10.28.2012

The Shadowed Sun, by N.K. Jemisin

The Shadowed Sun
N.K. Jemisin's The Shadowed Sun picks up ten years after The Killing Moon. A few of the same characters have small roles to play, but the main action is carried out by Wanahomen--the son of the former Prince--and Hanani--a dream healer. Wanahomen wants to reclaim his princedom and Hanani wants to find a place for herself among the formerly all-male dream healers. Their journeys cross, leading to interesting revelations.

In the world that Jemisin created, dreams have the power to heal or kill. Only strictly observed religious rules keep the people of Gujaarah from abusing them. Or at least, the rules mostly keep this from happening. The plot of the last book was all about what happens when someone finds a way to abuse this power. For his crimes, the old Prince was killed and his city taken over by foreigners. Ten years later, the foreign occupation continues. Wanahomen lives in exile among the desert tribes, scheming to gain allies to retake Gujaareh. We meet Hanani as she attempts to pass her trial to become a full fledged healer. It takes a while for the plots to converge, but it was pretty entertaining to see the would be prince taken down a few pegs by the erstwhile healer.

I'll be honest and tell you that the whole "retaking the city" thing goes much more smoothly than it would in real life, so that part feels like a bit of a let down. The resolution of the magical plague subplot is much more interesting and much more complicated.

This story is a lot more emotional than The Killing Moon, though it explores some of the same themes such as pursuing justice and being pure of heart. This one also looks at the complications of love and duty. Wanahomen, in particular, grows more human as he starts to realize the costs of his schemes the people around him.

For now, these are the only books in this series. I read an interview in which Jemisin says she has more Gujaarah stories, but there's nothing in the works right now.

Libriomancer, by Jim C. Hines

Libriomancer
I'd be willing to bet that anyone who loves to read has wished that they could live inside some of their favorite books, or bring something back with them after they're done reading. Jim C. Hines's charming Libriomancer takes that wish and runs with it.

Our protagonist, Isaac Vainio, is a librarian in the upper peninsula of Michigan who has the remarkable ability to reach into books and pull out anything that can fit through the open pages. He used to be a field agent for a secret agency that policies mysterious manifestations and rogue magicians, but he couldn't control his magic. He is relegated to cataloging (with apologies to my cataloger friends) until one of the aforementioned rogue magicians manages to wipe out most of the agency's fighting force. With the help of his pet fire spider and a wood nymph, Isaac investigates, fights vampires and automatons, and finds Johannes Gutenberg.

The plot itself is a lot of fun and I'd recommend this as a great bit of brain candy. But what makes this book really shine is the detail that Hines packed into his reimagined world. There are book jokes all over the place (with a helpful list at the end of the book that lets you know which books were made up and which were real), enemies possessed by the worst villains from fiction, chupacabra halfbreeds, and more. Here's hoping that Hines can keep it up in the sequels.

10.21.2012

The Killing Moon, by N.K. Jemisin

The Killing Moon
N.K. Jemisin follows up her amazing Inheritance Trilogy with a new series, starting with The Killing Moon. Currently, there are only two books and I'm not sure if there are going to be more. It's a shame if Jemisin doesn't write anymore in this series, because the world she created in them is amazing.

Just as she did in the Inheritance Trilogy, Jemisin has created a world deeply affected by religion. The people of Gujaareh (the primary setting of the book) have built their lives (or have had their lives built around, some would argue) around the worship of the goddess of dreams. Using narcomancy (dream magic), this goddess' priests can heal injury and madness, convey peace or ecstasy. They can also kill dreamers in their sleep. The story is told in turns by Ehiru, one of these priests; his apprentice, Nijiri; and an abassador, Sunandi. Ehiru and Nijiri are believers, deeply pious. But it becomes clear, especially to Sunandi, that the priesthood and Gujaareh's prince are deeply corrupt. They are misusing their gifts, and the prince is planning to use narcomancy to conquer the world.

Sunandi, Ehiru, and Nijiri take it upon themselves to stop the prince. Not only do they have to contend with political machinations, by Ehiru and Nijiri are also dealing with a serious crisis of faith. Having been taught all their lives that taking the lives of the terminally ill is a holy thing, finding out that this gift is being used almost breaks Ehiru. It also turns what would have already been an interesting story into a very profound one.

