Monthly Archives: May 2015

Magonia

Title: Magonia

Author: Maria Dahvana Headley

Aza has always been sick. Breathing problems have landed her in the hospital so much she’s a professional patient. And being constantly sick hasn’t made it easy to make friends. All she has is Jason, a guy whose trivia knowledge and snark can rival hers. But just when things might be changing between them from friends to something more, her life turns into something she never thought possible. Now she’s navigating a strange society, torn between her own desires and what everyone says is her destiny.

This is somewhat outside the genres I usually read, but I picked it up for the fantasy aspects. And in that sense, it was a good read. Magonia has an interesting premise, and the way it works out in practice was a lot of fun. I liked the Rostae the most. (Bird-shapeshifters! And not entirely human-looking ones, at that.) The details of a society based in the sky worked, as does their main problem with getting enough to eat.

Aza has a pretty sharp and defined voice, although midway through the book it starts blurring a little into something more like the prose used for Jason. I can appreciate the technique, even if I wasn’t personally as fond of the poetry-styled text flowing in odd shapes around the page. The observation I liked best was death as separation rather than ending, because I think that touches on something really true—the tragedy of death is not so much that a life has ended, but that those who loved that life are suddenly torn apart from it, and whatever was unsaid or undone will remain that way.

And I really liked Jason. The first-person point of view helps to underline that although he thinks in much the same ways as Aza, he’s also very different. I liked his OCD-ness and the way he approaches facts and research. I like how both of them see the competition between them differently, how determined he is to get one over her, and how he actually manages it on multiple occasions. I liked their first meeting, what he did for her birthday, and what he did at the funeral. He shows in a lot of ways that he really understands her, even the bits of her she doesn’t understand about herself.

But I wasn’t as fond of the book on some other levels. The first one is that the plot is in large part the love triangle between Aza, Jason, and Dai. Basically, it’s a romance-with-fantasy and not a fantasy-with-romance (that is, the former is the thrust of the story and the latter is the supporting detail). Aza fits well with Jason—he’s seen her at her worst and is willing to take her for who she is. Dai is the attractive one who is mostly a jerk with a tragic past. So I was hugely frustrated that Aza kept allowing Dai’s looks to overwhelm her, or she uses his past to excuse his present behavior. This is, in a lot of ways, the “contemporary teen romance” angle blended into the story, and I hate those types of stories for reasons like this.

The other thing that really bothered me is that Jason’s family is two lesbians raising him, and Jason’s character doesn’t fit with that. This is portrayed as a pretty stable and happy family, but it completely ignores the fact that Jason, himself, is a male. His mothers went as far as removing his father from his birth certificate, and when he mentions it, he says it like it’s sweet and not totally selfish to try to rewrite his life to remove all male influence (not to mention I think it’s a sign of being disturbed to want to claim that the reality that Jason had a father can and should be changed; no matter how much of a deadbeat he was, he is still actually, physically responsible for Jason existing at all). Jason shows no signs of gender confusion, despite the fact that no one in his family (and no family friends are mentioned either) would be able to show him what it is to be a man, versus being a woman. I know it’s popular to claim people are people, and to some extent that’s absolutely correct—but men and women are not interchangeable cogs such that any combination works out the same. In the workforce it can work out that way, but marriage and family is a totally different thing with a different purpose.

Anyway. The book ends with a lot of potential for a sequel, as things have only momentarily gone back to “normal” and it seems a war may be brewing. I’m sure that means plenty of more opportunity for Dai to trouble Aza’s heart, so I’m not sure I would go any further, although I would be interested in seeing a lot more of Magonia, as there are plenty of things only mentioned but not shown that I wanted to see. So overall the recommendation on this is a bit mixed. If the teen love-triangle-romance angle is something that excites you rather than makes you groan, you’ll probably love this. But if, like me, you prefer more of a fantasy-with-romance than a romance-with-fantasy, the large amount of Aza falling for Dai is likely to be an aggravating deviation from the parts of the story that are unique. So, I rate this book Recommended if the romance appeals, and Neutral otherwise.

