Tuesday, January 31, 2012

"Freak Show," by James St. James

The Protagonist: Billy Bloom - fashionista, drag queen, swamp princess, death goddess, vamp extraordinaire. No one can match his style! No one can top his audacious swagger! No one can grasp his effervescent and insane creativity!
The Rub: ...except his fellow students at his all-white, ultra-conservative, southern Florida prep school.

The Secondary Cast:

Flossie: Billy's father's housekeeper. Takes care of him, but also kind of loathes him. Makes decent pecan scotchies.

Mary Jane McAfferty: Billy's first real friend at Eisenhower Academy (whose name he initially mishears as "Blah Blah Blah"), and de facto leader of the "shadow" student body - those less-advantaged, less-attractive, different students who maintain a peaceful existence by hiding their existence.

Flip Kelly: The school's star quarterback who won a championship by doing a miraculous flip during the game - hence the nickname. In the school's eyes, he can do no wrong, so when he decides to publicly befriend Billy - the rest of the school has to do the same. But Flip's real home life might not be as charmed as everyone thinks.

Lynette Franz: The bitchy Mean Girl who wants to keep Tradition in the school curriculum and protect the pious, advantaged students from Billy's "Gay Agenda."

Bernie Balch: An ugly, particularly vicious school bully who targets Billy.

Clancy Duckett: An out-and-proud lesbian TV anchor who decides to help Billy broadcast his message "Tease hair! Not homos!"

The Word: I've been wanting to read this book for a pretty long time, but again, it was one of the Books I Want To Get At the Library that I just never got around to because I've Got All Of These Perfectly Good Books to Read Already.

Well, finally I just decided, to heck with it, and took out Freak Show for free (yay libraries!). I read this book in TWO DAYS. That is fast for me. Super-fast. Unbelievable how quickly I burned through this book - and it's all thanks to Billy Bloom, the unbelievably manic, energetic, creative, flawed, oblivious, spectacular and unreliable teenage narrator of the novel.

Billy Bloom is a drag queen - his brain fizzes and starts with splashes of fabulousness and colour. He's got a room full of costumes and wigs and spirit gum and surgical adhesive and make-up. The guy's gifted. But he's also a 17-year-old boy stuck in an extremely conservative swamp of a Florida town with his wealthy but neglectful father, after his alcoholic mother up and decided she couldn't handle him anymore.

But Billy's got gumption. He's got spirit. He's determined to make a sparkling Gucci purse out of this sow's ear of a situation and make the best impression possible at his new school, Dwight D. Eisenhower Academy. And he makes a splash - but in the WORST way. The white, blond, privileged, preppy students of Eisenhower Academy do not react well to Billy's particular brand of pizzazz (particularly when he makes his first appearance in a Vivienne Westwood pirate costume - "what's more masculine than a pirate?"). Poor Billy finds himself targeted, bullied and brutalized - until the torment goes way out of control and lands him in the hospital.

Recovering from his injuries, Billy makes a new ally - Flip Kelly, the school's champion quarterback and social paragon. Motivated by outrage (and not a little guilt at his own unwitting participation in the attack), Flip befriends Billy and brings him under his social wing, protecting Billy from the physical abuse if not the bigotry and hypocrisy that still pervades the student body. Even though he's been beaten down, however, Billy's not out - instead, his bottomless pit of imagination comes up with even more harebrained, brilliant, impulsive ideas on how to change things in his school for the better - for everyone, not just the powerful and privileged.

Billy is the reason I read this book in two days. His voice screams off the page, waving its arms and shaking its bedazzled booty. He's ALWAYS excited and ALWAYS thinking and ALWAYS creating, and his excitement is outrageously infectious. He's like the Anne Shirley of the 21st century. His narration is highly exaggerated and sometimes unreliable, but it gets the point across so powerfully. When he's happy, he's ECSTATIC, when he's miserable, HE'S IN A PIT OF DESPAIR, when he's in love, HE JUST WANTS TO BE A SPECK OF DUST SWIMMING AROUND IN THE OBJECT OF HIS AFFECTION'S LUNGS. He also uses a lot of capslock, but I digress.

Despite the exaggeration and satire and parody of the characters and the setting, the story feels so real - and it feels real BECAUSE of the exaggeration, because of the unbreakable current of sincerity in Billy's voice. When I was 17, I felt everything was SO ALL-ENCOMPASSING, I felt my bullies were SCREAMING VILE HARLOTS, my life could NOT BE CONTAINED IN MERE LOWERCASE LETTERS. Billy is such an amazing character and you feel for him so powerfully - even if you are scratching your head when he elects to be blind for an entire day because he simply MUST wear twelve pairs of fake eyelashes to complete his look.

I'm personally religious and one of the Biblical messages that's seen a lot of action in my upbringing is "when you have a torch, don't hide your light under a bushel." When you've got a gift, you don't hide it away, you don't build your mansion at the bottom of a hill (or in a swamp), you don't wear your sequined, intentionally-singed 1920s flapper dress only in your closet and nowhere else - you shine it for everyone. And Billy's such a bright, screaming, alive character that I can't understand how ANYONE would want to snuff that light out under a bushel.

