Phoebe Rothschild is a slightly awkward girl, friends with the popular girls but not sure she wants to be, confident in her family—especially her millionaire super-successful mother—but not always in herself. You might go so far as to call her ordinary. Still, it takes courage to dump your clique and befriend the new, awkward girl in school, who’s wearing all the wrong clothes and projecting an attitude of pride and disdain—and that’s what Phoebe does.

Several years later, Mallory’s brother appears in Phoebe’s life, just as unexpectedly as Mallory had. And Ryland not only pushes Phobe and Mallory apart, he causes Phoebe to question everything—her world, her sanity, herself.

It’s fantasy, by the way. Interspersed with chapters of Phoebe’s life in Boston are conversations with the faerie queen, and eventually excursions into the realm of Faerie. The conversations are stilted and initially distracting, couched in formal language, a sharp contrast with the smooth, captivating writing of the real-world narration. Still, they serve a purpose: we need to know that all is not right in the realm of faerie.

The core of the book is Phoebe’s relationship with Ryland. The destructive, emotionally abusive relationship. It is plausible, realistic, and sickening as he takes this young woman and tears her down, bit by bit. Ryland is hateful, but the conversations with his queen remind us that he is doing this because he thinks it is necessary. That doesn’t soften the blow of his manipulation and abuse, but it muddies the waters and in many ways makes the book harder to read: we can’t just dismiss Ryland as unadulterated evil.

There’s family history at work, too, in the way characters must deal with our legacies: inherited money, taught beliefs, ancestral support and demands. Phoebe is Jewish—of the secular, not-particularly-theistic variety—and her relationship with her Judaism is dealt with quite well: rarely on her mind, but deeply important when it comes up.

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Extraordinary ~ Nancy Werlin
My review of Nancy Werlin’s Impossible

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

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

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