Two and Twenty Dark Tales, by various authors

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Publication date – October 16, 2012

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) In this anthology, 20 authors explore the dark and hidden meanings behind some of the most beloved Mother Goose nursery rhymes through short story retellings. The dark twists on classic tales range from exploring whether Jack truly fell or if Jill pushed him instead to why Humpty Dumpty, fragile and alone, sat atop so high of a wall. The authors include Nina Berry, Sarwat Chadda, Leigh Fallon, Gretchen McNeil, and Suzanne Young.

Thoughts: It isn’t hard to find collections of stories that apply a dark twist to fairy tales. It’s a bit harder to find something that applies a dark twist to nursery rhymes, those little snippets of poetry and song that most of us grew up with and know like we know the backs of our hands. But th stories in this collection are ones that are familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, the telling of the darker side of those rhymes that we don’t put much thought into. Little Miss Muffet and Humpty Dumpty have new and creepy life breathed into them by this collection of YA authors.

Some stories worked better than others. “Blue,” for example, which was based on Little Boy Blue, didn’t actually stick much to the original rhyme (I don’t recall any sheep in the meadow nor cows in the corn), and reminded me of nothing so much as bad fanfiction for Fatal Frame 3. “Life in a Shoe,” based on the old woman who lived in a shoe, was depressing and difficult to read as it tells the story of a family with far too many children to be fed and cared for properly because the man of the house is a borderline rapist. Dark, yes, and in both cases, but the stories seemed like they got into this collection only due to a stated connection to the nursery rhymes, though in reality the connection was thin and tenuous at best.

On the other hand, this book contained some true gems, making me wish more than once that they were longer than they were so that I could keep reading them. “Sing a Song of Sixpence” was one of my absolute favourites, incorporating all elements of the nursery rhyme into one dark fantasy story that was truly inspired. “Wee Willie Winkie” was very creepy and deft in its handling of the truth behind small-town legends. And “I Come Bearing Souls” was an amazing twist on “Hey Diddle Diddle,” of all rhymes, featuring reincarnation and literal interpretations of Egyptian mythology and the concept of the self and relation to duty and fate. “Tick Tock” was a creapy story about a group of children committing murder for reasons which were left obscure, adding a rather disturbing supernatural element to the tale. Some things are better off when they still have some mystery to them, after all.

My biggest regret, though, is that the ARC copy I received was missing the second part of a really good story. “The Lion and the Unicor,” dealing with historical witchcraft in England and King James’s connection to the devil, was broken into two parts. The first part appeared early on, and about a page into the tale I was hooked, really excited to keep reading and to find out what happened. Unfortunately for me, the ARC copy doesn’t actually have the second part in it, which was very disappointing. I won’t hold that against the book, since I know the risk with ARCs is that one gets them unfinished and often changes will occur between the ARC and the final product, so the book isn’t losing marks with me because of that unfinished story, but I will say that I was disappointed to not find out how such a wonderful story was going to end.

Over all, there were more hits than misses in this compilation, and I would say that fans of dark YA fiction would do well to take a look at this one. Though I admit I hadn’t heard of most of the authors, I was introduced to a few whose work I now want to take a close look at. Definitely a book worth keeping on the shelves.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

Diverse Energies, by various authors

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Publication date – October 14, 2012

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) In a world gone wrong, heroes and villains are not always easy to distinguish and every individual has the ability to contribute something powerful.

In this stunning collection of original and rediscovered stories of tragedy and hope, the stars are a diverse group of students, street kids, good girls, kidnappers, and child laborers pitted against their environments, their governments, differing cultures, and sometimes one another as they seek answers in their dystopian worlds. Take a journey through time from a nuclear nightmare of the past to society’s far future beyond Earth with these eleven stories by masters of speculative fiction. Includes stories by Paolo Bacigalupi, Ursula K. Le Guin, Malinda Lo, Cindy Pon, Daniel H. Wilson, and more.

Thoughts: Many truly depressing futures are showcased in Diverse Energies. From violent wars to exploitation to impossible-to-bridge gaps between the rich and poor…Wait, doesn’t this sound familiar? Doesn’t this sound precisely like what’s in the news today?

That’s what makes these futures so believable, I think. Every single story in this compilation deals with a future that’s all too easy to see happening. This isn’t science fiction taking place on other planets, with people and situations that are too distant from our own lives to really feel a connection to. These are futures that we already know have seeds planted. Exploitation of workers overseas. The poor left to struggle and die in polluted worlds while the rich have the luxury of health and clean air and water. A vicious divide between “eastern” and “western” cultures. These are things we can see bits and pieces of just by turning on the news. The stories are relatable, understandable, easily evoking empathy from any reader.

And true to advertisement, anyone who’s looking for minorities to get some literary screentime in speculative fiction should take a look at this book. Very few stories even contained white characters, and most of the ones who did were not protagonists. If it wasn’t minorities by culture, it was minorities by sexuality. Sometimes both. The characters here were as diverse as humanity itself, and it was a welcome break from fiction that revolves around North America’s accomplishments and station in the global community.

