Review

Stranger, by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith

Three years ago, Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith went public with a post about a post-apocalypic YA novel they had written together. During the submission process, they received a response from an agent who offered to represent the book, “on the condition that we make the gay character straight, or else remove his viewpoint and all references to his sexual orientation.”

They refused.

Their post led to a great deal of discussion about the need for gay characters in YA literature. The agency in question also posted a rebuttal.

Stranger - CoverSo that’s the backstory. The book eventually sold to Viking Juvenile, with a publication date of November 2014. I’m happy to have gotten my hands on an advance copy :-)

Stranger [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] definitely has a western feel to it, as noted in the publisher’s summary:

Many generations ago, a mysterious cataclysm struck the world. Governments collapsed and people scattered, to rebuild where they could. A mutation, “the Change,” arose, granting some people unique powers. Though the area once called Los Angeles retains its cultural diversity, its technological marvels have faded into legend. “Las Anclas” now resembles a Wild West frontier town… where the Sheriff possesses superhuman strength, the doctor can warp time to heal his patients, and the distant ruins of an ancient city bristle with deadly crystalline trees that take their jewel-like colors from the clothes of the people they killed.

Teenage prospector Ross Juarez’s best find ever – an ancient book he doesn’t know how to read – nearly costs him his life when a bounty hunter is set on him to kill him and steal the book. Ross barely makes it to Las Anclas, bringing with him a precious artifact, a power no one has ever had before, and a whole lot of trouble.

I liked this one. There’s a lot of imaginative worldbuilding going on, particularly around the different powers people develop and the new forms of wildlife. The crystalline trees are awesome and terrifying. Also: telekinetic squirrels. They don’t get a lot of page-time, but just the fact that there are telekinetic squirrels makes me happy.

Smith and Brown rotate chapters through five (I think) different PoV characters, which was a little tricky to keep track of in the beginning, but I think it worked well. I’m less thrilled about the different font used for each PoV, but since I was reading an ARC, I’m not sure the publisher will keep that quirk in the final version. It might not bother you, but it distracted me.

There’s a lot going on here. You’ve got the eponymous stranger Ross Juarez, a loner with a bit of PTSD who finds a sense of community for the first time in his life … but there are those who don’t want him around, and others who just want to use him. There’s the larger conflict with a power-hungry king who’s been conquering neighboring towns. There are multiple romances. There’s internal political struggles between a family trying to create their own dynasty as leaders of Las Anclas and the changed sheriff who messed up their plans.

There’s also an ongoing story about discrimination and prejudice. You have open hostility and fear, and some of that fear is almost understandable, given the damage changes can do when people can’t — or don’t — control them. Poor Ross gets fear and suspicion from both barrels, as a stranger and someone with a suspected change.

I’m impressed by how well the multiple relationships, stories, and characters all come together. It did feel like there were some loose ends when I finished, and I’m hopeful those will be addressed in future books. But Stranger provides enough closure that I didn’t feel cheated. It’s a good ending, one that makes me want to pick up book two.

Oh, and yes, there are several non-straight couples in the book, and they’re treated with the same respect and variety as the straight couples. Surprisingly enough, I did not burst into flames, nor did my own heterosexual marriage immediately crash and burn. Go figure.

ETA: I’m told there will be a sequel, and it’s called Hostage, and it’s already written!

Memory of Water, by Emmi Itäranta

Memory of Water - CoverWhile at Detcon1, I was fortunate enough to receive a copy of the award-winning debut novel Memory of Water [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], by Emmi Itäranta. This came from Crystal Huff, who has been pushing the 2017 Helsinki Worldcon bid. Itäranta is a Finnish author, and as I understand it, she wrote the book in both Finnish and in English, and it’s been published in both languages. Speaking as an author, let me tell you, that’s pretty badass.

Here’s the publisher’s summary:

In the far north of the Scandinavian Union, now occupied by the power state of New Qian, seventeen-year-old Noria Kaitio studies to become a tea master like her father. It is a position that holds great responsibility and a dangerous secret. Tea masters alone know the location of hidden water sources, including the natural spring that once provided water for her whole village. When Noria’s father dies, the secret of the spring reaches the new military commander … and the power of the army is vast indeed. But the precious water reserve is not the only forbidden knowledge Noria possesses, and resistance is a fine line.

Threatened with imprisonment, and with her life at stake, Noria must make an excruciating, dangerous choice between knowledge and freedom.

