book reviews

Review | City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett

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Oh, man. I had been waiting for this one.

Literally checking everyday until I could submit an ARC request. And, when the book arrived from the publisher, I could have squealed.

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City of Stairs was a 2014 release that I really enjoyed. It revolves around a character, Shara, who is sent to a country where the gods aren’t just gone, they’ve been killed. It’s a fantastic fantasy meets spy novel. The follow-up to City of Blades was released yesterday (Spoiler: Get a copy. You’ll love it.).

City of Blades follows General Mulaghesh. She was a city governor in the first book and played a big role in Shara’s story in Bolikov. In the newest installment, Mulaghesh has retired, very vocally, and has hidden herself away to drink herself to death. But, Shara, who now has increased power and the same tenacity, has called Mulaghesh back into action. After the Battle of Bolikov, Mulaghesh thought she would be done with politics and the old gods, but she has a sinking feeling when she finds out where Shara is sending her: Voortyashtan. Voortyashtan is the city of Voortya, goddess of death and war.

When I had heard there’d be a follow-up, I didn’t pin it for a story about Mulaghesh, but I’m so glad it was.

Mulaghesh is a surly general in her mid 60s-ish. She’s surly, prone to finding herself at the bottom of a bottle, and extremely committed to her soldiers. She’s tough to say the least, but she’s a bit of a mystery in the first book. How she became who she is doesn’t get talked about. The newest story goes in-depth into Mulaghesh’s past, and the story is dark.

City of Blades also shows Mulaghesh in the aftermath of the Battle of Bolikov. Five years later, and she still is struggling with what happened. This, of course, is made worse by reminders of who she once was. In Voortyashtan, Mulaghesh is forced into close quarters with the man who led her as a young soldier and who is a constant reminder of darkness that follows her.

This sounds dramatic, like something that could be out of a melodrama, but the relationships and character backgrounds that Bennett draws are nuanced and complex with a depth that makes them seem very real.

Sigrud also appears. He’s a burly Viking-like man from the first book. His character, too, gets a deeper examination and is forced to face his past deeds, though in a different way than Mulaghesh.

Sigrud’s daughter, Signe, plays a large role. She’s a fantastically intelligent, full of ambition, and surprisingly complex. She’s a captain of industry determined to bring her country and those around her into a modern age.

The setting is equally dark. Voortyashtan is a grim place. The city was flooded and remains covered by the sea. The military outpost there is an old, dank fortress. There are secret hideaways and conflict between the locals and the Saypuri military present.

The plot is fantastic. It engages with the same mystery and fantasy elements as the first does, but is complimented this time by an even deeper look into the characters and the history of the world. There are battles and magic and mysticism, including the slip-away, broken bits of divine worlds that were present in Bolikov.

My favorite part of the story is the way Bennett approaches war, death, and one’s conscious. Mulaghesh is forced to examine her own past with the topics and, in the land of Voortya (Empress of Graves, Maiden of Steel, Queen of Grief, She Who Clove the Earth in Twain), must face the truth about herself and the soldiers who once followed the goddess.

Read it. Like it. Love it. I really believe this is going to be one of the best books released in 2016.

A huge thanks to the publisher who sent me a copy for free in exchange for an honest review.

 

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Review | The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge

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Moon is a Summer and a sybil. She’s a holy woman from a part of her planet that rejects technology that has been brought by offworlders. Her cousin Sparks is her soulmate, but the two can’t be together. To marry a sybil is to die. So, the two part, sending Sparks to be among the Winters, the powerful, technologically savvy city dwellers. But Moon isn’t just special for being a sybil. She’s also the key to the Winter Queen’s plot to stay in power forever.

The Snow Queen just got a reprint to celebrate its 35th anniversary of winning the Hugo and Nebula awards. The new trade paperback is gorgeous.

Vinge’s story is a fairly classic fantasy adventure-romance. Snow is a princess-perfect kind of character. She’s determined, kind, everyone loves her. She leaves to follow her One True Love when he calls for her help. In that regard, the story is underwhelming. It’s value isn’t really in Moon, nor is it in Sparks, whose storyline is fairly predictable: separated from girl, becomes briefly evil, magically becomes good again.

The story is interesting because of some of the early twists and the side characters. One prominent character named Jerusha is among the first ever female police captains. She’s an offworlder with a high post she know she got because the invading force wanted to humor the native government. She’s constantly trying to prove herself while others fail and, at the start of the story, she is fighting to keep order in a world that doesn’t want it. Her frustrations were easily one of the more interesting parts of the story.

