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Curtsies & Conspiracies, by Gail Carriger

Title: Curtsies & ConspiraciesCurtsiesConspiracies (Finishing School #2)
Author: Gail Carriger
Year of Publication: 2013
Length: 320 pages
Genre: YA steampunk paranormal
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 4 stars

The second installment in Carriger’s Finishing School Series is every bit as good as the first. Which is to say, not flawless, but thoroughly entertaining.

Returning to the floating school for female spies, we find Sophronia and her peers receiving their first evaluations. Each young lady is tested individually, but the results are given en masse. Sophronia’s ludicrously high marks make her a target for ostracization, even from her nearest and dearest — Dimity, Sidhaeg, and Agatha. Even stranger, the school is planning a trip to London — and stops on the way to pick up boys from their rival university. Suspecting that this trip is much more than meets the eye, Sophronia puts all her skills to use to get to the bottom of a scheme with major implications for the scientific and the supernatural communities alike, and to keep her friend Dimity safe from what she’s sure is an imminent kidnapping attempt.

As ever, Carriger writes with considerable felicity. The tone of the book is conscious, but not cloyingly so, as was occasionally the case in the Parasol Protectorate books. They’re over-the-top, utterly ridiculous at points, but there’s also a lot about them that feels quite real, particularly when it comes to her depiction of teenage girl social dynamics. Sophronia and her peers act like reasonable approximations of teenage girls — but not like idiots. Everything is life or death — but at Mademoiselle Geraldine’s, that’s occasionally literally true as well. Your friends don’t always behave in the ways you wish they would. Signals get mixed, sometimes someone thinks she’s telegraphing one emotion but you’re interpreting another and everyone’s confused. Some people hurt each other intentionally, and some do it by accident. Despite the strange setting of a floating school, the vampires, the mechanimal pet, the intrigues, the kidnappings, and of course the fact that fourteen year old girls are being trained on how to recognize arsenic-laced tea cookies at the same time they’re learning to flirt, there’s also a lot here that’s just very… normal.

And I really appreciate the way this book handles potential romance. They’re curious about boys, but still a little hesitant about them, too. There’s a wonderful frisson of “Not yet… but soon” about it all. Sophronia discovers that she likes the attention of flirting and wants to enjoy that, but she sometimes feels discomfited by the tangle of emotions and hormones that come along with it, too. I hope that Carriger’s taking us someplace more than a standard love triangle, though, because if she’s headed in that direction, I will have to shake my head. Right now, it’s just sort of fun to watch a heroine be allowed to feel things without the pressure of making a lifelong decision based on them.

Carriger also does a lovely job weaving together her two timelines. It isn’t a strict progression, but enough of the characters interweave (and yes, there are a few more lovely cameos here) to make it a real treat. Even better, though, is the way the world itself interweaves, particularly with regard to scientific and political developments. It makes the Parasol Protectorate world more complete unto itself. It’s also unfolding further, both for the reader and for Sophronia. Alliances and sympathies aren’t always as clear-cut as they seem at first glance.

There are, as I said, a few flaws. Though the sense of character is improved from the first book, the POV bobbles a bit in some places, wandering from third-limited into third-omniscient with no real justification. And the moral lesson of the book is a bit obvious — that, as in the first book, Sophronia’s greatest strength is in her friends and allies (friendship is magic, y’all). This despite the fact that the school still seems to encourage competition, resulting in something of a mixed message for Sophronia. I’m hoping to see that play out further, especially since Sophronia does such a good job of yoking together disparate talents from very different individuals. Altogether, I thoroughly enjoyed this installment and I look forward to the next.

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Cold Magic, by Kate Elliott

Title: Cold Magic (Spiritwalker #1)
Author: Kate ElliottColdMagic
Year of Publication: 2010
Length: 528 pages
Genre: alternate history fantasy/sci fi… oh gods, see below
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 3 stars

This book was… odd.

