I planned to make the Books of the Raksura my first Martha Wells books because so many people have raved about them. But, as these things go, Strange Chemistry (Angry Robot’s YA imprint) offered e-ARCs of Wells’ young adult novel on NetGalley and I couldn’t resist.
Published by: Strange Chemistry, April 2013
ebook: 320 pages
Series: Emilie #1
My rating: 4,5/10
First sentence: Creeping along the docks in the dark, looking for the steamship Merry Bell, Emilie was starting to wonder if it might be better to just walk to Silk Harbor.
While running away from home for reasons that are eminently defensible, Emilie’s plans to stow away on the steamship Merry Bell and reach her cousin in the big city go awry, landing her on the wrong ship and at the beginning of a fantastic adventure.
Taken under the protection of Lady Marlende, Emilie learns that the crew hopes to use the aether currents and an experimental engine, and with the assistance of Lord Engal, journey to the interior of the planet in search of Marlende’s missing father.
With the ship damaged on arrival, they attempt to traverse the strange lands on their quest. But when evidence points to sabotage and they encounter the treacherous Lord Ivers, along with the strange race of the sea-lands, Emilie has to make some challenging decisions and take daring action if they are ever to reach the surface world again.
It is rare that I can’t make up my mind whether I liked or disliked a book. I suppose one emotion always outweighs the other and if you pinned me down I’d have to go with “rather disliked it”. Emilie and the Hollow World is a nod toward the wonderful Jules Verne adventures, discovering new worlds hidden within our own, meeting strange peoples and making new friends. The idea is wonderful and adding magic to it seems like a nice bonus. But there were many little things wrong with this book that add up to a rather unengaging reading experience.
It starts with a minor qualm – the protagonist’s age. Emilie is supposed to be 16 but from the get go, I though of her much more as a 12-year-old, maximum. She acts and speaks like a much younger person and if her age hadn’t been mentioned, I would have happily continued imagining a little girl. But the fact that we are told how old she is, bothered me. Emilie runs away from home, intending to buy passage on a ship. Instead, she realises she’s spent too much of her money on food, has to run away from people who suspect her of being a thief, and ends up as a stowaway on the Sovereign.
Of course, that much fancier ship has its own crew but just when they disocver Emilie, chaos ensues. I assumed the issues of her being a runaway and hiding on their ship would be talked about when the characters were out of immediate danger. But no, people just seem to take things the way they come without asking questions. The author seems to expect a bit too much suspension of desbelief here and while I am willing to believe pretty much anything for the sake of a good story, it needs to work within that story. This tale is set in a world that seems to believe in reason and science and rules. So it should strike somebody as odd that a young girl has run away from home, and even though Emilie explains her reasons, there were still two points that annoyed me. First of all, her reasons sound very good but unfortunately we are told them, never shown them. If the book had opened with Emilie suffering from her uncle and aunt’s treatment, her entire character would have been much stronger. Secondly, even if I accept that the ship’s crew feels empathy for Emilie and there’s not much to be done about her (now that she’s on the ship) it strikes me as very unlikely they would involve her so quickly and deeply into their venture and lay open all their plans. If anything, it would have been believable for her to become a kitchen maid on the ship to pay her passage and cleverly overhear these plans.
Once they arrive in the Hollow World – via aetheric engine (read: magic) – a lot of stuff happens but nothing of real consequence. Of course, there are things afoot that will have consequences for the people of the hollow world, but since they aren’t the main characters of this story, there was not much for me to engage with. At that point, the focus of the story shifts from Emlie to the politics of the Hollow World – since we don’t get enough time with any of the parties involved, I had a lot of trouble working up enough interest to keep reading. This not very thick novel took me a good two months to finish. It just lacked drive, after the initial action-packed moments with Emilie running away from home.
The characters, including Emilie, were flat and underdeveloped. There would have been so much potential for this young girl to realise she can take things into her own hands, that she doesn’t have to depend on other people. But Emilie comes out of this story pretty much the way she entered. The only exception to this was Kenar, the most interesting character in the entire book. Unfortunately, we get see very little of him in the second half, which made it even more tedious to read. Another problem I had with the characters was that there was no real bonding between them, despite being through quite a lot of adventures together. If the protagonist doesn’t seem to truly care about her companions, why should I? Again, we were told that they were sad to say goodbye, but we’re not shown why.
The bottom line for me is: Reading this book felt more like a job, something I had to do, instead of a story I couldn’t wait to get back to. Whenever I put it aside after half a chapter, it took a lot of willpower to pick it up again. A novel, especially a novel aimed at children, should at least get the entertainment factor right.
THE GOOD: A good premise and a nice tip of the hat to Jules Verne.
THE BAD: Emilie came over much too young, despite non-stop action, there is very little development or emotionally engaging moments.
THE VERDICT: It’s a gamble. Maybe if I were 10 years old I would have liked this book more. This way, it was neither horrible nor good. The few elements I enjoyed didn’t get enough screen time and most of the time, I didn’t care enough to pick the book up and continue reading. And I certainly won’t be back for more of this series. Wells’ other books though… probably.
RATING: 4,5/10 – Bad but not terrible
Gail Carriger gives the YA genre a try in her new Finishing School series. Despite my misgivings about the later Parasol Protectorate books, I was as excited about this as anyone. Some of my hopes were met and we do get a new lovable cast of characters but we also get a lot of things we’ve already read in her previous books. All things considered, however, this book offers fun on every single page and I’ll happily continue reading this new series.
Published by: Little, Brown, 2013
ebook: 320 pages
Series: Finishing School #1
My rating: 7/10
First sentence: Sophronia intended to pull the dumbwaiter up from the kitchen to outside the front parlor on the ground floor, where Mrs. Barnaclegoose was taking tea.
It’s one thing to learn to curtsy properly. It’s quite another to learn to curtsy and throw a knife at the same time. Welcome to Finishing School.
