“The Just City” by Jo Walton

thejustcityI’ve been wanting to read Jo Walton for a while – her books always get great reviews, and she loves the Vorkosigan Saga as much as I do! Tor sent me an advance copy of The Just City, and I dove right in.

This book has one of the most fascinating premises of any book I’ve read – the Greek goddess Athene gathers up people from all eras of history to recreate Plato’s Republic (with the aid of robots from the far future). Of course, the experiment doesn’t go exactly as planned, especially when Socrates shows up asking questions. And mixed into this is Athene’s brother Apollo, who has chosen to join the city as a mortal to learn more about humanity.

This is a pretty slow-burning book (it’s about a bunch of philosophers!) but it’s lovely. We follow three people, each with a unique perspective – Apollo, Simmea (one of the children), and Maia (one of the masters) through the founding of the city and all the logistics that happen as the initial batch of children grow up. The protagonists manage to keep their ideal of being their “best self” alive, even struggling through the dilemmas of being real people at odds with Plato’s understanding of humanity.

Highly recommended – I’ve already pre-ordered the follow up, The Philosopher Kings.

“Fool’s Assassin” by Robin Hobb

rhho2s1qbzbzymfhn3niI took entirely too long to read Fool’s Assassin. I originally won it on LibraryThing Early Reviewers, but the book never arrived – I finally broke down and bought my own copy about a week ago. And then I ended up rereading all the previous six Fitz/Fool books.

This is another one of those books I knew I would like before I even read it – I’ve read the previous twelve books set in this world, and I love Robin Hobb. I didn’t think that there would be another book about Fitz – I’d figured he’d gotten his (well deserved) happy ending. I should have known better (and after rereading the previous books, the clues are there).

I’m not going to do a real review, but here are a few things:

  • There’s a new narrator in the book, and that was pretty interesting.
  • Fitz is way younger than I thought he was, he’s been through so much. He can totally carry a few more trilogies.
  • As usual with Robin Hobb books, this book is heartbreaking.
  • I still miss Nighteyes.
  • I really hope two of the new characters introduced redeem themselves (like Malta from the Liveship books), because I really didn’t like them.
  • Fitz is really stupid sometimes. However, this isn’t new – he’s always been horrible at seeing the obvious.
  • I hate cliffhanger endings.
  • I guess I’m glad I read this book a few months late because I don’t have to wait a whole year for the next book. Only eight months. Why isn’t it August 2015 right now?

“Jumper” by Steven Gould

JUMPER_Steven_GouldThis is going to be a short review, since I’m catching up on reviews (as always).

I was recently sent a copy of Jumper by Tor as part of their promotion for the fourth book in the series, Exo. I’ve seen the movie, and although I thought the premise was interesting, the movie was terrible (although, Hayden Christensen does a much better job than he does as Anakin Skywalker). Luckily, the book is almost nothing like the movie, and was actually very good.

Davy Rice has a pretty horrible life – it’s a good day when his father doesn’t beat him senseless. One day, he discovers that he can teleport, and his life changes drastically. That’s the basic premise of Jumper.

The book mixes a few genres – the section where Davy explores his powers and builds a fancy new life for himself is kind of like the movie Catch Me If You Can (social engineering, heists, etc.) and there’s a lot of action towards the end. The major theme is self-discovery, though – Davy slowly comes to terms with his past, starts to take responsibility for himself, and becomes a well-adjusted person. And it’s all very well-written. All the characters are three-dimensional, and their relationships are believable. Davy is a great protagonist – even though he was pretty sympathetic in the beginning of the book, the person he turned into at the end was immensely satisfying.

I still haven’t read the next book, Reflex, but I’m pretty excited about it.

On rereading Harry Potter

harry-potter-montage

I recently reread the Harry Potter series, and it left me with a lot of conflicting and confusing feelings. I usually don’t like talking about myself much, but I’m going to do exactly that in this post, and try (and probably fail) to unravel my thoughts articulately.

