Updraft ★★★★★

This book was pressed into my hands by a coworker, who swore it was amazing. In case the 5 star rating didn’t make it clear, she was right.

This book grabbed me right out of the gate. I started it one evening after work, and didn’t come up for air until after 1am. The world in which its set is unique, and complex, and fascinating. I labeled it as “young-adult” because the main character is a girl rising into adulthood, trying to figure out the world around her, and because I would have loved this book as a teen. That said, I love it now, as an adult. This book is in no way simple, or childish, it merely could speak to a very broad audience.

There is something absolutely intriguing about the world in which Kirit lives. Society is a bit broken, damaged, and disconnected. People live in organically growing bone-like towers, in townships high above the clouds. In fact, solid ground isn’t something anyone has ever touched, or even remembered. Fran Wilde is so brilliant at making this notable and different and immersive to the reader, but the characters themselves don’t note it at all. Why would they? It’s not the world they live in, there’s no reason for them to comment on it.

People in this world travel with mechanical wings. Passing the tests to earn the right to fly further abroad, between towers, is a transition into adulthood. They live in fear of invisible monsters, Skymouthes, who travel the skies swallowing citizens. Their society has a long memory of tragic pasts, and live under pretty harsh rules to stay “safe,” follow the laws, and protect the city. Tradition is everything.

There’s a pretty heavy element of classism in this society, the higher you live in your tower, the more important you are. The organic bone towers slowly grow, and as they do the lower apartments get smaller and smaller. In addition, people merely toss their refuse out into the air, so the lower you are the more trash is effectively thrown on your head. People progress by moving into new levels that appear very rarely at the top of the tower, and so lower levels are abandoned as they get too small and dirty. A tower also gains benefits by being closer to the center of the “city.” If your tower is deemed worthy, it might earn a bridge connecting it to a nearby tower, thus increasing trade, communication and travel.

Kirit’s mother is a trader: a lofty role (haha, I’m so funny) for someone who delivers goods and makes deals between towers all across the city. Its a dangerous job to fly such distances, but a glamorous one, for if a trader is good at barter, they will increase the wealth and the luxuries of their tower. Kirit and Ezarit recently gained the highest level in their tower. Kirit’s father disappeared many years ago, and so they were labeled as an unlucky family (the worst of epithets) and considered “lower level.” But Ezarit traveled to the center of the city, the Spire, and “made a deal” to earn her and her daughter the right to live in the highest level. And then, of course, everything changed…

Like I said, this book grabbed me, and didn’t let me go. The characters are compelling and real, the world is so different and creative, the pacing is perfect, the themes feel “right.” And best of all? No love triangles. See, young adult books without love triangles are out there, and hopefully they’re changing the market.

A final note: The copy I borrowed from friend actually had a completely different cover, but poking around on goodreads led me to this amazing cover art for what must be the 2nd edition of the book that hasn’t come out yet. Not that the other cover was bad, but this one actually feels like art. The water color effects, the feeling of “lift,” the tower coming out of the fog, and yes, the main character is not white! She’s gorgeous, she’s powerful, perched about to fly!

This book is excellent! Please read it.

The Gullwing Odyssey ★★★★★

This book review has been waiting for me for a long time. I promised it as part of a birthday present, oh, 8 months ago or so. Well, finally, here we are.

This book was a riot. I actually listened to it on audio book, which I think really made the characters for me. Nominally it is a (young adult?) humor fantasy novel following the adventures of Marco Gullwing. He is a messenger boy, who in the course of a mission accidentally boards the wrong boat and ends up in places doing things he never expected. Its a classic coming of age tale as Marco really starts out as a bit of an ass, but starts coming into his own through various trials and tribulations.

I would call humor the main genre this book fits into. There’s also magic, and dragon people, hence the fantasy. And I assume it is mostly aimed at a young adult audience, as most books with an adolescent main character are, but I waver on that, as the sense of humor is definitely adult. The word-play is fantastic, the satire is delicious, and farce of it all is definitely fun for adults too.

All in all, this book really reminds me of the style of James Branch Cabell, an author in the 1920s who is best known for Jurgen, one of a series of comedy-parody-fantasy-romance novels. Except that Jurgen is chock full of awkward sexism and racism which we try to excuse by saying it is “a product of its time,” but still certainly makes it harder to appreciate in today’s world.

