Kurtis J. Wiebe – Rat Queens Volume 3: Demons

I remember when I discovered Rat Queens and fell in love with the comic so much, I read it twice in a row. The second volume went through a change of artist but still kept most of the humor, heart, and great friendships intact. This third volume is a complete disappointment and marks the spot where I’m only willing to try one more issue to see if the series is worth continuing. Yep… it was that bad.

rat queens demons

RAT QUEENS VOLUME 3: DEMONS
by Kurtis J. Wiebe

Artwork: Tess Fowler
Colors: Kelly Fitzpatrick
Letters: Ed Brisson

Published by: Image, 2016
Paperback: 160 pages
Series: Rat Queens #3
My rating: 4/10

Having survived the end of the world, the Queens follow Hannah back to where it all began: Mage University. A long perilous journey awaits the Rat Queens as they attempt to find out what happened to Hannah’s father while battling their own demons.

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After some interesting revelations in the last collection, we don’t get a second of time to catch up. Our girls are on their way to Hannah’s old school… to do… something. Once they arrive, Hannah is confronted with her past – which is no surprise considering that people there know her from way back when. Conveniently, however, all the others are also haunted by their demons, which all show up sooner or later. Most of this felt incredibly cheap, like somebody desperately grasping for plot and drama in a comic series that used to be all about fun and games and swear words.

Apart from the thin plot, the writing was really bad this time. I sometimes felt like I’d skipped a page because the cuts between scenes were so sharp, the plot jumped around all over the place, and things that were supposed to have impact left me completely cold. Plus, there is nothing of these four girls’ shining wonderful characters coming through. Hannah seems like a different person, Betty gets some shitty backstory that nobody needed (but I guess everyone has to have a dark past, nobody can just be what they seem to be) and there is no banter between them going on.

The change of setting comes with a change of costumes, some of which look nice, but again gave me the feeling that I’m not dealing with the girls I fell in love with but four imposters standing in their place. I frequently caught myself thinking “That’s so not like Hannah” or “Vi would never wear this” and wondering very, very much what the point of this collection was.  The artist change (again!) did have positive aspects however. The characters’ faces look like themselves again, although in certain panels Tess Fowler turned up the cute to eleven. Hannah isn’t cute. She may be gorgeous but what’s with the Disney eyes? I do prefer her artwork greatly to Sejic, who made the Rat Queens look much too harsh and pointy. Wenn done, Tess Fowler – I’m so sorry you didn’t have a better story to work with.

rat queens demons panels

The plot isn’t really advanced all that much. It dwells on Hannah’s past and on who her parents are, there is no mention of Sawyer or indeed much recognition of the girl’s current home town and friends and foes and love interests. I honestly felt like in a TV show where I accidentally skipped an episode and then the current episode was choppy and jumped over important scenes. Also, with new actors who are trying to put their own spin on the characters… it was a jarring experience that alternately made me want to cry and throw the comic across the room.

Rat Queens is a comic that could have just rolled with what made it so great. Female friends fighting demons and orcs and goblins for money. Being foul-mouthed, drinking and partying, and bantering is what they do best. Now it’s all angsty and pseudo-dramatic, the girls fight and behave out of character, and it’s just missing that spark. But what Demons is missing the most is the thing that made me re-read the first collection right after finishing it: Fun! This was just no fun. It felt like work, trudging through page after page of blahblah with no substance, re-hashed jokes, and weird afterlife-y parallel worlds… I just don’t even care anymore.

I’ll give Kurtis J. Wiebe one more collection to change my mind, otherwise I’ll just re-read Sass & Sorcery, ignore all  new issues, and pretend this never happened.

MY RATING: 4/10 – Bad

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Bout of Books 16 – Sign-Up

I’m doing it again.  The Bout of Books read-a-thon is one of the most fun things a reader can do on the internet. This time, it falls on a regular work week for me, so I won’t be reading thousands of pages. But catching up a little on challenges, reading a sequel or two, and a comic book for good measure – that sounds perfectly doable.

Bout of Books

 

Don’t know what the hell I’m talking about? Here’s some info:

 

The Bout of Books read-a-thon is organized by Amanda @ On a Book Bender and Kelly @ Reading the Paranormal. It is a week long read-a-thon that begins 12:01am Monday, May 9th and runs through Sunday, May 15th in whatever time zone you are in. Bout of Books is low-pressure. There are challenges, giveaways, and a grand prize, but all of these are completely optional. For all Bout of Books 16 information and updates, be sure to visit the Bout of Books blog. – From the Bout of Books team

 

I’m even going to set myself some loose goals right away. The weekend before the read-a-thon I’ll pick which books exactly I’m going to read and (trying a new thing here) I will actually only read those books and not be distracted by shiny covers or cool stuff my friends recommend. For one week, I will stick to a plan. Booyah!

 

So. Goals.
  • Read one comic book/graphic novel
  • Finish whichever current book I’m reading
  • Finish one other book that is part of a reading challenge
  • Start listening to one new audiobook

That’s pretty ambitious for a 40 hour work week during which I also have to feed myself, spend time with my boyfriend, and watch at least the most necessary amount of TV. But I’m excited and motivated and look forward to the Twitter chats.

If you want to join the fun, there’s still time until  May 10th to sign-up. Trust me, you do not want to miss it.

