Strange the Dreamer (Book Review)

strange the dreamerI’ve read a lot of good things about Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor. It seems like almost every YA fantasy fan has read—and raved about—this one, so of course I had to follow suit, despite my somewhat mixed feelings for the Taylor’s previous work. I absolutely adore her unfinished series Faeries of Dreamdark but gave up on the Daughter of Smoke and Bone series after barely making it through the first book. For me, Strange the Dreamer falls somewhere between those two extremes.

What’s it about (spoiler-free summary)?

Lazlo Strange, a war orphan raised in a strict monastery, loves stories. In particular, he loves the story of a long-forgotten city filled with magic, gods, and warriors. One day, Lazlo feels the name of the city literally wiped from his mind and replaced with the word “Weep.” This incident drives a lifelong passion for uncovering the mysteries of the Unseen City. Lazlo escapes the monastery and becomes a librarian, determined to find out everything he can about Weep, and desperate to some day travel there and witness magic for himself.

What’s it about more specifically (summary with mild spoilers)?

One day, a delegation from Weep appears, led by Eril-Fane, the Godslayer. They are searching for experts to help them solve a mysterious problem. Of course, Lazlo jumps at the opportunity to come. He is not qualified, but his grasp of Weep’s language and deep knowledge of stories get him a ticket to Weep and a job as Eril-Fane’s secretary.

Hidden inside a citadel in Weep, Sarai and her family live hidden from the humans who would murder them on sight. Sarai is godspawn—blue skinned and endowed with a magical “gift” that allows her to inhabit the dreams of the people of Weep and bring them nightmares—and she knows that the return of Eril-Fane and his group of outsiders will likely mean death.

When Lazlo comes to Weep, he crosses paths with Sarai in his dreams. Together, they may be able to prevent a second carnage.

What’d I think (review)?

river song spoilers doctor whoNote: This novel unwinds very slowly. I haven’t included any out and out spoilers, but depending on your personal definition of “spoiler,” you may want to beware. There are elements that do not appear until well into the novel that are needed for a basic discussion of the novel as a whole. These sorts of things will be discussed freely below. No major twists are spoiled, however.

I can’t decide exactly how much I like Strange the Dreamer as a whole. There are things I like a lot and things that leave me cold. Overall, I like more than I dislike, but the parts that I dislike are important, and will likely be even more so in the sequel (Muse of Nightmares, due out in October).

Worldbuilding is one of Laini Taylor’s strengths. She creates interesting worlds and terrifying monsters in everything she writes. Everything about Weep is interesting. The history and magic of the city are finely wrought and revealed slowly and surely. Taylor does an excellent job of creating her mythology on the tip of a knife: it is horrible and brutal, but it is somehow also somehow beautiful and alluring. The world of Strange the Dreamer is, as Calixte says, “wild and improbable… something beautiful and full of monsters” as “All the best stories are.”

The world is magical, but the magic is even better. Sarai’s gift is unlike any magic I’ve encountered in the many fantastical stories I’ve consumed, and Minya’s is even more so. There are familiar elements—dreams and ghosts—but they are made unique.

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A Game of Thrones (Book Review)

game of thrones gotIt’s always really interesting to go back and revisit the first entry in a series that you’ve been with for a while. Writing my list of my favorite fantasy novels reminded me of how much I enjoyed George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, so I decided it would be fun to go back and reread the first book in the series: A Game of Thrones.

It’s a long book. That’s why it has been so long since my last review. Sorry!

Summary: What’s it about?

When Robert Baratheon, King of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, asks his old friend Ned Stark to serve him as the King’s Hand, it is the start of a perilous and morally ambiguous struggle for power. As a man of honor, Ned is very out of place in King’s Landing, which is full of schemers, politicians, killers, and their like. Though Ned hates King’s Landing, he vows to stay there, both out of obligation to his friend and to investigate the death of Jon Arryn, the previous Hand of the King. The action of the novel extends far past Ned and Robert. Robert’s wife, the cruel but beautiful Queen Cersei Lannister, and her two brothers—handsome Ser Jaime and Tyrion the halfman—also have their parts to play, and the whole Stark family—Ned’s wife Catelyn, their children Robb, Sansa, Bran, Arya, and Rickon and Ned’s bastard son Jon Snow—scatters across Westeros to face fates that are beyond their control. And beyond the sea, Viserys and Daenerys Targaryen—children of the previous king, the mad king Aerys—strive to assemble an army with which to take back their birthright.