Freak Show is a flaming gut-punch of a novel, very emotional, very personal, and fun as hell to read. It's searingly honest and completely fantastical. It wrung me out, frankly. It's exciting and fast-paced and zany and painfully, painfully funny. I highly recommend it.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

"Wickedly Charming," by Kristine Grayson

The Chick: Melvina, a.k.a. "Mellie." Unfairly lambasted by the Grimm brothers and popular fiction in general as the Evil Stepmother to Snow White, she's made it her life's work to reveal the truth about how horrible fairy tales really are
The Rub: Trouble is, nobody listens to her because she's loud and annoying and ignorant.
Dream Casting: Lindsay Price.

The Dude: Prince Charming. Cinderella dumped him, his father walks all over him, he gave up custody of his daughters, and he's balding and paunchy. Happily ever after hasn't really happened to him yet.
The Rub: He really, really likes this beautiful stepmother, but can he learn to love again with a glass slipper lodged in his scrotum?
Dream Casting: Adrian Pasdar.

The Plot:


Prince Charming: I find your complete lack of restraint, logic and intelligence so gosh darn pretty!


Prince Charming: Your constant use of capslock is so gosh darn pretty! You should write a book about your problems!


Prince Charming: .... maybe I'll write the book.


Prince Charming: ... I was writing your book! And everyone loves it!

Mellie: OH.

Prince Charming: Except for my ex-wife Cinderella, who tried to use a spell to annul the existence of my children.

Mellie: OH NO.

Prince Charming: Oh don't worry - that problem was quickly solved a chapter later and off-screen by a just-introduced secondary character!

Mellie: OH. HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist:

Evil Bitch Ex

1 Ghostwritten Book

1 Schlubby, Sexist Romantic Rival

2 Poorly-Developed Stepchildren

1 Bestseller than Rips Off Wicked

The Word: I love fairy tales. This is no secret. I watch Disney. I read the Grimm tales. I like the colour and the magic and the trickery. And I love how the basic enjoyability of these stories can translate so easily into different kinds of retellings and interpretations. So you'd think something like Wickedly Charming would be right up my alley, right? Wrong.

I mean, it has a good concept. At first. Our heroine, Mellie, is a perpetually-outraged woman who's the leader of PETA - the People for the Ethical Treatment of Archetypes (ha ha - it's a tired old joke that only gets older). She's tired of the way those awful brothers Grimm told all these lies that have now become the basis for much of modern literature. And she should know - since she's doomed to go down in history as Snow White's Evil Stepmother.

Now, how did the Grimm brothers find out about the magical world of the Kingdoms all fairy tale characters live in? Why did they tell such obvious lies? Why did they add parts like the magic mirror or the huntsman? These things aren't even discussed.

And Mellie's solution to the centuries of untruths? Holding protests at bookfairs, screaming at bookbuyers, and calling for the banning of books. Because they are full of lies, you see.

The heroine wants to ban books. Yeah. Let that sink in.

Mellie's counterpart is Prince Charming. Well, one of them - Cinderella's Prince Charming. Still smarting from his divorce from Cinderella (and more on her wretched characterization in a minute), he's now working as a bookseller in The Greater World (a.k.a. The Real World), which gives him access to the bookfair. There he meets Mellie and we get the standard unpleasant scene where the Bitter Bitch heroine unloads all of her problems on him and makes a lot of baseless assumptions about how great his life must be.

The heroine is not only a Bitter Bitch, but she's possibly dumber than a box of Rapunzel's hair, since Prince Charming literally has to explain the concept of fiction to her. She doesn't understand how people can just make stuff up on the spot and put that into writing. Isn't that lying?


Prince Charming, despite being a rabid bibliophile, is somehow not repulsed by her clear disdain and ignorance of literature as a whole. Instead, she's the prettiest girl he's ever seen. So he decides to help her. He explains to Mellie that screaming at people like a demented self-righteous howler monkey is not the best way to change hearts and minds. Taking a moment to dump on the entire subgenre of paranormal romance, he shows how ugly nasty vampires changed their PR by getting people to write books where they are the tortured heroes. So perhaps Mellie should write a book that tells the story from her point of view - and he'll be super happy to help her write it.

So, the concept itself is a strong one - the idea that fairy tales oversimplified the complex family dynamics of certain characters - but the novel itself just does not follow through, and instead does the same thing the fairy tales did. It still tells a lazy, underdeveloped, oversimplified story, just with the villain-and-hero roles reversed. Oh, all the stepmothers were just overworked women in tough situations who just made a few mistakes, and all the princesses were spoiled, evil, clawing, envious bitches. How convenient.

There's also the laughable fact that while the protagonist CONSTANTLY RAGES about how older women are made into villains for fairytales, the only recognizable villain in Wickedly Charming IS AN OLDER WOMAN: a middle-aged Cinderella, who is cruelly shoehorned into the Completely Evil Murderous Ex Role. This book, whose heroine complains that fairy tales distort ideas about women, gives us a villain who literally tries to wish her children out of existence because she loves attention, money and the spotlight too much. One small step for Cinderella, one giant leap backwards for womankind.

