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Title:
Fat Girl in a Strange Land
   Series: Short Fiction Anthology
Editor: Kay T. Holt & Bart R. Leib
Publisher: Crossed Genres
Format: EBook
Year: 2012
Pages: 150
Genre: Science Fiction, Fantasy
   Subgenre: N/A
Challenge Information: N/A
Full Disclosure: I received this free through the Library Thing Early Reviewers Program.

Jacket Description
For every supermodel, there are thousands of women who have heard “Why don’t you just eat less?” far too often. Except as comic relief or the unattractive single BFF, those women’s stories are never told.
Crossed Genres Publications presents Fat Girl in a Strange Land, an anthology of fourteen stories of fat women protagonists traveling distant and undiscovered realms.
From Guatemala, where a woman dreams of becoming La Gorda, the first female luchador, before discovering a greater calling in “La Gorda and the City of Silver”; to the big city in the US, where superhero Flux refuses to don spandex in order to join her new team in “Nemesis”; to the remote planet Sidquiel in “Survivor”, where student Wen survives a crash landing, only to face death from the rising sun. Fat Girl in a Strange Land takes its characters – and its readers – places they’ve never been.

My Review
I found this collection extremely uneven. There were several stories I absolutely hated, which is unusual for me in short fiction: "The Tradeoff," "The Right Stuffed," "Nemesis," and "Sharks and Seals." But there were also several that I loved deeply, passionately, without reservation: "Cartography, and the Death of Shoes," "Flesh of My Flesh," "Davy," and "Lift." What surprised me even more was how my tastes broke down by genre: I found all but one of the fantasy stories good to great, and disliked or hated all but two of the science fiction stories. Also surprising (and a little disappointing to me) was that there wasn't a single story where the protagonist liked her body. Still, on the strength of those four stories that I loved I would recommend this collection, and I am grateful to Crossed Genres and the editors Kay T. Holt and Bart R. Leib for making it.


Descriptions and reviews of each story behind the cut.Collapse )


My Rating
Overall Satisfaction: ★1/2
   Intellectual Satisfaction: 
   Emotional Satisfaction: ★1/2

Racing the Dark, by Alaya Dawn Johnson




Title:
 Racing the Dark
   Series: The Spirit Binders #1
Author: Alaya Dawn Johnson
Publisher: Agate Bolden
Format: Trade Paperback
Year: 2008
Pages: 368
Genre: Fantasy
   Subgenre: Epic Fantasy, High Fantasy
Challenge Information: Fantasy Challenge 2012 category "Heroic Fantasy Novel"
Full Disclosure: I read and review this now in honor of Black History Month.

Jacket Description
Enter a land of volcanoes and earthquakes, plagues and typhoons, of island nations separated by water but bound by fear of the spirits they imprisoned to control their volatile environment. The first act in a grand dance of loyalty, love, sacrifice, and death is about to begin. This is an unforgettable coming-of-age story set in a world where wielding power requires understanding the true meaning of sacrifice.

My Review
I hate epic fantasy. I hate the Chosen One trope, I hate the perspective switching that's now de rigeur. I have a strong aversion for coming-of-age plots, and love-practically-at-first-sight, and absolutely anything having to do with Fate. This book has all of those things. So why did I read it?

I love high fantasy. You must understand that I define epic fantasy as only those fantasies where the plot involves the saving of the world, while high fantasy is simply any fantasy taking place in a secondary world. Obviously, the two sub genres overlap quite a bit. So while I try to avoid it, I do sometimes end up reading an epic fantasy novel, if the secondary world seems interesting enough.

This one was.

So much high fantasy takes place in a generic medieval Europe, particularly France and the British Isles; a small but visible minority takes place in vaguely Arabian or Chinese settings. I don't think I have ever encountered another fantasy novel that draws on Hawaii for its backdrop, as this one does. It's set in Hawaii only as much as Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Legacy series is set in France or Robin McKinley's Beauty is set in England -- which is to say, Johnson took the names and some elements of the geography and not much more -- but just that much difference was enough to pique my interest and put this on Mt. TBR.

Unfortunately, there is a danger attendant upon breaking that sort of new ground. A fantasy novel set in generic medieval Europe can draw on a wealth of world-building tropes that an average fantasy reader will expect and accept with no further explanation; a fantasy novel set in an unfamiliar setting has to be built from scratch, and the average fantasy reader (at least if the average fantasy reader is at all like me) is likely to interrogate the world-building a bit more closely.

So, for example, I loved exploring the world of Johnson's outer islands -- that world made sense given my knowledge of Hawaii and other parts of Polynesia. But when the story moved to the inner islands, which are temperate rather than tropical, the world started to feel. . . confused. I believe Johnson was trying to evoke Japan, but little European influences seemed to sneak their way in -- a character playing a lute, another character using nightshade and bitterwort in a potion. Of course, this IS high fantasy, and the whole world is made up, so using European-derived items isn't inherently WRONG. . . but when the world feels so different, I found it distracting to see something suddenly the same.

