Friday, December 30, 2011

FAERIE WINTER


Review of FAERIE WINTER by JANNI LEE SIMNER
(sequel to BONES OF FAERIE, review based on an advance reading copy)

The strength of this story comes from the choices the characters face. No one, even our protagonist Liza, is simply good or bad. Simner takes legends of faerie magic and mines the potential ethical and moral dilemmas, especially those that might appear straight-forward at first glance…but not so much when you look closer. Also, like the best fantasy, the magic serves as a metaphor for choices and tragedies we must face in real life.

I’ll backtrack just a little here to suggest that you read FAERIE WINTER soon after reading BONES OF FAERIE. Or, if you’ve already read the first book, as I did, take the time to re-read it, because I did have a little trouble slipping back into the story when it had been so long since I read BONES OF FAERIE.

But once I slipped back in, I was invested! It’s worth reiterating how Simner gives all her characters such depth. Liza makes some choices that aren’t entirely good, but neither are they condemnable; I could always understand her motivation even as I grasped how her decision hurt another.

For those who need a quick refresher, Liza lives in a post-apocalyptic world left devastated after a terrible war between humans and faeries. Even after the war, faeries have left their mark on humans. (Connection to real-life, humans-versus-humans wars, anyone?) Some people now have magic, which unfortunately makes them seem a lot like the enemy. Liza’s magic in particular is brutal in its power. She possesses the ability to control others with her voice. When she gives a command laced with magic, free will exits the equation and people have no choice but to obey. The plot returns to a key question again and again: Is it okay to take away someone’s free will if you did so to help them?

As well as layered characters, Simner crafts complex relationship webs. One particular scene near the end comes to mind when numerous characters clash and everyone fights for their own ideals. Final showdowns aren’t unique in novels, especially not in fantasy, but in most of these climatic scenes there’s a clear line drawn between sides and more often than not we know which side we’re expected to support. In FAERIE WINTER, you can’t draw any clear line down the middle. Each person has loyalties and enemies and values they will die to protect, but I dare you to try to divide all the characters into two simple camps. No matter how you split them up, someone will have a loyalty on the other side or an enemy on their side. That’s what makes this particular scene both so fun and so affecting as each individual tries to protect those they love, destroy those they despise, and drill home why their outlook on the world is the right one.

Friday, December 23, 2011

LOST VOICES


Review of LOST VOICES by SARAH PORTER
(review based on an advance reading copy)

I recently attended a literature conference (Sirens 2011) that focused on female monsters. The conference both deconstructed the concept of a monster and analyzed in what ways women and monsters meld together into one idea. Medusa is a prime example. She’s demonized in mythology as a hideous, malicious beast, but what exactly brought her to such a fate? According to one myth, Poseidon raped Medusa, once a beautiful maiden, in Athena’s temple. Medusa deserved punishment for “allowing” herself to be raped, and in the temple of the virgin goddess no less; therefore, Athena turned her into a gorgon. Sarah Porter’s haunting story takes another feminine demon, the siren-like mermaid, and gives her the depth and layers she deserves.

This story moved me right from the start. Luce has an unusual background and yet she remains relatable. Her mother died when she was young and Luce cannot reconcile her memories of the father she adored with the person people describe as a criminal who kidnapped her. Unfortunately, he, too, dies - in a storm at sea. Now Luce must live with her alcoholic uncle, who dated her mother before her father stole her away, and doesn’t keep his bitterness a secret. Drunken beatings are common for Luce now, but after the abuse escalates she tumbles off a cliff into the sea below. Instead of dying, she becomes a mermaid.

Not anyone can become a mermaid. The book speaks of a “dark shimmering” around not only all mermaids but all humans who have the potential to become a mermaid. I can’t think of one word to describe what this shimmering represents: darkness would be my easy choice, but it’s not always the same kind of darkness. Also, a rich, spoilt girl becomes a mermaid, even though her shimmering is less darkness and more emptiness.

At first Luce seems to have discovered the haven for which she longed. A tribe of mermaids finds her after her transformation and welcomes her into their midst. They explain about the timahk, the rules that govern mermaid tribes, such as the rule that states no mermaid is ever allowed to hurt another mermaid or the one that forbids they interact with humans. Violation of the timahk results in banishment from the tribe, an essential death sentence in a dangerous ocean.  

