City of Lost Dreams, the sequel to City of Magic, by Magnus Flyte is a frenetic read, filled with a range of interesting and utterly uninteresting information, madcap plotting, and some sassy attitude. There’s time-travel, necromancy, alchemy, immortal dwarves, history lessons, vengeful poets, ailing musical geniuses, a prince, sinister siblings, deadly love triangles, a little sex, and, of course, music. If you’ve read the first book, you’ll be used to about of about half of these things, and prior familiarity with the series is useful, but not strictly necessary.
Sarah, Nico and Max are all searching for something, anything to help beloved Polinna, a 13-year-old blind musical genius who appears to be suffering from a terminal disease that mystifies current medicine and science. They have narrowed it down to something to do with chromosome 20. At the opening of the novel, Sarah is enjoying a quick dinner with Max and Nico before darting off to Vienna to track down a reclusive nanobiologist she thinks can save Pols. Their dinner is interrupted by a 14th century saint drowning in the river. The novel’s frenetic, madcap plot begins.
While Sarah is off in Vienna, Max and Nico conduct their own searches to help Pols, self-serving motivations included. Max continues to search for the book of the Golden Fleece, a secret order briefly introduced in the last book. Nico is just looking for a way to die, after 400 years as an unwilling immortal. At this point, I can see no one else as Nico except Peter Dinklage. I think the authors may have been watching Game of Thrones on repeat when they wrote his sections. Someone remains one step ahead of Nico, while Sarah’s attempt to get in touch with the doctor is consistently thwarted. Then things start to get weird, and the plot thickens into paste.
There is an air of the Sherlockian here, as things that seem to be entirely unrelated become central to the story. Though when the grand dénouement occurs, it’s not nearly as satisfying because the reader has already put most of the pieces into place. The cast of characters was a bit larger in this book than the last, and it pays to pay attention. Not only is the living, present day cast large, but the dead cast includes several historical figures central to Vienna’s political and alchemical past. Apparently, everyone of note was an alchemist and they all knew each other. The musical aspect leaves behind Beethoven and moves on to Mozart (briefly) and to musical and magnetic healing possibilities introduced to the world by Franz Mesmer.
We are treated not only to the main narrative, but also to the partial novel manuscript of a long-dead poet and namesake of the central drug (Westonia) in the previous book, Elisabeth Weston, as well as an academic lecture, because the general info-dumpiness of the general narrative was not inclusive enough. The inclusion of the novel manuscript was jarring and, on the whole unnecessary, except as a cheap way to create some dramatic irony. It was good to hear a silenced woman’s perspective on certain events, but would have been more effective had it been done more organically. In a novel with so much already going on, its inclusion made the narrative even more cluttered.
And yet the novel’s break-neck pace helps to drive the reader along on this wild ride. I read it almost in one sitting, more because I had to know if my suspicions were right than because I cared about what happens to the characters. Nico is my favorite, and by far the most developed. His development continues in this book, while the others remain mostly flat. While the setting is clearly important to the authors, it was mostly a series of place names with mini-history lessons attached, much like a tour-book. There’s even a handy map of Vienna included, so I suppose when planning your next whirlwind tour of Eastern Europe, you could take these books along. The book succeeds in part because it makes us feel as if we are learning something along the way (I became intensely interested in Beethoven after the first book; bought some of his music, checked out a few books on him from the library. Realized I actually had very little interest in him, but still). But we don’t read to see what happens to the characters, we don’t read to learn about the history of Vienna; we read to see what will happen next, how it will all tie together. We read because it’s pure fun, a confection wrapped in chic, smart looking paper.
The bookish community generally rejoices in all things book-related. With the holiday gift-giving season upon us, I thought I’d share some fun bookish things I’ve seen around the internets. Give them to your favorite bibliophile or just buy them for yourself and pretend you got it from a co-worker who just happens to know how much you identify with Bartleby, the Scrivener.
The first offering is my personal favorite. How easy would it be to just flash this at your boss when he/she asks you to do something? Granted, if you want to keep your job, you may just want to keep this one at home. $20 at the Melville House website. There’s also a t-shirt and a book bag.
Penguin has steadily been a great publisher of classics in original, attractive forms, even when it goes vintage. This set of four mini-notebooks based off vintage penguin classics designs are a perfect alternative to the likewise classic but plain Moleskin. There are also the larger pocket notebooks with a banded closure. My local library carries these and I picked up the purple Virginia Woolf notebook.
When giving something to write in, it’s nice to include something to write with. The mail-order catalogue and website Blas Bleu has some great bookish options. One of my personal favorites is the Seven Year Pen, which comes in many different styles so you can choose just the right one for your writerly reader friend. I have three of these pens and they are really wonderful. They don’t have my favorite one though, which is a black pen with white crossbones that says “NEED COFFEE.”