Still, while I became less enamored with the world as the novel went on, I was pleased with the level of technical prowess Johnson showed in this, her debut novel. The pacing was a bit uneven, but I never found the somewhat convoluted plot hard to follow. And while I always felt distanced from the individual characters and their mental/emotional states, I was very much invested in the survival of the world as a whole, and the climax of the novel was therefore intense and effective. The cliffhanger ending (another reason I hate epic fantasy) worked, at least in that it made me want to run out and grab the next book immediately. The only thing that stopped me was the knowledge that this series is that most frustrating of types: doomed forever to be unfinished because it was dropped by the publisher.

My Rating
Overall Satisfaction: ★★★1/2
   Intellectual Satisfaction: ★★★1/2
   Emotional Satisfaction: ★★★1/2
Read this for:
The world-building
Don't read this for: The characters
Bechdel Test: Pass
Johnson Test: Pass
Books I was reminded of: A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin; The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N. K. Jemisin.
Will I read more by this author? Maybe.


Title: Servant of the Underworld
   Series: Obsidian and Blood #1
Author: Aliette de Bodard
Publisher: Angry Robot
Format: Mass Market Paperback
Year: 2010
Pages: 431
Genre: Fantasy
   Subgenre: Epic Fantasy, Fantasy Mystery, Historical Fantasy
Challenge Information: Mystery Challenge category "New Kid on the Block"
Full Disclosure: N/A

Jacket Description
Year One-Knife.

Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztecs.

The end of the world is kept at bay only by the magic of human sacrifice.

A Priestess disappears from an empty room drenched in blood.

Acatl, High Priest of the Dead must find her, or break the boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead.

My Review
Angry Robot provides cheeky but helpful classifications on the jackets of their books; on this one, they says: "File Under: Fantasy / Aztec Mystery / Locked Room / Human Sacrifice / The Dead Walk!" Now how on earth could I resist that? As it turns out, I am very happy I didn't resist it, because within I found a very strong debut, one equal parts detective, historical, and epic fantasy novel.

The detective component was extremely satisfying. As is traditional, Acatl has a sort of semi-formal standing with the authorities, undertaking the investigation for personal reasons but with official backing (though not always with official resources). He is also personally invested; though not truly a locked room mystery, the only apparent possible suspect at the opening of the novel is his own brother, so much of his initial investigation does revolve around proving that someone -- anyone -- else could have committed the crime.

And while in broad strokes the plot works like any other mystery plot, with Acatl roaming the city interviewing witnesses and suspects, in its details it derives a great deal of novelty from the setting. This is the Aztec Empire at its height, not London or New York or Los Angeles, and de Bodard keeps that fact front and center. Acatl has different laws to obey, and different resources to draw on, than most other detectives; not least of those is the need to keep clear of the ire of the gods, and the efficacy of blood magic. Additionally, on a pure-craft level, I was very impressed with how subtly she kept cluing me in to who was who, and who represented whom, in a very different sort of hierarchy than the ones I am more familiar with; she also used names that were fairly easy to distinguish and track despite their likely unpronounceability for her audience.

But if I have one quibble with this novel, it is the two major liberties de Bodard took with her otherwise historical setting. First, she made up one branch of the temple hierarchy up out of whole cloth; I find that practice personally problematic, and in this novel at least (there are currently two sequels) it didn't seem to add anything. It actually confused me quite a bit, because the character who represented that branch didn't fit with my understanding of Aztec society as established in the rest of the novel. The second issue was that, in order to make Acatl more sympathetic, she removed the human sacrifice he almost certainly would have practiced from his temple's purview; again, I find that decision problematic and I think the book might have been richer if she had engaged with the issue rather than skirting it.

She had the opportunity to address the issue from a sympathetic angle; after all, blood magic does work in this world. The gods want sacrifices, and they become more and more entangled in the attack Acatl is investigating. By the climax Acatl's entire world is at stake, in good epic fantasy fashion, and the resolution feels earned.

Ultimately, though, while I enjoyed the mystery and historical fiction and epic fantasy elements, what makes this book special, what makes it stand out from other similar books, is the development of Acatl's character. He is a very different person by the end of the book than he is at the beginning, and the climax is so completely rooted in that journey that the book could not exist were he a different person. That, to me, is incredibly impressive, and makes de Bodard's career one I am excited to watch grow.

My Rating
Overall Satisfaction: ★★★★
   Intellectual Satisfaction: ★★★★
   Emotional Satisfaction: ★★★★1/2
Read this for: The characters
Don't read this for: The world-building
Bechdel Test: Fail
Johnson Test: Pass
Books I was reminded of: The Bone Palace, by Amanda Downum; New Amsterdam, by Elizabeth Bear.
Will I read more by this author? Yes.



