WoGF Book Review: Songs of the Earth by Elspeth Cooper

This is my eighth book review for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge at Worlds Without End.

I really enjoyed Songs of the Earth by Elspeth Cooper.  Much more than I should have, given that so much of the bones of the book was built out of such well-worn tropes.  Our hero is a foundling (I’m still waiting to find out he’s a lost prince) who gets in trouble because of his magic, and is whisked away by a wise old mentor to a school for magic on a tropical island.  Not only is he an excellent swordsman, but it turns out that he has more and stronger magic than just about anybody and ends up saving the day after hardly any training.

To top it all off, the reason his magic got him in trouble?  There’s an evil, thinly-veiled, not-quite-Catholic church to stand as a beacon of hypocrisy, backwardness, and suppression of knowledge.  As in, “ye shall suffer not a witch to live.”

Despite all that, the story drew me in.  The characters were fully fleshed out beyond their archetypes, and the prose was engaging.  The plot didn’t follow the cookie-cutter shape of the tropes, either; for one thing, the protagonist was twenty, not twelve or sixteen, and he had a pretty traumatic past, so there was a lot more skepticism and frustration and less wide-eyed wonder than usual.  Perhaps also because he was older, the story didn’t get bogged down at the school with endless scenes of lessons, but instead focused on the relationships he formed there and just enough of what he learned to move things forward.

And then there was the music.  As a musician, I love seeing magic systems that involve music, and it was that music that caused me to pick the book up in the first place.  I made the mistake, though, of reading Peter Orullian’s “The Sound of Broken Absolutes” (from the anthology Unfettered, edited by Shawn Speakman) immediately after, and before writing this review.  It truly has a musician’s magic system, replete with technical descriptions of resonance and harmonics, musical notation, the mechanics of throat and mouth, and even how to rebuild a broken instrument.  Songs of the Earth has none of that.  Its magic is much more wild and fluid.  It’s a lovely metaphor, actually, the energy of the earth as music that can be accessed and channeled as magic.  I’ve always thought music was rather magical, so it makes perfect sense to me.  The descriptions are beautifully poetic, evocative of nature and emotions in the same way as music—exactly as it should be.

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WoGF Book Review: Sword of Fire and Sea by Erin Hoffman

This is my seventh book review for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge at Worlds Without End.

Sword of Fire and Sea by Erin HoffmanSword of Fire and Sea by Erin Hoffman was a light, fun book.  By no means perfect, but quite enjoyable.

Captain Vidarian Rulorat is commissioned by the fire priestesshood to transport one of their own to a place of safety, beyond the reach of the Vkortha who are hunting her.  Thus, he sets himself a course that will change his life and change the world.

The magic system is one of elements—earth, air, water, and fire—the source of which are the four goddesses.  Most magic users are women, priestesses, and can wield only one element, but during the course of saving the fire priestess Ariadel’s life, Vidarian finds himself suddenly in possession of both fire and water magic, and the subject of prophecy.  The magic is never described in much detail, but I enjoyed seeing Vidarian stumble through discovering his own, rather than having a teacher on hand to give him all the answers.

The griffins were wonderful.  Sentient, telepathic, magical creatures, and fresher than the standard dragons.  It was nice to see their limitations, too; if they wanted to fly with humans, the griffins had to work together in twos or three to carry them in air gondolas.  I also appreciated that they were characters in their own right, not just talking extensions of their masters’ will.

The gender balance of the cast was great.  I think it actually skewed toward more females than males, because the priestesses were of course all women, but it’s always nice to see a fantasy culture where women are actually considered equal.  The crew of Vidarian’s ship seemed to be a pretty even split, and the other sea captain we meet is female—and to the characters, it was nothing remarkable.

I was a bit disappointed by the love interest.  She started out great, saving the whole ship from a pirate attack, but then it seemed like as soon as she became the love interest in earnest, all she did was get rescued and get jealous of Vidarian’s former fiancée.  And speaking of love, physical attraction is one thing, but Vidarian started calling her the woman he loves entirely too quickly for me to believe it.