Cold Magic is, by the author’s description, “an Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency novel with airships, Phoenician spies, and the intelligent descendants of troodons”. Catherine Hassi Barahal is an orphan raised by her aunt and uncle, besties with her cousin Beatrice. They live in what is geographically England, except that the Ice Age never fully ended, so it’s still connected by marshy land to the Continent. It’s also super-racially-blended, with bloodlines from Celts and Romans and Africans all mixing together in a complex and interweaving social hierarchy. Cat and Bee are enrolled in college amid a growing conflict between the mages who seem to run Europe and the revolutionary faction that seeks to supplant magic with steam technology. What kind of magic? Well, lots of kinds. There’s cold magic and fire magic and druids and bards and other things. There might be the Fae, by way of seelie and unseelie courts, but their existence is unproven. Cat has a mysterious sort of magic which gives her super-hearing, a certain level of invisibility, and other abilities that reveal themselves through the course of the book. So does Beatrice. Oh and there are “trolls”, who come from North America and have evolved to intelligence and culture. The plot initially looks like it’s going to explore Cat and Beatrice’s lives inside this construct, but then it takes a hard left turn when a cold mage turns up at the Barahal household claiming the eldest daughter as his bride, and Cat gets shoved at him with literally no explanation. The rest of the book is Cat having no more idea than the reader what the hell is going on. It has something to do with her family, who may or may not have been spies two thousand years ago, or twenty years ago, or now. It has something to do with her magic, and something to do with her cousin’s. It has something to do with the escape of a Napolean-figure who’s actually from Spain who tried to conquer Europe a few years earlier. It has something to do with sabertooth tigers. It has something to do with airships. The one thing really driving the plot is that Cat has to get back to Bee before the winter solstice so that the cold mages don’t claim her instead.

That feeling you’re having right now, trying to make sense of that summary? Is what the entire book feels like.

I very much wanted to like this book. I read it on recommendation from a good friend whose taste I trust, and it has a lot of elements that were enticing to me. But the execution was… not what I had hoped. The result of Elliott throwing all of those aforementioned genres in a blender isn’t a well-processed smoothie — it’s a chunky, uneven mess. I spent the entire book trying to figure out if my reading comprehension had suddenly taken a leave of absence, or if the book was really just that confusingly written. Since I’m reasonably certain I’m still in possession of all the wits I started last week with, I have to assume it’s the latter.

What’s so frustrating is that there are a lot of good ideas here. (The three stars I’m giving this book come a lot from just the sheer credit of that). The Afro-Celtic angle? Awesome. I love the route that alternate history has taken here, with Rome and Carthage fighting to a standstill rather than going the Carthago delenda est road. I love the idea that the Mali Empire had a diaspora that caused Africa to colonize Europe, rather than the other way around. The blending of cultures has so much potential, and the fantasy and sci-fi genres in general could do with a lot more of that. I also love the idea of magic and science engaging in a horrible struggle for dominance, and the political and social consequences for each side are such fruitful avenues for exploration. But somehow, all of these elements just totally failed to synthesize — and I rather suspect at least part of the problem is that Elliott tried to do too many things in the same novel. The dinosaur-descendants, for example — a fascinating concept, but thrown into this novel, it’s definitely just one tangent too many. The Regency era angle is underused to the point where it may as well not exist (to anyone wondering why it’s called Regency if the year is supposedly 1837, they’re counting in “Augustan Years”, and he became emperor in 27 BCE — so the equivalent year is really 1810, not 1837. Not that you would know that from reading the book, since Elliott never explains it). The blending of cultures, while super-intriguing, is also poorly explored — it’s hard to get a clear idea of exactly what melded where and with whom and so forth. The world clearly has a shape, but the reader never gets to grasp what it is. There’s also the problem I have with A Song of Ice and Fire, which is that cultural identities wouldn’t stay the same for 2000 years no matter where you are, particularly with the amount of blending that’s apparently gone on — and family identities certainly don’t, so the idea that the Barahals have a reputation that stretches back two millennia stretches credulity.

And I also think a lot of the problem is the first-person narration. Cold Magic does a great job of exemplifying what I find so frustrating about that style — it stymies the author’s ability to explain things. Throughout the book, you get the sense that there’s a lot Cat knows which the reader doesn’t and which she doesn’t bother to explain, a lot of “given circumstances” that you just can’t allow to lie there as assumptions in an alternate history. But at the same time, the first-person narration means that the reader also can’t know anything that Cat doesn’t — and as the plot progresses through the never-unpacked mysteries, that starts to encompass a lot of salient details. I don’t mind the tangents that Cat goes down — The rules of magic are never explained, which in a fantasy novel I just find extraordinarily maddening. It’s several hundred pages in before anything gets explained about the cold mages, and even then, we don’t get a lot. And for all that we get a lot of history about things that happened two thousand years ago, we get a lot less on the recent history that has shaped the culture in which Cat lives — or even the current circumstances.

