Thursday, October 30, 2014

Review: 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 by Catherynne M. Valente
Published: Feiwel & Friends, 2012
Series: Book 2 of Fairyland
Awards Nominated: Locus YA Award

The Book:

September has longed to return to Fairyland after her first adventure there. And when she finally does, she learns that its inhabitants have been losing their shadows—and their magic—to the world of Fairyland Below. This underworld has a new ruler: Halloween, the Hollow Queen, who is September’s shadow. And Halloween does not want to give Fairyland’s shadows back.”

This, the 2nd Fairyland book, is the third novel I’ve read by Valente, though I have also read some of her short fiction. I would strongly recommend readers to begin this series with Book 1, The
Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making.

My Thoughts:

On this journey to Fairyland, September is no longer a mostly-heartless child, but instead has the painful new heart of an adolescent, with its confusing, intense feelings.  This causes the story to be slightly more mature, and also, in my opinion, gives it more of a feeling of connection to the real world.  In the first book, September initially ran off to Fairyland with little thought to her parents, but this time she carries her fear and worry for her father, a soldier in World War II, with her. Her experience in Fairyland is accordingly darker, as she comes into a world that is slowly losing its magic (which is now rationed) in a war with Fairyland Below.

The story builds on a decision September made in the first book, when she chose to sacrifice her shadow in order to save someone. That shadow has now become the queen of Fairyland Below, and the queen is using her terrifying henchman, the Alleyman, to pull the shadows of others into her kingdom. However, Halloween is not exactly evil, she is merely someone who wants things very badly, and who is not too concerned with the effects of her actions on the wider world.  This left her as a rather ambiguous and complicated villain, especially since many of the things she wanted were not necessarily bad in themselves.  

This ties in to one of the things I found most interesting about the idea of the shadows—Halloween was not September’s evil twin, but instead represented the things about herself that she kept hidden or suppressed. The novel describes people’s shadows—their ‘dark sides’—as follows:

“…sometimes people keep parts of themselves hidden and secret, sometimes wicked and unkind parts, but often brave or wild or colorful parts, cunning or powerful or even marvelous, beautiful parts, just locked away at the bottom of their hearts” ~p. 72

Several major recurring characters appear throughout the story as their shadow selves, and I found it really interesting to see what parts of their personalities they chose to hide from others. I missed seeing some of them in their ordinary forms, like A-Through-L and Saturday, but there were plenty of interesting new characters to get to know as well.

Fairyland Below is just as large as Fairyland Above, and this second novel has just as impressive of a whirlwind of fantastical creatures and ideas—the economic systems of Goblin Markets, J√§rlhopp miners with gem-stored memories, minotaurs, forests of glass and much more.  There’s also magical Physickists this time around, which naturally piqued my interest.  I was delighted by the bizarre translation of physics academia into the fantastic, and especially loved this particular little joke about Questing Physicks: 

 “It is my dearest hope that one day I shall be the one to discover the GUT—the Grand Unified Tale, the one which will bind together all our Theorems and Laws, leaving out not one Orphan Girl or Youngest Son or Cup of Life and Death.” ~p. 120

Sure, it’s a simple joke,but it made me happy. Valente’s writing is also as lovely and poetic as ever, and I feel like I could have quoted half the book here as memorable passages. Altogether, this is an excellent addition to the Fairyland series, and I am looking forward to following September as she grows up through the coming novels.

My Rating: 4.5/5

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There is a wonderful sequel to the delightful first book of the series.  September is a little older now, and as she moves from childhood into adolescence, her story has become a bit more mature and darker as well.  This time, she is dealing with shadows, the parts of themselves that people conceal, as well as her fear for her father, who is away in World War II.  September’s Fairyland adventures still run through a seemingly endless barrage of creative fantastical ideas, and the villain is, once again, more complicated than one might expect.  I'm really enjoying the series, and can’t wait to read the next novel!