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The Ships of Air (The Fall of Ile-Rien #2)

Title: The Ships of Air

Author: Martha Wells

Tremaine and other refugees from Ile-Rien have boarded the Ravenna, a gigantic cruise ship-turned-troop transport. Technically, their goal is to jump between worlds to escape the Gardier’s bombardments of Ile-Rien and jump back once they’ve crossed to another country. But fleeing isn’t so easy. The world between their hops is home to Gardier bases, the ship has several factions aboard, and their little getaway might be far more vital to the war effort than some want.

It’s hard to think of a good way to summarize this book without giving away some of the surprises that come up. If the first book was nonstop action, this one is more suspense which eventually snowballs into more of an action-adventure. And to be honest, I had a hard time getting through the first half because of it. The story remained engaging because of its characters, but I found the events far less compelling until Tremaine ends up on the airship with no way back.

Favorite line: “I knew emphasizing firearms training over deportment lessons would benefit in the long run.”

The characters, however, are fascinating. I love watching the relationship between Giliead and Ilias—friends and brothers, boyishly playful but also longtime partners in the dangerous game of killing wizards. The other Syprians also show in so many little ways how their culture works, and especially how it clashes against the more Victorian Rienish.

I’ve figured out why I like Tremaine so much, or rather one more reason: she likes to stick it to people who annoy her. I’m also fond of her vagueness that occasionally peels back to a razor-sharp intellect, or the way she’s completely clueless about things that don’t interest her. Which is to say I enjoyed the unexpected way she gets married. And that she and Ilias actually do get married before sleeping together.

Overall this is really just the next part of the adventure that began in The Wizard Hunters, so if you’re just starting the series start with the first book. It is a good continuance of the events from there, but it does feel more like the middle chapter since it doesn’t feel like they’re in an appreciably different position at the end of the book than they were at the beginning. But if you’re fond of great characterization then by all means give this a read. I rate this book Recommended.

Horizon (Above World #3)

Title: Horizon

Author: Jenn Reese

Having taken down Fathom and driven off Scorch, Aluna is confident she and her friends will be able to take on the mastermind Karl Strand. They’ll join a group of Upgraders, posing as captives, and infiltrate the army. Only nothing works out the way Aluna anticipated. Can they still topple Karl Strand when his army is poised to seize full control?

This is, like the previous two books, excellent. It brings a number of things full circle for the ending, which makes the finale powerful and personal. I particularly liked the mythology linked with Karl Strand. A symbol of immortality indeed (and, as the myth, not quite as immortal as it initially appears).

This continues the weird fusion of mythological creatures and future-tech. This time the society that gets the most focus is one that has been present in other books but only on the periphery: the Upgraders. Humans who bind tech to themselves to enhance various parts. Upgraders are almost universally despised, so Aluna is expecting it to be easy to deceive a group of them to use for her own plans. She really should know better by now.

I was impressed particularly not just by what Aluna does, but by what she can’t do. She’s been nearly a superhero so far with her growing ability as a warrior—but back under the waves, she’s finding herself forced back into the role she left. And she’s learning that sometimes the hardest place to be a hero is at home, surrounded by everyone who knew her before and expects her to be how she was.

The end is a tad abrupt—particularly the bit about finding Karl’s heart (it reduces what has been a rather epic fight into about a two sentence finish). And the time skip isn’t immediately obvious as such so it took a few minutes to figure out we’d jumped forward for an epilogue.

All in all, though, the world is bursting with possibility for new adventures, even though the current one is solidly over. I do hope Reese returns to this world (and even, my personal hope, in a more YA series where she might be able to dig even deeper into some of the things that get a glance here). I rate this book Recommended.

