Tag Archives: science-fiction

Book Review: A Christmastime Rebellion in the Enderverse

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Click to visit the publisher's site for links to order, summary, audio excerpt, reviews, and author's bio.

This is my third book in the Enderverse. I found the rereleased hardcover at Barnes & Noble and got so excited. It was nearing Christmas when I did, and I am a sucker for Christmas fanfictions, so a canon Christmas novella in a world that I’m just falling in love with was near irresistible. So I ran to the library.

This happens mid-Ender’s Game/Ender’s Shadow, when Ender is newly transferred to Rat Army, but the majority of the novel does not revolve around Ender.

Zeck Morgan is rescued from his ultra-religious father, a Puritan minister who whips Zeck to make him more pure. Zeck has a perfect memory, which his mother believes is from God, though she warns Zeck to hide that memory from his father, whom she thinks will believe it from the devil. The IF sees that memory as a useful asset in a soldier—and it seems implied that the soldier who comes for him believes that he is rescuing Zeck from his abusive household, though Zeck resents being drafted.

In Battle School, Zeck maintains his father’s preached pacifism and won’t fire his weapon, though he enters the Battle Room and does the school work for Battle School. He is disliked by the students.

A homesick Battle School student, Flip Rietvald, sets his shoes out on Sinterklaas Eve, and Dink Meeker, noticing the childlike gesture, gives him Sinterklaas gifts, a silly poem and a pancake shaped into a F.

Religious observation is banned in Battle School and Zeck’s father has preached that Santa Claus is a manifestation of Satan, so Zeck complains to Commander Graff about the Dutch boys’ observation of the holiday. The punishment that Flip and Dink receive spurs Dink to begin an underground celebration—not in the name of Christmas, but in the name of Santa Claus (in all his forms), whom he argues is not a religious figure but a cultural icon, his day celebrated even by the atheists of countries where he exists, and nationality impossible to ban. Children begin to give one another gifts with a sock attached so that the gift is known to be in Santa’s name.

The battle brews. Zeck stirs up trouble by convincing one Pakistani soldier that prayer is a national observation as much as is the celebration of Santa because Pakistan was formed as a Muslim nation, and so Muslim identity is national identity. When this results in several Muslims being led away in handcuffs for religious observation, the Santa Claus celebration stops; the fight becomes too serious, the consequences too dire; it ceases to be fun, and the celebration ceases to be in the spirit of Santa Claus, “compassion and generosity […] the irresistible urge to make people happy […] the humility to realize that you aren’t any better than the rest of us in the eyes of God” (78).

Because this series is Ender’s story more than any of the others’, it is Ender who gets to give the last Santa Claus gift of the book and demonstrate the team-building prowess that makes him such an astounding leader. He corners Zeck and convinces him of the error of his father’s protestations, battling Zeck Bible verse for verse and sharing secrets about his home-life and his abusive brother.

This story mostly provides an interesting platform to discuss national observations versus religious observations, particularly around the Christmas holiday but around all religions—though only Christianity and Islam are discussed—the intersection and dissonance of nationality and religion, religious tolerance, and the fake religious proclamations of those whose words are not reflected in their actions.

It ends on a happy note, which I almost require of my Christmas fanfiction but has even more substance than I’m used to expecting from a good Christmas ficlet—for which I was not ungrateful. I like more of a Christmas meal than Christmas fluff.

Ultimately, this was a good diversion while I prepped and then survived the Christmas holiday.  It was good food for thought.  It was not the cleanest and tightest of Card’s writings, but it was interesting to spend more time with Dink and more time with some of the previously nameless Battle School students.

***

Card, Orson Scott. A War of Gifts. New York: Tor-Tom Doherty-Macmillan, 2007.

This review is not endorsed by Orson Scott Card, Tor, or Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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Book Reviews: Shadow of the Hegemon: Political Thriller in a Sci-Fi Enderverse

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

The sequel to Ender’s Game, Speaker for the Dead, follows Ender and the colonists that he heads decades in the future on a distant planet, encountering a new alien race. That’s all well and good (I assume), but following Ender’s Game Alive, I wanted to know what happened to all of the Battle School students, not merely to Ender, so I sought out something a little closer to Ender’s Game in time and space. I skipped over Ender’s Shadow, which happens simultaneously with Ender’s Game, and jumped to the second in that sequel series, The Shadow of the Hegemon. This book deals with the immediate aftermath of Ender’s Game (and Ender’s Shadow), specifically what happens to the jeesh once they arrive back on earth, though it focuses pretty solely on Bean and Petra, and on Peter Wiggin’s quest to attain the title of Hegemon.

I want to start by saying that I don’t read many political thrillers—or not books that would be primarily classified as political thrillers (I suppose Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire could be classified as such). I’ve never read Vince Flynn, David Baldacci, Brad Thor, or any of those other household names in the genre. But I was sucked into this one, which disguises itself as a science-fiction book by virtue of association with the other books in its series. I won’t pretend to judge this book against others in its genre, but I do qualify it as more of a political thriller than a science-fiction book. Card describes this as being inspired by the board game Risk, a game of global domination through alliances and wars (I think; I’ve also never played Risk).

I say this is more political thriller than science-fiction because all of this book happens on Earth and its drama is in the geopolitics and the child geniuses who are pulling at the strings, toying with world leaders and directing the militaries of various countries.

