An Ember in the Ashes, by Sabaa Tahir

In the Martial Empire, freedom is the price you pay for security.  Whether it’s knowing your social cast will always have the same privileges, or the surety of poverty in the Scholar’s quarter, the one thing the Martials always provide is guaranteed destiny.  On the surface, this novel could fall into the “just another tale of empire” category, but as the story goes on Tahir builds out both the mythology and history of the Scholar and Martial civilizations to provide depth and conflict to both the Scholar struggle for freedom and the Martial fears of overturned dynasty.

An Ember in the Ashes hinges on the existence of a school of pseudo-peacekeepers, called Blackcliff, from which the mysterious and terrifying Masks graduate.  These masks are highly trained military personnel, who also possess somewhat magical abilities that seem to exist primarily to terrify the populace.  Laia is orphaned by a Mask raid on her Scholar home, in which her grandparents are killed and her brother taken.  She joins a Scholar rebel group and infiltrates Blackcliff on a mission to gain the rebel’s trust and get them to help get her brother out.

Unfortunately, this is where things begin to fall apart, from a meta perspective.  While everything Laia does in order to save her brother is realistic, even logical, the ways in which the narrative is constructed leaves somewhat to be desired.  Elias, one of the few Masks to both unoppositionally disagree with everything the Masks stand for and to survey all the way to graduation (dissenters and the disloyal are weeded out mercilessly), is all too typical of the “slave to fate” protagonists who hates the world but is too scared to really do anything about it.  The fact that he is one of the point of view characters, and so the reader spends a lot of time in his head, doesn’t help, as he often comes off as whiny and privileged.

The other major problem is the way in which women are handled in this novel.  In short, they are isolated.  There are three major woman characters, with a few supporting women characters.  The three major characters–Laia, Helene, and the Commandant–exist as antagonists to each other, and provide motivation for Elias.  Laia starts out free but subjugated and becomes a slave for whom he feels sympathy and a symbol of what is wrong with the Empire.  Helene is his best friend and for some reason the only woman chosen to attend Blackcliff–the narrative gives a one-sentence explanation that one woman per generation is selected.  She’s the perfect student, completely loyal to Elias, and therefore hates any other woman close to him.

Finally, the Commandant, Elias’ mother–again, the only woman of her generation–who is the only identifiable villain of the novel.  Other characters exist who commit evil by degrees, but she’s the one made only of cruelty and malice, who enjoys torturing people.  She made a name for herself hunting down rebels, and goes through slaves like cheap gloves, but somehow has managed to keep two kitchen slaves around for a few years, one of whom befriends Laia.  But this friendship also really only exists to create tension and advance the plot.  Otherwise women don’t really interact in this novel.  They are all exceptional in their own way and all are wound up in a fate storyline controlled by a group of oracles whose motives are not clear, so not only are they isolated, their agency is somewhat curtailed by the fact that they exist to carry out the plans of an outside force.

So, while Ember in the Ashes had some character issues that need to be resolved in the following books, it was a compelling look at the way empire and colonialism perpetuates itself in numerous ways, effectively enslaving even those who nominally benefit from it.  A good companion series might be Kate Elliott’s Court of Fives.

 

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What I Meant to Read, 2015

It’s a refrain we all know well… you add a bunch of books to your TBR, whether purchased, ARCs, gifts… and you just never get around to reading them.  My local indie bookstore lets me take some of their ARCs, in exchange for reviews, and I sometimes (always) pick more books than I’ll ever be able to read.  But they looked interesting at the time!

So here are some of the books from 2015 I thought I might like to read, but didn’t get around to.  Maybe you’ll decide to pick them up.  If you’ve read them, and reviewed them, let me know and I’ll feature your review here at IAmBooking.

(Click the Titles for links to GoodReads page)

Flame Tree Road, by Shona Patel, released June 2015

Actually, the ARC cover is way boring, and now, looking at the real cover, I just might start this one next….

The Star Side of Bird Hill, by Naomi Jackson

The Bamboo Sword, by Margi Preus

Breaking Sky, by Cori McCarthy

The Unquiet, by Mikaela Everett

Remember, if you’ve read any of these, I’ll feature your review right here at this blog (and on my Twitter @shyest_king), so let me know!

