Posts Tagged ‘Crossover Fiction’

Mr. Utterson is the respectable sort of gentlemen lawyer who reserves judgement on his friends.

‘I incline to Cain’s heresy,’ he used to say quaintly. ‘I let my brother go to the devil in his own way.’”

But when his mild-mannered friend-about-town, the beloved Dr. Jekyll, seems to have fallen under an evil man’s influence—one Mr. Edward Hyde—even the reserved lawyer Utterson feels the need to check in. But though Dr. Jekyll assures everyone that all is well with him and Hyde, the lawyer watches his friend’s deterioration and increasing secrecy with grave concern…The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is classic adult horror authored by Robert Louis Stevenson and originally published in 1886.

Everyone probably knows the basic happenings of this famous short story, but my post will take the form more of “discussion” and less of a “review,” so if you want to avoid spoilers about the specifics, you might want to skip the rest. My statute of limitations on spoilers ended at “one century old” Lol You could also go read the story right now (it’s short and free on Kindle!) and come back when you’re finished. Otherwise, read on, reader, at your own peril *evil cackle*

Thoughts (Spoilers Ahead):

We read the “strange case” through the eyes of Mr. Utterson. Slowly, occasionally ponderously, but always in that charming 19th century way, he tells us of a brutal murder committed by Mr. Hyde, who then disappears without a trace. He describes Dr. Jekyll’s subsequent deteriorations and disappearance. And, finally, through heavy use of the “confessional missive” trope so popular during this time, he learns—and we learn—the details of Dr. Jekyll’s demise.

In fact, Dr. Jekyll’s own letter tells the full story. He describes his life as,

nine-tenths a life of effort, virtue and self-control.”

But that remaining 1/10th of “badness” manifests as Mr. Edward Hyde, a degenerate through whom Dr. Jekyll allows his baser instincts to rule and be separate from his “good” self. I say “allows” because he must take a potion to induce his transformation into Hyde…at least, in the beginning. But when he transforms, Mr. Hyde runs wild, spending himself in moral filth. Jekyll feels no fear or disgust in looking at his baser nature, as others do. For,

This, too, was myself.”

At least, he feels that way…in the beginning.

As time wears on and Jekyll finds himself relaxing into and enjoying the freedom of Hyde’s reign, he suddenly begins changing into Hyde—without taking the potion.

Uh oh.

Under this strain of continually impending doom and by the sleeplessness…I became, in my own person, a creature eaten up and emptied by fever, languidly weak both in body and mind, and solely occupied by one thought: the horror of my other self.”

That line contains all the real horror of the situation, to me. He knows what’s coming, and he dreads it, but he can’t stop it anymore. His repeated choice to transform has finally become his chosen status quo. A habit.

Stevenson’s tale is more than a moralistic tale, of course. It’s a psychological discussion about the struggles inherent in human nature. It might even be a metaphor for something specific beyond a “habit of being,” such as a cocaine/opium/laudanum habit (Jekyll takes a potion to become his “bad self,” after all) or some other vice. I’m not familiar enough with Stevenson’s life to know what he might be talking about lol

And of course it’s a horror story. I think the horror comes from the knowledge that Dr. Jekyll’s choice belongs to all of us: this is every man’s and every woman’s choice. We can all choose to free our baser instincts when we think we can get away with it and avoid besmirching our “good” selves. But soon, we lose the choice—soon it comes alive and chooses for us.

*shiver* 

Anyway, that’s what I thought. Have you read this one or seen one of the many tv shows, graphic novels or other media based on it? What do you think it’s about?

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thebearandthenightingale

‘All of my life,’ she said, ‘I have been told ‘go’ and ‘come.’ I am told how I will live, and I am told how I must die. I must be a man’s servant and a mare for his pleasure, or I must hide myself behind walls and surrender myself to a cold, silent god. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow that live a hundred years of the life appointed me.”

Vasilisa Petrovna has “the sight.” All around her she sees creatures from Pre-Christian folklore, known as “chyerty” by the villagers and “demons” by the Catholic. But in medieval Catholic “Rus,” having the sight is a dangerous; so she hides her gift and seeks her own way in the world.

