Beneath the Sugar Sky

July 16, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

sugarBeneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire

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The Wayward Children series is everything a good fantasy should be. It has interesting characters, all of whom could play the lead role in their own story, and all of whom play an important role in the mysteries that are unique to their home. As much as I loved the conceit of Every Heart a Doorway, though, I wasn’t thrilled with the story. McGuire won me over with Down Among the Sticks and Bones, so of course I was going to read Beneath the Sugar Sky. In the end, though, I didn’t like the story as much, even though it worked perfectly well.

McGuire takes the characters she created in her first book and writes an adventure story that uses all of their different skills, but it doesn’t have the kind of impact Jack and Jill’s story did. I think it’s because the story of Sticks was personal, while the other two books are more ensemble stories, so we don’t get to stay focused on any one character. What characters are here are sympathetic, and we get a good sense of their motivations, but I’d prefer to read Cora’s story instead of going on an adventure to help Rini (who, to be honest, was a bit of a prima donna).

Like the other books in the series, Sugar has great characters, diverse characters, great ideas, great themes, and a strong narrative. I just wish it had been another standalone story instead of a group adventure. I feel like McGuire created her cast of characters in the first book, and now it’s time for us to read their individual stories. Of course, without an ensemble book every so often, we’d run out of characters, so I can’t complain too much.

Started: June 20, 2018
Finished: June 21, 2018

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Spiderlight

July 10, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

spiderSpiderlight by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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This is one of those books where I wish I had live-Tweeted my reading experience, since when I started, I wasn’t impressed. At all. Admittedly, Children of Time had set me up with high expectations, but I wasn’t expecting a story that started off sounding like someone’s last D&D adventure, complete with rogue, mage, barbarian, thief, wizard, and prophecized quest. It felt so derivative and so common that I started wondering if Time had been a fluke. In my notes, I wrote, “it’s fantasy, it’s a quest, it’s irreverent … and it’s frankly not as engaging”.

Fortunately, that was just the first chapter.

The second chapter started out with an effective, evocative piece of horror, which brought my attention back. I hung on a bit longer, the story started to develop, I started to get a hint of something larger than the story, and then I realized exactly what Tchaikovsky was doing. He was taking all the standard tropes of fantasy fiction and subverting them. Completely. He makes the reader question the motives of any character in fantasy, and forces them to look at events from another perspective.

He also imbues his story with a sense of humor that borders on irreverence. It helps to get a better feel for the story when the powerful wizard just wants to set everything on fire, or when the thief can’t help needling the barbarian. Tchaikovsky also adds heavier themes to his story, like the rogue having to constantly deflect the barbarian’s advances because, after one tryst, he thinks she belongs to him. That helps us remember that this is still a serious story with important things to say. And then he adds his own commentary on the genre itself that makes us question what we’ve taken for granted:

… he was thinking about all those powerful men and women … sitting on their hands for decades, knowing that [evil] was out there, and defeatable, but feeling no particular inclination to go do it, because they knew that someone else would eventually take up the slack. Which is exactly the problem with prophecies.

It makes you look at your favorite epic fantasy series a bit differently, huh?

The story is compelling, the themes are thoughtful, and the characters are vivid and likable. And the ending … well. I’m not spoiling a thing, but there’s nothing disappointing about it. My concerns at the beginning were unfounded, and after reading Children of Time, I shouldn’t have doubted Tchaikovsky. Spiderlight is fantastic.

Started: May 29, 2018
Finished: June 13, 2018

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My Soul to Take

June 12, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

takeMy Soul to Take by Tananarive Due

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It’s been a long haul to get through this series. I’ve liked it, but when each book is 400+ pages, with tiny type, and limited time to read, it makes for a long reading project. I started the first book at the end of January, and finished the last one days away from May. It also didn’t help that I had to include Joplin’s Ghost, which was another hefty book.

