Thursday, October 30, 2014

Review: The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There by Catherynne M. Valente

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There by Catherynne M. Valente
Published: Feiwel & Friends, 2012
Series: Book 2 of Fairyland
Awards Nominated: Locus YA Award

The Book:

September has longed to return to Fairyland after her first adventure there. And when she finally does, she learns that its inhabitants have been losing their shadows—and their magic—to the world of Fairyland Below. This underworld has a new ruler: Halloween, the Hollow Queen, who is September’s shadow. And Halloween does not want to give Fairyland’s shadows back.”

This, the 2nd Fairyland book, is the third novel I’ve read by Valente, though I have also read some of her short fiction. I would strongly recommend readers to begin this series with Book 1, The
Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making.

My Thoughts:

On this journey to Fairyland, September is no longer a mostly-heartless child, but instead has the painful new heart of an adolescent, with its confusing, intense feelings.  This causes the story to be slightly more mature, and also, in my opinion, gives it more of a feeling of connection to the real world.  In the first book, September initially ran off to Fairyland with little thought to her parents, but this time she carries her fear and worry for her father, a soldier in World War II, with her. Her experience in Fairyland is accordingly darker, as she comes into a world that is slowly losing its magic (which is now rationed) in a war with Fairyland Below.

The story builds on a decision September made in the first book, when she chose to sacrifice her shadow in order to save someone. That shadow has now become the queen of Fairyland Below, and the queen is using her terrifying henchman, the Alleyman, to pull the shadows of others into her kingdom. However, Halloween is not exactly evil, she is merely someone who wants things very badly, and who is not too concerned with the effects of her actions on the wider world.  This left her as a rather ambiguous and complicated villain, especially since many of the things she wanted were not necessarily bad in themselves.  

This ties in to one of the things I found most interesting about the idea of the shadows—Halloween was not September’s evil twin, but instead represented the things about herself that she kept hidden or suppressed. The novel describes people’s shadows—their ‘dark sides’—as follows:

“…sometimes people keep parts of themselves hidden and secret, sometimes wicked and unkind parts, but often brave or wild or colorful parts, cunning or powerful or even marvelous, beautiful parts, just locked away at the bottom of their hearts” ~p. 72

Several major recurring characters appear throughout the story as their shadow selves, and I found it really interesting to see what parts of their personalities they chose to hide from others. I missed seeing some of them in their ordinary forms, like A-Through-L and Saturday, but there were plenty of interesting new characters to get to know as well.

Fairyland Below is just as large as Fairyland Above, and this second novel has just as impressive of a whirlwind of fantastical creatures and ideas—the economic systems of Goblin Markets, J√§rlhopp miners with gem-stored memories, minotaurs, forests of glass and much more.  There’s also magical Physickists this time around, which naturally piqued my interest.  I was delighted by the bizarre translation of physics academia into the fantastic, and especially loved this particular little joke about Questing Physicks: 

 “It is my dearest hope that one day I shall be the one to discover the GUT—the Grand Unified Tale, the one which will bind together all our Theorems and Laws, leaving out not one Orphan Girl or Youngest Son or Cup of Life and Death.” ~p. 120

Sure, it’s a simple joke,but it made me happy. Valente’s writing is also as lovely and poetic as ever, and I feel like I could have quoted half the book here as memorable passages. Altogether, this is an excellent addition to the Fairyland series, and I am looking forward to following September as she grows up through the coming novels.

My Rating: 4.5/5

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There is a wonderful sequel to the delightful first book of the series.  September is a little older now, and as she moves from childhood into adolescence, her story has become a bit more mature and darker as well.  This time, she is dealing with shadows, the parts of themselves that people conceal, as well as her fear for her father, who is away in World War II.  September’s Fairyland adventures still run through a seemingly endless barrage of creative fantastical ideas, and the villain is, once again, more complicated than one might expect.  I'm really enjoying the series, and can’t wait to read the next novel!

