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

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)

Voices of Dragons Carrie VaughnKay is a normal teenager: bored of life in a small town, feeling pressured on the sex/relationship fronts, and quietly rebelling against her parents by doing something that either no one will know, or she’ll die doing it: rock climbing on tthe border with Dragon. There’s only been one period of open hostilities between humans and dragons in living memory: right after World War II, the dragons came out of hiding and they and the humans walloped each other before writing a treaty that gives the Dragons several chunks of land in the far north, humans the rest of the country, an agreement to never cross the border, and no ongoing communication between the two factions. As long as Kay doesn’t cross the border she isn’t breaking any laws, and she doesn’t expect to even see a dragon—they rarely come so close to the border.

But, of course, she does meet a dragon, who’s hanging out by the border for much the same reason she is: adolescent rebellion. The two develop a friendship, but it—and their peaceful lives—are threatened when the U.S.military starts encroaching on Dragon territory.

I found Voices of Dragons to be heavy-handed: about the war, about Kay’s best friend pressuring her to get a boyfriend and get laid, about the friendship between Kay and the dragon, Artegal. It tries so hard, but never quite pulls it off. The escalation of the conflict and changing public support was well done, but the military men behind it are charicatures and the politics and political figures behind them are never seen or explored. It’s refreshing and realistic that a straight, sexually active teenage girl would put pressure on another straight girl to become sexually active and Kay’s hesitant, nervous, and thoughtful approach to a relationship fits, but her thinking on sexual contact beyond kissing is unexpectedly flat and simplistic. In her other major relationship, it takes such great pains to give Kay and Artegal similar motivation and to emphasis the ways in which they are alike that it neglects to give Artegal a distinct personality. The strongest part of the book is definitely the middle; the beginning is slow and the ending resolves almost nothing—without being a clear lead-in to a sequel—but the middle of the book contains a powerful and compelling portrait of grief. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to rescue Voices of Dragons from mediocrity.

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Voices of Dragons ~ Carrie Vaughn ~ Carrie Vaughn’s blog, Filling the Well

Astrid Llewellyn grew up to her mother’s tales of unicorns; far from fluffy pink ponies with dainty, sparkling horns, Astrid’s mother swears that real unicorns are beasts with razor-sharp teeth and equally sharp, venomous horns, preferring to gore people than to help them. They are vicious hunters, and the only humans who stand a chance against them are themselves hunters: virgin female descendants of Alexander the Great, bestowed by nature, genetics, or possibly magic with superhuman speed, strength, and aim—but only when unicorns are present. Plus, they’re immune to alicorn (unicorn horn) venom.

Naturally, sensible would-be-doctor Astrid doesn’t believe a word and is ashamed of her obsessed and possibly delusional mother.

Also naturally, Astrid’s mother is right. Except for one thing: Astrid’s ancestress did not successfully exterminate the unicorns. After two centuries without any sign of unicorn activity, they’re back, starting with the one who nearly kills Astrid’s jerk of a boyfriend. Astrid is promptly packed off to Rome, where a cloister for the training of hunters is being hurriedly restarted. Astrid doesn’t relish her new role; she chafes at the restrictions, the assumptions that different families of hunters have different unicorn-related specialties, the refusal to let her near any of the unicorn and hunter biology being studied. Still, she doesn’t see herself as having much of a choice, and generally constrains her opposition to sneaking out with her cousin to spend time with their new boyfriends.

The unicorn lore is detailed and consistent, showing signs of careful and loving craft. I do wish some things were a bit more spelled out; I’m sure the author knows what was going on with some surprises toward the end (relating to unicorn healing powers), but it would have been nice if she shared. The plot is well crafted and the pacing is interesting; it moves in fits and starts as life in the real world does, without dragging.

