Saturday, September 29, 2012

Summer Reading List, or How I Can't Stick to a Plan

     The summer this year kicked my butt.  Back in late May, I thought I would need a lot of fluff reading to get through the season, as most of the books I was looking forward to aren't being released until mid to late fall.  So I get myself all of kinds of traditional contemporary romance novels, thinking they could tide me over while I waited for my other books.  As with most plans, it didn't really work out that way, and now I have a stand-by  pile of fluff that is staring at me with sad puppy eyes, wondering when I'll find time for it again.

     What really tripped me up was A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness.  I spent my week at the beach devouring it, but when I started to critically analyze the story, it was like holding sand.  So I forced myself to go back over it, rereading it a second time, in an attempt to write a review.  By that point, it was July.  I still have time to get to my fluff, right?

     Thanks to either GoodReads or Amazon, I found out another favorite author had published another book in an ongoing series.  I love Lynn Flewelling's Nightrunner series; it's an amazing swashbuckling adventure with very fun characters.  A Casket of Souls is the newest book in the series, and I devoured it.  She has done an amazing job of keeping the characters fresh and emotionally connective.  At the same time that I had ordered this one, I also got Glimpses, a collection of short stories and art featuring the characters of the Nightrunner series.  This is one of those things that rounds out the backstory and makes certain nuances more easily understood.  I found it to be a great compliment to the series, and maybe something that would be easily overlooked by those who aren't fans.

     At about the same time as those two books arrived in my mailbox, a forgotten preorder also found its way to me.  Back in the early spring I had preordered Karen Marie Moning's graphic novel, Fever Moon, which is set in the universe of her popular Fever series.  (The one that I am slightly obsessed with; I admit it).  Unfortunately just before it was completed, the artist, Al Rio, committed suicide.  A portion of the sales go directly into a trust for his wife and children.  So to me that was money well spent.  And while it's not my favorite genre, this particular graphic novel has some awesome artwork.  I love the pin-up girl style Al Rio used to bring the characters to life.  The story was a nice side plot, and added some depth to the background without interfering with the story of the books already in print.

     I did make an attempt at my fluffy romance novels.  I like Margaret Mallory's Highlander series, so I thought I would try out her earlier work.  Her first series, All the King's Men, is set in the late 14th century/early 15th century England.  I'll admit to being more interested in the background politics of the story them in the romance plotline.  The author did a great job bringing the life and times of King Henry V to the foreground.  The romance storylines were good, if standard; the history was pretty well researched.  I at least get an E for effort in attempting to get through my book pile.

     By this point, I was well into August, and on the road for most of the month.  Just before going on vacation, a friend lent me a book after hearing my praise for Laurell K. Hamilton's Merry Gentry series.  (Shut it, Burt).  I had even given her a copy of A Kiss of Shadows last Christmas (and knowing her reading list, she'll get to it sometime next year).  She had read a series with a similar urban-fantasy setting revolving around the Fae.  She lent me (what she thought was) the first book in the series.  Turns out it was the third book; the series (so far) is a trilogy.  Frustration!  Angst!  Here I am, on a road trip, and the only book I brought with me is not the right one!  So I spent a portion of my time searching for the rest of the series at every bookstore I came to.  Fortune was having a laugh at my expense, for the books are not recent enough to be carried at most stores.

     When I finally got home, I rushed to the library.  Glorious day!  They had gotten my reserve notice while I was on the road, and managed to assemble the other two books for my convenience.  I then spent my remaining summer vacation time devouring them.  And I got indigestion too.

     The first book of the series, Tithe, by Holly Black, honestly took me by surprise.  This trilogy is marketed as teen fiction.  I'm not sure I want to suggest this series to any teens under the age of 17, unless they have lived in the depths of urban poverty and decay.  To them, this will seem bright and full of hope.  Truthfully, the urban decay and social breakdown that is the emotional backdrop to this series is frightening in its stark veracity.  it's scary because it's true; it is all too real.  Almost too dark.  It was hard to decide if I liked the story or not, because it seemed too adult for teens and yet not ready for the adult shelves.

     The story follows a teenage girl named Kaye who finds out she is a changeling, a fae child that was exchanged for a human one.  Her mom is a guitar player in a band, and they live with Kaye's grandmother in a rundown New Jersey suburb of New York City.  Her best friend is a borderline psychopath who that works the night shift pumping gas.  Kaye struggles to find her identity, both in the Fae realm and the mortal one.  Added to that she is set up to be a sacrifice in an ancient ritual of fealty; working her way out of it is almost impossible.

