Sunday, June 27, 2010

Arty -- Ever by Gail Carson Levine

Ah, a good old-fashioned fairytale... or is it?

Kezi is a beautiful young woman, an only child in her average family in the kingdom of Hyte. Typical heroine in a fairytale, yes? Now meet her knight in shining armor: Olus, the Akkan god of wind.

Think Jepthah's Vow in the book of Judges, plus Greek immortal-and-mortal love story, plus elements of Middle-Eastern religion. And you have Ever.

Olus, at seventeen years old, is the youngest Akkan god. He's not comfortable around the other millennia-old deities, so he decides to spend some time with the mortals on earth. He travels to Hyte, where he buys some goats from a farmer and settles down to watch mortality.

There he watches the daughter of the farmer who sold him the goats: Kezi, a fifteen-year-old girl with a talent for weaving and dancing. Olus falls in love with her from afar, and soon he contrives a meeting with her. They (of course) fall in love instantly. But, when her mother falls ill, Kezi's father promises their god Admat that if Admat will spare his wife, he will sacrifice the first person to congratulate him. Kezi's mother recuperates - but, to save the life of her aunt, Kezi bursts out with congratulations to her father. Her death sentence issued, she begs Admat for thirty more days to live.

Olus, naturally, can't bear the thought of Kezi's death. He whisks her away on his winds and tells her he wants her to become immortal. She can still be sacrificed, but she'll live again. Kezi agrees, and they set out to become heroine and champion.

For the most part, I'm a big fan of Levine's work. This idea is a fascinating one, and I was sure she would be able to pull it off. But the story fell flat about a third of the way through. I'm not sure what went wrong, but I think part of the problem was lack of originality. As I mentioned above, most of us have probably heard the story a hundred times from Greek legends. With originality the idea could work, but it doesn't feel like Levine tried too hard.

Another bothersome thing was the characters. Kezi and Olus had very little depth to them. Kezi seemed nice and, in some ways, heroic. But there were times when she came over as petty, or weak, or downright rude. Olus was better (I generally like the male half of a pair more), but I had to question his intelligence at falling in love with a rather mediocre girl like Kezi.

The book is written in present tense, in first-person perspective from both Kezi and Olus. The chapters alternate between Olus and Kezi. This bothers some people, I know, but to me, it was an interesting way to write the book. The style, however, couldn't fix the disappointing ending, which, though certainly not a happily-ever-after ending, felt almost random and much too easy.

It probably sounds like I didn't enjoy Ever. I did. As a fast 'beach' read when I don't want to use too much brainpower. But if you're looking for a more substantial fairytale, I would suggest Levine's The Two Princesses of Bamarre, or Shannon Hale's Bayern series, beginning with The Goose Girl.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Persy -- Remnants (first three) by K.A. Applegate

It's the year 2011 (this book was written in 2001, so this is much further in the future than just next year for us). An asteroid is hurtling towards Earth. The humans are doomed. There's no time to come up with a good survival strategy.

But they're desperate, so they manage to come up with a last-minute plan. NASA pulls a shuttle out of storage, complete with stasis pods -- but only eighty. Eighty people, most important to the United States government or NASA in some way, are chosen to go on a futile and hopeless attempt to keep the human race alive.

The first book in the Remnants series is called The Mayflower Project, and it's all about the beginning of the voyage. There are many main characters, but it mostly comes down to three: Jobs, a tech-savvy, Mo'Steel, a teenager always looking for a new thrill, and 2Face, a girl with half of her face brutally scarred from a fire.

Along with them, there's a motley collection of travelers. Two brothers attempt to break into the shuttle and steal pods, desperate to survive the oncoming collision. A pregnant and wounded marine ends up with a space as well.

The Remnants books are short, giving the impression that they're kid's books, but I really wouldn't hand these things to a young person. There's some scary and disturbing stuff in these things. The writing is fairly simple and easily understood, so it's not like they're written for teens or adults, nor is the plot terribly complicated, but some of the things that happens... bit freaky. Just a warning.

The second book is entitled Destination Unknown, and is about what happens after the passengers on the shuttle wake up -- five hundred years after they went to sleep, after the Earth was blown into three pieces.

