Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Book Review: Rebellion by Karen Sandler

Pros: realistic political, racial and cultural complications; bhimkays; satisfying ending  

Cons: Kayla’s suspicious actions in her room would have brought attention to her schemes; rushed secondary romance

This is the third book in Sandler’s excellent Tankborn trilogy.  I will try to keep this review spoiler free, but there will be hints of plot that you may wish to avoid if you haven’t read the previous books.

This book picks up two months after the events of Awakening.  Kayla and Devak, separated by events, still long for each other.  The Kindred’s goals have shifted and the FHE’s mysterious - and deadly - goals are reaching fruition.

As with the previous books the world building is phenomenal.  I loved that we got to see more of the bhimkays (giant spiders).

In a few ways this book reminded me of Mockingjay, another YA novel that dealt with rebellion in a dystopian society.  As with that book, Rebellion shows that no sides in such conflicts have the welfare of the general population in mind.  In some ways Rebellion does a better job than Mockingjay, as it has dual protagonists, one at the bottom of society and one at the top.  And it’s interesting seeing how different strata of society respond to the bombings and breakdown of security.  The GENs (genetically engineered non-humans, the ’tankborns’ of the series name), slaves of the trueborns, always getting the worst of every situation, become angry, some wanting to fight but others only wanting freedom.  The high status trueborns meanwhile, try to maintain control, even when it makes things worse for themselves and the trueborns below them in status, with more and more restrictions and potential abuses of power.  Even Devak, in love with a GEN and actively working to change society discovers how difficult it is to erase years of social conditioning - both concerning his own status and how he reacts to the GENs around him, who don’t know him or how he’s helped their cause.

Sandler doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to examining race and social status in this book.  And it’s refreshing to see someone ask difficult questions.  There are no easy answers here - or in real life - and she shows that these issues are complex for everyone.  The GENs want freedom but the way FHE goes about achieving it makes life harder for those they’re ostensibly trying to help.  Meanwhile it’s easy to see how the trueborns, used to privilege and power, refuse to give those up.  And this includes the trueborns involved with both the Kindred and the FHE.  It’s easy to talk about equality for all, but it’s hard to realize it - for all sides. 

I personally found the ending satisfying, with enough closure to make readers happy but with enough things about society still in flux to be believable given all that happened.

One thing about the book that I questioned was that Kayla and her roommate start talking over their internal communications systems to avoid the monitoring of their room.  I wondered why no one ever questioned what they were doing, sitting silently in their room.  Once or twice one of them responds aloud, an act I would have assumed would give them away.  

These next two items didn’t bother me as much, but some aspects of Devak’s quest happened too coincidentally to be believable and Junjie’s relationship was too rushed, as the two barely knew each other.  

Rebellion is a good conclusion to a great series that asks some tough questions while telling an interesting story.  If you haven’t picked these up yet, you’re really missing out.

Out April 25th.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Shout-Out: Swords of Good Men by Snorri Kristjansson

To weary Viking Ulfar Thormodsson, the town of Stenvik is the penultimate stop on the return leg of a long and perilous journey. It has been particularly challenging for Thormodsson, who has been charged with protecting the life of his high-born cousin. Having traveled the oceans of the world for two years, all he wants is to go home. But Stenvik awaits. 
The small coastal town is home to a colorful array of individuals, from the beautiful and tragic Lilia, who captures Thormodsson's rough heart, to solitary blacksmith Audun Arngrimsson, whose past hides many dark secrets. The travel-worn Vikings also discover that King Olav is marching on Stenvik from the east, determined to bring the White Christ to the masses at the point of his sword-even as a host of bloodthirsty raiders led by a mysterious woman sails from the north.
Meanwhile, there is trouble brewing between two of the town's competing factions, a conflict that threatens to sweep all of them, natives and visitors alike, into the jaws of war. Thormodsson and his companions soon learn that in this conflict between the old gods and the new, there are enemies everywhere-outside the walls of Stenvik as well as within.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Recommended Reading by Professionals... with Leah Bobet

In this series, I ask various publishing professionals (including authors, bloggers, editors, agents etc.) to recommend 2-3 authors or books they feel haven't received the recognition they deserve.

