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)

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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

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

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

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)

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

James Kennedy the Order of the Odd-Fish Book CoverIt’s not that Jo’s life was normal—she did, after all, live with a former movie star who once disappeared for 40 years and reappeared minus her memories; and Jo herself was found as an infant in the actress, Lily’s, washing machine with a note warning that she was a DANGEROUS baby—but it was fairly boring. Then a strange man showed up talking about his digestion, accompanied by a rather dapper—perhaps even dashing, possibly debonair, and certainly dandyishly dressed—cockroach, and before they know it, Jo and Lily are swallowed by a fish and spat out in Eldritch City. With their memories restored, Lily, the strange man, and the cockroach are readmitted, and Jo admitted, into the Order of Odd-Fish, a society of ditherers dedicated to collecting dubious data.¹ This is all well and good. Less well and good is that Lily et al were exiled, their memories removed, in relation to an incident thirteen years before in which a large portion of the city was destroyed due to the birth of a baby. A DANGEROUS baby. A DANGEROUS baby who, it is prophesied via TV show, will soon return as the Ichthala and finish destroying the city—nay, the world.

Eldritch City is a place of traditions, rituals, and festivals. Kennedy is at his most brilliantly inventive with the charters², gods³, projects4, and the like that characterize life in the city. Unfortunately, sometimes his creativity seems to run away with him:

‘[They] first have to give the girl some of the powers of the All-Devouring Mother. They do this by putting some of the All-Devouring Mother’s blood in her. . . . His…stinger,’ she said. ‘I know it doesn’t make sense, but the show says he grows a stinger, or beak, or some kind of second nose somewhere inside him.’ 5

Holy disturbing rape imagery in a children’s book, Batman! And then he makes it worse: “His gigantic purple nose was runny and engorged, a shapeless mass of skin and fat and veins.”6 Robin, what have I done to you?7

Deep breath. Moving on.

Jo’s isolation and anxiety are extremely well done. She has great friends and loves her life in Eldritch City, but she can never tell them who she really is. They, along with most everyone else in Eldritch City, declare themselves to hate the Ichtala and to want to destroy it. So Jo goes along for a while, happy and absorbing in her life with the Odd-Fish, until a random comment sends her into paroxysms of fear and loneliness; the fear and loneliness fade in the face of everyday life, only to rear up again a little stronger at the next comment or reminder. Unable to talk to anyone, she quietly panics while those around her discuss the evil she supposedly caused, will cause, and will experience.

The threatening stuff is mixed. On the one hand, the religion behind the Ichthala and those who actually want her to come destroy the world does make sense. Destructive and eschatological, yes, but logical and even beautiful (in the mathematical sense). On the other hand, the villains are not particularly interesting and are particularly annoying. They’re both trying too hard: one to be evil, the other to be funny. In their failures, they don’t produce schadenfreude; they produce embarrassment. And I really hate vicarious embarrassment.

The author is, i think, an Odd-Fish: “‘As an Odd-Fish, it is not my job to be right,’ said Sir Oort. ‘It is my job to be wrong in new and exciting ways.'”8. Mostly right, somewhat wrong, The Order of Odd-Fish is certainly new and exciting.

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¹ In case you were wondering, yes, the alliteration is necessary, and yes, it has precedent in the book.
² “‘”It is an appendix of dubious facts, rumors, and myths,”‘ recited Colonel Korsakov. ‘”A repository of questionable knowledge, and an opportunity to dither about.” That’s from our charter.'” pp. 85-86.
³ Quafmaf, the Pigeon of the Moon; Nixilpilfi, the Gerbil Who Does Not Know Mercy; Mizbiliados, the Bleeding Butterfly; Pzarnarfalasath, the Rhinoceros Whose Laughter Destroys Worlds; and 144,440 more. pp. 262, 261.
4 “‘As you know, my specialty is unusual musical instruments,’ announced Sir Alasdair. ‘And for all my life, I’ve dreamed of playing the most unusual instrument of all: a living animal!'” p. 175.
5 Pp. 243-244.
6 P. 246.
7 From an actual golden age comic.
8 P. 175.

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The Order of Odd-Fish ~ James Kennedy