There was only one story where it really felt as though a character of colour was shoehorned in, where it would have made absolutely no difference to the tale whatsoever. A story about a robot on a murderous rampage was told from the perspective of one who was attacked, giving a report to a law enforcement officer. The law enforcement officer had Osage heritage. This was mentioned in 2 lines of dialogue, as an aside. It added nothing to the story. It didn’t take anything away, sure, and perhaps that was the point. That it doesn’t take much to add a bit of diversity to a story. I’m not sure. But to me, it seemed as though the lines were added as an afterthought, a quick way to throw in an attempt at diversity without actually doing so.

But aside from that one story, the diversity shown in this novel was excellent, and could serve as a great lesson to many, readers and writers alike. You want a story that stands out, then don’t create your story from the same cookie-cutter ideas that have been done time and time again. People who aren’t straight and white want characters to relate to too. I know I do! (I’ve mentioned in the past how difficult it can be to find characters who are asexual as a sexual preference, and how hard it can be for me to relate to characters who are driven by sexual urges.)

If you’re looking for some good diversity in your speculative fiction, if you want a glimpse at the futures of places that aren’t North American, if you want to see some minorities take the stage, then reach for a copy of Diverse Energies. It’s worth your time.

(Receivedfor review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

Crewel, by Gennifer Albin

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Author’s website
Publication date – October 16, 2012

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Incapable. Awkward. Artless.

That’s what the other girls whisper behind her back. But sixteen year-old Adelice Lewys has a secret: she wants to fail.

Gifted with the ability to weave time with matter, she’s exactly what the Guild is looking for, and in the world of Arras, being chosen as a Spinster is everything a girl could want. It means privilege, eternal beauty, and being something other than a secretary. It also means the power to embroider the very fabric of life. But if controlling what people eat, where they live and how many children they have is the price of having it all, Adelice isn’t interested.

Not that her feelings matter, because she slipped and wove a moment at testing, and they’re coming for her—tonight.

Now she has one hour to eat her mom’s overcooked pot roast. One hour to listen to her sister’s academy gossip and laugh at her Dad’s stupid jokes. One hour to pretend everything’s okay. And one hour to escape.

Because once you become a Spinster, there’s no turning back.

Thoughts: When I first saw this book, I thought it must be the right one for me. With a title like that, references to spinsters, embroidery, all that stuff, I thought this could be a great speculative novel for people who enjoy fibre arts.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t as great as I had hoped.

It wasnt a bad novel. Really, while reading it, it reminded me a lot of a cross between The Hunger Games (review here), Divergent (review here), and Shadow and Bone (review here). It had intelligent social commentary, a snarky and rebellious female protagonist, and took place in a dystopian society, although one that wasn’t quite as dark and twisted as some I’ve read. The writing style was smooth, the sto0ry flowed nicely, and there was a good balance of intrigue and calmer times.

The problem is that this novel’s comparisons to other novels was one of its downfalls. I might have enjoyed this a lot more had I not already read any of the other novels I mentioned, because then Crewel would have seemed all the more unique and creative. As it was, it seemed rather deritvative. It had too much strength in its own premise to say that it’s merely riding the coattails of other books, but it’s certainly cut from the same cloth, and it shows.

Adelice as a protagonist was an interesting choice, though her character seemed a little hard to pin down sometimes. In one scene, she’d be unsure, hesitant, gentle and with a sort of wide-eyed innocence. Very much the product of the society that raised her, with its laws about the segregation of the sexes and women only being allowed to take on jobs like teacher or secretary. The next scene, she’s snarking at somebody and almost seeming rebellious for the sake of rebellion. She was unknowing where it suited the plot, and witty enough to keep readers hooked with dialogue, but the two aspects of her personality rarely mixed.

Adelice can see the threads that make up the world, and she can weave them and alter them as she sees fit. Her parents do their best to train her out of this habit, knowing that if it’s discovered she’ll be taken from them and trained to be a Spinster, one who doesn’t actually do anything to do with spinning so much as working on the weave that keeps reality stable. Naturally, she gets chosen anyway, makes an enemy of a political-ladder-climbing Spinster, and discovers that she’s actually more than just a regular Spinster. She’s actually a Creweler, someone who can see the weave without the use of a loom, and someone who can embroider the basic weave and create new things where others can just shuffle stuff around and make minor repairs.

The world of a Spinster is both glamourous and dull. They get to go to fancy parties, dress in wonderful clothes and wear makeup, but most of the work they do is mundane, fairly standard. The Guild that rules the world thinks this is a fine way to treat women, who are treated as second-class citizens and people who are weak-willed and distracted by shiny things for no other reason than treating them that way gives the Guild power of society. Really, that’s the only reason given for the segregation and purity laws that are constantly mentioned here. There isn’t even an attempt at making it look like something more, some answer to spoon-feed citizens so they go along with it without fuss. Nope, it’s that way because it’s that way. It was this that led to many of the inconsistancies in Adelice’s personality, I think. Albin made sure to demonstrate that Adelice was indeed a product of her society, naive and innocent and a perfect target for a budding love triangle (that I felt no real chemistry from, to be completely honest), but at the same time Albin knew that wouldn’t fly with a modern audience, and so had to give Adelice a bit of attitude, an untamed tongue and the desire to fight back against people who treated her badly.

It could be argued that she learned this from her parents, who were somewhat anti-Guild. But in context, that’s a stretch, since her parents were very careful not to be outspoken about their dislike of society’s laws and the Guild’s policies. If anything, 16 years of this (with actual good reasoning backing it up) would likely have produced someone who was a little better at not saying every snarky thought that went through her head.