I would equally call The Gullwing Odyssey a product of its time, but in a positive light. This book tackles many of the same problems we face today, sexism, racism and fanatic religion, but is able to do it all with a laugh and a spin because of the overwhelmingly silly and farcical setting. The Gullwing Odyssey has a pretty fantastic female character in Dria, the young dragon princess who is forthright, intelligent, well spoken, and occasionally awkward, young, and normal. Not to mention the pirate queen Maria Giraldinha de Inez, Captain of Far-Reach, Owner-Operator of the Three Skull Privateer Group, Limited Liability Professional Corporation. The two species of humans and dragons definitely have some communication issues and species assumptions to work out. And the character of Barclay, the fanatical Knight, bearer of the word, bigoted and overbearingly righteous, speaks for himself.

As you can imagine, all the characters in the Gullwing Odyssey are parodies of themselves. And yet, the exaggerated characteristics don’t make them any less enjoyable to read about, or imagine in your head. Quite the reverse really. As I said, I listened to this book in audio form, and the narration was just perfect. (Full disclosure, the narrator is actually my dad. So I might be a little biased.) But he does all the voices. And if there’s one thing that makes an exaggerated character even better, its an exaggerated silly accent voice. Oh yes. You can even hear a sample on the audible page, check this out.

See what I mean? The characters come alive in your head, you can practically see the over-the-top costumes they’re wearing as they stride across the back of your eyelids in a vivid colorful world full of snarky dragon princesses, furious pirate queens, and slacker messenger boys.

I would heartily recommend The Gullwing Odyssey to anyone looking for a fun, charming, easy read.

The Shambling Guide to NY ★★★

The Shambling Guide to Female Characterization…

I have mixed feelings about this book. It was good, don’t get me wrong, but it was definitely one of those books that just by changing one or two things it could have been FANTASTIC. The fresh look at zombies and vampires and fantasy creatures in a modern urban setting was nice. This is no True Blood, or Twilight, or even Charles DeLint, it is definitely its own thing, and I loved that unique view. I loved the concept, a human woman writing a travel guide for unnatural creatures visiting New York, awesome. It had a good sense of humor, definitely some silly moments, some witty lines. I understand that its supposed to be a fluff book, and I wasn’t looking for anything too serious.

BUT

But… I got so sick of plot twists that entirely revolved around the romantic history and sex life of the main character. Really? I mean REALLY?! She’s supposed to be a strong intelligent driven woman, so why is it always about the MEN in her life???

Why is it always about the fact that she slept with her last boss who was actually married? Why is her coworker a super sexy incubus who somehow talks her into going to a bdsm sex club and nearly having sex with her in front of a crowd. (Which, of course, she doesn’t protest at the time, but gets pissed about later). And of course, her next door neighbor just HAPPENS to be a super sexy knight in shining armor, employed by Public Works, the secret police force of the unnatural world. And OF COURSE the big evil of the climax of the book just HAPPENS to be her ex-boyfriend’s wife, who is a voodoo queen coming to take over New York City, and also has a personal vendetta agains the main character. I mean, really?!

That just pissed me off no end. The villain of the book is the wife of the man the main character slept with. Think about what that says for a moment. And, by the way, the married guy in question isn’t portrayed as evil, or a true shithead, just a kind of weak, icky womanizer. When the main character runs into him again, not only does she NOT kick him in the balls, or at least punch him in the nose, she saves his life. Twice. I’m not saying he deserved to die, and good for her taking the moral high ground. But she also doesn’t even TELL HIM HE’S A SHIT HEAD FOR LYING TO HER AND CHEATING ON HIS WIFE. Neither woman knew about the other, the guy is the one who’s really a freakin’ jerk AND YET its the two women who end up battling each other with constructs in central park. I’m not saying every woman who’s ever been cheated on by her husband is automatically a good person, but COME ON. That just left a nasty taste in my mouth. Especially since every other plot device was also SOMEHOW related to the main character’s sex life and the fact she slept with her last boss who happened to be married. Ick.

But enough about that. One of the other things I really liked about this book is that the author is local. Not in a super flattering light, but its still mentioned. And that makes me smile, because I love where I live, and I love that interesting people who are succeeding at their dreams are living here too.

