Review

Recent Reads: Dawson, Chu, and Schaff-Stump

Catching up on some of my recent reading…

Cover: PhasmaFirst up is Phasma [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound], by Delilah Dawson. I wanted this book for two reasons. The first is that Phasma has been criminally underutilized in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. So much wasted potential, and I wanted more about her character.

The second is because this is the first Star Wars book with my name in it. Sure, it’s in small print on the back book flap (author photo credit), but it’s a start!

From the publisher:

Deep inside the Battlecruiser Absolution, a captured Resistance spy endures brutal interrogation at the hands of a crimson-armored stormtrooper—Cardinal. But the information he desires has nothing to do with the Resistance or its covert operations against the First Order.

What the mysterious stormtrooper wants is Phasma’s past—and with it whatever long-buried scandal, treachery, or private demons he can wield against the hated rival who threatens his own power and privilege in the ranks of the First Order. His prisoner has what Cardinal so desperately seeks, but she won’t surrender it easily. As she wages a painstaking war of wills with her captor, bargaining for her life in exchange for every precious revelation, the spellbinding chronicle of the inscrutable Phasma unfolds. But this knowledge may prove more than just dangerous once Cardinal possesses it—and once his adversary unleashes the full measure of her fury.

What impressed me most about this one was the frame story, which was used to talk about Phasma’s background and history. We know Phasma ends up as a high-level villain, which means her story isn’t likely to be a happy one. How do you tell her story without getting overwhelmed by the darkness and the hopelessness?

You bring in an awesome Resistance spy named Vi. As interesting as it was to learn Phasma’s story, Vi and Cardinal ended up being my favorite characters. Cardinal is a nice contrast with Phasma, being of equal rank and genuinely believing in the purpose and ideas of the First Order.

It’s still a dark story, but there’s hope as well. Well done, Dawson!

Read an excerpt at Starwars.com.

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Cover: The Vessel of RaNext up is The Vessel of Ra [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound], by Catherine Schaff-Stump.

This is one of the twistier books I’ve read in a while, about magical families and their secrets and conflicts. Lucy Klaereon is bound to the demon Ra, destined to battle him for control. If she wins, she gains his service power. If she loses, she is to be killed. But Lucy’s family see her as weak, and nobody believes she’ll be able to win.

From the publisher:

While traveling in Venice in 1837, Lucy Klaereon, in order to save her family’s honor and her immortal soul, decides to commit suicide by drowning herself in the Grand Canal. Unfortunately for Lucy, she is rescued. Her rescuers believe they can separate her from the demon Ra, whom she is destined to fight because of an ancient family pact.

What Lucy does not know is that her rescuers have their own agenda. Paolo Borgia, head of a deposed magical family, wants to use Ra for his own purposes. Lucy is given an alternative, to separate herself from her demon and family, which she gladly welcomes. When she finds out the truth about Ra, Lucy’s purpose changes from not only freedom, but to righting an ancient wrong.

Octavia, Lucy’s older sister, is in pursuit. She has been trained since birth to kill Lucy when Lucy loses her battle with Ra.. At the ritual to free Ra, the two sisters clash with surprising results. Octavia is possessed by Ra and Lucy is determined to free her sister and keep Ra from reshaping the world in his image.

There is one small problem. Lucy has been murdered. However, she’s not about to let a small detail like that keep her from correcting her mistakes. Lucy will save Octavia, even if it kills her again.

There’s a lot going on in this book. Secrets and betrayals and love and death and more betrayals and several very power-hungry characters willing to do whatever it takes to increase their magic. There’s also courage and decency and hope. Every character comes with their own background and conflicts and stories. It makes for a very good and complex story.

Here’s an interview and excerpt where you can read more.

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The Rise of IO: CoverFinally, I read The Rise of IO [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound], by Wesley Chu.

This is a great follow-up to Chu’s books about Tao. (I reviewed The Lives of Tao here.) Whereas Tao was a highly skilled Quasing who had changed the course of human history through his hosts. the central Quasing in this book is…well, pretty much the anti-Tao. For example, one of IO’s more notable hosts was a general by the name of George Custer.

