bloodygranuaile: (ed wood)
There come times in the life of every reader where a book contains enough Things Relevant To One’s Interests that it makes them go “Oh, it’s like this author has written this book just for me!” When you have as many things Relevant To One’s Interests as I do, this happens with some regularity, I will admit.

But it is decidedly rarer for an author to tell me “I’m writing this book for you!” two years before the book is actually published.

But that is indeed what happened at Readercon a few years ago; I believe it was the year that Mary Shelley was the Memorial Guest of Honor. There were three of us; I think it was me and Gillian and Emily, and I’d gone to get my copy of In the Forest of Forgetting signed, and Theodora Goss was telling us about the novel she was working on. It was based on all my favorite old Gothic tales, about the daughters of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the girl monster creations of a bunch of other mad scientists, who form a club and fight crime. She was writing this book, she said, for us; we were precisely the sort of audience she had in mind.

This stuck in my mind and it has been with possessive glee that I have followed every update on the novel, and when The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter finally hit shelves this summer, I thought, My book is here! The book written for me! because I am self-centered like that. I told Dora Goss this when I attended a reading she did with Cat Valente at Brookline Booksmith this week.



I was reluctant to read it unless I could do it all in one sitting, so I spent the week enjoying the anticipation, and then this morning I made myself a cup of coffee and plonked myself down in the living room with the intention of doing nothing else all day until I finished it.

I was not disappointed.

The story is largely from the point of view of Mary Jekyll, 21-year-old daughter of the long-dead Dr. Jekyll, although the book is being written by puma-turned-human-woman Catherine Moreau, with added commentary from the other characters. (It is a new way of writing a novel, because they are modern girls and it is the ‘90s. The 1890s, obviously.)

The story begins when Mary Jekyll’s mother dies of complications from madness, and Mary finds herself nearly destitute, with no employable skills, very little in savings, no income from either of her parents, and a large house in London that, in the current economic climate, cannot be sold. In going through her mother’s papers, she discovers that her mother has for years been donating a pound a year to a charitable society for the care and keeping of “Hyde.” The only Hyde that Mary knows about is her father’s former assistant who disappeared after being accused of murder, and for whom there is—or at one point, was—a reward of one hundred pounds for information leading to his capture. Mary takes the papers to her local celebrity detective, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, and from thereon out, things get weird. In short order, Mary finds herself saddled with an incorrigible younger sister named Diana; Beatrice Rappaccini, a lovely young Italian woman who breathes poison; Catherine Moreau, a young lady who used to be a puma; and Justine Frankenstein, who used to be Justine Moritz and who had erroneously been reported as disassembled in Mrs. Shelley’s book from a century earlier.

The girls are all daughters or creations of men with ties to a mysterious group called the Société des Alchimistes, which appears to have something to do with a series of gruesome murders of ladies of negotiable affection in Whitechapel, which Holmes and Watson are also consulting upon. The murdered women have all had body parts removed, and the only available description of who they’d been seen with sounds very like the supposedly late Edward Hyde.

If you’re a big old Gothics nerd like me, one of the most fun aspects of the story is the sheer number of old classics that Goss manages to squish into this novel. In addition to the five young women and the aforementioned Holmes and Watson, the madman Renfield from Dracula pops up as a fairly important secondary character, as does Dr. John Seward from the insane asylum and Dr. Van Helsing, although the latter only in the form of letters. I kept half-expecting Mrs. Poole, Mary’s housekeeper, to turn out to be Grace Poole from Jane Eyre, although if she is it’s not addressed in this book. I was also pleased to find a reference to The Castle of Otranto.

With this many other works crammed into it, it is good that the book doesn’t take itself overly seriously. The girls’ commentary occasionally dips into a distinctly modern register, and, of course, the book’s not nearly as dense as any genuine Victorian writing at all. Most of the plot is a sort of comic caper type of action-mystery, with a lot of gallivanting around London and bits of the English countryside infiltrating circuses and chasing Beast Men and doing amateur detectiving and trying to do it all while managing the deliberately constricting reality of 19th century English women’s clothes, although that last bit is not as modern an invention as you might think, featuring prominently in Wilkie Collins’ classic The Woman in White (although apparently in real 19th century novels, women who spy on other people while wearing insufficient clothes have to fall deliriously ill for weeks immediately afterwards, them’s the rules). It’s also a joyous, empowering, delightful portrayal of friendship and solidarity between women, even women who are very different and who don’t always actually get along that well (especially when Diana’s involved).

I don’t want to give the ending away but suffice to say that while the girls and Holmes and Watson do technically solve the Whitechapel murders, the Société des Alchimistes is not an easy foe to vanquish, leaving us with an excellent setup for a sequel as well as a convincing cover for the Whitechapel murders never being officially solved, like with anyone getting arrested for them.

The book is quite light on romantic subplots, which I appreciate. Beatrice has a tragic romantic backstory, although by the time the book is being written by Catherine, Beatrice is more concerned with the suffragist and Rational Dress movements. There are hints of romantic interest between Mary and Holmes, which is cute because Goss doesn’t bring up Holmes’ canonical drug habit at any point. The other girls have decidedly un-romantic backstories re: men’s attention.

I’m already eagerly awaiting the sequel, because reasons, and I highly recommend the book to anyone who likes funny stuff about mad scientists and girl monsters, even if you’re not a huge Gothic lit dork. I would also highly recommend it to anyone else who is a Gothic lit dork who doesn’t take it too seriously, which I would hope would be most of them, since Gothic lit is a bit goofy to start with.

bloodygranuaile: (sociability)
 This past weekend was Readercon, where, for the first time, I only went for one day, a decision I regret and will not be repeating. (I have been unusually bad at scheduling and time management in 2017, for some reason, so I keep missing stuff I actually want to do.) Anyway, one of the guests of honor was Naomi Novik, the author of Uprooted, which I've been meaning to read for at least a year. After having some logistical difficulties trying to form or execute a workable plan for myself to buy a copy of the book and get it signed, I wound up borrowing Gillian's freshly signed copy off her, and promising I'd actually read it and give it back in a reasonable amount of time (unlike the copy of Kelly Link's Get In Trouble that's been sitting on the TBR Shelf of Doom for ::mumblemumblecough::).

I accomplished the reading bit in record time for a borrowed book, starting it first thing Sunday morning and finishing it just before dinner, because Sundays in the summer are for lounging around reading entire books in one sitting. 

Uprooted follows in two of my favorite longtime fantasy traditions, which are "books based on fairy/folk tales" and "books about teenage girls with magic powers." Mostly it draws on Polish fairy tale traditions that I'm not super familiar with (for example, I did not catch that the witch Jaga was Baba Yaga until she was actually referred to as "Baba Jaga"—but I do know who Baba Yaga is). The premise of the book refers clearly to the well-known fairy tale trope of dragons capturing or demanding princesses and/or village maidens—a trope I've enjoying seeing upended since Patricia Wrede's Enchanted Forest Chronicles, and that I think more authors should do stuff with—although it becomes pretty clear the second it is explained that the Dragon here is actually a wizard that we're looking at more of a Beauty and the Beast type of situation. 

Beauty and the Beast, obviously, is a not entirely unproblematic sort of situation to be in, and Uprooted features a bunch of tropes that are sort of problematic if you think about them seriously, or that some readers might be tired of, but they were also the sorts of things that I was expecting and I think they were handled about as well as they could be without turning it into too serious of a novel. There is the usual Mr. Darcy problem that someone who is a gigantic asshole but really is nicer or better in some way underneath, or otherwise is an asshole for a reason, is still an asshole, because being terrible to people is bad. Agniezka, our heroine, does at points confront the Dragon about the ethics of terrorizing the village by taking one of its girls every ten years, even if he doesn't do anything bad to them; there is, of course, no way to actually make it not terrible that he's been scaring the shit out of his entire constituency for a century. He's also an awful, awful teacher at the beginning, well into being abusively so, especially when there's no communication about what it is that he's actually teaching. While we're at it, feudal monarchy is a terrible form of government.

Also, this is one of those books where the main character is special, and while she's not good at everything, the one thing she is really good at she is the best at. You are either in the mood for this sort of story or you should go read something else. I like this sort of story when it's executed well; this one, because of the nature of Agniezka's magic, has some parallels to Tamora Pierce's Immortals series, which was one of my favorites when I was wee.

The initially really harsh mentor is a fairly common fantasy trope that probably is bad praxis for anyone trying to become a teacher, and the "has important knowledge but is hilariously bad at actually teaching" trope is a less common one but a situation that I always find sort of hilarious (although the prize for this goes to Alabaster from N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth series, if only for the bit where Essun has to teach the basics of teaching to him before he can teach her the magic stuff). The inevitable romance between the Dragon and Agniezka actually only ends up happening once they figure out how to work their two very different types of magic together, and as a result, even though the Dragon spends most of the book being almost Edward Cullen-level intolerable as a person, the resulting romance, born as it is out of highly charged drift-compatible magic workings, ended up being more compelling to me than most other Obligatory Romantic Subplots. (Magic is sexy, OK?)