First, some background: I grew up with Harry, I was pretty much the same age as him when each book came out, and I was obsessed with the series as a teenager. I would spend most of my internet time visiting Harry Potter fan sites and reading fanfiction, I was a fixture in the Mugglenet.com chatroom, and I constantly speculated on what would happen next with my friends. I even started a fan magazine in my hometown, and ended up becoming somewhat famous locally as the authority on Harry Potter stuff. I was pretty proud of this at first, but towards the end of school, I got kind of tired of it defining my identity so much.

Naturally, when I went to college (where everyone reinvents themselves), I didn’t really mention Harry Potter to anyone, and I certainly didn’t reread it. (I still ended up winning second place in a Harry Potter themed trivia tournament, but it wasn’t the main thing people knew about me.) I was a bit embarrassed about how much it had defined me previously, and although I was still fond of it, I mostly tried to forget about it.

Anyway, it had been seven years since I’d read a Harry Potter book, and I was finally ready to reread them without all the identity baggage (or so I thought).

I was pleasantly surprised by the first book (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) – it was whimsical, engaging, and witty, and that also meant I wasn’t just delusional as a kid for liking it so much. It’s written in a somewhat different style from the other books; for example, I think it’s the only book that features scenes where Harry is present, but the scene is not told from his point of view (Ron and Hermione dealing with his broomstick trying to buck him off during a Quidditch match).

It took me a few weeks to read the second book (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets), since it was always my least favourite of the first few. To my continuing surprise, I found it a pretty great read as well. The sense of whimsy isn’t as prevalent anymore, sure, there are flying cars and giant spiders and such, but people are actually in danger throughout the book and the whole school is paranoid. This makes the book’s atmosphere much more uncomfortable. Sorcerer’s Stone‘s plot is mostly driven by Harry and his friends’ curiosity – there’s no real sense of urgency except at the very end. It’s driven by a sense of discovery, not paranoia. In Chamber of Secrets,People in the wizarding world are consistently mean to Harry for the first time.

After this, I read the remaining five books pretty quickly. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third book, was always my favourite when I was younger, possibly because it introduced us to the wider wizarding world beyond Hogwarts – Hogsmeade, Azkaban, and expanded the mythology and history significantly with werewolves, Animagi, and a lot of new wizarding classes. I was also fascinating by the Marauders (they seemed so much more fun than Harry and his friends). I’m not sure if it remains my favourite after the reread – I certainly enjoyed it for all those reasons, but it continued the “paranoia” trend (Harry and everyone else around him is constantly afraid of Sirius, and that drives most things in the story).

I’ve been focusing on the paranoia so much because that was one of the things that bothered me about the series during this reread. There seems to be a severe lack of regular, decent, friendly people in the wizarding world – people are far too easily swayed by public opinion and peer pressure, and everyone seems far too proactive about doing the wrong thing. This is sort of addressed in the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – Cedric Diggory is all of those things, and of course, he ends up dead for it.

I actually enjoyed Goblet of Fire much more than I remembered, despite the continuing darkness (and starting the tradition of ending each book with the death of someone we like a lot). This is probably the book that Harry seems happiest in; he has a godfather that he can correspond with, he’s having a lot of mostly harmless adventures (even if they are scary in the moment), and puberty opens up a whole new world to him (although that feeling is only fun in retrospect). I also liked the further expansion of the world – more wizarding schools, learning more about house elves, merfolk, veela, and other non-human magical creatures.

Book five, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, was my other favourite when I was younger, and I had pretty mixed feelings about this one. I used to like it primarily because it focused a lot more on the Marauders, I think. Most of it was much more relaxed than the previous books (Voldemort is back, but other than that, there’s not a huge obvious threat hanging over Harry). It’s the first book since Sorcerer’s Stone to be driven by Harry’s own initiative – he leads Dumbledore’s Army, he researches what Voldemort’s looking for.