From the publisher:

Ella Patel – thief, con-artist and smuggler – is in the wrong place at the wrong time. One night, on the border of a demilitarized zone run by the body-swapping alien invaders, she happens upon a man and woman being chased by a group of assailants. The man freezes, leaving the woman to fight off five attackers at once, before succumbing. As she dies, to both Ella and the man’s surprise, the sparkling light that rises from the woman enters Ella, instead of the man. She soon realizes she’s been inhabited by Io, a low-ranking Quasing who was involved in some of the worst decisions in history. Now Ella must now help the alien presence to complete her mission and investigate a rash of murders in the border states that maintain the frail peace.

With the Prophus assigned to help her seemingly wanting to stab her in the back, and the enemy Genjix hunting her, Ella must also deal with Io’s annoying inferiority complex. To top it all off, Ella thinks the damn alien voice in her head is trying to get her killed. And if you can’t trust the voices in your head, who can you trust?

Like the earlier books, this is a fast-paced SF thriller with plenty of action, and I really enjoyed it. It’s nice to see women taking more of the stage in this one, and Ella is a great character: smart, streetwise, and practical.

There’s a pretty big plot thread left hanging at the end, so I assume (and hope) we’ll be getting more of IO soon. In the meantime, you can read the first chapter over at Tor.com.

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart, by Stephanie Burgis

Dragon with a Chocolate Heart - Cover ArtEarlier this year, I snagged a copy of The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound], a middle-grade fantasy by the delightful Stephanie Burgis. I wasn’t able to read it right away, because I wanted to read it with my twelve-year-old son Jackson, who’s a big fan of all things draconic. So once we finished the series we’d been reading together, we started in on this one.

Here’s the publisher’s description:

Aventurine is a brave young dragon ready to explore the world outside of her family’s mountain cave … if only they’d let her leave it. Her family thinks she’s too young to fly on her own, but she’s determined to prove them wrong by capturing the most dangerous prey of all: a human.

But when that human tricks her into drinking enchanted hot chocolate, she’s transformed into a puny human without any sharp teeth, fire breath, or claws. Still, she’s the fiercest creature in these mountains — and now she’s found her true passion: chocolate. All she has to do is get to the human city to find herself an apprenticeship (whatever that is) in a chocolate house (which sounds delicious), and she’ll be conquering new territory in no time … won’t she?

I asked Jackson a few questions, starting with, What did you think of the book?

“I give it five thumbs up — no, wait — four talons up, because it’s a dragon!”

What was your favorite part?

“I liked the ending, when the dragons were [spoiler] and [spoiler] and everything.”

What did you think of Aventurine?

“I liked her. She was cool. I liked that she tried to go out of her cage even though her parents said she wasn’t ready, and I liked that she tried to [spoiler] at the end even though everyone told her not to.”

Sounds like you like that she made her own choices, and didn’t let anyone else tell her what to do.What did you think of the other characters, like Silke and Marina and the rest?

“I thought Marina was kind of like what Aventurine might be like if she was older, and Silke was pretty cool and pretty nice.”

Did this book ever make you hungry, too?

“Yes! I wanted to eat a chocolate dragon. (Like a chocolate bunny, only a dragon.) I don’t think I’d like the chili chocolate, though.”

There was one part of the book you were upset about. Could you talk about that a little?

“I didn’t like the part when Aventurine had given up, because it made me feel depressed and angry and scared, and all the negative emotions.”

How did you feel when we read the chapter after that?

[Jackson bounced and waved his arms in excitement to answer this one.]

Who would you recommend this book to?

“Everyone! Especially people who like dragons, chocolate, or very exciting and good stories!”

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I tend to agree with Jackson. This was a lot of fun, though perhaps a bit dangerous to my blood sugar. I loved Aventurine’s struggles as a dragon-in-a-human-body, trying to understand and adapt to all of the weirdness that is humanity. I loved her relationships with Silke and Marina.

I saw a twist coming pretty early on, but that didn’t make it any less satisfying. And I suspect it wouldn’t jump out as much to younger readers (or readers who aren’t also authors).

If I had to pick just one word to summarize the book, I’d go with “charming.”

