Monday, October 28, 2019

Review: The Serpent Sea by Martha Wells

The Serpent Sea by Martha Wells
Published: Night Shade Books 2012
Series: Book 2 of the Books of the Raksura

The Book:

Moon, once a solitary wanderer, has become consort to Jade, sister queen of the Indigo Cloud court. Together, they travel with their people on a pair of flying ships in hopes of finding a new home for their colony. Moon finally feels like he’s found a tribe where he belongs.

But when the travelers reach the ancestral home of Indigo Cloud, shrouded within the trunk of a mountain-sized tree, they discover a blight infecting its core. Nearby they find the remains of the invaders who may be responsible, as well as evidence of a devastating theft. This discovery sends Moon and the hunters of Indigo Cloud on a quest for the heartstone of the tree—a quest that will lead them far away, across the Serpent Sea. . . .” ~Night Shade Books
Here continues my reviews of the Books of the Raksura.  I haven’t read the rest of the series yet, but I plan to at some point!

My Thoughts:

The Serpent Sea picks up where The Cloud Roads left off and continues directly into a new adventure.  There is a bit of recap at the beginning to orient the reader, but I would strongly recommend reading the series in order. If you have already read The Cloud Roads, then you basically know what kind of book you’ll be getting withThe Serpent Sea. Moon is still trying to fit into his new community, Indigo Cloud court still has internal problems, and a new external problem requires adventuring and combat.  This new problem comes in the form of a lost treasure, the heartstone of the tree, which our characters must journey to recover. I had been hoping for more focus on problems internal to the court, so I was a little disappointed when I realized this was the direction the story would take. I intend that as a compliment towards Wells’s world-building with the Raksuran court, not as a slight of this book.

The group of Raksuran characters interact with several new societies in the process of the search, and I enjoyed seeing a bit more of this vast world.  It was interesting to see them interact with another Raksuran court, and the floating city on the sea where much of the action took place was creative, though fragile-seeming.  Their interactions with groundling species drive home the fact that, while they aren’t the Fell, the Raksura are pretty terrifying and dangerous as well. I’m looking forward to seeing if there is more cooperation between the Raksura and certain groundling societies in the future books.  Whether that happens or not, I get the sense that there’s still plenty of room in this world to explore in the rest of the series.

The writing style is similar to the first book, concise with a focus on actions and dialogue.  There are again many named minor characters to keep straight, but the story is fast-paced and suspenseful.  I also enjoyed the way this book focuses on Moon’s experiences as a solitary. One of my favorite parts involves him using his skills at blending into groundling societies to infiltrate a magister’s tower.  We also get to see part of the basis for the prejudice against solitaries in Raksuran society. The ending is exciting, and my only complaint would be about a random combat scene that happens in the denouement.  It felt strangely jarring, since it happens after the main conflicts have been resolved. I suspect it might be intended to foreshadow conflicts that will arise in the next book. I guess I’ll see sooner or later!

My Rating: 4/5

The Serpent Sea is a fitting continuation of the story that begins in The Cloud Roads, and I expect fans of the first will also like the second. Most of the long-running conflicts in the Indigo Cloud court are still present, but the theft of their colony tree’s heartstone presents the immediate problem that must be solved in the arc of this novel.  I enjoyed seeing more of the world, and getting the chance to see Moon’s particular skills benefit his new community. I’m hoping for more focus on the court itself in the next book, The Siren Depths, which I am definitely planning to read!

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Review: The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells

The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells
Published: Night Shade Books, 2011
Series: Book 1 of Books of the Raksura
Awards Nominated: Hugo Award for Best Series

The Book:

“Moon has spent his life hiding what he is: a shape-shifter able to transform himself into a winged creature of flight. An orphan with only vague memories of his own kind, Moon tries to fit in among the tribes of his river valley, with mixed success. Just as he is once again cast out by his adopted tribe, he discovers a shape-shifter like himself—someone who seems to know exactly what he is, who promises that Moon will be welcomed into the shape-shifter community.

