The Hilarious Proof that Bread is Magic: T. Kingfisher – A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking

The fact that T. Kingfisher (aka Ursula Vernon) is a treasure to the SFF community is no secret. Having been a fan of her fairy tale retellings for many years, I am so glad that she is finally getting the acclaim she deserves. This book is not only a Lodestar finalist but, at the time I’m writing this, already an Andre Norton winner! Congratulations T. Kingfisher on a well-deserved award win! May you write many more of these hilarious books, whether for adults or children, with or without magic. I’ll read them all.

defensive bakingA WIZARD’S GUIDE TO DEFENSIVE BAKING
by T. Kingfisher

Published: Argyll Productions, 2020
eBook: 318 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7.75/10

Opening line: There was a dead girl in my aunt’s bakery.

Fourteen-year-old Mona isn’t like the wizards charged with defending the city. She can’t control lightning or speak to water. Her familiar is a sourdough starter and her magic only works on bread. She has a comfortable life in her aunt’s bakery making gingerbread men dance.

But Mona’s life is turned upside down when she finds a dead body on the bakery floor. An assassin is stalking the streets of Mona’s city, preying on magic folk, and it appears that Mona is his next target. And in an embattled city suddenly bereft of wizards, the assassin may be the least of Mona’s worries…

Mona is a 14-year-old baker who also happens to be a magician. While in this world, there are magicians who can do awesome stuff like control the weather, have super strength, call down lightning from the sky, or wield fire as a weapon, Mona’s skills are… not quite as impressive . Her magical abilities are limited to dough. Since she’s been orphaned, she’s been working in her aunt and uncle’s bakery. She makes sure the bread dough rises evenly, occasionally makes the gingerbread cookies dance for the shoppers, and generally enjoys her job. Oh, she also accidentally made a sourdough starter come to life somehow. He’s called Bob and lives in the cellar. They feed him flour but that doesn’t mean he can’t snatch a rat or two when he feels like it. Bob is great!

Mona’s life is upset when she finds the dead body of a young girl in the bakery and is promptly suspected of killing her herself. She is whisked off to the palace to be tried and from there slithers into a way bigger barrel of shenanigans than she could have suspected. Adventure, magic, conspiracies, and lots of danger ensue. After all, Mona didn’t kill that girl but the person who did seems to be assassinating magical folks exclusively.

As with anything T. Kingfisher writes, you’ll immediately notice the charming style in which this story is told. I dare you to read two pages and not love Mona! She is a sensible 14-year-old girl who makes for a great protagonist, not only because she is relatable (as much as a wizard can be, I guess) but because her concerns are so very normal. Are you one of the people who wonder why in the Lord of the Rings nobody ever has to pee? Well, Mona has a whole lot to say about that because when your bladder is full, it’s pretty tough thinking about anything other than finding a place to relieve yourself, no matter how vehemently you are accused of murder…
Her relationship to her family and her doughy familiars – namely, sourdough starter Bob and one very protective gingerbread man – are as adorable as they are funny. Seriously, this entire book manages to combine hilarious humor with serious events and believable emotional connections between characters. Even if one of them rides a dead horse skeleton.

You won’t find world building on the scale of an epic fantasy here, but what you will get is a surprisingly touching and exciting plot in which the magic system plays a vital role. Mona’s bread magic may not seem like it’s good for much but the message here is that, no matter how insignificant you may feel, there is greatness in everyone. All it takes is a bit of creativity, working together, and a quick mind. And T. Kingfisher’s characters have that in spades. They also have the uncanny ability to sneak their way into your heart. For the most part while I read this book I thought I only really cared about Mona, but woe the day when somebody threatens Bob or Mona’s aunt Tabitha. I caught myself holding my breath during moments of danger, I found myself smiling at the Duchess, fearing for Spindle (Mona’s new friend from the more unsavory parts of town), and almost crying when Mona was faced with decisions and responsibilities no 14-year-old girl should have to face. I can’t tell you how Kingfisher does it, but she is really good at making you love her characters without even realizing it.

I had so much fun reading this book, especially because the plot started out as one thing (a murder mystery with magic) and then grew and grew and ended up being rather epic. And although it is definitely a very funny book, it also has a lot of heart. I’m quite happy the story is finished and offered a satisfying ending but I would definitely not be opposed to the further adventures of Mona or her friends. Hell, I’d read a whole book about Bob if it was written by T. Kingfisher. I am so happy she got the Andre Norton Award for this. I will be gifting it to many people, especially when they look like they need a smile.

MY RATING: 7.75/10 – Excellent

Cute but Kind of Distant: Darcie Little Badger – Elatsoe #WyrdAndWonder Book Review

Ah, making my way through the Lodestar finalists has been a great pleasure so far. With only one book left to read (T. Kingfisher’s A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking), I can already say that this year offers a brilliant ballot and ranking these books will be a tough job. Elatsoe was different from the other finalists in that it reads more like a Middle Grade book than YA. I don’t know if that was intended or if it’s just my personal impression but it didn’t make the book any less charming. But maybe a tad forgettable?

