might guess. Both are hiding their true identities and want to achieve great things but have many hurdles to overcome.

As an added treat there are illustrations sprinkled throughout. While working on Steampunk Bible, I learned that Westerfeld and his illustrator Keith Thompson worked together in a very novel and symbiotic way. Sometimes Westerfeld would describe the scene he wanted illustrated, but Thompson would also produce sketches that would then inspire Westerfeld’s prose. The black-and-white line drawings are striking and add to the historical feeling of the work and the authenticity of the beasts. Since the things Westerfeld describes seem so fantastical and strange at times, they are grounded and made more real by these images.

Would I recommend? Sure! If you enjoyed the His Dark Materials trilogy, I think you’ll love this world as well. I got wrapped up in Westerfeld’s adventure story and can’t wait to come back for part 2.

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In which I greatly miss some characters but get sucked into the continuing saga of Westeros nonetheless

Title: A Feast for Crows

Author: George R. R. Martin

What it’s about: Warning: Spoilers ahead for the three previous books in George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. A Feast for Crows focuses on the aftermath of The War of Five Kings. Though only one of the original declarants remains (Stannis), the country is still at war as new kings are crowned. One Lannister is as good (or bad) as the next, so young Tommen takes the place of his brother on the thrown in King’s Landing. As Tommen is too young to rule and Tyrion is out of the picture following his trial for Joffrey’s wedding-night demise (the second death of a king at a wedding…curious) and the subsequent actual murder of his father, the ruling of the kingdom finally falls on Cersei’s shoulders. For the first time Cersei becomes a POV character, but I was disappointed that her chapters didn’t expand my understanding of her motivations much. While I did develop some sympathy for the once reprehensible Jaime when his chapters were introduced in Storm of Swords, Cersei is pretty much how I always imagined her: self-centered, paranoid, and clueless when it comes to politics. She orders deaths like I order pizza (usually while intoxicated and without much thought to how I’ll feel about it in the morning). When we do get glimpses into her past, they almost exclusively focus on a prophesy experienced as a girl which fortold her marriage to Robert, her three bastard children and eventual fall to another queen. This felt like a lot of energy spent foretelling things that had already come to pass. While Cersei assumes her doom will come in the guise of her new daughter-in-law Margery (three times a queen, twice widowed, and still a virgin? I’d like this girl unpacked a little), we all know the prophesy must mean Daenerys.

Which brings us to one of my biggest problems with this book: No Daenerys, no Tyrion, and no Jon Snow. With so many characters and the number of POVs growing, it would be hard to pick a favorite, but those three are certainly in my top five and with good reason. Tyrion is the wise fool, bringing much-needed levity and clearmindedness. Daneryes is the other, a stranger across the sea, and I always look forward to her chapters because they bring us into such a very different world. And Jon? I think many people see a bit of themselves in Jon. He’s still one of the purest characters, trying to “do the right thing” and also find his place in the world. Martin explained that he chose to leave some characters out because as he wrote he found that the scope of the book was unmanageable, but I question leaving these three out in particular. It left this installment feeling unbalanced.

We do get a few more new additions and visit old friends. I enjoyed our journey to the Iron Islands and closer interaction with Asha Greyjoy and her family of kraken lords. Arya’s voice is always welcome, but I don’t know if I approve of her path. Now an acolyte in the temple of the Faceless Gods in Bravvos, Arya’s teachers try to get her to abandon her identity, to no longer be Arya Stark. But though Arya has taken on many names since leaving Winterfell, she’s always quite passionately been true to herself. And with the Stark name dying out, Arya abandoning it feels like a betrayal of her family.

I was glad to be back in Westeros, but I found my visit less than fulfilling. Martin continues to add layers and his story still manages to surprise me (though often in ways that result in me exclaiming in anger or disbelief). My investment in the characters only deepens, which makes their struggles all the more wrenching. As the story becomes more sprawling in scope, I feel a bit of longing for the unified voices of Game of Thrones, populated by Starks and the odd Lannister or Targaryen. The world was smaller and simpler, but though it was easier, I respect the expansion of the world. It’s no easy task and Martin’s aims are ambitious. I’m along for the ride now.