The Wizard Hunters (The Fall of Ile-Rien #1)

Title: The Wizard Hunters

Author: Martha Wells

Tremaine is looking for a way to kill herself when Gerard, an old family friend, shows up to ask for the sphere her uncle gave her when she was a child. Their country is under attack by an unknown enemy, and the spheres are a vital piece of the defensive effort. But the sphere refuses to respond unless Tremaine is there, so she finds herself enlisted in an adventure stranger than any she could’ve imagined . . .

The plot takes a little while to get going on Tremaine’s side, but her character is compelling enough to draw you along. She wants to kill herself, but not in a manner that would leave anyone suspecting murder. Volunteering for dangerous work helping people in the bombed-out areas of the city hasn’t worked so far—she’s still more alive than she wants to be.

The details of her character, her country, and the war are precise and subtle. I really like the way Wells draws people on the page. Tremaine doesn’t understand her own motives, and she comments at one point she feels split between a flippant personality and a dangerous one, and she’s not sure which is closer to the real her. And her relationship with Ilias feels right: this isn’t a romance, although she is attracted to him, mostly because they’re in the middle of a big mess and trying not to get killed. Maybe later, there will be time to figure out if it’s love. For now, they trust and rely on each other even when they have a lot of trouble understanding each other.

I also liked the different societies in play. The cultural differences aren’t just window dressing, they’re key. Ilias’s people don’t just dislike wizards, their whole society is built around killing them (which makes their reaction to sorcerers like Gerard funny and tense). And Tremaine’s people may have the technology and magic, but when she’s on Ilias’s world she’s dealing with enemies he understands far better.

Overall this manages to be both very character-driven and packed with action scenes. It ties some things up but the bigger questions are unanswered, and it will be interesting to see where the series goes from here. I rate this book Recommended.

Stone Voice Rising

Title: Stone Voice Rising

Author: C. Lee Tocci

Lilibit has always heard the stones talking. But an act of childish stubbornness plays right into her enemy’s hands, and those who see her power as a future threat capture her. Now, five years later, she’s a shadow of the girl she used to be, washed out to a last-chance foster home. The enemy did not intend to lose her. He wants her back. Can she reach the legendary Kiva before he finds her again?

Much of this book borrows from the strength of thrillers: fast, high-stakes action, being pursued by a powerful and ruthless enemy, the sense that the world is more or less against you. But where thrillers generally fall into the trap of style over substance, this book pushes out beyond and includes some nice elements of fantasy, myth, and coming-of-age.

The beginning is a little off-putting because it starts with a six-year-old Lilibit, which gives some great background on her character but did leave me wondering if the entire book would be following such a young (and rather obnoxious) character. Thankfully, the time skip happens pretty fast, and once we hit the future most of the story shifts to Todd, the oldest boy at the foster home and the one who stands to lose his place there thanks to Lilibit showing up.

I liked Todd a lot. He’s not really cut out to be a leader in his own mind, but as the oldest he does feel responsible for the others, even the anti-authority Jeff. I liked how his character arc increasingly trends towards the mythic, as though he’s taking up the mantle of a prophet-warrior and moving back to an ancient time of vast powers and supernatural evils. His ability to talk to ravens and crows gets a lot of attention early on, but later, although he follows them, he doesn’t hear them speak any more. That was one thing I wish he had regained. He’s also the only one of the kids smart enough to figure out what Lilibit’s gifts of stones really means, and hesitant about taking his own stone as a consequence.

Keotak-se, the ten-centuries-old Stone Warrior, is another interesting character. Lilibit’s stubbornness and unpredictability foil his greater strength and wisdom in his attempts to protect her, and later, find her. It’s most interesting to compare him to Todd, though, as Kotek-se appears to be the kind of person Todd is becoming. Even though Lilibit gifts stones to more than just Todd, they all seem more enamored with the powers than the bigger-picture stuff Todd is wondering about.

