Tag Archives: speculative

The Ruinous Sweep by Tim Wynne-Jones

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The Ruinous Sweep by Tim Wynne Jones
Candlewick, June 2018.

I really enjoyed Canadian Wynne-Jones’s The Emperor of Any Place (2015) with its mix of beautifully written realistic prose and a magical element that just blended in. The Ruinous Sweep, an ambitious literary YA murder mystery has a similar blend of dream-like fantasy and intricately dense characterization.

In the first half of the novel, which flows from the present back to the recent and further past, 17 year-old Donovan Turner has been hit by a truck and is lying critically injured and semi-comatose in an ICU. His girlfriend Beatrice, Bee, sits with him and he starts talking but what is he trying to communicate? Woven through this is a hallucinatory account of Donovan’s evening which becomes an allegorical journey. With a too abrupt shift, in the second section of the novel, Bee starts making connections from Donovan’s hospital ramblings to his past (and the reader can make connections to his interior trek), and she launches her own investigation, though this is not a murder-mystery in a straightforward sense.

The writing is elegant and precise, sharply crafted and still staying true to the characters. Both Donovan and Bee are attractive, complex, flawed people, well-matched in their grope towards defining themselves: by nature she is “be” and he is “do” but in the novel’s present, they switch roles. Bee does, however, makes a crucial to the plot decision that just seems out of character. The adults seems a little too split into saintliness and evil, but given the guiding text maybe that’s deliberate.

Wynne-Jones has been inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy, and some of Donovan’s quest reflects Dante’s journey through the circles of Hell and Purgatory. However, there are few clues beyond the title and the epigraph that this is what the author’s doing. While I knew of the Divine Comedy, I wasn’t that familiar with it so I did a quick Wikipedia check and some of the parallels in the novel then made a bit more sense (eg Virgil, Dante’s guide, becomes Jilly, Donovan’s guide). Without this knowledge, and I suspect most teen readers will not be aware of Dante’s work beyond the title, the narrative moves into strange and weird territory without at least initial apparent reason. Maybe an Author’s Note would help? Also some of the events in Donovan’s hallucination don’t seem to make sense either as a link to his past or a clue to his present, though maybe they are an echo of Dante.

This is a challenging read to get into, but the reward is immensely fulfilling as Beatrice, like her namesake in Dante’s work, leads Donovan through purgatory and towards heaven. Ideal for teens and adults who seek out demanding reads.

Thanks to Candlewick for the ARC.

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Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge by Lisa Jensen

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Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge by Lisa Jensen
Candlewick, July 2018.

A YA romance set in medieval France that is a twist on Beauty and the Beast. As in the fairytale, a cruel and heartless French aristocrat is transformed into a hideous beast, and can only be changed back when he loves and is loved in return.

Jensen adds a new character, Lucie, a maid at the Chateau Beaumont who is initially attracted to the gorgeous chevalier, Jean-Loup, but he is quickly shown to be rotten to the core when he rapes her. Thinking she is pregnant, Lucie runs off to the woods where she is rescued by Mere Sophie, a wise woman. Sophie transforms Jean-Loup into a hideous beast and allows Lucie to watch his suffering by transforming her into a candlestick (though not one that sings and dances!)

But here the story swerves from the original – Beast has no recollection of his time as the chevalier and proves to be a gentle and charming companion and Lucie finds herself falling in love with him.

Enter Rose (the Belle of this story), who is held at the chateau after her father steals a rose and is initially terrified of the Beast, falling in love with the idea of handsome Jean Loup instead. Rose is also something of a Cinderella character as she has two mean and grasping sisters.

As Lucie and Beast, and even Rose, begin to understand that love is about more than skin deep appearances, they work through their love-quadrangle (Jean-Loup being the fourth side) towards a satisfying ending beyond the traditional happy ever after wedding, aided by some magic.

The prose, characterization and plot development serve this interpretation well and will provide enjoyably lush escapism for a teen reader.

Thanks to Candlewick for the ARC.

A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge

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A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge
Amulet, 2017

Hardinge (The Lie Tree, 2016) creates an extraordinary fantasy which marries a 17th century English Civil War setting with her usual dazzling creativity, deliciously deep and complex characterization, and bright, sophisticated writing.

Some members of the aristocratic Fellmottes are able to be possessed by multiple ghosts, ancestors who continue to live on by passing from body to body though, unfortunately, if too many crowd, in the spirit of the host can be lost. Young Makepeace Lightfoot, an illegitimate and lowly branch of the family, has this ability and after the death of her mother is taken in by the Fellmottes to work in their kitchen.

But she realizes that she is a spare host, being kept on hand in case a vessel for the ancestral spirits is needed and she runs away, using her wits and those of a few friendly ghosts that she has invited in, to journey across war-conflicted England, staying one step ahead of her pursuing family.

Makepeace is a trademark Hardinge protagonist: intelligent, thorny, and gutsy. But the tightrope trick here, which the author brilliantly pulls off, even adding some flourishes, is that Makepeace is host to a bear, a Royalist doctor and a Parliamentarian soldier, all of whom are fully-developed characters and have easy to follow conversations with her and each other. Makepeace has a half-brother, James, who also has the Fellmotte ability, and he is her anchor as well as the catalyst for Makepeace’s bid for freedom. This reminds me, in its profundity and authenticity, of the sibling relationship in Cuckoo Song.

