Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Clocktaur Wars, by T. Kingfisher

You'll have to excuse me while I fan-girl some more about T. Kingfisher. She just presses all the right buttons for me.

A few facts you need to know about her:

1. She goes by Ursula K. Vernon when she writes graphic novels and kids' books, and they're all fantastic and quite well-known (see: Harriet the Hamster Princess). Anything written as T. Kingfisher is probably not appropriate for readers younger than, say, 13-ish? It's not just that there might be sex, and possibly more daggers through eyes than you might want a younger reader experiencing, but her themes are deeper, her focus is more ... philosophical, for want of a better word. The world is a more complex place, both grimmer and more humane.

2.  She really gets fairy tales. As in, she has obviously imbibed so many, from so many different traditions, that folk-tales run through her veins, but also she has a genuinely weird imagination that works easily with fairy tale logic. The things she comes up with!

3. She is hilariously funny.

Clockwork Boys and The Wonder Engine—really just one novel broken into two—are a bit different than the others of hers that I've read. Not so much fairy/folk-tale inspired, but more of a re-imagining of the fantasy quest, with a healthy serving of vaguely steampunky Lovecraftian horror thrown in (and if you think that sounds weird, you're right!)

I was sucked in from the first scene, in which a forger fetches a murderer from a dungeon to go on a suicide mission. Oooh, dark, grim, edgy, you're thinking, and yes, it is, but the forger has a mysterious sixth sense that manifests as an allergic reaction, so she's sneezing to death the whole time. Plus her interactions with both the prison warden and the murderer (who is actually a paladin knight who got possessed by a demon, so that's a little complicated) are off-beat and unexpected (by both warden, paladin, and reader), so the whole scene is mind-bogglingly, hilariously interesting.

Then they go off to get the horrifically inventive safety measure that ensures they have to complete the mission (don't want to spoil it for you, but if they don't die trying they will just die painfully), and they meet their team-mate the assassin ("I don't like people unless I'm stabbing them."). Then they meet the 19-year-old self-righteous scholar who's never been outside his monastery and thinks women will turn his bowels to water. Who is also coming on the mission.

So it's the most extreme version of incompatible quest-mates I've ever encountered: the banter and drama is endlessly amusing. (As in, every second sentence made me smile, and every second page I was laughing out loud. Then came the scene with the horses, and I was gasping and wiping tears from my eyes the whole chapter.) Kingfisher knows how to structure a running joke, and that's basically what the whole first book is. (Something along the lines of "I wonder if we're going to kill each other before we even get to the place where we're likely all going to die.")

But, by the end of Clockwork Boys, the trust the four of them have built in each other is as moving as their differences were funny, and I genuinely cared about each one of them and about the fate of the team. Slate, Caliban, Brenner and Learned Edmund kill me in all the best ways, whether they're trying to kill each other or not.

The Wonder Engine is still funny, but it's also an intriguing mystery, a realistic adult romance, and a brilliantly explicated treatise on prejudice and marginalized people. When I wasn't laughing my jaw was dropping. Or I was just straight-up crying, because now these people I care so much about are having serious character development in some seriously tense situations.

Also, most hilarious torture scene ever written.

I think if you like Terry Pratchett you'll probably like T. Kingfisher. She's an auto-buy author for me now; I have yet to be disappointed in anything she's written.

The Clocktaur Wars is a balsamic/maple braised pot roast with red peppers and sweet potatoes (and I threw some kale in because you can hide kale in a sauce this rich and flavourful). Sweet, tangy, not exactly your normal pot roast, but still hits the pot-roast receptor in your brain most satisfyingly.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Song of the Current, by Sarah Tolcser

February was flu month. 'Nuff said.

In consequence, I completely missed blogging about the Cybils Awards, which is a shame, because they were fun, but hey—books keep existing (it's one of the great things about them), so I can still talk about the winners and finalists and ones I loved even if I'm a bit late.

Song of the Current was my favourite of the YA Spec Fic nominees that I read (though I was quite happy that we all agreed on Scythe as the winner, because it was also great).

I may have liked Song best because the setting on a river boat in the fens reminded me of Swallows and Amazons, one of my favourite childhood book series. (And I love books about boats that let me pretend I'm an expert sailor myself!) Or maybe I loved it because one of the main plot elements (which I almost spoiled for you because it's pretty easy to see coming, but I'll be quiet about it!) is a trope I particularly enjoy.

But I think mostly I loved it because of Caro: daughter of a wherry-boat captain, raised on a boat, still waiting to hear the river god's voice so she can be a captain herself, but when needs must she ups and does what has to be done, whether she feels qualified for it or not. I love practical, competent heroines; I love watching them be skilled and confident and then stretch themselves by using those skills in new, scary situations, like piracy.

I also get a kick out of the exasperated banter you get when two people with very different competencies underestimate each other, and there's lots of that! And I'm a fan of romance that starts with exasperated banter and ends up with characters learning to respect and trust each other.

The plot had just enough politics and intrigue to be interesting without getting confusing. Plus pirates, so, yay! (I mean, hurrah!) There was a great cast of characters, including Caro's two very different parents who have their own goals and priorities but are still supportive and loving (here's to more supportive, loving parents in kidslit!). Also cousins and sisters and various other family relationships that I'm a fan of.

The worldbuilding was immersive and gorgeous—I've mentioned the boats once or twice, I think! I was quite happy when the ending seemed to indicate a sequel would be forthcoming (not a cliffhanger, but we definitely want to know what happens next), because I want to spend a lot more time in this world with these characters.

Seafood chowder, home made with potatoes and cream and big chunks of salmon and cod and scallops (and mussels if you like them, but you'll have to eat mine for me).