The story has an interesting setting and a very distinct magic system. The sybils are like oracles, but cursed. They cause madness in those who spill their blood. The offworlders write it off as silly nonsense, and eventually the sybils are only members of the Summers who reject technology.

The story itself has a lot to do with Fate and True Love (yes, with capital letters). It toys briefly with some meatier themes like addiction and abuse, but doesn’t really go into them and glosses over a lot of the resolutions. It does talk about environmentalism, poaching, and humane treatment of other animals, which was interesting. I thought the resolution there still wasn’t what it could have been.

Frankly, I found it a bit unsatisfying. It seemed like a lot of the more interesting and thought-provoking points are dropped in favor of romance. The main plot was fairly predictable. That doesn’t mean that another person wouldn’t enjoy it, though. I tend not to be a very fantasy-heavy reader. I like fantasy, but more in the literary tradition than the high fantasy one.

 

Fairytale Retellings | Six Gun Snow White and Poison

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                       Poison     16104414

When reading Six Gun Snow White (Cat Valente) and Poison (Sarah Pinborough), I was left thinking a lot about fairytale retellings, how they are approached, and my feelings about them. My past history with fairytale retellings hasn’t been all rosy cheeks and cuddles. Generally, I finish fairytale retellings with a sense of something left wanting, a general dissatisfaction.

I have come to the conclusion that fairytale retellings are best done in one of two ways: total overhaul or digging deeper into the original. Both Valente and Pinborough are good examples of these two approaches.

Six Gun Snow White is a total overhaul story. It breaks apart the pieces of Snow White and plays with them. It puts them together in a different way. While the story still revolves around the relationship between a girl and her stepmother, Six Gun Snow White varies widely from the original story. Snow White is the daughter of a white minerals prospector and a Native American woman. She’s by and large let free to roam her father’s estate while he travels to new mining opportunities. Snow White has to deal with a physically abusive stepmother who can’t get over the fact that Snow is, in fact, not white. Snow runs away with her six shooter into Crow country.  Magic is there, but the mirror doesn’t talk and the dwarves aren’t exactly dwarves.

Valente’s story is a great example of an overhaul done right. She takes the themes and elements of Snow White, but isn’t confined by them. It doesn’t feel like a Snow White story bound by its past iterations. It feels fresh and very freed from convention. It would stand on its own if you had never read or heard the original tale. Valente picks and chooses what she likes and makes the story her own instead of just dressing Snow White up in a cowboy hat.

Poison is a more traditional retelling. Snow White is still a princess whose father remarries a witch. She runs away to be tracked down by a hunter. All the bells and whistles are still there. What Poison does that I liked with the story is taking previously one dimensional characters and digging in.

Pinborough takes the story of Snow White as an opportunity to look at who the Evil Stepmother is, why her relationship with Snow would devolve, and what the characters would be doing, thinking, wanting, etc. Pinborough expands on the story, unlike the more “paying homage” approach Valente takes, and it works. She examines the motivations and repercussions of the characters and successfully builds real people out of a cartoon drawing. She also intertwines some fairytales and gives it a dark ending (Oh, my God, that ending).

I think the real point here is that both can be done well, but it’s the divergence and depth that makes a retelling enjoyable. Retellings that work too hard on keeping the plot and story “pure” while also putting it in a different context are a turnoff to me. It binds the story up and doesn’t add to the story’s life. I like the story, but to hold too true to it while still trying to make it something the original story isn’t doesn’t often pan out.

Thoughts? What do you think about retellings?

Let’s all play some #BOOKTUBEBINGO

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Review | The Dispossessed by Ursula K Le Guin

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I recently finished The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin. It’s the fifth in her Hainish Cycle, a series in which a variety of humans and human-variate species are slowly working to create a kind of federated utopia of planets. This particular installment was published in 1974 and received the Nebula, Hugo, and Locus awards for that year. My edition is the Olive Edition reprint and it sits at just under 400 pages.

The Dispossessed is a key work in the Hainish Cycle. It describes the creation of the Ansible, a communication device that allows planets to communicate with one another in real-time, despite how far apart they are. As a result, the story is key to a number of later stories in the same universe and shines light on some of the stories preceding it, like The Left Hand of Darkness, where the ansible is used.