Review: What’d I think?

I think you can probably guess what I think, since I just said that I included this series on a list of my favorite fantasy novels. But let’s get detailed!

A Game of Thrones can be an exhausting novel to read. It’s long, for one (just short of 700 pages), and it’s dense. The biggest challenge, though, is keeping track of the vast list of characters. It’s easy enough to figure out the main players: the Starks, the Lannisters, the Targaryens, the Baratheons, the Clegane brothers, the Arryns, Petyr Baelish, Varys, Khal Drogo, Syrio Forel, Samwell Tarly, Theon Greyjoy, Loras Tyrell, etc. However, there are countless knights, septas, maesters, men of the Night’s Watch, bannermen, and historical figures that it can make any list of who’s who get pretty long. There’s a handy character guide in the back of the book, but it can get a bit tedious to keep flipping back and forth and trying/failing to remember which families owe allegiance to whom and who married whose daughter, etc.

harry potter who are you?

In a way, though, that’s one of the best parts of the book. A Game of Thrones is not one story. It is a world filled with countless occupants. Some occupants may be more central to the conflicts being described, but the primary players are not alone in the universe. No issue has only a single side, and the alternating perspectives help broaden the perspective (A Game of Thrones has chapters from Ned, Tyrion, Jon, Sansa, Bran, Arya, Catelyn, and Daenerys; later books add other characters to that list).

Battles between good and evil are often entertaining, but when the narrative opens up to show both sides (or, as is the case here, all sides), things get really interesting. A Song of Ice and Fire is a particularly good series for moral ambiguity. It’s really hard to get firmly on any one side because it continually pits well-developed, POV characters directly against each other. Book one perhaps has a smaller dose of this ambiguity than later books—for the most part, the Starks are the heroes and the Lannisters the villains; Dany universally invites sympathy—but it is by no means absent.

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Denton Little’s Deathdate (Book Review)

denton little's deathdate
This is somehow both a specific cover and a strangely inaccurate one. Put it this way: there should be more purple.

Denton Little’s Deathdate by Lance Rubin is a young adult dark comedy that I’ve idly picked up several times because of the catchy title and cute cover. Blurbs on the back, one from Becky Albertalli and one recommending the book to fans of John Green, clinched it, so I bought it. It is, for the most part, a quick and fun read with a few niggling issues.

Summary: What’s it about?

Denton Little has known his whole life that he is going to die at age seventeen. That’s not unusual. Well… the “at age seventeen” is a bit unusual, but the knowing isn’t. Denton lives in a world in which the day of someone’s death is known from the day of his/her birth. As Denton’s last day approaches, he goes through the usual last rites and spends time with his loved ones: his girlfriend, his best friend, his best friend’s hot sister, his weird dad, his distant brother, his stepmom, etc. But Denton’s deathdate is anything but usual. Among other things, he gets death threats from his girlfriend’s douchey ex, tries unsuccessfully to avoid a cop that seems to have it out for him, meets a mysterious man who has information about his birth mom, and finds a bizarre purple splotch on his leg that may or may not be what ends his life.

Review

What’d I like?

gravestoneI really enjoyed Denton Little’s Deathdate. It is cute, funny, and creative. The premise of it is really interesting, and all the more for the fact that it is understated. There is nothing remarkable about knowing when you’ll die. It is such a basic part of existence that no one—with the exception of Denton’s grandfather, who remembers the time before deathdates—questions it at all. There are well-established rituals, traditions, and rules associated with the lead-up to a person’s death, and while they seem wild to the uninitiated reader, they make perfect sense in context. Of course you’d have a funeral ceremony the day before and give yourself a eulogy. Of course you wouldn’t be allowed to fly on an airplane or otherwise put yourself in the path of lots of people, who might be adversely affected (you can’t die before your deathdate, but you can be seriously injured, put into a coma, or otherwise adversely affected). Of course there’s scheduled time to sit with your loved ones.

I love how matter-of-fact everything is, especially when juxtaposed with individual reactions. Denton knows what is going to happen, but he still panics and gets overemotional and regrets not doing more with his life. His stepmother, who is my favorite character, still mothers Denton. She won’t let a little thing like his imminent, unquestionable death stop her from reminding him to wear bug spray or drive carefully.