Title:
The Liminal People
   Series: Stand-alone
Author: Ayize Jama-Everett
Publisher: Small Beer Press
Format: Advanced Reader Copy
Year: 2011
Pages: 205
Genre: Fantasy
   Subgenre: Fantasy Thriller, Superhuman
Challenge Information: None.
Full Disclosure: I received this free through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

Jacket Description
Taggert is a confused mess of something more than a man.

Endowed with quizzical powers to both heal and hurt, Taggert spent much of his life trying to master these "things that lived inside of him." It was only with the help of Nordeen, an ancient drug dealing enigma of a man, ten times more powerful and a thousand times more mysterious than himself, that Taggert can even attempt to have a semi-normal life. But when Taggert's old love Yasmene calls to him from London, Taggert will have to shake the Moroccan coastal soil he's called home for so long off his feet and head into a world that has long forgotten him. Through violent and passionate encounters with people who have similar abilities, Taggert will face loss he's never seen before but gain what could only be described as hope. But a hopeful Taggert is a far more deadly adversary to those who would harm Yasmene and her family than even Nordeen can predict.

And Nordeen does not like to be surprised.

The Liminal People is an occult tale of struggle, hope, and commitment set in a world that dismisses such ideas as juvenile.

My Review
I really hesitated in requesting this book from the Early Reviewers program. This was partly because it's a debut novel, and I wasn't sure I had the patience for one of those right now; but it was mostly because, as I mentioned in my review of Zoo City, I'm getting a little burned out on the noir style, and I didn't know if I could give another noir-influenced SF/F novel a fair shot as a result.

The first half of the book went better than I expected. It was a very typical noir set-up, full of disconnected people carving out an existence on the fringes of society through the judicious application of violence and a relaxed (but not nonexistent) moral code. The hero, of course, gets drawn back into the world he gave up by a beautiful damsel in distress, and in trying to save her is forced to reexamine his life -- past and future. The nice thing about this familiar set-up was that despite some first-novel clunkiness in the exposition, the story was paced quite well; I would probably even describe it with all the appropriate t-words: taut, and tense, and thrilling.

It bogged down a little, for me, in the latter stages of the middle when it turned into a superhumans-with-powers novel, full of rhetoric about choosing sides in the coming war, a war in which mere humans are likely to be nothing more than pawns and casualties. I have liked noir in the past and am simply tired of its tropes at the moment; I've never liked the tropes of the superpower stories, so this turn of events made me wrinkle my nose a bit.

But the climax redeemed all, made me happy I requested the novel and happy to start pushing it on my friends. Because rather than playing the noir tropes straight, Jama-Everett neatly subverts them, proving the tag line of the jacket description accurate rather than a bunch of hot air. Ultimately, this is indeed a novel about hope and commitment, one about building communities rather than tearing them down. I suppose I should have suspected this from the beginning; Taggert is a healer, after all, not just a killer, and for the chance to read about that sort of hero (particularly a male one!) I'd put up with a great deal more than just some tropes I dislike.

Overall Satisfaction: ★★★★
   Intellectual Satisfaction: ★★★★
   Emotional Satisfaction: ★★★★
Read this for: The themes
Don't read this for: The prose
Bechdel Test: Fail
Johnson Test: Pass
Books I was reminded of: Nobody's Son, by Sean Stewart

Ammonite, by Nicola Griffith









Title: Ammonite
   Series: Stand-alone

Author: Nicola Griffith

Publisher: Del Rey

Format: Mass Market

Year: 1992

Pages: 349

Genre: Science Fiction
   Subgenres: Soft SF

Challenge Information: Science Fiction Challenge category "Winner of the Lambda Literary Award"

Full Disclosure: N/A



Jacket Description
Change or die: the only options available on the Durallium Company-owned planet GP. The planet's deadly virus had killed most of the original colonists -- and changed the rest irrevocably. Centuries after the colony had lost touch with the rest of humanity, the Company returned to exploit GP, and its forces found themselves fighting for their lives. Afraid of spreading the virus, the Company had left its remaining employees in place, afraid and isolated from the natives.


Then anthropologist Marghe Taishan arrived on GP, sent to test a new vaccine against the virus. As she risked death to uncover the natives' biological secret, she found that she, too, was changing, and realized that not only had she found a home on GP -- she herself carried the seeds of its destruction. . .



My Review
Damn this is a good book.


It's a first novel, and it has some of the weaknesses I associate with first novels: it jumps through time a lot, and those jumps aren't always telegraphed adequately; some of the descriptions, while each individually quite beautiful, ended up feeling repetitive when taken as a whole. But most impressively, it already displays a great deal of the maturity and style that I loved in Slow River. Even in this first novel, Griffith's voice is assured, her characters are well-drawn, and her themes are delicately presented yet rigorously worked out.