The villain in the book is the Wood, which is, as one would guess from the name, an evil forest that periodically sends out all sorts of horrors to carry people off and infect cows with some sort of grotesque hell-demon disease and make people go mad. The term used throughout the book for the malevolent essence of the Wood that gets into stuff is referred to just as "corruption," which I like, because it avoids having to use the word "darkness" for what is basically the age-old fantasy convention of having to defeat Darkness as a sort of literal force, like we see in The Dark is Rising and A Wrinkle in Time and that one Dead Alewives sketch where a dude casts Magic Missile at it. So it's the same idea, but corruption has a sort of dirty rotting biological feel to it rather than grand moral absolutism; a little more like Hexxus in Ferngully except it doesn't sing and is not played by Tim Curry. Eventually Agniezka does figure out what the Wood is and starts to fix it, but not before a series of events with a numbingly high body count, especially considering that the rest of the book is generally not that dark. In fact, I found the final battle to be perhaps the weakest part of the book, but I admit that writing climactic battles is very tricky to pull off.

The real key relationship in the book, though, isn't between Nieshka and the Dragon, or between the Wood and all the people around it, or between all the various intolerable political factions. It's the relationship between Nieshka and her childhood best friend Kasia, played in my brain by the late Russian model Ruslana Korshunova. Kasia was the one everyone assumed the Dragon would pick, because she was beautiful and clever and brave and kind and basically perfect, whereas Nieshka was basically a slatternly mess who was really good at gleaning mushrooms and berries and stuff in the woods, but nobody noticed because Kasia was around.

Ruslana Korshunova
Ruslana Korshunova, the "Russian Rapunzel." RIP.

Kasia and Nieshka's friendship apparently cannot be ended by anything, whether it is the lifelong knowledge that Kasia will be taken away, or any of the strange things that happen to her after Nieshka is taken instead. Their friendship endures a lot of separation and some embarrassingly soul-baring magic as they both slowly transform into increasingly bizarre and powerful creatures, Nieshka essentially being the second coming of Baba Jaga, and Kasia turning into some sort of preternaturally strong tree warrior. I want a sequel of Kasia's adventures kicking ass and taking names and being a warrior-dryad. The I want an animated movie of it.

Overall, this is a very delightful book that was exactly the sort of thing I find restorative and comforting to read, provided you don't overthink it, and it makes me wish I knew more Polish fairy tales.

 

bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Aaaaaaaahhhhh it's the last Harry Potter book!

I'd only read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows once, since it came out, and since then I've seen bits of the movies, but I basically remembered next to nothing of the plot other than a) Horcruxes and b) the epilogue was boring, because those are the two things that have the most filtered into our cultural consciousness in the decade (!!!) since it was published. So most of this book was very much like reading something brand new.

This book deviates from the previously established structure of uncovering a plot over the course of a year at school, and instead borrows that timeless (or, in some hands, timeworn) fantasy classic structure: a Quest, or more specifically, a Long Ride. After aging out of the blood protection he got from the Dursleys and escaping with the Order of the Phoenix, Harry and Ron and Hermione wander around England for several months, searching for Horcruxes. Over the course of this quest, Harry is systematically stripped of most of his support system and prized possessions — starting, heartbreakingly, with Hedwig, who could easily be included in both categories — in a process that is clearly a metaphor for something. We've had this sort of thing in miniature before, right from the very first book, when Harry goes into the obstacle course defending the Stone with Ron and Hermione but ultimately must face Voldemort alone.

In Deathly Hallows, though, you know stuff has gotten real destablizing, because people are losing their wands. Ron memorably had his wand broken in Chamber of Secrets, but it was a secondhand wand (which means it probably didn't work all that well anyway), and its being broken caused problems for an entire year. But here, people are losing wands and having them broken and confiscated and stealing them from one another all over the place. It kind of makes you wonder why this sort of thing didn't happen more often earlier in the series, but maybe it's also just one of those things that happens more when society has largely collapsed. And make no mistake — wizarding society here has indeed collapsed.

In among the examination of authoritarian takeover and its attendant ills — mass surveillance, militarized public life, blackmail, betrayals, schools being turned into police states, propaganda about "undesirables," registering people based on their "blood status," does any of this sound familiar yet — is a Redwall-esque riddle quest (ha, do u see what I did there) through the history of the wizarding world and its great families to find and destroy the Horcruxes. The heart of the mystery is at Godric's Hollow, ancestral home of Godric Gryffindor, of the Peverell family, and of Harry's father. The crux of the action, however, occurs on the hallowed ground at Hogwarts, as it assuredly must. Harry has to figure out when to rely on his friends and when to stand alone; when to hide and when to draw attention to himself; when to fight and when to face death unarmed and accepting.

The body count is high, and whether the victims are characters introduced in the first book or in this one, they're all pretty devastating. Having grown up with these characters and this series, having so many of them die right when this book came out, as I was at the end of my teens, felt like my childhood was being killed off in a way that's more viscerally upsetting than I wanted to admit. It was no less traumatic the second time around, ten years later, even though in the intervening time I've read dozens or probably hundreds of books with vastly more death and violence.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows marks the end of an era, the end of the formative years for a generation that became better people because of this series, according to science. And now, it's time for us to take what we've learned and to go out and fight fascism in the Muggle world — without wands, but with love and courage and inquisitiveness and a sense of justice and a commitment to equality and all of our wonderful friends.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was published in 2005, the summer between my junior and senior year of high school, when I was 17. By this point, I had largely stopped rereading books on any sort of regular basis, which is why I've only read this one three times: Once when it came out, once when I reread the series before Deathly Hallows came out, and this winter. My strongest memory of the summer it came out was that viral video of some guy yelling spoilers out of a car and making people cry. That never struck me as a thing very much in keeping with the spirit of the series, frankly.

Anyway. Considering I was not inspired to reread it very often, it turns out that Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is just as devastatingly good as all the other books. Clearly it's me that has changed, not the quality of the story.

It is worth it to say that the lighthearted, whimsical children's book world of Sorcerer's Stone is by now nearly gone, in the same way that the safe, economically stable, end-of-history world of Bill Clinton's '90s as viewed through the lens of a small nerd girl is now gone, and we are now maybe a vassal state of Russia and China is going to declare war on us by Sunday. Half-Blood Prince is DARK. The war is on, everyone knows Voldemort is back, people's family members are starting to go missing, and somebody is half-assedly trying to commit unnecessarily elaborate murders at Hogwarts. We do meet our first halfway decent Slytherin, a schmoozy type named Horace Slughorn who, while frequently annoying, is more of a regular kind of status-conscious rather than being murderously evil.

In this year at Hogwarts, Harry mysteriously becomes good at Potions due to help from a heavily annotated used textbook; Snape finally becomes the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher; Ron is still having self-esteem issues about being Keeper; and Harry starts taking private lessons with Dumbledore.

The private lessons in question are basically all trips into the Pensieve, a sort of magical receptacle for memories. It turns out that Dumbledore has been painstakingly piecing together the backstory of Tom Riddle and his eventual transformation into Voldemort. It's a fascinating, Dickensian story of pride, resentment, alienation, greed, revenge, fear, and ambition. It also illustrates well the self-defeating cycle of poverty and bigotry that occurs when people hold onto the idea that they are "better" than others when they don't have anything else to hold onto, but the resulting entitlement makes them such lazy assholes that they refuse to do anything to better their circumstances or develop any kind of community that could help them. (There's even an excellent dig at Merope Gaunt's father and his refusal to do housework.)

There's still some funny bits, though, and the best ones relate to the magical luck potion called Felix Felices. This includes one of the funniest drunk scenes I have ever seen — at Aragog's funeral — and an interesting study on the placebo effect on Quidditch performance. But overall, the experience of reading this book in one day was emotionally exhausting in ways I haven't been emotionally exhausted in years. I cried a bunch of times (ESPECIALLY AT THE END), because I am officially a sappy old lady now. I felt like all my feelings had been beaten up. It was great. This book is a freaking masterpiece.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Sometime around the publication of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, my constant rereading habits started to drop off. I’ve probably only read this one five times or so? Maybe ten at the outside. At any rate, it’s not one of the ones where I’ve got all the words engraved deep in my memories. But I did remember the most important bits.

This is another one that’s often derided as being a little bit not as masterful as the others, mainly because Harry is annoying as crap throughout it. Everyone in this book is fifteen and has a bad attitude, and the publishers apparently made Rowling squish a bunch of romance into it that you can tell she doesn’t care that much about.

On the other hand, though, Order of the Phoenix does a bang-up job exploring issues of how fascism establishes itself in public institutions. We see the use of denial, of a compromised press, of scapegoating, of the use of crisis as a pretext for tightening government control, of the wrecking of checks and balances of power, and of the difficulties of dealing with people who are mendaciously, stone-cold indifferent to truth.