Sophronia Temminnick at 14 is a great trial more interested in dismantling clocks and climbing trees than proper manners — and the family can only hope that company never sees her atrocious curtsy. Her poor mother, desperate for her daughter to become a proper lady, enrolls the lively tomboy in Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality. But young ladies learn to finish…everything. Certainly, they learn the fine arts of dance, dress, and etiquette, but they also learn to deal out death, diversion, and espionage — in the politest possible ways, of course. Sophronia and her friends are in for a rousing first year’s education.
I love books about schools. Even before Harry Potter, there was something about fictional characters going through the same ordeals I had to, only they get to do it in awesome fantasy worlds and learn magic – or in this case, the fine art of finishing. At Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing School, Sophronia not only learns how to curtsy properly or the language a fan can speak, she is also instructed in obtaining secret information, killing silently, and sneaking about. Personally, I wouldn’t have minded reading more about the actual lessons, but Sophronia manages to teach herself enough sneaking about and investigating to make up for an entire school year.
What I liked about this was that the writing is clearly recognizable as Gail Carriger, yet it has its own distinct voice. It is set in the same world as the Parasol Protectorate, some 20 years earlier, but because we get a new protagonist, an entirely new setting, and a few new steampunk inventions, Etiquette & Espionage has a freshness to it that I’ve been missing in Gail Carriger’s latest books. The only thing that classifies this as young adult fiction is the lack of sex and the protagonists’ age. Other than that, it pretty much feels like coming home into a hilarious universe of werewolves, vampires, high tea, and the art of eyelash fluttering.
My misgivings are few and negligible. I felt a little cheated that the author borrows so heavily from already established ideas and that some others felt almost anachronicstic. In this alternate universe we’ve got to know in the Parasol Protectorate, we are travelling into the past. To find out there were robots everywhere? If people had invented mechanical household servants, then why does nobody in Alexia Tarabotti’s time seem to have them? A useful thing like that wouldn’t just go out of fashion, would it? Like I said, it took me a little out of the flow but it wasn’t a big deal, overall. The mechanicals are handled in such a fun way that I’ll suspend my disbelief a little more.
A wonderful bonus for old fans is that we get to meet two well-known character’s younger selves and that’s all I’m going to say about it. It was a pleasant surprise and said characters grew on me even more than in the Parasol Protectorate. As characters go, Sophronia was a likable, flawed heroine who is far too blunt for her own good, but all the more endearing for it. Her friends – excepting the two mentioned above – felt more like charicatures than real people. Dimity was clearly a rip-off of Carriger’s own Ivy Hisslepenny, with a tendency toward the ridiculous, but her constant fainting fits made for some truly funny scenes. I was also thrilled to find a dark-skinned character who, because Sophronia just isn’t a society lady, is treated just the same as everybody else – at least by her. The issues are not ignored, it’s just that the protagonist doesn’t see any issues with having a friend who’s skin is a different color than her own.
At the center of the plot are several mysteries that Sophronia and her friends are trying to solve. But there are also classes, supernaturals to be dealt with, the usual school girl enmities and rumors floating about the school. Being a lady and an intelligencer at the same time proves to be harder than expected. But for us, who get to read about the insanity that is the Finishing School, it is first and foremost great fun. And I do have to mention that Sophronia is by far the coolest name the author has come up with so far. Frowbritcher, Mrs. Barnaclegoose, and Lord Dingleproops were tough contenders, but Sophronia is still my favorite name.
This may not be a groundbreaking book for Gail Carriger, but it was insane fun to read. Her sense of humor, although we’ve all heard it before, doesn’t fail to amuse and I actually preferred some of the ridiculous lessons Sophronia has to take to Alexia’s investigations. I don’t expect to be blown away by any of Carriger’s books anymore but if I have a couple of spare hours, they are wonderfully silly fun and well worth the read.
THE GOOD: Gail Carriger’s hilarious voice is back. The Finishing School and its classes are wonderful, Sophronia a great protagonist and I loved the “reunion” with characters we’ve previously met as adults.
THE BAD: Some rehashing of old ideas and gimmicks.
BONUS: Bumbersnoot the mechanimal. Oh, and flywaymen.
THE VERDICT: A hilarious and charming story set in a very steampunk-y world. The endearing characters and the sense of humor make up for any problems with the plot I may have had. Rcommended for fans of Gail Carrigers or those completely new to her writing.
MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good
A word on the covers:
I hated the Parasol Protectorate covers. Not because I disliked the design. The black and white background with a lady in a colorful dress was actually a brilliant idea. It’s just that I personally found the cover model to look neither like Alexia nor in any way pretty.
This time, the designers flipped it around and we get a colorful background with a (very pretty) young lady in black and white. I love the design and the different patterns on the wallpaper. The dresses are wonderful and the scissors/knife are a nice touch that give you a feeling of what you may find inside these books. Well done, Little, Brown!
HOW did I wait this long to discover China Miéville? Can anybody tell me why of all the recommendations I’ve been given, none ever enticed me enough to pick up this book? Well, I found my way in the end, and I have a lot more Miéville to discover. This was an odyssey of a book and I admit, I dragged it out a lot, simply because I wasn’t quite ready to leave that world yet.
PERDIDO STREET STATION
by China Miéville
Published by: Pan Macmillan, 2011 (2000)
Series: New Crobuzon #1
My rating: 9/10
First sentence: Veldt to scrub to fields to farms to these first tumbling houses that rise from the earth.
The metropolis of New Crobuzon sprawls at the centre of its own bewildering world. Humans and mutants and arcane races throng the gloom beneath its chimneys, where the rivers are sluggish with unnatural effluent, and factories and foundries pound into the night. For more than a thousand years, the parliament and its brutal militia have ruled over a vast array of workers and artists, spies, magicians, junkies and whores.
Now a stranger has come, with a pocketful of gold and an impossible demand, and inadvertently something unthinkable is released. As the city becomes gripped by an alien terror, the fate of millions depends on a clutch of outcasts on the run from lawmakers and crimelords alike. The urban nightscape becomes a hunting ground. Battles rage in the shadows of bizarre buildings. And a reckoning is due at the city’s heart, under the vast chaotic vaults of Perdido Street Station.
