Category Archives: fiction

Batman: Nightwalker by Marie Lu

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Batman: Nightwalker by Marie Lu
DC Icons series
Random House, January 2018.

This solid second entry in the DC Icons series which looks at the teenage years of superheroes is set in a bleak crime-ridden Gotham City in which the megarich are being murdered and their funds taken to finance an anti-capitalist operation called the Nightwalkers. The police manage to capture one, Asian American teen Madeline Wallace and she is kept in top security Arkham Asylum where 18 year-old Bruce Wayne is doing community service after a run in with the law.

Ms Lu has definitely opted for the bleaker Christopher Nolan Dark Knight vibe rather than the more campy alternative, and while atmospheric, it did make the book a bit of a trudge for me. However, Ms Lu does action well, and the writing really lifts off in those scenes, particularly in the climax when Bruce takes on the Nightwalkers, clad in a prototype batsuit.

Bruce is a smart and earnest protagonist, still haunted by the murder of his parents when he was younger, and he falls hard for the far more complicated and gorgeous Madeline. Though the Nightwalkers are new villains, there are several characters that will be familiar to those who know the Batman comic books and movies.

As with Leigh Bardugo’s Wonder Woman, the superhero name is only in the title, and in this younger Bruce we can clearly see the upstanding and thoughtful citizen and skillful fighter that he will later become in his role of guardian of Gotham City.

The novel works equally well for those who are familiar with Gotham City and those who are new to it, and, with its high interest main character and top notch YA author, it is a must have for all libraries serving teens.

Thanks to Random House for the review copy.

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Beast and Crown by Joel Ross

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Beast & Crown by Joel Ross
HarperCollins, 2017

I really enjoyed the two-book Fog Diver series, and was on the panel that awarded the Cybil to The Fog Diver. So I was excited to get Mr Ross’s lively new middle grade fantasy in which he continues to use alternative worlds to look at life for those who are on the bottom rung, or not even part of society. While it is not quite as thrillingly imaginative or as smart as his previous novels, it is still very readable and is bound to please middle grade fantasy fans.

13 year-old Ji is a boot boy for an aristocratic family and is friends with Sally, a stable girl and Roz, a young lady without means who is tolerated by the family. The three are planning to escape to the city to rescue Sally’s brother Chibo. Fate seems to be on their side when they are taken to the city as part of the young master’s entourage where he is to be trained to take part in a competition that will decide who is heir to the throne.

The ruler of the world is the Summer Queen who uses magic to suppress the ogres, goblins, and other non humans who threaten the humans. However, Ji and friends find that these so-called monsters are a lot more civilized than the humans.

The characters are as well-crafted as those of the Fog Diver and have a similar range of skin tones. Just like the previous book, they are appealing but perhaps a little one dimensional: Ji is cunning and wants to be self-centered but is too moral; Sally is brave and wants to be a knight; Roz is a “lady” and is full of book-smarts. There is a lot of fun to be had with Nin the ogre who conflates words to produce pleasing new ones.

The created world is straightforward and has less depth than The Fog Diver, and is a curious appropriation of Asian and Latinx cultures for no apparent reason. Pet peeve – to show that this is not our world, there are two moons which is straight out of the Secrets of Droon playbook.

The plot feels a little derivative – I noticed a resemblance to Jennifer A. Nielsen’s The False Prince, though without the edge and sharpness. Nonetheless it moves along at a good clip with some interesting twists. There are some curious diversions which seem like they are going to lead to something but then don’t, making the book rather longer than it needs be, though maybe setting something up for the next book.It was clear fairly early on that this would be a series (or maybe just a duology) but a resolution is reached and I don’t really feel the need to read more.

Release by Patrick Ness

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Release by Patrick Ness
HarperTeen, 2017

Over the course of one “eternal pivotal day” Ness’s masterful YA speculative novel tracks both gay white rising senior Adam Thorn and the destiny of the world. As in The Rest of Us Just Live Here (2015), the author intersperses a wrenching realistic novel with snippets of an apparently unrelated fantasy story, and their coming together at the end, a mere brief kiss of two worlds, completes both stories.