Court of Fives, by Kate Elliott

Jessamy
Tonor was born fighting, into a world where the way one looks determines
everything they will ever be able to achieve or aspire to.  But all Jessamy wants to do is run the
Fives, the national competition of strength, agility, and endurance that can
turn even a lowly Commoner into a hero. 
Except her Patron—noble—father has forbidden it.  Suddenly, though, Jessamy has an
opportunity to do the very thing she’s always dreamed, but the cost is the
comfortable and safe family life her father and mother have created almost out
of nothing for her and her sisters.

Court of Fives begins a new young adult
fantasy series full of vibrant and varied young people willing to risk
everything to get what they want out of life.  Jessamy and her sisters have to make hard choices, and
really challenge their understanding of the world in order to survive the
dangerous waters they find themselves in. 
 In twist after plot twist, Jessamy battles the avarice of one Lord out to use her family for
everything advantage they can give him while learning the history of a colonized nation—her mother’s people—trying to pry itself out form under the heel of its oppressors.  The situations Jessamy and her sisters
find themselves in, while they are part of a fantasy world, will be
recognizable and relatable to teen readers, and Elliott never stops taking her
readers seriously.

Elliott’s
world-building and characterization show a deft touch in this new series.  The history of Efea, where the story
takes place, is deeper than at first meets the eye, leaving plenty for the
reader to ponder and look forward to learning more about in the next
installment.  There is no shortage
of personalities and types in this novel, making the reader feel as though
these characters were about to spring off the page and into living, breathing
action.  Speaking of action, it’s a
story about a young woman who is not just capable, but amazingly athletically
skilled, who makes no apologies for her ability, right up to the end, and has
earned it every step of the way. 

Readers
looking for second-world Hunger Games
that features more dynamic and diverse characters need look no further than Court of Fives and its eventual
sequels.  Those who enjoy stories
that put characters in challenging positions where they must take difficult
decisions will like the suspense and action in this novel.  Anyone tired of fantasy that makes
assumptions and doesn’t think about social mores like gender roles and class
structure will enjoy the way Elliott questions everything, creating societies
that are believable and unique, with characters who are self-aware and actually
talk to each other about what matters to them. 

Books I’m Excited to Read in 2016

So last week I posted about books being published in 2016 that I’m excited about.

Now I’m going to talk about the books I’m looking forward to reading in 2016.  This is a slightly different list, since I don’t have the money or the time to buy everything I’m excited about right when it comes out, and actually read it.  My to-read stack isn’t as big as many, but it’s big enough.  So here are a few that I’ve been working towards, and plan to get to this year.  

Of course, more will be added to this stack, and I will, of course, post review of the ones that qualify for this blog.  You can also find all my review at goodreads here

Court of Fives, by Kate Elliott

It’s Kate Elliott!  It’s YA, which I don’t read a ton of, but it’s Kate Elliott!  Here’s a synopsis from her website, kateelliott.com

“In this imaginative escape into an enthralling new world, World Fantasy Award finalist Kate Elliott’s first young adult novel weaves an epic story of a girl struggling to do what she loves in a society suffocated by rules of class and privilege.

Jessamy’s life is a balance between acting like an upper class Patron and dreaming of the freedom of the Commoners. But at night she can be whoever she wants when she sneaks out to train for The Fives, an intricate, multi-level athletic competition that offers a chance for glory to the kingdom’s best competitors. Then Jes meets Kalliarkos, and an unlikely friendship between a girl of mixed race and a Patron boy causes heads to turn. When a scheming lord tears Jes’s family apart, she’ll have to test Kal’s loyalty and risk the vengeance of a powerful clan to save her mother and sisters from certain death.”


Akata Witch, by Nnedi Okorafor

Another YA, another author I’ve come to really enjoy, so of course I need to read more than just her adult novels.

Here’s a synopsis from her website nnedi.com

“Sunny lives in Nigeria, but she was born in New York City. She looks West African, but is so sensitive to the sun that she can’t play soccer during the day. She doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere.Then she learns why.Her classmate Orlu and his friend Chichi reveal that they have magical abilities- and so does she. Sunny is a “free agents,” overflowing with latent power. And she has a lot of catching up to do.Orlu and Chichi have been working with their teacher for years. Sunny needs a crash course in magical history, spells, juju, shape-shifting and dimensional travel. Her new world is a secret from her family, but it’s well worth all of the silence, exhaustion and sneaking around.Still, there is a dark side. After she’s found her footing, Sunny, Orlu, Chichi, and their American friend Sasha are asked by the magical authorities to help track down a criminal. Not just a run-of-the-mill bad guy. A real-life hardcore serial killer-with abilities far stronger than theirs.Ursula Le Guin and Diana Wynne Jones are Nnedi Okorafor fans. As soon as you start reading Akata Witch, you will be, too.”