Although Voldemort returned at the end of Goblet of Fire, he’s really not the main antagonist throughout most of this book. Instead, our main villain is petty, power-mad bureaucrat Dolores Umbridge. This is because the wizarding world has split into three factions: pro-Voldemort, anti-Voldemort, and then the Minstry’s official position, which is that it definitely would be anti-Voldemort if Voldemort were around, but it simply cannot accept that it is so, and its ire is focused predominantly on those who insist upon being all disruptive by saying he is. It is traditional in children’s literature to throw in a character or two to add a minor note of Moral Complexity to the good and evil binary by having someone who is more cowardly or maladaptive than malicious, such as Gollum from Lord of the Rings. In this book, it is that cowardly, head-in-the-sand faction that bears the full brunt of the author’s ire. The cowardly faction actually has two factions within it: the people who will turn out to be anti-Voldemort once they can’t avoid accepting that he’s back, and the people who will happily collaborate knowingly with the Death Eater’s regime once it moves into the open. But for the purpose of this book, they are one faction, and it is as yet unknown who will go which way when the truth comes out.

Dolores Umbridge, as everyone knows, is THE WOOORST. Voldemort may be magic Hitler but Umbridge is the sort of grasping petty abusive condescending bigot that we all personally recognize from somewhere because our society is set up to reward sociopathic assholes. Every time someone does the tiniest thing she dislikes she comes up with sweeping decrees banning it—up to and including banning teachers from speaking to their students about anything not “strictly related” to their subject—and generally makes the North Carolina legislature look like stalwart defenders of decentralized democracy. Fortunately for our heroes, she manages a couple of spectacular own goals that allow both students and faculty to resist her—mostly in quiet and troll-y ways, like Professor Flitwick deliberately refusing to take care of pranks his students pulled because “he didn’t know if he was authorized” and letting Fred and George’s swamp sit around for ages.

But of course, there’s also Dumbledore’s Army.

Though it’s only in play for a chunk of the book in the middle, Dumbledore’s Army is the beating heart of the story. It’s where Harry becomes not just a lone hero, but a leader—and, in keeping with the themes of the book, a teacher. It’s a group of young people coming together in an act of organized resistance, something that is very pertinent to young Americans at this particular point in time AHEM. It shows that loyalty isn’t about waiting for dear leader to save you—sometimes it means you have to fight to save the leaders you’re loyal to. Above all, it shows that fascists can be beaten—not just with magic, which is not at most of the readers’ disposal, but with tenacity, solidarity, noncooperation, telling your stories, and an unwavering commitment to the truth. These are all lessons that may be more pertinent in times of crisis than in times of peace, but they are never unimportant.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I remember when Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire first came out. I remember the hype, the breathless reports that in this one, someone was going to die. I remember everyone trying to guess who it was. (We were all wrong, obviously, since it was a newly introduced character.) I remember how it was a huge deal that it was 734 pages long, because that was utterly unheard-of for a children's book at the time. (Sixteen-and-a-half years and one English degree later, I laugh at the idea that any book under 800 pages could be considered "long.") (I also look at the book and go "How is this less than 1,000 pages; how freaking thick are these pages" but that's another ramble.)

I remember trying to keep track of how many times I read this book and losing track at thirteen. I'm going to guess the current number is somewhere between twenty and thirty. It had been ten years since my last reread.

In those ten years, a lot of things have happened. One is that I grew up enough to look back critically at my memories of the series and note that Voldemort and his followers were basically just magic Nazis, and that, while effectively villainous for a children's series, I guess that ultimately it was a bit simplistic and not that original. It followed a grand tradition of British and American writing about fighting Nazis or Nazi-esque villains, because that's about as satisfyingly simple and uncontroversial a bad guy as you can get, and it is, after all, quite important to teach small children not to tolerate Nazis, but not that sophisticated.

Another thing that happened, but mostly only over the past year rather than over the course of the whole ten, is that -- suddenly, or seemingly suddenly -- Nazis have been making a bit of a comeback. As a result, "Nazis are bad; fight them" suddenly has a lot more emotional resonance and immediacy than it did not too long ago, and also I've been reading a lot of very informative articles about Nazis.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is when the series starts to be ABOUT NAZIS.

As mentioned in previous reviews, the earlier books did make it clear that Voldemort was basically a magic Nazi, although to me the earlier books' portrayals of his followers and his movement always made me think more of the Klan. And there's some of that here too, especially with the Muggles being hung high in the air with magic for fun (and at a family-friendly sporting event, too). But this is the book where we learn that they’re called Death Eaters and they have a special symbol that’s utterly taboo and something has gone very wrong if you see it, something the sight of which viscerally shocks normal wizards the same way that seeing the big red swastika banners as tall as houses hang down viscerally shocked me the first time I went to see The Sound of Music on Broadway. It is the book where we learn how many of them went back to regular society and got jobs and had families and basically pretended to be normal people (apparently none of them moved to Argentina though). As the Death Eaters all gather around their newly re-embodied leader at the finale, we get to see not just Voldemort as a lone villain, but the leader of a movement—and we start to see how that movement functioned.

But, not is all Nazis and death in this book. There is the usual whimsical nonsense in the beginning, where the Weasleys engage in an entertaining comedy of errors at the expense of the Dursleys’ living room to come and get Harry so they can attend the Quidditch World Cup match between Ireland and Bulgaria. Fred and George turn out to be clever at sports betting, and Mrs. Weasley is shocked, shocked that there is gambling going on here, although she shouldn’t be when jolly meathead Ludo Bagman is involved. Everyone makes fun of Percy for being pompous about his consumer protection work on cauldron bottoms, although I personally was totally on Percy’s side for this. There are leprechauns and veelas and a Bulgarian Minister of Magic who pretends not to speak English so Cornelius Fudge makes a fool of himself miming things all day.

Then we are back at Hogwarts, where there is, as usual, a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. This one is a grizzled old ex-Auror with a giant magical eyeball and a penchant for shouting “CONSTANT VIGILANCE!” at the students. In short, Mad-Eye Moody is great. Or at least we think he’s great.

The big story at Hogwarts is the Triwizard Tournament, where a champion from each of Europe’s three prestigious magic schools competes against the other school’s champions in tasks of magical daring and cleverness and stuff. After all three school’s champions are chosen, Harry is also somehow chosen as champion number four, which isn’t supposed to happen, but apparently does because he’s Harry Potter. Harry is tormented by a nosy journalist and goes through a lot of school drama as he prepares for his tasks. Several beloved bit characters show up to help him prepare in various levels of cheating, including Dobby and Moaning Myrtle (PS I want a bathtub like the one in the prefects’ bathroom), and then Hermione as usual is the one who trains him on regular-ass spells he needs, like Summoning Charms. There are many French characters, whose dialogue is written in thick French accents, and after all these years it is still inordinately fun to read those bits out loud.

In the hands of a lesser writer there could be severe mood whiplash in this mix of delightful and dangerous, or the goofy names for things could undercut the severity and suspense of the more dramatic bits. But J.K. Rowling did not become the richest woman in Britain for no reason, and the reason is that she can make a story told by a drunk elf that refers to herself in the third person into an emotionally exhausting, poignant, critical piece of the puzzle.

I think this was the first time reading this book where I’ve cried, because apparently I am going sappy in my old age.
 
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is not really when the series starts to get dark, but it feels like it is.

It's not hugely long, being only a little bit over 400 pages. And there's no real character deaths, although obviously it deals with the fallouts from several past murders, as do all the books.

But it is the book where we meet the dementors, and so begins to really look at fear and despair and power in a more complex way than it had previously. And it is the book where we meet Sirius Black, which means it is also the book that starts complicating the long, deep web of trusts and betrayals that so inform the rest of the series. This isn't just unknown quantity Quirrell hiding his allegiances for a year; this is the decades of secret drama Voldemort sowed among families and close friends. We've spent the first two books learning history, both common knowledge and hidden, and now we start to learn about the ways that our understanding of history can be wrong. But to do that, we have to first learn about fear.

In this book, we learn that Harry's biggest fear is fear itself, which Franklin D. Roosevelt would be very impressed with if he were around, but since he isn't, kindly secret werewolf professor Remus Lupin does it instead. (Side note: While it is eventually revealed that Lupin was bitten as a child, it is never explained how his parents knew to name him something so wolf-y as Remus Lupin.)

In and around all the scary stuff about Harry being supposedly hunted by an escaped mass murderer and the deep stuff about fear and cowardice, there are plentiful infusions of the series' signature hopefulness and good humor. Harry starts the book off by making the dreadful Aunt Marge swell up like a balloon, and spends a whimsical three weeks ogling broomsticks and eating ice cream in Diagon Alley after a short adventure pretending to be Neville Longbottom. At school, he discovers the Marauder's Map and sneaks into Hogsmeade. Harry and Ron start taking two new classes; Hermione takes ALL the new classes. Gryffindor finally win the Quidditch House Cup. And the cure for exposure to dementors -- the embodiments of depression -- turns out to be, of course, chocolate.