Griffith's style is quietly exquisite, understatedly lyrical (in contrast to Catherynne M. Valente's muscular lyricism or Patricia A. McKillip's ornate lyricism or Peter S. Beagle's cooly intellectual lyricism)(and what is with my favorite authors and all their middle initials?) in ways that seem all the more surprising because this is a science fiction novel rather than a fantasy novel. This is Griffith's description of Marghe's landing on GP:



          The doors cracked open and leaked in light like pale grapefruit squeezings, making the artificial illumination
          in the gig seem suddenly thick and dim.


          Jeep light.


          Wind swept dark tatters across a sky rippling with cloud like a well-muscled torso, bringing with it the smell of
          dust and grass and a sweetness she could not identify. . . She sniffed, trying to equate the spicy sweet smell
          on the wind to something she knew: nutmeg, sun on beetle wings, the wild smell of heather.



Okay, so maybe that passage wasn't so understated. I delight in that sort of passage in fantasy novels, where I expect magic; I delighted in it in Slow River, which is SF but in the more "realist" vein, practically Mundane SF. Here, in this near-planetary romance, it took me aback as it should not have, and I am grateful to Griffith for reminding me that there can be so much beauty in the alien.


Part of the reason Jeep is so beautiful (in a stark fashion) is that we see it mostly through Marghe's perspective, and Marghe is a woman deeply attuned to both the world around her and to her own body. She looks outward and inward, and Griffith paints that dual focus with an incredible eye to detail that made the book startlingly visceral. I have been thinking lately about (female) SFF characters' relationships with their bodies, and the way that Marghe is so firmly sited within hers made the beatings, the starvation, and the sex come alive on the page. (Also it really sends the message: Jeep's a tough place!) The way that that character trait completely informs the way Marghe reacts to and advances the plot is just another sign of Griffith's immense skill as a storyteller.


But the thing I am most struck by is how perfectly the jacket description captures this book -- it is a book all about change. It's about characters changing, and it's about societies changing, and it's about the way those changes amplify or counteract each other, and then it's about everything changing again. It's not a book for people who like tight plots where every question raised is answered by the finale -- the finale just raises more questions about the future of the characters and the world. Instead it's a book for people who like history, who like to explore the hidden ways the past shapes the present and who are drawn to those turning points where the smallest decisions by individuals have the power to dramatically alter the fates of whole societies.



My Rating
Overall Satisfaction:
★★★★1/2
   Intellectual Satisfaction: ★★★★★
   Emotional Satisfaction: ★★★★1/2

Read this for: The characters, the prose, the themes

Don't read this for: The plot

Bechdel Test: Pass*

Johnson Test: Fail

Books I was reminded of: Thendara House and The World Wreckers and Exile's Song, by Marion Zimmer Bradley; Speaker for the Dead, by Orson Scott Card; Six Moon Dance, by Sheri S. Tepper; Sunshine, by Robin McKinley.

Will I read more by this author? Absolutely. One more 4+ star book from Griffith and I'll have to put her on my fangirl list. . .







*Every single character in this novel is a woman. Do you know how cool that is?!? I had to make a new GoodReads shelf in honor of it. . . "A Passel of Women" now holds all the books I've read that I can think of where there are more female characters than male characters. It's a very small shelf. . .

Let's Play White, by Chesya Burke




Title:
Let's Play White
   Series: Stand-alone
Author: Chesya Burke
Publisher: Apex Publications
Format: Trade Paperback
Year: 2011
Pages: 188
Genre: Horror
   Subgenres: Dark Fantasy, Magical Realism
Challenge Information: Fantasy Challenge category "Read a novel dealing with race."
Full Disclosure: I received a free copy through the GoodReads First Reads program.

Jacket Description
Gritty and sublime, the stories of Let's Play White feature real people facing the worlds they're given, bringing out the best and the worst of what it means to be human. If you're ready to slip into someone else's skin for a while, then it's time to come play white.

My Review
This was an extremely uneven collection of short stories. The best of them were absolutely stunning, heart-wrenching and thought-provoking. The worst were clunky, unsubtle, and lost their power (for me at least) as a result. All of the stories had some sort of fantastic element; unfortunately, the fantastic element seemed more likely to weaken the story than strengthen it. Still, good and bad, it's a collection very much concerned with power dynamics within families, between men and women, between poor and rich (or sometimes only less-poor), and between blacks and whites; themes I am always interested in and happy to see explored in fiction.

