Saturday, May 31, 2014

Dangerous by Shannon Hale

Dangerous by Shannon Hale is an uncharacteristic foray into science fiction by one of my favorite fantasy authors.

Maisie Danger Brown dreams of going to space camp, but she knows her parents could never afford it. When she wins a contest she read about on the back of a cereal box, she is ecstatic -- she'll get to study advanced physics and quantum mechanics, and learn about space from the creators of the Beanstalk, the world's first and only space elevator. At space camp, she's grouped with three other campers into a "fireteam" who complete challenges together. It's a camper outside her fireteam who most intrigues her, though: Jonathan Wilder, a rich young playboy who becomes Maisie's space camp romance. When Maisie's fireteam wins all of their challenges, they are taken on a special trip to see the base of the Beanstalk. Jonathan, as best performing individual camper, is also invited. And it's at the Beanstalk where things start to go in directions Maisie could never have anticipated. Bonnie Howell, the Beanstalk's eccentric creator, allows the campers into the space elevator and then takes them on a joyride up into space, where she allows them to explore the docking station and even handle some mysterious, possibly alien technology mined from an asteroid that traveled into Earth's orbit. When the alien tech reacts unexpectedly with the five teens, they are bound together for a purpose they could never have anticipated: they must save Earth from a coming alien attack.

This book has plenty of action and, yes, danger (Maisie's middle name is a source of much hilarity), and even some romance, though nothing readers on the young end of the YA spectrum won't be able to handle. I enjoyed the read, but it fell short on a few points. The characterization of some of the adults really didn't work, for me -- they made some decisions that just didn't make sense. There were a few weak spots in the worldbuilding, too, that could have used a little more clarification. I think young teens going into this book without a lot of expectations will really love it, but more experienced readers, especially those who have read a lot of sci-fi, will find this book lacking in some ways.

(Reviewed from an advance copy, courtesy of the publisher.)

The Islands of Chaldea by Diana Wynne Jones and Ursula Jones

The Islands of Chaldea by Diana Wynne Jones is a last, unlooked-for book from one of my favorite authors, completed by her sister Ursula Jones after her death.

Aileen lives with her Aunt Beck, the Wise Woman of Skarr. Some day, Aileen will be a Wise Woman, too, but at the moment she's feeling pretty dubious about that, since she just failed her Initiation. But she must put her self-doubt aside when she and her Aunt Beck are summoned by the king -- and not just the king of Skarr, but the High King over all of the islands of Chaldea. Years ago, the neighboring island kingdom of Logra cast a powerful curse that created a barrier to prevent anyone from traveling from the islands of Chaldea to Logra. Since the Chaldean islands depend on trade with Logra, this has had a dreadful impact on the economy. Worse, the Lograns have the son of the High King as a captive Now a prophecy has come to light, saying that a Wise Woman of Skarr must travel to Logra by way of the other islands, accompanied by a man from each island, and thence enter Logra. Aunt Beck sets little store by this prophecy, but the High King insists, so Beck and Aileen set out, accompanied by Prince Ivar of Skarr and his servant Ogo. Along the way, they are joined by a magical cat, a prophetic parrot, a monk, a lizard, and some of Aileen's distant relatives on her father's side. The journey is arduous, but it will be worth it if they can break the curse. Of course, when they get to Logra, they discover that nothing is as straightforward as it originally seemed, and Aileen will have a more significant role to play than she ever expected.

What can I say? It's a new Diana Wynne Jones when I thought there would never be another new Diana Wynne Jones, and I honestly can't tell where DWJ's manuscript left off and Ursula Jones' writing begins. Fellow fans of DWJ's quirky brand of fantasy should be sure to pick this one up.

(Reviewed from an advance copy, courtesy of the publisher.)

Friday, May 30, 2014

Cress by Marissa Meyer

Cress by Marissa Meyer is the third book in The Lunar Chronicles, a fun sci-fi series for young adults.

Crescent has spent more than half of her life in a tiny satellite orbiting Earth. She was born a Shell, a Lunar without mind-control abilities, and she should have been killed at birth -- but like many other Shells, she was instead taken to a government facility for reasons known only to the Lunar government. When Cress showed special aptitude for hacking and coding at a young age, Mistress Sybil took her away and put her in the satellite, giving her tasks to perform. Eager to please, hoping that someday she would be able to earn her Mistress's approval, Cress did all that she was asked to do -- until she realized what some of the consequences of her actions were for people on Earth. Ever since, she has been following Earthen news, especially anything related to Cinder and her dashing pilot Carswell Thorne. To tell the truth, Cress has a bit of a crush on Captain Thorne. She's done a lot of research into his past, and she's sure she knows more about him than just about anyone. But she never thought she would get to meet him -- until the day she made contact with Cinder's ship, offering them information and assistance in return for her rescue. That rescue doesn't go quite as planned, and as a result, Cress finds herself lost in the Sahara desert with Captain Thorne -- but it's not quite the romantic adventure she had daydreamed about in her lonely satellite. And Cress and Captain Thorne need to meet up with Cinder and her crew as soon as possible, because they have an important mission in front of them: stopping Emperor Kai from marrying Levana, the Lunar Queen.

I think I may actually like this book best so far in the series -- I like it better than Scarlet, definitely, and at least as much, if not more than, Cinder. I love the mashup of science fiction and fairy tale retelling. Cress's naivete is charming, there's just the right amount of action to keep the plot moving along, and I found it an altogether fun and engaging read. Of course, you have to start with the first two books in the series, but that's hardly a trial, since they are also enjoyable, and the next book in the series promises to be just as intriguing.

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Riverman by Aaron Starmer

The Riverman by Aaron Starmer is a creepy fantasy set in the late 1980s.

Alistair Cleary used to play with Fiona Loomis when they were little kids, but over the past several years, they have drifted apart. And then Fiona comes to Alistair and tells him that she has chosen him to write her biography. The story that Fiona has to tell is weird and scary, and Alistair starts to wonder what she's trying to tell him. Is Fiona's tale of a magical world and a menacing villain really a cry for help related to real-world events?

This is a book that's difficult to review, and even difficult to categorize. I called it a fantasy, but it's possible, based on how you interpret the story, that the fantasy elements are all in the characters' heads. I'm impressed at the writing in this book, but frustrated by the ambiguity of the ending. I also feel that setting the book in the '80s is a cop-out -- perhaps this is just my own reluctance at accepting that my childhood is fast approaching the realm of historical fiction for today's readers. But I can't find a compelling reason for choosing that setting, so I suspect there's an element of nostalgia to it. Other reviewers love, love, love this book, so I'm questioning my own reading of it: did it just go over my head? Is it just not my thing -- too dark and gritty for me? I mean, I adored last year's Far Far Away which also had fantasy mixed with dark real-world stuff. Did I miss some key paragraph that should have made everything clear to me? I don't know. It's not that I don't recommend it -- if it sounds appealing to you, definitely give it a try. It didn't work well for me, but I recognize that it has some excellent elements, and that some readers will appreciate it much more than I ever will.

(Reviewed from an advance copy, courtesy of the publisher.)

The Cracks in the Kingdom by Jaclyn Moriarty

The Cracks in the Kingdom by Jaclyn Moriarty is the second book in the Colors of Madeleine series.

In the Kingdom of Cello, the Royal Youth Alliance searches for a way to re-open the cracks in the kingdom and retrieve the missing members of the royal family from our world.

This book dragged on a bit, for me. It suffers from being the second book in a trilogy, I think. There were some interesting plot twists toward the end, but not enough to make the middle of the book worthwhile, I'm afraid. Perhaps, when the third book is released, fans of the series will want to read this before going on to the final book, but at the moment, I can't say that I recommend it.

(Reviewed from an advance copy, courtesy of the publisher.)

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson is a fast-paced adventure in an alternate Chicago where humans with superpowers rule the world.

Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

About ten years ago, Calamity appeared in the sky and certain ordinary humans gained superpowers. Now, the most powerful of these Epics, as they are called, control cities and territories, and the less powerful form alliances with the great. Normal humans are little more than serfs, trying to live out their lives without getting in the way of the Epics. In the city of Chicago, now called Newcago, an Epic named Steelheart rules. With the power to turn any nonliving substance into steel, the ability to fly, superhuman strength, and invulnerability to bullets and all other weapons, Steelheart seems almost godlike in his powers . . . but eighteen-year-old David has seen him bleed. When Steelheart first arrived on the scene, he had a showdown at a bank with a lesser Epic. David, just eight years old at the time, was at the bank with his father. In the ensuing battle, David's father was a casualty, and David was the only survivor -- the only person who can remember what happened at the bank, when a bullet grazed Steelheart's cheek and left a trail of blood. David has spent all of his spare time since the bank incident in single-minded pursuit of revenge, studying the Epics and learning their weaknesses. He has a plan to get to Steelheart, but he'll need the help of a resistance movement known as the Reckoners, and they don't accept strangers into their group. Can David prove to the Reckoners that he belongs with them -- and even if he does, can he convince them to go after Steelheart?

This was a gripping, exciting read. Plenty of plot twists meant that I was able to predict some things, while others came as a complete surprise. I listened to the audiobook, and I thought narrator MacLeod Andrews was an excellent match for the story, and the production values were high. This is the first book in a projected trilogy; I look forward to reading the next two.

(Reviewed from an audiobook borrowed through my library system.)