But what’s so weird is that, while leaving all of that unexplained, Elliott devotes a lot of time to repeating things that the reader already does know, but without giving them any new depth or revelations. She also spends a lot of time talking about what the food is like at inns. I love tangents, I really do. I’m the child who read the encyclopedia for fun, so I will never fault an author for wandering down world-building avenues, even if it is a bit at the expense of the plot. I don’t mind it. But the digressions in this book are just strange. Quite often, they don’t add anything to the plot and they don’t clarify the world-building. They’re either just dull (I hate reading about food) or they only add more confusion (ghost plagues in Africa! a secret codebook! other things!).

I was warned that the book might feel slow, but that definitely isn’t the word I’d use to describe it. I would go with “jerky”. The book jumps between tones so often that the reader’s likely to get whiplash. The first eighty pages aren’t slow, it’s just that you think you’re reading one kind of story, and then it suddenly becomes something completely different — which would not in of itself be a bad thing if that didn’t keep happening. You never spend enough time in any one mode to feel comfortable there before you get yanked out of it and plunged into something else, with very little sinew to connect the different ideas together. This, more than anything else, is why I was questioning my ability to process written information while reading this book, and I must say I’m gratified to see from reviews that other readers had a similar experience.

Another unfortunate thing is that I quite liked several of the characters (and they account for the remainder of the 3 stars this book gets), but, either as a consequence of the chaotic writing or of the unreliable first person narration or both, we never get a clear view of them, either. Cat herself would be interesting if her head was a more coherent place in which to spend 500 pages. She’s clearly smart, thinks on her feet, and has a backbone, but is also impulsive and a little hot-tempered, all qualities I like in a heroine, and then she gets dragged headfirst into a swirling identity crisis, which makes for good internal drama. But once again, that jerky, jarring quality of the narrative makes it difficult to feel comfortable living in her point of view. Cat’s forced-husband, Andrevai, would be such an intriguing person to know better, caught between two worlds as he is, overcompensating for insecurities, experiencing an identity crisis every bit as tormenting as Cat’s — but since Cat doesn’t, the reader doesn’t get to, and the weird semi-romance that’s going on there just ends up feeling awkward and artificial. Bee is charming and a lovely subversion of expectations. And then there’s Roderic, and I won’t explain who he is because it’s a definite spoiler, but he’s just plain delightful, and I want to know him and his entire family better. Many of the side characters are interesting, too — and so many of them are female! And female characters in positions of power! That’s exciting and commendable. I just… wish we actually got to know any of them.

I think I’m going to have to read the rest of the series, mostly in a hope that there are explanations occurring somewhere, and if there are, it will drive me up the wall not to have them. I can tell that, at least in the author’s head, this is a fully-realized and complete world with a lot of nuance and underlying complexities, and I trust that it all makes sense somehow. But if and when I do pick up the next book, it will be with the fervent hope that the writing is a lot more coherent than it was in Cold Fire.

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Divergent, by Veronica Roth

Title: DivergentDivergent
Author: Veronica Roth
Year of Publication: 2011
Length: 487 pages
Genre: YA dystopian
New or Re-Read? New!
Rating: 4 stars

This book was super-entertaining.

I’m probably the last person on earth to read this, but I will nonetheless treat this review as though I’m not. I will also confess that it was the movie trailer that finally made me pick it up, though it’s vaguely been on my to-do list for a while — and I’m so glad I did. Divergent is an intriguing and exciting ride, high-octane and full-throttle.

16-year-old heroine Beatrice lives in a future-Chicago that has been isolated from the rest of the world. Its society is split into five factions, each of which espouses a different virtue: Erudite, which values learning; Dauntless, which values courage; Amity, which values friendship; Candor, which values honest; and the faction Beatrice was born to, Abnegation, which values selflessness. At the age of 16, each member of this society can choose to stay with their home faction or to join another — but they only get the chance once, and before they do, they take a psychological test which reveals their aptitude for one or another. When Beatrice takes the test, however, the results are “inconclusive”. She learns that she is something called “Divergent” — and that it is a dangerous thing to be, though no one will explain why, and she’s told to keep it a secret.

