[Book Review] More history in my tsar and dragon novel, please.

Tsar DragonsBook Review: The Last Tsar’s Dragons by Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple

Canaries, you know those times when all you need to see is the cover, and you know (you know) the book is meant for you. Well, this was one of those. I was absolutely charmed by this cover.

Then I read the premise: Russian Revolution + Dragons? Yes, please. Sign me up.

And damn, for how good its premise and cover were, this novella came up so oddly short.

If you’re a fan of Russian history like me, you’ll be disappointed by the odd misses and factual inaccuracies. If you’re here for the dragons, you might be satisfied, but they’re not quite a driving force of the story. And if you’re there for the story and characters as reimagined by Jane Yolen and her son and co-author Adam Stemple, you might get distracted and bogged down in anti-semitic, sexist,  racist (take your pick of –isms) bits of the narration. It’s used to color the stories and perspectives of the characters, fine, but it sure didn’t make for a pleasant read.

In fact, when I started reading, my first impression from the heavy antisemitism was that this was going to be a sort of political satire on the time period—truth through dark humor and exaggeration, and there was definitely that in the first person narrator. But it never stayed over the top enough for that to work, and never felt tasteful enough to be cutting. And by the final third of the book, we were looking at a full on tragedy with the style and tone to match.

Now, I’m probably not the average reader for this – I know my Russian history and culture, and the big miss for me was just that. Yolen brought her masterful style, and the last few scenes were brutally powerful (though they had nothing on the actual account of the end of the Romanovs; Yolen and Stemple admitted to gentling that ending. Check out Michael Farquhar’s Secret Life of Tsars for a great historical look.).

But did the story work overall? I don’t know, canaries. I couldn’t see past the things that didn’t.

My Rating: One star.

I’m looking forward to seeing more reviews to see how other folks who aren’t as into Russian history take to the story. In the meantime, mileage may vary!

Canaries, what’s your favorite non-western historical novel? Would it be improved with dragons?

Review copy generously provided by the publisher.

 

[Book Review] Conceptually intriguing, casually terrible

Eyre Affair.jpgBook Review: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

So many things to dislike, so little time to talk about them all.

(Spoilers ahead. All the spoilers, because idgaf.)

I rarely try books more than once, so I should have trusted my gut when I got stuck a couple chapter in – not once but twice. But this week, I got the audiobook, because I really wanted to get through this book about a murder mystery in an alternative history fantasy world of time travel and literature. Lesson learned, because this book was terrible.

I grit my teeth through the prose style and weird perspective shifts. I was willing to suffer through the self-indulgent literary babble and fangirling, because, okay, literature is as religion in this world, and as a book lover, I totally get it. I even powered through the weird inconsistencies: Okay, this universe has casual time travel, and yet the biggest mystery in Fforde’s world is the identity of the true author of Shakespeare’s plays? And Thursday is the first person ever to ask a time traveler to check? Fine, whatever. Continue reading

[Book Review] Florida on fire, plus ghosts

Book Review: Brimstone by Cherie Priest

Brimstone

This author has been on my canary radar ever since I first came across the happy chatter surrounding her debut novel Boneshaker – and let’s not forget that gorgeous steampunk cover. So when I saw her latest, Brimstone, I had to have it. That the blurb promised a character with a tortured past was just icing on the cake.

The blurb:

“In the trenches of Europe during the Great War, Tomas Cordero operated a weapon more devastating than any gun: a flame projector that doused the enemy in liquid fire. Having left the battlefield a shattered man, he comes home to find yet more tragedy–for in his absence, his wife has died of the flu. Haunted by memories of the woman he loved and the atrocities he perpetrated, Tomas dreams of fire and finds himself setting match to flame when awake. Alice Dartle is a talented clairvoyant living among others who share her gifts in the community of Cassadaga, Florida. She too dreams of fire, knowing her nightmares are connected to the shell-shocked war veteran and widower.” Continue reading

Love, ghosts, and traitors in WWI London

The Book I Ended Up Reading. Cuz Cover.

Ghost Talkers

Yep. It’s historic fantasy, a genre I don’t often read, but after a couple weeks of agony and watching the publication date of this new release creep up on me (and past), I broke down and went for it.

Man, am I glad I did.

The Plot:

London. World War I. Ginger Stuyvesant is an American heiress and a powerful medium serving in the British Spirit Corps, a secret, spiritualist force in the military tasked with hearing the field reports of dead soldiers and passing along military intelligence. Continue reading

[Book Review] Magic and intrigue in Victorian Londinium.