Yes, the science explaining how a person’s deathdate is determined is a little iffy. Personally, that isn’t a big deal to me. Unless the specificity of the thing is particularly important to the story, which it isn’t here, I’m happy with what basically amounts to “science” and a handwave.

Rubin controls the tone of the novel very well. It would be easy for a book like this to take a morbid turn, but despite the saturating presence of death, the book is curiously lighthearted. Denton and his best friend Paolo (who is scheduled to die about a month after Denton) are irreverent goofs who bond over gallows humor. The comedy in Denton Little’s Deathdate is dark, since “Denton’s about to die” is often the punchline, but it works.

This isn’t just a book about death, though. It’s also about high school life. Denton has to deal with two different love triangles (Denton, his girlfriend Taryn, and Taryn’s terrible ex Phil; and Taryn, Denton, and Paolo’s sister Veronica). There’s also a strong family element in the novel. Denton’s stepmother Raquel is awesome; they have a very close, very positive relationship. His birth mom is important to the plot, but the novel sidesteps the usual angsty I-hate-my-stepmom plotline, which is refreshing.

The writing is simple and works very well to keep the reader engaged. Short chapters with dramatic reveals and cliffhangers make it pretty hard to stop reading, especially past the halfway spot.

What didn’t I like?

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Decline and Fall (Book Review)

decline and fall.jpegMy sister read Evelyn Waugh’s satirical novel Decline and Fall for school a few semesters ago and left it at the house, so when I ran out of books I picked it up. I had never heard of it, but I’m pretty much up for anything so I figured I’d give it a shot.

Summary: What’s it about?

After getting kicked out of Oxford for “indecent behavior,” Paul Pennyfeather finds himself teaching at a boys’ private school. He is woefully under-qualified for the post, so he fits in perfectly. When Paul meets Margot Beste-Chetwynde, the beautiful and widowed mother of one of his pupils, his life takes a series of dramatic and unexpected turns.

Review: What’d I think?

Decline and Fall is simultaneously funny and disturbing, as is often the case with well-written satire. Waugh lambasts public school, society, religion, marriage, prison, and more. At school, incompetent and negligent schoolmasters fail to rein in their charges; the boys are left to corral themselves the few times they actually corralled. High society is somehow even worse, and the wry observations are hilarious:

“Anyone who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison.”

There are nuggets of truth packed into the absurdity, and even at the most absurd moments—sports day is particularly ridiculous—the reader can’t dismiss anything as being merely silly.

Paul is an amusingly blank slate of a protagonist. Despite the fact that he does nothing to encourage it, he is the unwitting center to a series of unlikely and unfortunate events. People insist upon telling him their stories and secrets, no matter how short the acquaintance or large the secret. In a satire like this, a passive pushover like Paul makes the perfect protagonist.

What’s the verdict?

While Decline and Fall may not be my favorite book of all time, it is a lot of fun. The satire is biting, and the unexpected plot twists and ridiculous happenings make for a novel that is as enjoyable to read as it is fruitful to think about. Report card: A

Great Fantasy Novels for Young Adults (and Others)

I love fantasy, particularly character-driven fantasy. Since I generally write reviews for what I’m reading currently, I haven’t gotten the chance to gush about/recommend some of my favorites from before I started this blog.

If you’re looking for a great fantasy read, I’ve got you covered! Below are twelve of my favorite fantasies, listed generally by target audience (youngest to oldest). Enjoy!


charlie boneChildren of the Red King by Angie Sage

Series? Yes. There are eight books.

What is the correct order for the books?

  • Midnight for Charlie Bone
  • Charlie Bone and the Time Twister
  • Charlie Bone and the Blue Boa
  • Charlie Bone and the Castle of Mirrors
  • Charlie Bone and the Hidden King
  • Charlie Bone and the Wilderness Wolf
  • Charlie Bone and the Shadow of Badlock
  • Charlie Bone and the Red Knight

Are there any sequel series? There’s a prequel series about protagonist Charlie Bone’s magical ancestor the Red King. I read the first book and didn’t particularly like it, but if you want the order, here it is:

  • The Secret Kingdom
  • The Stones of Ravenglass
  • Leopard’s Gold

What kind of fantasy is it? This series is probably better suited for slightly younger readers, but I definitely still enjoyed them as a teenager. This is one of those magic-boarding-school series, so it has most of the tropes associated with that subgenre: mistreated orphan, found family, chosen one, etc. It follows Charlie Bone and a band of friends in their exploits at Bloor’s Academy, a school for magically endowed individuals. Naturally, the administration is corrupt and out for their own ends. The magic system is different in these books than I’ve encountered elsewhere. Not every character has magical powers—though most do—but everyone has a specific gift that is unique. For example, Charlie can communicate with people in photographs. Amongst his friends and enemies, there is a girl who can fly, a boy who creates weather, a boy who can summon the spirits of his ancestors, an illusionist, a hypnotist, a man who boosts electric power, and more.