Somewhere along the line of five bajillion new characters are introduced, both inside and outside the school, every single one of whom will show up at least once more in the series, with the possible exception of the clerk in the pet store who sells Ron rat tonic. It's impossible to thoroughly list all the delights in this book and the little bits and pieces of the puzzle that are so carefully set up. Rowling knows how to set up a Chekhov's gun (or wand, as the case may be).

This book is still in the "I have read it upwards of fifty times" part of the series to me, and now that none of it is surprising, I feel I can fully appreciate just how masterful and delightful every bit of it is. Every word is precisely where it should be. I refuse to even try to nitpick the time travel stuff. My brother has our old broken-in copy so I have a distressingly shiny new one. Its crisp, creamy pages and straight binding seem to rebuke me for not showing them any love over the years since I have acquired this copy. I can't let this happen again. This book is one of my best friends.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
The Raven King is, I think, the most Raven Cycle-y of the Raven Cycle books. It’s also my favorite because my copy is signed by Maggie Stiefvater herself, which is always a plus. But it’s also a really fulfilling end to the series, drawing on all the themes and motifs set up right at the beginning—Blue’s prophecy and the vision of Gansey’s death and the tomb of Glendower and all that stuff—but also introducing wacky new elements and characters right up past where you’d ordinarily think you’d be getting much new information in a story this long. Henry turns out to be pretty important, and while it seems weird to be basically adding a fourth Raven Boy a few hundred pages from the end of a four-volume series, Henry is too awesome for it to matter—as is RoboBee, Henry’s magical robotic bee that functions as something between a familiar and a James Bond spy gadget.

Much of the series thus far has dealt with uncovering family secrets, but there are still more to be discovered, and they’re pretty big ones. Ronan has the most outlandish ones, and you’d think they’d be predictable after a while but they’re somehow not—after finding out in book two that his father dreamed up his mother and in book three that he dreamed up his brother, you wouldn’t think there would be more things to find out that he accidentally dreamed up, but there are. And that’s not even getting into the business end of things. Adam is still in some sort of weird possession/communication with the spirit of Cabeswater, which was getting better for a while as he learned to listen to it, but which is not becoming a problem again as Cabewater gets infested with the demon awakened at the end of the last book, which looks like a giant-ass black hornet (because wasps and bees and stuff are a huge recurring thing in this series and if I’d known I would have insisted the bees panel talk more about it at Readercon) and seems to function a lot like Hexxus from Ferngully. Henry has… well, he has the backstory that gave him RoboBee. Gansey is dealing with all his rich dude legacy problems, plus the having died already once thing, and while this Glendower quest has taken him all over the world, it turns out the answers might lie closer to home than he suspected.

Blue may be having the worst of it, though, because they found her father and brought him home, and he’s been cowering in a broom closet avoiding Gwenllian for the whole time, and it’s kind of sad. And then there’s some stuff where Blue might be basically part tree, and it’s pretty weird, even though Blue already has a lot of experience with being weird. It’s above and beyond weird and Gansey is still going to die.

On top of that, Piper, who has graduated to becoming our main villain after murdering her husband and adopting the demon hornet, might be more knowledgeable about magic shit than her husband was, but still does not seem to really grasp the gravity of what she’s doing when she decides to sell the demon hornet to the magical-object-collecting community. Frankly, the Piper/demon alliance is not the most seamless pairing of personalities, and it’s pretty hilarious. Piper also disses Legal Sea Foods, because she is the worst. Legal is a venerable Boston institution and their food is delicious even if they are functionally a chain now.

While the plot gets darker and weirder and more and more people die and Cabeswater is unmade, the language in the book actually gets funnier and more Stiefvater-y, and somehow it works. Part of this is because there are deceptively goofy-sounding characters like Piper and Henry, who are, respectively, amusingly shallow trash and using humor as a form of camouflage/coping mechanism for all the weird shit he’s part of. But even the third-person narration has gotten even less invisible than it was at the beginning of the series, using all sorts of interesting tricks like repeated lines, words and half-words floating about with no punctuation, stream-of-consciousness description, and jokes. Also, how do you not laugh every time you see “RoboBee” written on the page, no matter how dire the situation? Especially when everything else going on is so medieval?

Overall, it does end up reminding me a bit of the Lynburn Legacy books, with a similar blend of death and jokes, and of the modern and the historical. I’d definitely put it in the “sassy Gothic” subgenre that I wish was larger because it’s basically the sweet spot of Relevant To All My Interests. I can’t wait to see what Stiefvater comes up with next.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I got back up to Maine to finish the Raven Cycle books! Go me!

Technically I started Blue Lily, Lily Blue the last time I was up there but I only got a few pages into it. But this time I splonked down on the porch and pretty much ripped through the whole thing. It was pretty glorious.

In this one, Blue’s mother has disappeared to go look for Blue’s father underground. Blue and the Raven Boys start sort of looking for Blue’s mother, but also looking for some entities known only as the three sleepers. One of them is the king they’re looking for, Owen Glendower. They’ve been warned that one of the sleepers must be woken and another one must not be woken; apparently, there’s no word on the third.

Of course, it’s the third one they end up actually waking first; this is Owen Glendower’s awesome and thoroughly batty witch daughter, Gwenllian. (No, I don’t know how to pronounce that. Irish I’m starting to get a hold of but Welsh is still quite beyond me.) This is possibly not even the weirdest thing going on, even though Gwenllian speaks in riddles and songs and wears multiple dresses at a time and has giant curly hair that she keeps things in and generally sounds like a cartoon character drawn up by a disgruntled Disney animator on acid. I heart her.

We meet more bad guys, including the Gray Man’s insufferable former employer, Colin Greenmantle, and his similarly insufferable wife, Piper, who—in a fun twist that I appreciated more than words can say—Colin seems to believe is his trophy wife but who actually knows more about creepy magic shit than he does and has a lot more experience dealing with it and, consequently, can command more power and get up to more nefarious things that Colin doesn’t quite understand. It’s enormously satisfying.

In other news, Gansey and Blue start secretly sort-of dating; Adam is dealing with how to interpret invasive communications from Cabeswater, with help from Persephone; Ronan is doing sketchy dream stuff at the Barns that no one seems to quite understand and that isn’t working anyway; Noah is still dead but having an increasingly bad time of it; and Gansey’s British friend Malory has found a mysterious tapestry featuring three bloody-handed ladies who all look like Blue.

Most of the magical action in this book focuses not on Cabeswater but in a cave on the property of a man named Jesse Dittley, a large farmer who speaks in all caps and only eats Spaghetti-Os. The cave carries a curse on it that results in a Dittley dying in it every couple of decades or so, otherwise the walls of the farmhouse bleed and all that other poltergeist stuff. There are actually multiple caves because there’s also one for the sleeper who must not be woken (guess what happens to that one at the end of the book), but it’s complicated figuring out where they are and how they’re all connected, because magic.

We also meet an amusing Aglionby student named Henry who does not seem very important at first, just very friendly and cheerful with big hair. He drives an electric car. He will be important later.

I’m getting some of the plotlines confused in my memory because this book does quite a large amount of setting up things that are going to explode spectacularly in the next book and I don’t always remember where one book ends and the other one begins, with the exception of the bit with the sleeper who must not be woken. But it doesn’t have that lack of tension that some books that are all setup have. Things are moving along and weaving together in complicated ways that all will probably make sense eventually and everyone is having lots of feelings and there’s some lovely register-switching going on depending on whose head we’re in at the time. Colin Greenmantle has a glib, dismissive, affectedly witty inner voice that’s simultaneously as insufferable as he is and genuinely funny to read. It’s almost painfully modern in the context of all the mythological timeless stuff going on in the rest of the series, even though it’s reminiscent of writing styles that I love when they’re on the Internet, but it does an extremely good job of characterizing Colin as a superficial type who doesn’t really understand what it is that he’s messing with. Meanwhile, the rest of the book is filled with lush, colorful prose interrupted by periodic bouts of swearing, usually from Ronan.

Ronan, by the way, is an underappreciated comic genius. Probably nobody would ever tell him that since he is angry and powerful and all dangerous and stuff, with his pet dream raven and his biker jacket and his fighty attitude and his adorable crush on Adam, but his trolling abilities are top-notch (especially regarding deployment of the murder squash song) and he can do wordplay in both English and Latin. Also, Chainsaw might be my favorite character in the whole series.

The book does end on a massive uh-oh, with a bunch of people dead and bunch of other people who were previously either lost or dead being recovered, so I can understand why fans of the series were very upset about having to wait for the next book to come out. It’s the sort of thing that’s why I waited so long to read this book in the first place, and I am glad I did, because it meant I got to jump right into The Raven King.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Aight, so I finished The Raven Boys and then picked up The Dream Thieves immediately that same day, so I might be a tiny bit confused about what goes in which book, because they're all one ongoing story anyway.