What this stranger doesn’t tell Moon is that his presence will tip the balance of power, that his extraordinary lineage is crucial to the colony’s survival, and that his people face extinction at the hands of the dreaded Fell! Now Moon must overcome a lifetime of conditioning in order to save and himself . . . and his newfound kin.  ~ Night Shade Books
Completely independently, I happened to come across the Raksura series and the Murderbot Diaries at roughly the same time.  They seem very different to have come from the same person! I’ve read the first two books of the Raksura series so far, so I bumped up the review of the second book to be for next week. 
My Thoughts:
I see The Cloud Roads as the kind of book that has crossover appeal for Adult and YA target demographics, though it is marketed as an adult fantasy novel.  At the center of the novel is a self-realization arc for the main character, Moon. Though he is already biologically an adult, his personal growth feels in many ways like a coming-of-age story. Moon knows virtually nothing about himself, his species, and his origins, and we follow him as he slowly learns, opens up, and comes into his own in Raksuran society. In addition, the writing style is concise and direct, with lots of action and dialogue.  The story moves very quickly, and the prose is easy to read.
I got the sense that the world of The Cloud Roads was enormous, and that only a tiny fraction of it was involved in this first novel.  This seems to leave plenty of room for new places and new people to come into the story later in the series.  In this first book, most of the emphasis is on the Raksura, though we also get some information about the villain species, the Fell.  I’m not typically a big fan of stories with entirely evil species, but in this case I appreciate that it allows for a relatively simple external conflict to pair with Moon’s more complicated internal struggles.  As for the Raksura, I really enjoyed reading about their biology and culture. Members of different castes have different available shape-shifting forms, and I thought the attention to how their bodies influenced their mannerisms and activities gave the characters a good sense of physical presence as non-humans. There was a lot of information and many named minor characters to keep straight, but I feel like this will get easier as I continue in the series.
One thing that I especially liked about Raksuran culture was the partial inversion of common human gender roles and stereotypes. A person of Moon’s caste (a consort) is valuable primarily for his fertility, and is expected to be moody, delicate, flighty and emotional. While Moon is indeed kind of moody and emotional, which I think is understandable given his background, he doesn’t fit with some of the other expectations.  For instance, having grown up alone, he is accustomed to hunting and fighting, and he is not exactly delicate. If he were a woman in a society with “traditional gender roles”, I think he’d be considered an awkward tomboy. I found it interesting to see a society that not only inverts some of our world’s stereotypes, but also then challenges them within its own framework. At the end of The Cloud Roads, I was eager to see more about how Moon’s new community would continue and how they would address internal issues that still need to be resolved.    
My rating: 4/5 
The Cloud Roads is the entertaining first book of a series about shape-shifting Raksura, and the difficulties their people encounter in a fantasy world.  This book follows Moon, a young shape-shifter who grew up in ignorance of his heritage, and who is welcomed back into a troubled Raksuran community.  I enjoyed the level of detail with which Raksuran biology and society are imagined, and I sympathized with Moon as he tried to learn to fit into their culture. I especially liked the partial inversion of human gender stereotypes with respect to Moon’s caste and character.  This was a fast-moving book, and it left me eager to learn more about this world in the rest of the series!

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Published: Del Rey (2017)
Series: Book 1 of the Winternight Trilogy
Awards Nominated: Locus First Novel Award

The Book:

"Winter lasts most of the year at the edge of the Russian wilderness, and in the long nights, Vasilisa and her siblings love to gather by the fire to listen to their nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, Vasya loves the story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon. Wise Russians fear him, for he claims unwary souls, and they honor the spirits that protect their homes from evil.

Then Vasya’s widowed father brings home a new wife from Moscow. Fiercely devout, Vasya’s stepmother forbids her family from honoring their household spirits, but Vasya fears what this may bring. And indeed, misfortune begins to stalk the village.

But Vasya’s stepmother only grows harsher, determined to remake the village to her liking and to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for marriage or a convent. As the village’s defenses weaken and evil from the forest creeps nearer, Vasilisa must call upon dangerous gifts she has long concealed—to protect her family from a threat sprung to life from her nurse’s most frightening tales." ~Penguin Random House

The Bear and the Nightingale is Arden’s first novel, and I read it for consideration in voting for the John Campbell Award for Best New Writer (now the Astounding Award for Best New Writer).  Arden was a finalist for both 2018 and 2019.

My Thoughts:

The Bear and the Nightingale is a chronological story of the birth and childhood of the main character, Vasilisa (a.k.a Vasya).  The story is slow and meandering, often shifting to follow small subplots, and changing viewpoint characters fairly frequently. The supernatural conflict mentioned in the description does eventually arise, but it takes a long time for it to come to the forefront.  I think this kind of story rewards a reader with a strong emotional investment in the main character, Vasya. For me, she is an easy character to like -- kind, curious, and bold-- but I also think the narrative oversells her specialness a little. I get the impression that this novel is an origin story, and that the rest of the trilogy might follow her adventures as an adult.

Similar to my reaction to Vasya, I get the feeling that my emotional responses to the characters were not quite in line with the intent of the story. For instance, the description above makes Vasya’s stepmother, Anna, sound far more malicious and powerful than she actually is. I felt I could see the whole shape of Anna’s life, and it was a neverending nightmare. Her ability to see supernatural creatures could have been a blessing, but she genuinely believes that they are demons haunting her every waking day. She is also a victim of repeated marital rape, by a character we are meant to like.  She has no real power over anyone, not even herself. The enforcement of Christian piety is through the local priest, another person who is in Vasya’s life against his own will. I don’t blame him for some bitterness, since he is aware that his career is being sabotaged. Beyond that, though, he starts to embody virtually every negative stereotype of the Christian church. As a Christian, I didn’t like the way the story set up Christianity as an uncomplicated villain. 

