Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley

The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley
Book 1 of Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne
The emperor of Annur is dead, slain by enemies unknown. His daughter and two sons, scattered across the world, do what they must to stay alive and unmask the assassins. But each of them also has a life-path on which their father set them, destinies entangled with both ancient enemies and inscrutable gods.

Kaden, the heir to the Unhewn Throne, has spent eight years sequestered in a remote mountain monastery, learning the enigmatic discipline of monks devoted to the Blank God. Their rituals hold the key to an ancient power he must master before it's too late.

An ocean away, Valyn endures the brutal training of the Kettral, elite soldiers who fly into battle on gigantic black hawks. But before he can set out to save Kaden, Valyn must survive one horrific final test.

At the heart of the empire, Minister Adare, elevated to her station by one of the emperor's final acts, is determined to prove herself to her people. But Adare also believes she knows who murdered her father, and she will stop at nothing—and risk everything—to see that justice is meted out.

It's hard to escape the "dark" descriptor on currently published books.  While optimism can be seen glimmering here and there, it seems pragmatism and doubt are more common.  The same cultural cynicism driving the surge of young adult dystopian novels contributes to the rising pervasiveness of Grimdark fantasy on adult shelves.  Obviously adults read YA, too, and experience the same rebellious thrill of fighting a corrupt system, but Grimdark reveals a harder (though no less applicable) truth:  the system is cruel and corrupt because its people are cruel and corrupt.  The system did not come from nothing.  In this harsh setting, a character is never happier than when using that system to exploit or demean others. 
Some people might consider labels an oversimplification, but I'm just lazy enough that I like the convenience.  Therefore I'm going to call this "Grimdark" and roll with it.  As this has been christened a Grimdark story, here are some truths about it:

1. Everyone will be horrible to someone .  Or someone will be horrible to them.  Constantly.
2. If someone dies, it will be in a horrible way.  Nobody dies in their sleep here.
3. If someone becomes happy, it's because something horrible is about to happen that will create stark contrast between the "before" and "after."
4. Nature is horrible and full of monsters.

Grimdark in a nutshell.
And that brings us to the wonderful world of The Emperor’s Blades.  Honestly, despite my cold reptilian heart and general misanthropy, I do not tend to seek out Grimdark books.  I might be cynical, but I’m not secretly wishing more despair on myself.  I like my sci-fi spacey, my historical fiction fully of Giant Quote Marks “History” and my fantasy heroic.  I don’t need to watch a Grimdark world pound out every soft fiber of humanity from the characters to empathize with them.
This might be why I found myself rather amazed that I liked this book. Honestly, I was about halfway through before I realized that I was reading a book that some might classify as dark fantasy.  Partly, I attribute this to the characters.  

There are allegedly three main characters (one of which is female – 10 points to the author), but just two of them get 90% of the screen time (and both of them are men, so I’m taking back 3 points).   Each brother is entangled in their own particular mess of problems (in a suitably Grimdarky way), and no matter how bad things seem, they're always about to get worse.  Somehow this comes off less as "life is dark, man, dark" and more "dangerous times ahead" which is more tolerable.  People get murdered, scary monsters stalk the night, more people get murdered, people get beaten up, mysterious people have ulterior motives, and finally even more people get murdered.  Oh, and there are gigantic people-carrying hawks.  It's practically a fairy tale!

One bright spot - if you want to call it that - is that when the female protagonist appears in one of her four POV chapters, she totally rocks the house.  This is one woman who can give as good as she gets and isn't about to let some stupid a-hole ruin her family.  I love her and I hope that the subsequent volumes have more of Adare in it.  (Oh yeah, this is the first book of a series.  Because the Cardinal Rule of Fantasy is "Thou shalt always write a series.")

So I've been a little nitpicky on the dark-front, but this book was entertaining - if you can look past the tone of despair and malice.  I'm honestly surprised this is Staveley's first book for how well I liked the characters and for how well the world held together through the plot arc.  If you don't mind dark fantasy, or you don't mind starting yet another series, this is a worthy book to read.

4 dark and malicious stars!

Will I continue to read the series?
Probably, if I remember to look for the next volume.  (This is why I should never start a series until at least the next book is announced.)

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Girl With All the Gifts by M. R. Carey

Girl With All The Gifts

Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class.

When they come for her, Sergeant Parks keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don't like her. She jokes that she won't bite. But they don't laugh.

Melanie is a very special girl.

Zombie stories, we need to talk.  It's not you; it's me.  This isn't working out.  We've had some good times, and you're going to make someone else very happy.  It's just not going to be me.  I wish you all the best in your future endeavors.  