This book picks up pretty much right after the last one leaves off. The boys and Blue are still looking for Owen Glendower, although they have made what seems to be progress in the form of the thing that happened as the climax of the previous book. But there is also something weird happening with the corpse road/ley line/whatever you want to call the band of magical energy that Glendower is supposedly buried along: it's starting to flicker in and out like an overloaded circuit.

In other news, Ronan, the fighty Irish boy with emotional issues and a pet baby raven named Chainsaw, is working on his own magical powers: He can take things out of dreams. Chainsaw he took out of a dream, although that was before he started getting the hang of doing it on purpose. Also, somebody beat up Ronan's terrible older brother. Also also, a bunch of people are searching for what they believe is an object that allows people to take stuff out of dreams. Also also also, some dbag at Aglionby named Kavinsky keeps taunting Ronan into street racing and making extremely unclever gay jokes at him. Kavinsky is possibly the most unmitigatedly terrible person out of all the terrible people in this series. His terribleness doesn't even have a point, he's just an overpowered twit.

Meanwhile, Gansey and Adam go to an awkward party at Gansey's house, because his mom is running for Congress. Adam's inability to accept charity and simultaneous desire to break into non-poor society causes problems, as usual, because Adam doesn't understand that rich and powerful people stay rich and powerful because they help each other out a lot. Favors are what people trade in when they either don't have enough money to pay for stuff in money, or when they have too much money for the money to be meaningful. TAKE THE FAVORS. YOU'LL PAY THEM BACK LATER.

Also meanwhile, Blue's mom is dating the hit man that beat up Ronan's terrible brother, and she knows he's a hit man, and it's weirdly adorable? And then the hit man has a weird sort of tragic background/redemption arc about his own terrible older brother. Dysfunctional family secrets abound.

If the first book took a nice floral meandering path to getting the story rolling, by this point, it is rolling pretty fast. The Dream Thieves has its quiet moments and its descriptive passages and its teasing bits of backstory, yes, but for the most part, things have gone and turned into HIGH-OCTANE NIGHTMARE FUEL with someone getting beaten up or murdered or chased around by scary dream monsters with beaks and claws nearly every chapter. Cars blow up. Ronan's non-terrible younger brother gets kidnapped and stuck in the trunk of a Mitsubishi (which later blows up). Probably some other stuff gets blown up too, I don't even remember. Some people die and some other people weren't even alive to start with. Gansey gets covered in bees. This isn't funny because Gansey is very allergic to bees and has already died of bees once already.

This series is quickly moving up my "Did this author write this series just for me?" list, although it is not likely to dislodge the Lynburn Legacy from the top spot. But that is OK. It might get to #2 if it keeps escalating like this. Especially if tarot cards continue to feature in it as heavily as they do.
bloodygranuaile: (sociability)
I've been waiting to read The Raven Boys for a long time.

In December of 2013 I read Maggie Stiefvater's The Scorpio Races, a standalone YA fantasy about water horses on a small island in Ireland. I am pretty sure that at the end of this book there was the first-chapter preview for The Raven Boys. I think. I remember the preview itself pretty vividly, because it sounded very intriguing. There were ghosts and prophecies and creepy aunts and stuff. Then I started following Maggie Stiefvater on Twitter and Tumblr and stuff, because she's hilarious, and since the Raven Cycle is her most popular series of books, I started hearing more about it. Something about Welsh mythology. A lot of stuff about death and cars. I don't know much about cars but it sounded like the sort of demented Gothic stuff I like. I decided I needed to read it, but for a while I didn't get around to it. Then, sometimes after it was announced that the fourth and last book was coming out this year and it was also announced that there would be a Raven Cycle tarot deck designed, I decided I would wait until the last book came out, find a good chunk of time when I could really relax and do the thing properly, and try to read the whole series in one go.

Last weekend I went up to my father's cabin in the woods in Maine by the lake and for two days I sat on the porch and looked at the lake and read the Raven Cycle books. I finished the first two and got a little bit into Book 3 before I had to come back to real life. I'm hoping to get back up there sometime this summer to finish the series.

The Raven Boys is the story of a young lady named Blue, who is the only non-psychic in an all-female family of psychics. Blue can, however, amplify other people's psychic powers, so she is a pretty integral part of the family psychic business. Blue doesn't really have friends at her public school, but she actively avoids the shit out of the boys at Aglionby Academy, a private prep school for rich powerful sons of rich powerful families, where basically the entire student body is as insufferable as Chuck Bass from Gossip Girl except even more insufferable because they have cars since they are in the suburbs and not NYC, and cars amplify rich boys' the-worst-ness by a factor of at least 4.

Anyway, Blue is burdened with a prophecy that if she kisses her true love he will die, so Blue very sensibly does what any independent-minded young lady not gruelingly trained in putting up with teenage boys' bullshit would probably do anyway: She decides to forgo this whole romance thing entirely, which is a decision I approve of, but which honestly can be quite hard to do without cracking at all during one's teen years and young adulthood, if only because that is the time of one's life when one is meeting lots of new people and trying new things and going new places and generally having one's world get bigger, and it takes practice to make one's world bigger without having any boys get into it at least once or twice.

In this case, Blue ends up reluctantly making friends with a quartet of Aglionby boys who are on a quest to find and resuscitate the sleeping Welsh king Owen Glendower, and also Blue knows from a vigil she held on St. Mark's Eve that one of the boys, Gansey, is destined to die within the year. Since Blue actually saw his shade herself, it's also likely that either he's Blue's true love or that it's Blue who kills him, or, considering the prophecy, both. Since Gansey is a rich smartass who wears terrible loud polo shirts, Blue is skeptical that he could be her true love, but apparently decides to stick around helping him look for Glendower anyway, even though anyone who's ever watched a movie can see where this is going. PSA: DON'T GO ON MAGICAL QUESTS WITH PEOPLE YOU'RE TRYING TO NOT FALL IN LOVE WITH, FOR CHRISSAKE.

The other boys in this friend group are Ronan Lynch, a fighty Irish boy with massive emotional problems stemming from his father's murder and his older brother's total assholery; Adam Parrish, a non-rich scholarship kid from an abusive family who works three jobs to pay the non-scholarship-covered part of his Aglionby tuition; and Noah, who tells Gansey right at the beginning of the book that he's been dead for seven years and everyone kind of treats it like a random lame joke right up until they find Noah's body that's been rotting in the woods for seven years. Seriously, Stiefvater's ability to straight-up dump spoilers into her own books like three hundred pages in advance and have the reader totally blow them off is amazing. No wussy foreshadowing here! The line of dialogue is literally "I've been dead for seven years" and then when they find the body in the woods you're like NO WAY, WHAT A SHOCK, GANSEY MUST BE SO SURPRISED.

Also, Gansey's name is Gansey, which sounds suspiciously like geansaí, the Irish word for "sweater." Blue often measures the likelihood of Gansey dying on any given outing by whether or not he is wearing his Aglionby sweater, since his shade was wearing that when she saw it, which means he's going to die in the sweater. I am 99% sure that Maggie Stiefvater did this on purpose but now I've got to go ask her just to check. *runs to Tumblr*

While the book has many jokes and general scenes of humorous mayhem, it also doesn't fuck around with the stakes: lives are at risk; the sleepy little town of Henrietta and the prestigious stuffy halls of Aglionby Academy are sites of omnipresent violence, secrets and danger; magic is not to be casually fucked around with, even by the psychics. Every character is memorable, if only because all of them could kill you (except for Noah) but all in very different ways. The story starts off slower than is quite usual for YA, and the writing tends toward the poetic and descriptive in a way that will probably annoy a lot of people who don't like to notice the words when they're reading, but since I'm a shameless fan of a well-turned bit of description I think it builds the atmosphere well--beautiful and slow and muggy like the Virginia summer the book takes place in. In short: Excellent lakeside mood reading.

I read it in less than 24 hours. Then I immediately picked up the sequel.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
For BSpec's book club this season I read Diane Duane's So You Want to Be a Wizard, a classic of YA fantasy that I think I read once when I was wee but didn't end up taking to. I think it was because it was a little too '80s and I didn't know things about the '80s, so I found the Manhattan setting more difficult to understand than I should have considering I grew up like an hour outside of New York City. But now I am an ADULT and I know what the Pan Am building is (mainly, that it isn't the Pan Am building anymore), so I was ready to take another stab at it.

The first thing that struck me about this book is that, like many YA/children's books from the pre-Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire era, it's decently short and quite fast-paced, which is not necessarily the case with a lot of the books I read these days. Nita, a 13-year-old girl who is consistently beat up by a bunch of her classmates, finds the titular grimoire while hiding out in a library in the very first chapter. From then things move along quite rapidly as she studies the wizardry book, makes friends with a fellow novice wizard named Kit, accidentally summons an adorable tiny white dwarf start that they name Fred who is so unendingly adorably and charming that you know immediately he's going to die (er, "blow his quanta") at the end from almost the moment he appears on the page, and sets off on a simple-seeming Quest to retrieve her space pen from where Fred accidentally ate it, which, predictably, goes all wrong.