The biggest flaw feels like the abundance of major characters. Todd, Jeff, Keotak-se, and Lilibit get a lot of development, but many of the younger kids blurred together for me. Which is a shame, because I really liked Devon but kept getting him mixed up with the kid who got the Horse stone. And on a more minor note, although the articles at the end were a nice touch to provide some closure, I find it extremely unbelievable “He was just following orders” got accepted as an excuse. It doesn’t usually work that way, although since the point was that Syxx can sway people to unreasonable actions, it’s more of a minor thing.

This wraps up fairly well, but several things do point towards wanting a sequel (Molly, Chief, the whole bit with the neophytes gathering). Given how long ago this book came out I’m not too hopeful, although the author page does indicate she’s working on it. But if this is all we get, it’s still a very good read, so I rate this book Recommended.

Mirage (Above World #2)

Title: Mirage

Author: Jenn Reese

Aluna, Hoku, Dash, and Calli saved the Kampii, but uncovered a plot that threatens all of Above World. Karl Strand and his clones are going after slaves and energy sources, and the group heads out to warn Dash’s people, the centaur Equians, next. But Karl’s clone, Scorch, has already laid plans. And Dash risks much in returning to the people from whom he has been exiled . . .

This book takes everything I liked about the first and ramps it up a notch. Aluna and her friends live with the Equians long enough to get a good feel for how the herds work, the types of people they are, and how they’re the same and yet different from each other. Dash, being home, really gets a chance to shine. I like his reserve and his honor, and how he responds to situations that outsiders like Aluna and Hoku find horrifying. He is very like Aluna, which is why their relationship moves slowly and frustrates both of them.

And I liked that Hoku and Calli are starting to move past the first stages of a crush that they were in last book. Hoku is too shy to ask her how she really feels, and now that he has a potential rival he’s not at all sure how to handle the situation.

I also really liked that Hoku finally gets a teacher. Aluna has had the opportunity to train with warriors in every culture she comes across, but Hoku’s big dream of learning tech seemed more likely to come true as a self-study program with Calli’s books. I like how well the story captures his thought process—Aluna thinks like a warrior, but Hoku thinks like an engineer. It’s in the way he approaches problems, or how a batch of fiddly bits can distract him from tension, or how he always turns to tech as his answer to the problem.

The world continues to unfold in glimpses. I’m looking forward to the next (and presumably last) leg of the journey. I rate this book Highly Recommended.

Above World (Above World #1)

Title: Above World

Author: Jenn Reese

Aluna is one of the ocean-dwelling Kampii, humans altered a long time ago to live underwater. But those alterations mean they still rely on some technology, and when their breathing necklaces start failing, Aluna charges off to find out why. Even though that means going where no adult Kampii can—to the Above World.

This is a rather unusual story, and not at all what I was expecting. It’s mostly sci-fi (although the gene therapy looks a lot more like magic), and discovering the world and its secrets comprises a good deal of the plot. As the Kampii get their tails when they come of age, Aluna is still young enough to have legs, and therefore able to leave her ocean home and go on this journey of discovery. She’s accompanied by her best friend Hoku, a quiet boy who likes tech.

Aluna and Hoku make a well-matched pair. I’m a little tired of books that paint the girl as the big strong warrior and the boy as a wimp, but Hoku and his tech-fascination is just as critical to the story as Aluna and her impulsiveness and bravery. I also really liked how many different races show up, from the shark-based Deepfell to the snake and crab and mech people, as well as the centaurs and winged people. The dozens of splinter races offer offer a variety of strange sights and fascinating cultures.

And this is where I got a little frustrated. The book’s greatest strength is probably the fast, well-paced plot that books no detours, where sharp detail can paint in minimal strokes the shape of this world. And that’s also the biggest weakness. There’s a beautiful sketch of a world here, and I wanted to slow down sometimes and dig a little deeper into this or that piece that caught my interest. But then I’m interested in the worldbuilding as well as the characters. I would almost like to see short stories set in this universe from the perspective of different races just to get a better picture.

Overall, this is a very quick read that strikes off in an interesting direction. There’s a lot of potential for future development as well as a good story right here. I rate this book Recommended.