Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee

I expected to like this book more than I did. It had spectacular worldbuilding–based on the principle that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” but internally consistent. It also featured a deliciously villainous antagonist, a horrific and original dystopian government that nonetheless made sense, and a great character in the allegedly “mad” general, Shuos Jedao. The problem is, Shuos Jedao wasn’t the main character. Kel Cheris was. And Kel Cheris’s development was not, in my opinion, handled properly.

9781781084496_custom-670793563aa4d0d709c7000cd24d2fb6ac956c2c-s300-c85While Cheris does grow and change over the course of the book, we don’t see her internal debates and longings as she does so. Everything is understated to a fault. Cheris is duty-bound and repressed, a character type I usually enjoy, but her point of view doesn’t get far into hidden depths.

That said, I did enjoy the book, even if a lot of it felt like set-up for the trilogy as a whole. There are great twists–pay attention to the inserted “intelligence reports”–and some set-piece scenes as Jedao manipulates Cheris into doing what he wants and as Cheris finds out more about Jedao’s past. I just wish Cheris were more compelling.

Seven Surrenders – Ada Palmer

This post is going to have spoilers:

In Too Like the Lightning, Bridger, the miracle-working child whom protagonist Mycroft Canner has been caring for, reads Les Miserables, one of my favorite books. I couldn’t quite understand why the book was referenced at the time, but in Seven Surrenders, Mycroft describes his love for Bridger as:

“…not as others before me have loved a son, a brother, a savior, a master, but whom I–strange creature that I am –love in all these ways at once, all rolled together into a new kind of love, abject and irrevocable, that has as yet no name.”

This immediately recalled to me the following passage from Hugo’s book:

“Poor old Jean Valjean, of course, loved Cosette only as a father; but, as we noted earlier, into this fatherly love his lonely single status in life had introduced every other kind of love; he loved Cosette as his daughter, and he loved her as his mother, and he loved her as his sister; and, as he had never had either a lover or a wife, as nature is a creditor that does not accept nonpayment, that particular feeling, too, the most indestructible of all, had thrown itself in with the rest…”

And this passage from Hugo’s Ninety-Three:

“All the power of loving in Cimourdain had, so to speak, fallen on this child; the sweet, innocent being had become a sort of prey to this heart condemned to solitude. He loved him with all the tenderness at once of father, brother, friend and creator.”

And with those verbal/emotional echoes, it was easy to see a plot echo from Les Miserables–the convict who saves and adopts an innocent child, who becomes everything to him (Mycroft has, unlike Hugo’s protagonists, other loves–Saladin, Apollo Mojave, J.E.D.D. Mason–and other loyalties, but Bridger’s powers make him impossibly important). In the end, Palmer is an even crueler God of her created universe than Hugo is–Jean Valjean sees Cosette grown and married, and even reunites with her on his deathbed, and Cimourdain kills himself the instant his order to kill his beloved pupil is carried out.

Mycroft Canner, however, survives the suicide of his foster-son Bridger. The last words of the final chapter, excluding the epilogue, are as follows:30199364

“….our limits in civilian life, the point at which we are too tired, too distraught, too weak to go on, are not really our limits. I rose and saluted.”

The warlike imagery is appropriate: the next book in the series is called The Will to Battle. Though Mycroft’s fictional “record” ends here, I hope we will continue to see his story in the next book, and that we will learn more about him, as there are still mysteries–though the motives for his crimes are revealed, he refers to himself near the end as a “parricide”, which leaves the possibility of still more skeletons in the closet. But I’m also interested in how this loss will affect him–his affections are, as I said, more widely spread than those of Hugo’s characters, but it must affect his character going forward. I can’t wait for The Will to Battle.

