Familiar Story in Android Skin
[Wait, something about androids and spaceships on a fantasy blog? Occasionally we need to nod to space opera—fantasy’s lovechild with scifi—and Defy the Stars is the YA version. Skip if you’re luddite-only.]
Claudia Gray’s Defy the Stars opens with a bang: Noemi Vidal, war orphan on a rebel planet, watches helpless as her half-sister and only friend dies in the middle of an epic battle. And just as she’s about to kill one of androids Earth used to do it, the thing mentions there might be a way to save her planet from ever fighting Earth again.
Cut to the android’s perspective: special project of the genius whose androids changed the worlds, he has been locked in a disabled spaceship for thirty years, and out of sheer loneliness (the first of many emotions he learns to feel) takes an enemy soldier to be his new master.
From there the two embark on a dangerous and fast-paced mission through all four of Earth’s colony worlds to try to collect the pieces needed for the android’s plan. Along the way, they learn a lot about themselves, and each other, and end up forging a relationship despite differences in politics and prejudice.
Sound familiar? It is--Defy the Stars is a great YA space-opera romantic thriller, hitting all the right notes at exactly the right time. The fact that those notes form a familiar melody can be something of a detriment (can you think of another YA about an oppressed girl fighting for the freedom of her people in a hierarchical society who gets caught between love and war?), but only if you’re going into it looking for novelty. If you’re looking for the next fix in your Hunger Games-Divergent-Red Queen reading list, this book will do nicely.
That’s not to say there’s nothing original about it: Noemi’s home world is religious, and Gray actually has her character take religion and matters of faith seriously. Their intersection with politics and prejudice around the humanity of androids makes an illuminating backdrop for the more interesting of the two character journeys, the android’s coming to realize he can experience emotions, disagree with his masters, and ultimately that he has as much right to be called human as anyone else. While Trekkies will decry ‘Data! Data!’ for the first half of the book (especially if you listen to the audio, in which the male narrator goes a little too hard on the robot accent), Gray’s android goes further than that, and while the eventual romantic tone feels familiar, there’s a reason we return to the same themes. Sometimes you just want a beloved story in new skin.
Defy the Stars isn’t a perfect rendition, though—the last third of the story starts to feel a little forced, with characters meeting a little too coincidentally, taking risks they don’t seem totally motivated to, on a quest that feels forced for the sake of the romantic subplot. If you’re a plausibility hound, or need your characters to always do the smartest thing, you might get annoyed a few times toward the end. And for epic fantasy lovers, the worldbuilding might feel a little shallow, but in a book this short, with this quick a pacing (YA, in other words), you can’t ask for much more.
And for all the rest of you, who might enjoy a familiar romantic and rebellious story dressed up in shiny android skin, Defy the Stars is well-worth a plane ride read.
A World of Severus Snapes
There is a line these days in fantasy, between unabashedly European settings (often with outdated racial and sexual politics) and those that try to get farther afield (for example, Django Wexler or Ken Liu). Ever since Robert Jordan codified the European setting Tolkien popularized, it’s been hard to write a Europeanesque setting without falling back on tired tropes—but Jeff Wheeler pulls it off in The Queen’s Poisoner. Historically based on the War of Roses (also Martin’s worldbuilding muse for Game of Thrones), the book boasts a deeper political history than you often see (especially with young protagonists), a unique (if nebulous) magic system, and a narrative focused enough on the internal life of the protagonist that the externally-familiar setting doesn’t steal too much from the story’s appeal.
So what's the story about, if not a gallant knight/farmboy/hobbit going to defeat a dragon/Forsaken/undead warlock? It’s about a rebel nobleman’s son getting sent as hostage to an upstart king, and learning to survive (and eventually, to vindicate his politically-imperiled family) in a hostile castle. The protagonist is young, and though he gets a lot of help from the book’s namesake poisoner, as well as a plucky female friend reminiscent of Scarlett from Steamboy, much of the delight in this story is his gradual coming to age and confidence in his difficult setting.