This story could have had a perfectly decent, nuanced, subtle plot where Prince Charming and Cinderella divorced because they didn't really know each other - they were two dazed teenagers with stars in their eyes who got married after knowing each other for less than a day thanks to some preternaturally tiny footwear. It happens. That would have been a great plot point. But instead, the novel goes the cartoon route and makes Cinderella a monstrously selfish, unambiguously evil sociopath.

How am I supposed to like Mellie, either? She's rude, she's bitter, she's envious, and she's so. Effing. IGNORANT that I just couldn't stand her. She doesn't understand one thing about how the world works and is just so blindly hateful of any woman younger and prettier than her (which, hey, SOUNDS AN AWFUL LOT LIKE HER CHARACTER WAS IN THE ORIGINAL FAIRY TALE, HMMMMM). And nothing about her character is consistent. It turns out she secretly burned out her magic keeping Snow White alive, and kept it a secret from everyone - and yet she's spent centuries stewing in impotent rage about how people misconstrue her actions. You can't tell me that she doesn't care what anyone thinks - and then make her number one motivation to change what people think about her!

And what about Prince Charming? Talk about ruining the Beta model of heroes. He's not a Beta, he's - hmmm, what's the last letter of the Greek Alphabet? There's shy, and then there's just plain spineless. This quivering, flavourless Jell-O mould of a man is frightened of everything and pushed around by everyone and is constantly nervous and insecure (despite being breathtakingly handsome). He scurries to and fro so regularly I wondered if he was one of the mice turned into a footman by mistake. And believe me, if you've read my blog before, you know I have a particular tendre for shy Beta heroes. This hero, however, takes it a step too far. Several times while reading this novel I wanted to shout at him to nut up, take it like a man, and stop (literally!) running away from the heroine.

The story is simplistic, the conflict (where there is any - the greater part of this novel is internal moping/bitching, let's be honest) is contrived, and the protagonists are just completely unlikeable. Ultimately, Wickedly Charming calls the kettle black - it lashes out at all fairy tales for being distorted and misogynist and poorly told, and yet it doesn't try to rise above any of these tropes, either.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

"A Lily Among Thorns," by Rose Lerner

The Chick: Lady Serena, a.k.a. "The Siren," a.k.a. "The Thorn." A former courtesan, her life's work is bound up in the hotel she now owns - until a close friend suddenly betrays her.The Rub: She may not want to admit it, but she'll need help to retain control of her hotel - and who better than the random dude who was indirectly responsible for her getting the hotel in the first place?Dream Casting: Downton Abbey's Michelle Dockery.

The Dude:
Solomon Hathaway. Years ago, he recklessly gave away his entire quarterly allowance to a prostitute. Now he needs her help in recovering some stolen earrings.
The Rub: In the process, he realizes he's in love with her - but how can he convince her that he's the real deal?Dream Casting: Tom Hiddleston.

The Plot (some plot spoilers):

In the Past...

Serena: Do you want me to take your virginity?

Solomon: No thank you! HERE HAVE SOME FREE MONEY!

Present Day...
Solomon: Will you help me find some stolen earrings?

Serena: Sure! No problem!

Rene, Marquis de Sacreval and Dirty French Spy: Bonjour! I've faked our marriage so I can steal your hotel for nefarious and not-to-be-spoken-of reasons!


Solomon: And I'll help!

Serena: Wait, what?

Solomon: And I'll design pretty dresses for you! And stick up for you to your dad! And help uncover a secret network of spies and traitors for you! And step on the toes of men who are rude to you! And make you hot chocolate! And massage your feet!


Rene: OMG, does he have a brother?

Solomon: I do but he's dead and straight!

Elijah (Dead Brother): I'm not and I'm really not!

Rene: HOORAY! *plot foiled*

Solomon and Serena: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 French Frenemy

2 Stolen Earrings

1 Suspicious Fire

1 Very Bad Parent

1 Fortuitous Use of Hydrochloric Acid

1 Regency-Era Gay Bar

1 Faked Death

Several Sexy Spies

1 (Gay!) Secondary Romance (Between Sexy Spies)

The Word: Oh, Rose Lerner, you've done it again!

Rose Lerner SPLASHED (splashed, I tell you!) onto the Romance scene waaaaay back in 2010 with her debut novel, In For A Penny. I credit The Booksmugglers for pointing me and Rose Lerner in our respective directions, because it was a match made in heaven. In For a Penny surprised and delighted me with how it managed to create a sincere, lovely romance between complex characters without compromising the realism of the historical setting.

Rose Lerner takes the sophomore slump out to dinner and punches it in the face with A Lily Among Thorns, her long-awaited (and much-delayed) second book.

Lady Serena, prodigal daughter of a lord, used to be a whore, until a chance encounter with a nervous young man left her one hundred and twenty-five pounds richer. Serena turned that miracle money into an independent career as a successful courtesan, and then ultimately used those proceeds to purchase a sophisticated hotel, naming it the Ravenshaw Arms. Running the hotel is her joy and her pride and the last vestige of passion she allows herself.

