Friday, March 20, 2015

New Lois McMaster Bujold book! (Coming 2016)

And it's about Cordelia! Squeee!

This is what I get for not opening Goodreads every day: I miss important announcements like this!

She doesn't say much, does she? Let the speculation begin! I, for one will be delighted to get back inside Cordelia's headspace, particularly if the book is set after Cryoburn. But, really, at any point in the timeline.

If you have no idea what I'm talking about, go read Cordelia's Honor (which is the two novels, Shards of Honor and Barrayar published together.) And never mind the blurb on Goodreads, it tells you nothing useful about the plot (to be fair, it's a difficult plot to summarize succinctly!). (I wrote a Very Long Post about Lois McMaster Bujold if you want more convincing to try her books.) Cordelia is just one of the best female protagonists I've ever read, and you deserve to get to know her.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

A few Spring Break reads

Had some plane time and some beach time last week, so I got a lot of reading done. Here are some quickie reviews (since I'll never get around to doing long ones!)

Once a Princess and Twice a Prince, by Sherwood Smith. If you've read Crown Duel and Stranger to Command and all four Inda books, and are looking for more, these are a light-hearted romp in the same world, similar time-period to Crown Duel, but in a different country. Pirates, disguises, nasty war leaders, a Merindar king (not sure how he's related to those other Merindars, but you know you can't trust him!), kidnappings and sword fights. If you've read other Sherwood Smith books, the characters and plot will feel very familiar, only less developed. Smith said she deliberately chose not to go darker and just to have fun with these books. I enjoyed them but wished she had gone further.

Stained Glass Monsters, by Andrea K. Höst. It has its flaws, but Höst's writing is always engaging and her worlds always fascinating. I liked both the POV characters: the orphan with magical potential thrown into events beyond her ken, and the accomplished mage with single-minded devotion to saving the kingdom, who takes the orphan under her wing against her better judgement.  Loved the idea of the Kellian—half human, half . . . demon? ish? utterly effective soldiers. The Eferum is a different take on a magical alternate world—spirit world? hell?

Sylvester, or The Wicked Uncle, by Georgette Heyer. Great fun. Has all the elements that make Heyer's Regency Romances so delightful: arrogant nobleman, feisty underappreciated heroine, cheerful friend, oppressive family, intolerable bore, running away from home, accidental kidnapping—and instead of her frequent humourous animals there is a really cute toddler (actually, there's a dog, too!). There's more and harsher bickering between the main characters, which makes some people like this one less, and maybe Phoebe gets a little more humiliated than she deserves, but as always the psychology of all the characters rings true.

Jinx's Magic, by Sage Blackwood. Thank goodness the third book is coming out in less than a week! This is the second book of Blackwood's dryly funny Jinx trilogy, and it sends Jinx out on his own to learn more magic and figure out how to save the Urwald from the Terror(s). People need rescuing, the Bonemaster is back; there are new friends who may or may not be trustworthy. And whose side is Elfwyn on, anyway? I love that Jinx can be cranky and jealous and ignorant, but he keeps trying to do right by his friends and the Urwald.

Countdown City, by Ben Winters. Second book in The Last Policeman trilogy. Pre-apocalyptic mystery novel: what would you do if the human race had only six months to live? Would you still try to solve crime? I liked this book almost as much as I liked the first one. I still loved Hank—he developed a bit more as a character, his stoic-ness was shaken considerably as society continues to collapse. I liked the further glimpses of the falling-apart world; the utopian state set up on a university campus was particularly diverting. I'm now quite curious as to what the author is going to do in the third book.

The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison. I adored this book. Court intrigue and coming-of-age in a very original, slightly steampunky fantasy world. Maia is an incredible character; he brought me to tears sometimes with his compassion and fortitude. He faces worse antipathy than Eugenides in The King of Attolia, and stands up to it with equal courage and more maturity. I think this one is marketed as adult; there's no reason YA or younger couldn't read it, but the lack of exciting sword fights, the details of politics and governance, the complicated names and relationships, might make it harder for younger readers to navigate.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Story of Owen, Dragon Slayer of Trondheim, by E. K. Johnston

The cover and the blurb of The Story of Owen were enough to make me pick it off the New shelf at the library. And lo and behold it's by a Canadian author, so double excitement!

I love the premise: imagine a world exactly the same as our world in every respect, except that it's infested with dragons. Not your wise, telepathic dragons, either; these are just pests, mindless, destructive, fire-breathing beasts, particularly dangerous to modern humanity because they are attracted to carbon emissions.