     The dark overtones to the story would do White Wolf proud.  (Look Burt, there really is no such thing as happy shiny fairies!)  The second book, Valiant, is just as dissonant as TitheValiant is set in the same universe as Tithe, though with an almost entirely new cast of characters.  Valerie is an average teenage girl growing up in a (slightly less decomposing) New Jersey suburb of New York City.  Unfortunately, she quickly finds herself the unwilling star of an afterschool special.  Running away from home and a situation she finds too painful to understand, she ends up living the life of a homeless teen in a subway tunnel with a strange group of kids she met in a coffee shop.  Worse yet, she gets entangled with the fae outcast of the city, and addicted to a drug that is suppose to help fight iron sickness.  When it comes to light that the cure is poisoning fae, Val comes up as a prime suspect for murder.

     This story was both easier and harder to get through.  I found it easier to empathize with the main character, and yet the dystopia she found herself in was almost impossible to bear.  The story was compelling the whole way through; it even ended on a somewhat happy note.  The third book, Ironside, wraps up plotlines from both books, and brings the entire cast together.  Thankfully, reading the first third of the book before realizing it was the last book in the trilogy did not seem to ruin any of the storylines from the first two books; it only made me more grateful to get them when I got home.

     Ironside once again focuses on Kaye.  Still unsure of her place in the Fae world, she seeks to show her boyfriend, the Unseelie King, that she is worthy of his attention.  In return, he sends her on an impossible (seeming) quest.  Disheartened, Kaye decides to self-destruct, and sets out on another impossible mission; she promises her mother that she will return the human child the Fae stole.  All the while the Seelie Court is hunting Kaye, in hopes of using her as their secret weapon in their war on the Unseelie.

     It is a seat-gripping experience, this trilogy.  As an adult, you can see all the bad choices glaring like neon signs, and how attractive they are to the moth-like teen mind.  At the same time, the author does a remarkable job of showing that no matter how bad the previous choice, you can always choose better the next time; redemption is available to everyone, if they are willing to face their poor past choices.  There is an awesome message of hope here, lying under the detritus of modern social decay.  Life is a trial, but it can have a happy ending.  You just have to face problems head-on, as hard as that can be at times.

     Despite all the running around and the time crunch, summer is still my favorite reading season.  I made a concerted push this summer to stay on top of my goal to read 50 books this year.  Just 12 weeks left to the year now, and I'm slightly ahead of my goal.  I'm looking forward to the November rush, when my wait for pre-orders will be over.  Maybe I'll even get a chance over the holidays to get through that pile of fluff.....

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Urban Meets the Fictional

The third series up for review is the All Souls trilogy.  Actually, I've only read the first book, A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness.  The second book is out on shelves now.  My cousin lent this book to my mom last August, as a portion of it is set just down the road from Syracuse in a small town called Madison.  Familiarity breeds interest in this case.  After she finished it, my mom raved about it to me and my sister.  As I was still absorbed in other readings, my sister got first crack at it.  Much like my mom, she raved about it, and so it was my turn.  That was six months ago.

Sometimes when I get handed a book, I'll suffer from a sense of mulishness, mentally insisting that a book couldn't be as good as someone else says, as though only I can pick out a good book.  (I admit to seeing this same attitude in my daughter when I try to get her to taste new things).  The irony of this attitude is that some of my favorite books have come from others.  At least half of my collection is made up of books that were gifts.  Even so, I'll get muleheaded at first, and procrastinate, letting a book languish in my room for months at a time; my daughter will do the same to her plate, letting the offending food sit to the side until nothing else is left.  Finally I'll convince myself to read it; after six months, I finally got around to reading A Discovery of Witches, and all it took was a trip to the beach for some dedicated reading time. 

The story opens in Oxford, England, and travels to France, finally landing in upstate New York.  Dr. Diana Bishop is a scholar of some renown, an authority on books of alchemy and the transitional period of history between mystical beliefs and scientific fact.  Dr. Bishop is also a witch, the last in a long line of a very powerful bloodline.  Quite by accident, through her research on a perfectly mundane topic, she comes across an enchanted alchemical manuscript.  Fearful of her birthright and the secrets locked within its pages, she returns it to the university library.  Unfortunately for her, many other creatures have been searching for that manuscript, and they will do whatever it takes to get it back.

Intrigued by rumors, Matthew Clairmont decides to observe Diana Bishop himself, to determine if she is as powerful as gossip says, and if there is any truth to her finding the last manuscript.  Being a scholar and vampire, Matthew has his own reasons for wanting it.  An unlikely friendship begins as the two of them try to understand the other, creatures of two very different classes.  As more creatures begin to show up at Oxford University, and the witches begin to threaten Diana, the two of them are pushed together, and are forced to flee to France.  Once there, Diana and Matthew realize they are falling in love, and all the deadly consequences that holds.

