Thursday, July 31, 2014

Two more by Sherwood Smith

I adored Crown Duel and the Inda books, so I was eager to read more Sherwood Smith. These two are YA reads that deliver trademark Sherwood Smith royal fantasy. Delicious stuff, and great summer reads.

A Posse of Princesses is as light-hearted and fun as the title implies. It's a great fairy-tale/princess/adventure story that plays with fairy tale and princess stereotypes and gives us not one but several different kinds of strong female characters (some of them can handle a sword, but that's not the only way to be a heroine, is it?). Princess Rhis finally gets to leave her boring mountain kingdom because a neighbouring prince is having a big party to pick his future bride. Great excuse for lots of high-school-style drama (except with gowns and servants and castle stuff, so, you know, way better!) and political intrigue, and no one does this better than Smith. Then there's a kidnapping, so, adventure. But really it's all about Rhis discovering friendship, confidence, love (as opposed to infatuation), and maturity. Enjoyably fluffy but with Smith's trademark well-developed characters and moral centre so it feels more substantial.

Blackberry-peach cobbler (freshly-picked blackberries—you should still have the scratches on your arms—and peaches from a fruit stand, as local as possible, the tiniest bit of sugar, dash of vanilla, and simple biscuit topping. Eaten warm with blackcurrant cream gelato (because I had some in the freezer).

Lhind the Thief is a little more serious: lots of fast-paced adventure, and still a YA sensibility, but Lhind is a deeper, more mysterious character. She doesn't know who she is, she only knows she can't trust anyone, must hide her differences or risk imprisonment or death. When she does get captured she has to learn to work with people who may actually be worthy of trust, but who have their own agenda. There's a Norsunder-level bad guy* (these books aren't set in Sartorias-Delas like Crown Duel and Inda, but they might as well have been; the world feels very similar**) and some realistic character development as Lhind tries to figure out who the good guys are and whether she's one of them. The cover for this one seems to be copying Megan Whalen Turner's Thief series, but this book ranks up there with Turner's books, so I have no problem with the homage!

Cardamom-spiced apple hand pies. I just made that up, because it seems like something Lhind might have nicked from a market stand, but it sounds really good, so I think maybe I'll try making some! (And there's even a recipe out there already.)

I think it's hard to find paper copies of most of Sherwood Smith's books, but you can get the ebooks on Book View Cafe.

* ie: super powerful creepy wizard-type
** I was quite sure one of the characters in Posse was Marloven.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Eternal Sky trilogy, by Elizabeth Bear

I haven't been inspired to blog much lately: a lot of books I've started but not finished, or finished but not been very excited about, and when the weather is lovely and the garden needs constant attention, a book has to be pretty exciting to drag me into the basement to write about it.

But I forgot I hadn't written about this series, which I finished last month. (And it's so hot outside that the basement is a cool, pleasant place to be right now!)

I tend to avoid adult fantasy because it's all the same—please, no, not another inn! YA has been a refuge and a nurse log for original thinkers because it's creating itself as a genre and doesn't have all the weight of Tolkien (May He Live Forever) resting on it. When I discover a truly original adult fantasy I have to jump up and down and shout about it.

Range of GhostsShattered Pillars, and Steles of the Sky  are truly original, epic, adult fantasy. (And this trilogy would be fine for YA audiences, as well*.)

The setting is fantastic, in all the meanings of that word. It's based on Asia: not just part of Asia, but the whole thing: deserts, steppes, mountains, jungles and fabulous, colorful empires that sound a little like Mongol, Persian, Chinese, Russian and lots of other cultures I don't even know about, but with new and fascinating magic and gods. So intriguing and interesting and well-developed! Here's Elizabeth Bear talking about how she deliberately set out to write something not Euro-centric:

I wanted these books to focus on the cognates of cultures that epic fantasy so often marginalizes–those mysterious Easterners, usually portrayed as a swarthy, untrustworthy threat on the borders of our heroes’ empire.

As a Euro-descended Westerner raised on Celtic and German fairy tales, I found it delightfully refreshing to read a novel that is completely different. And so imaginative! Not just one original magic system, but a different one for every country, with rituals and language and trappings that might be inspired by Buddhist or Hindu or Islamic imagery but are entirely new. World-building rests in the details, and the world of Eternal Sky is full of evocative objects with symbolic potential. Here is Bear talking about all the different kinds of books in her world, including books that blind those who read them. (No spoilers, but oh, that concept creates a plot thread that will wring your emotions and hang them out to dry!)

