Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Kelly Barnhill, new Victoria Goddard, and a few other things I've been reading

It's been three months since my last post: I'm not sure if that's because I've lost interest in blogging, or I haven't read much that made me excited to talk about, or life has just gotten really busy with other interesting things to occupy my mind and time. Or a combination of all three. But I'm not ready to call it quits yet, so here are a few short reviews of a few things!

The Girl Who Drank the Moon was on everyone's blog for a while when it came out, and I finally read it, and it's as awesome as everyone said! Very original: lots of folk-tale elements and the narration has a fairy-tale feeling to it, but there's a modern sensibility behind everything—there are no unexamined tropes here. Very pointed critiques of human behaviour and society. Interesting, complex characters; unusual in that the adult characters are more prominent than the titular girl, and we get lots of different POVs, so I don't know how that will work for younger readers. Felt similar to some of T. Kingfisher's not-exactly-for-young-people novels, like A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking and Minor Mage. Whimsical and hopeful while unflinching about the damage people can do to each other. Beautiful writing.

The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy, by Anne Ursu, is another middle-grade novel that's been widely raved about that I finally got around to reading. I love Ursu's writing, and this one didn't disappoint. Similar themes to Girl Who Drank the Moon, actually: standing up against evil that persists because of false beliefs deliberately perpetuated by those in power to make sure they stay in power. (Hmm. That doesn't ever happen in the real world; I see no relevance to our current state of affairs. Ahem.) Girl power and friendship. Pretty dark story, actually—misogyny isn't fun to read about—but I promise it has a happy ending!

The Redoubtable Pali Avramapul is the next installment in Victoria Goddard's hugely epic Nine Worlds series of series, and I loved it! My second favourite after Hands of the Emperor, I think. It made me go back and reread The Return of Fitzroy Angursell, and with this book (and Petty Treasons, a novella) I have fallen completely in love with Fitzroy. Also Pali! Full review on Goodreads , but the TL;DR is go read this book! (After you read Hands and Return, though.)

And speaking of Victoria Goddard, I also thoroughly enjoyed Portrait of a Wide Seas Islander, which is an event in Hands of the Emperor told from Buru Tovo's point of view.


Nettle and Bone is T. Kingfisher's latest, and it is her trademark dark, funny, weird, folk-tale-ish story of unlikely heroines defeating evil with cleverness, unexpected magic and sheer stubbornness. This one is definitely adult fairytale—trigger warning for abuse—but not horror. (I can't read her horror!) I'm never disappointed in anything this woman writes.

I also read a couple of new novels in Rachel Neumeier's Tuyo world: Keraunani, which is a fun romantic adventure starring Esau, and Suelen, set right after the events of Tuyo and introducing a new character and a new, fascinating magic: the surgeon-dedicate. (I love the covers for this series!) 

Oh, and I don't seem to have mentioned her newest Death's Lady series on my blog (how is she so prolific?? the woman is a writing machine!). It's reverse-portal fantasy starring a psychiatrist and a woman warrior, and it's every bit as good as Tuyo with a different vibe. (My Goodreads reviews here and here.)The latest in that series, Shines Now, and Heretofore is a fun exploration of one of the minor characters in the main trilogy (I love the way she does this in her series: returning to the world we loved and seeing a new perspective on it.)

You may notice that I haven't been very adventurous in my reading: I've been mostly sticking to authors I love. Maybe I'll start exploring outside my box now: is there anything you think I should read that I might not otherwise try?


Sunday, March 27, 2022

Sherwood Smith's Phoenix Feather series solves The Protagonist Problem

 "The Protagonist Problem" is a great essay in Uncanny Magazine by Ada Palmer and Jo Walton, and I think you should read the whole thing, but here's the gist:

Jo Walton coined the word protagonismos in 2010 to mean “the kind of person stories happen to,” but I’m extending that meaning here. We tell a lot of stories in which one special person has the power to save the day, make the difference, solve the problem, and change everything. They might be superhero, a long-lost royal scion, the last of their race, a child of prophecy, or they might—like Frodo—be an everyman who has that special courage or other quality which saves the day. Protagonismos is the protagonist spark, that quality some characters possess which means the plot will not advance until our hero comes to lead the action, be it to victory or defeat.

The authors make the argument that while this kind of hero-centred story is great, it becomes a problem if that's the only kind of story we tell.

When some stories center protagonists, while others center teams, movements, families, etc., that teaches us that there are many ways a world can change, but when almost every story has protagonismos, it teaches us that all worlds work this way, and leads people to see the real world and real history as resting in the hands of real-world protagonists. This is harmful. It’s harmful when people see themselves as not protagonists, and differently harmful when people see themselves as protagonists.