Today's recommendations are by Leah Bobet. Leah Bobet's first novel, Above, was nominated for the 2012 Andre Norton Award and the 2013 Aurora Award, and her short fiction has appeared in several Year's Best anthologies and as part of online serial Shadow Unit.  She lives in Toronto, Ontario, where she edits Ideomancer Speculative Fiction, picks urban apple trees, does civic engagement activism, and works as a bookseller at Bakka-Phoenix Books, Canada's oldest science fiction bookstore.  Leah's second novel, On Roadstead Farm—a literary dustbowl fantasy where stuff blows up—will appear from Clarion Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2015.

Recommending books is a bit of a tricky business: No book's all good or all bad, just good or bad for that reader and what they enjoy in a story. That said, as a reader who loves character-driven, literary SFF which displays an author's sheer skill, here are a few books I think deserve much, much more love:

  1. Desideria by Nicole Kornher-Stace

    Nicole Kornher-Stace's first novel flew way too far under the radar when it came out in 2008, and deserves to be handed to any fan of Caitlin R. Kiernan, China Miéville, Catherynne M. Valente, or Gemma Files. Set in a created city that's not-quite-French, not-quite-Renaissance, Desideria plunges us into the mystery of how its protagonist, amnesiac actress Ange St. Loup, ended up in a madhouse accused of arson and murder—and tells the story of her theatre company's last, fateful play. Where the sheer, impressive ambition comes in is in the third strand of the story: The text of the play itself, written in its own voice, with its own flair and style, tying both Ange's fate, the theatre's, and the company's together. If you're not a structural reader, it's daunting. If you are? It's brilliant. Kornher-Stace's rich, lyrical prose bolsters and ornaments that structure, in the most literal sense of the word: wordcraft to enhance what's already there, which is stylistically gorgeous on a sentence-by-sentence level and transparent enough to not get between the reader and the story.

    The one drawback is the pace: Desideria starts slow, and demands patience in the first quarter before it starts to roll full-speed. I'd personally recommend giving it that patience. I found the results ultimately worthwhile.

  2. Finder by Carla Speed McNeil

    Finder has been quietly drawn and written and published since 1996—sometimes in colour, sometimes in black and white—and it is some of the best science fiction work I've ever read: a far-future Earth replete with nomads and domed city-states, massive corporate culture, and an overwhelming sense of socially aware, intelligent wonder. It's been celebrated to the moon and back in comics, and I'm barely sure anyone in SFF has read it.It's also, quietly, one of the most diverse works of science fiction I've ever read: described by its creator as "aboriginal science fiction," its regular cast includes a half-aboriginal protagonist, a South Asian polyamorous academic, a genderfluid teenager, and whole piles of very different assumptions on how people do being people. It's not quite Samuel Delaney, not quite Ursula Le Guin, not quite a lot of things while it tells some incredibly moving stories on the backdrop of this world: The fourth installment, Talisman, is one of the most moving love letters to reading, writing, and books I've ever read.

    Start at the beginning: While Finder doesn't need to be read in order, I find it helps.

  3. Resurrection Man by Sean Stewart

    Sean Stewart's work is largely hard to find these days: Sean Stewart has moved onto games writing, and with the exception of a few titles reprinted by Small Beer Press and the award-winning Galveston, his novels are mostly out of print.

    Which is too bad, because this book is my heart.

    Resurrection Man deals with some of the perennial Stewart topics: families, and the shattering
    and mending thereof; what to do when you discover you’re really a rather bad and selfish man;
    getting your balance in a world that’s broken; putting the broken right. On a holiday home, Dante Ratkay—scientist, sibling, with the power to see secrets and omens in a world where magic's leaking slowly through the streets—finds his own corpse laid out in the boathouse, and what it spills are the secrets, needs, and tensions in his large and loving family. The outcome is glorious. And tragic. And right.

    Stewart's prose is utterly beautiful: It is a musical instrument, delicate and restrained until it's slicing open your belly. He never shies away from acknowledging the complexity of other human beings, and of our own messy selves. The world he builds here, and in companion novels Galveston and The Night Watch, is doom-tinged with subtle magic that takes your breath away.

    If I could bribe any author to write just one more book, it would be him.

Stay tuned for the next post where we get more reading recommendations!

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Stranger Than Fiction: The Germanic Tribes

A column dedicated to pointing out interesting tidbits of history, some of which would be cool to see in a fantasy novel or two.