Rich and varied characters inhabit this wondrous world, and we get to meet them and learn each of their histories and secrets.  Temur, heir to the Padaparashna Seat, who stumbles off a battlefield with a remarkable horse, and then has to figure out what he's going to do about having survived.  Once-princess Samarkar, the wizard who gave up her fertility to find her magic, and then finds love. Edene, the steppe warrior-girl who starts off needing rescuing and ends up . . . well, I don't want to spoil it, so I won't say, but it's not where you expect her to end up! By the end, I think Smarkar and Edene have taken over as main characters from Temur, and I love their character arcs.

I love all the strong women: Hrahima the warrior tiger-woman who refuses to believe in her god; Yangchen, ambitious second wife of an emperor. Tsering-la, wizard without magic. Bear is obviously trying to upend gender stereotypes, and she does it gloriously. Take note, authors: we want more characters like these ones! (Kudos to Bear for showing nursing mothers going about their business as if having a baby was no hindrance—but I had to laugh at the idea of strapping a baby on your back and riding into battle. Babies would somewhat hinder that business.)

The love stories are brilliant: flawed, confused people cleaving together with the best of intentions and behaving maturely about it even when it gets complicated. Love that focuses more on tenderness than passion--oh, how refreshing!

There are all kinds of subplots that could have been novels in their own right—I did sometimes forget who people were, and I thought some of the subplots were tied up a bit too quickly or not really tied up at all, but it all added to the richness of the world.

Bear's writing is gorgeous, every sentence a pleasure to read, every description vivid and sensual.
This—this was how empires ended. With the flitting of wild dogs in the dark and a caravan of moons going dark one by one.
I can't forget to mention the animals, both real and fantastic: wonderfully depicted. Great dragons.

I will be searching out Bear's other writing (I have read the first book of her Jacob's Ladder trilogy, which was brilliant and fascinating and original and I didn't understand it at all. Maybe I should try again . . .) There are two novellas set in The Eternal Sky's world, so going to look for those now. (And apparently there will be more novels—not sequels, but same world.)

The Eternal Sky trilogy is a really good Thai curry: maybe a yellow curry with chicken and potatoes. Sweet with coconut milk, spicy, satisfying, and redolent with cilantro and lemon grass.

*The characters are adults and deal with issues such as childbirth and politics, which YA tends to leave alone, but the sex is off-stage, and the violence is realistic (there's a war going on) but not gory or gratuitous.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Happy Canada Day!!

Actually this is in Kananaskis Provincial Park,
but it's right next door to Banff
Yay Canada! Yay picnics in the park and bands playing music by the beach and people wearing red and white, and knowing that there are parades and fireworks going on (even though we don't really enjoy parades or fireworks so we don't go).

Some things I love about Canada:

Anne of Green Gables
Banff National Park
The Group of 7

I know, I know, those are all pretty typical. But they're still great, and I can say I grew up with them; they shaped who I am.

St John's, Newfoundland
The Arrogant Worms
The Trans Canada Highway (which I've driven in its entirety. Twice.)
Newfoundland (where I lived for a wonderful year)
Douglas Coupland
Terry Fox, and the fact that he is pretty much our biggest hero (every elementary kid knows who he is).
We love laughing at ourselves
Our political discourse is boring. Boring is good in politics!
We have really good Thai food (that's what we had tonight). And Italian food and Vietnamese food and Indian food and Russian food and Ethiopian food and  . . .  Let's hear it for multiculturalism!

Anyone else have things they love about Canada to share?

So June passed me by completely (I was in the garden picking strawberries all month)(I swear, it's true! I suffered from "eyes bigger than my stomach" syndrome when I planted two huge beds of strawberries, and I ended up with way more strawberries than I knew what to do with!). But in failing to blog in June I managed to miss the deadline for the Canadian Book Challenge this year, and I was only one book short! The worst thing is that I had actually read the thirteenth book, but was too deep in strawberries to get around to reviewing it. So, one day late, here's my final Canadian book of the year:

Half a Crown, by Jo Walton, is the conclusion to her Small Change trilogy. Set in an alternate history in which Britain made peace with Hitler and is sliding slowly but surely into fascism, the three books are fascinating and horrifying in equal measure. Inspector Carmichael is the hero (anti-hero?) again, and again he shares the narration with a naive girl who at first accepts what's going on because everyone else does, but then gradually realizes how wrong it is. The tension created by the alternating narratives is again brilliant. I hesitated to read this trilogy, because the premise sounded really depressing, but Walton is a compelling writer, and she does a wonderful job of drawing you into the world through the characters, and showing how individual moral choices are affected by and affect the moral choices of a society. Really worth reading. The dense, chewy texture of a real Montreal bagel with a complementary sharp/creamy shmear of Winnipeg cream cheese. (More things I love about Canada!)

John Mutford has way more great Canadian reads on his blog, The Book Mine Set, where he hosts the Canadian Book Challenge every year. I will do better next year, I promise!