Novels have become more and more protagonist-centred in recent decades, to the point that writing instruction often assumes protagonismos and considers it a flaw if a story lacks it (see writing advice like, "the plot has to be influenced by the protagonist; things can't just happen to her"). I had never thought about it before—and that's their point: we take it as a given, without examining the assumptions behind it. Like I said, read the whole essay; it's great.

I bring it up because I just finished the fourth (and final) book in Sherwood Smith's latest fantasy adventure series, The Phoenix Feather. Although it starts out seeming like a typical hero story (I described the first book as a martial arts hero origin story), it ends up with multiple POV characters, all of whom influence the outcome in essential ways. And it was very satisfying!


I absolutely loved that it's a story of a family—of more than one family, actually. It follows every member of the Afan family as they make their separate ways across an empire, always trying to protect each other no matter what other intrigue or danger or opportunity they are navigating. And in the meantime we get glimpses of the Imperial family—and the difference in the sibling bonds and parent-child relationships almost becomes heartbreaking, because we see genuine love and affection in both cases, even when twisted by ambition and fear.

I loved the conflict that is set up between the two families, and the way it plays out in long threads that tangle with each other and draw everyone inexorably together. I loved the braided nature of the narrative: following first one character, then another; hoping, fearing, knowing that their paths will intersect; watching the repercussions of each intersection ripple out and affect everyone else.

The Phoenix feather of the series title is an interesting plot device—an augur of greatness, it teases us over four books: to whom does this great fate belong? Who will fulfill the promised destiny? At different times you'll think you have it figured out, but you'll likely be wrong! In the meantime, you're rooting for all three Afan children, who pursue greatness in military, artistic and martial arts spheres, not to mention several other characters who befriend and help them and have great potential.

The setting is gorgeous; the magic is fun; the battles and spying and escapes and training montages and intrigue are everything you want from escapist fantasy: stressful enough to keep you engaged while never being in any doubt that everything will all work out somehow. I devoured all four books, and I can see myself rereading them frequently.

(The level of violence is almost middle-grade. It's not aimed at a young audience, but I think sophisticated younger readers would enjoy it. If you've read her earlier work, it's similar to the Inda series but less adult in theme and treatment.)

Monday, March 21, 2022

MMGM: The Barren Grounds, by David Alexander Robertson

I am a sucker for foster child/found family stories—don't know why; I just can't stand the thought of any child not feeling love and belonging. So The Barren Grounds drew me in right away when it introduced Morgan in her new foster family. They are trying so hard to welcome her and honour her aboriginal heritage, and she is rude and prickly because she can't let herself get hurt again. 

The most important relationship in the story is between Morgan and her younger foster brother Eli, whom she both sympathizes with and resents because he at least has memories of his family and his culture, whereas she was given away when she was a baby. Eli's skill at drawing is the magic that creates a portal in the attic, and Morgan has to go through the portal to find Eli and bring him home.

Found family, siblings and portal fantasies are all buttons for me, and the snowy icing on the cake was the wintery setting: in Winnipeg in the real world, and in the trapped-in-winter land of Aski. Robertson's depiction of a winter forest landscape rang very true and familiar to me. This is such a Canadian book! (I was only annoyed at Morgan not wearing enough clothes when she went through the portal: she would know how to dress better than that!)(At least she remembered her mitts.)

The homage to Narnia is genuine, and the integration of aboriginal mythology and values into a Lion Witch and Wardrobe retelling felt both fresh and satisfying. The environmental message (and the metaphor of colonialization) is clear but not, I think, too didactic.

The story itself is fast-paced and fun, a fairly simple adventure quest with enjoyable banter and realistic character development. I liked how Eli's and Morgan's different strengths were acknowledged, and I loved the bickering between Ochek and Arik. (I am embarrassed to be a Canadian who did not know there was such an animal as a fisher: kind of like a really large weasel. You would think I would have learned about them at some point!)

This is a strong beginning to a middle-grade fantasy series for any readers who like wilderness adventures and portal stories, and a book that should become a Canadian classic.

By Douglas H. Domedion - https://bloximages.chicago2.vip.townnews.com/niagara-gazette.com/content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/1/dc/1dcd1294-0601-5f2d-85e8-70e12364647e/5e62c0efb7979.image.jpg, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=107662510


For more great Marvelous Middle Grade Monday reads, check out Greg Pattridge's blog, Always in the Middle



Sunday, February 27, 2022

Cybils winner! Vespertine, by Margaret Rogerson

I let the Cybils announcement on Feb 14 pass by with nary a word of acknowledgement. Allow me to correct my lapse. The Cybils winners have been announced!