Speaking of Joplin’s Ghost, the reason I read it was because the main character of that book, Phoenix, is a central character in My Soul to Take, but I couldn’t really see why. Her character plays a role in Fana’s story, but I couldn’t see why it had to be Phoenix, as opposed to another character, even one that had already been introduced. My guess is Due included her so readers would feel compelled to read her other book, like I did. As good as it was, I appreciate it, but it also aggravates me.

By now, so much has happened to change the core immortals from My Soul to Keep that it seems like they’re all playing fast and loose with that immortality. It seems like everyone’s getting immortal now, which makes the whole premise less special. Granted, the story has shifted away from the immortals to Fana and Michel, who are now basically gods, and how they view the rest of the world. The way the book ends means that Due could return to this series again, but I hope she doesn’t. I think the more time she spends with the story, the more convoluted parts of the story become.

I know it sounds like I didn’t like the book or the series, but I did. Due is a talented writer, and I like how she develops her characters, but three months with one series is a long time, and it might have bred some contempt on my part. I would recommend it to readers of modern fantasy and horror, but maybe they should parse the series out over time to avoid burning out on it.

Started: April 14, 2018
Finished: April 28, 2018

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Bigfoot and the Bodhisattva

June 4, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

bigfootBigfoot and the Bodhisattva by James Morrow

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I go into some of Morrow’s works knowing I’m not going to get all of it, but most of this short story (novella?) went over my head. The story is pretty much what you would expect based on the title — Bigfoot decides to find more meaning in his life by pursuing Buddhism. His friend the Dalai Lama gives him certain tasks to complete to raise his consciousness, but he’s still Bigfoot, so that goes about as well as one would expect.

The story has the sense of humor, depth, and wisdom one would expect if you’re already familiar with Morrow’s work. I just don’t have much interest in Buddhism for it to keep my interest, and I found myself glazing over long portions of the story. Maybe that’s Morrow’s point, that Buddhism won’t work for people who don’t accept it, but it felt like a much longer work than it was (43 pages) because I kept checking out.

This might be best read by people who have an understanding of Buddhism, as they may better appreciate the disconnect between the meditative practices and a Bigfoot attempting to follow them. Me, I was looking for something closer to Shambling Towards Hiroshima or The Madonna and the Starship, where I better understood the satire because I understood the real world events that carried the satire.

Started: April 15, 2018
Finished: April 16, 2018

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Joplin’s Ghost

May 28, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

joplinJoplin’s Ghost by Tananarive Due

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I’ve enjoyed Due’s novels so far, but I wasn’t expecting to read Joplin’s Ghost so soon. I’ve been working my way through her African Immortals series, but when I started the fourth book, it felt like the characters in the beginning were supposed to be familiar, even though I hadn’t met them before. Then, near the end of the prologue, there was a mention of Scott Joplin, and I realized that Due was pulling two of her stories together for this book. Since I like reading these things in order, I figured I needed to set My Soul to Take aside and read Joplin’s Ghost to get caught up.

The story is about Phoenix Smalls, a singer who’s on the brink of superstardom when she starts having visions of Scott Joplin, the early 20th Century ragtime composer. It’s no spoiler to note that she’s being haunted by Joplin’s ghost, but how Due handles the haunting is pretty brilliant. The story shifts back and forth from modern times to Joplin’s day, telling both their stories. There’s a parallel between their lives that drives the haunting, but Due makes that parallel thematic as she examines how creators balance their desire to make art with their need to make money.

I prefer Joplin’s story to Phoenix’s, namely because Due includes a gangsta rap subplot in the modern day that doesn’t do much for me. The story does better when it focuses on the two of them, and while the subplot plays an important role in Phoenix’s story, it feels a little cliched and stereotypical. Due has shown over multiple novels that she eschews cliches and stereotypes, so it felt strange seeing them in this book.