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Review: Tea with the Black Dragon by R.A. MacAvoy

Tea with the Black Dragon by R.A. MacAvoy
Published: Bantam UK, 1983
Awards Nominated: Nebula, Philip K. Dick, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards

The Book:

“When Marth Macnamara’s headstrong, intelligent daughter Elizabeth calls her for some kind of unspecified help, Martha rushes across the country to aid her. After Martha arrives at the luxurious hotel her daughter had booked for her, however, Elizabeth seems to have vanished.

While waiting anxiously for any contact from her daughter, Martha meets a mysterious Chinese gentleman by the name of Mayland Long.  Mayland seems to be living at the hotel, and he is drawn to Martha and her zen approach to life.  According to the hotel’s bartender, Mayland also believes he is a dragon.  Together, perhaps they can learn the truth about Elizabeth’s situation, before it’s too late!” ~Allie  

Tea with the Black Dragon is the first novel I’ve read by R.A. MacAvoy.

My Thoughts:

Tea with the Black Dragon is a short novel, but one that uncoils to reveal its mysteries with a slowly building speed.  The first part of the novel is full of tea and philosophical conversation, but the tension begins to mount as Martha and Mayland slowly start uncovering the truth about Elizabeth’s disappearance.  The story ends up being part mystery, part fantasy, and part thriller, and I especially enjoyed how the mystery was handled.  The solution to the mystery was not obvious from the beginning, but instead slowly becomes clearer with each character interaction in Mayland and Martha’s investigation.

The story does feel very dated, in some charming and some not-so-charming ways.  On the positive side, I really enjoyed the focus on 1980’s computer science. It is truly amazing how much has changed in computing during the past few decades, and I thought it was really cool to have this window back into how things were when I was very young. 

On the more negative side, I was not a huge fan of the exoticization of Mayland and the general portrayal of the female characters.  It seemed like Mayland’s ethnicity was mentioned nearly every time he or his actions were described, always to distinguish how he was totally different from white (or black) people. It didn’t help this feeling of othering that Mayland, as a Chinese dragon, was also a literal outsider to the human race. In terms of the female characters, most of the novel is basically a standard damsel-in-distress story, though I’d say it is a very good one.  I was also not thrilled with what the story seemed to be saying about women through the characters of Martha and Elizabeth, from their life perspectives and experiences.  Despite these complaints, I found the personalities of Mayland and Martha to be very likeable and engaging, so it was very easy to cheer for them as the story took its more dangerous turns.     

As far as fantasy goes, the single fantasy element is undeniably present, but also mostly irrelevant to the story. Mayland Long claims to be a dragon in human form—and this is confirmed by several details in the text—but the story would have changed very little if he had just been a wealthy man in the middle of a philosophical crisis.  I rather liked this approach, since it made the story more about the characters, their thoughts, and their connections to one another than about external magical influence. It’s an entertaining book both as a story of Mayland’s personal growth and as a thriller about Martha’s missing daughter.

My Rating: 3.5/5

Tea with the Black Dragon is a short but sweet novel that slowly uncovers the central mystery of Martha’s missing daughter.  While the story begins peacefully, the tension mounts as the underlying thriller plot is revealed.  Martha is aided in her investigation by Mayland Long, a Chinese dragon in human form who is searching for a philosophical master that can lead him to understanding.  The novel feels a bit dated now, with its inclusion of 1980s computers and what seems like some outdated approaches to gender and ethnicity, but the story is still easy to enjoy. Overall, it was a very pleasant and entertaining book to read, and one I am happy to have encountered.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Review: Hive & Heist by Janine A. Southard

Hive & Heist by Janine A. Southard
Published: Martian Cantina, 2014
Series: Book 2 of the Hive Queen Saga

The Book:

Is it really stealing when you take back what's yours? Exhausted and broke, Rhiannon's Hive limps into John Wayne Station on the Ceridwen's Cauldron. Safe at last, this stop-over is looking bright until the authorities steal their ship's engine. The only solution: steal it back! Between stage-handing a play (at the local brothel) and avoiding their law-enforcement roommate (a sentient robot), they grow into a real team. A real Dyfed-style Hive.

