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

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Ten Cents a DanceIt’s 1941 and fifteen-year-old Ruby’s working canning pickled hog’s feet in a meatpacking factory. (Ewwww.) She is not happy with this arrangement, but her father is long dead, her sister is even younger than she is, and her mother’s arthritis is too bad to allow her to work—she formerly worked in the factory where Ruby is now—and someone needs to earn their daily bread. Barely. So when a local—and very attractive—bad boy dances up a storm with Ruby at a party one night and then tells her that she could make big money as a taxi-dancer, dancing with men who pay a dime for the privilege, she takes the advice and gets herself a new job. It’s hardly reputable, so she lies to her mother, and the work has its own expenses to be paid, so she spends more on gowns and makeup than she brings home, and, as these things tend to, the lies and the spending build and build. And then there’s the bad boy and what he wants from Ruby.

Ruby is an obnoxious brat who, as a fellow taxi dancer points out, never listens to advice. She manages to be a sympathetic protagonist anyway, in part because she’s vulnerable under her tough veneer and in part because it’s easy to see how blinded she is by the shiny things being dangled in her path, distracting her from how much she’s getting in over her head. Also, she means well; she does want to get her family out of the slums, she does want to give her kid sister a good life, she does want to be a good girlfriend. It’s hard to watch her try so desperately and fall so flat, but it’s compelling, too.

The writing in Ten Cents a Dance is very strong; Ruby’s first-person, slangy narration easily conveys a sense of time, place, and class status. Her casual racism—which, mercifully, diminishes over the course of the novel as she gets to know some people of color—is an honest reflection of her upbringing and is presented in a matter-of-fact way, without sensationalizing.

In some ways, the ending feels a bit too neat, but in other ways it’s a perfect compromise—not too grim, but not rosy, either. I think the sense of over-neatness comes from how quickly the final resolution occurs and the slightly over-sappy final pages. (Movies should not end with voice-overs. Neither should books. Metaphorically.)

Anyway, the ending to the novel may be a bit pat, but the ending to the book makes up for it: there’s an author’s note that relates, in a few simple pages, the story of the author’s aunt, a taxi dancer. It’s a nifty bit of oral history, and, while the novel stands alone, it provides an extra bit of context and connection.

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Ten Cents a Dance ~ Christine Fletcher ~ Christine Fletcher’s Blog

The Agency Book 1: A Spy in the House A Mary Quinn MysteryThe Agency, Book 1, A Mary Quinn Mystery1

At age twelve, Mary Lang is convicted of housebreaking and sentenced to hang. This is Victorian London; she would hardly be the first nor the last orphan to meet such a fate. Instead, she is abducted on her way to the gallows and brought to the Academy, a school for girls that trains its pupils, many of them charity cases, in the usual subjects and a bonus in ambition and independent thought. Five years later, Mary—now Quinn, having reverted to her mother’s maiden name—is restless, unhappy with any of the traditional feminine options. Her mentors at the Academy provide an unexpected one: to join the Agency, an organization of female spies who take advantage of the general populace’s tendency to overlook and underestimate women. Soon, Mary is undercover in a wealthy merchant’s house, the secondary agent on a case of smuggled South Asian artifacts.

It’s exceedingly fun. The writing is smooth and engaging. Mary is a compelling heroine; accomplished, gutsy, and likable, but also fallible and liable to act on a whim. The case itself doesn’t stand out, but it’s certainly serviceable. The depth of the book comes from the social realities it portrays, from the negotiations and investigations behind society marriages to the limited livelihoods available to widows. The capricious debutante, the invalid mother, and the businessman father aren’t as simple as their tropes imply—and in keeping with the book’s theme, the women are particularly interesting, and particularly underappreciated by the men in their lives. Racism and the lives of Asian sailors in Victorian London are painted with accurately but without sensationalizing, and not only from the majority point of view. The potential romance is fine; didn’t really do much for me, but didn’t detract from the story or frustrate me. It make total sense that these two characters would have the hots for each other and it doesn’t take over the story.

The ending is frustrating, though in ways which are hard to discuss in a spoiler-free way. Suffice it to say Mary does something daft for the sole reason that this will let the author jerk us, and her, around at the end by denying us, and her, shiny knowledge. Which she does. I suspect this knowledge will come out in a future book, but if there’s a way for her to do so without it being an annoying deus ex machina, I don’t see it. Hopefully she has better plot-vision than I do, eh?

