Partway through Ellie’s senior year, her life takes a turn for the weird and she’s thrown into the reality of Maori mythology—and in Guardian of the Dead, it is real. Her crush causes strange memory lapses, headaches, and impulses to not go out at night; and a strange woman appears in her life, looking sporadically otherworldly and harboring ill intent toward Ellie’s best friend, Mark. And that’s just the beginning.

I was a reader of Karen Healey’s now-defunct comics and feminism blog, Girls Read Comics (And They’re Pissed), and I’m an occasional reader of her not-at-all-defunct general blog, and spent the first third of Guardian of the Dead feeling distracted by Ellie’s first-person narratorial voice sounding exactly like Karen’s blogging voice. This isn’t necessarily a problem with the book, but it did make it harder for me to dive into Ellie’s world and brain; the familiar voice kept me in this world, where I’m used to reading it. Apparently there is a downside to the world of authorial blogging, eh?

The book has three distinct phases: discovery, dealing with the small-scale bad guy, and dealing with the large-scale bad guys. The excitement and tension increases as the book progresses, which is good, but not knowing what the major conflict is until halfway through the book diminishes its overall effectiveness. Too much changes when the first bad guy has been dealt with and they’re moving on to the rest: the scale of the conflict, the setting, what’s at stake, who’s involved.

On the other hand, the characters present a pleasing level of both diversity and moral ambiguity. On the diversity front, not only are the characters a mix of white and Maori New Zealanders, Ellie is not skinny, there’s an off-screen lesbian character, and there’s an asexual character—and all these are dealt with honestly but without sensationalizing. On the moral ambiguity front, we have a bad guy who’s helpful, a good guy who’s fairly problematic—mucking around with people’s minds without consent, concealing really essential information, stalking, that sort of thing. The end is likewise mixed; it firmly resists the impulse toward a happy, everything was saved ending, but there’s enough happiness to make sure it’s not depressing.

Guardian of the Dead presents Maori folklore in beautiful, deadly ways, and comes with a fairly thorough author’s note explaining what liberties she took and what choices she mad. It’s a mixed bag, but with enough unusual features, like the New Zealand setting and mythological basis, to make it stand out.

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Guardian of the Dead ~ Karen Healey

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Book One

On Cassia’s seventeenth birthday, she is excited but nervous about her Match Banquet—nothing out of the ordinary, Society has determined that 93% of Matchees are nervous—where she will see the face of the man Society has determined to be her perfect mate, as calculated by genetics and temperament. Instead of the screen showing her the face of a boy in another city or region, she is shown someone in the same Banquet, someone from her block—Xander, her lifelong best friend. Excited—Xander is perfect, and perfect for her, after all—but a little let down—unlike most Matchees, she won’t be anxiously studying the microcard she’s given to learn about her match, because she already knows him— she goes home and puts the datachip into the screen anyway. There’s Xander’s face, but for a minute it’s replaced by a different face: that of Ky, another boy from their borough, a friend but not someone to whom anyone she knows is really close. Startled, Cassia begins to pay attention to Ky in a way she never has before. As she notices Ky’s quiet, careful life, and as she’s shocked by her grandfather’s deathbed rebellion, Cassia begins to notice the cracks in her comfortable, easy, supposedly perfect world.

It’s a well-crafted dystopia, gently but firmly ruled by white-coated Officials who always seem to have your best interest at heart. Your meals are delivered to you, specially calibrated to contain the right amount and kind of nutrition for your body. You have schooling, if you’re young, then a blend of schooling and work, also suited to your needs and abilities, and designed to both train you and test you so you can be given your permanent work assignment: your perfect job. Your perfect mate, to produce your perfect children. A pill container on you at all times, with a blue pill that has enough nutrition to sustain you for several days in an emergency, a green pill that calms you in times of stress, and a red pill that you’re only to take under the guidance of the Officials.

Though well-crafted and well-executed, the world itself is nothing we haven’t seen before, really, and it’s a bit heavy-handed in its use of poetry as a motivational force. The characters, however, make it special. Cassia is a good narrator, observant and intelligent but invested in the world and narrative in which she was raised. Her confusion and uncertainty are strong enough to ring true, but not so strong that they annoy the reader, who comes to the book automatically distrustful of the society. Though there is a love triangle between Cassia, Xander, and Ky, it’s not melodramatic or overdone; she’s never really dating either of them and is generally truthful, so it’s more a tension between possibilities than between attachments. Behind and beyond the romance, they are both her friends, and good ones at that.

