Monday, February 29, 2016

MMGM: Oh, yeah, the Cybil's winners!

How is it already the end of February?? Happy Leap Year, by the way! What are you going to do with your extra day?

It's kind of old news by now, but in case you missed it, the Children's and Young Adult Bloggers' Literary Awards winners were announced a couple of weeks ago. I was on the panel that had to pick the Middle-Grade Spec Fic winner, and it was a difficult task, let me tell you! Just take a look at this shortlist! I'm going to highlight each of the books on the shortlist in coming posts, because I loved many of them and liked them all.

But to begin with, the book everyone on the panel agreed was a sure-fire hit, with lots of kid appeal, an original premise, great characters, and a fascinating speculative world that says a lot about our own world: The Fog Diver.

Imagine we came up with a way to get rid of all our pollution by building tiny self-replicating robots to eat it. (Nanites! They're going to solve everything! A great sci-fi trope that I haven't yet seen in children's fiction.) Of course, something goes wrong, and now there's a toxic nanite fog covering almost all of the earth's surface, and humans can only live clustered at the tops of mountains.

So, of course, they get around in airships. (Airships! Inherently awesome! Especially if they look just like pirate ships, because (physics aside) of course we would build airships that look like pirate ships.) Since there aren't too many resources available at the tops of mountains, people have to dive into the toxic fog to find food and other useful stuff down on the surface. But they can only do it for so long before they get sick and die. So, of course, it's poor orphans who do most of the diving, because they have no choice.

I love the socio-economic commentary that underlies the world-building here and ties in with the plot. We have a group of poor orphans—excellent protagonists for a middle-grade adventure—facing off against exploitative land-owners (poor people don't actually get to live on the mountaintops: the slums are floating rafts that collect all around the land. If people don't pay their rent, the slum landlords cut their balloons so their shack falls to the earth. A great metaphor for the precarious position of the poor.)

Then there's the hero, Chess, who doesn't get sick when he dives into the fog. What makes Chess different is one of the mysteries that propel the plot—protagonist with a secret, another excellent trope well-used here. And Chess's crew is a great team: the book blurb almost makes them sound like caricatures, but they are all well-developed characters whose interactions were fun and believable. (They reminded me of the Firefly crew, actually, and that's high praise.)

The action is fast-paced, the stakes are high and plausible, all the characters develop over the course of the book. One plot arc comes to a satisfying close, but there is more story to be told, and I for one am eagerly anticipating the second book coming out this year. It's a world and characters I want to return to.

For more Marvelous Middle-Grade selections, every Monday check out Shannon Messenger's magnificent blog.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Waiting on Wednesday: Every Heart a Doorway

I know it's Thursday. But lots of you do the Waiting on Wednesday meme, and I just ran into a book that I am now desperate to read, and I couldn't wait until next Wednesday to tell you about it. (And Waiting on Thursday just doesn't sound the same.)

Look at that cover, that gorgeous, gorgeous cover. And the title! Squeezes my insides. But the premise is the kicker:

Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere… else. But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.
Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced… they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world. But Nancy’s arrival marks a change at the Home. There’s a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it’s up to Nancy and her new-found schoolmates to get to the heart of things.
I am a quivering mass of desperate need for this book. Why is it not April yet?

Oh, and Tor has an excerpt from it, in case you needed more convincing: Every Heart a Doorway. Here are a couple of my favourite lines:

There was still something unfinished around her eyes; she wasn’t done yet. She was a story, not an epilogue.

“Because hope is a knife that can cut through the foundations of the world,” said Sumi. Her voice was suddenly crystalline and clear, with none of her prior whimsy. She looked at Nancy with calm, steady eyes. “Hope hurts. That’s what you need to learn, and fast, if you don’t want it to cut you open from the inside out. Hope is bad. Hope means you keep on holding to things that won’t ever be so again, and so you bleed an inch at a time until there’s nothing left. Ely-Eleanor is always saying ‘don’t use this word’ and ‘don’t use that word,’ but she never bans the ones that are really bad. She never bans hope.” 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Special Guest Danika Dinsmore! on her Narine of Noe Blog Tour

Today we get an author interview AND a book excerpt!

