Category Archives: YA and Adult Fantasy

Sofia Amatar, A Stranger in Olondria

I read this book because it won the World Fantasy Award. Hate it when I haven’t even read a book that people like so much!

So I had to catch up and see what this one’s about.

Verdict: that World Fantasy Award is well-deserved. Let’s check off how it’s original, and what it does really well:

  • Original world: check. The Olondrian empire’s that wonderful thing, a realm seen inside-out, from inside its own literature. Many of the features — the Priests of the Stone, for instance — are at an interesting angle compared to the usual set of tropes.
  • Original plot: check. I don’t think I’ve read a story that enters a world like this, from the inside-outside-in, where we’re part of it in our imaginations, yet not part of it, yet affecting it intimately, as the story unfolds.
  • Rich, rich world-building and character-building: Wow. That’s all I can say.

Simplest way to put it: I’ve read very few books that evoke multiple worlds, multiple lives, multiples ways of life so richly, with so much lyricism and texture.

The major weakness, for me, is that there were so many stories within a story, sometimes my patience as a reader was stretched thin. I began to doubt if there would be a payoff — but then there was. Several times. In the end, it all came together. And that was an excellent thing.

So, the congratulations are in order for the World Fantasy Award. This is a book you should not miss.

Beth Cato, The Clockwork Dagger

This book passed an important test. I chose to read it out loud to my wife.

We read together pretty regularly. I don’t know how many other people do that — but for me, at least, it’s a way to enjoy a story physically, when I know it’s worth it. (Usually, i’ve read the book silently before we read the book together).

So this is a pretty fun book.

In the knowing what you’re getting into department: This is steampunk, ticking off all the usual boxes. Airships, clockwork golems, and other mechanical marvels. Victorian social mores (though the setting feels more like Germany just after the 1918 armistice than Victorian Engliand.) But it’s steampunk fantasy, not steampunk pure and simple. This is not our world. The protagonist, Octavia Leander, is a magical healer, and has a mystical relationship to divinity, in the form of the Lady and the Tree, protectors of nature and restorers of health and vitality, in a world determined to mechanize everything.

In the knowing where it’s going department: Because Octavia is incredibly powerful and gifted in her magic, she has become (unbeknownst to her) a target of interest both to her own government and its terrorist/guerrilla liberation army enemies. What should have been an uneventful airship ride to her new job becomes a sequence of dangers. Someone tries to stab her. Someone tries to push her off the airship. And that’s just for starters. They’re still warming up, and she hasn’t got a clue about why. Meanwhile, she’s starting to feel some really inappropriate feelings toward the steward, and she isn’t sure what to do about them.

Some reactions: The plot is very tightly constructed, and the mystery-like reveals as the true situation develops work very effectively. An alert reader of mysteries will be rewarded by the clues Beth Cato drops in advance. But they had better be very alert. She also does some incredible technology vs. mother nature moves that explore very interesting philosophical issues along the way. One of the most fun things about the plot is the sideplot involving a lost princess, hiding in plain site as the dowager widow, Mrs. Viola Stout. Viola is a hard character to get out of your mind.

A fun read. Worth the effort to get your hands on.

Vicki Weavil: Crown of Ice

Disney this is not. In this feminist fairy tale, the girl isn’t a princess, and she’s quite happy to make the guy wait till she’s ready to enter a relationship on an equal footing.
All very true, but it doesn’t really capture the essence of the story, which is (quite coincidentally) coming out shortly after Disney did the Ice Queen too. But this Ice Queen is far brainier than the Disney version, and very interesting in her own right.

She’s got a heart, but she’s really good at hiding that part of herself from herself or anybody else.

She’s has a love interest, but you wouldn’t know it for a long, long time. Takes a while for that heart to thaw …

And she has a deadline (when her next birthday hits, she’s not toast, but a ghost), so she is very, very motivated to complete her magical task.

One of the striking things about this as a novel, for me, was the spare, minimal style of narration, much more like a traditional fairy tale than a typical YA novel. It worked very well, especially in the early going. I was a bit disappointed that the narrative didn’t hit me over the head a bit harder when her heart began to shift in the later parts of the novel — I think an inattentive reader might miss the cues.