I find myself in an exceedingly difficult situation. Trying to review this book without giving too much away but still being able to mention all the awesome things and ideas, seems unfeasible. Perdido Street Station is a trip into the teeming, filthy city of New Crobuzon. A place full of drugs and crime and slums and starving artists and even starving scientists. Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin is one such and the project of his life – building a Crisis engine – is going nowhere. When a stranger turns up with a seemingly impossible request, Isaac finds a new project to persue. But then, as things do in fiction, everything goes wrong and shit just won’t stop hitting the fan.
When China Miéville eases his readers into this word. the plot moves slowly, and he takes his time showing us around the city of New Crobuzon. But don’t worry. This is not just a tour around the city where we’re told that on our right hand side, we can see this species and on the left we see that species. But honestly, I wouldn’t have minded if that’s all it was. There are so many things to discover in New Crobuzon and while I think I got a general feel for the city, I haven’t seen nearly enough. We get some great insight into the khepri – people with human bodies but a bug as a head – as well as the garuda – winged humanoids with a bird’s head. But there is so much more. I could gush and gush about the many ideas but that would take away the fun of discovering them for yourself. And you should.
One idea in particular that caught my interest was the Remade, criminals who have metal or animal body parts attached to them to represent their crimes. How awesome is that! I also loved that every idea gets its proper time to be explored. As weird as it sounds, having just finished a book of 900 pages, I could have read about the Remade or the khepri, the vodyanoi, the currupt politicians, the drug lords and the criminal masterminds, for another 1000 pages.
The longer I read, the more I got the feeling that the author just put a whole lot of ideas into a pot, stirred, and out came an incredible city, densely populated by wonders upon wonders. As if that weren’t enough, Miéville also tells a gripping and terrifying story. The path of this 900-page-book is littered with plot-twists, ideas upon ideas, and not least, great writing. He had me fooled more than once and until it was over, I wasn’t sure how exactly this story would end.
China Miéville has his narrative down to perfection. And to add the cherry on top, I loved the writing style. It is flowery and (I think that goes without saying) vivid in detail but never, ever, boring. He switches perspectives frequently, showing us different sides of the same story, letting us enter the minds of several characters.
I understand why every single of his books is nominated for numerous awards and why people are so impressed with him. A word of caution is necessary, however, because I believe the style can very much be hit and miss. Before you buy this, read the first chapter to make sure you like it. If you do, you’re in for an epic adventure. China Miéville proves that fantasy does not have to be tropes and traditions only, that his imagination is endless and his skill phenomenal.
THE GOOD: If I start here, I’ll never stop. Characters, plot, style, monsters, world building…
THE BAD: It’s hard to find fault with this. If I have to pick something, I’d say the last third could have been shortened. Maybe.
THE VERDICT: An excellent book full of original ideas, great writing, and a well thought-out, fascinating city.
RATING: 9/10 Nearly perfect
The Bas Lag Cycle:
- Perdido Street Station
- The Scar
- The Iron Council
Thanks to Becky from Pan Macmillan for my first ever paper review copy. Yay! And such a beautiful book, too. The hype had kept me from picking it up even though the cover art and design are amazing. And I love steampunk – when done well. So all you Clockwork Century fans out there, brace yourselves and get the tomatoes ready. You’re not going to like me very much for this one…
Published by: Tor, 2012 (2009)
Copy: review paperback from the publisher
Series: The Clockwork Century #1
My rating: 4,5/10
First sentence: Unpaved, uneven trails pretended to be roads; they tied the nations coasts together like laces holding a boot, binding it with crosed strings and crossed fingers.
Cherie Priest’s much-anticipated steampunk debut has finally arrived in the form of a paperback original. Its plot features the sort of calibrated suspense that readers of her Four and Twenty Blackbirds would expect. Boneshaker derives its title from the Bone-Shaking Drill Engine, a device designed to give Russian prospectors a leg up in the race for Klondike gold. Unfortunately, there was one hitch: On its trial run, the Boneshaker went haywire and, long story short, turned much of Seattle into a city of the dead. Now, 16 years later, a teenage boy decides to find out what is behind that mysterious wall. Can his mother save him in time? Zombie lit of the first order.
Oh dear… So this novel is marketed and sold as a steampunk civil war story with zombies. What’s not to like, right? But there are so many things wrong with it that it’s hard to begin. First of all, the civil war aspect doesn’t come through at all during the entire narration. We are told once or twice that there is a war going on and that, once it’s over, Briar would like to move east. That’s it. We’re not shown the poverty or the suffering or any repercussions of the actual war. I expected something more epic, but this is a very small-scale story. Seeing as the setting is fairly closed and the novel takes place in and around the city of Seattle, I can live with that. I am also under the impression that it is supposed to be an adult novel – not that there’s any great amounts of sex or violence in here – but adult nonetheless. However, the writing reads very much like a YA book. The language is simple, the story straight-forward, there are very few characters, and I didn’t like the style at all, to be honest. What gave me this YA impression was the difference between the playful, funny first chapter, and everything that followed. I adored that intro chapter that sets up the entire book with Leviticus Blue’s invention of the Boneshaker. After that, the style became simpler, the dialogue was very convoluted. I got the feeling that these things may have sounded much better when said out loud than they did on the page. The many mid-sentence stops, the constant use of “look…” before someone starts explaining something. It got on my nerves fairly quickly.
Another negative for me: the time period does not come to life at all. Women wear men’s clothes, there doesn’t seem to be any prejudice towards what is a woman’s job and what’s a man’s job – it all felt way too modern. What bothered me more, though, was that the city of Seattle didn’t get any character either. In interviews Cherie Priest said that she was fascinated with this underworld-like system of tunnels existing under the city. While we do spend a considerable (and very boring) time in these tunnels, the descriptions of them didn’t bring them to life for me. Pretty much the same thing goes for the steampunk element. It’s peripheral at best and, again, not well described. People have to wear masks in order not to turn into Rotters, and there are airships. How these operate, we aren’t told. Sure, there are a lot of levers everywhere but, again, we don’t really get to see the inner workings of any machinery.