You can read the first chapter on Burgis’ website.

The Tick, Season One

My introduction to The Tick came in the late 90s, with the animated series. A few of my grad school friends and I would get together each week, eat Pillsbury cinnamon rolls, and watch The Tick (and a few other shows.)

I loved it. I loved the humor, the silliness, the undermining of superhero tropes, and the overall sense of fun.

This was my background as I logged onto Amazon Prime to watch their live-action take on The Tick.

It felt like the entire show was filmed using the same Gritty Angst Filter they used on Batman v Superman. They managed to make The Tick almost entirely joyless.

Spoilers follow…

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Wonder Woman (Here There Be Spoilers)

My family and I finally saw Wonder Woman today. (I made sure to do up the beard with the appropriate colors, of course!)

Selfie with yellow and red beard bandsI liked it a lot. It wasn’t perfect, but it’s easily the best of the DC superhero films for me. Not necessarily a high bar to clear, but still…

Was it perfect? Nope. I saw the twists with Ares and the “godkiller” pretty much as soon as they were introduced. Elena Anaya’s Doctor Poison was sadly underutilized. The final battles were a little too CGI.

I still enjoyed it. I loved Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, and Chris Pine as Steve Trevor. Lucy Davis was a lot of fun as Etta Candy. Perhaps most importantly, the film gave us a Wonder Woman who had heart. Who loves and protects and smiles and cares and tries to help, and not just in battle. The moment when she tries to comfort Charlie after what appears to be a PTSD-type nightmare, or her unabashed joy in ice cream or seeing a baby for the first time…those moments made Wonder Woman as much as her big fight scenes.

I’ve seen people talking about how they cried during this movie at the sight of a woman taking center stage as a powerful, compassionate, world-saving superhero. I’ve seen criticism of the way the film quickly abandons Paradise Island and surrounds Wonder Woman with an almost entirely-male cast. I’ve seen love for the casting of an Israeli woman, and for a Native character who introduces himself in Blackfoot. I’ve seen pain and frustration at the way black women are portrayed or pushed into the background. (I loved watching Robin Wright kick ass, but why couldn’t the movie have kept Philippus as Diana’s trainer?)

I’ve also seen that amazingly clueless Guardian review, which complains:

Confusingly, Diana later explains that “men are essential for procreation but when it comes to pleasure, unnecessary.”

Anyone else completely unshocked to find that this review was written by a man?

I included the link, but I recommend reading more thoughtful commentary and responses like the following:

It’s hard to hear something you love is problematic. We saw The Princess Bride again last weekend. I love that movie. I think it’s brilliant…but it’s also almost exclusively male, and includes a scene of Westley threatening to strike his so-called love because he doesn’t like something she said. That’s messed-up. I still love it, but not because I delude myself into thinking it’s perfect.

Wonder Woman is extraordinary and powerful for a lot of people. It’s also flawed and frustrating or disappointing for others. This isn’t a contradiction. It’s the nature of art. Sure, certain criticism might be ridiculous — waves at that Guardian reviewer — but I don’t think we do ourselves any favors by pretending our faves are perfect, or by refusing to listen to people who point out genuine problems.

I liked the movie. I liked Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman. I think this was a big step forward for DC films…but one step does not a journey make. I hope Hollywood learns and does even better in the future.

I’ll end with Stylist UK’s 25 life-giving photos of little girls dressed as Wonder Woman.

Gal Gadot with Young Fan

Photo from Ryan McGee’s Twitter Feed

Nova, by Margaret Fortune

Cover of NovaI am shamefully overdue on reviewing Margaret Fortune‘s book Nova [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound]. I’d been hoping to review and provide a blurb before the sequel came out. Since the sequel was released on Tuesday of this week, it looks like I blew it.

Here’s some of the publisher’s summary:

Lia Johansen was created for only one purpose: to slip onto the strategically placed New Sol Space Station and explode.

But her mission goes to hell when her clock malfunctions, freezing her countdown with just two minutes to go. With no Plan B, no memories of her past, and no identity besides a name stolen from a dead POW, Lia has no idea what to do next. Her life gets even more complicated when she meets Michael Sorenson, the real Lia’s childhood best friend.