Almanac of the Dead, by Leslie Marmon Silko

I picked this one up mostly by chance at my local indie books story, Burlingham Books, in Perry, New York.  They have a small-ish collection, but it’s always varied, always thought-provoking.  I’ve only read one or two novels by Native writers in the past, and decided to fix that, so this will be my starting point.

Here’s a synopsis from Wikipedia, since she doesn’t seem to have her own website

Almanac of the Dead takes place against the backdrop of the American Southwest and Central America. It follows the stories of dozens of major characters in a somewhat non-linear narrative format. Much of the story takes place in the present day, although lengthy flashbacks and occasional mythological storytelling are also woven into the plot.

The novel’s numerous characters are often separated by both time and space, and many seemingly have little to do with one another at first. A majority of these characters are involved in criminal or revolutionary organizations – the extended cast includes arms dealers, drug kingpins, an elite assassin, communist revolutionaries, corrupt politicians and a black market organ dealer.

Driving many of these individual storylines is a general theme of total reclamation of Native American lands.”


Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler

This one has been a long time coming.  I’m not sure what took me so long to get to Butler, but the lack will soon be remedied.  Here’s a synopsis from octaviabutler.org

“When unattended environmental and economic crises lead to social chaos, not even gated communities are safe. In a night of fire and death Lauren Olamina, a minister’s young daughter, loses her family and home and ventures out into the unprotected American landscape. But what begins as a flight for survival soon leads to something much more: a startling vision of human destiny… and the birth of a new faith.”

Bronze Gods, by A.A. Aguirre

I read a YA by Ann Aguirre a year or so ago, and enjoyed it, and now she’s working on a steampunk series with her husband, Andres.  I’ve found that steampunk is a subgenre I really enjoy, so I bought this book (quite) a while ago,  and it’s been sitting on my shelf ever since.  2016 is the year it gets moved to the permanent shelves!

Here’s a synopsis from Ann’s website

Janus Mikani and Celeste Ritsuko work all hours in the Criminal Investigation Division, keeping citizens safe. He’s a charming rogue with an uncanny sixth sense; she’s all logic—and the first female inspector. Between his instincts and her brains, they collar more criminals than any other partnership in the CID.
Then they’re assigned a potentially volatile case where one misstep could end their careers. At first, the search for a missing heiress seems straightforward, but when the girl is found murdered—her body charred to cinders—Mikani and Ritsuko’s modus operandi will be challenged as never before. Before long, it’s clear the bogeyman has stepped out of nightmares to stalk gaslit streets, and it’s up to them to hunt him down. There’s a madman on the loose, weaving blood and magic in an intricate, lethal ritual that could mean the end of everything…”

The New Moon’s Arms, by Nalo Hopkinson

Nalo Hopkinson!  Another author I discovered because of Burlingham Books.  I’m tempted to say her fiction is a little on the outside of my taste range, but that’s not really true.  I love her work; it’s mainstream SFF that says she should be on the outside of my tastes.  She says a lot that needs to be said, which is, I think, more important than conforming.

Here’s a synopsis, in her own words, from her website nalohopkinson.com

“my novel The New Moon’s Arms was a February 2007 release from Warner/Hachette Books. It’s my fourth novel. I was thinking about Nandor Fodor’s theory that poltergeist phenomena are “caused not by spirits but by human agents suffering from intense repressed anger, hostility, and sexual tension.” Some say that this may be why poltergeists so often manifest around young adults just going into puberty (primarily women, I think). The idea is that reaching sexual maturity in societies as sexually repressed as many of ours can be disturbing enough to some people that they begin to generate psychic phenomena.
I’m not in the business of theorizing whether that’s true or not. I was more interested in the idea. If the beginning of menstruation can be magic, I began to think about what it might be like if there were out-of-control psychic phenomena similarly associated with the ending of menstruation. Magical menopause! Enter my protagonist, who’s 53 years old and going through the Change of life, but with some changes peculiarly her own:

I was boiling. When the sun got so warm?

“…most primitive living pinnipeds,” said Hector.

God, the heat was getting worse.

“…derelict fishing nets…danger…”

Hector didn’t even seem to notice it. Me, my whole body was burning. I could feel the tips of my ears getting red, my cheeks flushing.

“…Brucella…Calamity? You all right?”

“I don’t know. Too much sun.” I wiped some perspiration from my brow. My hand came away wet.

“You sweating like you just run a marathon.”