Her way does not include marriage. Every other girl may marry or go to a nunnery, but Vasya refuses, preferring to talk with her creature friends and ride horses in the wild woods around her village.

Everything changes when her father remarries to a Catholic stepmother. Vasys’s idyllic—if never easy—life in the woods shifts from difficult to miserable. The oppressive atmosphere over the village bodes ill for Vasya and her chyerty friends. She has no idea that the Winter king watches her, just as his brother, the devourer, watches. But she slowly begins to realize that her village may depend on the very gifts it scorns. The Bear and the Nightingale is Historical Fantasy/Russian Fairytale written by Katherine Arden and published January 10th 2017 by Del Rey.

Thoughts :

I actually requested The Bear and the Nightingale thinking it was adult fiction, but I quickly realized it could easily be considered crossover, with the way the whole narrative revolves around the young heroine. So it was with pleasure that I read about the two girls who see the “demons” and soon become family by marriage. I thought, “Oh, how good Anna will be for Vasya! They can talk about their visions. They can be friends; they’re not so far apart, and Vasya desperately needs a friend.”

Clearly I didn’t read the book description very thoroughly before starting the book! I don’t want to spoil anything, but let’s just say nothing turned out like I hoped. Anna’s marriage into the family begins all the troubles for Vasya and her village. Why?

Because Anna is a fearful, superstitious Catholic. She assumes the harmless house creatures to be demons; and from then on out, the whole village slides into the clutches of the enemy: the one-eyed man, brother of the Winter King. He is,

Appetite…Madness. Terror. He wants to eat the world.”

He gains more and more power, thanks to the fear-mongering, misguided Catholics, whose belief system is entirely based on a misunderstanding of the reality of Pre-Christian Russian folklore. God, Satan and demons? They’re all just misunderstandings. So they misinterpret the the harmless domovoi as demons and the one-eyed man as both God and the devil, at different times, and they lead the village into danger.

‘You are the devil!’ whispered Konstantin, clenching his hands.

All the shadows laughed. ‘As you like. But what difference is there between me and the one you call God? I too revel in deeds done in my name. I can give you glory, if you will do my bidding.’”

Thankfully for the villagers, Vasya understands that fear feeds the one-eyed man and that the domovoi help protect the households against him. She heroically and sacrificially turns the other cheek as everyone gathers against “the witch,” saves the bumbling priests again and again (as they, of course, fall head over heels in love with her), and finally rides out to save the day.

I don’t want to make light of all the things I truly enjoyed about The Bear and the Nightingale, because the story reads beautifully, despite its problems. I loved Vasya, as a truly strong female protagonist, and I sympathized with her plight of making the village see reason. But we spend a lot of time in the head of a Catholic priest who is led astray by powers he misunderstands, to the folly of the entire village. We also spend a lot of time pitying Vasya’s situation as a woman, as she is forced to choose between either the marriage bed or the nunnery. Arden did Vasya a disservice by turning everyone against her, to the point that it felt overdone and melodramatic. When Vasya misses a certain funeral because she’s out slaying the village upyr, this is the response she gets:

Witch-woman. Like her mother.

[Highlight to view SPOILER: Dunya ] loved you like her daughter, Vasya,’ [her father] said, later. ‘Of all the days to play truant.’”

C’mon. She just spent 24 hours nursing this dying woman into her grave. This is just obnoxiously melodramatic, and it happens again and again throughout the book.

I dreaded posting this review, knowing that my opinions would be different from most of my friends; but I just have to say that good Fantasy authors know how to respect the mythology and beliefs they interact with. Jim Butcher and Max Gladstone come to mind- they don’t pick and choose winning and losing faiths, among the devout of their fantasy. There are good guys on every team. Katherine Arden didn’t get the memo on this. Her handling of medieval faith, while sensitive in the way of characterization, is drastically biased in many other ways. I’ll leave it at that.

With less emphasis on the human and religious drama and more on the fairy tale elements—which are, I suspect, why most of us pick up this book—I would have loved The Bear and the Nightingale enough to give it five stars.

