Tag Archives: mythology

Dark Energy by Robison Wells

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dark energyDark Energy by Robison Wells
Harper Collins, April 2016.

I’ve read most of Robison Wells’ books and have really enjoyed the combination of interesting set ups and fast-paced action, and have always appreciated that he writes duologies, thus getting rid of the boring middle book in a trilogy at a stroke.

Dark Energy is, for the most part, a terrifically paced, tightly plotted scifi thriller set in the right now. A massive alien spaceship has crashed into the Midwest, killing thousands, and Alice’s NASA bigwig Dad is called in. Rather than leave her behind in Miami, he enrolls her into the tony Minnetonka School for the Gifted and Talented. When the inhabitants of the spaceship finally emerge, they are surprisingly human looking, and two of them are placed at Minnetonka, but it is only when the spaceship is being explored that it emerges that all is not what it seems.

The pacing of the majority of this novel is superlative. As Alice settles into school there is little indication of the drama yet to come: she makes friends, she finds romance, and she learns the ropes. When aliens Coya and Susika are introduced to the school, there is some fun with them not knowing the ways of human world, including not understanding Alice’s teen snark, as well as some mysteries: why won’t they talk about their mother? Why don’t they wear shoes? Then the tone darkens considerably as Alice and her friends are invited by her Dad to come into the spaceship to document it. What they find is sickening and raises some big questions.

The final section, however, lost me a bit. As the true aliens emerge, they feel slightly silly early-Dr Who monsterry, and the pace becomes frantically fast and felt muddled. I felt a lot was not resolved satisfactorily, despite an end-tying up epilogue. It appears that this is a standalone, though frankly, as I was racing towards the end, I didn’t think it was going to be, as there was so much left unexplained.

Dark Energy is a step forward for the author in terms of characterization. Alice is a fully rounded, not always likeable, smart teenage girl and the support characters, including her two science nerd roommates, and her potential love interest are all several cuts above cardboard.

Alice’s mother was Navajo and, confounding my initial dark thoughts of token diversity, Navajo rituals and traditions are integral to the plot. According to the author’s note at the end, he has some personal experience of these and has run his writing past experts. I’m no Debbie Reese, and I’m sure she will thoroughly analyze Dark Energy, but it does appear to me that Mr Wells has done his due diligence and used his knowledge respectfully. Update: Debbie Reese has reviewed Dark Energy and does not recommend it.

I hope between ARC and publication, the ending will get sorted out because I feel this could be Mr Wells’ best novel to date. However, even as it stands, it will have plenty of appeal to teen readers who enjoy scifi in a current day setting, and those who look out for strong female leads.

Thanks to Harper Collins and Edelweiss for the digital ARC.

Just a couple of postscript gripes. The title seems a bit lame and generic – there’s a prologue that sort of justifies it, but that feels bolted on and even says “This story isn’t about dark energy.” And the cover (at least on the digital arc) appears to show a truck, whereas Alice’s car is, crucially, a BMW 550i GT.

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Bayou Magic by Jewell Parker Rhodes

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bayou magicBayou Magic by Jewell Parker Rhodes
Little, Brown, 2015.

This is my last review from the Cybil shortlist for Elementary and Middle Grade Speculative Fiction. Though it wasn’t one of my top contenders, it’s an enjoyable and well-written fantasy set in the Bayou Bon Temps on the Gulf Coast. And it has African mermaids

Nearly ten-year old Maddy Lavalier Johnson is the last of her family to leave New Orleans for a bayou summer with her grandmere. Unlike her prissy older sisters, she loves running through the bayou, getting dirty, and becoming friends with Bear, a neighborhood boy. As they airboat around the swamp, her grandmother’s mystical tales of her ancestors start to come to life, and when tragedy strikes, Maddy is able to realize her dream of being a hero.

There’s an excitingly rich stew of ideas in here: Nature vs. the city, what being a friend means, environmentalism, African culture, and family lineage. But because it’s a short book, I think some of the ideas get a bit short-changed. The plot makes some jarring leaps, and it feels a bit over-stuffed sometimes, with the characters talking in shorthand.

And there’s a equally enticing stew of characters. Maddy at age ten is characterized by “Change. Energy. Luck.” and Bear at eleven is “Patient. Sensitive.” These two, along with wise Grandmere make an appeal central trio, and there’s a whole bunch of support characters that feel authentic without getting into Southern Whimsy. Maddy and a majority of the characters are African American, and the evocation of the community as well as its physical and spiritual roots make this a truly diverse book.

The writing is sensitively done – it feels crafted without being over-written; and the foreshadowing of the environmental tragedy is really well done. There’s an occasional slip into didacticism, particularly when Grandmere is demonstrating an oil spill, but it is useful information and will appeal to environmentally conscious kids.

The first third of the book worked really well for me, but after that it gets a bit too hurried and crammed. Nonetheless, this unusual blend of magical realism and real life tragedy should have a wide audience.