My biggest pet peeve, as I’ve mentioned in the first paragraph, was the writing style. There are so many things wrong with it that I should really just make a list. But I’ll be a good reviewer and explain to you why it bothered me so much. First of all, the dialogue was atrocious. Nobody talks like that, in no period of time. It felt unnatural and took me out of the flow of the story. Whenever somebody points into a direction or points at something our characters are supposed to look at – we don’t get a description of that particular thing. Instead, we get strange, mid-sentence-stop dialogue.
“Where’s the fort?” the captain demanded. For the first time he sounded flustered, maybe even on the edge of afraid. “Six o’clock.” “From which…? From where…?” “Over there.” “I see it,” he said suddenly, and yanked at the lever above his head.
There were also some pieces of dialogue that made me wonder if my grasp of the English language is simply not firm enough to understand them or if there are logical mistakes (I am still learning English after all, so if it’s me, please tell me).
Parks leaned over the slumping form of Mr. Guise and pulled a lever, then stretched his foot over the slouching body to push a pedal. It was the wrong pedal, or maybe the right one.
Well, which one is it? Shouldn’t the effect of pushing the pedal make it very clear whether it was the right or the wrong one? Aren’t you expecting something to happen when you push the right pedal – and if that effect does not come to pass, can’t you logically conclude that it was the wrong one? Seriously, this bit just had me lost.
You know how important characters are for me. If all of these things were still as bad as they are but if I cared about the characters, I could have forgiven them. BUT. We only get two protagonists who, while decently introduced, remain extremely bland and pale. As for other characters, they are basically just cardboard cut-outs with names attached to them.
Varney and Willard stayed close on either side of Lucy, and Swakhammer led the way with Briar beside him. The rest of them – Frank, Ed, Allen, David, Squiddy, Joe, Mackie, and Tim – brought up the rear. They marched together in silence, except for Frank and Ed, who were grousing about Hank.
Cherie Priest throws names at us, without any attributes. Not even a hair color (which, granted, doesn’t make a character, but at least gives you something to hold on to). No no, except for a random few characters who we’re told have only one arm or a strange voice or are particularly tall, we don’t get anything at all. So why should I care if one of them gets killed? All I know is their name and, by deduction, their gender.
So let’s move on to the plot. After that brilliant prologue and the first few chapters, the situation is set up. We – the readers – know about it and we want to follow our two protagonists along and see how the plan works out for them. On her way, Briar meets some people, tells them her plan in its entirety. Then she meets new people, so hey, let’s rehash the plan again. And of course how she got to be here. The same things got repeated over and over, by different characters in different situations and it took out soooo much pace. Cherie Priest said in this interview (click to go to Youtube – the part I mean is at about 4:50) that she always knows the beginning and the end of her books and kind of muddles around the middle. Well, I can tell. Because the beginning was not only good, that very first chapter was even wonderful. It was quirky and funny and I loved the narrative voice. That changes when we meet Briar and Zeke – but even their first chapters were still fine and interesting. The middle part, though, was an entirely different story. Boy oh boy, I would have edited the shit out of those parts. All the time spent repeating things the reader already knows could have been used for character development or for plot twists or for new ideas. Or some world building.
The world building has one fundamental flaw. Apart from a lack of atmosphere (maybe that’s just my taste), the question that remained open for me and makes the entire story completely unbelievable was: How the fuck do these people get food? They live inside the walled city of Seattle, they mostly live underground. Air gets filtered, they even built machines to distill water so they have something to drink. But what do they eat??? There are no animals (maybe zombie-animals), no plants grow there, the Blight destroys everything. Sure, some of them trade sap (a drug made from the Blight) and I’m assuming they get some food in return. But how does the majority of the population live? All those Chinese people? From what we learn of airships going to the city, they don’t come often and there’s not many of them. So tell me, HOW THE FUCK DO THESE PEOPLE EAT? Zeke only eats once that we know of and Briar doesn’t eat at all while in Seattle. They also don’t seem to suffer a lot of hunger. Wow… last time I didn’t eat for half a day, I was cranky and ravenous.
After that huge rant, let me say that I will give Cherie Priest another shot. Why? Because of that first chapter. It leads me me to believe that she can write, that she has good ideas. This may be a small hope to hang on to, but it’s the only one I have.
THE GOOD: A wonderful prologue and some interesting ideas.
THE BAD: Could have benefited greatly from some more editing and a course of Writing 101.
THE VERDICT: A good idea. It felt like the author was too lazy to do any of the hard bits – world building, good dialoge, suspense, and good prose.
MY RATING: 4,5/10 Really not that good.
The Clockwork Century:
My holidays are over and I’ve got some reviews to catch up on. Since the theme of the month over at Literaturschock was “books with extras”, I picked this steampunk young adult book with loads of gorgeous illustrations. There’s a small taste below. I wasn’t totally convinced and I definitely don’t understand the hype, but I did have fun reading this book.
illustrated by: Keith Thompson
published: Simon Pulse, 2009
series: Leviathan #1
my rating: 5,5/10
First sentence: The Austrian horses glinted in the moonlight, their riders standing tall in the saddle, swords raised.
It is the cusp of World War I, and all the European powers are arming up. The Austro-Hungarians and Germans have their Clankers, steam-driven iron machines loaded with guns and ammunition. The British Darwinists employ fabricated animals as their weaponry. Their Leviathan is a whale airship, and the most masterful beast in the British fleet. Aleksandar Ferdinand, prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is on the run. His own people have turned on him. His title is worthless. All he has is a battle-torn Stormwalker and a loyal crew of men.
Deryn Sharp is a commoner, a girl disguised as a boy in the British Air Service. She’s a brilliant airman. But her secret is in constant danger of being discovered.
With the Great War brewing, Alek’s and Deryn’s paths cross in the most unexpected way…taking them both aboard the Leviathan on a fantastical, around-the-world adventure. One that will change both their lives forever.