This is obviously just my opinion, but I think this could have easily been children’s fiction to rival Elizabeth Enright’s. Which is…amazing! I loved reading about Vasya’s life in the woods and the fairy tale aspects from Russian folklore. Here, she’s breaking in a young horse, after a period of convalescence:

Vasya eyed the stallion’s tall bare back. She tried her limbs, and found them weak as water. The horse stood proudly and expectantly, a horse out of a fairy tale.

‘I think,’ said Vasya, ‘that I am going to need a stump.’

The pricked ears flattened. A stump.

‘A stump,’ said Vasya firmly. She made her way to a convenient one, where a tree had cracked and fallen away. The horse poked along behind. He seemed to be reconsidering his choice of rider.”

This is what people loved about The Bear and the Nightingale! The writing and atmosphere are truly, breathtakingly lovely, and the characters, though dark and often tiresome, are clearly imagined with care and love. But the books’s flaws are big enough that they did largely ruin the book for me.

Overall :

Gorgeously wrought fairy tale with a few major flaws. They won’t be fatal flaws for everyone, although they are for me.

Characters: 3/5 Stars
Worldbuilding: 3/5 Stars
Plot: 2.5/5 Stars
Writing: 5/5 Stars

***3/5 Stars

Recommended To :

A lot of readers enjoyed this story based on the historical detail, the strong characterizations and the perfect atmosphere. And no wonder! I suspect most readers won’t feel the way I do about it, so I say go ahead and try it. You’ll probably like it a lot better than I did. (Which is to say 3+ stars at least!)

Thanks so much to Katherine Arden, Del Rey and Netgalley for my review copy of The Bear and the Nightingale.

every-hidden-thing-9781481464161_hr

“We’d set out from Crowe at first light, and the grassland seemed endless. But after another few minutes, a crack appeared in the prairie. As we trotted closer, with every second the crack widened and deepened into a vast canyon that spread to the horizon.

A sunken world within our own. Water and glaciers and time had scooped it out, leaving behind a windy river and tall weathered buttes and mazes of ravines. The steep slopes showed all their ancient layers—tawny, black, gray, red—like the diagrams in Father’s geology books.”

Many reviewers have heard this novel described as Indiana Jones meets Romeo and Juliet, and that’s exactly what it is.

Premise :

Professor Cartland and Professor Bolt feud like the Capulets and the Montagues. But these two American professors war over something brand new on the 19th century western frontier: dinosaur bones. Particularly the bones of what young Samuel Bolt likes to call the “rex.” When Samuel Bolt and Rachel Cartland, the teenaged offspring of the rival professors, fall in love, the race to find the rex gets even more complicated. YA Crossover Historical/Western Romance thing. Published October 11, 2016 by Simon and Schuster. Goodreads. Author Link.

Thoughts :

I knew from reading Kenneth Oppel’s Airborne that I could easily love his work. His enthusiasm for the details is contagious and his prose is flawless. His novel Airborne lacks narrative drive and the character development that would have made it a spectacular read, for me; but I was still amazed by the details of the airships and all the research that went into portraying the luxury airliners. So when I saw Every Hidden Thing, I was immensely curious to see how Oppel had developed his writing.

Samuel Bolt and Rachel Cartland narrate the book. Samuel is a budding paleontologist hampered by his father’s reputation as a passionate but unschooled and impoverished “professor.” He knows they must travel to the Badlands to find the dinosaur of dinosaurs, which he dubs “tyrannosaurus rex,” in order to secure their fortunes and reputations.

Then he meets Rachel.

Rachel Cartland is a serious student of paleontology who dreams, above all, of getting a college degree and rising high in the field. She’s a tough girl who recognizes the possibilities that women should and don’t have, in the late 19th century. When she makes a risky but successful move, out in the field, her father reacts badly, and she thinks,

This was not the reaction I’d been hoping for. If I’d been a boy would he have praised me for my devotion, my initiative?”

But she never feels sorry for herself. She just pushes on to the next opportunity. She works hard to get to the Badlands with her father, and when they find one of the rex teeth, she becomes as determined as Samuel to find the prize.