The world Jemisin created here is amazing. It's original and it feels real, given the thought that Jemisin put into the religion and culture and history. This is what makes or breaks a fantasy novel, for me.

If you'll excuse me, I need to get the second book in this series from the kindle store.

The Rook, by Daniel O'Malley

The Rook
Daniel O'Malley's The Rook is a fairly ambitious novel. It seeks to blend espionage and the supernatural together into a humorous adventure about life "on Her Majesty's Supernatural Secret Service." And apart from a certain unevenness, I'm happy to say that he's mostly succeeded. The good things about this book far outweigh the problems.

At the beginning of the book, we meet Myfanwy Thomas--except she's not really Myfanwy. The original Myfanwy had her memories and personality destroyed in a complex conspiracy. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Myfanwy II opens her eyes in the middle of a park, surrounded by dead people. Using letters written by Myfanwy I, Myfanwy II gets to safety and begins investigating what happened to her predecessor. But first, she--and we, the readers--have to get used to Myfanwy I's unusual occupation as Rook for a secret organization that polices Britain's weirdnesses. Myfanwy II gets a crash course in her job via the aforementioned letters and manages to settle in surprisingly well. She has more gumption than her previous incarnation, making her an entertaining narrator and heroine.

The plot meanders, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. By the end, what seemed like episodic scenes of Myfanwy II dealing with the outre cases that come her way actually turn out to be clues to the large conspiracy that took Myfanwy I's memories. Over the course of the book, Myfanwy II has to deal with overgrown, man eating fungus, skinless men in fish tanks, genetic manipulators, along with assorted villains. I have to hand it to O'Malley for handling all those different plot threads.

As I mentioned before, there are hints of unevenness, mostly in the dialog. The narrative wavers between taking itself seriously and then it all abruptly becomes a big lark, with characters bantering away while horrible things happen in the background. The banter is out of place. It's funny, sure, but the book works a lot better when it takes itself seriously. When it does, you end up taking the story more seriously. It's much more engrossing that way.

I daresay that this is the start of a series, and one I'm very looking forward to reading. There's a lot of originality here. O'Malley put a wealth of detail into it, created an entire alternate history for his Checque organization. The characters are well drawn (except when they're bantering too much). And the plot is marvelous.

10.14.2012

Talulla Rising, by Glen Duncan

Talulla Rising
You might be surprised, considering my reaction to the first book in this series, that I carried on and read Glen Duncan's Talulla Rising. I picked it up mostly because of the reviews. Surprisingly, I actually found myself in accord with the critics on this one. This book is better than its predecessor. A lot better. I actually have fewer misgiving in recommending this one to others. While Duncan still uses the c-word fairly liberally and there's some fairly gruesome violence in this book, there's a lot of plot, a lot of intriguing mystery, and, for me, a better narrator.

The Last Werewolf was narrated by the putative last werewolf, Jake Marlowe. Talulla Rising is narrated by his lover, the eponymous Talulla. We rejoin her in remote Alaska, just before she gives birth to their twins. But enemies from the previous book kidnap her son and leave Talulla helpless to follow. (It's not a spoiler if it happens in the first chapter.) Most of the book follows Talulla's attempts to get her son back and learn how to be a mother to her daughter. She worries a lot about being a good mother and bonding and what she should do and be--which humanizes her for all that she becomes murderous, hairy monster every month.

The Last Werewolf introduced us to WOCOP, a secret organization dedicated to controlling supernatural creatures. Talulla Rising brings in even more. There are all kinds of agendas and Talulla and her allies get attacked by representatives of just about everyone on of them. Duncan's a little overfond of the "Suddenly, guys burst in through the door/window" cliffhanger, to be honest. But it makes for a some fascinating complications when it comes time for our narrator to decide who she's going to trust. It also lays the groundwork for another book in the series, which looks to be even more complicated.