Rise of the Wolf by Jennifer A. Nielsen

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Rise-of-the-WolfRise of the Wolf by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Mark of the Thief series; bk. 2
Scholastic, due out January 26, 2016.

Part two of Jennifer A. Nielsen week!

In this satisfying and exciting sequel to Mark of the Thief, “runaway slave with magic” Nic continues his fight against the Praetors in Ancient Rome. Having stolen a magical bulla from Caeser’s tomb, Nic is now on the trail of the powerful Malice of Mars, which is buried in a temple that only he has the key to – at least everyone thinks he has the key, though Nic has no idea what or where it is.

Ms Nielsen writes terrific action scenes – they’re grippingly exciting, particularly the chariot race at the Ludi Romani, which races along with dramatic twists and turns, and the climax in the temple, which is chilling and cinematic.

Nic remains an engaging narrator with his sharp wit and intelligence, and other characters re-appear, and have developed depth and complexity: Aurelia, the feisty plebeian, continues to joust with Nic in a way that can only mean that they’re destined for each other; Crispus more clearly emerges as the straight man to Nic’s magic and quips; Livia, Nic’s sister, stops being a drip (mostly); and their grandfather General Radulf develops a second dimension.

However, there isn’t as much interesting stuff about Ancient Rome as there was in the previous book, and, I must admit, I got a little lost in the ins and outs of the back story to all the magical items, though it was fine to just roll with it. The plot is probably more complicated than I’d like, but it rattles along with some good twists and reveals. And I do dislike a cliffhanger ending – I feel novels should be complete in themselves, even when part of a series.

Nonetheless, this is a very solid sequel, which middle grade fantasy action readers are sure to enjoy and I look forward to the final book of the trilogy.

Thanks to Scholastic and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.

Ares, Bringer of War written and illustrated by George O’Connor

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ares coverAres, Bringer of War written and illustrated by George O’Connor
First Second, 2015

Unlike other more biographical entries in The Olympians series, this graphic novel version of Homer’s Iliad brings to life what I recall, from O’Level Classical Studies, being a rather dry read about the Trojan War. This shows the gods watching the war from Mount Olympus like a video game, with some rooting for the Greeks and some for the Trojans, depending on a complex and incestuous web of connections (luckily Mr O’Connor gives us the doozy of a family tree on the inside front cover).

The introductory section explains the differences between the two gods of war: Athena is about strategy and is “the voice that speaks reason in the heat of battle” whereas Ares lives in “the chaos, the confusion, and the horror” that can overtake soldiers “when the best laid plans have gone awry.” As the gods help their favorites and seek vengeance for slights, the Greeks and Trojans are just pawns in a game that eventually the gods lose interest in after Achilles defiles the body of Hector. The book finishes, a little lamely, with a whirlwind page on the rest of the Trojan War, much as the Iliad does.

The color panels in Troy move between cool blues for Athena’s strategy and rusty/earthy reds and browns for the blood-soaked visceral rampaging of Ares. The minimalist, neutral and serene Olympus reflects the ennui and omniscience of the gods. It is encouraging to note that both mortals and immortals have a diverse range of skin tones. However, and maybe I’m reading too much into this, I’m a little uneasy that Ares, the raging, and bloodthirsty god, is the only dark-skinned male as it feels like it plays to the Scary Black Man trope.

The end notes are fun, as Mr O’Connor gives some entertaining information about how he used details from the Iliad to inform his story and illustrations, including the tidbit that gods weigh more than mortals.

This is a hugely popular series with upper elementary/middle school kids (and older) and there’s no reason why this should not continue the trend.

Mark of the Thief by Jennifer A. Nielsen

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mark of the thiefMark of the Thief by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Scholastic, 2015.

With this exciting fantasy adventure, set in Ancient Rome, Jennifer A. Nielsen (The Ascendance Trilogy) launches another winning middle grade/YA series. Nicolas Calva is a slave working in the mines south of Rome, when General Radulf commands him to go into a recently discovered cave where it is reputed that Caesar’s treasure is buried. But there is more to this command that meets the eye, as Nic discovers when he is attacked by a griffin and then finds a bulla, a protective amulet worn Roman boys, that gives him magical powers.

After Nic’s abortive attempt to flee with both the griffin and the bulla, he ends up in Rome, where a series of adventures, including two thrilling episodes in the Colosseum, brings him closer to understanding what he has taken, and what it means to the Empire. He has to work to both develop and control his magic, which initially seems a bit amorphous, while at the same time decide which, if any, of the many seekers for the bulla has the most honorable motives.

Nic doesn’t have quite the charm or deviousness of Sage in The False Prince, though he is equally quick-witted. Like Sage, he is a reluctant central character in a complicated conspiracy and can only rely on himself, as he doesn’t know who else he can trust.  Nic has no real desire to have the bulla and its magic, but cannot see an alternative that would allow him and his sister to live as free people. Many other characters are introduced, and while they are not particularly well-defined, with the exception of the feisty plebian Aurelia, their roles are more to keep the plot moving along, which they achieve admirably.