Ultimately, Crewel was an interesting story that had many merits, and could probably stand well on its own. The problem is that in many ways, it isn’t alone. It’s surrounded by other novels that are very like it, and most of the best already came before it. It’s hard not to make the comparison to larger novels and series that are already stocking bookshelves around the world. If you’re looking for something in the same vein as what Suzanne Collins or Veronic Roth writes, then absolutely, check out Crewel. You’ll probably enjoy it for its smilarities. If you want to do an almost reverse-hipster thing and read this because it’s like those other novels but isn’t so very mainstream, then read Crewel. But if you’re looking for something unique, something that’s a break-out hit that really leaves people going, “Wow, I didn’t see that coming,” then you’re better off giving this one a miss. You won’t be missing too much.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

Ashen Winter, by Mike Mullin

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Author’s website
Publication date – October 10, 2012

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) It’s been over six months since the eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano. Alex and Darla have been staying with Alex’s relatives, trying to cope with the new reality of the primitive world so vividly portrayed in Ashfall, the first book in this series. It’s also been six months of waiting for Alex’s parents to return from Iowa. Alex and Darla decide they can wait no longer and must retrace their journey into Iowa to find and bring back Alex’s parents to the tenuous safety of Illinois. But the landscape they cross is even more perilous than before, with life-and-death battles for food and power between the remaining communities. When the unthinkable happens, Alex must find new reserves of strength and determination to survive.

Thoughts: I previously praised Mike Mullin’s Ashfall (review here) for being a YA post-apocalyptic novel that was interesting, intelligent, and nflinchingly realistic when it comes to the brutality that can be exhibited by humans in a crisis. Ashen Winter is no exception to that praise, and was a fantastic and well-deserved follow-up to the previous novel in the trilogy.

The novel starts with Alex and Darla living on Alex’s uncle’s farm, doing what they can to survive. Considering that they supervolcano’s eruption has caused a brutal and long-lasting winter, this is more difficult than it sounds. Crops are dead or dying, food supplies are limited, people are getting sick and dying for lack of basic nutrition and medical care, and it’s all some people can do to keep from freezing to death in their sleep. But when Alex gets a sign that indicates is parents may be in danger, he chooses to leave that relative comfort and safety behind in order to look for them. Darla, of course, goes with him.

Much like in the previous book, Alex travels a lot and meets a great variety of people, getting into one dangerous situation after another, making the book fast-paced and full of action and tension. Flenser gangs roam the wilds, looking for people to kill and butcher so that they can maintain a supply of meat. The military is still rounding people up and putting them into camps that are far more brutal and terrifying than trying to survive in the blasted wilds. There’s plenty to keep you on the edge of your seat.

A little too much, I think, when you get right down to it. It reached a point where there was just so much going on that I reached action overload, and the tension of the situation was lost on me, replaced instead by the thought that Alex wouldn’t really be able to do half the stuff he was doing. Hanging from the underside of a truck after he’s been shot in the side and had his arm injured? No. Just no. I’m not saying he did it without getting further injured, but it’s very hard to believe he wouldn’t have caused himself far more damage than he would have been able to handle. Alex injuries often seemed to disappear during the action scenes, only to return later as mentions of how much he now hurts. Adreniline could account for him not noticing, but that doesn’t mean he had the simple ability to do what he did while so injured.

Mullin’s strength is shown once again, though, in his ability to think of the little details involved in living in such a post-apocalyptic situation. Ignoring the issue of injury and ability, there were so many little details thrown in to make this scenario a very believable one. Things like scurvy affecting people because of the lack of access to foods with vitamin C. Or descriptions of medical procedures without anesthetic. Mullin has  great understanding of humanity, not just in the individual details but also on a larger scale. It’s very easy to imagine the more brutal elements he inserted here, like the previously mentioned flenser gangs and cannibalism. Or the knee-jerk reactions people in a crisis will have to strangers. Mullin doesn’t hold the reader’s hand and explain every single thing and every reaction that people exhibit, but instead lets the story flow, showing instead of telling, and that’s what makes this book such a great one.

Many people have complained about the violence and cruelty expressed in this series. Personally, I find them perfectly fitting to the story that’s being told. Cannibalism and prostitution and rape is going to happen. It happens in better times, and there’s no reason to think that it wouldn’t get worse in crisis, especially when people can gain power through it. It may not be a comfortable thing to read about, but it’s suited to its context, and it makes the story all the more real for their presence. You can’t have a story about post-apocalyptic survival without bringing in hard elements, and sanitizing them does a disservice to the audience.

Alex and Darla continue to be a romantic couple that I can actually enjoy reading about. They’re very devoted to each other without letting themselves get engulfed by their sgnificant other. They cling to each other out of a mix of desperation and emotion, a scenario that’s very realistic for the situation they’re in. They demonstrate maturity when it comes to both romance and sexuality. When Darla vanishes and Alyssa comes onto the scene, it certainly adds an interesting dynamic. Alyssa is desperate for affection and tries to get it the only way she knows how at that point, which is sexually. And again with the realism, because Alex’s reaction isn’t to shove her away and tell her that nobody can do it for him but Darla, and neither does he succumb and create one of those love triangles that are annoyingly popular in YA novels. His body reacts.  He’s even tempted by her. But he still refuses Alyssa. I could have cheered aloud when I read that scene, because it meant that the author wasn’t going to dip into that annoying territory in order to create some needless romantic tension when Darla came back on the scene. The devotion that Alex shows to Darla is heartening, mature and enduring. They’re really a couple I can get behind.