It doesn't take long for Talulla to find out that her son was kidnapped by a vampire cult. They're very well connected and very well hidden. And since they're well armed, too, Talulla has to gather allies. It's a little convenient the way that trustworthy people wander into her path. As I said, Duncan likes his coincidences. But there are enough moments of danger to keep things from seeming too easy. In fact, there's a part in the middle of the book where Talulla herself gets kidnapped and subjected to some gruesome tortures by doctors who take after the example of Dr. Mengele and his ilk--that is torture in the name of dubious "science." It all got pretty close to my limits for the amount of violence I can handle in fiction.

Talulla Rising is well plotted, well written, well paced, and has a great narrator. I like this kind of contemporary fantasy. It's not just standoffs in a big room like a lot of the other well known series seem to have degenerated into. It has a few problems, but not enough to totally derail things. While I enjoyed the philosophical ponderings of the last book, this book did a better job of blending action and thought together. It didn't bog down nearly as much as The Last Werewolf did. I'd still recommend the first book, because readers will get lost trying to pick up what's happening in this book.

What Language Is, by John McWhorter

I think my friends on Facebook are glad I'm done with this book, because for three days I kept posting quotes and language trivia on my page. (Honestly, guys, I couldn't help it!)

What Language Is
John McWhorter's What Language Is is like an extended conversation with the author, in which he sits down and just talks. The book starts out with the metaphor of language as an iceberg. What we can see above the water is what is spoken today. What we don't see, below the water, is all the history that came before, all the vowel shifts and slang and shortcuts, etc. Once the metaphor is established, McWhorter rambles through a series of examples of how wonderfully complex language can be if it's left alone. I don't mean ramble in a bad way. It's more like a conversation with a good friend, when you start our with topic one and end up at topic q.

And I enjoyed the hell out of it. Because I am a word nerd.

McWhorter makes several arguments in this book, coming down firmly on the side of language evolution. For centuries, grammarians, etc., have written about the deplorable state of the language among the young people. It's only in the last hundred years or so that linguists and other interested parties have started to point out how silly it is for people to insist that language stay static. One of McWhorter's primary points is that language is fundamentally oral. What's written on the page is just a reflection of how we really speak. That's not to say that we can use slang and curse words at work, it just means that it's futile for people to write letters to the editor ranting about text speak. It also means that people need to stop looking down on dialects like African American Vernacular. (After all, Dante wrote in the vernacular of his day and look what happened there.)

If left in isolation--that is, without many adults trying to learn the language--languages tend to become more complex. McWhorter points out more than a few languages (Archi, Navajo, etc.) that are so complex that they're almost impossible to learn once you leave childhood and lose the ability to pick up languages just by listening. The way McWhorter sees it, English is actually fairly unusual compared to other languages because of its simple (relatively) grammar. Other languages use grammar in the form of prefixes, suffixes, declensions, and conjugations to do things like indicate how far away something is relative not only to the speaker but to the listener or whether the speaker witnessed something or only heard about it after the fact. McWhorter never tries to explain what this tendency to complexity is for, but he does address the question briefly before moving on to more examples. I'd be kind of frustrated about this, but when I read it, I thought, "Well, what speaker would be able to say why they say things the way they do. They just do."

This book isn't for everyone, I know. But I did enjoy reading it. Most books about language tend to be deathly dull. McWhorter has the knack for making a good argument about linguistics and actually making his reader laugh while doing it. Here's one of my favorite quotes from the book:
The nearest equivalent for an English speaker [to highly complex verb conjugations for different tenses, i.e. lots of irregular verbs] would be if every verb were like be, where we have to know that it's I am but I was and I've been and, subjunctively, if I were--just imagine if English had it in addition that today I speak, yesterday I spoke, tomorrow I spock, repetitively I spack, and hypothetically I just might spoo. (68*)
The whole book is full of sentences like that. So, if you're a fellow word nerd, I highly recommend this book and McWhorter's previous one, a history of the English language, titled Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue.

* From the 2011 hardback edition.

