January Wrap-Up

Another month gone by. I know it’s only been 1 month out of an entire year, but it feels already like 2016 is flying by. Which makes me slightly panicky, because when I realize that a whole month is gone, I think about all the things I could have done during that time that I just didn’t, for whatever reason, and even if I did accomplish something, it always feels like I could have done so much more.

Still… I may as well take stock of the stuff I did do, instead of fretting about all the things I didn’t.

Other Stuff

Though I’ve been fairly quiet about it, I’ve been working on an upcoming project a fair bit this past month, and it looks like I’ll be able to start being a bit more public about it about halfway through February. Maybe sooner, but not likely. Let’s just say I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out how to edit videos so that what I do looks a little bit better than half-assed. Just a little. Progress is progress, I guess.

It definitely helps, weirdly, when my Internet connection has been so spotty. Fewer chances to waste time online, more chances to actually do something productive, whether it be about books or videos or cooking or any of the other things I do in my day-to-day life.

Still not much writing, though. That seems to have fallen by the wayside again. Dammit.

Books

When it comes to books, I actually read more than I thought I would in January. 7 titles. Okay, 2 of them were novellas, but still, that’s not too bad a count. 2 full reviews, 1 reread, and the rest I did as mini-reviews, all of which can be read or are linked to below.

Planetfall, by Emma Newman
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Summary: Renata Ghali believed in Lee Suh-Mi’s vision of a world far beyond Earth, calling to humanity. A planet promising to reveal the truth about our place in the cosmos, untainted by overpopulation, pollution, and war. Ren believed in that vision enough to give up everything to follow Suh-Mi into the unknown.

More than twenty-two years have passed since Ren and the rest of the faithful braved the starry abyss and established a colony at the base of an enigmatic alien structure where Suh-Mi has since resided, alone. All that time, Ren has worked hard as the colony’s 3-D printer engineer, creating the tools necessary for human survival in an alien environment, and harboring a devastating secret.

Ren continues to perpetuate the lie forming the foundation of the colony for the good of her fellow colonists, despite the personal cost. Then a stranger appears, far too young to have been part of the first planetfall, a man who bears a remarkable resemblance to Suh-Mi.

The truth Ren has concealed since planetfall can no longer be hidden. And its revelation might tear the colony apart…

Review: Full review here.

Ink, by Amanda Sun
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Summary: On the heels of a family tragedy, the last thing Katie Greene wants to do is move halfway across the world. Stuck with her aunt in Shizuoka, Japan, Katie feels lost. Alone. She doesn’t know the language, she can barely hold a pair of chopsticks, and she can’t seem to get the hang of taking her shoes off whenever she enters a building.

Then there’s gorgeous but aloof Tomohiro, star of the school’s kendo team. How did he really get the scar on his arm? Katie isn’t prepared for the answer. But when she sees the things he draws start moving, there’s no denying the truth: Tomo has a connection to the ancient gods of Japan, and being near Katie is causing his abilities to spiral out of control. If the wrong people notice, they’ll both be targets.

Katie never wanted to move to Japan—now she may not make it out of the country alive.

Review: Reread; full review here.

Rain, by Amanda Sun
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Summary: When she first moved to Japan, American Katie Green had no idea she would get caught in a battle between the Japanese mafia and the supernatural forces that have governed Japan for most of its history. Despite the danger, Katie is determined to stay put. She’s started to build a life in the city of Shizuoka, and she can’t imagine leaving behind her friends, her aunt and especially Tomohiro, the guy she’s fallen in love with.

But the decision to stay is not as simple as she thought. She’s flunking out of Japanese school and committing cultural faux pas wherever she goes. Tomohiro is also struggling—as a Kami, his connection to the ancient gods of Japan and his power to bring drawings to life have begun to spiral out of control.

When Tomo decides to stop drawing, the ink finds other ways to seep into his life—blackouts, threatening messages and the appearance of unexplained sketches. Unsure how to help Tomo, Katie turns to an unexpected source for help—Jun, her former friend and a Kami with an agenda of his own. But is Jun really the ally he claims to be? In order to save themselves, Katie and Tomohiro must unravel the truth about Tomo’s dark ancestry, as well as Katie’s, and confront one of the darkest gods in Japanese legend.

Review: The continuation of the Paper Gods series picks up 2 weeks after the previous novel left off, with Katie deciding to stay in Japan to be with Tomohiro and to learn more about her relation to the ink. But things take a turn for the worse when Tomohiro reveals he’s having greater trouble controlling his powers, Jun’s loyalties are less clear, and Katie herself finds out things about her heritage that make her question where she’s meant to be even more.