Ultimately, if you want a hard story of survival in a brutal world, then read Ashfall and Ashen Winter. If you want something that shows the worst and best of humanity in a crisis, then read these books. If you want something that doesn’t flinch away from the things that we’re capable of when the push comes to shove, then you should be reading this series.

If you want a post-apocalyptic world that merely hints that bad things happen without actually bringing you into contact with them, then look for reading material elsewhere.

(Book provided for review by the publisher via NetGalley.)

Owlknight, by Mercedes Lackey

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Author’s website
Publication date – November 1, 2000

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) From fantasy legends Mercedes Lackey and Larry Dixon comes the third and final volume in a powerful saga charged with war and magic, life and love…. Two years after his parents disappearance, Darian has sought refuge and training from the mysterious Hawkbrothers. Now he has opened his heart to a beautiful young healer. Finally Darian has found peace and acceptance in his life. That is, until he learns that his parents are still alive-and trapped behind enemy borders…

Thoughts: Concluding the Owls trilogy is Owlknight, the final book in Darian’s tale and one that mnages to tie up loose ends without being so perfect and saccharine that it seems wholly unbelievable. eisha and Darian are paired up somewhat happily, though Keisha is of the pessimistic attitude that Darian’s only staying with her until something better comes along. (Thankfully, she gets talked out of this notion quite soundly, because if there’s one thing I can’t stand in a novel, it’s large amounts of introspection on whether so-and-so really loves somebody else when there’s nothing to suggest it other than one person’s paranoia.) Darian has passed his Master trial and is advancing in his studies of magic. The northern barbarians aren’t nearly as barbaric as everyone first thought and are actually doing quite well for themselves as self-contained cultures living within Valdemar’s borders. Everything seems to be going smoothly.

Until a chance event convinces Darian that his parents, who disappeared years ago, might actually still be alive. Which sets him on the path to finding them, even if it takes him into territory that nobody in Valdemar has ever stepped foot in before.

This is a book that is somewhat world-spanning without being world-changing, which is always an interesting tactic to use. So many books that feature characters travelling all over the place do so because there’s some great world-shaking event going on. Or else they’re trying to prevent catastrophe. Or some other similar large thing. But here, it’s all to conclude a personal quest, to find closure for a young man’s trauma. Nothing so large and spectacular as in previous Valdemar novels. The world is not coming to an end, and there is no great evil to defeat.

The closest thing to an evil to defeat is the Wolverine tribe, who are a smarter version of the original tribe who attacked Darian’s village in Owlflight (review here) all those years ago. They’re bent on expanding their territory, subduing all other tribes they come across, and are ruthless in their actions. But they don’t even enter into the story until very close to the end, and despite what a couple of characters may have thought about them being a threat to Valdemar, I honestly couldn’t see that. It’s one thing for a nomadic tribal culture to take over and eliminate other tribes, but it’s another thing altogether to take on a huge nation. If Valdemar was going to worry about every group of people who might someday possibly attack them in any number, they may as well wipe out the entire world as a precautionary method. I never saw Wolverine as a legitimate threat to Valdemar, not the way they were trying to establish.

While Darian does get closure in regard to his parents, it was a bittersweet one, which was emotional without being overly sweet or too neat in its wrap-up. Darians parents have spent the years since their disappearance living with one of the northern Tribes, and they haven’t just sat there dreaming up ways to get home. They resigned themselves to being there, and integrated into the tribe, settling in and even having more children. Darian is understandably disappointed by this, having spent so long dreaming of rescuing his parents and bringing them home, only to find that they are home. Just not the home that he envisioned. It’s a difficult thing to come to grips with, that one’s parents have moved into a new life and that they can’t really be a part of yours anymore, but it’s very fitting with the trilogy’s messages regarding maturity and coming of age. Not an easy scene to read, but a fitting one, and all the more powerful for its realism.

Because of the fact that this trilogy focused more on people than politics (though it did dip into the political scene in many ways; some things are just unavoidable), more on individuals than on large-scale events like so many other Valdemar novels have done, it was a really refreshing set of stories to read. It’s not for everyone, I admit, but sometimes it’s nice to read fantasy novels that are very contained and small-scale, without having to involve the rest of the world. The stories here revolve around Darian, and his biggest concerns are family, friends, and trying to master his magic. No great wars, no amazing discoveries, at least none that step too far outside his personal sphere. Because of that, it was easier to connect to characters here than in some other novels. Everything was kept close to home, and it really showed.

On the whole, this is a trilogy that can easily be skipped if you’re reading the Valdemar novels. It adds many details to the world, but isn’t necessary for understanding the world as a whole. It’s not essential to the history, and you’re not going to be confused if you read any other novels if you haven’t read these ones. But that doesn’t mean it’s worth skipping. If you, like many ohers, have been hooked by the Tayledras, or if you’re looking for a smaller-scale tale that still stays interesting, then absolutely check this series out. However, there are bits of this series that will be lost on you if you haven’t read other Valdemar novels first. There are references to other big events peppered throughout its pages, and while this trilogy enriches the whole, it’s not something that can stand easily on it own, without context. Justyn’s memories, the Kaled’a’in, the very presence of Firesong are all made weaker here if you haven’t seen these things in the other Valdemar novels first.