What better book gift to give than one that keeps on giving (and gives to you too)? You can purchase a gift subscription to NYRB’s Classics Book Club for $150.00 (for someone you like extremely well), which includes 1 NYRB Classic per month for one year, plus a bonus book sent to the purchaser (there’s also an $85, 6-moth option). Currently they’re offering up Alfred Hayes’ My Face For The World To See as the bonus book. Go to the following link to start.
There is a specific book I would recommend this season for anyone who loves the book as a unique object, who read the Griffin & Sabine books, who was/is an academic, who likes mysterious, multilayered novels, who loves finding the random ephemera of former readers wedged between the pages: S. by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst. Librarians hate it, readers love it. It is a beautiful object and a fascinating meta-narrative on the act of reading and of obsession. Two warning notes: Remember where things in the book were found, context is important to the objects; however you decide to read the book, stick it out and try to finish it in a timely manner. The multiple, simultaneous narratives presented in the annotations on different timelines (color coded, thankfully), on top of the story itself, can be hard to drop and then pick up again a week later. Reading marginalia while reading a primary text shouldn’t produce much of a strain to an English lit academic, but the triple layered, referential marginalia can be hard to follow if read all at once simply because you don’t have all of the necessary pieces yet. I wouldn’t advocate reading the book four times over either. Just buy it. You’ll see what I mean. Oh, wait. This is a gift guide. Well, buy one for yourself too, then.
Finally, something for your reader friends to carry all their bookish swag in: a big books tote bag. Nothing says book-nerdlike a remix of Sir Mix-A-Lot, but really, what book-lover doesn’t like big books? $18, available from suffosarus.com.
Here’s a small list of recent, great Big Books one could include with the bag:
1. The Son by Philipp Meyer (for your hard-boiled, Western-loving, Cormac-McCarthy-reading friend)
2. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (for your artsy, angsty, upper-west-side reader)
3. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (for your literary buddies)
4. Hild by Nicola Griffith (for historical fiction readers)
5. Limit by Frank Schatzling (for your hard-core SF nerd friends)
6. The Abominable by Dan Simmons (for lovers of adventure, the strange and the uncanny, and plain good storytelling)
When looking at several new anthologies of Postcolonial SF/F and at Afrofuturism, an anthology of SF/F by black writers, I came across On A Red Station, Drifting by Aliette de Bodard. I first heard about it on a tor.com blog post by Kate Elliot titled “The Status Quo Does Not Need World Building,” an essay on the underlying assumptions present in SF/F worlds as evidenced by what the author does and does not describe or include in their world. It was super cheap in kindle format, so I gave it a try.
On A Red Station, Drifting is set on a future space station, Prosper, run by a Mind, known as the Honoured Ancestress, an organic supercomputer capable of controlling the noise in a given zone of the station, while simultaneously running the entire station. The Mind is helped by Station Mistress Quyen. In this world everyone has common ancestors and blood determines social hierarchy. Though Quyen is equivalent to a provincial housewife, she holds immense power as the station mistress. When Cousin Linh, a magistrate fleeing a war-torn world, arrives on Prosper, both women’s pride and power will be challenged. As the conflict between these two women comes to a head, so to does the fact that something is wrong with Prosper’s Mind.
While On a Red Station is brief, it adequately conveys the nuances of hierarchy, political conflict and a sense of what the station is like (an immense ringed structure; outer rings for the most distant and poorest cousins, of course). The characters felt complete and real and there was also a good sense of why each of the women is the way she is that isn’t mired in backstory. Since de Bodard uses a split perspective between Quyen and Linh, the reader sees easily where each woman is wrong about the other, but also where they are right. This allows the reader to feel a sense of frustration at each character, just as they are frustrated by and with each other.
But while the family drama is front and center in this novella, it’s worth noting how quickly and easily de bodard builds her world, which uses the familiar to highlight the strange. The limited space and de Bodard’s sparing use of details lets the story flow without getting bogged down in the kind of world building common in many SF novels. This short novella is an engaging read and an excellent example of succinct world and character building. Highly recommended.
Towards the beginning of the month I got the hare-brained idea to try writing a novel in a month and so joined NaNoWriMo 2013. It’s of course a SF novel, so of course I had to read a bunch of other SF novels before I could even get started (still in that phase, btw). Among them was Sheri S. Tepper’s excellent novel Grass, the first in what is known as the Arbai trilogy. It was originally published in 1989 but doesn’t feel dated the way some older SF can. I tried the first two chapters on my kindle and was completely hooked. I had to know what was going on on the planet of Grass, so I called over to my favorite used bookstore to see if they had a copy. Magically, they did.
