Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

November 8, 2010

Lisa Mantchev – Eyes Like Stars

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 1:53 pm

Beatrice Shakespeare Smith (Bertie) lives in the Théâtre Illuminata, where every play in the English language is performed, and the characters themselves tread the boards. Her bedroom is a stage set, and the characters & Théâtre staff are the only family she’s ever known.

Bertie makes rather a good YA heroine—she’s seventeen, impulsive but committed, possessed of brightly coloured hair, and extremely believable as a teenage girl. She has (as is of course obligatory) Relationship Problems, with two men competing for her affections. The Good Boy is called Nate; he’s a pirate, muscular and plainspoken, with a bit part in The Little Mermaid. Ariel (from Shakespeare’s Tempest) is the sly, deceitful, and intoxicatingly sexy Bad Boy, who is using Bertie in some plot of his own, but nevertheless seems to love her.

Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, are Bertie’s unruly and chaotic sidekicks. They work very well indeed as backup, comic relief, and a good reason for Bertie to talk about the plot without talking to herself, but they’re also well-sketched characters in their own right; there’s a strong family dynamic going on, with Bertie cast as their amused and harassed older sister. Their first entrance, in Chapter One (“The fairies flew suspended on wires despite their tendency to get tangled together.”) is delightful, and shows the same quirky, subversively faux-Edwardian charm as the rest of the book.

The Théâtre is a peculiar one in many ways—with actors who will always play the same part forever, and who only return to existence when called, a lot of the usual theatre politics are abstracted away. We hear quite a lot about an ongoing feud between Set and Props, but there are no technical staff at all, and everything Just Works—I’m starting to suspect that Lisa Mantchev is a director herself! I’d have liked to see more of the Théâtre’s internal life & social structure, but then I’m a techie myself, and it’s not a long book. Mrs Edith, the Wardrobe Mistress (and the person responsible for bringing Bertie up, insofar as any bringing up happened at all) is rather a stock character, stern and obsessed with Bertie’s appearance but always loving and supportive. Then again, the rest of the Théâtre staff are largely stock characters too; I suspect that’s rather the idea, since all the world’s a stage.

As the back cover tells us, the Théâtre is under threat, and only Bertie can save it. With that, her romantic troubles, and the mystery of who her family really is, there’s plenty of plot to go around. It’s well-paced, too, with intriguing hints of metatextuality in the worldbuilding and in Bertie’s gift of magic with words. The writing style is lively, vivacious, and at times rather beautiful & magical; it fits the Théâtre well.

March 15, 2010

Alex Bell – Lex Trent Versus the Gods

Filed under: children's lit,review — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 10:52 pm

This is a very fun book, and a very quick & easy read. It’s told by a seventeen-year-old confidence trickster and second-story man, who’s a horribly unsympathetic narrator, but it’s still a lot of fun being inside Lex’s head as we rush through a lightly but vividly sketched fantasy world.

Bell’s setting & worldbuilding imagination is wonderful—a world divided in two, with hundreds of ladders connecting the Realms of the Gods below with the Upper Lands, inhabited by humans, enchanters and their crones[1], and any number of strange animals[2].

On the one hand, this book is about overcoming a set of challenges and Humorous Mishaps in the course of winning one of the Games of the Gods for Lex’s patron. On the other, since this is YA, it’s about personal growth & repairing a relationship with family, and for once it isn’t the tedious dealing-with-your-parents’-divorce novel we’ve seen so many times before.

The Gods here are I think the one weak point of the book. Bell’s used the bog-standard Edwardian/TSR interpretation of the Graeco-Roman pantheon, with “X god of Y”—named deities with standard invariate portfolios. Which is simplistic and historically inaccurate.

Take Apollo, for instance. He’s “God of” music, poetry, healing, plague, colonization, and the sun. Animals especially associated with him include dolphins, ravens, roe deer, hawks, snakes, cicadas, wolves, and mice. He’s a pastoral shepherd, a great horseman, the Lord of Hounds, and a catcher of mice. He’s worshipped differently in nearly every site or text, and conflated or aggregated with any number of local deities.

I want fantasy gods with that much realism! Mostly, though, I want fantasy gods derived from ideas about real-world ones, rather than AD&D sourcebooks or half-remembered Edwardian mythology summaries.

[1] This is slightly troubling: old women are presented effectively as a separate species, and mostly the subject of mockery. “Crones need”, “Crones aren’t happy without”, “Poor crone, she thinks she’s a fairy godmother”…

[2] With an actual ecology, no less. Farmers have to wear protective suits, because the hay that drayfii eat (a drayfus is a shaggy hippo with wings, extremely placid and obedient) is a favourite habitat of nasal lice, which live inside nostrils and induce violent sneezing in order to find new hosts.