The law enforcement robot, meanwhile, is busy detecting a series of thefts and murders. She's determined to use all her skills-programmed both before and after she clawed her way to sentience-to protect anyone else from getting hurt. Agents from a rival law enforcement group, however, bump into her investigation and create problems that she could really do without. She has a job to do, even if they're determined to get in her way.”

This is the second book of the Hive Queen Saga, which the author has kindly given to me for review consideration.  This is the sort of series that really needs to be read in order, so I would recommend new readers to start with Queen & Commander. Southard has also written a short story about the origins of the sentient robot in Hive & Heist, titled ‘The Robot Who Stole Herself”, and she is currently working on a new comedic fantasy novel unrelated to the Hive Queen Saga (her website is here).

My Thoughts:

I enjoyed Queen & Commander (hereafter referred to as Q&C) and the story seems to be only getting better with Hive & Heist (H&H).  The first novel introduced the ensemble of characters and the general setup of the universe, and H&H further develops both of these areas. H&H uses the same approach to world-building as Q&C, where new information is provided only when it comes up naturally in the story. Rhiannon’s group is now traveling in foreign (American) space, though, so their culture shock means that the reader gets more information about the local way of life and of the relationships between different spacefaring human cultures. I feel like I now have a better sense of the wideness and diversity of the universe now, and it will be fun to see more societies in future novels. A continuation of a subplot from near the end of Q&C also gives a bit more information on the Hive-Queen bond, and it looks like I was pretty far off in parts of my understanding from the previous book.  This sideplot hasn’t quite connected back in to the main Ceridwen’s Cauldron storyline just yet, but I’m interested to see where it will go from here.

In terms of the characters, H&H picked up the arcs of the different hive members right where the previous book left them, and I especially enjoyed seeing how the hive grew and changed this time around.  Even without the external problem of their stolen experimental drive, there’s plenty of conflict within the hive.  By the end of Q&C, Rhiannon still hadn’t really learned how to be a good leader, but their time on John Wayne station gives her plenty of time to puzzle out where she’s been going wrong.  While she’s figuring herself out, though, Luciano is becoming even more disillusioned with her as a queen, Victor is struggling to find his role in the group, and her best friend, Gwyn/Lois, is slowly growing into a new assertiveness about herself and her needs.  I enjoyed watching them try to learn how to function as a team, and seeing Rhiannon struggle towards understanding what they needed from her as a leader.

Aside from the hive members, a main new addition to the story is the sentient robot Melissa.  Sentient robots are not an especially common sight in American space, so Melissa has had a hard time carving out a life that suits her. At the moment, she’s basically a Texas Ranger of space!  Given the vast space territory covered by humans and the difficulties of communication, I think it makes sense that this style of law enforcement would be welcomed.  I enjoyed a lot of the details of Melissa's life, such as how she has carefully learned mannerisms that translate well into human nonverbal cues.  Melissa is as much an outsider on the station as the Welsh teens, so it made sense how their stories converged.

On top of the new world information and character development, H&H also provides a fun story about a heist, a criminal investigation, and a theatre production at a brothel. None of these plotlines are especially complicated on their own, but they come together well for the climactic ending.  It feels like these first two novels complete the first adventure of Ceridwen’s Cauldron, and it seems clear that there will be many more adventures in the future, both in foreign space and in their Welsh home. I will look forward to reading the next book in the series!

My Rating: 3.5/5

Hive & Heist continues where Queen & Commander left off, with Rhiannon’s hive stuck on John Wayne station and their ship’s experimental engine stolen by the local authorities.  I enjoyed seeing another society in what seems to be a diverse collection of spacefaring human civilizations, as well as seeing how the character arcs that began in the first novel played out in this second part. An interesting new major character is also introduced, a sentient robot Ranger named Melissa, who is tracking a thief and murderer.  With Melissa’s investigation, the hive’s planned heist, and even a theatre production, there’s plenty of action to propel the story along to an entertaining conclusion. I’m excited to see what adventures Rhiannon and her friends will encounter next! 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Review: The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu

The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu
Published: Angry Robot Books, 2013
Series: Book 1 of Tao
Awards Nominated: John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer

The Book:

When out-of-shape IT technician Roen Tan woke up and started hearing voices in his head, he naturally assumed he was losing it. He wasn’t.