I am very excited to help promote the fourth book in Danika Dinsmore's Faerie Tales from the White Forest series. These are great middle-great adventures about a magical world full of fascinating creatures. Here are my reviews of Brigitta of the White Forest, The Ruins of Noe, and Ondelle of Grioth.

In Narine of Noe, Danika does one of my favourite things: she takes us back in time to to learn the truth about the Ancients and the devastating events that destroyed their world. Narine is a young fairy who thinks she knows her destiny, but when everything she knows is turned upside-down she is suddenly left on her own to figure out how to save the world.

Here's how Danika Dinsmore answered my questions about the book and about herself:

You’ve said that you have a six-book series planned out. Was a prequel always included in that plan? What made you decide to go back 1000 years and tell this story at this stage in Brigitta’s journey?

The prequel was not actually part of the original plan. The idea crept up on me as I was writing the first three books, because I had had to come up with so much back story for those books. As the back story became more and more vivid, I realized it, too, needed telling. 

I honestly can’t say why I decided to write it in the middle of the series. I just knew it was the right time, and I tend to trust my intuition. I think it provides a lot of answers that are important before Brigitta's journey continues. It also helps us realize what great sacrifice the Ancients made and what's at stake if Brigitta should fail in reuniting Faweh. 

Ruins are so cool and evocative. Brigitta visits the Ruins of Noe in book 2, and now in book 4 we get to see what Noe was like. Have you visited any real-life Earth ruins? If you had a time machine, is there a particular set of ruins you’d love to visit in the past to see what they were like?

Ruins are definitely evocative and I've seen my share. My first were the ruins of Ayutthaya in Thailand, which I absolutely loved. I've also visited Athens and Crete and the ruins there were mind-boggling, especially Knossos, Europe's oldest city (first settlement was 9,000 years ago). They made our North American concept of "old" appear so quaint. I also loved Tikal in Guatamala, and I've been to a few Anasazi ruins in Colorado and New Mexico. I'm sure there are more I'm forgetting. I'd love to travel back in time to Ayutthaya or another ancient South Asian culture.  

How do you conceive of the differences between Narine's world and Brigitta’s? Narine's world has different magic (I saw it almost like different technology), different social structures, different architecture and fashion—what did you use as inspiration to create this precursor society?

I can't point to anything specific as an inspiration for the precursor society, other than I knew it had to be more advanced and more connected to the rest of the world. The Ancient Faeries were the keepers of the elements, the caretakers of Faweh. The White Forest faeries were "lesser" faeries who had been rescued by the Ancients during the Great World Cry (which I now refer to as the "faerie apocalypse") and placed in a protected realm. White Forest faeries do not have the magical abilities of the Ancients and are by no means worldly. They are still a young civilization - much more primitive.
Narine lived before and during the "apocalypse," and Brigitta lives in the "post-apocalyptic" world. It would be like if our own world experienced an apocalypse and everyone had to start over in these isolated communities. Since the White Forest Faeries had been cut off, I knew their society would have grown its own way rather than imitating the Ancients' ways. The fun of Brigitta's story is reconnecting all these ancient cultures that existed together in Narine's time.

Your settings are always so detailed and real, despite being completely fantastical. Did you use real-Earth settings as the basis for any of the locations in Narine’s world?

I actually try not to, lol. I have lived among forests for so long that I fear the forests in my stories will "dull" if I use my earthly ones for inspiration. I have to keep re-imagining them so that they appear fantastic in my mind. I guess my "uul trees" were partially inspired by banyan trees. And Lake Indago possibly by Lake Louise in Alberta.

Did you love fairies as a child? Is there a book or movie or painting or anything you remember sparking your fascination? Or did that happen as an adult?

The funny thing is that I had absolutely no fascination with fairies / faeries as a child. I loved stories and I loved fantasy books. I devoured all the Wizard of Oz and Chronicles of Narnia books. And I had no interest in faeries when the idea of the story popped into my head. Brigitta and Himalette just asked to be written. I didn't even consider myself that interested in faeries as I was writing the story itself! I was just interested in the characters and their world. 

Have you tried to recreate any fairy food using Earth alternative ingredients?

I have! I've made two different versions of Pippet's pipberry juice and have also made batches of triple lyllium succlaid and gundlebean stew on occasion (I use lentils because gundlebeans are hard to come by)

Well I, for one, would love to see those recipes!