The Pearl Thief – Elizabeth Wein

This is going to be a weird review because a comprehensive review of the book would involve cultural/subject matter expertise which I don’t have. Specifically, many characters in this book, though not the protagonist Julie, are Scottish Travellers, and the prejudices they face form a large aspect of the plot. So I’m putting it upfront that I’m not going to review the representation of that culture in this book, because I don’t have sufficient knowledge. I will say that Scottish Traveller author Jess Smith is thanked in the acknowledgements for reviewing the manuscript for Traveller cultural elements.

I’d also like to thank Hyperion for sending me an ARC.

31178738

Unlike Code Name Verity, The Pearl Thief is not presented as a found manuscript, so it is very much franker about sexuality, for example, than Code Name Verity. Julie has two crushes over the course of the book, one on the contractor who is turning her grandfather’s estate into a school, Frank Dunbar, and a more serious one on Ellen McEwen, a proud and prickly Traveller girl with an interest in archaeology and geology. Ellen and Julie never “get together” in the sense of explicitly forming a relationship, but they do clandestinely kiss once under the guise of showing how a man kisses a woman. Julie is clear that her “passion for Ellen” is equivalent to and even deeper than her passion for Frank.

I enjoyed this book actually even more than Code Name Verity, though I missed the character of Maddie (we see in this book how Julie got the nickname “Queenie”). I thought it was more plausible than Code Name Verity and I liked getting inside Julie’s head a bit more and seeing more of her brother Jamie. However, as is usual with Wein’s books, the very ending is fluffed a bit and spells out the epiphanies too much. And while I enjoyed the exploration of class in the book (Julie is an aristocrat, and coming to terms with the privileges that entails), it struck me as a gap in that theme that the only working-class characters were either Travellers or two prejudiced and unsympathetic servants.

As to the mystery element, I figured out who the villain was immediately upon his introduction, but I didn’t predict some of the twists. I also loved a scene which I will put under a cut for mild spoilers.
Continue reading

The Scarecrow Queen – Melinda Salisbury

Oh my god. This is an excellent finale to a terrifying, sexy, and tremendously well-executed YA fantasy trilogy.

First, the dislikes: the climax is a bit rushed, especially the confrontation with the villain, one character’s redemption through death is a bit of a cliche, and Errin’s anxiety from the previous book doesn’t really play a role here (though poor Errin is really put through a lot).

But everything else about this book is fantastic.

As it starts, Errin has been captured by the evil Sleeping Prince, who toys with her while keeping her boyfriend hostage for his alchemical abilities. Making things worse, her own brother, Lief, is the Sleeping Prince’s right-hand man. Errin’s pov is given in short interludes and then in the middle third of the book. Though Errin’s confrontations with the villain are great stuff, her third of the book spends a bit too much time on the logistics of her getting away.

However, in this third of the book, Merek from book one, The Sin-Eater’s Daughter, reappears, and he continues to play a large role throughout the book. He was my favorite character from the first book, so I was very happy with this development. He’s a prince who wants what’s best for his people, even if that doesn’t mean him on the throne. He’s dutiful, kind, and open to new ideas, and quietly and faithfully in love with Twylla, our first and last narrator.

Twylla has grown from the easily-manipulated girl of the first book–now she’s a leader and a fighter, organizing a resistance group against the Sleeping Prince while waiting to reunite with Errin so they can together create the poison that will kill him. She’s also marked by her past, deeply afraid of anyone controlling her or taking her choices from her.

Lief, her first lover before he betrayed her, sometimes helps and sometimes hinders Twylla and her plans. Is he really loyal to the Sleeping Prince, and is he really as selfish as he seems? And why does he twice refuse a healing elixir when seriously hurt?

I’m not going to spoil the plot for anyone, but it’s very suspenseful and fast-paced. The Sleeping Prince continues to be a great, terrifying villain–the scene in the middle in which his tower is burned and he suspects Errin and Lief have betrayed him is a great set-piece.

Melinda Salisbury’s next book will be the multi-authored Floored, a contemporary YA, and she has hinted at more fantasy books. The US edition of The Scarecrow Queen won’t be out till next year, so I recommend ordering from The Book Depository, as I did.