The Dispossessed takes place in the Cetian system on two planets that are paired together, revolving around one another in a moon-planet like relationship. The main character, Shevek is an Odonian from Annares, a member of a religious-political faction that fled from Urres, the more lush of the two planets, over 150 years prior. Shevek and his fellow Odonians live in a kind of anarcho-Marxist utopia, where there is no central government, and people work communally to do what work needs to be done.

Shevek has spent his life dedicating himself to physics and the dilemma of sequentialism and simultaneity. In a sense, he’s dealing with the temporal aftermath of Einstein’s theory of relativity, and has come to find that his work is stunted on Annares; he’s frustrated by the inability to communicate freely with Urresians and, when the story begins, he is about to travel to Urres, the first Anaresti Odonian to do so since the Odonians left 150 years ago.

In contrast to Annares, Urres is a more typical capitalist and patriarchical society. While Shevek has gone there in search of a kind of eureka moment in his work and to disseminate it according to his ideal of freedom of information, he’s soon to realize that there’s more to the capitalist political system than he had thought and he becomes embroiled in political conflict.

In this story, Le Guin is examining a number of interesting political situations. While clearly critiquing patriarchal structures and the capitalist system, she is also examining anarchim, particularly anarcho-Marxism (the intersection of anarchism and Marxist communism) in the face of extreme resource scarcity. Both fans and critics have pointed to the story as an analogue for United States/ USSR relations in the Cold War. It brings under fire both systems and the use of proxy wars. While anarchism comes out in a more favorable light, Le Guin also points to the difficulty in having a society without government, including the continuation of power struggles that are maintained by natural social structures outside of government structures, the exercise of social pressure as a replacement for a criminal justice system, and the difficulty in providing for society’s needs without bureaucracy supplanting the anarchist system.

The story is interesting, and the plot is complex. Structurally, it’s split between two timelines: Shevek on Urres and Shevek growing up on Annares. This is part of what allows Le Guin to provide multiple criticisms throughout the story without them piling up on one another. It also provides a slow insight into Shevek’s “present” timeline with the problems that faced him before leaving for Urres. Le Guin takes a great deal of time describing the Odonian’s lives and structures. The reader is meant to explore Odonian society with and through Shevek’s growth, and through Shevek’s later observations contrasting Urresti (captialist) society with his own. This also allows the reader to slowly become accustomed to the strange speech patterns and behaviors of the Odonians, and to ease into criticisms of an anarcho-Marxist society that, especially during the Cold War, readers may have jumped to quickly and without examining their own assumptions.

Shevek is out-of-place with his fellow Odonians. Their society has come to a point of complacency with bureaucracy that constantly seems to frustrate him; he has no real outlet to overcome the social and political structures that seem to stifle his work; and he’s significantly more self-isolating than is considered acceptable by social norms. This makes him a very approachable character, not just to the reader, but also to the “true” anarchists and outliers of Anarresti society. Shevek finds himself constantly drawing people who want to challenge the system, as informal as it may be. I liked this about him. I think it was a very successful strategy for Le Guin and really helped the reader to digest what was happening. His fellows call him an “egoizer,” a “profiteer,” and a “traitor.” In many ways, Shevek is more likeable for the taunts and anger he draws.

The science is pretty handwave-y and the idea that a planet can be another planet’s moon was a little silly. But the science isn’t so much the point. Le Guin uses it as a way to talk about freedom of information and intellectual integrity. Shevek is constantly finding himself at odds with his own moral system, and that espoused by both Annares and the Urres. He’s constantly rejected by one and is being misused by the other. His search for a way out of the dilemma is interesting and leads him to take action that may otherwise be counter intuitive.

The side characters are interesting, particularly Shevek’s partner, Takver. Takver is a fish geneticist and the two are often far apart, fulfilling society’s needs where needed, but constantly drawn back to one another. Takver is left to deal with the consequences of Shevek’s studies, her own drive to create and understand, and the bindings of family life often by herself. While she doesn’t have her own point-of-view, she comes off as very strong and perhaps more resilient and accepting than others deserve. Le Guin at times seems like she wants to dive more into Takver’s story, but can’t, which made me as a reader feel frustrated at times.

Overall, I enjoyed the story and its contrasts and comparisons. I liked the characters and the way the story took twists and turns. It’s criticisms were appealing to me, and I liked having more background into the grown of the Hainish universe and its technology and people. I would suggest reading this as one of your first Le Guin books, though I am partial to Left Hand of Darkness, because I think the context it provides helps to make later books a bit more comprehensible.