While this book definitely had things I didn’t like about it, it had enough things I did like about it that I will continue to read works by this author. I want to support local authors, but also because I think the flaws that so bothered me are somewhat from her being such a new author. This is apparently her first largely published book, I’m excited to see where she goes. Hopefully she’ll find her strengths in her humor, and her fun new look at urban fantasy, and NOT in her sense of “romance” or dependence on male characters as plot points.

The Rivers of London ★★★

Midnight Riot(US) or The Rivers of London(UK): A Book of Two Misleading Titles

Before I even opened it, this book had a pretty conflicting set of first impressions. In the negative column: 1. A quote by Charlaine Harris appears on the front cover. Yes, I’ve read most of the Sookie Stackhouse series, but that doesn’t mean I trust her taste in literature. Lets just say that its not a ringing endorsement. And 2. It was described to me as similar to the Harry Dresden series. I very much did not like that series.

However, to balance those facts… Positives: 1. A quote by Peter F. Hamilton appears on the back cover. I am much more likely to trust his opinion on books. 2. It may be just a repeat of the Dresden Files, but this one is set in London. Its true, London is almost always a more interesting setting for a mystery than some random American city. (I think Harry Dresden might have been Chicago, but I would also believe New York. If I can’t even remember, that tells you something about how well the setting was written…) 3. It was suggested to me on my blog. That doesn’t happen often enough, and it still makes me happy and excited when it does. I probably never would have come across this book without intervention on the internet, and in the end I very much enjoyed it, and I’m glad it was suggested to me.

Right, so, those were my thoughts as I cracked open this book. It is the story of Peter Grant, a recent graduate of London’s Metropolitan Police Academy. He wants to be a detective, but his superior thinks he is an ideal candidate for the desk job side of the force. Luckily, he sees a ghost who claims to have been the only witness to a violent murder, and he ends up being apprenticed to an old (who knows how old?) detective (Chief Inspector Nightingale) who is part of a secret agreement to use magic to keep the Queens Peace within the city’s supernatural forces. They proceed to solve a series of murders that seem to have been committed by an enraged ghost.

The book still has some of the same flaws I find unappealing about the Dresden files. First of all, it is written in first person perspective. I really don’t like first person, it’s extremely difficult to do well. The main character always comes off as self-involved and shallow. I always wish I could be reading the thoughts and impressions of some more interesting side character instead. In this case specifically (though not as badly as in the Harry Dresden series), the voice of the writing is so unsubtly male that I find it (unsurprisingly, I suppose) hard to identify with the main character. There are some authors who I’d never be able to guess their gender without looking at their name, and then there are some authors who have an equally female voice. And yes, sometimes that annoys me just as much as the male authors. Whichever way it goes, heavily gendered writing usually makes characters of the opposite gender feel flat and stereotyped. Peter is a nice, competent man, who is just awkward enough to be “adorable” to his coworkers and female friends. Most of whom he has a passive crush on, and would sleep with given the chance. In fact, that applies to just about any female he meets, whether that be his fellow constable Leslie, or a supernatural girl who happens to be a personification of a river “Beverly Brook.” (Pun much?)

One thing I really did like about this novel was the way Aaronovitch created his magic. Which is saying something, because that is usually what turns me off of books in the “urban fantasy” genre. Magic is hard to blend with the modern world: is it just a form of science we don’t understand, or is it the anti-science, powered by ritual and belief? Both of those choices come with solid stereotypes and giant plot-holes. And this is just a personal pet peeve, but I don’t understand why everyone uses Latin as the go-to language for magic. They try to say that magic is old old old, and so they name the oldest language they can think of. Latin? Really? No one says Greek, or Hebrew, or ancient Egyptian? Mandarin? Sumarian? Anything?

The magic in this series seems to have bee mostly developed during the Baroque Era, and that sort of birth of the golden age of science. In fact one of the main books used by Peter is Sir Isaac Newton’s secret second book on the principles of magic. (I guess that sort of justifies the use of Latin in this case, any sort of scholastic works of that time were based in Latin. But I still grate my teeth.) His teacher Nightingale seems to be more interested in the history and tradition of magic, than in the why and how of it. But that fits his character as a who-knows-how-old gentleman who was definitely alive in the Victorian era and doesn’t own a cellphone. Even given its mysterious and unexplained roots (and the apathy of his teacher), Peter Grant does not take the use of magic for granted. He has no idea how it works in our world driven by science, but at least he is curious. He develops tests (they even vaguely follow the scientific method) to better understand the effect of magic on technology. Which, by the way, is not good. Magic seems to negatively affect most higher technologies we use today, and Peter ruins several cell phones figuring this out.

