The Monster in the Middle of the Road is Me, by J.P. Romney

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Aside from having a name long enough to make my post-title formatting sensibilities cringe, this was a pretty good book. I had some other thoughts about it too, which I’ll address after the break, but at first blush it’s good fun: a young adult paranormal mystery set in Japan. I’m glad my friend gave it to me when I asked for something new to read.

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League of Dragons, by Naomi Novik

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I’m surprised to find that I’ve only reviewed one other book in this series in any depth.

 

As that review mentions, I’m definitely a fan of the Temeraire series. But more to the point, I think that League of Dragons is an excellent finish to this series. Better than many of the preceding books, which is difficult. Better than some of the really good preceding books, which is even harder.

In many ways, this book shows Novik doing exactly the opposite of what Stirling so loves; she somehow manages to cut out all the slow bits of the novel while keeping all the pieces that are important to the story. But that’s wrong, because it’s not like this is a non-stop action adventure. This takes plenty of time to devote itself to social intricacies, diplomatic considerations and the like… but Novik knows what matters, and she takes out everything else. She has a narrow focus on the heart of this story, and she has honed it until it delivers exactly that. Yes, there’s a little extra around the edges, but only enough fat to let you enjoy the flavor without overpowering the piece itself.

I want to stress, from personal experience, just how hard it is to do that. I can only imagine how much material must lie on the cutting room floor. There have to be scenes, long and involved scenes, which simply didn’t end up necessary to telling this story in the best way. The clarity and relative brevity of this story speak volumes about the discipline shown by Novik (and presumably her editor) in making this book, and I think I’ll return to this book to appreciate this for some time to come.

Funny. I’ve hit this point in the review, the one where I could start delving into further intricacies to tell you about particular bits of goodness, but I don’t want to spoil it for you. It’s enough that this is a good series about dragons. That it is also a story about a British man in the early 1800’s who learns that, maybe, more people are people than he had realized is (exceptionally good) gravy. The fact that it somehow encompasses adventure and social intrigue and feels like period fiction in the best possible way only makes it better.

If you haven’t read the series yet, you have a great deal to look forward to. Except that book about Australia, which is unfortunately rather sluggish but let’s not talk about that. Go ahead and enjoy.

Prince of Outcasts, by S.M. Stirling

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I want to finish this book. I do. But I’m struggling with it, in a rather painful fashion, for the best possible reasons.

I’ve struggled with Stirling before, and found my way through. Yet even taking into consideration the thoughts I had about milieu and Stirling’s fiction, and how that helped me with previous entries in this ever-expanding series, I’m still having trouble. And it’s all because my friend Caroline ran one of the best Call of Cthulhu campaigns I’ve ever had the pleasure to to play, and Stirling is trying to make use of the same material.

I played Caroline’s game, her modified version of Tatters of the King, more than seven years ago. I still think fondly of the characters in that game (yes, mine, but also those of my friends), but more to the point I think of Caroline’s campaign as a benchmark for slow-growth horror games. Her storytelling, the way in which she introduced us so gradually to the madness that is The King in Yellow, and the way in which she carefully cultivated our own personal experiences of horror until we felt enmeshed in our characters’ insanity, has stood for me as a constant reminder of what good horror storytelling feels like.

Some of this must be the glow of nostalgia. But I know I loved it at the time, too. Otherwise I wouldn’t have kept so many pages of notes in my tiny, cramped handwriting. I wouldn’t have so obsessively catalogued events such that Caroline agreed that my investigator had created his own occult tome.

And for me that intensity, that devouring mystery and too-late dismay, is what it means to traffic with The King in Yellow.

Stirling can’t touch that. For someone else, someone who has not experienced this particular branch of horror mythos in the same way, Prince of Outcasts may be just fine. But for me, Caroline got there first.

Sorry Stirling. I read your book and instead think of that campaign.

I don’t think I’m going to finish this book. Not any time soon at least.

Curse of the Blue Tattoo, by L. A. Meyer

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Yup! This one is pretty good too!

It’s almost a different genre though. Where the first book (*very mild genre spoilers*) was largely historical fiction and adventure, with a dash of romance towards the end, this one is more of a school social drama (still historical fiction), complicated by romance and a dash of adventure (*end spoilers*).