---

"Walter and the Three-Legged King" --
This starts as a straight piece of horror, about a poor man in a dirty apartment, who keeps spotting a rat that the building super insists isn't there. It succeeded in horrifying me; and then it went somewhere more political. The collection gets its title from this story, and I love the title; but the story itself doesn't do very much with the concept other than lay it out there. ★★★1/2

"Purse" -- This was my favorite story in the collection; I would not change a word of it. It's extremely short, so I can't really say anything about it without spoiling it, but it's visceral and gruesome and tragic. ★★★★★

"I Make People do Bad Things" -- And this was my second favorite story in the collection, a period piece about Madam St. Clair and the numbers racket in Harlem in the 1930s. Burke's character development shines in this one, and the horror is psychologically rather than fantastically rooted. (The fantastic element is pretty damn cool, though, and totally essential to the story.) My only objection was that it was structured as a flashback; I felt this was unnecessary and took some of the oomph out of the story. ★★★★

"The Unremembered" -- My least favorite story of the collection. It gives a magical explanation for a girl named Jeli's autism and is fierce on the subject of the Christian clergy's usefulness. Unfortunately, I found the message of the story entirely too heavy-handed, and while the two mothers' characters are well-drawn, that was not enough for me to enjoy this story. ★

"Chocolate Park" -- This story is, in some way I'm having trouble defining to myself, the rawest of the collection. The characters - a trio of sisters, an old woman, and a local thug living in the same inner city neighborhood - are ugliest to each other here, and there is power in that even though I don't particularly enjoy reading it. Unfortunately, it felt split to me; ugly though it was, I was invested in Ebony's thread and was not in Lady Black's; it made me wish Burke had gone a straight-realist route and forsworn the Lady Black character entirely. ★★1/2

"What She Saw When They Flew Away" -- This is another (relatively) straightforward story about loss, like "Purse." I don't think it worked as well, mostly because so much more is spelled out for the reader. However, the central image is absolutely haunting. ★★★

"He Who Takes the Pain Away" --
I must admit, I did not get this one. I could not tell if it was meant to be read as realism or allegory, whether the fantastical element was actually present or a hallucination. I wanted to like it, and its depiction of a cult of death was properly horrific, but without knowing how to read it I can't really assess whether I liked it or not. (Unratable)

"CUE: Change" -- I'm not really a zombie person. That said, there was an interesting twist on the zombies themselves that I wish had been explored more fully, and I thought the first-person narrator was very nicely (and subtly) drawn. ★★★★

"The Room Where Ben Disappeared" -- This is another one, like "I Make People Do Bad Things," where I wish Burke had used a different technique to tell her story. The first-person narrator grated on me in this story, and the fantastic element actually seemed to undercut the horror of the realism (like in "Chocolate Park"). He was the only white protagonist in the collection, and one of only two men, and he seemed. . . minor, forgettable compared to how memorable Burke's other protagonists are. But the piece of his past that he forgot. . . even with the fantastic element erasing the worst possible outcome, the stark realities of being black (and white, really) in the South made me want to scream. ★★★

"The Light of Cree" -- This story felt like a prologue; in fact, several of the stories felt like prologues (I assume that's what Delany meant in his blurb about "intriguingly open endings"). But this one more than the others -- it's about a girl who has just had her first period and discovers that she's different in more ways than that overnight. We see her realize that, and then the story ends, and I was left thinking "And then what happened?" (Particularly because Cree is no Jennifer Love Hewitt. . . and that's a good thing.) ★★1/2

"The Teachings and Redemption of Ms. Fannie Lou Mason" -- This is the biggest of the stories, both in pages and in scope. It spans quite a few years and miles, following the powerful titular character through several small Southern towns where she touched down lightly and left chaos in her wake. (No, not chaos; mess, certainly, but a cleaner mess than the one she walked into, if that makes any sense.) I think the story would have benefited from being even longer; there's enough here for a novel, at least. Part of the reason I wanted it to be longer is that it suffers from the same problem many of the stories do: over-exposition. But in this case the exposition was actually necessary for the story to get told, so while it annoyed me just as much as before, I have to admit it was justified. Also again, my favorite moment is a non-fantastic one; there is a single moment of epic tragedy, made all the more poignant because it's so personal, so small. The story itself was just okay for me, and would have been just okay even if it had been expanded; but that moment was awesome. ★★★★

My Rating
Overall Satisfaction:
★★★
   Intellectual Satisfaction: ★★1/2
   Emotional Satisfaction: ★★★1/2
Read this for: The atmosphere, the characters
Don't read this for: The prose
Bechdel Test: Pass
Johnson Test: Pass
Books I was reminded of: Shirley Jackson's short fiction.
Will I read more by this author? Maybe.

