Monday, October 15, 2018

Muse of Nightmares, by Laini Taylor

Laini Taylor has done it again. She has exploded my brain, and all the little brain bits turned into stars and flowers as they floated down around me. (That's the kind of thing Laini Taylor says all the time, but she says it more elegantly so it doesn't sound stupid!)

Muse of Nightmares is the conclusion to Strange the Dreamer, and you cannot possibly read it if you haven't read Strange the Dreamer, so go read Strange the Dreamer now (I told you to a year ago, so if you didn't listen to me then you should rectify that lapse immediately.)

I'm not going to spoil either book in this review. If you've read the first book, you don't even have to read this: I'm sure you had Muse of Nighmares on preorder! (That cliffhanger! It's up there with LOTR and Riddlemaster of Hed, right?) All you need me to tell you is that it doesn't disappoint. It's tense, heart wrenching, shocking and entirely satisfying.

Strange the Dreamer introduces a crazily fascinating world with all of Laini Taylor's brilliantly imaginative touches: a city that no one can remember; a floating castle shaped like an angel; blue-skinned gods with terrible powers; a librarian no-one notices who has a knack for languages and who defines the world in kinder ways than anyone else.

Muse of Nightmares takes that world and expands it fractally, going forward and backward in time to explain and warp our understanding of everyone and everything

Strange the Dreamer gave us a cast of loveable, hateable, pitiable, admirable, terrifying and deeply understandable characters. (Most of them are all those things at one time or another, or all at once, like real people.) Laini Taylor must be a telepath, or a super-psychologist or something, because she is so good at understanding what goes on inside people's heads. I think Lois McMaster Bujold is the only other writer I know who is as good at forging character motivations out of their history. Everything each character does is completely inevitable based on who they are and what they've been through, even when they completely surprise you (as her characters often do).

Muse of Nightmares takes all those characters and gives them arcs you never would have dreamed of, mostly based on throwing them into even worse situations than you have imagined. And she adds a few more characters, because we need to understand how the gods got there and why they did what they did. Strange the Dreamer was about Lazlo and Sarai discovering themselves, and each other. Muse of Nightmares follows them but also dips into several other points of view as it answers why, and how, and WTF, and questions whether redemption is possible. When unthinkable things have been done to save people from even more unthinkable things, can there be forgiveness?

Minya is one of the best characters I've ever read. So broken. So strong. Can she be defeated? Can she be saved?

My other favourite character arc is Thyon Nero's. One of the many things Laini Taylor is great at is making all of her characters have agency, even the minor ones. She creates these ridiculously insoluble crises for her protagonists that you can't see how they can possibly get out of it, but you forgot about that other character who's been busy doing something you thought was irrelevant but turns out to be crucial and changes everything. Awesome plotting.

Since I can't say anything more specific about the plot, I'll just give you some favourite quotations:
... it spidered a crack through the atmosphere of threat.
... an affinity, a rush—like the turn of a page and a story beginning.
And when her hearts resumed beating, she imagined she could feel a spill of light into the veins that carried her spirit.
Lazlo's chances came without warning, and when they did, he didn't dither, and he didn't stop to pack.
[A character], earthbound, felt every choice he'd made, every action he'd taken, as a weight he carried with him. He wondered: Was it weight he could shed or throw off, or was it forever a part of him, as much as his bones and his hearts? 
Also, Laini Taylor is the absolute best chapter namer of anyone, ever:

  • From a Long Line of Indignant Nostrils
  • Like Eating Cake in Dreams
  • The Sea Stared Back
  • "Dead" Was the Wrong Answer
  • Like a Man Tearing Out His Own Beating Heart
  • Dread Was a Pale-Haired Goddess
  • Peace and Pastries
  • It Would Be Stranger If There Weren't Dragons 
And two quotations that probably define Laini Taylor best:
Even under dire circumstances, there is a unique pleasure in introducing the bizarre and inconceivable to others.
New dreams sprout up when old ones come true, like seedlings in a forest: a new generation of wishes.
Keep sprouting dreams for us, Laini. We need you in our brains!