Some reviewers are complaining that Rachel seems cold and unfeeling. On the contrary, I find Rachel the most compelling protagonist of the entire cast. YA often tries and miserably fails to portray the plain, but unusually bright teenage girl. Oppel pulls it off with a brainy first person narration, paired with the life experiences that would realistically go along with her characteristics. I think he imagined Rachel with fantastic precision.

The relationship between Rachel and Samuel brings them both to life, just as the rivalry brings their fathers to life. Rachel doesn’t drive the plot, the way Samuel does, but she does drive Samuel onward. Sam wants nothing so much as to be loved, and Rachel’s admiration and liking inspire him to man up, instead of letting his father run his life. I love their relationship so, so much, although it does get a little more, er, adult, than I would normally green light for a YA novel. It’s just done so well, though!

A few reviewers complained about the romance being “awkward,” and I’m pretty sure I know why. This book breaks all the YA romance stereotypes and I LOVE that about it. But not everyone will. It feels like a historical fiction romance…because that’s what it is. This is not an airbrushed romance because there is nothing discreet about an archaeological dig in the 19th century badlands. In addition, real relationships are hard and require communication; unlike this novel, the typical YA romance fails to accurately convey that reality.

I also love how Oppel brings a personal quality to every subject he examines. Samuel and his father are Quakers, and Oppel manages to share the heart of the Quaker faith while also showing the very fallible representatives humanity can be of faith. The book also takes our travelers straight into the territories of two Native American Plains tribes: Lakota Sioux and Pawnee. Oppel carefully portrays the multitude of confused perspectives on Natives during this time period, then personalizes the Natives and their problems.

Samuel on his pre-badlands experience with Natives:

I didn’t know much about Indians. The only one I’d ever seen, at a circus back home, turned out to be a man in face paint who was actually speaking Latvian.”

But later on, Samuel interacts with the Natives and gives their plight a lot of thought. After he and his crew narrowly survive an attack by an unspecified group of Natives, he offers the perspective,

We’d fight, too…if it were the other way around. Wouldn’t we?”

The Booklist review complains that the ending of the book “smacks of cultural appropriation,” but I love how the ending brings the Sioux mythology to life.

Other Stuff :

I did have two major complaints: (1) The beginning of this book really should tell readers when the book is set. The author’s note at the back helps, but teen readers may not check there and may not realize that the book is set during the late 19th century. (2) The plot involves a few major coincidences, related to finding the rex bones. Thankfully, the book really isn’t about the plot—it’s a very character-driven work.

Overall :

Plot: 3 Stars
Setting: 5 Stars
Characters: 5 Stars
Writing: 5 Stars

The average of these scores is 4.5 stars, but I don’t care. I’m rounding up to five stars because this book deserves every single one. Not only does Oppel perfectly develop the characters and the dry hope of the American dream out West, he examines religious life and Natives with the same amount of care, all in the context of a gripping drama.

*****5/5 STARS

Recommendation :

I’m going to recommend ages 16+ on this one, mostly because of the schmexy scenes (yes, there are multiple). [It explores the rocky beginning of a marriage. (hide spoiler)] But really…I loved this book. Highly recommended to fans of historical fiction and crossover YA. I already got a copy for my library!

the-aeronauts-windlass-the-cinder-spires-1-by-jim-butcherThis book is a little hard to explain.

There’s some o’ this:

“The Auroran airship was a faint blot against the thick clouds below, while Predator was hidden high above in the aerosphere by the glare of the sun.

…Grimm felt a wolfish grin touch his mouth. He reached up to tighten the band of his peaked cap in preparation for the dive, and nodded slightly to one side. ‘Mister Kettle,’ he said, ‘you may begin your dive.’”

Lots of this:

“The silkeweaver’s massive form moved like lightening, like some engine of destruction, its clublike limbs hammering the ground with cracks of impact like heavy steam pistons slamming the spirestone floor.”

And, thankfully, also some of this:

She gathered Rowl in her arms and hugged him to her, rocking back and forth slightly.

After a few moments, the cat murmured, ‘Littlemouse, you are squishing my fur.’”

About :

The jacket and Goodreads summaries focus almost solely on the airship captain known to his crew as “Captain Grimm,” but other characters—specifically, the masses of young characters and the cats—stole the show, for me.