It doesn’t take Luce long to learn there’s a dark side to being a mermaid. Sometimes her pain rises up inside her, rises up in the form of a song, a song that lures humans to their deaths, lures ships to the rocks. She doesn’t want to murder anyone, but it seems to be part of being a mermaid. Even as she tries to fight it, she yearns to sing and her singing only brings destruction and death.

Men cannot become mermaids. This keeps the focus on the girls and their relationships. I confess that I’m filled with admiration for Porter that she managed to write a young adult story without romance that is no less compelling for the absence of boys and crushes. Friendships are plenty complex and well-written ones like these don’t need a romance subplot to keep the reader’s attention. There are already an abundance of star-crossed romances, but what about star-crossed friendships? Porter captures just that with the relationship between the tribe leader Catarina and Luce. The slang “frenemies” comes to mind, though it sounds like a cheap word for this convoluted, profound bond. Catarina both elevates Luce above the other girls and occasionally treats her with cold disdain. It all comes down to singing in mermaid society. The best singer leads the tribe, and Luce may just rival Catarina’s cruel but beautiful voice. 

Of course, what makes this book especially interesting is how many ways the status quo becomes upended. Luce discovers mermaids breaking the timahk and must decide whether to keep their secrets or reveal all and let them be exiled. New mermaids join the tribe, with their own sad tales, and some upset the order and calm that once existed more than others. The primary conflict, though, (the source of the tension between her and Catarina) remains Luce’s reluctance to come to terms with what she has become. Rather than accept that she’s a monster now, Luce practices her signing in private, hoping that with enough effort she can contort the malicious enchantment that slips from her lips into something good. While a noble and admirable goal, her ambition to change what it means to be a mermaid stirs things up more than she understands or can foresee.

Friday, December 16, 2011

DAUGHTER OF THE BLOOD


Review of DAUGHTER OF THE BLOOD by ANNE BISHOP
(first in THE BLACK JEWELS trilogy)

First off: I adore this book, this entire trilogy actually. Anne Bishop is now one of my favorite authors and the discovery of this scintillating, addictive series revitalized my love of reading and reminded me why it’s worth devouring book after book in search of the gems like these. Anne Bishop is up there with Laini Taylor on my list of favorite authors (even if it’s off topic, I have to toss in that Tamora Pierce is my first author love). As I’ve mentioned in my reviews Taylor’s work tends to hit my emotional sweet-spot, striking right past my intellect to visceral feelings and reactions. Bishop’s work does make me feel as well; don’t doubt that, because this high conflict series dredges forth every emotion I can imagine and not in small doses. However, THE BLACK JEWELS also engages my mind by presenting countless tantalizing questions about gender, class, power, honor, love, and violence, to name a few. Long after I put down her books, I’m thinking: about the world, the plot, the characters, and the questions it poses about real life.

Bishop has created a complex, intricate society that intertwines gender and power, creating a sharper and often more violent battle between the sexes. The thoughtfully crafted magical system fascinates me with every new detail, not to mention the very structured society in which everyone has a clear place depending on ranks both fiscal and magical, and, of course, depending on gender. I’m reading the trilogy as an omnibus that includes an insightful introduction by the author, wherein she describes a little of the intriguing “what if”s that led to THE BLACK JEWELS. If you don’t have that introduction in your book, it’s worth checking out!