Every once in a while I taste a cheese that makes my eyes roll back in my head it's so sharp but with so much depth and richness to the flavour; it does different things to every part of the tongue and keeps revealing new sensations as the after taste lingers. I tasted a cheese like that in Spain. Then they gave me a second piece with some quince jam spread on top, and my tongue and my brain exploded in much the same way as when I read this book. I just didn't know it was possible to taste/feel that much all at once. I'm still processing. (The book and the cheese!)

Monday, October 1, 2018

Cybils nominations are open!

It's official: the 2018 Cybils Awards have begun! You can now nominate your favourite kids/YA books of 2018. Yes, you, whoever you are! Here is the announcement page with all the categories you can nominate in. And here is the link to the nomination form.

Please nominate awesome books that deserve to get awards! And then go ahead and use the nominee lists to make your TBR pile even longer!

My job is to read as many of the YA Spec Fic nominees as I can and collaborate with my fellow Round 1 Judges to come up with a short list, from which the Round 2 judges will pick a winner next February. I will be posting quickie reviews of as many of the books I read as I can, so follow along, and feel free to weigh in on which books you loved. The more conversation that goes on, the better! That's what the awards are all about.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Dread Nation and Rebel Seoul: for all your action/adventure needs!

Cybils nominations are almost open! From Oct 1-15 you can nominate your favourite kid/YA books in a bunch of different categories. This year I'm a round 1 judge for YA Spec Fiction, so I'm trying to get a head start on reading the books I'm pretty sure will be nominated. And these two are definitely going to be nominated!

If you like adventure with a sci-fi flavour, set in a futuristic city with giant fighting robots, then have I got a book for you! Or if you prefer alternate-history fantasy with corsets and zombies, then I also have a book for you! (Not the same one. That would be, well, I guess that would be a time travel book, and I don't have one of those for you today!)

I've been looking forward to reading these two books for a while, because they have such awesome premises: Rebel Seoul, by Axie Oh, has a sort of 1984 dystopian vibe, with the world divided into constantly warring states, except it's more fun because GIANT FIGHTING ROBOTS! Ahem. (I would like to state for the record that I find the concept of giant fighting robots entirely ridiculous.)(End of disclaimer.) Our main character Jaewon grew up in a gang in Old Seoul, but he can escape all that if he excels at the military academy, (which appears to consist mostly of playing video games, so, yeah!) He's got a complicated past that I would like to have seen more of (prequel maybe?? hint, hint) but basically he's driven to succeed and he's pinned all his hopes on becoming a Neo Seoul soldier. But guess what: all is not shiny and bright in Neo Seoul. There's some unethical stuff going on about supersoldiers (something always goes wrong with supersoldiers: will dystopian governments never figure that out?)(except for Captain America, apparently. that one was fine for some reason??) and Jaewon ultimately has to decide where his loyalty lies. This one definitely reminded me of Marie Lu's Legend series: if you liked that one you need to check Rebel Seoul out.

Dread Nation, by Justina Ireland, hashes the American Civil War and slavery together with zombies and adds a cynical, short-tempered, zombie-slaying black narrator. There was no way this could not be good, and it was. As a young Negro in a post-slavery but terribly prejudiced zombie-overrun America, Jane is required to attend combat school and prepare to defend well-bred white ladies from the undead. Jane has opinions about this, but she is very good at her training. She's not very good at doing what she's told, however, and she gets sent to a scary utopian settlement (utopian for the white folks, that is) and meets even nastier people than the zombies. Many zombies are decapitated or otherwise killed in grisly ways; Jane kicks butt in zombie-slaying as well as in friend-rescuing and standing-up-for-justice; slavery and prejudice and institutionalized injustice are examined with the interesting perspective that zombies add. (For the record, zombies are an inherently ridiculous concept and I don't usually like the kinds of plots that they inevitably produce, but they do make great metaphors for whatever societal ills you happen to want to excoriate.) Jane is an entirely enjoyable narrator to ride along with: I particularly loved her letters home describing Miss Preston's School of Combat.

Both these books are wonderful at creating fascinating, unique, immersive settings. They also both have lots to say about economic and social disparities: the settings aren't just fun sandboxes to play in (though they are certainly that); they also point very pointed fingers at the inequities of our own world. In an entertaining, you-are-an-arrogant-bigot-so-I-will-blow-you-up kind of way.