And everyone’s just so nice. Cassia’s parents and grandparents knew and know the flaws of the system, but they are nice, loving, caring people, who just want what’s best for everyone. They make the choices they do deliberately, to protect and provide for their children. There is a villain in the story and she is an official, but she is outnumbered by officials who are just doing their jobs and keeping society comfortable and safe. She is also clearly reacting to the situation in front of her, and we as readers never fully know what that situation is.

The book suffers primarily from its vagueness in describing what’s going on outside the central territories. We know there is conflict between the society and people at the edges of the territories it controls, but it’s never entirely clear what either the citizens believe is going on, or what is actually going on. The epilogue indicates that we’ll learn more about the situation in fact in the next book(s), but it lacks the perspective that the propaganda would have provided. Nonetheless, it is an extremely well-written and enjoyable book, with a number of sympathetic characters who are trapped by the world they have perpetuated.

With all its focus on mate selection, it’s also a very odd book to read while traveling to go to a couple of weddings.

November 2010

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Matched ~ Ally Condie

Risk of retraumatization for those with sexual misconduct-related trigger issues.

Early in her junior spring semester at an elite, idealistic boarding school, Alex is date raped. At first, all she wants is to hide, to wash it away and pretend it never happened. She doesn’t want her parents to know, she knows that there’s very little the police can do1, and her school administration is convinced that anyone smart and driven enough to go to their school is honorable and perfect, and therefore said administration is basically useless. What her school does have is the Mockingbirds, a volunteer group of students who establish and maintain a code of conduct, putting students on trial when they break the code, and enforcing nonviolent, off the record punishment to the perpetrators. Encouraged and supported by her best friend and older sister, Alex turns to the Mockingbird and seeks justice.

Written by a date rape survivor, The Mockingbirds is painful and powerful. It’s extremely well written and forthright, dealing candidly with the gamut of emotions experienced by survivors: anger, illogical coping mechanisms, denial, guilt, confusion, fear. It gets into the way rape can affect all aspects of the survivor’s life; Alex is no longer comfortable walking around the school grounds or eating in the cafeteria, certain classes are difficult, whether because of her rapist or because of his friends, and even music, her primary interest and love, has been tainted by what happened. Though the plot revolves around the process of her case with the Mockingbirds, the emotional core and character development is in her slowly and haltingly reclaiming her life, her body, her sexuality, and her mind, from her trauma and post-traumatic stress. Alex’s friends and sister are amazing but realistic; they are angry on her behalf and they know what they want her to do, but they know they need to support her in what she wants to do and can handle doing, and not push her. Her assailant is also, unfortunately, realistic, oblivious to consent issues and never thinking of his actions as rape. The one false note was a series of connected English assignments; the assignment is reasonable, the extent to which the teacher takes it does not feel reasonable, and the teachers actions are hard to explain except as malicious—but the teacher is given no motivation or reason for malicious behavior. It’s a relatively small lapse in a book that is otherwise brilliant, dealing with a difficult issue with both honesty and sensitivity, and without leaving any doubt that the absence of a yes must always be assumed to be a no.

November 2010

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1As with most date rapes, especially those involving alcohol (or drugs) there’s no physical evidence worth a damn. Even if she hadn’t showered and washed away all the evidence, all it would show is that the sex happened, not whether or not it was consensual.

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The Mockingbirds ~ Daisy Whitney’s Blog

Louisa Cosgrove is unusual for a Victorian young woman: passionate about science, aspiring to become one of the first generation of female doctors, and far more interested in her cousin Grace than in any young man she’s ever met. Her name isn’t Lucy Childs and she isn’t insane. And yet, she finds herself taken to an insane asylum, where the apathetic doctor and sadistic matron insist that she is Lucy Childs, and that her instance that she is Louisa Cosgrove is a symptom of her insanity. The only consolation is Eliza, a kind, smiling, pretty young woman who works in the asylum.

It’s a sweet, romantic little book. Louisa’s emotions are realistically raw and painful; her early unfounded hope and her growing sense of betrayal as she realizes that she is not in the asylum through sheer accident are particularly difficult. Eliza’s gentle raising of Louisa’s spirits and energy following a further catastrophe goes slowly but with a sense of the inevitable. Both Louisa’s early passionate crush on Grace and her more mature and balanced esteem for Eliza ring true.

