Kushiel’s Scion

You know that I really love a book when I re-read it in less than a year. I read this Imriel trilogy while I was pregnant, and had to re-read all of the Kushiel’s Legacy series about eight months later because it’s just that good.

Some authors are fabulous at protagonists of one sex, but can’t nail protagonists of the opposite sex. One of my author friends from my MFA program was complaining about how difficult it is for her to write in a male voice just the other day. Carey has no such difficulties. Or if it was difficult for her, the writing doesn’t show it. Imriel no Montreve de la Courcel is a fabulous character, and his voice is distinct and wholy his own, the same way Phedre’s was in the first trilogy.

I really admire the way that Carey could build up suspense by using quirks of Phedre’s narrative voice. Little sentences implying that the good times weren’t going to last forever. Or that she wished she’d known what was coming, because she might have enjoyed them more.

That narrative quirk wouldn’t have been germane to Imriel’s character, and Carey stays away from it with him. She does, however, manage to build up suspense in a totally different way. This time it’s a sort of pessimism and brooding quality on Imriel’s part. Poor kid. Abducted by slave traders at the age of ten and sold to a guy pretty much worse than Hitler… (Am I allowed to say that? I know that no fictional character can actually be worse than Hitler, who was real and did atrocious things.)

Let’s just say that Imriel has to endure being a slave to what would basically amount to a hedonistic satanic cult—except worse than any satanic cult I’ve heard stories about (and I’ve heard some bad stories). And sure, Phedre and Joscelin save him back in Kushiel’s Avatar. But you don’t erase that kind of trauma overnight. Or ever, really. So Imriel is brooding and somewhat pessimistic about his chances at any sort of a happiness in his life.

You see him grow up some in this first novel. He comes of age, similar to how Phedre did, and travels to Tiberium to study at the University there. He gets into all sorts of mischief, gets caught up in a war, experiences tragedy and heartbreak and passion and intrigue.

It’s very much the first novel of a trilogy. All setup, though Carey doesn’t slack off in shaping beautiful rising action and a momentous climax. It fulfills the promises of the books before it, taking the protagonist to a land we haven’t visited before, seeing them caught in difficult and dangerous situations–and of course everything is slightly god-touched.

Carey manages to weave mythology into these stories so beautifully. American Gods is fabulous, but these Kushiel’s Legacy books have an effortless way of making you believe that gods are real. Gods and ghosts and magic and sorcery. It’s really quite wonderful.

There are some people who wouldn’t enjoy the Imriel trilogy as much as Phedre’s trilogy (my husband probably being one of them). I think they’re fabulous and everyone should read them anyway—but if you have to choose, definitely start with Kushiel’s Dart. Phedre and Joscelin take much more of a backseat in Imriel’s trilogy, but it hardly matters because you still get to see them occasionally, and you still get to be in this beautiful world with its intricate mythology and well-rounded characters. If there are any writers out there looking for good examples of a protagonist dealing with PTSD (but still functional—not full-on shut down like Katniss), these books are an excellent example of the proper way to handle that.

In short: read this if you can’t get enough of Carey’s writing, like me.

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Insurgent

I see it so, so often in trilogies nowadays. I think I first noticed it when I was reading the Chaos Walking trilogy. Book one is fantastic. Fast-paced, intriguing world, exciting characters. Then book two is kind of a journey, obviously a bridge to get to the finale, but already things are getting sort of bogged down and complicated. And by the time book three comes out, you hardly care anymore, because everything is convoluted and just too much. I was super bummed to feel Justin Cronin’s The Passage trilogy going in that direction—enough so that I’m so hesitant to read the third book now that it’s out, even though I think his sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph writing is superb.

Insurgent feels like the bridge to an epic finale that I’m not going to care about because everything has gotten way too complicated. When everyone’s in the city, just fighting one particular enemy with a very clearly defined end-goal, it’s great. Throw in more politics, more locations, more types of people, new characters, new enemies…and you’ve pretty much lost my interest.