“A lady doesn’t sweat.” But the dried salt from it was irritating my hand. I rubbed the hand against the fabric of my pants. “Jesus, it so hot!”

Hector looked worried. “That tree over there will give you some shade. Come.”

But before we could take a step, something soft and light grazed my head from above, then landed at Hector’s feet. “The hell is that?” he cried out. He bent to pick it up.

“It didn’t hurt me. I’m okay.” Much better, in fact. The heat was passing off rapidly. I was even chilly.

Hector straightened up. “Where this came from?” He looked up at the sky. I followed his gaze. Nothing but blue. Not even the cloud that must have just covered the sun and made me shiver.

Hector showed me the thing he was holding. I blinked the sun’s glare out of my eyes.

I grabbed her out of Hector’s hand. Bare Bear. Chastity’s Bare Bear. Held so tightly and loved so hard that her little stuffed rump was threadbare, her little gingham dress long gone. “Where this came from?”

“Look like it just fell out of the sky.”

“No, man; don’t joke. It must have washed up with the tide.”

“And landed on your head?”

“I don’t know; maybe this was on the sand already, and something else fell on my head.” Bare Bear winked her one glass eye at me. So long I hadn’t seen her. “A leaf from out a sea grape tree, something like that. Right, Bare Bear?” I hugged Lucky Bare Bear to my chest. I grinned at Hector. “She get small over the years, or I get big.” She still fit in her old place, up against my breastbone.

“You feeling sick?” He asked. “You didn’t look too good just now.”

“I feel wonderful,” I answered.

And because I sometimes like a little science with my fiction, I also resurrected the extinct Caribbean monk seal. Sort of.”


Lagoon, Nnedi Okorafor

Because it just looks so gorgeous.  No.  Well, yes, but also because I’m a completist and she’s a great writer.  

Here’s a synopsis from her website nnedi.com

“When a massive object crashes into the ocean off the coast of Lagos, Nigeria’s most populous and legendary city, three people wandering along Bar Beach (Adaora, the marine biologist- Anthony, the rapper famous throughout Africa- Agu, the troubled soldier) find themselves running a race against time to save the country they love and the world itself… from itself. Lagoon expertly juggles multiple points of view and crisscrossing narratives with prose that is at once propulsive and poetic, combining everything from superhero comics to Nigerian mythology to tie together a story about a city consuming itself.At its heart a story about humanity at the crossroads between the past, present, and future, Lagoon touches on political and philosophical issues in the rich tradition of the very best science fiction, and ultimately asks us to consider the things that bind us together – and the things that make us human.”

Talon, by Julie Kagawa

In
a unique take on traditional fantasy dragon stories, Ember Hill and her twin
Dante are young dragons tasked with learning how to be human, and where better
to do that than among the young and beautiful of Southern California?  In Talon,
Kagawa adapts many of the traditional tropes about dragons to create a world in
which they are not simply fantastical, covetous, dangerous monsters, but where
they live among us and infiltrate human civilization itself.

As
wards of their human guardians, Ember and Dante spend the summer surfing and
hanging out with their new friends—teenagers of the beautiful, rich set whose
parents have beach homes and few rules—all the while harboring deep secrets
about their real natures.  While
Dante seems to adapt easily, Ember has more trouble coming to terms with her
double life, and a rebellious spirit that proves irresistible to human and
dragon alike.  Meanwhile, Garrett
is a member of the secret military organization St. George, whose mission is to
find and kill all dragons.  Sparks
fly when Ember and Garrett meet, and each must make difficult choices about
whether to accept the truth as they’ve both been told about their enemies, or
to question authority. 

While
certain aspects of Ember and Dante’s otherness as dragons could have been
better realized, Kagawa has crafted a story with well-rounded, if somewhat
stereotypical characters.  Teens
who like a good forbidden love story will enjoy Kagawa’s rendering of the Romeo
& Juliet trope.  Talon hints at a new interpretation of
many aspects of history and fantasy that is intriguing enough to keep the
reader involved, and the supporting characters in the story help to drive the
plot in a way that feels natural. 
Ember is a compelling character, willing to take chances and fight back,
making for a suspenseful read as the chance that she will assume her true form
and fight tantalizes the reader, and Kawaga has set the story up well for a
sequel.

Readers
looking for a strong female lead and new take on an old story will enjoy Talon. 
Kagawa’s themes of conspiracy and questioning rules will appeal to
many teen readers.  With stories of
surfing and summer fun, Talon makes a
great summer beach read to keep the back-to-school blues at bay.