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Review: Tea with the Black Dragon by R.A. MacAvoy

Tea with the Black Dragon by R.A. MacAvoy
Published: Bantam UK, 1983
Awards Nominated: Nebula, Philip K. Dick, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards

The Book:

“When Marth Macnamara’s headstrong, intelligent daughter Elizabeth calls her for some kind of unspecified help, Martha rushes across the country to aid her. After Martha arrives at the luxurious hotel her daughter had booked for her, however, Elizabeth seems to have vanished.

While waiting anxiously for any contact from her daughter, Martha meets a mysterious Chinese gentleman by the name of Mayland Long.  Mayland seems to be living at the hotel, and he is drawn to Martha and her zen approach to life.  According to the hotel’s bartender, Mayland also believes he is a dragon.  Together, perhaps they can learn the truth about Elizabeth’s situation, before it’s too late!” ~Allie  

Tea with the Black Dragon is the first novel I’ve read by R.A. MacAvoy.

My Thoughts:

Tea with the Black Dragon is a short novel, but one that uncoils to reveal its mysteries with a slowly building speed.  The first part of the novel is full of tea and philosophical conversation, but the tension begins to mount as Martha and Mayland slowly start uncovering the truth about Elizabeth’s disappearance.  The story ends up being part mystery, part fantasy, and part thriller, and I especially enjoyed how the mystery was handled.  The solution to the mystery was not obvious from the beginning, but instead slowly becomes clearer with each character interaction in Mayland and Martha’s investigation.

The story does feel very dated, in some charming and some not-so-charming ways.  On the positive side, I really enjoyed the focus on 1980’s computer science. It is truly amazing how much has changed in computing during the past few decades, and I thought it was really cool to have this window back into how things were when I was very young. 

On the more negative side, I was not a huge fan of the exoticization of Mayland and the general portrayal of the female characters.  It seemed like Mayland’s ethnicity was mentioned nearly every time he or his actions were described, always to distinguish how he was totally different from white (or black) people. It didn’t help this feeling of othering that Mayland, as a Chinese dragon, was also a literal outsider to the human race. In terms of the female characters, most of the novel is basically a standard damsel-in-distress story, though I’d say it is a very good one.  I was also not thrilled with what the story seemed to be saying about women through the characters of Martha and Elizabeth, from their life perspectives and experiences.  Despite these complaints, I found the personalities of Mayland and Martha to be very likeable and engaging, so it was very easy to cheer for them as the story took its more dangerous turns.     

As far as fantasy goes, the single fantasy element is undeniably present, but also mostly irrelevant to the story. Mayland Long claims to be a dragon in human form—and this is confirmed by several details in the text—but the story would have changed very little if he had just been a wealthy man in the middle of a philosophical crisis.  I rather liked this approach, since it made the story more about the characters, their thoughts, and their connections to one another than about external magical influence. It’s an entertaining book both as a story of Mayland’s personal growth and as a thriller about Martha’s missing daughter.

My Rating: 3.5/5

Tea with the Black Dragon is a short but sweet novel that slowly uncovers the central mystery of Martha’s missing daughter.  While the story begins peacefully, the tension mounts as the underlying thriller plot is revealed.  Martha is aided in her investigation by Mayland Long, a Chinese dragon in human form who is searching for a philosophical master that can lead him to understanding.  The novel feels a bit dated now, with its inclusion of 1980s computers and what seems like some outdated approaches to gender and ethnicity, but the story is still easy to enjoy. Overall, it was a very pleasant and entertaining book to read, and one I am happy to have encountered.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Review: Hive & Heist by Janine A. Southard

Hive & Heist by Janine A. Southard
Published: Martian Cantina, 2014
Series: Book 2 of the Hive Queen Saga

The Book:

Is it really stealing when you take back what's yours? Exhausted and broke, Rhiannon's Hive limps into John Wayne Station on the Ceridwen's Cauldron. Safe at last, this stop-over is looking bright until the authorities steal their ship's engine. The only solution: steal it back! Between stage-handing a play (at the local brothel) and avoiding their law-enforcement roommate (a sentient robot), they grow into a real team. A real Dyfed-style Hive.