When her Choosing Day comes (and this is a spoiler, but I can’t really talk about the rest of the book without it, so, here goes), Beatrice somewhat impulsively decides to leave Abnegation and to join Dauntless. Her initiation process is fraught with peril and terrors. The Dauntless value the conquest of fear, generally through the confrontation of it — and this also includes the confrontation of pain. Beatrice takes on the new name Tris and has to prove herself worthy of inclusion in the faction, or face being tossed out to join the factionless — portrayed as tragic figures without homes, families, or purpose. She quickly earns both friends and rivals, though even her new friendships are far from certain, given the competitive nature of the initiation process. She also discovers a rift between Four, her trainer, and Eric, one of the Dauntless leaders, representing two different versions of the faction’s values — Four, interested more in truly conquering the fears within, and Eric, interested in brute force and the acquisition of power.

The story is interesting both psychologically and sociologically. I like what it has to say both about the human mind and about the nature of societal constructs. As the story progresses, Tris becomes more aware of the moving parts of the adult world that she’s been sheltered from most of her life, and she realizes that none of the five factions are quite what they were in the beginning, or what they claim to be, or what they perhaps wish they were. I also really like the idea that, over however many generations, these virtues have all degraded into vices. The story of the trilogy, I’m sure, is going to be about re-assimilating those disparate parts into a functioning whole — hinging, it would seem, on the Divergent, which is of course why those currently in power are so afraid of them and want to eradicate them. It’s an intriguing dynamic, and I look forward to seeing it play out.

There’s a lot about this book that feels derivative, but I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way. The Choosing and the factions definitely have echoes of Hogwarts Sorting, and the overall tone of the book definitely feels a lot like The Hunger Games. Katniss and Tris could easily be living in the same universe, just a century or so apart. I was also thinking as I was reading that it had a lot of similarities with The Giver, and then Roth confirms in an interview at the back of the book that that is, in fact, one of her childhood faves. (You can feel that influence particularly in Abnegation and what little we see of Amity, I think). But Divergent doesn’t feel like a rip-off of any of these things — they just seem to be in conversation with each other, which I enjoy.

The romance in this book feels much more natural than in a lot of YA — it has a chance to develop over more time in-world, it’s confused and by turns both hesitant and impulsive, and Roth lets her teenage characters have both sexual desire and sexual reluctance. That’s only one element that makes Divergent rather a more mature YA book than others I’ve read. The violence is another — it’s unrelenting, even moreso, I think, than in The Hunger Games. That might come down to the use of guns — somehow that seems more real than a bow and arrow or a sword. It happens fast and casually at first, then with brutal severity, and Roth seems willing to describe injuries in more graphic detail than Collins.

The book’s biggest weakness is that it, like so much YA fiction, is written in first person present, which I personally just don’t care for. I think it forces authors into a lot of awkwardness, particularly when it comes to exposition — and I’m someone who would always like to see more sides of the story, rather than just one character’s experience. It also means that, since the reader gets spoon-fed certain information that totally gives away a “big reveal” right from the star, it makes Tris seem a little dim for not putting it together.

I’ve seen some other reviewers criticize the book’s pace, and I didn’t have a problem with that — while it does take a while to get to the “main plot”, the rest doesn’t move slowly at all, in my opinion. I was easily caught up in Tris’s dilemmas and her struggle to prove herself. Those challenges drive the first few hundred pages with enough force and energy that I didn’t mind how late the macro plot came in. Tris’s micro plot was plenty captivating. On the whole, Divergent is thoroughly entertaining, start-to-finish. I look forward to reading the rest of the trilogy.

A Coda: What, like I wasn’t going to take the chance to pontificate about what faction I’d be in?