Off I sped to get it and how quickly I read it once obtained. The initial mystery surrounding the Hunt propels the reader into an unknown but familiar world. Tepper draws on certain elements of our human past to explore the strangeness of the planet Grass. When Lady Westriding is sent there along with her husband as ambassadors with a covert mission to find a cure for the plague sweeping through humanity, the Hunt and it’s players become central to the novel. Why does no one have plague on Grass? What are the Hippae? What are the Foxen? What happened to the people discovered in ancient ruins on Grass? These questions and more compel Lady Westriding and the reader forward, deeper into the mysteries of Grass.
The novel maintains the early promise of the first two chapters by doling out pieces of the puzzle that is Grass, but unfortunately, it does not deliver at the finale. Two paragraphs of an info-dump explain the plague, and the horrible mystery of the Hippae is answered long before. I was still reading breathlessly to see what would happen at the end, but it was less satisfying than it should have been.
The most amazing thing about Grass is Tepper’s world-building. The world of Grass is fully realized, and it’s shown from both the perspectives of its native transplants, who understand their world even less than Lady Westriding, ultimately, and through a foreigner’s eyes. It’s easy to see her underlying concerns and preoccupations, and there are points where it comes close to preaching. The complex ties to religion (mainly Catholocism), one’s personal beliefs, and societal beliefs have a focal point in Lady Westriding’s connection to her husband, her changing beliefs and the dual societies of Grass. Her personal dilemmas and growth mirror the changes in Grassian society set off by her arrival; neither of them will emerge unscathed at the novel’s close.
Grass is an excellent example of what SF/F can do, and it does what all good fiction should do; it draws the reader in and keeps them there till the bittersweet end. It also creates and maintains a sense of dread and mystery by introducing the Hunt first. Immediately the readers know something bad is going on here, and something even worse is going to happen if they keep reading. As a reader, that is a delicious feeling.
Kendare Blake made a bloody splash in YA lit with Anna Dressed in Blood and its follow up, Girl of Nightmares. Those books succeeded in bringing together horror, gore, romance, the power of friendship, and magic not often used in mainstream YA. Both novels heavily used the tropes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer tv show, with a little bit of Scooby mixed in (they were ghost hunters, after all), and that was ok. In some ways the books were a bit nostalgic for those shows, in others they were fresh and bloody. Both were excellently plotted and paced, and more than anything, each novel had a clear arc and ending with room for further development. Kendare Blake knows how to tell a good story and she how to end one.
In Antigoddess, her newest contribution to YA lit, Blake is in top form. The gods and goddesses of Homer’s epics are dying in highly poetic ways, and nobody knows why or how to stop it. Athena, along with her brother Hermes, is trying to find answers and a cure. The goddess of war, she will fight to survive at all costs. Cassandra, a seemingly normal teenage girl is having visions she can’t control and is powerless to stop. The fate of the gods is at at stake when these two collide.
Sounds like a movie announcement, right? Antigoddess is certainly cinematic in scope and plot, and I really wouldn’t be surprised to hear it got pick up by a major studio. It was written to be a movie, like so many other YA novels these days seem to be. The upshot, though, is that Blake actually makes that work for her; action is privileged over introspection, and there is a lot more showing going on than telling. This could easily translate to film, where many YA novels can’t because their characters are such introspective naval-gazers and their creators missed the show-don’t-tell day of writer’s workshop. However, perhaps partly because of its cinematic dreams, time is compressed in the novel and the plot felt like it moved a little too quickly at times. I guess that’s what you get when Hermes is one of the main characters.
The romance angle necessary for all mainstream YA series necessarily plays second fiddle to the main action, which appropriately built-up then climaxed for a satisfactory end. Unlike her previous novels, Antigoddess did not end up as a Scooby/Buffy gang, which I really appreciated. One of the other things I appreciate about Blake is her willingness to get bloody, without ever letting it become unnecessary PG-13 gore-porn (yes, I believe this exists, somewhere). Her action is visceral and well done. She is also not afraid to kill her characters. I’m sure some parent, somewhere will challenge the book for its language, but the minimal swearing that is present felt organic to each character and not there just because.
Antigoddess is a break from a lot of recent YA clap-trap, mainly because Blake is such an excellent story-teller. The characters are interesting, and so is the premise. The Twilight of the Gods (a.k.a. Ragnarök, which, to be fair, is from Norse mythology) played out by a bunch of immortal teenage Greek gods and goddesses, half of whom are dying in horrible, poetic ways? Sign me up!
The second installment of Jacqueline Carey’s light urban fantasy series, Agent of Hel: Autumn Bones, is the perfect book to curl up with on a chill October evening, mug of tea handy, feet wrapped in a warm blanket. It’s light, it’s funny, yet has just enough of a touch of horror that you might feel the need to close the blinds against a darkening night.
