Tag Archives: alternate history

Book Review: Read Timekeeper Quickly

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, and author's bio.

I did not give Timekeeper the reading that it deserved, and I’m going to probably always regret that a little. I bought this book when it first came out, and—let’s get this out of the way—I wanted to love this book, and how much that bias colored my reading, I don’t know, but when I did read this book, I did love this book. Timekeeper is the first novel by Tara Sim. Tara Sim is the first person of my graduating class at my alma mater to get a book deal from a big name publisher (one that easily supplies Barnes & Noble). She is the first author that I’ve known personally to get such a book deal. She’s the one who made it first. (She won’t be the last.)

I don’t know what happened when I was reading this book—I honestly don’t. I bought it in November 2016. I’d actually opened it and read a few pages in November 2016; I have pictures. I started reading it in earnest in January 2018 or earlier—earlier I think, but I didn’t finish it until September 2018. Between January 2018 and September 2018 I reread three favorites, I read The Burning Maze, I started a mess of books, including several set in Wales in preparation for a trip to that country, without finishing them. I think portability made a big impact on my reading of Timekeeper this first time. Because I did read a new book called Tara Takes the Stage, a little 151-page paperback, and two of those rereads were portable paperbacks too.

I also have a niggling memory of a sense of being overwhelmed by book reviews that I hadn’t had the energy or time to get to you—and a feeling that I didn’t want to add to my pile of overdue reviews by finishing anything new; I think that might have been part of why I allowed myself so many rereads this year….

All this to say that I did not read Timekeeper in one great, thirst-quenching, squealing gulp like I ought to have done—like you ought to do; learn from my mistakes.  (And I’m sorry it took me so long, Tara.)

I was squealing enough about this book in January that I had to tell Goodreads about the dopey grin that I kept developing whenever I read about Danny and Colton and their will-they-won’t-they, forbidden romance.

Every time I opened it, I was infected by the characters’ emotions, but I somehow never sat down and put nose to page until I vowed to finish the books that I’d started instead of starting more. Once I was in maybe the last quarter of the book, I was tearing through it.

I was surprised by the ending.

I love that I was surprised.

The characters are all well-crafted, the world is vividly imagined and deeply considered. (There’s a note in the back where Sim talks about the ways her mythology and the changes that she made to humanity’s timeline in Timekeeper affect the characters and society in her world as compared to the world on our unaltered timeline, absent of her mythos.)

Here are so many things to cheer: well-portrayed PTSD; several, strong, well-rounded female mechanics, including one who is half Indian; a beautiful, gay romance; respected, well-rounded black characters in a Victorian setting because (to reference Psych) black people weren’t invented after 1888.

There are moments when Sim plays with textual layout and presentation to create story in a way that is nearly unique among books that I’ve read.

I intend to do better by Book 2, Chainbreaker, when I get my hands on a copy. The series deserves my attention.  Book 3, Firestarter, is due to come out in January.

This book deserves at least four stars, probably five if I’d read it as it ought to be read.

****

Sim, Tara. Timekeeper, Book One. New York: Sky Pony-Skyhorse, 2016.

This review is not endorsed by Tara Sim, Sky Pony Press, or Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: The Lives of Christopher Chant Stars a Child’s Perspective

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Spoilers.

I’ve read the first volume of Diana Wynne Jones’ The Chronicles of Chrestomanci several times since I was first introduced to it, near when I was introduced to Harry Potter. Somehow, Jones’ books rarely make much impression upon me. I always enjoy them as I’m reading them, and remember enjoying them, but the plots seem to fall from my head with some speed. I picked up The Lives of Christopher Chant again because I was searching my shelves for instances of magical instruction, asked my mother what she recalled of Chris’, and the details that she mentioned were not ones that I remembered—that and I was having fun making a list of fictional cats, dreaming up names for future cats of my own, and Jones’ books have several, none of whom I could remember.

The Lives of Christopher Chant is relatively quick-paced, and the language relatively simple, easily settling into the reading level of middle and late elementary students. In this tale Jones does a particularly good job capturing the child’s perspective. Chris would rather play cricket, go to school with his mates, and have adventures in the alternate worlds that he can only reach in his sleep than be thrust into society, be pawn in his parents’ war, or study at Chrestomanci Castle with promises that he will one day have to assume the responsibilities of Chrestomanci, a sort of law enforcement and high-ranking government official for the interconnected worlds within Chris’ universe.

