Who Knew This Would Be So Much Fun: Catherynne M. Valente – Minecraft: The End

I have never played Minecraft. I know of the game’s existence and I’ve seen some of the very impressive buildings people have created in it, but I still have no idea what the point of the game is. It just never appealed to me. But when my favorite author writes a Minecraft novel, there is simply no way around trying it. And holy smokes, it turned out to be excellent fun!

MINECRAFT: THE END
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by: Del Rey, 2019
Hardcover: 256 pages
Series: Official Minecraft Novels #4
(but can totally be read as a standalone)
My rating: 9/10

First line: It is always night in the End.

For as long as they can remember, the twin endermen Fin and Mo have lived in the mysterious land of The End. On the outskirts of the great enderman city of Talos, they explore ancient ruins under the watchful gaze of the mighty ender dragon. They have everything they need in the end ship they call home, and know everything there is to know about their world—or so they think until the strangers from another dimension arrive.
The invaders are called humans, and they’ve come to steal artifacts and slay the ender dragon. Fin and Mo are ready to protect their home from the trespassers, but when they come face-to-face with the humans, they discover that they aren’t as prepared for battle as they’d thought. Caught off guard, the twins are trapped in the middle of a war between the endermen and the humans, with the future of their home at stake.

For someone like me, with no familiarity with the game whatsoever, the entrance into this world may have been a tad harder than for those of you who’ve played Minecraft. But Cat Valente does an excellent job in setting up the world, describing the countryside, the endermen, and of course ED – the Ender Dragon. I did look up shulkers on the internet, but even that wouldn’t have been necessary.

Fin and Mo are two outcast enderfrag twins who live on a ship with their shulker Grumpo (who is indeed very grumpy) and a lot of loot. Their only true friend is Kan, another enderman who isn’t fully trusted by others because unlike all other enderman, his eyes aren’t magenta, they are green. You can see why it’s easy to love those three. Everybody loves an underdog, and Fin and Mo are even more likable because their biggest desire is to just fit in, to belong somewhere, to have an End of their own. With their parents gone – presumed dead by rain or human in the Overworld – they are by themselves, however, and forbidden to train with the other ender children.

When a portal to the End is opened, many endermen come together and decide how to deal with the coming threat of a human army, bound to destroy them and their beautiful chaotic way of life. When some humans do show up, however, things turn out quite different than expected, and Mo and Fin find themselves not just between the fronts of two warring sides, but also questioning everything they know about themselves and the world. And there’s a zombie horse. That I completely and utterly fell in love with. If that isn’t a sign of great writing, I don’t know what is. But Loathsome the zombie horse will always have a place in my heart.

The beginning of this novel is mostly spent setting up the world and characters, and for that I was immensely grateful! With no knowledge of the Minecraft world or any of its lore, I could still just dive in and slowly learn what there is to know. I quite loved that endermen serve the Great Chaos while humans are said to be creatures of Order (what with putting blocks on top of each other quite neatly to make buildings and beds and other such nonsense). We get to meet the dragon ED, who is a whole mystery unto himself and seems to know a lot more than he lets on, we see the adorably hateful Grumpo whom I also loved despite his constant comments about hating everything and everyone, and the music-loving Kan, who desperately wants to learn what’s wrong with him and his eyes. And then the story truly kicks off.

One of the elder endermen – a cruxunit named Kraj who is known for telling long, sprawling tales that nobody wants to hear – mentions that the human army might already be assembled in the End, hiding as spies among all the real endermen. Because when humans put a pumpkin on their head, endermen cannot distinguish them from their own people. And then the twists start coming! I won’t give any of them away, but assuming you have spies among your own trusted people is such a great trope that Valente uses and turns on its head several times here. But trust me, things are never what you expect. All my suspicions were wrong and I am so happy when a book offers plot twists that seriously surprise me.

I can’t even express how much I loved this story. The characters grew on me, the mysteries became more and more intriguing and every time we learned something new, more questions popped up that kept me turning the pages. Valente paints a surprisingly vivid landscape considering there isn’t all that much to describe in the End, but I felt like I was there and I felt just as torn as Fin and Mo, trying to decided who were the monsters and who were the good guys. Or if it’s even as simple as all that.
There is action and adventure, there are trips to different places, secrets to uncover, there is magic and potions and clues all along the way. And there are two young endermen still just looking for their place in the world.

The ending is a thing of pure beauty. Don’t let anyone spoil this for you, because the surprises just keep on coming. I sat there with my mouth literally agape, surprised and thrilled that the story had gone the way it had. You can tell Valente trusts her readers – be they middle-grade kids, young adults, or adults like me – to follow along and wrap their heads around what’s happening. But she definitely doesn’t dumb her plot down because this is supposed to be for children and I love that so much!
If you’d told me that someday I’d read a Minecraft novel, let alone end up loving a Minecraft novel, I would have laughed at you. Not because I look down on the franchise but simply because Minecraft has never really caught my interest. But this story is such a perfect adventure with great characters and fantastic worldbuilding that I can’t help but give it a high rating. I loved every page and I can only imagine people familiar with Minecraft will love it even more.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Damn near perfection!

Eurovision in Space: Catherynne M. Valente – Space Opera

I read this book in July 2018 and I adored every page. But – as with many of Cat Valente’s books – I find it very difficult to write a coherent review. Some of my Valente reviews are gushing, fangirly, quote-filled posts that I hope will convince some people to pick up her books. But I would understand if you guys just think: “That girl is crazy, but good for her for liking this book, I guess.” and moving on with your lives. With Space Opera, Valente garnered a much-deserved Hugo Award nomination (although I’ll repeat what I’ve said many times before: She should have been nominated and won for her novel Radiance!), so I’m giving this reviewing thing another try.

SPACE OPERA
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by: Saga Press, 2018
Hardcover: 294 pages
Standalone
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: Once upon a time on a small, watery, excitable planet called Earth, in a small, watery, excitable country called Italy, a soft-spoken, rather nice-looking gentleman by the name of Enrico Fermi was born into a family so overprotective that he felt compelled to invent the atomic bomb.