So when she unexpectedly meets her mysterious benefactor when he asks for her help in locating some stolen earrings (her lady-of-the-night past left her with a bevy of useful underworld contacts), she sees it as the perfect way to repay his generosity without involving any unnecessary emotion.

Solomon Hathaway, a talented tailor, chemist, and dyer, has no idea this woman is the same prostitute to whom he recklessly gave his entire quarterly allowance so many years before - but he is drawn to her all the same.

Trouble arises in the form of Rene, the marquis of Sacreval, a dashing French aristocrat and Serena's business partner. Returning unexpectedly from the continent, he offers to buy out Serena's share in the Arms - but when she refuses, he produces expertly forged marriage lines that will be permit him, as her (il)legal husband, to take the Arms from her whether she wants to or not.

To Serena's surprise, Solomon offers to help her find a way to regain control of the Arms, and both find themselves drawn into a conspiracy involving French spies, English traitors, stolen rubies, secret doors, 19th-century gay bars, disapproving uncles, and expertly-tailored gowns.

One of the greatest joys in this book is that the hero and heroine don't begin the story with a reason to hate each other. A lot of other romances (even good ones), incite conflict right away by immediately putting the protagonists on opposite sides of a quarrel or problem. It's not necessarily a bad plot device, but it's used so frequently that it's just such a relief when we don't have romantic protagonists who immediately harbour the worst possible assumptions about each other.

Both Solomon and Serena have been shaped by being torn between two worlds. Serena was born an aristocrat, but sacrificed that status when she took on the world's oldest profession. She now uses underworld connections to survive in a world where a large number of the male haute ton can claim a "personal" connection to her. Solomon, meanwhile, is the offspring of an aristocratic woman who ran away with a Latin tutor. He has a Cambridge education from his disapproving Viscount uncle but prefers to work in trade with his (more lovingly disapproving) tailor uncle. In both cases, he's stuck somewhere in the middle.

But they both deal with such struggles differently, which is where their wonderful arguments and misunderstandings and interactions spring from. Righteous Beta Heroes and Dirty Heroines with Dirty Dealin's are my crack. Serena is such a magnificent heroine. Independent and strong-willed but practical - who believes she is cold and passionless until she meets the hero.

And what a hero! Solomon Hathaway is a prince among men. A prince among heroes! He cooks, he sews, he makes hot chocolate, he knows his way around a vial of hydrochloric acid, he has impeccable fashion sense, he's sweet and lovely and all that is good. He is wonderful. But he does have issues - he's only recently recovered from losing a twin brother in the war, the dashing and charming brother he always subconsciously compared himself to. And because of his mixed-class parentage he's always on the wrong side of someone's opinion - the aristos sneer that he's a commoner, and the plebs don't take him seriously.

The plot itself is darker and twistier than In For a Penny, but then again, I've always preferred those types of stories. Serena is such an evasive, closed-off, damaged character - who runs an inn that employs similarly evasive, closed-off and damaged characters. We learn new things about her in drip and drabs, because even from her point of view, she's close-mouthed. She's been used and abandoned by a lot of men in her day, which is why it takes a special one to win her heart - and even then, it take a good, long, delicious while to crack her shell.

But good things come to those who wait - and it's the same for Rose Lerner fans. We waited - and in the end, we were rewarded. While I don't particularly want to wait two years for her next book, I will if I have to.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Unwashed Blogger Masses: A Rant

I am AnimeJune.

And I am one of the unwashed blogger masses.

Let me explain. One of the most glorious things about the internet, is that is has given everyone a voice. Virtually anyone can start up a blog, give it a title, and start writing about whatever they please. Out of this has grown a thriving reviewer community - not just for books, but for about every product on the planet - plays, videogames, TV shows, movies, you name it.

Now, most artists and authors see bloggers as an untapped, budget-friendly goldmine. Give a few free ARCs away, have a reviewer give a positive review, and then another twelve bloggers will read that post and try the book themselves and realize they love it, and then that's twelve more reviews, with thirty bloggers reading those blogs and deciding to try the book themselves. And so on and so forth

The thing is, some authors have not learned how to deal with negative reviews. Writing takes an absurdly puffed-up sense of confidence - believe me, I've had it. So a scathing review out of nowhere can pop that bubble pretty damn fast, and some authors just can't cope. And, unfortunately, it is far easier to take out your rage on an "amateur" reviewer than it is a seasoned journalist who says the same thing.

There was an episode of Saturday Night Live recently, where Daniel Radcliffe plays an oblivious internet artist who "went to a school with no grades" and just assumes that everyone loves him. In the sketch, he attempts to draw Chinese calligraphy while simultaneously doing an Irish gig, and when he sits down, he blithely says, "I tried, and therefore no one can criticize me!"

I fear that there are a lot of authors who secretly feel that way - who feel, I actually wrote a BOOK, and therefore no one can criticize me! Who somehow believe that making it past the thorny tangle of agents and editors and slushpiles to join the ranks of the Printed Word renders one exempt from opinion. They have SURVIVED submissions. They have ENDURED revisions. Their experience with negativity is henceforth over, and they and their book lived happily ever after! I'm sorry, but that's not how it works.