The Germanic Tribes
Written by Alexander Hogh and Judith Voelker, Directed by Alexander Hogh, 2008

The four-part documentary brought out a lot of great information, showing how using a mixture of written records and archaeological evidence allows modern historians to extrapolate how the Germanic peoples lived two thousand years ago.  Each episode they created a fake person, someone who ‘might have lived’, to follow, as a narrative thread.  But I personally found the fake quotes that mingled with the historical ones distracting, as it was easy to forget that these characters weren’t based on actual recorded lives. 

The documentary goes over the Roman conquest, the Germanic push back, a time of co-operation and the introduction of Christianity.  

I know very little about this period of history, so this miniseries was full of interesting tidbits like:

- the Romans called the barbarian tribes and location, Germania, from which we get the name Germany
- just how far the West the Romans conquered
- Romans considered German tribesmen formidable warriors and good for bodyguards (as they didn’t care about Roman politics)
- people in Germania played lyres and followed some Roman religious beliefs
- Hadrian built a wall of wood and dirt through Germany to mark the end of Roman territory a few years before he built the stone wall in Northern England
- the Germanic tribes raided other tribes for slaves
- the Germanic tribes used Runic writing & worshiped the same gods as the Scandinavians
- gladiatorial fights were hosted in conquered regions of modern day Germany
- the origin of the Fleur de Lis symbol of France came from Medieval representations of Clovis (frogs on his garment, depicting his ‘evil pagan beliefs’ [the frog/toad is a symbol of lying] turn into lilies upon his baptism)

- Allemagne [the French word for Germany] comes from the Germanic tribe/confederation, the Alemanni (also spelled Alamanni and Alamani), who were conquered by the Frankish king Clovis. [According to wikipedia, the word ‘Alemanni’ meant ‘all men’, though only their enemies used it.  Those particular tribesmen called themselves Suebi. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allemanni  On reading about the various modern names for Germany and where they come from, the German name for Germany (Deutschland) comes from the Old High German word diutisc, which meant ‘of the people’ or ‘folk’] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Names_of_Germany

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Shout-Out: Moth and Spark by Anne Leonard

A prince with a quest. A commoner with mysterious powers. And dragons that demand to be freed —at any cost.
Prince Corin has been chosen to free the dragons from their bondage to the Empire, but dragons aren't big on directions. They have given him some of their power, but none of their knowledge. No one, not the dragons nor their riders, is even sure what keeps the dragons in the Empire's control.
Tam, sensible daughter of a well-respected doctor, had no idea before she arrived in the capital that she is a Seer, gifted with visions. When the two run into each other (quite literally) in the library, sparks fly and Corin impulsively asks Tam to dinner. But it's not all happily ever after. Never mind that the prince isn't allowed to marry a commoner: war is coming to Caithen. Torn between Corin's quest to free the dragons and his duty to his country, the lovers must both figure out how to master their powers in order to save Caithen. With a little help from a village of secret wizards and a rogue dragonrider, they just might pull it off.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Book Review: Falling Kingdoms by Morgan Rhodes

Pros: political intrigue, some empathetic characters

Cons: Auranos royalty was irritating, very fake siege and war

For Parents: some violence, off page sex 

The lands of Mytica are slowly dying, their magic draining away.  Magnus, prince of Valoria, forced to cut himself off from his emotions in order to deal with his abusive father and distant mother, is very protective of the younger sister, Lucia, he loves too much.  But Lucia is more than he or she knows, heiress of a vast power she’s about to come into.

Cleo is the spoiled younger princess of Auranos.  On an excursion to the dying land of Palsia, known for their fine wine and nothing else, her friend, the arrogant Lord Aron Lagaris, kills a vintner’s son.  The victim’s brother, Jonas, swears vengeance.

War is coming to the 3 lands of Mytica.  And the actions of these teens is the spark that ignites it.

I wanted to like this book, I mean, I really did.  The cover is gorgeous and the plot sounds so interesting.  

The good: The author had some great politics going on.  There’s a lot of intrigue among the three countries, and part of Palsia’s troubles are due to trade agreements made in the past that are only now causing major problems (deals very similar to ones made by African nations in the real world).

I loved Magnus.  His attempts to keep his emotions hidden even as he falls in love with his sister - the only person who shows him any kindness and consideration - is heartbreaking.  The author’s attempts to make him evil just made me pity him more.  I loved his entire storyline, and that of Lucia.