The law enforcement robot, meanwhile, is busy detecting a series of thefts and murders. She's determined to use all her skills-programmed both before and after she clawed her way to sentience-to protect anyone else from getting hurt. Agents from a rival law enforcement group, however, bump into her investigation and create problems that she could really do without. She has a job to do, even if they're determined to get in her way.”

This is the second book of the Hive Queen Saga, which the author has kindly given to me for review consideration.  This is the sort of series that really needs to be read in order, so I would recommend new readers to start with Queen & Commander. Southard has also written a short story about the origins of the sentient robot in Hive & Heist, titled ‘The Robot Who Stole Herself”, and she is currently working on a new comedic fantasy novel unrelated to the Hive Queen Saga (her website is here).

My Thoughts:

I enjoyed Queen & Commander (hereafter referred to as Q&C) and the story seems to be only getting better with Hive & Heist (H&H).  The first novel introduced the ensemble of characters and the general setup of the universe, and H&H further develops both of these areas. H&H uses the same approach to world-building as Q&C, where new information is provided only when it comes up naturally in the story. Rhiannon’s group is now traveling in foreign (American) space, though, so their culture shock means that the reader gets more information about the local way of life and of the relationships between different spacefaring human cultures. I feel like I now have a better sense of the wideness and diversity of the universe now, and it will be fun to see more societies in future novels. A continuation of a subplot from near the end of Q&C also gives a bit more information on the Hive-Queen bond, and it looks like I was pretty far off in parts of my understanding from the previous book.  This sideplot hasn’t quite connected back in to the main Ceridwen’s Cauldron storyline just yet, but I’m interested to see where it will go from here.

In terms of the characters, H&H picked up the arcs of the different hive members right where the previous book left them, and I especially enjoyed seeing how the hive grew and changed this time around.  Even without the external problem of their stolen experimental drive, there’s plenty of conflict within the hive.  By the end of Q&C, Rhiannon still hadn’t really learned how to be a good leader, but their time on John Wayne station gives her plenty of time to puzzle out where she’s been going wrong.  While she’s figuring herself out, though, Luciano is becoming even more disillusioned with her as a queen, Victor is struggling to find his role in the group, and her best friend, Gwyn/Lois, is slowly growing into a new assertiveness about herself and her needs.  I enjoyed watching them try to learn how to function as a team, and seeing Rhiannon struggle towards understanding what they needed from her as a leader.

Aside from the hive members, a main new addition to the story is the sentient robot Melissa.  Sentient robots are not an especially common sight in American space, so Melissa has had a hard time carving out a life that suits her. At the moment, she’s basically a Texas Ranger of space!  Given the vast space territory covered by humans and the difficulties of communication, I think it makes sense that this style of law enforcement would be welcomed.  I enjoyed a lot of the details of Melissa's life, such as how she has carefully learned mannerisms that translate well into human nonverbal cues.  Melissa is as much an outsider on the station as the Welsh teens, so it made sense how their stories converged.

On top of the new world information and character development, H&H also provides a fun story about a heist, a criminal investigation, and a theatre production at a brothel. None of these plotlines are especially complicated on their own, but they come together well for the climactic ending.  It feels like these first two novels complete the first adventure of Ceridwen’s Cauldron, and it seems clear that there will be many more adventures in the future, both in foreign space and in their Welsh home. I will look forward to reading the next book in the series!

My Rating: 3.5/5

Hive & Heist continues where Queen & Commander left off, with Rhiannon’s hive stuck on John Wayne station and their ship’s experimental engine stolen by the local authorities.  I enjoyed seeing another society in what seems to be a diverse collection of spacefaring human civilizations, as well as seeing how the character arcs that began in the first novel played out in this second part. An interesting new major character is also introduced, a sentient robot Ranger named Melissa, who is tracking a thief and murderer.  With Melissa’s investigation, the hive’s planned heist, and even a theatre production, there’s plenty of action to propel the story along to an entertaining conclusion. I’m excited to see what adventures Rhiannon and her friends will encounter next!