Wednesday, February 29, 2012

River Secrets - 7/35

River Secrets is the third book of Bayern, following Shannon Hale's Enna Burning and The Goose Girl. This one is interesting because its protagonist, Razo, differs from the leads in the other two books both by being a boy and by not having elemental powers. Indeed, it's his insecurity about how ordinary he is that forms a backbone for his development in the story.

The plot is basically this: after the war with Tira, Bayern has to send an ambassador to the southern kingdom, and with the ambassador are some troops, including Razo, Finn, and, as the ambassador's lady in waiting, Enna. Bayern wants peace, but Tira's assembly may yet vote for war, so currying favor with the public is important. But that won't be easy when someone with fire speaking is burning Tirans and trying to frame Bayern. Meanwhile, Razo meets the charming Lady Dasha, who seems to be hiding something. Nothing's as it seems in this city of rivers and secrets, including Razo, who learns a lot about who he is and the man he is becoming.

This is a fun book. Isi is a doormat for most of her book and continues to be calm and reserved. Enna embodies her element; she's always animated but can be a little prickly too. Razo is just an all-around fun guy. It's not hard to see why he's able to make friends with both kitchen staff and royalty. I have to say, I really enjoy the friendship between him and Enna. No romance, just care for each other. They balance each other well. Dasha's pretty cool too, but I think her better development comes later. One thing I especially like about these books is how even when the main character changes the others are still there, still important, still have their own agendas and motivations. And this doesn't change in the fourth book, either, the review of which will be coming before long.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Ready Player One - 6/35

Ready Player One is referred to as sci-fi, which isn't surprising as it takes place in the future and inside a video game. But there's at least as much reason to consider it a fantasy novel, in more than one way. The novel is a pretty standard quest in its structure. In the future, the OASIS virtual reality MMO is so popular that it's supplanted the real world for much of humanity, including uber 80s geek Wade Watts. Wade's obsession with a decade long before his own stems from a contest put forth by OASIS' creator James Halliday. Halliday, who grew up in the 1980s, made his will into a contest. Whoever could find the hidden Easter egg embedded deep within OASIS would get his fortune. And the clues are all related to 1980s pop culture. (Maybe it's bitterness due to having been born only two years before that decade ended, but the 1980s fanboying didn't quite strike a chord with me. But it is important to the book that the focus be on the 80s, and it's quite cleverly done.) Anyway, to get to the Easter egg, egg hunters (known as gunters) must find three keys and solve puzzles behind three gates. It's so very RPG. Obviously Wade finds one of the keys, and before he knows it he's in the spotlight and in the race for the egg. Along the way he gains allies and finds romance, all the while opposing the dastardly IOI corporation.

Besides being modeled after a basic fantasy quest, the book is also nerd wish fulfillment fantasy. It's what every teen/twenty-something male nerd wants: adventure, validation for devoting his life to meaningless trivia and skills, the love of a woman, money, power, etc. But while I recognize this, I also commend Ernest Cline for writing in Wade a truly likeable protagonist and a very well-rounded supporting cast. Plus, the OASIS is freaking cool. And this book has the most realistic portrayal of the whole "save the world in an online game" setup I've ever seen. It's hard to have tension and suspense when it's avatars at stake, not human lives, but since OASIS is such an integral part of the world and having your avatar killed loses you everything, including levels and items, and since the conflict is brought into the real world as well, the dramatic stakes are satisfactorily high.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A Wrinkle in Time - 5/35

A Wrinkle in Time is weird. For starters, how do you even classify it? Coming of age novel? Yeah, there's a good bit of that. Meg Murry is one flawed character, and I love her for it, always have since I first read the book back in grade school, and her character development is great. Quite realistic, since she'll learn something and then forget it or be too impatient to put that lesson into practice and end up having to overcome that fault yet again. Who among us hasn't experienced that? This girl is incredibly flawed. She's awkward, a bit of a delinquent, a bit of a drama queen, but she's utterly endearing at the same time. Determined and pessimistic in equal measures, impatient, loyal, smart, dense, just a really human mix of traits. So really, a good bit of the book is about her growing as a person. But this is not a coming of age novel. So maybe it's science fiction. Tesseracts, dimensions, traveling through space to alien planets. All hallmarks of sci-fi. But, well, maybe I haven't been reading the right science fiction, because literary allusions and Christian imagery don't seem very scientific. Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Which may technically be aliens, but they're never presented in that light, seeming to be more beings of magic and faith than anything. Really, the religious themes running through L'Engle's books makes a good case for Christian fiction. But again, to pigeonhole the book into that genre is to ignore all of the other wonderful elements.

This is a book that breaks the mold. It combines genres in a joyous journey across time and space on a quest for something as simple as one girl's father and something as heavy as the fight of good against evil. It's a children's book that does not talk down to children, explaining the more complex concepts in the narrative but not spoonfeeding them to the reader. And plenty of the literary allusions and name-drops I didn't even get until I was an adult. (To me, Ariel was always a mermaid; what middleschooler knows The Tempest?)

