“Firefight” by Brandon Sanderson

firefightShorter review again. I’m going to be doing lots of these so I can review a higher percentage of the books I read.

Steelheart wasn’t my favourite Sanderson book – not because it wasn’t good, but I don’t find superheroes or YA or endless action that compelling, especially given Sanderson’s skill for elaborate worldbuilding and cool magic systems. But he’s pretty much my favourite author, so I’ll read anything by him and like it. That being said, Firefight was pretty darn awesome.

David has achieved his goal of killing the Epic that murdered his father, but in the process, he’s also realized that Megan, the girl he’s kind of in love with, is actually Firefight, a High Epic with the same innate evil as every other Epic. David is never one to give up on the impossible, though, and armed with his infectious enthusiasm and groan-worthy metaphors, he sets out to rid Babilar (once New York City) of its ruling Epic, Regalia – while also searching for Firefight, who has already murdered one member of his team.

We get (some) answers to what’s going on with the Epics and their powers and weaknesses, and it all makes sense in the way that only Brandon Sanderson can do magic systems. The action is fantastic, and David’s eagerness and self-assurance are irresistible (and slightly horrifying, I was convinced he was going to get himself killed every other chapter). I know I pretty much end every book series review with “I want the next book”, but dammit, I want Calamity now, not Spring 2016!

Edited to add: Here’s a preview of Firefight on audio.

Firefight by Brandon Sanderson (The Reckoners, #2)
Delacorte Press, 2015 | Buy the book

On rereading Harry Potter


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.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Frederick A. Stokes, 1911 | Buy the book

“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!

Expiration Day by William Campbell Powell
Tor Teen, 2014 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

“Plain Kate” by Erin Bow

Another review I wrote a few months ago but never got around to posting. It’s shorter than usual because it was meant to help me catch up with all the books I’d read… that didn’t work out.

plain-kate-official-coverPlain Kate was marketed as a children/YA book, and judging by the cover, I thought it would be a fun and light coming-of-age type book. Well, it was very good and it’s a coming-of-age book of sorts, but it’s quite dark and not exactly “fun”. I’m not sure I’d market it for kids.

Plain Kate lives and works with her father, a woodcarver. However, her life is dramatically altered when her father dies of the plague. Not only does she have nowhere to go, but there are rumours spreading that she is a witch. Friendless and alone, she tries to find a home among the gypsies (who are themselves shunned), but her vulnerability has caught the eye of a magician with a dark purpose.

The main story is rather melancholy, but the writing is intensely evocative and Bow takes you on quite a journey through a very simple tale. The characters are lovely, especially Taggle the talking cat – one of my favourite characters of all time. The ending is poignant on multiple levels.

Telling you any more would spoil the book, so I’ll just say that it’s highly recommended!

Plain Kate by Erin Bow
Arthur A. Levine Books, 2010 | Buy the book

“Replica” by Jenna Black

I apologise for the lack of reviews on this blog lately – I’ve been in the middle of a move (from Providence, RI to Oberlin, OH) and the whole process took much more time than I thought it would. I don’t want to promise any specific numbers, but I’ll definitely be blogging more frequently now.

Replica came out a couple of weeks ago (July 16), although I wrote this review a few months ago after I read the ARC.

ReplicaI have a secret weakness for young adult dystopian novels; although the worldbuilding is often much too simplistic and the lead characters tend to be a grating mix of far too powerful and really angsty. They make great fun reads when I’m not in the mood for a serious book, though, like on really long planes where I’m half dead by the end of it. So Replica was one of the first books I packed for my 19 hour flight to India. My hopes for a quick, dumb read were squashed, though, because Replica is actually pretty  good.

The worldbuilding is still somewhat hokey – the United States has become the Corporate States. Each state is a corporation ruled by Executives, and power is hereditary. (It really gets me when authors capitalise common words and make that a pivotal thing in their world, but I digress.) This didn’t really make sense to me because to me, capitalism implies a meritocracy, even if people who are already rich have a headstart – the idea of high level employees of a company grooming their “heirs” to take over their jobs is confusing. I mean, maybe it would work if every Executive owned their own company, but each state is its own corporation. (Also the idea of named classes of people is hilarious, although this is certainly not unique to this book.)

I know, I said the book was good and immediately started nitpicking, but trust me, this is a good sign. I wouldn’t be so interested in how the book’s world worked unless I cared enough to keep thinking about it.

So, what is the book about? Nadia, a high ranking Executive is engaged to Nate, the Chairman Heir of the state formerly known as New York. Although she hates all the pressures on her as a female Executive, she’s pretty happy with her life. But then, Nate ends up murdered and although a Replica of him is created from his last memory backup, his family wants answers… and she was the last person to see him alive.

