Armada

Armada by Ernest Cline

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I picked up this book because I liked Cline’s first novel, Ready Player One. This story has a lot of the same nerdy inspirations, but without the post-apocalyptic darkness and incisive critique of corporate tyranny. This sci-fi novel is about an alien invasion and a far-reaching conspiracy to ready humanity to fight it off through training an army of video gamers to operate drones. The narrator is Zack Lightman, a top gamer recruited by the Earth Defense Alliance to pilot spaceships remotely. Through observing that the real aliens act a little too much like simulations of themselves, he uncovers a conspiracy within the conspiracy and saves planet Earth. It’s fun, sprinkled with lots of pop culture trivia, and structured self-consciously around Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. It felt like a novelization of one of the summer blockbusters so frequently referenced–definitely light reading. The ending seemed a little bit open, so that I wondered if there is a sequel in the works.

Lady Midnight

Lady Midnight by Cassandra Clare

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This novel begins a new series in Clare’s Shadowhunter universe. Previous related books were the Mortal Instruments series and the steampunk-inspired Infernal Devices trilogy. With the exception of Clare’s messy first book, City of Bones, her novels are well-written in a way that’s typical of the YA fantasy genre. It’s definitely light reading, but I find this universe fun and rich, imaginative and humorous. I think Clare has been improving with more writing experience. Her characters, especially the male leads, get stronger and less annoying each time she creates a new set of them. And the characters from previous series (yes, even the one set in the 1800s) make cameo appearances, as the universe grows in complexity and population.

This story begins five years after the end of City of Heavenly Fire and concentrates on the Los Angeles institute, where young Shadowhunters are still dealing with the fallout from the Mortal War. Julian has responsibility for his younger siblings since his father’s death. Emma is still dealing with her parents’ murder and nurtures revenge fantasies. These two are parabatai–a ritualized relationship for Shadowhunter best friends that enables them to offer each other extra protection and support. But the problem is that they’re falling in love, and parabatai are supposed to be strictly platonic. That’s the source of the book’s sexual tension and angst. The action starts when some fairies show up at the institute and ask Emma and Julian to solve a series of murders that she thinks might be related to those of her parents.

The sequel, Lord of Shadows, is coming out later this year.

The Girl with All the Gifts

The Girl with All the Gifts by M. R. Carey

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This zombie story is unusual for its genre for a few reasons. Its child heroine is a zombie herself, but a thinking, feeling one–the full explanation would be a spoiler. A main character is a single-minded scientist studying the zombie pathogen and hoping to cure it. In this case the pathogen is a fungus similar to one that afflicts ants in the Amazon, driving them to climb trees and hurl themselves from them. The particular details of how this fungus works make the story unique among zombie stories. After the research facility where they live is overrun by zombies, the girl, her teacher, the scientist, an army captain and a private escape together and try to make it to another settlement. It’s an engrossing read, with lots of action, an eerie setting, and a scientific mystery that creates moral questions. The ending was very unexpected for me, bleak and twisted. I wonder if the movie adaptation will change it or not.

The Darkest Part of the Forest

The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black

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This fairy story begins with a vision of a horned boy asleep in a glass coffin, and a small town’s troubled relationship with the fairy world at its border. The sleeping fairy prince in his unbreakable box is a tourist attraction and a site of illicit high school revels. The action gets started when one morning the horned boy is gone, his coffin shattered.

The main characters are brave Hazel and Ben, her gay brother who has an amazing musical talent, gifted from a fairy. As children they made a game of protecting the town from dangerous fairies and hags. Years ago, Hazel made a bargain with a fairy, the results of which are revealed slowly and dramatically. Their friend, Jack, a changeling, also becomes involved as the fairy court intrigues are uncovered.

This is just the kind of YA fantasy I love. A mystery. Two love stories. A dangerous but enchanting fairy world hovering just below the surface of reality. Complex relationships and moral questions and issues of guilt and complicity and unintended consequences. Nontraditional gender roles. A story that works on a metaphorical level as well as literally. Startling, strange, and fantastic descriptions. Sparkling sentences. Highly recommended to anyone who likes this genre.

The Alchemist

The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho

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I had heard a lot of good things about this short little book, and was happy to finally pick it up. A lot of people, including Brene Brown, whose work I find persuasive and inspiring, call it wonderful. I was sorry to be disappointed with it.