Wheeler has a delicate feel for character, and there are good-on-the-inside Snapes of various sizes in The Queen's Poisoner, from outwardly-evil to minorly-sinister to just-annoying, all of whom end up being trustworthy in one way or another. Of course, there are a couple actually-evil characters too—and the hero’s journey here is learning to decipher who is who, beneath the mask, an internal journey his friend the poisoner helps him with (and seems to be tied to his burgeoning magical skills). It’s a fairly unique character arc for a fantasy novel, and the drama that comes with him reacting to, then burrowing beneath, the skin of variously antagonistic characters to find their true colors makes for a fun read.
That said, TQP still falls flat in a few places. While Owen’s hijinks and coming of age around the castle is fun, the plot feels fairly episodic until the last quarter, which sort of forces a climax and resolution on an unwilling protagonist. That is the other weak link in the book—though young protagonists (see early Harry Potter) can’t be expected to get everything done under their own power, Owen spends the book quite withdrawn, shy, and reactive, relying almost entirely on friends to help him out of trouble, and to drive him to action. Coming-of-age stories often start this way, but to our tastes TQP stayed that way a little too long.
So, Queen’s Poisoner, worth a read? Yes—the pacing is quick, the characters fun, the worldbuilding deepish, and the story unusual among fantasy novels. Check it out especially if you are a fan of younger protagonists or coming of age stories; if heroic/active characters and tight plotting are more your wheelhouse, though, you might want to read the kindle sample first.
: Not to mention those that change the field so thoroughly it’s hard to place them as anywhere (see Brandon Sanderson or NK Jemisin)
: Or a fan of audiobooks--this one's 1.99!
Pleasant Spice to a Familiar Spirit
It’s been said that fantasy set in pseudo-European settings is dead, that George RR Martin killed what Tolkien spawned, and that to get a fresh take on fantasy (or more diverse voices represented) we need to get out of European-inspired settings, to places like the worlds of Ken Liu or N.K. Jemisin. I’m generally on board with this—which is why An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors was such a surprise.
Not the only reason, but I’ll get to that. First, see how debut author Curtis Craddock sets European influence aflight: by fast-forwarding from the iron age to a baroque period of elaborate costumes and blackpowder rifles. By making good use of existing languages for much-less-awkward-and-more-understandable in-world magical terms (see espejo instead of bloodmagic or some such). And most of all, for ripping European duchies off the face of the planet and sending them spinning high into the atmosphere, replete with airships to traverse them and a fully-imagined alternate science to explain them.
So his setting’s awesome. But what about the characters? The story? Yes and yes. Our main relationship here is not two lovers or brothers or even the father-son thing you often find in more staid fantasy, but instead a wandering musketeer who takes a protective air to a clever princess born without magic and therefore unwanted. Their relationship never strays to either familial or romantic, but keeps a sweet middle course between teacher and student, protector and protected, and best of friends. In the course of it, Craddock’s eye for human nature shines, both main characters acting out loveable quirks, areas of expertise and foolishness, and endearing moral dilemmas.
The story, too, is one more of politics and intrigue than violence and bloodshed, with a spot of religious destiny thrown in, distinguishing Alchemy from many of its fantastical contemporaries. While the twists and turns of secret identities and shifting political alliances at times require more concentration than the average reader might want to put forth, Craddock’s snappy dialogue and great cast of side characters keep the prose enjoyable.
The only thing we struggled with was pacing--Alchemy has long chapters, and the political twists and turns occasionally don’t feel worth the amount of space and dialogue they occupy. Still, these are more than made up for with the richness of Craddock’s world and characters—a whipping boy disguised as a prince, a religious necromancer in love with a dead goddess, ancient alchemical machineries, and a plucky girl with a wormfinger. If you every wondered what Captain Jack Sparrow would do with airships and a female consort he wasn’t wooing, and thought some clever magic would add a pleasant spice to that rum, An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors is for you.
Snapshot is everything we expect and love from Brandon Sanderson, just about 85% as good—and with a Hugo-award winning novella under his belt, we can’t blame this one on length.
Blame it instead on busyness? Sanderson’s last few novels (Calamity, Bands of Mourning) have felt rushed, perhaps because he’s fit them (and Snapshot) between working on the next volume of his opus The Stormlight Archive. For those of us deeply hooked on that one, it’s probably forgiveable. And regardless, Snapshot still hits all the high notes of Sanderson: unique setting, fun characters, and cool magic that leads to a twist-filled ending. It’s all here it’s just… sorta rushed.