Unlike the completely fictional Carthya, Nielsen places Nic in an alternate Roman Empire of Emperor Tacitus, some three hundred years after Julius Caesar. Along with Nic, the reader learns about the social structure of Rome, the duplicitous and sophisticated political world, and gets a behind the scenes look at the Colosseum.

I am a huge fan of The False Prince, though I felt the series tapered off pretty disappointingly in books 2 and 3. Encouragingly, Mark of the Thief leaves Nic needing to find two other magical objects, so it feels like Ms. Nielsen has a solid plan and structure for the remainder of the series.

Scarlett Undercover by Jennifer Latham

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scarlettScarlett Undercover by Jennifer Latham
Little, Brown, due out in May 2015

In this spirited, multicultural detective novel, Scarlett, a “freckled, cappuccino-colored, sixteen-year-old“ Muslim, takes on an apparently simple case when 9-year-old Gemma Archer asks her to investigate her brother’s connection with his friend’s suicide. But as Scarlett digs into it, she realizes it has a life-threatening link to her own family.

Set in the fictional city of Las Almas, which feels so much like New York I’m not sure why it isn’t, Scarlett Undercover has a large, mainly Muslim cast. As her Egyptian father and Sudanese mother are both dead, Scarlett has assembled around herself a new quasi-family, many of whom have a role to play in this mystery. The author deftly thumbnail sketches the many characters, even minor ones, to give them clear definition: “Sam Johnson was short, round, and topped off with a shock of indignant red hair.”

The mystery hinges around Islamic stories of evil jinn, and their leader Iblis’s battle with Solomon and all of humanity. Scarlett is a casual Muslim, though her sister, Reem, is devout, and, over the course of the book, we see Scarlett’s commitment to her faith grow as her investigations lead her into a deeper understanding of her religion. The author is not Muslim (nor am I) but appears to have done a thorough job of researching both the religion and the culture. An author’s note on what she assimilated and what she made up would be useful, though there wasn’t one in the ARC I read.

The hardboiled style is well done, and Scarlett has many neat turns of phrase: “Mr Prazsky was as hard to pin down as a soft-boiled egg.” However, though she professes to be independent and self-sufficient, the reader will easily see cracks in the façade where her vulnerability shows through, particularly when it comes to her love interest, Decker.

The novel is satisfying and complete in itself, but with this out of the ordinary and eclectic team of players, and all of the mean streets of Las Almas to go down, Scarlett Undercover feels like it could be the first in a terrific series.

Thanks to Little, Brown and Netgalley for the ARC. And thanks to Little, Brown for ensuring that the girl on the cover of the book looks like a 16 year-old Egyptian/Sudanese girl.

Icefall by Matthew J. Kirby

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While I’m Cybilling away, I’m going to post some older reviews of gems that are worth re-visiting. This week is Matthew J. Kirby week! I have read all three of his stand alone books and, though in completely different settings, they all share a wildly imaginative world building sensibility, paired with very human stories. I love that each MJK is completely fresh and different, and that each one stands alone, but each one is also exquisitely well-observed and written. Today I’ll review Icefall (2011), and on Thursday I’ll have The Lost Kingdom (2013). Sadly, I have no notes from my reading of The Clockwork Three (2010), so no review of that, though I do remember enjoying it and noting MJK as an author to look out for. He now seems to be into writing series, which makes me a bit grumpy, but I suppose I should reserve judgement, and read The Quantum League (2014)  and The Arctic Code (due out in April).

IcefallIcefall by Matthew J. Kirby
Scholastic, 2011

A Viking King has three children: Harald is his heir, Asa, the beautiful oldest daughter will make a great marriage, but Solveig, the plain middle daughter, does not seem to have a role. Following a dispute with a rival, the King decides to send his children, along with a handful of servants and guards to a safe settlement in the far North. They are soon joined by a group of the King’s Berserkers, ferocious and violent warriors, sent as extra protection. As the winter draws in and the sea freezes, no one can get in, but also no one can get out. And as it becomes clear that there is a traitor in the camp, the safe settlement becomes a prison.

Solveig finds her purpose as she develops her talent as a skald, or storyteller, using the power of tales of the Norse gods, like Thor and Odin, to subtly change the actions of others. Solveig’s gradual progress from feeling ignored and useless to inspirational storyteller is a wonderful achievement and the other characters are all fully developed and distinct.

Building a claustrophobic and sinister atmosphere, Kirby creates a real sense of tension and impending doom, as the situation becomes increasingly desperate and ultimately erupts into a thrilling climax.

Though readers may be drawn to the action elements of Icefall, they will also find a meditation on the strength of myths skillfully woven in.