The story works well if you think of it as a fairy tale and don’t try to derive any deeper significance from it. It’s a simple quest narrative about a boy who goes looking for a treasure. But what bothers me about the book is that it clearly seems to be trying to teach a life philosophy, and many of its readers like it for precisely that reason. I guess my problem is just that I don’t particularly like its philosophy. Here’s a quote that sums it up:

“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

I guess I just don’t believe the world works like that. It would be nice if it did. This philosophy seems to say that if you don’t achieve your dreams it’s your own fault because you didn’t follow “your Personal Legend” with enough faithfulness and tenacity, regardless of circumstances. It’s a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” philosophy, exemplified by the boy’s quick success in the crystal shop, starting with nothing and earning back double the money he’d lost to a thief in less than a year. The boy is always reading omens to help him make decisions, and I don’t think omens happen in this world. Again, if you think of it as a fantasy world where the wind and desert talk to him through magic, it’s fine. But if it’s supposed to be a metaphor for real life (and I think it very clearly is), I don’t find it persuasive because I don’t think life is that easy. There are definitely nuggets of wisdom, like the part where the boy talks to his heart and finds that it is too scared to go forward, but he chooses to go forward anyway. This particular idea about fear is said better or at least equally well by Elizabeth Gilbert in the opening of Big Magic.

I also had a problem with the way the book treated love and the boy’s relationship with Fatima, a “woman of the desert” who is content to wait for him while he searches for his treasure. What about her “Personal Legend”? Apparently her role is just to sit at the oasis and wait for him to return. It seems pretty convenient for the boy that “love never keeps a man from pursuing his Personal Legend.” Exactly. He’s a man. For women in our unequal society, it is a common experience that love and family get in the way of, or, at best, delay the realization of professional and personal aspirations. Fatima is one of two female characters, and both are just love interests with no real personality. The story would have been about the same without either one of them in it. It seemed they were only there to give the boy something to sacrifice or a way to prove he can delay gratification, on his way to finding his treasure.

Siege and Storm

Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo

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This series is the kind of thing that makes me want to fangirl all over the place. I loved the dreamy/nightmarish Russian-inspired setting, and the way magic works in this fantastic realm. Mal and Alina’s romance in Shadow and Bone was so sweet, and compared to the way they act in this book, innocent. But in a second book of a trilogy, things have to get complicated. Mal and Alina are clearly made to be together, but they’re bad at communicating, and their circumstances pull them apart. There are petty jealousies and new inequalities of rank. It’s sad to see people who love each other hurt each other, not in spite of their love but because of it. Mal acts both idiotically and with stubborn honor; Alina doesn’t work hard enough to keep him close to her, mostly because she doesn’t quite understand that that is where he wants to be. I love that this heroine has considerable lust for power and darkness within her, in addition to her sarcastic, prickly personality and inferiority complex–she’s not sunshine and roses even though her power is literally summoning light. In this book, Alina and Mal spend a lot of time in the royal palace, and a new character is a very romantic figure–a second-born prince, rumored to be a bastard, who has been away from the capital inventing flying machines while disguised as a privateer. I was afraid he would turn the story into a love triangle, but thankfully Alina is never really tempted by his (and his brother’s) pragmatic proposals.  Though the tone is often incredibly dark, there are also many funny moments. Like many #2’s in trilogies, the ending seems like it’s as bad as it can be–an explosion of violence, the heroine willingly handing herself over to the villain to save her friends. But you know it’s only going to get worse. I can’t wait to pick up the finale.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell by Susanna Clarke

200px-jonathan_strange_and_mr_norrell_coverThis doorstopper fantasy is one of the most fun books I’ve read in a while. It tells of two men’s quest to “bring magic back to England” in the early 1800s. Mr. Norrell, a retiring, bookish magician wants to bring the practice of magic to prominence and respectability, but he has to make a bargain with a fairy to cement a relationship with a member of Parliament, securing his influence. The havoc the fairy wreaks in the lives of that MP’s wife and servant, stealing their health and sleep, forms a major subplot. Every time the poor victims try to tell anyone of their plight, they speak nonsense or tell a fairy story.

Jonathan Strange, a very Romantic figure, becomes Norrell’s apprentice. They use magic to help the English generals and admirals in the Napoleonic Wars, conjuring storms, building roads, and even raising the dead. Strange and Norell eventually disagree, causing a rift in the new magical community. Norrell wants to keep all magic under his personal control, especially the books of magic, while Strange wants to explore the dangerous roads into fairyland. Long, impressively detailed footnotes fill in encyclopedic details, making the novel feel like a history book, but it’s a history in which fairy tales are considered primary documents. The creepy fairy world and its history are a huge highlight. Clarke has created an alternative history in which northern England was ruled for centuries by a fairy king named John Uskglass, and in which magic, not Nelson and Wellington, beat Napoleon. The writing approximates English novels of that period, with the wit typical of Austen and Dickens. I thought it was hilarious, fearful, and wondrous.