A fun read. Don’t miss it.

(I got a free copy of this book in return for an honest review. I have no other connection with the publisher, Month9books.)

Corinne Duyvis, Otherbound

This is a story of two worlds: Amara’s world, and Nolan’s.

In Nolan’s world, which is also our world, Nolan has epilepsy (as far as his doctors can tell), but none of the medicines seem to work. What they don’t know is that every time he blinks, he’s transported to another world. Amara’s world, where he sees life through Amara’s eyes.

Amara is a servant – pretty much a slave, and she is cursed with the gift of self-healing. Cursed, because she has to endure attacks meant to injure Cilla, her mistress, a princess on the run, who is being dogged by a powerful spell.

Nolan has been keeping a journal secretly for years, recording all of his experiences in Amara’s body. But he is an onlooker, unable to affect what happens in Amara’s world, until one day he learns how to move in, take control, and act on his own volition.

Now, from Amara’s point of view, he is an evil spirit, possessing her.

I thought I had seen every kind of portal fantasy that there is, but Corinne Duyvis has come up with a new one. The effect is very original – we have split perspectives, a constant shift back and forth between worlds, and an unusual dynamic between the paired protagonists. The fantasy world is a pretty original one in its own right, very well-thought-out, but what’s really striking is the fundamental premise once it fully emerges. People from our world are invading the fantasy world, seeking to take it over by possessing its most powerful magicians, and only Nolan and Amara can stop them, if only they can figure out how to work together.

This is a very strong work, dealing with themes that resonated strongly for me and may, I think, resonate just as strongly for a wide range of readers.

Note: I checked this book out from my local public library. I have no connection with the author or publisher.

Erika Johansen, Queen of the Tearling

It’s a good thing that this book is going to be made into a movie (with Emma Watson, no less, directing it AND starring in it), because it will almost certainly function better as a movie. The novel, as it stands, is deeply flawed, although it’s possible that the SERIES will redeem itself, much as the simplistic, moralistic world of Star Wars was redeemed rather nicely by The Empire Strikes Back. Let’s hope so, as otherwise the exercise of wading through all 434 pages of this book will turn out to have been quite a waste of time. It works nicely as setup; but almost everything that would make that setup worthwhile or interesting has been reserved for future books.

I’m not happy to say this, and I know there are people out there who will disagree with me. I see real promise scattered throughout the novel, but it’s overwhelmed by things that smothered my enthusiasm every moment it started to catch fire for me.

But the good things first. There is a very interesting premise — future medieval, with a cataclysm in between — that plays out in very interesting ways. There are some incredible cinematic sequences in this story, very sharply described and choreographed. There are key characters who are very briefly sketched, yet come vividly to life, like Lazarus and the Fetch. And I have to admit, I’m a sucker for the basic concept — the Hidden Princess trope, with its corollary issues — a protagonist who must confront a world not of her making, in which her choices will have over-sized consequences. That makes it kind of tricky to review a work like this, because on the one hand, I’m hyper sensitive to the pitfalls involved. On the other hand, my personal interest could make this review something of an overreaction. I hope it doesn’t come across as too negative, because I really do think there’s an incredible story in this novel. My criticisms are the sharper for that precise reason.

Let me work my way backward through the faults I see. For some readers, these faults might not spoil the read; but they did for me.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD. Read on only if you’re ok with that.
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1. Deus ex machina (in this case, Demon ex Machina) isn’t the best way to get your character out of a hole they’ve dug.
When your protagonist makes what should be a fatal, utterly disastrous decision, heedless of the consequences, it’s really a bit much to save her from her own stubborn commitment to Doing the Right Thing by having the ultimate bad guy tell the villain to back off. That’s what you do to set up a mystery in the opening of a novel and gradually account for along the way, not something you do when you have a huge plot thread hanging in midair and only forty pages before your novel gets way too long.