I’d say it’s still worth reading, but if you were only here for the sailing ships I’m afraid you’ll be rather disappointed. On the other hand, there were a few ships on the side as set dressing and I’m sure there will be more ships in the next book. And, of course, it’s still tremendous fun.

However! I should note that there’s some sexual harassment featured in this one, more so than in the last. The first book had a little, which ultimately ends rather poorly for the abuser (thank goodness). This one has more, at lower intensity for the vast majority, in other situations. I don’t think it’s been too much so far, but I’m not sure that I like this as a pattern.

On the one hand, sure, it makes sense to include some of this. I’m more willing to accept it in part because it doesn’t overshadow Jacky in any way, and her reactions to it feel quite real. It makes it clear how uncomfortable and unwanted that behavior is, and how confusing and difficult it can be to react to receiving it. If nothing else, it might be a decent learning experience for young not-female readers, where they can come away from it thinking “oh, that’s fucked up, we shouldn’t do things like that.” But on the other hand, I don’t want to keep reading about sexual harassment and assault in every Jacky Faber book. If that is an underlying theme of the series… well, I’d really rather that it weren’t.

This hasn’t been a terrible sticking point for me so far. But it might become one, and it may already be one for you. Forewarned is forearmed, etc.

And again, I still like this one and I’m planning to read the next book damn soon. So it obviously hasn’t stopped me yet.

Bloody Jack, by L. A. Meyer

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Publisher’s Weekly certainly isn’t wrong. I’ll warn you though, some of the other covers for this series are bizarrely out of keeping with the text and themes. I’m talking about you, weirdly sexualized romance-cover blond girl.

Fortunately, reading this book doesn’t involve long hours of staring at its cover! It’s a fast read, and is excellent historical naval adventure fiction with a female protagonist. I’m not certain what to think of Jack’s characterization at a few points (Jack gets a period, feels emotional, I don’t know whether to say that it’s well or poorly done), but goodness the rest of the book is fun.

Fun. Yes. That’s a good word for this book. It’s wonderfully fun late middle grade / early YA adventure fiction, with just enough in the way of messy emotions near the end to leave it straddling the two camps while still feeling very much like a middle grade adventure story. It puts me in the mood to write more Miska, and also to read the rest of this series. It’s good stuff. I recommend it.

Fear and the Uncanny in Children’s Literature

This post’s delay brought to you by homework… and Rise of the Tomb Raider. Between the two, I entirely forgot about posting here yesterday.

My homework, by the way, involves rereading Parable of the Sower (and The Girl Who Owned A City, and The Summer Prince). My short end-of-term paper this semester is on the way in which fear and the uncanny are used to replicate the home-away-home structure of a children’s story (discussed by many people, though I’m mostly sourcing from Reimer in Keywords for Children’s Literature and Nodelman and Reimer in The Pleasures of Children’s Literature), without requiring a spatial journey. Essentially, I hypothesize that by using fear and the uncanny to create emotional distance from a space, the departure and return inherent in a home-away-home story can be emotional instead of spatial. Plus, you get some interesting dynamics where the protagonist tries to make an un-homelike space homelike (again, or maybe for the first time) instead of returning to a safe space that has remained safe the entire time. Oh, and I know that Parable of the Sower isn’t exactly a kids’ book, but it’s sometimes cross-shelved in YA and has a teenaged protagonist. So.

On the storytelling side of things, I’ve come up with an excellent conceit for an adventuring setting that allows you to go on dungeon crawls without having to twist yourself into pretzels trying to justify why there are so many monster-filled ruins all over the place. I won’t go into more detail here at present, because I want to write it up and submit it to Worlds Without Master. Maybe if I can’t get it published there I’ll put it up here.

Flora Segunda, by Ysabeau S. Wilce

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I have to say, I rather enjoyed this book. It’s not without its oddities (failings in some cases), but dang. Maybe it’s because I’ve had to read so many other books that I’ve liked less, but I really liked this one.

It’s worth knowing that there’s some real weirdness to what’s going on in the setting, if you spend much time looking at it and trying to explain it in relation to our world. For example, I’m not sure why so many people are described as blond / red-haired, despite apparently being in close contact with a maybe-Aztec country. The geography is almost certainly what we think of as California, but the history certainly isn’t. The truth is, we aren’t told enough about the history of this setting (in this book) for me to be able to say much more. Maybe there’s a good reason for all of this.