The concept, at least, is awesome. A future police department, through unspecified means, is able to make an exact physical replica of a previous day, complete with autonomous people, deadly bullets, etc. Our main characters go into these Snapshots to gather evidence on crimes already committed, ‘before’ they’re committed, to convict criminals. So we spend the whole story inside a world that looks and feels—but isn’t—real, with the only two ‘real’ people in it shooting who they want, revealing the truth to others, and doing their best to track down criminals using real world clues. But in a world where most anything is possible, the duo’s darker past comes up, and ultimately comes between them as it only could inside a Snapshot…
So it’s a fun concept, and there are some twists, but it all feels unpolished. The characters are basically Wax and Wayne from the latest Mistborn series, a serious and talented lawman foiled by a goofy and carefree sidekick, only Snapshot’s lawman is haunted by a past failure. They uncover a hidden plot, and track down someone exploiting the system, but not in as quite a clever a way as we know Sanderson’s capable of—and the twist endings don’t feel quite as sudden-but-inevitable as they could, and as we know Sanderson’s capable from tighter murder-mystery plots like Shadows of Self.
So is it worth a read? Sure—it’s not expensive (especially given Sanderson’s stance on keeping his works DRM free), and it’s totally entertaining. Just not quite as entertaining as the author’s capable of, so it may not be the best work of his to read first (try The Emperor’s Soul), or the favorite of longtime fans (which, if you haven’t guessed by now, I am). But for everyone else, waiting impatiently for the next Stormlight book? This should tide you over—which, like Arcanum Unbounded, is likely why he put it out.
There’s a reason NK Jemisin won the 2016 Hugo for the first book in this series, The Fifth Season. A lot of reasons, actually. And they just get better in The Obelisk Gate.
Take the magic. A looked-down on (rather than the fantasy-trope of revered) class of gifted people can control the forces of the earth, drawing up heat and causing earthquakes in a setting already known for cataclysmic earthquakes every few thousand years. In The Obelisk Gate, Jemisin takes that magic deeper (boldly naming it ‘magic,’ a word fantasy authors have shied away from lately), and adds another layer onto it, building to some epic moments later in the book.
Take the characters. Jemisin’s background as a psychotherapist shines here. I don’t think I’ve read deeper, more complex, more real and loveable-while-hateable-or-vice-versa characters anywhere in fantasy. They are truly top-notch, and in The Obelisk Gate she pushes her characters deeper in quasi-redeeming the villains of the first book, while making her twin protagonists do some pretty terrible things in the name of what they believe in—and they are all written with such attention to the finer points of the human spirit that you walk away feeling more like you’ve read Dostoevsky than Heinlein.
Okay, not to sing only praises: this feels like a middle book. Which is to say, the plot is as much a recovery from book one and a build to book three as it is a story unto itself. Not to say it isn’t wonderful and engrossing, but it is those things kind of like The Two Towers is: wonderful and engrossing with a stress on middles rather than the tight beginning-middle-end we love from well-told tales.
People say N.K. Jemisin is on the literary end of speculative fiction, but despite unabashedly using second-person for much of the tale, it never comes off as experimentally opaque or different for the sake of being different. The story sucks you in, the plot moves, the magic’s cool—it really just feels like she added a literary depth of character and experimentation with prose to all the things we fantasy readers love about our genre. Not many authors can do that, but Jemisin nails it. At 120,000 words it’s a decent-length book, but I’m not sure it took me two nights to finish (though they were late nights).
Enough praises. This is well worth a read, for pretty much anyone except a Sad Puppy—and it would probably do them some good too. No wonder it’s nominated for a Nebula Award this year. I usually end with some kind of “for fans of this,” or “if you like that” kind of reading recommendation, but no need in this case. Read it.
Sudden or Inevitable, but not Both
There are some fantasy readers who just want swords and sorcery. And there are others who’ve read so much of that, and dwarves and elves and dragons and knights, that we appreciate attempts to do something new, to push the genre in different ways. Robert Jackson Bennett’s Divine Cities is good at this: deicide in an age of motorized vehicles, spies and military generals versus supernatural enemies, unmagical main characters, Kafka-esque bureaucracy and dry, modern humor all set his books apart from the run of the mill.