We’ll find out, because this book was highly entertaining and I’ll be on the lookout for the second book (coming in August!)

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1Yes, it says both of these on the cover. How many names does a series need?

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A Spy in the House ~ Y.S. Lee

Magic Under Glass Corrected New Cover by Jaclyn DolamoreNim—Nimira—is a Trouser Girl, a dark-skinned singer and dancer from Tianshen—valued in Lorinar for little more than willingness to traipse around on stage in pants, traditional for women in her culture but exotic and erotic in a land of corsets and petticoats. During the day she scoffs at her fellow performers for their dreams of wealthy, handsome man whisking them from the grimy music halls and into high society, but when a well-to-do and attractive sorcerer offers her a high-paying job, she takes the chance. Even if the job involves singing with a piano-playing automaton and several singers have already quite, swearing that the clockwork man is haunted. Determined to stick it out, Nim doesn’t run when the automaton starts to moan; instead, she pays attention and they manage to communicate. He is, of course, a fairy who has been trapped in the automaton for thirty years (though, only really having consciousness when wound, for him it seems far less), and his very existence is threatened by a ranking member of the Sorcerer’s Council.

Magic Under Glass deals admirably with both racism and sexism; mostly this is apparent in characters’ reactions to Nim, but a potent mixture or racism and nationalism is also found in their views towards fairies and the nearby fairy country. Most impressively, this racially-tinged nationalism is seen even in characters who are not villains, while not being portrayed as acceptable; it condemns the anti-fairy sentiment while acknowledging that well-intentioned, kind-hearted people can say and believe things that make us cringe.

There are some interesting twists, especially in the limitations of magic, but there’s also a Jane Eyre parallel that falls rather flat. The portrayals of romance in the book are likewise mixed. The central romance, that between Nim and the man in the man in the automaton, is predictable and and its lack of development becomes problematic late in the story, when their circumstances shift and their emotions fail to respond. On the other hand, there are the visible remnants of a relationship that clearly was, at one point, deeply loving, but has realistically altered and shifted into something entirely different as the people and situations changed; an unrequited romantic interest—clear and hopeful, hesitant and uncreepy—further adds complexity and nuance.

The conclusion certainly paves the way for the forthcoming sequel, but it is a conclusion and not a cliffhanger or abrupt cut-off.

Magic Under Glass has strengths that far outweigh its weaknesses. Dolamore has pretty serious potential, and I’m rather intrigued by this sentence on her website: “My next book, Between The Sea And Sky, is about a mermaid and a winged dude. There is, of course, a love story and angst, and the vibe I was going for is Jane Austen meets Miyazaki.”

Jane Austen meets Miyazaki, from a writer who clearly has promise? I’m in.

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Magic Under Glass ~ Jaclyn Dolamore

Silver PhoenixAi Ling at sixteen is educated–unusual for Xian girls–and has been rejected by the families of several potential husbands. This is embarrassing enough, though a bit of a relief, before her father leaves on an unprecedented trip to the imperial palace. After he’s gone several months longer than anticipated, however, it gets worse; Ai Ling and her mother are threatened by heavy debt unless Ai Ling become the fourth wife to a rather unpleasant business man. Rather than suffer this fate, Ai Ling runs away, going to seek her father. Of course, she finds herself pursued by demons and foul creatures, meets a few handsome men, and turns out to have been born for a Purpose.

Silver Phoenix is anchored in Chinese culture, and that is its great strength. The overall idea of the plot is fairly common in fantasy, but the because the details are based on Chinese rather than Euro-American culture, it does stand out. The descriptions of food and use of hair to establish class and status are particularly well done, though perhaps we don’t need the hairstyle of servant girls described every time we see it. (The first time is great. After that, however, it’s fine to just say “her hair marked her as a servant” and we’ll get the picture, or “her hair was in two braids coiled around her ears” and we’ll get her status).

The writing generally fails to instill excitement or tension. It’s often sloppy, over-describing in some places and under-describing in others. There are also odd contradictions: “I’ve tried to kill you many times . . . . You surprised me each time you managed to live. . . . I always knew that only I could finish this task.”¹ Well, which is it, villain? If you always knew you had to finish it yourself, why were you surprised each time the demons you sent failed to finish her off? Or, if you’re burning a body on a funeral pyre and “she gently laid a yellow cloth over [dead character]’s face” before lighting it, why would you immediate say that the flames “crackled, spread, and illuminated [dead character]’s face, making him appear lifelike again.”²? If is face is covered, no one can see it.