I like that this magic has several rather important flaws built into it. It’s not a catch-all problem solver; it’s not as easy as say this word and no lock will stop you, say that word and you instantly find the one important clue, memorize enough special words and you can rule the world. It is difficult and time consuming to train your brain to appropriately use magic, and spells have limited uses that build on each other. Nightingale tells Peter it will take about 10 years to graduate beyond apprenticeship. And if someone is exposed to more magic than their brain can handle, the inside of their head turns to mush.

Also not following the usual cliches are the supernatural beings that Peter runs into. There are vampires, but they’re not sexy blood sucking cults. (*cough Dresden Files, and a billion other urban fantasies cough*). We don’t have werewolves yet, but I’ll be interested in seeing how Aaronovitch makes them different. (Though the second book is titled “Moon over Soho” and if that’s a blatant werewolf reference I might get annoyed.)

What we do have are the personifications of localities: Mother and Father Thames, and their children the various tributaries and branchings of the rivers of London. (Evidently the UK version of the novel is titled “The Rivers of London,” which has a much prettier ring to it, but has less to do with the full plot of the book. Though now that I think about it the midnight riot isn’t exactly the plot of the book either, but is closer, I guess… However, the rivers are definitely my favorite side-plot.) I like the characterizations of the rivers, and how they have their own family drama they’re dealing with. And if there are personifications of the rivers and sewers of London, what about the old historical buildings? That would be interesting. Do each of the outlying villages and suburbs have their own protector? Perhaps someday we will meet the goddess of London, herself?

All in all, I can’t call this book an enthralling masterpiece of fiction, but I’ll be interested to see if the series improves on the few flaws it has. I hope the characters start to gain a little bit of depth and non-stereotyped-personality. I hope we continue to see creativity in the layers of supernatural life in London. I hope we get to find out more about Nightingale’s past, and his strange maid Molly, with the sharp teeth, taste for blood, and extreme protection of her master. I hope Peter gets some taste and doesn’t try to sleep with two new women in each book (even if he does do it in an endearing and passive way.)

NOTE: After reading back over this review, I definitely took a little too much pleasure in bashing The Dresden Files. That probably wasn’t necessary because this book can stand on its own perfectly fine without being constantly compared to that series. I guess its just because so many people have recommended the Harry Dresden books to me, that when I finally got around to reading them, they were rather a big disappointment. I have trouble seeing why people who’s taste in books is usually so similar to my own actually enjoy those books. Maybe I had too high expectations, or maybe I should have given them more time (though I did get all the way through book one, and halfway through book two before giving up. I’m not going to read six books just to find out if the seventh might get better.) Anyways, the chance to voice exactly what I didn’t like about the series, and the opportunity to compare it to someone who did something similar, but did it RIGHT, was too good to give up. So if you’re a fan of the Dresden series, I’m sorry for bashing your books, and you’ll still probably really enjoy this series because there are lots of similarities. If you’re not a fan of the Dresden series, feel free to give these books a try and see if its any better for you. If you’ve never read the Dresden series, you can certainly enjoy these books all on their own, uninfluenced by any previous bias one way or the other.

My overall rating compared to similar Supernatural Urban Mysteries (Jim Butcher, Charlaine Harris, etc): * * * * *
(Considering that this is a genre I’m not in love with, this book deserves a great rating. This book proves that the genre has potential, if only people would stop screwing it up.)
Characterization: * * (Still better than Harry Dresden)
Creativity: * * *
Will I continue to follow the series: Yep, unless the author make some stupid plot move that’s too annoying to read. If the second book is all to do with werewolves, or if there starts to be too much Relationship Drama, I’m out.