Cliffhanger warning: not terrible cliffhangers, but these are both first books and the story continues! (Yay!)

Start thinking about the books you want to nominate: I can't wait to see what everyone thinks were the best books in 2018! (And being a round 1 judge means I have to read most of them, so that will be fun!)

Monday, September 17, 2018

Tess of the Road, by Rachel Hartman

I finally got around to reading Tess of the Road, and I don't know what took me so long! As usual, all the Bloggers I Trust were absolutely right: this is a fantastic, moving, meaningful book.

It's also a very hard book to talk about. It's not what you expect: it doesn't fit into any categories. It's a quest fantasy, sort of, but Tess has no idea what she's questing for. It's a coming-of-age story, but before Tess can come of age she has to overcome her childhood, which is not usually what fantasy coming-of-age is about. There is magic, but it looks more like religion—and oh, interesting and thought-provoking take on religion in general, which almost never happens, especially in fantasy. There are dragons, sort of, but not in the same way as in Seraphina. The one on the cover is metaphorical. There are lots of metaphors.

Okay, let's start with Tess. I loved Tess. She is so. messed. up. I wish I still had my copy of the book so I could find the amazing quotation about how she wouldn't just cut off her nose to spite her face, she'd ... (someone help me out here, it was such a great line!). Stubborn, angry, alcoholic, she's in so much pain and she is trying. so. hard. It just isn't working. Tess has been taught to hate herself, and she's doing an excellent job. She's difficult to read about, at first, because she's so frustrating. (Then she punches someone who really deserves it, and you're like, "yesssss! but noooooo, you shouldn't have done that!"

Tess finally runs away from her (mostly) quite horrible family. She has no idea where she's going; she's seriously contemplating suicide, but she isn't quite committed enough; she wakes up every morning and decides to "walk on" for one more day. Then she runs into her childhood friend, a quigutl named Pathka, and woah, quigutls have some interesting customs! And Pathka has some past trauma ko has to get over as well. (Ko is the non-gendered pronoun quigutls use.)(They have a very cool language, too.)

The plot seems random: Tess and Pathka are going down the road and meeting random strangers and doing random things. At one point Tess joins a road-building crew. (Pretty sure that's never happened in a quest fantasy before!) Pathka is looking for a mythical giant serpent, and Tess is like, sure, why not? Let's go look for something that might not exist. But then things start to come together in very satisfying ways. Tess is trying to forget her past, but every encounter she has brings up some memory, and gives her a new way to process it. She doesn't realize that she's on a quest for healing, but that's what starts to happen. It isn't easy. It's incredibly painful, actually. But she finds wisdom and grace and acceptance and she begins to reclaim herself. The fist-pumping that happens in this story is nothing to do with action and defeating enemies and all about interior journeys and defeating inner demons.

Don't give up on this book if you hate the beginning, with Tess's self-defeating flailing and the horrible women-hating religion and her awful, awful mother. All of these things are dealt with in surprising, nuanced and powerful ways. Motherhood, sisterhood, family, love—it's all turned inside out and held up to the light, and Tess comes away with some truth she can stand on, a woman she can be. (Oh, yeah, and she's disguised as a boy most of the time. There's some serious identity stuff going on!)

The writing is beautiful. I would quote endlessly if I still had my copy (I got it out of the library, but I'm going to buy the real book for myself because I like it that much, and that cover!) E.K. Johnson says Hartman can "kill your heart with her grammar" (which, by the way, is something Johnson is really good at, too!) and that's a great way to put it. There are some lovely, lovely, bits: wise or heartbreaking or numinous or just really funny. (If you love E.K. Johnson, you'll love Tess of the Road.)

Don't read it if you want flying dragons and, I don't know, anything typical of fantasy in general. Don't expect it to be a sequel to Seraphina and Shadow Scale: it's an entirely different book (Seraphina does show up in it, and it's great to see her, but it's not her story at all)(I want to re-read Seraphina now to see what it says about Tess: I don't remember her from it). Do read it if you like your fantasy to deal with real stuff in thoughtful, realistic ways, if you like characters who learn and grow and figure themselves out, if you like interesting, original fantasy worlds. (The more I read, the more I appreciate books that are interesting!)