I have been wanting to read more by Lilith Saintcrow ever since I blazed through her Urban Fantasy series about necromancer Dante Valentine – quick, fun reads full of over-the-top romantic angst and creative world-building of the best sort. So when I saw Saintcrow had a historical fantasy, I was intrigued.

The Red Plague Affair (Bannon & Clare, #2)Sorceress Emma Bannon has a mission to defend Queen and country and to stop an evil doctor with a gaseous weapon of war that has to be contained before it can cause all sorts of deadly mischief. It’s up to Bannon and her friend Archibald Clare to save Londinium before it’s too late.

My first problem with the book is at least 70% my fault – the book I grabbed is second in the Bannon & Clare series. But I’ve started plenty of stories mid-series and loved them, so I decided to march on, power through a crazy action opening and all the names, and then see what happens. And that’s when I realized it wasn’t going to be that easy.

Written as alternative history where magic, Victorian sensibilities, and clockwork-technology exists side by side, it has all the ingredients for success. There are gryphons and clockwork horses, and an exciting system of magic. And then there’s the writing:

“And Clare was congenitally unable to cease pursuing trouble of the most exotic sort. He was not engaged in a life that would permit much rest, and the wear and tear on his physicality was marked.” (page 12)

“A rolling sonorous roil, the entire house suddenly alive with rushing crackles, its population of indentured servants so used to the feel of tremendous sorcery running through its halls they hardly paused in their appointed duties.” Page 13)

“She had the dubious honour of addressing a Spaniard, moustachioed and of small stature to inspire a touch of ridicule of pity, his right arm twisted behind him in an exceedingly brutal fashion by a silent and immaculate Mikal, who twisted his lean face and spat at her.” (page 15)

Continue reading

[Small Chirp] When Worlds Get in the Way

The world of Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy is mind-bogglingly original. It recasts World War I as a battle between nations wielding steampunk warmachines and living beasts. The two protagonists, Alek, the on-the-run heir to an empire, and Deryn, a girl disguised as a male solider and the strongest female hero this side of Holly Short, have a will-they-won’t-they relationship of Austenian proportions.

When I first read the books, I couldn’t stop extolling the vibrancy of the world that Westerfeld had created. Every person who stood still long enough got an earful of the dashing adventures aboard the living airship, the Leviathan, and the delightfully infuriating manner in which Westerfeld strings along Deryn’s secret life as Alek hovers ever closer to the truth. Just look at the trailer! How could you not want to dive into the book?

My mother got the biggest dose of my Leviathan mania during daily phone calls. And at the time I was devouring the books, we were also in the midst of selecting new books for our book club — and it was Mom who suggested that I throw Leviathan into the ring. And I laughed at her until I realized she was serious, that she’d been drawn into the stories by my never-ending praise. Continue reading

[Book Review] Recreating the world, one story at a time

Shoggoths in Bloom by Elizabeth Bear

My quest to read something by Elizabeth Bear started a little over a year ago, and it’s been riddled with false starts. First, I ended up grabbing Trading in Danger (by Elizabeth Moon). Then Dust was nowhere to be found. Then I got All the Windwracked Stars (isn’t that a stunning cover?) but couldn’t find the time to read it. Seeing Shoggoth’s in Bloom up for grab was serendipity, and I went into this collection to get a sense of what Elizabeth Bear can do – in small, bite-size pieces.

I got that, and more. This collection brings together 19 short stories by Elizabeth Bear, including two Hugo winners, “Tideline” and “Shoggoths in Bloom,” plus one never-before-published piece original to the collection, “The Death of Terrestrial Radio.” With one exception, the stories average around a few-to-twenty pages and cover a truly mind-boggling range of genres and styles. We get an urban fantasy with a ritual gone wrong, historic fiction written through letters between John Adams’ wife and Thomas Jefferson about running for office during a time of suffrage, a lovely elegy in prose about a dragons and a museum curator, a folktale about a blacksmith’s commission, and a story about the slow death of the fishing industry. Each story is powerful, heart-rending, and memorable in its own way. Continue reading

Advance Book Review: Dead Reckoning, a steampunk zombie western

Dead Reckoning by Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill

Publication Date: June 05, 2012

What do you get when you mix a western, a zombie infestation, and a dash of steampunk? A whole lot of YA fun.