February 10, 2010

Catherine Webb – The Extraordinary and Unusual Adventures of Horatio Lyle

This is rather good Victorian adventure, starring eccentric inventor & Special Constable Horatio Lyle. And his dog Tate, which gives a neat summary of the level of humour involved!

The science involved is impeccable, and there’s something irresistable about a hero who carries dangerous chemicals around in his pockets. The two other protagonists, Tess the burglar and Thomas the young gentleman, are pleasantly sketched, but obviously will always be more interesting to actual young readers.

As is Extremely Traditional for stories set in the Victorian period, the villains are Chinese; this can get rather dodgy, but there are also Chinese third-parties who both aid and work against the protagonists at different times. The part I’m not sure at all about is the tseiqins’ allergy to iron & magnetism, a characteristic normally given to very Celtic creatures. That said, it’s perfect for an antagonist in this period.

Ebooks & DRM

Filed under: children's lit,meta — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 2:22 pm

Simon & Schuster are offering a free download of the first novel in their Vampirates sequence, for a month from today.

I’ve been vaguely interested in these, and a free ebook really caught my eye – it’s a marketing strategy that’s worked well on me in the past, when Tor gave away a series of first-books and I ended up buying a half-dozen more and not regretting it. And it’s nice seeing a publisher have the confidence in their books to give away a decent-length taster for free.

However, it’s DRM-laden, which means two things. First, there’s a complex process to go through before I can even read the book – I need Adobe Digital Editions, and/or specialised ebook reading software. This is something I’ve never had any interest in acquiring, because I like reading in PDF or HTML for preference.

And second, it presumes to control my reading experience – the link I skimmed to find out what on earth a .acsm file was said something about activation profiles, software used, and so forth. Unless I end up with a book I can freely backup, copy, change format, and read with any device I please, I’m not interested. This kind of DRM (like all DRM) is easy to break, but again, that’s unnecessary hassle – so the end result is that I still don’t have a copy of Vampirates: Demons of the Ocean, and I’m now slightly less interested in reading the series than I was before.

To summarize: 10/10 for intentions, 3/10 for execution, FAIL for marketing.

December 4, 2009

Tanith Lee – Piratica

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Sam @ 12:50 am

I’ve been wanting to write about this wonderful book for a while now, but haven’t ben able to find a way of explaining just how utterly fantastic it is without major spoilers.

So I’m pleased to be able to link to this review of it, by Susan de Guardiola.

November 30, 2009

Skulduggery Pleasant – Derek Landy

Filed under: review,Uncategorized — Tags: — Sam @ 2:48 pm

Another library book I don’t have in front of me anymore. Released in the US & Canada as “Scepter of the Ancients”.

This is YA, with the requisite 13-year old heroine. Stephanie (Valkyrie Cain) is tough, active, but definitely not feisty – she actually gets things done, instead of spending all her time acting out and screeching. She’s not a fan of arbitrary authority, but then that’s a trait of sensible adults as well as sensible teenagers.

Lots of good stuff here; magic, adventure, a paranormal community with some practices that make sense and aren’t explained in tiresome detail, and a smart-talking skeleton detective. Recommended.

July 16, 2009

Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series

Filed under: rereading,sf — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 11:45 pm

It’s difficult for me to know what to write about these books, as it always is when I love something so much.

YA sf about wizards – what’s not to like? And it’s definitely sf, not fantasy, despite all the, um, magic. There’s a good solid rationale behind it, there are laser guns, there are nonhuman aliens of any number of kinds, and the books are liberally strewn with meta-SF references. Urban SF, possibly, as opposed to urban fantasy.

When Duane does use realworld science to support her plot hooks, the results can sometimes be a bit unfortunate – for instance, in book 8 the world suffers from Thinning (and all the adult wizards go totally Susan, leaving the kids to save the universe – what a surprise!) because the amount of dark matter in the universe is stretching space too much and making everyone depressed and despairing. However, that’s a minor oddity, and this effect doesn’t turn up often enough to be problematic.

Amusingly, these books score really high on the pagan-friendly chart, according to the Internet. But wizards… magic… references to Powers who were known by the names of pagan gods… talking animals! So why amusing? Well, the world is set up like this. Initially, things were created perfectly, we’re told. The universe is friendly, and loving, and yearns towards sentience and life. And then one of the Powers that served the One – the best and brightest of them – decided to create something entirely new. Entropy and death. Cast out, he became the Lone Power, roaming the universe cackling and twirling his moustache, tricking species into accepting his “gift”, and hating all that lives and grows in its own way. Sounding familiar yet?