Commitment Hour, by James Alan Gardner




Title:
Commitment Hour
   Series: League of Peoples (stand-alone in the universe)
Author: James Alan Gardner
Publisher: Avon
Format: Mass Market Paperback
Year: 1998
Pages: 343
Genre: Science Fiction
   Subgenres: Soft SF, Post-Apocalyptic
Challenge Information: Science Fiction Challenge category "SF dealing with gender roles"
Full Disclosure: N/A

Jacket Description
In the twenty-fifth century, Tober Cove is a wonderful place to be. With most of Earth's population long since departed for other planets, and with them the technology that makes such a journey possible, life here is simple and serene -- especially for Fullin, a gifted musician whose talent commands many times the wages of a farmer or fisherman. But Fullin is twenty years old. And at that age, each person in Tober Cove must make the most important decision in life. Ominous winds of change swirl toward Fullin's idyllic existence, carrying dark secrets that will upend his beliefs, alter his view of reality, and threaten his very life. But for the boy himsef, there is no more room for indecision. The time has come to take an irrevocable stand and seal his fate forever. The hour of commitment is here.

My Review
This book was pure joy for me to read. I loved everything about it -- the world, the characters, the very idiosyncratic voice. After I came down from my reading high I found myself poking holes in some of the assertions about the world, suspect of the ways Gardner chose his characters to discourage the reader from thinking about aspects of it, but that didn't dampen my love for the experience. However, I cannot talk about the book without spoiling something that the back cover plays very coy with: the nature of the Commitment. It's revealed on page two, but if you don't want that spoiled, don't read any further. (Also, don't read any other reviews; I've only seen one that avoided the spoiler.)

Spoilers for the premiseCollapse )

My Rating
Overall Satisfaction:
★★★★1/2
   Intellectual Satisfaction: ★★★1/2
   Emotional Satisfaction: ★★★★★
Read this for: The characters, the world-building
Don't read this for: The mystery
Bechdel Test: Pass
Johnson Test: Fail
Books I was reminded of: The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold
Will I read more by this author? Absolutely.

Embassytown, by China Miéville




Title:
Embassytown
   Series: Stand-alone
Author: China Miéville
Publisher: Del Rey
Format: Advanced Readers Copy
Year: 2011
Pages: 345
Genre: Science Fiction
   Subgenres: Second Contact
Challenge Information: Science Fiction Challenge category "Second Contact"
Full Disclosure: I received this from the Amazon Vine program.

Jacket Description
In the far future, humans have colonized a distant planet, home to the enigmatic Ariekei, sentient beings famed for a language unique in the universe, one that only a few altered human ambassadors can speak.

Avice Benner Cho, a human colonist, has returned to Embassytown after years of deep-space adventure. She cannot speak the Ariekei tongue, but she is an indelible part of it, having long ago been made a figure of speech, a living simile in their language.

When distant political machinations deliver a new ambassador to Arieka, the fragile equilibrium between humans and aliens is violently upset. Catastrophe looms, and Avice is torn between competing loyalties—to a husband she no longer loves, to a system she no longer trusts, and to her place in a language she cannot speak yet speaks through her.

My Review
This is not quite a perfect book; while its reticence in explaining Language is justified, its opacity about everything else is not, and I think that unfairly limits its audience. But it is a brilliant book, epic in its scope, virtuosic in its faults, and surprisingly moving.

The opening of the book is undeniably rough going. This is 401-level science fiction, with more neologisms than I could count, most of which are never explained. The structure is nearly as baroque as some of Catherynne Valente's, but with cues more difficult to parse (it took me nearly half the book to pick up on the formerly/latterday dichotomy in the chapter headings, but then, my brain has been resistant to picking up clues from chapter headings in the past, so maybe that was just me) and less set in a predictable pattern. It's also deeply embedded in the consciousness of its first-person narrator, who appears to be narrating to an audience already informed of most of the story, and whose occasional asides to that audience seem to deliberately obscure understanding.

But even in that opening section there are tantalizing hints at the sort of story this is, a heady delving into the sort of aienness science fiction too rarely explores. I've started calling these books "Second Contact" stories, stories wherein first contact has occurred long since but the humans and aliens are still groping in the dark towards some sort of rudimentary understanding of each other. And while C.J. Cherryh is queen of that subgenre -- and the character of Bren has to be a nod to Cherryh's long-running Foreigner sequence -- Miéville has here contributed a downright exciting take on it.

And when everything clicked. . . I cared. I was not really expecting that. Avice seemed to me a fairly pedestrian narrator, and I understood what was happening with the Ariekei's Language far earlier than the text wanted me to, but I cared anyway, and I could not put the book down. I think it has to do with the fact that underneath all the semiotic pyrotechnics this is also a story about colonialism -- an issue underlying but rarely addressed in all stories of human/alien contact.

Here again, I don't think it works perfectly. A character says at one point "This isn't one of those stories, Avice. One moment of cack-handedness, Captain Cook offends the bloody locals. . . and bang, he's on the grill. Do you ever think how self-aggrandizing that stuff is?" The irony is that this is one of those stories, and the issue I take with it is that they are fundamentally self-aggrandizing, and Miéville doesn't quite manage to subvert that by the end.