Now, there have been quite a few kerfuffles recently in the YA and Romance communities about negative reviews, and I've even posted about the inevitable pattern these responses to negativity take. In a nutshell, these replies always follow along the same lines:
  • "You're personally attacking me!"
  • "You're a stupid loser poo-poo head who writes in her basement!"
  • "How many books have YOU had published? Thought not!"
  • "You're just jealous!"
  • "You have no idea how much work goes into writing a book!"
  • "All these other people on Amazon liked it!"
  • "Nobody reads your blog anyway!"

But what I've recently taken the most exception towards is Maggie Steifvater's post about what makes a review a review. It starts off reasonably enough, stating that bloggers should never make reviews personal (as in, make personal remarks about the author - their sexuality, personal life, number of cats, education, etc. etc.). That is 100% correct.

But then she starts to veer off:

A review is an unbiased, careful look at a book — basically it is a little academic paper. It involves an itty-bitty thesis on your opinion of the book, surrounded by tiny supporting sentences describing the strengths and weaknesses of said book. Every month, dozens upon dozens of these reviews come out in professional journals. Because they're fair and thorough, they're prized and respected in the publishing world. Authors celebrate positive pro reviews. They sigh and learn from negative pro reviews. Publishing houses bend over backward to send review copies to these journals in time for a timely review, because good reviews can make or break a book's success with libraries and booksellers.

By now you'll have noticed the neat, little words she drops - "academic," "professional." Nice, clean, bland picket-fence words - so pretty and nice as they clearly separate "us" (the nose-picking, skinned-knee, orphan urchin bloggers) from "them" (the fair, thorough, prized and respected academic few, consuming their tea and cucumber sandwiches). And then, she goes on to condescendingly explain to us that we are not, in fact, true reviewers:

Let's talk about the negative "reviews" that authors have been lashing out at. They often involve animated gifs, swearing, and snark. They're often quite funny. But here's the thing, though. When a blogger writes a biased, hilarious, snarky rundown of a book they despised, he/ she is not writing a review. They are writing a post about a book. I'm not saying that bloggers shouldn't write biased, hilarious, snarky rundowns of books. I'm saying that those rundowns are not reviews. Bloggers who regularly write them cannot expect to garner the same respect and treatment from authors that pro reviewers or non-pro reviewers do. They can't expect authors to read their posts and learn something from them. And they cannot expect authors to not take it personally. They've made it personal.

You'll notice that this paragraph only mentions the negative blogger reviews as being "not reviews" - by the very nature of them being negative. No one ever takes issue with the "professionalism" of someone who writes a positive review. No one ever accuses them of being unqualified, or jealous, or tells them they write for a dinky little quarterly that nobody reads.

This post may be swaddled with reasonable-sounding rhetoric but at the heart of it is yet another author who reacts to negative reviewers by attacking their qualifications.

And have I mentioned how much I love it when authors accuse a book review of being biased? "How dare this reviewer express an opinion about a book in their book review! Opinions have no place in reviews!" A book review is the explanation of a bias - by reading the book, you become biased for or against, and a review is simply an explanation of how you got to that point.

Because of the Internet, everyone has a voice. But because anyone can do it, it allows people to diminish the voices of those they don't like. Just because we live in a society where everyone has the opportunity to perform a certain action, doesn't mean the action is meaningless.

Do you want to tell the new mother and her day-old infant that she's hasn't done anything that special? That literally billions of people, rich and poor, since the dawn of time have done the same thing a billion times over? Does that really diminish the importance? Or your child learning to read for the first time? Again - it's been done before. The vast majority of people in North America can already do it. That's not really an achievement or a special gift, now is it?

So I'm afraid author comments that the members of the blogger community are simply representatives of the unwashed, uneducated, common masses because we don't have the same literary gatekeepers doesn't hold a lot of water with me. We're the ones who do it for free. We're the ones who do it on top of our day jobs, in spite of our day jobs, staying up late, because we love it. Because we are passionate about books and reading. So who are you to say our voices don't matter - unless they say something that you like?

Saturday, January 21, 2012

"The Broken Kingdoms," by N.K. Jemisin

The Protagonist: Oree Shoth. A blind artist with a powerful secret - she can see magic.
The Rub: Her ability to see magic - along with a secret untapped potential locked in her ability to paint - is dragged into the limelight when she rescues and harbours a mysterious man with a very dangerous past.

The Secondary Cast:

Shiny: A strange man Oree rescues from a muckbin. He glows at sunrise, and has the power to come back to life after dying - something he does with disturbing frequency. Also, the godlings in the city don't like him one bit.

Madding: Godling of Obligation, and Oree's ex-boyfriend. They share a romantic past rife with awkwardness.

Lil: Godling of Hunger - nasty, crazy, wants to eat you, but occasionally useful in dangerous situations.

Hado: The Master of Initiates for the New Lights, a dangerous heretical cult with eyes on Oree and her magical abilities, but he's hiding a secret card up his sleeve

Dateh: The leader of the New Lights - wants to use Oree's power to restore the world to the monotheistic dictatorship it used to be.