Shortly after arriving back in their own countries, the entire jeesh is kidnapped—except for Bean, who is meant to be killed with his family in an explosion, which he escapes using a superior “Spidey” sense for danger. For a while, the book becomes an Earth-wide whodunit with every major country and political group as a suspect. I enjoyed this part of the book a lot. I enjoyed the mystery, and I enjoyed the insights into each country’s desires and assets. I enjoyed (and was horrified to find) that I could recognize the seeds of Card’s future-Earth geopolitics in my mediocre understanding of the political aspirations of today’s superpowers, that I found myself nodding along as the characters laid out the clues.

Petra having gotten a message to Bean, and Bean having gotten a message to Peter Wiggin, the three reveal that the architect of the jeesh’s capture is Achilles, a character from Bean’s past (I have not read Ender’s Shadow or I’m sure I’d know more about Achilles, but I picked up enough through Shadow of the Hegemon to know that he’s a dangerously smart, savvy, charismatic psychopath who has killed in the past and will kill in the future). Only Petra remains captive after that, Achilles interfering directly with her rescue and whisking her away to India, where she is forced to take part in the planning of a war for Indian expansion into Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand, though her intelligent plan for guerilla warfare is ignored for reasons that only become clear as the novel and Achilles’ complicated plan to sew chaos unfolds.

Bean meanwhile goes to Thailand and earns the trust of Suriyawong, another Battle School graduate and a member of Ender’s Dragon Army and now the nominal head of the Thai military’s planning division. With his knowledge of Achilles and Petra and military strategy in general, Bean helps to predict and to thwart what can be thwarted of Achilles’ plan, though Bean’s larger goal is always to save Petra.

Achilles is playing the nations against one another, but he is also pitting himself against Bean, working to destroy Bean.

This is Bean’s story (spoiler in white) and ultimately Bean’s victory to paraphrase the novel.

I loved to hate Achilles. I loved his dialogue, his speeches. And that’s of course how charismatic dictators rise to power, but—thank God—this kid is fictional. He’s at his best when he is convincing the Pakistani president to join a ceasefire with India and move Pakistani troops away from the border.

I loved the back and forth, the squabbles of Peter and Bean, two kids too bright for their own good.

I loved that Petra had so much more agency in this novel, so much more of a role, that the women (not only Petra, but Carlotta, Mrs. Wiggin, and Virlomi), who were largely absent in Ender’s Game even with the insertion of Major Jayadi in the audioplay that I listened to were here and were bigger parts of the plot.

I have some reservations about this audiobook, however. Some of the cast of the audioplay that I listened to for Ender’s Game reunited (I say reunites because I listened to this book second, but this book was actually produced first, so really they reunited for Ender’s Game Alive) for this audiobook, but not all of them, and this was a full audiobook, narration included. The voice actors took different parts and read different sections. But they could not decide how to pronounce Achilles. Though Peter had to hide that he knew that it should be pronounced A-SHEEL to avoid sounding more knowledgeable about current events than his parents. By the end of the text, even Bean’s voice actor had caved to the anglicized Greek pronunciation, ə-KIL-eez. That could be intentional. Perhaps Achilles remade himself into the Greek Achilles, adopting the more prominently used pronunciation as he became not the leader of a street gang but a puppet master on the global stage. I had thought that the voiceover of the word Hegemon was some weird conspiracy, something done to give the name importance and prominence, and it actually didn’t occur to me till reading a review on Goodreads that this was a poorly dubbed voiceover of a mispronounced word—which makes me wonder more about the conflicting pronunciations of Achilles. In the last few bits, when most of the primary characters were again sharing the scenes, the voice actors returned to more of an audioplay format, with everyone voicing the dialogue of their primary characters; I like that format better, and I liked to see its return, but it makes me question: why not do that sooner? Achilles and Petra share most of the book, yet lines of dialogue where they shared a scene were voiced by one or the other of the narrating voice actors.

Retrospectively, maybe this is one to read and not to listen to on audio. Maybe.

But this was a story I wanted and a story that I liked a lot with compelling characters.

****

Card, Orson Scott. Shadow of the Hegemon. Narr. David Birney, Scott Brick, & Gabrielle de Cuir. Prod. Stefan Rudnicki. Audio Renaissance-Tor-Holtzbrinck, Sound Library-BBC Audiobooks America, 2006. Audiobook, 11 CDs. Shadow of the Hegemon first published 2000.

This review is not endorsed by Orson Scott Card, Audio Renaissance, Tor Books, Holtzbrinck Publishers, LLC, Sound Library, BBC Audiobooks America, or anyone involved in the production of the book or audiobook.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Ender’s Game Alive Springboards My Dive into the Enderverse

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, awards list, behind the scenes videos, and full cast list.

Time for one more reader’s confession: I’ve never before read an Orson Scott Card novel (though I did once read a book of literary criticism about Severus Snape to which he contributed). I was only vaguely aware of the plot of Ender’s Game. The novel and Ender’s Shadow have been sitting on my bookcase for years, but they never seemed to be the books that I wanted to read. As I work through the Valley libraries’ collections of audiobooks, I am also working my way through the books and authors that I probably ought to have already read.

When I found this version of Ender’s Game, Ender’s Game Alive, rewritten by Card as an audioplay, I couldn’t resist. During my brief stint as a London resident, I became fond of radio dramas. My host mother sometimes left the radio on, and I would enjoy snippets from the lives of fictional characters while I cooked or ate. Where that was written to be enjoyed in snippets, to catch a listener up quickly if she’d missed a few episodes, Card wrote Ender’s Game Alive to be enjoyed as a collected whole (more what I expect from an audiobook than a radio drama). Had I skipped a few segments of Ender’s Game, I think I would have been wholly lost.