Terry Pratchett – The Shepherd’s Crown

I did it. I read the very last Discworld novel. Mind you, I still have a lot of books in the series to catch up on, but my favorite sub-set – the Witches and Tiffany Aching – is over. As expected, it was as much the author saying goodbye to his books as it was another goodbye. My boyfriend actually preordered the super expensive special edition (with the golden slip case) for me, only to be told a few weeks ago that – oops – no more copies available, after all, despite a successful preorder. I would be grumpier about that if the fact that it’s the last Discworld book wasn’t so terribly sad. Now I’m just… even sadder, I guess.

shepherds crown

THE SHEPHERD’S CROWN
by Terry Pratchett

Published by: Harper, 2015
Ebook: 276 pages
Series: Discworld #41
Tiffany Aching #5
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence:  It was born in the darkness of the Circle Sea; at first just a soft floating thing, washed back and forth by tide after tide.

A shivering of worlds.
Deep in the Chalk, something is stirring. The owls and the foxes can sense it, and Tiffany Aching feels it in her boots. An old enemy is gathering strength.
This is a time of endings and beginnings, old friends and new, a blurring of edges and a shifting of power. Now Tiffany stands between the light and the dark, the good and the bad.
As the fairy horde prepares for invasion, Tiffany must summon all the witches to stand with her. To protect the land. Her land.
There will be a reckoning…

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I had a feeling long before this book was published that there would be a character death coming up. Most people knew what was coming, and it does happen in one of the first chapters. But if you’re really worried about spoilers, stop reading now. I can’t write about The Shepherd’s Crown without talking about… the thing, so anything after this paragraph is spoiler territory.

tiffany aching

Tiffany Aching has grown up a bit and is now a proper witch of the Chalk, taking care of all the business that witches concern themselves with. Whether it’s cutting an old man’s toenails or doing someone’s laundry, Tiffany doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty as long as she can help others. It’s what witches do, after all. She already has both hands full of work when news reaches her of something that we all expected to happen sooner or later. Granny Weatherwax has died. Despite knowing it was coming, the chapters building up to Granny’s death and the chapters just after she has gone were some of the most touching Pratchett has ever written. Granny, in her eternal Granny-ness, makes all the preparations, weaves her own coffin, cleans her hut, and asks her bees to be as kind to her successor as they were to her. I cried like a baby.

Nanny Ogg knows that Granny didn’t want a big fuss made about her funeral but Granny was such a respected witch that people from all over the Disc come to pay their last respect. Even Ridcully shows up, mournful and nostalgic about a love story that could have been. Death himself, who is normally so serene about his job and the people he helps to cross over, is sad about this one. But the Disc doesn’t stand still and Granny’s successor is to be Tiffany Aching – to noone’s surprise except Mrs. Earwig, who thinks she is much better suited to the job. But when even the cat You decides that Tiffany is the new leader the witches don’t have, it is settled.

Tiffany now has to deal with two steadings, two sets of people in need, and she is straining under the stress of travelling back and forth between the Chalk and Lancre. The big bad of this last Tiffany story is one who has tried to take over the world before – the Fairy Queen. This felt as re-hashed as it is, complete with another visit to the Fairy King, Magrat donning her trusty old armor, and the witches all working together to defeat a common foe. In Geoffrey Swivel, a man who wants to be a witch, we also have a beautiful conclusion to the Witches subseries. Remember in the very first book about the Discworld witches, Eskarina wished to be a magician, not a witch.

Plot-wise, this wasn’t a strong book. Even the language is noticably weaker, with many repetitions (“There will be a reckoning”) and none of the well-known little lines of wisdom that stick in your head long after you’re finished reading. But it is very much a book full of goodbyes. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that many, many characters from earlier books show up again or are at least mentioned. We see Miss Tick, Agnes/Perdita, Magrat and Verence, Eskarina, Granny Aching is mentioned along with Thunder and Lightning, even Horace the cheese gets his moment. To me – and this is pure speculation – it read very much like Terry Pratchett’s goodbye to his characters and if that turned out a little repetitive, remembering all their adventures, I can’t really fault the author for that.

It was impossible for me to read this book out of context. Were Sir Terry still with us, were this another among many Discworld books, I’d say it was a weaker Tiffany book, althugh still a pretty good Discworld novel. But it is not just one among many, it is the last one, and I felt like crying all the time while I read it. The Shepherd’s Crown may not stand too well on its own, but as a look back on all that has come before, it is just right the way it is.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good

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Second opinions:

Skottie Young – I Hate Fairyland: Madly Ever After

I love Fairyland! And Skottie Young’s art! So what could be better than a comic book set in Fairyland, drawn and written by Skottie Young? Not many things, I tell you. This bloody rampage through an enchanted world was so much fun, I still have a stomachache from laughing so hard.

i hate fairyland

I HATE FAIRYLAND Volume 1: Madly Ever After
by Skottie Young

Colorist: Jean-Francios Beaulieu
Letterer: Nate Piekos

Published by: Image Comics, 2016
Ebook: 138 pages
Series: I Hate Fairyland #1
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Once upon a time, there was a girl.