ELATSOE
by Darcie Little Badger

Published: Levine Querido, 2020
eBook: 368 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6.5/10

Opening line: Ellie bought the life-sized plastic skull at a garage sale (the goth neighbors were moving to Salem, and they could not fit an entire Halloween warehouse into their black van). 

Imagine an America very similar to our own. It’s got homework, best friends, and pistachio ice cream.

There are some differences. This America been shaped dramatically by the magic, monsters, knowledge, and legends of its peoples, those Indigenous and those not. Some of these forces are charmingly everyday, like the ability to make an orb of light appear or travel across the world through rings of fungi. But other forces are less charming and should never see the light of day.

Elatsoe lives in this slightly stranger America. She can raise the ghosts of dead animals, a skill passed down through generations of her Lipan Apache family. Her beloved cousin has just been murdered, in a town that wants no prying eyes. But she is going to do more than pry. The picture-perfect facade of Willowbee masks gruesome secrets, and she will rely on her wits, skills, and friends to tear off the mask and protect her family.

Ellie is seventeen years old and can call animal spirits back from the dead. Her ghost dog, Kirby, is her constant companion and not only a Very Good Boy but also quite useful when it comes to sensing bad stuff happening. After Kirby has a freak-out, Ellie and her family find out that her cousin, Trevor, has died in a car accident. But Trevor visits Ellie in a dream/vision and tells her that he has, in fact, been murdered by a man named Abe Allerton from Willowbee. He asks her to protect his wife and small child and to bring justice to Allerton for what he has done. So Ellie’s murder investigation/adventure begins…

First of all, let me say that I grew to like this book a lot but I found it hard to find my way into it at first. Sure, the synopsis says this particular version of America is only similar to ours, but has magic and stuff. But it took me a while to find my footing with the world building because it wasn’t quite clear how much or what kind of magic. New mythological creatures or fantasy elements kept coming up whenever appropriate or convenient for the plot and there didn’t appear to be any rules. There’s ghosts and vampires, suddenly there are also fairy rings (which are used for transportation across the country and that’s super cool, if you ask me), but then there are different kinds of magic as well that were never mentioned before.
I know this isn’t supposed to be an Epic Fantasy but I still like a little bit of foreshadowing or at least a mention or two of an element that will be important later. Darcie Little Badger just went with the flow and told her story and whatever magic was needed at a certain point would be introduced and explained at that point, and not before. It doesn’t make the book bad, by any means, but it is a matter of personal taste. And I wasn’t a fan.

I was, however, a fan of the story in general and the murder mystery in particular. The solution to the mystery is impossible to figure out – because the author doesn’t give out any information that could let us deduce anything – but I still found that things fell into place quite cleverly. Ellie and her friend Jay research Abe Allerton and try to find a way to convince the authorities that he’s a murderer, and during that research, they collect a whole lot of interesting information, newspaper clippings from the past, anecdotes, pictures, and so on. When Ellie figured out what’s going on, it gave me this “of coooourse” moment, like I should have seen it coming. As mentioned above, I couldn’t have seen it coming but the magical and real world aspects fit together so well that I found it utterly satisfying anyway.

As for the characters, they were… mostly cute. I wouldn’t say they are the book’s strongest suit. Ellie, although said to be 17 years old, reads like a much younger girl. I kept picturing her as a 12-14 year old. It’s not so much that she is particularly immature or anything but her interests and the way she talks and behaves just came across as super innocent and young. The same goes for her friend Jay. They are a team of adorable young sleuths but definitely didn’t feel like 17-year-olds. I think the dialogue is partly to blame for that. I found most of the dialogue – not just between the teenagers but also between Ellie and her parents – a bit unnatural. Ellie’s parents were weirdly okay with her dangerous plans and ideas, and at times it felt like she was the parent in that family, making the decisions, and her mom just got to follow along for the ride and occasionally express concern. The dialogue was usually comprised of short lines and probably more what people would actually talk like. Unfortunately, the way people talk in real life doesn’t make for good reading. For example, repeating something your conversation partner has just said may happen a lot in real life, but in a novel, it feels strange and wrong.
The good thing about the short lines is that it makes the book super easy to read and follow. It was also only throught the dialogue that any humor came across. The character’s don’t really get all that much personality so I found it refreshing whenever Ellie would make a joke. Ellie, Jay, and Jay’s soon-to-be brother in law (and also vampire) Al were the most fleshed-out characters. Ellie’s parents are just there but don’t really do much until the end and I got the feeling the author didn’t quite know how to get them out of the way for the kids to have their own adventure. That said, the good guy characters were all easy to like, the villain was so evil that he was easy to hate and sometimes it’s nice to read a book with such clearly divided camps, where good can triumph over evil.