This is an odd book, in that when I try to dissect it for critical analysis, I am left holding sand.  The individual parts are not strong enough to stand on their own, and yet the completed product is undeniably good.  I see this same frustration from other reviewers.  Some give it a bad review, because the individual parts are lacking.  Others took the long view and said that the entire story is worthwhile, without analyzing what made it so good.  I'm going to try to walk the middle path, and then give my conclusion.

As to the lead character, Diana Bishop, she is a host of contradictions.  Other characters continually describe her as brave, but for three quarters of the book, she's having panic attacks and passing  out.  Admittedly, at the very end of the book we learn why this is, but it does make the heroine a bit harder to see as a strong lead.  There is one science while they are in France that shows her to be brave.  Otherwise, she is a bit like an ostrich, sticking her head in the sand at the slightest hint of magic.

Diana's romance with Matthew is another puzzle piece made out of sand.  For one thing, as romances go, this one seems emotionally tame.  The descriptions to me lack a certain amount of passion.  I'm not asking for pornographic descriptions, but the level of romance described in the story is... paltry.  The words and gestures that are supposed to be showing the reader the blossoming love are empty, and to my mind, some can be construed as merely platonic.  Also, because of media hype, those who do not know much about the paranormal-urban romance genre are trying to compare this to the Twilight series.  That is a faulty comparison at best.  "There's a vampire involved in a romantic way in this piece of fictional literature.  Clearly we can make a comparison!"  No, not really.  The story, the audience, the romance, itself; none of these things have enough similarities to make a comparison.  It'd be like comparing a platypus to a hummingbird because they both lay eggs.

This is a fiction story.  It is set in a modern (mostly) urban setting.  It discusses magic and creatures we associate with folklore.  There is romance as two characters fall in love, but this is not necessarily central to the plot, more like a supporting subplot.  The characters are defined to a point, but not enough to guess where the plot will take them.  In all honesty, this strikes me as the sort of story told at the start of a game (roleplaying game specifically, though I am sure video games do it too).  This book is like character creation in a way.  The characters have defined backstory, one that will entangle them in the GM's plot/mystery-to-be-solved.  But the real story itself is only just beginning.  We get to watch the whole thing unfold, see the characters develop into epic personalities that will be able to do all those amazing things the plot says are on the horizon.  I think that is why it is so hard to critique on individual elements.  Right now, the individual elements are unmolded, still soft.  It's the equivalent of trying to dissect oublek (cornstarch and water makes a fun experiment).  So that leaves it as a matter of faith; you have to trust that the promise given here of an amazing story is honest, and that it is worth reading.  And now that the second book is out, I can see if the promise is authorized.

Droll Fantasy....

Well, the summer was just as busy as expected.  I did get to write my reviews, but only on legal pads.  I realize that doesn't do any of you any good, so I'm in the process of transcribing them.  For an updated list of what I have read, see the GoodReads link on the right hand side.

After reading the Iron Druid series, I was all hyped up on magic.  I also had given myself a deadline.  The last time I had borrowed a "few" (around a dozen or more) books from my friends "Shannanna", it took me the better part of three years to return them.  When I last visited them in March, returning the last of the previously borrowed tomes, I was handed a whole new series.  So after completing the Iron Druid books, in April, I decided to spend the month of May working my way through my rented fiction, which was also heavy into magic, though of a different kind.

Officially titled the Twelve Houses series, by Sharon Shinn, I've taken to calling them the Mystic & Rider series, after the first book; it was just easier to remember that way.  Unlike the urban setting of the Iron Druid books, this series is pure fantasy, set against the backdrop of an entirely fabricated universe.  There is even a map, though it is small and hard to read, clearly an image rendered in black and white from color.  Given that I love geography, and I believe it can only enhance a story to have a map for readers to follow along on, if you are going to provide one, make sure it is clear an detailed enough to be read accurately.  Ok, I'm putting away the soapbox, for now.

In this particular world, there is a country (continent?  island?) called Gillengaria, and it is divided into twelve fiefdoms who owe loyalty to the king in the royal city.  These fiefdoms are each ruled by a noble family, and they own the land in trust for the king.  The problem begins when certain nobles decide the king is getting old, and it might be worthwhile to stage a coup.  They argue that the king's heir (the princess) is a recluse, and that he is unlikely to have another child with his second wife.  There are rumors that his queen is a mystic, a practioner of magic.  The first book starts here, as a group of mystics and King's Riders (an elite guard chosen by the king) are sent out to gather information on the state of unrest growing throughout the kingdom.

