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

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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 Shifter Janice Hardy The Healing Wars, Book 1

Nya lives in an occupied city-state, struggling with odd jobs to make ends meet and trying to avoid the occupying soldiers. Her sister, Tali, is managing it easier; there are always jobs at the Healer’s League for a powerful Healer, gifted with the ability to both heal and draw pain from people and transfer it into unobtainium painium pynvium, a mineral valued for its capacity to store pain—and to release it again as a weapon. Nya is differently gifted; she can heal and draw pain, but she can’t dump the pain into pynvium; she can only transfer it to another person. Unfortunately, pynvium is a nonrenewable resource—it gets filled, it gets used as a weapon, it’s useless—and the cause of the wars that led to the occupation of Nya’s home and deaths of her Sorcerer father and Healer mother and grandmother. Now, as before the war, Healer apprentices are disappearing and there are rumors that the Luminary, the head of the Healer’s League, is looking for unusual variants on Healing abilities. When a well-dressed man starts following Nya and her sister joins the ranks of missing apprentices, Nya must break into the League, figure out what’s going on, and save Tali.

It’s really quite good. The world-building is solid and convincingly shades in an outside world while only really exploring Nya’s small corner of it.1 The darker side of healing—all healing; even typical healers experience the pain they draw before they can dump it into pynvium—and economics of pynvium as both medicine and weapon are interesting, even if the Healers’ grasp of triage and scarcity are a bit underdeveloped.2 The characters have distinct personalities with a balance of lighthearted and serious traits and they respond realistically to their shifting situations and the stresses on their society. Life is not easy for any of the characters, and they deal as individuals with the conflict between friendship and loyalty on the one hand, the drive to do what’s best for themselves on the other. Nya’s powers add an extra, difficult layer to the ethical issues she must navigate, and those powers—or at least, her knowledge of them—develop in interesting ways that fit seamlessly into the pattern of the world.

The U.K. title is The Pain Merchants. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: why do the U.K. and Australia get better titles than we do? (Except The Golden Compass, which is a better title than Northern Lights and, y’know, actually fits the His Dark Materials trilogy title.)

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1 Which seems to be in the southern hemisphere—unusual enough to be noteworthy and pretty cool. Nya’s home is in a sufficiently warm climate that she has never seen ice or snow; she only knows about it from her grandmother’s stories of their ancestors’ mountain homeland. When she thinks about leaving her city, she thinks about going south/toward the mountains. Yes, it’s possible that the mountains get snow just because they’re tall and are actually closer to the equator, but a southern hemisphere setting seems more likely.

2 Your main healing tool is a nonrenewable resource, scarcity of which is causing wars. Do you a) stop using it; b) use it to treat serious, life-threatening ailments but let minor bruises and cuts heal themselves; or c) bring all your patients back to full health, including minor bruises and cuts, even if it means not being able to treat as many patients? I see b) as a clear, sensible answer; apparently they think c) is a better idea.

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The Shifter ~ Janice Hardy

The Chosen OneAlmost-fourteen-year-old Kyra lives on a polygamist compound with her father, his three wives, and twenty siblings. She sneaks out to get books from the Bookmobile from the nearest library that drives by once a week, secretly meets a boy her own age to steal kisses, and her mothers speak longingly of their own childhoods—when they were allowed to leave the compound freely and non-Bible books weren’t burned—but generally, her life is happy, surrounded by family she loves. Then the Prophet announces that she’s been Chosen as the seventh wife of her fifty-year-old uncle.

It’s a very short, very intense book. Kyra’s pain, confusion, and wavering determination are palpable in the first-person narration. The violence, manipulation, sexual violence, and misogyny inherent in this sort of fundamentalist compound life are vividly but simply portrayed, but it doesn’t make demons of everyone who lives there; Kyra’s family, though obedient believers, are loving, well-intentioned people who stand by each other and try to protect Kyra as far as they are able. If that isn’t nearly as far as we would like, the past trauma of Kyra’s parents—including her father’s other wives— helps explain why they have such limitations.

The narration suffers a bit from ill-defined flashbacks; it’s sometimes hard to keep track of whether you’re reading about now or then. The flashbacks establishing Kyra’s relationship with the Bookmobile and the man who drives it are compelling and help establish how Kyra has developed her worldview; those featuring her romance with a boy her own age are less compelling and less interesting. Happily, they’re short enough and few enough to be mere blips in an otherwise powerful novel.

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The Chosen One

uglies scott westerfeldIn Tally’s world, everyone is equal because everyone is equally pretty: at sixteen, they have their first major plastic surgery, making them the same height and shape, perfectly symmetrical with huge eyes and lips. Between puberty and their sixteenth birthday, everyone is equally ugly. The summer before she turns sixteen, Tally meets Shay and is introduced to some radical ideas: that not everyone wants to turn pretty, that it might be possible to live outside of the city, that it’s possibly to be beautiful without an operation to make you pretty. When Shay runs away, Tally is given a choice: find her and betray her, or live in the city without ever becoming pretty.