I was surprised and delighted to see Margaret Rogerson win the YA Spec Fic Cybil award this year for her medieval sort-of ghost, sort-of Joan-of-Arc story Vespertine. Surprised, because it's not your typical YA fantasy. (No romance, for one thing!) Delighted, because Rogerson is a great author with a nuance and a depth to her writing that I keep wanting more of.

Assassin nuns have become a bit of a trope, because of course nuns could train to be assassins and that's just cool. Rogerson turns the trope sideways and gives us a nun trained to lay already dead spirits to rest—so there's more of a horror element to it. But there's also this odd comfort that Anastasia has with the dead: she would genuinely rather deal with a nasty undead spirit than talk to most living people. Undead spirits are predictable, they follow certain rules, and they don't judge her for her appearance or her complicated past.

Anastasia is a fascinating heroine: scarred but not frightened, because in a way the worst has already happened to her and she survived. Neurodiverse, possibly on the autism spectrum, though it's never defined in-story, and therefore able to relate to the world in a different way. She knows what she wants, and then the story throws her for a loop and she gets the opposite, and she sighs and deals with it as doggedly as she pursued her original goal.

I won't talk about the other characters because I don't want to spoil them, but Rogerson is great at creating really fascinating, believable people with problematic behaviour and motivations that make complete sense. She never has Bad Guys and Good Guys, because right and wrong are complicated, and everyone can genuinely believe they are doing right while they are doing a great deal of harm. Anastasia has to decide who to trust with not enough information, and all I can say is there is a lot of awesomeness that happens in the process!

It's a story with plenty of action and tension that really makes you think about the situations, and the characters' choices, and what makes a hero, or a saint. 

I eagerly await the second book to learn more about this world (and a character I haven't told you about because I don't want to spoil it for you!)

Thursday, January 27, 2022

She Who Became the Sun and Phoenix Feather

I read these two novels back-to-back, and it was interesting to compare them, particularly since Iron Widow is still fairly fresh in my mind. All three have the Mulan trope at their heart: peasant girl (in Chinese-inspired world) disguises herself as her brother to go achieve goals in the wider world that involve fighting in battles, and she ends up kicking butt. Great trope! Three great novels with very different takes on it.

She Who Became the Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan, is a historical fantasy based on the rise to power of the first Ming emperor—who was born a peasant, though was probably not actually a girl in disguise. (Though you never know!)

Fledglings is Book 1 of the Phoenix Feather series by Sherwood Smith, a secondary world fantasy based on the wuxia and xuanhuan traditions of Chinese novels: it follows three extraordinary children as they cultivate their talents and try to avoid the notice of an evil emperor.

Now, I'm going to stop my review right here and state that I am unashamedly biased in favour of the less realistic of these two premises. Because, much as I believe that it is possible to live by principles of justice and kindness, history generally doesn't. So, when I tell you that I enjoyed reading Fledglings more than SWBTS, it's entirely because I want my gentle, unrealistic world-view reinforced, and SWBTS is stuck with history. (Iron Widow is also stuck with history, but it has the advantage of giant fighting robots. Parker-Chan chose not to go that route, and I can't fault her for it, but I'm afraid she loses another few enjoyment points right there.)

Having said all that—She Who Became the Sun is a fabulous novel. We are drawn inexorably into a brutal world through the eyes of an unnamed, unvalued girl fighting for her life; we can't help but root for her as she uses her cleverness and her endurance to avoid starvation. Her decision to take on her brother's identity, Zhu Chongba, and with it his fate, is both terrifying and makes perfect sense. 

I loved the subtlety of the fantasy elements and the way Parker-Chan weaves them into her theme: there really is an external force of fate, and our two main characters take different approaches to their wrestle with its inevitability. Do we choose our destinies? Are the Heavens really watching? 

The writing is vivid with metaphor—I'm not going to say lyrical or poetic, and certainly not purple—Parker-Chan is utterly skilled at choosing the perfect metaphor to convey precisely what she means in every circumstance. (As opposed to those of us who rely too much on adverbs!)

I enjoyed Part I of the novel more, the coming-of-age and figuring out how to stay disguised as a boy part. But Part II starts getting really interesting when it introduces the eunuch general Ouyang, who ends up being Zhu's foil/nemesis character on the opposite side of the war. Parker-Chan kept me interested in all the complicated power dynamics at play by making all the players very real people with believable motivations. I am not a huge fan of revenge plots because I think revenge is dumb, but I was sucked into this one; I really felt for Ouyang.

[Slightly spoilery, except that the title spoils this, as does history!] There were parts of the latter half of the novel that reminded me of Macbeth: in many ways Zhu's rise to power is a tragedy ("I am in blood stepped in so far" is a speech that came to mind). Ambition is another motivation that I don't really get, but Zhu is so convincing; her every choice continued to make perfect sense, even as I wanted to close my eyes and not watch.