I found Jonas an interesting character.  Not quite as sympathetic as Magnus, despite the tragedy he experiences, his actions at least follow through from that action.  And while I’m not sure I believe what he does at the end of the book, again, his decision stems from what’s gone before.

The bad: I hated Cleo.  She’s got a few redeeming features, like she’s sorry the vintner’s son dies, but she’s selfish in her sorrow.  She does nothing to redress what happened, sends no funds to help the family afterwards or the land she knows is dying, even as hers flourishes.  She makes some truly, truly horrible decisions.  Decisions that someone her age, in her position, should never make.  Her older sister is dying for the dumbest reason, which ends up causing added problems for their kingdom.  I’ll explain more about these in the spoilers section.

Cleo never seemed to learn from her mistakes.  I could understand how certain things happened - life gets out of control sometimes, especially when you’re 16.  But things keep happening and she never seems to make better decisions.  At one point she believes that having a hissy fit will save her from one of her father’s decisions.  If that’s not entitlement, I don’t know what is.

My final point - the one that made me almost throw the book across the room in frustrated anger, deals with the ending, so it’s in the spoiler section below.

I wanted to like this book but didn’t.  I forced myself to finish and I’m not sure why.  It had a lot of promise, but too many of the characters rubbed me the wrong way and too many actions made no sense for me to continue with the series.


Jonas - at the end of the book he decides he’d rather help Cleo than see his country annexed by Limeros.  I can understand he doesn’t want the annexation to stand, but while Cleo explains earlier that she’s sorry his brother is dead she was still in a position to have saved him and didn’t.  And she does nothing to rectify the mistake.  So I can’t see him following her.

Cleo - her decision to search Palsia for magic seeds to save her sister is ridiculous.  She knows the country is experiencing unrest due to her actions and yet she goes there anyway, chasing a story that - if true - would have saved Palsia.  I also didn’t understand why the witch, when encountered, gave Cleo the seeds.  In her note the witch praises Cleo’s honesty - when Cleo told her nothing but lies.  Yes, Cleo did say the seeds were to save her sister, but that’s the only truth that came from her mouth beyond her name.  Seems to me the which could have been helping her own people rather than saving another spoiled princess.

And make no mistake, Emilia was a spoiled princess, despite her otherwise desire to subsume her needs for that of her kingdom.  She wasn’t, after all, sick.  She was dying of a broken heart.  She literally chose to die because the man she loved (who was at least 35 years older than her - he had a 20 year old son) accidentally died.

My last complaint deals with the siege / war at the end of the book.

OK, if you’re attacking a fortified castle complex you need more than 5000 men.  Especially if you’re not bringing any siege engines of any kind, ladders, sappers or anything else that might help you get past the walls.  Most sieges worked because they starved out the inhabitants.  In this book the ‘siege’ lasts - I kid you not - 3 days.  Yup, 3 days.  And the attacking army is running out of food, having no supply train set up to feed the peasant troops (the wealthier, armoured troops we’re told do have food).  For some reason the defending army decides to leave their fortifications and fight on the field.  Not sure why when they’ve got this wall behind which to throw things at the enemy.  The attacking fighters manage to breach the walls - without any siege weapons mentioned at all - after 12 hours of straight fighting, no breaks.  Not sure how that worked, as most battles lasted a few hours and than broke apart so people could rest and tend their wounded (or surrender/run away).  Not to mention, with only 5000 men, I’d have expected the fighting to end much earlier.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Shout-Out: Cypher by S. E. Bennett

Cipher Omega is sixteen years old and a failed experiment.
She is an identical clone of the brilliant, damaged woman whose genome the scientists of the Basement were trying to copy and improve. Without the modifications they wanted, she isn't just worthless: she's a liability, a ticking time bomb of instincts and human weakness.
All her life she has dreamt of the freedom of life outside the laboratory, on the surface world, but when her home is destroyed and she's left the only survivor of a hundred-year human cloning project, she is forced to face the reality of the military-ruled nation that created her.

Aided by the only other surviving child of the Basement, an enigmatic solider named Tor, and two rebel journalists named Bowen and Oona Rivers, Cipher finds herself searching for answers in the wreckage of a once-great city.
When the time comes, will she be able to chose between freedom and love?