Thursday, October 27, 2011

Fly By Night by Frances Hardinge

Frances Hardinge is a children's author in the same way Lloyd Alexander, Diana Wynne Jones, or Sir Terry Pratchett is. Which is to say that while her protagonists may be children and her language is all family friendly, what she really writes are Stories That Everyone Should Read.

Fly by Night features the orphan Mosca Mye, black-eyed, by turns surly and naive, with a deep and desperate longing for reading. She's sort of like a Dickensian character, if Dickens had ever thought girls could have adventures too. She runs away from her village with a down-on-his-luck silver tongued conman (and occasional spy), Eponymous Clent, and a homicidal goose named Saracen.

I adore Mosca. I would hug her if I thought I could get away with it. She's prickly and suspicious and a loner. She can be very grudging about letting people know exactly what she's thinking. She is just starting to find out who she is and what she believes, but that doesn't make her dumb or credulous. She is not always brave or wise or gentle or nice, because she is thoroughly human. And Eponymous too. He can be cowardly just as often as daring and cynical just as often as romantic.

And Saracen is just pure awesomeness in goose form.

Just so you know, people die in this book. People change. People are betrayed in large and small matters, accidentally and purposefully, by "Good" characters and "Bad" ones. Not everyone has the same agenda. Things may not get wonderfully better in the future (although there is some hope). But there will be (the sequel is already out) further adventures, and that's all Mosca and I need.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Stepsister Scheme by Jim Hines

So, to be honest, I wasn't sure how much I would enjoy this going in. The cartoony cover made think this was for a very young audience and kind of turned me off. But the author seemed like such an awesome person that I HAD to buy this just to support him. Now I want to buy the rest of the books in this series to support more of these books (and because I really want to read them!)

The Stepsister Scheme centers on Danielle Whitestone, or, as you may know her Cinderella. Life sure does seem to be progressing Happily Ever After enough for her. She just can't believe she's not still a servant to her spoiled stepsisters and cruel stepmother and instead married to the gorgeous and loving prince, with servants to wait on her for a change. Of course Danielle's happiness soon hits a stumbling block when her stepsister shows up to try to assassinate her. Seems the gruesome twosome have gotten their hands on some powerful magic and used it to kidnap Prince Armand. Luckily the queen has a crack squad of secret agents to send to rescue him: Princesses Erminilla and Talia, or as they're also known as, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. The three princesses set out to Fairytown to rescue the Prince or die trying.

The first interesting thing Hines does here is to go back to some of the older, darker versions of the tales. Sleeping Beauty was raped by her prince and only woke when she gave birth to twins. It is Snow's own mother who tried to kill her, not a "wicked stepmother". These are definitely not kiddy tales.

Secondly, although Danielle can at times be almost exasperatingly meek and goody-two-shoes nice, she does grow into a more assertive person who's willing to defend herself and even kill if it is absolutely necessary. She also isn't completely helpless, as she has both a magical sword and the ability to talk to animals. Danielle is also nicely contrasted with Talia who is harsh, dour, and violent. Talia will do and has done whatever it takes to survive, and she doesn't like leaving enemies behind to come after them later. Then there's Snow. She's pragmatic, a cheerfully enthusiastic flirt and sensation seeker. She's also a highly accomplished sorceress, and much less willing to forgive and forget than Danielle. These are not cookie cutter "Strong Female Characters" like you often see. And there's more: Danielle is happily married to her One True Love (when was the last time you saw the married protagonist of an adventure or fantasy book?), Snow flirts with any guy that moves and lived with the huntsman who spared her life, and Talia is either bisexual or homosexual. How often do you see that?

Thirdly, Hines gave us a fun world to play in. All the fairy tale creatures can live here. All the legends can find a version of themselves. Little Red Riding Hood is an assassin. There are goblins and gnomes, trolls and flying horses, magic mirrors and pixie pubs.

So. Definitely not for the wee ones, but if you like fairy tale retellings (such as McKinley's work) or adventure or girls learning to work together to save the day, I think you'll like this series.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Fledgling by Octavia Butler

I think you can see the trend of my reading lately. I don't normally read much horror, but Halloween makes for a good opportunity to shake my reading habits up a bit.

Fledgling is a title I've been meaning to read for quite a while. I'd read the opening chapter or two and found myself creeped out by the descriptions of her horrible injuries, of the process by which she healed, and of the obviously sexual connection of feeding considering our protagonist appears to be a ten year old child. Once I made the decision to read it all in one go, it did get... easier to read.

This is still some seriously creepy mind control/suggestibility/addiction going on here. And even though she is actually fifty-three, showing people sexually attracted to/having sex with someone with the body of a child squicks me out.

There's a lot of politics to this book: Ina (vampire) politics, gender politics, racial politics, species politics. You can really see how some of the discourse of human racial politics is used to inform the anti-human (and in some cases, also anti-POC) prejudices of the Ina. She's weak and volatile if she shows emotion, unnaturally cold and brutal if she doesn't. She needs to be turned over to someone else's care "for her own good" as she obviously can't take care of herself (this from someone who took away all of her support). She is told that she must out-Ina the Ina: not speak out, not attack, not circumvent the law that her attackers chose to ignore. For all that the Ina creep me out, I still want to hug Shori and tell her I support her.

So. Creepy book. Well-written book. Book I'm glad I've read. I think I'll hunt up some more Butler now. And maybe re-read Sunshine.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Night in the Lonesome October

Just finished a re-read of Zelazny's A Night in the Lonesome October. This is such a fun book to read. Our narrator is Snuff, a watchdog, and the events are set out in journal format for each day of October. See, Snuff and his owner Jack are Players in the Game. Figuring out who or what the other Players are and what the Game is about is half the fun of the novel. There are nods to pretty much every classic of horror literature, from the old man with the sickle who weaves wicker baskets (perhaps to form a man from them?) to the Good Doctor in his lightning rod-like mansion and the master of disguise (except to a dog) Great Detective. Illustrations are by Gahan Wilson, and are quirkily odd, if not necessarily how I picture them. A brief warning: while for the most part you could give this to a kid (even if they didn't get all the references to Elder Gods and such), there is a scene in which animal cruelty (vivisectionists) is described. People who can't take animal harm may want to skip that particular entry. The human bloodshed is described very little, and a lot of the deaths are simply implied.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Verdigris Deep by Frances Hardinge

Just finished reading Verdigris Deep, a YA book about a trio of kids who steal some coins from a wishing well and find things going wrong for them. It was a nice book to read in the run up to Halloween, full of suitably creepy things like the Spirit of the Well who has water gushing from her eyes and mouth, extra eyes sprouting on our protagonist, Ryan's hands (so apparently I share an eye squick with the author), and some very nasty wishes. It reminds me of Coraline, both in the tone and in the way that it reflects upon the ultimate futility of wishing rather than finding out what you really need and doing it. People in this book feel like real people. Some are nasty; some are broken and may never be fixed; some don't want to be fixed; some work desperately hard to get better. I really desperately wanted for our heroes to save the day, and they mostly did, and the ways in which they didn't were mainly other people saving themselves and each other. Good book; I'll definitely look for more by Hardinge. Don't feel put off by the YA label, as it's eminently suitable for a creepy Halloween read by adults. And there are absolutely, positively no lovelorn teenage vampires.