Sunday, September 23, 2018

Dread Nation and Rebel Seoul: for all your action/adventure needs!

Cybils nominations are almost open! From Oct 1-15 you can nominate your favourite kid/YA books in a bunch of different categories. This year I'm a round 1 judge for YA Spec Fiction, so I'm trying to get a head start on reading the books I'm pretty sure will be nominated. And these two are definitely going to be nominated!

If you like adventure with a sci-fi flavour, set in a futuristic city with giant fighting robots, then have I got a book for you! Or if you prefer alternate-history fantasy with corsets and zombies, then I also have a book for you! (Not the same one. That would be, well, I guess that would be a time travel book, and I don't have one of those for you today!)

I've been looking forward to reading these two books for a while, because they have such awesome premises: Rebel Seoul, by Axie Oh, has a sort of 1984 dystopian vibe, with the world divided into constantly warring states, except it's more fun because GIANT FIGHTING ROBOTS! Ahem. (I would like to state for the record that I find the concept of giant fighting robots entirely ridiculous.)(End of disclaimer.) Our main character Jaewon grew up in a gang in Old Seoul, but he can escape all that if he excels at the military academy, (which appears to consist mostly of playing video games, so, yeah!) He's got a complicated past that I would like to have seen more of (prequel maybe?? hint, hint) but basically he's driven to succeed and he's pinned all his hopes on becoming a Neo Seoul soldier. But guess what: all is not shiny and bright in Neo Seoul. There's some unethical stuff going on about supersoldiers (something always goes wrong with supersoldiers: will dystopian governments never figure that out?)(except for Captain America, apparently. that one was fine for some reason??) and Jaewon ultimately has to decide where his loyalty lies. This one definitely reminded me of Marie Lu's Legend series: if you liked that one you need to check Rebel Seoul out.

Dread Nation, by Justina Ireland, hashes the American Civil War and slavery together with zombies and adds a cynical, short-tempered, zombie-slaying black narrator. There was no way this could not be good, and it was. As a young Negro in a post-slavery but terribly prejudiced zombie-overrun America, Jane is required to attend combat school and prepare to defend well-bred white ladies from the undead. Jane has opinions about this, but she is very good at her training. She's not very good at doing what she's told, however, and she gets sent to a scary utopian settlement (utopian for the white folks, that is) and meets even nastier people than the zombies. Many zombies are decapitated or otherwise killed in grisly ways; Jane kicks butt in zombie-slaying as well as in friend-rescuing and standing-up-for-justice; slavery and prejudice and institutionalized injustice are examined with the interesting perspective that zombies add. (For the record, zombies are an inherently ridiculous concept and I don't usually like the kinds of plots that they inevitably produce, but they do make great metaphors for whatever societal ills you happen to want to excoriate.) Jane is an entirely enjoyable narrator to ride along with: I particularly loved her letters home describing Miss Preston's School of Combat.

Both these books are wonderful at creating fascinating, unique, immersive settings. They also both have lots to say about economic and social disparities: the settings aren't just fun sandboxes to play in (though they are certainly that); they also point very pointed fingers at the inequities of our own world. In an entertaining, you-are-an-arrogant-bigot-so-I-will-blow-you-up kind of way.

Cliffhanger warning: not terrible cliffhangers, but these are both first books and the story continues! (Yay!)

Start thinking about the books you want to nominate: I can't wait to see what everyone thinks were the best books in 2018! (And being a round 1 judge means I have to read most of them, so that will be fun!)

Monday, September 17, 2018

Tess of the Road, by Rachel Hartman

I finally got around to reading Tess of the Road, and I don't know what took me so long! As usual, all the Bloggers I Trust were absolutely right: this is a fantastic, moving, meaningful book.

It's also a very hard book to talk about. It's not what you expect: it doesn't fit into any categories. It's a quest fantasy, sort of, but Tess has no idea what she's questing for. It's a coming-of-age story, but before Tess can come of age she has to overcome her childhood, which is not usually what fantasy coming-of-age is about. There is magic, but it looks more like religion—and oh, interesting and thought-provoking take on religion in general, which almost never happens, especially in fantasy. There are dragons, sort of, but not in the same way as in Seraphina. The one on the cover is metaphorical. There are lots of metaphors.