Mystic & Rider is a Nancy Kerrigan.  The book is technically flawless; it has all the components to a fantasy novel that I enjoy.  However, it lacks passion, an emotional tie-in that pulls me along by the short hairs.  For the first hundred pages, even the author seems mildly confused as to why they are on a mission.  Once everyone gets over their awkwardness, and the author has a clearer idea of where the story is going, the reading gets easier.  The story moves along great, though the romantic scenes are still somewhat stilted and uncomfortable, as though the author was trying not to write about falling in love, even though that was where the characters were going.

The counterargument to this viewpoint is that the author was trying to express the amount of restraint the characters themselves feel.  The two main characters are extremely rigid in their self-control; they ARE stilted and reserved as they fall in love.  While this seems a valid argument, I think that the author could have written it better.  You can be rigid and yet still emote other feelings.  It seems to me that the author was the one uncomfortable with voicing the emotions, not the characters.

However, in The Thirteenth House, there is almost a complete role-reversal, and all the control is stripped away.  The characters fall heavily in love against the backdrop of court intrigue, and the passion is bubbling out of the pages.  The fear and unrest in Gillengaria continues to rise, and the king decides to send the princess on a tour of the noble houses during the height of the social season.

Focusing on a different member of the group from the first book, the author continues to examine the definition of love.  The main character is a mystic, with the power to change her shape.  Because of this, her family asks her to assume her sister's identity and go on tour with the princess.  Through this guise she falls in love with the regent, who is uncle to the princess, and a married man.  His temperament is similar to hers, and as tempestuous people do, they fall madly in love.

Unfortunately, it is only a momentary happiness.  Her most faithful companion, steadfastly in love with her, cannot bear to watch her in love with another man.  Her other companions try to get her to reconsider.  Rumors begin to flow, saying the regent is compromising her sister's virtue.  And then there is his wife, who is by all accounts a good person.  Who suffers the most from love?  Is it always a bitter pill when happiness is found?

I've entertained arguments that the foil of the regent was a false entity, that he was a bit of a cad.  To that I say, everyone falls in love sometimes, even those who don't seem to deserve it.  Also I don't think he was a bad guy.  I think he was a good representation of the ultimate temptation; he was everything she thought she wanted, and she couldn't have it.  The love she could have, she had taken for granted.  There are a lot of hard choices in that situation, and I sympathize fully.

The third book is Dark Moon Defender.  This isn't a Western, not that I care for that genre at all.  However, it reminds me a good deal of a cowboy story.  The country is still in quiet turmoil, and a war seems imminent.  The king sends out one of his loyal Riders on a mission to gather intelligence about the religious fanaticism that seems to be sweeping the populace and pushing for the destruction of all mystics.

I can't explain why, but this story honestly seems like a John Wayne movie.  The heroine is strong, yet in need of protection from those who pretend to car for her.  The hero is a rough and rowdy sort, a street tough turned loyal soldier.  He wants to save her from the evil surrounding her, and she is the softness he never had.  They are a good match, the hard stone and the soft spot, a proper balance to each other.

However, it is the last book that actually solves all the mysteries (well, obviously).  Reader and Raelynx brings the story arc to its final conclusion.  In this case, there is no avoiding the impending civil war.  The strange qualities observed in both the princess and the queen are defined, and a very unlikely lovematch occurs between a commoner mystic and the princess herself.  As is the case with epic fantasy like this, good triumphs in the end, but not without a very heavy price.  No one comes out unscathed, though for some the change is a new beginning.

Technically there is a fifth book, Fortune and Fate, which shows the aftermath of the war, though the focus is on a side character and not one of the original members of the companions in the first four books.  It was good, though in a way it felt like a four hundred page epilogue at times.  It tied up some of the loose ends that were left, and the whole thing was smoothly done.

This series was very good as far as standard epic fantasy go.  From my understanding, the author intended them to have a strong romantic edge.  In this I would say there is some success and some failure.  It was romantic insofar as the main characters eventually declared love for each other, and spent a lot of the book trying to understand each other and their own feelings.  However, I'd say the scenes of "searing passion" were few and far between, and written by someone who did not want to offend anyone with said scenes of passion.  It was like peaking through your fingers at kissing scenes in a PG13 movie when you're nine.

I know I've left out a lot of details, but that was to avoid any spoilers.  However, if you're in the mood for some fantasy with a twist, take a look at this series.  Now that I've returned it, I am tempted to buy it for myself (or at least put it on my wish list for the holidays).