Monthly Archives: September 2012

Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld

Title: Leviathan
Author: Scott Westerfeld
Year of Publication: 2009
Length: 448 pages
Genre: YA steampunk
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 3.5 stars

I hoped for more out of this book.

I like the story. It’s an interesting premise and a great use of steampunk themes to build an alternate universe. Leviathan re-envisions the start of World War I as a conflict between two pathways of technological development. The Darwinists, in England, France, and Russia, have gone into biodevelopment, discovering things like DNA coding a bit ahead of time, and using that knowledge to create fantastical new creatures. Airships made out of floating air-whales with other creatures grafted on, balloons out of jellyfish/blowfish type things, lizards who can memorise and deliver messages, wolf-dog-tiger hybrids for security or searching. The Clankers, in Germany/the Holy Roman Empire (still hanging on, apparently) and most of Eastern Europe, have chosen traditional mechanical technology, viewing Darwinist creations as hellish abominations.

The trouble is that, well… there sort of just wasn’t enough there. I know it’s a YA book, but that’s really no excuse. Plenty of authors manage to write YA novels and still use sophisticated storytelling devices. The later Harry Potter books are probably the most famous example, but the honest-to-goodness best example is probably Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Westerfeld’s style is a bit slapdash for my preferences. The vocabulary is basic, the sentence structure largely unvaried, the characterisation fairly flat. This disappointed me, and it’s not just because I’m an adult reading a YA book — it would have disappointed me just as much at age 11. You don’t have to write simply to tell a story on a level that young people will understand. (Quite the opposite, I’ve always thought — half the point of reading is to stretch your brainpan out a bit, to introduce new things rather than just dumping in what it’s already familiar with, and that goes for the language itself as much as for the story).

I found myself wishing that the book either had a lot more illustrations — I think it would’ve worked brilliantly as a graphic novel — or a lot fewer, with a lot more verbal description. It seemed in many places as if the illustrations were serving as a crutch for insufficient description in the text. This is particularly true of the Darwinist creations, which I found a little confusing to follow. I can tell there are good ideas there, that the dynamics of how these things operate has been thought out — I just sometimes had trouble following along with exactly what those dynamics were. It became clearer with illustration, but still not perfectly so.

I still haven’t said anything about the actual plot yet, have I? Prince Aleksandr, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, is fleeing after his parents’ assassination (the event that, y’know, starts World War I). His path improbably collides with that of Deryn, a British common girl with aspirations of aviation, who has disguised herself as a boy in order to join the crew of one of the dirigible-creatures. And… that’s pretty much the plot. It doesn’t really get to going much of anywhere in this first book. We meet the characters, we learn about the world, the war starts, there are adventures on the ground and in the air. That’s not to say nothing happens. Quite a bit happens, in your typical adventure-story sort of way. But it’s all rather thin and entirely unfinished — this is clearly the first book in a series, and it doesn’t wrap up on its own in any significant way.

So, this was a sort of interesting read, but not a really gripping one. I imagine I’ll get the next book the series eventually, but I’m in no rush. And when it comes to YA steampunk, I’ll be anticipating Gail Carriger’s new series a lot more.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

Sinful in Satin, by Madeline Hunter

Title: Sinful in Satin (Rarest Blooms #3)
Author: Madeline Hunter
Year of Publication: 2010
Length: 368 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 2.5 stars

I almost never fail to finish a book. And I did finish this one, eventually — but it took over a year. I lost interest on the first attempt last summer, then picked it back up and had to revisit the first half before I could go into the rest. I can’t quite put my finger, though, on why I had trouble getting into this book. It started slow, may have been the problem. The first hundred pages are an awful lot of the hero and heroine encountering each other in hallways and having awkward, abortive conversations, and the pace doesn’t pick up a whole lot from there.

The plot: Celia, as I believe we learned in earlier novels, is the daughter of a famous and successful courtesan, Alessandra, who has recently died. Celia was raised elsewhere, but was brought to her mother when she was sixteen to be prepared to take over Alessandra’s business. I was, when we first learned she was a courtesan’s daughter, really hoping for an unrepentantly non-virgin heroine — but, alas, I was disappointed. She ran off to Daphne in time to preserve her virginity. After Alessandra’s death, Celia discovers that her mother left a lot of debts — and that the man who purchased first rights to her would still like to claim them. Celia also learns that her mother’s second home, a private retreat where she did not conduct her business, has a boarder, Jonathan. What Celia does not know (but soon comes to suspect) is that Jonathan is working on behalf of the crown to try and discover if Alessandra was working as a French spy during the Napoleonic Wars.