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In which I don my red scarf and join the ranks of the rêveurs

Title: The Night Circus

Author: Erin Morgenstern

What it’s about: The circus arrives without warning. It opens at nightfall and closes at dawn. You enter through a star-filled tent, only to find yourself in a black-and-white world of acrobats and jugglers, labyrinths and ice gardens, a bonfire burning white and the scent of caramel and popcorn in the air. It is Le Cirque des Rêves, the circus of dreams, and it delights patrons around the globe with tattooed contortionists, fortune tellers, and a lovely young illusionist by the name of Celia Bowen. What few people know if that Le Cirque des Rêves is merely a venue for a magical competition, two student magicians bound by rules that neither of them fully understand. Celia was bound by her father, the great illusionist Prospero, who endlessly drilled his child to shatter and fix teacups or pull birds from the air. The opponent in the game is chosen by Prospero’s longtime rival, the man in the gray suit. He selects an orphan boy, Marco, who studies ancient symbols and signs. While Celia’s education is visceral, Marco’s is cerebral. The final battle is to be a test of philosophy and much as it is skill. But to Celia and Marco, this test is so much more. It’s their entire existence. They’ve never known anything but the coming challenge, the mark burned into their fingers that signifies the bond. And after years of training and study it’s finally come in the form of something delightful. They each find themselves falling in love with the circus, challenging themselves to create more wonderful attractions and deepen its mystery, only to find that while they are supposed to be competing they are unquestionably also drawn to one another.

The Night Circus is one of the best books I’ve read all year and I’ll add it to my list of all-time favorites. What appealed to me most was the absolutely mind-consuming beauty of the narrative. I left this book with a deep, deep longing to visit The Night Circus, as if Morgenstern had pulled a hidden place from my mind and breathed life into a dream I’d always carried. The circus is almost supernatural in its pull. The story is magic, mystery, intrigue, and romance all at once. It reminded me a bit of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell in terms of language and atmosphere, but it doesn’t have the density of that book and it adds desire. The Night Circus is written in a series of vignettes or scenes, which really adds to the mystery and otherworldly or dreamlike feeling. Morgenstern is able to craft striking, almost haunting images that stay with you long after you close the book. I flew through it.

Would I recommend? Most certainly! What a stunning debut! I may find it hard to forgive Ms. Morgenstern for instilling such a burning hope that the Night Circus exists, but I’ll certainly pick up her next book (and read this one again!).

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In which the one dreams for the many and a man named Chaos wants to know how the world ended

Title: Amnesia Moon

Author: Jonathan Lethem

What it’s about: Chaos is holed up in the projection booth in an abandoned theater in Hatfork, Wyoming. He’s become a bit of a de facto public enemy in the aftermath of whatever happened—nuclear fallout, plague, civil war, who knows—but his position is all Kellogg’s fault. Kellogg runs the supply trucks but he also runs the dreams. When every citizen, be they human or slightly unhuman, closes their eyes, they all dream the same dream, in which Kellogg is often a mythical hero and Chaos an archetypal villain. Though Kellogg insists that Chaos is critical to the balance of their fragile post-apocalyptic existence, Chaos decides to press west, hoping to discover who or what else is out there and finally dream his own dreams (literally). With Melinda, a girl covered in fur, Chaos sets off on a road trip across the country, discovering that Kellogg isn’t the only one dreaming realities. Everywhere he goes he finds alternative societies and versions of “what happened,” but no one seems to be able to pinpoint when or how the change occured. Dreams seem to envelope the nation and Chaos (if that is his real name) just wants to find the lakeside house he remembers from before it all, where he was once happy and in love.

Dreams have always fascinated me, so Lethem’s take on the theme along with the post-apocalypse element immediately peaked my interest. He creates fascinating insular worlds and the mystery of Chaos’s background permeates the novel. The book was engaging and intriguing, and I easily became immersed. Chaos is also a fascinating character, in some ways at odds with his own mind. His journey works on both a personal and societal level—he’s not just trying to find out what happened to the world, he’s trying to find out what happened to himself.

My one complaint would be that though Lethem presents many visions of the future, we don’t ever truly arrive at explanations and the conclusion of the novel is open-ended, many earlier threads never carried to their conclusion. I thought the last quarter of the book was the weakest, a sort of digression from the earlier setups in the novel and also a kind of anti-resolution. Still, I wouldn’t let that deter anyone from picking up Amnesia Moon. I think some people would be perfectly satisfied with the ending, because it does come with a build-up in dramatic tension and leads to an important decision and future course for our main character. I just felt we didn’t get the payoff of earlier questions in the novel and I was left wishing that the problems Chaos had explored from the beginning came to a deeper resolution.

Would I recommend? Yes. I really enjoyed Lethem’ style and I would read more of his books. He touched on two themes that intrigue me—the apocalypse and dreams—and treated both in a way I hadn’t seen quite done before.

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In which I suggest that there’s no such thing as good or evil, since every person is the hero of their own life

Title: A Storm of Swords

Author: George R. R. Martin

Warning: The following book is the review of a third book in a series. Do not read ahead if you want to avoid spoilers!