Despite that quibble, this is not a story with clear right and wrong answers, and I loved that about it. Mistakes are made, and those mistakes change the world irrevocably, and even though it ends on a largely hopeful note it's very clear-eyed about all that was lost and all that can still go wrong. It also manages to give the Ariekei agency, even through the lens of a fairly self-absorbed human narrator. So all in all, despite (or perhaps even because of) its flaws, I loved this book, and look forward to rereading it.

My Rating
Overall Satisfaction:
★★★★★
   Intellectual Satisfaction: ★★★★1/2
   Emotional Satisfaction: ★★★★★
Read this for: The ideas, the themes
Don't read this for: The characters
Bechdel Test: Pass
Johnson Test: Fail*
Books I was reminded of: Foreigner, by C.J. Cherryh; "And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side," by James Tiptree, Jr.; the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Darmok;" bizarrely, also The Habitation of the Blessed, by Catherynne M. Valente.
Will I read more by this author? Absolutely.


*While Miéville mostly avoids any descriptors that would indicate race, there are few descriptions of characters' pale skin that indicated to me a default whiteness about the characters, especially as Avice is the only character whose name gives any indication of a non-white ethnic origin and they speak a language called "Anglo-Ubiq."

Sabriel, by Garth Nix




Title:
Sabriel
   Series: The Abhorsen Chronicles #1
Author: Garth Nix
Publisher: Harper Trophy
Format: Mass Market Paperback
Year: 1996
Pages: 491
Genre: Fantasy, YA
   Subgenres: High Fantasy
Challenge Information: Fantasy Challenge category "Work that has won the Aurealis Award"
Full Disclosure: N/A

Jacket Description
Sent to a boarding school in Ancelstierre as a young child, Sabriel has had little experience with the random power of Free Magic or the Dead who refuse to stay dead in the Old Kingdom. But during her final semester, her father, the Abhorsen, goes missing, and Sabriel knows she must enter the Old Kingdom to find him. She soon finds companions in Mogget, a cat whose aloof manner barely conceals its malevolent spirit, and Touchstone, a young Charter Mage long imprisoned by magic, now free in body but still trapped by painful memories. As the three travel deep into the Old Kingdom, threats mount on all sides. And every step brings them closer to a battle that will pit them against the true forces of life and death -- and bring Sabriel face-to-face with her own destiny.

My Review
I get why a ton of people love this book. The magic system is incredibly well-developed and fairly interesting -- I may not like magic that works by a system of arbitrary rules, but I know plenty of people who read just for such things. The plot is fast-paced -- I may be tired of stories where the all of the conflict derives from the protagonist not having information that everyone else in the story has, but again, I am aware that this is simply one of my own person pet peeves. And, of course, while recent years have started remedying the defect, we have a long way to go before I start complaining about reading about too many spunky heroines, even if they're only sketchily developed.

But there were too many little things that annoyed me about this book for me to love it, or even really like it, despite the fact that I blew through it in half a day.

To start, while it's clear that Nix spent a lot of time developing the magic system, with its Charter Magic vs. Free Magic and bell ringing necromancy, I would have enjoyed the book more had he spent just as much time developing the rest of the world. The Old Kingdom is vaguely medieval England; Ancelstierre is vaguely early-20th century England; but neither place feels like more than a bare-bones sketch. And while Nix was apparently trying for a pseudo-England with more gender equality (Sabriel is takes classes in both fighting and etiquette at her posh all-girls boarding school, and it's clear that gender is no bar to Sabriel being respected as the Abhorsen) his imagination seemed to fail him in really extrapolating how different that world might be. So, for instance, there are still mores against unmarried men and women traveling together -- mores that include placing the blame all on the female partner -- and every person with any power Sabriel meets is male, and she's surprised when she finds a dead mage who is female. (The book passes the Bechdel Test on the strength of two half-page long conversations Sabriel has with female children.) The world is also strangely empty of people, which is all the more noticeable because of how many Dead there appear to be.

The prose was another negative. Most of it was fine -- nothing flashy, but serviceable. But every couple chapters there would be a horribly clunky bit of exposition that totally threw me out of things. For example:
          She hadn't thought beyond her own concern for her father. Now, she was beginning to expand her
         
knowledge of him, to understand that he was more than just her father, that he was many different
          things to different people.

Making this hammering of the point home worse, to me at least, is that it comes after only a single incident, not after the sort of succession of conversations implied in the text.

And while the fast-paced plot kept me turning the pages, it really cut into my appreciation of Sabriel as a character. She's traveling for weeks, but because of what I can only assume is a horror of pages of dialogue, the only time she's shown trying to figure out the puzzles set before her or interrogate the people who are clearly withholding information from her is when she's about to be interrupted by yet another attack. At one point she and two other characters spend six days at sea -- but only start to discuss their plans for when they put to shore as they're entering a harbor, so of course their conversation gets cut off. This left me with the impression that she was doing no thinking at all, just falling from one disaster into another and making it out mostly through blind luck and the deus ex machina of her father's plans.