How about if I say that sacrifice (especially substitute sacrifice) and redemption are the main themes of the series? Or that it keeps dropping hints that there’s a good and useful side to the Lone Power’s gift, and that by passing through its effects wizards (and species) can become wiser and stronger? Or that helping the Lone Power trick itself into accepting redemption is usually the way to win?

This isn’t just Christian, it’s outright Catholic. It isn’t Christian allegory in the style of CS Lewis, mind – watered-down Sunday-School-by-stealth. There aren’t any prissy English children wandering like tourists through a universe other people control, dancing on the author’s puppet-strings while he acts out a cute little Bible story. These are real people, worried about real and important things, thrown into a job the Powers That Be think they can do. Nobody’s special because of their genetics (though wizardry does seem to run in families) and sometimes it takes nonwizards to save the day. The viewpoint characters are more often female than not, and a fair proportion of them are non-white (it’s American, so Spanish names indicate PoC – I always have trouble remembering that) and there’s a heavily implied gay couple in a major supporting role.

Oh, and yet another thing that makes it work far better than either Narnia or Harry Potter? Families. This series presents realistic, three-dimensional families, with all the trouble and wonderfulness that they lead to. Being a wizard doesn’t get you out of living in the real world; indeed, quite the reverse. This isn’t escapism here.

July 9, 2009

The other side of escapism – fantasies of service

Filed under: sf — Tags: , , , , , , — Sam @ 5:56 pm

I’ve started re-reading Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series, more or less concurrently with Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files books. I didn’t pick them as a pair deliberately, but they do have quite a bit in common beyond the wizards-in-cities schtick – they’re both fantasies of service.

A lot of people characterize SF as escapist, both as a positive and a negative term – it takes you away from the real world, it takes you to a better one, and so on. But there’s a definite tradition of engagement as well, and the whole it might be you trope isn’t always about Being Special, about being the One Princess Destined To Whatever. Sometimes it’s just about validation – the hope that one day, someone will turn up and hand you a magic sword, a talking horse, or the root password to the universe. And then they’ll say, It’s yours now. Do good with it.

Mercedes Lackey is a perfect example of this. If the Powers want you for a sunbeam Herald, they’ll send a shiny telepathic horse to kidnap you and be your best friend, and then you’ll jump into harm’s way for everyone’s good. Or from her urban fantasies, Diana Tregarde has the Guardian power – when she’s certifiably Doing Good, she gets an extra huge magic battery to plug into.

Duane’s Wizards do it a bit differently. Wizardry is, by definition, service; using magic reduces entropy and slows down the heat death of the Universe. It’s a choice you have to make for yourself, and one you have to keep on making, and the reward for a job well done is always another one.

What more could we wish for?

June 6, 2009

Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu – Zahrah the Windseeker

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 4:59 pm

This is, almost entirely, a delightful book. It’s a little like Stardust, a little like The House of the Spirits, and a little like The Edge Chronicles, but mostly like itself.

It’s classic YA quest fantasy – an early-teenage girl comes to grips with her Special Nature, begins to explore the Forbidden Greeny Jungle (yes, that’s its real name) with her best friend, and then when he’s injured decides to go on a quest for the medicine that will save him.

She lives in a delightful world full of whimsically sketched and pleasantly inadequately explained biotech (genetotech? Techneculture? Clever plants, anyway) with light bulbs that grow in pots and can be transplanted into the walls of your house, CPU seeds that grow into PCs, and flowers as currency. Oddly, there are some others around (non-biological digi-book and compass, and a reference to cars being either hydrogen or flora powered) but no elaboration on them. It’s a very animistic world, too – Zahrah’s compass talks to her, there are Talking Animals both benign and predatory, and we’re left in no doubt that she considers the animals and even some plants around her as intelligent and sapient as she is.

The only problem I have with it is that it’s narrated in the first person by Zahrah herself, and she’s basically not that interesting a person to share headroom with. She isn’t all that curious about what’s going on around her, and rarely initiates anything that the plot doesn’t require her to, and whilst we’re told that she grows and changes it’s hard to see that for ourselves.

For that matter, the promise of the phrase “born dada”, and the name “Zahrah Tsami”, doesn’t seem to be fulfilled – whilst there’s a great deal of Odd Stuff going on, it all makes sense in context. It’s all explicable and can be related to the main plotline.

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