When Plain Kate’s father dies of a fever, she isn’t left with much: a few clothes, some tools her father gave her, the woodcarving he taught her, and some loyalty from the townspeople. These are enough for a few years; she survives by carving objarka, charms that the villagers feel are too important to leave in the hands of the guild woodcarver, significantly less skilled than Plain Kate. Then an albino tinker appears, offering to purchase Kate’s shadow in exchange for her deepest wish, and when she refuses, strange things start happening—strange things that have the villagers muttering about witchcraft and Kate. Knowing she’ll likely be killed if she stays, Plain Kate takes the tinker’s offer: her shadow in exchange for ample traveling supplies. Well equipped and now accompanied by a talking cat, she leaves to find a new place in the world.

Plain Kate is well-written and absorbing; within a page or two, I could feel myself sinking into the world with a contented sigh. Kate is an appealing but not overly-idealized heroine, and a smattering of Eastern European and Roma (gypsy) folklore and tradition gives the book shape. Mostly, though, it’s about human nature: suspicion, desperation, family loyalty, mob mentality. To an adult reader, it’s a mite predictable, but not in particularly frustrating way; it didn’t feel like Kate was being daft by not putting things together, it just felt like the reader had a longer view of the situation. Kate had immediate concerns to distract her; the reader is looking for the big picture. The only significant flaw is the ending; it feels a bit too neat, and there are enough sudden changes to make the reader feel a bit jerked-around. Still, it’s a beautiful, gripping novel. And I didn’t even mind the talking cat!

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Plain Kate ~ Erin Bow

He’s a spoiled rich kid, she’s a slum rat. More specifically, he—Colbert—is the grandson and heir of the Supreme Commander, meant to lead the Worldshaker, a giant ship that travels on water or land, constantly roving and collecting resources for the betterment of its people. She—Riff—is not considered “people;” she’s just a filthy, locked in the bowels of the ship doing the worst of the grunt work. One thing—an escape—leads to another—an accident—and before you know it, there’s a full scale revolution on the Worldshaker.

Worldshaker is strikingly similar in premise to Mortal Engines, and, like Mortal Engines, disappointed despite my love of both dystopias and steampunk. In this case, the writing is perfectly fine and both Colbert’s stepwise enlightenment and the actions of his sister provided enough interest to keep me reading, but not enough to counteract the overall lack of distinction and two frustrating strange choices.

Strange Choice Number One:
Every single person involved in Colbert’s upper-class, best-available education is completely inane. The people of the Worldshaker have lost awareness and knowledge of their history and they are obsessed with their superiority over the filthies and with cleanliness of mind and body—these are important points to convey for worldbuilding and to forward the plot, but it does not require the education of the ruling classes—through schools and tutors—to be utterly nonsensical and pointless. In fact, it would be much scarier and more believable if the teachers were intelligent and their arguments basically logical; then we could see this as a plausible world, a frightening possibility that maintains itself through manipulation and propaganda. Instead, it’s just inane.

Strange Choice Number Two:
The filthies have one major strategic advantage over the upper decks, and they don’t use it.
Spoilers abound for the rest of this section
The Filthies’ stated purpose on the ship is to keep the boilers going and, by implication, keep the big engines and machines running. That’s why they’re still fed and a sufficient population kept alive. (A small percentage of Filthies are modified into Menials, speechless servants with their brains surgically limited who work on the upper decks). That means they have control over the boilers and the big machines. They could hold the movement, and thus the survival, of the Worldshaker hostage. They could threaten to destroy the engines and strand the ship forever. They could stop the ship and take advantage of everyone freaking out to attack the upper decks. They do none of these things. It’s not even acknowledged that they have this advantage! And then one of the upper decks people threatens to destroy the ship by overheating the boilers and making them explode, and no one, including the leaders of the Filthies, thinks to have them stop stoking the boilers, or dampen them, or open release valve, or a number of other things they could presumably do. Their entire reason for existence is just forgotten.
Enough spoilers! No more below

In general, it’s an okay book with a few interesting characters, but it’s nothing special.

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Worldshaker ~ Worldshaker

The Exiled Queen The Seven Realms, Book Two

This review does not contain spoilers for The Exiled Queen, but it does contain spoilers for the first book in the series, The Demon King.

None of our heroes are welcome at home anymore. Princess Raisa is running from an arranged, unwanted, and illegal marriage, and Amon is trying to keep her safe. Fire Dancer and Han, newly aware of their wizard heritage, are no longer welcome in the camps of the tribes, their childhood home/refuge. Both pairs set off for Oden’s Ford, a university city unaffiliated with any of the Seven Realms, and therefore free of the civil wars and ethnic strife plaguing the area. As our villains, Micah and Fiona Bayar, are also young wizards, it’s hardly surprising that they appear in class with Fire Dancer and Han. All the important people from the Fells—all the important people of the rising generation—are assembled.