But despite these weaknesses, I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t like the book, because I really did! I am, of course, automatically comparing it to the other Lodestar finalists which is probably why my inner wannabe critic is acting up. It’s a great story that incorporates mythology in intriguing ways, but it also feels rather childish and simple, and resolved almost too easily. Which again makes me think it might be intended for a younger audience.
Ellie (which, by the way, is short for Elatsoe) and her family are Lipan Apache and although this is not a very big thing in the book, it is part of who she is and comes up several times, and for good reasons as well. But mostly, we get to hear stories about Six Great – Ellie’s six-times great grandmother and something of a legend – and her adventures and feats. These stories were lovely and so are the illustrations by Rovina Cai! Some of the stories are told by Ellie’s mother, some Ellie remembers for herself, some come up in her dreams, but they all show how important family is to Ellie and how knowledge and magic has been passed on over many generations. And while Ellie has a ghost dog named Kirby, Six Great had a whole pack plus a woolly mammoth. Again, I had hoped for more world building because I’d really like to know where that mammoth goes when it’s not called by Six Great – does it slip back to the Underworld? Does it have to physically (although invisibly) find a place here on Earth to go and wait? Ah, this is not the kind of book that spends any time answering those questions. It’s about a girl solving a murder with the help of her family and friends.

As cute as this story was, because the characters are kept quite vauge and the world building changes is a bit haphazard, I never really felt immersed in the story. I appreciated the ideas, especially when it comes to the way magic is used, and the rituals to make sure dead humans stay dead and don’t come back as vengeful ghosts. And I had fun racing through the pages, watching Ellie bring justice to the bad guy. But rather than be on this adventure with Ellie, I watched from the outside. We’ll see how the book holds up in my memory but I have the suspicion that, because of my lack of emotional connection, it will end up as a fun little adventure that I won’t remember very well in a few months.

MY RATING: 6.5/10 – Pretty good

Reading the Hugos 2020: Lodestar (Not-a-Hugo)

Before we head on the Best Novel, let’s have a look at another favorite category of mine, the Lodestar. My thoughts and ballots for the other categories can be found here (the ones below the Lodestar will go live on the following Mondays):

This was a category in which I had more catching up to do than expected. I read a fair share of YA but apparently, I missed out on a lot of great books last year. I’d like to thank my fellow Hugo nominators for having read and nominated them. Because if they hadn’t been finalists, I might never have picked up some of them. I even discovered one that will make it to my best-of-the-year list. And who wants to miss out on great books? That’s right, nobody!

The Finalists for the Lodestar (Best YA/MG Book)

I didn’t think this would be so hard, guys! There are some seriously great books on this list and I am both happy about it but would also have liked ranking them to be easier.

The Wicked King by Holly Black does that amazing thing where the middle novel of a trilogy is actually the best. The world is set up, the characters are established, now it’s time to up the stakes and move the relationships along. And that’s just what she does. This was such a page turner, I think I devoured the book in two days. But it also managed to convince me of the very flawed, somewhat messed up relationship at the heart of the story. The romantic couple is not one you root for from the start – in fact, at the end of the first book, I hoped there wouldn’t be any romance at all. Boy, did I change my mind! As much as I adore this story, I am aware of its flaws and I consider it more of a guilty pleasure.

I went into Naomi Kritzer’s Catfishing on CatNet with low expectations. I just wasn’t sure that the author could pull this off. Well, shame on me, because Kritzer not only wrote one of the most endearing AI characters I’ve ever read but also managed to make CatNet feel vibrant and alive, she peopled it with lovable diverse characters, and threw a super exciting plot with a mystery into the mix. The only thing that didn’t stand out to me was the romance, but then again, I like books where the romance isn’t the main focus, so that’s not really a bad thing. I found myself deeply caring for the characters in this book – real and artificial – and that’s usually the reason a book sticks with me.

T. Kingfisher is one of my favorite authors and I always adore her plucky, practical heroines. In Minor Mage, the protagonist is a young boy who is – as the title suggests – only a very minor mage who knows all of three spells. But in order to save his village he sets out on a journey, accompanied only by his armadillo friend. He meets new people, escapes death several times, and even learns some new minor magic. This is an adorable and heart-warming adventure story and I loved it so much. But it lacked some of the emotional impact of its competitors. It was a fantastic book and it did make me feel things but as a shorter book aimed more at the middle grade age group, it looks like it won’t make the very top of my ballot. Trust me, nobody is more surprised at this than myself!

The only previous Frances Hardinge book I’d read was Fly by Night which impressed me deeply with its original world building and great multi-faceted characters. For some reason, I never continued the series and never picked up another Hardinge book (although I keep buying them). I was so excited to get into Deeplight and Hardinge didn’t disappoint. Set in the Myriad, a series of islands, everyone lives and breathes the ocean. Sometimes quite literally. Because the ocean used to have gods in it which are now dead. But their relics remain. Deep sea diving, submarines, diving bells and bathyspheres are what this is all about. It’s also about Hark, a young con man whose best friend Jelt usually gets them into trouble.
This book was just pure joy! I have raved about all its aspects in my review, but I’m still not quite over how perfect an adventure it was. Unlike some of the other finalists, this is also one of those books that can work for many age groups because it just has so much to offer. 34-year-old me enjoyed the character development and relationships the most (plus many other things), but it could also be read just as a straight up adventure with trips to the Undersea (where the water is breathable!), finding out the truth about the gods, and suriving all sorts of shenanigans.
I didn’t think the Kritzer could be knocked off its top spot on my ballot but here we are.