I was however able to follow and enjoy this dramatization without having read Ender’s Game or having had any other introduction to Ender’s world.

My roommate will tell you that I quite a few nights came home complaining about this dramatization. I was annoyed at the ickiness that the physical fights made me feel, the squeeze of my stomach at the groaning, squelching, cracking, grunting, ringing sound effects. I was distraught as I realized what was happening before Ender did. I was disconcerted by the similarities between Peter’s intentions for Locke and Demosthenes and the nationalism and demagoguery of today. All of that probably means that I really enjoyed this drama and disliked being away from it when I had to turn off the car.

For those who are unaware as I was of the plot Ender’s Game: After Earth’s first two wars with an alien species called the Formics, genius children from every country are monitored to determine their usefulness to the International Fleet (IF). Ender Wiggin is one of these geniuses, the third child in his family, allowed by the government despite a law limiting families to two children because his two siblings both showed such promise before being ruled unfit for combat. Because one officer, Colonel Graff, decides that the Ender is the One, he is taken to Battle School at a younger age than is average and proves himself again and again a creative and unbeatable commander of the other children in their mock battles against rival commanders and armies despite the odds being continually stacked against him by Graff and the other adults in order to speed his training. He rises very swiftly up the ranks, ultimately joining Commander’s School, where he is eventually reunited with some of his friends from Battle School, and they are tested with a string of rigorous battles, each commanding fleets, and Ender commanding the commanders.

By contrasting Ender with Mazer Rackham, an independent thinker who operates best alone and with all of the less successful commanders in Battle School and with his two siblings who were never given the chance to try, Card says an amazing amount about the type of commander that he believes is best. Ender is an independent thinker, but operates best with a team of loyal friends, whose trust he has earned, and with whom he spends time and maintains relationships.

At some point within the novel, Graff admits that it is Ender’s capacity for love (for his sister and for humanity) that make Ender the One leader that humanity has needed. He values friendship and values cooperation more so than many of the other leaders of Battle School. Soldiers become friends and become loyal to him instead of merely obeying his orders out of fear or duty. As often as he can, he will avoid conflict, but when he does fight, he is calculating and vicious, making sure that battle need only happen once and that he will be victorious.

The ending of the book reminds readers that war is always a tragedy, that diplomacy should always be attempted, that the defeated of any battle are not nameless nor faceless nor without their own victories and histories, that winners of wars are not left untainted and unscarred by their victory.

This version of the tale is largely “narrated” by Colonel Graff and Major Jayadi, a character who seems to have been created for this dramatization (again, this is my introduction to Ender’s world), and whose role seems mainly to be as a child psychologist. The two bicker over Ender’s care and dissect his thoughts and actions from videos from his feed and then from surveillance videos at Battle School. It’s an excellent way to get around not having any actual narration, a way to show both thoughts and action while the reader is allowed only dialogue and sound effects—although such a go-around is largely only possible within a science-fiction such as this. With a huge cast and no dialogue tags, that each character has a specific voice actor helps to keep the cast straight. The child voice actors don’t sound as young as the characters that they claim to be, but this is much as films and television series almost always cast characters in adaptations as older, particularly when these children are asked to take on adult problems. The different accents here help not only to keep the voices distinct but also to underline the I in the IF. I appreciate that Card’s wonderfully diverse cast, that he didn’t let the chance at international cooperation slide past (despite knowing that after this novel, the countries of the world descend again into chaos). One of Ender’s commanders is one of only a few girls in the IF. One of his commanders is a Muslim from North Africa who references Allah and uses Arabic within the text. Another is Jewish and Israeli. Another grew up as an urchin on the streets of Rotterdam. One of the first children in Battle School to be kind to Ender is Japanese. The values and histories of each character’s home nation are allowed to inform the character.

I was struck in this book by Card’s decision to give the kids of the novel power through language. Ender denies his given name, Andrew, in favor of the name that his sister called him before she could say Andrew. The adults of the novel recognize that Ender is the name that he calls himself and so use this name. It’s the children’s Battle School slang that gets adopted by the adults as they spend more time with Ender. His team, for example, is called a jeesh, a term first used and defined by Alai, an enemy of Ender’s who becomes one of his closest friends.

I think because of how this story echoes today’s politics, I can’t let it go. I continue thinking about it, two weeks later, and am drawn to Card’s newest book, Children of the Fleet, despite not having read any intervening novels. I’ve begun another of his audiobooks already.

****

Card, Orson Scott. Ender’s Game Alive: The Full-Cast Audioplay. Exec. Prod. Steve Feldberg and Wil Snape. Prod. Stefan Rudnicki, Gabrielle de Cuir, and Mike Charzuk. Dir. Gabrielle de Cuir. Skyboat-Brilliance with Audible, 2013. Audioplay, 7 CDs.

This review is not endorsed by Orson Scott Card, Skyboat Media, Brilliance Audio, Inc, Audible, Inc, or anyone involved in the production of the book or audioplay.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Fahrenheit 451: A Fiery Critique of Modern Entertainment

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16280156After having read a lot of light, modern, conversational Riordan, I was craving something with more depth and more flowery flare. I floundered for a while and asked everyone I knew for suggestions of writers who have a mastery of language to rival Patrick Rothfuss’. In the end, I picked up this old favorite: Fahrenheit 451.