I think the problem might be in that writers often lose their protagonists while they’re trying to make the world stuff work. All I want is more Tris, and instead I get convoluted busy-ness. And a sneaking suspicion that Roth likes Tobias more than Tris. Which was a total bummer for me, because I like Tris so much more. Even Four is better than Tobias, if that distinction makes sense.

One thing Roth really does well, though, is action scenes. They’re snappy and have a great back-and-forth balancing act that keeps the suspense up. She writes them really well, and that was basically what kept me reading. The action scenes and wanting to know what happens to Tris. These books are quick reads, and it definitely isn’t a waste of time to read them. I just got that sinking feeling during this one that I was entering more convoluted, confusing territories, and that Tris was edging away from center stage.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

It doesn’t seem nice (or business savvy) to waste the time of literary agents who are obviously not excited about the type of book you write. So you do research, you target your queries based on what they’ve represented and the books they say they enjoy reading.

Dunham Literary, Inc. is friendly with my graduate program, and both Jennie Dunham and Bridget Smith have come to visit our residencies before. They are fabulously nice people, and it made sense for me to do some research on Bridget’s likes and dislikes, because she is looking for YA authors to represent.

Thankfully, an old high school friend and former roommate of mine had lent me his copy of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. He loved it, and since I trust his taste in most things (movies, books, boards games, his lovely wife, their wonderful cats), I was going to read it eventually. When I heard that Bridget loved it, I bumped it up on the list.

It’s a long book, of course. It can be a bit of a slog to get through some parts, though eventually there always seemed to be a good payout. All in all I’m very glad I read it, since I now know that I don’t (and might never) write the kind of books that really excite Bridget. It isn’t the type of book I would write, but it has plenty of merits to recommend it.

First, for the good.

The characters of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell are fascinating. Likewise their close friends/advisors are sufficiently fleshed out, and everyone has a different motivation and ends up mucking things up one way or another because they’re slightly at odds to what someone else wants. The sheer pride and obstinate vanity of Mr. Norrell is humorous and frustrating at once. The mentor/apprentice relationship seems to be entering my reading sphere fairly often lately (what with The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun), and this one is a nice exploration of a mentor too full of himself to see straight and a respectful but refreshingly independent apprentice doing his own thing regardless.

The magic is woven into the historical aspects with grace. The descriptions of magic done on the fields of battle, the illusions used to fool enemies, all are delightful and well-executed. Clarke has very clever notions, and folds them into the story organically.

The “villain” if you want to call him that, acted just as his nature bid, and saw no fault in his actions. He wasn’t menacing so much as unknowable, living a life at cross purposes with normal mortal souls.

Sometimes the characters and turn of events surprised me, and I usually enjoy that sort of thing.

Now, to the not so good.

It’s a long book, and covers a long span of time. I feel like it takes a great deal of setup to even get to the main plot and relationship that matters most. It feels accurate, that a story this complex would unfold over such a span of time, but it was slightly frustrating for me to not see the general direction the novel was going in sooner than three-fourths of the way through.

There aren’t enough women, and the ones who are in it tend to suffer too much in silence. Yes, it’s a product of that time period, but I didn’t see much of the fire in their souls that commends me to characters. It’s a man’s world and men dominate the book. The women act to provide plot twists and motivation for the men to stop sitting in salons debating the future of England’s magic.

The footnotes didn’t really add or detract anything for me, which tells me they were probably unnecessary. I suppose once you’ve read House of Leaves it’s difficult to ever consider footnotes necessary if they aren’t being used to create a whole new layer of meta in a story. Still, I can’t say that I would have enjoyed this book any less without the information contained in the footnotes, which makes me think they aren’t worth distracting your attention from the main narrative to hunt down and read.