I've got an exciting look at Narine of Noe at the end of the post. (If you've read the other books, you will be intrigued by the character Narine meets in this scene!)

Anyone interested in writing a review for any of the White Forest books may contact Danika at for free ebook copies. Mention you saw this posted on Kim’s site. :-)

You can connect with Danika in the following realms:

Facebook Author Page:
Facebook White Forest Series Page:
Twitter: @danika_dinsmore

Meeting the Drutan Newling

As the two faeries dipped down toward the river, the newly sparkled forest dropped from sight. When they reached the valley proper, they pulled next to a cliff to stay out of the wind. Though Narine could no longer see the glowing section of forest, the sky shone brighter above it. Mesmerized by the peculiar light, Narine nearly missed the oddly-shaped silhouette standing at the top of one of the cliffs, but a howling from that direction caught her attention. She stopped and hovered in the air, watching the strange beast’s movements.
Shaped like a small gnarled tree, it shook in the moonslight, barky branch arms reaching out to the skies. At first Narine thought it was simply the wind shaking and howling behind it, but then she realized the keening came from the tree-like creature itself. It released one final low, haunting moan and pulled back into the forest.
In its place, a wee beast stood at the edge of the cliff, lurching in the wind. Far below it, the river cascaded over a series of slippery rocks. Narine gasped as the creature toppled toward the edge.
"Look out!" she cried, and Thorze turned around.
"On the cliff!" Narine called to her father, pointing to the top of the ridge where the small creature twisted and turned. "It’s going to fall!”
“Narine!" called Thorze, several wingbeats downriver, but she didn’t have time to stop and explain to him that the beast was in peril.
She sped up the cliffside until she reached the top and the strange creature snapped into view. She gasped as the little beast tumbled forward, and she extended her arms to catch it . . . but it didn’t fall.
Like a sapling rooted to the earth, even as it slumped forward it was anchored in place. Its two brown arms embraced its own body, limbs extending into fingers with protruding rootlets winding and tangling around its back. Within the twisted roots, its hard, ridged skin shone in the moonslight.
"There, there." She clasped its barky shoulders.
"No!" her father called to her from below. "Wait!"
But it was too late. As she straightened the beast up again, its eyes popped open. The little thing blinked several times into Narine’s face and then let out a cry. Its black eyes watered over, and Narine was pulled into their murky wetness. Something stirred inside them, and she drew forward . . .
. . . she was gazing down from a crumbling cliff, across a dark and choppy ocean . . . Under the water, a shadow headed toward her . . . No! Not a shadow . . . something solid, massive, and formidable . . .
“Narine!" a voice cut through the darkness, shaking her back to the present.
She swung her head around, not sure where she had just been.
"Are you all right?" Thorze pulled Narine’s face to his, examining her eyes.
"I… I… think so…" She looked back down. The creature was slumped sideways. "What happened?"
"I put her back to sleep," said Thorze gravely. "Come."
"But, what…why…" Narine tried to recall what had just transpired as her father turned her away.
"It’s a newling Drutan." He rubbed her arms. "We must leave her be.”
It took immense effort for Narine not to turn back around again; she felt such an ache for the beast. If she could only look into its eyes again. Maybe even hold it in her arms.
"What’s a Drutan?" she asked instead.
"A very rare creature." Thorze pulled his daughter closer and guided her back off the cliff. Her body, still stunned, let his sturdy one hold them both up. He gave her a squeeze. "Let us hope we have not disturbed her destiny."
"Her destiny!" Narine gasped, now fully awake.
She glanced down at her hands as if they had betrayed her all on their own. Some High Sage Mentee she was. How could she have just grasped the newling Drutan without even thinking?
Thorze stopped several wingbeats away and rotated his daughter around, holding her tightly across the shoulders. She didn’t know whether it was to comfort her or restrain her, but she accepted his warmth gratefully. They watched as a few of the creature’s roots unraveled and gathered themselves up again, twisting around and around and tucking themselves away inside her bound body.
“Drutan newlings soak in the moonslight energies to acquire a destiny," Thorze explained. "When a Drutan first opens its eyes to the moonslight, its initial tears transform to moonstones, which, over time, reveal its destiny."
"I disturbed her sleep!" Narine’s voice caught in her throat. "She opened her eyes!"
"You didn’t know," Thorze said.
She waited for her father to tell her everything would be fine, and her heart sank a little more when he did not.
"Where did her parents go? Maybe we can find them? Maybe they can help?”
He shook his head. "Both her father and mother have gone away. They are solitary beings. They will most likely never meet again."
"But what will happen to her?"
"She will live a very long time, and, as she grows older, her tree energy will emerge, and she will slowly transform, until one day, many season cycles from now, she will root into the earth, as tree-like as any in the forest before you.”
“But won’t she be lonely?" Narine asked. "Won’t she be scared?"
She could not imagine being born into a very long life without any parents or family or friends. What would the Drutan do by itself all day? Who would comfort her? Who would pass on Drutan knowledge and tell her Drutan stories?
"It is their way." Thorze gave her one last squeeze, but it was little solace. "Come, let us continue our journey to investigate this strange shimmering. I promise, Narine, there’s nothing else we can do. All she needs is her moonslight, and the rest will take care of itself. Drutans are born wise.”