Daisy Johannsen is back for more supernatural adventures and love affairs, but this time the threat is something completely outside her or Hel’s purview. Old magic from a blood-soaked country threatens the quaint but deadly, nostalgia-filled town of Pemkowet, and just in time for Halloween too!
(Some minor spoilers ahead).
Daisy’s relationship with Sinclair, the Jamaican transplant who runs Pemkowet’s supernatural tours, seems to be going quite well until someone from his past shows up to deliver an unfulfillable ultimatum. Both Sinclair and Daisy have difficult choices to make, and the consequences could mean the destruction of Pemkowet. Daisy is helped along the way by her not-so-secret crush Cody, a werewolf sending decidedly mixed signals, and by Stephen, the enigmatic ghoul (sorry, Outcast), whose antiquated manners belie his growing attraction to Daisy. Poor Daisy, so many options. Let’s not forget one of the best, and most underutilized characters, Laurine, the millennia-old lamia passing as a B-movie starlet. Her first appearance in the novel provides the resolution to the ridiculous, over-the-top opening conflict. Just another day in Pemkowet, I suppose.
Daisy’s relationship angst takes center stage here as she juggles feelings for three different guys, all of whom offer her both something she wants, but also something dangerous. A few new characters are introduced, but they’re all secondary, to the detriment of the novel. Most of these characters could have been incredibly interesting, and still might prove to be if they show up again. Cooper, the 200-year-old ghoul and Stephen’s right hand man, is one of these. He gets some page time, and I have a feeling that more will develop with him as the series continues.
Daisy herself doesn’t seem to change much. She’s still somewhat indecisive yet impulsive, as I suppose many twenty-somethings are wont to be. She makes a few mistakes that almost cost her dearly, but because this series is more like a mashup of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Sleepy Hollow, you can be pretty sure that things will end up alright in the end. Not perfect, and more than a little problematic, but still alright. The villain for the next book makes some appearances here, and I think it’s then that we’ll see quite a bit of character growth and conflict from Daisy. We might also get to understand just what “claiming her birthright” entails.
Carey is one of those fantasy authors who can write confidently in all brands of fantasy; she’s done high, she’s done epic, she’s done urban, twice now (Santa Olivia/Saints Astray and Agent of Hel). However, her skills are strongest when she’s closest to what she clearly loves, the baroque opulence of epic, high fantasy. Because of the characters, setting, and cosmology of the Kushiel series, the repetition of phrases, the summation of past events & etc. felt more like tropes of epic poetry; it was used to create a rhythm of narrative, and after a while, it became unnoticeable and inseparable from the characters and the narratives they tell. In her urban fantasies, the constant explanations and repetition of information becomes cumbersome and detracts from the narrative. The second book in the Agent of Hel series references the first far more frequently than it needs to, as if it wants to be considered a stand-alone as well as part of a series. This can be a fine line to draw, but it comes across as if Carey doesn’t trust her readers to remember what happened in the last book, or even what was just explained two chapters ago. It feels like a dumbing-down, compared to her other fantasy work.
Additionally, the threat in this novel never felt like much of a threat, and it didn’t carry nearly as much horror as it could have. I think this is more a product of my unfamiliarity with the genre than it is with Carey’s writing (because even after the critique of these last two paragraphs, she’s still one of the best writers in fantasy). I knew what to expect getting into this book, and I just need to accept it for what it is, rather than cry about what it is not. Eventually I’ll come out of mourning for the end of the Kushiel books, but probably not for a long time yet.
If you’re looking for a good book to cozy up with this October, Agent of Hel: Autumn Bones will whisk you away to a fully-realized world full of faeries and underworlds, snake women and ghouls, all neatly packaged in the beautiful town of Pemkowet, MI. Even after the details of the plot have faded, this town has stayed with me. That is a testament to Carey’s ability as a writer to craft wholly believable worlds seemingly similar to our own, yet teeming with the strange and unfamiliar just out of sight.
I’ve got a little free wordpress blog called Parnassus Writes. It’s in it infancy, but it’s basically a space to write about all of the other things I think/see/hear that don’t fit into the book blog category. I did a recent post there about some of the larger implications of the Rod Reese Affair from a few months ago and the 2 day old David Gilmour Affair. Here’s the first paragraph, and a link to it below.
It’s obvious to say that people say stupid shit all the time, on many different platforms, in many different media, in many different ways. Having to hear people say stupid shit is part of what it means to live in society (Also, see Congress). The problem, however, with two more recent and public examples, courtesy of Rod Reese and David Gilmour, is that stupid, unaware, and wildly sexist things were said on official publishing house websites, which means they were given a modicum of credible authority. Book culture is something that I hold very dear to my heart and it pains me to see things like this coming from a community that I love. But I was heartened by the near immediate and very public response from the collective internets, a community that I am part of but don’t always love…
Read more at Parnassus Writes.