This is where Harry starts growing up enough to both be pretty unpleasant himself, and to notice all the adults around him being inconsistent and making mistakes. Sirius is too caught up in his own feelings about his house and his plight to actually do what he wants to do and help the Order, Dumbledore ignores Harry without considering what impact it would have on him, Umbridge continues the tradition of the wizarding world filled with pretty unpleasant people, even if they are not Death Eaters. Harry doesn’t ask enough questions, starts yelling at people when he’s mad, and generally is much less trusting than usual. I found it hard to be sympathetic to anyone in this book – my favourite characters were Fred and George Weasley.

Book six – I wasn’t very happy with Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince when I first read it, because I thought the concept of Horcruxes came out of nowhere, and all the focus on romance seemed misplaced, and how could Dumbledore die? None of these seemed to matter on the reread – Horcruxes made perfect sense with all the information we knew about Voldemort so far, hormonal teenagers are pretty realistic/amusing, and I wasn’t all that attached to Dumbledore anymore. I rather enjoyed the titular “Half Blood Prince” (Snape is easily the most compelling character in the series), and Malfoy’s humanisation was a welcome relief.

I had never reread Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, since it came out just before I went to college, so I was most interested in my reaction to it. I remembered nothing but a vague feeling of disappointment. Unlike most of the other books, which I got a lot more from this time around, I ended up actually disliking this book. The Deathly Hallows did come out of nowhere and seemed mostly irrelevant to the story, the constant focus on Dumbledore was really annoying and also seemed mostly irrelevant (yes, he’s not perfect, let’s move on), the Hermione-Ron romance should have never happened (even J.K. Rowling admits that!), and the lack of Hogwarts changed the tone of the book significantly, and not in a good way. The ending where Harry has to die but he gets to live because of love seemed really Doctor Who-ish (what’s with British media and the power of love trumping everything?) and terrible. The plot was also pretty implausible, even by Harry Potter standards – Harry and his friends escape from three of the most heavily guarded places in the wizarding world (Gringotts, the Ministry of Magic, Death Eater headquarters) through pure luck. The only thing I actually liked was Snape’s story (although I wish it wasn’t fueled by everlasting love).

One of the other main things that irritated me about the series as a whole was the house system and the treatment of Slytherin. First of all, sorting people by personality seems like a terrible idea – giving young, impressionable people less of a chance to deal with and learn from people with differing ideals. Slytherin in particular is treated as “evil”; almost everyone in it is cowardly and horrible (even the ones with redeeming qualities like Snape, Slughorn and Malfoy are all pretty unpleasant). If Gryffindor can have smart people (Hermione) and ambitious people (Percy) and even cowardly people (Peter Pettigrew), why can’t Slytherin have a few decent people? What’s the point of sorting? No wonder the wizarding world seems so prejudiced.

Okay this is long enough, but one last thing: I don’t want to give off the impression that I didn’t enjoy my reread – I did. Well, I was a bit annoyed by the last book, but I still like the series a lot, and I probably wouldn’t be so hard on it if I wasn’t so prone to over-analysing it and I could view it as just another book series – but I don’t think I’ve gotten to that point yet.

Reread: “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett

secret gardenI’ve been in a big reading slump lately, but I recently went to see a stage production of The Secret Garden, and it inspired me to reread the book. I used to read this book a lot as a kid; I bought it a library sale at my school. I had never heard of it before, but the title immediately intrigued me. I hadn’t read it for about ten years though, so I was wondering how it would hold up.

Before I talk about the book, a quick review of the play. The Oberlin Summer Theater Festival produced it, and as usual, the sets, direction and acting were all top-notch (although adult actors playing ten year old characters was a bit jarring). I thought the adaptation into a play could have been better though; it was vastly simplified (the characters were all one-dimensional) and some of the events didn’t quite follow. I didn’t remember it being that way in the book, so that’s partly what prompted the reread.

I ended up enjoying the book a lot. Burnett has an engaging writing style, and even though her exposition can be a bit preachy, it rings true enough to be entertaining. The characters are (mostly) pretty complex, except for Dickon who’s basically magical, but that’s okay. Mary and Colin’s friendship made me smile – they’re both lonely, selfish and spoiled, but paradoxically they’re the only people that can help each other become a better person. Everyone else is just too normal.