Even with the bad, though, this is still a beautiful book for what it wants to be. The writing on the sentence level is great, and the ending was fitting and beautiful in a kind of sad, lonely way that perhaps only people with tastes similar to me would appreciate (nothing’s tied up in a nice bow. It’s more complicated and germane to reality, and I like it).

If you’re looking for an interesting historical fiction with a touch of the fantastical thrown in–and you don’t mind long novels–this one is definitely for you. Also, props to the author for writing this exactly the way you would imagine Brits of that time period dealing with magic. On that alone it’s worth a read, because it makes you laugh when you stop to think about it.

The Protector’s War

This book takes place eight years after the events of Dies the Fire. We get more Juney and Mike, with all the supporting cast of characters that you grow to love during the first book. In addition, we get some awesome British characters thrown into the mix, which widens the scope of things.

There’s war brewing between the Mackenzies & Bearkillers and the Portland Protective Association. Which puts our characters in danger, and makes for some fun sweeping battle scenes. You get to know a little more about the characters in this one, but don’t have the same prolonged exposure to single characters that you did in the first book. Though, it’s pretty hard not to fall for young Rudi Mackenzie. He’s eight years old, and precocious as anything.

This book is mostly a bridge between books one and three, but not at all boring. You get nice escalations of characterization, plot, and world building. The apocalypse problems of “oh shit the world has changed and everyone is killing each other” shift to problems of organizing groups of people for protection and farming. You get to see some more of Astrid and Eilir, too, which is great, because I love them.

If you liked Dies the Fire, you’ll like The Protector’s War. And it’s infinitely worth reading so that you can get to A Meeting at Corvallis for the big finish.

The Assassin’s Blade

I was really curious, after reading Throne of Glass, to learn the details of Celeana’s past that are alluded to so often. The stories in The Assassin’s Blade didn’t disappoint. You learn more about Celeana, her relationship with her master and with Sam, and even get to see a friendship between her and another teenage female that helps give some history to how Celeana is with Nehemia in Throne of Glass.

My favorite story in the collection was “The Assassin and the Desert”. Celeana travels to the Red Desert to be trained by the Mute Master of the Assassins. It has a feel to it similar to those mentor/mentee movies where you get a nice training montage of time passing.

Each story in this collection furthers your understanding of Celeana a little bit, all in ways that help you understand her actions and motivations in Throne of Glass. Maas is really good at action sequences, too, so to have her narrative broken up more often with action like it is in these stories is nice. I sometimes felt like I had to wait too long before the next action scene in Throne of Glass.

I still think it’s interesting how Celeana can be considered the best of the assassins, but still manages to make mistakes because of her pride and anger. And her mistakes cost her—big time. It doesn’t seem quite right, even though she is very young and therefore wouldn’t have all the experience/wisdom necessary to always see the misfortunes ahead. She seems to be betrayed a whole hell of a lot for a young kid. To Maas’ credit, none of the characters doing the betraying felt two-dimensional. They all had compelling reasons to act the way they did. It just felt like a pattern after a while, of people continually betraying her and Celeana being too trusting because she wanted to believe in people.

After finishing these stories I went to Crown of Midnight, hoping that my increased understanding of Celeana would help me enjoy the sequel to Throne of Glass even more. Unfortunately, the characters in the main series aren’t anywhere near as cool to me as the ones in The Assassin’s Blade, so I found myself disinterested. I’m still going to hit A Court of Thorns and Roses, though, because I like Maas’ writing and I think a Beauty & the Beast tale would be right up my alley. I guess I should have guessed that I wouldn’t be that into a story inspired by Cinderella themes.

Tarzan of the Apes

I love Tarzan. I’m fascinated by the way that some characters can exist beyond their original forms—Tarzan is right up there with Dracula, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland. To say that I’m excited about the coming movie would be a gross understatement. I joke with my friends that going back to work after having the baby is going to be devastating, but I already have the babysitter lined up for when I can leave the kid and go watch this new movie.