In Oden’s Ford—or rather, in the Dreamworld that Han learns to access—Han meets Crow, a mysterious stranger who refuses to divulge his identity but offers to teach Han advanced magic he won’t learn at the school—fairly nasty magic, truth be told. It’s pretty clearly a bad idea, but Han is eager to prove himself as a magician, eager to gain power, and extra-eager to protect himself from Micah and Fiona Bayar. Plus, Crow is going to be important in later books. We don’t know how, yet, but he will be. Meanwhile, Raisa—known as Rebecca Morley, her classmate unaware of her royal status—is learning military strategy and other useful royal skills, plus some of the unfortunate practicalities of life as a Grey Wolf Queen and Amon and Dancer are each trying to figure out how they can live their lives and be happy, after something important to them has been taken away.

It’s almost 600 pages of character development, and it’s damn good. The writing is excellent, it moves along at a good clip, everyone is interesting and human and, well, developing. The politics and interpersonal relations started in the first book continue to expand in interesting and promising ways. So far, I’m really enjoying this series.

September 2010

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The Exiled Queen ~ Cinda Williams Chima
My review of Book One, The Demon King

Dreamdark Blackbring Laini TaylorMagpie is a bit of a feral faerie-child: having left the Dreamdark, a cradle of faerie civilization, at a very young age, she has spent her childhood travelling, first with her parents and then with a murder of crows. Once a theatre troop, the cheroot-smoking, foul-mouthed birds are now Magpie’s couterie, helping her track down the devils humans are forever releasing from their prisons in bottles, cast into the sea. A rumor of a new devil brings them to an abandoned ship; instead of the blood and gore that usually characterize a devilish crime scene, this one contains nothing but the abandoned bottle, sealed with the mark of the great djinn, and four pairs of empty shoes.

The world is brilliantly crafted, and in decline: the faeries have lost much of their magic, knowledge, and awareness of the natural world; the great djinns who wove the world are long asleep, uncaring about the world they created; the humans evolved without the djinn’s input and are wreaking havoc, what with the cutting-down of trees, digging-up of gold, killing of dragons, and unleashing of devils. It’s nice to have a faerie book in which humans are, at most, peripheral: it gives the book a pleasant independence and sets us in our place a bit. It deals with prophesy and destiny better than many; Magpie was born for a reason and with great power, and was the given gifts of further power by all the animals, but her free will is unimpinged. Even better, her birth caused a bit of a spillover into similarly-timed and -located faerie births, so at least a few faeries her age have hints of her gift. They, too, can help rejuvenate the faerie world.

The writing is beautiful and the book swept me away. I can’t say that it made a six-hour stay in the airport pleasant, exactly, but it certainly helped.

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Faeries of Dreamdark: Blackbringer ~ Laini Taylor ~ The Journal of Laini Taylor
My review of Silksinger

Curse Dark as GoldThe short version of the summary: Rumpelstiltskin in eighteenth century, early Industrial Revolution England. The medium-length version of the summary: Charlotte and her younger sister Rosie are struggling to keep their family’s mill running and pay of the debts he ran up before he died, and a series of accidents only makes it worse. Sensible Charlotte refuses to listen to the villager’s talk of a curse, even through the mill has a history of accidents and none of the millers has had a son live to inherit the mill.

It’s exceedingly well-written and -characterized. In particular, Charlotte’s romantic relationship is believable, though odd for a modern reader; the pace of courtship is vastly different than what we’re accustomed to, and I think that was more blatant in this than in much historical fiction. Also, refreshingly, the romance is imperfect; they disagree, they shut each other out, they do the wrong thing when trying to do the right thing. They’re human, and we see where they’re coming from and can understand why they make the mistakes they do.

And the villains? Unclear of motivation at the start, bits and pieces fall together until, by the end, they are just as real as the heroine. The characters are also not divided neatly into hero and villain; there are people who are pretty nasty but do no particular harm, and others who are desperate or confused more than malicious, yet manage to do significant harm.

The fantasy/fairy tale elements are woven deftly into the mundane that defines so much of Charlotte’s world. The portrayal of village life in particular, with its belief in curses and hex-marks living quietly alongside the church, brings everything together such that the historical fantasy feels simple and almost self-evident.

I read a copy checked out from the New York Public Library.