This book was funny with the kind of sly, satirical poking at society I really enjoy. Of course there are dragon slayers in this world (and there's a perfectly valid explanation for why dragons have to be killed single-handedly, with swords), and of course dragon slayers are required by international law to spend a certain amount of time defending oil fields, and when their Oil Watch tour of duty is over most of them are hired by big corporations or governments to defend big population centres. Leaving little towns like Trondheim, Ontario in the lurch:
When a dragon attacked you had to petition town hall (assuming it wasn't on fire), and they would send to Toronto (assuming the phone lines weren't on fire), and Queen's Park would send out one of the government dragon slayers (assuming nothing in Toronto was on fire). By the time the dragon slayer arrived, anything not already lit on fire in the original attack would be, and whether the dragon was eventually slayed or not, we'd be stuck with reconstruction. Again.
The juxtaposition of glorious dragon slaying with petty politics and bureaucracy hits my funny bone at just the right place. So does the incongruity of skinny adolescent Owen, who is failing algebra, as the latest in a long line of famous dragon slayers.

The story is narrated by Siobahn, a music student who is good enough at algebra to tutor Owen. His family asks Siobahn if she will be Owen's bard—a noble, traditional role that's been on the decline ever since the Beatles started singing songs that weren't about slaying dragons. Turns out the bardic job really means being a PR manager, because of course dragon slayers are celebrities and they want to be able to spin their publicity the right way. More juxtaposition of epic myth with modern reality. Johnston really gets our society, right in the solar plexus!

But you can't help rooting for Owen and his family, because they're just trying to do their job and do right by their town. Owen is courageous and competent and despite all evidence to the contrary he has faith in what he's doing, in the people he's protecting, and in Siobahn, who has her own courage and selflessness when it counts. We may have written off Michigan, but darn it we're not letting the dragons get southern Ontario!

I think some of the politics of dragon slaying might go over the head of younger readers, but there is plenty of sword-swinging action, and the developing friendship between Owen and Siobahn is a treat. (Very slight spoiler: they don't fall in love! How novel!) There are great, believable family dynamics, too.

The Story of Owen was loads of fun, intriguingly original, and very Canadian. The sequel just came out, and I think I'm going to buy it rather than waiting for the library to get it. It's worth owning.

It's like one of those fusion dishes that are so popular in restaurants now, where they take a traditional dish from one country and prepare it with ingredients or spices from a different tradition, and it ends up being really good in a surprising way and makes you look at both food traditions differently. Like butter chicken poutine. (Because, poutine. And butter chicken. And if you've never tried either, you should come to Canada and try them! Separately and together.)

This review counts as book 9 toward this year's Canadian Book Challenge. For more wonderful Canadian books, don't forget to visit John Mutford's blog, and check out all the reviewers who read way more than the minimum 13 Canadian books a year!

Monday, March 2, 2015

MMGM: Greenglass House, by Kate Milford, and Jinx, by Sage Blackwood

In which I confirm that Kate Milford is an author I love, and I discover a new author to devour with eagerness.

I'll be brief about Greenglass House, because several MMGMers have already reviewed it, and it's getting well-deserved attention. I'll just say books like this are why I read middle-grade fiction. Tightly-crafted story with characters as fun and eccentric as real people are, a setting full of the magic of loved objects and spaces, a protagonist who breaks your heart. Just look at that cover! Gorgeous art that perfectly captures the feeling of the book: the wintery atmosphere, the rambling old house with its mysterious nooks and crannies and storied windows—if you look at that house and wish you could visit it, then this is the book for you. It's a smuggler's inn! It's a house with history that fills up with all kinds of crazy guests with histories, and Milo our hero gets to explore the house and investigate the guests and discover the truth at the heart of all the stories.  Hot chocolate and shortbread by the fire with big fluffy snowflakes falling outside; I think I'll re-read Greenglass House every year at Christmas!

I picked up Jinx at my library because a few bloggers I trust were raving about it (Rachel Neumeier even compared it to Diana Wynne Jones, so that caught my eye!) I was not disappointed; this is a book worth raving about. And I'll even grant the DWJ comparison. Blackwood throws fairy tales and myths and superstitions in a jar and shakes them really hard so they get all broken up and mixed together, and then she sprinkles the jar over a big, sentient forest, and hovers over it to find out what happens. A boy named Jinx gets rescued from a stepfather and a few trolls by a wizard who says he doesn't want to eat him, so Jinx goes to live in his stone castle-house full of cats and locked doors. I loved Jinx right from the start: he's no fool, he knows the world is dangerous, he knows how to keep his head down and avoid attracting unwanted attention, but he's no coward. He's determined to get through the locked doors and learn enough magic so he can safely step off the Path. I was completely sold on the story when Sophia showed up (no spoilers as to who she is, but I love her interactions with Simon). There's a lot of humour, both Jinx's dry wit as he deals with a truly inhospitable world, and Blackwood's playfulness with tropes and expectations. It's also a story with heart about an orphan lost in the woods who learns to make his own path; Blackwood takes that age-old story and makes it entirely fresh and surprising. (Warning: this isn't a stand-alone. I'm heading to the library asap to get the sequel!) Something with blackberries in it: tart and sweet and worth all the thorns, just like the Urwald. Blackberry cobbler, I think.

Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday is the brilliant idea of Shannon Messenger, who hosts collections of middle-grade reviews on her blog every Monday. (Except this Monday, because she's sick. Get well soon, Shannon!)