Is there a film adaptation? No.

Why’d I like it so much? These books are simply fun. They’re a bit ridiculous, and I wouldn’t claim that they’re of high literary value, but they’re innocent fun and really that’s all I ask for. They’re a kind of Harry Potter light. They’re enough like it that I found they scratched the same urge, but different enough that I didn’t feel like I was reading the same series twice. Like most of my picks, this series’ strength is its characters and their friendship. There is a very nice combination of danger, humor, and hanging out with pets that should appeal to most young readers.


 faeries of dreamdarkFaeries of Dreamdark by Laini Taylor

Series? Yes. There are two books. Unfortunately, the series is currently incomplete, and it is unclear when–or whether–it will be finished.

What is the correct order for the books?

  • Blackbringer
  • Silksinger

Are there any sequel series? No.

What kind of fantasy is it? This is a series about faeries, demon-fighting, djinns and champions. One character can visit the realm of the dead. It follows Magpie Windwitch, the faerie granddaughter of the West Wing. Along with her crew of crows, Magpie follows in the footsteps of her hero Bellatrix, a champion of old who recaptured demons when they escape from their prisons.

Is there a film adaptation? Nope.

Why’d I like it so much? This series is absolutely adorable, though it does have its scary moments. Magpie and her crew of crows are lovable and Talon— a faerie prince with stunted wings derogatorily called a “scamperer”—is a particularly compelling character.  The faerie universe is really well constructed, with various faerie communities having incredibly different customs and lifestyles. The writing is breezy, the characters are odd and endearing, and the world is unique while still fitting well into traditional faerie canon. I resent Laini Taylor for failing to finish this series and instead spending her time on the infinitely inferior Daughter of Smoke and Bone series.


percy jackson.jpg Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan

Series? Yes. There are five books.

What is the correct order for the books?

  • The Lightning Thief
  • The Sea of Monsters
  • The Titan’s Curse
  • The Battle of the Labyrinth
  • The Last Olympian

Are there any sequel series? Yes. So many. PJO leads right into Heroes of Olympus. Here’s the order:

  • The Lost Hero
  • The Son of Neptune
  • The Mark of Athena
  • The House of Hades
  • The Blood of Olympus

Heroes of Olympus goes right into Trials of Apollo, which is not complete but so far looks like this:

Riordan also has other series, some of which are nebulously connected to the three listed above, but that’s enough to go off for now. PJO is the best of the three series, but they’re all good. You can absolutely stop between series if you want, so don’t feel like you are committed to thirteen-plus books when you pick up Lightning Thief.

What kind of fantasy is it? Percy Jackson thought he was just a normal kid—albeit somewhat of a troublemaker and with dyslexia and ADHD to boot—until a disastrous field trip reveals the truth. He’s actually a demigod: half human, half god. The god in question is Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea. Percy then finds himself at Camp Half-Blood, a camp for demigods, and accused of stealing Zeus’ master lightning bolt. Along with his best friend Grover, a satyr, and a new friend Annabeth, the daughter of Athena, Percy sets off to fulfill a prophecy and prove his innocence.

Is there a film adaptation? Yes. The first two books were adapted and largely panned. Personally, I think they’re fun, even though they aren’t going to win any awards for faithfulness. There’s also a musical, which I listened to via YouTube. It’s awful. (People other than me have praised it for its accuracy, but I barely made it to the end of the soundtrack, so I don’t know what they were thinking.)

Why’d I like it so much? The sass. Rick Riordan is the sassiest writer out there. Percy’s first person POV is hilariously snarky, and it brings ancient Greek mythology—which fascinated me as a child—into the modern day. The modern updates are on point, and the gods and goddesses are just as vain and petty as you could possibly want. The combination of a winning protagonist, familiar mythology, and updated—and surprising!—plot, makes Percy Jackson a winner for people of any age, and if you read through the multiple series, you’ll find that—like Harry Potter—he ages convincingly over the course of several years. Riordan’s series are also famously inclusive, so if you’re looking for a great fantasy novel that is also very diverse, this is a good choice. 


harry potter.jpgHarry Potter by J.K. Rowling

Series? Yes. There are seven books.

