Saturday, September 28, 2013

Review: The Bone Season

"As Jax said, better an outlaw than a stiff."

The Bone Season (The Bone Season #1)
Samantha Shannon
480 pages
Summary Link 

Rating: 6.5

+ 10 points to Ravenclaw for coming up with a plausible reason why people in 2059 England would dress like Victorians.


I hadn't heard the hype for this, so much as I had heard the hype about the hype. Apparently everyone thought this might be the next Harry Potter-type fantasy epic? I mostly avoided caring, because the word "clairvoyant" in a blurb makes me run away almost as fast as the word "dragon", but eventually I grave in. What can I say, I'm a sucker for future dystopias, even though I assumed it would be a fairly boilerplate teen girl paranormal dystopia. Girl has psychic powers, girl gets captured by oppressive government, romance and rebellion ensues.


By the zeitgeist, you've bloomed like the ambrosial flower you are, right winsome wunderkind! Welcome to the psychic underground of London. Apparently this has already been optioned for a movie, which makes sense since I kept imagining it set the same way as a steampunk-inspired production of My Fair Lady I saw a few years back. Though with more ghosts. And no actual steampunk, thankfully, since it's 2059 and they have proper electronics and guns.

The Bone Season was exactly what I expected in terms of story outline, but...better. It takes the standard body of a YA paranormal dystopia, then dresses it in new and exciting clothes and shoves it out onto the streets of London. It's one of those stories that sucked me right in and I read it straight through without pause, although it's not without flaws. Shannon's unique, interesting alternate-universe London is easily the the best part of the book, and it's obvious she put major effort into it. The downside is that at times she gets carried away and it overflows with confusing jargon. Sometimes it worked and I fell into the rhythm, while other times I was scratching my head trying to remember what a word meant. Other reviewers have used the phrase "overly-ambitious", which is spot on, but that's leaps and bounds better than "boring". Personally, I vastly prefer an author reaching for something new and different, rather than falling back on the same old stuff, even if they can't quite handle their own creation.

Plus, it's always nice to have a female protagonist without debilitating issues. Paige doesn't spend any time bemoaning being a freak or moping about her lot in life; she's damn good her "voyant" crime syndicate job and she knows it. She's not a particularly original or deep character, but she's strong and doesn't sit around waiting to be rescued. The side characters are interesting as heck too, but they don't get enough development...though since there are supposed to be more books, I'll cut Shannon some slack on the condition she flesh them out more later.

What I disliked most was the super-predictable romance (with a gorgeous forbidden special supernatural being, of course), but if I complained too much about that sort of thing I could never read any YA books ever. It also doesn't come into play until the very end of the book, which is nice, though I'm not sure how much it will piss me off in future books. At least it's not a love triangle. And, to be fair, there wasn't anything objectively wrong with how Shannon handled it, I think I've just overdosed on the whole concept.

The Bone Season practically oozes potential, but only time will tell if it'll live up to it. If Shannon works hard and develops as a writer, she could have a major blockbuster on her hands. On the other hand, if she loses the threads, it could all fall apart by book three. Seven volumes are a lot to manage and it'll take serious chops to pull off, but I'm definitely looking forward to the next one.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Review: The Burning Sky

"When you will have done what you need to do, you will have lived long enough."

The Burning Sky (Elemental Trilogy #1)
Sherry Thomas
464 pages

Rating: 4.5

Magic! Not ghosts, parallel universes, psychics, glamours, fae, or paranormals, but wand-wielding, spell-casting, Latin-adulterating, Hermione-would-be-proud magic! I never realized how much I missed it until the first few chapters of The Burning Sky. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy all those other fantastical concoctions, but sometimes you just want a good old-fashioned Wingardium Leviosa!

Unfortunately, The Burning Sky couldn't live up to its own promise. It seemed to be heading down a great road. British boarding schools? Girls pretending to be boys? Evil kingdoms to overthrow? Strange beasts and super-powerful mages? I'm there. But Thomas tries to weave in too many threads and ends up dropping half the stitches.

