Monday, March 28, 2016

MMGM: Ambassador and Nomad by William Alexander

What do you want from your science fiction? Cool ideas, right? Technological, biological, philosophical—doesn't matter, so long as its stuff you've never thought of before, or never thought of in quite that way. Because otherwise you may just as well read realism.

But the best science fiction uses these cool ideas to say important things about who we are: what makes us human; what we get right sometimes; what we're getting very, very wrong.

William Alexander has written the best kind of science fiction in this duology. I hope they end up getting lots of attention, because they deserve to become well-loved classics.

When I finished Ambassador, my first thought was, "this is a lovely, lovely book," and that's not an adjective I expected to use on a book with that kind of cover, about aliens shooting laser guns from scorpion-like spaceships. The spaceships are pretty awesome, but—true to the title—the book is actually about diplomacy—about the possibility for people completely alien to one another to communicate and find common ground.

Cool idea #1:  Ambassadors are all children, because the young of any species are most flexible and willing to adapt to new circumstances, and interacting with aliens takes a lot of flexibility. (I knew this when I was a kid: I was quite certain that if aliens landed in my backyard, I'd be the perfect person to deal with them!)

Awesome quote: "Juveniles have not yet fixed the boundaries of their social world. They haven't drawn a circle around those worth talking to."

Cool idea #2:  It would be pretty hard for aliens to communicate with each other over the fast distances in the galaxy if there wasn't such a thing as entanglement—which I won't try to explain, but if you've read a sci fi book with an ansible in it, you know the principle. In this book's universe it's possible to entangle your perceptions so you can perceive two locations at the same time, even if you're not physically present.

Awesome quote:
"Did that make sense to you?" the Envoy asked.
"It sounded like it make sense," Gabe said carefully. "I'd like to just pretend that it did and move on. Maybe it'll sink in later." 

Cool idea #3:  The Envoy (awesome character!) builds an entangling device out of the washer and dryer in Gabe's basement.

Awesome quote:
"You can make a black hole in the dryer?"
"Yes," said the Envoy. "Please do not stand too close to it."
 "Can I throw something at it and watch what happens?" Gabe asked.
"No," said the Envoy. "It will be very precisely calibrated."
"Not even little scraps of paper or balls of dryer lint or something like that?"
I could fill several blog posts will cool ideas and awesome quotes, but you should just go read the book. I hope you noticed that it's also a very funny book, mostly because of Gabe.

I love Gabe, love the way he perceives the world, love his interactions with his family, love the way he handles all the sudden things thrown at him. I love all the characters: Alexander has a way of conveying everyone's essence in a very few interactions so that you instantly understand and therefore care about them.

Alexander is just a really really good writer. I savoured his sentences, his characters, his metaphors, his plot.

And Nomad is even better. (I don't have to tell you to read Nomad, because as soon as you get to the end of Ambassador you'll be clamouring for it. It's one of the better cliff-hanger endings out there.)(In fact, make sure Nomad is available before you finish Ambassador!) The plot gets even more fraught and perilous; there are more awesome characters and new cool ideas;  it's just as funny and profound, often at the same time. (I think those are my favourite kinds of books: funny and profound. Truth that makes you smile in recognition.)

Have I mentioned that these are really, really good books? For a food metaphor I should go with something Mexican, for Gabe . . . I don't know how authentic it is, but sweet potato black bean soup is pretty nummy and hearty and nourishing, with a bit of heat but a nice sweetness. Just like these books!

So many Marvelous Middle-Grade books out there, and every Monday you can read about more of them on Shannon Messenger's blog.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Rebel of the Sands, by Alwyn Hamilton

When I read the blurb for Rebel of the Sands, I confess I was a bit dubious: Hamilton takes the Wild West—a popular setting these days—and plops it down in the Middle-East, to come up with a fantasy land somewhere between Arabia and the American frontier. But she really makes it work. 

Miraji is mostly Arabian: a country ruled by a Sultan where Djinn still walk the earth (occasionally falling in love with mortal women, of course) and camel caravans cross shifting sands. But there are trains and mining towns that sound awfully Western, and some of the human-eating ghouls in the shadows are Skinwalkers. I think what I love about the setting is that Hamilton draws from all kinds of sources to come up with something that has familiar resonances but feels entirely original. 

The heroine, Amani, is a gun-toting hellion who leaves everything behind to gallop off on a magic horse with a rakish foreigner. She's impulsive, ruthless, not a little bit selfish—but I was rooting for her. She doesn't know it, but she's on a journey to find something larger than herself to believe in, and I was with her every step of the way.

It helped that I was entirely in love with Jin. I think Amani and Jin are going to be on top ten lists of great couples: the sparks certainly fly between them! Jin is mysterious, conflicted, has a hidden agenda, can't seem to keep away from Amani–plus he's got awesome cheekbones and a great smile, so, yeah. I'd follow him across a desert.

Not much happens with the magic at first—though there's plenty of action—, but once we meet the magical beings they're very cool. I loved the different powers and limitations everyone had; it was all very evocative and colorful. There's a Rebel Prince, a nasty army commander (who is actually the Rebel Prince's brother), plots and counter plots. Things really start getting interesting at the end, and I'm quite excited to see where the sequel goes.

Reminded me a bit of The Blue Sword and Graceling. Spicy lamb tagine served over couscous.