Rain was very much “Second verse, same as the first,” which means that if you enjoyed Ink, you’ll very likely enjoy Rain just as much. Same strengths, same weaknesses. I’m still enjoying the portrayal of Japan, though every so often there’s linguistic quirks that I’m not sure work so well in translation — most of the characters speak Japanese unless otherwise stated, which is translated into English for the sake of the reader, only every once in a while an English idiom will be thrown in, and I’m never sure whether I’m just supposed to assume the general intent was translated into something the reader will find more familiar rather than the author including Japanese idioms, or whether I’m meant to assume that the author assumes the same phrase crosses language barriers. More likely the former, since Sun thus far seems pretty decent when it comes to language, dropping Japanese words and phrases into the text in a way that makes for a highly entertaining vocab-building lesson, but those things have always thrown me out of the groove, in part because I’ve read so many books involving other cultures and other languages that utterly fail to understand that these things have their own norms and aren’t just North America with funny writing.

It got increasingly difficult for me to keep a handle on the characters, though. Certain characters strengthened, were made more secure and easy to grasp, but others seemed to practically flip on their heads and turn into the opposite of what I’d come to understand. Shiori goes from a sweet girl with an unrequited crush to a venomous backbiter. Ikeda goes from a tough but wary woman to much of the same. Jun goes from a nice guy with uncertain loyalties to someone who says he’ll take over the world by any means necessary, and at that point I was left wondering when some of these characters turned into caricatures. Ikeda and Shiori weren’t that developed to begin with, so their actions can be excused easily enough, but Jun seemed like he just suddenly lost his grip on reality and went full batshit-crazy.

That being said, I understand that this series takes many elements from shoujo anime, and that kind of twist isn’t entirely unexpected from that medium, so in that sense, I can understand the character shift a bit better. It’s still a bit jarring to read, though, and seems to come out of left field, even considering the events of the novel.

Storm, by Amanda Sun
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Summary: After almost a year in Japan, Katie Greene has finally unearthed the terrible secret behind her boyfriend Tomohiro’s deadly ability to bring drawings to life—not only is he descended from Kami, the ancient Japanese gods, but he is the heir to a tragedy that occurred long ago, a tragedy that is about to repeat.

Even as the blood of a vengeful god rages inside Tomo, Katie is determined to put his dark powers to sleep. In order to do so, she and Tomo must journey to find the three Imperial Treasures of Japan. Gifts from the goddess Amaterasu herself, these treasures could unlock all of the secrets about Tomo’s volatile ancestry and quell the ink’s lust for destruction. But in order to complete their quest, Tomo and Katie must confront out-of-control Kami and former friend Jun, who has begun his own quest of revenge against those he believes have wronged him. To save the world, and themselves, Katie and Tomo will be up against one of the darkest Kami creations they’ve ever encountered—and they may not make it out alive.

Review: The final novel of the Paper Gods trilogy ups the action of the previous 2, with Katie, Tomohiro, and Ishikawa trying to fight against Tomohiro’s destiny as they seek the Imperial Treasure of Japan in the belief that they can end the curse of the ink and kami. As such, it takes a leap away from the strong slice-of-life feel that the earlier 2 books had, abeit slice-of-life mixed with supernatural elements. The trend of introducing aspects of Japanese life and language still runs strong, though, which is one of the things I really like about this series.

Most of what I said about Rain can be said about Storm. The characters all seem to get a lot stronger and more developed, though some of them have major changes of heart near the end. Some, like Jun, are understandable, even though I’d love to know more about how he rationalized half of his actions to himself. (“You’re the descendant of evil! Oh, wait, that’s actually me. Well… you’re still worse! I said so all along!”) Others, like Shiori, come out of left field and have no real explanation. She hated Katie, and then all of a sudden she just gets over Tomohiro and settles down to raise her kid happily and nicely, with no mention at all of her grief or attempts at blackmail. It seemed very much like the author was trying to wrap up dangling plot-threads but didn’t really had anywhere for them to do, so they just get tucked neatly away and let nobody speak of it again.

It’s worth mentioning that I really love the twists on mythology that Sun plays with here. There’s a big deal made about how one has to give in to destiny and how patterns can’t be broken, and as much as the characters want to fight fate, it really does seem like fate can’t be denied in the end, no matter how much you wish otherwise. And that would still have been an interesting ending, to see how Katie deals with what she would have done, but the author instead went for a more typical twist of patterns getting broken anyway, because somebody outside the pattern demanded to have a say in things. And as cheesy as it may have been, it was still a satisfying ending, and it very much fit with the kind of anime that the Paper Gods trilogy clearly draws inspiration from. So while it may not have broken molds, it was still a good ending to the major plot arc, and I have no real complaints about it.

In all, it was a decent YA trilogy that struck many of the right chords with me, with enough to keep me going so that I didn’t feel burned out on one series after reading it all from beginning to end. Which is rare enough, in my experience, and so it’s worth pointing out. It’s not the best, but it definitely has its merits, and if you’re a fan of anime or in decent YA novels set in Japan, then it’s worth checking this series out. It’ll probably amuse you as much as it amused me.