A century ago, the Sentience Wars tore the galaxy apart and nearly ended the entire concept of intelligent space-faring life. In the aftermath, a curious tradition was invented—something to cheer up everyone who was left and bring the shattered worlds together in the spirit of peace, unity, and understanding.
Once every cycle, the civilizations gather for the Metagalactic Grand Prix—part gladiatorial contest, part beauty pageant, part concert extravaganza, and part continuation of the wars of the past. Instead of competing in orbital combat, the powerful species that survived face off in a competition of song, dance, or whatever can be physically performed in an intergalactic talent show. The stakes are high for this new game, and everyone is forced to compete.
This year, though, humankind has discovered the enormous universe. And while they expected to discover a grand drama of diplomacy, gunships, wormholes, and stoic councils of aliens, they have instead found glitter, lipstick, and electric guitars. Mankind will not get to fight for its destiny—they must sing.
A band of human musicians, dancers, and roadies have been chosen to represent Earth on the greatest stage in the galaxy. And the fate of their species lies in their ability to rock.

Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes are a has-been glam rock band, currently in sort-of-retirement. But when alien life pops up on Earth – all over the place, all at once, I might add – and informs us that we have to compete in an intergalactic music competition to prove our sentience and, therefore, our right to continue living on as a species, Decibel is ripped right out of his stupor and has to make music again.

There is a reason why this book has been compared to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and that reason is very simple (and if you read the first sentence above, you’ll know it). The style is similar, it has a silliness to it that will remind anyone of Douglas Adams’ hilarious trilogy of five, and it is filled to the brim with ideas, with original alien species, with deep thoughts about life and what makes humanity worthy of living. But like any comparison, it’s not exactly the same. Any book by Cat Valente will feature her signature style, although I admit she departed quite far from it for this novel. But you’ll still get flowery descriptions, long sentences,  clever inside jokes, and references to real-world things. Except, you know, with a wink and a smile.

Do not expect a very plot-heavy book. Stuff happens at the beginning and at the end. In the middle, the time where Decibel and the Absolute Zeroes prepare their intergalactic musical number, is spent mostly with character development, world-building, and ruminations about what makes life worthwhile. That could go either way for you, but I personally loved it. I don’t need big epic things to happen on every page, or at least not in every book I read. Discovering all the crazy aliens Valente came up with felt pretty epic to me. While some of them are just weird creatures – like giant, talking flamingoes – others are not corporeal at all. I don’t want to spoil the fun for you, but rest assured that there are a lot of aliens to be discovered  and that some of them are absolutely hilarious, especially if you remember Microsoft Word from The Olden Days. 😉

But despite the humor, this book also has depth. Decibel Jones is a Bowie-esque has-been rock star and that alone would make him an interesting enough character study. But the band is missing a member and figuring out what exactly happened and why is a nice sub-plot to the main story that may help readers who want more plot get over that rather quiet middle part. I  loved getting to know Decibel and slowly finding out why there is so much tension between the band members and what went wrong in their past.

As this is marketed as “Eurovision in Space”, you can be sure that there will be an epic competition of music (in its broadest definition) at the end. If you go in knowing that the song contest only happens at the very end of the book, maybe I can keep you from being disappointed. The way I read this book, I loved the journey to the ultimate plot climax as much as the ending itself. Even if I hadn’t, the ending would make it all worthwhile.

Because it is nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Novel, let me say that it’s at the top of my ballot (I know, shocking, right?). I don’t think it will win because as with any humorous book (especially humorous science fiction or fantasy), it’s polarising. People either love it or bounce off it hard. And I get it. I came to this book totally biased because Cat Valente is my favorite author of all time. All I can do is recommend it to you and give you a heads-up of what to expect. If you’re in the mood for something funny but with depth, a wild ride through space (with red pandas!) or if you liked the “SHOW ME WHAT YOU GOOOOOT” episode of Rick and Morty, then you should give Space Opera  a shot. And then, of course, go on to read everything else by Cat Valente.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Nearly perfect!

Reading the Hugos: Best Novel

What a ballot! When the nominees were announced, I had already read four of the six nominated novels and I thought I was doomed. How was I supposed to choose my favorites among these excellent books? Couldn’t there at least be two or three that weren’t as good? Well, I’m all caught up and while the ballot is still filled with fantastic books, at least I know somewhat how to arrange my list now.

The nominees for Best Novel

  1. Catherynne M. Valente – Space Opera
  2. Naomi Novik – Spinning Silver
  3. Yoon Ha Lee – Revenant Gun
  4. Mary Robinette Kowal – The Calculating Stars
  5. Rebecca Roanhorse – Trail of Lightning
  6. Becky Chambers – Record of a Spaceborn Few

At this moment, I’m certain about my number one spot and the bottom two spots. But the three books in between could switch places a hundred times before the voting period ends. Because I just don’t know! They are incredibly difficult  to compare, they did such different things, they were all brilliant, and I really don’t know at this point what my final ballot will look like.

Cat Valente’s Space Opera is my number one for several reasons. First, I have adored Valente’s writing for years, she has never let me down, and while I think she should have won a Hugo already for Radiance, I believe this book is just as deserving. Humorous science fiction is rarely taken into consideration for awards so I don’t believe it will win. But when you pick up a book that everybody has compared to Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and it doesn’t let you down? That’s already a winner for me. I mean, who could stand up to that comparison and come out not just with “yeah it was okay” but with a nominateion for a Hugo Award?  Valente not only made me laugh out loud with the premise – Eurovision In Space – and the hilarious invasion scene as well as many silly moments, she also showed her originality with the alien species she invented. And, most of all, the story is full of heart and a deep love of humanity, warts and all. I can’t remember the last time a book made me laugh and feel all warm and fuzzy inside like this. If Redshirts can win, than Space Opera should have a chance as well! I sincerely hope it does.

Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver was a beautiful book. It suffered from too many unorganized POV characters and it wasn’t quite as good as Uprooted but that’s about all the negative things I can say about it now. I adore fairy tale retellings (as you may have guessed if you stop by here occasionally), so I’m putting it in second place for now. Novik turned a Rumpelstiltskin retelling into an epic fantasy, which is already a feat, but she also created memorable characters and great romances – I know many people didn’t like them, but I stand by my minority opinion.