There’s a lot going on here. In some respects, this reads like a pretty standard coming-of-age story, with Lia learning about herself, developing relationships and a romantic interest, and finding purpose. In space!

It’s enjoyable on that level, and for a good 3/4 of the book, Lia’s personal growth takes center stage. But all this is happening against a background of interplanetary war, in which Lia is a literal weapon for the other side. Fortune sprinkles hints and clues as we go, preparing us for the big revelations at the end.

I guessed one of those revelations pretty early on. Others were more of a surprise. The pace really picks up as we learn the truth about Lia’s past and the war she’s fighting. I had a really hard time putting down the book during those final chapters.

In some respects, it reminded me of reading Heinlein as a kid — engaging teen protagonist and interesting space stuff, all written in a way that pulls you along for the story. (But without the more problematic aspects of Heinlein.) The fact that her glitched clock keeps starting and stopping, slowly whittling away the seconds, adds a nice layer of tension and conflict.

I would have liked to see Lia grapple a bit more deeply with the fact that she’s both a suicide bomber and the bomb itself, but the ending resolves that pretty well.

All in all, a fun read. I suspect more experienced SF writers might find parts of it familiar, but it’s still enjoyable. (And best of all, the ebook edition is currently on sale for $1.99.)

Book two of the five-book series, Archangel, came out on March 7.

Kat, Incorrigible, by Stephanie Burgis

Kat, Incorrigible cover artAt a group booksigning in Lansing last month, I snagged an autographed copy of Stephanie Burgis‘ debut middle grade fantasy Kat, Incorrigible [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound]. It’s a fun read, which the publisher describes thusly:

Twelve-year-old Katherine Ann Stephenson has just discovered that she’s inherited her late mother’s magical talents, and despite Stepmama’s stern objections, she’s determined to learn how to use them. But with her eldest sister Elissa’s intended fiancé, the sinister Sir Neville, showing a dangerous interest in Kat’s magical potential; her other sister, Angeline, wreaking romantic havoc with her own witchcraft; and a highwayman lurking in the forest, Kat’s reckless heroism will be tested to the utmost. If she can learn to control her new powers, will Kat be able to rescue her family and win her sisters their true loves?

In this charming blend of Jane Austen-era culture, magical whimsy, and rollicking adventure, readers will find a true friend in the refreshingly unladylike Kat Stephenson.

One of my favorite parts of the book was Kat’s relationship with her two sisters, and the development of each of those three characters. All three of them are strong and determined to do what they think is best, and they all have different and conflicting ideas of what “best” means, which causes wonderful familial conflict. I love that they’re all powerful, and it’s different power for each one.

This is book one of a trilogy, and you definitely start to see the larger magical world, with its wonders and dangers both. The strong, often rigid societal rules of Kat’s mundane world are reflected in the magic one as well, and Kat has little patience for them in either world.

The publisher described it as “charming,” and I think that’s the perfect word for the book. There’s fun and adventure and magic and a rebellious magical heroine, all of which make for a good read. But what separates this story from the pack is the development of Kat, Angeline, and Elissa. Watching them love and care for one another while simultaneously getting so infuriated was wonderful. All three are active characters trying to take control of their own lives. They all make mistakes — sometimes heartbreaking ones — but they never stop trying to do what’s right.

And you’ve gotta love a book that manages to present and dump a traditional trope within its first two sentences!

You can read the first two chapters on Burgis’ website.

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I am Princess X, by Cherie Priest

Cover Art for I Am Princess XBack when my son was in school, I noticed Cherie Priest’s YA novel I am Princess X [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound] in his Scholastic book order form. Naturally, I added that to the order we sent in!

Let’s start with the official summary from the publisher:

Once upon a time, two best friends created a princess together. Libby drew the pictures, May wrote the tales, and their heroine, Princess X, slayed all the dragons and scaled all the mountains their imaginations could conjure.

Once upon a few years later, Libby was in the car with her mom, driving across the Ballard Bridge on a rainy night. When the car went over the side, Libby passed away, and Princess X died with her.