I was looking forward to Yoon Ha Lee’s foray into YA/MG fiction. Dragon Pearl did many things right. Min, a young fox spirit on a rather uncool planet, yearns to join her brother in the Space Force and explore the universe. When her brother is accused of desertion, she sets out on an adventure to find him, and the truth, and maybe even the mysterious Dragon Pearl that can help terraform her planet.
What follows is an exciting adventure with lots of action, new friends, betrayal, battles, chores (so many chores!) and of course shapeshifting. The story as such reads like a nice middle grade adventure. What made this slightly more interesting to me was the incorporation of Korean mythology and the way Lee deals with questions of gender and identity. There are several supernatural creatures but only foxes can shapeshift into anything. Min changes quite a lot on her journey and that offered much food for though. Ultimately, the characters remained a bit pale and while I was interested to see what happened next, I wasn’t really in it, if you know what I mean. I’d recommend this to younger kids but for me it was only nice, not amazing.

My last read was Riverland by Fran Wilde. As I didn’t enjoy her novel Updraft at all, I went into it with low expectations. It just won the Andre Norton Award so it must be good, right? Well… I didn’t hate it, I didn’t love it. I kinda sorta liked it but with many reservations. Wilde picked a tough topic to write about – two sisters living in an abusive household, dreaming of a better life. And the author did a fantastic job on creating this oppressive atmosphere, of showing these girls’s lives with all the fear and shame and anxiety. But this is also a fantasy novel, specifically a portal fantasy with a magical river world. And that part was not executed well. I also felt that the plot lacked focus, tension, and solutions came  (surprisingly) too easily. I am very conflicted about my rating of this novel because I can’t imagine how hard it must be writing about this issue for a young audience. So I liked some parts of the book (the ones in the real world) and felt others were neglected (fantasy world building, characters, plot in general) which leaves this book at the bottom of my ballot.

My ballot (probably)

  1. Frances Hardinge – Deeplight
  2. Naomi Kritzer – Catfishing on CatNet
  3. T. Kingfisher – Minor Mage
  4. Holly Black – The Wicked King
  5. Yoon Ha Lee – Dragon Pearl
  6. Fran Wilde – Riverland

The only switch I’m still debating in my own head is between Minor Mage and The Wicked King. Holly Black doesn’t exactly need a push by winning awards. She is wildly popular, well loved, and will do just fine with or without a Lodestar. But I did love that book…
Ursula Vernon/T. Kingfisher on the other hand is an author I’ve been shooving in everyone’s face for a while and I’m glad she’s getting more recognition these days. But she’s not yet getting the acclaim she should! So I probably will leave these books in the spots they are now. I loved them for very different reasons and I love both their authors’ other work, but I would like to give Kingfisher a little extra boost.

Up next week: Best Novel

Sisters Survive Through Fantasy: Fran Wilde – Riverland

In my yearly quest to be a conscientious Hugo voter and read ALL THE BOOKS, I have come to look forward to the Lodestar finalists a lot. If you read a lot of YA, you can get overwhelmed by the various hypes surrounding books with pretty covers or by famous authors and it gets easy to overlook the lesser known ones. I’m glad the Lodestar finalists offer a variety of  books for young people and not just the most popular ones. Even if this one didn’t really work for me.

RIVERLAND
by Fran Wilde

Published: Amulet Books, 2019
eBook: 352 pages
Standalone
My rating: 5,5/10

Opening line: “Once upon a time…”

When things go bad at home, sisters Eleanor and Mike hide in a secret place under Eleanor’s bed, telling monster stories. Often, it seems those stories and their mother’s house magic are all that keep them safe from both busybodies and their dad’s temper. But when their father breaks a family heirloom, a glass witch ball, a river suddenly appears beneath the bed, and Eleanor and Mike fall into a world where dreams are born, nightmares struggle to break into the real world, and secrets have big consequences. Full of both adventure and heart, Riverland is a story about the bond between two sisters and how they must make their own magic to protect each other and save the ones they love.

Eleanor and her little sister Mike live with their parents, go to school, and are generally normal kids. Except for the house magic, of course. House magic is when things get broken or disappear, new things magically appear to replace them. It is vital that the two sisters keep this a secret from the rest of the world because if you break the rules, bad things happen…

I knew before I started reading this book that it deals with domestic abuse and violence but this is also a fantasy novel, so it took me a while to figure out whether the whole concept of house magic was actual magic or just something Eleanor made up to explain how when her father breaks pictures on the wall or the TV, her mom simply goes out and buys new things to replace them. Generally, I like my magic ambiguous. Give me Pan’s Labyrinth all the way and let me make up my own mind whether to believe the magic is real or just a metaphor. But in this book, I struggled for some reason. I wanted to know what was real and what wasn’t, especially when elements that were clearly fantasy and clearly “real magic” came into play.