I feel like I'm not conveying how much I liked Tess. I loved how different it was from expectations. Nothing was predictable; everything was fresh and surprising and fun. I'm making it sound painful but it's actually very funny most of the time. Tess is a mess but she's a compelling, hilarious narrator. Your heart breaks for her, but she could care less what you think! She makes you root for her all the way, and I loved where she ended up.

This is apparently book 1, and I can see where the sequel will go, but this had a satisfying ending. I will be happy to read more of Tess's adventures though!

Really dark chocolate with a flavour you wouldn't think would work with chocolate but somehow does. Maybe ginger? Or something less immediately identifiable. Cardamom, maybe, or black pepper.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

I just don't blog in the summer, but Murderbot is still awwwwwesome!!!!

This is what I do instead of blogging in the summertime:

I also tend to reread instead of reading new books. But when the latest Murderbot came out (which happened to be in the middle of a hiking trip, but at the tops of the mountains we had pretty good reception, so I was still able to download it. Kind of love the whole ebook thing*) I used up all my phone battery reading it in my tent. Murderbot: Rogue Protocol is every bit as fun and deep and heart-wrenchingly funny as the last two. "I hate caring about stuff. But apparently once you start, you can't just stop." And I just can't stop caring about Murderbot.

All Systems Red totally deserved its Hugo win. Lots of cool Hugo winners this year, actually. Lois McMaster Bujold got best series for World of the 5 Gods, much deserved. Did you see N.K. Jemisin's speech? Fantastic:

"I look to science fiction and fantasy as the aspirational drive of the zeitgeist." Damn, this woman can write.

* There are millions of books floating around in the sky, people, and you can stand on top a mountain and grab exactly the one you want. Is that not the coolest thing ever?? Imagine what Chaucer would think.

Monday, July 9, 2018

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, by Kij Johnson

I was going to do another middle-grade book, but that post got hijacked by this one. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe happened to be available on my library's e-book platform yesterday when I was waiting for a bus and had finished the book I had previously borrowed (and the bus still wasn't coming). I remembered hearing good things about it somewhere, so I clicked Borrow, and it instantly appeared on my phone! (I still haven't gotten over the instant appearance of books on my phone. Other crazy useful and amazing features I take for granted now, but Want Book. Click Button. Wait 5 Seconds. Have Book. will never get old!)(And thank goodness for library e-books, or Deplete Bank Account Without Noticing would soon be a thing!)

It only took two bus rides and a 40 minute ferry to finish the novella (I'm really liking the novella as a medium), and I just have to rave about it before I do anything else.

I loved this novella. I will happily read anything if I like being in the head of the main character, and I loved being in Vellitt Boe's head. Competent, intelligent, mature, responsible. Sensible. Willing to leave everything safe and comfortable to travel through an unpredictable and horrifically dangerous landscape so she can save what she values. (It helps that what she wants to save is education for women.)(Later the stakes get higher, but at the beginning she's willing to risk her life so that the Women's College doesn't close. I love this woman!) And she looks forward to the journey, she enjoys it, because that's the kind of person she is. A far-traveller.

Reminded me a lot of Rowan, Steerswoman. If you liked those books you'll like this one.

Part-way through there was something bothering me about the world-building, but I couldn't put my finger on what it was. The world is crazy-imaginative, gorgeously-weird, evocative, lush—but it's missing something, some dimensionalilty I couldn't define. It stood out because the characterization was so complete that it seemed odd the world wouldn't be equally filled-in.

I went to see what other people were saying about the story, and that's when I discovered that this is an homage to an H. P. Lovecraft story called "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath." Suddenly everything made sense.

I've never been tempted to read Lovecraft, but I've encountered his mythos and heard both the positive and negative things said about his writing. Wonderful, brilliant, and deeply flawed appears to be the consensus.

Johnson immerses us into the wonderful and brilliant, clearly highlights the flaws, and transforms the world through the eyes of Vellitt Boe so that the flaws become irrelevant. Lovecraft's apparently long-winded purple prose is evoked in Johnson's poetic (but much sparer) language. His self-absorbed, sexist characters are ever-so-lovingly, ruthlessly skewered by Vellitt's clear-sighted observation. His racism is just gone, because Vellitt treats every sentient being (and there are monsters: this is Lovecraft after all) as an individual judged on its own behaviour. (I loved the character of the gug.)