At first I thought this was going to be a more dystopian book, or something with a surprise twist in it.  But once it was revealed that the world "ended" in a zombie-pocalypse, I knew things were going to be rough going.  Now, that being said, it isn't fair to judge a book poorly just because it didn't match my preconceived notions.  

So let's get into the things that I liked:
1. The characters.  Carey does a fantastic job of creating characters with their own goals and fears and forcing them to stick to character.  The nearly-sociopathic doctor doesn't suddenly grow a conscience, nor does the hardened soldier spout sonnets.  Once you've figured out the characters, there are no mysteries.  They all behave they way they should according to their current wants, their past mistakes and their backgrounds.  It might sound like damning with faint praise, but it's hard to find a book where the characters are so consistent and logically written.

2. The mood.  There is almost always a vague unease around every new location.  There is almost always a fight simmering below the surface between parts of the cast.  The hungries (zombies) are everywhere, always waiting for their next meal.  The atmosphere is bleak, the characters are barely clinging to hope and pretty much everything else is consistent with the end of the world.

3. The ending.  I'm not going to spoil it because I'm not 100% a jerk, but basically I did not expect the ending to be as true-to-form as the rest of the book.  To write the ending that he did requires some brass balls and kudos to Carey for doing it.

However, this was a zombie book at heart and no matter how well-written, I have troubled investing myself into a zombie book, which is somewhat ridiculous because I'll happily read about talking animals or space battles or dragons.  Hell, I love the Oz books.  There's something about zombie tales, along with steampunk, that just falls flat for me.  

Trying to extract my "ugh, a zombie book" attitude out of this one, I'd still say this book is very well-written and a fun Fallout-style post-apocalypse adventure that most people would like.

And hey!  It's not a new series!  Yay!

4 stars! (Unless you also don't like zombie books, in which case, probably read something else.)

Friday, August 15, 2014

Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Page

Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige
I didn't ask for any of this. I didn't ask to be some kind of hero.

But when your whole life gets swept up by a tornado—taking you with it—you have no choice but to go along, you know?

Sure, I've read the books. I've seen the movies. I know the song about the rainbow and the happy little blue birds. But I never expected Oz to look like this. To be a place where Good Witches can't be trusted, Wicked Witches may just be the good guys, and winged monkeys can be executed for acts of rebellion. There's still the yellow brick road, though—but even that's crumbling.

What happened? Dorothy.

They say she found a way to come back to Oz. They say she seized power and the power went to her head. And now no one is safe.

My name is Amy Gumm—and I'm the other girl from Kansas.

I've been recruited by the Revolutionary Order of the Wicked.

I've been trained to fight.

And I have a mission.

First of all, I must confess that I have an abiding affection for the Oz books which started in late grade school when I discovered the set at my local library. The books are full of wonder and friendship, mixed with just the right amount of peril and the absurd.

When I saw an Oz-inspired YA book, I had to get it (thanks again, public library!). This book delivers exactly what it claims to: a dark, twisted reimagining of the Oz story, in which some of the beloved characters have been twisted into evil monstrosities and the carefree magic of the realm has been drained, leaving the country a shadow of what it was. Throughout the story, there are even cameos (and minor roles) for many of the characters who were written into the original series. It's abundantly clear that the author has read - and loved - the original series as much as anyone can.

The main character is about as typical YA fantasy heroine as you can get: teenaged girl with family and self-image issues learns that she is stronger than she knows. And hey, she has pink hair - at least for part of the book. Neat.

Here's my main gripe about this book: the entire narrative is designed to set up the series, but nothing is resolved within this book. Okay, maybe the protagonist learns "to believe in herself." Woo-hoo.

I guess this can be boiled down to a marketing decision. On the back cover of the book is what look to be the plot of this story: "Your mission: Remove the Tin Woodman's heart. Steal the Scarecrow's brain. Take the Lion's courage. And then - Dorothy must die."

Punchy, right? This book is going to be all rock 'em, sock 'em, let's-save-Oz.

But no.


That bit of promise on the back cover is what is discovered in the FINAL FOUR PAGES. The entire book leads up to a conclusion - post large as life on the BACK COVER - so close to the end of the book that it's practically on the end papers.


Overall, the book was fun. I love an excuse to return to Oz and experience the magic again, even if it's in a grimdark setting. I'm a little disappointed in the non-resolution of the plot and the Setting Up a Series Syndrome, but all in all this is a book well worth the read.

Will I continue reading the series?
Yeah, maybe. Depends how long between books and whether or not I'd just rather read the original series.

3.5 Stars!