Shadow, by Amanda Sun
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Summary: Katie Greene’s worst nightmare comes true when her mother dies, and she’s devastated to learn that she will have to leave the only home she’s ever known. Desperate to find where she belongs, she must decide if she has what it takes to start a new life across the ocean.

For Yuu Tomohiro, every day is a nightmare. He struggles to control his strange ability, and keeps everyone at a distance so they won’t get hurt—even his girlfriend, Myu. At night, a shadow haunts his dreams, and a mysterious woman torments him with omens of death and destruction. But these haunting premonitions are only the beginning…

Review: The prequel novella to the Paper Gods series, Shadow‘s chapters are told in the first person from alternating viewpoints, Katie’s and Tomohiro’s. Obviously, it takes place before the events of Ink, and doesn’t really reveal anything that didn’t get mentioned in the main novels of the series, so it’s hardly essential to the major story as a whole. However, it’s still interesting as character-building, as we get to see not only Katie’s grief over her mother’s death and her transition from a familiar life in the States to a rather unwanted life in Japan, but we also get to see things from Tomohiro’s perspective, trying to fight against his nightmares and hide his kami powers from those around him.

So interesting, absolutely, but really only if you got invested in the rest of the series and wanted to see a bit more of how it all began. Otherwise, there’s no harm done by skipping Shadow.

Rise, by Amanda Sun
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Summary: A long, long time ago, before the world was as we know it, Izanami and Izanagi came into being. Two of the first of the ancient gods of Japan, they crafted the world from ink and their own imaginations. Izanagi wants, more than anything, to be with Izanami—but one moment of pride could tear them apart forever.

Yuki and Tanaka have been friends for as long as they can remember, but lately deeper feelings have been bubbling beneath the surface. How do they navigate the transition from friendship to true love without destroying the powerful bond between them?

Set a millennia apart, can these two couples, living parallel love stories, find their happily-ever-afters?

Review: I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this novella, to be honest. Much like Shadow, it’s interesting without really having much point, because we see that Yuki and Tanaka get together in the main trilogy, and we don’t really need to see their thought processes and actions behind said hooking up because they’re side characters, and not even side-characters involved in the main story. They’re the more mundane connections in Katie’s life, and so constantly get sidelined, leaving them as flavour text, for the most part.

That said, it is kind of interesting that the author developed the characters beyond what you get to see in the main trilogy, and that they have stories of their own that don’t simply revolve around Katie because she’s the protagonist. So, credit where credit is due.

My main problem with this novella, though, is the parallels it draws between than and Izanami and Izanagi, gods involved in Japan’s creation myth. Mostly because if you want, you can draw parallels between those deities and absolutely any couple that doesn’t communicate perfectly and their relationship suffers for it. I wondered if Sun was trying to imply that Yuki and Tanaka were Izanami and Izanagi incarnate, which would have been fascinating (although admittedly baffling, because holy crap, why then wouldn’t they have larger roles in the main story, and thus would there be other books about them in the future), but that wasn’t where Sun decided to go. It seemed more like a way to introduce Japan’s creation myth to a Western audience than anything else.

Which is fine. But utterly unnecessary to tell a “how these two got together” story.

On the other hand, this novella does have a fair bit of content that’s worthy of praise. First of all, it presents the story of Izanagi and Izanami as a struggling pair that go beyond their roles as creative deities. According to myth, demons get created because Izanami essentially couldn’t keep to her role as subordinate to the male Izanagi. And Rise expands on that a bit by showing how she’s troubled not only by that, but also by her struggles to suppress her own wants and creative urges in order to please her partner, which is unhealthy and ultimately leads to her downfall and corruption. But it presents Izanagi as troubled also, recognizing the problems that his leadership urges have created and yet seeing no way around them, because he couldn’t suppress his own self either. So there’s that aspect, and it addressed a few things that have always bothered me about that myth.

Also, it presents teenage sexuality as not-a-bad-thing. And I don’t mean that in the sense of just admitting that teens can have sexy feelings for each other. Most YA novels address that nowadays, I think. But most also have a, “We feel this way but we know we’re not ready to have sex,” message going alongside it. Which is also fine. It’s good for teens to hear that having those feelings doesn’t always mean you have to act on them if you have reservations. But it’s also nice to see an example of a couple who may have only recently gotten romantic but who have had feelings for each other for years, and so decide, “You know what? We both want to do it. So let’s.” And for that to not really be a big deal, because it was a mutual decision. Their encounter was only implied, but implied strongly, and I kind of liked how it was established but not made into more than it was for either of the characters. So I’ve got to give the author some points for handling that pretty well.