From superstar writer and artist Skottie Young (Rocket Raccoon, Wizard of OZ, Fortunately, The Milk), comes the first volume of an all-new series of adventure and mayhem. An Adventure Time/Alice in Wonderland-style epic that smashes it’s cute little face against grown-up, Tank Girl/Deadpool-esque violent madness. Follow Gert, a forty year old woman stuck in a six year olds body who has been stuck in the magical world of Fairyland for nearly thirty years. Join her and her giant battle-axe on a delightfully blood soaked journey to see who will survive the girl who HATES FAIRYLAND. Collecting Issues #1-5

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Just look at the colors on that cover. Look at them. They are like colors from a dream, bright and rainbow-y, and they tell you exactly what you’re going to get from this comic book series. A beautifully colored story of a cute girl killing everything she comes across.

Gertrude is just your average, adorable little girl with green curls and a pink dress when the floor in her room swallows her up and drops her headfirst in Fairyland. In best Ozian tradition, she is welcomed by a ton of cute creatures and the Queen of Fairyland herself, Cloudia, whose hair is a cloud that changes with her mood – it’s awesome! Like any good fairytale, this one contains a quest. If Gert wants to get back home – and she really, REALLY does! – she needs to find a key to open the door to her world. She is given a companion guide and a map and off on her little feet she goes, to wander Fairyland and hunt that key.

Cut to 27 years and a billion side-quests later. Gertrude is a 37-year-old trapped in a 10-year-old’s body. And since she hasn’t found that key yet, her temper is… let’s say not so cute anymore. With Larry, her guide, she has been killing and maiming on every step of her journey. Disregarding the riddles and side-quests she is given, she simply hacks her way through enchanted forests, bogs of madness, hills made of snot, and zombie hordes. She even makes her very own shooting stars (not the nice kind).

The lovely setting and happy colors stand in stark contrast to what’s actually happening and how Gertrude talks. Okay, so swear words are changed into nice-sounding, child-friendly words (Fluff off) although I don’t see the point in such a blood-soaked comic. The gore may be literally sugarcoated but that doesn’t make Gert any less violent or foul-mouthed. I ADORE HER!

i hate fairyland slo-mo

But what makes this comic so much fun, other than Gert’s quick and bloody solutions to any problem, is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Villains bear such names as Darketh Deaddeath or Horribella. It’s fun and funny, especially when Skottie Young takes tropes from fairy tales and more modern tales in the same vein, and has Gertrude show them the finger. She does that. A lot. Sometimes with guns.

Gert’s relationship with Larry is also worth mentioning. Although they both pretty much hate each other, they’ve got some wonderful banter going and stick by each other’s side. Well, Larry has to, and I think that he secretly hopes with each new assassination attempt on Gertrude that is successful. However, things change when Queen Coudia lets a new girl enter Fairyland, who is now also hunting for the key. Suddenly, Gert has some motivation to get the fluff out of there and maybe take that adorable, cutesie, doe-eyed girl down in the process.

This is not a deep kind of comic series, so don’t expect any redeeming qualities in Gert’s character. But after the first issue, the series finds its pacing, sets up its jokes really well, and shows a girl straight out of a video game, just facing her enemies head-on and reducing them to nothing. Or sometimes cookie crumbs.
I wasn’t sure I’d like this because the story’s beginning feels incredibly rushed. But once established in Fairyland, I fell in love with this crazy story and its crazy eyeball-scorching colors, and most of all its badass antihero. Gert is the best!

I can’t wait for the next issues!

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

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i hate fairyland gert in action

Seanan McGuire – Every Heart a Doorway

This is a severe case of over-hyped book. Tor.com had been advertising this book for months, it is the only one of the novellas to come out in hardcover as well as paperback and e-book, and that does send a clear message to readers. It has Seanan McGuire’s name on it, so it must be a hit. Except even a writer with a fanbase as large as McGuires can write something bad every once in a while.

every heart a doorway

EVERY HEART A DOORWAY
by Seanan McGuire

Published by: Tor.com, 2016
Ebook: 176 pages
Series: Every Heart a Doorway #1
My rating: 3,5/10

First sentence: The girls were never present for the entrance interviews.

Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children
No Solicitations
No Visitors
No Quests

Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere… else.
But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.
Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced… they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.
But Nancy’s arrival marks a change at the Home. There’s a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it’s up to Nancy and her new-found schoolmates to get to the heart of things.
No matter the cost.

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Here’s an idea that is so perfect, so full of potential that just thinking of it makes me weep a little. Children disappear to magic lands, parallel universes, the underworld, a palace of clouds to have adventures, fall in love, come of age – only to be thrown out eventually. And they never truly find their way back into our world because that other place is what they think of as home. In the hands of Cat Valente, this idea would have probably turned into a whole series of beautiful, heartbreaking books, but Seanan McGuire (as capable a writer as she is) just is no Cat Valente.

The entire novella felt very cold. I can’t put my finger on why, that’s just the general feeling I took away from it. Nancy arrives at her new school, where everybody is somewhat like her. Everybody went to a different place and had to come back. They are all looking for their door to return to where they were happiest. I suppose this could all be taken as a metaphor for not wanting to grow up and trying to find your way back into childhood, but you know me – I always take magic seriously and I take these trips to other worlds literally.