Unfortunately, it takes almost a quarter of the book to get to that point, and the hundred pages of exposition is tedious and at times preachy. Once Tally sets off to find Shay and the community of runaways (like there was any chance she wouldn’t go) it picks up significantly, both in terms of plot and in terms of Tally’s emotional development. A compelling dystopia, It raises some interesting issues of human nature and judgment. It also raises issues of medical consent and ethics; I’m not sure I agree with the characters’ conclusions—safety is not the only question—but it’s good to see them raised in fiction. Tally is an interesting, believable character, but her relationships aren’t particularly well done; jealousy, friendship, and romance occur, but all three are treated with an unfortunate superficiality.

It’s well written and has many entertaining touches—many realistic but divergent reactions to dehydrated spaghetti bolognaise—and ends in such a way that I will need to read the sequel.

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Uglies ~ Scott Westerfeld

Evil CarterStuart is an outsider, a snarky, gay, non-Christian teen in a very conservative Christian small town. He may not have many—or any—friends, but at least the town’s population is civil, quietly hoping he’ll come back around to Christianity and become straight but not bothering him about it: (“‘We know you’ve chosen that lifestyle,’ Mrs. Farmson told me in her understanding voice. ‘I have faith that you will find the error of your ways soon”1). That all changes when, suddenly, both Sunday school/youth group leaders are moved to change their planned lessons and instead discuss the horror of the Sin of Onan—masturbation.2 And as luck would have it, Stuart’s little brother walked in on him enjoying a rather onanistic shower that morning, so Stuart is in a lot of trouble. Way more trouble than makes any sense at all. In danger from the suddenly-very-judgmental and possibly violent populace, Stuart turns to an understanding priest and a handy demonic informer—just what he needs to go up against a couple of fallen angels and save his own skin.

As a farce, it’s pretty fun. As a narrator, Stuart is flippant and entertaining, and there are some delightful little touches in the descriptions of small-town life, the pettiness of high school, and the effectiveness of tomatoes as a device of torture. As a farce should be, it’s completely over the top and hyperbolic. Unfortunately, it tries to explain the exaggeration and it takes itself a little to seriously to be convincing as a farce. And if it’s not a farce, it’s too unbelievable and somehow hopeful to be satisfying. Evil? blames homophobic/anti-masturbatory/anti-heretic/anti-whatever violence on supernatural forces; Humans are plenty capable of such violence without any outside influences, and by dismissing that tendency, the book undermines its own message of acceptance and live-and-let-live. If our discriminatory outbursts aren’t our fault, if we are not responsible for our own prejudices, then we don’t need to work to overcome them.

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1P. 14
2Though the book takes pains to point out that the story of Onan in Genesis can (and probably should) be read to condemn greed and selfishness, rather than masturbation.

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Evil? ~ Timothy Carter

Salt Maurice GeeOur heroes are a boy from the slums and a girl from a ruling family running from an unwanted arranged marriage (because we’ve never seen that before). From the slums is dark-skinned Hari; his father has just been enslaved by the ruling Company and sent to Deep Salt, a mysterious mine from which none ever return. From the mansions of the Company Compound is blonde, blue-eyed Pearl, aided by her maid, Tealeaf, who is a Dweller: another species, three-fingered and cat-eyed, capable of speaking mind-to-mind and even of controlling animals and humans (whether or not a strong-willed Dweller can control a weak-willed Dweller is never explored). Both Hari and Pearl can also speak mind-to-mind, Pearl taught by Tealeaf and Hari taught by an old man who had taught himself. Their paths cross, as such paths are wont to do, and lead them to Weapons of Mass Destruction and the midst of a civil war.

There’s a lot of really interesting stuff in Salt, but it has far more potential than it reaches. The morality and temptation of using WMDs and biological weapons are explored, but the morality and temptation of controlling people’s thoughts and actions is not. The cyclical nature of war and risks of charismatic leaders are dealt with, but the Dwellers act as noble savages, lacking enough substance to really balance out the conflict-ridden society of the humans. The book is at its best when dealing with Hari’s father; it uses him to delve into mob mentality, the political expediency of lies and betrayal, the affect slavery and oppression have on the mind, and the way hatred is generalized over a group of people. Hari and Pearl are as much of a mixed bag as the book; they do come to realize that many of their assumptions are groundless and they do mature, but it felt rushed. And then they get together for no other reason than the assumption that if there are opposite-gendered protagonists, they must have romance. Or at least (off-page) sex; it’s not really well enough developed to be romance. They have no chemistry and there is no buildup, and then all of a sudden they are together. With the very heavy implication that they are a perfect pair and will be together forever. My eyes rolled.

The first in a trilogy, Salt does something that seems to be a novelty these days: it ends. No abruptly cliffhanger, no introducing new twists in the last ten pages, no looming sense of running out of time as the pages dwindle. Just, this part of their lives is ending; they’re moving on to a new one. I have no idea in what direction he’s going to take books two and three1 and that’s refreshing.

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1 Okay, maybe I would have an idea if I had read the first chapter of the sequel, conveniently included at the back of this volume. But I was basking in the resolution and didn’t want to turn that page just yet.

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Salt ~ Maurice Gee