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Steerswoman series, by Rosemary Kirstein

I wish I could remember which blogger put me on to these books, so I could thank them and send them chocolate and donate to their favourite charity. If you are interested in spec fic that breaks genre conventions and turns tropes on their head, you should look for these books. If you love character-driven stories, ditto. If you like mysteries and books that give you clues and let you put them together yourself, you'll love these. They're adult novels, but not inappropriate for YA readers who like thoughtful stories.

The premise still blows me away: a steerswoman is someone dedicated to the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge; steerswomen travel the world and record their observations, they fill out maps and figure out how things work. Steerswomen are obliged to answer any question with the truth—and in return they demand that any question they ask be answered with the truth. If someone chooses not to answer a steerswoman's question, or lies to one, they are put under ban and no steerswoman will ever answer any question from them again. What an interesting kind of character! What an interesting way to structure the gathering of knowledge!

And what a great inherent conflict between the steerswomen and the wizards, who keep their magic secret and thus are all under ban. When Rowan, the main character, stumbles upon an interesting anomaly that leads her too close to wizards' secrets, they try to kill her. As if that would stop a steerswoman from trying to find things out!

Here's what I had to say on Goodreads about the first book:

An utterly compelling intellectual novel. For me, that's an oxymoron; I'm usually all about the action and adventure. There's action in this one—a bit of swordfighting and things getting blown up, some spying and escaping from castles—but the drama and excitement is all in the main character's thought processes. I love the way Rowan thinks, and I love watching her figure things out! The whole concept of a Steerswoman is just brilliant and lovely and gets me right in the heart. Science, people: this is what science is!

Then there's the delicious dramatic irony when part-way through the reader figures out what's really going on (or, at least, we start to figure it out), but Rowan simply can't—she doesn't have the context required. So there's the plot arc of Rowan doing what she has to do to find out crucial information—information she's interpreting in a certain, dramatically interesting way because it involves a clear threat to her and her way of life—, combined with the fascinating mystery of what's actually going on in the world—which is probably still threatening, but in an entirely different way—and we don't have quite have enough clues to put it all together yet.

I can't be any more specific about the plot without being spoilery, and I think it's fun to stumble upon the truth without being prepared for it. I'm not even using the paperback covers to illustrate my blog post (except for the 3rd one), because I think they give away too much. These are the e-book covers (after they went out of print and she re-published them on her own.)

I also reviewed The Outskirter's Secret, The Lost Steersman, and The Language of Power on Goodreads, if you're interested. I binge-read all four books in less than a week: it's terrible for my personal productivity, but books like this are what I live for!

Rosemary Kirstein deserves to be much better known than she is; I'm perfectly serious when I say she could be the next Ursula K. LeGuin.

Her books are not expensive on Kindle—and I have an ulterior motive in convincing you to buy them: she's still working on Books 5 and 6, and we need to make sure she has food and rent money so she can focus on writing! (I really, really want books 5 and 6!)

I'm making lamb tagine for dinner tonight, and it's a perfect food metaphor: rich, meaty, spicy, complex, interesting enough to be memorable but comforting enough to eat often.