As this novella is the first of a series, maybe McGuire will expand on all the things that were lacking here in later stories. But with a school full of world-travelling kids, there is just so much potential for cool stuff. To be fair, McGuire does show us some of the madness. Nancy went to the underworld (thus the frequent mentions of pomegranates), others went into a rainbow world, yet others lived in a zombie-infested place full of violence, or one full of vampires. But no  matter how gruesome or uninviting their world may seem to us outsiders, they all want to go back. The bit I found quite annoying was that there is a specific classification of worlds at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. There are logic and nonsense worlds, which can be subdivided into even more categories. Nancy – as any good protagonist would – asks about this in the beginning but then seems to lose interest and drops the topic. I feel that if you go to the trouble of building your own system for a multiverse, it would be nice to let the readers get a small glimpse of it.

An even bigger problem for me was the complete lack of emotional impact. I can live without world building, without logic (this is fantasy, after all), even without much plot. But I need characters to hold on to, to understand, to feel something. Nancy’s slightly catatonic state was completely understandable. I don’t quite get why in her underworld, standing as still as a statue was so important, but okay, let’s roll with it. Nancy’s roomate Sumi may have been a sterotypical cloud cuckoo lander, but at least she brought some movement into a very slow, boring plot.

Speaking of plot. I expected a sort of anti-Harry Potter, a story of a girl feeling misplaced in this world, wanting to go back to the world of the dead, now finding her way in a school with others who feel just as much that they don’t belong. An anti-magic school if you like. But the book changes its mind and turns into a murder mystery. Which, okay fine. Except I didn’t really care about any of the murder victims or even about who did it and why. When the characters are so pale that they are barely cardboard, I find it difficult to care about their fate.

every heart a doorway cover detail

Instead of staying on the topic that drew me in (I know it’s not the author’s job to cater to my very specific needs, although I often wish it were :D), focusing on how these children had to leave a world behind, leave their adventures and – I assume – friends, and finding a place in this world, this novella deals mostly with the murders of several students and, occasionally, with people’s sexuality and gender identity. Sadly, that’s about the only positive thing I got out of this  – some character diversity. I did like both Kade and Nancy, although Nancy remains pretty pale throughout, but this may be due to how the underworld shaped her to be.

I’m not a writer, so I can’t put my finger on what exactly would have to be done differently to make this story good. But it just left me completely cold from beginning to end. Looking back at the entire novella, I don’t see the point. I didn’t like the plot, didn’t care for the characters, and the ending had no impact whatsoever. In fact, for a while I thought Nancy was going to kill herself to return to the underworld, which – drastic as it may be – would at least have been something proactive, something that comes with a cost, and would return her to the underworld. You can guess that this did not happen… The ending that did happen cheapens the entire point of the book.

All my problems with this book may very well be my own fault for having set my expectations too high or for having misunderstood the book description, but that doesn’t change that I really disliked Every Heart a Doorway. To me it felt like Seanan McGuire was trying to write a Cat Valente story and failed miserably. I’ll give the next book in the series a chance, but if that turns out to be equally boring, I will probably stick to McGuire’s other books.

MY RATING: 3,5/10 – Bad

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Second opinions:

 

Charlie Jane Anders – All the Birds in the Sky

This was one of my most eagerly awaited books of the year. Buzz had been building up last summer already, the cover is gorgeous, and I liked Charlie Jane Anders’ writing on io9. Instead of doing what I usually do (buying all the books, then leaving most of them unread for way too long), I dove right in, without really knowing where the book might go. It turned out to be wonderful, touching, a combination of science and magic.

all the birds in the skyALL THE BIRDS IN THE SKY
by Charlie Jane Anders

Published by: Tor, 2016
Ebook: 320 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: When Patricia was six years old, she found a wounded bird.

Childhood friends Patricia Delfine and Laurence Armstead didn’t expect to see each other again, after parting ways under mysterious circumstances during high school. After all, the development of magical powers and the invention of a two-second time machine could hardly fail to alarm one’s peers and families.
But now they’re both adults, living in the hipster mecca San Francisco, and the planet is falling apart around them. Laurence is an engineering genius who’s working with a group that aims to avert catastrophic breakdown through technological intervention into the changing global climate. Patricia is a graduate of Eltisley Maze, the hidden academy for the world’s magically gifted, and works with a small band of other magicians to secretly repair the world’s ever-growing ailments. Little do they realize that something bigger than either of them, something begun years ago in their youth, is determined to bring them together–to either save the world, or plunge it into a new dark ages.
A deeply magical, darkly funny examination of life, love, and the apocalypse.

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All the Birds in the Sky follows Patricia and Laurence through their childhood and this was, at the same time, one of the hardest parts to read, as well as one of the most beautiful. Both children are outcasts in school, and despite (or because) of their differences, they become friends. At first, by necessity, because nobody else will have them, later because they grow fond of each other. Right from the start, the differences between them are also what makes them so interesting, and draws them to one another. Patricia is in touch with Nature, she talked to birds once, and was given a riddle by them. Laurence likes science, and gadgets, and builds his own machines from scrap material at a very young age. The juxtaposition of Nature and Science is central to this book, but it never feels heavy-handed. Anders never picks a side.