Yoon Ha Lee’s Revenant Gun concludes the Machineries of War series. In order to read this, I had to first catch up on the second volume, which suffered from middle-book-syndrome a lot. This, however, was a worthy and exciting finale to an epic series. It started with a bang, made me think I knew where it was going, turned the other way, then swerved around yet again. It was clever, had great characters (Jedao must be one of my top ten characters ever!) and a satisfying ending. Seriously well done. I can’t wait for whatever Yoon Ha Lee publishes next.

Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars is easily the best novel of hers I’ve read. It was thrilling, despite being so character-focused and lacking in space battles. It made me uncomfortable and excitied and angry all at the same time. I loved that the protagonist lived in a stable, happy marriage, I loved how the book dealt with mental health issues. There were so many things I loved about it. And seeing how it won a Nebula Award, I wasn’t the only one. As I’m having such a hard time ranking these books, I’m going to use that win as an excuse to rank it a bit lower. It’s already won an award, after all, and while there have been several books that won both Hugo and Nebal awards in the same year, I didn’t think this book was quite amazing enough for that.

Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning was on the bottom spot of my ballot for a long time. Not because it’s bad but because it was too ordinary for an award. A fun Urban Fantasy story in an original setting may be entertaining to read, and I did enjoy how Native American mythology gets woven into the plot, but I still don’t think this book deserves an award. Many, many other books are published every year that do the same thing: sassy, kick-ass heroine solves mystery while working through her dark past, meeting potential love interest, betrayal, battles, magic, etc. etc. Neither the writing nor the characters were good enough for me to want to give this an award.

However, Becky Chambers’ Record of a Spaceborn Few, which I expected to love, goes even below that (for now). In reality, this book was better written than Trail of Lightning, but it had absolutely no plot for such a long time that I kept asking myself why I was even reading it. It’s the equivalent of a married couple discussing who’s going to do the dishes tonight… except in space. For a few hundred pages! Although once the plot does start (very late in the novel), the book becomes really, really good, by then I was too fed up already with the hours I’ve spent reading about nothing (in space).

So this is it, my Best Novel ballot. I may yet switch the bottom two novels around, depending on how my feelings change in the next month or so. I may also change my mind about my slots 2 through 4, but for now, I’m okay with the way I ranked these books.

I’m sure everyone has their own way of deciding how to rank a certain book. As I’m not a professional critic, all I have to go on is my own enjoyment of any given book. And – as was the case here – if I enjoyed many of the books, I try and find other criteria such as originality, writing style, potential for rereading, etc. For example, I’ll probably never reread The Calculating Stars because although it was a very good book, it was not exactly a fun book, but I may give Spinning Silver another go and I will most definitely reread Space Opera someday. It’s a total comfort read.

How about you guys? Are you voting for the Hugos this year? Do you agree/disagree with my list? Let me hear your thoughts in the comments! 🙂

Catherynne M. Valente – The Refrigerator Monologues

It is a good year when a new Valente book comes out. This year, we are extra lucky because in September, we’ll get another new Valente novel which is about the Bronte children and the fantasy world they made up together – so exactly the kind of book you’d want from Cat. In The Refrigerator Monologues, Valente leaves her usual turf of fantasy, myth, and fairy tale and delivers something new, fresh, angry, and beautiful. Although it may lack the emotional punch of her fantasy tales, it will leave you uncomfortable and thoughtful in the best of ways.

THE REFRIGERATOR MONOLOGUES
by Catherynne M. Valente
illustrated by Annie Wu

Published by: Saga Press, 2017
Hardcover: 160 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: I’m dead. The deadest girl in Deadtown.

The lives of six female superheroes and the girlfriends of superheroes. A ferocious riff on women in superhero comics

From the New York Times bestselling author Catherynne Valente comes a series of linked stories from the points of view of the wives and girlfriends of superheroes, female heroes, and anyone who’s ever been “refrigerated”: comic book women who are killed, raped, brainwashed, driven mad, disabled, or had their powers taken so that a male superhero’s storyline will progress.

In an entirely new and original superhero universe, Valente subversively explores these ideas and themes in the superhero genre, treating them with the same love, gravity, and humor as her fairy tales. After all, superheroes are our new fairy tales and these six women have their own stories to share.

In Deadtown, the underworld, whatever comes after death, six women meet to talk about their lives, their involvement with famous superheroes, and what led them to Deadtown (read: killed them horribly) anyway. With superhero movies still going strong, the trope of the refrigerated woman has become quite well known – it’s when a superhero’s girlfriend, wife, or even a villainess is brutally murdered for the simple reason that our hero needs a kick in the ass to make his own story move forward. Whether it’s to avenge a beloved (and now very dead) girlfriend or whether the girl is just a pawn in the boys’ superpower games, it’s never about her and she doesn’t get a voice. Cat Valente gives these women that voice.

Framed by the women meeting in Deadtown – which, although the book doesn’t spend much time on world building, a really cool place to read about – each gets to tell her own story. And – surprise! – it turns out they all had a story before whichever superhero entered their world. While all heroes and heroines, villains and the six women themselves have new and original names, anyone who has read a comic book or seen a few Marvel or DC movies will recognise most of them immediately. There’s your Gwen Stacy and your Harley Quinn, Mera (whose name I had to look up because all I knew about her was that she was Aquaman’s wife, which goes to show just how important this book is.) and Phoenix, as well as the original refrigerated woman from Green Lantern.

Each gets to tell her story in turn and here’s where my love for this book begins. Because it may be fun figuring out which superhero you’re reading about, but it is even more fun how every woman tells her story in her own voice. Pretty Polly (the Harley Quinn of this universe) talks just like you’d imagine she would. Kind of sweet-ish and girly, with a fair bit of madness added to the mix. Blue Bayou sounds angry, Paige Embry is just totally endearing, and Julia Ash (whose villain’s is aptly named Retcon) felt kind of resigned. The voices always fit and the stories these women have to tell are engaging and intriguing for more than one reason. First of all, they’re just interesting stories. Secondly, they would have fit so beautifully into their respective universes – why isn’t there space in a Spider Man movie to show Gwen Stacy as more than just the hero’s girlfriend. She had a life before him and she had a life with him, just like all the others. Their demise was incredibly heartbreaking, although obviously we know from the start that they die and if you remember the original comic books how they die. To me, that’s just another sign of how amazing a writer Valente is. If you know what happens and how it happens, and all she does is give you a little background info, give the character who is about to die a little agency and personality, and it hits you deep in the guts anyway, then yeah… that’s a great writer!