Definitely not Abnegation or Candor. Selfless, I am not. Generous, but not selfless, and I choose the people I want to be generous towards very selectively (because I am, also, a Slytherin). While I am generally honest, I’m not necessarily open all of the time — I’m prone to sins of omission and white lies of a protective nature. So… Amity, Erudite, or Dauntless? What draws me to Amity is that they appear to be the only one of the five factions that still places any value on the arts — but otherwise, I’m pretty sure I’m not happy-go-lucky enough, nor of a pleasant enough disposition, to fit in there. Erudite? I am intellectual and curious, and I like learning, but I’m not always logical, and their intellect certainly seems to focus on maths and sciences, not on verbal or creative intelligence. My academic strengths and the things I like to explore aren’t the ones they value. The question, really, isn’t what I think now, but what I would’ve chosen at the age of 16, and I can say with certainty that it would’ve been Dauntless. The badass aesthetic certainly would have appealed to me, as would the idea of turning myself into a warrior. Those were things I yearned for. I wanted to be both tougher and more exciting than I was. And I think the ethos of facing fears and conquering them has great appeal — a lot of my life has been about clawing my way past one obstacle or another. My attitude has always been that if I want something, of the world or of myself, I’m going to have to tear it out with my teeth. I have a lot of fears, really, and mostly I avoid them, but I can grit my teeth and steel my way through them if necessary — and if I had to do that more often, I suspect I’d be a stronger and better person. No idea whether I would have survived the initiation process (I can imagine all too well what terrors would’ve been in my simulations), but I like to think I would’ve responded well to the challenge.

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Etiquette and Espionage, by Gail Carriger

Title: Etiquette & Espionage (Finishing School #1)EtiquetteEspionage
Author: Gail Carriger
Year of Publication: 2013
Length: 320 pages
Genre: YA steampunk
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 4 stars

I was super-excited to get my hands on Ms. Carriger’s latest novel, her first foray into YA fiction. I thoroughly enjoyed her Parasol Protectorate series, and I’m so glad that she’s decided to continue on in this world even though she wrapped that series up. Etiquette & Espionage did not disappoint me.

Sophronia, a fourteen-year-old youngest daughter in the 1850s, is unusual. She climbs dumbwaiters and gets herself into terrible fixes and is generally an embarrassment to her family, a socially-aspirant gentry . Little does her mother know that when she packs Sophronia off to finishing school, she’s actually giving the girl just what she needs. Her unusual new circumstances first become apparent when she chats with Dimity, also headed to Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality, and her brother Pillover, destined for Bunson and Lacroix’s Boys’ Polytechnique. As Dimity chatters cheerfully about evil geniuses, covert recruits, Picklemen, and Custard Pots of Iniquity, Sophronia begins to suspect something is odd. When her carriage is attacked by flywaymen, their escort goes into unconvincing hysterics, and Sophronia has to take command of the horses and rescue them all, her suspicions are rather confirmed.

It turns out that Sophronia has landed at a school designed not only to turn her into a lady but to turn her lethal as well. Or, rather, the Academy has landed at her — for it’s a floating school, suspended from enormous balloons. A werewolf named Captain Niall (!) serves as ship-to-ground transport and teaches combat, a vampire covers history and deportment, mechanical staff patrol the hallways as prefects, the students learn poisons and manipulation alongside powders and manners, and the headmistress has no idea that any of it is going on. Sophronia begins to settle in at the Academy and into an easy friendship with Dimity, though she has more trouble with the others in her dormitory. Sidhaeg (!) is prickly and recalcitrant, Agatha a shy wallflower, Preshea a snob, and Monique is none other than their escort, demoted back to debut rank for refusing to give up the whereabouts of the mysterious “prototype” which the flywaymen were after. Sophronia and Monique do not get on at all, and their rivalry drives much of the action in the book. Sophronia also uses her climbing abilities to sneak into the restricted areas, where she makes friends with the sooties who keep the ship running, including Soap, a London-born boy of African descent (and props to Carriger for including a non-white character in an English historical novel!). Sophronia, never having seen a black person before, is startled by him at first but gets over it quickly. The two become friends, and Soap introduced her to Vieve (!), niece to Professor Beatrice Lefoux (!) and a budding inventor. As the plot progresses, Sophronia finds them tremendously useful in her various schemes and maneuvers.