What Patricia and Laurence go through is heartbreaking. Their parents – so often absent in books about kids – were amazingly-written. They are fully fleshed out individuals and while we see the parents’ actions through the children’s eyes, they never come across as irredeemable or evil. They are also just people trying to do what’s best, and if that looks like pure cruelty to children, that’s just how the world works. I absolutely adored the portrayal of all characters but the parents struck me as particularly well done, simply because so few writers include the protagonists’ family in any meaningful way. To be fair, viewed through Laurence and Patrcia’s eyes, the parents are quite horrible and only add to their children’s alrady difficult childhoods. In Patricia’s case, even the sister, Roberta, likes nothing more than make her sister’s life painful.

Terrible high school experience behind them, Patricia and Laurence have gone their separate ways for spoilery reasons. Laurence goes on to be hailed as a science wunderkind, Patricia goes to Eltisley Maze (American Hogwarts), and both are trying to make the world a better place, using their own methods and talents. Again, as obvious as the Magic vs. Science theme may be, the two apparent opposites mesh really well and the effortless coexistence of the two is never jarring. This story shows that there can be both, that you can love magic and science, that you can want a wand and a space ship.

all the birds in the sky background

My favorite part was easily the meandering relationship between Patricia and Laurence, the emotional core of the book. When they meet again,  you expect worlds to collide. They have grown into themselves, they figured out what kind of people they are, and just because they were once childhood friends, doesn’t mean they may like who the other has become. But what grows between them is one of the best, most beautiful love stories I have ever read. It all boils down to finding someone who lets you be yourself and loves you anyway.

Laurence and Patricia hadn’t started dating after that or anything—they’d just hung out. All the time. Way more time than Laurence had ever spent with Serafina, because every date with Serafina had to be perfect, and he’d always worried about being clingy. He and Patricia were just always grabbing dinner and coffee and late-night drinks, whenever Laurence could slip Milton’s leash. They were always cheating at foozeball, dancing at The EndUp with insomniac queers until five in the morning, bowling for cake, inventing elaborate drinking games for Terrence Malick movies, quoting Rutherford B. Hayes from memory, and building the weirdest kites they could coax into the sky over Kite Hill. They were always hand in hand.

All the Birds in the Sky has a lot of things to say about fitting in and about the fast world we live in. Whether it’s in throwaway remarks about the latest hipster brunch place or the newest tablet model, the story is firmly based on our times and then taken a little into the future. I thought the point about San Francisco being a hipster capital was hammered in a little hard, but not to the point where it took me out of the narrative. No matter where they are and who they’re surrounded by, Patricia and Laurence either still have a hard time fitting in or feel like impostors when they do find a group a friends. It’s a deeply understandable feeling that was portrayed beautifully.

I found out that Charlie Jane Anders has published a book before this but I am still impressed with her skill. The language is gorgeous, adapting to the character in focus. When a chapter deals with Patricia, everything is earthy and rich and green and growing. Switch to Laurence and it’s all about circuits and code, computer slang and science geekery. I found the prose wonderful, both flowy and fresh, and always hitting home when things went haywire.

I didn’t talk much about the plot on purpose. I knew next to nothing about the plot when I started reading and it was the most wonderful experience. Maybe Patricia’s witchy school days and the people she met during that time could have used a little more backstory, especially some intriguing side characters (looking at you, Ernesto). But overall, All the Birds in the Sky was a surprise favorite for me. A wild mix of genres, an emotional roller coaster, the story of two lives and how they’re intertwined through magic and science alike. I absolutely loved it!

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent! I want more!

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Second opinions:

Brandon Sanderson – Steelheart

So, after reading The Fifth Season, a major book hangover took hold of me. I tried reading ten different books that I had all been looking forward to, but nothing seemed right. Instead, I decided to pick something completely different from Jemisin’s magnificent post-apocalpytic novel.  And because I knew it would be exciting and could be read quickly, I went for Brandon Sanderson’s superhero series. This was exactly what I needed to get me back on my reading feet, so to speak.

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STEELHEART
by Brandon Sanderson

Published by: Gollancz, 2013
Ebook: 384 pages
Series: The Reckoners #1
My rating: 6/10

First sentence: I’ve seen Steelheart bleed.

Ten years ago, Calamity came. It was a burst in the sky that gave ordinary men and women extraordinary powers. The awed public started calling them Epics. But Epics are no friend of man. With incredible gifts came the desire to rule. And to rule man you must crush his wills.
Nobody fights the Epics…nobody but the Reckoners. A shadowy group of ordinary humans, they spend their lives studying Epics, finding their weaknesses, and then assassinating them.
And David wants in. He wants Steelheart – the Epic who is said to be invincible. The Epic who killed David’s father. For years, like the Reckoners, David’s been studying, and planning – and he has something they need. Not an object, but an experience.
He’s seen Steelheart bleed. And he wants revenge.

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This book has all the ingredients for a Hollywood blockbuster. Unfortunately, it also has about the same amount of depth. So one day, out of the blue, superheroes appear all over the world (although of course mostly the USA, because the rest of the world is not interesting, right?) but instead of being vigilantes helping keep the peace, they turn to evil and make the world a really shitty place.

I had a whole, level-headed review prepared but I deleted it all because I need to rant a bit. I liked the book for its entertainment value, don’t get me wrong. But I get the feeling that either Sanderson’s heart is not in this series as much as in his Mistborn universe or the Stormlight Archive, or he took this whole “writing for a teenage audience” thing a step too far. Because comparatively, this book reads very dumbed down. Sanderson can do better!