But because of the way this trilogy enriches the series as a whole, it remains high on the list of my favourite Valdemar rereads. And I can’t see that ever changing.

Warriors Wednesday: Sunset, by Erin Hunter

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Author’s website
Publication date – September 25, 2007

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Soon after the cats reached their new home by the lake, ThunderClan’s medicine cat Leafpool received an ominous warning from StarClan: “Before there is peace, blood will spill blood, and the lake will run red.” As the Clan slowly recovers from a devastating badger attack, Leafpool can’t help but wonder . . . do her prophetic dreams mean there are even worse dangers still in store for the warrior cats?

At the same time, shadows of the past continue to haunt the forest as some old friends struggle to find their place, others appear to be lost forever, and an old enemy finds a new way to resurface in a quest for dark revenge. A sinister path is unfolding, and the time is coming for certain warriors to make the choices that will determine their destiny… and the destiny of all the Clans.

Thoughts: After the disappointment I felt for the previous book, I was really hoping this final book of the the second series of Warriors novels would be better. And I can’t deny that a lot of the problems I had weren’t present in this novel. The pacing was better, characterization improves, and the fact that things were actually happening and 75% of the book wasn’t filler were all good changes. But what really made this book fall down for me was the deliberate and too-frequent sequel-baiting.

That, and Tigerstar is being set up as the kitty devil or something. I get that he’s bad. We all get that he’s bad. But to have him be setting up his revenge against Firestar from beyond the grave, literally becoming a spiritual presence that was following Brambleclaw and Hawkfrost around, was a bit over the top. It is possible for a person (or cat, in this case) to be an antagonist without being a furry embodiment of evil.

A great deal of issues brought up in previous novels were dealt with, and often dealt with well. Tigerstar is seen in Tawnypelt’s dreams, but she’s made of sterner stuff than Brambleclaw, it seems, because she refuses what he offers. Hawkfrost is revealed to be the one who planted the moth’s wing sign that got Mothwing her position as a medicine cat. Mothwing desperately tries to stand up to her brother when it comes to his political ambitions. The final confrontation is revealed to be between Brambleclaw and Hawkfrost (come on, who didn’t see that one coming the very second they heard the prophecy?). So I can’t say that this book was wholly bad, because it did tackle a lot of interesting subjects (ie, Cinderpelt’s reincarnation) and added depth to the world I’ve come to enjoy reading about.

But those good things were not enough to overshadow the bad. I mentioned the blatant sequel-baiting. It was terrible. The 3 stars that Leafpool kept seeing in her dreams were at least addressed directly, in the sense of her being told, “Yup, they’re important, but that’s a story for another day.” But other things were not handled so well, and left me feeling unsatisfied. The biggest piece of bait? Why can’t Brook and Stormfur go back to the mountains, and why do they act so shifty and upset when someone mentions it? Characters wonder it all the time, but nothing is ever said, and it’s painfully obvious that it’s a set-up for another series.

The first Warriors series tied things up nicely. It left a couple of unanswered questions, but they weren’t hugely important ones, and in all, the story it told was contained nicely. Here, it feels like there should be a seventh book just to wrap up what the sixth book didn’t bother to get to. And considering the fifth book was nearly all repetitive filler, that’s pretty bad.

But by this point it was obvious that the series was taking off in popularity, and so any attempt to milk the cash cow must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

The author has a habit, much like with many children’s books, to end chapters on a question. “If so-and-so did this, does it really mean that?” “How can this be true when that happened?” That sort of thing. Which is fine, it you remember that you’re reading a book designed for younger audiences. But then we get to a chapter-ending question later on in the book that asks, essentially, “If Brambleclaw was doing whatever it took to achieve power, didn’t that automatically make it right?” Uh, what? Considering by this point, this whole series has spent a dozen books showing that the pursuit of power by any means isn’t a good thing, why on earth would that even come up as a “consider this” kind of question? It seemed so out there, so pointless, that I can’t even imagine what was going through the author’s head with that line. It isn’t even a subjectively moral question. It was a question that the character asking it wouldn’t even consider as an option!

Particularly galling in this book, though, was the presence of the fox traps. They definitely had a reason to be there, but they annoyed the hell out of me for multiple reasons. First of all, cats figure out how to disarm them by using sticks as tools, an idea which makes me facepalm far more than the idea of cats using herbal medicine. Second, if you combine the scenes of Berrykit and Firestar getting caught in the traps, and relplace cats with rabbits, you’ve practically got a direct rip of the scene in Watership Down where Bigwig gets caught in a snare. Right down to them getting rescued because characters figure out that they can only loosen the wire by digging out the peg. Or in this case, stick.

This book had a good story that was soured by the presence of so many problems, and it’s a shame that such a potentially good series ended so poorly. This book and the one that came before it are the chief reasons I need to take a break from the series before I tackle the next one. I need to step back, or else I’m worried that future reviews will be tainted by my lingering opinions of these books.

Owlsight, by Mercedes Lackey

Time to return to the Great Valdemar Reread! I’ve left this project alone for a while now, but it’s time to take a step back into my favourite fantasy world and get back to reviewing those books.