I definitely picked up on a lot more of the subtle characterisation now that I’m older. The characters are all products of their experiences – Mrs. Medlock seems unsympathetic at first, but she’s just used to minding her own business, Dr. Craven is not terribly invested in his patient’s recovery, but he still holds to his Hippocratic Oath pretty strongly. I’d forgotten about the wonderful character of Mrs. Sowerby, who is responsible for everything sensible that happens in the book (the play omitted her entirely!)

The book is not without its flaws, some due to its time (I winced at the description of native Indians as “not real people”, although Mary was being particularly bratty at the time). Sometimes Burnett is pretty moralistic, and the serendipitous Magic that everything good is blamed on seems a bit hokey to me (but these days, everyone is taught to take charge of their own life and make stuff happen themselves, not depend on the universe’s goodwill – another sign of the cultural shift since the book was written). It is a book with ten year old protagonists, though, and I can distinctly remember being in awe of the wonders of the world then, so maybe I shouldn’t fault it.

My favourite Burnett book when I was younger was Little Lord Fauntleroy; I think I’m going to reread that next.

“A Natural History of Dragons” and “The Tropic of Serpents” by Marie Brennan

12974372When I first saw the cover of A Natural History of Dragons, I knew I was going to love the book. (I know the adage about not judging a book by its cover, but come on, it’s gorgeous!) The book blurb only furthered that impression – a Victorian-style memoir by Lady Trent, who has defied convention to follow her passion and become the leading dragon naturalist of her day.

Isabella has been fascinated with the natural world (but especially the dragon family) ever since her cook taught her how to preserve sparklings in vinegar when she was seven. She knows that this hobby can only ever be a passing fancy for a lady of her station, but as luck would have it, she has the opportunity to travel to the mountains of Vystrana on a scientific expedition to study their fabled rock-wyrms. This journey, of course, turns out to be far more arduous than Isabella imagined it would be – involving not just inflamed dragons but complex politics, vengeful gods, and exhilarating discoveries.

Given this premise and that beautiful cover, I had really high expectations for the book, and they ended up being comfortably exceeded. Isabella is a fantastic protagonist – she tries very hard to reconcile her natural curiosity with what’s expected of her, and although she doesn’t always succeed, it’s still endearing. She’s no rebel with a twenty-first century sense of morals and propriety; she’s a woman of her time that is just very passionate about scientifically studying dragons.

A Natural History of Dragons also has a fascinating world. It is clearly based on 18th-19th century Earth, with Isabella’s homeland being analogous to England, and Vystrana similar to Eastern Europe. There are dragons, but they are just natural beasts – there is no “magic”; although the sense of wonder that Marie Brennan with new scientific discoveries is even better than magic. We learn a lot about the world through the political intrigue and the other mysteries in the book, like ancient ruins of a civilisation known as the Draconeans.

Other than that, the writing is great (I love Isabella’s forthright voice sprinkled with a copious amount of dry wit) and the plot is intriguing but this book really shines because it also packs quite the emotional punch – you really feel for Isabella through her disappointments, excitements, hopes, and sorrows. It’s a joy to see her come into her own over the course of this book. (Also, there’s one moment which you will instantly recognise when you encounter it where you just want to set something on fire.)


Okay, I’m also supposed to be writing about the sequel as well, so I’m going to stop talking about A Natural History of Dragons now.

Tropic Of SerpentsIn The Tropic of Serpents, it has been three years since the very eventful Vystrani expedition, and Isabella is far more confident in her abilities and far less concerned with what the world thinks of her. She jumps at the chance to go on an expedition to the continent of Eriga, home of many little-known varieties of dragons. However, Eriga makes her previous expedition look cushy – strange customs, warring countries (and more politics!), oppressive weather, hundreds of killer species, the list goes on.

All the elements that made the previous book such a success are still present in this one – Isabella continues to be awesome, the writing is beautiful, the worldbuilding is captivating. Eriga is an African analogue (except without as much rampant slavery/exploitation, I think), and there are many cool African-inspired things that this book explores, from stereotypical “big game” hunters to different views on gender and property ownership.