I’ve enjoyed Due’s African Immortals series, but I really enjoyed Joplin’s Ghost. She notes in her afterword that she did a lot of research into Joplin’s life, and it shows. She realizes his character well, as well as Phoenix’s, and as their stories intertwine, she story shines its brightest.

Started: March 30, 2018
Finished: April 12, 2018

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Blood Colony

May 15, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

colonyBlood Colony by Tananarive Due

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MAN, it took me a long time to finish this book. I like Due’s style, and her plots have been interesting, but somehow Blood Colony took me about three weeks to finish. Even other, drier books haven’t taken that long. Somehow I just couldn’t stay engaged with this story like I did with her other two books (though The Living Blood took me about two weeks).

I do like how Due shifts her themes around from book to book. Each one has been a look at immortality, but where My Soul to Keep was a personal look, and The Living Blood looked at it from a more epic perspective, Blood Colony is a mixture of the two, since Due introduces us to a competing group of immortals while showing us Fana as she attempts to become her own person. As the two groups intersect, we see that the blood reveals a new power, and what it suggests is chilling. It’s reminiscent of Carrion Comfort, in the way that the immortals can control other people, but it’s not a carbon copy thriller.

I like where the book takes us, but I felt like it was a lot of story for not a lot of payoff. Part of it, I think, is how much ground Due has to cover. Not only does she have to give us the history of the new group of immortals, but she also has to show us what’s happened with Fana over the last fifteen years or so. Since both stories take us to the same conclusion, we need them both to get the whole story, but it can sometimes feel long-winded.

The characterization feels weaker here, too. It may be due to Due bringing in so many characters, but I didn’t feel the kind of connection with Fana and Jessica like I did in the first two books. I expected it to be the other way around, since by now I should be familiar with them, and Due wouldn’t need to spend as much time developing them, but somehow I felt the distance. The book forces them apart, so the distance there is physical, but I didn’t expect that to be true of them in the story, too.

Due gives the story a good depth, showing Jessica and Fana having started up a commune to disperse the blood for its healing effects, but the story doesn’t have the same OOMPH as the first two books. There’s one more book left in the series (so far; apparently, readers thought this would be the final book in the series, which would have been a disappointment), and I’m hoping Due can bring it back with that book. I’m eager to be finished with the series so I can move on to other books on my list.

Started: February 25, 2018
Finished: March 18, 2018

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Lost Boy: The True Story of Captain Hook

May 9, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , , )

lostLost Boy: The True Story of Captain Hook by Christina Henry

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A good five-word summary of this book is: Peter Pan as a sociopath. And it makes perfect sense.

Think about it. He’s impulsive, manipulative, insincere, unreliable, and exhibits superficial charm. He’s also smart and self-centered. Even in the context of the original story, he’s a textbook sociopath. Henry takes this idea and uses it to develop Peter Pan’s origin story, told through the eyes of James, later to become Captain Hook.

The pivotal point of this story is Charlie, a new recruit to the island, and the youngest boy Peter has ever brought to the island. Only five years old, Charlie is adopted by James, who has always served as the protector of the Lost Boys. Their relationship makes Peter jealous, since James is supposed to be Peter’s best friend, and over the course of the book, we see the relationship between Peter and James break down. Along the way, we find out what keeps Peter young, how he meets Tinkerbell, and how Captain Hook came to be Peter’s enemy.

Henry has had good success with translating children’s stories into darker, adult tales, and part of that success is in how well she draws her characters. The main characters here (James and his circle of friends) are convincing, and the relationship they share feels real. Their personalities and challenges carry the story, and it’s them who kept me engaged. Parts of the story didn’t work for me (the origin feels somewhat simplified, and Henry incorporates beings who don’t live on the island in the original work), but overall, it was riveting.

I’ve started listening to nonfiction audiobooks, since I find I can focus on them better than I can audio fiction, but Lost Boy was an exception. I found it on sale, and liked Henry’s Alice books, so I figured it was worth a shot. I’m glad I gave it a try; Lost Boy kept my attention from start to finish.