I swear to God it's like I'd forgotten what normal adventure story pacing is like. I should take notes and apply them to my own endlessly long meandering manuscript o' doom.

Anyway, Fred is super cute, and the creepy shadow version of New York that he and Nita and Kit wind up in is deeply creepy. Things like taxis and fire hydrants and helicopters are semi-alive, and terrifying--predatory creatures that eat dogs and pigeons and other hapless actual-lifeforms. This version of the universe has no sun and is ruled by a Morgoth-like being who has stolen the MacGuffin of the story, the Book of Night with Moon, the object within which all reality is written. The two teens, being totally unprepared novice wizards and therefore more powerful than the older ones (this isn't snark; that's actually how magic works in this world--younger people have it more powerfully) have to find and retrieve the Book and bring it back to their own universe through a small tear in space-time in Grand Central Station. This involves getting chased a lot, making friends with an angry Lexus, and bartering with a senile dragon. It's all simultaneously very thrilling and very adorable.

I can definitely see why this really spoke to a lot of kids in the age range it's targeted toward, and why it seems to have had the same effects on its fandom as the Alanna books or the Wrinkle in Time series or Ella Enchanted. I'm not going to get that same level of sucked into it, probably, since my formative years have passed, but I'd definitely be interested in reading the sequels.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
So far, one of the most-hyped books I've seen this summer was Shadowshaper. Granted, I deliberately sought out a bunch of the hype because I loved Daniel José Older's adult "ghost noir" fantasy books, Half-Resurrection Blues and Salsa Nocturna. But then it was actually released, and even more hype appeared, in places I was not expecting it--Holly Black's review in the New York Times, for instance, or Kate Beaton praising it on Twitter.

I had deliberately chosen to avoid preordering it so I could buy it at Readercon and get the author to sign it. I had deliberately chosen to torment myself.

After a brief heart attack when the Crossed Genres table said they only had limited copies available so we should all hurry up--I had to be late for the con because of work so this scared me--I finally arrived at Readercon, and ran immediately to the dealer's room to get two copies (one for me, one for a friend) before I keeled over dead.

Now recovered from Readercon (except financially) and not deaded, I can say that I have read Shadowshaper and it was quite worth all the running around and flailing.

Shadowshaper is the story of Sierra Santiago, a 16-year-old street artist in a rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn (i.e. the current one). Sierra's project for the summer is to paint a mural of a big old dragon on the side of an abandoned monstrosity of a development project in the Junklot, near where all her old dude neighbors play dominoes. Things start to get weird when she notices that one of the other murals in the Junklot, a portrait of a now-deceased neighbor, is fading--and crying. Also, her grandfather--who hasn't spoken coherently in over a year, since he had a stroke--suddenly starts apologizing and telling her to hang out with Robbie, a tattoo-covered Haitian kid at her school. And then a thing that's basically a zombie shows up at a house party and chases her, at which point things are definitely weird and she's not imagining it.

This confluence of weird things is how Sierra finds out she's a shadowshaper, a type of sorcerer who can channel whatever spirits are present into art, bringing the art alive and giving the spirits form and herself access to the spirits' power. It's a very original and thoroughly enviable form of magic power, and one that I (and probably every other reader of the book) instantly coveted. The shadowshaper community is in a sorry state, though, having been hijacked by male chauvinism and anthropology over Sierra's lifetime, which is why she didn't know about it.

Sierra, her awesome wisecracking friends, tattooed cute shadowshaper Robbie, Sierra's brother Juan who is in a salsa thrash band, a librarian at Columbia, and Sierra's possibly-a-gangster godfather all must band together to find the mysterious, powerful ancestral spirit Lucera and save the shadowshaping tradition from the machinations of a power-hungry anthropologist named Dr. Wick, who has gotten a little too deep into multiple of the spiritual traditions he studies and is, apparently, miffed that he hasn't been accepted as the #1 most powerful leader in all of them, like the sweeping-in-late-outsider white dude always does in stories like Dancing with Wolves/Dune/Avatar/any of a number of others. He's convinced that the shadowshapers need to be "saved," for a value of "saved" that apparently involves killing a bunch of them, and he has to be the one to do it.

Daniel José Older is not shy about his political views, especially the view that white people need to learn when to stay in their lane, and while he is extra not-shy about them on panels and on Twitter (seriously, everybody go follow him on Twitter), the book is also a pretty explicitly political book (all his books are). Because he is a very smart dude, he doesn't believe that there's such thing as a non-political book, just books that don't acknowledge their politics or explore them intelligently and ones that do. This particular book explores issues of gender, race, gentrification, the imperialist history of anthropology, street harassment, ethnic identity (this is different than race), plus the YA staples of family, finding out unflattering things about grown-ups in your family, and taking on adult roles and responsibilities. There is a lot of a lot of stuff going on here, is what I'm saying. It is both built into the fabric of the plot and, often, called out explicitly, which I know is not necessarily everyone's bag but would probably be kind of weird not to do, because I think most people occasionally do try to talk about stuff that's going on with other people. It also establishes Sierra as an intelligent straight-talker who's not afraid to call out bullshit--or in some cases, who becomes not afraid to call out bullshit, which is a vital growing up skill.

A big part of the book is Sierra's sense of identity and place as a black Puerto Rican in Brooklyn, and as an outsider to all of these things (seriously, I think the last time I went to Brooklyn was when my great-grandmother was alive, for her surprise 90th birthday party, which is not what killed her don't worry) I am not in any way qualified to be having opinions on how this is approached or portrayed--the author knows more about this than I do, for obvious reasons--but what I will say is that, to someone not very familiar with this milieu, it's very vibrant and grounded, with a palpable sense of place and culture that permeates everything and makes it all feel cohesive and natural. Like, sometimes people know exactly what they're talking about but they're not very good at bringing it alive for other people, and this does not seem to be one of those cases. And I love, love, love that the city functions like a city--and especially like a city at this current moment in time for U.S. cities--with street-harassing douchebags yelling gross things at you when you walk down the street, and public transit taking like ten goddamn years to get anywhere, and the lightning speed of gentrification turning things into Starbuckses every time you look away for a second--all that I am in a place to tell you is all VERY TRUE STUFF these days. (The place is Boston, supposedly the most rapidly gentrifying city in the U.S. right now.)

Anyway, all of that is wrapped up in a big loud fun fast-moving ACTION FANTASY PLOT of FANTASY ACTION, with FIGHTING CHALK NINJAS and SNOTTY OLD CHURCH GHOSTS and DRIVING REAL FAST and SNEAKY INFILTRATION OF LIBRARIES and ZOMBIE ATTACKS and WITTY BANTER and all that fun stuff. And a lot of stuff about music, which I personally sometimes find a bit weird to deal with in books because my imagination fails me, but in this case I now really want salsa thrash to be a thing. (Is it a thing? Can someone make it so, if not?) And there is of course an Obligatory Romance, which, me being me, I believe has two main things going for it: it is blessedly straightforward (no triangles! no creepy starting-off-hating-each-other!) and the dude is not an overbearing twit. (For anyone unfamiliar with my general reactions to romances--which are divided into "wanting to punch one of the parties" and "not wanting to punch either of the parties"--that was a positive assessment.)

Oh, and the librarian character was the best, because librarians are the best. Except for sometimes when Sierra's friends are the best, because they are all full of hilarious one-liners.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I picked up Cindy Pon’s Silver Phoenix back when I was dropping lots of money on e-books, but I hadn’t gotten around to reading it until just now. I didn’t know much about it going in except that it was Chinese-inspired fantasy and it was girl-led YA, which, honestly, were pretty much the only things I needed to know. I went in expecting probably a fun sort of adventure fantasy romance thingy, and that is exactly what I got.

Our heroine is a seventeen-year-old girl named Ai Ling, who is not married because her parents are having trouble arranging one, because of some sort of scandal that her father was involved with twenty years ago that Ai Ling doesn’t know the details of. When her father has to go back to the Palace he’d been expelled from twenty years ago, on some sort of ill-defined business trip, he doesn’t come back—so Ai Ling sets out to find him. Along the way she has many adventures of the sort that make a long ride/long walk quest fun, including being attacked by many scary demons, coming into possession of magical talismans, discovering the extent of her own magic powers, meeting a handsome young man with his own tragic backstory, gaining a fun companion who then sadly dies, eating a lot of lovingly-described food, and riding a dragon. (Is “riding a dragon” not a trope used in every single quest narrative? BECAUSE IT SHOULD BE.) There’s a strong theme of sexual jealousy running through the various backstories and larger plot, adding an element of heaviness to the standard pro-romantic-love, anti-arranged-marriage theme that’s so prominent in historical fiction and historical fantasy. (My verdict on Chen Yong, the love interest: Sometimes broody due to Tragic Backstory, but almost 100% not an annoying jerkface.) (Anyone who knows my opinions on dude romantic leads will know that this is basically glowing praise coming from me.)