I can’t tell you when I read Fahrenheit 451. It might’ve been almost a decade ago. I didn’t remember as much of the plot as I thought that I had, though I remembered a great bit of the sentiment.

Ray Bradbury’s writing (I’ve already mentioned) has left a deep scar on my heart and mind. His poetic prose and command of language and meter is something to which I aspire and which I greatly admire.

This book was especially impacting to read now—now in the wake of all that is happening in the world and all that I fear may soon happen in the world.

It’s amazing how prophetic some science-fictions/future dystopias can be.

Guy Montag is a firefighter in a future America. Instead of fighting fires, he sets them; he sets fires to books and to the homes of those who are found in possession of books. Books are a source of chaos. Books foment rebelliousness. Books are a toxin to the world that has been sedated and made happy by noise and glitter and flash and distraction. Interaction has been replaced by walls—television screens that are as large as a wall, and of which a person is intended to have four, so that they can be fully immersed in the programming, which also can be set to include a viewer’s name, to further the immersive escapism.

The world outside of the walls is about to go to war, but the newscasters are quick to gloss over the fact, and quick to dismiss the possibility of loss or hurt.

Montag’s been long curious about the nature of the oppression of which he is a part. He has been sneaking books home and hiding them. But it takes a series of encounters with a girl who seems more awake and more alive than anyone he’s ever met to convince him to act upon those secret curiosities and begin to read. A few lines and a desire for real conversation after that girl dies quickly spirals him into the world of secret bibliophiles and thinkers, concerned with preserving the knowledge of the ages and the culture of the past beyond themselves.

I sort of remembered this book ending hopefully, and I suppose in a way it does, but the city as been bombed, and the fringe society of scholars and bibliophiles and thinkers are heading back to the city to see if they can help.

Bradbury never says what becomes of the society, but leaves it with only those few heroes and a bombed ruin, death and loss and pain that most Americans didn’t see coming because they were too distracted by the escape and the light and the sound.

I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about where this love and fascination with distraction and noise is present today. If I say much else, I’m writing a very different blog post.

Suffice it to say, this is a book that I’m glad that I read in high school, and I’m glad that I read it now.

Bradbury’s vivid prose is escapism of a different kind because it makes me think instead of distracting me from thinking.

There were a few passages that I found significant enough to mark both in high school and again this past June—and this was I think the first book in 2016 to make me get a pencil to mark its passages.  Because they seemed so significant both times, I want to share them here:

“If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war. If the government is inefficient, topheavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it. Peace, Montag. Give people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change. Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up. That way lies melancholy.” (61)

“The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies.

“So now do you see why books are hated and feared? They show the pores in the face of life. The comfortable people want only wax moon faces, poreless, hairless, expressionless.” (83)

“Most of us can’t rush around, talk to everyone, know all the cities of the world, we haven’t time, money or that many friends. The things you’re looking for, Montag, are in the world, but the only way the average chap will ever see ninety-nine per cent of them is in a book. […] Do your own bit of saving, and if you drown, at least die knowing you were headed for shore.” (86)

This book has a special place in my heart too for the reverential way that it talks about writers and book; I am something of a bibliophile or I probably wouldn’t have this blog.

*****

Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. New York: Del Rey-Random, 1953.

This review is not endorsed by Ray Bradbury, his estate, Del Rey Book, Random House Publishing Group, or Simon & Schuster, who seems to have acquired the current rights, because sometimes publishing is weird.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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Book Reviews: December 2015 Picture Book Roundup: THREE Five-Stars and Some Christmas Leftovers

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Christmas Leftovers

9780399243202Spot’s Christmas by Eric Hill. Warne-Penguin Random, 2004. Ages: 0-3.

This was a fairly lackluster book, which really I probably ought to have expected as this is a holiday spin-off book. Spot, a popular character of his own book series and television series, performs some of the acts of celebration surrounding Christmas: decorating the tree, singing carols, baking cookies and cake, hanging stockings. He knows Santa came because the stockings are full in the morning. Other than being an adorable roly-poly puppy and fairly expressive, there was little story, no moral, and not much really to say.

***

9780553498394How to Catch a Santa by Jean Reagan and illustrated by Lee Wildish. Knopf-Penguin Random, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

I didn’t realize that this was of the same series as How to Babysit a Grandpa, Grandma, and Surprise a Dad. As well as those first two especially have been selling, I have not read any of them, and I was not particularly thrilled by this one. There’s not a lot of story, but a lot of text. “Don’t you have a zillion questions?” A list of questions follows. “Maybe you have things you want to tell him?” A list of things that you might want to tell Santa follows. “And maybe you have things you want to give him?” A list of things to give him follows. “Okay, now you know what you want to do once you catch Santa. Now it’s time to figure out how to do it.” A list of some tips and suggestions follows. While there are some creative and sweet ideas here, I just don’t like the format—and it seems like it’s becoming more prevalent within picture books.

**1/2

The Critically Acclaimed

9780451469908Llama Llama Red Pajamas by Anna Dewdney. Viking-Penguin Random, 2005. Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

This is a new classic and has sparked a whole series of books. Llama Llama in this first adventure is sent to bed, but he misses his mama, he’s nervous in the dark, he wants a glass of water, but mama’s downstairs on the phone and isn’t coming to answer Llama Llama’s pleas for her to come back to the bedroom. The story ends with the moral that mama always loves you even if she isn’t immediately available. The text is full of end rhymes and internal rhyme. It’s a good reminder of a parent’s love.