Still, I’d better start with the captain. Grimm runs a sort of privateering enterprise against Spire Aurora for his home spire, Albion. Although disgraced and ejected from the navy years ago, he remains loyal to the spirarch. We spend some time on his beloved merchant ship, Predator, but we spend at least as much time running around Spire Albion with the captain as tensions heat up between the two spires and naval warfare transitions to land-based warfare.

And this is where all the young people come in!

  • Gweldolyn of the proud house of Lancaster is serving one year in the Spirearch’s Guard. As a matter of honor, she insists.
  • Another young guard, Bridget, is of the much poorer—but just as honor-mad—house of Tagwynn.
  • Rowl of the Silent Paws is a cat and Bridget’s best friend. The cats are my favorite things. Ever.
  • Benedict Sorrellin-Lancaster is a “warrior-born” cousin of Gwendolyn’s. Warrior-borns have a strange, stigmatized mix of animal and human traits that make them lethal predators while remaining human in most other ways.

These four meet each other in training for the Spirearch’s Guard. But their training comes to an abrupt and premature end when Spire Aurora attacks their home spire with uncanny prescience of Albion’s ways. The Lord of Albion orders the young people to join Grimm and two mad “etherealists” of mysterious and unknown power (Ferus and Folly, they’re called, and I love them, too), on a secret mission to discover the details of the plot against them.

Hugo Award Nominee for Best Novel (2016), Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award (RT Award) for Fantasy Adventure (2015), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Fantasy (2015). Adult steampunk fantasy published September 29th 2015 by Roc.

Part of the reason the book is so hard to describe is that it feels very much like setup. It sets up the series. It feels scattered, in the sense that it’s hard to encapsulate the plot within a pithy premise; even though book I’s adventure comes to an end, the real story is just beginning. This book details the first clash between spires Aurora and Albion, but we hardly get any answers about why it happened.

The Cool Things :

The cats. The warriorborn. The etherealists. The airships. The silkweavers. OH AND THE SURFACE, can we please go to the surface now? Because I have to know what’s going on below these lofty spires.

Other Stuff :

I don’t have complaints, per se. The book lacks certain elements of the very modern humor I’m currently enjoying in Butcher’s Dresden Files; and I would have preferred a little quicker plotting. But I was mildly interested during the entire book and occasionally tickled by the cats. (If that doesn’t sound like wildly enthusiastic praise, keep in mind that the setup for the series is what drove my interest, for the most part.) I didn’t love the plot, but I liked it and I can see the worldbuilding has potential for some cool stuff in the future. *AHEM SURFACE MONSTERS AHEM*

Overall :

I enjoyed the book. Butcher is trying something new and I’m totally along for the ride.

Recommendations :

I’ve heard this described as “like YA,” but despite the youngish average age of the cast (most are in their late teens, I think), and the fact that a training school is present for a very small portion of the narrative, as well as the lack of what I generally label “objectionable content”….I wouldn’t classify this as YA. It’s over 600 pages. And while that, in and of itself, may not preclude it from the YA shelf, the book also hosts a large cast of narrators, several of whom are adults. Also, romance is an almost-afterthought, which is basically almost never the case with YA. These three things will likely tend to rule out a large part of the YA market. I think this lands more squarely within the adult fantasy market, which will be patient with a giant book that is primarily meant to set up a series.

Still, if you consider yourself a big fan of YA, this book could be a great intro to adult fantasy. The wide scope combined with the multiple teen characters, talking animals and tasteful ambiance give the book a unique feel that I think certain YA readers would find pleasing. I would recommend it to YA lovers who enjoyed the feel of Brandon Sanderson’s original Mistborn trilogy. (By which I mean, “It’s interesting, even if book I isn’t immediately emotionally compelling.”)

3.5/5 STARS

crosstalk“In the not-too-distant future, a simple outpatient procedure to increase empathy between romantic partners has become all the rage.” –From the description.