Fantasy Convention Checklist:
1 God In Disguise

1 Almost-But-Not-Quite God In Disguise

1 Thousand-Foot Drop, Mysteriously Survived

Several Resurrections

3 Accidental Disembowelments

1 Kindly Murder Attempt

1 Magic Power

1 Secret Heritage

The Word: WARNING - THIS REVIEW WILL CONTAIN MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE PREVIOUS BOOK, THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS. Please do read that book, because it is awesome. But this review will be spoilery. You have been warned.
So in the first book of N.K. Jemisin's fantasy trilogy, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, the author established a world that was formerly ruled by three gods - Itempas (Light/Order/Stasis), Nahadoth (Darkness/Chaos/Progress) and Enefa (Twilight/Balance). However, war erupted among the three, with Itempas killing Enefa and subjecting Nahadoth and their gaggle of godly children (known as godlings) to imprisonment and slavery for two thousand years. During that time, the Arameri (Itempas' chosen people) conquered the rest of the world and enforced the monotheistic worship of Order and Light, and if they met any resistance, well, those enslaved gods and godlings made pretty good weapons of mass destruction.

The heroine of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, however, managed to break the gods' bondage, releasing Nahadoth and all the godlings, fracturing the Arameri's stranglehold on the world, and devising a special punishment for Itempas.

On the day that happens, in a little village in a far away country, a blind girl named Oree Shoth discovers she has the ability to see magic - but nothing else. Inspired to abandon her backwater life and search for adventure, she moves to Shadow, the unique and colourful city that built itself around the roots of the World Tree that sprang up at the end of the last book.

Ten years later, the world is a very changed place, at least in Shadow. Itempas' dominion has been broken, and an unpredictable and lively new population of godlings walk the city, gathering new followers and pilgrims. Oree now works as a street artist, selling trinkets and souvenirs to Shadow's now-thriving tourist industry. Thanks to the new proliferation of magic and magical beings, she can see certain things, and it gives her a bit of an advantage over people who think she's completely blind.

Things get complicated when she discovers a dying man in her muckbin and takes him in. He dies several times over the course of his stay, coming back to life shortly thereafter, but otherwise he's as mortal as any man. On top of that, someone has discovered how to murder godlings, and a now-free Nahadoth threatens to obliterate the entire city of Shadow and everyone in it if the killer isn't brought to justice.

At its most basic, unadorned level, The Broken Kingdoms has a similar foundation to the previous novel - the story revolves around an underestimated, whip-smart woman of colour who finds her fate bound (very much against her will and better judgement) to a god who's fallen from grace. But the similarities end there. This novel does a great job of both creating its own story and examining its own themes while building on those established before.

The previous book showed how shallow and colourless a society can be when it abandons chaos and balance and focuses solely on order and light. This is contrasted by the vibrant, yet unpredictable and violent settings shown in this novel, which also examines how religious politics can exist in a world in which the gods are multiple and very present. There were quite a few darkly funny scenes where a god in disguise is forced to listen to the nonsensical blather his followers preach to excuse their heinous behaviour.

But, at the same time, the novel also examines what separates gods from humans. Just as she did in the first novel in this series, N.K. Jemisin nails the characterization of her immortal characters, drawing on myths and folklore. They can be capricious, jealous, vengeful, delighted - yet they have a billion years of experience and layers and ambiguity that render them too complex to define by human standards. Mild Spoilers --- I particularly enjoyed the portrayal of Itempas, especially how he has to deal with the limitations of mortality and just how badly his celestial mistakes have caught up with him. Yes. This is "his" book the way Hundred Thousand was "Nahadoth's" book. Even though BOTH books are ACTUALLY about the two bad-ass women who put up with these idiots.

Simply put, The Broken Kingdoms works on all levels. It's a fantastic book on its own (and could even be read as a standalone, although the first book is too good to recommend doing that), it's an excellent follow-up to the first book, and it provides a wealth of new material and directions to go in for the third novel, Kingdom of Gods (which apparently centers around child-God Sieh, a.k.a. He Who Pulls The Cute Adorable Face While He Kicks You To Death).

Sunday, January 15, 2012

A Very Unfortunate DNF Review, "Demon Moon," by Meljean Brook

This is going to be a different review from my usual. Regular readers to my blog know that I very, very rarely DNF a book.

To me, a DNF doesn't necessarily mean the book is horrifically offensive or badly written. After all, I pushed all the way through Fool Me Once and Whitney, My Love.

Nowadays, though, I've started reading differently. I read slower than I would like (I'm sure everyone with a TBR thinks they read slower than they would like), so lately when I'm with books that are tiresome, I've found myself skimming. But I've never yet brought myself to DNF (Did Not Finish) a book.

Until this one, and it was a tough call, let me tell you.

I loved the previous book in this series, Demon Angel. I thought it had excellent world-building (the idea of angelic Guardians guarding the human race from demons and vampires), fantastic characters (Lilith is one of my favourite heroines ever), and a great love story.

Demon Moon, on the other hand, had a lot of stuff. Incredibly detailed, pointless, and probably unnecessary stuff. And two characters with really complicated and detailed magical backstories and less-developed actual, uh, human problems who have to make a romance in all of that.