This is not just a series for light, fun reading – Isabella faces some heavy moral dilemmas. She has changed a lot from the first book (mostly as a result of the events of that book) and her character growth is very different. She is not quite as wide-eyed and eager, but her curiosity and competence still make her very compelling. She also takes more of a direct role in events this time; instigating rather than reacting, and you can definitely see her along the path to evolving into the somewhat cantankerous older woman that she is in the forewords.

I really enjoyed the supporting characters in this book; especially Natalie. It’s interesting to see Isabella’s choices already causing ripples in the freedom of other women, and Natalie had a great story arc from being the woman desperate to escape her expected place to society to becoming more mature and confident (all while inventing a glider!) I also loved the burgeoning respect and friendship between Isabella and Mr. Wilker.

I don’t have much to say about the plot except that I do like how the plot always ends up being relevant to major scientific discoveries that Isabella makes. I wish we still lived in a time when science was a new frontier and enthusiasts could make new scientific discoveries and/or invent things easily (okay, I don’t actually, because modernity has its benefits, but these books really make me wistful).

I’m terrible at endings, but I’m really excited to see what Isabella does next.


If you made it this far, you might be interested in my interview with author Marie Brennan and giveaway of two sets of both these books.

“The Black Count” by Tom Reiss

The-Black-Count-by-Tom-ReissI’m trying to read more diversely this year, and I finally read some non-fiction. I won an ARC of this book way back in 2012 but never got around to reading it, and I was intrigued to find out that it won the Pulitzer and a host of other awards in that time.

The Black Count is a biography of Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, the father of the famous novelist Alexandre Dumas and the inspiration for many of his stories, particularly The Count of Monte Cristo. Dumas was the son of a French nobleman and an African slave. He was also a martial hero, rising from a lowly private to general-in-chief of an army in only a few years – the highest ranking person of color in the Western world until the 1970s. His story rivals the ones in his son’s books – a shipwreck, suspected poisoning, foreign dungeons, and finally being ostracised because of changes in France’s political climate and Napoleon’s personal ire.

I really enjoyed this book – Tom Reiss is a great writer working with a great subject. I couldn’t wait to see where Dumas’ life took him, but I also never felt like Reiss took any liberties with the truth – everything was meticulously cited. I learned a lot about France’s colonial history as well, which I didn’t know much about. I can’t believe that someone who broke as many barriers as Thomas-Alexandre Dumas isn’t more well known, but thanks to Reiss’ efforts, that will hopefully now change.

I’m also hoping that Thomas-Alexandre Dumas shows up in the recently announced Assassin’s Creed game set during the French Revolution.

“Words of Radiance” by Brandon Sanderson

worSome context for this review: I’m a huge Brandon Sanderson fan, and I thought The Way of Kings was his best book, so I was really sure I would love this book. I re-read the first book in anticipation, and I couldn’t stop thinking about what would happen next. I’m glad (but not surprised) to say that I wasn’t disappointed at all.

Spoilers for The Way of Kings follow.

Words of Radiance picks up right where the previous book left off, with Jasnah and Shallan on their way to the Shattered Plains and a newly confident Dalinar Kholin plotting with Elhokar on how to unite the highprinces. As expected, both efforts run into some difficulty. I’m not going to say any more about the plot because I don’t want to give anything away. I’ll just say that events take some pretty shocking turns, and also some wonderful ones.

This was advertised as “the Shallan book”, and we certainly learn a lot more about her in it. It is spread out over several flashbacks, and we don’t get all of it until the end (which drove me crazy, because I had to constantly keep myself from skipping ahead to the next flashback). Her story was not what I expected, and I ended up liking her even more because of it – she’s been through a lot and turned out fairly well. Her powers are tied perfectly to her story, and I can’t wait to see what she does with them next.We also learn a lot more about the world of Roshar and the wider events going on in this book (often through the perspective of a one-time narrator). It was especially nice to get a Parshendi viewpoint, and see their side of things first-hand. A lot more also happens that I thought Sanderson would wait a few more books to reveal, which is pretty exciting. The world is changing quickly.