Other than the stories themselves, I loved what little we get to see of Deadtown. Like everything that is there has to be completely dead in the world of the living. So Deadtown citizens eat extinct animals and only get to read books that are gone from our world. And I loved the little aside how Deadtown is never gonna get Harry Potter. Because despite the dark subject matter and the inevitable horrible deaths of the protagonists, there is also a lot of humor in this book. At 160 pages, it runs very short and I would have loved to get more of the same (then again, when I talk about a Valente book, when do I ever not say that?), but I urge you to buy yourself a hardback copy anyway because the stories are accompanied by beautiful illustrations by Annie Wu. Each character gets an illustration of her own and the style is just perfect. Like an old comic book but with amazing character design. The book itself is also a lovely object that will sit proudly on any shelf. I know I’m a broken record but CAT VALENTE IS THE BEST AND I LOVED THIS BOOK WITH EVERY FIBER OF MY BEING!

My rating: 8/10 – Excellent!

Second opinions:

 

Bees and Books and Keys and Trains: Catherynne M. Valente – Palimpsest

A sexually transmitted city. Four protagonists, each hurt and broken in their own way, and a ton of gorgeous imagery, lush descriptions of an amazing city, and Valente’s trademark poetic prose. Yes, I am about to tell you again why Cat Valente is one of the best writers out there and why I love her so, so much!

palimpsest-origPALIMPSEST
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by: Bantam, 2009
Paperback: 367 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: On the corner of 16th street and Hieratica a factory sings and sighs.

Between life and death, dreaming and waking, at the train stop beyond the end of the world is the city of Palimpsest. To get there is a miracle, a mystery, a gift, and a curse—a voyage permitted only to those who’ve always believed there’s another world than the one that meets the eye. Those fated to make the passage are marked forever by a map of that wondrous city tattooed on their flesh after a single orgasmic night. To this kingdom of ghost trains, lion-priests, living kanji, and cream-filled canals come four travelers: Oleg, a New York locksmith; the beekeeper November; Ludovico, a binder of rare books; and a young Japanese woman named Sei. They’ve each lost something important—a wife, a lover, a sister, a direction in life—and what they will find in Palimpsest is more than they could ever imagine.

Continue reading

Catherynne M. Valente – The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All The Way Home

This is it. It’s over. No more Fairyland stories with September. I took a good long while reading this book because if there’s ever a time to draw out a story, this is it. The Fairyland series has grown so dear to me that it was incredibly hard letting go, even though Cat Valente ended her series in the most perfect way imaginable.

fairyland 5

THE GIRL WHO RACED FAIRYLAND ALL THE WAY HOME
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by: Feiwel & Friends, 2016
Ebook: 308 pages
Series: Fairyland #5
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: Once upon a time, a country called Fairyland grew very tired indeed of people squabbling over it, of polishing up the glitter on the same magic and wonder and dashing dangers each morning, of drifting along prettily through the same Perverse and Perilous Sea, of playing with the same old tyrants and brave heroes every century.

Quite by accident, September has been crowned as Queen of Fairyland – but she inherits a Kingdom in chaos. The magic of a Dodo’s egg has brought every King, Queen, or Marquess of Fairyland back to life, each with a fair and good claim on the throne, each with their own schemes and plots and horrible, hilarious, hungry histories. In order to make sense of it all, and to save their friend from a job she doesn’t want, A-Through-L and Saturday devise a Royal Race, a Monarckical Marathon, in which every outlandish would-be ruler of Fairyland will chase the Stoat of Arms across the whole of the nation – and the first to seize the poor beast will seize the crown. Caught up in the madness are the changelings Hawthorn and Tamburlaine, the combat wombat Blunderbuss, the gramophone Scratch, the Green Wind, and September’s parents, who have crossed the universe to find their daughter…

divider1

This is the last book in the Fairyland series and with it, the series comes full circle in many ways. September and her friends must participate in the Cantankerous Derby, a race for the crown of Fairyland, but of course, this being Fairyland, it’s not just any old race. Because what they have to find is the heart of Fairyland and you all can imagine that it’s not an actual heart lying around somewhere under the Perverse and Perilous Sea or deep in the Worsted Woods. But with Ell, Blunderbuss, and Saturday, September follows every lead she has to win a crown she’s not even sure she wants.

I felt sad the entire time I read this book, even when Blunderbuss made me smile and Saturday filled my heart with joy. Nailing the ending of a series is always difficult, and with this one especially I was wondering how it could possibly end without tears. But Cat Valente has proven herself to be a trustworthy author who knows exactly what she’s doing. After a wonderful adventure, with a particularly delightfull chapter under the sea (I want a Bathysphere, that’s all I’m saying), a trip to the land of Wom, and several encounters with bloodthirsty tyrants, we do get an ending and it is that rare sort of perfection that I wouldn’t have believed to be possible.

In many ways, it reminded me of Peter Pan, where Wendy’s story in Neverland may come to an end but that doesn’t mean that Neverland’s story is over. As the beginning of this book tells you, Fairyland has become a character of her own and she will live on, even after all the changelings and heartless children are done with their adventuring.

[…]a door is a door, and a door is always an adventure

I could tell you about all the wonderful new places and creatures we meet in The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All The Way Home, but that would take out part of the fun. We meet old friends (and foes, and in-betweens), we see lots of new faces, we discover new places in Fairyland and revisit some well-known ones.  The last Fairyland novel still keeps up that sense of wonder that’s made it so beautiful in the four previous books.

But what really makes this instalment shine is how clever everything falls into place. There are hints about the ending strewn all over the place but I, at least, didn’t make sense of them until I had read the ending. My biggest worry was always how September could possible unite the two worlds living in her heart – her family are waiting for her back in Omaha, after all, and September loves her parents. But come on, it’s Fairyland. Who would ever want to leave? It’s a big conundrum and I’m glad that Cat Valente solved it because so many others have failed before her.

fairyland 3 aroostook

Aroostook is back!