What is the correct order for the books?

  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or, depending on where you live, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone)
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Are there any sequel series? Urgh. Yes. The play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is technically an official sequel, but it should be ignored if possible. The Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them movies are prequels. They’re better than Cursed Child, but they can’t touch the original series.

What kind of fantasy is it? Harry Potter is the series that popularized the magical boarding school. It features many of fantasy’s staples: a chosen one, a battle of good vs. evil, an orphan protagonist, etc. It follows its protagonist as he grows up (ages 11-17), and is therefore as much a bildungsroman as it is a fantasy. In short, Harry Potter tells the story of its eponymous hero. Having survived the attack that killed his parents and unwittingly broken the power of the terrifyingly evil Lord Voldemort, Harry Potter is famous to the wizard world. However, Harry remains unaware of Voldemort and the wizarding world until his eleventh birthday, when the half giant Hagrid arrives to take him away from his abusive, nonmagical relatives and bring him to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. There, Harry finds that his life is finally worth living… but also in danger, as Lord Voldemort is rebuilding his power and desperate to revenge himself upon the boy who lived.

Is there a film adaptation? Yep. The whole series has been adapted. The movies are good, but the books are way better, mostly because the movies didn’t nail Ron’s characterization.

Why’d I like it so much? I’m twenty-four, so I am firmly in the Harry Potter generation. I literally have no memory of a time before the series. When I got in trouble as a kid, I got banned specifically from rereading Harry Potter, because that was pretty much all I did. Harry Potter made me a reader. One of the most compelling elements of the series is the way that Harry grows over the course of the seven novels. Harry’s journey from child to adolescent to adult is as emotionally tumultuous as anyone’s, and the battle against the evil Lord Voldemort gives it an adventurous edge. The books mature with the reader, so there are moments of hilarity and innocence as well as those darkness and desperation. Plus, Ron and Hermione will always be the gold standard for friendship.


 darkest part of the forestThe Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black

Series? Good question.

What is the correct order for the books? Here’s the thing: The Darkest Part of the Forest, for all intents and purposes, seems like a standalone novel. However, Black’s newest book, The Cruel Prince—which is definitely the start to a series—includes a few of the characters from it, and implies that they’ll still be around as the series goes forward. It also uses characters from Black’s much earlier novel Tithe. So basically, if you want The Darkest Part of the Forest to be a series, it is. If you’d rather it be a standalone, that’s fine as well.

What kind of fantasy is it? The Darkest Part of the Forest takes place in a world in which the human world and the faerie world exist with only a very thin line between them. Changlings attend the high school. Locals know the tricks that will keep faeries from robbing or harming them the way they do tourists. The legend of the horned prince in a way recalls Snow White, but this is not a fairy tale retelling. If you would like to read a full summary, there’s one in my linked review.

Is there a film adaptation? No.

Why’d I like it so much? The intersection between the “real world” and the faerie world is fascinating. The atmosphere Black creates is incredibly compelling. The bond between the brother-sister pair of heroes is incredibly sweet. I’m partial to stories with strong family bonds, and Ben and Hazel’s friendship and protectiveness for each other is quite lovely. I also particularly like stories about dark, manipulative faeries (I find them to be one of the most interesting paranormal creatures, and they are not overdone the way werewolves and vampires arguably are), and there’s a reason why Black is famous for hers. The novel is full of fully developed, three-dimensional characters, but I’m particularly pleased with the way the novel doesn’t waste its time with pointless gender roles.


 The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare

Series? Yes. There are six books.

What is the correct order for the books?

  • City of Bones
  • City of Ashes
  • City of Glass
  • City of Fallen Angels
  • City of Lost Souls
  • City of Heavenly FireTMI_spine,_repackaged_a

Are there any sequel series? Yes. There is a prequel trilogy called The Infernal Devices and a sequel trilogy called The Dark Artifices. Here’s the order for Infernal Devices:

  • Clockwork Angel
  • Clockwork Prince
  • Clockwork Princess

Infernal Devices is a little tricky because, while it takes place chronologically first, there are a few plotlines that get tangled up between it and The Mortal Instruments. Either way you read them, you’ll get little pieces of information that are there for the other series or small holes that can mostly be filled in but that might be frustrating. I read tMD entirely first and was fine. Lots of people really love tID, but in my opinion it is not nearly as good.

