Friday, July 29, 2011

A STAR SHALL FALL

Review of A STAR SHALL FALL by MARIE BRENNAN

(third in the ONYX COURT series)


“Science is King, but Magic is Queen.” The tagline on the cover of A STAR SHALL FALL succinctly captures the evolving theme of the ONYX COURT series. In the third book, set another century ahead from the last in the 1700s, a modern sentiment seeps into this historical fantasy. As science and ever-sharpening human curiosity spread their influence throughout London, the rest of England, and the entire world, the fey find it increasingly difficult to understand their place in an unpredictable society.


Foremost at the center of faerie concerns is the return of Halley’s comet where they banished the insatiable dragon from the last book. Scientific predictions suggest that the comet will come close enough to earth for the magical beast to resume its fiery greed and feast on the Onyx Hall. The fey become much more innovative in their desperation to stop the dragon. With help from mortal science and other cultures, they defy tradition by reaching past what they know and accept as the limits of possibility. As in many other works, scientific advancement rings with the cautionary truth that most gain comes hand in hand with sacrifice. Once a potential solution is found, the question remains whether or not the sacrifice is too immense.


The book is divided into seven parts, each of which opens with a short passage in the dragon’s perspective, who is not so much evil in mind as by nature. Rather than the typical villain, a closer comparison would be a predatory animal that can’t be reasoned with if it intends to eat you. In its way, this is even more threatening. Like most villains, the dragon lives for selfish purposes, thinking of itself before all others. It will destroy the Onyx Hall and every faerie foolish enough not to flee in time as nothing more than one, gluttonous meal. Appealing to any sense of decency, pity, or any other emotional salvation isn’t an option. The final showdown with the dragon at the end of the book is riveting.


Irrith, the country sprite from book two, plays a greater role in A STAR SHALL FALL. She’s not accustomed to the underhanded scheming of the court, which makes her an easy pawn for the manipulation of anyone who knows how to play her. She likes to think of herself as perceptive to these false friends, but the reader is more likely to predict what Irrith’s artless (at least politically) nature misses. On Lune’s side, she remains so desperate not to be her predecessor Invidiana that she once again misplaces her trust and discovers disloyalty where she least expects it.


Brennan presents us with another romantic subplot unique from the previous books. Galen, the newest Prince of the Stone, walks into not a love triangle but a love square! Three women pull his heart in different directions. First, there is the faerie he loves. Adores might be a more apt word as his besotted, unrequited affection smacks more of adolescent obsession than anything with real depth. Second, there’s the woman who seduces him, also a faerie. The fling reminds the reader that faerie love is characterized by two distinct rules: faeries choose who they love and thus cannot fall into love unintentionally as do mortals and second a faerie can only ever love once. While Galen’s lover toys with the possibility of giving her heart to a mortal man, she recoils from so grand a sacrifice and recognizes it could all be for naught if he cannot overcome his devotion to another. Third, there’s the mortal woman Galen must marry. At the start of the book, he has no particular woman in mind, but if he wishes to secure a happy future for his beloved sisters then marriage isn’t an option but a necessity. When he does settle on a specific mortal woman their relationship is bittersweet. While they lack either the passion of body or of heart found in his other relationships, a strong level of respect and admiration builds plenty of tension between the two.


The book is peppered with many more intriguing subplots, including one about the mysterious death of the last prince, Hamilton. All other mortal princes ruled at least a few decades, but Hamilton died only six years after becoming the Prince of the Stone. This mystery is easy to dismiss, seemingly insignificant compared to more important issues, but the unexpected explanation near the end ties together a stronger understanding of one of the book’s main themes: when scientific advancement moves faster than our own understanding, the toll can be colossal.

Friday, July 22, 2011

BONES OF FAERIE

Review of BONES OF FAERIE by JANNI LEE SIMNER


A lot of praising adjectives float through my head when I think of this book, but I find myself settling on “balanced.” While that might not be the most exciting choice, every time I pick a different word, I notice how the story also possesses the reverse. For example, I found myself tempted to describe this as a simple tale. In ways, it is, clearly drawing from much, much older stories about the fey. Yet that feels dismissive of the complexities of emotions and relationships found in these pages. I also want to say the story is dark. True, very true, but as many books prove and this one is no exception, sometimes the strongest lights are found in the darkest shadows and despite the grimness of its premise, this story clutches tight to hope.


Simner approaches faeries from an angle I, for one, have never read before. This is a post-apocalyptic faerie story! After a mysterious great war between mortals and faeries, the world is left in tatters, littered with remains of dark magic such as trees taught to seek out human flesh. While mortals appear to have won this war (as much as a war can be won), an understandable fear and prejudice of magic remains, especially troublesome for those mortals who find themselves cursed with traces of faerie magic.


The tale is beautifully written with an easy flow that invites the reader into this world. While I found many characters to love, the protagonist Liza lingers with me. Her troubles are many and of both fantastical and mundane molds. I mean mundane in the earthly sense, as in some of Liza’s troubles are painfully real even with all the fantasy of the story stripped away.


Due to both the book’s shorter length and the natural voice, this is a quick read, but one that left a lasting impression. I’m a sucker for deceptively simple fantasy tales where the magical element doesn’t beat you over the head, but tantalizes the imagination, not to mention stories with a subdued, sometimes tragic, sense of mystery and wonder that echoes out of the book into the real world.

Friday, July 15, 2011

IN ASHES LIE

Review of IN ASHES LIE by MARIE BRENNAN

(second in the ONYX COURT series)


The second book in Marie Brennan’s ONYX COURT series takes place in 1600s London when King Charles finds himself imprisoned by the army and then beheaded prior to the Great Fire. As with the first book, the history and fantasy blend superbly together with the fey and magic playing surprising roles in past events. The Great Fire of London might look like nothing more than vicious flames to mortals, but the fey see the fire’s true form: a dragon, bent on devouring all of London in its lust to feed on the magnificent Onyx Court.