About :

Briddey and her boyfriend of six weeks, Trent, work for a small but competitive mobile phone company that aims to supersede Apple in the business of communication. So when Trent asks Briddey to get an “EED” with him, a brain surgery that allows romantic partners to feel each other’s emotions and, supposedly, to communicate better through emotional bonding, they become the talk of the office. That’s a problem for Briddey, who desperately wants to keep the news from her nosey Irish family. But Trent’s explanation easily melts her into agreement: he wants her to feel how much he loves her when he proposes. So Briddey happily sneaks to her surgery, dodging pesky family and coworkers alike.

But once the surgery is done, she finds that something has gone terribly, terribly wrong. She hasn’t emotionally bonded to Trent…

She’s telepathically bonded to someone else. Crosstalk was published September 20th 2016 by Del Rey. Adult sociological sci-fi. Connie Willis has won ten Hugo Awards, six Nebula Awards and more.

Thoughts :

This book is so funny. It’s like Jane Austen + telepathic Twitter. Romantic comedy at its modern greatest. I knew from the beginning that I was going to enjoy the book, but I wasn’t sure how much until around 34%-35%.

We spend the first 30+% with Briddey the vapid executive, as she runs around her office getting lots of gifts from an almost-absentee boyfriend and trying to avoid all the nosy people in her workplace and family long enough to actually get the surgery. The absurdist flavor of the humor (highlighted in conversations about nothing, endless interruptions of Briddey’s agenda and our heroine’s almost blind determination to have the EDD operation despite warnings about unintended consequences) runs consistently throughout the book, but it’s especially present in the beginning, before Briddey experiences any character growth.

The reader’s patience is rewarded around 34-35%, when Briddey starts seeing herself from the perspective of others’ private thoughts. That moment, with its inherent character growth, hooked me on this book. Suddenly, the characters filled out and I really wanted to know how Briddey was going to handle the extrasensory data following her EED.

I love how Connie Willis develops the theories of telepathy—and she manages it in humorous data dumps from one particular character. (This character is a huge part of why I loved the book. That’s as much as I can say without spoilers!) Readers can enjoy this element whether they regularly read in the speculative genre or not; the learning curve, while interesting, is minimal.

I also love the chattiness of the telepathy.

Dawn patrol to Night Fighter, come in, Night Fighter.”

At this moment, the heroine is still learning that her private thoughts are no longer private:

She opened the door. He was leaning against the doorjamb, wearing a hoodie and a pair of baggy pants, his hair a tangled mess.

‘Thanks,’ he said. ‘You look nice, too.'”

Willis takes every opportunity to spin a joke with the mind chatter, but it’s not all lighthearted. When things go wrong, in the mental sphere, Briddey has to develop coping mechanisms, and Willis makes the whole experience very real for the reader using strong, concrete details and imagery. As it turns out, telepathy can seriously mess with your psyche. Willis hones in on the sentiment that no, seriously, you don’t want to know what everyone thinks about you.

It’s a good thing I was already listening to and loving another book when I finished reading Crosstalk because otherwise I’d be in a major book hangover right now. I completely loved Crosstalk.

The only thing I would change is the length of the book. It’s really long for a modern romantic comedy, even if we give Willis extra pages to explore the speculative element. The author includes lots of unnecessary (not irrelevant, but just repetitive) details and conversations. At the same time, these absurdist touches are clearly intentional and part of the charm. It was fun—more than fun—to get so completely caught up in the world and the romance.

And now that I’m finished, I wish I had time to go back and reread the whole thing. I already went back and reread my favorite bits, an indulgence I rarely make time for, these days.

Overall :

A light and absorbing—but not insubstantial—exploration of communication and love in the modern world. Full marks, baby. I’m definitely buying a hard copy of Crosstalk, next book haul. I’ve already recommended it to three people at work.

Recommendations :

Readers who don’t mind a longer romantic comedy. Teens will love this, if they get past the first 30%. There’s no sex and minimal swearing. I’m serious, it’s adorable, give it to young adult readers who enjoy contemporary romance.

*****5/5 STARS

Huge thanks to Connie Willis, Del Rey and Netgalley for the free review copy!

“Your mother is Wallachia.”

