Posts Tagged ‘Setting-As-Character’

emperor-eight“It was a time of troubles and opportunities. In the capital the Emperor was weak, his sons rivals. His brother-in-law, the Prince Abbot at Ryosonji, was regent in all but name. He favored the Emperor’s younger son and carried on endless intrigues against the Crown Prince.”

Premise :

Dark forces plot against the heir to the Lotus throne, wishing to replace him with his younger brother.

Far from this royal contention lives a young orphan named Kazumaru. After his uncle forces him from his rightful inheritance, he is used by a magician and sorceress for their dark magic, giving him a power that changes the course of his destiny. He becomes Shikanoko, “the deer’s child,” and soon inadvertently attracts the attention of a dangerous sorcerer, the treasonous Prince Abbot. But as Shikanoko learns to wield his powers, he finds that instead of giving him freedom, they put him in new kinds of bondage.

The power struggles of Hearn’s medieval, mythical Japan pose all kinds of threats to a friendless teenaged boy. Shikanoko trusts no one, but still he devotes himself to the service and care of others, giving readers hope for the development of a just warrior over the four installments of the fantasy series. Adult Fantasy, Published April 2016 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux Originals.

About :

I wasn’t thrilled with the first Lian Hearn book I read, Across the Nightingale Floor , which to me felt underdeveloped in almost every way. But when I saw her new quartet, published entirely within the space of a year, it occurred to me that with a few changes, I might enjoy her books. So I decided to try Emperor of the Eight Islands.

I’m so glad I did.

Pride began to well up in him, sweet and seductive, telling him he deserved all things, that he was allowed all things, that he could take what he wanted, in this world and the next.”

Thoughts :

This book felt much darker and more adult than Across the Nightingale Floor. Sex plays a large role in the dark magic that binds Shikanoko to his destiny—and sex rarely means love, in this story. It means power: the power of the heir, the power of dark magic over a victim, the power of lust. Everything is a power struggle.

Thus, ambition and motivation animate the characters much more than personality, giving substance to the clashes between them and making them, at times, unlikable. But within a few paragraphs of reading from their perspective, I found myself in full sympathy with them, despite my direct opposition only pages before.

The style is very spare and active; activity, rather than thought or conversation, drives every scene of the narration. Hearn only gives us one or two telling details of everything, amidst the action, but I was never confused. Every vital piece of information stands out clearly in this concise 251 page installment.

This is the magic of Lian Hearn.

The terrible, horrible cliffhanger of an ending is only mitigated by the publication of the rest of the series in such quick succession. Emperor of the Eight Islands is more installment than standalone. Immediately upon finishing, I requested a copy of book II and started reading.

Overall :

The style of Emperor of the Eight Islands is spare and brutal, but the characters lead us to hope for the destiny of the Lotus Empire. Recommended to adults and—maybe—older teens who enjoy a more literary kind of fantasy.

Trigger Warning :

Rape.

4.5/5 STARS

Thank you so much to Lian Hearn, FS&G Originals and Netgalley for the review copy!

“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

Grave Mercy

Premise: Ismae joins the convent of Mortain, the god of death, where she trains to become his assassin. Her most important assignment takes her straight into the high court of Brittany—where she falls in love with her target, the illegitimate brother of the young duchess, Anne of Brittany. Historical Fantasy, 2012.

What I Liked: (1) The setting! This is good YA historical romance/fantasy. Brittany comes alive with the well-researched detail. The setting and atmosphere are the lovely, shining things about this novel. (2) Castle intrigue, how I love it. The big mystery is, “Who is betraying the duchess?” And the story really is about a conflicted and inexperienced, yet competent assassin fighting to protect the true royal of Brittany. It never devolves into a simple romance plot. The pacing slows down, at a few points, but I never lost interest, after I was hooked by the action in chapter six.