The Dark Artifices, on the other hand, is awesome. I still love tMD best, but tDA is just as good. It is very, very important to read tMD first, but if you need it, here’s the order for tDA:

The Eldest Curses is yet another series (cowritten with Wesley Chu). Book one, The Red Scrolls of Magic, takes place between City of Glass and City of Fallen Angels and follows Alec and Magnus. Book two, The Lost Book of the White, picks up after City of Heavenly Fire.

If you’ve read all of these novels and liked them, you might also want to check out the Magisterium series. Cowritten with Holly Black, the series has much the same feel as tMI, but shakes out quite differently. It is also aimed at a slightly younger audience. Honestly, I probably should have given Magisterium its own entry, but I wanted to keep it at one entry per author.

What kind of fantasy is it? Invisible to humans—or “mundanes,” as they’re called—there is a shadow world full of demons, warlocks, vampires, faeries, werewolves, and more. A special race of humans with angel blood called Shadowhunters are tasked with protecting the world from the demons. When Clary Fray sees a group of Shadowhunters on the job, which should be impossible, she is pulled into the shadow world’s battles, and learns that she is more connected to the world than she realized. tMI is pretty heavy on romance, so it has often been compared to Twilight. I would contest that comparison, though, as tMI has a lot more going on in it than just a love triangle (and the romances are a lot more compelling). That being said, it’s definitely worth reading past the first book, which is fun but pretty standard. Once the more interesting secondary characters take a step forward (starting in City of Ashes), the series revs up. Like a lot of other entries on this list, tMI mixes high fantasy and urban fantasy for a fun, contemporary story that still has its roots in traditional fantasy.

Is there a film adaptation? Yes. It isn’t very popular, but I liked it for the most part (minus the wildly altered final act). It has also been adapted into a TV show on Freeform called Shadowhunters. I like the series, but am not caught up. It does not follow the books except in very broad strokes, but is still entertaining. Both adaptations have some rough acting in places, but not so bad that it’s a dealbreaker.

Why’d I like it so much? I love the characters in this series. Like Rick Riordan, Cassandra Clare has a way with voice. There is sass and snark to spare in all her books. The writing is very easy, so the books go by very fast. I also really love that, while the first book seems to promise a pretty standard teen series, the later books move characters around and make the usual tropes feel very different. The main thing with this series is the characters, though. They are all funny, emotional, and endearing and as a result, I got really invested in their messy relationships, both the familial ones and the romantic ones. 

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A Princess of Mars (Book Review)

princess of marsI have heard a lot about Edgar Rice Burroughs’ fantasy/sci-fi classic A Princess of Mars, mostly about how the movie is terrible in comparison to the book. (Side note: I have not seen the movie. I am not planning to, largely because everyone I have talked to hates it).  I am not usually a big sci-fi fan, but I figured I’d give A Princess of Mars a shot anyway, since it is so popular.

Summary: What’s it about?

When John Carter, Confederate war veteran, dies in a mysterious cave after fleeing from a group of Indians, he is transported to Mars. There, he falls in with a society of green-skinned, war-minded Martians called Tharks. Because of atmospheric differences between Earth and Mars, John Carter is physically superior to everyone he encounters. A Princess of Mars chronicles his violent adventures on the red planet, as well as his love for the beautiful Martian princess, Deja Thoris.

Review: What’d I think?

Burroughs created a fascinating, multi-faceted culture on Mars. There are many different races of people, and each is distinct. The detail put into the different aspects of the communities is remarkable. The language systems, advanced weaponry, mating rituals, childrearing traditions, and power structures are all well-constructed. It’s impressive how thoroughly Burroughs developed his universe, and if there is one element that warrants the Mars series as a classic of the genre, it is the worldbuilding.

As far as personal preference, goes, though, I’m less pleased. Mars as a society functions on barely-checked machismo. While I understand that the novel was written more than a century ago, in 1912, it is frustrating that it was harder for Burroughs to imagine a world in which women are men’s equals than it was for him to create a creative social order of creatures with six limbs—“two limbs and two arms, with an intermediary pair of limbs which could be used at will either as arms or legs”—and “eyes [that] were set at the extreme sides of their heads a trifle above the center and protruded in such a manner that they could be directed either forward or back and also independently of each other, thus permitting this queer animal to look in any direction, or in two directions at once, without the necessity of turning the head.” There is so much detail in this novel, but Burroughs failed to escape the limiting parameters of sexism.