Started: March 8, 2018
Finished: March 11, 2018

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The Devil in America

May 2, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

devilThe Devil in America by Kai Ashante Wilson

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I can’t remember what led me to read this novella. I tried reading The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps a few years back, and I couldn’t make it through, but I read something about this story that made me want to read it. I’m glad I did, though when I first finished it, I wasn’t sure.

It took time for the story to settle, and for me to realize just how good it is. I didn’t like the metafictional asides (there are moments in the story where the author’s — not the narrator’s, now, but the author’s — father interjects with comments about the story), but I realized they were clues as to what was to happen in the story. Why Wilson chose this device I don’t know, but when he comments on Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin, it becomes clear that this story is about the violence done against African-Americans, historically and currently.

As such, it’s not a comfortable story. We see white cruelty, though we also see hope through our main character, Easter, who lives in the late 19th century and possesses African magic. She has the ability to control “angels”, who can either do good or ill. An uneasy bargain she makes to save her father leads to future violence … or maybe the violence would have happened regardless.

The magic story works, as does the metafictional device (strange as it is), and the theme resonates. It’s a powerful piece of fiction, though it doesn’t reveal its significance until after some thought. Wilson is a talented writer, enough so that it makes me want to revisit The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps to see if I gave up on it too soon the first time around.

Started: February 27, 2018
Finished: February 27, 2018

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Saga: Volume Eight

March 30, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

saga8Saga: Volume Eight by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

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Volume Eight covers issues 43-48 of Saga, which is usually the time when a series shifts into a higher gear, or runs out of steam. Given that this is Saga, though, you should have a good idea which route the comic takes.

Saga has always been about politics, but it’s never been preachy about it. It’s presented Alana and Marko as a young couple in love more than it’s presented them as two different races on opposing sides of a war. The message the authors want to present is clear, but it’s never been drilled into the reader’s head.

Volume Eight opens with Alana going to a backwater planet to have an abortion of the child who died at the end of the last volume. The authors show us both sides of the issue, through the practitioners who provide the service, the unauthorized practitioners who don’t ask questions, and the residents of the planet who oppose the practice altogether. It’s clear the authors are presenting a certain viewpoint, but they do it by presenting a scenario and taking it through to its conclusion instead of beating you about the head with it.

The story continues to be fantastic, with well-realized characters, challenging dilemmas, and thoughtful themes. It’s exactly what the title tells you it will be — a saga — told through the lens of a single family. I like how it’s narrated from the perspective of Hazel, from some point in the future, as it gives it a touch of innocence and wisdom at the same time. I’m interested in seeing how Vaughan and Staples will keep this arc going, and how they plan to conclude it. If they can come to nearly fifty issues and still keep the story this fresh, then I doubt I’ll be disappointed.

Started: January 6, 2018
Finished: January 6, 2018

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Monstress: The Blood

March 28, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

bloodMonstress: The Blood by Marjorie Liu & Sana Takeda

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I read the first Monstress collection last year, and was blown away with its depth of story, world-building, and characterization. That the story was paired with the perfect artwork — glorious and horrifying at the same time — made it that much more impressive, so of course I was going to keep reading this series. I just hate that it took me this long to get around to it.

The story continues to be dense with detail and history, as well as building out the world of Maika on her journey, but none of it gets in the way of the story itself. This time, Maika and Ren are on a quest to learn more about her past and her mother’s machinations, which takes her to sea to find an island of legend. The journey there and her discovery are the heart of this book.

The Blood is effective due to its imagery, both in story and art. Liu balances compassion and cruelty in her story, which Takeda balances delicacy and violence in her art. Overall, this book is creepy and disquieting, and is the kind of story — visually and narratively — that gets under the skin and keeps you thinking. That the two can continue with the strengths that made the first volume so good ensures that I will be reading this through to its conclusion.

Started: December 31, 2017
Finished: December 31, 2017

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