Once upon a now: May is sixteen and lonely, wandering the streets of Seattle, when she sees a sticker slapped in a corner window.

Princess X? When May looks around, she sees the Princess everywhere: Stickers. Patches. Graffiti. There’s an entire underground culture, focused around a webcomic at IAmPrincessX.com. The more May explores the webcomic, the more she sees disturbing similarities between Libby’s story and Princess X online. And that means that only one person could have started this phenomenon — her best friend, Libby, who lives.

I stumbled a little in the beginning, because I’d gotten it into my head that this was a fantasy novel. Between the princess thing and the fact that Priest is known for SF/F… and the fact that I didn’t read the back of the book as closely as I should have. This is not speculative fiction. It’s YA mystery with a bit of a thriller feel.

It’s also a comic, which was cool. You get pages from the I Am Princess X webcomic interspersed between some of the chapters. I would have liked a bit more of the comic, but it made sense for it to end where it did, about 2/3 of the way through the book.

There’s no romance to speak of. The heart of the book is the friendship between May and Libby, which I liked a lot. I also appreciated the strained relationship between May and her father. May’s parents are divorced, and neither one of them is doing a great job of parenting. Her mother isn’t really part of the story, but I liked that her father was at least trying. Not always successfully, and he certainly messes up sometimes, but he wasn’t just a cardboard failure of a parent, or completely absent from the story.

Computer gurus Trick and Jackdaw were interesting characters as well, though they didn’t feel as well-rounded. But I’m not sure if I really wanted more of them, or if I prefer it this way, with the main focus on May and her story.

It was a little too dark for my son (he’s 11), but I enjoyed it.

You can read an excerpt here.

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HEROINE COMPLEX: Review and Giveaway

Heroine Complex - CoverOne of the best things about writing for DAW is that they occasionally shoot me an ARC or finished copy of one of their new releases. Which is how I got my hands on an advanced review copy of Sarah Kuhn‘s debut novel Heroine Complex [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound].

The cover shows a scene from the beginning of the book, in which our two heroines take on a group of demonic cupcakes. Which should tell you most of what you need to know. But for the sake of completeness, here’s the publisher’s description:

Evie Tanaka is the put-upon personal assistant to Aveda Jupiter, her childhood best friend and San Francisco’s most beloved superheroine. She’s great at her job — blending into the background, handling her boss’s epic diva tantrums, and getting demon blood out of leather pants.

Unfortunately, she’s not nearly as together when it comes to running her own life, standing up for herself, or raising her tempestuous teenage sister, Bea.

But everything changes when Evie’s forced to pose as her glamorous boss for one night, and her darkest secret comes out: she has powers, too. Now it’s up to her to contend with murderous cupcakes, nosy gossip bloggers, and supernatural karaoke battles—all while juggling unexpected romance and Aveda’s increasingly outrageous demands. And when a larger threat emerges, Evie must finally take charge and become a superheroine in her own right … or see her city fall to a full-on demonic invasion.

Review: This is a fun read. It took me a few chapters to get drawn into the story, but the more Evie started settling into her role as substitute hero, the more I was hooked. There’s a nice balance of demon-fighting action and actual character-building and messed-up relationships, including Evie and her best friend Aveda, Evie and her troubled sister, Evie and her romantic interest (a demon-studying scientist who raided Neil Gaiman’s wardrobe), as well as a lot of secondary relationships and interactions.

The violence is all relatively light. There’s also some sexual content.

I suspect you’ll have some readers complaining, “Why aren’t there more male characters? Why are the only guys the love interests and background players?” I also suspect many other readers will find those complaints to be a strong recommendation for reading the book.

Some revelations were a bit predictable, though there were also twists I didn’t see coming. And that’s okay. This isn’t a story that attempts to be super-deep and mysterious and profound. It’s an unapologetically fun story of two Asian-American women fighting demon cupcakes in San Francisco and doing their best to save the world.

Read an excerpt.

Giveaway: DAW sent me not one, but two ARCs of this book. So I figured one of them should go to a reader. If you’re interested, leave a comment about your favorite superheroine. I’ll pick a winner at random and mail you a copy early next week.