“The incomparable” Dejah Thoris (who is not a dinosaur, despite the sound of her name) is a plot device more than a character. She does not pass the Sexy Lamp Test. Though, to be fair, John Carter is not a lot better. Dejah Thoris is attractive and passive, but John Carter is brainlessly violent. His response to every problem is to murder his way through it, and because Mars’ society is built to prioritize murder and physical superiority, he is only ever applauded for his actions.

On that note, having your “hero” be a Confederate? Not a good look.

Seriously. In most works of fiction the character who sabotages a peaceful ceasefire, reignites bloody war in order to decimate a whole society, and asks a friend to murder his romantic rival would be the villain. In A Princess of Mars, that’s a pretty typical day for the hero.

The weirdest thing about John Carter’s lauded murder spree is the fact that Burroughs, through John Carter, repeatedly critiques the Tharks for their violent ways but never acknowledges that John Carter is no better. If anything, John Carter’s belief in the importance of love, friendship, and treating animals with kindness makes his violence worse. The Tharks were not raised to know any better; of course they kill. John Carter does know better, but thinks nothing of slaughtering anyone who poses even a minor inconvenience. The only exception is when he knocks a villain unconscious rather than kill him because he believes someone else has the greater right to the villain’s life.

What’s the verdict?

The truth is that I’ve probably overanalyzed the novel. It is not the sort of book one should read for nuanced characterization. It’s the novel equivalent of a blockbuster action film: there are amazing visual effects, explosive and violent action sequences, attractive leads who fall in love at first sight, and an abundance of spectacle. It’s brainless fun, and if you want more than that, this is probably not the book for you.

That being said, readers who are primarily drawn in by excellent worldbuilding and who love science fiction will have a blast.

report card 2Report card.

Writing: B       Characters: C-        Plot: A-           Themes: C-       Fun: B           Final: C

Mosquitoland (Book Review)

mosquitoland.jpgDavid Arnold’s contemporary YA novel Mosquitoland is the wrong kind of quirky

Summary: What’s it about?

When Mim’s parents divorced, her father remarried and relocated, tearing Mim away from her mother and her home. When Mim finds letters in her stepmother Kathy’s closet indicating that Kathy has been stopping Mim’s mother’s communication—as well as keeping Mim’s mother’s disease a secret—Mim hops a bus to make it home by Labor Day. Along the way, Mim meets a busload of interesting characters and discovers what it means to be okay.

 

Review: What’d I think?

Caution Angry Rant

If there is a golden rule for fiction, it’s that the readers must care about the characters. We don’t have to like the characters. We just have to care what happens to them. That means that some characters are horrible, despicable people, but if they’re compelling and interesting enough, the reader wants to read more about them. Therein lies the problem with Mosquitoland. I don’t like Mim. I don’t care about her at all, and since this is a novel about Mim’s wellbeing, there’s not enough plot to prop her up.

Despite the fact that the novel is written well, I couldn’t ever fully engage with it. It is written from Mim’s POV, and I do not enjoy being in her head. She irritates me rather than engaging my sympathies. There is something grating about her narration, and she comes across like a random collection of quirks and pet peeves rather than a fully formed person. She is the worst kind of hipster, convinced of her superiority because she is not like everyone else. She actually states—as if it is a brilliant truth of the universe—that many people exist purely to contrast her superiority:

…it’s this exact sort of myopic ignorance that has led to my groundbreaking new theory. I call it Mim’s Theorem of Monkey See Monkey Don’t, and what it boils down to is that it is my belief that there are some people whose sole purpose of existence is to show the rest of us how not to act.

She exhausts me. Even when she shares my personal pet peeves, like when she rails about the incorrect use of quotation marks, it comes across as narratively pointless. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever been so annoyed by someone who is arguing my side of something. And that’s when I agree with her. When she is smugly barfing on her stepmother’s bed or waxing poetic about the superiority of vinyl or affecting a British accent just for the heck of it, I just stare blankly at the page in disbelief. I’m half convinced that at any given moment Mim will choose the weirdest and/or most pretentious option available to her. Some characters are endearingly weird. Mim is just weird for the sake of being weird.

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