I really like that the heroes in this book are not inherently noble and good; they don’t always know what the right thing to do is. Instead, they are the products of their experiences, and they have to struggle with it. If there was a theme to this book, I’d say it was the characters coming to terms with themselves – Dalinar did this in the first book, and now it’s everyone else’s turn.Some random observations:

  • We get a lot more Adolin in this book, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
  • There is romance in this book, and it was fun. I’m just hoping it doesn’t turn into a love triangle, because that would be frustrating.
  • Roshar is a pretty small place, because characters I never thought I’d see again return, and are given good character development.
  • Some characters that I thought would be pretty significant given the way the last book ended didn’t end up getting much screen (page?) time.
  • I love that each of the Stormlight Archive books is named after a fictional book – I hope that trend continues.
  • Even though we learned a lot in this book, there are so many unanswered questions…

I’m not saying this was a perfect book, though – I had some issues. Many of the characters suffer a big shock in the book, and I felt like they took in stride too easily. Except one person, no one seemed to think about or talk about it. I was also annoyed that some plot developments happened off-screen, but I guess a lot of ground was covered in this book that wouldn’t have been able to be covered if we’d spent time with that character. However, my only major complaint is that I have to wait a year or more for the next book.

“Arrows of the Queen” by Mercedes Lackey

arrows-of-the-queen-1I’ve been wanting to read Mercedes Lackey for a long time, but she’s so prolific that I had no idea where to start! But then I received Arrows of the Queen as one of my SantaThing (LibraryThing’s Secret Santa type event) books for Christmas, which is apparently Lackey’s first published book, so it seemed like a great place to start.

Arrows of the Queen is set in the country of Valdemar, which is protected by the noble Heralds and their horse-like Companions. Talia is a young girl from a remote homesteading culture that is selected by a Companion and taken to become a Herald – something she has dreamed of all her life, but never actually dreamed would happen. Her task is to be the advisor to the Queen, which means she has to learn a lot in very little time.

There is not much of a plot to this book; it focuses mainly on Talia settling in and feeling at home with her destiny to be a Herald and training in the Collegium. She solves some problems, learns to cope with bullying, loss and rejection, and grows up. The Heralds are all ridiculously honourable, which makes for little conflict, and the few conflicts that occur are usually resolved off-screen. The characters all have their own distinct personality, but Lackey does a lot of telling, not showing – I don’t know if that was just a stylistic choice or because it was her first book.

Despite the simplicity of the story, the book never felt boring – the character interactions were charming, the events flew by quickly, and Talia dealt with some pretty complex issues. I expected the narrative style to grate on me after a while, but it never did.

I’m looking forward to reading about the rest of Talia’s adventures and more Valdemar tales afterwards!

“Expiration Day” by William Campbell Powell

expdayI’ve started avoiding the entire YA genre because pretty much every book I hear about seems to involve an implausible dystopia built around societies of arbitrarily capitalised Nouns and a female teenager that disrupts it whilst choosing between her “nice” and her “sexy” love interests. When I read about the premise of Expiration Day (a young woman discovers that many of her classmates are androids and her society is not all it seems), I figured it would be more of the same. I was not expecting the thoughtful, character-driven science fiction story that it actually was.

In the near future, most humans are no longer fertile, and human-like androids are used to substitute for children. We follow Tania Deeley, a vicar’s daughter, through her diary entries from age eleven onwards. This book is a coming of age novel; the “Expiration Day” mystery (why do androids need to eventually be returned to the corporation that made them?) is not important except for when it drives Tania’s story forward. We watch Tania grow up and slowly learn more about the world around her and herself, supported by a wonderful and three dimensional cast of secondary characters.

The worldbuilding is pretty interesting too; I was initially sceptical of the premise (android children seemed implausible), but Powell has constructed a world where it makes sense. The only quibble I have was with the ending, which seemed far too neat.

In conclusion, if you’re a YA fan, read this! If you’re getting disillusioned with YA tropes, read this!