Genetically modified animals that are used as airships and giant war machines? Yes, please! With my head spinning happily from the wealth of ideas I expected in this book, I dove into the adventure. And was mostly disppointed. Aleksandar, called Alek, was happily playing at war in his room when count Volger and master Klopp get him and flee across the country in a Stormwalker, a rather large machine, whose steampunky-ness was just to my liking. Since they stay in this machine and nothing much happens for about 100 pages, I got bored pretty soon.
But Alek is not the only protagonist. We also follow Deryn Sharp who disguises herself as a boy, Dylan, to enter the Royal Army and become a member on an airship. The author’s plotting, some luck, and a whole lot of suspension of desbelief, lead her to the Leviathan, a whale that is also a ship – and pretty much the coolest thing in this book. Westerfeld’s ideas may not hold up to closer looks and use of logic but they sure are fun to read about. An entire floating eco-system of a whale (inside of which you can wakl around, by the way), bees fléchette bats and dog-like sniffers. That’s what I was looking for.
The characters stay incredibly shallow though and beyond the basic information of who they are and how they got into this particular situation, we don’t learn anything about them, they don’t grow as characters and they don’t show any depth. Side characters are pretty much the same but for some reason, I didn’t mind so much with them. A big minus for characters, though, because you know me… if I don’t care about the characters, the book has already lost a chance at brilliance.
I was surprised to find out how thin the plot was. In a slim novel like this with some great ideas, I was expecting action to follow action. But for a reason. Being randomly attacked while trying to get out of the country may be accurate but doesn’t make for a very interesting story. The plot actually only starts kicking off in the middle of the book, when our two protagonists meet. That’s when I got the Leviathan fever and couldn’t put the book down. I thoroughly enjoyed the second half and the ending of the story. However, if books 2 and 3 offer equally thin plotlines, Scott Westerfeld could have just put them into one novel. Just sayin…
THE GOOD: Great and fresh ideas, a new spin on steampunk. Beautiful illustrations make it a vivid adventure that will leave you wanting more.
THE BAD: Flat characters, surprisingly little plot and a very open ending (you kind of want to read on).
THE VERDICT: Maybe I really am too old for YA books. I think if I had read this 15 years ago, I would have loved it. If you don’t mind lacking character growth so much and if you like steampunk, go straight ahead. This ended up being quite some fun after all.
RATING: 5,5/10 Not great but with some potential.
I have to say this right away: I loved how this series started, but every book has been a little less great than its predecessor. As we constantly rehash the same ideas and make the same jokes, I got tired of Alexia (formerly) Tarabotti and her entourage of whimsical friends. But I can’t leave a series like this unfinished (especially if I got this far) and dove nose-first into Timeless to see if, maybe, I just got an overdose of Parasol Protectorate the first time around…
published: Orbit, March 2012
series: The Parasol Protectorate #5
my rating: 5,5/10
first sentence: “I said no such thing,” grumbled Lord Maccon, allowing himself, begrudgingly, to be trussed in a new evening jacket.
Alexia Tarabotti, Lady Maccon, has settled into domestic bliss. Of course, being Alexia, such bliss involves integrating werewolves into London High society, living in a vampire’s second best closet, and coping with a precocious toddler who is prone to turning supernatural willy-nilly. Even Ivy Tunstell’s acting troupe’s latest play, disastrous to say the least, cannot put a damper on Alexia’s enjoyment of her new London lifestyle. Until, that is, she receives a summons from Alexandria that cannot be ignored. With husband, child, and Tunstells in tow, Alexia boards a steamer to cross the Mediterranean. But Egypt may hold more mysteries than even the indomitable Lady Maccon can handle. What does the vampire Queen of the Alexandria Hive really want from her? Why is the God-Breaker Plague suddenly expanding? And how has Ivy Tunstell suddenly become the most popular actress in all the British Empire?
I don’t know what it is exactly but I get the feeling, Gail Carriger (who is super-nice, btw) created a nice little cozy world with her Parasol Protectorate series, but doesn’t seem to want to explore or expand it too much. Which is a shame because I would just love to learn more about airships, octomatons, supernaturals, preternaturals and, especially, metanaturals. The author does come up with one little tidbit of new information in every book, but mostly, the explanations aren’t worth the pages it takes getting there.
Maybe I shouldn’t have started on such a negative note. Dear readers, know that I absolutely adore Alexia Tarabotti and her bluestocking ways. Soulless was a surprise literary crush for me and I devoured the first three books in the series in one go. Gail Carriger has a way with whimsy. Be it Alexia’s shock at the taste of coffee (what a ghastly beverage, really! Why doesn’t the entire world simply drink tea?), the silly hats of Ivy Tunstell, or even the expressions used by the author to describe her heroes and heroines. These books have one thing, above all others, and that is flair. Diving into a Parasol Protectorate novel is switching off the real world for a while in the most pleasant ways.
But. I’ve said it in my opening to this post. While Soulless was a perfect little novel for me, Changeless was already a tiny bit less good, with every sequel being still a tiny bit less good. The first half of Timeless was actually rather tedious to read. It takes almost exactly that half to get interesting, for the plot to pick up. I enjoy Alexia’s antics and Lord Akeldama’s ridiculous nicknames for everybody. But we’ve all seen it before. We’ve been told the same jokes and were supposed to smile about the same silly things (such as Ivy’s hats) for four entire books. And the first chapter or so, I enjoyed being back in that world of vampires, werewolves, and parasols. But, simply stated, then it just got boring.
At the 50% mark, the plot picks up with surprising speed, though, and I was intruigued yet again. I wanted to learn, as much as Alexia, what was going on, and finally get a satisfying answer to questions that have been around for several books in the series. While the payoff wasn’t really that great (again, nothing new to be learned, really), there were some great action scenes and a handful of new, interesting character developments that kept me well entertained. I always enjoy when authors get out of the safe zone and write about gay love. And while I’m not sure if this particular couple wouldn’t have deserved a more in-depth exploration of their characters and budding love, I enjoyed reading about it.
