“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

“The Blue Sword” by Robin McKinley

The Blue Sword coverThe Blue Sword by Robin McKinley is set in the same world as The Hero and the Crown, which I enjoyed when I read it a couple of years ago. It’s been on my wishlist for a really long time, and I decided to give in and buy myself a copy. Unfortunately, I didn’t end up enjoying it as much.

The Blue Sword features Angharad “Harry” Crewe, a quasi-British (“Homelander”) impoverished noblewoman who finds herself living in a fort town on the edge of the Homelander empire after the death of her parents. Although her life is pretty boring, she realises she has come to love the harsh lands of her new home. She’s interested in the native (Damarian/Hillfolk) culture and language, but everyone around her considers it irrelevant as they are considered barbarians, so she doesn’t learn much about them.

Then, she catches the eye of the king of the Damarians, and he is compelled by his magic to kidnap her. She turns out to be the key to saving both Damar and her own people from the real barbarians – the Northerners, that are descended from demons.

I can’t review this book without spoilers, so my apologies.

WARNING: Extensive spoilers from here on.

I had a pretty hard time with this book for a few different reasons.

The protagonist: Generally I love quiet-but-awesome characters, but I was never really able to connect with Harry. She just seemed mostly passive, but stubborn whenever the plot needed her to be. For example, when she’s kidnapped, she is a bit scared in the beginning, but doesn’t actually react to it that much, even though she has no idea what the Damarians want, and she can’t speak their language. She doesn’t even have a single thought of escape – it’s almost like she’s an observer in her own life. But then she gets utterly convinced that she needs to fight for Damar and is incredibly passionate about that. It just doesn’t seem like the same person – unless she feels utterly useless at home and is just glad that someone wants her, and is willing to do whatever she needs to do to hold on to that. But that’s not a very pleasant or heroic characterisation. In any case, even if Harry is a perfectly likeable person, it didn’t show through in the book for me.

The Mary Sue: In The Inheritance: And Other Stories, Robin Hobb says that in the worst of [fantasy] stories, the magic and the mantle of being a hero is bestowed without effort by or cost to the protagonist. I tend to agree with her, and this is a large part of why I didn’t like the story of The Blue Sword. Harry is unremarkable (she’s a bit withdrawn and cold) when she’s kidnapped, but then reveals herself to have incredibly strong magic, learns the Damarian language to fluency in a couple of weeks, masters the native fighting skills and beats every single warrior in the trials with six weeks of practice, wields a mythical sword that is the most treasured relic of the Damarians, single handedly defeats the enemy by dropping a mountain on them, discovers the long lost healing uses of her magic, marries the king, and commences diplomatic relations between the Homelanders and the Damarians. All in about 200 pages. What does she give up to achieve this? Nothing.

The culture dynamics: At first glance, this book seems to be about subverting the colonial idea that the Damarian “natives” were barbaric and uncivilised, by having a protagonist that has “gone native” by fighting for Damar and choosing to settle there and adopt their culture. But the Damarian civilisation regards another one (the Northerners) as similarly barbaric and uncivilised, and that is never questioned, by Harry or anyone else. Instead, everyone agrees that they are utter evil and must be vanquished – we don’t even meet a single Northerner in the book, except in battle. This really annoyed me, and I’m even totally ignoring the “native civilisation needs a white coloniser girl to come save them” issue.

I understand that this is a young adult book and isn’t as complex as general fantasy, but this is still no excuse.

The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley
Greenwillow Books, | Buy the book

“Ship Breaker” by Paolo Bacigalupi

Ship Breaker coverPaolo Bacigalupi’s novel, The Windup Girl has been receiving a lot of press over the last couple of years, and I finally received it for my birthday this year. However, I didn’t take it with me to India, and ended up picking up his next book, Ship Breaker, a young adult book set in the future, to read on the flight back. I hesitate to call it a dystopia because we’ve only seen a small portion of the world, which is no worse than some areas of our world today.

Ship Breaker is set in the future, when oil has run out and the world has changed quite a bit. It follows the story of Nailer, a “ship breaker” that works on disassembling and scavenging valuable parts from ancient oil-tankers and other ships that have been beached near New Orleans. (It took me a long time to figure out that this book was set in the U.S., but it’s pretty clear.)  Nailer and his crew are desperately poor, and have to either work or starve – and Nailer is getting almost too big for his light crew job. He also has an abusive, drug-addicted and violent father at home (which is a shack.) He dreams of working on the big, clean clipper ships of the corporations that buy his scavenge, but that’s pretty far-fetched, considering his situation.

He has some hope for things changing when he is the first to find the wreck of a clipper – perhaps he can scavenge enough to make him rich. He does find riches, but he also finds a beautiful girl that’s barely alive. And everyone seems to be after her. Predictably, trouble ensues.

I found the worldbuilding and characters in this book really great. The little details about how the world we know has evolved into Ship Breaker‘s world are delightful, and the world itself is extremely believable. (I was also excited that there were multiple Indian characters! It’s hard enough to find one.) I didn’t care for the plot as much; it seemed almost too simplistic for such a lovingly detailed world and such well-rounded characters. The book has so many adult themes for a young adult book – abuse, drugs, loyalty, poverty, desperation, and a lot more – and they are all explored without any sugar coating or oversimplification. I guess I didn’t expect the plot to be so straightforward. However, it does bring the characters and world into more focus, and that is a good thing.