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Author’s website
Publication date – October 1, 1999

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) It has been four years since Darian saw his village sacked and burned by barbarians. Taking refuge with the Hawkbrothers, he soon finds his life’s calling–as a Healing Adept. But even as he learns the mystical ways of this ancient race, Darian cannot escape the dangers threatening his future. Another tribe of barbarians is approaching. The time has come… to stand up and fight.

Thoughts: While the previous book in this trilogy, Owlflight, centered almost completely around Darian and his adoption by the Tayledras, this book splits its time evenly between Darian (now a few years older and a good bit more mature than we last saw him) and Keisha, the resident Healer of Errold’s Grove. While both viewpoints are interesting and allow us to get a much more complete feel of the situation than before (maturity can do that to a person), it was Keisha’sections of the story that primarily interested me. Darian’s stuff was interesting, to be certain, but until Darian actually meets Keisha and the two stories start to twine together, his point of view mostly consisted of life in the Vale.

Keisha’s sections of the story, however, were told from the perspective of somebody who is increasingly self-reliant, talented, and trying to find her place in the world, all while being hampered by an overprotective family and only a sketchy idea of a big part of her own vocation. Being empathic, she’s removing herself little by little from society while still trying to be nearby to help tend the hurts and illnesses of an entire village. It’s easy to feel both empathy and sympathy for her. Let’s face it; how many outcasts feel like they’ve been in a very smilar situation? Keisha was clearly meant to be this book’s misfit. Previously it was Darian, but since he went off with the Hawkbrothers and grew up some, he could no longer fill that role.

Like many Lackey novels, this book takes a long time to get going, with a great deal of build-up, character development, repetition, and characters just generally living life. Until the halfway point comes, and the big threat is introduced, and then there’s more build-up until the final confrontation shortly before the end. I’m not saying this is good storytelling, as a general rule, but Lackey has this knack of making it work. You get so caught up in the characters that very often you don’t realize that nothing exiting is happening, because one person’s life is already interesting enough. I think this method works for her because she tends to write about extraordinary people. Doing a story this way when your main characters are farmhands would have people putting the book down very quickly. But when you’ve got stories about Heralds, Healers, Bards, mythical cultures coming out of the woods, then you can afford to get away with slow build-ups because even the every-day lives of these people are worth talking about.

As such, this isn’t a book that’s heavy on the action. Even less so than many of the Valdemar novels, really. The big threat at the end turns out not to be another invading army of barbarians but a disease. Certainly one that’s threatning, and very dangerous if it spreads from the northern trbes into Valdemar, but the final conflict is between Keisha and the disease raging inside a young boy’s body, with her sister (Chosen to be a Herald in the opening scenes of the novel, and quite amusingly so!) and Darian providing backup support. It was an interesting twist, because as much as he moment was tense and filled with energy and emotion, it was relatively action-free. No big physical battle, no death or blood or anything of the sort.

Also, I confess to a moment of fangirlish squee when Firesong is brought into the picture. I don’t know what it is about him and Vanyel, but whenever either of those two are on the pages, it’s like my ears perk up and I have to keep reading. They’re both wonderful characters, and they add a wonderful touch of humour and depth to any story they’re placed in, and so Firesong’s appearance was definitely welcome.

This story is a fantastic continuation to the initial coming-of-age story told in the previous book of the trilogy. Seeing Darian’s maturity and sense of self-worth and place in the world was a good follow-up to is earlier struggle, and Keisha’s similar-but-different struggle was an echo of what so many of us have gone through in our lives that it was hard not to relate to them in some way. Between that aspect and the increasing exploration of Tayledras culture, this book is one that I, at least, really enjoyed reading and will probably always have a place on my bookshelves.

The Assassin’s Curse, by Cassandra Rose Clarke

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Author’s website
Publication date – October 2, 2012

Summary: (Taken from GoodReadsAnanna of the Tanarau abandons ship when her parents try to marry her off to an allying pirate clan: she wants to captain her own boat, not serve as second-in-command to her handsome yet clueless fiance. But her escape has dire consequences when she learns the scorned clan has sent an assassin after her. 

And when the assassin, Naji, finally catches up with her, things get even worse. Ananna inadvertently triggers a nasty curse — with a life-altering result. Now Ananna and Naji are forced to become uneasy allies as they work together to break the curse and return their lives back to normal. Or at least as normal as the lives of a pirate and an assassin can be.

Thoughts: This book has a great deal going for it, and I’m very glad that I decided to read it. From the beginning, I was drawn into the world, the writing  style, the story, and i tore through this book like there was no tomorrow. As YA fiction goes, this has to be one of the best I’ve read in quite a long time.

The setting has a heavy Arabian Nights feel to it, not just in the location but also in the story itself, the characters, the way everything works. It would be one thing to say that this book’s setting is based on Middle Eastern folklore. But that only scratches the surface, and doesn’t take into account the real depth of the fantastical elements, the great feeling of adventure and action and mystery. And the story doesn’t stay solely in lands covered by sand. We get to see Ananna’s pirate upbringing come into play as they travel by ship to the great frozen north to try to break Naji’s curse, so we’re not limited to one small area when it comes to the setting.