Okay, let's start with Tess. I loved Tess. She is so. messed. up. I wish I still had my copy of the book so I could find the amazing quotation about how she wouldn't just cut off her nose to spite her face, she'd ... (someone help me out here, it was such a great line!). Stubborn, angry, alcoholic, she's in so much pain and she is trying. so. hard. It just isn't working. Tess has been taught to hate herself, and she's doing an excellent job. She's difficult to read about, at first, because she's so frustrating. (Then she punches someone who really deserves it, and you're like, "yesssss! but noooooo, you shouldn't have done that!"

Tess finally runs away from her (mostly) quite horrible family. She has no idea where she's going; she's seriously contemplating suicide, but she isn't quite committed enough; she wakes up every morning and decides to "walk on" for one more day. Then she runs into her childhood friend, a quigutl named Pathka, and woah, quigutls have some interesting customs! And Pathka has some past trauma ko has to get over as well. (Ko is the non-gendered pronoun quigutls use.)(They have a very cool language, too.)

The plot seems random: Tess and Pathka are going down the road and meeting random strangers and doing random things. At one point Tess joins a road-building crew. (Pretty sure that's never happened in a quest fantasy before!) Pathka is looking for a mythical giant serpent, and Tess is like, sure, why not? Let's go look for something that might not exist. But then things start to come together in very satisfying ways. Tess is trying to forget her past, but every encounter she has brings up some memory, and gives her a new way to process it. She doesn't realize that she's on a quest for healing, but that's what starts to happen. It isn't easy. It's incredibly painful, actually. But she finds wisdom and grace and acceptance and she begins to reclaim herself. The fist-pumping that happens in this story is nothing to do with action and defeating enemies and all about interior journeys and defeating inner demons.

Don't give up on this book if you hate the beginning, with Tess's self-defeating flailing and the horrible women-hating religion and her awful, awful mother. All of these things are dealt with in surprising, nuanced and powerful ways. Motherhood, sisterhood, family, love—it's all turned inside out and held up to the light, and Tess comes away with some truth she can stand on, a woman she can be. (Oh, yeah, and she's disguised as a boy most of the time. There's some serious identity stuff going on!)

The writing is beautiful. I would quote endlessly if I still had my copy (I got it out of the library, but I'm going to buy the real book for myself because I like it that much, and that cover!) E.K. Johnson says Hartman can "kill your heart with her grammar" (which, by the way, is something Johnson is really good at, too!) and that's a great way to put it. There are some lovely, lovely, bits: wise or heartbreaking or numinous or just really funny. (If you love E.K. Johnson, you'll love Tess of the Road.)

Don't read it if you want flying dragons and, I don't know, anything typical of fantasy in general. Don't expect it to be a sequel to Seraphina and Shadow Scale: it's an entirely different book (Seraphina does show up in it, and it's great to see her, but it's not her story at all)(I want to re-read Seraphina now to see what it says about Tess: I don't remember her from it). Do read it if you like your fantasy to deal with real stuff in thoughtful, realistic ways, if you like characters who learn and grow and figure themselves out, if you like interesting, original fantasy worlds. (The more I read, the more I appreciate books that are interesting!)

I feel like I'm not conveying how much I liked Tess. I loved how different it was from expectations. Nothing was predictable; everything was fresh and surprising and fun. I'm making it sound painful but it's actually very funny most of the time. Tess is a mess but she's a compelling, hilarious narrator. Your heart breaks for her, but she could care less what you think! She makes you root for her all the way, and I loved where she ended up.

This is apparently book 1, and I can see where the sequel will go, but this had a satisfying ending. I will be happy to read more of Tess's adventures though!

Really dark chocolate with a flavour you wouldn't think would work with chocolate but somehow does. Maybe ginger? Or something less immediately identifiable. Cardamom, maybe, or black pepper.