In conclusion, I highly recommend the first novel in the series, the rest not so much. But I do look forward to Etiquette and Espionage and hope that we’ll get to see a lot more of the charming world this charming author has created.
THE GOOD: This last instalment in the series delivers exactly what you expect. Silliness, tea, airtravel, vampires and werewolves.
THE BAD: Takes a long time to pick up the pace, then we get the same things we got from previous instalments.
THE VERDICT: A fun, light story that you’ll probably want to read if you liked the rest of the series. A lot of potential was left unfulfilled, though.
RATING: 5,5/10 A little better than meh.
I was super excited to get an e-ARC of this book. It has lived through some considerable pre-publication hype and, I admit yet again to be a influenced by covers, the art on the US edition is stunning. I also want to say how nice and friendly the publisher is. My e-book copy was a PDF-file with tiny print, so I wrote them an e-mail asking for an epub copy. Not only did they reply within a few hours but I also got an epub copy right away. I haven’t had much experience with publishers and ARCs, so I was surprised and very happy how friendly they were. Big thumbs up for being nice to reviewers! And yes, little things like this will make me more inclined to purchase other books from St. Martin’s Press and keep an eye on their catalogue. Also, this book happens to be really good.
published: St. Martin’s Press, 2012
copy: ebook via NetGalley
series: The Lotus War #1
my rating: 5,5/10
first sentence: As the iron war club scythed toward her head, Yukiko couldn’t help wishing she’d listened to her father.
A DYING LAND
The Shima Imperium verges on the brink of environmental collapse; an island nation once rich in tradition and myth, now decimated by clockwork industrialization and the machine-worshipers of the Lotus Guild. The skies are red as blood, the land is choked with toxic pollution, and the great spirit animals that once roamed its wilds have departed forever.
AN IMPOSSIBLE QUEST
The hunters of Shima’s imperial court are charged by their Shōgun to capture a thunder tiger – a legendary creature, half-eagle, half-tiger. But any fool knows the beasts have been extinct for more than a century, and the price of failing the Shōgun is death.
A HIDDEN GIFT
Yukiko is a child of the Fox clan, possessed of a talent that if discovered, would see her executed by the Lotus Guild. Accompanying her father on the Shōgun’s hunt, she finds herself stranded: a young woman alone in Shima’s last wilderness, with only a furious, crippled thunder tiger for company. Even though she can hear his thoughts, even though she saved his life, all she knows for certain is he’d rather see her dead than help her.
But together, the pair will form an indomitable friendship, and rise to challenge the might of an empire.
The lotus must bloom.
I was tempted to give this book an 8 out of 10 for a while. It starts out really, really good. We are thrown into a convincing steampunk world that isn’t just gears on corsets and blimps flying around for no good reason. There is one great idea – the use of the lotus plant for pretty much everything – that defines an entire nation and culture. Lotus is used for fuelling machinery, it’s used as weed for smoking, the reddish smoke it produces pullutes the sky and gives the entire book a feel of its own. The cover – I’m going to rave about it some more later – captures all of this brilliantly. It’s not only black and red because that looks cool, but because it is really part of the story. Another compliment to the publishers.
As great as the idea may be, I would have loved to get into a little more depth when it comes to world-building. What we know so far sounds plausible and, like I said, makes for a fantastic and original world. But it’s simply left at that and we don’t get to find out (yet!) the intricacies of how this came to pass and how it all fits into the society that was created. My hopes lie in the next instalment…
The writing style is very descriptive, sometimes to the point where it gets a little too much. Then again, this is a lush world that never lets us forget how much lotus has taken over everyday life. Personally, I’d rather have too much description than too little so I’m totally fine with this. If descriptions make the character development suffer though, that’s a different thing. Characters – as readers of this blog will know by now – are the most important thing for me. In the beginning of the story, we had a cast of characters and I noticed that Yukiko’s father actually stole the show from her. He was interesting. He was obviously fighting some internal dilemma, some demons of the past, and I cared for him immediately.
Yukiko, our protagonist, stays in the background for quite a while and when she does become the main focus of the story, I found her too passive. Except for the defining moment when she takes matters into her own hands, starting this whole adventure, she usually just listens to what people say, executes plans and reacts. She was likable enough but too vague a character for my taste and definitely not active enough.
Now to the story. It starts our really, really good. Original ideas paired with a compelling world make for a nice adventure. You want to discover this place, you want to learn what makes it tick and how this society works. And of course, you want to learn how to train your arashitora. The thunder tiger was my personal hero of this story. He starts out as a beast, a wild creature that needs freedom and flight and despises humanity for having ruined their environment. When he bonds with Yukiko, things happened a little too fast for my taste. “Taming” (if you can call it that) an animal, mythological or not, should take more time. I didn’t really believe the creation of their bond but I absolutely loved how it grew over time. Once they’re friends, their emotions get tangible and I cared whether they were together or not. This makes for some great scenes later on in the book (and that’s all I’m going to say, so as not to spoil).
I do have one big pet peeve with this book. The plot, while starting out great, becomes predictable and kind of lazy later on. It would be possible to describe the entire plot of the book in one simple sentence. And condensed to such a level, it’s not very original. Girl bonds with mythological creature. Tries to save empire from evil. My problem with this was that it was clear what the quest was too early on and there weren’t realy any twists to keep me guessing. The climax was partly over-dramatic and partly even boring. We knew what was going to happen.
As for the love story, it was also extremely predictable, but I still enjoyed reading about it. I like that it doesn’t take up a lot of the book, it’s sort of a sub-plot in the background. Again, I would have liked more information on the romantic interest’s background and daily life but I suppose I can’t have it all. There are more books coming, after all. And I am waiting for them eagerly.