He now has a passenger in his brain – an ancient alien life-form called Tao, whose race crash-landed on Earth before the first fish crawled out of the oceans. Now split into two opposing factions – the peace-loving, but under-represented Prophus, and the savage, powerful Genjix – the aliens have been in a state of civil war for centuries. Both sides are searching for a way off-planet, and the Genjix will sacrifice the entire human race, if that’s what it takes.

Meanwhile, Roen is having to train to be the ultimate secret agent. Like that’s going to end up well…”

The Lives of Tao is Wesley Chu’s first novel, and the sequel, The Deaths of Tao, was published in October of the same year.

My Thoughts:

The Lives of Tao is basically a male power fantasy. Roen Tan is below average in many ways, and doesn’t seem to have any significant skills or talents.  However, his lacks make him a very blank slate for his new resident alien to rework into an action hero.  Roen is overweight, but the alien Tao soon pushes him to get his body into perfect shape.  Roen has no hand-eye coordination or spatial skills, but it’s Tao’s mission to get Roen prepared for hand-to-hand combat, gunfights, and various espionage activities.  Roen is socially awkward and lonely, but with Tao’s guidance, he becomes suave with the ladies.  Roen has to fight to protect the human race, and most especially, the beautiful women that fall for him.  Roen Tan’s zero-to-hero tale does make for a pretty fun ride, but it seems to carry a strong element of wish fulfillment.     

On the other hand, what seems like the point of Roen’s story is undercut by the irrelevance of human beings in this fictional world.  This is a world where just about every significant historical event or development (including the evolution of the human race) has been inspired or carried out by the aliens who live within human beings. This seems to me to reduce human beings to being passive tools in the history of their own species, a history that is completely orchestrated by squabbling aliens. 

Roen, whose life is completely commandeered by aliens, is a small-scale example of this. It seemed odd to me that the aliens didn’t take Roen on as an IT technician, since it seems that the single computer scientist in the entire Prophus organization is out of action at his time of recruitment.  The fact that they train him for combat and espionage (Tao’s specialty) instead of computer science (supposedly Roen’s specialty) really drives home the irrelevance of Roen’s pre-alien life.  In short, Roen does not matter as an individual; he is only important due to the fact that he is Tao’s current host.  This shows up again and again, as humans on both sides of the conflict devalue their own lives and desires in favor of the aliens’.  This seems really weird for a wish-fulfillment story—while Roen does grow from an ordinary guy into a super-spy, he also becomes a passive alien tool.

The story moves along at a nice clip, with a fair amount of action-movie-style violence.  The bantering between Roen, Tao and the others could be pretty funny at times, though Tao was not altogether convincing as a wise, ancient being.  The writing was pretty plain, and it had occasional awkward phrases, sentences, or word repetition.  The ending was actually pretty surprising, but I’m not sure I’m happy with how the ‘boss fight’ was resolved.  The conclusion ties up the story of The Lives of Tao, while giving a clear direction for the sequel.  In the end, I don’t think I’m really the target audience for The Lives of Tao, but it was still a fairly enjoyable light read, despite my complaints.

My Rating: 2.5/5

The Lives of Tao is a light sci-fi story of a particular kind of male wish-fulfillment, featuring a below-average guy, Roen, who is possessed by an alien.  The alien prompts Roen to get in shape, learn combat and espionage skills, and to improve his game with the ladies.  On the other hand, Roen is also being trained to be a tool to be used by the aliens in their centuries-long war.  The writing is plain, but the story moves along quickly, with lots of action and a fair amount of humor.  I had a few issues with the story, and in the end, I don’t think I’m the target audience. It’s still a pretty fun, undemanding read, and I think I can see why others have enjoyed it.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Review: A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar

A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar
Published: Small Beer Press, 2013
Awards Nominated: Nebula Award
Awards Won: John W. Campbell Award for Best New Author, World Fantasy Award

The Book:

Jevick, the pepper merchant's son, has been raised on stories of Olondria, a distant land where books are as common as they are rare in his home. When his father dies and Jevick takes his place on the yearly selling trip to Olondria, Jevick's life is as close to perfect as he can imagine. But just as he revels in Olondria's Rabelaisian Feast of Birds, he is pulled drastically off course and becomes haunted by the ghost of an illiterate young girl.