Iolanthe Seaborn is, as described, a supremely powerful elemental mage living in a the magical kingdom of the Domain. The Domain is technically ruled by Prince Titus, but he's just a figurehead, as the oppressive Atlanteans are really the ones in charge. Titus know he's prophesied to be the one to protect and guide Iolanthe, and she'll eventually overthrow Atlantis and free the country. But he didn't know she was going to be a girl. Their lives become intertwined and thus begins the adventure.

It's pretty straightforward stuff, but Thomas starts strong. Iolanthe may be powerful and outwardly kind and carefree, but she's been secretly covering for her drug-addicted guardian for years and its taken its toll. Titus is a refreshing subversion of the standard prince-character: his outward selfishness and who-cares-about-my-people-I'm-rich attitude are just a cover for his plan to sacrifice his life to save his country.

The narration alters between them, which I think is the first major misstep of the book. Either would be enough separately, but trying to cover both of them doesn't work. Titus is the much more interesting character and I wish Thomas had written the book solely from his perspective; plus, then we'd have the novelty of reading a YA book with a male protagonist and subverting the expected tropes by telling the hero story from the mentor perspective. Instead, the more subtle, interesting characterizations are quickly lost in a muddle of Iolanthe's irrational anger toward the Prince because he thinks he trapped her (even though she's being hunted by the Atlanteans?) and the Prince's moping about how he's in love with her (and makes a fake version of her in a training exercise so he can kiss her??). Their insta-love doesn't even stand out, since most developments in the book appear out of nowhere when the plot demands it.

This problem is constantly repeated: Thomas brings in too many topics that would be interesting individually, but are strangled by all clutter around them. Iolanthe is in hiding as a boy at Eaton, they have a magic book that makes a training world, Titus's mom left a book of prophecies, Iolanthe's guardian gave up his memories, a crazy lady might have the memories but then later she's not crazy, the Atlantean inquisitor is evil, she's also a mind mage, the inquisitor works for someone even MORE evil who's also immortal, Titus's mother was involved in an uprising, Iolanthe is also an athletic cricket prodigy, insert random training sequence that accomplishes nothing, the magic training book has even more magical abilities, there's an oracle for more prophecies, bullies at the school, a ball, on and on and ON. The story never has a chance to breathe. Instead of nurturing the original sprouts, Thomas just keeps planting new seeds every time she wants to move the story forward (I'm just using metaphors all over the place today).

Plus, what happened to the ending? Nothing the book spent time on ended up mattering much at all. I found myself skimming the last chapters so I could finally be done.

I don't understand the effusive praise for this book at all. I feel like everyone read something completely different. I want to have read that book, with the beautifully crafted blending of historical and fantastical and a romance to make your heart swell. Maybe it's in disguise on a boarding school bookshelf somewhere.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Half Review: Wuthering Heights

"I've no more business to marry Edgar Linton than I have to being heaven."

Wuthering Heights
Emily Bronte
337 pages

Rating: 8

This isn't a full review, because frankly, people have been discussing this book a hundred years and at least a few of them have written well-reasoned, comprehensive and nuanced reviews. Instead, I want to discuss expectations.


I had avoided Wuthering Heights, not only because I tend to avoid 1800s classics, but because all I ever heard about it was ~doomed forbidden love~. I thought it was going to be a stupid, sappy love story about Cathy and Heathcliff pining across the moors for each other yet unable to be together, etc etc, cue more pining and moping and possibly brooding. I mean, for landsakes, it's Bella's favorite book and that girl has the dumbest opinions about romance. People always seem to talk about it as a great love story for the ages and whatnot. 

I have never been so happy to find out that everyone is wrong.


On page 11, I knew I was going to like this book. That's when our narrator is at the old Heathcliff estate, trying to make pleasant conversation with his less-than-amicable hosts. He notices some cats sitting across the room and asks the lady of the house if they're her favorite animal, only to find that what he thought were some cats is actually a pile of dead rabbits. 