Jett Gallatin is a sharpshooter and gambler traveling across the wild west–he is also a lie, a name made up and used by a young woman searching for a brother who disappeared at the end of the Civil War. White Fox is an army scout, investigating the reason why thriving towns are becoming ghost towns overnight, all their people disappeared without a trace. And Honoria Gibbons is an unconventional young woman riding a gears-and-steam machine across the prairie, out to prove that science can explain any phenomena.

But when a zombie horde marches across their paths and force them to band together to survive, even Jett’s tenacity, White Fox’s experience, and Gibbons’ mythbuster approach to life might not be enough to get them through the night. Continue reading

[ Book Review ] Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad

Melissa’s Review: The Penelopiad, a novella by Margaret Atwood

 
Atwood’s response to Homer’s Odyssey was first on my list of fun reading while on break from graduate studies. Having been on a steady diet of classics, I’m getting a little sick of the male protagonist and his heroic adventures.

Please, somebody pass the microphone to a woman on the scene. (Oops, not her. That guy just turned her into a tree.)

Here is Penelope’s epic–her own story, not simply her take on her husband’s renowned exploits. (Cyclops, or one-eyed tavern keeper?)  Penelope speaks to us from the underworld, having seen the intervening centuries come and go, changing the world as she knew it.  History has made of Penelope a figure of obedient loyalty; of Odysseus, a god-like hero. Behind the scenes, we find, things are not as glorious as they seem.

Far from a book-by-book translation of Homer, Atwood’s version focuses on a startling little detail from Book 22: the tale of the twelve murdered maids.

Homer tells us the maids were disloyal sluts, sleeping with the disrespectful suitors vying for Penelope’s hand in Odysseus’s absence. In the gruesome scenes of revenge that follow his return, Odysseus orders his son Telemachus to murder the maids for their disobedience, after forcing them to clean the bloody mess of the hall. Telemachus hangs the maids in a single row.

Atwood tells us the maids were essentially innocent, their flirtations with the suitors a kind of strategic reconnaissance mission ordered by Penelope in her attempt to preserve her family’s wealth from greedy hands.  The maids are “like sisters” to Penelope, bringing youthful energy, songs, and sweets to her room at night, where they help her unravel Laertes’ burial shroud. Their assistance in this dangerous deception is actually a gesture of loyalty.

And it’s also kind of fun. “There is indeed something delightful about being able to combine obedience and disobedience in the same act,” Penelope says of the maids’ mirth in their complicity.

In the voice of the maids, Atwood is often direct about this witty balancing of accounts:Atwood’s own delight is evident in this reworking of myth. Though obedient to the task at hand, her work is skillfully defiant of accepted academic perspectives– on Penelope and the maids specifically, and on the validity of feminist critique of myth. In the dark tenor of the maids’ songs and sea shanties (they act as a tragicomic Greek chorus, turning the story wheel between chapters), we can hear both the maid’s disobedience and Atwood’s.

“You don’t have to get too worked up about us, dear educated minds. You don’t have to think of us as real girls, real flesh and blood, real pain, real injustice. That might be too upsetting. Just discard the sordid part. Consider us pure symbol. We’re no more real than money.”

The comparison is an apt one for a novella exploring the ways in which one human life assigns value to another. Money is the paper symbol of a currency’s value; a story is the fictional symbol of real human dramas. How we see the maids, and how we see Penelope– hell, how we see women in myth– says as much about the story as it does about us.

Which is the whole point of mythology.

The Penelopiad is the second volume (2005) in Canongate’s Myth Series, “a long-term global publishing project where some of the world’s most respected authors re-tell myths in a manner of their own choosing.” (The latest edition is Phillip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (2010). A.S. Byatt’s Ragnarok, a retelling of the Norse myth of end times, will be out in January.)

There will be critics of this kind of modernization of classic stories. The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller’s reworking of The Iliad, underwent considerable critical fire for its efforts to bring the tale to a modern audience.

And there are some pitfalls of the process of modernizing an ancient story. For me, the weakness (here) lies primarily on the level of language. Though Atwood’s response to Homer is written in the same forthright, gripping language that makes her novels so compelling and masterful, it admittedly pales in comparison to the metered poetry of The Odyssey.