****

9780803736801Dragons Love Tacos by Adam Rubin and illustrated by Daniel Salmieri. Dial-Penguin Random, 2012. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

I could have been more impressed with this book. I thought what had thrown me off was the somewhat clunky progression of ideas that repeats itself, I feel, unnecessarily so that we have at least two very ardent warnings about spicy salsa—do we need two? The more I reflect on it, though, the more I think that what was even more off-putting was the questions asked of the dragons to which the dragons were never allowed to respond. The dragons are silent throughout this book, and that made the text feel clunky because why ask questions if you don’t want an answer? Why even have the dragons in the text until you need them there to offer proof of your previous declaratory statements about them loving tacos but hating spicy salsa? All of the hard t’s and d’s and p’s sounds were fun.

***

FIVE WHOLE STARS

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Little Penguin Gets the Hiccups by Tadgh Bentley. Balzer + Bray-HarperCollins, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This little book came sweeping up and stole my heart. The narrator is an adorably illustrated little penguin with the—hic!—hiccups. He pleads with the audience directly for their help. He’s tried everything to get rid of the hiccups that he developed after eating too much spicy chili last week, but nothing’s worked, so his friend Frederick has told the penguin that he would try to frighten the hiccups out of him. I was surprised that my audience was not as excited as I was for the opportunity to shout, “BOO!” The penguin forgets the audience to scold Frederick for frightening him so badly, but then realizes that his hiccups are gone and agrees to join Frederick for celebratory tacos, and—surprise, surprise—those spicy tacos give him another bout of—hic!—hiccups.

*****

stacks_image_17Part-Time Princess by Deborah Underwood and illustrated by Cambria Evans. Disney-Hyperion, 2013.

In her sleep, this regular girl becomes a princess in beautiful dresses and crown, who fights dragonfire to save her kingdom, who lassos the dragon but invites him to tea instead of listening to the demands for the dragon’s death by her fearful subjects and realizes that he is a good dragon who is just upset that his crayons were melted. She meets a queen, and they play in the mud, and she takes a bath with bubbles, a high dive, and a dolphin. She isn’t scared of trolls either but dances with the head troll and shows her subjects that trolls are neither frightening or mean. There is a handsome prince, but she’s too busy saving the kingdom to marry now. She is tired in the morning, and there is glitter in her hair. There is glitter in her mother’s hair too; she is the queen. This is a good alternate princess narrative particularly for those girls who do want to marry princes and wear frilly dresses and eat three slice of pink cake for tea.

*****

9781452125329_350_4Interstellar Cinderella by Deborah Underwood and illustrated by Meg Hunt. Chronicle, 2015.

It’s the story of Cinderella—set in space! This Cinderella fixes the household robots and machines but dreams of fixing fancy space ships. The family is invited to the royal parade, and Cinderella’s stepmother says that she can come if she can fix their broken space ship, but the stepsisters take Cinderella’s toolbox with them to the parade, leaving her stranded. Cinderella’s friend, the robot mouse Murgatroyd, sends an S.O.S. and summons Cinderella’s fairy godrobot, who magics Cinderella up some new tools: a sonic socket wrench (yeah, I saw that, Underwood), a blue space suit with jewels and pockets, and a power gem that will run out at midnight. Then it’s off to the parade, but the prince’s ship is smoking, and he doesn’t have a mechanic. Cinderella, masked behind the dome of her space suit, flies over and saves the prince’s ship. He invites her to the Gravity-Free Ball in thanks, and they talk for hours of space ships, but she has to run away before the clock strikes midnight. The sonic wrench falls out of her pocket. The prince goes searching for her, and brings a broken ship with him across the galaxy. The stepfamily tries to fix the ship, but can’t. The mouse helps Cinderella escape the attic into which her stepmother has locked her and left her tied up. Cinderella grabs her wrench back from the prince and fixes the ship. The prince asks her to marry him, and she thinks about it, but decides that she is too young. She offers to be his mechanic instead, and she goes to live at the palace, and fixes fancy space ships, just as she always dreamed she might do. Her fulfilled wish is a job that she loves in a field that here on earth is dominated by men.

This has all the elements of the classic fairy tale story, but the fairy tale ending is not one that includes marriage. My young audience was curious why she didn’t want to marry the prince. I’m not sure if I should be glad that I got to explain that not everyone’s dream is to get married and put that thought in their young minds or I’m sad that I had to explain. The handsome prince is a dark-skinned besides, though it’s never mentioned in the text, and we may have Hunt more than Underwood to thank for that.

There are a lot of larger words here, some of which I think went over the heads of my audience, but they didn’t seem phased by not knowing how to define a sprocket.

The text relied surprisingly heavily on the illustrations here. It almost seemed as if there were holes in the text itself, perhaps the text being limited by the rhyme, but the illustrations filled in those holes well, showing us why, for example, Cinderella would cry out for her toolbox. We had fun looking at the details of the illustrations: the robots, the aliens.

Now I have a question for fellow readers: The endpapers show Cinderella’s tools, all nicely labeled. One of the spaces is empty. Has anyone found that tool? Maybe in one of the book’s illustrations? Why is it missing?