I don’t want to spoil the ending, but I love that the quest started out as a very black and white goal, and morphed into an actual choice.  I’m not sure I like the love interest’s role in the choice, and I’m not sure I agree with Vidarian’s ultimate reasoning behind his choice, but I was glad he had to make it, and that it had real, immediate consequences.

I didn’t love Sword of Fire and Sea so much I’ll rush to read the next book, but it is going on my list.

WoGF Book Review: The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner

This is my sixth book review for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge at Worlds Without End.

The Queen of AttoliaThe problem with trying to write a review of The Thief is that the only thing really worth dissecting is the twist ending, which of course I can’t do without spoiling the whole book.

I thought I was going to have the same problem with The Queen of Attolia, that anything I say about it would spoil the first book, but happily that doesn’t seem to be the case.  So I’m going to cheat a little on the challenge, and review the second book I’ve read by Megan Whalen Turner.

I went into this knowing that the second book was supposed to be much better than the first, but that there’s a really big twist at the end that makes the first book worth reading.  I haven’t decided yet whether knowing about The Thief‘s twist made for better reading or not—it certainly made it much easier to guess, but probably lessened the feeling of betrayal on finding out the first person narrator has been concealing things for the whole book.  But I wholeheartedly agree that the second book is better, and I actually found it to be more surprising than the first.

One thing The Queen of Attolia does that I don’t see often is show believable consequences to trauma.  It actually made the book start out rather slow, because after something terrible happens to Eugenides in the opening, he basically spends the first quarter of the book recovering (read: not doing anything).  I was actually beginning to wonder if the book had been over-praised.  Eventually Gen is knocked out of his funk and the story takes off, but the trauma stays with him. He doesn’t just bounce back unchanged, and I end up feeling so much more connected to him as a character because of it.

The other thing I absolutely loved about this book was the complex characterization of the villain.  The queen of Attolia does horrible things to Gen, and we hate her for it, but we slowly come to understand why she is so ruthless, and that her actions didn’t only hurt Gen.

The surprises in this book were so organic, I don’t think I would even call them twists.  Now that Eugenides’s character is firmly established from the first book and a half, it doesn’t feel like a cheat that he would keep his plans to himself, and the contents of those plans–well.  I thought they were perfect.  As events unfolded in their fullness, I had fun watching the subtext of the key players’ words and actions, and feeling like I was in on the secret.  I imagine some less attentive readers, or possibly the middle grade audience it was written for, might not catch the subtler clues, and therefore get a dramatic twist ending, but I didn’t feel like my reading experience was in any way diminished by guessing the ending ahead of time.

Oh, and I can’t close the review without at least mentioning the setting, which is an alternate Greece.  Totally different from the usual medieval European fantasy setting, and I love the way the gods are woven in and made an integral part of the story.

My verdict: The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner is absolutely worth reading, and while I wouldn’t recommend The Thief on its own, I believe that reading it first enhanced my reading of The Queen of Attolia.  So, go out and read both of them.  And then read the next book, too, because I think that might be the best of them all.

WoGF Book Review: Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress

This is my fifth book review for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge at Worlds Without End.

Beggars in Spain by Nancy KressI’ve always been intrigued by stories about sleep, or not sleeping, probably because I tend to need so much of it.  From my perspective, being able to function on less than 8 hours of sleep seems like a superpower some days.  The things I could do with all that extra time…

Somehow, those stories all seem to be about how there’s always a cost.  The technology goes wrong.  The super-soldiers who can never sleep again are driven insane.  Beggars in Spain is the first story I can remember about it not only working, but turning out better than anyone dreamed.  The Sleepless are so much better than the rest of humanity as to be like a separate species.  Which, of course, is the problem.  The rest of humanity, the Sleepers, don’t deal well with being inferior.

I love the way the conflict begins so intimately, with two sisters: Leisha, Sleepless, and Alice, Sleeper.  Their mother wanted an ordinary daughter; their father wanted an extraordinary one.  The conflict that grows between the sisters mirrors society at large, and as Leisha grows into her role as a lawyer we see all the little injustices: her teenage friend barred from competing in the Olympics, her own college dorm room trashed.  The escalation: Sleeper parents abusing the Sleepless children they had thought they wanted, but found they didn’t understand; a Sleepless friend killed in prison; boycotts against Sleepless-made products and services; the Sleepless withdrawing into Sanctuary, and finally leaving the planet.