Lune unintentionally won the throne at the end of the first book, and now this further glimpse into the fey world allows us a chance to see her as queen. She’s no idolized heroine. Lune is unsure of herself, but determined to hide her worries and insecurities. She makes mistakes, with serious consequences, often in whom she trusts and whom she doesn’t and how she chooses to reward or punish her subjects. Her redeeming feature throughout shouldn’t be underestimated: she loves her realm. She wants the best for every individual, mortal and fey alike, even if she’s not always certain how to earn the best. Even when I disagreed with her decisions, I always respected Lune for her fierce loyalty to her court and subjects, proven with wounds both physical and emotional, and her unwavering resolve to protect her realm from those who would do it harm.


As promised, Lune always keeps a mortal by her side. Her love, Michael Deven, aged and died, as was inevitable, and now she works alongside a man named Antony. The first book brushed up against the concept that faeries can only love once, but this second book embraces that idea even more. While she hides it well and the writing doesn’t overemphasize the lamentation, Lune’s grief for her lost lover is painfully apparent. The new dynamic with Antony is a different kind of enthralling. His heart, too, belongs to another, his wife, and he regrets that this secret service to a magic realm remains the greatest strain on their otherwise strong relationship.


As with the first, the second book in the ONYX COURT series is a thoroughly engrossing read, both passionate and thoughtful at the same time. Somewhat subtle in the story’s subtext is an ever-increasing sense that the world is changing. As it shifts for mortals, so must the fey, too, learn to adapt.

Friday, July 8, 2011

THE CITY & THE CITY


Review of THE CITY & THE CITY by CHINA MIÈVILLE

The premise of this book is more than a little mesmerizing, though now I empathize with people's difficulty explaining the concept, which evades easy categorization or description.

The book is most commonly shelved in Science Fiction & Fantasy, though the truth is it could be either, both, or neither, depending on how you interpret the imagined world. As per the title, the story centers around two cities, unlike any you might expect. They are interconnected in a highly unusual way, which I find difficult to describe in part because it's a little mind-boggling and in part because how exactly the world works is never fully clarified. The reader remains free to interpret the cities as connected by some fantastical faerie-world type bond, as a future science fiction development, or, perhaps most chilling of all, simply a bizarre, government-enforced division of territory.

In fact, if forced to categorize this book, it belongs more in mystery than in speculative fiction. As thought-provoking as the two cities are, they more or less serve as a backdrop for a murder mystery.


I admit at times the dialogue read as rather exposition heavy and most climatic action scenes had me re-reading them in confusion as to who just did what, but it's all worth it for the ending. The ending weaves the speculative fiction element of the cities deeper into the plot and drops away with a subdued sense of closure and an eerie revelation.

Friday, July 1, 2011

THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG

Review of THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG by MURIEL BARBERY
(translated by ALISON ANDERSON)

I both loved and hated this book, so I seesawed about whether or not to review it. I prefer reviewing books for which my comments are primarily positive; criticism is easier to write than praise and I would rather spend my time promoting good books than bashing those I dislike. Then I realized that I'm seesawing about the book itself. I don't love it. I don't hate it. Yet that doesn't equal out to apathy! Every moment in THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG made me feel something, a strong something. I'm tempted to dissect the book and give parts five stars and parts one star, but my mixed feelings do not at all amount to an average impression of the entire book.

What didn't I like? Only two aspects really, but two big aspects: the writing style and the characters. The writing style is very heavy, often rambling and digressive. After finishing a long paragraph, I couldn't help analyzing how the same concept could have been condensed to one succinct sentence. It has to be said, though, that this is a translated work and perhaps what read as awkward and chunky might be beautiful in the original French (or perhaps the French have a different concept of beautiful writing). While mentioning the style, there's also an abundance of weighty lines that feel intended be greater and more meaningful than they are. However, every now and then a line buried in the layered tone really did ring true to the extent that it redeemed those that felt forced.

The story alternates between two characters, a middle age concierge and a depressed preteen. Often the voices seem near indistinguishable, more like the author's voice in both cases than individuals with their own tone and at times they even feel like megaphones for Barbery's own philosophical rants. This book also uses different fonts for the two protagonists. As I've mentioned in an earlier review, this technique is an instant turn off for me, because strong voices should distinguish different characters. To be fair, this is almost always a publisher, not author, decision, but one that I consider a warning sign that the voices aren't unique enough.

Don't brush this book aside yet! It's time for what I loved. While the individual characters fall a little flat, something magical happens when they interact. They don't change into someone else, but the different character relationships pop off the page in a way the individuals never do, not to mention that interactions highlight all their subtle differences. This leads into a potentially endless philosophical discussion: what does it say about humanity when individuals blend together with a similar dullness but jump into life when they form relationships? Anytime two or more characters collide, the story comes to life with an incredible vibrancy.

The ending deserves mention, though I find myself lost in my own muddled feelings. I both loved and hated the ending. Sometimes I lean more one way than the other, but what I can say for certain is that it isn't "blah." This is one of those books where the ending plays an especially large role in the overall story and how you feel about the book. Most likely, you will either find it significantly moving or you will feel like a hippopotamus stole all your cookbooks and wrote a rap song about it, in other words, too blindsided to react.

Whether you love or hate THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG, I'm convinced that this is a book to feel passionate about, not one that earns a shrug and "it was okay, I guess." If the purpose of books is to make us think and feel, mission accomplished.