In City of Blades, the second of the series, he also tries to get us away from the hero’s journey trope we find so often in fantasy, telling what’s essential a political mystery story (think Hunt for Red October) in a fantasy setting—or post-fantasy, you might call this, as the gods are dead. Only they’re not, really, which would be a cool reveal—except we saw it in the last book, and the mystery in this book depends on kind of forgetting that.
Before we get into it, a few kudos: Bennett is a talented writer, and the prose and pacing draw you through the story regardless of whether the mystery really mystifies. He also has a knack for vibrant, unique characters, and for me they were the best part of the book.
They didn’t manage to overcome its main flaw, though, which is that the driving interest of the story is a whodunit (on a grand political and divine scale), but we’re fed too much information to ever be surprised by the revelations the characters make. Instead of Wash’s ‘sudden but inevitable betrayal,’ the reveals just feel inevitable, which doesn’t make for good mystery reading. Without the curiosity, the struggle to stay just one step ahead of the detective (in this case an unhappily-retired military general), the story loses its drive, and I ended up frustrated sometimes that the characters weren’t seeing what Bennett made so obvious.
On the other end of Wash’s spectrum, there are some sudden but far from inevitable moments that felt, well, deus ex machina—unexplained visions, gods rising from the seas, etc.—that could have been great with a little foreshadowing, but instead feel highly coincidental in terms of the main character gaining needed clues to solve the mystery.
All this to say City of Blades is not for everyone. For long-time fantasy readers looking to break out of the tropes, or lovers of City of Stairs wanting to return to the world with not that many changes, the book will work well. It’s also some great prose—but if you’re looking to be pulled into a surprising plot, an intriguing mystery, or an action-packed page turner, you may want to stick to your guns—er, swords.
I’m just going to say it: Anthony Ryan has upped Brandon Sanderson at his own game. Which is a lot to say, for a sworn Sanderson fan and avid follower of his books, podcasts, and lectures. But consider: in Sanderson’s latest (and of course wildly-good-selling) Mistborn series he takes on an 18th-century sort of steamship (not to say punk) era of technology, with burgeoning corporations and wild outlands and all that. Plus, the patented clever and surprise-laden Sandersonian magic system.
The Waking Fire does all these things better. Set in a similar time period, Ryan deepens the economic ties between rival corporations and slow-crumbling empires, ties the magic more believably to the economy, and creates a more interesting outland populated with subhumans and failed expeditions and magic-blooded drakes that justify the danger of going out there (rather than proving oneself or anathema for civilization, which are Sanderson’s outlanders).
Of course we cannot compare others to Sanderson without comparing magic systems, and Ryan’s is devilishly clever. A select few of the world can digest the drake’s blood that is corrosive to regular people, and depending on the color of dragon, use it to do different things. The blood is rare, the drakes dangerous, and their value in the global economy as the power for steamships, fuel for intercontinental communication, and sundry other things (let’s not forget spying, assassination, and war!) makes it an integral part of the world—rather than just a cool one. And though Sanderson may still go deeper into the inner workings of his magic, Ryan does hint in this first of a duology that there are types and uses of drake’s blood yet to be seen.
Both authors are top-notch at writing page-turners. The Waking Fire drew me in from page one with clever action scenes, intrigue that actually feels tense, and the kind of snappy dialogue only a Brit could write. Where Ryan suffers a little, and Sanderson too, is the way the characters end up secondary to plot—of Ryan’s three main characters, only one has any real awakening or change of heart, and this comes early in the book. The other two are fun and driven but don’t end up offering us any deeper perspectives on human life—a thing Sanderson often struggles to do (or does in heavy-handed God Is Talking fashion). Maybe that’s a sacrifice you make for fast-paced engaging action, but there those (see Pierce Brown) who pull off both.
All this to say The Waking Fire is a gem, worth all the attention fantasy’s best-selling books get, though it has yet to join that list. The time period is unique and well-imagined, the stories fun and twisting, the action intense and the magic system clever. Though the action can get heavy-handed for those who skim fight scenes, Ryan’s quest for the White Drake is a literary nod to Moby Dick, and the setting in a fantastical Australia is something we don’t see often (not since Sean McMullen). Anthony Ryan is one to watch, and The Waking Fire comes highly recommended—if you can bear waiting for the sequel.