The Darkest Part of the Forest, by Holly Black

Holly Black returns to faery themes with The Darkest Part of the Forest, the
story of Hazel and Ben and their tumultuous childhood growing up on the edge of
the world of the fae.  The town of
Fairfold has always been steeped in magic and mystery.  If you don’t want to get hurt, you must
act in the right way.  Don’t do
something that makes you seem like a tourist.  For the most part, it works.  But something has been happening and suddenly the oddness of
Fairfold is giving way to the danger of Fairfold, and Hazel must figure out why
before it’s too late.

Black
has a knack for the slow reveal, holding on to her secrets as long as
possible.  The story might be
slightly more satisfying in the end had she doled out more hints throughout the
plot, but there is enough going on that the reader is not left bored or
confused long enough for it to really detract from the story.  The
Darkest Part of the Forest
gets its strength from delving into Hazel and
Ben’s past.  Both have grown up
smart and resourceful, capable of great things.  Black’s story shows how sometimes children know or
understand more than they realize, and they have coping mechanisms that they
use to hide uncomfortable truths even from themselves.  Hazel finds herself leading a double
life, in more ways than one.

The
driver of the novel’s plot is the glass casket that lies on the edge of the
forest, within which is trapped a sleeping faery boy.  For as long as the town can remember, this casket has been
there, the boy never waking.  Until
one day the casket is shattered and he is gone.  No one can decide what it means, but everyone has guesses,
and being wrong could cost many people their lives.  The Darkest Part of
the Forest
is a story of acceptance and moving past old prejudices, a story
of new beginnings and coming to terms with old hurts.  Ben, Hazel, and many other characters learn to trust
themselves and each other, and to embrace the many facets of themselves. 

The Darkest Part of the Forest is a bold
look at the juxtaposition of childhood and faery tales, and teen readers will
enjoy the ways that Black unravels that connection with compelling characters
and a well-developed story. 
Readers interested in both the world of faery and the medieval world of
knightly chivalry will find themselves enraptured by the story of a young girl
who dreams of being a knight, with her brother a bard, fighting evil
together.  This is a story that
will appeal to both teens and adults, however Black has a talent for writing to
teens, and realistically addresses the concerns of teens growing up and
learning to deal with a world that doesn’t always understand them.

Razorhurst, by Justine Larbalestier

Razorhurst, the place, is not friendly
to children.  In a fast-paced novel
that goes out with a bang, children grow up fast or don’t grow up at all.  Some readers may find themselves
frantically checking the genre-labeling on this one, as Larbalestier doesn’t
skip over the reality of violence—the many forms of it—that made Razorhurst
what it was in the interwar era of Sydney. 

Surry
Hills is more than a setting in this novel.  It sets the tone for everything that happens, and everything
happens quickly.  Kelpie, a street
urchin, and Dymphna Campbell meet almost by chance yet are drawn to each other
for a reason neither feels comfortable speaking about.  Dymphna is a prostitute, Gloriana
Nelson’s “best girl,” who has escaped a horrific past.  Kelpie doesn’t know who her parents
are, only that living on the street is better than going to an orphanage. 

Surry
Hills, apart from being a well-known part of Sydney ruled by crime
bosses—particularly Gloriana Nelson and Mr. Davidson—is a wonderful metaphor
for the up-and-down nature of life in this era, when the rich lived in their
big houses, far away from the poor and the injured war veterans forced to
scratch a living where even the houses themselves are rotting apart and
subsiding into the earth. 
Razorhurst is both a place to lose yourself, and a place where
people—everything they know about themselves—can get lost and forgotten.  Larbalestier emphasizes this by giving
the reader tiny bits of history—flashbacks—that weave together with the story
just like the lives of Kelpie and Dymphna do, getting tighter and tighter until
the story’s end.  She allows the
reader to solve the mysteries of the novel at their own pace, without slowing
down the flow of the story.

Razorhurst pulls no
punches and readers should expect plenty of authentic dialog and realistic
situations that may not be palatable for younger teen readers.  Larbalestier is an author who doesn’t
pander to or patronize her young adult readers, providing two strong but
different main characters with which to identify, who provide different levels
of entry into the same story. 
Readers who enjoy historical novels with plenty of research will love
the way Razorhurst combines a strong
sense of place with period dialog, dress, and urban life.  Readers looking for something out of
the ordinary run of American settings will enjoy getting to know Sydney and the
novel’s overall Australian feel.