In desperation, Jevick seeks the aid of Olondrian priests and quickly becomes a pawn in the struggle between the empire's two most powerful cults. Yet even as the country shimmers on the cusp of war, he must face his ghost and learn her story before he has any chance of becoming free by setting her free: an ordeal that challenges his understanding of art and life, home and exile, and the limits of that seductive necromancy, reading.”

A Stranger in Olondria is Sofia Samatar’s debut fantasy novel, and she has also published short fiction,poetry, essays and reviewsThere are some mild spoilers ahead, which I couldn’t avoid while discussing the novel. 

My Thoughts:

A Stranger in Olondria is very beautifully and descriptively written, and seems to carry love for the written word.  Pretty much every sentence in the novel is written with a sense of poetry, which is lovely but can sometimes feel a little overwhelming.  For instance, here is a random sentence describing Jevick rushing to a friend’s aid, with a pretty description that kind of obscures the action:

“I hurried past arched entryways where anxious statues peered out with white eyes, emerging at last into the central hall where the moonlight, flung through the doorway, set illusory crystals in the checkered floor.” ~ p. 208 

In addition to the poetic slant of the prose, there’s also a sense of historical foundation to the world through written fictional documents. Jevick knows most of the world initially through the books his exiled Olondrian tutor had taught him to read, and he constantly references or quotes the classic works of his world throughout his travels. While this combination of description and history makes for some impressive writing, it also seems to remove the sense of immediacy from the story, even in dramatic situations, which makes it feel like the story is advancing very slowly.

The novel is also mostly narrated from the point of view of Jevick, who seems to be detached from the story that is happening to and around him.  Perhaps it is just the style of Jevick’s voice, but even though he sometimes explains his feelings, I never felt like I understood his mind.  Sometimes he would make decisions that seemed baffling to me, like willfully choosing to do or not do something with the full knowledge that it would lead directly to his own suffering.  However, the second major character of the story, the ghost Jissavet, is nearly the opposite.  Her story felt deeply emotional and brutally honest, and was by far the most engaging section of the novel for me.  I think that the contrast between the voices of the two characters may have been intended to illustrate the contrast between their two worlds of literate and oral culture.

Among other things, it is the conflict between these two kinds of culture that the story explores. In both cultures, people use stories as a framework to understand their lives, for better or for worse.  In Jissavet’s culture, people are heavily influenced by superstition, while a Olondrian culture places more value on written histories.  Jevick loves the books through which he has been taught about the world, but he is slowly forced to recognize the privilege and oppressive power of the literate culture he has embraced.  Jissavet, on the other hand, must confront the fact that she is dead and, in her culture, will be forgotten.  Through her insistence that Jevick record her life story, though, she can gain a kind of immortality.  I don’t think the story had a moral, exactly, but was more concerned with showing the happiness and suffering of all sides and how these different cultures interact.  In view of these considerations, I loved the way the story ended.  I felt that the meaning behind Jevick’s final actions provided a resolution that gave a sense of meaning to the examination of the two kinds of culture, but one that still did not judge their relative worth.

My Rating: 4/5

A Stranger in Olondria is an unusual novel, but one that is written beautifully and with a rich sense of history for its fictional world.  The novel is filled with love for the written word, but also explores the troubled interaction between literate and oral cultures.   The plot is extremely slow, and the main character, Jevick, felt a little too detached from his own story for me to be very engaged with his experiences.  My interest picked up with the introduction of the ghost’s story, which felt much more immediate and emotional, and I loved the conclusion of the story.  This is a novel that had a slow start for me, but I enjoyed it quite a lot by the end.