I grew up on the Disney version of Tarzan, which in and of itself is pretty great. When I first read the actual book by Edgar Rice Burroughs, though, I realized there was so much more there. There are some minor differences, like Jane actually being American instead of English. Tarzan’s parents built a cabin on the beach instead of an elaborate (and pretty darn cool—way to go, Disney concept artists) treehouse. There’s no close friendship with any of the apes, though in the books Tarzan is said to be friends with Tantor the elephant (though we don’t get to see it in action, at least in the first book).

All these minor differences are great for someone who already loves Tarzan as much as I do. But what about the first-timers, or the people more interested in the style of the writing? Here’s what you get from reading the original Tarzan of the Apes by Burroughs.

The books are classic pulp fiction adventure romances. The narration style is formal, sometimes waxing philosophical, but never straying too far from suspenseful action that keeps you turning the pages. You understand Tarzan on a very basic, primal level, and you admire him, as you would have to admire anyone who can teach themselves to read when they can’t even speak the language they’re reading! The characters and situations are compelling, with enough human error folded in to have you shaking your head at them while still hoping that everything turns out all right.

My first time through, the ending really surprised me. It gave me so much more respect for Tarzan, though. Here is a character who bridges the gap between the most primal instincts and the most proper etiquette and gentlemanly manner. Tarzan is a good person because he hasn’t been corrupted by society, by other men. He operates on his own moral grounds, and is more or less above reproach when we understand why he does what he does.

I’ve talked to my husband about why I like Tarzan so much, and I still can’t fully understand or communicate what it is about him that is so appealing. I’ve always been drawn to more traditional masculine men, just as a matter of personal taste, and Tarzan is pretty much the epitome of that. Temper it with the manners of an English lord, and you’ve got an extremely attractive juxtaposition that I don’t think exists much in reality.

I suppose my attraction to the Tarzan character is rather a moot point, though. For anyone out there who has enjoyed this character on any level, it’s well worth it to read the book. You might be opening a can of worms to some extent, because the following novels are just as good and work to continue the story chronologically, tying up loose ends and offering more elaborate adventures—but they’re quick reads, and essential for the lover of adventure science fiction stories.

The Lost World

As far as sequels go, some readers might be disappointed to learn that The Lost World doesn’t follow Alan Grant as the protagonist. In my humble opinion, Alan would never be foolhardy enough to set foot on an island with dinosaurs again. Ian Malcolm, however, apparently is.

The setup is an interesting one, as Crichton forces us to focus on an enthusiastic scientist who believes he has discovered a “lost world,” an oasis untouched by time or humanity where dinosaurs actually still exist. As the reader, we are aware just as much as Ian Malcolm is that these are actually genetically engineered dinosaurs, apparently housed on the “back up” island Isla Sorna, instead of the resort island of Isla Nublar. We again travel with woefully unprepared and overly-confident characters as they discover how completely fucked humans actually are, when they try to control Nature in such an intimidating form. Where the raptors took the show in the first novel, the tyrannosaurs are the central dinos in this sequel.

Curiously, Crichton again includes two kids on the island. It’s strange, when Crichton obviously most loves the intellectual adults, so deserving of some bad karma after all their prideful posturing. As in the first novel, though, I think Crichton realized that he needed to amp up the suspense on the island. If it’s only adults who are either inherently bad people, or prideful people making bad decisions, then the reader might feel they deserve what comes to them if they’re eaten, maimed, or lost. The kids, however? Innocent kids don’t deserve to be eaten by dinosaurs. Their awe as they are clearly in the throes of their dinosaur phases helps bring the adult reader back to that sense of wonder, as well. If we are only looking at the dinosaurs as analytical scientists, we miss out on how amazing it would be to actually see a live dinosaur.