In this world, different jewels represent magical rank. People have their Birthright Jewel, which varies from the lightest - white, yellow, tiger-eye, and rose - to the darkest: red, gray, ebon-gray, and finally black, the strongest and most dangerous jewel. (There’s a nice list of all the different jewels at the start of the book, including the middle ones that I didn’t mention.) Around puberty, individuals can make an offering to the Darkness, a ceremony that will hopefully descend their power to a darker jewel, though one can only descend a maximum of three jewels from their birthright and are not guaranteed to descend even one. Now here’s where Bishop changes up the status quo a little: women tend to be more powerful than men, often outranking them in jewels (magical strength). This society also hands women authority in numerous ways. To name a big example, women rules territories. Always. There isn’t even a question of men ruling in this book, though there are plenty of questions about different, better women ruling. Traditionally, a queen’s court is a positive example of mutual trust and protection. A good queen looks after all those in her court, is in fact fiercely protective of those who serve her. In return, the males protect their queen and other women in the court at times when the females might be more vulnerable. I mentioned that Bishop interlocks power and gender and this next twist is another example: women might be the more powerful gender but they are weaker at two points in their lives - before they lose their virginity and during their periods. In this world, a woman’s first time is less about love and passion and more about trust. A woman who is raped or treated roughly her first time can be “broken.” At the best, that term means the loss of her magic, but at the worst it also means the tortured, inescapable insanity Bishop coins the Twisted Kingdom. After their virgin night, though, women are much more secure in their own power. The only catch remaining is that their magic weakens during their moontime, meaning they must look to others for a web of mutual support. I’ve only described the society as it once was, but now a few malicious queens have contorted a social structure of trust and reciprocated respect into a corrupt, never-ending crusade to ensure males remain the subservient, ever-suffering gender, existing only for the whim of powerful females. Not that all the villains in this story are female. Many males who have been tortured, whether emotionally or physically, by pitiless, vindictive queens for too long (and let me mention that these supernatural “people” lives thousands of years) then look for weaker women on whom they can take out their frustration. For many of these men, it becomes a vengeful sport to “break” as many young women as possible before they can grow into the powerful but heartless queens these men fear.

Buckle up, because I’m not wrapping up yet. That’s only my condensed description of Bishop’s complex, imaged society. I still haven’t even grazed the plot of this specific epic. The story jumps between many different characters, but we have five clear heroes and heroines. Lucivar: an ebon-gray jeweled Eyrien (meaning he’s from a race that has wings) who opens the book but plays a relatively small role in DAUGHTER OF THE BLOOD. Saetan: the demon-dead (kind of like a cross between vampire and zombie stripped of most of the now common stereotypes) black jeweled High Lord of Hell who is both rash and terrifying as well as gentle, sweet, and grandfatherly. Daemon: the only other black jeweled male in this world, a pleasure slave who has a reputation for snapping in a very violent way every now and again when he’s tired of the abuse of his malevolent queen. These men have more in common than they know. All of them are waiting for a savior: Witch. That capitalized “W” counts for a lot! There are plenty of witches in this world, but Witch only comes every few thousand years at times of great need. She is referred to in the singular sense although throughout the years there have been many women who are Witch. (Never more than one at a time, mind you, and always spaced far apart.) Witch is an embodiment of hope, power, and change. She is both an individual woman and a pool of greater wisdom millennia older than herself. All that keeps Lucivar and Daemon from killing themselves to escape this cruel world is the hope that Witch is coming soon, that she will change everything. Daemon takes his longing to a new level, nourishing a fantasy that one day, rather than being an unwilling whore, he will become Witch’s eager and adored lover. Then there’s Surreal: a sly, cynical prostitute turned assassin who, though unapologetic for her flaws or past sins, seems more than a little lost. While the three male leads all share the same grand dream of Witch the savior, Surreal seems more focused on immediate goals and surviving each day in a harsh, lusterless world. Last but certainly not least there’s Jaenelle: Witch.

Let me sidetrack a little now, or rather step back. Daemon’s romantic fantasy surrounding Witch is the one reason some people I know dislike this book. Believe it or not, it’s not the violence; it’s that. Why? Because it turns out Witch is twelve. In Daemon’s defense, he never saw that coming. He assumed she would be a grown woman when he first meets her and this revelation strikes him as a cruel twist on what should be a joyous event. Contrary to some opinions, I don’t label Daemon a pedophile for this development. In fact, it raises a good point. He was never in love with a person; he was in love with an idea. Witch represents everything he wants and so he built her up in his mind exactly as he hoped: a mature, powerful woman who needs him both physically and emotionally. Now the reader has the captivating experience of watching a real relationship develop between Daemon and Jaenelle. Witch doesn’t need a lover at the age of twelve, but she does need a friend. Daemon realizes that, as usual, reality has turned out to be very different from the fantasy, but the fact remains that he wants to serve Witch, even if it isn’t in the manner he originally expected. 