Arcanum for All--plus the Ars
Brandon Sanderson’s first short (well, shortish) story collection has something for everyone: new readers looking for shorter entries into his work, deep fans seeking clues to the larger story unfolding behind the scenes, writers and listeners to Sanderson’s craft-oriented podcast looking for insight into his process—it’s all there. Plus some stuff we’re not so sure about.
But first, the goods: of the nine pieces collected here, four are solid gold novellas, excellent examples of why Sanderson is one of the best-selling authors in fantasy. The worlds are imaginative, the magic systems unique and engaging, the characters spunky and well-motivated, and the plots wring all the excitement and surprises they can from those elements. Maybe the best is the first piece, The Emperor’s Soul, involving a girl imprisoned for her forbidden (stamp-based) magical skills, plotting not only to save her life but engineer her escape under ever steeper time constraints. Sixth of the Dusk is a tropical romp with psychic birds and steampunk colonialists; Shadows for Silence is a clever woman’s solution to family and economic strains in a ghost-haunted forest; and Mistborn: Secret History is probably a good read for those unfamiliar with Sanderson’s work, and a lot of fun for those who’ve read his Mistborn series.
Which brings us to the second group this books appeals to: the deep fans. We get a lot more about the Cosmere and the larger story connecting Sanderson’s series, as well as dips back into favorite worlds. Key to these are the star charts for each system in the Cosmere, along with notes from a new (and apparently important) character about them, and the god-shards ruling them. A little more accessible for those just wanting fun fiction is Mistborn: Secret History, a deep dip back into the Mistborn trilogy, lots of fun—aaand I can’t really say anything else about it without spoilers. There’s also a short story set in the world of Sanderson’s first novel, Elantris, and a brief one about Kelsier from before the events of the first Mistborn trilogy. And, a strange collection of in-world fiction about Allomancer Jak.
These last three bring us to the not-as-great parts of Arcanum Unbounded: a couple short stories, the Allomancer Jak humorous-ish collection, and some blurbs from Sanderson’s graphic novel, none of which really add up to great fiction. This part of the collection feels rushed, the plots and writing less than Sanderson’s best, and sort of slotted in to either fill space or conveniently collect all the rare goodies deep fans might want but not be willing to, say, buy a board game for. For new readers, they’re likely better skipped, and even for deep-ish fans such as myself, they were more of interest for their glimpses into unseen parts of the Cosmere than for their standalone quality as fiction.
The same might be said for Edgedancer, the only new piece of fiction in the collection, featuring a much-loved character from The Stormlight Archives. The story is interesting, and we get more of spunky Lift and her wacky ways, but… the magical-twist ending payoff Sanderson is so known for feels a little flat, the prose a little less polished, Lift’s character a little less punchy than she is in Words of Radiance. The novella feels rushed, and less than Sanderson’s best—a criticism I think unfortunately applies to his most recent shorter novels, The Bands of Mourning and Calamity. Let’s hope it’s because he’s focusing so much attention on the Stormlight Archive sequence, and not because he’s too pressured with deadlines, or letting his craft slip as his readership cements.
As ever, Sanderson does tip a hat to those of us fans who are also aspiring writers, with interesting notes after each piece about writing it, and a blurb from his 1999 not-to-published White Sands novel.
But what to think of Arcanum Unbounded as a whole? Mostly good things: for those who haven’t read the novellas it contains, they’re well worth the purchase price. For fans dying for a little more Sanderson before the massive dose of Stormlight scheduled for fall of next year, it’s a decent holdover—and I can’t help suspect the reason they released it when they did, to hold us all over. But if you’ve read the previously-released novellas, and aren’t a deep Cosmere fan, the new and rarer material in here may not be worth the purchase price.
Deeply Meaningful and Apocalyptic Hand Lotion
There are a lot of science fiction stories about the end of the world. There are plenty about the evil of corporations. There are probably some that involve millions of genetically identical people, maybe even a few with apocalyptic hand lotion.