This book was at times powerful and beautiful and tragic and depressing and triumphant. There’s not a great deal of action. The pace is almost leisurely at times, even as the tension ratchets every higher. Day by day Noira goes about her business, watching helplessly as the military imprison and execute others in the village for water crimes. The waiting builds suspense and fear far  more effectively than any series of graphic action or violence would have. There’s also the contrast between the horrors Noira witnesses and the beauty of Itäranta’s writing.

And then there’s the worldbuilding. The book is set in a post-apocalyptic Finland. Rising sea levels and other environmental catastrophes have eliminated most sources of fresh water and a serious, if uneven, regression in technology. We never get the full details about what happened, because Noria — like most people — doesn’t know the truth. She knows only the stories she’s been taught. But over the course of the book, she uncovers bits and pieces…

I’m sure that aspect of the book will come across as preachy to some, and there’s certainly a message here about waste and overconsumption and the environment. But given that we don’t even know the full details of what happened, it felt like a reasonable example of “If this goes on…” to me.

There’s also beauty here. The way Noria contemplates every detail of the tea ceremony, and the ideas and philosophy behind it. I don’t know enough to say whether or not the author’s description is accurate, only that it was beautifully written. There’s love as well. Noria’s relationship with her friend Sanja, who works as a plastic smith (digging up and repairing old plastic for the village) is a powerful source of conflict. While they love one another, the secrets Noria guards and the struggles they both face just to survive would strain any relationship.

You can read a sample at the HarperCollins website. I also recommend checking out this Kirkus interview with Itäranta.

Wickedly Dangerous, by Deborah Blake

Wickedly Dangerous CoverWickedly Dangerous [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] is the first book in a new paranormal romance series from debut novelist Deborah Blake, coming out in five weeks on September 2, and it’s a lot of fun. From the publisher:

Older than she looks and powerful beyond measure, Barbara Yager no longer has much in common with the mortal life she left behind long ago. Posing as an herbalist and researcher, she travels the country with her faithful (mostly) dragon-turned-dog in an enchanted Airstream, fulfilling her duties as a Baba Yaga and avoiding any possibility of human attachment.

But when she is summoned to find a missing child, Barbara suddenly finds herself caught up in a web of deceit and an unexpected attraction to the charming but frustrating Sheriff Liam McClellan.

Now, as Barbara fights both human enemies and Otherworld creatures to save the lives of three innocent children, she discovers that her most difficult battle may be with her own heart…

As some of you might know, I have a bit of a weakness for updated/retold fairy and folk tales, so seeing Baba Yaga brought into the 21st century with an enchanted Airstream trailer (complete with a fridge that at any given time might contain anything from baked chicken to an endless supply of cherry pie), a dragon disguised as a big old pit bull, and a load of magic, was pretty much guaranteed to draw me in.

Barbara is a great protagonist, powerful and compassionate, but also a bit out-of-touch with her human side. That happens when you spend most of your life moving about, hanging out with the supernatural, and never building any long-term relationships with mortals. Her love interest, Liam, was engaging as well, being a small-town sheriff with a good heart and some romantic/emotional scars, dealing with the double-barreled crap gun of corrupt politics and a case he’s not equipped to understand. They make a good team, and Blake definitely creates some good chemistry between them.

I winced a little at the treatment of Liam’s ex-wife. She’s quite broken, and at times it felt like she was there more as a plot device than as an actual character.

It looks like each book in the series will follow a different Baba Yaga, which I like. It means the book has a satisfying ending and a full plot arc, but also promises more to come. The epilogue sets up the next book, Wickedly Wonderful, which comes out in December 2014 and tells the story of Beka Yancy.

Wickedly Dangerous is a fun, fast-paced read with heroic protagonists, a clear battle of Good vs. Evil, love and romance, a happy ending, and a lot of nice little details. And also a dog-dragon. (Yes, I really like Chudo-Yudo.)

More info is available on Blake’s website.

A Barricade in Hell, by Jaime Lee Moyer

A Barricade in Hell [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] is the sequel to Jaime Lee Moyer‘s debut novel Delia’s Shadow. I enjoyed the first book enough to blurb it. (And that blurb appears on the cover of the second book, which is awesome!) I’m happy to say Barricade was just as enjoyable.

From the publisher:

Delia Martin has been gifted (or some would say cursed) with the ability to peer across to the other side. Since childhood, her constant companions have been ghosts. She used her powers and the help of those ghosts to defeat a twisted serial killer terrorizing her beloved San Francisco. Now it’s 1917—the threshold of a modern age—and Delia lives a peaceful life with Police Captain Gabe Ryan.