I felt as though the story bobbled a bit at the end of the first act and the beginning of the second. There’s a stretch where the sense of character isn’t particularly strong. It is interesting to have a leading character who is so introverted and private, but it also damages the narrative a bit, at least for me. When the POV character is not particularly reflective or emotive, I (a consummate extrovert) find it harder to engage with her. It was hard to feel emotionally connected to Sophronia, and sometimes her actions seemed very abrupt because there had been little build-up to them. I admire that Sophronia is such a practical and plain-dealing heroine, but I could’ve used a larger window into her soul.

The other problem that I had was that when Sophronia first arrives at the floating school, she has absolutely no idea what’s going on, and no one will tell her. Maddeningly, nothing gets explained for a very long time. After a while, this starts to frustrate me as a reader — and I recognise that not everyone may feel this way. It’s a valid literary trope and one frequently used in YA, but I personally struggle with it. I hate being left totally in the dark. It tends to make me rush, hoping I’ll get to the explanation, but then I end up having to go back and re-read chapters in case I missed something. I understand delaying gratification and teasing the reader, but some information in this book gets played a little too close to the chest.

There are still a lot of questions left unanswered at the end of the book, and I’m hoping we’ll get more information on them in future installments — I want to know why this extraordinary pair of schools exists. Right now, the answer seems to be “just because.” I find that unsatisfying. What need does England have for an elite cadre of female assassins and a coterie of admittedly evil geniuses? What role in society are they fulfilling? For what purpose? If the Headmistress has no idea what’s going on, who does? Who drives this whole thing? Who founded it? For what reasons? I love Carriger’s world-building, but I wish we’d gotten just a little bit more on this front at the outset.

I did think, though, that I saw a glimmer of potential for change in the school’s directives, one that I hope we’ll see expanded in future books in the series. Right now, the school seems quite competitive, designed to set these ladies against each other. Sophronia, though, sees more benefit in bringing her cohorts together, drawing on their disparate skills to achieve a communal goal. I would like to see that theme develop further. So much popular opinion, especially when it comes to teenage girls, likes to promote their potential for cattiness, sniping, and backstabbing; I would love to see more YA fiction promoting healthier ideas on what they’re capable of.

The second half of the book improves greatly, though, as a few things do finally get explained and as more action enters the narrative in the final act. Sophronia deduces that Monique must have hidden the prototype at Sophronia’s family home while collecting her, and so she determines to retrieve it with the help of her friends (and new pet, mechanimal dog Bumbersnoot). Sophronia’s skills really get to shine here, and the sense of action and excitement is wonderful fun.

For anyone who wondered why I (!)ed a few times in this review, it’s because there are several connections in Etiquette & Espionage to the Parasol Protectorate series. This book is set some twenty-odd years before that series begins, so there’s a lot of potential for crossover cameos. Even the MacGuffin of the book, the prototype, is a component of technology that becomes crucial by the time of the Protectorate series. Carriger also takes a few moments to poke fun at the steampunk world in general, through a clique of boys at Pillover’s school, the Pistons, who sew gears to their clothing for no reason but fashion, smudge their eyes with kohl, and like to crash parties and spike the punch. It’s a good-natured and, let’s face it, well-deserved ribbing.

Overall, I’m quite pleased with Etiquette & Espionage. There were a few bumps that kept it from perfection, in my opinion, but — that’s true of the first couple Harry Potter books as well. For a first foray into YA fiction, Carriger’s done a lovely job. I absolutely devoured this first installment, and I’m excited to see where the rest of the series goes.

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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.

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Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Title: Good Omens
Author: Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
Year of Publication: 1990
Length: 367 pages
Genre: well, I shelve it at the end of my historical fiction section, but that’s because I’ve got a somewhat warped sense of humour
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read, many, many times
Rating: 5 brilliant, glittering stars

When I’m reading a book and come across a passage I really like, some quote I want to write down later or remember forever, I have a terrible habit of dog-earing the bottom corner of the page.

The bottom of Good Omens looks like a particularly jagged comb.

Apart from being one of my all-time favourite novels, Good Omens just has so many of my all-time favourite passages in it, and I attribute that to the combination of genius you get by mixing up Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett — two of my all-time favourite authors. Pratchett’s irreverence and Gaiman’s ethereal qualities, with the sense of the ludicrous profundity that they both possess, together make for a fantastic book, capable of being laugh-out-loud funny and spiritually transformative in the same paragraph.