Adam is having the worst day of his life: His former lover Enzo, who he is still not over, is leaving town, his boss fires him after Adam turns down his advances, and there is tension with his repressive evangelical family.  Adam reels through all of this wanting only a release to let him live his life as he wants.

Meanwhile the spirit of a girl who was murdered has bound itself to a Queen, and seeking her own release walks the town. And if the Queen doesn’t get back to the lake before the sun sets, then the world will end.

Adam is a vibrantly alive teen who has felt unloved by his blood family so has created his own family. Angela, who is Korean, is everything a person might want in a best friend – supportive, funny, wise and always on his side. Her liberal and loving adoptive family provide a stark contrast to Adam’s. And he has a new boyfriend, Linus, who Adam knows intellectually is so much better for him than Enzo but his heart has yet to accept it. (Note: there is some fairly explicit but sensually written sex).

As I found with The Rest of Us, I chafed at the fantasy element initially but loved the realistic sections. Towards the middle I was appreciating the way they echoed and resonated with each other, and by the end, the closure made sense, though the two stories are nowhere near as integrated as in the previous novel. Could it work without? Yes, probably, but it would be a lesser novel.

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That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E. K. Johnston

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That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E. K. Johnston
Dutton, 2017

This quirkily appealing alternate history imagines that the sun never set on the British Empire because Queen Victoria’s descendants married into the colonies, ensuring a “cosmopolitan, multiracial mosaic.” Now, two centuries on, a debut ball in Toronto brings together quiet and pragmatic white Helena, her Irish-Hong Kong Chinese unspoken intended August, and Margaret, with “brown skin, epicanthal folds” and a “curly dark mass” of hair.

Each of the three has a secret that will shape their futures: Margaret is actually the heir to the throne; August has got himself into legal and financial trouble; Helena learns that she has an XY chromosome and is intersex. How these three learn each other’s secrets and what they do with them makes for an entertaining and charming novel. However, I thought that Helena’s Big Reveal was somewhat muffled and its significance isn’t explained till much later.

The world the author has created is an intriguingly odd mash up of Victorian era dress and manners, present day technology, and scifi genetic matching and it is explicated through snippets of history at the start of chapters. I found the role of genetics, which is somehow under the purview of the Church, to be a little confusing and it was never entirely clear to me what connection Helena’s mother had with all of this.

Nonetheless, the author’s three lead characters are very well-crafted and it is their story and the unexpected ways in which their relationships develop that form the beating heart of the novel and while the setting is smart it takes a backseat to that. While I spent most of the novel assuming it was going to be a series because of the leisurely pace, a surprisingly quick and complete wrap-up suggests otherwise though I actually wouldn’t mind a sequel.

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They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera

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They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera
HarperTeen, 2017.

This magnificent and haunting YA novel is set in an alternate present day New York in which Death-Cast alerts you on the day you are to die.

Two teen Latinx boys who have received this call spend their last day together ensuring that they live before they die. Puerto Rican Mateo has been living his life vicariously through video games and online updates of other Deckers, as those who are on their End Day are called, and Cuban American Rufus has felt lost and out of control since he saw the rest of his family die.

They meet through the Last Friend app and movingly support each other as they tie up ends and make peace with themselves. Silvera (More Happy than Not, 2015) has created two wonderful and wonderfully distinct characters and their dual narration is punctuated with short accounts of other people whose lives are, however briefly, touched by these young men.

As the plot drives towards the inevitable end, signaled by the book’s title, this reader for one was hoping for a miracle, and  the potent theme of living without fear and regrets shines through. Tears were shed.

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The Empty Grave by Jonathan Stroud

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The Empty Grave by Jonathan Stroud
Lockwood and Co., Book 5
Disney Hyperion, 2017

If you read many of my reviews, you’ll have noticed I can be a bit sniffy about series. This is generally because they open with a terrific flourish focusing on the personal story of some teen, but then get bogged down in subsequent novels when the author tries to open up the world he or she has created. But there are exceptions! Harry Potter is, of course, one and so is Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. And I believe Jonathan Stroud has created two exceptional series that get better as they go along: Bartimaeus and Lockwood and Co. So if you haven’t read them, stop looking at this right now and get to it. For the rest of us Stroud fans, you may continue on to my review of The Empty Grave.