Reading The Lost World isn’t quite so essential as reading Jurassic Park, but it is still crafted with beautiful balance. Writers would benefit from learning about the pacing of a suspenseful story that still includes plenty of scientific fact. Considering the amount of background that needs to be present to support the believability of these circumstances, I never noticed Crichton falling prey to excessively boring info dumping. As far as page turners go, Crichton delivers as per usual.

Among the Ghosts

What a delightful middle grade novel. I think I was right in expecting Amber Benson to be good at writing middle grade. I found this one more enjoyable in some ways than The Witches of Echo Park.

That isn’t to say there aren’t some things that snagged my attention. There are a couple times when our protagonist transitions a little too quickly from plucky heroine to scared child. And there are some plot holes that are noticeable enough to make me wonder if there are meant to be more books in the series, because some things feel a bit unfinished by the end. However, I thought the use of supernatural elements was cleverly done, and folding in some science balanced it nicely. The protagonist is clever and observant, though sometimes the amount she “noticed” about the adults around her made me wonder if Benson felt a little restrained, writing solely from the protagonist’s point of view in those sections.

The “villain” was a smart concept, once we find out who/what it is, though it could have used a little more time or explanation just to give it due attention toward the end.

Overall this was an enjoyable read, and I’ll definitely keep my signed copy in my personal library.

Eleanor & Park

I spent all of yesterday with the Eleanor & Park audiobook playing while I nursed my post-bachelorette party hangover. I rehydrated to the two different voices reading Eleanor and Park’s parts (genius idea, really, to increase the emotionally impact by having two distinct voices in actual sound as well as diction). When I knew I should be going to sleep because tomorrow was the first day at my brand new job—I let the audiobook play for another two hours instead.

Rainbow Rowell captures the teenage voice so beautifully. My heart ached, and even the pop culture references that usually make me feel woefully out-of-touch and un-cool didn’t matter in that swirling mass of nostalgic teenage emotion. For a while I was worried, knowing what I do about stories, because the conflict of whether or not there is a romance was settled far too soon. Which foretold a far darker conflict later on—which Rowell delivered.  The body issues were explored with such grace. No heavy-handed moralizing here, just speculation. What would happen if you took a normal teenager, self-conscious and facing body-shaming from all sides, and made them feel temporarily safe with someone who loved them exactly as they were? And how true to life, that both Eleanor and Park felt the same way, that they just couldn’t imagine what the other saw in them.

I first heard about this book when Robin Benway visited one of my graduate school residencies with UCR Palm Desert’s MFA program. Someone asked her what she’d read recently that she loved, and she mentioned Eleanor & Park. Then a young adult editor a couple residencies later seconded that. I’ve seen people name it as their recent favorite fairly often since then, in articles and Facebook posts. With the wedding coming up so soon, I wanted a reminder of romance in its most passionate form. No one knows how to love more passionately than teenagers. We might love in healthier ways when we get older, but you have to admire the tenacity and intensity of teenage love.

If I had to pick a favorite, between Eleanor and Park, I think I would be completely stuck. That’s how well Rowell writes both of them. They are real and beautiful and unique. So real that you can’t say you like one more than the other. They both have flaws, they are both amazing. I did find myself frustrated with Eleanor sometimes, when she would pull away, or not say things that I thought she should. And then I would remind myself what it felt like to be a teenager, knowing the percentage of the time things actually worked out in your favor when you were brave or stupid enough to speak up. Knowing how often adults just didn’t seem to listen, or care. And when Eleanor started to trust Park, even if she still struggled, even if she still pulled away, it was so real. I don’t know many people who escaped childhood without trust issues of one kind or another, and of course Eleanor would have a harder time trusting in their relationship. It’s like any time I notice someone making a mistake—if I can see why they’ve done it, I’m not angry or frustrated anymore.

I would recommend Eleanor & Park to anyone. It brings back wonderful nostalgia, if you had a high school sweetheart you cared intensely for, and it’s so real that it could convince people who didn’t experience teenage love that they really knew what it felt like, just by hearing Eleanor and Park’s story. And I imagine as a teenager, it would feel like the truest story, like it really got me in a way other literature seldom did.