*****

These reviews are not endorsed by any of the authors or publishers or anyone else involved in the making of these books.  They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

 

Book Review: A Wizard of Mars: My Argument for the BroTP

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By the ninth book in Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series, the young wizards aren’t so young anymore. I’m not sure that I wholly approve of the latest sign that Kit and Nita are growing older. For at least seven of the previous eight books if not all eight, these two characters have fought within the text against the worlds’ supposition that any male-female partnership has to be sexual if not romantic, and I was all aboard their ship—their BroTP ship. Yet in this most recent book, A Wizard of Mars, the two of them are becoming more romantically attracted to one another. If this pair becomes an OTP, I may just have to jump overboard and head for the nearest desert isle, not because Kit and Nita (Kita? Nit?) are a terrible or even unlikely pairing, but because I was happy thinking that somewhere in the sea of teen fiction there was a ship that did not need a heart-shaped sail.

The world—our world—the literary world has too many romances and too few male-female friendships untroubled by romance. We do not celebrate singleness, and we over-romanticize romance to the detriment of friendship. By doing so we undermine friendships. I have noticed in my interactions with boys, in my friends’ interactions with boys, in boys’ interactions with me and with my friends that we are damaged by this pervasive idealization of love. There are obstacles put in front of male-female friendships unnecessarily. It ought to be as uncomplicated for me to have male-female friendships as it is for me to have female-female friendships, but it is not. We ought not to have to second-guess every action or word when interacting with the opposite sex. We ought not to feel pressured to feel things toward one another that we may not, and we ought not to believe that any positive feeling towards a member of the opposite sex is romantic.

In a world where too early and too incessantly we are bombarded by the ideals of marriage, true love, romance, and sex and our bodies are sexualized too often and too early, Young Wizards’ male-female BroTP was a breath of fresh air—and a very much needed one.

That all being said, this does not feel like a forced romance and if a romance had to be introduced, I think Duane did so skillfully here. It made sense within the context of the novel, paralleling as it did with a Romeo-Juliet (or Oma-Shu) romance that was important to the action of the plot, so that the romance did not seem jarring. The characters’ thoughts about one another seem… realistic and… earthy. Kit surprises himself when he notices that Nita is “hot.” Nita notices Kit noticing other girls. She has touches of jealousy and general confusion as her feelings towards him begin to shift from platonic to romantic. These thoughts follow gender stereotypes that may have at least some basis in our reality—and by that I mean the reality created by eons of societal expectations. I am glad that there were eight books of a male-female friendship without any stirrings of romance, not only because it provides an example of healthy male-female friendship, but because this romance, if I must now live with it, comes then not from a lightning strike, love-at-first-sight cliché, but a real back and forth, friendship, and slow engendering of greater attachment and attraction. At least then, if romance this must be, it is a more realistic romance than some of the fluff pumped into bookshelves.

Diane Duane I have always admired both for her prose and her blending of science and magic and word. In speaking to a coworker about why she was unable to get into the series, I commented that sometimes I feel like I need an understanding of basic physics to understand this series. If you enter into the series thinking it’s a straight fantasy, as she did, it will be jarring. Reading this book, I noticed, having finished George R. R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons just prior, that I had to look up more words used by Duane than Martin. Some of those were scientific jargon, but the majority of words that sent me to a dictionary were not. The vocabulary level in these books is high, and I say that more to their credit than their denouncement. I appreciate authors who push readers, particularly their child readers, because too often that audience is underestimated, if not in fiction, then in the world at large.

This is the first of the books I would hesitate on some level to recommend to a younger child—not because I think them unable to handle the content or the language but because I think Duane’s intended audience is now teens. She all but says so in the final pages of the book when one of the Senior Wizards explains to the gathered young wizards the shift in wizardry and in the manifestation of the Lone One that comes with maturity—and explains that they’ve just faced one of these more mature trials. This being said, there is nothing in this book any more explicit or complicated than is in the fourth Harry Potter book or any of the later books in that series, so if your child is ready for Goblet of Fire, they’re ready for A Wizard of Mars.

****

Duane, Diane. Young Wizards, Book 9: A Wizard of Mars. New York: Harcourt-Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.

This review is not endorsed by Diane Duane or Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Eternity Road: Strong World Building and Weak Characters

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I was caught by the blurb on the back of Jack McDevitt’s Eternity Road. It is not my usual genre by any standards. It is adult, post-apocalyptic, journey fiction. A plague tore through the population. Centuries on, humanity has grouped again into large cities though much of the knowledge of the eons has been lost—everything from basic geography to Christian philosophy to the printing press. The main transport is horseback though man-powered and current-driven barges and boats travel the Mississippi and Hudson. Recently several cities have formed alliances and unified their governments. People remain nostalgic for the time before the virus, awed by the giant and enduring ruins of that culture, called the Roadmakers.

It was refreshing to see a post-apocalyptic world that was neither technologically advanced nor dystopian. Life in Illyria is fairly civilized. There are not government-sponsored death matches or even a focus on government corruption within the text.

McDevitt does a very good job building new cultures and societies out of the scraps of ours. Language evolution is visible in the names. There are new gods and religious traditions. He uses the journey to explore several ways of living, and particularly several views of sexuality, with which he frankly seems a little preoccupied to me, but then I read a lot of kid lit.

I’d expected from the blurb, a greater emphasis on the power of fiction—or a greater connection between this plot and that of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, but Twain’s novel serves only as proof that a sanctuary might have been discovered by a seemingly unsuccessful expedition where Roadmaker culture—American culture of at least several decades beyond present day—might have persisted or been preserved. There is still however a strong undertone of the value of literature to dandle every reader’s soul.