Premise :

The young royals Ladislav and Radu Dragwlya are sold from their homeland of Wallachia into the heart of the 15th century Ottoman Empire. Lada never stops dreaming of her country, but Radu finds a new home in Islam and in the friendship of Mehmed, son of the Sultan. But even as prince Mehmed works his way into both Lada’s and Radu’s hearts, he dreams of ruling and even expanding his father’s empire over more lands like Wallachia. As the three friends grow up together, their very different paths and desires strain the bonds of love.

YA Historical, published 2016 by Delacorte Press.

About :

And I Darken focuses primarily on the desires and nuanced relationships of the three main characters. But within this context, the book also explores the period politics.

If we were not pushing, fighting, claiming what is ours and challenging what is not yet ours, others would be doing it to us. It is the way of the world. You can be the aggressor, you can fight against Crusaders on their own land, or you can stay at home and wait for them to come to you. And they would come. They would come with fire, with disease, with swords and blood and death. Weakness is an irresistible lure.”

It’s a simplified, intensely character-driven Game of Thrones, Ottoman royal teen edition. Except…this really isn’t fantasy. It’s historical fiction with a twist: Vlad the Impaler is a girl.

What I Liked :

(1) The characters. The perfectly mapped, clear desire lines of the two narrators, Lada and Radu, relentlessly drew me through the pages; this is their shared Bildungsroman. But the characterization continues far beyond just them. The author writes all the characters with care, including Mehmed, Lada’s hilarious cohort of Janissary soldiers and even minor female characters of the harem.

I love how different women characters explore the power dynamics available to them, especially Lada, the female version of Vlad the Impaler. She’s so careful as she weighs her options [highlight to read spoiler: of ruling her own country, or co-ruling the empire that conquered her country in the first place. Mara’s defeat of the harem system seems to inspire Lada’s rejection of “the woman card.”].

Lada’s chapters give me almost everything I wanted from this book. They show off the Ottoman landscape, politics and battle-tactics. Lada considers herself a freedom fighter, and she professes her patriotism well, in an exchange with prince Mehmed:

I would sooner see my country burned than see it improved under Ottoman rule. Not everywhere needs to be remade in your image. If we were not so busy constantly defending our borders and being trespassed by other nations’ armies, we would be able to care for our own!”

My favorite part of Radu’s chapters is his devotion to Islam and the devotion of other characters who led him to it.

(2) The prose works overtime to bring each character and setting to life. For example, Radu wishes he could see the prince, as they march to one of the crusades, but…:

“But Murad’s and Mehmed’s forces were on different ends of the procession, separating Radu and Mehmed by a full day’s march. The sheer logistics of moving this many men and this much equipment was staggering.”

They’re in the same war party, but they’re separated by a full day’s march?! That is staggering! It really brings home the enormous size of these battles.

What I Disliked :

While the love triangle is both unique and well-written, involving sibling rivalry and themes of patriotism vs. love, it does steal some of the focus from the politics and war, especially at the end. The tension ratios are thus:

35% love triangle, mostly thanks to Radu’s chapters; 65% war and medieval secret service.

This is actually a great ratio, for YA; but while I enjoyed some of the romantic scenes, angsty drama does get old. I preferred Lada’s scenes because she’s constantly plotting some exhibition of her battle skills or saving Mehmed from assassination. I wanted to know more about her study of war strategy. I wanted to spend more real time with her crew of Janissaries.

I wanted to hear less of Radu’s whining.

Basically, I wanted this to be “Bernard Cornwell writes the Ottoman Empire.” I got about 70% of that, and it was awesome. But the rest consisted of historical romance + teen angst – hot sex.

The Ending :

Overall, the book doesn’t finish as strongly as the first 370 pgs predict. The ending feels sloppier than the carefully-plotted beginning and middle—the protagonists “discover” the antagonist’s grand plan with vague guesswork; plot points are suddenly explained in brief dialogues, instead of experienced; the prose slackens with lazy physical telling. It feels a little like the author tired of revisions or ran out of time for them.

Thankfully, a great plot twist saves the book from a so-so climax. I also love the final scene [highlight to read spoiler: at the Wallachian border. Even though the ending is bittersweet and totally reminds me of Gone With the Wind, I cheered when Lada and her men returned to their homeland. It’s irritating that she and Mehmed can’t just work something out, like making Lada be a warrior queen and keeping their relationship. Couldn’t they build an alliance, but still remain separate countries? I’m sure that’s completely historical untenable, but this isfiction! Haha. That would have been a cooler ending, imo. Just sayin’.].