Chris fails to see the adult perspective. He doesn’t realize—or refuses to realize any nefariousness within his uncle’s “experiments.” He does not connect his experiments with the crimes that the staff at Chrestomanci Castle are ignoring Chris to focus on stopping. Somehow that’s not irritating though. It’s refreshing. Chris is innocent where Harry Potter—the Chosen One of another more famous magical school story—is suspicious and wary. (I also use Harry as a foil because the cover of the books boasts “Mad about Harry? Try Diana.” I assume that U.S. News & World Report meant Potter given the book’s release date (2001 would have been months after the book release of The Goblet of Fire and during the lead-up to the release of the first Harry Potter film).)

Though the plot here is an interesting one—Chris’ education; assumption of the responsibilities of Chrestomani; rescue of the current Chrestomanci, Gabriel de Witt; and Chris’ takedown of his uncle’s criminal organization—it seems to intend to share its stardom with the universe.

Jones has built the interconnected worlds of Chrestomanci for me over six novels and many years, so I can’t honestly judge how well this singular book constructs the universe, but this more than any of the others perhaps really explains the ways in which the Related Worlds are connected, if the impression that it gives is vague. The physics here are difficult. There are twelve series of worlds and Series Twelve at least has an A and B, but there are hints that any series could include infinite worlds, a new world created when one world reaches a junction—perhaps something like the opposite of the Doctor’s fixed point in time—where a great event might have more than one possible outcome.

This is the only book to visit Series Eleven, and there Jones has created an eerie world of persons kept in submission to a dictatorial leader—the Dright—worthy of L’Engle’s IT, a dark, densely forest world where the Dright keeps even the laws of physics in submission to himself.

Chris as a nine-lived enchanter is able to travel to each of the Related Worlds. He does so, uniquely, through a form of spirit travel that allows him to be physically present in two worlds at once by leaving one life behind while the rest travel. Chris doesn’t really understand this spirit travel, and for a long time thinks only that he dreams himself to the Place Between whence he can enter the other worlds. Having no conversation with anyone other than nurses and governesses for most his childhood, he has had no one to tell him that these dreams of his are unusual until a governess chosen by his uncle discovers Christopher in possession of otherworldly artifacts and demands an explanation and then a confession to his Uncle Ralph.

Chris’ scattered instruction in magic was not particularly helpful for my own WIP. Chris has several instructors, and the only one that makes any real impression upon me is Dr. Pawson, who believes in practical lessons, the mechanics of which Jones doesn’t describe in detail—though that did give me some idea of how little it might be important for a reader to understand magic.

****

Jones, Diana Wynne.  The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Volume 1: The Lives of Christopher Chant.  New York: Greenwillow-HarperTrophy-HarperCollins, 2001.  Story first published 1988.

This review is not endorsed by Diana Wynne Jones, her estate, Greenwillow Book, HarperTrophy, or HarperCollins Publishers Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: A More Pensive Adventure and a Loftier Ambition for Hiccup

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Click to visit the series' site for links to order, summary, and sample of the 1st chapter.

Spoilers ahoy!

In How to Ride a Dragon’s Storm, the seventh book of Cressida Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon series, after Hiccup’s quick thinking and smooth tongue creates a tenuous truce between the Murderous Tribe and the already tenuously allied Bog-Burglars and Hairy Hooligans (A Hero’s Guide to Deadly Dragons), Madguts the Murderous invites the three tribes to compete in a Friendly Swimming Race. The point of a Proper Viking Swimming Race is to be the last back, having survived the frigid waters, the Shark Worms, and the trickery of other Vikings, and having had the strength to do so while fully clothed and heavily armored. The last back has to promise that he “did not seek aid by Float or Boat” (240). Caught in the outgoing tide, Hiccup, Fishlegs, and Camicazi are plucked from the water by Raptortongues and brought to the boat of Norbert the Nutjob (How to Cheat a Dragon’s Curse), from whom I forgot that Hiccup stole a ticking-thing that is much more than clock or alarm clock (and which gives me some insight into the twelve hands of a Wizarding clock and a strong desire for an analog watch that is also a compass because that ought to be easy to create—ha! and they do exist!). Hiccup manages to evade an immediate death for himself and his friends and buys their safe passage on Norbert’s ship, but along with the three Vikings, Norbert has a cargo of slaves convinced that all Vikings are “vermin, wicked and brutish enslavers” deserving death (98).  To save himself from them, Hiccup makes a bargain with the slaves, promising to free them, but in return, the slaves brand Hiccup indelibly as a slave so that he cannot forget his promise. This mark means instant banishment for any Viking regardless of the circumstances in which it’s acquired, and so Hiccup will have to keep it hidden from now on, but as the elder Hiccup says in the Dumbledore-esque reflection that closes the memoir, “maybe all Kings should bear the Slavemark, to remind them that they should be slaves to their people, rather than the other way around” (250). This, Hiccup says, is the adventure on which he decides that he not only wants to be Chief but King to be able to create a new world with justice, without fear, and without slavery—and I’m going to enjoy watching his journey into the King that drives out all of the frightful things of his world (even if that means the retreat of dragons). That reflection at the end is supremely uplifting, washing away the memories of the book’s darkness and the dangers of the Great West Ocean and the deaths (though I’m not convinced that Norbert will stay any more dead than Alvin has had the tendency to do, though it might take him some time to return to plague Hiccup and the Archipelago). Hiccup, ever forward thinking and never greedy, begins his new world at the end of the book’s plot by breaking an age-old cycle of violence.