I always hated stories where kids get swept into a magical world and the only thing they can think to do is find a way back home. Like, really? Is home always such a perfect place? Dorothy left Oz, Wendy left Neverland, and yes, I understand that these are all metaphors for growing up, leaving childhood behind you – that doesn’t mean I have to like it. Valente understands this and she also sends a powerful message with her book series. You don’t have to leave wonder and fun and silliness to be a grown up. Yes, there are difficult decisions to be made, and yes, the grown-up world can be an adventure as well. But there can still be stuffed combat wombats, and marids, and wyveraries. This is really all I can say without spoiling the ending.

There is one scene (there always is one, isn’t there) that was so beautiful and thrown in so seemingly carelessy, that made me well up again. September and Saturday’s relationship has been sort of fortold from the very beginning. With marids living all times at once, September has seen several Saturdays, at varying ages, throughout the series. But this Saturday, her Saturday still delivers the gut-punchiest speech of the book, and part of it only makes sense after you’ve finished reading all of it. Maybe I’m just a crybaby when it comes to books – yes, okay.. I definitely am – but man, that bit tugged at my heartstrings. I want to jump up and down and giggle and cry all at the same time.

The one thing I do have to say, however, is that the book felt a bit rushed at times. With the introduction of a TON of new characters, things get hectic. September’s journey through Fairyland also feels a bit too fast at times. While a nice number of pages lets us marvel at the underwater world that Saturday knows so well, other places and people barely get a full chapter. But it’s a minor quibble considering Valente has written such an amazing book series that can appeal to people of all ages. I have endless love for Fairyland… there’s a reason these books live next to Harry Potter on my shelves.

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Most excellent!

divider1

Second opinions:

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Catherynne M. Valente – Radiance

[Insert obligatory line about copious amounts of upcoming fangirliness here]
Good, now that’s out of the way, let me talk about Cat Valente’s newest book. It is the BEST THING EVER! The cover, the planet drawings as chapter headers, the literary styles, the characters (Oh my glob, the characters!), the plot… reading this was pure bliss. I drew it out as long as I could but, in addition to being absolutely stunning, it’s also a mystery and keeping away from the book for any amount of time an impossible feat.

radianceRADIANCE
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by: Tor, 2015
Hardcover: 432 pages
Standalone
My rating: 10/10

First sentence: Come forward.

Radiance is a decopunk pulp SF alt-history space opera mystery set in a Hollywood—and solar system—very different from our own, from the phenomenal talent behind the New York Times bestselling The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.
Severin Unck’s father is a famous director of Gothic romances in an alternate 1986 in which talking movies are still a daring innovation due to the patent-hoarding Edison family. Rebelling against her father’s films of passion, intrigue, and spirits from beyond, Severin starts making documentaries, traveling through space and investigating the levitator cults of Neptune and the lawless saloons of Mars. For this is not our solar system, but one drawn from classic science fiction in which all the planets are inhabited and we travel through space on beautiful rockets. Severin is a realist in a fantastic universe.
But her latest film, which investigates the disappearance of a diving colony on a watery Venus populated by island-sized alien creatures, will be her last. Though her crew limps home to earth and her story is preserved by the colony’s last survivor, Severin will never return.
Aesthetically recalling A Trip to the Moon and House of Leaves, and told using techniques from reality TV, classic film, gossip magazines, and meta-fictional narrative, Radiance is a solar system-spanning story of love, exploration, family, loss, quantum physics, and silent film.

divider1

Mars has cowboys, Venus has space whales. The moon is Hollywood and Earth is so passé. Come visit Cat Valente’s very own solar system, full of old-timey sense of wonder, of planets that can be inhabited no matter what science says. It’s a child’s idea of our solar system but at the same time reminiscent of old pulp science fiction novels. And this version of the solar system is completely internally consistent. You may find breathable air on every planet, but that doesn’t mean that they are all equally welcoming to human inhabitants. What makes the world go round (this world’s spice melange, if you will) is callowmilk from the callowhales of Venus. I could go on a huge tangent about the brilliance with which Valente inserts her world-building into the story, but finding out little snippets about this planet’s culture or that planet’s flora and fauna, is part of the fun.

Radiance tells the story of a mystery. Famous movie director Percival Unck’s daughter, Severin, has lived her life in front of camera lenses. Breaking free from her father’s idea of what movies should be like, she started making her own movies, true movies. Her last trip took her to a mysterious village on Venus, whose people just disappeared one day. But Severin herself never returns from the trip and it is her disappearance (maybe even her death?) that is the big secret of Radiance.

Valente’s strongest suit, in my opinion, has always been language. The things she does with language in Radiance are like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Take a seat, lean back, and let me tell you why this novel seven years in the making is such a masterpiece.

The prologue is the mother of the tale and the governess of the audience.

Through gossip colums, movie transcripts, interviews, and radio play scripts, we see a story through many lenses. Not only does Valente use different media to tell Severin’s story, she also lets a cast of characters tell snippets of a much larger tale. Almost like a non-fiction book stuck together of individual people’s accounts. Whether it’s Severin’s lover, their adopted son Anchises, one of Severin’s many stepmothers (my glob, how I love Mary and her ingénue’s handbook!!), or a quick peek at Percival Unck’s private reels, Valente lets her characters shine through their actions as much as through the medium they use to tell their story.

I like thinking about a version of you that doesn’t look for a camera all the time.

Severin Unck may be the single most intriguing character I’ve ever read about. Her relationship to her father, to movies, to the fact that they are black and white and usually silent (unless you have enormous amounts of money to pay Edison for the rights to use sound in your film), and Severin is rebelling against all of that. She wants to make her own kind of movies, yet she doesn’t really know how to live without being constantly filmed herself. A natural in front (and behind) the camera, she is always aware of being captured on celluloid, and so we – the readers – can never be quite sure whether her emotions are real or just for the cameras. This makes Severin nothing short of stunning. The only other character somewhat like her, that I could think of at least, was Suyana from Genevieve Valentine’s Persona. But she didn’t get nearly so close to me as Severin.