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A Curse Dark as Gold ~ Elizabeth C. Bunce

RunemarksMaddy has always been a bit of an outcast. Her father and sister are popular in town; perfectly normal, unimaginative, never dreaming, never wanting to hear any stories that aren’t in the Good Book. Maddy, on the other hand, dreams, imagines, loves stories. She also has a strange mark on her hand and can get rid of the goblins that like to sneak into the church and the basement of the inn. She’s useful because of that, but she isn’t liked. Except by One-Eye, a one-eyed wanderer her comes to Maddy’s town once a year, telling her stories and teaching her glams and rune-work: magic. The year Maddy is fourteen, things spiral out of control and Maddy—followed eventually by several other townspeople—is pulled into a dispute involving an ancient oracle and the Norse gods.

Loki the Trickster is, of course, involved, and the lines of loyalty and trust are appropriately fluid. This extends to the reader; we’re always in a bit of doubt as to why any character is doing what they’re doing, as it’s rarely for their stated reason. This gives it an interesting dynamic and the continuation of Norse myth occasionally sparkles, but for the most part, Runemarks falls flat. The human characters are overmuch pawns, of the gods and supernatural beings and of the church-like organization, rather than active figures in their own right. The Order, the church-like entity possessing the Good Book, is particularly troubling in the dehumanizing of its members; they have given up their names in favor of numbers tattooed on their arms and their sole emotional core seems to be ambition. Humans are often stupid, particularly in groups, but I found the lack of anything sympathetic from any character devoted to the Order to be unfortunate. On a technical level, lightning-quick changes in focus and point of view can be confusing and difficult to follow.

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Runemarks

devil's kiss sarwat chaddaBilli doesn’t want to be a Knight Templar. Originally an official Church-sanctioned crusading order, they were officially disbanded and declared heretical in the thirteenth century. Now they exist in secret, a small band of deadly fighters based in London, charged with protecting humans from a standard slew of nasties: vampires, werewolves, and demons possessing dead bodies. Billi’s father, the current Grand Master, insisted that she become one of them, though several of the older Knights objected: Billi’s a girl and, historically, girls were not allowed in the Knights Templar (being a monastic order and all that). At fifteen, Billi is officially a member of the order, but would much rather go on dates and get her homework done on time than spend her nights fighting vampires. She might be slightly happier about it if her father ever showed the slightest pride or care for her well-being, but no such luck.

Angsty teenager + supernatural evils = melodrama.

Also, there is a general problem with many reluctant hero(in)es: we pick up books about, say, modern-day female Knights Templar because we want some badassitude. It’s an added bonus if the badass hero(ine) has a realistic, complex personality and therefore thinks about the reasons (s)he’s kicking ass, has some moral compunctions, and is generally three-dimensional. The bonus turns into a penalty if the thoughtfulness turns into whininess. Alas, the whininess:badassness ratio in Devil’s Kiss is rather high.

In a separate issue, I was left with an unanswered question: why are all the Knights except Billi (full name: Bilqis) named after Arthurian figures (Arthur, Percival, Gwaine, Bors, Balin, Pelleas, Kay, Elaine)? Granted, Devil’s Kiss is set in England, where Arthurian names are much more common, (I have a British cousin named Merlin), but to have all of them named thus begs an explanation. There are, apparently, some modern conspiracy theories connecting the Templars to Arthur¹ (and, of course, the entire book is based on the conspiracy theory that the Templars are still around), but neither these theories nor King Arthur are mentioned in the book, so that doesn’t go far in the way of explanation. Unlike Billi, the others weren’t born into the Templars; they came to it as adults. Did they change their names? Billi didn’t have to change her name when she officially joined. Was there some monumental coincidence? Where there are prophecies, as there are here, I have trouble accepting coincidences. So why the Arthurian names? Why does Billi pull a sword out of a stone? There could be some cool Arthurian connections, but the lack of explanation or exploration left my vastly unsatisfied. Perhaps Chadda will explain in one of the planned sequels, but I doubt my curiosity will be enough to get me to pick them up.

September 2009

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¹ Wikipedia says, “Revisionist historians and conspiracy theorists claim that the Knights Templar stored secret knowledge, linking them to myriad other subjects: the Rosicrucians, the Cathars, the Priory of Sion, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, the Hermetics, the Ebionites, the Rex Deus, lost relics or gospels of James the Just, Mary Magdalene or Jesus (such as a ‘Judas Testament’), King Solomon, Moses, and, ultimately, Hiram Abif and the mystery religion/mysteries of ancient Egypt.”

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The Devil’s Kiss ~ Sarwat Chadda