So, one day, supervillains popped up all over the world. But is it all over the world? The setting of David’s story is Newcago (a name so stupid it made me cringe every time it came up) and, from reading this book, it seems like the rest of the world doesn’t really exist. There are mentions of other places in the USA and, I believe, Paris comes up once. But there is no clue as to how the rest of the world coped with this event. We learn that Steelheart, the strongest of the Epics in the area, rules over Newcago. The pecking order among Epics is pretty clear. Those with the stronger powers (or better hidden weaknesses) are on top, while lesser Epics either work for them or die trying to take over.

But, again, what about other places? I didn’t really expect to find long explanations of how other countries handled the Epic problem but there isn’t even the slightest hint as to the effects Calamity had on the rest of the world. I very much doubt that the entire globe would react the same way (because duh). There must be places with a higher or lower Epic density, there must be safe havens without Epics, there must be cities and countries that work completely differently. Alas, we don’t know because America is all we get.

Fine, world-building rant out of the way, let me move on to the characters. They are your standard Ocean’s Eleven, heist story, Mission Impossible crew. One boss with a sinister past, one hacker, one gun specialist, one hot girl (who, OF COURSE, is the protagonist’s love interest), and so on. David joins the Reckoners almost by accident and manages to sway their plans so easily, it makes them look like fools. Now it’s all about David’s revenge on Steelheart for killing his father. To achieve this, they have to get rid of some other Epics first. And this part, the actual plot, was pretty gripping. There are edge-of-your-seat action scenes, moments of bonding between the characters, and secrets. Lots of secrets.

Some of these secrets are blatantly obvious which makes me think even more that Sanderson dumbed down his story on purpose. I know that he can set up awesome twists that are difficult or even impossible to guess. In Steelheart, the clues are all over the place so the surprise at the end isn’t all that surprising. The same goes for Steelheart’s weakness, the one thing the Reckoners need to find out in order to kill him. After so much build-up, after David’s careful, meticulous research, I expected something… well, epic. But Steelheart’s weakness, useful as it may be for him, was pretty meh.

There are some really cool ideas in this otherwise trope-laden  story. An entire city turned into steel, cool gadgets, and a Pokemon-like index of Epic’s weaknesses and strengths. The ideas are all there. What’s lacking is depth, in every aspect. The characters are cardboard and, with the exception of the reveals at the end, none of them really seem to have a backstory, none of them had lives before joining the Reckoners. Or at least the author didn’t find it important to show those lives to us. Even David’s past is wrapped up in a sentence or two. I don’t believe that a teenage boy, no matter how set on revenge he might be, does nothing else in his entire life than devote his time to killing one particular Epic.

So, overall, the only thing this book has going for it is plot and fast-paced writing. Which is exactly what I needed after the dense, deep, and truly epic The Fifth Season. So for me, Steelheart was the right book at the right time. But that doesn’t change the fact that there is very little meat to it. It’s fun, it’s a quick read, it has great action and cool ideas. If this book is on your TBR, save it for a time when you want something light and not too serious.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

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Second opinions:

Top Ten Tuesday – Top Ten Recent Reads

The year has only just begun but I’ve already discovered a few amazing reads. This week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic is the perfect opportunity to share them with you. May your TBRs grow and your wallets suffer as much as mine.

Top Ten Recent Reads

  1. N. K. Jemisin – The Fifth Season
  2. Becky Chambers – The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
  3. Sofia Samatar – A Stranger in Olondria
  4. Benjamin Alire Sáenz – Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
  5. Andy Weir – The Martian
  6. Noelle Stevenson – Nimona
  7. Susan Dennard – Truthwitch
  8. Angela Slatter – The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings
  9. Catherynne M. Valente – Radiance
  10. Matt Wallace – Envy of Angels

I have linked my reviews to all of these in case you want to know more about them and why I love them so much. What I notice with great joy is how different and varied these recent favorites are. Sure, there are some obvious choices for me – Cat Valente is pretty much guaranteed to make me happy with whatever she writes. Angela Slatter was a new discovery last year and by the second book I knew I had found another forever-in-my-heart favorite. I have still to find something of hers I don’t like. Those two authors are the easy picks and made the list to noone’s surprise.

But I also have a graphic novel on this list – Nimona – that I didn’t expect to like and ended up adoring, I have a non-SFF novel about a boy growing up and discovering not just the secrets of the universe but secrets about himself and his best friend in the entire world. I have a YA SFF novel that could have gone very wrong but was amazing fun with a surprisingly engaging romance (talking about Truthwitch here).
Then there is N. K. Jemisin’s utterly perfect post-apocalyptic The Fifth Season  that can’t be compared to anything else because it is so original and mind-blowing. Add to that a literary fantasy novel about the power of books and words and belief. Which also has a ghost in it and let me travel the wondrous streets of Olondria.
The two science fiction novels also couldn’t be more different. While The Martian is hilarious hard sci-fi about surviving on Mars (mostly on potatoes) and fighting the odds, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is an intimate space opera about a diverse group of people (human and otherwise) and their stories and relationships.
Lastly, there is the non-stop chuckle-inducing Sin du Jour series by Matt Wallace which I thought would just be good fun – and it was – but which ended up as the opening chapter to a much bigger world. I can’t wait to giggle my butt off reading the next volume.