Chaka and Avila seemed very promisingly feminist characters. As too many do though, I felt as if this male writer didn’t quite know how to handle them. I don’t like to criticize on that front when my own story features at least one male protagonist, but Chaka particularly had the chance. She is the first to call for an expedition and the one to gather the crew, but she is never considered for a leadership role and seemed to not consider herself for one either. She is too preoccupied with the male characters, to willing to rely on male protection and leadership, making her more of a male fantasy than a feminist role model. Avila’s curiosity, readiness to break tradition, and resourcefulness make her a more feminist model, but she is also given less time in the text. I do have to give McDevitt a few points for his attempts to write feminist characters in these and then the very briefly present Judge… who is never named.

In truth I think it is less a problem of not knowing how to handle female protagonists than a problem of not knowing how to handle characters or maybe a group of characters. None of the characters develop as fully as I’d have liked. I had a difficult time distinguishing between the men of the expedition. McDevitt made attempts to differentiate them and to have them exhibit growth, but the characters never came alive.

Without vivacious characters, I had a difficult time investing in the journey, which, granted, took the team through some interesting ruins but one ruin did not really build to another so that the journey read as scenes of excitement bridged by lulls filled all too often with the characters’ romantic and lustful relationships with one another. One Goodreads reviewer compared the book to a bus tour, and that’s not inaccurate. Journey fiction is difficult. The lull between adventures is difficult. It really takes at least one strong character to uphold the reader’s attention. Stronger characters are I think one of the reasons why The Lord of the Rings works better than The Hobbit, for example. The Lord of the Rings has a whole company of strong characters. For me, Bilbo is perhaps the only standout in his company, the dwarves mostly blending together in the text. For me, Eternity Road’s crew seemed more like the dwarves of The Hobbit, acting mostly as a group than a collection of individuals. That might be one more reason why the romances between the characters felt so jarring.

***

McDevitt, Jack. Eternity Road. New York: Harper Voyager-HarperCollins, 2011. First printed 1997.

This review is not endorsed by Jack McDevitt, Harper Voyager, or HarperCollins Publishers .  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: The White Dragon and a Teen Boy Who Gets Away with Too Much

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Now, it’s been a while since my last Anne McCaffrey novel, having read Dragonquest near December or November of 2011. The next book in the series, The White Dragon, heavily references the events and world building of the first two books, Dragonquest and Dragonflight before it. I thought about quitting The White Dragon to begin the series again. I thought about finding Pern’s Wikia page to remind myself of the plots of the earlier books. I did neither. I assumed that I would catch up, and for the most part, I did, though my memories of those events and those people remained much fuzzier than the memories of the characters.

That didn’t help me to fully enjoy the tale.

Jaxom was also not the precocious kid that I remembered from and enjoyed in Dragonquest and in fact doesn’t seem to be friends anymore with F’lessan, puncturing holes into what I thought would be an adorable bromance about which I wanted to read books.

Jaxom’s not interested in bromance, unless it’s with his unusual white dragon, Ruth. Jaxom has become a very “proddy” teenager, and I, for one, was not pleased to have to read about his ill-advised adolescent flings.

First, there is Coranna, the daughter of a Holder subservient to Jaxom. Jaxom isn’t interested in her till another gets jealous of Coranna’s preference for Jaxom, which everyone involved admits might be based more on his title than on Jaxom’s own merit. Once her preference is noted, however, Jaxom admits that she is pretty, and then it is not long before he is working towards giving her a “half-breed” son. The worst of it comes in one scene where Jaxom, having witnessed the Rising of a green at Fort Hold, is awash with the dangerous swirl of hormones that comes with a dragon’s Rising, and though he does admittedly not tell Ruth to go elsewhere, Ruth takes him to Coranna. Coranna begins to complain, “I wish you wouldn’t—” The narration calls this a “half-teasing scold,” but she resists Jaxom when he kisses her, possibly even attacks him with her hoe before he disarms her. This attack is admittedly is ambiguous and might be accidental, but their lovemaking here seems as ambiguously consensual as Jamie and Cersei’s in the sept (637; Martin, A Storm of Swords, 851). At any rate, the forceful taking of Coranna doesn’t sit well with me nor with Jaxom, whose solution to his ill-sitting conscience is to never again see Coranna, to drop her like a hot sack of potatoes and run. This action is repulsive and not at all heroic, but he is not punished for dropping her. Instead he falls ill during another adventure, is trapped in a tropical paradise, and finds new love in the form of one his nurses. McCaffrey is often hailed as a feminist writer, but that’s a disgusting instance of excusing patriarchy and of the wanton use of women. Admittedly, it’s possible that McCaffrey meant for these things to sit poorly with her readers, to draw attention to the flaws of the male-dominated and sex-driven society of Pern (and by extension the societies of many of the countries on Earth). I will never be able now to ask her or to ask her how she felt about Jaxom’s behavior as an older woman looking back from the twenty-first century, but I think that this is an example of the male domination and masculine template of the fantasy genre, which we’re only just beginning to counter, and the effects that that model has on even the most feminist writers.

I’m a proponent of parents knowing what their children are reading. No one younger than a teen probably ought to be reading this series for the sex scenes alone, but I think that even parents of teens ought to be ready to address Jaxom’s behavior involving women in general and particular his final scene with Coranna. It is also fair to note that while there are several, none of the sex scenes are detailed.

In The White Dragon, more broadly, the exiled Oldtimers are worried about their continued existence, looking with wobbling chins at their forthcoming destruction by old age. Meanwhile, the Oldtimers’ indolence has bred an industrious spirit into those men who moved South. The Northerners are eying the South with ideas of conquest, dominion, and self-reliance besides. The backdrop is a forthcoming war over land, which the dragonriders of Benden Weyr hope to settle through deceit before it can come to war.