I was impressed with the writing in this debut novel. Alwyn Hamilton might live in London, but she was born in Toronto, so I'm claiming her as Canadian! I'm now over my goal of 13 Canadian books reviewed between July 1 and June 30: this makes number 14.

For more Canadian choices, you can always check out John Mutford's blog.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

An Inheritance of Ashes, by Leah Bobet

This is one of the most original fantasies that I've read recently, with beautiful, compelling prose and a cast of fierce, wounded characters who will break your heart (in a good way).

Every time I sit down to write this review, I try to come up with coherent words to express my feelings about the book, and I can't find the right ones. Other reviewers have talked about it being intense, desolate, dark, eerie, bleak—and I can't deny those are appropriate words for An Inheritance of Ashes, but they're not sufficient. (And I would never have picked it up if I had read all those reviews first.)

Yes, it's a dark book, but it's also luminescent. You have to meet the characters to realize that all the fear and suspicion and despair only highlight the courage, hope, conviction and love that burn inside them. It reminds me very much of the Leonard Cohen song: "there's a crack, a crack in everything: that's how the light gets in." (Just had to go listen to it again. Really quite perfect for this book.)("Every heart to love will come, but like a refugee.")

But I'm not being a very helpful reviewer, here. What do you need to know to make you read this book? How about some of the cool, original things:

1.  It's about the aftermath of a war, about the people back home, waiting for the soldiers to return. It's not about fighting. At least, it's not about that kind of fighting. It's a very realistic setting—could be a farm just about anywhere, at just about any time. Except . . .

2.  The Wicked God was defeated. No one knows who or what the Wicked God was, that's just what everyone calls it. Eventually we do find out what the Wicked God was, and it's an explanation that doesn't draw on any mythology I've ever heard about; I found it entirely fascinating.

3.  But there are still Twisted Things appearing, and the Twisted Things are awesome: creepy, unexpected, poisonous, threatening, nothing like anything I've ever read about. And they shouldn't still be showing up, now that the Wicked God is dead.

4.  There's a lone soldier returning from the war with a secret. Does he know why the Twisted Things are coming? Does he know what to do about them?

5.  He's not the soldier Hallie and her sister Marthe are waiting for. And if Marthe's husband doesn't come back, they're not going to be able to hold the farm together, not two young women, one of them about to give birth, two sisters who rely completely on each other but can't seem to trust each other, or anyone else.

And number 5 is the burning, toxic heart of the story: Twisted Things may be poisoning the farm, but Marthe and Hallie are poisoning each other with their complete inability to understand each other*, and the psychological and physical threats are marvellously woven together in layers of metaphor and tension.

There are people who want to help, and people who hope they fail, and the community around Roadstead Farm is also a crucial part of the story. The war might be over, but there are so many things to fight for, to fight about. There are the battles we inherit from our families, the ones we think are over but are still festering into the next generation. And the people we think are the enemy might be the only people who can save us.

You just have to read it; I can't adequately explain how dense and nuanced and wise and surprising and real this fantasy is. Bobet is a writer into whose capable hands I will gladly entrust myself again.

Sweet potato black bean soup: hearty, rich, complex, with lots of heat and depth of flavour. (I might not put as much cumin into it next time, though!)

Leah Bobet is that rarest of wonderful people: a Canadian fantasy author! Which makes this my 13 out of 13 books in the 9th Canadian Book Challenge: and it's only March! (I have until June 30.) Yay Canadian books! Be sure to check out the other great Canadian books on John Mutford's blog.

*You know how in most fiction, the characters tend to say what they think to each other—things real people would never actually say because there are too many things holding them back? Hallie and Marthe are not capable of ever saying what they think, because the things holding them back are too painful and entrenched. It's possibly the most realistic relationship I've ever read in a fantasy novel.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Things Going On In March

Seems March is a month for themes, because there are all sorts of month-long things going on in various places around the blogosphere. Here are a few I'll be following along with:

We Be Reading has hosted DWJ March on every anniversary of Diana Wynne Jones' death, to celebrate her wonderful fantasy. This year she is adding Terry Pratchett to the celebration, entirely appropriately, and calling it #MarchMagics. She'll link up any posts you do about either author, and she's hosting readalongs of Pratchett's Equal Rites and DWJ's Dark Lord of Derkholm (a personal favourite of mine). If you have any love for these authors—or if you have yet to discover them (oh, what a treat you have in store!)—then you should check out her blog this month.

The YA/MG Book Battle is on again! This is the third year that Beth has chosen a slate of underappreciated YA and MG books and invited fellow book lovers to face them off against each other. The point being to get more people talking passionately about these great books. Here are the books in this year's battle: lots I haven't read, and I will do my best to read at least a few of them before their battles. (Go Crown Duel!!)

The Book Wars has a lot of cool-sounding reviews and discussions planned for Monster Girls Month. (Maybe this is the month I'll finally get around to reading Nimona!) Plus, they're doing a readalong of  Megan Whalen Turner's Thief series, which I will definitely be participating in (despite the fact that I've pretty much memorized all four books).

And if you really want to challenge yourself, you could sign up for Take Control of Your TBR Pile, in which you promise to spend March only reading books from your TBR pile released before March 1. (I'm not signing up for it, since I've already got two books on my Kindle that weren't on my TBR that I plan to read over Spring Break . . .)