Other Stuff: (1) I didn’t like the first few melodramatic chapters—Okay, everyone, GO HATE ISMAE, the PERFECTLY INNOCENT ANGEL CHILD THAT NOBODY LOVES! Make her life A MISERY!!!!!!!—an irritation that was emphasized, in part, by the first-person present tense. But I got over that fairly quickly—by chapter six, I was hooked. (2) The characters are…well, their personalities aren’t very unique. Their motivations are, but they all sound the same, including Ismae. I think the first-person present tense also contribute to this. But the setting is enough of a character to make up for it. (3) The romance in Grave Mercy is both beautiful and melodramatic. They can’t just say, “Yeah, I think I’m in love with you. Let’s shake it up, baby.” No, it has to be all frustrated and shy and irritating. Siiiiiigh. Also, [Highlight to Read Spoiler:]I really wish we could have seen the wedding—because despite Ismae’s stupidly “strong career woman” answer to her man’s proposal, we know they’re going to get hitched. NOVELLA PLZ! (4) I wish there had been time for more about Ismae’s physical training, but the author would likely have needed to write two or three books (with separate adventures) to do it justice; and while this book is part of a trilogy, books two and three star different protagonists. I’m just going through Tamora Pierce withdrawals (since forever) and I haven’t found anything quite so spectacular to replace her females actually being knights and stuff, yet. There were some great scenes, though, wherein Ismae showed off her skills.

Overall: This story has flaws, but it’s quite engaging and well-crafted. I’m definitely going to read book II and possibly book III.

Recommendation: For readers who might like historical romance without tons of sex. For teens who are interested in history and light fantastical elements. Don’t read this if you’re weary of the common romantic pitfalls. There is no love triangle, but as I said, the romance isn’t the strong point of this story.

Also, the book trailer is fun!

****4/5 STARS

2008 Cover First Edition Cover FrontierWolf

YA/Adult Historical Fiction; originally published 1980

Premise: Twenty-three year old Alexios failed his last command miserably, but he’s determined to prove himself when he’s given a second chance: a new post commanding the feisty legionnaires on the edge of the Roman Empire—the men known as “The Frontier Wolves.”

About: Apparently Rosemary Sutcliff is quite famous in Britain for her legions (hah, pun intended) of fiction about Roman Britain. This particular book was recently re-marketed as YA fiction (in 2008), but it could also be really appealing to adults. I think Sutcliff actually wrote it as adult historical fiction that also appealed to youth. But Alexios’s age—and the lack of sexual content—make it appropriate to young adults and even children who are good readers.

My Thoughts and Feels: One Goodreads reviewer mentioned “understatement” as one of Sutcliff’s best tools in this book, and I agree, especially in relation to the characters. Compared to the flawed, loud and lovable characters of much modern fiction, these characters seem simple and quiet. There’s nothing particularly special about them—they are understated. But when they fight, you cheer; and when they die, you ache. Alexios is a good, old-fashioned hero. He accepts his mistakes, learns and pushes on until he overcomes his next challenge, and his next, and his next. I love his character. As a whole, the others fade into the background, usually with one or two telling characteristics to tell them apart.

Usually, when I’m unimpressed with the cast of characters, I knock a star or two off the rating. But I’m going to go unprecedented with this book and give it five stars anyhow, because the setting was enough of a character to keep me enthralled. I absolutely fell in love with AD 300s Britain.

Also surprising is the very slow plot in this book. I forget exactly where the plot actually began, but it was somewhere near the halfway point. Thankfully, the commander had enough work at the fort that I hardly noticed the plot lack until later. (It reminded me a lot of Lady Knight Keladry’s command at Fort Haven, in the Protector of the Small Quartet by Tamora Pierce.) So I decided not to take off a star.

Overall: So there you have it: a book that manages, with little to no character development and a plot lag of epic proportions, to five-star impress me. Just a good, old-fashioned hero on a good, old-fashioned quest (of sorts). No girls, no dramatics, no contrivances, no voice, no modernism, no head-games or trickery. Just Alexios, his honest mistakes and his hard-earned successes.

I already checked out another Sutcliff book that turned out to be a part of the same series. I didn’t know that Frontier Wolf was part of a series, even after I finished it, because it flowed so nicely as a standalone. But I’m definitely going to read more. And I have my eye on another of her adult fiction titles as well…

Recommended: Yes, absolutely! To fans of historical fiction and British history that isn’t epic or boring. I would also recommend this to parents who want to get their teens interested in historical fiction.

*****FIVE STARS