Like many YA novels these days, the story is told in first-person perspective from the view of the female protagonist, Ananna, who starts off being betrothed to a pirate but deciding to run away when she realizes that this is going to mean captivity rather than freedom. But unlike most YA novels written in the first-person, Ananna narrates exactly like she talks. Her speech is peppered with “ain’t” and double negatives, and her thoughts are exactly the same way. It’s amazing how few authors actually take the time and effort to do this, but it really makes the difference. You get more of the sensation that you’re actually inside Ananna’s head rather than just sitting on her shoulder, or reading her memoirs. It’s a wonderful touch, and made the story that much more appealing.

The romance between Ananna and Naji was deftly handled. As another reviewer said, their relationship was based on trust and not lust. They certainly felt drawn to one another, but were more wrapped up in Naji’s curse and the people being sent to kill them than they were with gazing into each others’ eyes. As I’ve often said before, I prefer my romance as a side-dish rather than the main course, and this is exactly what was served in The Assassin’s Curse. It added flavour without being overwhelming, and attraction did play a part in things without being the focal point of the story. Mostly, they were too busy actually getting on with the plot to get so lost in each other, and I really liked that.

If there’s one thing that bothers me about this novel, though, it’s that Ananna is rarely wrong. Her first impressions of a person always turn out to be correct (“never trust a beautiful person” being the big one, because just about everybody she thinks that about is either out to get them or just stringing them along), and never ends up having her ideas proven to be misconceptions, her fears and prejudices unfounded. I know she’s supposed to be savvy and observant, but it would have been nice to see her proven wrong every now and again, and to struggle with that knowledge. The closest that the book really came to this was in her initial mistrust of Naji, and considering what the plot is about, I don’t entirely think that counts.

With an interesting setting, engaging writing style, and incredibly interesting storyline, The Assassin’s Curse is sure to be a YA hit, one that teenagers and adults alike will enjoy. This has definitely turned me on to Clarke’s work, and I look forward to seeing more of what she’ll do in the future. Especially in the continuation of this series!

(Book provided for review from Strange Chemistry via NetGalley.)

Warriors Wednesday: Twilight, by Erin Hunter

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Author’s website
Publication date – June 21, 2007

Summary: (Taken from GoodReadsNew territory brings new troubles for the fierce cats of the warrior Clans, who are still uncovering the secrets of their new home around the lake. Dangers they have never faced before are lurking in the twilight shadows, and former allies are acting strangely hostile.

As divisions between the Clans grow deeper, Firestar’s daughters face troubling decisions. One is torn between loyalty to her calling and a forbidden love, while the other struggles with her best friend’s betrayal and the surprising perils of the forest. The choices they make now could affect ThunderClan for generations to come . . . and with an unexpected enemy preparing to attack, their courage and strength will be needed more than ever if the Clan is to survive.

Thoughts: I wanted to rate this book higher. I really did. But I had so many problems with it, so many things that made me frustrated with the book that I really couldn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to.

For starters, this book feels very much like a filler book. Now, I’m normally all for large pieces of character development, and will often forgive that when it comes at the expense of action. But here? No. It wasn’t even character development. What was dragged out for a while book could have been accomplished in a quarter of another book, which made me think that this book has its place for no more reason than to pad this second Warriors series out to the same 6 books as the first series. And it really shows.

Brambleclaw is now distant from Squirrelflight. Squirrelflight, of course, blames Brambleclaw’s closeness to Hawkfrost, whose ambition and calculated moves I think we’re supposed to get a better feel for here, but since he shows up in one scene and doesn’t saw a word, that’s really hard to tell. Squirrelflight is a horribly unreliable narrator, and reading between the lines, it’s easy for anyone with eyes to see that Brambleclaw’s distance from her has nothing to do with the dark dreams he’s sharing with Hawkfrost and his dead father Tigerstar, and far more to do with the fact that Squirrelflight is treating him like crap and Ashfur is moving in on his territory, so to speak. And Squirrelflight’s temper often gets the better of her, so in spite of Brambleclaw being a senior warrior and acting as Clan deputy, she’ll often do the opposite of what Brambleclaw’s orders are, even when it means clearly going against the warrior code. She returns to being the same brat she was when she was an apprentice, and the amount of times this behaviour gets shown just gets annoying.

Leafpool, on the other hand, is torn between her duties as a medicine cat and her growing love for Crowfeather, something that’s denied all medicine cats. Crowfeather returns the affections, which seemed to me less like genuine love and more like rebound and the need for comfort after Feathertail’s death… and saving Leafpool from a similar situation to the one Feathertail died from in the first place. Again, this is all reading between the lines, but to not do so makes these characters all seem really flat and without subtlety and nuance, and I prefer to think that there’s more to a situation than what’s being explicity said on the book’s pages. Anyway, Leafpool spends so much time vacilating between, “I wanna, but I shouldn’t, but I wanna, but I shouldn’t,” that I got tired of it pretty quickly.

Ultimately, very little actually got accomplished here. Tigerstar shows up in the prologue and explains a little bit about kitty hell for the readers, and how he’s going to take revenge on Firestar through Hawkfrost and Brambleclaw (why not Tawnypelt, who actually left Thunderclan to join Shadowclan like her father? No reason, except that nobody’s mistrusts Tawnypelt on sight or has anything to lose by her turning on Firestar, so she’s just not important to the plot).Thunderclan takes in a rogue and her kits, Sorreltail gives birth, Cinderpelt dies. But those are the main important events in here that aren’t included in Leafpool’s great love affair and Squirrelflight’s annoyance with Brambleclaw.