So, this is me, giving myself a pat on the shoulder for trying things out of my comfort zone. Out of my comfort zone is where all the new favorite books are hiding, after all…

N. K. Jemisin – The Fifth Season

HOLY SHIT you guys! Before I get into the details, let me shout at you that THIS WAS THE BEST DAMN BOOK I’VE READ IN A LONG TIME. It’s twisty and full of depth and it’s got diverse characters doing awesome shit and living through hell and still going on and also that world is a messed up place and I loved every page of it. Okay, time to take a breath and do that all over, with punctuation.

fifth seasonTHE FIFTH SEASON
by N. K. Jemisin

Published by: Orbit, 2015
Ebook: 500 pages
Series: The Broken Earth #1
My rating: 9,5/10

First sentence: Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we?

This is the way the world ends. Again.
Three terrible things happen in a single day. Essun, a woman living an ordinary life in a small town, comes home to find that her husband has brutally murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Meanwhile, mighty Sanze — the world-spanning empire whose innovations have been civilization’s bedrock for a thousand years — collapses as most of its citizens are murdered to serve a madman’s vengeance. And worst of all, across the heart of the vast continent known as the Stillness, a great red rift has been torn into the heart of the earth, spewing ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.
Now Essun must pursue the wreckage of her family through a deadly, dying land. Without sunlight, clean water, or arable land, and with limited stockpiles of supplies, there will be war all across the Stillness: a battle royale of nations not for power or territory, but simply for the basic resources necessary to get through the long dark night. Essun does not care if the world falls apart around her. She’ll break it herself, if she must, to save her daughter.

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Where to start with a book like this? There are three protagonists whose stories we follow in alternating chapters. One of these character’s stories is told entirely in second person and that works beautifully – it took me half to book to even notice it. Essun, who has found her little son dead, killed by her own husband, and her older daughter kidnapped by the same, sets out to hunt them down. Save her child, kill her husband. Working through her grief and dealing with a just-begun Season, it’s not exactly fun to read about her, but my god, is it riveting! Essun is also an orogene in hiding, a person who can feel – sess – and manipulate the earth and its heat, a talent that is used for stopping earthquakes in this hostile world.

The second protagonist is Damaya, a little girl with the gift of orogeny, who is taken to the Fulcrum, a sort of school for orogenes. Although this school is also a prison, and while orogenes (or roggas, the derogatory term) are trained to use their power without hurting others, they are also slaves to the Sanze Empire, doing their bidding and always watched by their Guardians. I loved how some of Damaya’s story read like a dystopian boarding school tale, a departure from the otherwise completely bleak world. Don’t get me wrong, Damaya’s life isn’t fun either, but I enjoyed the shift in tone, and it shows off Jemisin’s amazing skill all the more.

The third, and my favorite, character to follow, was Syenite. She is Fulcrum-trained and has earned four rings in their ranking system. She is sent out with Alabaster to do an orogene’s job and also to breed, in order to produce a highly skilled new orogene baby for the Fulcrum to train. You see, while orogenes at the Fulcrum aren’t hunted down and killed, they are still a far cry from free. Syenite and Alabaster’s relationship was a pure joy to watch. Syen is a stubborn, incredibly likable character. Her ambition, her hunger for more, her dislike of ten-ringer Alabaster and the fact that they have to have sex without really wanting to – every little bit about her made me love her.

Since I’m keeping this spoiler-free, instead of going on about the plot (which is amazeballs!), let me talk a little about the world-building. Which, if possible, is even more amazeballs. I seriously don’t think I’ve read anything this original and internally consistent in a long time. There are plot twists (all of which caught me by surprise and made me shout WHAT THE FUUUUUCK), but even without them, exploring this strange world managed to have me sitting there with my mouth open, trying to wrap my brain around all this.

The Stillness is a big continent and the fact that its population ise used to Seasons – people have go-bags for when the shit hits the fan again – tells you that it’s a fairly unpleasant place to live. Orogenes are, in my mind, magic-users or X-Men or whatever, but instead of being revered or celebrated as superheroes, they are treated as lower class citizens or even less, especially when untrained. But then there are also the obelisks, hexagonal gigantic shapes just floating around. Nobody knows their use or why they’re here. Apart from the actual geographic and tectonic set-up of this strange world, I also found its people highly intriguing. There is a clear class-divide, with orogenes being seen as less valuable than stills (people without orogeny), but even among the stills, there are rich people and poor people. And even within orogenes, there is a pecking order. Let’s not forget the Guardians, which, to me, are like a species of their own with their own set of powers…

I could go on and on about this world and my theories about it, but I really, really don’t want to spoil a single thing for you guys. Something I can say is that, although the three main characters’ story lines are very different, there are clues in one story for mysteries in another. You could read each tale on its own and still get a great story out of it, but putting the puzzle pieces together, they create a bigger whole. It gives you these little moments of “Ha, so that’s how that works” when you remember something from a previous chapter that fits into what the current character is going through. This also means that The Fifth Season is a book that demands concentration. It’s not a book to read on your commute or in  noisy rooms.