As ever, this How to Train Your Dragon book is fraught with adventure, excitement, danger, and proof that brains and heart can make one just as heroic as brawn and brutality and trickery if not more so.  I was more caught up in the adventure and the lessons learned by Hiccup than I was in stitches from Cowell’s wittiness.  While I was attracted at first by her humor as much as her hero, I think the series is becoming more serious.  I’m not displeased.  I’ve always been fonder of books in a series (books about a character or characters between which and through which time passes and the characters mature and grow) than a book series (a series without progressive character growth from one book to the next, something like The Boxcar Children written under the pen name Gertrude Chandler Warner or The Pony Pals written under the pen name Jeanne Betancourt).  Cowell has struggled somewhat with the books in a series concept, often dropping characters (where is my lame Windwalker since book 5?) or objects (the ticking-thing hasn’t been mentioned since book 4.  I notice that the bracelet from book 5 is back, though, after missing from the illustrations in book 6) as she has found them unnecessary.  I’m really hoping to see her improve, but I’m willing to enjoy the books despite that inadequacy.

****

Cowell, Cressida.  How to Train Your Dragon, Book 7: How to Ride a Dragon’s Storm.  New York: Little, Brown-Hachette, 2011.  First published in the UK 2008.

This review is not endorsed by Cressida Cowell, Little, Brown and Company, or Hachette Book Group.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Tooth and Claw Tears Into Social Conventions

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Some spoilers.

I first read Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw for a graduate class in children’s literature entitled Men, Women, and Dragons: Gender and Identity in Fantasy Literature.  I raved about it then to anyone who would listen, including the professor’s wife.  This January I reread it I’m pretty sure for at least the second time.  It has safely wedged itself in among some of my favorite books.  It won’t ever offer me the thrill of Riordan’s books nor the fandom and life experiences of Rowling’s, but it might find very good company among Sharon Shinn’s Twelve Houses series.

Jane Yolen describes Tooth and Claw as Pride and Prejudice with dragons, though I have been corrected to think of it as Trollope with dragons (in her author’s note Walton cites Framley Parsonage) and have, since being corrected, longed to settle down with an inexpensive and not too lengthy book of Trollope’s but have yet to have the pleasure.

So I can’t compare Tooth and Claw to Trollope, but I can compare it to Pride and Prejudice and odds are that more of you will understand that comparison better anyway, Austen being more often assigned and having been made into more mainstream movies than Trollope.  Tooth and Claw holds all of the romance of an Austen novel with quirky heroines who aim to find themselves a comfortable home with a man whom they love and who loves them back and run into difficulty because of their social statuses and the finicky framework of their society.  The heroines find heroes of a higher social class and excellent character.  They are exposed along the way to men of less excellent character, even an annoying parson very like Mr. Collins.  Like Austen, the story explores gender inequality, social convention and faux pas, and the differences between the upper echelons and the country estates and parsonages.  Where the story strays from Austen is in the exploration of the fixture of servitude and classism within the society, the theater of the court system, the fallibility of a church, and race relations, and in the inherent violence of dragons.  Victorian-like rules rein in the violence and supposedly give pomp and ritual to it, but Austen explored very few duels, murders, or ritual cannibalism and euthanasia.

The story ends “And there […] we shall leave them to take refuge in the comfort of gentle hypocrisy” (292).  [SPOILER] It ends with all who deserve to getting a happier ending than they could have foretold and the most villainous dragon being defeated. [END SPOILER]  It was exactly the type of novel I needed to restore me when my once romantic silliness is slipping towards cynicism (it may not have been able to rescue me entirely from reality, but it made a good case for chivalry and the existence true love and companionship).