(I’ve now said about as much on a novella that I sometimes say for a novel…)

Skyborn, by David Dalglish
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Summary: Six islands float high above the Endless Ocean, where humanity’s final remnants are locked in brutal civil war.

Their parents slain in battle, twins Kael and Brenna Skyborn are training to be Seraphim, elite soldiers of aerial combat who wield elements of ice, fire, stone and lightning.

When the invasion comes, they will take to the skies, and claim their vengeance.

Review: Full review here.

Skyborn, by David Dalglish

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – November 17, 2015

Summary: Six islands float high above the Endless Ocean, where humanity’s final remnants are locked in brutal civil war.

Their parents slain in battle, twins Kael and Brenna Skyborn are training to be Seraphim, elite soldiers of aerial combat who wield elements of ice, fire, stone and lightning.

When the invasion comes, they will take to the skies, and claim their vengeance.

Review: In what we can assume is a far-future time though it’s never explicitly stated as such, the world is very different from what most people imagine fantasy worlds to be. Instead of taking place on terra firma, humanity has moved to islands in the sky, kept aloft by the grace of God and the theotechs of Center. Kael and Bree, whose parents were killed years ago, are tested for elemental affinity and chosen to join the seraphim, winged fighters and defenders of the islands, following in the footsteps of their deceased parents. But things aren’t quite as straight-forward as they seem, and as time goes on, both Kael and Bree find increasing evidence to show that all is not right with the world, and that their very presence may have further-reaching consequences than either of them could predict.

The world that Dalglish sets up is one that appeals to me. Maybe I’ve just been spending a lot of time in worlds that centre around flight, but something about the seraphim really caught my attention. The seraphim of Skyborn aren’t so much winged messengers of God so much as they are humans with elemental affinity, given mechanical wings powered by magic to enable them to fly. Beyond the thrilling prospect of flight, there was the very notion of the islands themselves, and how they came to be. I like it when books play with religious elements and twist them around a little, so the idea that God might have come and changed humanity, allowing a theocracy to spring up and use magic to keep floating islands going so that people can be closer to God… Yes, there was definitely something in that idea that struck a chord with me, and while I thought that most of the world-building was done on the surface rather than digging deep, it was developed enough to keep me intrigued, and it didn’t raise any questions that had contradictory answers within the text. Dalglish did a lot by keeping things vague, allowing the reader to focus on the world and events at hand rather than dwelling too much on what got them there in the first place.

However, the story itself felt like it was padded in too many places. Allowance can be made for some of this, since the reader is, at times, learning alongside the two protagonists. Their lives have changed, a new chapter begun, and so it makes sense that there’ll be some info-dumping now and again, because they’re getting it too. But when the first chapter essentially has someone walking Bree through the steps involved in strapping on a pair of borrowed wings and how to use her body to maneuver while in flight, it feels unnecessary. Much of that scene could have been skipped, the lessons stated later on. Or the scenes in which Bree and Kael build their respective romantic relationships. Good for character development, bad for pacing, because after a while, it gets dull to read about them going on dates when what I want to know is what’s happening next in the main plot.

And the bulk of the plot doesn’t really pick up in pace until well past the halfway point, leaving the first half feeling much like a, “Here’s what I did at flight camp today” story. Details are great, but at times it seemed like they were coming at the expense of the story.

As far as characters go, much of what needs to be said is about Bree. While Kael plays a part in the story, Bree is the centre of attention for much of the novel. Which is understandable. After all, she has a natural talent at flight, breaks academy records, is insubordinate when she feels like things aren’t going her way, attracts the attention of an older student, and has such a headstrong hot-tempered personality that her control over her fire element is practically nonexistent and yet is the most powerful anybody’s ever seen.

It’s hard to read a lot of her scenes without Mary Sue accusations. And really, she does fit the mold. Even her flaws turn into strengths in the end. Every major event that happens, happens because of her. Even other characters admit it. Which could be find if Bree was the only main character, despite all of her overblown awesomeness. But when she’s alongside Kael, who is average in most ways except for the fact that he ends up dating a royal daughter, the focus comes off as very lopsided, and you start to wonder what the point of Kael is to begin with.

Maybe he’ll play a larger role in later novels in the series. I hope so, because he really doesn’t get much time to shine in Skyborn, overshadowed as he is by his sister.

But despite those fairly large flaws, Skyborn is, over all, an enjoyable book. It ends on a fascinating cliffhanger, things are really starting to heat up politically, and while I wish Bree hadn’t been so overpowered, I am interested in seeing how her story continues in future novels. And Kael’s. Because he needs more love. The writing is smooth even when the pacing is off, the world is interesting and only getting moreso, and Dalglish has given us a pretty compelling beginning to a new aerial fantasy series. Consider me in for future installments.