The second most interesting character is Anchises, Severin and Erasmo St. John’s adopted son. They found him in the strange village on Venus and promptly took the child home with them. Anchises is the perfect noir hero, broken inside, bitter and cynical, always searching for something and not quite getting it. Which leads me to the way his story is told. It all begins your typical noir detective story..

[…] noir isn’t really a new thing at all. It’s just a fairy tale with guns. Your hardscrabble detective is nothing more than a noble knight with a cigarette and a disease where his heart should be.

But as we go through his tale, the style changes. There are chapters that read like gothic romance, there are chapters straight out of a children’s book, and all of them are beautiful. Valente shows off her talent with Anchises. We know that she can be poetic, we know she has a gift for writing for children as well as adults, but she dives in and out of so many different styles with such ease, one can’t help but feel jealous.

I am not the least bit surprised this book took so long to develop from a short story – The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew – simply because of its ambition and scope. It spans years, a dozen important characters, fictional movies that sound and feel right, mysteries upon mysteries, and actual hard science facts (you kind of have to finish the book to get to that part). Any single character from Radiance has enough flesh and bone on them to be worthy of their own book, any of the many styles used could be used for its own story, but Cat Valente managed the unmanageable. She meshed it all together in a beautiful, perfect love story to movies and movie making, to pulpy space adventures, and to stories in general. If she wasn’t already my favorite author, this would be the book that would make me go out and buy her entire backlist in one go.

So really, make yourself comfortable, grab a cup of something hot to drink, bring a blanket and maybe a snack, and read this book. If this doesn’t grab a Hugo and Nebula nomination, I’ll be very surprised.

MY RATING: 10/10 – Absolutely perfect!

Also, watch the beautiful book trailer.

divider1

Second opinions:

Catherynne M. Valente – Speak Easy

I wonder if Cat Valente is even capable of writing  a bad book. It’s getting kind of ridiculous for me to try and write reviews of her stuff. We all know what’s going to happen, anyway. I will gush, I will quote, I will gush about the quotes, and then I’ll tell you how terrible I’ll feel until I can get my hands on the next Valente book. But oh well, each of her books is worth gushing over for different reasons, so I suppose we might as well do it again.

speak easySPEAK EASY
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by: Subterranean, 2015
Hardcover: 144 pages
Standalone Novella
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: There’s a ragamuffin city out east, you follow?

“If you go looking for it, just about halfway uptown and halfway downtown, there’s this hotel stuck like a pin all the way through the world. Down inside the Artemisia it’s this mortal coil all over. Earthly delights on every floor.”
The hotel Artemisia sits on a fantastical 72nd Street, in a decade that never was. It is home to a cast of characters, creatures, and creations unlike any other, including especially Zelda Fair, who is perfect at being Zelda, but who longs for something more. The world of this extraordinary novella—a bootlegger’s brew of fairy tales, Jazz Age opulence, and organized crime—is ruled over by the diminutive, eternal, sinister Al. Zelda holds her own against the boss, or so it seems. But when she faces off against him and his besotted employee Frankie in a deadly game that just might change everything, she must bet it all and hope not to lose…
Multiple-award-winning, New York Times’ bestselling author Catherynne M. Valente once again reinvents a classic in Speak Easy, which interprets “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” if Zelda Fitzgerald waltzed in and stole the show. This Prohibition-Era tale will make heads spin and hearts pound. It’s a story as old as time, as effervescent as champagne, and as dark as the devil’s basement on a starless night in the city.

divider1

Have you seen The Grand Budapest Hotel? The opening of Cat Valente’s newest novella has a similar feel to it. An unnamed narrator welcomes us into the Roaring Twenties and introduces us to the Hotel Artemisia and some of its inhabitants. Room by room, we find out how half a zoo’s worth of animals ended up in the hotel, how Zelda Fair and her roomates moved in with the already resident pelican, how Al runs the underworld and provides enough booze to keep the entire hotel happy and puking all night, how the rooftop farm makes it possible for people to never go outside and just live in the hotel forever.

In the first few chapters alone, there is so much to discover and the language is so amazing, I just curled up on the couch and soaked it all in. I have come to the conclusion that, while Valente has a trademark lyrical style, she has no trouble whatsoever adapting it. The narration immediately puts you in the time period, the choice of words is exquisite, the dialogue perfectly fitting. You can see the tattered dance shoes and flapper dresses, the bobbed hair and cigarette holders.

“Have you seen Zelda?” he asks.
“Who?”
“Zelda. Zelda Fair. About this high, short black hair, smile like a punch in the gut?”

But Speak Easy is also a heartbreaking story. It starts off as a light, super fun exploration a strangely self-sufficient hotel. Once Zelda – in search of her Goodies, her talent, her one thing that she’s good at – and Frankie, poor bellhop with a secret side-job, are introduced, things get darker. Valente’s love for mythology shines through yet again, and a trip to Artemisia’s basement might well be a trip into the actual underworld. People are what they seem but they are also more than that. And the basement is where they thrive. Zelda’s roomate Ollie can show her talent without hiding behind a pen name, Frankie discovers that he does have great things in him, Zelda can enjoy herself and realise that her Goodies aren’t hiding from her, that she does have talent… there’s booze, there’s sex, there’s dancing all night.

As with most of her books, my number one complaint is that it ends. I fell into its mood right away and wanted to spend more time with the narrator, wanted to ask her about all the other inhabitants of Hotel Artemisia. What about the seals in the fountain? Or the pneumatic tubes? There are entire worlds of intrigues, love affairs, and sinister dealings hiding in there, and we only glimpse some of them. But that’s also one of the book’s qualities. The author doesn’t spell everything out for us, she lets us in on this secret world just a little bit and draw our own conclusions, make up our own side-stories.

quotes greyCaspar Slake has a three-month limit at the bar. Any longer and you start thinking about a person different. You start thinking of them like they’re yours. You start making plans. He didn’t make the rule. It just is. People are clocks who think they wind themselves.