The main characters were pretty good – Nadia is definitely flawed and is confused and out of her depth through most of the book, but once she gets decisive, she’s great. Nate is very exasperating, he is very reactionary and self-centered and continues to be so even when other characters point this out to him. He has good intentions though, so he ends up being pretty likeable. The other characters are not as well fleshed out as I’d like, but there’s a nice set of them.

I loved that the usual romance is subverted; instead of Nate and Nadia barely knowing each other but being infatuated with each other, they’re best friends but very much not in love. Although, the book ends up more towards familiar romance-y territory by the end.

The thing that got me most about this book was the characters’ reactions to things. People communicate to each other way too much – there isn’t enough interpersonal conflict. I never thought I’d complain about this (I often get very frustrated with characters who don’t just talk to each other – Wheel of Time, I’m looking at you). And although there’s a lot of outrage going around, the characters get over it pretty quickly.

The plot was well paced and pretty well resolved, although I wish the “evil secret” had been fleshed out a little more. There’s definitely going to be a sequel, but the book should stand pretty well on its own.

I wasn’t expecting much from this one, but it surprised me. I’ll be keeping an eye out for sequels.

Replica by Jenna Black (Replica, #1)
Tor Teen, 2013 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

“Planesrunner” by Ian McDonald

PlanesrunnerPlanesrunner is sci-fi author Ian McDonald’s first foray into YA, and it’s pretty good. I’ve only read his River of Gods and Cyberabad Days, and it was great to see a different writing style and world.

Everett Singh’s father has been kidnapped right before his eyes, but no one believes him and the police seem strangely uninterested. Everett is convinced that the kidnapping is related to his father’s groundbreaking research, and since no one else seems to want to, it’s up to him to rescue his father… even if it means leaving the reality he’s lived in all his life.

McDonald is great at building science fiction worlds – the parallel realities in Planesrunner are really cool. Each version of Earth that our Earth has made contact with is different; shaped by a single historical change. For example, in the Earth that Everett spends most of the book in, oil was never discovered, and all technology is powered by electricity. That means airships but no planes, plastics being much rarer, and no space programmes.

Everett is a pretty good protagonist. He’s average in many ways, but he’s a really good cook and extremely smart, both of which he uses to great effect. Sometimes he’s too much of a Mary Sue (he figures out a puzzle that stumps his father’s colleagues in a day or so), but he’s still pretty lovable. The rest of the characters are also fun to read about – there’s Anastasia Sixsmyth, the airship captain, Sen, the bratty navigator, and the extremely well put together but evil Charlotte Villiers.

The plot confused me a bit – notwithstanding the Infundibulum being an iPad app (so Everett’s dad is a iPad programmer as well as being a theoretical physicist?), why was Everett’s dad’s kidnapping conducted in public, if the authorities wanted it covered up? I also would’ve liked a bit more planesrunning in the book. I was hoping to explore more than one of the parallel Earths, but that only happens in the sequels. I was a bit disappointed when I found out what the Everness was, since I know the series is called “Everness”. I like airships, but I like alternate realities more, so I wish the focus wasn’t on so much on the adventures of the airship and her crew.

Those are small nitpicks though. Overall, I enjoyed Planesrunner and I’m looking forward to revisiting the world and characters with Be My Enemy.

Planesrunner by Ian McDonald (Everness, #1)
Pyr, 2011 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

“The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led The Revels There” by Catherynne M. Valente

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led The Revels There coverThe Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There was my one non-Brandon Sanderson pre-order this year. The first book, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making was one of the best books I read in 2011 (and the second book ever to be reviewed on this blog.)

It has been a little over a year since September’s first visit to Fairyland, where she defeated the evil Marquess and saved the land. She has been waiting for the Green Wind to come fetch her so she can see her friends Saturday and A-through-L and have a fun adventure, but she’s afraid her friends have all forgotten her. When she finally gets to Fairyland, it turns out that the magic is seeping out of the land into Fairyland Below whose Queen is Halloween, September’s shadow. So our intrepid September has to save Fairyland all over again… but now it’s from her shadow self.

Pretty much everything about this book is gorgeous – the cover art, the words, the setting, the story. Valente is one of the most skilled writers I’ve encountered in her ability to play with words and ideas. Her prose is evocative and is full of whimsical but logical similes, allusions and metaphors. I would recommend this series based entirely on her writing, but every other part of the book is perfectly crafted too.