I’ll definitely be picking up the next installment in this series, The Drowned Cities. I also look forward to reading The Windup Girl even more now, now that I’ve seen what Bacigalupi can do.

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi (Ship Breaker, #1)
Little, Brown and Company, 2010 | Buy the book

“Fly Trap” by Frances Hardinge

Fly Trap cover I was instantly captivated when I read Fly by Night by Frances Hardinge, so I was really looking forward to this sequel, Fly Trap (Twilight Robbery in the U.K.)

Fly Trap follows the continuing adventures of Mosca Mye, an orphaned 12-year old who has the rare ability to read, her travelling companion Eponymous Clent, a well-known con-artist, and her homicidal goose, Saracen. They have recently (accidentally) helped cause a revolution in the city of Mandelion and run afoul of the powerful Guilds that control the realm. They’ve been trying to make a living using their conning skills and Mosca’s ability to read, but winter is coming, and they’re not in a comfortable spot. After they accidentally stumble upon a kidnapping plot, they head to the city of Toll hoping to notify the intended victim and earn a reward. Predictably, things don’t end up turning out like they’d hoped and they become embroiled in far larger schemes.

This is another of those books that is labelled “fantasy” simply because it is set in an alternate world, even thought it does not contain any magic. The world is really interesting, though. In the previous book, we learned that every hour and day has its own patron saint or god (called “Beloved”), and a child is named in honour of the reigning deity when he or she was born. This book explores this concept even further. The city of Toll takes these names very seriously, as Mosca and Eponymous soon find out.

Just like Fly by Night, Fly Trap is a self-contained adventure, and I don’t think it’s necessary to read the previous book in order to enjoy this one. A few familiar faces appear, but their appearances and significance are explained.

Mosca and Eponymous are fun protagonists, and their half-antagonistic, half-affectionate relationship is very endearing. I particularly loved the scene where Mosca makes up some choice insults in order to get Eponymous out of trouble, and his reaction to it. Even though both Mosca and Eponymous would deny having a sense of right and wrong, they definitely do – especially when it comes to saving each other from trouble. Saracen was a hoot (or rather, a honk) as always, but I was a bit disappointed that he wasn’t a bit more murderous.

Hardinge is a total delight to read – she loves playing with words, and her descriptions are inventive and charming. I think that she is one of the best young adult writers of today, having also read her The Lost Conspiracy. I don’t think she’s nearly as popular as she should be.

Fly Trap by Frances Hardinge (Fly By Night, #2)
HarperCollins, 2011 | Buy the book

“The Thief Lord” by Cornelia Funke

Cover for The Thief Lord

I seem to be sick again, so this review might not be as coherent as others.

The Thief Lord follows Prosper and Bo, two brothers who have run away from home to Venice after their mother died. Their mothers’ sister wants to adopt Bo (because he is five years old and looks adorable), but can’t be bothered with Prosper, and the brothers do not want to be separated. They are taken in by a mysterious “Thief Lord” who looks after them, along with a few other homeless kids.

I really enjoyed the setting  – Venice is described in such lovely and magical terms that it seems like a character rather than just a city where the story takes place. I expected this book to have more fantasy than it actually did – it’s mostly just a book about the adventures of a group of kids.

Most of the characters were fun to read about, but I had a hard time liking Scipio, the Thief Lord. I didn’t really know what to think about the way his story progressed. [Spoilers follow]. Most stories I’ve read about kids who don’t like their family end up with them realising that their family loves them and that they actually have a pretty good life. Scipio’s story ends with him turning into an adult and never seeing his family again! I didn’t think his life was that bad – he just had a stern father. Also, how does it work when a boy that hasn’t gone through puberty yet suddenly turns into an adult man? That ending was what John Scalzi calls the flying snowman, for me. [Spoilers end]. However, I did like that there wasn’t a “message” to the story – things just happened, and it didn’t end completely happily.

Overall, the book was an entertaining read, and I think I should have liked it more than I actually did. I’ll still read more of Funke’s work, but I’m not in a hurry.

This is book 5 of 25 of my Dec 11, 2011 book challenge.

The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke
Chicken House, 2002 | Buy the book

“The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making” by Catherynne M. Valente

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making coverI wish that I hadn’t jumped the gun in writing my “Best reads of 2011” post, since it’s still 2011 and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making would have definitely been on it.

This book reminded me of The Phantom Tollbooth. That is is pretty much the highest praise I can give to a book. Other things that it had touches of: Roald Dahl’s quirky humour, Neil Gaiman’s whimsy and a world that reminded me a bit of The Neverending Story.

September, a girl from Omaha, Nebraska is given an opportunity to travel to Fairyland by the Green Wind, and of course she takes it. The book tells of her adventures there and her quest to defeat the evil Marquess. (I suppose there’s a touch of Oz in there, too.)

Catherynne M. Valente is known for her beautiful and evocative prose, and she definitely does not disappoint here. I sometimes find omniscient narrators a little annoying, but Valente makes it charming and delightful.

I loved that the story depends so much on September’s conscious choices, rather than her reacting to things that she happens to come across. I thought that was very well conveyed, and made September an captivating protagonist.

Summary: irresistible. Go read it now!

This is book 2 of 25 of my Dec 11, 2011 book challenge.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente (Fairyland, #1)
Feiwel & Friends, 2011 | Buy the book