So what is this book about? Well, the Apocalypse. Happening on a Saturday (in 1990). Eleven years earlier, the demon Crowley manages to misplace the Antichrist (with some help from a Satanic nun), so that while the powers of Heaven and Hell think they’re focusing their efforts on influencing him towards Good or Evil, they are in fact just confusing a normal child, while the Antichrist, alias Adam Young, grows up as normal as you could please in an idyllic English country village. He’s a good-natured troublemaker, the leader of his gang, the Them, and has astonishing powers of imagination and a limitless capacity for belief in the incredible. When he turns eleven, gears start moving to start the Apocalypse — but Crowley and his angel friend Aziraphale, who have been on Earth for six thousand years and rather gotten to like the human race, decide to try and put a stop to it. Swept up in this mess are Anathema Device, professional descendent, whose ancestress Agnes Nutter wrote the only truly accurate book of prophecy in the history of the world; Newton Pulsifer, a would-be computer engineer who breaks everything electronic he touches; and a whole host of villagers, Atlanteans, Tibetans, and other phenomena.

I never can decide what my favourite aspect of this book is. The moral center, as it were, is obviously Adam, who starts to get caught up in the idea of remaking the world in a more favourable image, the ichor in his soul tugging at him, and has to decide what would really be best. He and the Them are pretty amazing. The description of Pepper (and the explication of her name) is a dog-eared page; sensible Wensleydale and grungy Brian fill out the quartet in excellent balance, and through them, the reader experiences the awe of an idealised childhood. This certainly doesn’t mean that everything is perfect and flawless — do you remember being a kid? The best days were the messy adventures, the ridiculous schemes, the trouble you got into but had had too good a time to care. Adam makes sure his friends have that damn near every day — until Armageddon starts spinning things out of control. So that’s a lot of fun to watch happen. (Though I do wonder if it will resonate quite as strongly for this generation’s kids, who are less used to taking off on their bikes, taking over the quarries and ravines that adults won’t go near, scaling trees, skinning knees, finding impossible messes, tangling in nettles, staying out until the last possible minute you could get away with, and all the other things that used to be de rigeur for an active childhood. I remember that from my early years; I don’t know that all modern kids have the same experience — which is sad).

But then there are Aziraphale and Crowley, who, while not the center of the story itself, are nonetheless the impetus behind the narrative. For six thousand years, they’ve organised a careful neutrality between them; when Crowley does something evil, Aziraphale balances it with something good, and vice versa. Neither side gets an advantage, but everyone can demonstrate what brilliant progress they’re making. Aziraphale currently runs a used book store, mostly as a place to store rare books where no one will take them from him; Crowley wears sunglasses at night, drives a classic car, and practises horticulture by means of terrorism. But they’ve realised they actually have more in common with each other than with their ostensible colleagues and immediate superiors. They’re a classic odd couple, and it’s a brilliant pairing. As they put it, towards the end of the book:

“I’d just like to say,” [Aziraphale] said, “if we don’t get out of this, that… I’ll have known, deep down inside, that there was a spark of goodness in you.”
“That’s right,” said Crowley bitterly. “Make my day.”
Aziraphale held out his hand.
“Nice knowing you.”
Crowley took it.
“Here’s to the next time,” he said. “And… Aziraphale?”
“Yes.”
“Just remember I’ll have known that, deep down inside, you were just enough of a bastard to be worth liking.”

Aziraphale and Crowley are probably the ultimate fan favourites of the entire book. When fancastings get discussed, it’s usually about them (and I’m all for Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston, respectively, for what it’s worth). But then you get some of the other humans. Anathema Device is a witch in the same cast as Discworld’s, practical and quick-thinking. Poor Newt is sort of charmingly pathetic. The history of the Witchfinders’ Army is entirely ridiculous. Andthen there are the Four Horsemen, riding inexorably towards Adam (on motorcycles), who are some of the most evocatively drawn characters I’ve ever experienced. From them, I get what might be my favourite passage in the entire book, if only because I have so often found it applied to myself. And it is, well, rather perfect.

The men in the room suddenly realized they didn’t want to know her better. She was beautiful, but she was beautiful in the way a forest fire was beautiful: something to be admired from a distance, but not up close.

