Sunday, June 20, 2021

The Legendary Inge, by Kate Stradling

This book was an unexpected gem! I bought the e-book because a gender-reversed, reluctant Beowulf is a premise good enough for 5 of my hard-earned dollars. I would have been happy if The Legendary Inge had followed through in any way on that premise, but what I got was so much more.

Inge herself is a delight. Dragged to the palace as a hero after sort of accidentally killing a terrible monster, she can't believe it when the king mistakes her for a boy and adopts her as his son. "Just roll with it," says her guard, "you can't go against the king, I'm sure everything will be resolved soon." Inge is a practical, common-sense peasant and her horrified bemusement is pretty enjoyable. Then she decides she'd better start asserting herself and we find out there's more to her than everyone thought.

Her guard, Raske, the Demon Scourge of the army, is also a delight. He's unflappable and smart and carries a sword named Mercy (which he is not embarrassed about, thank you very much). We get the measure of his character when he is sent to make sure Inge's younger siblings are going to be okay without her, and I won't spoil the scene that ensues. His reaction to all the siblings is priceless, and I was on Team Raske from that point on. 

Inge's six siblings are my favourite part of the book: each is an individual with a fully-developed personality, and I loved their interactions as a family.

I don't think there is a single character in the novel who is what he or she appears to be at first, and watching people reveal hidden depths is always satisfying. The plot is also surprisingly twisty (I could see most of the twists coming, but they were still fun). It was a fast, enjoyable read—reminded me a bit of T. Kingfisher's A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking. (Less finesse in the way everything came together, and Kingfisher is better with magic and overall weirdness (nothing can top sentient sourdough starter), but similar themes of ordinary people stepping up and turning out to be not-so-ordinary.)

A must read if you've ever read Beowulf* and want to poke a little fun at its heroic tropes. Or if you like heroines who care about who is going to keep the children clothed and fed (and stop the twins from pushing over the outhouse again). 

Warm biscuits with butter and honey. And maybe raspberries, because my garden is overflowing with them. Oh, heck, make it a berry shortcake (and now I want to make biscuits to go with my strawberries and raspberries, but I already bought strawberry and ginger yogurt gelato. The biscuits can be for breakfast!)

*I've actually read it in the original Old English, but that was more years ago than I care to reveal, and I don't remember a word of it. Except the opening: "Hwaet!" (And then, I think, "We in yeardagum," but that's as far as I go.)

Monday, June 14, 2021

MMGM: The Monster Who Wasn't, by T. C. Shelley

What an odd, sweet, surprisingly deep story! I picked up The Monster Who Wasn't on a random library browse, because that's a great title, with an appealing cover. The cover is not only a lovely piece of art, but it really captures the feel of the book: the boy-shaped imp with his gargoyle friends, perched on a church spire gazing down at the human world he wishes he could belong to. Wistful, whimsical and weird.

Shelley populates her world with a kaleidoscope of monsters and fairies (and an angel): everything in Irish mythology, plus some extra ogres and trolls, plus a few, like the gargoyles, she just made up. Her description of the monsters' underground world is vivid and disgusting: the monsters are definitely the bad guys in this one! The gargoyles rescue the unnamed imp who doesn't look like any other type of monster—because they feel sorry for him, and because his human shape means he can steal chocolate for them! 

The imp—who eventually gets named Sam, so I'll call him that—is delightful as he gains vocabulary and learns about the world. Then his questions start to get more existential: why do I exist? what am I supposed to be? where do I belong? The answers to those questions turn out to be complicated. Shelley has taken elements of the changeling story but given them her own unique spin, and Sam's encounter with the human family who were partially responsible for his creation (this isn't a spoiler: we know that at the beginning) gives the plot some intriguing and poignant twists.

I mentioned that the monsters are the bad guys, and there is some real peril with quite scary creatures. Sam's courage and loyalty are tested, and I was on the edge of my seat rooting for him all the way!

I loved the gargoyles, I loved the Kavanagh family; there's a lot of really great humour to balance out the scary bits. This book warmed the cockles of my heart! (I think that's an Irish saying, isn't it?)

Once again I'm joining the group at Always in the Middle to highlight Marvelous Middle-Grade books on Monday. Lots more great recommendations at Greg's blog.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Catfishing on CatNet, by Naomi Kritzer

I don't have to write a review to get you to read this; you just have to go read the short story that it's based on, "Cat Pictures Please," which is delightful, and if you like that you'll want to read the novel.  

It's a little bit Murderbot Lite. (I might have a thing for benevolent AIs!) CheshireCat doesn't have a robot body with weapons in its arms, but it can hack dangerous things so it could still murder people if it wanted to. But, like Murderbot, it would really rather just be entertained (by cat pictures, in this case), and it would also really like it if humans would stop inflicting harm on themselves and others.

I probably shouldn't compare it to Murderbot, though, because Catfishing on CatNet is a lot lighter. It's very YA—which is perfect, because CheshireCat is trying to negotiate its personhood and its relationship with the world in the same way that teens are, so its interactions with Steph and the other members of the CatNet chat group feel very real. The sentient AI trope is fun to play with because of all the opportunity to comment on what makes someone a person, what constrains our actions, where does our sense of morality, responsibility, goodness come from, and Kritzer does this really well for an audience which is also exploring these choices for the first time.

I loved Steph: her resigned adaptability to her difficult circumstances hurt my heart, so I was primed to root for her. I loved the "clowder," her chat group on CatNet: it's a found family that gets awesome opportunities to step up and be there for Steph and CheshireCat. And Steph's hesitantly developed relationship with Rachel was lovely and felt entirely real.

Steph and her mother are on the run from an abusive father, so there's a lot of nerve-wracking suspense to keep the pages turning. The story doesn't shy away from the darkness, but it focuses on friends helping each other out, and it helps that Steph has a benevolent AI on her side! There's also a lot of humour, so it's a fast, fun, upbeat read. It concludes satisfactorily, but there's a sequel which I'll be reading soon.

I haven't been doing food analogies lately, but this one is spicy hot chicken wings. You'll devour it and lick your fingers after!