Here’s the cover rant and rave:
It is perfect! Down to the nine-tailed fox tattoo on Yukiko’s right arm. The arashitora looks just like it’s described in the story and it’s so refreshing to have a cover depict the actual main character. I remember some incident where a book featured a dark-skinned protagonist and the cover showed the whitest girl possible. Here, you can tell a lot of thought went into the cover art. I found some work-in-progress and alternate covers for this book but ultimately, they went with the best one. (Alternate covers found on in this great Jason Chan interview about the cover evolution)
On a side note, I’m glad I’m not the only one who has noticed that Jay Kristoff looks a lot like the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl. Yummy is all I say. (Not that this has any impact on the review at all…)
THE GOOD: Interesting world, descriptive writing and a lot of potential for the next book.
THE BAD: Some things are left unexplored, the main plot was a bit predictable.
THE VERDICT: Recommended. If you like steampunk or Japan or flying mythological creatures bonding with young girls, you will enjoy this a lot. And it makes you want more!
RATING: 5,5/10 A quite good read.
The Lotus War:
Also, check out this awesome alternative cover – the Thunder Tiger edition – as found on Jay Kristoff’s blog:
Ever since Firefly ended (yep, I’m still mourning), I’ve been wanting another story with a crew on a ship that makes me feel right at home. The very first page gives you that warm, fuzzy feeling and makes you excited for things to come. You are ready for adventure and fun and danger – and the author simply delivers. This may be no Firefly, but it sure is a lot of fun.
published: Gollancz ,2009
series: Tales of the Ketty Jay #1
my rating: 7/10
first sentence: The smuggler held the bullet between thumb and forefinger, studying it in the weak light of the store room.
Sky piracy is a bit out of Darian Frey’s league. Fate has not been kind to the captain of the airship Ketty Jay—or his motley crew. They are all running from something. Crake is a daemonist in hiding, traveling with an armored golem and burdened by guilt. Jez is the new navigator, desperate to keep her secret from the rest of the crew. Malvery is a disgraced doctor, drinking himself to death. So when an opportunity arises to steal a chest of gems from a vulnerable airship, Frey can’t pass it up. It’s an easy take—and the payoff will finally make him a rich man. But when the attack goes horribly wrong, Frey suddenly finds himself the most wanted man in Vardia, trailed by bounty hunters, the elite Century Knights, and the dread queen of the skies, Trinica Dracken. Frey realizes that they’ve been set up to take a fall but doesn’t know the endgame. And the ultimate answer for captain and crew may lie in the legendary hidden pirate town of Retribution Falls. That’s if they can get there without getting blown out of the sky.
The adventure starts right away, on the very first page. I can’t say that there was a single boring moment in this book. I did feel a bit overwhelmed with the characters in the beginning. We are introduced to them all quickly within one chapter. Even with a good memory for names, it’s hard to keep track of who’s who and what distinguishes them. But worry not. Chris Wooding may throw them all onto us poor readers in the beginning, but he gives each of them depth later on in the story. While I found especially Darian Frey’s character development predictable and a bit cheesy, I can’t say I truly disliked any of the crew. They are a nice bunch and their quippy banter won’t fail to amuse.
Once that inital confusion subsided, the plot was pretty much straight-forward. Frey and his crew are trying to find out who framed them and, more importantly, why. Adventure lurks around every corner, fistfights and gunshots are frequent, and Frey’s talent for spinning lies and convincing women of his honor (which really doesn’t exist) made him both likable and realistic. He may have a heart of gold but it’s quite deeply hidden. At least when it comes to women he’s slept with…
As far as world building goes, I wasn’t too convinced. I do suspect that we only scratched the surface of a much bigger universe and we’ll probably get to learn more about it in the follow-up novels. In Retribution Falls, however, the steampunk element was both wonderfully done – daemonists, golems, gadgets made with daemons – and hard to imagine – the speed at which the airships fly, using aerium. But that may just be my own fault for not having read enough steampunk literature. I think there’s a lot of promise in this world, though, and I especially liked the explanation on how to play Rake as a sort of epilogue.
You can’t really help but fall in love with the characters. Sure, they could be more three-dimensional but I liked them all the same. This story is just a fast adventure with everything a good pirate story needs. Airships, explosions, guns, monsters, intrigue, evil guys, a secret hide-out, a great crew, and a ship that – despite not being able to talk – is a character all on her own.
THE GOOD: Fun, fast-paced adventure story with cool characters and not a boring moment in sight.
THE BAD: Characters could be deeper, world-building has potential for more.
THE VERDICT: A fun romp on the Ketty Jay that shouldn’t be missed by anyone who likes steampunk, Firefly, or adventure (pirate) stories.
RATING: 7/10 Very good
- Retribution Falls
- The Black Lung Captain
- The Iron Jackal
Expectations can go either way. Sometimes a book cover or a blurb influences you so much that you believe you know exactly what to expect from a story. With this novel, it was mostly the current steampunk and distopian tale hype that led me to expect a Hunger Games/Parasol Protectorate knock-off. I couldn’t have been wronger and I’m glad my prejudices didn’t keep me from discovering one of the best books I have ever read.
copy: ebook and paperback
my rating: 9,5/10
first sentence: The tent is draped with strings of bare bulbs, with bits of mirror tied here and there to make it sparkle. (It doesn’t look shabby until you’ve already paid.)
Outside any city still standing, the Mechanical Circus Tresaulti sets up its tents. Crowds pack the benches to gawk at the brass-and-copper troupe and their impossible feats: Ayar the Strong Man, the acrobatic Grimaldi Brothers, fearless Elena and her aerialists who perform on living trapezes. War is everywhere, but while the Circus is performing, the world is magic. That magic is no accident: Boss builds her circus from the bones out, molding a mechanical company that will survive the unforgiving landscape. But even a careful ringmaster can make mistakes. Two of Tresaulti’s performers are trapped in a secret stand-off that threatens to tear the Circus apart, just as the war lands on their doorstep. Now they must fight a war on two fronts: on from the outside, and a more dangerous one from within…
There are books that only take a page to make you envious of the author’s talent. Genevieve Valentine has all my envy and jealousy and respect for doing with words what she did in this debut novel. Every word is perfect, every sentence full of meaning and every chapter like a story of its own. Books like this remind me again why I read genre fiction. Because Valentine could be named among any of the contemorary greats of literature – if I had any say in it, I’d throw pretty much every literary award her way I can think of.