The Way of Kings ★★★★

Normally, I’d tell you that if a book needs 1258 pages to tell a story, then that author has seriously overestimated the worth of his words. He needs a reality check, and an editor that will stand up to him. Any plot more than 400 pages long that can’t be broken down into a couple of volumes needs some serious work with a red pen. And a paper shredder. (More complexity /= a better story! But that’s a rant for another day)
Normally.
Normally, I’d also tell you that most “high fantasy” isn’t my thing. Its usually over dramatic, over written, and fairly generic. They’ve got elaborate mythologies and powerful magics, and are chock-full of logical fallacies and lord of the rings parallels.
Normally.

The Way of Kings seems to be one of the better exceptions.

In this epic tome of a novel, Brandon Sanderson has excelled at world building. His planet is one ravaged regularly by violet storms, which has created a whole ecosystem that seems to model creatures that live at the bottom of our oceans. At the slightest breeze, leaves curl up and withdraw into the branches of trees. The lightest of tremors or vibrations in the ground causes the grass to pull back into the stony earth. Soil is sparse, and crops difficult to grow in all but they most sheltered valleys.

Not only are the plants and animals molded by these “greatstorms” but the cultures of the people are too. Magic is done with the assistance of ancient devices that aren’t entirely understood, and strange gems that are pulled from the bodies of strange and terrible creatures. This planet is all full of creatures that are sort of physical manifestations of abstract concepts. These “creatures” are called spren. So if someone is injured, he attracts painspren. If an artist is inspired the air around him or her is filled with creationspren. Windspren, rotspren, gloryspren, alespren (seen only by drunk people, probably. Their existence has been theorized, but getting concrete proof is difficult since drunken notes are difficult to interpret.)

Much of the land is caught up in a war between two races of people, the Alethi and the Parshendi. The Alethi are a warrior race who find glory in battle and rank themselves according to their skill at fighting. Their society is broken up into two main divisions: the “lighteyes” are the higher society, Lord, Ladies the upper ranks of soliders, etc. “Darkeyes” are usually laborers, minor spear holders, and slaves. Very little is known about the Parshendi, except that they are accredited for assassinating the King six years before the main story.

The storyline follows three main characters (as well as a good number of secondary or one-shot characters). Kaladin is the son of a surgeon who has become a slave in the Alethi army (virtually a death sentence). He is paralyzed by the tragedies in his past, but still feels driven to save the lives of those around him. We flash back and forth between Kaladin’s childhood up to six years ago, and Kaladin’s life in the present time.

Shallan is a young girl who has never left her family estates, but must travel to a distant land so that she can talk her way into becoming the ward of a famous heretic and scholar. For she needs to steal the rare and magical device this scholar is studying and using to save her family from ruin.

Dalinar is a high-prince in the Alethi army. He was the brother of the past King, and now uncle to a young paranoid King convinced that someone is trying to assassinate him. Ever since his brother, the King, was killed, he’s started having strange visions during each highstorm. Visions that speak of a “True Desolation” approaching, and the need to “unite them all.” Dalinar is battling his growing dislike of all violence, with his need to support the current King and the war to keep his country together. His children think he’s probably going mad, he’s lost all the memories of his wife, his brother was brutally murdered, and a voice in his head is telling him that the world is coming to an end.

This book was 1258 pages long. One thousand, two hundred and fifty eight pages. Yeah… It took quite a lot of reading to get through it. Yes, it did drag a bit in the middle. And yet, I was impressed that with all that, I didn’t have to go back and remind myself what had happened three hundred pages ago. I didn’t have to sit there and create character diagrams just to remember who was who and where and what were they doing there again? For all its length, Sanderson kept the storyline very cohesive and memorable.

This book still holds many of the cliches I find annoying about most high fantasy. It has several unpronounceable names. Its title fills in the blanks “The _____ of/the _____.” It has swords that are six feet long, and deities of dubious character, and characters who believe they’re normal only to go out into the world and find out that they’re special and important and are going to save the world! And yet… It won me over somehow.

Sanderson also included fun sketches of various creatures that live on his planet, maps and diagrams of warzones and strange cities. They added a nice dimension to the story.

There is some great mystery going on of why the spren are the way they are, why the awesomely powerful shardblades were created by the ancient and unknowable Knights Radiant, why the highstorms only travel in one direction, why the Parshendi are driven to war with the Alethi, why the shattered plains are, well, shattered, why the voidbringers might be returning… Why why why and why can’t authors write any faster?