While certain aspects of this novel were enjoyable, many others left me wanting. The world building and plot are very weak and real, difficult  problems are resolved too easily. It made me wonder what all the struggle was for when things can just get better with a poof. But let’s start with the characters because that’ what a good story hinges on for me.

I liked both Eleanor and Mike and it was easy to feel their fear and the restrictions their family life puts on them. They have to make extra sure to stick to the rules, to not make their father angry, disobey, or draw attention to their family because otherwise bad things happen. Those bad things are usually described only by the loud noises the girls hear before going to sleep but it’s obvious their father is violent. He breaks objects around the house, he may beat his wife, and he’s definitely easy to annoy. Having some experience with a hostile environment myself,  I found Fran Wilde’s descriptions of the girls constant fear to be excellent. Even if their father’s isn’t aimed directly at the girls, they  see and hear things and their home is not the safe and happy place it should be!
But unfortunately, that is the defining characteristic of our two protagonists. Sure, it is mentioned once that Eleanor likes school and learning in general, and that she enjoys fantasy books, but I didn’t get the overall impression that she was a fully formed character. Mike is mostly portrayed as the adorable younger sister who sometimes blurts out things she shouldn’t. That didn’t keep me from caring for these two but I just wanted a little bit more.

My biggest issue with this book was the plot and world building, though. When the kids’ father breaks an heirloom “witch ball” – a glass sphere that used to be a fishing lure – the girls discover a magical Riverland by falling into a puddle under Eleanor’s bed. This is where the real magic starts and it had so much potential to be a great children’s portal fantasy. But sadly, the magical Riverland is small, boring, and peopled very sparsely. This magical river is the world of Dream where nightmares are horse-shaped smoke, birds can talk, and crabs try to fix leaks in the river. And that’s it. There isn’t any more to it, even by the end of the book.
I also didn’t like how comparatively easy it was for the girls to go in and out of this magical world. There are obstacles, of course, but  much like the issue at the heart of this book, these obstacles are overcome too easily and too quickly. That made it harder for me to believe that the River is actually dangerous and it took out all the tension from the more exciting scenes. If I, as the reader, don’t think anything can really happen to the protagonists, why shouuld I care?

That doesn’t mean that this is a bad book. Ironically for an avid fantasy reader, I preferred the parts of the plot that happened in the real world and had nothing to do with magic. El and Mike meet their grandmother for the first time and see that spilling some water doesn’t have to end in being shouted at. El also visits her best friend Pendra’s house – a chaotic place filled with noise, and pets, and love. These scenes helped show the contrast to their own family home beautifully and made me ache inside. They’re just two kids and they deserve a happy childhood, not one where they have to be constantly on edge and fear that their toys will be taken away, their  mother might get hurt, or they will be  punished for things children do.

So I’m on the fence. I think Fran Wilde took on a very difficult topic and tried to wrap it into a middle grade story by leaving the worst parts out. I appreciate that there is almost no description of actual violence – it’s all shouting and noises of glass breaking or plates being smashed – but it also makes things feel less bad than they actually are. I also loved how the sisters don’t just go and talk to someone. There are many reasons why victims of domestic violence don’t come forward (shame, fear, any number of things) – that felt realistic to me, even though I know that speaking up and confiding in someone would have probably made their life a lot  better. I had hoped that their trips to the magical River would serve as a sort of parallel of them finding their way in the real world but for that, the magic system and world building just weren’t fleshed out enough. And again, when the ending does come and things are resolved, it felt almost cheap.

The core message here is that someone won’t magically appear to help you out of your trouble. You have to save yourself! And in this case, it’ two sisters saving themselves and each other. I can’t find any fault with that message but I still think it could have been wrapped in a better story.

MY RATING: 5,5 – A little meh, but still kind of good

Shape-Shifter Space Adventure: Yoon Ha Lee – Dragon Pearl

Yoon Ha Lee is, without a doubt, one of the most interesting voices in SFF. His Machineries of Empire trilogy did things to my brain that I didn’t think possible. Going from this crazy complex SF story to Middle Grade is a big departure. While I think he did a good job and wrote a wonderful tale of adventure, it lacked that certain extra that made his adult novels stand out the way they did.

DRAGON PEARL
by Yoon Ha Lee

Published: Rick Riordan Presents, 2019
eBook: 312 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6,5/10

Opening line: I almost missed the stranger’s visit that morning.

Thirteen-year-old Min comes from a long line of fox spirits. But you’d never know it by looking at her. To keep the family safe, Min’s mother insists that none of them use any fox-magic, such as Charm or shape-shifting. They must appear human at all times.
Min feels hemmed in by the household rules and resents the endless chores, the cousins who crowd her, and the aunties who judge her. She would like nothing more than to escape Jinju, her neglected, dust-ridden, and impoverished planet. She’s counting the days until she can follow her older brother, Jun, into the Space Forces and see more of the Thousand Worlds.
When word arrives that Jun is suspected of leaving his post to go in search of the Dragon Pearl, Min knows that something is wrong. Jun would never desert his battle cruiser, even for a mystical object rumored to have tremendous power. She decides to run away to find him and clear his name.
Min’s quest will have her meeting gamblers, pirates, and vengeful ghosts. It will involve deception, lies, and sabotage. She will be forced to use more fox-magic than ever before, and to rely on all of her cleverness and bravery. The outcome may not be what she had hoped, but it has the potential to exceed her wildest dreams.