What it’s about: George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy continues with A Storm of Swords, probably the most unrelenting of the three books I’ve read so far. Things go badly and not just for a few characters. As with the startling deaths of the first book—Ned Stark, Viserys, and Khal Drogo–—we again see major storylines cut short and pieces rearranged. Just when you think you know how the story goes, you realize you don’t. This can be rewarding at times, but also frustrating. I found myself wondering if anything would ever go right for anyone. Life can certainly be bleak, but I felt a lack of levity and moments of play. A Storm of Swords also further develops an idea that has been taking shape throughout the novels: that every person is a hero in his or her own eyes and that there’s no such thing as “good” and “evil.” This comes through most in the addition of Jaime Lannister as a narrator. Previously I had said there was no redeeming quality in Jaime, but viewing the world from his eyes must by nature change that perspective. He is still rude, haughty, and cruel, but we also see moments of kindness. While the love affair with his twin sister had always seemed perverted, we now see that Jaime experiences true love for his sister and has sacrificed everything to be near her. We also see his own awareness of how small his life has become. As he reviews the deeds he’s accomplished since joining the Kingsguard at fifteen, he finds a pitiful record. He lays bare the deeper reasons that he put the last Targaryen king to the sword, his choice between family and duty, and his knowledge that the king’s madness could have meant death to many. I give credit to Martin for bringing some sympathy to a man I thought completely irredeemable. If there can be good in Jaime Lanniester, he seems to say, no one can be defined as black or white.

This idea makes the Lord of Light, the god Stannis Baratheon worships, all the more sinister. I’m troubled by this deity because by all signs I see, we aren’t meant to believe that one religion is more true than the other. The old gods of the forest, the Seven, and the Lord of Light all command passionate followings. But the Lord of Light excludes all other gods and demands that all things must be good or evil. On top of this, his priests seem to exude some very real and very dark power. Stannis’s sorceress, Melisandre, demands blood in the forms of human sacrifices and promises the death of Stannis’s rival kings in exchange. And Lord Beric’s attendant priest seems to have circumvented death itself to keep the Robin Hood–figure alive. But the stark duality of the Lord of Light and the Other directly contrasts with the paradigms Martin has set up with his characters. The Starks are not all good, the Lannisters are not all evil. No cause is completely just or unjust. (more…)

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In which gods new and old brew a storm of cosmic proportions on the back roads of America

Title: American Gods

Author: Neil Gaiman

What it’s about: America is a good country for people, but not such a great place for gods. As immigrants came to the new land, they brought with them their beliefs–in sprites and pixies, trolls and succubi, goblins and gods. Now these supernatural beings are largely forgotten and unworshiped. Without the power of their flocks, they’re forced to eke out meager existences, conning and scrounging praise and sustenance where they can. A new crop of gods has risen in American soil though, the gods of technology. Worshiped by the masses, they want to drive out the old gods and claim this land as their own. A war is about to begin, fought on the back roads and in hidden sacred spaces of America.

Unwittingly in the center of this conflict is Shadow, an ex-con whose been released from prison only to find his old life gone missing. With no remaining family, job, or place to call home, he agrees to become an errand boy for a mysterious stranger called Wednesday. A quiet, stoic man, Shadow takes the surprising events of the next few months in stride, even as he learns that his employer is centuries old and trying to rally very real deities in tenements and trailer parks across America to the cause of the old gods. Confronted with nameless operatives from the other side, restless waking dreams, and even the undead, Shadow continues to follow Wednesday’s lead not because of any conviction or drive, but more as a river follows its course–inevitably but unconsciously.

Religion in America: At the center of Gaiman’s novel is one repeated mantra: America is not a good country for gods. Gaiman’s argument stems from the idea that, although we are largely an immigrant country, those who traveled here did not continue to worship their own gods. In many cases, aspects of ancient traditions were integrated into new rituals, but the original significance was lost. An example of this is found in one of Gaiman’s “Coming to America” interludes, when the African slave Sukey attempts to pass on her rituals to a younger apprentice. The acolyte shows no interest in the “why,” concentrating only on the “what,” the means to her end. As a result, the tunes to sacred songs are passed on while the words are lost, the power diluted and the true meaning absorbed.

Is Gaiman’s novel a critique of religion though? In my opinion, no. He purposefully avoids almost any mention of the gods that are still widely worshiped in America, from Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions. He focuses on bringing to life a forgotten selection of gods and envisioning what place they might find in modern society, how they might have adapted to survive. Would a death deity run a local funeral parlor? A love goddess turn to prostitution? How would each find the cosmic energy they need to survive? His portrait of America is also almost loving at times, especially in his detailed descriptions of the back roads and country outposts. American Gods could be described as a epic road trip, which is actually Gaiman’s tribute to what he views as the “true” American god: the land.

Would I recommend? Yes, to mythology buffs and Americana enthusiasts. Gaiman’s portrait of America isn’t negative or positive, but rather respectful and earnest. And seeing ancient gods brought low and fighting for survival gives this adventure story an epic scope. Though Shadow is a reserved main character who some might struggle to relate to, I saw him as a vessel discovering his purpose and slowly coming in to his own.

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