Zelda may be the main character, but I had just as much fun reading about Slake, Artemisia’s owner, and his wife Pearl. The pelican, Mr. Puss-Boots, has a surprising amount of personality and love for his roomates. Al, master of the basement, is surrounded by mystery and power – I completely understand how people can feel drawn to him. He exudes danger as much as he seems to be a benevolent lord in Artemisia’s very own underworld. I loved every character, no matter how little we see of them, and it’s to Valente’s credit that they came vibrantly alive without a lot of exposition.

I don’t think it’s coincidence that Zelda is called Zelda and Frankie – desperately in love with her – is called Frankie. If you have someone named Al run the underworld, it doesn’t take much to add a “Capone” to his name, and if a guy named Francis writes novels, there’s only a small step to supplying the missing “Fitzgerald”. The epic game of poker played in the basement leads me to believe that Valente had these people in mind when she wrote this story.  It made for a great tale and one that twists the knife in your heart at the end, just for good measure. That poker game and its eventual winners are so full of symbols that make a lot of sense when you read up on the Fitzgeralds. It’s really fucking heartbreaking.

As fun as it started, Speak Easy left me half-crying (why does she always do that? I become such a cry-baby when I read Valente books). If you’re invested in Zelda’s dreams – and you will be if you read this – then the ending hurts even more. But other than break my heart again, Valente also reminded me why I love this genre. You can take real-life people and throw them into a world of myth and magic and art, and create something wonderful and new that still feels like coming home. I will definitely put this on my Hugo ballot next year and probably re-read it every weekend until Radiance comes out.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Pretty much perfect

divider1

Second opinions:

Catherynne M. Valente – The Boy Who Lost Fairyland

I drew it out as long as humanly possible, I really did. Any new Cat Valente novel is like Christmas to me, and the only reason I gave in and finished this book (at 4 in the morning, mind you) is the knowledge that two new Valente books will arrive in my mailbox sometime this year. Thanks, Cat, for being prolific and brilliant and full of magic.

boy who lost fairylandTHE BOY WHO LOST FAIRYLAND
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by: Feiwel & Friends, 2015
Hardcover: 256 pages
Series: Fairyland #4
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: Once upon a time, a troll named Hawthorn lived very happily indeed in his mother’s house, where he juggled the same green and violet gemstones and matching queens’ crowns every day, slept on the same weather-beaten stone, and played with the same huge and cantankerous toad.

When a young troll named Hawthorn is stolen from Fairyland by the Golden Wind, he becomes a changeling – a human boy – in the strange city of Chicago, a place no less bizarre and magical than Fairyland when seen through trollish eyes. Left with a human family, Hawthorn struggles with his troll nature and his changeling fate. But when he turns twelve, he stumbles upon a way back home, to a Fairyland much changed from the one he remembers. Hawthorn finds himself at the center of a changeling revolution–until he comes face to face with a beautiful young Scientiste with very big, very red assistant.

divider1

What? A Fairyland book without September? Or at least, mostly without September – if you’d told me that I would come to love a book that doesn’t feature all my favorite characters from the series, I would have laughed at you. No matter how great Valente is, I expected this to be the black sheep of the series, the least favorite child, the book I loved slightly less than the others. But Valente highlights her talent by making me love Hawthorn, Tamburlaine, Blunderbuss, and Scratch just as much as I do September and her friends.

chapter oneHawthorn is a troll. The Red Wind whisks him away (what’s with those winds?) and sends him – now a Changeling – into the human world where he has to learn the rules of Being Normal. These first chapters are especially heartbreaking to read when you know (or were yourself) a child with “too much” imagination, a child who is constantly reminded by adults that Life is Serious Business and that inanimate objects don’t talk and don’t have names. Hawthorn, now called Thomas Rood, struggles with the strange rules of Chicago, the Kingdom of School, and with the other kids who seem to do Normal so effortlessly. Hawthorn’s Rulebook is one of the most original, heartbreaking, beautiful, and accurate things I have read in a long time.

Fore more than half the novel, we don’t get to see September at all, but we do meet new characters. Tamburlaine stole my heart within minutes, and Scratch the grammophone is adorableness personified. If, after reading this book, you don’t feel an urge to learn to knit and make yourself a woolly wombat, you missed how awesome Blunderbuss is. Instead of a book spent missing September, Ell, and Saturday, I got a whole new cast of lovable characters who live through a particularly evil version of hell. School is fun for very few people but when you know you don’t belong because, deep down, you know you are different, everyday school problems get magnified by a gazillion.

But this wouldn’t be a Fairyland book if we didn’t go to visit Fairyland. We meet actual fairy queens, King Crunchcrab (who’s tired of kinging) and some old friends. The ending was a bit rushed. After so much careful build-up, slowly introducing Hawthorn and Tamburlaine and an unruly baseball, the end offered an action-packed but rather abrupt stop – although it does leave us with an interesting cliffhanger that opens up all sorts of cool ideas for the next book.

It also wouldn’t be a Valente book if it weren’t full of beautiful quotes. Her lyrical language turns mundane objects into adventures, a school building into a kingdom, and teachers into evil dictators. Her words aren’t just words, they paint pictures, they carry scents and sounds, they remind me why I love reading so much.

Sometimes, magic is like that. It lands on your head like a piano, a stupid, ancient, unfunny joke, and you spend the rest of your life picking sharps and flats out of your hair.

Or take this set of Blunderbuss’ wombat rules. It is very much like Hawthorn’s rules for the Kingdom of School, but Blunderbuss being a combat wombat (just hold on a moment and take in how cool that is!), there is plenty of humor whenever she speaks. I loved her to bits.

Look Both Ways Before Crossing a Wombat Bigger Than You. If You Find Mangoes, Make a Whistle Through Your Teeth So We All Can Have Some, Too. All Wombats Are Created Equal, Except for Gregory. No Wombat Shall Be Enslaved, Left Behind, Abandoned, or Unloved. Not Even Gregory. […]

I never did figure out what’s the matter with Gregory but something entirely different is revealed in this fourth Fairyland book. We find out who the narrator of these stories is, and I absolutely loved it. This is going to have interesting consequences for the final volume and gives me hope that our world is a little more magical than we first thought.