This book is pretty squarely within a certain tradition of teen girl adventure stories that is unabashedly my favorite and that I tend to turn to as comfort reading, so I ate right through this with probably not enough of a critical eye for plot holes or tropes that have been overdone (they are mostly tropes I like. But I know that I have read them in, at this point, literally hundreds of different novels). The world is fun, a lived-in-feeling pseudo-medieval Chinese set of kingdoms and some nonhuman realms that I think are based at least partly on Chinese myths and legends that I’m not very familiar with (but if so, apparently there are some wicked creepy Chinese legends out there!). Ai Ling is a pretty relatable, likeable character (with the notable exception of one episode of egregious obliviousness that almost gets everybody killed), and there’s some really well-done fight scenes and a fairy-tale structure/flavor to the whole thing that appealed to me.

The ending sets up a sequel, with the broody non-jerkface mixed-race love interest faffing off on another quest to find his father instead of proposing to Ai Ling already because apparently he is also sort of obtuse, so I think in the sequel she goes on the quest with him? I hope? I’m totally up for another quest with these characters, so long as Chen Yong proposes at the end. And this is not even because I’m super invested in their relationship as because it’d just be stupid of him not to and I don’t like stupid love interests.

I could see this getting a movie adaptation if the live-action Mulan does well, although sadly I could also see it getting a really bad movie adaptation even though the book itself has a lot of strong cinematic elements, because YA adaptations.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I was a bit worried that the third installment of Robin LaFevers’ His Fair Assassin trilogy, Mortal Heart, would be boring after the deep fuckedupness of Dark Triumph, especially since it follows the angelic Annith rather than the madness-prone Sybella. But it turns out that Annith’s secrets are just as screwed up as either of our previous protagonists’.

Annith was brought to the convent as a baby, and she doesn’t have some of the things the other daughters of Mortain have—namely a birth story, or any sign of the various gifts that each of his daughters usually display one of. What she does have is secrets, and more skill at every task the young assassins are taught than any of the other girls, in part due to starting so early, and in part because of her treatment at the hands of the Dragonette, the former Abbess.

In addition to the ongoing war with France, which has formed the main source of conflict through this series, most of the conflict in this book comes from Annith’s being denied the opportunity to go out and actually serve as an assassin—the only thing she’s ever wanted, and the thing she’s been trained for. Instead, the current Abbess declares that Annith, because she is so biddable and obedient, will stay at the convent and train as its new Seeress. Biddable obedient Annith—who has deliberately done her best to be the perfect novice so that she will be entrusted with an off-island assignment—promptly runs the hell away. Or not that promptly, really, but quite shortly afterwards, after doing some snooping around.

The dual threads of war with France and Annith’s uncovering of her own family secrets—and they are some seriously messed-up secrets—are woven together tightly, bound with a lot of mythology about Brittany’s nine pagan gods. Up until now we’ve mostly only known about Mortain, the god of death, but here we meet followers of Arduinna, protector of innocents, and hear a  lot of different versions of the story of Mortain and his ill-fated marriage with Arduinna’s sister Amourna. We also meet the hellequin, Death’s riders, earning penance for their misdeeds in life by escorting lost ghosts to the Underworld and hunting down malevolent ones. Annith’s romance with the lead hellequin, Balthazaar, seems somewhat obligatory and tacked-on for the first half of the book or so, but then plot twists happened and I changed my mind. Balthazaar has secrets too! Everyone in this book has secrets!

But this book doesn’t just use secrets for shock value—the whole book, at its core, is a surprisingly thorough exploration of how people can be bent to one another’s will—through secrets and lies, through promises and praise, through coaxing and tricking and teaching them into effacing their own wills voluntarily. Though Annith certainly has enough reasons to complain on her own—she’s been treated abominably and robbed of the expected payoff that had been her reason for putting up with it—it’s her concern for the other girls being lied to and manipulated in the same way that allows her to really become a powerful moral force.

I also love that (and here there be spoilers) in this book about assassins, the final climactic “assassination” that saves Brittany involves shooting someone—with love! Love saves the day, huzzah! But also shooting by a teenaged assassin nun! Idunno, I thought it was great.

Putting all three of the together, this trilogy is one of the strongest YA trilogies I’ve read in years—and you know how much I love YA and how many trilogies there are! Usually one of them is weak; either the middle book has Middle Book Syndrome or the last one is rushed and just falls apart. But this series, along with Sarah Rees Brennan’s The Lynburn Legacy, is really just stellar all the way through. With some surprisingly thoughtful themes lurking behind the main action of war, mayhem, and glorious medieval nonsense, it’s really everything I want in a YA fantasy.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
In a most timely boon from the library gods, Dark Triumph, the second book in Robin LaFevers’ His Fair Assassin trilogy, became available just in time for a weekend bookended by four-hour bus rides between Boston and New York, where me and some of my lovely friendesses were going to check out some awesome Gothy New York things, like the “Death Becomes Her” Victorian mourning fashion exhibit at the Met, and a trendy foofy cocktail bar called Death & Co.

Dark Triumph is considerably darker than Grave Mercy, and Grave Mercy was already about assassins, betrayal, and threat of sexual violence. To this, Dark Triumph adds heaping helpings of child abuse, incest, infanticide, spousal murder… you know, basically everything.

The protagonist of this book is Sybella, a secondary character in the first book, who arrives at the convent in the middle of a full-fledged psychotic breakdown from the goings-on of her previous life. In this book, she’s been sent to infiltrate the family of the sadistic Count d’Albret, a man who already has six dead wives to his name and has repeatedly threatened—and in one case, attempted—to rape thirteen-year-old Duchess Anne if she doesn’t keep the marriage contract that was made on her behalf when she was very young (one of many such contracts). Sybella’s ability to infiltrate this family and spy for the convent is made easier, from the convent’s perspective, but harder, from Sybella’s, by the fact that Sybella is the daughter of Count d’Albret’s fourth wife. And Sybella’s family makes the Lannisters look like the Brady Bunch. Sybella spends a good deal of the book, particularly at the beginning, being near-suicidal, kept going only by the hope of getting permission to kill her supposed father (as an assassin of this particular convent, Sybella’s actual father is Death).

Things start to look up, for a pretty messed-up definition of looking up, when Sybella springs the injured Beast of Waroch from d’Albret’s jail. Beast is a big ugly berserker dude who is nevertheless super friendly and awesome when he is not in the grip of battle rage, and who is a staunch ally of the Duchess. Additionally, the Beast’s sister was d’Albret’s sixth wife, leading to many feelings and much tragic backstory for everybody. Their romance, though of necessity pretty angsty, especially on Sybella’s part, is pretty sweet, in a dark sort of way, with both of them coming to terms with their own darkness and tragic pasts and all that stuff and supporting each other, and generally being heartwarmingly messed up.

Despite all the deeply disturbing stuff, which is really quite disturbing indeed, Dark Triumph still manages to be fun in a way that a story about medieval teenage assassin nuns cannot help but be fun. It’s action-packed, vivid, twisty, fast-paced, sometimes witty, and full of rich characterization and richer intrigues. I highly recommend the bejesus out of it.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
A few weeks ago I had the delightful experience of seeing Gail Carriger at a tea party/book signing at the Brookline Public Library, where I picked up the newest installment of her delightfully madcap steampunk Finishing School series, Waistcoats & Weaponry.

In this one, Sophronia Temminick and a number of her companions plot to escort Sidheag Maccon, Lady Kingair home to her werewolf pack in Scotland, after The Thing happens with Lord Maccon that we had learned about in Alexia’s series, where he goes off to become Alpha of Woolsey. Before this, of course, there is a masquerade ball where, among other ridiculous things, all the household mechanicals go nuts and begin to sing “Rule, Britannia!” and Sophronia gets accidentally secretly engaged to Dimity’s younger brother Pillover.

Over the course of the action-packed adventure to Scotland, in which Sophronia, Sidheag, Dimity, fashionable twit Felix Mersey, and sootie Soap steal a train full of crystalline valve frequensors and their old enemy, vampire drone Monique. They run into diverse problems they must overcome, including low fuel, flywaymen, Dimity’s lamentable lack of cross-dressing savoir-faire, and Felix’s father. In between climbing things, hitting people, and practicing her espionage, Sophronia also has to deal with a lot of tangly difficult mental and emotional issues, such as the obligatory love triangle she’s got herself stuck in with Soap and Felix; whether she wishes to accept Lord Akeldama’s patronage when she finishes; and trying to figure out what the vampires, the Picklemen, the mechanicals, and other interested parties are up to.

My biggest issue with this book is the sad lack of Genevieve Lefoux. No book should fail to have at least a cursory Vieve cameo in it. There had better be some Vieve in Manners & Mutiny.