Though I might not have had the intended reactions to the characters, I liked the writing style and the setting. It was interesting to see the various spirits from Russian folklore, and I enjoyed the chance to practice my understanding of Russian diminutives.  The setting was vivid--it seemed like I could almost feel the chill of winter. The supernatural elements were well-grounded, and felt like an organic part of Vasya’s world. I am not sure whether I would consider this novel to be part of the YA subgenre. The denser writing style and slow build of the story is more characteristic of adult fantasy, but it is a story about the childhood and coming-of-age of a young girl. Regardless, I can see how this is a book that has captured the imagination of many people. 

My Rating: 3/5

The Bear and the Nightingale is a slowly-paced origin story for the heroine, Vasilisa, who I expect will continue as the main character in the rest of the Winternight Trilogy.  I enjoyed the descriptive writing of the rural Russian countryside where she grew up, and the inclusion of creatures out of Russian folktales. The parts of the story that were supernatural fit in well with the natural world.  I personally had more sympathy for the antagonists than I think was intended, and perhaps a bit less for the heroine. I feel like this one was just not exactly up my alley, though I can understand its popularity.  

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Review: A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge

A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge
Published: Amulet Books / Macmillan Children’s Books (2017)
Awards Nominated: Locus YA, Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book, Carnegie Medal

The Book:

Sometimes, when a person dies, their spirit goes looking for somewhere to hide. Some people have space within them, perfect for hiding. Twelve-year-old Makepeace has learned to defend herself from the ghosts which try to possess her in the night, desperate for refuge, but one day a dreadful event causes her to drop her guard. 

And now there's a spirit inside her. The spirit is wild, brutish and strong, and it may be her only defense when she is sent to live with her father's rich and powerful ancestors. There is talk of civil war, and they need people like her to protect their dark and terrible family secret.”

I don’t tend to review a lot of YA on this site, but that’s mostly because I know I’m not really the target audience.  Nevertheless, I decided to try reading some of the Lodestar nominees of 2018, and this book was provided to me through NetGalley.  I did read it in time for the voting, but my reviews have just gotten terribly delayed. This novel was my favorite of the bunch, though Summer in Orcus by T. Kingfisher was also really good. This is the first book I’ve read by Frances Hardinge.    

My Thoughts:

I would call A Skinful of Shadows a mix between horror and fantasy.  The horror is obvious; the premise of the book involves spirits invading the bodies of the living.  However, Makepeace does not view her ability to host the spirits of others within her own body as only a thing of terror.  She is frightened by the prospect of her own mind being crushed by the spirits of the dead, but she is also willing to share the space inside herself with those for whom she finds compassion.  I liked that her ability was not portrayed as inherently beneficial or harmful, but as a potentially useful, yet dangerous tool. In this way, the supernatural elements feel more like the magic system of a dark fantasy, and this shifts the whole story closer to my interests.

The heart of the story is the coming-of-age of the heroine, who bears the unusual puritan name of Makepeace. She is a young adolescent girl that does not have the support or guidance of anyone with her best interests at heart. There is a lot about the world around her that she does not understand, and every day she must struggle to find a place within it that doesn’t result in her death, or worse. Even so, she meets the difficulties she encounters with determination, intelligence, resourcefulness, and a solid sense of self-worth.  I thought she was an excellent heroine, and there is a lot in her character that younger readers could admire.

The book starts just before the English civil war (~1640s, I think), which is not a period of English history with which I’m particularly well-versed.  I didn’t feel like my lack of familiarity with the history was a barrier to understanding the story, especially since this seems to be a primarily fictional take on the period. It seems to have been a confusing and chaotic time, and I liked that the narrative primarily focused on the common people caught in the chaos rather than the politics of aristocrats.  Makepeace has no reason to favor one side of the civil war over the other, though she does get caught up in events from time to time. There is also a strong sense of place and atmosphere, so younger readers who are interested in historical fantasy would likely find a lot here to enjoy.  

My Rating: 4/5

Frances Hardinge’s A Skinful of Shadows is an entertaining YA horror/fantasy set in mid-1600s England. The story involves an aristocratic family who has the hereditary ability to harbor spirits of the dead within their bodies, and I appreciated that it considers both the harm and good that can come from such an ability. I liked the strong sense of the place and time, and I liked the mental strength and determination of the heroine, Makepeace.  As an adult, my perspective may not be that of the target audience, but I can say that I enjoyed this novel very much.