This is the story of a circus, told for the most part out of Little George’s point of view. He is a little boy who doesn’t miss much, and narrates the story superbly. His sparse, but poignant words put life into the characters and their sometimes unfathomable relationships to each other. We are told slowly, and chapter by chapter, who came to the circus, why they joined and – perhaps most interestingly at first – what really happened to Alec. The Winged Man has been dead since before the story starts but his death (and life, for that matter) remains a mystery.
It takes Genevieve Valentine maybe two sentences to create a character that feels like a living, breathing creature. After soaking up every word of this story, I don’t feel I truly know any of them, not at their core. I love how we don’t get smacked over the head with information, with character traits or what drives them. Valentine shows, she doesn’t tell. And sometimes she doesn’t show very much either. I love an author who trusts their readers to use their own heads to figure out what’s really going on. Having an unreliable narrator makes it even more interesting to define just what shade of grey each of the characters are.
There is a heavy steampunk element to this story, though not at all like I expected. It is not about zeppelins and goggles, the brass and copper used in this tale is well incorporated into the world and the subtle magic system. For the most part, it is a novel about people, though. About their dreams and what they’re willing to do to get to them, about their fears and about love, and how far it can push them. As emotionally layered as the circus troupe is, I wouldn’t even have needed a plot. Just discovering these brilliant people would have been enough.
But the author, mostly known for short fiction before this novel, has a plot in store for us. It may be slow to begin but turns into a suspenseful adventure with the most perfect ending I could have imagined. Except of course for the one flaw: the fact that it does end.
Stylistically, this may be a difficult read for some. Valentine jumps randomly between a third-person narrative and first-person narrative (from different characters’ points of view) to an occasional second-person narrative. As if that weren’t confusing enough at times, we switch tenses from past to present. It is further proof of her writing skill that I always knew in whose head I was and when – chronologically speaking – this particular chapter was taking place. Because being told in present tense does not automatically mean that the chapter isn’t a flashback to a few years prior to the main plot. If that makes sense to you. It is a challenge but one I was happy to take and that turned out to make a delightful change from your boring old straightly told story.
There were so many parts of this book that I found so quotable, I’d love to fill a whole notebook with it. Here’s an example of Valentine’s voice. Jonah has accidentally adopted a wolf. It’s been running around the circus but slowly turns wilder and wilder. And it’s time to take down the tents and move on.
One day the wolf was wild enough to run into the forest near their camp, hunting something only it could sense. A week later when they pulled down the tent, the wolf had not come back. “Call it, if you want,” Boss told Jonah. “We’ll wait.”
That night Jonah stood for an hour at the edge of the camp, looking into the darkness of the woods. He came back empty-handed.
Ayar frowned. “It didn’t come?”
Jonah said, “I didn’t call.”
I have no words to describe what an experience this book was. After I finished, a sadness swept over me and made me want to return (immediately) to that strange, sinister world of the Circus Tresaulti. I caught myself re-reading my favourite passages, soaking up the words. I sincerely hope Valentine will win the Nebula Award for this novel. It’s definitely one of my highlights this year, if not ever.
THE GOOD: Poetic language, playing with styles, deeply touching characters, suspenseful plot, original use of steampunk.
THE BAD: If anything, it was too short.
THE VERDICT: A challenging, unique read that has haunted me all year and is recommended to anyone who reads speculative fiction.
RATING: 9,5/10 - Damn near perfection!
Read the first five chapters for free as well as three short stories in the world of Circus Tresaulti (also highly recommended, especially the one about Panadrome, “Study, for Solo Piano“).
It’s hard to get enough of assertive Alexia Tarabotti. Now that the series is officially over (I’ve yet to read Timeless), I thought I’d venture into a different medium and try something almost completely new to me. Apart from a couple of Sailor Moon books, I haven’t read a single manga in my lifetime. And that was 14 years ago. The experience was surprisingly fun though, and I intend to repeat it very soon.
by: Yen Press
my rating: 7/10
I’m not going to go into the plot very much here. If you haven’t read Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate novels, go and do so. Now! They’re great fun and mix steampunk, vampires and werewolves and a hint of romance. But above all, they’re funny.
I had a few qualms about the adaptation of this story into a manga. I love comics and graphic novels but I’ve never really warmed to the traditional manga style. Huge eyes, exaggerated features and especially very androgynous, sometimes emaciated-looking male figures. So it was with some doubts that I started reading this one. Most of them were unnecessary as this proved to be just as fun and quick-paced as the novel.
Surprisingly enough, I quite liked the style and though Alexia Tarabotti’s voluptuous curves were spot-on. Even though she is described as a little chubbier in the novel and sported a perfectly tiny waist in the manga. I can live with that and her overflowing cleavage certainly made up for it. In fact, all the ladies in this story were quite fetching and I enjoyed reading (and looking at) them.
My fear about the male characters came true. Over-the-top Lord Akeldama was the perfect candidate for that feminine style, his love for glamour and glitter was obvious even though the manga is only in black and white. Howerver, manly and bulky Lord Maccon – a werewolf – should have been a little less streamlined and more scruffy-looking. The pointy, oh-so-smooth skin just doesn’t do it for me if you want to portray a wild, passionate and, above all, big man.
As far as adapting the story goes, they did a wonderful job. I didn’t miss any key scenes from the novel and the pacing felt very natural. I’m not completely sure the whole preternatural-idea was translated well enough for someone who hasn’t read the novel first. It is made clear from the context but that quick and easy explanation we get in the novel is missing.
Apart from a slightly abrupt ending, I enjoyed this comic version of Soulless a lot and can’t wait for the second one to come out. Lady Alexia might just turn me into a manga-reader. Hail the victorious parasol!
THE GOOD: Fun story, lovely drawings and some surprisingly steamy scenes.
THE BAD: Not my type of men, somewhat hurried ending.
VERDICT: Very readable, even for manga-beginners (such as myself), though I’d suggest reading the novel first.