Have you read The Dispossessed? What did you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

Review: Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement

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Jennifer Clement’s Prayers for the Stolen is a story about women in poverty surviving in the mountains of Mexico. In a community where all the men have left for the U.S. and where cartels roam unchecked, the women proclaim loudly that “Thank god the baby was a boy.” Girls of the mountain are kidnapped at gunpoint and sold as slaves. It’s not a guarantee of safety; all the babies in the village are ‘boys.’

Prayers for the Stolen follows Ladydi (pronounced Lady Di), who recounts the stories of the girls in her village and that of her and her mother.

This book reminds me very much of Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street. The subject matter in both books is similar, though Clement’s story isn’t written in vignettes and focuses less on the sense of a community. Prayers for the Stolen is about women working hard against their circumstances and a young woman’s observation of her female companions.

Ladydi’s life with her mother is filled with betrayal and insecurity. Her mother is a drunk who resents everyone, quick to place blame on others and dedicated to the many grudges she holds. Ladydi’s mother is one of the more interesting characters of the novel. She’s got an uncertain sense of right and wrong, an unforgiving nature, and a temperament wont to change. Her mother is superstitious, believing in curses and that prayers for the things you want always go unanswered or worse. She is, however, utterly reliable. The portrayal is vivid and is often eerie.

Ladydi is more often an observer than a participant in her story. When she does appear to be engaged, it doesn’t last long. Her excursion outside the mountain in Acapulco is quick and mostly displays her own naivety. She’s betrayed by the sole male child of the village and the consequences are extremely serious. Surprisingly, she doesn’t seem to resent him. This would be off-putting and overly saintly if she didn’t have moments where she channels her mother’s anger and bitterness.

The story is slow at times and is more of a character study than anything else. The ending was a bit too sappy and convenient for my tastes.

Overall, 3.5/5

I received a copy of Prayers for the Stolen for free in exchange for an honest review via bloggingforbooks.com

Review: Atlanta Burns by Chuck Wendig

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Atlanta Burns, Chuck Wendig’s newest bind-up, follows a young heroine of the same name. Atlanta is surly, oddly compelled to do good, and very much haunted. Mostly she’s just getting through high school and trying not to give into sleep, where her past comes alive. When she’s awake and out of the house, she finds herself battling neo-Nazis, bullies, and corrupt police officials. Atlanta is Veronica Mars without the resources, friends, or safety of home.

Atlanta is finally adjusting to life after her shooting her mother’s ex-boyfriend. She’s making new friends and regaining a sense of belonging, tentative though it may be. Her new friends, Chris and Shane, geeks to say the least, have attached themselves to her, despite her reluctance. Then Chris dies, supposedly of suicide. But Atlanta isn’t so sure. She was never too far from a vigilante and, now, her self-control is going to be tested.

Atlanta herself is a decently complex character. She’s suffering from trauma, probably some PTSD and depression. She’s isolated. She will express frustration with others, and simultaneously long to be around people. She’s impulsive and has a serious sense of right and wrong.

However, I found myself to be frustrated with her. I wanted to see her have a moment or two where she looks at her behavior, sees her problems, and wants to be different, even if she doesn’t have the will or ability to change. I wanted her to have a self-reflective moment.

I also was a bit skeptical of her situation. After her assault, her mother’s behavior, and the nature of her self-defense, I was very surprised that Atlanta (1) didn’t have a state-presence in her life like a social worker, and (2) that there wasn’t any mandatory counseling. It just seemed a bit too unrealistic that there would be nothing, not even an incompetent of ineffective attempt at assistance for her.

She also shoots a lot of guns at people without really seeming to ever get into any trouble, and there are a lot of violent sociopaths living in her town, going to her school.

The side characters were interesting enough. There wasn’t a ton of development with them, but, by and large, they weren’t consistently present in the story. They’re all a bit gullible or unreasonably afraid of Atlanta. Her run-in with the police was violent, yes. People are scared she’ll do it again, but there were some pretty extenuating circumstances that led to her shooting a man. It seemed a bit unrealistic that everyone thinks she’ll do the same to them, also a bit too convenient. She needs leverage to keep the story moving, but I don’t know that the threat of her shooting people was really the way to go about giving it to her.

The story itself often feels episodic from one chapter to the next. Though there is an overarching plot and recurring characters, it doesn’t always seem to be very focused. It can be fun and fast-paced, but there are definitely times where it seems like the “main” plot has been abandoned or like there isn’t a lot of cohesion.

Rating: ***

I received a copy of Atlanta Burns for free in exchange for an honest review via Netgalley.