Sunday, October 28, 2012

Sherwood Smith's amazing fantasy world

Whew! I'm finally finished all four of Sherwood Smith's Inda books. (When you download ebooks, you don't get a sense of how long they are: you don't get that satisfying heft of a thick book.) Now I can finally be productive again. (I've done pretty much nothing else but read for a week and a half, because they were so compelling.)

Sherwood Smith's name isn't as well-known as Robin McKinlay, Megan Whalen Turner, Orson Scott Card--but it should be. She has the ability of all the best fantasists: to make a world and a set of characters leap off the page and take residence in your brain, until you're quite certain you could buy a ticket and go visit, if only you could find the right train platform. What's unique about Sherwood Smith is that she has been working on the world of Sartorias-Deles since she was eight years old. I think she's actually been there. (My pet theory is that Smith is really a Norsundrian mage, and that's how she can skip through Sartorias-Deles's history observing everything and everyone.)

That's the strength and the weakness of Smith's Sartorias-Deles books: they read as if they were real history. The characters behave like real people, with all their contradictions and infuriating motivations; and the plots fit into a larger scope, so there are things that may not make sense in the current story, but that's what actually happened, historically. She has essentially an entire planet worked out, with political, magical, cultural and linguistic histories of probably 20 different countries. (Just go here and look at the map she's developed, and understand that for every country on that map she knows what their language sounds like, what their architecture and fashion looks like, what their food tastes like, not to mention the strengths and weaknesses of their political and military systems.)

So where should you start? So far I've only read the Inda books and Crown Duel/A Stranger to Command. I loved both sets of stories equally, but they do appeal to different readerships.

If you read my blog because you like all the YA and MG books I tend to like, then you should definitely read Crown Duel. (Make sure you get the version that includes Court Duel: they used to be published separately but the latest version of Crown Duel has both. Also, there's some awesome extra material at the end of my ebook that I don't know is there in the print version, so there's a good reason to get an e-copy. (Besides the fact that there aren't a lot of real books around.))

Meliara is one of the original kick-ass heroines (along with Harry and Aerin from Robin McKinley's Damar books, and Tamora Pierce's Alanna). The great thing about Meliara is that she's real. Sure, she's taken swordfighting, but she's not actually that good at it. She's idealistic and determined to right the wrongs in her country, but she's a little ignorant about politics and maybe doesn't make the best choices. She's got spunk--which gets her into more trouble than it gets her out of. And she's stubborn--which can be a good thing, but not always. But she has enough humility to recognize when she's wrong, and she wins everyone's hearts because of her honesty and courage.

The first half of the book (the original Crown Duel) is fighting and getting captured and escaping and being chased; the second half (Court Duel) is set at court (duh) with intrigue and plots and secrets and stuff. I'm not even going to mention the second main character, because you have to discover him for yourself. (Let's just say this is the best kind of romance: where the characters don't even know it's a romance until it's almost too late!) And when you do discover him, you'll be as anxious as I was to read A Stranger to Command, which is his coming-of-age story. (I'm not giving you a link, because I don't want you to go find out who he is before you read Crown Duel.) Then once you've read that, you'll want to read more about Sartorias-Deles, and find out about those mysterious Norsundrians.

I haven't read all the Sartorias-Deles stories Smith wrote when she was younger. They're not as polished, so I think I'll have to be in the right mood for them. (I will read them, because there are so many unanswered questions!) I decided to try the "historical" novels, which are set 400 years before Crown Duel.

If you're an adult* who likes really epic (ie: long and complicated) military fantasy, if you can handle lots of shifts of point of view, and if you don't mind being confused at the beginning as an entire social/military/political system with its own jargon is gradually revealed to you, then you'll like Inda and its sequels. The story begins with a ten-year old boy being sent to military academy. There's an Ender's Game-like section at the academy (which will be familiar to you if you read A Stranger To Command). Then Inda gets exiled and we enter the pirate phase of the story (I know: pirates!) Inda is very much an Ender-type of character, a brilliant strategist and a born leader who endures incredible suffering and remains good (kind, loyal, fair, unarrogant). He's the hero who doesn't recognize his own heroism. He and his group of loyal friends have all kinds of adventures culminating in great battles (both land and sea) against the invading Venn. The plot is epic, vast, with threads and characters going all over the place, but you care about all the characters. You care about Inda--oh, he breaks your heart! He's now up there with Miles Vorkosigan, Horatio Hornblower, Harry Dresden, Eugenides--as my current favourite noble, scarred heroes.

So far everything of Sherwood Smith that I've read is going to stay in my iPod for future escape-out-of-the-universe, fall-in-love-with-the-characters, can't-put-the-story-down comfort reading. And she's got a whole whack of other books I haven't even looked at yet. (But I have to pace myself: one must occasionally be productive.)

Since I can smell it now (I just took it out of the oven) and it is the best thing ever, I'm going to compare Sherwood Smith's books to Upside-down Buttermilk Pear Cake (which is also supremely scrumptious with plums instead of pears). To die for. I'm going to go have a piece right now. Then I think I'm going to download The Trouble With Kings. Or maybe The Spy Princess. Oops, I mean, I'm going to go be productive. Seriously.