That peace shatters when a strange young girl starts haunting their lives and threatens Gabe. Delia tries to discover what this ghost wants as she becomes entangled in the mystery surrounding a charismatic evangelist who preaches pacifism and an end to war.  But as young people begin to disappear, and audiences display a loyalty and fervor not attributable to simple persuasion, that message of peace reveals a hidden dark side.

As Delia discovers the truth, she faces a choice—take a terrible risk to save her city, or chance losing everything?

Like the first book, this one invites us into a believable San Francisco of the early 20th century, with characters who are likable, strong in their own ways, flawed, and at times both larger than life (or death) and all too vulnerable and human. Delia has been learning about her gifts, working with a more experienced and tremendously entertaining medium named Dora. Delia’s more comfortable with what she can do, and one of the payoffs of the book is seeing her partnership with her husband Gabe. They work as equals, and come across as a team, though each has their own partner. Both Delia and Gabe recognize their own limits and trust one another to do what they do best…though they both love and worry about the other.

There are a number of things going on in the book–the scope of the story is bigger, and there are more characters this time around, which makes sense for a second book, but resulted in a few speed bumps and loose ends along the way. But these are minor complaints, some of which I’m hoping will get developed in future books.

Evangelist Effie Fontaine made a good villain, for the most part. Smart, confident, powerful, and nasty. My only complaint was that certain developments near the end of the book felt like they undercut her character. I don’t know how to explain it without spoilers, and it certainly worked as an ending. I just found myself wishing the book had gone in a slightly different direction there.

Overall, these are good books, richly detailed, with enjoyable characters. I raced through them both, and look forward to the next. Recommended.

Above World, by Jenn Reese

I’d been wanting to read Jenn Reese‘s novel Above World [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] for a while now. Having now read and enjoyed it, I’ve come to the inescapable conclusion that this book has the wrong cover art.

It’s not that I think it’s a bad cover. It’s vivid and colorful and clear, and captures the mermaid Kampii nature of the protagonist. The cover also conveys that this is a middle grade novel. So far, so good. But the book is so much more. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic Earth with advanced tech and bioengineering and settlements of humans who have been modified for their environments and robot pets and more. I wish the cover showed more of those elements, because they’re pretty sweet.

Here’s the official summary:

Thirteen-year-old Aluna has lived her entire life under the ocean with the Coral Kampii in the City of Shifting Tides. But after centuries spent hidden from the Above World, her colony’s survival is in doubt. The Kampii’s breathing necklaces are failing, but the elders are unwilling to venture above water to seek answers. Only headstrong Aluna and her friend Hoku are stubborn and bold enough to face the terrors of land to search for way to save their people.

But can Aluna’s warrior spirit and Hoku’s tech-savvy keep them safe? Set in a world where overcrowding has led humans to adapt—growing tails to live under the ocean or wings to live on mountains—here is a ride through a future where greed and cruelty have gone unchecked, but the loyalty of friends remains true.

I liked this book a lot. It’s a fun read, with action and adventure and romance and great characters. I liked the relationship between Aluna and Hoku. I liked the backstory and the worldbuilding, and the larger-than-life villain. There’s just a lot going on in this book that made me say, “Oh, cool!”

There were a few elements that felt a bit too plot-convenient, where our characters encounter just the right character at just the right time. But that’s a minor complaint, and didn’t detract from my enjoyment.

This is the first book of a trilogy, and all three books are available, so you don’t have to wait.

You can read an excerpt of Above World at the Candlewick website.

X-Men: Days of Future Past (Spoilers Ahead)

Even before going out to see X-Men: Days of Future Past, I had seen some rather mixed reviews. Some people called it one of the best superhero movies since Avengers. (And one reviewer described it as better than Avengers.) Others found it sexist, convoluted, and/or disappointing…

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Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie

Ann Leckie‘s debut SF novel Ancillary Justice [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] has gotten a lot of buzz since its release. The book won the Clarke Award, the BFSA Award, made the honor list for the Tiptree Award, and is a Hugo Award finalist for Best Novel. I’m pretty sure it was also a Nebula finalist, tied for an Oscar, and won this year’s Super Bowl.

It’s an ambitious book, spanning centuries of future history. The protagonist Breq is all that remains of the Justice of Toren, an artificially intelligent ship with thousands of ancillaries — human bodies all controlled by the ship’s mind. Justice of Toren was essentially a single entity with thousands of bodies, and Breq was one of those ancillaries.

