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

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

Poison Diaries coverThe Poison Diaries trilogy, Book 1

Jessamine lives alone with her apothocary father in the remains of a monastery, tending their herb and vegetable gardens and keeping house while her father travels the county dosing people with his herbal remedies, searching for any books of horticulture that may have survived the burning of the monasteries, and caring for the locked garden Jessamine is forbidden to enter. Then a raggedy boy known only as Weed is brought to his father, a boy with a mysteriously close relationship with all varieties of plants, a boy suspected of putting something in the tea at a madhouse that made all the inmate sane, and something else in the town well that made the inhabitants crazy.

It’s all rather fascinatingly unhealthy—Jessamine, her relationship with her father, her relationship with Weed. She’s been alone, or alone save a man who looks down on her, for far too long; her first-person narration overflows with eloquent loneliness and desperation for human contact, and her initial reaction to Weed is predicated on her understandable need for a friend. Their romance, though it reeks of inevitability, is interesting; in addition to Jessamine’s issues, Weed is emotionally scarred and is even less accustomed to social interaction, having never really learned to bond with people. They cling to each other, both outsiders unused to being understood.

And then it trades its understated, complex psychology for an overstated, hallucinogenic quest and an abrupt ending.

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The Poison Diaries ~ Maryrose Wood (which has got to be the greatest name for an author of a plant-related book ever).

Prince of Mist Carlos Ruis ZafonFollowing the outbreak of World War II, Max’s father moves their family from the city to the seaside, settling them in a house with a tragic history—the drowning of its owners’ only son, ten years previously. Once they move into the house, Max and his sister start finding creepy things—a particularly eerie cat (but I repeat myself), an abandoned statue garden full of circus figures, and home movies of the house and statue garden taken by the previous inhabitants. Still, Max and his older sister, Alicia, seem to be looking at a good summer when they meet Roland, a bored but cheerful teenager who’s happy to give them tours of the town, taking them snorkling over an old shipwreck, and there just may be sparks ready to fly between he and Alicia. Quickly, though, the situation goes from creepy to downright dangerous and the three find themselves deep in a story that started many years ago, with Roland’s adoptive grandfather, the shipwreck, the drowning of the boy, and a clown. Not a nice clown, either.

Sometimes Carlos Ruiz Zafon writes brilliant, amazing books (c.f. The Shadow of the Wind). Sometimes he wanders lost in beautiful writing and forgets that novels need coherent plots, too (c.f. The Angel’s Game). And apparently, sometimes he even lapses the beautiful writing. Not much; the majority of The Prince of Mist is beautifully and even hauntingly written, which makes the occasional burst of plodding, overwritten prose all the more painful.

I appreciate the intergenerational nature of the book and the theme of history repeating itself, but it suffered from a profound lack of both explanation and resolution. There was no attempt to ground the villain in anything concrete; he has magical powers but they are without context or reason, nor even a defined scope of what he can and cannot do. We’re told that his motivation is to not die, but how his action grant him longevity is completely unknown. He is just unexplained. The book’s conclusion is similarly amorphous: there is neither a sense of resolution nor a sense of work still to do. It reeks of futility; they tried so hard to be agents of change, but ultimately, things were done to them, not by them. And even as their lives have been profoundly affected by the events of the summer, on a not-much-larger level, nothing has changed. I can see a nihilistic beauty in that, but as I reader I found it deeply unsatisfying.

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The Prince of Mist ~ Carlos Ruiz Zafon

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

The Humming of NumbersAidan is a novice, nearly ready to take his vows as a monk, despite some lingering difficult with obedience. Obedience may trouble him, but he’s learned not to mention the humming of numbers—he hears numbers buzzing from everything—lest he be accused of witchcraft. People hum low numbers—anxious, unpleasant ones; steadfast, loyal threes; confident eights— while animals and objects hum higher numbers.

Abruptly brought to the monastery for punishment, Lana hums an eleven, the highest Aidan has ever heard from a person. A beautiful, energetic, playful eleven. Lana is all of those things, not to mention highly knowledgeable of the less-mundane uses of wood—what protects, what threatens, what gives knowledge— and skilled at causing trouble for Aidan.

And then the Vikings come.

The writing is nothing special. Aidan’s way of perceiving the world is interesting and well-explained. Lana’s way of seeing the world, the way she senses trees and works with them, is less unusual but at least as interesting. Lana’s life is also more interesting than Aidan’s; he was a youngest son sent to a monastery because there would be no land for him, while she was the bastard daughter of the local lord, gifted nice things periodically but rarely enough to eat, raped—and probably impregnated and led to have an abortion— gossiped about as a noble but not respected as one. Unfortunately, we see Lana only through Aidan’s eyes, and the limitations of the writing keep her from becoming thoroughly fleshed-out and realized. We know she is energetic, trusting, and playful; but we’re not given enough to see how she maintains this lightness in the face of all she’s been through. She and Aidan both seem unrealistically young, for their ages and for their existences.