And that’s sort of the way the whole book is written — the language isn’t but so sophisticated, it’s not a difficult read, but it’s nonetheless complexly woven, layered and nuanced, and capable of striking you right to the core. Gaiman and Pratchett both have an ability to make the reader know exactly what they mean, to pull memories and feelings out of you.

So I don’t know what my favourite part of this book is, or even who my favourite cast members are, because the whole thing works together as a single organic unit, breathing and pulsing, as a truly excellent book should. My real favourite thing about it, then, is probably what it has to say about being human — about making mistakes, about how we create the world we live in, what our brains can cope with and how they slide around the things they can’t. The last two pages of this book may be the most incredible commentary on the grace of the human condition I’ve ever read.

The book is also hilarious. It’s fantastically witty, and broadly comic, and delightfully absurd. It’s crammed with sly references, as is so often the case with both Gaiman’s and Pratchett’s works, little nuggets of brilliance for an avid reader to discover (individually or with the help of annotations). But none of that is what makes it great. What makes this a five-star book for me is that incisive quality, that ability the words have to cut straight through me and expose my soul. Only the very best books have that magic. Good Omens possesses it in spades. And that’s why I’ve read it so many times, why I can return to it again and again and always feel the book in a new way.

At the end of this re-read, I find myself suddenly dying for — not a sequel, precisely, but just some sort of follow-up short story. And wouldn’t this be the year for it? 2012, with all the histrionics that entails? And Adam Young, I realised, would be 33 this year, and how perfect is that? I just want to know they’re all doing — him, and the Them (but especially Pepper), and Anathema and Newt, and Aziraphale and Crowley. What does the world look like for them, 22 years on?

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Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love, by Chris Roberson

Title: Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love
Author: Chris Roberson
Illustrator: Chrissie Zullo
Year of Publication: 2010
Length: 144 pages
Genre: graphic novel – magical realism
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 3 stars
Spoilers: Up through at least Fables 11

This is a spinoff from the Fables graphic novel series, focusing on the character of Cinderella — to most eyes, a flighty socialite whose shoe-selling business funds her obsession with designer brands and jet-setting travel. In truth, Cinderella is a spy for Fabletown, a covert operative constantly in and out of danger. If you’ve read the rest of the Fables series, you know this already, because you’ve seen her at work already. She’s ideal for the job because, as the heroine one of the world’s most popular and enduring stories, her legend is strong enough to make her nigh-invulnerable. She can take a point-blank shot to the head and be back on her feet in a matter of hours.

This collection makes reference to some recent happenings in Fabletown, which is why I put up the spoiler alert, but it doesn’t rely heavily on the main series. The plot is self-contained. The sheriff of Fabletown needs Cinderella to stop a black market trade in magical goods, which are in danger of finding their way into mundy hands. Her search leads her to Dubai, where she is first attacked by Arabian Fable Aladdin, then teams up with him when they realise they’re on the same mission, just dispatched from different groups. Aladdin is a pretty smooth charmer — which doesn’t impress Cinderella. As the infamous Prince Charming’s third (and thus-far final) wife, she’s jaded and now impervious to that particular power. As they work together, though, and he proves his prowess as a secret agent, he does start to grow on her a bit. I quite like him as a character — although I thought he was cuter before he lost the goatee. We also get to meet Cinderella’s three associates, agents who work for her without even the knowledge of her boss, the Fabletown Sheriff: Puss in Boots, Jenny Wren (of nursery rhyme fame, and lover of the slain Cock Robin), and Dickory Mouse (of Hickory Dickory Dock). Each has special talents, and she can summon each one once during her mission, wherever she is, thanks to a charm bracelet provided to her by the famed witch Frau Totenkinder — in exchange for an as-yet unnamed favour. Frau Totenkinder, after all, has her own agenda and keeps her own counsel.

I liked this collection, but there’s nothing super-special about it. The art was a bit plain, and I found myself wanting it to be a bit more sophisticated, to give that sultry, scandalous spy-thriller feel. I did like that we got a bit of jet-setting and plane-hopping (quite literally, in fact). It gave the story the chance to show off some different locales, and I enjoyed the surprise in the endgame. This is a nice supplement to the main storyline and a fun quick read, but overall, I prefer the more detailed, connected arcs.

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