So our hero is Colin. I loved him from his appearances in Demon Angel and in Meljean Brook's story "Falling for Anthony" from the otherwise-terrible Hot Spell anthology. So you'd think I'd like him here. Well, he's not bad, but ... he's a vampire, only he's a special vampire because he got turned by a nosferatu (a bald, creepy proto-vampire) instead of another vampire, and he's also special because his blood was tainted by a magic sword used to kill a dragon, and he's also super duper special because for some forgotten and doubtless complicated reason he is also capable of seeing into the Chaos realm whenever he looks at a mirror. And he also, like, spent a week in Chaos. For reasons. And this screwed him up, I think. Because of reasons.

And our heroine is Savi - a human girl who was practically raised by Hugh (the hero of Demon Angel) and her grandmother after her parents were murdered, so she also knows Colin by association. And she's also a brilliant computer programmer - who's secretly working for the government. For reasons. And when the novel opens, she actually gets mysterious superpowers after she uses computer wire, spit, and a mouthful of hellhound venom to take out a nosferatu who's smuggled his way onto her airplane. Yeah.

Oh, and she and Colin apparently spent a week in Caelum (the non-denominational version of Heaven for this book, it seems, although we still have Hell), something I did not at all remember from the previous books, and it was apparently a very emotionally contentious time for the both of them because they spend pages and pages hinting and circling around what happened instead of just out and telling us. ARGH!

From the first hundred and fifty pages I read, the external plot is that the nosferatu that were trapped in Chaos by the Good Guys in the last book due to some incredibly complicated shenanigans are now trying to escape, using other incredibly complicated shenanigans - calling for Savi, Colin, Hugh, Lilith, Selah and Michael to come up with EVEN MORE COMPLICATED SHENANIGANS to save the day.

At least that's what I got out of it. In my opinion, this novel was way, way, WAY too complicated for only the second book of a series. I constantly felt like I was missing something and that I had to keep up. I couldn't get involved with the story or invested in the characters because I was too busy trying to keep all the useless, unnecessary worldbuilding facts straight (what's the difference between a vampire's bloodlust and sex-lust? I HAVE NO CLUE but apparently it's really important in the early stages of the romance). There's Earth, Caelum, Hell and the Chaos Realm. There are vampires, nosferatu, Guardians, demons, hellhounds, werewolves, and wyrmwolves. Each with their own rules and special powers and this Guardian can teleport, but this Guardian can't and this demon can but only on Sundays, etc etc. etc.

After about a hundred and fifty pages, I gave up, exhausted. I didn't want to read anymore, I didn't care about the characters at all, the romance at this stage was just so one-note (Colin wants to get into Savi's pants but he has to do it in a douchey-seductive-vampire way because he doesn't want to reveal that he has feelings and Savi really doesn't want people to bite her but Colin is sexy so she'll let him). Just ... no. When I realized that reading this book had become a chore, and that there were 300 pages left, I just gave up. Life is short.

It reminded me of Marjorie Liu and her Dirk & Steele series, and how she's managed to have such a wonderful, detailed paranormal series while avoiding these very pitfalls. I was confused by Meljean Brook's second book (even after reading the first one and the "Falling for Anthony" short story), but I started what turned out to be the eighth in Marjorie M. Liu's series (The Wild Road, which has one of the best virgin heroes of all time) and loved the hell out of it.

Even so, giving up this book was difficult - I like the author herself, it wasn't badly written, there were a lot of original concepts throughout, and I'm sure I would have found the characters and their romance more interesting if the romance had been better incorporated into a streamlined paranormal plot instead of feeling like a distraction to the all-encompassing, overelaborate paranormal plot.

That being said, readers, have you read her other books? Are they still worth reading or will skipping Demon Moon leave me even more in the dark than I already am? Is The Iron Duke any good?

Monday, January 02, 2012

"Duke of Shadows," by Meredith Duran

The Chick: Emmaline Martin. When she barely survives a shipwreck that killed her parents, she discovers that the proper life they had planned for her is no longer the one she wants.
The Rub: It's not enough that she has to survive a ship going down and killing her entire family - but she also has to survive an Indian uprising too. Not a lot of room left for personal problems.
Dream Casting: Kate Winslet.

The Dude: Julian Sinclair. Raised by his Indian grandmother and eventually taken under the wing of his English duke grandfather, he is a child of two worlds - and trusted by neither.
The Rub: This especially sucks because he's the only one who seems to notice that unrest is brewing in the native population of India, unrest that inevitably boil over into violence.
Dream Casting:
David Giuntoli.

The Plot:

Emma: Hey guys! I survived a shipwreck!

Evil Fiance: Awesome - and your fortune is completely intact?

Emma: And ... and my person is also intact.

Evil Fiance: I don't care so much about that.

Julian: Hey, maybe we should stop being mean to all the Indian people we're training in modern warfare and giving guns to.

All The British People: LOL NO.

Rebellion: *is had*

Julian: Quick, Emma, I love you!

Emma: I love you too!