Carriger seems to get a bit deeper into the numerous shitty social issues of Victorian society with each books, and the results are often kind of awkward, although I think they’re supposed to be awkward. But the fact remains that the stuff that affects the protagonists directly (mostly sexism, although in Alexia’s case there’s also anti-Italian prejudice) is less awkward to read than the stuff that affects other characters and it’s the protagonists who put their foot in it, which happens with some frequency, as the protagonists for both series are straight white gentry ladies. Sophronia’s handling of her obligatory love triangle between Felix and Soap is particularly uncomfortable, because Soap is obviously ten billion times more awesome than Felix, partly because he is a pretty cool dude and partly just because he isn’t Felix.

As usual, the best part about this book is really neither the plot nor the social commentary, but the delightfully absurd language. The worldbuilding is so whimsical it makes Harry Potter look like gritty contemporary realism, and everything has beautifully ridiculous names, both of which reach their epitome in Sophronia’s illegal pet mechanical mini dachshund, Bumbersnoot, who eats coal and occasionally is forced to go undercover as a lacy reticule. Everyone goes around saying things like “I don’t know who you are, but I respect the courage of any man who goes around wearing satin breeches that tight” which I don’t think is an actual thing you were supposed to say in polite Victorian society but who cares. It’s basically complete fluff, but it’s complete fluff with steel-bladed fans and teen girls kicking the asses of pompous adults, which is definitely my favorite kind.

I can’t wait for the fourth one already, especially since I am still very concerned about Professor Braithwope’s mental health.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
One of the many, many book clubs I am (at this point, rather half-assedly) in is Gail Carriger’s online book club. I haven’t participated since reading Blood and Chocolate, a YA werewolf novel that, despite being about werewolves, brought me back to my adolescence in the worst way. But I’d already bought a copy of Robin LaFevers’ Grave Mercy, the first installment of the His Fair Assassin trilogy, in one of those Kindle Daily Deal things a while ago, so I figured I might as well read it. It did, after all, have a lot of things about it that seemed right up my alley, like teenage girl assassins and medieval Brittany.

Grave Mercy is the story of Ismae Rienne, a novice at the convent of St. Mortain, patron saint/old god of Death. Like everyone at the convent, Ismae is supposedly one of Mortain’s actual children, and therefore has a number of odd death-related gifts, including the ability to see the “marques” of Death on her targets.  She also has a couple of gifts that are less common among the convent’s occupants, such as immunity to poison.

Despite many misgivings by many parties on a number of subjects, Ismae is sent off to the court of the young Duchess Anne of Brittany, in the guise of the cousin-but-probably-mistress to Anne’s half-brother, Gavriel Duval. Her actual role is to spy, and to assassinate anyone who needs assassinating. But there are layers and layers of plots afoot, and Ismae develops suspicions that maybe the people she’s assigned to spy on might not be the people she really needs to be spying on. As the threats to Brittany’s independence build and the young but awesome Duchess is betrayed by various power-grubbing nobles, Ismae’s doubts grow and she has to set herself to some serious learning—about the plots surrounding her, about the nature of Mortain and her service to him, and about her pesky feelings for Duval.

Duval is pretty much not an asshole, even though they do the classic romantic comedy bit of getting off on the wrong foot and getting mad at each other a lot, so that’s pretty good for a romance. The romance subplot is at least actually tied in pretty closely with all the fun stuff, since the main plots are dependent on questions of people’s loyalties and principles, that sort of thing, so it doesn’t feel tacked on, even if it is pretty obvious right from the beginning.

There’s a lot of historical detail here, and fairly little magic—all the magic that we see is deeply religious in nature, having to do with Ismae’s service of her god and her relationship with him as his daughter. But much of it is historical-fiction sort of stuff, and pretty heavily researched, which is completely OK by me. I like all the snooping around and trying to untangle plots and remember everybody’s family history, and am also 100 percent OK with there only being a couple of major action scenes. This book also doesn’t dick around with how limited women’s roles were in the late middle ages/early Renaissance, especially when there’s nobody to put any sort of check on the most power-hungry men.

My biggest issue with the book is that there is one small plot hole that I made into a much bigger OH NO than I think most people would. At one point, Ismae makes plans to meet with her convent sister Sybella, who may have News about Betrayal and Shenanigans and all the general badness that’s going on. On her way to meet Sybella, Ismae is interrupted by having to have a scene with the Duchess and one of the villains. And then… there is no follow-up to her missing her meeting! Sybella does show back up, but there is no acknowledgement that they had a meeting and missed it, and Ismae doesn’t go to any effort to make contact with Sybella again or wonder what information Sybella was going to give her that she now doesn’t have or freaking anything, like she completely forgot she had ever been supposed to meet with Sybella at all. I kept waiting for this to come back up because I thought missing the meeting was going to be important, and it just… didn’t.

The second book in the series is from Sybella’s point of view, and I think I’d like to read it, since Sybella was one of the best characters despite having little screen time.

This is the sort of book that would make a really fun movie if it was done properly and had any sort of budget, but if it were adapted, would probably be done improperly and with many stupid budgeting decisions and would at best end up as bad trashy fun like the Queen of the Damned movie or something.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Ladies and gentlemen, it has finally happened. THE THING WE HAVE ALL BEEN WAITING FOR. Or at least that I have been waiting for. And some of my friends. Anyway, the third Lynburn Legacy book was released this Tuesday! *Kermit arm flail*

Since I am a very busy adult person these days, Unmade by Sarah Rees Brennan took me two whole nights of staying up too late on a work night reading and drinking comforting drinks.

Unmade is not all pain and tears, of course. We have the specific strains of signature sass from all of our signature sassmasters, mainly Kami, Jon Glass, Rusty, Jared, and Angela. Holly gets a couple of good one-liners in there too, something that she is very proud of and which melted my cranky little heart. Jon Glass in particular sassed so sasstastically well that I was afraid he was going to get killed off. (And Lillian quoting Jon’s sass without comprehending why it’s funny… I was afraid I was going to get killed off!) At one point, Jon and Rusty sass each other and then the universe collapsed in upon itself. Jon Glass wins the Best Literary Dad award.

I also think I spotted a small shout-out to Mark Oshiro, who is reading Unmade starting quite shortly in October. (I have commissioned the first three chapters already.)

The jokes, of course, are but the lighter half of the experience that is any Sarah Rees Brennan book. A lot of the jokes that Kami tells (and sometimes that other people tell) are basically psychological defenses, refusing to take things seriously either out of insecurity or just because stuff has gotten too serious.

And stuff gets very, very serious indeed. The first two books had some pretty serious stuff in them, with murderous sorcerers taking over the town murdering people, and Kami’s parents’ marriage falling apart, and lots of emotional distress about nasty psychic tetherings, and also The Terribly Gothic Thing That Happens At The End. But this installment definitely turns it up to eleven, as a final installment should, and succeeded in me not being able to guess any plot twists ahead of time (except possibly “oh god, shit’s about to go up to eleven”). This is the bit where it gets hard to write a review because I don’t want to spoiler anybody even the tiniest bit—I just want to rock back and forth and cackle a lot. And so I will. *rocks back and forth* *cackles*

This book, like the rest of the series, continues to be deeply and fabulously informed by both the traditions of Gothic literature and the tradition of intrepid girl reporter/sleuth mysteries, often gleefully subverted. The story is still quite entertaining if you're not familiar with these tropes, but it has added layers of awesomeness if you’re a big enough genre nerd. It also explores a lot of issues of identity, sexuality, family, and fate, way the hell better than 99% of “literary” books about professors having midlife crises or whatever. It’s easy to write it off as fluff since it’s fast-paced and fun and full of ridiculous sarcasm and evil sorcerers, but there’s really quite a lot of depth and Exploring the Human Condition stuff buried in there. What does it mean to have a legacy, and what do you do if that legacy is fucking awful? Where is the line between honoring your cultural heritage and being goofy about it? (I am not the person to ask about this; this weekend I went to IFest Boston and bummed free cheese off of a Kerrygold marketer.) What price is it acceptable to pay to keep your loved ones safe? Serious questions here! Also boob jokes!

Obviously, I recommend the crap out of this book and the whole series to just about everybody.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
So the third Lynburn Legacy book came out yesterday. And my book club read the first Lynburn Legacy book about a week ago. So of course it was the perfect time to reread the second one, Sarah Rees Brennan's Untold.

I read Untold when it came out last year and then I listened to Mark Oshiro read it and it is still just as fabulous and fun and heartbreaking the third time around. Jon Glass sassing Lillian Lynburn is right up there with Lady Bracknell saying "A handbag?" in a funny voice and Eliza Doolittle's perfectly enunciated "Not bloody likely!" in instantly classic comedy that will never not be funny (thus continuing in a century-plus long tradition in where there is nobody funnier than an Irish writer writing about British people). Now with more hindsight, there are some moments that take on additional significance than they did the first time around, particularly Lillian Lynburn claiming that she has no intention of ever running away to live in the tavern. Oh, Lillian. You always think your intentions are going to matter. (Intentions: not magic, even for sorcerers.)

If you never hear from me again, I am dead of Lynburns.

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