All I know is that it felt weird reading about a bunch of people in a magical quasi-California, none of whom seemed to be non-white. It helped when I consciously separated everything from our own world, despite the similarities, but that can’t solve everything.

Setting that aside, I had a good time. Strange and distinct magic, jam-packed with events and adventure and obvious future plot hooks, fun characters, a believable recent history if you’re willing to accept the overall premise… it’s good stuff. Potentially complicated by other factors, but good stuff.

Also, it somehow straddles the weird space between middle grade and young adult in a way that I really appreciated. It’s more or less where I’d like Barium Deep to be, though not in exactly the same way.

Ugh, Warriors: The Prophecies Begin

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I am not a fan of this series.

If the young people in your life really like reading stories about cats fighting each other and hunting things in the woods, then I would strongly recommend this series. If you’ve been struggling to get them to read anything and they like this stuff, that’s great. I’m all for giving people things to read, especially when it turns someone who is not a habitual reader into a habitual reader.

But if you’re looking for high quality material, I think there are far better options. This feels like fodder, the kind of popcorn literature that fills your time and leaves you wondering what you just ate. I don’t find it exciting; it broadcasts its upcoming plot twists from a mile away and basically defines “formulaic and tropey.”

Were I younger, and not already familiar with the expectations of the relevant genre of coming of age adventure stories, I suspect that I would enjoy this. I would have loved the fact that there are huge piles of these books being churned out by a collaborative collective known as Erin Hunter. But, while I freely admit that my judgement is tinged by distance and nostalgia, I think the Animorphs series may have been higher quality.

So. I’m not a fan. I’m not really enjoying reading this series for homework: it’s solid but too simplistic for my tastes. Maybe I would enjoy breezing through them if they weren’t a requirement. But though I don’t like them, I can see that this series does meet some niche needs. You might have someone in your life who would fall head-over-heels in love with it. And if you think that’s the case, by all means share the series with them. Otherwise, I’d suggest that you move on.

Dust Girl, by Sarah Zettel

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Fun! I admit, I was a little worried around sixty pages in that it would be a tropey retread of territory already covered by American Gods. The voice and perspective are significantly different, which helped, but it wasn’t until a bit later that I felt the story really found its stride (around the same time that it decided to double down on fairies). If I weren’t reading this for class and therefore about to rush into another wildly different book, I think I’d enjoy polishing off this series.

Speaking of which, the cover says The American Fairy Trilogy… which is too bad. Obviously, you want to mention that there are more books for your audience to buy; doing otherwise is bad marketing (shooting yourself in the foot, really). But it also shaped my experience of the story in a way that makes analyzing how I feel about the book as a whole more difficult. It’s very obviously not the end of the story, though I think Zettel sticks the landing for this section of it, and I wonder whether I would have preferred to read the whole thing in one go. Or what might have changed if it weren’t divided into parts. There’s a lot to be said for how my genre and story-length expectations shape my reading, and I think that may confound Zettel’s goal here to some extent.

That said, Sarah Zettel very clearly knows what she’s doing, and does it well. The book is catchy, fun to read, and really gets a move on once you get out of the very beginning. Future plot hooks are well established, I feel like I have a decent sense of the characters, and life is plenty complicated for the main character despite (or maybe especially because of) the presence of magic in her life. Well done. If you enjoy YA, fairies, Americana, and blues and swing, you’ll probably enjoy this book.

Later note: with a little more time to reflect on this, I’m less certain that I like how it deals with race and Native American beliefs. I feel like it tries, and wants to do a good job, but I’m not certain whether or not it succeeds. Your mileage may vary.

Killer of Enemies, by Joseph Bruchac

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I know that young adult action stories might not be everyone’s preferred genre, but how about a post-apocalyptic young adult action story that weaves Native American history, lore, and culture seamlessly into other general Americana such that it feels like a fitting piece of a larger tapestry without feeling lost or subjugated by other elements?

I can’t take full credit for that astute observation. It was mentioned by one of my excellent classmates.

Killer of Enemies is a good, punchy story that fits with mythic narrative traditions in a number of deeply appealing fashions. It’s very nearly pulp. And it’s written by a member of the Abenaki Nation, which gives me a wonderful home-feel due to my fond early childhood memories of listening to Wolfsong telling stories around Vermont. It doesn’t hurt that it’s all about the badass warrior woman Lozen, named in honor of the real Lozen of the Chiricahua Apaches. I’d say that this book is pretty good stuff.