In this outstanding 5th (and final) book in the consistently excellent Lockwood and Co series, our friends at the Lockwood psychic detective agency are digging deeper into the root of the Problem that has been plaguing Great Britain for more than 50 years.

There’s more than a hint of melancholy hanging over the charismatic Anthony Lockwood and our narrator, Lucy Carlyle, as they have now been to the Other Side, and for Lockwood, especially, it brings a devil may care desperation to his dealings with the denizens of the ghost world. While there is still much lighthearted banter, particularly between Lucy and the Skull, the overall feel is much more elegiac than previous books. And at least some of that comes from me knowing this will be the last book with my friends

Joining our regulars – Lockwood, Lucy, nerdy George Cubbins, and elegant Holly Munro – is Quill Kipps who has played a support role in previous books. Quill is older, though no more responsible than the others.

Unlike previous books, the book opens with a vignette that is directly related to the main plot arc – the gang are trying to dig up Marissa Fittes’ grave to see if there is really a body there. After this escapade, we move to an apparently unrelated case, that of the Belle Dame Sans Merci, which is more to build our growing concern about Lockwood’s state of mind than to forward the plot.

Stroud perfectly balances the scares with the warmth of the characters, and also manages to challenge the reader’s assumption (or, at least, this reader’s assumption) that everything is going to be alright. As Lockwood takes Lucy to see the empty grave between his parents, a space for him to join his family, George gets beaten up, and Quill gets a sword in the side, it’s never clear if everyone is going to come out alive. Even the skull wants his freedom and can Lucy refuse when she knows she could be dead very soon?

The series wraps up with a satisfyingly exciting climax and the end-tying warmth of the aftermath. To be honest, I was hoping this was going to be an ongoing series as it’s a high spot in my reading year, but Mr Stroud still looks pretty young so I’m hoping he can get another series going if he’s finished with Lockwood (which may be a British TV series). And I can always go back and re-read Bartimaeus.

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Warcross by Marie Lu

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Warcross by Marie Lu
Putnam, 2017.

I enjoyed Marie Lu’s Legend series and thought it was one of the better YA dystopian series. Warcross, the electrifying start of a new series, is set in a just-over-the-horizon future and toggles between a sort of Blade Runneresque Tokyo and a virtual reality game called Warcross that the world is obsessed with.

Emi Chen is scraping a living bounty hunting in New York, when she uses her hacking skills to exploit a glitch in Warcross. She is immediately invited to Tokyo by the young (and dishily charismatic, of course) designer of Warcross, Hideo Tanaka. He wants her to participate in the Warcross world championship to catch a hacker called Zero who seems to have nefarious ideas and Emi is chosen to be in the Phoenix Riders team to take part in the tournament.

The most exhilarating parts of the novel are set in the games themselves and it’s a little Hunger Gamesy, though apparently without the threat of imminent death. Ms Lu comes from a game design background and it shows in her wildly imaginative set-ups and fluent descriptions.

Emi is a feisty, thoughtful, and sympathetic protagonist. There are way too many undeveloped characters, at least initially, though as we progress into the world championships this settles down a bit. There is a notable diversity of skin tones, countries of origin, and physical ablebodiedness. Hideo himself, however, comes straight out of central casting as leading man with a tragic background.

There are a few glitches in the plotting – most notably in the revelation of Zero’s identity, which at this stage just doesn’t make sense (in fact, the person who I had tabbed for this fits soooo much better). Additionally, and this may be addressed in the next novel (did I say that this was a series? Well, of course, it’s a series), the novel doesn’t address why, or even how, Warcross is such a global phenomenon to the extent that apparently everyone, even old fogies like me play it or at least watch it. The ending sets us up for the sequel, albeit with a rather tedious dump of exposition.

But I’m mostly quibbling here – Ms Lu is a fine author and when she’s on her home territory she pulled me in and had me thrilled by her VR game.

Will I read the sequel? Past experience suggests that the stakes will be upped from personal to national or even global, which probably means less actual time in Warcross, so it’s probably a no for me, though I’ll take a view when it comes out.

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