Valente tackles the age old children’s book trope – growing up, but somehow manages to put a fresh face on it. September is a lovely protagonist – she’s practical, but brave, very sure of herself and not afraid to take responsibility for her actions. But now she’s outgrowing her childhood, and that means she’s growing a heart and her feelings war. She’s always seen things the way she wants them to be, and now she sees things as they are, and that’s a hard realisation at any age. This is especially poignant when she encounters the shadow Marquess.

I especially loved the concept of shadows being everything the “real” person keeps hidden. Halloween is so wild because September tries her best to be proper, shadow Saturday is effusive, and shadow A-through-L is bashful. Mirroring was a big theme throughout the book – Fairyland Below is a mirror of Fairyland, and Fairyland itself mirrors wartime America.

I could go on and on, but I wouldn’t leave you any magic to discover for yourself. This series is the new Phantom Tollbooth! It doesn’t matter how old you are (you’ll love the whimsy if you’re young and you’ll appreciate the nuances if you’re older) – read The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There. Just make sure you read The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making first.

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led The Revels There by Catherynne M. Valente (Fairyland, #2)
Feiwel & Friends, 2012 | Buy the book

“Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians” by Brandon Sanderson

alcatrazIf you’ve been reading the posts on this blog, you know that I’m a huge Brandon Sanderson fan, and I own pretty much all of his books. However, I’ve been reluctant to read the Alcatraz Smedry series since it’s middle grade, but I figured I would give it a try. I was really obsessed with young adult books in 2010 and early 2011, but have since cooled (the profusion of implausible dystopias featuring a teenage girl changing the face of society while having to choose between the smouldering forbidden bad boy and the sweet but mildly boring good boy – yeah, they’ve really turned me off.)

Anyway, I’m glad I got over it and bought a copy of Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians, because it’s really amazing. Alcatraz Smedry has been bouncing from foster home to foster home throughout his life – sooner or later, everyone gets tired of his propensity to break everything he touches. It’s his thirteenth birthday, and he’s pretty resigned to his fate. But then he receives a mysterious bag of sand as a birthday present which he disregards but then gets promptly stolen. And then an old man shows up claiming to be his grandfather, that Alcatraz’s continuous destruction of things is in fact a superpower, that the librarians of the world are in fact a cult that have been trying to take over the world for millenniums – and most importantly, that they really need to go rescue that bag of sand. Such a crazy tale has to be true, so Alcatraz sets off on an adventure to infiltrate the local library and save the world!

Alcatraz is an extremely funny narrator – he’s sarcastic, meta and extremely genre savvy. He is fully aware of the fact that he’s a narrator (the book is a book that he writes in-world), and he takes pains to be as obnoxious of a one as possible, frequently taking the time to comment on the structure of the story and the narrative devices he’s using to hook you in. It’s certainly not what I was expecting, and it works wonderfully. I had a smirk on my face throughout the book.

The plot and characters are pretty ridiculously silly, but despite that and Alcatraz’s constant sarcasm, the story still has meaningful character development and a solid emotional core. There’s a complex world conspiracy, dinosaurs, myths and misinformation and it all makes a weird kind of sense.

Highly recommended! I’ll be getting Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener’s Bones pretty soon.

Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson (Alcatraz, #1)
Scholastic Press, 2007 | Buy the book

“Savvy” by Ingrid Law

Savvy coverAfter the overwhelming negativity of the last book I read, I figured I needed a bit of light reading. I recently acquired Savvy via Bookmooch; it’s been on my wish list since a couple of years ago, when I was really into young adult and middle grade books.

Savvy features Mibs Beaumont and her family, who have unique abilities called savvies, which they come into on their thirteenth birthday. Mibs’ mother has a savvy for doing things right, her brothers can disrupt electricity and cause hurricanes, and her grandfather can stretch land. It is two days before Mibs’ thirteenth birthday and she can’t wait for her savvy to arrive – but then her father is in a horrible accident, and her previous concerns seem irrelevant.

Law is a good writer with her whimsical turns of phrase and her well drawn characters. Although the book takes place over the span of less than a week, Mibs learns a lot – that people’s outward actions and how they feel inside can be very different, that some people don’t want to be helped, that bad things happen for a good reason sometimes. She also makes friends and bonds with her family even more.

This book is aimed at a middle-grade audience and although it was good, I found it a bit simplistic. I don’t think this this is only because it’s a middle grade – I recently read and loved Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians, another kids’ book with a first person perspective about people with strange powers, but that was by Brandon Sanderson and had a very genre savvy protagonist and a clever worldwide conspiracy. Savvy is a gentler, more personal book about a girl starting to grow up.

I would definitely recommend Savvy for young readers, but I won’t be prioritising reading the sequel.

Savvy by Ingrid Law
Penguin Group, 2008 | Buy the book