Review

Shadowshaper, by Daniel José Older

Shadowshaper Cover ArtI continue to snag books out of my son’s Scholastic book order forms. One of the latest was Shadowshaper [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound], by Daniel José Older. It’s an enjoyable, relatively quick read. Here’s the summary:

Sierra Santiago planned to have an easy summer of making art and hanging out with her friends. But then a corpse crashes the first party of the season. Her stroke-ridden grandfather starts apologizing over and over. And when the murals in her neighborhood begin to weep real tears… Well, something more sinister than the usual Brooklyn ruckus is going on.

With the help of a mysterious fellow artist named Robbie, Sierra discovers shadowshaping, a thrilling magic that infuses ancestral spirits into paintings, music, and stories. But someone is killing the shadowshapers one by one — and the killer believes Sierra is hiding their greatest secret. Now she must unravel her family’s past, take down the killer in the present, and save the future of shadowshaping for herself and generations to come.

The “About the Author” section notes that Older lives in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, which is where the book takes place, and it shows. Sierra’s world feels real and fully developed, populated with interesting people and places. It’s a far cry from some of the generic pseudo-New York settings you sometimes get.

I love the concept of shadowshaping, the way the magic works as a collaboration between spirits and shadowshaper, and the possibilities of that power. One of my favorite scenes was watching Sierra discovering what she could do with a simple piece of chalk.

Sierra and the rest of the cast are great, all with their own personalities and flaws and conflicts. They feel like real people…it’s just that some of them can bring their artwork to life.

My only complaint is that the villain felt a bit flat and obvious. But the ideas behind that villain, the theme of the privileged cultural outsider barging in and making a mess of things, are totally valid and powerful. I wouldn’t want that to change; I just would have liked to see a little more depth to them.

And kudos for the awesome librarian.

I’ve seen a number of reviews praising the diversity in the book. On the one hand, I do think that’s worth recognizing, and I definitely appreciated it. On the other… I don’t know. I wish we could reach a point where we don’t have to praise authors for showing the world the way it is, and could instead just note when authors fail to portray a realistically diverse world. Does that make sense? I dunno…probably something that needs a longer blog post to unpack.

Anyway, to wrap this up, the ending was lovely and made me eager to read Shadowhouse Fall, which comes out in September of this year.

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.

Save

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.

Save

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.

Save

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!

#

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?

#

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.

Save

The Tribe Trilogy, by Ambelin Kwaymullina

I met Ambelin Kwaymullina in 2014 at Continuum. Later that year, I read and talked about the first two books in her young adult Tribe series. At the time, only the first book was available in the U.S.

As of today, the second book is out in the U.S. as well, but the third is only available through the Australian publisher, as far as I can tell. Fortunately, I have connections down under, and was able to get my hands on the final volume of the trilogy 🙂

The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf Cover The Disappearance of Ember Crow Cover The Foretelling of Georgie Spider Cover

Kwaymullina describes the series as:

…a three-book dystopian series set on a future earth where the world was ripped apart by an environmental cataclysm known as ‘the Reckoning’. The survivors of the Reckoning live in an ecotopia where they strive to protect the Balance of the world, the inherent harmony between all life. But anyone born with an ability – Firestarters who control fire, Rumblers who can cause quakes, Boomers who make things explode – is viewed as a threat to the Balance. Any child or teenager found to have such a power is labeled an ‘Illegal’ and locked away in detention centres by the government.

Except for the ones who run.

Sixteen year old Ashala Wolf leads a band of rebels who she names her Tribe. Sheltered by the mighty tuart trees of the Firstwood and the legendary saurs who inhabit the grasslands at the forest’s edge, the Tribe has been left alone – until now. A new detention centre is being built near the forest, and when The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf begins, Ashala has been captured by the government and is on her way to interrogation…

I really enjoyed these books, set in a world of powers and politics and love and cruelty. Georgie Spider was a particularly good PoV character for the final book. She’s trying so hard to understand the various futures she sees, searching so hard for the best path that she sometimes loses herself. She’s so dedicated, and you just want to give her a hug and take her out for ice cream and tell her it’s going to be okay, but they don’t actually need you to do that because they have each other. The family bond connecting the Tribe is so powerful, and so wonderful…even though the events that made the Tribe necessary are so horrible.