 

We – Yevgeny Zamyatin

In my quest to remedy my ignorance of 20th century Russian literature, I tackled the grandfather of all dystopian novels, Zamyatin’s We. We tells a story similar to 1984 (unsurprisingly, since Orwell read and reviewed Zamyatin’s book), but where 1984 is concerned with how people break psychologically, We is more about how the main character has long since internalized the rules of his society and how a rebel (a genuine rebel, whereas in 1984 there’s the suspicion that all opponents of the regime are sockpuppets) changes his views.

Zamyatin joined the Bolsheviks in Tsarist Russia and was arrested several times. An engineer, he worked for the Imperial Russian Navy (apparently they didn’t mind his record) and traveled to the UK for his work. He missed the February Revolution due to being in the UK, but returned just in time for October. However, he grew disillusioned with his own party for their censorship, and decided to have We smuggled out for publication in the West.

We‘s dystopia is based on Communism, Taylorism/scientific management, and Christianity (it is remarked several times that the Christian churches were forerunners of the society in We, and the rebels are named after Mephistopheles). I also detected the influence of Plato–the secret police are known as the Guardians. The Big Brother character (or, I should say, prototype) is known as the Well-Doer or the Benefactor depending on the translation. Interestingly, Zamyatin’s protagonist, D-503, actually gets to meet this character face to face.

There’s also a space ship.

D- is an engineer building a space ship for the government, and writing a record of life in the United State (singular, not plural) to be transported to the aliens that the spaceship will presumably meet. But as he falls for the revolutionary I-330, his record becomes ever more exciting–and problematic for him. He believes in the ideology of the United State, and is confused by his attraction to a woman he knows is against it–and, as the book goes on, his own “criminal” actions.

There is a scene in which the revolutionaries attempt to hijack the spaceship, and generally the book is more exciting than the classic dystopian novels. There’s real hope that the state will be defeated, and the cracks are showing by the end, though the main character is lost forever to a forced operation that destroyed his imagination and made him a conformist again.

I have to agree with Orwell that the loose plotting is a flaw–the same effect could have been achieved in many fewer pages. I also felt the portrayal of O-, D-‘s initial lover, was misogynistic, though this may have just been because we’re seeing it through the eyes of D-, who is definitely sexist. I- is a very different sort of female character, so I’m willing to attribute some of the sexism to D-‘s narration.

Five Most Anticipated Books of 2017

Happy New Year, all! Hope you had a great holiday season.

It’s time to look ahead to all the exciting books coming out this year, and here are five to get you started!

1. Poor Relations by Jo Walton

The acclaimed fantasist, author of Among Others and The Just City, makes her first novel-length foray into science fiction with this tale of an alien invasion of human-colonized Mars, loosely inspired on the Jane Austen novel Mansfield Park. (ETA: This may be a 2018 release instead!)

2. Among the Red Stars by Gwen C. Katz

A debut starring the Night Witches of the WWII Soviet air force, as Valentina joins the all-female night bombers and has to use her flying skills to rescue a boy trapped behind enemy lines. That plus the epistolary style makes me think of it as an Soviet-set Code Name Verity.

3. The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein

Speaking of which, a prequel to Code Name Verity is coming this spring! Julie solves a mystery on her grandparents’ estate in Scotland–a murder for which local Travellers were framed.

4. Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer

The second half of the notorious Mycroft Canner’s thrilling story will hopefully resolve the many mysteries of Palmer’s first book, a riff on the Enlightenment set in the far, far future.

5. The Scarecrow Queen by Melinda Salisbury

The conclusion to the series that began with The Sin-Eater’s Daughter and continued with The Sleeping Prince. How will the supremely creepy Sleeping Prince be defeated? And who will die in the process?

plus one that I’m hoping for but that doesn’t have a firm release date yet

6. The Monster Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson

Following on from The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Baru is elevated to the high political class of the Falcresti empire. She’ll have to be more cunning than ever to succeed in dismantling the Imperial Republic from the inside.