*There's quite a bit of violence in the Inda books, though no gratituous gore, and definitely lots of sex--not graphic, but you know what's going on behind the bedroom door, and it's often pretty interesting. (Let's just say that there's probably no Marlovan word for "monogamy.")

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Scorpio Races and Grave Mercy

Carnivorous horses and assassin nuns: what's not to like! (I'm actually very mild-mannered and I hate conflict. Really, truly.)

I have to start by confessing that I'm not a huge Maggie Stiefvater fan. At least, I wasn't until now. The Scorpio Races grabbed me with its sharp teeth and carried me out to drown into a stormy sea. Everything about this book was vivid and compelling. The island, with its scent and its storms and its modern mask over an ancient culture revolving around the water horses. The capaill uisce themselves, terrifying, unpredictable, horse-like but so not horses. (They were so convincingly frightening that I had trouble believing that Puck would actually race them--my one quibble about the plot.) I loved the two characters who alternate telling the story: mysterious, skilled, respected-but-not-liked Sean, and fierce, desperate, angry Puck. I loved the romance, nicely understated and full of conflict, because they both really need to win.

The Scorpio Races is about carnivorous horses who come ashore only on this island and are captured for the annual race, which has mythic significance beyond what the tourists recognize. But really it's about the people, their relationship to the horses, to the island, and to each other. No, that sounds boring. It's about  dreaming, longing for something that is denied. It's about taking huge risks and making huge sacrifices. No, that doesn't adequately convey it. I can't really explain what it's about. It just oozes with atmosphere and intensity. Maggie Stiefvater writes beautifully. Her previous novels (about werewolves and fairies) just weren't that interesting to me, but this one was meaty and satisfying. Steak and mushroom pie.

Assassin nuns. I have to say it again, because, really. Why has no one else come up with this concept? (Maybe they have and I just don't know about it: if so you have to tell me what I've been missing!) Grave Mercy is Robin LaFevers first book about girls from the convent of St. Mortain, otherwise known as Death. They are trained to be His Fair Assassins and carry out his will, which appears to be saving Bretony from those treacherous French, so once Ismae is trained in all the cool ways there are to kill people she gets to dress all pretty and sneak around court looking for spies to assassinate. I liked the idea of Mortain. I liked the spying, the girl kicking the butt of arrogant men, the romantic tension between Ismae and the guy she doesn't know if she can trust. Grave Mercy was entertaining--not as good as Sherwood Smith or Megan Whalen Turner, but along the same lines. I think there is a lot of potential in the premise that LaFevers can still explore, so I'm going to read the next book in hopes that she does more with the depths that Grave Mercy hints at. This book was a mocha cream puff.

In the meantime, I had to go and reread Sherwood Smith's Crown Duel, because she does such a good job of the romance between people who don't trust each other. And because it's just so good. And then I had to read more Sherwood Smith, so I downloaded the Inda books. When I emerge, gasping, into the real world again, I'm going to devote a whole post to Sartorias-delas.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Legend, by Marie Lu

Yikes. How is it halfway through October already? I've got a backlog of books to blog about, so let's get right to it.

Characters. It's all about the characters, people. You can create the most fascinating fantasy world or the most devastating dystopia. I won't give a rat's eyeball about it if I don't care about the characters.

Marie Lu could give a master class on creating compelling characters. (Sorry, I think I'm coming down with the alliteration virus. I'll try to hold it in check.) Here's how Legend opens:
My mother thinks I'm dead.
Well, that catches my attention. Not only that, but "it's safer for her to think so." Why? Day is a notorious wanted criminal, "wanted for assault, arson, theft, destruction of military property, and hindering the war effort." I like him already! Then we find out he's hiding in an abandoned building that overlooks his home, waiting until the soldiers are finished going through the neighborhood so he can sneak down and leave a gift of food and useful items he's stolen, because it's his older brother's birthday. Oh! Wrench my heart and make me completely love the guy!

Then we meet the second main character. June is waiting to see the dean because she's in trouble again: she snuck out of school to "scale the side of a nineteen-story building with a XM-621 gun strapped to [her] back." This puts her in a class above your typical spunky heroine. Why did she do this? "My afternoon drills aren't teaching me enough about how to climb walls while carrying weapons." Yeah, mine neither. "Rumor has it that Day once scaled five stories in less than eight seconds." Oh ho. June is training to be the best possible soldier for the Republic, and she would love nothing better than to be the one to capture Day.

Do we have conflict? Two compelling characters set on a collision course in a pretty scarey world of tromping soldiers, crumbling cityscape, and plague. You're not going to tear this book out of my hands.

You may be getting a little tired of dystopian YA. It can be horribly grim, and a lot of the books out there are less interesting than they think they are. But Legend is an example of why the genre became so popular in the first place. Okay, I'll say it: a worthy successor to The Hunger Games. There's a sequel, but it's not a horrible cliffhanger ending. There's just lots more story to tell.

Legend is a big, juicy burger with all the fixings. Meaty and flavorful. (It's told from alternating points of view; that's what made me think layers, therefore burger. It makes sense, trust me.)