All the well thought-out ramifications were fascinating to me, and somehow logically leading to a future dystopian America where 80% of the population lives on the dole and does nothing, the other 20% do all the work and keep the economy going, and their taxes pay for everything.  It takes care of the hatred from the normals, sure, but I must have a bit of Sleepless in me, because I can’t imagine being content to just not do anything.  It feels so un-American—after all, don’t we pride ourselves on being a self-made people, where anyone can bring themselves up out of poverty if they just work hard?  But that’s me looking back at our roots through rose-colored glasses.  When I manage to set those aside, this dystopia is disturbingly like looking through a window to our future.  We’ve become a culture that worships Free Stuff.  If we somehow found a way to wrest the money from the richest 1% to keep the rest in Big Macs and iPads, 80% of the country probably would applaud the system and never go to work again.

I don’t know, maybe that’s too cynical of me.  But then again, what is science fiction for but to take all the little flaws of our now, and follow them to the bitter end, revealing perhaps a worst possible future if we continue down the path we’ve started.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Sleepless value individual effort and achievement above all else.  It’s a value I can understand, even mostly agree with, but in the end the characters most dedicated to that belief end up committing the most horrifying acts.  It’s the above all else that makes the difference.  I think the moral must be that any one value cannot stand as the sole pillar of civilization—the same way that any viewpoint, isolated and left unopposed as in Sanctuary, will only become more extreme.

Highly recommended, thought-provoking book.

WoGF Book Review: Love and Romanpunk by Tansy Rayner Roberts

This is my fourth book review for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge at Worlds Without End, just squeaking in at the end of April.

I’m not a big reader of short fiction—I guess my sense of appreciation isn’t calibrated for the usual hit rate of a good anthology—but this collection by Tansy Rayner Roberts was wonderful.

Love and Romanpunk begins with “Julia Agrippina’s Secret Family Bestiary,” in which, Julia says, “I have arranged the secrets of my family in alphabetical order, beast by beast.”  These family tales, told in Julia’s wonderfully dry voice, weave together into a fantastical and very unexpected version of Roman history where the monsters not only plagued Julia’s family, they were her family.

The second story, “Lamia Victoriana,” was probably my least favorite of the collection, though still quite good.  I think I’d have enjoyed it more if I was better versed in the classics.  The story is narrated by Fanny Wollstonecraft, as she and her sister Mary run away with an unnamed poet and his sister.  They are, of course, the titular lamia, seductive vampires in the old Victorian sense, and a lovely, spine-chilling change from the modern kind.  There’s an unexpected tie to Rome at the end, which I didn’t entirely understand at the time, but which sets things up nicely for the last two stories.

“The Patrician” was my favorite.  Set in modern-day Nova Ostia, a fictional replica Roman city in Australia, made with real stone from Ostia and Herculaneum.  That part’s important, because the stone attracts the beasts of Rome, giving the residents more than their fair share of monsters.  Sixteen-year-old Clea meets a stranger shortly before the Temple of Vesta burns down, killing two.  It was the stranger, of course, a man named Julius, and the dead women lamia.  He is the last of the Julias, and his task is to rid the world of the beasts of Rome.  He saves her brother from a third lamia, and disappears.  He reappears periodically throughout Julia’s life, killing monsters, and gradually revealing the story of his life, and becoming a part of hers.  I will admit, the ending tugged at my heartstrings more than a little.

The final story, “Last of the Romanpunks,” picks up with Clea’s grandson Sebastian, in an Ancient-Roman-themed bar on an airship–incidentally, owned by his ex-girlfriend, who is intent on bringing back the lamias Julius wiped out, and becoming one herself.  Fortunately, Seb learned a few things from his grandma, and the Julias never truly die.

Each story could stand on its own, but I loved the way they all connected, making a whole greater than the sum of its parts.  I may not know a lot of Roman history, but I could feel the author’s love of the subject in every line.  The monsters and monster-hunters may have been larger than life, but the ordinary people on the sidelines, Clea in particular, felt very real.  Love and Romanpunk is smart, witty, surprising, and very much worth a read.