The surviving sleepers wake up to find that not everyone lived through the experience. Some of the pods are overgroan with mold, others just seem to have malfunctioned and contain skeletal remains. Some were victims mini meteorites, drilling holes in the unconscious sleeper. And, possibly the most disturbing of all, some were infested with worms. They were eaten. By worms.

The shuttle has landed, but their new surroundings aren't quite... right. On one side, it's completely colorless, a black and white landscape of canyons and sky. On the other, the colors are insanely bizarre. Blue trees, tall grass, a river that doesn't seem to be made up of any kind of liquid. One of the passengers, Miss Violet Blake, recognizes it as a painting.

They've landed on a painting? Things become more and more confusing as strange creatures riding hoverboards attack the survivors, killing one of the few humans left alive.

Not to mention that the marine's baby was born sometime during those five hundred years asleep, and it has no eyes, and seems to be able to control the marine. Plus, Billy, a young boy who never went to sleep but was sustained by the pods all those years. He went insane. Oh, and one of the sleepers has woken up with one of the parasitic worms inside his leg. He's being slowly eaten alive.

The third book is Them. The place where they landed has been discovered to actually be a gigantic spaceship, not a planet. The world they're now walking around is being taken from the archives on the shuttle as the ship tries to create a comfortable habitat for the humans.

Except the ship doesn't quite know what it's doing, and there are some pretty bad paintings on board the shuttle... while the Riders, the aliens on hoverboards, hunt down the humans, the remnants of the human race run from scene to scene, finally finding themselves on Bosch's interpretation of Hell.

Meanwhile, mistrust and fear is growing among the survivors. Already, five of them have been outcast and are struggling on their own away from the group. As situations grow more and more dire, the main group find themselves having to make decisions that are not only immoral but disturbing.

There are fourteen books in the Remnants series, though you could probably read the whole thing in a single day because the length of the books. As the series progresses, mysteries are solved while opening new ones, more danger appears behind every door, and several of the remnants find themselve right back on the remains of Earth...

It honestly kind of reminds me of a science-fiction twist of Lord of the Flies and the TV show Lost, if that makes any sense. It's one of my favorite series', with just the kind of twists and plots I enjoy. Most of the characters are fairly flat, each having a main trait they follow throughout the entire series and exist for a soul purpose: solving technical problems, fighting the battles, thinking through things, etc. etc. Still, they do surprise you sometimes. Often I found myself expecting them to react certain ways, and was startled at the brutality of several of the characters.

This is pretty much sci-fi, so if you don't like sci-fi, don't read it. But it's not hard sci-fi, either, so if you like the technical stuff, don't read it. But if you just like sci-fi and rather strange journies through weird land with weird aliens, read it! Not like it'll take you all that much time.

Bit of trivia: K.A. Applegate (author of the Animorphs series, more well-known than Remnants) is married to Michael Grant, author of the fabulous Gone series. Gone is actually rather similar to Remnants, only it's more of a cross of Lord of the Flies and X-Men rather than Lord of the Flies and Lost, and it takes much longer to read than a day.
-- Persy

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Arty -- The Iron Ring by Lloyd Alexander

In the middle of the night, young king Tamar is awoken by a parade of elephants and courtiers. The cause of the discourteous commotion is King Jaya, a monarch of a faraway kingdom, who is passing through and demands lodging. Jaya promptly challenges Tamar to a game of aksha (a dice game), with increasingly high stakes. Caught up in a rash of winnings, Tamar feverishly bets his life against Jaya's - and loses. Triumphant, Jaya claims his prize... and vanishes. No one but Tamar seems to remember the rude king's visit, and there is no proof for it - except for the iron ring around Tamar's finger, symbolizing, supposedly, Jaya's hold on Tamar's life.

As there is still a chance that Jaya was not a dream, and therefore is still owed a life-debt by Tamar, Tamar decides to journey to Jaya's kingdom. Taking his loyal mentor and brahmana Rajaswami with him, Tamar sets out to make good on his dharma, or honor.

As my first non-Prydain Lloyd novel, I had high-hopes for The Iron Ring. Admittedly, I shouldn't compare, but it is hard to be unbiased with the other books of an author who wrote such a classic series.