This is exactly the kind of adventure story I would have loved as a kid. A young girl with magical shape-shifting powers runs away from home to find her brother who allegedly deserted his dream job at the Space Forces. Min knows that just can’t be true and she is determined to find her brother Jun, clear his name, and maybe even find that Dragon Pearl that could help terraform their dusty planet. There are all sorts of dangerous situations, new friends (and enemies) to be made, dark secrets to discover, and lessons to be learned.

But I read this as an adult and while I love YA and Middle Grade fiction, I need something more than just a good story. And Yoon Ha Lee did a pretty great job at adding layers onto this tale of wild space adventures. It begins with Min’s family being fox spirits. Based on Korean mythology, fox spirits can shape-shift into anything, even inanimate objects, and because of their powers (and the fact that they are said to suck the souls from humans) they are feared. So Min has been hiding her true self all her life, but it becomes necessary to use those powers and use them frequently on her quest to save her brother.
This led to several interesting developments. While making herself slightly older-looking to get past some guards is one thing, at some point she changes into a male body because the situation demands it. Now Min doesn’t dwell much on this, except for the occasional comment about suddenly having more stuff between her legs, but I found it intersting because it manages to talk about gender without really making it a big deal for the characters. There’s not really much discussion about Min’s identity – she’s always herself, no matter which body she currently wears. And one of the side characters is addressed as gender-neutral, which is also explained once and respected by everyone. The way this seamlessly just works within the story makes it easy to glance over it, but I think it’s an important message, especially for kids.

The world building was also quite interesting, although it’s one of the things that I felt needed more depth. Apart from fox spirits, there are also dragons, tigers, dokkaebi, and goblins – all with different supernatural powers. The Dragon Society is essentially rich people. Dragons can influence the weather and do most of the work when it comes to terraforming new planets. Jinju, Min’s home planet, got the short end of that stick and is still pretty impoverished and not exactly nice to live on. If only the mystical (and missing) Dragon Pearl were here, then it could help make Min’s planet more livable.
There are definitely great ideas hidden in the world building and I liked how Lee handled the class difference between different cultures or planets. But there’s not a lot of that and I felt like I had to make up my own ideas about the backstory if I wanted to know more. And I get why it is written that way – there is a lot of story to get through and adding more to the world building would have made this a much bigger book. And it’s meant to be for kids.

The characters ranged from well-developed and layered to flat and I don’t know how to feel about them as a whole. Min is a good protagonist, she’s clever and resourceful, brave and kind, and it’s easy to insert yourself in her shoes and live through her journey with her. Some side characters also showed surprising amounts of depth, like Haneul and Sujin, the two people Min’ befriends on a space ship. But others, especially the villain, remained flat until the end. Ooooh, I’m bad because I want all the power and I have no conscience and nothing will stand in my way. 
Of course that works for a children’s book because it’s easy to hate the villain and it makes the heroes’ decisions much simpler. Again, I understand why it was written that way, but I believe that kids can handle more nuanced characters just fine.

That all sounded very negative but I actually enjoyed reading this book because it does tell an exciting story with cool magic. I may have remained at arm’s length from the characters but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy space battles, dealing with ghosts, learning about the Space Forces, or watching Min trick others with her fox magic. This may only have been a good book for adult me but I just know that child me would have loved it. And while I can’t go back in time and give my younger self this story, I can definitely put it into the hands of other young people.
As science fiction for young readers goes, this is definitely one of the more interesting ones, not only because it mixes Korean mythology with a space adventure but because it shows a diverse range of people and genders. There’s not enough books like this out there and I have to say, I am growing ever fonder of the Rick Riordan Presents series!

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Quite Good

A Near-Perfect Multi-Layered YA Novel: Frances Hardinge – Deeplight

I have to read more Frances Hardinge, you guys! There is no discernible reason why, after loving Fly By Night, I didn’t pick up any of her other books. I keep buying them because they all sound so cool, yet I never actually read them. This has to stop! I’m making a commitment now that I will read at least one more Frances Hardinge book this year. If I don’t, you all get to make fun of me forever and ever.

DEEPLIGHT
by Frances Hardinge

Published: Macmillan Children’s Books, 2019
eBook: 445 pages
Standalone
My rating: 9/10

Opening line: They say you can sail a thousand miles along the island chain of the Myriad, from the frosty shores of the north, to the lush, sultry islands of the south. 