See what I mean when I said this book could have been done as a quarter of another book and still not lost anything important?

The battle scene with the badgers was really what bumped this up a notch for me, even if it seemed a bit contrived. Especially Midnight showing up to warn them. But it was a good scene with a lot of legitimate tension and fear going through it, and as with many heavy action scenes in this series, it led to character death, which lent it a good chunk of emotion, too.

But ultimately, thisbook felt like little more than a waste of time, unnecessary padding, and something that should have been condensed and worked on more than it was. The love story was overblown, the betrayal wasn’t actually anything more than speculation, and aside from Cinderpelt’s death and the adoption of Daisy and her kits, it would be so very easy for a person to completely skip this book and not to lose anything from it.

I certainly hope the next one’s better.

Wild Seed, by Octavia E Butler

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Author’s website
Publication date – June 1, 1980

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Doro is an entity who changes bodies like clothes, killing his hosts by reflex or design. He fears no one until he meets Anyanwu. Anyanwu is a shapeshifter who can absorb bullets and heal with a kiss and savage anyone who threatens her. She fears no one until she meets Doro. Together they weave a pattern of destiny unimaginable to mortals.

Thoughts: First of all, I would like to say that many moments in this book made me profoundly uncomfortable. This book is not the kind of book one tends to read when they want a comfort read. This is the kind of book one picks up when they want their mind challenged, their limits tested, and their perspectives shattered and put back together again. It made uncomfortable. It was supposed to.

Butler writes many themes into this book, but the chief ones are race relations, gender politics, and obedience. There’s also a strong touch of “the ends justify the means” running through the tale, too, especially in Doro’s millennia-long breeding experiment. What he’s seeking from this breeding experiment remains elusive during the story, and the closest we ever really come to his goals are finding out that he wants to breed people with supernatural abilities, “witch powers” who will be as long-lived as he will. But more often than not, Doro comes across as somebody who has been doing something for so long that he’s forgotten his purpose, and only keeps doing it because that’s what he’s always done. He cares little for people beyond their use in his breeding experiment, a means to his somewhat nebulous goal. Breeding brother with sister? Well, that’s just essential to get the right qualities in a person, isn’t it?

Then there’s Anyanwu, healer and shape-changer from Africa, who agrees to go along with Doro in the beginning partly out of interest and partly out of fear. The story is really Anyanwu’s, but Doro plays such a strong role in her life that it’s equally his. Anyanwu travels with Doro to America, where he sets her up as a wife to his son, but not before getting her coerced agreement that when he brings men to her, she will breed with them. And she will turn her head when he takes her husband away to breed him with other women.

See what I mean about this book not being a comfort read?

Anyanwu is what Doro calls “wild seed”, meaning that she has powers of her own, but she isn’t from any of his breeding programs or villages. Taming her is heavily on his mind, and many times he says that she’s so troublesome that he would kill her if she wasn’t so useful as breeding stock. He demands utter obedience from her, as he does from all his people. And as much as Anyanwu does obey him, as time goes on she does so less out of interest and fascination with him and more out of fear, fear that he will harm her many children.

Being set mostly within the past 400 years, it’s easy to see how race relations play into the novel, especially when Doro decides he’ll be taking Anyanwu to America. Within Doro’s own villages and groups, most people accept Anyanwu, albeit a bit grudgingly at first, because Doro has been breeding them with others of every skin tone imaginable. But there’s still the omnipresent worry that in public, in “decent society”, blacks breeding with whites, or even interacting with them on an equal level, will bring about unwanted attention and wrath. Ditto the gender politics, as women of the times were expected to be submissive and obedient.

And Anyanwu is anything but.

I admit, as much as I felt like I couldn’t put this book down, some things really did annoy me, and not just on a moral level. Doro’s demands for obedience, for one thing, felt very repetitive. And I know that was kind of the point, that he was pushing Anyanwu harder and harder to submit to him. But there are only so many times you can read variations of, “Obey me,” before it starts to wear on the nerves a bit.

Also, the ending was bothersome. Anyanwu and Doro come to accept that they need each other, that in their lives they are the only things that will not fade and die, and Doro really only realizes this after Anyanwu is on the very edge of suicide. But the final scenes felt very rushed, as though they were put there because an ending was needed for the book to not run on for centuries more, not because there really was an ending. It felt like Doro especially wasn’t the Doro I had spent an entire book reading about. The guy who had spend over 3000 years acting much the same way suddenly had a heel-face-turn and admitted that he needed Anyanwu on a close personal level. It wasn’t unexpected as an event, but it seemed to come on too quickly, an attempt to end the book because it needed ending. Little more.

I feel like anything I really say on this book would be inadequate. I could talk at length about this book, the themes, how they made me feel, how they reflect history, how they reflect the present attitude, but ultimately, writing a book about a book won’t properly convey what it is to actually read the book, to really experience the scope of it. You can’t read this book and not come away from it changed in some way. You get an eye-opener, a disturbing look into an uncomfortable history that’s horribly accurate even when you take into account the fact that you’re reading about generations of people with psychic abilities. If you want a fantasy that will make you think, that will test your viewpoints and your courage, then read Wild Seed.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)