Basically, The Iron Ring is a not-so-epic epic. Using something of a formula in fantasy, the protagonist goes on a quest with his trusty mentor, meets both comedic and mysterious sidekicks, and his ladylove, along with, of course, a minor villain. All while the threat that the iron ring symbolizes hangs over Tamar's head.

The first part of the book was amusing at times, tiresome at others. Very little was unexpected. Mirri, especially, I found annoying, as a typical 'I am woman, hear me roar at you bothersome men' heroine. Tamar and the other characters were flat and unappealing.

About three-fourths of the way through the book, however, things picked up. Action was more interesting. Tamar was at rock bottom; this character was dead; is another dead as well? Or is there a plan? These chapters rekindled my dying interesting. But the flames didn't last long, and the end fizzled in what seemed a cop-out.

There was also a definite lack of the title character - the iron ring. In a story one would think was about Tamar's determination to get to the bottom of King Jaya's odd appearance and disappearance, he thinks very little about his bondage. During the first part of the book, little 'mini-adventures' distract him; the second part is filled with fighting the minor villain. One starts to wonder what the goal of the story is, after a while.

On a more positive note, The Iron Ring is based on Indian and Hindu mythology and psychology, with plenty of talking animals (more so than humans) and dharma-defending. At times this was confusing - are they not surprised that animals talk? I thought this character just voiced doubt about the forest's talking beasts. But the information on a mythology rarely studied was interesting, and I can see Lloyd's attraction to it.

In short, The Iron Ring is a typical mini-epic. Short on originality, though full of potential inspiration. Readers fond of Lord of the Rings-esque, questing novels will be interested; to others, I would hesitate to recommend it.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Persy -- Sorcery and Cecelia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer

Being the Correspondence of Two Young Ladies of Quality Regarding Various Magical Scandals in London and the Country.

Historical fiction set in an alternate England, told in the form of letters written by two cousins to each other. Please tell me I'm not the only one this appeals to.

Katherine Talgarth, or Kate, is taken to London with her younger sister Georgina and their Aunt Charlotte for Kate's season, while Cecelia Rushton, or Cecy, Kate's cousin, is left at home in the country. The entire book is made up of their letters to each other, describing what is going on.

In London, Kate, who is remarkably clumsy but brilliant at improvisation, wanders right into the middle of a conspiracy. She slips through a door into a garden to find a woman sitting at a table with a spectacularly blue chocolate pot. The woman invites her to take some chocolate with her, seeming to think that Kate is someone called 'Thomas'. Kate only just escapes the strange tea party intact.

Meanwhile, back in the country, there is a new neighbor of Cecy's who seems to have entranced all the young men in the area. At the same time, Cecy begins to notice one James Tarleton attempting to sneak around (he's not very good at it), spying on Dorothea, the girl who is charming the rest of the town. In her attempt to get to the bottom of it, Cecy discovers her magical talent and begins to try to teach herself magic.

It's not long before things are getting completely out of control. Oliver, Cecy's brother, has gone missing, Kate has become betrothed, and Cecy has found a very interesting book in Sir Hilary's library...

Each character belongs to a different author. The two writers started writing letters to each other, making it up as they went. The only rules for their 'letter game' were that they could not discuss the plot with each other. It had to all be revealed in the letters. Which meant that neither of them knew exactly what was going to happen next.

This marvelous story of two cousins in an alternate world of magic is what happens when two fantastic writers (Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer) get together and start playing a game. There are two more books in the same series, both written over ten years after the first book. I've only read the second one, The Grand Tour or The Purloined Coronation Regalia (Being a Revelation of Matters of High Confidentiality and Greatest Importance, Including Extracts from the Intimate Diary of a Nobelwoman and the Sworn Testimony of a Lady of Quality), which was very good, though a bit confusing and not nearly as intriguing as the first one. I've been trying to get my hands on the third book, The Mislaid Magician or Three Years After (Being the Private Correspondence Between Two Prominent Familes Regarding a Scandal Touching the Highest Levels of Government and the Security of the Realm), but so far no luck.

I'd recommend this book to fantasy readers, fans of the uniquely told story, or anyone who just loves a good tale full of interesting quirks. Definitely one of my favorites.