The thing about Wuthering Heights is that everyone in the story is an awful, awful person who does awful things. It's practically a Jerry Springer episode. These people are monsters and they deserve what they get. I kept cackling as I read at each new horror that they brought upon each other. When Cathy says that her soul is the same as Heathcliff's, she's right: they're just both awful, conniving, cruel people. This isn't a book about forbidden life, it's a book about how the actions of despicable people can poison even their children. It's not so much about love as about obsession. It's a soap opera where all the characters are practically the villains. I loved every minute of it. 

The Bronte sisters are now two for two with me. I need to read something by Anne next to complete the set.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Review: Earth Girl

"The polite people would call me Handicapped, but you can call me ape girl if you like."

Earth Girl (Earth Girl #1)
Janet Edwards 
358 pages

Rating: 5 

This book is okay. It's not terrible, it's not offensive, but it's certainly not outstanding or sensational like some people seem to believe. The reviews of this book are a textbook case of people's tendency to overinflate ratings. You can rate things below "outstanding", people, it's all right. Sometimes things are just fine.

Jarra, our protagonist, is handicapped: stuck on Earth in a future where almost everyone got the hell off the planet if they had the chance. The rest of the galaxy looks down on her kind as primitive relics, but Jarra isn't having any of that- she decides to apply to an off-world university (that holds its first-year courses on Earth) and not tell any of her classmates she's an "ape". She invents a fake backstory for herself and sets to work studying archaeology and digging up the ruins of old New York. Obviously, issues ensue, as Jarra struggles against prejudice against her and also her own prejudice against the "norms". There's also a whole ton of stuff about how people in the future conduct archaeological digs.

The best parts of this book involve the world building. I love far-future settings that still involve Earth, and I feel like there aren't enough of them- usually when we're this far in the future, it's always in a space-exclusive or distant-planet setting. I loved the concept of portal technology, the inevitable Earth exodus, and what it would be like to be trapped on a planet during a space-faring age. It's what Edward's loves writing best (well, that and how to conduct futuristic archaeological digs), and it shows. The main reason I kept reading was to learn more and more about the galaxy Edward's has crafted.

It's also a refreshing divergence from the standard relationship archetype that abounds in YA lit these days. Sure, there's a romance, but it's realistic- a girl and a boy meet because they share interests, become friends, have some issues, start dating, have problems to work through. There's no ridiculous insta-love or undying, forbidden passions. Plus, Jarra is flawed in real ways, not in "she's quiet and shy because she thinks she's plain but is secretly amazing" ways. She can be kind of obnoxious and has a lot of justifiable issues given the prejudice she faces, but she's also smart and works had to be good at what she loves.

The main problem with this book, though, is that the writing...just isn't very good. It's not that bad- there are no grammatical errors or egregious statements, I never rolled my eyes at a stupid line (well, except when Jarra spontaneously goes crazy half-way through) but it's just...fine. The whole thing has a bit of an "uncanny valley" feel to it, where it's hard to put my finger on it but everything is just a little bit off. Phrases get repeated a few too many times. The non-Jarra characters are very two-dimensional, the "races" are excessively stereotyped, the dialogue feels flat, emotions are slightly over-explained, motivations are a bit overly simplistic, and problems and resolutions too quick to arrive and change. There's no depth to anything. Events also just sort of happen and then keep happening; some of them seem like they should be more climactic than others, but the writing can't convey any shift in intensity. I wasn't surprised to learn that Edward's apparently used to write technical documents before switching to fiction.

I'm reading the sequel now, which continues in much the same way (though Jarra ends up in more unrealistic situations- I don't care if she's an archaeology prodigy with a unique perspective, there are whole schools of archaeologists on future-Earth who aren't 18 year old freshman who would be more qualified than her). The world is interesting enough to have kept me reading, and it's a calming enough way to kill a few hours before bed when I'm too tired to read another book. Just don't expect five stars.

(In meta-news, it's occurred to me that I want to get back into writing reviews, so there should be more forthcoming instead of another ten months of nothing! Chemistry homework notwithstanding.)