Saturday, 28 July 2018

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

Patricia is a witch who can talk to birds. Laurence is an engineering genius with a supercomputer in his closet. As teenagers they form an odd friendship to survive the horrors of middle school but they drift apart as their lives take different paths. When they meet again as adults, both are trying to save the world in their own way; Patricia secretly repairs the world's wrongs with magic while Laurence is desperately trying to help humanity colonise the stars. Despite their different backgrounds, the witch and the mad scientist realise that they have to work together to save our future.

All the Birds in the Sky is a quirky read that is very difficult to classify. With a blend of witches, mad scientists, environmental catastrophes, romance, and a demented assassin, All the Birds in the Sky is neither fantasy, romance or science fiction but a crazy brew of all three. There is a lot going on for a short book; there's a magic school, a prophecy, inter-dimensional travel, talking animals, and the end of the world just for starters. However, and I found this very frustrating, these were painted in broad strokes and very much part of the background. I also felt like the main plot was sometimes buried under all the other stuff which was going on.

That being said, I did end up enjoying this book. The two protagonists were wonderfully well drawn with rich inner lives and their romance was very sweet and utterly charming. I also enjoyed the way this book was written. It was somehow whimsical and matter-of-fact at the same time and something about the way it's written is very reminiscent of children's fantasy. I also sort of liked the sheer demented inventiveness of the book as you never knew what the hell was going to happen next.

At its heart, All the Birds in the Sky is a romance in with a setting which combines magical realism with science fiction. It's utterly bonkers, charming, often hilarious, and always surprising. 

Recommended For: People looking for something a bit different.

Read On: If you like the blend of sci-fi and fantasy elements, try The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin.

Saturday, 21 July 2018

The Demon King by Cinda Williams Chima

Feeling like an bird in a golden cage, Princess Raisa of Fellsmarch wants to be like Hanalea, the warrior queen who defeated the Demon King and saved the world. However, her mother is more concerned with gowns, etiquette, and, most worryingly of all, marriage. Meanwhile, reformed thief Han Alister is as free as can be... free to starve, freeze, and be roughed up by the corrupt Queens Guard. He will do almost anything to eke out a living for his family so when he stumbles across a magical amulet he sees the opportunity to bring home a little silver. Unfortunately, the amulet belongs to the most powerful wizard in Fellsmarch - a man who will do anything to get it back.

The Demon King is a lighthearted YA high fantasy novel and the first book in the Seven Realms series. To start with, I have to say that the book follows very well worn fantasy traditions and regular readers of fantasy will find little that's original here; the setting is a fairly standard pseudo-medieval world and there's an expected cast of royals, soldiers, thieves, and street urchins. Also, as the first book in the series, The Demon King is much more focused on character development and world-building than plot. As a result, the pace can be slow at times, and the main story doesn't really get going until the last few chapters.

All that being said, I really enjoyed this book. I love full-blooded, endearing and well-rounded characters, and Cinda Williams Chima has done a great job of creating two protagonists with unique backgrounds and motivations. Raisa's frustration and feelings of being trapped build naturally through the story and I really liked how she slowly realises how privileged and insulated her existence has been. Likewise, Han's jealousy and uncertainty as everyone around him seems to be moving on with their lives while he has no idea what lies in his future is achingly familiar to anyone who has ever felt lost and directionless.

The Demon King is really a foundation book for the series. It introduces the world, its magic system and politics, its characters and basically sets everything up for the main story to begin.

Recommended For: Readers who like fun, character-driven, and relatively angst-free YA fantasy.

Read On: The next book in the series is The Exiled Queen which I'll be picking up pretty soon. Another fun (and funny) high fantasy book is Clockwork Boys by T. Kingfisher.

Saturday, 14 July 2018

The City & the City by China Miéville

Beszel and Ul Qoma are two cities like no others. With distinct cultures, politics, languages, politics, and histories, they do have one thing in common - by a quirk of geography they share the same space with more than the occasional overlap. To observe the other, however, is strictly forbidden and so the citizens of each city ignore the other with a fierce determination not to see. When a young woman is murdered in one city and her body dumped in the other, Inspector Tyador Borlú must cross between the two cities and find a murderer without breaking this most fundamental of taboos.

The City & the City is a speculative fiction novel that takes a police procedural and sets it in an extraordinary world where two cities exist side by side but are separated by a deeply ingrained culture of unseeing. I loved the sheer inventiveness of the setting and the light touch with which China Miéville writes. He avoids bogging down the book with exposition but instead uses small moments to bring the cities to life - for example, seeing the reflections of one city's lights in the river of the other. And yet, however surreal the setting, China Miéville also makes it seem very ordinary. This ability to make the extraordinary mundane is highlighted in a great scene near the end of a book where a detective from each city are chasing the same man but neither can arrest him because they don't know which city he is in.

While the cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma are unforgettable, the characters never really came to life for me and the mystery aspect of the book is written in fits and starts. I felt plot and characters always took second place to the world they existed in - but with such a vividly imagined and unique world I found that I didn't mind all that much.

Recommended For: People who like to read imaginative speculative fiction which challenges and intrigues

Read On: Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next novels are mystery novels with a similarly imaginative setting - the first one is The Eyre Affair (and comes highly recommended from me!)

Saturday, 7 July 2018

The Wolves of Winter by Tyrell Johnson

Lynn McBride was 16 years old when the world ended. Seven years later, she and her family have managed to scrape out a life in the harsh snowy world of the Canadian Yukon far from the dangers of the cities. Their peaceful but lonely existence is upended, however, by the arrival of a stranger who brings trouble in his wake. As family secrets come spilling out, Lynn must choose between hiding from the world with her family, or risk going south to seek the remnants of civilisation.

Tyrell Johnson's first novel, The Wolves of Winter is a YA post-apocalyptic adventure tale with some science fiction elements and a clunky romance thrown in. The prose is sparse - sometimes a little too sparse for my liking - and the plot rattled along nicely but the standout element of this book for me was the setting. The cold snowy silence of the Yukon was a constant presence in the book and really highlighted how remote and isolated Lynn and her family are. Tyrell Johnson is an outdoorsman in Canada and he has obviously used his knowledge and experiences to craft an authentic tale of survival in a tough and unforgiving environment. 

However, I didn't click with the characters and they were honestly quite forgettable. Lynn could have been - should have been - an awesome character; she can hunt, she can track, she knows how to survive in the wilderness, she's watchful and introspective... but she lacked the emotional complexity and inner fire that would have made her an unforgettable heroine. Likewise, her relationships with her mother, brother and uncle had the potential to be fascinatingly complicated, but they were largely superficial.

At it's heart, The Wolves of Winter is a dystopian survival tale with an interesting setting that makes an absorbing read but probably not one that will linger long in the memory.

Recommended For: Fans of YA dystopian fiction

Read On: Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel is another after-the-end novel with a young female protagonist.