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Vacation Reading: Okorafor, Blake, and Kagan

One of many nice things about getting away for vacation earlier this month was the chance to catch up on some reading.

It began with Nnedi Okorafor‘s Binti: Home [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound], the sequel to her award-winning novella Binti (reviewed here). The new novella will be coming out from Tor.com in early 2017, but I got the chance to read an early copy and provide a blurb. The story has Okorafor’s trademark imagination and creativity and wonderful worldbuilding. Binti (the character) is once again caught in the middle of cultural conflicts, both between humanity and the alien Meduse, and among her own people and family.

I loved getting to see more of Binti’s home and family, as well as the additional background and history. In some ways, this felt a bit more introspective than the first novella. We don’t get the same level of world-changing conflicts and resolution. The focus is more personal, and I thought that worked well.

My one complaint is that this is part two of a trilogy, and had a bit of a cliffhanger ending. But that’s just more reason for me to put the third Binti novella on my To Be Read list, and to hope Okorafor writes and publishes it soon!

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Wickedly Powerful coverNext up was Deborah Blake‘s Wickedly Powerful [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound], the third book in her Baba Yaga paranormal romance series. “Baba Yaga is not one woman, but rather a title carried by a chosen few. They keep the balance of nature and guard the borders of our world.”

This book follows the third of the three U.S.-based Baba Yagas, a woman named Bella Young with a fiery temper and magic to match. An accident with her power when she was young led her to isolate herself so she wouldn’t hurt anyone else. Her only company is the dragon Koshka, who lives disguised as a Norwegian Forest Cat.

Enter scarred (inside and out) former Hotshots firefighter Sam Corbett, who works the fire watch tower in a forest plagued by magical blazes. Blazes Bella has been sent to investigate.

These books are fun. I read this one in about two days. Bella, Sam, and Koshka are all quite likeable, even as their insecurities lead them through the usual romantic stumbles and misunderstandings. The villain is unapologetically evil. It’s a nice wrap-up to the three Baba Yaga books, and a good bridge into Blake’s next set of stories.

My only minor complaint is that the confrontation with the villain felt like it ended a bit too quickly and abruptly.

This one does rely a bit on events that happened in book two, so there might be a few minor moments of confusion if you’ve not read the earlier books, but you can still read, follow, and enjoy this one on its own if you so desire.

In short, I’d call this a good old-fashioned comfort read. With a cat-who’s-really-a-dragon. But then, aren’t most cats?

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Finally, my son and I finished reading Mirable [Amazon | B&N], by Janet Kagan.

I’ve talked about Janet’s books a few times before, but I’m happy to say my 11-year-old really enjoyed this one. It’s set on the planet Mirabile, in the early days of a human colony. The geneticists back on Earth really wanted to make sure the colonists had redundant copies of various species, so not only did they provide frozen embryos, they also backed up genetic codes in different creatures. So your dandelions might suddenly give birth to a swarm of bumblebees, or a cat might have a litter of raccoons. And then there are the Dragon’s Teeth — hybrids like the Kangaroo Rex or the Frankenswine…

The book is made up of six stories. We were reading the old print edition, which has bridge sections between each story, but I’ve been told the new ebook edition lacks those. Regardless, its a lot of fun.

Annie Jason Masmajean is a wonderful character, a gruff, fierce, loving older woman devoted to the people and wildlife of her new home. She also knows her way around a shotgun, gets a lovely romance with lots of making out, and is just generally awesome.

The secondary characters are great as well, and Kagan obviously put some thought into the cultural norms and makeup of the colony. And if some of the science strains credulity a bit, it’s all in the service of creating an imaginative, creative, and shamelessly fun world.

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Avengers 3: Civil War: The Black Panther/Spider-Man Movie: Thoughts and Discussion

My wife wanted to go see Captain America: Civil War on Mother’s Day. Because she is awesome.

I don’t have the time for a full review, but had lots of thoughts I wanted to put out there. And hey, what the internet really needs is one more place for people to discuss the latest Marvel movie, right?

If you haven’t seen it yet and don’t want to be spoiled, turn back now…

SPOILERS AHOY

Civil War Meme

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Jim C. Hines