Aside from a fascinating plot and complex characters, Bishop makes some interesting stylistic choices with her writing. One decision that jumped out at me is that there isn’t a single excerpt told from the perspective of Jaenelle, our twelve-year-old Witch. This elevates the sense of mystery surrounding a girl who does things that shouldn’t be possible, who seems lost and isolated in her own power, and who must find a balance between Jaenelle the child and Witch whose wisdom makes her seem older than any other character in the book. I have heard Jaenelle accused of being a Mary Sue, but I argue against that. Many characters do feel strongly towards her, be it adoration or hate (a typical Mary Sue marker), but there’s also a shocking number whose opinion of Jaenelle is, well, apathetic. Much to the anger of Daemon and Saetan who cannot escape their awe of Witch, most people don't recognize her for what she is. Though Jaenelle’s Birthright Jewel is Black (something entirely unheard of), her power is so strong that she struggles controlling it and hasn’t yet figured out how to target her magic to simple, small tasks. When she can’t perform any basic magic, her family assumes she has no power whatsoever, one of the many reasons she is their shameful secret, the black sheep.

The characters in this book sometimes feel like hyperboles of actual people. They are all extremely passionate, and everyone is always furious, despairing, or brimming with hope. Mundane moments or milder feelings are few and far between. Normally, I find this type of exaggeration falls into flat melodrama, but in this case it works. While the characters closely resemble humans, they’re not. They live longer and they feel more intensely. They’re also more animalistic, and Bishop even pulls on terminology from nature to describe traits or tendencies of these fantastical beings. She tosses in words like “growl,” “snarl,” and “hiss” in her dialogue with a frequency that might frustrate me if it didn’t seem so fitting for this society. Increased power comes hand in hand with increased hormones so that the strongest queens and princes can fly into rages at the smallest frustration. “Temperamental” is the diplomatic word Bishop often employs. Also, this is a work of romantic fantasy, and I believe (though I don’t read much in genre so I’m no expert) that impassioned characters are often a staple of the romance genre. It must be said that neither genre suffers for the other’s presence. Bishop manages to meet the usual genre expectations for both the fantasy and the romance elements without sacrificing the content in the other. If you need further proof, she has both devoted fans who read fantasy but rarely romance and ones who read romance but rarely fantasy. Ultimately, we’re all looking for a good story.

I want to go on. I warned you in my first paragraph that this is a series that starts my brain turning and I have yet to find an end to the list of questions THE BLACK JEWELS forces me to consider. If people can only increase their magical power so much from their Birthright Jewel, does that mean we cannot run far from whatever status we’re born into? Do women lead and men serve in this society because it’s in the very nature of these semi-human supernatural beings…or have they been socially trained from birth to believe this is the norm? Does violence beget more violence; are victims doomed to become abusers? Where’s the line between love and obsession? Does power always come with loneliness? Is it ever impossible for one to shake off the traumas of their past? Are the best epic stories those that follow a single, absurdly powerful individual or those wherein even the strongest can’t overcome evil without help? Okay, okay, I’ll stop listing questions, though that hardly means I’ll stop thinking of new ones.

Friday, December 9, 2011

DREAMDARK: SILKSINGER


Review of DREAMDARK: SILKSINGER by LAINI TAYLOR
(second in the DREAMDARK series)

You don't need to read BLACKBRINGER to read the second book of the DREAMDARK series: SILKSINGER. In BLACKBRINGER, Taylor nicely wrapped up the story so the book functions well both as a standalone and as part of a greater story. While set in the same world with characters and conflicts readers will recognize, SILKSINGER is an entirely fresh tale with an even more ominous threat.  