And hey, if you start the story by gifting your protagonist with not one, but TWO magic jewels, it’s a bit much that nobody but nobody has a clue that they’re magic, even though they’ve been the talisman of the royal house for generations. And then their magic shows up just when the protagonist is about to get her throat slit, to conveniently kill an assassin when she hasn’t the faintest idea that it even is magic, much less have a clue how to use it. Just-in-time inventory is the blessing of modern management; but as a reader of fantasy, just-in-time magic doesn’t exactly make me feel warm and fuzzy.

2. Internal point of view is a great thing, but it’s not the Universal Solvent.
Boy, does Kelsea, the Queen-to-be-of-the-Tearling, spend a lot of time musing about anything and everything going on around her. OK, I get it, she’s that kind of character, but when you start overusing internal point of view for all the other functions of story-telling — exposition, character development, world-building, you name it — well, I stop believing it’s really her voice any more.

3. It takes more to build a world than to describe the bare facts. Readers want to know why.
Just how do we get from the 21st century to Kelsea’s world via the fabled Crossing? (Or, what kind of ocean can you set sail on from both Europe AND America?). How do we get from a world without magic to a world in which magic is central? We have a stark before and after, but it’s left a total mystery how we got there from here.

It’s quite possible that the author has very reasonable explanations for all of these things — this novel feels very much like the introduction to the story, not the story itself. That’s not necessarily a fault — that’s one of the functions of the first book in a series. But as a fantasy reader, I expect the world building and the plot to make sense when you ask hard, critical questions, and I would really have liked to have had much more time with interesting characters like the Fetch, rather than having him show up only when he’s necessary to the machinery of the plot. I don’t think that’s too much to ask; and maybe in the movie, and in subsequent books in this series, I’ll see those desires fulfilled.

Karen Miller, The Falcon Throne

In case there was any doubt, the cover of my ARC of this book spells it out for you:

When kingdoms clash, every crown will be tarnished by the bloody price of ambition.

This book is solidly set in the same space as Game of Thrones, and if that’s what you’re looking for, it delivers: many characters in intersecting plot-lines, evil schemers, court intrigue, bloody tyranny gone mad. I’ve been following Karen Miller’s works for some time, and she also delivers on the necessities for this kind of plot — strong characterization, plenty of dramatic tension, unexpected twists and interactions between the plot-lines.

And yet I’m dissatisfied. Some of it may not really be Miller’s fault; she’s delivered what the cover promises, and maybe I shouldn’t complain. But in the end, I have a problem with a narrative that ends up telling you the whole thing has been the work of a puppet-master behind the scenes, and gives you no clue how or when in the series any of the main characters will get a clue. And I have a problem with the heavy dosage of amorality embodied by most of the characters. I don’t think that’s how evil works, and while Karen Miller has given us two more characters we can believe in than George R.R. Martin, it’s hard to stay with them when the whole narrative sets them up as the patsies.

I strongly suspect I’ll like the later books in this series better, once some of the machinations of evil come out into the open, and there’s a chance for the probable intended hero and heroine to come into their own more. But this book is all about creating a really messy situation that can be the fodder of those later books, and that puts limits on how satisfying the plot can be on its own, without the rest of the series.

Worth reading. But if you’re not a fan of Gerrge R.R. Martin, go in with your eyes open.

Rosamund Hodge, Cruel Beauty

Her father has promised her in marriage to a monster, and trained her all her life to kill him. Nyx resents her father, but means to do her duty anyway. Until she’s actually married to the Gentle Lord. Then, things get complicated.

Here’s the fastest way to describe this story: Cupid and Psyche meets Tam Lin.

If you like versions of Beauty and the Beast, or C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, you should start drooling.

This is a really well-told story. The coolest fact about Nyx is that she’s the best example I’ve seen in a long while of a protagonist who doesn’t try to be likeable. Who knows she ISN’T good, but soldiers on anyway.

Scary moment, when she unloads a lifetime of frustrations on her sister early in the book, for instance. But it makes it easier to see her as real. This is a character that comes to life from the start.

Well worth reading. Don’t miss. I’m putting it in my list of classic must-reads.

Leah Cypess, Mistwood

In the forest, lived a girl. Only she wasn’t really a girl. She was the King’s Shifter, bound magically to protect him from all harm. And now the Prince has come to bind her to him, once more. Only … it’s more complicated than that. Way more complicated. She has to figure out who and what she really is before she betrays herself and the man she loves before she even realizes who she is or that she loves him.