Considering that this book clearly sets up the grand finale – The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home – it was superbly done, without any of the set-up-novel mistakes many other series make. It isn’t only there to set up later events. Instead, we get a fine story that can stand on its own two legs but that’s also a puzzle piece in the bigger story. Now I can’t wait to find out how it all ends, even as I look to the final book with dread.

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Excellent!

divider1Other reviews:

Catherynne M. Valente – Indistinguishable From Magic

You all know I go a little coo-coo when it comes to Cat Valente’s books, right? So I pre-ordered this sometime last year, as soon as I found out it would be published. Now imagine my shriek of joy when I got an e-ARC in my mailbox. Yes, it was loud. The boyfriend thought I had seriously injured myself. And then I sank into a cloud of words and didn’t come up for air until I was finished.

indistinguishable from magicINDISTINGUISHABLE FROM MAGIC
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by: Mad Norwegian Press, 6 May 2014
Paperback: 244 pages
Standalone non-fiction
Review copy from the publisher
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: These days, it’s almost a Cartesian axiom: I am a geeky postmodern girl, therefore I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

In Indistinguishable from Magic, more than 60 essays by New York Times-bestselling author Catherynne M. Valente (The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland) are brought together in print for the first time, sharing Cat’s observations and insights about fairy tales and myths, pop culture, gender and race issues, an amateur’s life on planet Earth and much more. Join Cat as she studies the fantasy genre’s inner clockwork to better comprehend its infatuation with medievalism (AKA “dragon bad, sword pretty”), considers the undervalued importance of the laundry machine to women’s rights in locales as wide-ranging as Japan and the steampunk genre, and comes to understand that so much of shaping fantasy works is about making puppets seem real and sympathetic (otherwise, you’re just playing with dolls).

Also featured: Cat takes a hard look at why she can’t stop writing about Persephone, dwells upon the legacy of poets in Cleveland, and examines how stories teach us how to survive – if Gretel can kill the witch, Snow White can return from the dead, and Rapunzel can live in the desert, trust that you can too.

divider1
Mad Norwegian Press are known (by me, at least) for such collections as Chicks Dig Time Lords and Whedonistas and the feshly-Hugo-nominated Queers Dig Time Lords –  book-shaped love letters to fandom. But they also publish collections of essays by single authors. Having been to her blog a couple of times, I know that I enjoy Cat’s non-fiction almost as much as the made-up stories she shares with her readers. The release of Indistinguishable From Magic has been pushed back a couple of months but, trust me, you want to get your hands on this!

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke

My approach to collections is usually to read them front to back and then maybe go back to my favorite pieces and re-read them. I went the same way about Indistinguishable From Magic, except I went back all the time to highlight passages, and jot down book recommendations, and make notes to look this or that thing up on the internet later. It is a treasure cove of geeky goodness.

But most impressively, this book made me feel more accepted and more understood than anything else I’d read before. Growing up as someone who loves fantasy books wasn’t particularly harrowing on me. I always had friends and they accepted my quirks as a given, not questioning why I would be into that weird stuff about made-up worlds, why I would name my pets after Hobbits and characters from Labyrinth. But still, there was nobody around who shared that obsession. Then the internet happened and suddenly, I wasn’t so alone anymore. Cat Valente gets that. Oh, how she gets it.

I choose magic. I choose invented histories. I choose epic battles between armies of wolves and spriggans. I choose witchraft, ray guns, AI, and dark gods. I choose swashbuckling, cruel queens, and talking beasts. I choose cross-dressing orphan heroines. I choose unreliable narrators. I choose my friends.

Whether I share her opinion on the importance of folklore or not (I do), whether I agree with her paper – “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” – on Alice, Dorothy, and The Nutcracker‘s Clara, I couldn’t help but feel like I was talking to a friend. In fact, if I hadn’t admired and envied her before, after this collection, I want to be her best friend. Someone I can call late at night to talk about that old Doctor Who episode that made me cry again, or how underrated Flora Segunda is. I think she’d just get it, happily brew herself a cup of cocoa and discuss the night away.

While the collection is structured by topic – pop culture, gender in SFF, publishing – every section overflows with love for the genre and the community. Yes, there are rants about our failings, and pleas to behave like decent human beings – within fandom and outside of it – but the overwhelming feeling I got was this endless love for fantasy and science fiction. That’s something I can get behind.

indistinguishable from magic
Cat Valente also reveals a fair bit of herself through her writing. It depends, of course, on how you read her articles and how much you know about her already, but the fact that she can’t let go of Persephone speaks volumes. Her experience as an army wife, living in Japan, keeps coming up and if you’ve read a bit of her short fiction you’ll recognize sides of Cat in them that suddenly make all the more sense. You understand that behind that achingly beautiful prose is a full person with dreams and a past, and all the puzzle pieces fall together. So in a way, this is probably the Valente work in which she is most vulnerable and open about herself as a writer and as a human being. Obviously, I love her all the more for being that brave.

While Indistinguishable from Magic, as a book should, starts with a foreword, I will end this review with it. Unsurprisingly to anyone who knows a little bit about Cat Valente, the foreword is written by her friend Seanan McGuire. I have no words for how jealous I am of their friendship. The introduction not only shows off McGuire’s own hand at writing poetic prose but it shines with love and friendship and respect. And while I don’t know Cat Valente personally, I believe every word Seanan McGuire says about her. It is obvious from Valente’s prose that she must at least have a little bit of magic in her, eaten some of those pomegranate seeds, been sprinkled with just a thimble-ful of fairy dust.

 She is a poet and a poem, wrapped up in the same star-and-moon-tanned  palimpsest skin. She contains many contradictions. She’s the serious mermaid explaining to you why trading fins for feet was a feminist action, and why the sacrifice of a voice is sometimes a simple thing, because there are so many kinds of voices, child; the sea witch left you fingers, left you figures, left you everything you’ll ever need to make this tale your own. She’s the laughing gingerbread witch standing by the chicken coop, feathers in her hair and a promise on her lips that you may or may not want to hear, because promises are prophecies, in their own way, in their own time. She is her own once upon a time, and her own happy ending, and those are two of the best things in the world to be.

MY RATING:  8/10  –  Excellent

divider1