I don't know if I'm going to read the second novel. I know how it ends, and it's not with Zhu renouncing the world and achieving inner peace! But what I might do is read more of the history, and rewatch Empress Ki, and then read Parker-Chan's sequel with enough background to be fascinated by how she reimagines this pivotal moment in the history of China. Here's her explanation of the historical figures in the novel: it's quite fascinating!

Fledglings, on the other hand, is all about playing with fun story tropes: it's essentially the origin story of a martial arts hero, and it was just the immersive, familiar-feeling story I needed while I recuperated from whichever virus had me in its grip all week. Everything I love about Sherwood Smith's writing: excellent world-building details, great action scenes, wonderful character interactions. I particularly loved the depiction of the close-knit family, the parents trying to protect the children while the children chafe for the chance to pursue their identities. And of course off they go into the world, not quite the way they thought they would, and they still love and support one another, and it just gives me all the feels. A lighter version of Inda, very similar to A Stranger To Command. I've bought the second book and am going to start reading it now, so that's all I'll say about this one!

Thursday, January 6, 2022

2021 Cybils Finalists and Ones That Got Away

Alibrarymama did a great post on the Middle-Grade Spec Fic Cybils winners, so I'm going to shamelessly copy her and share the results of the YA Spec Fic panel's deliberations:


We had such a great list of nominees to read, but these are the ones we all agreed rose to the top of the list. See our blurbs for them here. Wonderful diversity in authors and content, and just excellent, excellent writing. Honestly, I don't know how the Second Round Judges are going to be able to decide among them! Links to my reviews, (except for Vespertine and The City Beautiful, which I haven't gotten around to reviewing yet!)

The Gilded Ones, by Namina Forna
The Mirror Season, by Anna Marie McLemore
Vespertine, by Margaret Rogerson
Iron Widow, by Xiran Jay Zhao
The City Beautiful, by Aden Polydoros
Bad Witch Burning, by Jessica Lewis

There are so many other worthwhile books that we read, and it's worth mentioning some of my favourites (you can see most of these by just looking at my reviews from the past few months, but I'll put them in a list for you):

Aetherbound, by E.K. Johnston: possibly my favourite of hers yet, and that's saying a lot.
Fragile Remedy, by Maria Ingrande Mora: intimate, sweet dystopia
Mister Impossible, by Maggie Stiefvater: sequel to Call Down the Hawk, and it's so good!
We Can Be Heroes, by Kyrie McCauley: girl power and ghosts.
The Darkness Outside Us, by Eliot Schrefer: super twisty sci fi!
Defy the Night, by Brigid Kemmerer: princes and outlaws and a thoughtful plot.
The Theft of Sunlight, by Intisar Khanani: sequel to Thorn, which I loved. 
These Violent Delights, by Chloe Gong: Romeo and Juliet like you've never seen them!
The Wild Ones, by Nafiza Azad: so, so original! Luscious.
Chaos on CatNet, by Naomi Kritzer: sequel to Catfishing on CatNet and just as fun and dark.

You're welcome for all these new additions to your TBR!


Monday, January 3, 2022

Fragile Remedy, by Maria Ingrande Mora

Oh, my heart! Oh this book! Fragile Remedy is set in a relentlessly gritty, claustrophobically hopeless world (that bears a frightening resemblance to our own world), and yet it is one of the gentlest, tenderest stories I've ever read. It's about how to stay a decent human being when you have to make terrible choices just to survive. It depicts what love looks like to characters who don't know what it is because they've never been afforded it. And yet they still care for and protect and sacrifice for each other, and the worse the circumstances around them, the stronger grow their bonds of love and trust. This is what family is.

The world-building is intense and immersive. It took me a few chapters to decide I might like this book, because the slum neighborhood of the Withers is grim and disgusting. They eat seagulls and sludge rats. What a brilliant detail! And of course drug addiction and gang violence are constant threats.

Nate is a particularly vulnerable member of this outcast society, because he has been genetically engineered to have healing blood. He escaped being exploited by the elite in Gathos City, and now he has to keep his identity as a GEM secret from everyone else who might try to capitalize on his value to escape their desperate poverty. I loved this extreme metaphor for the exploitation that threatens the vulnerable in any society.

Fragile Remedy has some pretty searing social commentary, but the plot and the heart of the book focuses on Nate's relationship with two other young men: drug dealer Alden, and Reed, the leader of a found family of scavengers. Both Alden and Reed are protecting Nate in their own way, and the complexity of trust and loyalty among the three is exquisitely rendered. The problem of Nate's tenuous existence is developed in some really interesting ways, and all the characters were nuanced and thoughtfully developed, including the antagonists.

This book wouldn't let me go, and I'm still thinking about Nate and hoping he's going to be okay!