Still, Nix did keep me turning the pages, even if he used a trick like ending the chapters in the middle of the action scenes to do it. And the magic, particularly the bell ringing, was fascinating. And this novel was published early in his career (I think it's his second?), so it's quite likely that he improved in at least some of those areas. I wouldn't recommend against this novel, or Nix in general; it just was not strong enough for me to be excited for it.

My Rating
Overall Satisfaction:
★★★
   Intellectual Satisfaction: ★★1/2
   Emotional Satisfaction: ★★★
Read this for: The ideas
Don't read this for: The world-building, the prose
Bechdel Test: Pass
Johnson Test: Fail
Books I was reminded of: The Blue Sword, by Robin McKinley
Will I read more by this author? Unlikely.



Title:
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making
   Series: Fairyland #1
Author: Catherynne M. Valente
Publisher: Feiwel and Friends
Format: Hardcover
Year: 2011
Pages: 247
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult, Metafiction
   Subgenres: Faux-Victorian Portal Fantasy
Challenge Information: Fantasy Challenge category "Work that has won the Andre Norton Award"
Full Disclosure: As noted before, I am a Catherynne M. Valente fan girl. Deal with it.

Jacket Description
September is a girl who longs for adventure. When she is invited to Fairyland by a Green Wind and Leopard, well, of course she accepts. (Mightn't you?) But Fairyland is in turmoil, and it will take one twelve-year-old girl, a book-loving dragon, and a strange and almost human boy named Saturday to vanquish an evil Marquess and restore order.

Not since Oz has there been a land -- or a cast of characters -- so rich and entrancing.

My Review
Back in 2009, Catherynne M. Valente published Palimpsest. (My review.) One of that novel's main characters, a woman named November, defines herself by a 1923 novel called The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, one in a series by Hortense Francis Weckweet about a little girl named September who says "Yes!" (enthusiastic consent, so to speak) to adventuring in fairyland, portal-fantasy style. That book is a through-line in November's story of helping to open up a very adult Fairyland to immigration from our world, and judging from the excerpts Valente provided it sounded delightful, full of whimsy and led by a marvelously spunky narrator.

And it didn't exist.

But one experiment in crowd-funding later, it did. Valente wrote it and posted it online; then it won the Andre Norton Award, leading to a contract with a brick-and-mortar publisher. And that resulted in the book I have in my hands right now. A book which completely satisfies all the promise implied in Palimpsest and which I can easily picture becoming a classic of children's literature.

Keeping true to what was implied about it in Palimpsest, Fairyland is set during WWI and is written in the tone of that era's children's literature. Valente is very much present as the Author, frequently breaking the fourth wall to confide in the reader and foreshadow what is coming next. Like the best in children's literature, she presents a fairyland that is full of wonders (a herd of wild bicycles, a wyvern who is the son of a library, and a little boy who met his mother before she gave birth to him, etc.) but also fraught with dangers -- dangers which our child protagonist can meet, but which push her to her limits and beyond.

It's a fairyland that jives with all our stories of fairylands, and when September stands at a crossroads and has to choose between paths "To lose your way," "To lose your life," "To lose your mind" or "To lose your heart" we know exactly which one she will choose -- and the many, many ways her choice is the worst. We know the rules about not eating fairy food and always moving widdershins, and so does September because she's a bookish child; but keeping with the theme of enthusiastic consent she doesn't let those rules or the very real danger stop her when she has to save her friends. And keeping with a theme that Valente often develops, nothing comes without a price, lacing the happiest moments with poignancy.

This is not my favorite of Valente's novels -- I prefer the gloriously ornate nested structure of The Orphan's Tales -- but it is an excellent place to start with her work, presenting glimpses of her absolutely exquisite prose and her deft hand with myth and folklore in a very accessible, downright conventional narrative. It is also the sort of book that the child I once was would have taken to heart and read to pieces; I hope, therefore, that many children get a chance to discover it and read it to pieces in turn.

My Rating
Overall Satisfaction:
★★★★★
   Intellectual Satisfaction: ★★★★1/2
   Emotional Satisfaction: ★★★★★
Read this for: The world-building, the characters
Don't read this for: N/A*
Bechdel Test: Pass
Johnson Test: Fail
Books I was reminded of: The actual Victorian(ish) portal fantasies -- The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Chronicles of Narnia, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, etc.
Will I read more by this author? See "Full Disclosure" note.




*I tried. I really tried to come up with a weakness here. But there just isn't one. As I noted over on my personal blog, I prefer to read novels that are less transparent than this one; but in a YA novel I believe transparency is a positive, so I can't fault the prose or structure for that. The characters are wonderful, the themes are wonderful, the plotting is wonderful, there are a million different fantastical ideas. . . just read the thing. I cannot imagine why anyone would dislike it. :)

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