A Wrinkle in Time
is always a joy to read, a return to a warm world of knowledge and family and the triumph of good over evil, even if the world seems cold and petty at times, even if it's hard to fight the good fight.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Night Circus - 4/35

This one, surprisingly enough, did not win any awards, despite all the talk about it. I went into reading Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus with a little bit of hesitation. You see, I'm a literary hipster; if something's too mainstream, I'll avoid it on principle. Oh, I know it sounds bad, but come on. Think of it from my p0int of view. I read more than anyone I know. If a person who reads three books a year comes and raves about the latest fad novel, I think I'm allowed to take their opinion with a grain of salt when they say it's the best thing they've ever read. Your literary tastes are limited to Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games; excuse me if I don't weigh your views on the same level as my own.

Anyway, I ordered The Night Circus from the library on a whim, figured I'd give it a stab. Interestingly enough, it begins with a section in second-person present tense. That's just a teaser, though. The book drops into third-person soon enough, though it retains the present tense. I don't really like that choice in most cases, but this book was good enough that I was able to overlook it for the most part.

Where the novel succeeds is atmosphere. A spooky, mysterious circus, magic and a mysterious contest, nineteenth century Europe. The descriptions are tantalizing. The whole thing appealed to my sense of the theatrical. The plot is actually quite basic, centering around the aforementioned magic contest. Watching the characters and the circus grow and unfold alongside each other, the experience of the novel, is the real prize here. I quite liked Celia. She was... Well, the word that comes to mind is "cool." Celia was cool. Always in control, knowing what the score was, did not, and this was what really did it for me, did not allow romance to turn her into a vapid second-fiddle heroine. Not for the most part, at any rate, and less than Marco. Which is not to say that I disliked Marco. He was fine. There just wasn't as much of interest in him to me personally. The one thing I thought was lacking was the ending. There was rather a build up to a big defining moment for the resolution of the contest and the end of the Night Circus, but I thought that the resolution was a bit too pat. Not enough to earn my dislike, though. Overall, I wholeheartedly endorse this book for anyone with a love of magic, mystery, and historical fiction.

Update 2/28: This book did win an Alex award, so there's that.

Enna Burning - 3/35

So if the conflict in The Goose Girl comes about mainly due to outside actions and Ani's own passivity, the second book in the series, Enna Burning, is all about the proactive choices of Enna, Ani's companion from the first book. War is coming to Bayern, and as the best friend of the queen, Enna finds herself in the thick of events. She has plenty to worry about on a personal level as well: her friend Finn is in love with her, Ani (now known as Isi) is having trouble controlling her gift of speaking to the wind, and Enna's own brother has discovered the talent of controlling fire. However, it soon becomes clear that the fire controls him, and when Enna learns the skill as well, she finds out just how difficult it can be. But fire magic is a useful tool in wartime, and Enna struggles with her desires to help Bayern win the war, to stay loyal to her friends, and to give into the urge to burn.

What I like about this second book is that it ups the stakes of the first and shows that actions have consequences and that while fairy tale endings are nice, life doesn't just freeze at the happily ever after. Isi's wind powers helped her reclaim her title in The Goose Girl, but now they have their drawbacks. Enna weighs the pros and cons of learning fire even after seeing how it destroyed her brother, and while she is able to help Bayern greatly, it also brings her tremendous personal suffering. And Enna makes some bad decision, ones that we as readers can see are pretty darn stupid, but the narrative also gives us sympathy for Enna because we see how she's struggling to do what she knows is right in the face of her urges to burn, and also how her view of what is right is being slowly warped even as she struggles.

As usual, Shannon Hale's language is lush and descriptive, painting vivid pictures in your head. The characters are realistic and sympathetic, and there is plenty of action and excitement along with more commonplace moments that provide a breather and characterization. One improvement from The Goose Girl is that Enna Burning kicks off right into the action. While that obviously shows Hale's improvement as a writer, it also speaks for the character of Enna, who is definitely not one to sit around waiting for things to happen. And for the sake of comparison, here is the review I wrote the first time I read this book.

Turns out this one won awards as well. Chalk up one more read for the challenge! And lest you think I'm falling behind, I have a huge backlog of books I've read but have not reviewed. So yeah.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Thief Lord - 2/35

Another book I've reviewed before, but I enjoyed rereading Cornelia Funke's The Thief Lord. I like its depiction of Venice (an Italian city I've not seen but wish to visit). The child characters are all interesting. Bo's childish behavior (he's five) is realistic for a kid that age, and it also allows him to be a very useful plot advice from time to time. Prosper is a straight man character, pretty serious for a twelve-year-old, trying not to give in to thieving and always doing his best to be a mature and moral example for his little brother. I also liked Hornet, who didn't suffer much from being the token girl. Scipio was kind of annoying, but then he's supposed to be a pompous, if good-hearted, kid who thinks he knows more than he does and fancies himself practically an adult. The adult characters are just the sort you want for a story with young protagonists who operate outside the mainstream. Victor and Ida are unconventional but not irresponsible, and you end up rooting for them as well as for the kids.

The plot itself is pretty simple, and for all the book has a very magical feel to it, except for one element late in the book, everything is actually very mundane. Kids running away from relatives because they're unhappy, orphans who steal to survive, a private investigator who works to pay the bills, an an eccentric photographer. But the way they're combined gives one suspenseful, hushed feeling to the whole story.