The conclusion of Vellitt's quest is epically satisfying on so many levels. I appreciated the novella for its clever reworking of the source material (still not tempted to read the source material!) but I also loved its character arc and plot resolution in and of themselves.

(In case I haven't convinced you to read this yet, how about positive, supportive female friendships? Yes? You don't realize how much you want to read them until you do and you're like, why is this so amazing? They're small but essential parts of the narrative.)

Immediately went looking for what else Kij Johnson has written, and—more instant reading material!—there's a short story on her website called "26 Monkeys, Also The Abyss" (which you have to read just for its title, right?). I LOVED THIS STORY! Gahh. No words. Just ... it's perfect. Going off to read more of her short stories now.

Kij Johnson is a lot like T. Kingfisher, as a matter of fact. So, so bloody refreshing! Icy cold glacier water rushing over rocks on its way down the mountain you just climbed.

Monday, June 25, 2018

MMGM: Hello, Universe, by Erin Entrada Kelly

I have been somewhat lacking in middle-grade reviews this year. As in, it's actually been more than a year since I reviewed a middle-grade book! (This is what you get from a blogger with no plan, no mandate, no way of organizing her reading except purest serendipity.) But I went to the children's section of my library yesterday, just to see what caught my eye, and I came home with a large stack of middle-grade reads, so maybe I can start rectifying that imbalance!

I opened Hello, Universe first, and it pulled me in right away. I loved Virgil, who thinks he's not just a failure but a Grand Failure, and I loved his relationship with his grandmother. Then I loved Valencia as soon as I met her, with her prayers to Saint Rene and her determination that she doesn't need friends. And Kaori the psychic and her little sister Gen were hilarious!

I've been hearing lots of good things about Erin Entrada Kelly for a while now, but her books are realistic fiction and I always think I don't enjoy realism as much, which is ridiculous, because there are books like this out there! The voices of the four characters (the fourth one isn't Gen, actually, but more on that in a minute) are spot on: each insecure in their own way, each with their own stories they tell themselves to explain the world and justify their own actions. Each lovable for the way they are trying to be their best selves, given what they've been taught that should look like.

There's so much going on in this book! Stories within stories: folk-tales Virgil's grandmother tells him, facts Valencia reads about the natural world, tidbits of spiritualism Kaori has gathered from various sources. It's delightful to see how each of them weaves a belief system out of the stories and knowledge they gather plus the values they absorb from their family plus their own interests and weaknesses, and how this belief system both helps and hinders them. All kinds of interesting psychology here!

The fourth POV character is perhaps the most interesting in terms of psychology: Chet is a bully, and his narrative explores some of the reasons why he treats others the way he does, a lot of which come from his father's attitudes and opinions. (In case you were worried, his father isn't abusive.) These chapters will be harder to read, particularly for kids who are bullied, because Chet belittles others in his mind before belittling them with his words. I didn't love Chet, but I came to understand him better: he, too, has stories he believes and insecurities he is trying to get around.

What's wonderful about this book is the way all four narratives interweave with each other, both physically, as the characters cross paths or interact or just miss each other, and thematically, as stories or facts from one narrative become relevant to another narrative. One of the pleasures of reading is making connections, and Kelly does a great job of laying out pieces and letting us put them together. I loved the theme that there are no coincidences: believing something is intended or fated gave these characters the courage to grab the moment, reach out and connect with each other.

I also loved the multiple, realistic diversities—ethnicity, culture, religion, physical ability—and the matter-of-fact way differences are introduced. And diverse parent-child relationships: sometimes loving parents aren't actually supportive, and each character here has a different sort of complicated relationship with their parent figures.

Turns out I really do like realistic books! I will be looking for Kelly's two other books that I've also heard good things about,  Blackbird Fly and The Land of Forgotten Girls.

Hello, Universe is raspberry rhubarb pie: sweet and tangy and complex, and very summery.

Greg Pattridge is now hosting Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday on his blog, Always In The Middle. Head over there every Monday to get loads of middle-grade recommendations.