I have said many things but I haven’t even mentioned the relationships yet. Not only are there moments of pure beauty between groups of people, there is love in so many facets, despite the bleak world with its many apocalypses. Whether it’s the love between sexual partners, between the people of an entire village, between fellow travelers on the road, between a child and their mother… Jemisin manages to show that even a world as broken as this still has a place for the personal, for enjoyment and sex. Without spoiling, Syen is part of one of the best relationships I have ever read about where the partners complement and challenge each other, arouse and hold each other, push one another to become better people. It’s a thing of beauty.

And, just to round things up, I’d like to say a few words about the prose. Jemisin has been brilliant from the start. Her Inheritance Trilogy already showed that we have a truly original author here, one who defies all the fantasy tropes and comes up with new stuff. In my opinion, she has also always been a fantastic writer, craft-wise. But in The Fifth Season, she truly comes into her own. The tonal shifts between chapters, the way descriptions differ depending on whose point of view we’re reading, the clever tricks she plays on her readers – all of this shows that even great authors still have room to grow and Jemisin did. The Fifth Season is proof of that.

To be honest, many questions are left unanswered at the end of The Fifth Season but  if anything, this made me even more eager to read the next book. This volume is so dense and so full of details that putting any more plot or world-building into it would have been a mistake. As it is, it is an absolutely perfect book with mind-blowing twists and brain-wrecking ideas. I urge everyone to grab a copy and take a week off work. This book deserves to be devoured and enjoyed, soaked up and savoured. It also deserves all the awards!

MY RATING: 9,5/10 – Oh my god, so perfect!

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Second opinions:

 

Richard Parks – The Heavenly Fox

Sometimes, I get it in my head that I want a book. Okay, that happens many times. Several times on any given day, actually. But sometimes, I go out of my way to hunt down used copies of a book even if I don’t know the author. The Heavenly Fox just sounded so up my alley and, it was a Mythopoeic Award finalist in 2012 and used copies were actually not that expensive. If you are the kind of person who wants more pages for their money, you should go for the ebook. It is a very short book.

heavenly fox

THE HEAVENLY FOX
by Richard Parks

Published by: PS Publishing, 2011
Hardcover: 78 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: The main problem with achieving immortality, Springshadow reminded herself, is that you had to live long enough.

“A fox who reaches the age of fifty gains the ability to transform into a human woman. A fox who reaches the age of one hundred can transform into either a beautiful young girl or a handsome young man at will and can sense the world around them to a distance of over four hundred leagues. A fox who reaches the age of one thousand years, however, becomes a Heavenly Fox, an Immortal of great power, able to commune with the gods themselves.”

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Divided into three acts, or chapters, The Heavenly Fox tells the story of Springshadow, a fox who has lived to be 999 years old and is now waiting for the final three days until her on thousandth birthday to pass. We are introduced to Springshadow’s character as she lives with a human man, herself having taken the shape of a woman, and extracts some of his life force to keep herself alive. It’s a cruel beginning, demonstrating that, despite her appearance, Springshadow is not a human but a fox with her mind set on one goal – become immortal.

heavenly fox springshadowBut even foxes don’t live in a vacuum and, having almost reached one thousand years of age, she is visited by the goddess of mercy, Guan Shi Yin and another immortal. The immortal, Wildeye, gained his immortality through trickery, stealing and eating one of the peaches of Heaven. I know very little about Chinese mythology, but I do know Sun Wu Kong when I see him. And personally, I’m always happy to meet the Monkey King in any fantasy story. So major brownie points for Richard Parks.

In the second act, Springshadow has reached her goal and becomes immortal. Except now she faces the problem of what to do with this immortality. She goes to visit Heaven, which is disappointingly a lot like Earth, only with more magic. But what is her purpose? This is the part that reads more like a fable than an SFF story. Springshadow’s search for meaning and for something to do with her power, is as touching as it is frustrating. She didn’t think that far when she decided to become a heavenly fox… But she knows of another who has gone before her, a fox named Sunflash, who has mysteriously disappeared.

I won’t spoil the third act because it is where things come together beautifully, although I will say this much: Springshadow finds Sunflash and is shown a different way to look at life, both her own and that of other creatures in the world. Sunflash’s story, although told on very few pages, was deeply moving.

Although The Heavenly Fox is a simple fable-like story, I had several causes for loving it, Springshadow’s character being chief among them. So many times, anthropomorphic animals, talking animals, magical animals in fiction tend to be too human to be believable. Springshadow is not too concerned with the death of humans but she does have a great deal more empathy than other foxes. The concept of settling a debt, of self-sacrifice, is foreign to her because – well, she is a fox and why would foxes care? I also loved that Richard Parks takes time to give his tale a little humor. Whether it’s in dialogue with Wildeye (I love Wildeye!) or Springshadow’s trouble when dealing with her brand-new nine fox tails that constantly get in the way, especially when she’s trying to sit down, there is a beautiful balance of the serious and the light-hearted.

Most of all though, I like how important questiones are posed and there is no one right answer. As Sunflash’s story shows, every creature has to choose their own way and to do what’s right for them. But listening to others, seeing the world through their eyes, may help you gain more knowledge to make a decision that’s right for you. The Heavenly Fox is a very short, quiet book but at the same time, a highly engrossing one. I think I will read up on Chinese mythology (I am embarrassingly ignorant on the subject) and then definitely revisit The Heavenly Fox.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good!

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Second opinions: