Black Dog by Rachel Neumeier

Black Dog
Rachel Neumeier


This is a review of a book provided to me by Strange Chemistry (the YA imprint of Angry Robot books).
 
The Premise: The Toland siblings, Natividad, Alejandro, and Miguel, have fled from their home in Mexico, all the way across the United States, and have just reached their destination in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. Their father’s old enemy, Malvern Vonhausel, still stalks them despite already destroying their village and murdering their parents. Now the siblings are making a desperate gamble: that Dimilioc, a stronghold for shapeshifters called black dogs, will take them in. They have very little to convince Dimilioc’s Master — only that their father was once a Dimilioc wolf, and that Natividad is Pure. Their father told them that Dimilioc protected the Pure, but it never tolerated strays. Miguel may be granted amnesty because he’s human, but Alejandro is black dog and may not be treated so kindly.
 
Read an excerpt of Black Dog here
 
My Thoughts: Before reading Black Dog, the other books I’d read by Rachel Neumeier were two-thirds of The Griffin Mage Trilogy, and House of Shadows. These are all straight fantasy, and for some reason (probably my own obliviousness), I thought Black Dog was the same. I didn’t realize that until I began reading it that this is urban fantasy. This was not a bad thing. It felt nice to be surprised that Black Dog was Neumeier’s own riff on werewolf mythology. The world is not far off from our own as it is now, but Neumeier alters all we know by setting Black Dog right after a war. This war is one that is not necessarily fully explained, but what we do know is that it has wiped out all vampires, and vampire magic happened to hide the supernatural from regular people. It also has the devastating consequence of Vonhausel tracking down the Toland family and slaughtering everyone in their village. Black Dog opens in the midst of the siblings’ flight from home, with the plan to be taken in by the group of black dogs that their father once belonged.
 
Black Dog is narrated in the third person but focuses on Natividad and Alejandro, and as you would expect when a supernatural murderer is after you, this story has a desperate edge. First there is the fear of getting caught before they reach Dimilioc, and then there is the stress over what to say that would most likely keep them alive once they get there. After that the challenges just keep coming. So this has a quickly moving plot, but beyond that, the world building and the characters kept me engaged as well. The Tolands’ Mexican upbringing is part of the narrative (the dialogue is peppered with Spanish), and that mixed with their having to grow up quickly kept these characters real and vulnerable.
 
What black dogs and the Pure are, are organically introduced as necessary. It isn’t difficult to catch on that a “black dog” is a shapeshifter that turns into a monstrous dog, but Neumeier throws in her own touches, from the superficial (like their black fangs and claws, intense heat, eyes of “fiery gold and red”, and black ichor of their wounds) to the fundamental (that they are two separate selves, one human, one shadow, housed within the same body). The Pure, which Natividad is, is more difficult to grasp. Natividad demonstrates that she has powers that she uses to protect and hide her brothers from their pursuers, but as the story moves forward, it becomes clear that’s not all she’s useful for. Adding to the mystery is the strange relationship the black dogs have with the Pure. Black dogs are drawn to the Pure, but while one half of their nature wants to protect them, the other wants to destroy. It’s not certain that even the Pure and the black dogs know how they are linked.
 
The Dimilioc wolves believe in protecting the Pure. In fact, they are prized, which is one of the reasons Natividad and her brothers have decided to go to them. Here is where things get sticky though, because Natividad is willing to sacrifice herself in exchange for her and her brothers’ survival (“I’m not a puta; I won’t lie down with them all. But if you take us into Dimilioc, I will take any one of your wolves you say”). Whether Natividad really has any agency is one issue, that she is only fifteen years old (while the youngest of her options seem to be in their twenties, there are men much older than that here), is another. I suppose I should feel better that it’s one of the youngest who is most aggressive in the pissing contest over Natividad, but when you are fifteen, a five or six-year age difference is significant. Any further romance or consent would be questionable. On the other hand, things don’t progress far enough for me to really question what is happening. All this is sort of there, in the background, percolating, while the Toland siblings deal with more immediate life or death situations. Yes, there is attention and Natividad isn’t immune, but there is the sense she wonders whether it’s real. I feel hopeful, because of the thoughtfulness of the writing, that when this series continues I won’t be disappointed by what happens to Natividad. I am not completely against a romance, but I’d feel better if Natividad got to grow up first. I also wonder whether the controversial romance is deliberate. It’s interesting when you pair the situation with Natividad’s nature, which involves a lot of placating of the black dogs and defusing aggression with teasing jokes made at the right moment. I also noticed a mirroring of Natividad’s situation in another (male) character. Needless to say, I’m very interested in finding out where this is going to go. Unfortunately, Strange Chemistry has been discontinued, but it sounds like Rachel Neumeier still expects to be able to publish the sequel, Pure Magic, one way or another.
 
Overall: Every time I read a book by Rachel Neumeier, it becomes my new favorite by this author. I think this is because of a mix of super thoughtful writing plus an element of surprise. Black Dog is no different. This was the kind of read that you gobble up quickly, with a lot of life-threatening action squeezed into the space of the few days, but it was the quieter moments between the life-or-death situations, where the characters are planning and anticipating and arguing, that lingered long after the book was closed. For those looking for no more than action and adventure, you will find it here. For those looking for something deeper – Black Dog sometimes made me uncomfortable in a way that is never resolved. Depending on how things go, I think this series has the potential to be more subversive than you’d initially expect.
 
Buy: Amazon | Powells | The Book Depository
 
Other reviews:
Bunbury in the Stacks @ Tor.com – “Black Dog is, like the characters within its pages, frightening and beautiful and solid right down to its core.”
Chachic’s Book Nook – “Rachel Neumeier made a successful foray into urban fantasy with Black Dog.”
On Starships and Dragon Wings – “I was excited to get to know some characters a little different from the typical young adult cast, but I was completely unable to connect to them for reasons I’m honestly still not able to pin down.”

The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater

The Dream Thieves
Maggie Stiefvater

The Dream Thieves was one of the more coveted YA books at BEA last year, and rather difficult to get (the publisher gave out the time to grab the book only to those who specifically asked, and then handed them out so quickly they were gone in 10 minutes). I was hoping to get an extra copy for book blogger friends who only asked for this one book, but I don’t think I had any luck. Anyway, this came out September 2013, and was another pick for the YAckers. They had a lovely chat about The Dream Thieves which is up online now. Of course, being the reprobate that I am, my contribution to this chat was something along the lines of “I’m still reading it, you guys talk about it without me.” This was the right thing to say because it took me a whole month to read this book, mostly thanks to the day job sucking away my time and attention, but I do wish I could have talked about it with the gang because I have the sneaking suspicion that I am the outlier again when it comes to this series. I’ve actually refrained from looking at the chat before I finish this review because I’m afraid of how far off my opinion is going to be.

This is the second book of The Raven Cycle. If you haven’t read the first book yet, I recommend you read my review of The Raven Boys instead of this one, because possible spoilers for that book lie ahead.

The Premise: Despite the freedom of summer break, a newly awoken ley line, and Ronan’s unveiled talent, the search for Glendower is no easier than it was before. Shady characters have appeared in Henrietta, drawn by the power spikes from its ley lines. The trail runs hot and cold as energy grows and dims without explanation or clear source. Similarly, the all is discordant amongst Blue and the Raven boys. Noah disappears and reappears with each dip and surge in energy. Ronan toys with more dangerous pursuits. And a lingering tension hovers between Adam, Blue, and Gansey that threatens to fracture the whole group.

Read an excerpt of The Dream Thieves on scribd (or pdf: here)

My Thoughts: When I look back at my review of The Raven Boys, I had problems with the fragmented focus – there are a lot of characters, each with their own individual back story, and it was difficult for me to tell who the main protagonists were and where the whole story was going. Then I reminded myself that despite having trouble with the meandering storyline, I loved the characters, enjoyed the writing, and would road trip to Henrietta in a heartbeat. I said to myself that this was the cost of set up when there were multiple characters involved and a dreamy supernatural backdrop to explain. And because the framework was taken care of in The Raven Boys, it seemed a reasonable expectation that I would fare better with The Dream Thieves.

Unfortunately, I had very similar issues with The Dream Thieves that I had with The Raven Boys. I don’t know what else to do but sigh over this, but before I go into why this book didn’t set my heart aflame, I want to point out it might do just that for someone else by reiterating what I said when I reviewed The Raven Boys: “If you are one who can sit back and enjoy a character-driven story with lovely prose and you don’t need to know where it’s all going, this will do quite well.” If you are one of those readers, this story is made of words that are simple yet arranged in very pleasing ways. It has characters who you want to follow around and learn what makes them tick. And yes, there is magic.

“In the shower, Adam scratched a thumbnail across his summer-brown skin. The line of his nail went from white to angry-red in a moment, and as he studied it, it struck him that there was something off about the flow of the water across his skin. As if it was in slow-motion. He followed the stream of the water up to the showerhead and spent a full minute watching it sputter from the metal. His thoughts were a confusion of translucent drops clinging to metal and rain trembling off green leaves.

He blinked.

There was nothing odd about the water. There were no leaves.”

If that’s enough for you, you can probably skip the rest of the review and go enjoy the book. Otherwise be prepared for my kvetching because I really wrestled over what exactly didn’t work for me. This was a review more to work out my own demons than anything else.

I feel a little despondent that what this book has going for it wasn’t enough for me, but ultimately it comes down to what kind of reader I am, and like I said when I reviewed the first book, I need structure. It doesn’t have to be all business right away, and The Dream Thieves started out promisingly with a continued search for Glendower and tantalizing hints about Ronan’s ability, but as I read on my enthusiasm slowly waned. I was surprised by the introduction of a morally ambiguous “heavy” (appropriately named The Gray Man), but he seemed interesting so I read on. By mid-book, I felt like things were moving slowly, but I was still hopeful I could like this story if I could just get some answers, such as what Declan really knew and where things were going. A bit after that mid-way point I began to question. Three-quarters of the way was where I realized I wasn’t going to get that direction I was hoping for and I was officially frustrated. Of course the last few pages of the book is where the story takes off, but by then I wasn’t as engaged as I wanted to be.

Thinking back on it now, if I had approached this as a side-story that was about Ronan and not a “traditional” sequel to The Raven Boys, my expectations would have been calibrated properly. Because I thought there would be progress with the Glendower search, it didn’t compute when the search was mired and another mystic concept, the Greywaren, was thrown in as if out of no where. Things were happening, but to me it was a slow inching trek toward an unknown destination, and I was in a frustrating place where I didn’t know if what I was reading was taking me anywhere. In my mind I was in the second book of a series feeling like I actually hadn’t gone beyond the set up stage of the story.

What compounds my problems with direction and plot is that this is a multi-character story with multiple focuses. Ronan has a bigger role in this second book (which I expected, based on the title and the cover), and I was looking forward to it because he’s so enigmatic in The Raven Boys, but because every chapter was a short flash on a single character before moving onto the next, his voice was one of many. It was easy to forget that this was “Ronan’s book” when the focus moved away from him so often. While Ronan’s power to bring dreams to life is explored, two new characters (the aforementioned Gray Man, and Kavinsky – an obnoxious street-racing-fellow-student) are introduced, and Blue, Gansey, Adam, and Noah continue to have their own problems. Not to mention what all the women living at 300 Fox Way get up to. Again I was reminded the first book, where the fragmented focus made me unsure of who the main characters were. In the end, the characters that get the most page time (Ronan and The Gray Man) were the characters I was happiest with because there was enough pulling back of the veil to see their inner workings, even if I wasn’t completely satisfied with their particular story arcs (that’s a whole other thing that goes into spoiler territory though). As for almost everyone else, it was as if there were too many characters for there to be more for the reader than to touch their outside edges, let alone grasp them whole.

Where I really felt this was with Adam, Blue, and Gansey, whose interrelationships are complicated by romance, rivalry, class, and a curse. What we got of them only makes the loss greater: subtle scenes between Gansey and Blue, a raw honesty between Blue and Adam, and tests of friendship between Adam and Gansey. Despite this, I had only my own guesses to things like why Adam’s character was so alien (more angry than vulnerable) from what he once was. I can’t help but feel like I’d trade one or more of the minor characters’ space in The Dream Thieves for more Adam, or Blue, or Gansey.

I know, I know. Due to my (faulty?) wiring, even though I kept thinking of certain wonderful bits and pieces of this book long after it was finished, I was just too bothered by all of the above for The Dream Thieves to be a hit with me. I’m sure I’m in the minority in this.

Overall: My reaction is the dreaded “I wanted to like this more than I did”. While I found a lot of things to like about The Dream Thieves, for each aspect about this story that I enjoyed, there was another that really didn’t work for me. One problem was my expectations and that I was approaching this story thinking that it was a continuation of The Raven Boys rather than something that was more of a companion piece that intertwines into the greater whole. Another was that I just don’t do well with a lot of characters and an unfocused destination. Since I had similar issues with The Raven Boys and hoped I would fare better in this book, The Dream Thieves rated lower than The Raven Boys on my visceral reaction scale, but would probably rate higher if I could repress my feelings and look at this with more neutral eyes. I suspect I would like this book more the second time around now that I know what I’m getting.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Angieville – “If you’re looking for a story worth living and breathing, The Dream Thieves will take you there.”
Book Harbinger – “When somehow the Raven Cycle comes to its impossible, filled-to-the-brim-with-potential conclusion, we’re in for a treat.”
Bunbury in the Stacks – “I am unable to find all of the proper words needed to express my love of book two of The Raven Cycle”
YAckers discussion

Yup yup, everyone liked this more than I did. I will go hide now.

Thief’s Covenant by Ari Marmell

Thief's Covenant
Ari Marmell

The Premise: Adrienne Satti was an orphan that was adopted into the aristocracy, an unlikely rags-to-riches story that turned sour when she became the sole survivor of a horrific massacre and had to disappear. Now she is a thief called Widdershins that regularly gets in trouble – both with the law and with her own guild. Unfortunately people are still looking for Adrienne Satti, and maybe one day someone will figure out that Widdershins and she are one and the same. Oh, and she is the only worshiper of the god Olgun, and he lives inside her head.

My Thoughts: This is a book that I bought for purely shallow reasons: the cover pleases me. I like the use of the white background, the title placement, and the unexpected figure hanging from a ceiling beam. It does have a bit of a young adult feel (young woman on cover seems to equal YA these days), but I didn’t really realize it was YA until I looked it up on the publisher’s website. Despite just wanting this book because it’s so pretty, I didn’t pounce until I found a nice used copy because of on-the-fence (not really stellar, but not hating it either) reviews from reviewers I trust.

So.  Thieves, guilds, remarkable orphans, and a pantheon of gods that can directly communicate with their worshipers (if they so wish to). These are very well-worn tropes of fantasy and they form the building blocks of the world within Thief’s Covenant. I don’t really find this a bad thing, it’s comfort food if it’s not new-to-you, and fun if it is. What I think this story does differently is that injects an entertainment to everything. What I mean by that is: no matter what grim thing is happening on the page, the prose manages to veer off into humorous territory. You can start a scene where grim Guardsmen are examining the grisly remains of a dozen aristocrats, the floor positively awash in blood, when the focus shifts to the rafters above them where a whisper-conversation is taking place between Adrienne and her god Olgun. They’re both in shock because, well what kind of secret cult keeps written records?!

I liked the humor to a certain extent. When the jokes were gentle elbow-nudges, I was on board, but it could get rather slapstick-y, which is less of my cup of tea.  Either way, there’s enough lightheartedness in here for me to appreciate the entertainment.  One running gag was how basically everyone was after Adrienne/Widdershins but she always manages to one-up them.  The Guardsmen are after Adrienne for one reason, and Widdershins for another. The Finder’s Guild are after Widdershins for her general cheekiness, and there’s a third group that just wants to find Widdershins/Adrienne to kill the survivor of the massacre. The whole book makes me think of a hall of doors chase scene mixed with elements of  ‘Home Alone’.  Whenever Adrienne is caught, I feel like she always turns it around, leaving her captors worse off.

What is surprising is how this type of humor is juxtaposed with violence. That’s where my one real complaint about the story stems from — strangely, more because of how the secondary characters suffered than for the violence itself (although that was also jarring in the midst of what is mostly a caper). I felt like with so many throw-away characters, no chance for something deeper than a set of archetypes as the supporting cast. I would’ve enjoyed delving further and seeing their relationships with Widdershins develop. Maybe the point is to keep Widdershins isolated, or to add grit to the story. I don’t know, all I know is I wound up feeling unfulfilled, and questioning if how things played out was how it had to go. The humor and adventure in the story mostly balances out this ruffled feeling, but didn’t erase it entirely.

I have the second book of this series, False Covenant, on the to-be-read pile. I plan to read it soon.

Overall: The world building is typical fantasy fare and the secondary characters don’t really get the development they could, but the prose and humor evens things out so what you are left with is something that falls squarely on middle ground. I would recommend this as something to try if what you’re looking for is simply entertainment.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
The Book Smugglers – Joint rating was: 6 (Good, recommended with reservations)
Bitching, Books, and Baking – 5 beaters (out of 5): “There are WORDS in them thar pages!  Glorious, well thought-out WORDS!”
Book Girl of Mur-y-Castell – “The ever so cool Widdershins made this my fav Marmell book to date”

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

The Raven Boys was chosen as December’s YAcker read. You can check out our discussion here.

The Raven Boys
Maggie Stiefvater

The Premise: Every psychic Blue Sargent has ever gone to tells her the same thing: if she kisses her true love, he will die. Other people might dismiss such claims, but Blue lives in a house with her mother Maura and a group of women who are in the business of telling fortunes, and she knows how accurate their readings can be.  Blue’s fate has hung over her head for much of her life, but when her aunt Neeve joins the household, she gives Blue a timeline. This is the year that Blue is going to fall in love.

If that isn’t a grave enough portent for the year, Blue also sees the spirit of a boy during St. Mark’s Eve, when the soon-to-dead march through the grounds of an abandoned church. The boy whispers that his name is Gansey. Blue has no psychic powers of her own (she only magnifies what others see), so seeing Gansey has one of two meanings: either she is responsible for his death, or he is her true love.

In the meantime, Richard “Dick” Campbell Gansey, III (Gansey to his friends) attends the nearby Aglionby Academy. Outwardly he has the ease and confidence of the rich and privileged and he leads a gaggle of Aglionby misfits: Adam, Ronan, and Noah. But inwardly, Gansey is more than he appears. He’s a finder of lost things, and he’s searching for something in particular, something ancient and magical: Glendower, a sleeping king who will grant a boon to whomever wakes him.

Read an excerpt of The Raven Boys here (pdf)

My Thoughts: 

“I should tell you,” Maura always advised her new clients, “that this reading will be accurate, but not specific.”
  It was easier that way.
  But this was not what Blue was told. Again and again, she had her fingers spread wide, her palm examined, her cards plucked from velvet-edged decks and spread across the fuzz of a family friend’s living room carpet. Thumbs were pressed to the mystical, invisible third eye that was said to lie between everyone’s eyebrows. Runes were cast and dreams interpreted, tea leaves scrutinized and séances conducted.
  All the women came to the same conclusion, blunt and inexplicably specific. What they all agreed on, in many different clairvoyant languages, was this:
  If Blue was to kiss her true love, he would die.


The Raven Boys
begins with a sense of anticipation. The first chapters follow Blue and Gansey separately, but because of fate, Blue’s curse, and St. Mark’s Eve, the reader knows these two characters are meant to cross paths. Blue sees a boy’s spirit whispering the name Gansey, and sitting on a ley line on the other side of town, Gansey picks up the very same conversation on his recorder. Obviously Blue and Gansey are part of a bigger mystery, a mystery that they can only see the edges of from different angles.

Blue was born into the strangeness in Henrietta. She is working class and lives surrounded by women who tell fortunes and are well aware of the ley lines that make her town special. Gansey couldn’t be more different. He was born into privilege and has never experienced life without the ease that money brings to it. Despite this, he leads a pack of misfit boys at Algionby academy and has an obsession with mystic phenomena and a king named Glendower. In spite of their differences, Blue and Gansey’s lives hold some parallels. Mystery swirls around them and they share their lives with people that hold secrets. While Blue lives with her mother and older women named Calla, Persephone, and Orla (in a set-up that doesn’t seem to be unlike what I imagine a coven to be like), Gansey lives in the husk of an old factory with a couple of boys that don’t fit anywhere else.  Her mother and her surrogate aunts warn Blue about kissing boys and avoid discussing Blue’s absent father. Gansey is is leader and support for his friends but there’s a line he can’t cross that keeps Noah elusive, Ronan surly, and Adam defensive.

I liked the way things were set up in this story: Blue’s world about to collide with Gansey’s. Wondering what would happen when these two finally meet had me turning the pages eagerly. Unfortunately, somewhere after the initial set up and the actual crossing of paths, something happened. I never felt fully captured by the story in the way I wanted. It took me a long time to parse out what happened there. My reaction was frustratingly in the middle-of-the-road, and I couldn’t help comparing it to my fellow YAckers who mostly loved the book. I know that reading is a personal experience, subject to mood and a myriad other factors, but while I knew what I liked, I couldn’t pinpoint what kept me from wholeheartedly loving The Raven Boys.

Cut to over a month later, some angst over separating my reading experience from the end of a stressful year, a reread of The Raven Boys, more angst, and I think I have a better idea of what my problem was. Technically, this should have been a winner: the writing is engaging and of good quality; there’s a mishmash of eccentric characters; and the main story centers on mysteries that reveal themselves in slow degrees. Individually each character had his or her own fascinating back story. But for me, some of these strengths also translated into weaknesses. Everyone had some personal albatross: Blue with her curse and her unknown father; Gansey and his obsession for which there is no explanation; Ronan’s father’s death and his subsequent broodiness; Adam with his poverty, pride, and miserable home-life. Even Noah, who is practically a non-entity at the start of the book turns out to be more than meets the eye. On top of that, the antagonist of this story has his crosses to bear. My problem was with so many complex/tragic/secret back stories, the focus felt fragmented. Blue and Gansey took the spotlight the most, but I felt like I was focusing on the other characters through them instead of focusing on them. I’m all for characters having depth, but when there’s a mystery or tragedy to everyone, it felt like too much to me.  You could argue it all links back to the phenomena surrounding Henrietta, but (for me) it created an imbalance. Every issue I had stemmed from this central one. The pacing in the first 150 to 200 pages feels meandering, and the narration hops between characters for some time before something vaguely plot-like appears. I think Gansey and Blue were the protagonists of this story, but I question if that assumption is correct. Then when the pace picks up and the story gathers focus, I felt like certain things like Blue’s acceptance into Gansey’s group didn’t get the attention I wanted. It took me longer than necessary to finish The Raven Boys because I felt adrift.

On the other hand – did I like these characters? Did I want to know what was happening to them? I did. The characters that I loved most are the ones where veil is pulled back a little more in the narration. When that happened, oohh, that’s when I adored this book. That’s why I think I have more of a soft spot for Blue, Gansey, and Adam than the rest of this group. We’re shown Blue’s prickliness towards the raven boys, and Adam’s self-consciousness about being poor, and Gansey’s good intentions that never seem to go right when he deals with either of them. I was half-irritated with Adam’s pride until I came to a realization that his parents failed him when they instilled an us-versus-them mentality in him (which really covers their sins and did Adam no favors), and I was kind of blown away by that epiphany. And then there’s this sweet fledgling maybe between Adam and Blue. It made me hope, but also fear a little, because thrown into the mix is Blue’s curse that points at Gansey. Everything in this story is so fragile and so breakable, and there is no certainty. I’d very much like to find out what happens next.

Overall: There were things I really liked about The Raven Boys and things I really didn’t and they balanced each other out. If you are one who can sit back and enjoy a character-driven story with lovely prose and you don’t need to know where it’s all going, this will do quite well. I think that I needed more structure though. In the end I enjoyed the characters more than the plot. But now that the set up is done, I think I’ll react better to the second book, so I’m planning to continue the series and I’m really looking forward to The Dream Thieves.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Bunbury in the Stacks
Charlotte’s Library
Pirate Penguin Reads
Fantasy Literature
Debbie’s World of Books
The Book Nut
Angieville

Other links:
The Raven Boys website

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

I won an ARC of this book last year but didn’t get around to reading it until: a) I heard so many good things about it from my fellow readers, b) I heard Cat Valente speak at a NYPL event and, most importantly c) it was chosen by my readalong buddies Holly and Chachic.

The Premise: September is a twelve-year old girl, tired of the same thing at home while her father is away at war and her mother works in a factory. Then one day while she stands over the dishes, the Green Wind sweeps in through her window and asks her if she’d like to come away with him to the great sea that borders Fairyland. Of course she says yes, and pretty soon she is stepping through the closet between worlds in a green smoking jacket and meeting witches and a Wyvern. September would like to enjoy Fairyland, but ever since Good Queen Mallow disappeared and the Marquess took over all is not well.

My Thoughts: There are layers to The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland. On the surface, it’s a story of a girl who escapes her humdrum life and has lovely adventures in Fairyland. I think young children would enjoy the descriptions and the lush language (it has the sort of omnipresent narrative with dashes of whimsy and color that would be perfect for being read aloud, one short chapter at a time). On a deeper level, there’s poignancy and gems of insight in September’s adventure that makes this a book that will resonate with mature readers too.

The surface story reminded me of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but more of The Phantom Tollbooth (a book I grew up adoring), in which a bored boy is transported to the Kingdom of Wisdom via magic tollbooth and has to rescue two princesses whose banishment has caused disharmony..  With Queen Mallow’s disappearance and her replacement by the Marquess, and the playful of storytelling and its characters, I saw a lot of parallels, but as I read further on, they fell away. The Girl Who is a lot more complex. The prose is full of lush vocabulary and description. Fairyland manages to be both a wonderful dream, but it also holds reminders of life’s realities.

So September is whisked away to Fairyland. As can be expected, it is a place of magic, with its own strange rules. September is flown there on a flying leopard with the Green Wind and has to put together a puzzle and get through immigrations in order to enter. Once there she meets three witches (one a wairwulf) who tell her that the Marquess has stolen their Spoon, which September offers to retrieve. Along the way, she meets a wyvern, A-Through-L, who is the son of a Library, and whose wings are all chained up on account of the Marquess’s new rules. Not liking this Marquess the more she hears about her, especially when compared to the Good Queen Mallow, September goes to Pandemonium (the capital of Fairyland) to meet her, and picks up another traveling companion – a boy named Saturday that grants wishes. That, in a nutshell, is the start of September’s adventures, but it doesn’t really describe the experience. Maybe this tidbit will help show you:

September let go a long-held breath. She stared into the roiling black-violet soup, thinking furiously. The trouble was, September didn’t know what sort of story she was in. Was it a merry one or a serious one? How ought she to act? If it were merry, she might dash after a Spoon, and it would all be a marvelous adventure, with funny rhymes and somersaults and a grand party with red lanterns at the end. But if it were a serious tale, she might have to do something important, something involving, with snow and arrows and enemies. Of course, we would like to tell her which. But no one may know the shape of the tale in which they move. And, perhaps, we do not truly know which sort of beast it is, either. Stories have a way of changing faces. They are unruly things, undisciplined, given to delinquency and the throwing of erasers. This is why we must close them up into thick, solid books, so they cannot get out and cause trouble.

As you can see, the narration seems well aware of the traditional stories of children who go to have adventures, and September, a reader herself, is aware as well. There’s a consciousness that comes with the creative madness – as if the story is quite cognizant under its merry storytelling of all the other stories in which children are taken to Fairyland, and of all kinds of other things. This made me feel like I had to pay attention to the details so I wouldn’t miss anything. At the same time there was a lot of playfulness that comes out in the words and descriptions, and the setting itself is like another character. I think that feeling of having to pay attention while the story was also so lush in describing the wonder of Fairyland hurt my reading speed initially. I had to slow it down to a crawl so I could digest the story in manageable bites. Things hit their stride when the story, previously innocent and fairly light, took a turn for the more serious.

When I say it became more serious, I think it depends on the reader how things will affect them. It remains, as always, light on the surface. I can see children reading this and seeing a straightforward adventure that they could enjoy, and they may not wonder too much about things like whether September’s flight to Fairyland represents her escaping her own reality (in which her father is fighting in foreign lands and her mother works in a factory leaving September alone by herself), and whether the wyvern has created a father he can more easily accept than one that abandoned his family. When September begins to face the work of the Marquess, I saw a lot of underlying themes packaged in a fairly harmless manner. It’s Good (September) versus Evil (the Marquess), but look closer and there are shades of grey, commentary on childhood, fear, growing up, and death. All of these things aren’t in your face – just gently touched on so that you can contemplate them later at your own leisure, long after the pages are closed and that lovely ending has faded.

Overall: This is a fairytale that works for many ages. If you are looking for depth you will find it, but if you are looking for straightforward adventure, you will find that too. The writing itself is colorful and odd and really rich in substance. It’s the sort of writing you can read aloud, but not meant for fast flipping. I enjoyed the experience once I realized that this was one I had to consume at my own pace.

To see what my readalong buddies thought of this one, take a look at their reviews posted today: Chachic / Holly.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
A Room with Books – “a book that deserves to be read by anyone”
Calico Reaction (has spoilers) – 8 – Excellent and “an easy book to recommend to anyone who has a soft spot for classic fantasy literature, for stories where fairylands are equally magical and dangerous, for beautiful, imaginative prose and ideas”
The Book Smugglers – top 10 of 2011

Other Links

The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland – For a Little While, short story prequel up on Tor.com

The Assassin’s Curse by Cassandra Rose Clarke

The Assassin's Curse
Cassandra Rose Clarke

This was a book that popped on my radar because of a On the Smuggler’s Radar post over at the Book Smugglers. Pirates and assassins and curses (oh my)! Throw in the suggestion of a romance in there and you have me obsessively searching for info online. Finally I checked Netgalley and it was there! I hit that button to request it in a flash. Meaning to read the book after the books I was supposed to read, I downloaded it and.. looked at the first few pages. Yeah, so three hours later at 2am I was done. I couldn’t help it. This was a fun fun book and it was so easy to zoom straight through it.

The Premise: Ananna belongs to a respected family within the Pirates’ Confederation, the Tanarau clan, and she’s spent all her seventeen years living on a boat.  She’s proud of being a rough-and-tumble pirate, but when her family arranges an alliance with the low-ranked but rich Hariri clan by marrying Ananna off to their son, Ananna balks. During the introductions to her husband-to-be, Ananna plays along, but at the first chance she gets, she’s is on a camel and leaving her fiance in the dust. Unfortunately, the Hariri clan employs assassins when they are displeased. Skilled at both combat and blood magic, assassins are almost legend — not real. Or so Ananna thought, until an assassin appears. Desperate and terrified, Ananna makes a split-second decision which shockingly activates a curse and chains her to the very man hired to kill her.

Read an excerpt of the first two chapters of The Assassin’s Curse here

My Thoughts: This book starts off abruptly. It begins right in the middle of Ananna’s meeting with her new fiance. She makes a quick assessment of his prospects as a pirate captain (not stellar), and escapes. At first I had some catching up to do to understand Ananna’s situation, but once she moves from prospective bride to escaped fugitive, I got the gist: Ananna is a pirate princess and being married off is not on her agenda. Fleeing on camel, Ananna takes to the streets like a female Artful Dodger, using the skills learned over a lifetime as a pirate to survive. The story is very dynamic — Ananna is constantly on the move. At first she just wants to get away from her arranged marriage, but when she finds out that an honest-to-goodness assassin is after her, her desperation ramps up.  Assassins, it is said, are not just killers. They are blood magicians. It seems likely that Ananna will die–until a turn of luck puts Ananna in an partnership with the very assassin sent to kill her.

Ananna is a handful, with a lot of rough edges that come through in her narrative (“The sea crashed against the big marble wall, spray misting soft and salty across my face. I licked it away and Mama jabbed me in the side with the butt of her sword.“) Although she is seventeen, not more than five years younger than Naji, the assassin, her unrefined manners and pirate’s vernacular (peppered with ain’t‘s, double negatives and bravado) made her seem younger. It’s suggested that Naji sees her that way too – he is horrified by the whole situation. Assassins are by their very nature solitary. They do not spend their time looking after teenage girls.

There’s a gentle humor in an uncouth pirate girl taking on a magic-wielding ninja-assassin, then the two being shackled to one another. Even in the most dire circumstance, Ananna’s luck always leads to a path of ever-increasing disaster, and the story seems to acknowledge this with sly nudges. It’s not enough that Ananna has the wrath of a pirate clan behind her and she’s stuck in the middle of the desert, no, an assassin joins the chase. When Naji switches sides, things do not get better, instead they seem to get worse. The Hariri clan still wants Ananna dead and Naji has enemies of his own, enemies scarier than the Hariri– who now have Ananna on their radar. As Naji and Ananna continue their adventure, the hits keep on coming.

The setting of The Assassin’s Curse is something out of the usual Desert and High Seas Adventure canons. The magic of this world has familiar elements too – blood, herbs, an invocation, and an affinity, all combine to create a spell, but there is something new and fresh in Ananna’s experience of it. Her voice with it’s street edge, mixed with the meshing of familiar concepts in new ways (pirate and assassin, desert trek and sea adventure, a dash of weird thrown in for good measure) really makes the story. That, and the bickering between reluctant allies Ananna and Naji. I really enjoyed the way their relationship slowly developed through the book and the hope that it could develop into something more.

Ananna’s pirate persona and voice may not appeal to some, but while I did find Ananna  young and hotheaded (with an odd resentment towards attractive people), this just made her realistically flawed to me. Likewise, Naji’s hang-ups with appearances showed his own human weakness. I hope this doesn’t turn into a story that advocates a bias against beauty, but I don’t think it will. I expect to like the next installment just as much as this one, and I plan to read it when it comes out. This was a lot of fun and I’m excited to see more.

Overall: The Assassin’s Curse an entertaining Fantasy YA story: it has swashbuckling adventure, a pirate heroine, and a blood magic-wielding assassin, for crying out loud. If that is something that appeals to you, I say try this one and read it for the brain-candy enjoyment of it. I read it in four hours. I had a good time. I will come back again for a continuation to this ride.

Assassin’s Curse comes out next week (October 2nd US/Canada, October 4th UK).

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Not yet

Soul Hunt by Margaret Ronald

Soul Hunt
Margaret Ronald

The Evie Scelan series one I’ve been following for a little while now. It’s a urban fantasy set in Boston and it centers on Evie, a bike messenger with a side business: finding lost things with her abilities as a Hound. What keeps me coming back is the true-to-life characters and the Boston setting.

The reading order is:
Book 1: Spiral Hunt (my review: http://i58.photobucket.com/albums/g254/jayamei2/livejournal_com.gifhttp://i58.photobucket.com/albums/g254/jayamei2/wordpress.jpg)
Book 2: Wild Hunt (my review: http://i58.photobucket.com/albums/g254/jayamei2/livejournal_com.gifhttp://i58.photobucket.com/albums/g254/jayamei2/wordpress.jpg)
Book 3: Soul Hunt

*****  This review contains spoilers for earlier books in this series ******

The Premise: After Evie’s last tussle with supernatural forces in a battle to protect her beloved Boston, she’s left with the price of her endeavors. Firstly, Evie’s talent just doesn’t work the way it used to: it’s unreliable, starting and stopping unexpectedly. Scents can be hard to find, and Evie feels drained by a simple tracking. Secondly, Evie has something that doesn’t really belong to her — the Horn of the Wild Hunt. She has to return it to its rightful owners, who will not like that she sounded it. While this is going on, strange things are afoot in Boston. A mysterious fire on a yacht and bystanders paralyzed by fear is the first sign in a wave of disquiet in Boston’s Undercurrent.

My Thoughts: I have to admit, it’s been a while since I read the second book in this series. I seem to jump back into the Evie Scelan books every couple of years, so I remembered the ending and some very big plot points of Wild Hunt, but I was fuzzy on some of the details.  I could fudge it, but I really wish I remembered some more of the details or that they were spelled out to me a bit more. This is not the first time in the series where the previous book’s events has had an impact on the plot, so I don’t recommend reading Soul Hunt without a least reading Wild Hunt, and I don’t recommend reading Wild Hunt without reading Spiral Hunt. Basically, you need to read these books in order.

The big plot points from the earlier book are these: Evie has the Horn of the Wild Hunt and needs to return it to it’s rightful owner or owners. Due to her possession of the horn, she brings the the hounds of the hunt with her wherever she goes, and the hounds are quite willing to give her their two cents on her life. Also, ever since she rescued rescued boyfriend Nate, she has noticed that her power has gotten weaker. She isn’t sure why, but she suspects it has to do with an exchange she had with the water spirit who had him. In the meantime, Evie’s relationships continue as before: she and Nate are in a serious relationship and his young sister is someone Evie has taken under he wing. Her friend Sarah is as optimistic as ever and is trying to organize the Undercurrent for future outside threats – a neighborhood watch with an emergency phone tree if you will. And Evie still is on the outs with Rena, a cop who was once a close friend, but got blames Evie for bringing her trouble and “bruja shit”.

While Evie has the remnants of her latest adventures to deal with, another issue springs up. An associate in the Undercurrent asks for her help and that leads Evie to a strange occurrence: a burning yacht. This isn’t that strange, but the behavior of other members of Boston’s magic community is. People tell Evie that they feel fear, but they cannot tell her what is causing it. Then the man whose boat burned down asks Evie to find something for him, something stolen generations ago.

With everything going on in Evie’s life: the Horn, her relationships, Nate’s curse, Nate’s sister’s Sight, the budding Undercurrent organization, her fatigue, issues with her talent, and her work (both as a bike messenger and a finder), the plot of Soul Hunt felt very fragmented. There were too many disasters vying for attention and Evie spends the story flitting from place to the next in order to deal with them all. I wasn’t sure what was the most important: the repercussions of having the Horn, fixing the problem with her talent, or this new mystery that has the Boston Undercurrent with its hair standing on end. When the story ends, one of these three becomes the main focus while the other two, dragged along for most of the book, are resolved very conveniently. There was something very dissatisfying about that after watching Evie trying to juggle it all throughout the book. I wanted something less pat for those two threads.

What I did like is that Evie is now part of a family in this story and she has support that she did not really have before. I think what did work with the tumbled mess of troubles Evie has, was the sense that Evie shouldn’t be trying to fix everything herself and there are people willing to help her. I loved the relationships, but didn’t love that the plot got too scattered while trying to prove this point.

This is the third book in the series and it ends in a satisfying place, but with enough leeway for more books. I don’t know if there will be any more though, as Soul Hunt was published in 2010 and no other books have been announced.

Overall: OK plot-wise, solid everything else. I recommend this one for urban fantasy fans who like a down-to-earth, working girl kind of protagonist who has relationships that are nuanced and true-to-life. This is the type of series where I care more about the characters and their developing relationships than the current disaster to be averted.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Calico reaction – 8 (Excellent) ” Frankly, this whole series is a must read for urban fantasy fans who want more female relationships in their stories and, if there MUST be romance, then said romance must be balanced with the story and not become the story”

Fate’s Edge by Ilona Andrews

This is a book I bought when it came out but I’ve been saving it for a reading drought (Am I the only one who does this?). I finally indulged last week, secure in the fact that after I read this, Andrews’ newest book, Gunmetal Magic, is available for my Ilona Andrews fix.

This is part of a series of UF/paranormal romances, each book with its own couple set in a world where a magical world overlaps our mundane one:
Book 1: On the Edge (my review: http://i58.photobucket.com/albums/g254/jayamei2/livejournal_com.gifhttp://i58.photobucket.com/albums/g254/jayamei2/wordpress.jpg)
Book 2: Bayou Moon (my review: http://i58.photobucket.com/albums/g254/jayamei2/livejournal_com.gifhttp://i58.photobucket.com/albums/g254/jayamei2/wordpress.jpg)

Fate's Edge
Ilona Andrews

The Premise: Audrey Callahan is an Edger trying to go straight. She’s just been hired full time at an investigation agency, she owns a little house in the Edge, and she’s far away from her disappointing con artist family. Audrey is fed up with her parents enabling her brother by using her magical knack with locks to pay the costs of his drug addiction and continually choosing his safety over hers. When he father tracks her down to do a job with big bucks and big risk, this time to pay for a fancy rehab facility, Audrey gives him an ultimatum: either stop bringing Audrey into his schemes, or she helps him steal what he wants and he never contacts her again. As always, her brother’s welfare is chosen over Audrey, but stealing the item isn’t the end of it. She’s soon dealing with the consequences of her bargain when Kaldar Mar shows up. He’s a member of the Adrianglian Mirror, and tracking down the stolen item is his latest assignment. A trickster and thief himself, Kaldar is surprised by how well he works with Audrey. He wouldn’t mind taking things further, but Audrey has had her fill of con artists and rebuffs him at every turn.

My Thoughts: Kaldar was first introduced in the second Edge series book, Bayou Moon, as the fast talking, quick acting cousin of its heroine, Cerise Mar. The family lawyer and matchmaker, Kaldar is a family leader Cerise. He struck me as the type of rakish character that was a shoo-in for his own book, and here we are. Back in Bayou Moon his smarts in the courtroom and his skill with a blade (a Mar family trait), were the traits I remember him for, but in Fate’s Edge, it’s his tricking and thieving that come to the forefront.

At the core of Fate’s Edge is getting back the stolen item, but there are a lot of elements that make it more than your typical quest story. There’s the burgeoning romance between Kaldar and Audrey, trouble in the form of teenaged stowaways George and Jack, elements of horror and action with the Mirror on their tail, and a big keeping scoop of hustling to get the stolen object back.

I am a fan of caper stories, so all the conning and elegant manipulation was fun, and there was plenty of it in Fate’s Edge. It also proved to be a way of showing Audrey and Kaldar’s compatibility – each easily adapting to the other’s lead and balancing out any weaknesses. Brothers George and Jack are included in the cons and they had just as interesting a chemistry (if not more so). If you’ve read the first book in this series (On the Edge), you’ll already know George and Jack as the younger brothers of its heroine, Rose – and a couple of my favorite characters (one is a necromancer, the other a shapeshifter). I was delighted that these two got quite a bit of page time. Their struggles and individual reactions with being seen as ‘Edge rats’ in the Weird were creatively folded into the story. Likewise, there were other cameos from previous characters that didn’t feel gratuitous.  We got a chance to see previous couples past their HEA, but also to get an update on old enemies.

As you can tell, there was a lot in this book that was not about Kaldar and Audrey. On one had I loved the non-romantic additions to the plot, but on the other hand, this left less room for romance. Fate’s Edge was the book in the series where the spotlight wasn’t just on the hero and heroine, and this meant the romantic plot felt shorter than in the other Edge books. There was less space to show a slow build up in interest in each other, and it felt like this book relied more heavily on some Romance short-cuts like the hero’s appreciation for the heroine’s butt to show the growing attraction. For the most part, the courtship really happened in what dialogue the two had (a lot of banter – mostly Kaldar making overtures which Audrey smoothly rebuffed) and in their partnership. This was mostly a straightforward woman-falls-for-the-Bad-Boy-despite-herself romance, and I think if there were more space, I’d have liked Audrey’s issues with con men to be deeper delved into. This is not to say the romance wasn’t sweet, just that it was I don’t think I quite got all the emotional impact I wanted because there were other things in the plot vying for focus.

Overall: Fate’s Edge delivers an entertaining story with devious scams, kick-ass fights, and further development of characters and long running plots, but while I felt like the romance was solid, it felt like it was less of a focus of the plot as it was in the previous Edge books. This was an installment where the plot was far more than a vehicle to propel a romance forward. Thus the romance was not quite of the same caliber as the previous books (at least in my mind), but this was balanced out by the elements that took focus from the romance: the extended cameos from George and Jack (first introduced in On the Edge), the thrill of the con, and peeks into what could come next.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Chachic’s Book Nook - positive
The Book Pushers – A
Lurv a la Mode – 3 scoops (out of 5)
Read. Breathe. Relax – “I was disappointed”
Fantasy and SciFi – “Fun, but contrived”
Tynga’s Reviews – “Fate’s Edge just might be my favourite book in the series so far.”

Spellcrossed by Barbara Ashford

I have been looking forward to Spellcrossed ever since I learned that there would be a sequel to the first book, Spellcast. In Spellcast, Maggie Graham, a plucky New Yorker is thrown for a loop when she’s laid off and her apartment ceiling collapses on the same day. She heads out to recover and stumbles on a theater in the middle of nowhere and basically has a life-changing summer with and a touch of the otherworldly. My review of that first installment is here: http://i58.photobucket.com/albums/g254/jayamei2/livejournal_com.gifhttp://i58.photobucket.com/albums/g254/jayamei2/wordpress.jpg

The second book starts up two years after the last one left off (so I recommend you read these in order). Disclosure: I’ve met the author in person and I received this book for review from the publisher at her request.

**** There will be minor spoilers for the first book in this review! If you haven’t read it, either skip down to the ‘Overall’ section or read my review of book 1 ****

Spellcrossed by Barbara Ashford
Barbara Ashford

The Premise:  It’s been two years since Maggie Graham’s first summer at the Crossroads Theatre. A lot has changed in two years. The theater has become nonprofit, and Maggie is its new executive director and artistic director. There are professional actors as well as amateurs in the cast, and the Crossroads even works with groups of children in some of its selections. Maggie is now the owner of the local hotel, the Golden Bough, and has slowly begun to update its look. A lot of things have changed, but one thing stays the same for Maggie — her feelings for the lover who walked away. Rowan was freed of his curse and returned to Faerie two years ago, and even though her it’s time to move on, it’s not that easy.

My Thoughts: Spellcrossed was a surprise. The surprise was it took me a lot longer to read this book than I was expecting to. According to goodreads I started it June 11th and finished it July 4th. Now, I didn’t expect Spellcrossed to be an action-packed adventure — the first installment is more character driven than anything else and I enjoyed that quite a lot, but from the get go I understood the premise: Maggie needing to figure out her life — along the way she falls in love and gets involved in the personal dramas of the Crossroads Theatre cast. The romance was quiet but tinged with mystery, and the struggles of the other actors brought a new layer of meaning to their work at the theater.

In Spellcrossed, the direction of the story felt less clear in its first few pages. It’s almost two years down the road from when Rowan left her and Maggie spends her time working on the Crossroads and the Golden Bough. It’s the beginning of summer and she’s starting rehearsals for a production of Annie. New characters are introduced (child actors and professionals as well as some amateurs), and a typical summer of theater at the Crossroads begins — full of the trials and tribulations of putting on a show. There are plenty of vignettes about things going wrong but I wasn’t sure where the story was headed until 75 pages in. Until then, the story spends quite a lot of time with the minutia of Maggie’s job as director. I am not really a fan of musical theater, and maybe that’s the reason why I questioned what the point was. In the last book it made sense that the reader knew the details of the productions and of the actors’ struggles because this was part of character growth, especially Maggie’s, but here it felt less vital.

Since I liked the first book so much I decided that Spellcrossed was just a quiet book and it was taking it’s time to ramp up, but in hindsight 75 pages is a long time to get the ball rolling, and I wouldn’t be surprised if readers stopped reading before the story really begins because of the lack of direction. The problem is that once there is something to chew on, Spellcrossed is still ramping up. Even after Rowan returns, bringing with him Maggie’s long lost father (highlight for spoilery things that happen in the first one hundred pages of the book), when I wanted to explore what was happening to Maggie, the theater kept taking up her time and the pages of the book. I felt like the theater and the other characters didn’t add much to the pacing or the story and I mentally wanted to cut swaths from this book and skip ahead to the meat: Maggie and the important relationships in her life.

When the book does hit its stride it is exactly what I wanted it to be, but the tragedy is that it takes a good three quarters of the book to get there. Until then I was mentally writing a “this book didn’t meet my expectations” review. When I hit the last one hundred and fifty or two hundred pages? That was when I really was there, getting caught up in what would happen next and empathizing over Maggie’s tough choices. The ending of this book, with it’s mix of sorrow and happiness was what I loved so much about Spellcast and had been hoping to see here. This is where the story delves into the messiness of love and relationships. Again this wasn’t an ending that was rainbows for everyone, but I think it ended the way it should. Just like when I finished the first book, it felt right. In the end I was very glad I kept going.

Overall: As with Spellcast, Spellcrossed is contemporary fantasy, but the contemporary parts ground the fantasy. Magic and the otherworldly are present, but everyday human connections are the real glue of the story. I liked this one, but it may not be for the impatient because it starts slowly and takes its time ramping up before its strong finish.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Smexybooks – C

The Serpent Sea by Martha Wells

I was having such a good time reading The Cloud Reads that I was voicing aloud my need for The Serpent Sea before I was finished. I asked, and the Husband answered by gifting me with a copy on my birthday. You could read this book before the first, but I’d recommend you don’t because there’s character growth that’s more rewarding when the books are read in order.

My review of book 1, The Cloud Roads can be found here: http://i58.photobucket.com/albums/g254/jayamei2/livejournal_com.gifhttp://i58.photobucket.com/albums/g254/jayamei2/wordpress.jpg

**** This review may contain spoilers for the first book!!  ****

The Serpent Sea
Martha Wells

The Premise: Finally orphan Moon has found a place for himself in the Raksura colony of Indigo Cloud. He’s still adjusting to being a Consort and all that entails, but in the meantime, the Indigo Cloud court is moving. The influence of the Fell has reduced their numbers and poisoned their home, and now Indigo Cloud is returning to the great tree that they left, generations ago. Unfortunately, when the colony arrives at their tree, they discover that a vital part of it has been recently stolen: the seed at its heart. Without it, the tree will die and Indigo Cloud would be left homeless and vulnerable. The colony needs to find the stolen piece before the damage is irreversible.

My Thoughts: The Serpent Sea begins almost where The Cloud Roads left off: with Raksura of Indigo Cloud traveling to their ancestral home via flying boat. It’s been a long journey and Moon and the rest are eager to finally be at their destination, but when they land, the great tree doesn’t feel quite right. It’s not long before they discover the reason why. Someone has come into the tree and stolen the seed at its heart. Of course this now puts Indigo Cloud back into peril again — without a home, they’re vulnerable. The other nearby Raksura colonies may accept their return to their tree, but they wouldn’t necessarily tolerate Indigo Cloud settling in other territory.

As with The Cloud Roads, I loved the fantastic landscapes of The Serpent Sea, especially when it came to the places that the people of the Three Worlds lived. Every one seemed more amazing than the last. It really felt like anything goes here with building places to live. It begins with the colony’s new home amongst the mountain-trees, with branches that interweave to create platforms for smaller trees to grow:

“It grew darker, the green-tinted sunlight muted as clouds closed in high above the treetops. The drizzle turned into a light rain that pattered on the deck. The platforms of the suspended forest grew wider and more extensive.  Many of them overlapped, or were connected by broad branches, with ponds or streams. Waterfalls fell from holes in some of the mountain-sized trees. Moon wondered if the water was drawn up from the forest floor through the roots. It was like a while multi-layered second forest hanging between the tree canopy and the ground, somewhere far below.”

The quest for the seed leads them to other settlements, including the one shown on the cover — a city built on a giant water-monster (!!!) that swims in a large body of water named the Serpent Sea. These are great settings but there is some thought behind them: why people chose to live in these places, and how it affects them are considerations that aren’t omitted from the story. As you’d expect there are also new creatures introduced as the Raksura travel to find the seed for their tree, but there’s no revisit from races encountered in the last book. This may be to underscore how far the colony has traveled, or how isolated populations become from one another because of the difficulty of travel.

I was fascinated as usual by the variety and differences in cultures, but this story doesn’t forget the Raksura themselves. I continue to enjoy how Raksura society is conveyed through Moon’s experiences.
At this point Moon is no longer the newcomer and his actions have granted him some respect. When the colony decides to search for the missing seed, he’s part of those plans, but he’s still settling into his new role as a Consort and he’s not always confident in that role. In the meantime there’s still some tension between the queens, Pearl and Jade. These types of adjustments don’t happen overnight, and The Serpent Sea reflects that.

There’s an implied system of hierarchy based on birth and an internal ranking system and it is fun to see where certain Raksura placed. I loved that this was a society where women were leaders, and queens are expected to be more aggressive than consorts. There’s a scene in particular (towards the end of the book), that illustrates this point and had me cheering. There are some developments that shed light on the history of Indigo Cloud as well as some eye-opening interactions with other Raksura.  I also enjoyed learning a little more about the magical abilities of the mentors. I would love to learn more, and I hope the unique situation that Chime is in (he’s the only Raksura known to have changed from a mentor into a warrior) gets more attention in the next book.

Most of my reaction to The Serpent Sea is positive, but I had one (probably unfair) issue with it. The Serpent Sea is basically a quest story. The goal from the beginning is clear: Indigo Cloud Court wants a home and to have one they must have their seed. Because of this, to me, the plot felt a lot simpler than The Cloud Roads. Since Moon’s past and Indigo Cloud Court’s problems with the Fell have been cleared up, the focus is now on Indigo Cloud Court resettling. The quest for the seed has it’s complications and there are bumps along the way, but I didn’t feel as though there was as much that was unexpected. I feel like I’m being a tough critic with that that reaction though. In other ways, The Serpent Sea shines. It delivers just as rich world building and gripping action as the first book did, and it continues Moon’s personal journey in a believable way.

Overall: I think part of me compares this with the first installment and wants something more complex than a quest story, but when I put that quibble (which I feel very few people would share) aside, The Serpent Seas is very enjoyable and shows the same imagination (the world building in these books is amazing) as the previous book. This is well-written fantasy and has an incredibly creative, visual story-telling style.

I will be reading the third book, The Siren Depths, which is out in December and has artwork, but no cover yet.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other Reviews:
The Book Smugglers – 8 (excellent)

P.S. While reading this I came across this artwork of a harpy by Sandara on deviantart which I thought could also work as a Raksura. Pretty, no?