Recommendation :

Perfection for fans of YA fiction. In fact, if you like YA at all, I’ll almost guarantee you’ll like this book. Fans of Bernard Cornwell’s historical action/adventure may have a more lukewarm response because neither Lada nor Radu do a lot of fighting. Fans of historical romance might really enjoy the book, though, if they don’t mind the lack of bedsport 😉 I will definitely recommend this book to some teens (in fact, I already have), despite the annoyances of teen angst.

After all, teens are living through it. I’m sure it’s more interesting to them.

4.5/5 STARS

“The Great Network is an ancient web of routes and gates, where sentient trains can take you anywhere in the galaxy in the blink of an eye.”

Premise:

A drone follows Zen Starling to his home world, after the young thief steals a necklace from a goldsmith’s shop. Everyone assumes Zen is just getting what he’s always deserved. But no one, including Zen himself, expects him to take up with an intergalactic criminal, steal a mysterious, prized object from the emperor’s own sentient train and unveil the truth about The Great Network. YA Sci-Fi, 2015. Philip Reeve is also the author of the The Hungry City Chronicles, which won several honors for teen fiction.

What I Liked:

(1) Railhead’s worldbuilding is much more layered and complex than much YA fare I’ve read. Its short, lyrical explanations suspend disbelief, cover whole galaxies and invent a fluent, unique Railhead vocabulary. It’s all very nonchalant—no infodumps stall the action. This sci-fi reads like wonder-filled fantasy, not like a physics textbook.

(2) The writing itself is decent—it tells the story well, with occasional flairs of poignance or humor. Philip Reeve is a true writer, not just an excellent storyteller. He portrays each world with quick, but keen details and in such a personal way (to Zen) that the reader feels like they know it, too:

“Zen’s home town was a sheer-sided ditch of a place. Cleave’s houses and factories were packed like shelved crates up each wall of a mile-deep canyon on a one-gate world called Angat whose surface was scoured by constant storms…Between the steep-stacked buildings, a thousand waterfalls went foaming down to join the river far below, adding their own roar to the various dins from the industrial zone. The local name for Cleave was Thunder City.

(3) It is morally and emotionally complex. Zen isn’t just a “good kid” from “the wrong side of the tracks.” He enjoys thieving, as a way of life, and the ultimate heist plot appeals to him even before he finds out that Raven, his new boss and author of the heist, may have purer motives than everyone assumes. Raven himself is a very complex character who certainly agrees that the end may justify any means. But the book doesn’t attempt to judge anyone’s behavior—it simply shows the results of their choices. Raven suffers every imaginable agony, due to his lifestyle, and Zen’s actions bring consequences that both touch the reader and awaken Zen to questions of right and wrong. It’s a very realistic awakening, and I think the reader is certain to feel it, as I did.

(4) It explores concepts like gender and artificial intelligence in subtle ways that are perfect for a teen readership. There’s no preaching or titillation, here.

Minor Complaints:

My complaints are minor, overall. (1) Although the story interested me intellectually from the very beginning (the worldbuilding immediately fascinated me), it didn’t engage my emotions until around ch. 19 (out of 50), when Zen starts to feel conflicted; and the plot didn’t have me racing through the pages until the end of ch. 20, when the danger finally makes the leap from theoretical to physical. (2) The characters aren’t particularly intriguing. There’s no voice, little personality and less rumination. Thankfully, the many settings—and the trains—are satisfying characters.

Recommendation:

I think most readers would enjoy this quiet, thoughtful adventure, and I would recommend it much more highly than, say, Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker, a highly-lauded and much less enjoyable YA sci-fi of several years back. I know the cover attracts grown men because one snatched the book up before I got a chance to read it, and I caught another staring at it, where it lay on my circulation desk at the library! I think any fan of speculative fiction would find a treat in this quick read. I will definitely be reading more Philip Reeve.

****4/5 STARS