I hope I can pick up a physical copy of this one, as I’d like to be able to go over some sections a few times, to really savor them in a way you can’t when the audiobook just keeps on playing. It’s more than worthy of a re-read, and I’m going to see if I can slip it onto my soon-to-be-husband’s playlist for one of his long drives. I think he’d love it.

Ready Player One

by Ernest Cline

I listened to the audiobook of Ready Player One through the OverDrive app on my phone.  I had no idea who Wil Wheaton was, but admired the way he handled the narration.  The different characters were distinct from each other; even the sounds of electronics and especially the Pac-Man game noises were done exceedingly well.

When I started listening to it, I wasn’t immediately hooked.  Our protagonist was a self-professed overweight kid spending most of his time in a beat-up van with distinctly unattractive surroundings (these being “stacks” of mobile homes positioned one on top of the other, in an hazardous impromptu apartment building that invited almost certain death by crushing).  This kid, Wade, spent all his time in the Oasis, an Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation.  He went to school in the Oasis, he interacted with his “friends” in the Oasis.  Thankfully, I didn’t really get any of those “beware of technology” vibes trying to convince us that social interaction will die out the more cool tech toys we have.  There was certainly a level of social commentary, in the vein of us neglecting the world (ie Nature) in favor of said tech toys, but you won’t find me arguing with that, so I was cool with its inclusion.  This novel didn’t feel like a moralizing story bent on making us put down our computers and phones and tablets.  Which is great, because novels with such blatant messages are generally pretty annoying.

So the basic premise revolves around this hunt for an Easter Egg, in a The Westing Game style hunt, albeit with a much broader setting.  Wade is intent on obtaining the three keys and passing through the three gates to find the Egg before anyone else does, thus obtaining the fortune and power of the creator of the Oasis, as set out in his last will and testament.  The level of infodumping in the beginning seemed tedious at first–it takes a long time to get the reader up to speed on what has happened to the world (and within the Oasis) from our year, 2014, to Wade’s current time, 2044.  Once the action really started, though, I had trouble pushing pause to do things like eat dinner with the fiance and take a shower before work.  The whole novel is rife with pop culture references that I actually understood, which is pretty rare for me (you should see me watch Gilmore Girls, having pretty much no clue what they’re referencing but loving it all the same).  It’s mostly 80s movies, games, and music, which, being born in 1990, I don’t know about all of it, but being a “nerd” in the sense that I enjoy movies and games and books (stories, in general), I recognized plenty.  That helped draw me in, and the characters easily did the rest.

I don’t want to spoil anything.  But I will say, in case it sways anyone, that giant robots come into play at one point.  I recognized the Eva Units and Gundams, though I didn’t know what Voltron was and had to ask the fiance.  Anyone of my generation will enjoy the story, but true video game nerds will find it irresistible.  D&D lovers will find plenty of references, and arcade games show up pretty often.

Speaking as a storyteller myself, I admire Cline’s ability to draw me in, to invest me in these characters and their surroundings.  I went on an enjoyable rollercoaster ride, trying to decide whether I loved or wasn’t so hot on the protagonist, and it’s a testament to Cline’s abilities that I stuck with the story, passionately, even when I wasn’t sure about whether or not I liked Wade or thought maybe he had some of the bad stuff coming to him.  Young Adult is always my favorite, so I might be biased in enjoying watching characters screw up and fumble things and try to figure out who the hell they are, but Cline does an amazing job of investing you in the story regardless.

I’ve been telling a lot of my friends to read this, and I’ll say here that it’s definitely not solely for a younger audience, though I would place it firmly in the YA category because the protagonist is a teenager.  Readers of any age would enjoy this, more so if they like video games, 80s movies and music, and characters that are well executed and realistic.