The characters are decidedly less fleshed-out than either the unicorns or the plot. Most of the hunters never develop distinct personalities; factions developed in the cloisters and had fairly messy disputes, but I could never remember who was on which side, who was related to whom, etc., because they were just names, not people. The worst offender is Lilith, Astrid’s mother. Her obsession with unicorns and desire for Astrid to gain glory as a hunter completely overwhelms any other personality traits. Even after a supposed sea-change and revelation, Lilith just keeps beating the same dead horse (er, unicorn?): unicorn hunting should be glamorous and exciting, as a Llewellyn Astrid should be the best of the best. It goes beyond obsession; reading it, I was uncomfortably aware of Lilith as a construct, rather than a person.

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Rampant ~ Diana Peterfreund ~ Dianna Peterfreund’s Blog

The Last Olympian is the fifth and final volume in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. My reviews of the first four books are here, here, here, and here. The bare-bones explanation: Percy Jackson is a half-blood, the son of a human mother and a Greek god. There’s a prophesy that when he turns sixteen, he will make a decision that will determine the fate of the world, whether the gods will continue to shepherd humanity or if the titans will destroy the gods and reclaim ultimate power over Earth.

We get almost nothing by way of exposition, and not much of the quest-type action that characterizes the earlier books; there’s a little bit of ominous preparation and then we’re dropped right into the climactic battle. For the most part this is just fine; the battle has its own plot arc, and its placements fits well into the overall plot arc of the series. The bit of questing that takes place at the beginning of The Last Olympian is important but feels a bit rushed, squeezed in on our way to demigods and titans duking it out around the Empire State Building.

Yep, the Empire State Building, entrance to Olympus and focal point of the novel. The first four books take some pretty awesome road trips around the United States, always coming back to New York. This one sticks close to home, with a clear love for Manhattan (and a casual disregard for the rest of the city; the Brooklynite in me bristled a few times.) It also sticks close to home emotionally; everyone Percy cares about is at risk. The details are solid and often surprising—the identity of the last Olympian, for instance, or the issues surrounding the Oracle—and the writing is likewise solid. There is less exploration of Greek mythology in this volume, but the world Riordan painstakingly crafted in the first four is rich and consistent. Basically, The Last Olympian is a well-crafted novel and a satisfying conclusion to an consistently excellent series.

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Rick Riordan
My reviews of The Lightning Thief (Book 1), The Sea of Monsters (Book 2), The Titan’s Curse (Book 3) and Battle of the Labyrinth (Book 4)

battle of the labyrinth percy jackson and the olympians book 4 rick riordanWriting reviews of middle books in a series is hard! There are so many early-book spoilers one wants to avoid, and one has already said many of the important things, and one doesn’t yet have perspective on the overall plotting and pacing. Humph.

Anyway, this is book four out of five of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series (after The Lightening Thief, The Sea of Monsters, and The Titan’s Curse). It’s summer again, so Percy’s ready to head back to Camp Half-Blood where he plans to spend the summer working on his combat skills with other kids of mixed (half mortal, half Greek God) descent. And perhaps go on a quest and deal with the latest stage of the big, dangerous conflict started in the earlier books. He’s a bit thrown off by some changes—an alliance between formerly at-odds campers, a new combat teacher—and by some constants of teenage life—he’s not quite sure what to make of either young woman in his life, though they’re quite sure what to make of each other—but off he goes, into the Labyrinth. The one built by Daedalus that originally had a minotaur in the center, of course.

It continues to be good, solid modern mythology. Guilt and grieving are more prevalent in this volume than in the previous ones, and Percy and his friends are distinctly growing up and taking on more responsibility. Interestingly, while he successfully takes on extra responsibility and handles violence, danger, and the omnipresence of death, Percy still seems emotionally young in comparison to his female contemporaries and his two close non-human friends. He’s a fifteen-year-old boy, so this makes sense, but it still adds an interesting element to the book and makes Percy’s moments of emotionally maturity more meaningful.

And now I’ve just one more left to read.

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Battle of the Labyrinth ~ Rick Riordan
My reviews of The Lightening Thief (Book 1), The Sea of Monsters (Book 2), The Titan’s Curse (Book 3), and The Last Olympian (Book 5)