Wildthorn gave me less of a feel for Victorian England than I would have liked. Rather than feeling grounded in its period, it felt like a struggle between twenty-first century mores and late-nineteenth century ones. Though Louisa’s indulgent father is presented as an explanation for her freethinking ways, the ease with which Louisa casts off Victorian ideals is stunning, and though Eliza is in many ways more of a realist and more aware of the difficulties they face, her casual and open acknowledgment of lesbianism makes her a bit too obviously an angel dropped into Louisa’s life to rescue her. The supporting characters, though far less sympathetic than the romantic leads, have more depth and more awareness of the time, and the ending is surprisingly pragmatic—though happy, it resists the urge to become utopian.

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Wildthorn

The Boneshaker Kate MilfordIt’s 1913, and Natalie Minks has two main goals in life: to make her clockwork airplane work, and to figure out how to ride the unusual bicycle that she’s convinced is the fastest in the world. Her life gets much more complicated when a traveling medicine show comes to town, bringing highly unusual and rather threatening medical men, mysterious remedies, and automatons that don’t need to be wound. Her town isn’t completely helpless—there’s more to several residents than meets the eye, include an old black man who once won a bet with the devil, and Natalie’s mother herself. Nonetheless, the danger is very real, and very close to home.

It’s a beautifully written book, redolent with love of storytelling, folklore, and traditional music. It’s not as tightly-woven as I wanted it to be, though; I had to Google Wilbur Wright’s death in order to figure out when the book was set, and a few times times minor characters were so briefly mentioned or lightly sketched that I had forgotten them by the time they reemerged with some importance later on. Similiarly, there are some interesting, important-seeming elements that are never explained; vagueness that contributes to a creepy, tense atmosphere early in the book is ultimately unsatisfying when clarity never emerges.

Natalie is a spunky tomboy, but not without context—she fits in perfectly with her mildly unconventional family, and if some of the townspeople aren’t overly approving of her choices of overalls instead of dresses, they tolerate her with affection. Her best friend is an effective foil: femme and frivolous, but brave when necessary. Natalie’s close-knit family is lovingly but honestly presented, with its members’ foibles and frustrations, its secret-keeping and its worry about Natalie’s mother, who is increasingly unwell—and Natalie’s obliviousness to her mother’s illness also has a ring of truth.

The Boneshaker is a version of the old Devil at the Crossroads motif, and it plays well with the guilt, desperation, hubris, and determination of the several characters who face the Devil across the campfire.

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The Boneshaker ~ Kate Milford’s The Clockwork Foundry

Red Pyramid Kane Chronicles Rick RiordanThe Kane Chronicles, Book 1

The author of the Percy Jackson books is back, and this time he’s moved from Greek mythology to the Egyptian variety.

Carter Kane is fourteen and lives out of a suitcase, traveling the world with his Egyptologist father. Traveling a bit more than seems strictly necessary, if its just for professional reasons: most Egyptologists don’t need to switch hotels in the middle of the night, for instance. Of course, most don’t get shot at, either. Sadie Kane is twelve and lives in London with their grandparents, jealous of Carter for getting to spend his life with the father she only sees twice a year. It’s on one of those biannual visits that they all go to the British Museum, at which their dad blows up the Rosetta Stone and gets kidnapped by a fiery supernatural being. An Egyptian god? Yup. This is, naturally, followed by adventures and the need to save North America, if not the entire world.

The narrative is presented as a transcript of an audio tape1 recorded alternately by Carter and Sadie, complete with interjections as the on-mic sib responds to the teasing of the one off-mic, and distracting chapter openers as the narrator switches. It’s an annoying gimmick and the framework detracts from the book; not only does it slow the chapter transitions, the explanatory “author’s note” delays the start of the story, and at the end, the book comes to a satisfying conclusion… and then adds a completely unnecessary extra-extra gimmicky chapter, just to explain the main gimmick. I will grant that the extra chapter does set the stage for the second book, but in a frustrating rather than a tantalizing way; the first book really has been tied up, and instead of letting you close the book with a satisfied sigh, it stops dead and then introduces the conceit behind the sequel without introducing the plot of the sequel.