But maybe that’s not such a bad thing. This is, after all, not a translation but a kind of poetic riffing: a story in its own right, and an important antidote to the hard-to-stomach female-bashing of so much of classic literature. A traditionalist might DQ me for reading Homer and Ovid through my 21st century glasses, but I argue there’s a great deal to be gained from Atwood’s refreshing revisioning, and from this kind of intelligent engagement with myth.

___

What say you, Canaries? What is your favorite myth/fairytale retelling?

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Related Reads:

[ Book Review ] A Zombie Walks into a Presidental Election…

Meg’s Review: Feed by Mira Grant

When an author decides to throw literary mechanics out the window, one of two things happen:

1. They sprout wings and carry the narrative over the rainbow-of-awesome-new-literary-skills.

or

2. They go splat.

So there I was, reading Feed, and along came the absolute climaxthat very moment when I should have been gasping/crying.

And I laughed.

Mind, the moment was heart-breaking—it truly was a masterfully-planned twist—but the author made such a bizarre narrative choice that I was utterly thrown. I wasn’t winded by the blast of emotional angst. Instead, I choked on it. Author, what did you just do?

And this still colors my feelings towards the rest of the book.

But let us start at the beginning.

Feed follows adoptive siblings Shaun and Georgia Mason and their friend Buffy as they blog about the campaign trail of presidential hopeful, Senator Peter Ryman with whom they’re traveling. Sounds benign enough until you realize the entire world is now overrun by zombies.

I expected a straight-forward zombie-shooting adventure, but Feed actually leans more towards political thriller with the added complication of the walking-dead running around. And that pleased me greatly: I love me some political thrillers, and there is nothing that scares me more* than zombies. A wicked conspiracy is rumbling just below the surface of the entire narrative, even as the main characters have to survive to untangle it.

The story itself is told 90% through the eyes of Georgia Mason and 10% through the characters’ blogs. The tactic is a clever spin on a first-person narrative, like a modern call-back to the epistle writing that was so popular in the 19th century. Indeed, I suspect I’d have enjoyed the book all the more if Grant had gone the whole way and presented the story entirely in blog form: Georgia Mason narrative voice rubbed me wrong as it meandered between valley-girl-aloofness and downright snarky, righteous bitch. On the other hand, I was quite fond of Rick and Shaun and would have liked to have more of their voices present in the story.

"Every person on the planet is infected."

The blogs also served another purpose—back-story. Georgia’s narrative focuses almost exclusively on her attempts to uncover what was causing the zombie attacks to occur with scary regularity in Ryman’s camp. But the blogs told the story of how the zombies came to be (a nifty bit of science that was just vague enough to work) as well as how the world dealt with the aftermath. I was enthralled with the world Grant created, especially with the mechanics of the zombie infestation; one does not have to be bitten by a zombie in order to become one. Every person on the planet is infected; once you die, you are immediately reborn as a brain-nomming monster. (This has to be an excellent world to be a hitman in, I thought while reading. Every person has to be killed twice, which means double the assassination fees.)

So after all this praise, why the confused canary?

Well, I can’t tell you. It would completely ruin the end of the book. Instead, let me make an analogy:

Just like Feed, I read Twilight at a breakneck pace. I had to know (HAD TO KNOW!) if Bella and Edward ended up together. Immediately after finishing Twilight, I rushed out and bought New Moon—but, actually ended up reading a book in between (the first Dresden Files book, for the curious). And when I went back to read New Moon, I was picking it up when a voice in my head said, “Wait…Twilight wasn’t even a good book. At all.” I dropped the book and never looked back.

And the same thing happened with Feed. I read it in a couple days, quickly bought the sequel, Deadline, and then had a family dinner that effectively derailed my inertia-driven enthusiasm. When I finally did sit down to read, that same voice said, “Are you really going to engage the sequel after the first one did THAT with the narrative?”

"Grant broke a cardinal rule of writing, and I can't decide whether she pulled it off."

I still haven’t decided if the voice in my head is just a book snob who needs to get over herself, or whether she has a point. I mean, Feed is about 800-million times better than Twilight, but I think Grant broke a cardinal rule of writing, and I can’t decide whether she pulled it off. And I’m too flustered with the indecision to commit to Deadline.

That said, I would definitely recommend Feed to anyone who enjoys zombie fiction, political intrigue, or has a less persnickety internal voice than mine. It’s a fast, multi-layered novel that even kept me reading through my zombie nightmares.

* Except sharks, but that’s a phobia to be dealt with in a review of Jaws.