The well-written and –composed book plays host to a complex world of politics, religion, and social conventions both mirroring and deviating from our own and accounting for the differing biologies of men and dragons (which Walton expands by creating a biological meaning to the coloration of dragon scales).  It is not a fast-paced adventure, and if the reader is seeking such, she might seek elsewhere, but it is does not read at a snail’s pace to me, the text being clipped enough and enough adventures puncturing through the tête-à-têtes to keep the story rolling pleasantly at least at the pace of Pride and Prejudice if not faster.

*****

Walton, Jo.  Tooth and Claw.  New York: Tor, 2003.

This review is not endorsed by Jo Walton or Tor Doherty Associates, LLC.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

The latest editions of the book are published by Orb Books, an imprint of Macmillan Publishers.

Book Reviews: A Few More Morals and Misadventures From Berk

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The lesson of How to Cheat a Dragon’s Curse, the fourth book of Cressida Cowell’s How To Train Your Dragon series, is that fate can be altered and your own luck can be made by you—which is interestingly contrasted with the prophecies scattered throughout these plots and the patrilineal monarchy of the Viking tribe of which the book’s hero, Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, is a part.  Hiccup will (unless something happens to him) become chief of the Hairy Hooligans.  If Hiccup does not survive to take up the chieftaincy, his cousin, Snotface Snotlout, will take his place. I’m interested to see if, as the series, progresses, Cowell plays with this newly introduced concept of creating luck and altering fate against the seemingly fixed destiny of her hero, whom the reader from the beginning knows will become a famous Viking hero, the series being written as a set of his memoirs, and the elder Hiccup telling “this story as if it happened to somebody else, because the boy [he] once was is so distant to [him] now, that he might as well be a stranger” (Prologue, How To Twist a Dragon’s Tale).

Probably the star here is the ludicrous ideas of a medieval culture that believed that the world was flat.  Hiccup seeks the vegetable-that-no-one-dares-name, a potato, a strange probably imaginary plant from the mythical land of America.  Yet, only a potato can counteract the deadly poison of the Venomous Vorpent, and Hiccup needs that cure badly.

The book does teach readers to stand up for, protect, and cling to friends, which ordinarily I would think to be a incontestably good lesson, but Hiccup clings to Fishlegs against his father’s command.  While children need to learn whom to befriend and whom they should not, and parents can misjudge children, parents often have a good sense about whether or not their children’s friends are positive or negative influences, and I’m not sure that teaching children to flout their parents’ judgment is ideal—however flawed Stoick the Vast’s judgments have proved in the past—and they have proved to be quite poor, and I would have Hiccup cling to Fishlegs, especially in lieu of his father’s suggestion that Hiccup befriend his bullying cousin, Snotlout.

****

Before I could finish a review of How to Cheat a Dragon’s Curse, I went ahead and listened to the audiobook, read by David Tennant, of the fifth book in the series, How to Twist a Dragon’s Tale, so now I can answer some of the questions that I was posing in the review of book 4.

As yet, Cowell has done little with book 4’s lesson about the opportunity to change fate, other than to remind that readers that it’s never too late to do something heroic.  I suppose the primary moral of this tale is best summed up by Stoick the Vast: “WE WILL NEVER SURRENDER!” (69).  The primary quest of How to Twist a Dragon’s Tale is one to stop a volcano from exploding and hatching a flock of rare and particularly vicious Exterminator Dragons.

How to Twist a Dragon’s Tale sees the return of Hiccup’s arch-enemy, Alvin the Treacherous, still not dead, and it introduces a very Harry Potter-like element to Hiccup’s and Alvin’s conflict (with Alvin having created his own worst enemy in Hiccup, and yes, I fear that concept was used by Rowling first).  We also learn more about Hiccup’s mother, a very shadowy woman, mentioned previously really only by name and as possessing an “extra-strong, heavy-duty bra” (How to Train Your Dragon 169).  She still does not make much of an appearance and seems to be a rather absent parent, being too busy questing to be at home with her family, but her back story and Stoick’s is delved into.

Cowell plays with the western fairy tale/hero story clichés, having riders on white and black dragons.

This is the first of her books where dragons are ridden.  Still no Night Furies, but Hiccup now has a lame Windwalker, too young yet to fly, but he will carry Hiccup along the ground.  Could this be the inspiration for the half-tailed Toothless of Dreamworks’?  Hiccup’s Windwalker is illustrated more darkly than other dragons, so I’m supposing that he is black.  The Windwalker as yet has no name.