I think the plot is supposed to center around Jaxom’s sense of being between—not child, not adult; Holder and not; dragonrider and not—that theme giving the book a particularly teen feel.

I enjoyed the outlandish, arrogant, and cynical Piemur and his runner-beast Stupid. Menolly is a ray of sunshine in an otherwise bleak landscape of deceitful or easily lulled women, though even she is lured away by sexual pleasures and hints that she’s given her heart to a man too much her elder and supervisor. Master Robinton is as delightful as ever, his easy demeanor winning over characters and myself whenever he enters the stage. Next time I give McCaffrey a go, I think I had better choose a book about the Harpers because they really seem to be the best characters.

A quick survey of the backs of the McCaffrey books owned by my roommate leaves me wondering how far in advance McCaffrey was able to craft everyone’s backstory. The White Dragon may be third in the series, but it seems that nearly every other book on the shelf happens prior to this tale (and many happen to center around the Harpers besides).

Certainly, McCaffrey seems to write with the wider epic in mind. Certainly this book and Dragonquest hint towards the widening of the world and end with the first notes of the next book’s musical movement. I don’t know what the next book is in the series chronologically, but I can almost guarantee that it will have to do with the movement of the dragonriders to the South and Toric’s fight to extend his territory and/or maintain the territory that he’s taken, based solely upon the ending of The White Dragon.

**

McCaffrey, Anne. The Dragonriders of Pern.  New York: Del Rey-Ballantine-Random, 1988.

The White Dragon first published in 1978.

This review is not endorsed by Anne McCaffrey, Del Rey, Ballantine Books, or Random House, Inc. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Young Wizards at War Expands to an Epic Scope

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On this blog, I’ve only reviewed the first (and there I spoke more of the style and themes) of Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series, but I’ve read now through the eighth.  The first, So You Want to Be a Wizard?, introduces readers to the protagonists Nita Callahan and Kit Rodriguez, who work together as wizards to combat the Lone One and Its creations, entropy and death.  The wizards are heroes of Life and work with the Powers That Be, more commonly known throughout history as angels and gods of various religions.  The Powers That Be all serve the One, who is essentially God, and I would argue, the Christian idea of God.  Wizards exist across species and across the universe.  The seventh book in the series, Wizard’s Holiday, saw Kit and Nita away on an exchange program.  While they were off-world, a trio of alien wizards came to live at the Callahans’ and helped Nita’s sister, Dairine, to heal our sun and protect Earth.  [SPOILER] Kit’s and Nita’s away-mission came to an early end when the species that they were living with evolved beyond a physical form and left the planet. [END SPOILER]  They come home and join Dairine; the tree-like Filif; the insectile Sker’ret, a near relative of the Stationmaster of the Crossings, a hub like Grand Central or King’s Cross St. Pancras for transport to other planets; and the humanoid young king, Roshaun, whose specialty is suns and stars.

Wizards at War opens with a warning from Tom and Carl, the area seniors.  A strange increase of dark matter throughout the universe has been warping the universe and changing its description, making wizardry impossible as wizardry depends on accurately describing the universe.  Older wizards past their peak, like Tom and Carl, are losing their ability to work wizardries—and as the dark matter continues to increase, they lose even the memory of wizardry.  Nita and Kit are appointed as temporary seniors, and the fate of the world has fallen into the hands of children alone.

Wizards at War reunites us with many of friends from previous books—Darryl, S’ree, Ronan and the Power the resides inside of him—and introduces us too to a few more, including a set of twychilds, twins Nguyet and Tuyet who are able to amplify power by bouncing it back and forth between them.  The mission of our heroes brings us to a world so lost to the Lone One that it is listed as irredeemable by the Manual.  There they again must battle the Lone One by empowering one of the natives of the planet to do so.  [HERE BEGIN THE SPOILERS] She—yes, she, though her culture is male-dominated—is a new form of the Lone One, a form of the Lone One that chooses Life instead of Death.  The Lone One like all of the Powers and the One lives outside of Time.  Therefore it’s possible for two forms of It to exist at once, the One inside of Memeki and the One that controls Memeki’s planet.  The One that controls the planet seeks vengeance against the wizards who help Memeki to unlock her power.  The ensuing battle on Earth’s moon claims many friends.  I’m still uncertain how many are lost for good and how many may be resurrected in one form or another, even if they have lost their wizardry. [END SPOILERS]

Like many of the recent books, this one focuses on the Choice, the Choice between Life and Death, God or Darkness.

Of all of the recent books, this one is perhaps the most complex in scale, cast, and concept.  This is epic in a way that Duane’s series has not been before.  Like its title suggests, this is a wartime novel of the vein of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire or maybe more accurately J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  The large cast includes expendable characters and warriors whom the audience will hate to lose.  All the characters have accepted death as a possibility in the face of their foe and no one seems safe anymore.  Still the certainty that good will triumph over evil remains (mostly I think because of the series’ Christian mythological background) and still the lines are clearly drawn [SPOILER] (though with Memeki’s coming to power, I suppose that is not as true as it was). [END SPOILER]

I will be very interested to see how the series progresses from here.  There is one more published book for me to read and I think there will be others besides in time.

****

Duane, Diane.  Young Wizards, Book 8: Wizards at War.  Orlando: Magic Carpet-Harcourt, 2005.

This review is not endorsed by Diane Duane, Magic Carpet Books, Harcourt, Inc., or Delacorte Press.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.