But are they this fun?
That’s the thing about Extreme Makeover: Apocalypse Edition—it tells a great story, has interesting characters, involves believable (yet ultimately apocalyptic) science, and hits all end-of-the-world notes we love from stories like The Stand and A Canticle for Leibowitz. But it has so much fun doing it. This is probably the funniest book that I’ve read in years.
It’s also the most meaningful funny book I’ve read in years. Beyond some characters who realize some universal things about being human, and beyond Wells’ own obvious beef with the corporate cosmetics industry (one in which he worked for ten years), there is a deep message here about appearance and identity. A message that plays out in every storyline, that every character somehow faces, and that ultimately we all have to face in society. And Wells explores it deeply without ever (really) getting on his soap box (there might be this one page…).
If I can level a criticism, it’s that the characters don’t always feel deep or well-rounded. They play their parts believably, say a few insightful things, and none fall into stereotypes, but still somehow they feel secondary to the plot, to the larger ideas Wells is playing with. Or, maybe he just sacrificed depth for more good jokes, which honestly, we’re not complaining about.
So what’s it about, anyway? It’s about a cosmetics scientist who accidentally creates a hand lotion that imprints on your DNA, and then keeps rewriting it, to make you appear young. Only, if someone else uses that same lotion, it rewrites their DNA to yours. So you can be a more beautiful, youthful you, or become someone else more beautiful. Or handsome. Or genetically perfect. Or… politically powerful. Or deathly ill, if you wanted to weaponize it. Or even not human anymore—and it all happens, with an inescapable political capitalist logic that feels far too familiar.
Which is the best part of the book: the way, despite the far-fetched technology, the central themes and conflicts hit home. Because we live in a world controlled by money, not ethics, and a society obsessed with identity and appearance. And though neither Wells nor any of his characters may offer us a solution, Extreme Makeover does what all good speculative fiction does: it gives us perspective, a look at a world just different enough from ours, and just familiar enough, that we see our own a little differently, get a new take on our strange-yet-familiar life stories.
Hell, maybe even an idea for a makeover.
Epic Post-Victoriana Afro-Steampunk
That’s right—this book is all those titles. And more. And less. A steampunk take—no, a steampunk revolution against—the brutal and overlooked colonization of sub-Saharan Africa, and the stuffy European ideals that still haunt racial and sexual politics today. Sounds awesome, right? A lot of things about Nisi Shawl’s post-Victoriana epic are awesome—the multicultural cast of Chinese and European immigrants, indigenous Africans, and people born somewhere in between; the clever African inflection she gives to steampunk technologies (like taking the rubber industry driving colonization and making it improve dirigibles); the religious and political factions all struggling to create their own kind of African state—it’s all awesome.
It’s just hard to follow.
That could be because instead of one viewpoint character, or even two or three (see most epics), or five or six (think Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan), we’ve got eleven. They are well-written and unique and fun to read—but even so I struggle to remembered who each one was and what had happened last time we met them.
Add to that some significant time jumps—the book takes place over twenty years, and sometimes a year or more has passed since we last followed a particular character—and they’re in a new place, and a lot politically has happened since then. Technology itself leaps forward—we go from steam tractors to fast dirigibles in the space of a chapter or two, in which the main settlement has also been attacked and had to retreat somewhere else to caves, and we’ve switched character heads…
You get the idea. Really cool stuff is happening, but instead of a single story Everfair feels like six or eight novellas shuffled together. It expects a lot of the reader, and much as I’m ready for mental leaps, for imaginative stretches—that’s part of why we love fantasy—at a certain point the readability gets in the way of the awesome. And bottomline, I found myself less excited to return to Everfair than other books I was reading at the time, despite all the things it has going for it.
So take this for what you will. If you love historical fantasy/steampunk, really diverse casts of characters, or are interested in steampunk imagining some of the wrongs of Leopold’s Congo righted, this book will be worth the work. If that all sounds good, but you’re looking for a book to draw you in rather than having to pull yourself in, it might not be the one.
A fantasy lover since Tolkien in third grade, Levi has been published in several magazines, including Lakeside Circus, Perihelion SF, and Spark: A Creative Anthology. He is currently at work on a novel--fantasy, of course.
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