The illustrations are particularly emotive.  I after listening to the audiobook, opened the book that I had and looked at the illustrations.

I especially enjoyed David Tennant singing with the many voices of the Vikings in this book.

****1/2

Cowell, Cressida.  How To Train Your Dragon, Book 4: How To Cheat a Dragon’s Curse.  2006.  New York: Little, Brown-Hachette, 2010.

Cowell, Cressida.  How To Train Your Dragon, Book  5: How to Twist a Dragon’s Tale.  2007.  New York: Little, Brown-Hachette, 2010.

Cowell, Cressida.  How to Train Your Dragon, Book 5: How to Twist a Dragon’s Tale.  Narr. David Tennant.  Hodder Children’s Audio: 2007.  Audio recording.

This review is not endorsed by Cressida Cowell, David Tennant, Hodder Children’s Audio, or Little, Brown, and Company, part of Hachette Book Group.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Hiccup’s World Expands in How To Speak Dragonese

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Here there be some spoilers.

I began the third in Cressida Cowell’s How To Train Your Dragon series, How To Speak Dragonese, by listening to the audio recording read by David Tennant.  Halfway through that, I stumbled upon a hardcover copy of the book at my local used bookstore.  I couldn’t leave it there.  I began the book again, enjoying the visual and textural stimulation with which the audio recording could not provide me.  When I had caught up to myself, I passed myself, and I finished the print copy before finishing the audio copy (and have yet to finish the audio and may not).

Though I enjoy the voices with which Tennant reads these stories, they worked against Cowell in this tale, alerting me to one of the plot twists too early.  I was unable in rereading to tell if I’d have guessed the twist at the same point without Tennant’s voice acting.

Visually, I appreciate very much Cowell’s use of formatting as well as her illustrations.  Always, the Viking’s Norse has been distinguished from Dragonese by its font, but now these are distinguished by their fonts again from Latin, and the nanodragon Ziggerastica’s Dragonese distinguished from all of these by its smaller font size.

This time Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III has to battle Roman legionaries hoping to cause trouble among the local Viking tribes, particularly Hiccup’s Hairy Hooligans and the Bog-Burglars.  The Bog-Burglars are a tribe of female warriors led by Big-Boobied Bertha (yeah, you read that correctly).  It’s really nice to finally be introduced by Cowell to some female characters.  No Astrid, but now we have Camicazi, Big-Boobied Bertha’s daughter and heir to the Bog-Burglars.  Camicazi is a small girl and spunky (to say the least).  She considers herself a master escaper and unlike Hiccup and Fishlegs does not sit waiting for a rescue but acts to better her situation.  She convinces Hiccup and Fishlegs to help her with her first escape attempt, but Hiccup and Fishlegs give up after the first failure—and while this might be amounted to wisdom and common sense as Camicazi’s escape plans become more and more absurd and her punishments become more severe, culminating in several days in solitary confinement, the Vikings won’t escape the Romans by passively waiting, and these characters demonstrate a nice reversal of the too long stereotypically gendered passivity and action.

It is, however, eventually Hiccup’s wits and his ability to talk to dragons that save the trio and Toothless—and Camicazi’s wits and boldness when Hiccup’s getaway boat sinks.

This is definitely a tale that lauds “the little guy,” making it especially tailored to its middle grade readers.

I did not like this book as well as I liked the previous two, but I very much enjoyed Cowell’s representation of the Romans, which while twisted to fit her dragon-filled alternate history, really captures the nastier aspects of the Romans that I didn’t learn about till much later in my life.  In middle school, for example, no one told me about the Romans’ habit of making themselves vomit so that they could eat more.

This was perhaps also the most inward of the two books, partially because of the passivity of the protagonists previously mentioned and their confinement, but also because it deals more with Hiccup’s fears that his father might not think him a worthy heir (a theme from the cinematic adaptation How To Train Your Dragon) more than the others have done.

It should also be noted that this is probably the first of the books that really relies on its predecessor; here the books become books in a series and not a book series.

****

Cowell, Cressida.  How To Train Your Dragon, Book 3: How To Speak Dragonese.  New York: Little, Brown-Hachette, 2005.

Cowell, Cressida.  How to Train Your Dragon, Book 3: How to Speak Dragonese.  2005.  Narr. David Tennant.  Audio recording.  Hodder Children’s Audio: 2005.

This review is not endorsed by Cressida Cowell, David Tennant, Hodder Children’s Audio, or Little, Brown, and Company, part of Hachette Book Group.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.