Gimmickiness aside, the other issue with the narration is a lack of distinction between Carter’s voice and Sadie’s voice. They have distinct personalities and interests—and are both appealing, sympathetic kid characters—but I got more of a sense of each of them as individuals from watching their actions than from hearing their voices. The name of the current narrator is always on the top of the page, and I found myself needing to check more than once.

Nonetheless, it’s a very fun book. The Egyptian gods running around have plenty of limitation on their powers while still being fairly badass, and the plot moves quickly, cleverly, and at times hilariously through various confrontations with deities and magicians. The magicians are members of the House of Life, a millennia-old secret society. They are not particularly happy with the actions of the Kane family; their ancient policy is that the gods should stay locked up, all of them, and the Kanes keep messing with that. Fittingly, the organization has difficulty displaying adaptability in reaction to the Kanes; this is the nature of humanity and bureaucracy. We find ruts, make them oh-so-comfortable, and never get out of them.

Sadie and Carter are multiracial; unsurprisingly, they have plenty of Egyptian heritage if you trace it a couple millennia back, but it’s been mixed with much other heritage, so their dad presents as black and their long-dead mother was white. Carter takes after their dad, while Sadie looks more like their mom, though, obviously, she’s darker. It’s really nice to see such a mainstream book dealing with race, and it does so well, particularly in Carter and his dad’s awareness of public perception of them as African American men.

I don’t know as much Egyptian mythology as I know Greek, so this was breaking more new ground for me than the Percy Jackson books had; this was a fun exploration of a pantheon with which I am not very familiar. I particularly appreciated that he gave credit to the existence of multiple versions of myths, accepting them all rather than choosing one, but with an explanation that made sense. I also appreciated that he casually left room for this and the Percy Jackson books to take place in the same world, but didn’t stress it or threaten to blend the two series.

The Red Pyramid is a creative, fast-paced adventure that suffers from its narratorial gimmick, but it’s only a flesh wound.

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1Yes, audio tape. Not a recording saved on a thumb drive or SD card, an audio tape. What is this, the 90s?

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The Red Pyramid ~ Rick Riordan
My reviews of Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (Book 1), The Sea of Monsters (Book 2), The Titan’s Curse (Book 3), Battle of the Labyrinth (Book 4), and The Last Olympian (Book 5)

Reckless Cornelia FunkeAfter his father’s disappearance, Jacob Reckless is looking for answers and an escape from his life, his mother’s grief, and his brother’s neediness. He finds escape, and maybe a chance at answers, in a magic mirror he finds in his father’s study. Through the mirror is a medieval world full of the stories on which Jacob had been raised—there are witches who eat children, princesses with golden balls or eternal sleep, magical transformations, and treasure galore.

Twelve years later, Jacob is a treasure-hunter of renown with a fox companion and a stash of helpful magical items, and the world is at war: the Goyl, an angry, stone-skinned race are slowly defeating the human empire, due to a combination of better engineering, better tactics, and magic that lets the scratch of a Goyl’s stone claws slowly transform a human into a Goyl, body and mind. The human memories and consciousness dies as the body is transformed. And Jacob’s brother, Will, has followed him behind the mirror and fallen victim to a Goyl’s claw. There’s nothing to be done but go a-questing for something, anything, that might save Will from ceasing to be Will.

The exposition is a bit jerky, jumping between perspectives and characters too quickly to allow the reader to really get pulled into the story as early as I would have liked. Once the initial setup is complete, however, Reckless is a smooth, well-written—and well-translated—ride. It’s most-exciting for its world-building; it invents a new world and new stories, but also integrates familiar fairy tales in pleasantly dark, creepy ways.

The characters are well-developed and realistic. Unusual for a kid’s book, the main characters are in their early- to mid-twenties, and that’s accurate for their emotional development—they’re still dealing with sibling rivalry, abandonment issues, and jealousy, but they are dealing with them as adults, who are generally comfortable with who they are and their place in the world. I’m generally in favor of adults reading children’s books, but this goes beyond that; it’s really an all-ages book, like my recollections of The Hobbit—an adventure story not grounded in a particular stage of life. I love the exploration of the world and of the self that one generally finds in middle grade and young adult books, respectively; but this is good, too.

September 2010

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Reckless ~ Cornelia Funke