This book does a nice job of bringing things to a head. We learn more about the history of various characters and what happened after the Reckoning. A lot of powerful people want to reshape the world, but Ashala Wolf is the only one with the power to do literally that. Which means a lot of people want her dead, and Georgie is desperately trying to keep her alive.

I appreciate the parallels to the real world. Kwaymullina talks about this a bit in the author’s note to book three:

The Citizenship Accords … are based upon legislation that applied to Aboriginal people here in Australia, and particularly on the Western Australian Natives (Citizenship Rights) Act 1944 (which was finally repealed in 1971. This legislation offered a strange kind of citizenship, if it could be called that, because what it did was exempt Aboriginal people who obtained a citizenship certificate from the discriminatory restrictions which only applied to them in the first place because they were Aboriginal. These restrictions included being unable to marry without the government’s permission, or even to move around the State. Citizenship could be easily lost, for example, by associating with Aboriginal friends or relatives who did not have citizenship. Many Aboriginal people referred to citizenship papers as dog licenses or dog tags — a license to be Australian in the land that Aboriginal people had occupied for over sixty thousand years.

She also talks about the connection between the conflicts of the books and the battles of today. Battles between fear and hope, between hate and acceptance, between greed and balance.

They’re good books, and I recommend them. If you’re in the U.S., you can use the following links:

I’m really hoping the U.S. publisher will pick up the third book soon…

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

More

Batman V Superman Review, With Spoilers

We saw it. I’d seen a number of reviews floating around the internet, so I walked into the theater with pretty low expectations. That helped a lot.

Ultimately, it felt like a movie that needed at least one more rewrite, or maybe one fewer. It was better than I expected it to be…but that doesn’t make it a good movie.

SPOILERS AHEAD

Superman and Batman

More

Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor

Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound] is one of the finalists for the Nebula Award in the Novella category. From the official description:

Her name is Binti, and she is the first of the Himba people ever to be offered a place at Oomza University, the finest institution of higher learning in the galaxy. But to accept the offer will mean giving up her place in her family to travel between the stars among strangers who do not share her ways or respect her customs.

Knowledge comes at a cost, one that Binti is willing to pay, but her journey will not be easy. The world she seeks to enter has long warred with the Meduse, an alien race that has become the stuff of nightmares. Oomza University has wronged the Meduse, and Binti’s stellar travel will bring her within their deadly reach.

If Binti hopes to survive the legacy of a war not of her making, she will need both the the gifts of her people and the wisdom enshrined within the University, itself but first she has to make it there, alive.

Like all of Okorafor’s work, Binti is full of imagination, fantastic worldbuilding, and layer upon layer of cultural development and conflict. Binti herself is a 16-year-old harmonizer, a gifted, courageous girl and the first of her people to leave the planet. She faces alienation and racism and loneliness, but she’s determined to grow and learn. She’s on her way to study at Oomza Uni when her ship is attacked by the Meduse, a violent, jellyfish-like race with a vendetta against humanity.

Communication is at the heart of the story. An ancient device called an edan allows Binti to communicate with the Meduse. It’s the key to everything that follows. Communication and harmony as the antidote to violence and war. It’s not easy; in fact, it’s terrifying and dangerous. That’s part of what makes Binti’s story so powerful.

The plot itself is relatively straightforward, as Binti tries first to survive the war between humans and Meduse, and then to change that war. But this isn’t a story you read for the plot. You read for the beautiful characterization, the deep cultural clashes both among Binti’s people and between humans and other races, and for enough fascinating ideas to fill several novels.

I finished the story wanting more, and will be waiting impatiently for a novel set in this universe.

You can read an excerpt of the novella here.

Jim C. Hines