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea meets Frankenstein in Frances Hardinge’s latest fantasy adventure
The gods are dead. Decades ago, they turned on one another and tore each other apart. Nobody knows why. But are they really gone forever? When 15-year-old Hark finds the still-beating heart of a terrifying deity, he risks everything to keep it out of the hands of smugglers, military scientists, and a secret fanatical cult so that he can use it to save the life of his best friend, Jelt. But with the heart, Jelt gradually and eerily transforms. How long should Hark stay loyal to his friend when he’s becoming a monster—and what is Hark willing to sacrifice to save him?

The description of the book, while technically accurate, doesn’t do it justice. This is the story of Hark, a young and rather criminally inclined boy who cons people out of their money, usually with his best friend Jelt. When one of their “missions” goes wrong and Hark is taken by the police, he is to be sold as an indentured servant. Luckily for him and thanks to his gift with words (= lying really well) and ability to read people, he gets off pretty easy and is bought by a brilliant scientist named Dr. Vyne. She takes Hark to a small island where he officially helps out at Sanctuary taking care of old and sick priests. Unofficially he spies on them to get information about the gods and the Cataclysm that wiped them out to Dr. Vynes. Except of course his old life comes knocking pretty soon and Hark is in deep trouble if he gets caught…

Probably the most striking thing about this book is the relationship between Hark and his best friend Jelt. Jelt is obviously manipulating Hark, always giving him the most dangerous part of a job but making it sound like there’s no other way, that Hark owes him. And while it’s obvious to the reader that Jelt is not the loving, caring brother that Hark sees him as, Hark himself still has a long way to go to see his friend for what he truly is. When they find a godware sphere – an enomously valuable piece of one of the dead gods – Hark mostly just wants to sit out his sentence and not get caught spying but Jelt has other plans. Because that ball of godware seems to have magical healing powers and that gives Jelt all sorts of ideas about the boys’ criminal future…

Even though I’ve only read one previous Francis Hardinge book, I have come to expect excellent world building from her and that’s exactly what I got. The Myriad feels like a real place, a set of islands that used to be ruled by the gods of the Undersea. Each island used to have their own patron god who required human sacrifices and came in all terrifying shapes and sizes. Now that the gods are dead, trade rules the world. Submariners wear their scars proudly, people who have lost their hearing underwater are common and therefore a lot of people know sign language. I loved the attention to detail because it made this world feel so real and lived-in.
The Undersea always feels like this mystical place. Its water can be breathed by humans which opens all sorts of interesting doors and both made me want to go down there to explore and stay as far away as I possibly can.

The plot and pacing were spot on. While at first I only worried about Hark getting caught, the book soon turns into a save-the-whole-world kind of thing. The fact that Hark quickly breaks the only rules Dr. Vyne gave him – Lie to everyone as much as you like but never lie to me! and Don’t meet up with your old friends! – makes this a true page-turner. There is always the threat of being caught and being sold off to row on some ship until your body just gives out. In addition, the piece of godware Hark and Jelt found behaves very strangely and they don’t really know what it does or if its healing powers have any unwanted side effects. And then there is Rigg’s crime gang who want to collect their debt, Hark’s conversations with the former priests that yield very little information but potential real friendships, and Rigg’s daughter Selphin who always seems to be a step ahead of Hark.

In short, this was a brilliant, exciting book that does everything right! I honestly can’t think of a single thing to nitpick here. Hitting that perfect balance between thrilling story, character development, world-building, and great writing, this can be read and enjoyed by anyone. Maybe, and I’m grasping here, the language is a tad difficult for younger kids, so maybe the middle grade age group wouldn’t enjoy it as much. But I’m a firm believer that kids are usually smarter than we think and they know what they want, even if (or maybe because) the language is challenging. Hardinge doesn’t talk down to her readers and because of the ocean setting and jargon, I even had to look up some words myself. But mostly, the prose just lets you fly through the story, eager to discover what Hardinge has thought up.

Hark’s character development may have been my favorite part of the book but I also adored the lore, the creative ideas about the gods, and especially the sea-kissed who have lost their hearing. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that featured deaf characters, so I was more than excited for Sephin. But if you think she’s only there to be “the deaf girl” you are dead wrong! Selphin starts out as a side character who creates even more trouble for Hark than he manages on his own, but I grew fonder of her with every chapter, with everything we learned about her history and life. She’s also the kind of heroine I would have loved to read about as a teenager because she’s smart and brave and her heart’s in the right place.
Other side characters may not have featured as prominently, so I was all the more surprised at how much I cared for them by the end. Whether it’s the priests that Hark takes care of or his supervisor Kly, even crime lady Rigg herself – they all felt like real people, all with their own lives and agendas, all varying shades of grey. It’s something YA literature often lacks so I was thrilled at how well every single character was done here.

You may have guessed that I wholeheartedly recommend this! Whether you like great character development, original fantasy ideas, or simply a thrilling tale that you won’t want to put down – this is for you. It will also make my Hugo ballot even harder to rank because so far, there hasn’t been a bad YA book among the finalists. As of now (having read four out of six nominees), this sits firmly in my top spot, however.
If you have a recommendation for me as to which Hardinge book I should pick up next, please let me know. I own almost all of them and they all sound fantastic. Any help is appreciated because I definitely don’t want to wait long to discover more by this great author.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection!