This isn’t a Star Trek-style Borg hive where individual personalities are subsumed into a collective; the host bodies are basically dead, without minds or personalities of their own. They’re “corpse soldiers.” Justice of Toren is one being who gets caught up in political crossfire and finds herself reduced to a fragment of what she was: a lone human body, limited and alone.

The first part of the book alternates between present and past, plunging the reader into the story and slowly providing the background. This is not a book you should try to skim. After I finished reading, I found myself wanting to immediately go back through the opening chapters again and pick up on everything I’d missed the first time.

I love the way Leckie plays with identity. Anaander Mianaai, the long-lived Lord of the Radch, is similar to Breq in that Mianaai has many human bodies, all linked. I won’t spoil things here, but I really liked the revelation of where the ongoing political conflict originated, and Mianaai’s role in it.

A lot of the conversations and reviews I’ve seen focus on Leckie’s treatment of gender in the book, both as a cultural construct — gender is treated differently depending on which culture Breq is immersed in at the time — and as a source of personal confusion. What is gender for a being with hundreds or thousands of different individual bodies? Breq often stumbles over gender identification and pronoun use.

It creates an interesting effect when a character Breq has referred to as “she” is then described as “he” for the next part of the book. I found myself rethinking their interactions, the dynamic between them, and more.

I don’t know that the book does anything truly new or revolutionary with gender, but it certainly does more than most mainstream SF these days, and I appreciate the way Leckie thought about it throughout the story.

Leckie also examines colonization, the destruction and assimilation of cultures, the drive for continued expansion and conquest, and more. It’s powerful and often painful. Aspects of that cold, calculating cruelty are what eventually launch Breq on her quest for vengeance.

I have mixed feelings about Breq’s mission. She’s out to kill as many of Anaander Mianaai as she can, but she also knows she probably won’t be able to take out more than one or two of Mianaai’s bodies before being caught and killed herself. Given that Mianaai has hundreds or thousands of bodies, I kept wondering what’s the point? Given the setup, that’s like avenging yourself on someone by cutting her fingernail.

It may be that Breq was simply lost and knew full well that this was a pointless mission, one that was little more than suicide. But if so, I wish that had been made a little bit more clear. (Or maybe I just missed it.) I do like that the ending went in a different direction, and how that set things up for the next book.

I should also mention the character of Seivarden Vendaai, who ends up accompanying Breq. Vendaai undergoes a powerful transformation as well, being a soldier a thousand years out of her own time. She’s a snob and a drug addict, completely burnt out and bitter. I very much appreciated seeing her growth — and at times, her backsliding — over the course of the story.

All in all, a thoughtful book with strong worldbuilding, and a particularly impressive debut. Ancillary Justice is book one of a trilogy. Book two, Ancillary Sword, comes out in October of this year. You can read an excerpt of the first book here.

I haven’t read all of this year’s Hugo-nominated novels yet, and I wouldn’t presume to pick a winner, but I think Leckie is a strong contender.

Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Spoilers Ahead)

We went out to see Amazing Spider-Man 2 over the weekend. I was nervous going in. Partly because the previews suggested we were getting Electro, Rhino, and Green Goblin. (Because overloading the story with villains has worked so well for other Spider-Man movies.) And the reviews I’ve seen have been iffy, at best.

It wasn’t a perfect film, but I enjoyed it. Andrew Garfield opened the movie with wise-cracking, web-slinging Spider-Man. Watching him take care of low-level bad guys was just fun. I like Garfield’s Spider-Man (anyone else now visualizing a fat orange cat in a spider-suit, going on about Mondays and lasagna?) a lot better than the last incarnation. All in all, I was pleasantly surprised.

And now, on to the spoilers…

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Akata Witch, by Nnedi Okorafor

I finished reading Nnedi Okorafor‘s YA fantasy Akata Witch [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] on the flight to Colorado last week. I then recommended the book to a number of different people at the conference. It’s fun, interesting, fast-paced, and just plain good. From the publisher:

Twelve-year-old Sunny lives in Nigeria, but she was born American. Her features are African, but she’s albino. She’s a terrific athlete, but can’t go out into the sun to play soccer. There seems to be no place where she fits. And then she discovers something amazing — she is a “free agent,” with latent magical power. Soon she’s part of a quartet of magic students, studying the visible and invisible, learning to change reality. But will it be enough to help them when they are asked to catch a career criminal who knows magic too?