(Spoiler time!)

But they are in their late teens and this is YA about a somewhat-loner guy thrown together with a somewhat-loner girl in stressful circumstances, so there must be sexual exploration. Lana's part is done well; the combination of excitement and nervousness, and the survivor's need to know that she can say stop and her partner will listen. And Aidan does stop However:

“Couldn’t we . . . couldn’t you just hold me and that’s all?” . . .

“I don’t know if I can do that, Lana.” He made the mistake of looking over his shoulder at her. Just the shape of her form in the gloom and the prospect of feeling her skin against his once more sent a tingle along his skin.

A hopeful smile flicked onto her lips, not sure it should stay. “I can slap hands that travel too far.”

Glad that the wounded creature [upset Lana] had slipped back out of sight, he replied gentle, “I’m serious. I don’t think I can. You are too overwhelming up close. Better if I stay a short distance away”¹

Sorry, kid. Holding your girlfriend without the possibility of sex when you’re really horny is likely to be exceedingly frustrating. Difficult. Possibly even painful. But you can do it. You may decide it’s not worth it, but you can. And the implication in this passage that men really can’t control their impulses, that they’ll turn into rapists if their girlfriends want hugs but not sex, is ridiculous and insulting to men. It also perpetuates an untrue idea of why rape happens: because men cannot control themselves around beautiful women. And from there it’s easy to get to the slippery slope of “she was wearing a short skirt so it’s her fault.” In reality, rape is less about sex than it is about power.

It’s bizarre to see that attitude in a book that, in other place, deals well with issues of rape and of being a survivor. It’s possible that the mediocre writing is to blame, that the author meant Aidan’s “I don’t think I can” to mean “I don’t think I can without being exceedingly uncomfortable” instead of “I don’t think I can without forcing sex on you.” As written, it comes across questionably at best.

(No more spoilers!)

Otherwise, it’s a quick, relatively fun, if unexceptional, book.

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¹p. 176-177

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The Humming of Numbers ~ Joni Sensel

Starclimber by Kenneth Oppel a sequel to Airborn and Skybreaker steampunk alternate history YA novelFollowing Airborn and SkybreakerStarclimber begins with our hero, Matt Cruse, piloting a construction airship² working on the Celestial Tower—the French’s attempt to build a tower to outer space—and trying to sneak as much time as possible with his ill-chaperoned Object of Affection, Kate de Vries. Soon enough, however, Matt and Kate are offered a chance to go to space themselves—in Matt’s case, he can go if he passes a rigorous training progam; in Kate’s case, she can go if she first becomes engaged to a wealthy upper-class eligible bachelor.

Now, if one is to write a steampunk novel about the first expedition to space, dealing heavily with the mechanics of this expedition, one must get one’s physics right. By and large, Oppel does an admirable job. The spaceship has every right to work, the difficulties maneuvering while weightless, all that works. Which makes it all the more jarring when he gets it wrong. One such moment: “Speed was virtually impossible to discern up here. With only the distant earth as a reference point it always seemed we were motionless.” So far, okay; at constant speed in a frictionless environment, that’s true. But then, “Only the pitch of the chip’s rollers told me we were moving at all—and right now, that we were decelerating from a hundred twenty auroknots.”³ Not so much; acceleration and deceleration produce an effect akin to gravity. If they’re decelerating (from downward motion), he should be pressed against the floor. Much more noticeable than something you see by looking out the window. In another case, one of the major crises does not make sense because the physics is not right. This makes me sad.

But if I only read sci-fi in which the science was impeccable, I would not read much sci-fi,4 and this one has a lot going for it. The first two books are lighter on the steampunk/sci-fi; this one flawlessly integrates those elements with the well-built alternate history and maintains their sense of whimsy and discovery. The writing is excellent, moving along at a fast pace through much adventure without losing sight of the emotional lives of his characters. And those characters? Fully human and fleshed-out. Kate is particularly well-done; she is discomfitingly ruthless—this girl would be a Slytherin—but she’s also sympathetic. As an aristocratic woman, she’s privileged but hemmed-in. She freely states her disdain for class distinctions, but demonstrates a thoughtless belief that people will—and ought to—do what she asks them to without question. A suffragette, she believes in fighting for women’s rights, but relies on Daddy to bail her out when she gets in trouble. She has had to fight for her right to go to university and is still fighting to be accepted by the scientific community, but she doesn’t always appreciate the struggles working-class Matt has had to go through to get where he is. She’s a complex, flawed character, and she’s in good company.

All that’s not going to make me forgive the bad physics, per se; but it will make me recommend the book in spite of the bad physics.

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¹ Both of which I read before I started this blog, so I haven’t reviewed them properly. That said, they’re excellent.
² Airship, not airplane; zeppelins are the default air transport in this alternate-history.
³ p. 335.
4Though I prefer it when it’s unapologetically, blatantly wrong to when it tries to be right and fails.

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Starclimber ~ Kenneth Oppel