Some books are like dreams. You dream them, then you want to dream them again.

This is one of those books. There are few recent books that actually have something in them of the enchantment I felt years ago, reading books like The Forgotten Beasts of Eld or Bridge of Birds.

This one comes awfully close. Dream with me a moment …

Ven stood with his eyes closed, swaying unsteadily on his feet. The air around him was full of shimmering translucent colors, like sunlight seen through lowered eyelashes, patternless and beautiful and threatening all at once.

Enough said! Read it.

Elizabeth Knox, Mortal Fire

Canny is different. She knows it, but she doesn’t know how. She simply knows that she doesn’t quite fit in with other kids. She’s the native kid in a classroom full of Anglos. She’s the girl who’s helping her team win the National Mathematics competition, who perceives mathematical relationships. When she sees a bridge, she sees not the physical shape, but what makes it strong. Sometimes, she sees a hint of something more, as if someone told that bridge to be stronger than it had any right to be, and it obeyed. But Canny has no idea that she has access to magic, until she goes on vacation to a distant rural corner of the country, and sees a house, and the magic designed to keep anyone from ever noticing it or trying to reach it.

I love it when a fantasy book actually has a concept of magic that isn’t off someone’s cookie-cutter list of traditional ways to conceive of magic. That’s this book all over.

I love it when a fantasy book has a deep sense of place, when the locations come alive. This book is clearly set in a fantasy alt-New Zealand called Southland; but what’s so great about it is not the New Zealand-ness, but the rootedness that comes from drawing on what is different about that place and time, compared to a more usual setting.

I love it when the protagonist in a fantasy isn’t Everyman or Everywoman, but has a distinctive personality. Canny is so true to the experience of the smart kid who never quite fits in. I won’t exactly say the socially awkward kid, because Canny isn’t that exactly. It’s more that she’s looking at the social world from outside. She may be able to take the pieces apart and figure out how they work, but she doesn’t live IN it. This is an experience that not all teens have — but the kids who have, like I was at that age — oh, they’ll recognize the experience instantly.

I also love it when the plot is not a standard quest, but something else — in this case, Canny’s got to figure out both her own heritage AND and the past that led to a particularly nasty magical present, involving a young man who’s trapped where he is like a fly in amber.

Great stuff. My one complaint? The author slightly undercuts the meaningfulness of Canny’s differences with other people with her plot resolution. Canny’s offered a cheap out for why she’s different (the magic made me something not wholly human). And I don’t buy it. Canny is a real, human girl, and don’t anyone forget it.

I read this book after checking it out from my local library. I have no other connection with the author or publisher.

James L. Sutter, Death’s Heretic

I have to confess I have a bias against game-linked fantasy books. Far too often, in my experience, the game mechanics and the game world take precedence over the story. Even when the author is a well-known fantasy writer, the results can be deadly.

Death’s Heretic is linked to the Pathfinder roleplaying game (which I haven’t played), but I had to put my prejudices aside. This isn’t just a novelization of a game arc. Of course, the book does show off some of the fun elements in the Pathfinder universe — or rather, multiverse, since much of the story takes plane on alternate planes. But there’s much more to it than that, because Salim, its protagonist, is a fascinating, effectively-drawn character.

As the tale progresses, we gradually learn what has turned Salim from a priest-hunter who despises all gods into a servant of the Goddess of Death (whom he still despises.) He is presented with enough restraint that we don’t burn out on or react negatively to his story, but also with enough deftness that he is sympathetic (though it would be very easy to have made a character with his traits and history into an antihero or even a villain.)

You get a fast-moving adventure, a fantasy feast with all the trimmings, but you also get a character study that will haunt you long after you’ve forgotten most of the events in the plot.

Salim. Here’s wishing him peace, knowing he is unlikely ever to be at peace, with himself or with his place in the world.

Death’s Heretic is available from Paizo Publishing. I got a copy of it at Book Expo America, and have no other connection with the author or the publisher.