The strengths and the weaknesses: it’s all in the details.

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¹p. 261.
²p. 196.

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Silver Phoenix ~ Cindy Pon ~ Cindy Pon’s Blog

Soul Enchilada David Macinnis GillBug’s daily life is a struggle. She dropped out of high school to take care of her grandfather, and when he died she was left with no family—really, with not much more than her grandfather had: one very nice car. A year after his death Bug is working pizza delivery and not quite making ends meet. And that’s before a demon shows up to repossess the car, and possibly her soul. Luckily there’s a cute boy who’s reasonably knowledgeable about this supernatural stuff, and more than happy to help.

After years of struggling for self-sufficiency and the need to prove, to herself and the world, that she is an adult and can take care of herself, Bug is very reluctant to even listen when someone else may be offering help, or knowledge. It’s realistic and it fits her character, but it makes for a frustrating read—I was rooting for her and so were many characters, and if she’d only slow down and listen to them, she’d have a much smoother time getting out of this pickle. Basically, she’s up shit creek and turning her nose up at everyone who tries to give her a paddle.

Luckily, the cute boy—Pesto—doesn’t give up easily and Bug softens a little by the end, so it’s not as disastrous as it could be. The romance that strikes up between the two is adorable—him failing to be anything other than an awkward nerdboy, her failing to be anything but a prickly, trash-talking, abandoned girl—and only overdone in one scene. The minor characters are great: Pesto; Pesto’s mother, combining a matriarchal force of nature and a source of comfort and gentleness; the gamer nerds working at the International Supernatural Immigration Service; even Bug’s grandfather, dead and gone though he is. It’s really the charm of these supporting characters that makes the book enjoyable, with some help from sheer silliness—who knew that hairspray was an effective weapon against demons?

Overall, it’s a book that reaches high and sometimes misses. (For instance, the high-stakes high-speed pizza delivery scene just made me want to hand both Bug and the author a copy of Snow Crash. Now that’s high-speed pizza delivery.) Still, it’s funny and cute, and it’s a refreshing change to see a working class girl and a primarily nonwhite cast of characters taking the lead.

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SoulEnchilada.com ~ David Macinnis Gill

the evolution of calpurnia tateThe lone girl sandwiched between six brothers, Calpurnia Virginia Tate—Callie Vee—is more comfortable romping the woods and swimming in the stream than knitting or sewing in the parlor. When a drought gets Callie wondering about grasshoppers—most summers she only sees one kind of grasshoppers, this time she’s seeing two—she faces her fear and talks to her grandfather, a rather forbidding amateur naturalist who generally ignores the children in favor of experiments in his laboratory. On finding a kindred spirit in Callie he makes an exception to his child-ignoring rule and teaches her about science, nature, and the distillation of liquor. (She finds that whiskey may cause coughing.)

It’s also the summer when it starts to sink in how differently boys and girls are treated in 1899, how few options she has, and how little she likes those options. The realization sits heavy on her, to say the least, and on her grandfather, too; he teaches her about Marie Curie and other lady scientists, but he knows that he’s making it harder for her to settle for the life her mother wants for her and the world expects of her, and that rejecting that life would take her down a very difficult path.

Callie is an appealing, energetic narrator, applying her wit and newly-trained skills of observation to the natural world and, with less consistent success, to her family. She is a product of her times and of her grandfather; her take on gender roles does not spring up fully-formed simple because she is the heroine of a modern volume of historical fiction and we expect our heroines to be sympathetic from a modern point of view, but rather we see it developing naturally through the conflicting influences of grandfather, brothers, best friend, mother, cook, and the telephone company. Memories of the Civil War frequently remind us how much Callie is the product of her time and place; with her friends and brothers, she maintains a reverence for Confederate soldiers, and no one likes the Federals.

It’s a slice-of-life book, covering the six months surrounding Callie’s twelfth birthday. It’s a pivotal six months of her life, and the book is a consistently interesting and enjoyable read, but as is so often the case with such books, the ending is abrupt and irresolute. We’re left with the hope that Callie will grow up from an unusual girl to an unusual woman, but with a lingering melancholy and a view of the obstacles that stand in her way.

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The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate ~ Jacqueline Kelly