10.07.2012

Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen

Water for Elephants
The biggest question I'm left with after reading Sarah Gruen's Water for Elephants isn't about actual circus history or the path of true love. It's, "How can people be so cruel to animals?" I used to enjoy circuses, when I was young. But then I learned about the conditions the animals are kept in, and how they're abused during training and performances. I know not all circuses are like this, but even greats like the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus has been repeatedly fined for violations of the Animal Welfare Act. So while a lot of the attention given to this book was on the human characters, most of my sympathy and worry were for the animals in the fictitious Benzini Brothers Circus.

The novel flips back and forth in time as Jacob Jankowski remembers his summer with the Benzini Circus and endures his present in a nursing home. We meet Jacob when he's 90 (or 93, he's not sure which) and getting fed up with being treated like a child by the nursing home staff. His mind constantly drifts back to the summer his parents died and he ended up working as a veterinarian for the circus. Soon after he gets the job, he meets the star performers: Marlena the horseback rider and her husband, the dangerous and mercurial August, chief animal wrangler. Most of the cruelty I mentioned before comes from him. If things don't go his way, August responds with shocking violence.

The best parts of this book were when Gruen showed off her knowledge of American circus history. It was a joy for my trivia obsessed brain to learn about circus cant and the devious ways of circus directors and to see (through the text) the different acts. I can see why people flock to circuses (provided you don't know what's happening back stage). The Benzini Brothers show seems more dodgy than any other. Since it's the summer of 1931, the workers and performers are stuck with the show even though they don't get paid and sometimes go hungry.

Jacob learns to get by, mostly by laying low when the circus owner, Uncle Al, and August are in their moods. For a while, a lot of the other workers also seem to hate Jacob's guts, at least until they work out that he's pretty much a decent guy. A lot of the book flies by as the circus moves from town to town and Gruen maneuvers her characters into an all-hell-breaks-loose situation. It's pretty spectacular to see, and more than a little satisfying when you get to it.

You just know that Jacob and Marlena have to fall in love, and they do. And I rooted for Jacob in that respect. But I was frustrated with Jacob when it came to his care of the animals in the circus. For someone who professed to love animals, why did he let August beat and torment them? Jacob repeatedly castigates himself for failing his charges. So why doesn't he actually do something about it? He's willing to fight August when August threatens Marlena with violence. But Rosie the elephant suffers worse than Marlena does, and Jacob doesn't lift a finger.

So I'm pretty torn about how I feel about this book. I really, really hate to see animal cruelty. That bothered me so much that I had a hard time really liking Jacob. That Gruen showed Jacob to us as a crochety old man didn't really help either. The only thing that helped me along was the prologue. I wasn't sure that Gruen made a wise decision by revealing so much before you even get to the main story. But by the time Rosie the elephant joins the show, I understood why we had to see that peak at the end of the story. If I hadn't been reading the book on my iPad, I might have actually chucked it across the room in anger.

John Dies at the End, by David Wong

John Dies at the End
If anyone ever asks me in the future, "What's the most demented book you've ever read?" I won't have to think about it very hard. It's hard to imagine anything more bizarre than David Wong's John Dies in the End. The best that I can describe it is to say that it's a blend of horror and surrealism, with enough humor thrown in to spare your sanity.

It all starts at a party. David Wong (the narrator in this case, not the pseudonymous author) sees his friends taking off with another one of the guests. The next thing he knows, people are dead and anyone who took the drug starts to see really weird things, really weird things. The novel is framed by David telling his story to a reporter, and moves back and forth through time from the party and its aftermath to a massacre in Las Vegas to a horrific climax in another world.

After the party, David tells the reporter, he and his friend John (of the title) end up getting into the business of laying various weirdnesses to rest. They basically make it up as they go along. David is mostly clueless, but John seems to have a knack for figure out how to deal with things like floating giant Portuguese men o'war and giant scorpions wearing wigs. (After a while, you start to wonder what kind of drugs the author was one when he wrote this.)

Strangely enough, David Wong (the writer) manages to infuse this parade of bizarreness with enough heart to make you care for the characters just as much as you want to know what the hell is going on. David (the character) and John are obviously the kind of friends that will stick together through anything, and will take extraordinary risks to save each others' lives.

If you do pick this book up, try to read it in as few sittings as possible. This book is tricky enough to follow as it is, without having to remember what you read 24 hours or more ago.