At first, I found the novel to be rather slow-paced and uninvitingly grim. But I was riveted once Makepeace sets off on her own and the novel explores the political and social landscape of her country as she is hunted by her family.

As a teen, I was fascinated with the Civil War and was wholly on the side of the way more romantic Royalists. Indeed, one of my earliest historical crushes was Rupert of the Rhine (who gets a shout out here with his dog, Boy). As an older, and maybe wiser, person, I can feel much greater sympathy with the dour Parliamentarians who, while having justice on their side have a bit of a worrying hardline streak. All this to say that Hardinge does a marvelous job of evoking the divergent camps and Makepeace’s pragmatic approach to them.

Makepeace wants to do more than just get by and survive, she wants to flourish and this is an ideal novel for readers who want to do the same, whether they are middle schoolers, older teens, or adults.

Hardinge, hugely popular and feted in the UK, seems to be finding an audience here in the US following the success of The Lie Tree. Her blend of historical setting, singular fantasy, and courageously unsentimental feminist protagonists can make for a challenging and spiky read, but the balm of the gorgeous writing eases the way.

Thick as Thieves by Megan Whalen Turner

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Thick as Thieves by Megan Whalen Turner
A Queen’s Thief novel
Greenwillow, 2017.

Though I have read and enjoyed a couple of Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief books it was a long time ago and I recall very little. This book is not quite part of the series but is set in the same world and Eugenides the Thief is a support character.

A YA historical novel set in an alternate version of Medieval Mediterranean, it’s both a buddy road trip and a primer on political manipulation and intrigue. Kamet, a high up Mede slave is on the run after his master is poisoned and fortuitously meets up with an Attolian who is there to take him to Gen, the King of Attolia as revenge for something his master did. (The Attolian’s name is withheld until quite late in the book – a typical Turner ploy. Apparently this character was in a previous book though I had no recollection of him – anyway, I’ll treat it as a spoiler and won’t give his name here)

As they travel by boat, foot, and cart on the run from the Emperor’s guard, they encounter kindness and cynicism, help and hindrance. Narrated by Kamet, we see his sharp-wittedness which gets them out of as many tight spots as the Attolian’s fighting skills. His condescension to the Attolian, who he believes to be a bit of a lunkhead, gradually gives way to admiration and friendship.

The writing is exemplary and serves the characters and the plot without being showy for the sake of it and it’s a satisfying, warm novel that’s character driven as well as plot driven. There are the twists that a Turner fan might expect but are just as thrilling for a newcomer to the series. As ever with Turner, while I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, I’m not sure how much kid appeal it has – but she keeps writing them and libraries keep buying them so I’m obviously missing something!

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The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

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The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman
Knopf, 2017

Pullman makes a welcome and largely successful return to the world of His Dark Materials with the first book in a new trilogy, The Book of Dust, set when Lyra Belacqua is just a baby. I LOVED all three books of HDM but most especially the middle one, The Subtle Knife which introduced Will.

In the familiar steampunky Oxford, where a person’s soul is an externalized animal daemon and alethiometers can reveal the truth, 6-month old Lyra has been placed in the sanctuary of a nunnery to protect her from the Magisterium, the ruling religious body, after a witch has prophesied that she is “destined to put an end to destiny.”

The protagonist is 11-year old Malcolm Polstead – a marvelously enterprising, curious, and full-hearted boy who is something of a precursor of Will. He helps out at his parents’ pub and at the nunnery where he meets and becomes deeply enamored of baby Lyra. In his wanderings around the city he becomes involved with a scholar-spy who might be working against the Magisterium.

When a supernatural storm floods the country, Malcolm, along with sharp and no-nonsense 16 year-old Alice, rescues Lyra from the nunnery. They set off in his canoe, La Belle Sauvage, to London to the perceived safety of Lyra’s father. On this odyssey, which has rather more natural and supernatural encounters than I really wanted, they are relentlessly pursued by a smiling villain and his hideously deformed hyena daemon.

Pullman expands the world – three alethiometers! – and adds new characters including the uncomfortably creepy villain, Gerard Bonneville. There are returning characters, including Lyra’s parents Lord Asriel and the chilling Mrs. Coulter, which might bring a frisson of familiarity to HDM readers but new readers will not be disadvantaged.

The target is still organized religion and Pullman pursues this with the Consistorial Court of Discipline, the Magisterium’s secret police, and the League of St. Alexander, which empowers children to turn in supposed enemies of the Church. Dust is discussed briefly, but to be honest, I didn’t feel I got much out of those passages and recall feeling similarly vague in the later (chronologically) books.

The ending is frustratingly abrupt, raising many questions and it is unclear how or even if the next book in the series, apparently set a decade after His Dark Materials, will answer them. Nonetheless, even with flaws, this is an impressive extension to a beloved series that will appeal to tweens, teens, and adults.

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.