Julian: Now stay in this secure location that has a reputation for being a fortress surrounded by people I trust!

Fortress: *broken into*


Four Years Later

Julian: OMG, you're alive!

Emma: Yes, and I hate you now, for no reason, because this book isn't long enough as it is.

Julian: Wait what?

Emma: Also someone's trying to kill me. I'm also dead inside. Oh, and I hate you for leaving me to die.

Julian: Um, can't we just talk about this like regular people --

Emma: 'Fraid not. I must be deep and scarred and mysterious now. And also I hate you. You know, for failing to protect me from all physical harm whether it's caused by you or not.


Emma: This is the part where you rescue me.

Julian: And will this somehow get me magically forgiven for sins that I never actually committed that are really a product of your PTSD?

Emma: ... sure.

Julian: *rescues* HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist:

1 Very Bad Fiance

1 Inconvenient Shipwreck

2 Inconveniently Dead Parents

1 Bloody Revolution

Several Violent Paintings

1 Intensely Interesting Secondary Character With a Dynamite Backstory Whose Novel Has Criminally Not Been Written Yet

1 Poisoned Dog

Several Unwittingly Secret Messages

The Word:
When I first started reading Meredith Duran with Bound By Your Touch, I encountered a strange phenomenon where, objectively, I recognized that the writing was original and superior, the style was lyrical, the characters had layers; and yet, subjectively, I felt almost completely detached from the story.

I figured that maybe it was just a one-off, because a writing style like Meredith Duran's doesn't just turn up every day. So I picked up her contest-winning debut, Duke of Shadows, and found, to my dismay, that I felt the same way.

Detached. Uninvested. Even worse, when I stopped feeling apathetic, I felt annoyed - particularly with the dithering heroine.

The story begins in India in the 1850s, as young, wealthy Emma lives in the Residency and awaits her dismal future as the fiancee of a cartoonishly awful man named Marcus who is already hip-deep in an affair with another woman. Emma has no family in the country to run to - her parents perished very recently in a shipwreck that only Emma survived, and Emma's subsequent rescue by a ship full of rough-and-tumble sailors has left her reputation hanging by a thread.

She develops an odd friendship with Marcus' despised cousin Julian Sinclair, the Marquess of Holdensmoor. Despite his lofty English title, he is spurned by the British for his mixed blood (his mother was half-Indian) as well as his then-radical opinion that, Hey, Those Indian Blokes Don't Really Like British People Occupying Their Motherland and Might Eventually Be Inclined to Do Something About It. Emma, who survived the shipwreck that killed her parents to discover that a Proper English Life will inevitably smother her, finds solace with a fellow outcast.

And then a bloody and violent revolution happens, and Emma finds herself fleeing the city with Julian. During their flight, they share a few evasive conversations with each other and realize they're in love. Before they can go much further, however, Julian is forced to leave her at a secure location that ultimately ends up not being as secure as he thought it was, and the two are separated.

Cut to four years later. Emma has recovered from her truly traumatizing exodus from India by becoming an artist of gruesome and violent paintings about the atrocities wrought upon the natives by English soldiers. When a nobleman who shares her same opinion about the occupation of India persuades her to display her art, it finally brings her back into contact with Julian.

Unbeknownst to her, Julian has spent the last four years believing she was dead, so their reunion comes as something of a surprise to him. And here is where the novel roused me from my apathy - and dipped my opinion into dislike. Emma decides to guilt and blame Julian for things that could not possibly have been his fault, because she picked up Guilt Issues and a Mysterious Past (that's not mysterious since the reader finds out about it as it happens) in India and suddenly, this novel acquires a Big Misunderstanding and a Suspense Subplot when it had a perfectly suitable and realistic conflict already.

Here is where the novel falters. The book is essentially split into two parts - the first has an original setting, an interesting and historically relevant plot, and well-realized external and internal conflicts. The second has a conventional historical setting, a stretched Big Misunderstanding plot, a contrived Suspense Subplot, and a heroine who continues to engineer conflict beyond reasonable limits. The first half of this novel should have been a book on its own (and if you're interested in that sort of book, try Sherry Thomas' Not Quite a Husband), but as merely Part One, its effect is lessened by how rushed the development has to be.

And the second half of the novel is just run of the mill. Heroine guards her heart, hero has to seduce her, crazed madman forces hero to take care of heroine, heroine denies and discredits everything experienced hero says, mysterious past is revealed, et cetera and so on and so forth. In terms of its pacing, it reminded me vaguely of Carolyn Jewel's superior-in-all-ways Indiscreet - which also had the hero and heroine in an exotic setting falling in love in the first half of the novel before an evil villain turns it into an escape thriller.

Ultimately, Duke of Shadows is an uneven, disjointed, and inconsistent book. The heroine's Issues, while understandable, make her seem irrational and create more conflict than we need. The hero, despite telling instead of showing a rather colourful past, isn't incredibly interesting on his own. The writing is decent, and the descriptions of the setting are vivid and wonderful - but sadly, the story and the characters don't measure up.

For better versions of this novel, I would heartily suggest reading Thomas' Not Quite a Husband and Jewel's Indiscreet.