Reading the Lodestars: Not-A-Hugo for Best YA Novel

I’m still reading the nominated works for this year’s Hugo Awards. It’s just that challenges and readathons took preference recently. I won’t be able to finish all the books I intended to read in time but then again, I knew that going in. I have read all of the Lodestar nominees except for one. My top spot was clear very early on and hasn’t changed after catching up on the other nominees.

The Nominees for the Lodestar Award

  1. Rachel Hartman – Tess of the Road
  2. Holly Black – The Cruel Prince
  3. Justina Ireland – Dread Nation
  4. Tomi Adeyemi – Children of Blood and Bone
  5. Peadar O’Guilín – The Invasion
  6. Dhonielle Clayton – The Belles

My top pick by a large margin is Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman. It’s a very special kind of book that takes the reader on a journey both literally with its protagonist and figuratively, while reading. Although it’s a quiet book that focuses on character growth, there’s always something happening. I grew to love Tess fiercely and I also found myself caring for the people she met on her journey. Hartman’s world building is intriguing and as someone who hasn’t read the Seraphina books, made me want to go out and read everything she’s written. The writing is beautiful, the message is amazing, this was really a wonderful book that I can’t recommend enough.

The only bookI had already read when the nominees were announced was The Cruel Prince by Holly Black. I liked that book, especially the way its characters were definitely not black or white, and the world building and complex political intrigues felt like Holly Black trusted her young readers to be smart enough to get it – I always appreciate authors who write YA as if their readers had a brain. 🙂 The only thing it was missing was a plot that could hook me throughout. It was a good book and I’ll continue the series, it just felt like this book mostly set up everything for the rest of the series. That ending, however, had one of the most twisty twists that truly surprised me. And because it’s a book that I have kept thinking about ever since reading it (right when it came out), it gets the second place on my ballot.

The next two books may yet switch places on my ballot because they were both good but not great, they both had certain things really going for them, but others that I felt needed a lot more work. For the moment, my number three is Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation. When I think about this book, the first thing that comes to mind is the voice of its wonderful protagonist. She’s a cheeky one, I love how she tells her story, and that made the entire book a joy, even when the plot kind of meandered. Which is also the novel’s biggest flaw. Former slaves, now sort-of-freed (but not really because people are assholes), are trained to fight against the zombie hordes that started rising up during the Civil War. The plot starts one way and made me expect certain things, but then stayed kind of put and focused on a small side quest. I assume, the bigger plot will be the story of the entire series and I’ll probably read the second part to see if I’m right.

My number four is probably lots of people’s number one. Whether it was the massive hype that biased my expectations or the gorgeous cover (I won’t pretend I’m immune), Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone was a bit of a letdown. It was truly a fun ride, a great adventure story with some interesting world building and particularly cool magic, but the story was just so predictable. As soon as the group arrived at a new place, I knew where it was going. And inevitably, the plot did go that way. The same goes for the romances. They were very obvious from the start and while that’s not a bad thing (because they were very well done), I was hoping for something a little more original. With all the rave reviews out there, I thought this would have a plot twist or two, would surprise me. But except for the very ending, I kind of knew the entire story before it happened. It was fun enough, however, for me to continue the series.

The only book I didn’t get to yet, but hopefully will before voting ends, is The Invasion by Peadar O’Guilín. I did read the first part of this duology, so I have some idea of the author’s style and world building. I liked The Call well enough. Mostly, it kept me reading for the sheer horror of what’s happening in this version of Ireland. Sometime during your teenage years, you will be whisked away to the Grey Land (a dark sort of Fairyland) where you’ll have to survive for 24 hours – only a few minutes in our world – or be killed by the fairies hunting you. Even the people who do come back alive are changed, physically and psychologically. It was a thrilling book that could have used a few more pages spent on character development, in my opinion.

My least favorite of the bunch was The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton. Here, the supposed plot twists were even more obvious than in Adeyemi’s novel. But it also didn’t have much else going for it. The writing itself was okay, it was a quick read, but I thought the villain was over-the-top, and the story didn’t manage to get me interested. My biggest pet peeve was probably the world building because I’m generally willing to suspend my disbelief (I read mostly fantasy, so obviously) but this world just didn’t make sense. Sure, the protagonist is a Belle and so only sees a certain part of her world that has to do exclusively with beauty and appearance and royalty. But nowhere is it mentioned how this society would even work and I kept asking myself very often where food comes from, how poor people live, and so on. It was not a bad book but it wasn’t a very good one either.

So this is the current state of my Lodestar ballot. Depending on how good The Invasion is, places may change yet. The last category I’m tackling (and won’t finish) is the Best Series nominees. There will be one series of which I haven’t read a single book, but with the others, I have at least read one book or novella. I honestly don’t think that’s enough to form a proper opinion on the entire series, but  it’s the only thing I have to go on. And I have the suspicion that if The Laundry Files or the October Daye series don’t win this year, they will be back next year. At least I’ll have a head start for then.