I’ve seen a few reviews that describe the book as being inspired by or too similar to Harry Potter. Both are coming-of-age stories about children who discover they have magic. Both protagonists explore a hidden magical community, and ultimately, they both have to face a rather terrifying Big Bad. But none of these elements are new or unique to Harry Potter, and Okorafor’s story and worldbuilding are a refreshing change from most “magical teenager” stories.

I loved the characters, all of whom have distinctive personalities and voices, from Chichi’s bluntness to Sasha’s rebelliousness and American sensibilities to the different mentors and teachers Sunny meets. I also appreciated the excerpts from Fast Facts for Free Agents, a rather condescending but informative book about people like Sunny, who have non-magical parents. The book-in-a-book does a nice job of helping orient the reader while doing the same for Sunny.

It’s not all magic and soccer and fun, of course. Sunny’s world is harsh and unforgiving. The artistic wasp who creates a new sculpture each day will also sting you if you’re not suitably appreciative. Sunny risks being caned for disobeying the rules of magic, and her lessons are potentially deadly. At home, Sunny lives with an abusive father (making this the second YA book in a row I’ve read with an abusive father.) And then there’s Black Hat, a man who’s been murdering children, and whose magic is far stronger than that of Sunny or her friends…

The book is steeped in Nigerian culture and folklore, and recognizes real-world tensions and conflicts without ever feeling preachy. There’s a brief reference to 419 scams, acknowledgement of racism and prejudice in Nigeria and the U.S., and more.

My only nitpicks would be that the final confrontation with Black Hat felt a little quick, and I was disappointed to not see more of a resolution between Sunny and her father. But neither of these things took away from my enjoyment.

Like I said at the beginning of this review, I recommended this book a number of times over the weekend, and I’ll recommend it again. It’s a good story, well-written, with great characters and magic. And I’m happy to say that Okorafor has confirmed there will be additional books in this series.

Also recommended: A review of Akata Witch that discusses the cultural context and references in ways I’m not able to do.

Shades of Milk and Honey, by Mary Robinette Kowal

I will be totally, absolutely honest with you here. I wasn’t really expecting to like Mary Robinette Kowal‘s Shades of Milk and Honey [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy].

It’s nothing to do with Kowal or her writing. I’ve adored other things I’ve read by her. I’ve nominated and voted for some of her work for various awards. She’s a good writer. But this one just didn’t look or sound like my kind of book. The description, “Like Jane Austen wrote a fantasy novel” didn’t hit any of my buttons, and I’m afraid the cover art didn’t help. (The newer editions of this series have different and much improved artwork, in my opinion.)

I tend to prefer more action in my plots, more humor and fun in my fiction … which I’m sure comes as a tremendous shock to anyone who’s read my stuff. So it took me a while to pull this one off of Mount ToBeRead…

…at which point I devoured the story, finishing the book in three days, and sacrificing a bit of sleep in the process.

Here’s the publisher’s description:

…an intimate portrait of Jane Ellsworth, a woman ahead of her time in a world where the manipulation of glamour is considered an essential skill for a lady of quality. But despite the prevalence of magic in everyday life, other aspects of Dorchester’s society are not that different: Jane and her sister Melody’s lives still revolve around vying for the attentions of eligible men.

Jane resists this fate, and rightly so: while her skill with glamour is remarkable, it is her sister who is fair of face, and therefore wins the lion’s share of the attention. At the ripe old age of twenty-eight, Jane has resigned herself to being invisible forever. But when her family’s honor is threatened, she finds that she must push her skills to the limit in order to set things right—and, in the process, accidentally wanders into a love story of her own.

There are a few action-type scenes toward the end, but for the most part, this is a relatively quiet book. And I loved it. I loved the characters. I loved the relationships between them, and the way Jane’s insecurities crashed into those of her sister, and the conflicts that ensued. I loved the language, which was careful and formal without ever feeling stilted or stuffy.

The magic was particularly enjoyable. In a genre that includes Gandalf and Dumbledore, the glamours of Kowal’s world are relatively limited in scope: the manipulation of light and sound to craft illusions. It’s seen as a lady’s skill, like painting watercolors or playing a musical instrument. But Jane is very skilled and passionate about her art, and it draws you in until a scene about crafting an illusory birch grove is as thrilling as any battle between heroes and goblins.

Certain elements and twists in the story felt a little predictable, but I wasn’t reading for the plot twists. I was reading for the sheer enjoyment. And I was kicking myself for not reading it sooner.

You can read the first two chapters at Kowal’s website, and I strongly encourage you to do so.