It’s no secret by now that I think Taylor writes memorable characters. Magpie, her silly crow brothers, and Talon feature prominently in SILKSINGER, but the new additions to the cast are equally compelling. Whisper actually reminds me of Taylor's own short story in LIPS TOUCH: THREE TIMES in which the woman’s voice will kill all who hear it, so she remains always silent. Whisper is a muted version of this same concept. Her fairy clan, the Silksingers, have magical voices, a gift she can’t always control. Thus she keeps her voice at a low whisper to avoid accidental magic. This soft-spoken nature causes many to underestimate her, but she will prove her bravery and determination more than once before the end of this book.

The romance between Talon and Magpie was so subtle in the first book as to be practically nonexistent. They are essentially pre-teen fairies; Talon is clearly attracted to Magpie but is too young to even recognize what he’s feeling. Magpie on the other hand is only barely pulling out of the “Boys? Ew!” stage. However, a second budding romance plus a dash of jealousy bring forward these relationships more than in the first book. On this subject, I’m impressed with how Taylor handles the gender roles in romance. A lot of rescuing occurs in these pages, but girls do the rescuing as much as they are the ones being rescued. The ultimate sense is that both are drawn to protect the other and neither could accomplish as much without that kind of support. I’m a cynical romance reader, but that’s a concept that wins me over.

As with BLACKBRINGER, significant loses occur within these pages. Taylor doesn’t go around killing off too many characters, but she’s not afraid to strike down favorites. Actually, deaths aren’t nearly as frequent as death scares. Numerous times a main character appears close to death only to be saved by a cohort at the last moment. However, what makes me still hold my breath every time is that real, irreversible deaths do occur, so you can’t always trust conveniently timed rescues. The writing and characters really suck me into these moments and I experienced, at different points, both elation that someone made it through against all odds and crushing disappointment when I realized the author wasn’t holding her punch this time. At least Magpie can still visit those who died. In the last book, she learned to slip into the Moonlit Gardens, the afterlife for fairies and other magical creatures, and she utilizes this skill for many different purposes throughout the story. Perhaps most touching, though, is when she comes to see someone she lost. Anyone who has lost someone beloved will envy her this power, but, whatever closure it might bring, it doesn’t erase her pain; she still yearns for them to return to the world of the living and mourns the years lost to an untimely death.

I have mixed feelings about the bad guy in this story, but I’m going to shy away from saying too much, since most of my comments give away important details. The short version is that I predicted something significant about the villain. Yet, even if that may have diminished my surprise, it didn’t lessen the threat or the tension. Not to mention that there are so many layers that it’s impossible to predict everything!

The saddest part of this book, though, doesn’t lie in the story, but outside in the real world. While BLACKBRINGER tied up all its ends, SILKSINGER trails off almost unfinished. Unfortunately, the publisher decided not to follow through with this series, so until the author finds another home for Magpie and Whisper and the others, we will be left to wonder for a while. Taylor’s blog says she has five books planned for the series and I for one hope they find a new home soon.

Friday, December 2, 2011

SONG OF THE WANDERER


Review of SONG OF THE WANDERER by BRUCE COVILLE
(second in THE UNICORN CHRONICLES)

There’s a lot of exposition in the first few chapters of SONG OF THE WANDERER, but Coville slips in details from the last book with admirable ease. Though experienced readers and writers will recognize the intent, the story never reads as an information dump. However, the first part of book moves rather slowly, suffering a little from what bibliophiles term "middle book syndrome." Before the story and action begins, there’s a long, relatively uneventful journey.

Of course, this is a short book (although it’s twice as long as its predecessor!), so even the slow bits are fairly fast reading. Besides, it’s well worth trudging along with Cara and her crew during the quieter portion of the journey, because when the pace picks up, oh boy does it pick up! The tension just keeps riser higher and higher near the end as the conflict escalates and unexpected surprises pile on.

I certainly don't mean to imply that the first half of the book is boring, either. As with many great series, we learn more about beloved characters from the previous book along with meeting plenty of new ones. Medafil the gryphon now joins the Squijum on my list of favorite UNICORN CHROINCLES characters. And, of course, our young but brave protagonist Cara deserves a spot up there herself.

SONG OF THE WANDERER might take a while to hit the same fast pace as INTO THE LAND OF THE UNICORNS, but once it starts moving it doesn’t slow. The end is stuffed with intriguing confrontations and revelations that promise much more excitement in future books.