There are some twists and turns, but none that are particularly inventive or surprising. Celia is on a quest to find out who her father is, and the scenes where she finally confronts him have some of the best emotional intensity in the book. Celia does not want to follow her mother’s path, though she manages not to demonize it or sex — but her attitude towards all of it, and towards her developing affair with Jonathan, is a little muddled. The tension of her decision-making progress doesn’t come across terribly well, because she plays everything so close to the chest — not just with the other characters but also with the reader. There’s also another subplot involving Celia’s attempts to get the Rarest Blooms an outpost station in her house in London. In some ways, I think this book couldn’t quite decide what it wanted to be and what story it wanted to be telling — and so it ended up not doing much of anything.

This was the weakest and least interesting of the Rarest Blooms series for me. The characters were not engaging enough, and the plotline meandered without any real sense of drive or urgency behind it. Even the spy subplot fails to inject the necessary excitement; books like Suzanne Enoch’s London’s Perfect Hero have done that far better. The best parts of this book are the teasing glimpses we get of Daphne and Castleford, who will be the heroine and hero of the final (and far more interesting) book in the series, Dangerous in Diamonds.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

Mine Till Midnight, by Lisa Kleypas

Title: Mine Till Midnight (Hathaways #1)
Author: Lisa Kleypas
Year of Publication: 2007
Length: 360 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4 stars

The Hathaways have accidentally inherited a viscountcy, and oldest sister Amelia is trying desperately to hold the family together with both hands. Their inheritance comes with massive expenses and no money, the manor house could be knocked down by a strong breeze, brother Leo, the new viscount, is attempting to drink himself into oblivion as an escape from grief, sister Win is nearly an invalid after scarlet fever, sister Poppy is beautiful but entirely unprepared for the social whirl, sister Beatrix has an obsession with animals and mild kleptomania, and adopted brother Merripen is a prickly and protective Rom with a dangerous temper.

While trying to sort this mess out in her head, Amelia wanders onto familiar territory and into a familiar character (at least for continuous Kleypas readers) — her family’s new lands, as it turns out, stand adjacent to those of Lord Westcliff, of the Wallflowers series. The man she encounters is Cam Rohan, half-Roma factotum of Lord St. Vincent’s gaming club, out in the country for a weekend. Cam’s struggling through some personal challenges of his own at the moment, feeling shame over his inexplicable ability to accumulate wealth and over the extent to which he has become tied down, to one location, in conflict with his Romany roots.

The cultural differences provide the first hurdles — Kleypas doesn’t succumb to “gypsy” stereotypes and treats the Roma with a great deal of respect (though I honestly don’t know with how much accuracy or romanticizing, in spite of the careful treatment), but she also doesn’t gloss over the prejudices (which are not only historical but very much still extant). Both Cam and Amelia start out viewing a relationship between them as impossible for this reason. When Cam makes up his mind that Amelia is the girl for him, however, he won’t be gainsaid — even by the lady herself. Amelia seeks to retain her independence, having mentally placed herself on the shelf, devoted entirely to her family. Cam has to tease out her romantic side, but also proves himself indispensable when it comes to managing the family. He’s a great hero — as I knew he would be when we first met him — dark and mischievous, practical yet cheeky. He coaxes Amelia into loving him — or, at least, into admitting what she already feels — with a great deal of charm and sly humour. I’ve seen from some reviews on Goodreads that other readers have been frustrated with Amelia’s delay in succumbing, but I find it quite realistic, both for the social considerations and for emotional veracity. That feeling of not wanting to surrender independence, particularly when you’ve just gotten used to the idea of it and the responsibility it entails, can be powerful, and I was glad that Kleypas gave us a  heroine who didn’t melt immediately and forget her own values and goals at the first sign of interest from a dark and handsome stranger. I like Amelia for her stubbornness and her occasional fits of pique; they make her a far more interesting and relatable character.

The conflicts in this book are a lot less predictable than in many romance novels — as is often the case with Kleypas, since she frequently steps outside the traditional bounds with her subject matter. Ex-fiances, rooms covered in bees (a personal horror for me), possible hauntings — they all swirl together, giving Mine Till Midnight an extra edge of excitement alongside of the romance. As ever, Kleypas shines best with the ensemble, and the Hathaways are certainly no exception. From the first book, we get a cast of three-dimensional characters, each with their own quirks and foibles — and some with darker demons to face down. The seeds of the rest of the series are all here, but they never threaten to overwhelm the main plotline. Overall, Mine Till Midnight is a thoroughly enjoyable book and a great start to another lively, engaging series from Ms. Kleypas.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews