Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Lost Conspiracy, by Frances Hardinge

This is a really, really good book, and you must read it. Go see if your library has a copy. Even quicker, it's on Kindle and it's cheap (by its original title, Gullstruck Island). (No, I don't get a cut of every sale!)

I don't want to tell you anything about the plot, because I don't want to give anything away. This is a book about secrets and lies, conspiracies and betrayals, murder and revenge. It's also about family and loyalty and myth and redemption. It's dark but it has a light heart.

Here is our first glimpse of our heroine:

As it happened, the girl supporting Arilou had a name too. It was designed to sound like the settling of dust, a name that was meant to go unnoticed. She was as anonymous as dust, and Skein gave her not the slightest thought.
Neither would you. In fact, you have already met her, or somebody very like her, and you cannot remember her at all.
If that doesn't give you a frisson of anticipation about the coming story, then I give up on you entirely!

The Lost Conspiracy is set on a marvelous volcanic tropical island. On this island and nowhere else, some children are born with the ability to send their senses out of their body independently, so they can see, hear, taste, touch, and smell things at a far distance. Before they learn to control this ability, they are often absent from their bodies, so a child who has trouble walking or talking or who doesn't seem to connect with their surroundings might be disabled or they might be Lost. Arilou is one such child. She and her younger sister (oh, have I not mentioned her name yet? I must have forgotten. Hardinger doesn't even tell us until Chapter 2) get caught up in an island-wide plot masterminded by a man with no face, that threatens all of the Lost and all of Arilou's kin.

The richness of Hardinge's fantasy setting reminds me a lot of Laini Taylor. Flitterbirds peck at your shadow and when they fly away they unravel your soul with them. The volcanoes King Fan and Lord Spearhead are rivals for the affection of a third volcano, Lady Sorrow. Implacable bounty hunters, called Ashwalkers, gain strength and protection by dyeing their clothes in the cremation ashes of the criminals they catch. The original inhabitants of the island, the Lace, have become outcasts, because when settlers first built a town in the valley between two volcanoes, the Lace kidnapped townspeople and sacrificed them to turn away the volcanoes' wrath (and save the town). The Reckoning is a secret group of Lace who have sworn to take revenge for murderd kin: they get a half a butterfly tattoo on one arm when they take the oath, and the other half of the tattoo on the other arm when they complete their vengeance.

It's not always easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys; in fact, not a single character is what he or she first appears to be. But at the end, right and wrong are clear and everyone gets their true name. (Oh, right. The heroine's name. It's Hathin.)

Hardinge's prose is jungle-lush and full of imagery: "they swung into battle like leaves on a water eddy"; "the king of tricks hatched in Hathin's brain like a baby dragon"; "a young child's despairing cry drew its serrated edge across Hathin's soul." All the strands of myth and symbol come together in a very satisfying way when the nameless girl defeats the faceless man.

Have I convinced you yet? I've read one other book by Hardinge: Fly By Night. It was pretty good, too; also had an interesting fantasy world with conspiracies and secret organizations and a nobody heroine (named after a housefly). I'm going back to the library to pick up Verdigris Deep, also known as Well Witched. And I just checked out Hardinge's amusing webpage.

The Lost Conspiracy is like a dish I had in Hawaii: mahi-mahi crusted with macademia nuts in a lime/coconut-milk sauce served with mango-pineapple salsa. (Oh, I really want to go back to Hawaii!)

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Monster Blood Tattoo, Book 1, The Foundling, by D. M. Cornish

Imagine a world where the oceans are vinegar, the wilds are infested with monsters of all shapes and sizes, and chemists are people who develop monster-killing compounds. It's a world that has elements of 18th century Holland and a hint of steampunk and a great deal of adventure potential. Cornish is brilliant at world-building, endlessly inventive in his details and gorgeously evocative with his language. A vinegaroon is a sailor, one who plies the vinegar seas. A lahzar is a person who has had their body surgically altered to give them unusual monster-fighting powers, like the ability to throw electricity. A monster blood tattoo is an image of a monster that you killed, using the monster's blood as ink. That is just . . . wicked.

Now into this world throw an orphan boy with a girl's name: Rossamund, the Foundling of the title. He is earnest, bookish and sensitive, but eager to go out into the world and find his place in it. His straightforward plans get derailed, of course, and the rest of the book is one adventure after another as he tries his best to get where he's supposed to go. Some fantasy novels (particularly those written by artists (Cornish began his career as an illustrator)) have characters and plots that are merely an excuse to go wandering around the wonderful fantasy world. Not this one. Rossamund is a compelling protagonist and we are completely invested in his story. The world, rich as it is, unfolds as the necessary backdrop to Rossamund's trials, not as the primary interest of the novel. The supporting characters are all complex and fascinating, and there are mysteries yet to be explained.

Cornish's illustrations are wonderful, conveying a sense of both the characters and the atmosphere.
This is the cover image I found on the web; not the cover of the book I bought, which is dark red-brown with several character portraits. This one is the new North American edition of the series, which, if you look closely, is now called The Foundling's Tale, not Monster Blood Tattoo. I suppose that since librarians and parents are the most likely purchasers of the books, the publishers thought Monster Blood Tattoo might be too off-putting. (If it were 12-year-old boys with the disposable income, there's no question which title is more appealing!)

I'm trying to think of something comparable to Monster Blood Tattoo, but there really isn't anything else like it. You might enjoy it if you like steampunk, even though it isn't steampunk. It's probably the same reading level and similar adventure-style as the Septimus Heap books. There are horror elements, but I was never biting my nails in anxiety. Although it is a dark world and a dark story, there is a certain humour underlying it all. Cornish might just be doing a little satirizing here and there.

I'm going to call this book a thin-crust wood-oven pizza with spinach, garlic, roasted red peppers, pineapple, and feta. Original, multi-flavoured and quite delicious. (Feel free to substitute your own gourmet pizza combination if you don't like mine. Just don't make it pepperoni green pepper extra mozza.)

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

We interrupt this blog to bring you: The Kneebone Boy

Yes, I am still working on my review of Foundling, but while I was in the library picking up Monster Blood Tattoo 2, Lamplighter, I noticed that Ellen Potter's The Kneebone Boy was available. I've been looking out for this one, so I picked it up. I just opened it to get a taste, you know, read the first page, see what I'm in for. Well, the Hardscrabble children grabbed me by the throat and wouldn't let me go. I was enjoying it all the way through, and then came the ending and I was blown away. This is a seriously good book!

But I'm not going to review it now because there's a whole queue of book reviews to do first. This is just a teaser!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A cool photographer

Got lots of reading done in Hawaii! Brought a bunch of e-books on my iPod--though it turns out that e-books aren't the best choice for beach reading (the sun's too bright!) Four of the books I read were the first books of series--what was I thinking?!

I'm working on a review of Foundling, first book in the Monster Blood Tattoo series by D. M. Cornish. I'm reviewing this one first because I now have my hands on Book 2 so I want to immerse myself back into this world. Foundling is 312 pages of text with another 120 pages of appendices--so when I say "immerse" I'm talking ocean rather than bathtub. (Book 2 is even bigger--have you seen it? 500-odd pages not including the appendices.) Cornish apparently spent more than 10 years developing the world of the Half Continent, and it's a completely original fantasy setting. Everyone compares him to Tolkein (appendices, anyone?), and I think it's quite justifiable--but don't think the Half Continent is anything like Middle-Earth.

That's just to whet your appetite. In the meantime check out this photographer. I discovered him in a magazine in the hotel room, but he's Canadian. I love the balloons; they're just so random, and yet somehow right.