Sunday, September 16, 2012

"The Dead were very real. And the Dead were here."

4 out of 5 stars

Eleanor Fitt has problems. Her beloved brother, Elijah, is missing; her mother keeps throwing Eleanor at every rich bachelor she can find; and the walking dead have suddenly made an appearance on the streets of Philadelphia. Plus, because it's 1876, Eleanor also has to deal with petticoats, parasols, and corsets while dealing with all these problems.

Yeah, try running around, fighting off ravenous zombies in this getup!

To be honest, it took me a while to get into this book and start liking it. I don't know about anyone else, but when I start reading a novel, I expect to be swept away, to be immersed in the story and the characters. In the best books, I get so involved with the words on the page that I'm able to ignore completely the world around me, to block out everything but those characters and that story. Yet with Something Strange and Deadly, for the longest time, what I was reading was just words on a page, people moving and talking and doing stuff, but without any emotional involvement from me. I often found myself... not quite bored, not quite bewildered, but in a strange state of expectancy, waiting for the characters to develop into more than just names on the page, waiting for the story to take off and actually start going somewhere. Though it took a while (to the point that I was almost ready to give up on the book), that all changed and the story and characters finally managed to grab hold of my imagination.

I think part of my problem had to do with Eleanor. Though she tried to be a proper Victorian maiden, she rebelled, often in small ways, but still she fought. For that, I should've liked her, but there was just something about her voice, her attitude, which grated on me. She often came across as whiny, self-indulgent, and imperious. Her nickname, “Empress,” given to her by another character, Daniel, was justly deserved, at least at the beginning of the novel. Thankfully, she grew as a character, losing some of that imperiousness along the the way and gaining a bit more humility. (Oh, and towards the end of the book, because she's called Miss Fitt, as is proper, there's a lot of 'misfit' jokes as her rebellious nature comes out in full force, which grow tiresome after a while.)

There's a mystery at the heart of the book, revolving around the man, the necromancer, who has caused the dead to rise, and as a mystery, it's easy to solve: You know who the necromancer is within a short amount of time. It's watching the others figure out the man's identity which propels the action. Speaking of which, there's a lot of that, from the very first chapter, and once the story coalesces the action picks up speed as well. Zombies, martial arts, pulse bombs, Spirit-Hunters. Now, with everything that's going on, you might be forgiven for thinking that this is a steampunk novel, but it's not; it's more of an alternative history with a few neat gizmos and gadgets thrown in.

And zombies. Don't forget those zombies.

There's also romance running through the novel, with two suitors vying for Eleanor's hand, and here's where Dennard got creative. As the story progresses, you think you see where that romance is going, but Dennard throws a curveball and switches things up (am I mixing my metaphors here?), keeping you on your toes. It was a nice change of pace.

In the end, I have to say, though I wasn't expecting it, I found myself completely wrapped up in the story, so that when the end came I was almost pissed that the book was over. However, because of the way that ending was set-up (there's an obvious sequel in the works), I find myself eagerly awaiting the next adventure of the intrepid Miss Eleanor Fitt and the Spirit-Hunters.

Read September 11-14, 2012
Reviewed for the Amazon Vine Program September 16, 2012

Saturday, September 15, 2012

"We had none of us girls been born to inherit a crown, and yet it has overshadowed us all our lives--and blighted them."

3.5 stars

From the blurb: England's Tower of London was the terrifying last stop for generations of English political prisoners. A Dangerous Inheritance weaves together the lives and fates of four of its youngest and most blameless: Lady Katherine Grey, Lady Jane's younger sister; Kate Plantagenet, an English princess who lived nearly a century before her; and Edward and Richard, the boy princes imprisoned by their ruthless uncle, Richard III, never to be heard from again. Across the years, these four young royals shared the same small room in their dark prison, as all four shared the unfortunate role of being perceived as threats to the reigning monarch.

First off, I have to say, I'm a bit peeved at this book. According to the blurb, the impression that I got was that the stories were supposed to be told from the viewpoints of Katherine Grey and Katherine Plantagenet (which they were), and the two princes in the tower. Of course, I didn't know how those two princes, Edward and Richard, would be able to tell their story. Through hidden letters perhaps? A secret diary or journal? Who knew, but whatever the case, it would've been a most interesting tale. So, naturally, I was disappointed when I realized the book was only told from the viewpoints of the two women as they worked to solve the disappearance of the two princes.

Anyway, to these two women: The first is Katherine Grey, the prettier, more vivacious sister to Lady Jane Grey, the doomed and ill-used Nine Days Queen. Katherine's story is told in the first-person, in her voice, and while her life story is laid out according to historical sources, Weir slips in imagined instances where Katherine discovers information and artifacts linked to the princes in the tower, which creates a fascination in her to try and solve the mystery of their disappearance. The other Katherine in the book is Katherine Plantagenet, the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Gloucester, future King Richard III. Her story is told in the third-person, and because the princes disappeared during her father's reign, her part in the novel has more urgency to it. In fact, she's quite frantic about solving the mystery because, ever the dutiful daughter, as Richard rises to power and as she's exposed to the stories of his behavior, Katherine refuses to believe that her father could've behaved in such dastardly ways and steadfastly tries to prove all his critics wrong.

Though the novel is touted as being one of historical suspense, revolving around the princes in the tower, it didn't feel that way to me. Yes, each Kate tries to solve the mystery in her own way, but that particular "mystery solving" plot device didn't seem to be driving the novel, at least not as much with the Katherine Grey storyline. And with the Katherine Plantagenet storyline, solving the mystery was less about, you know, solving it than it was about a slightly naive daughter trying to clear her father's name. Instead, it was each Kate's life propelling the plot, especially their romantic entanglements, with the only suspense coming when events finally catch up to the girls and they find themselves incarcerated in the Tower of London. Frankly, while I enjoyed the book, I'm not quite sure what the point of it was. After all, Weir has explored the mystery of the princes in the tower in her non-fiction book on the subject (The Princes in the Tower), and if she wanted to explore the lives of the two Kates, she could've written a non-fiction book or books about them as well.

I will say this: Weir did a good job of presenting a fair portrait of Richard III. She drew Katherine Plantagenet as basically a mouthpiece for for the Friends of King Richard Society, those dedicated people who believe that everything written about Richard was a lie and he was actually a very good, downright saintly man. As this mouthpiece, Katherine refuses to accept the evidence coming to her of Richard's actions, searching (in vain) to find alternate explanations and trying to reconcile what she knows about her father with what she's hearing about him. The resulting image is what I believe to be the fairest picture of Richard. It's the image of a man who was ruthless, who wanted power, who (yes) had his nephews murdered, but a man who was also devout, a family man, a man who truly grieved when his brother, Edward IV, died. Basically, a man who was no more evil than any other man (and woman) who came to power and did ruthless things on the way or while there, but who was painted as the blackest of villains because it was expedient to do. A man who was not Shakespeare's deformed hunchback, but a man with a slight deformity who became beaten down by his enemies and history. So while Richard's Friends might not like the resulting picture, I think it's one which will satisfy all but the most obdurate on the subject.

Speaking of representing an historical personage accurately, Weir portrayed Frances Grey, and to some extent Henry Grey, as the abusive parents they've long become accepted as, a view which has come under fire in the past few years.  Some researchers and historians are now saying that that image has been overblown and colored by personal animosity, either on the part of Jane herself or her tutor, Roger Ascham.  Weir addresses this issue in her (detailed) author's note; she explains that she questions the theory that there has been a deliberate attempt to blacken Frances' name down the centuries, and that new research suggests that the traditional view of the Suffolks in indeed correct, though "it is conceivable that a chastened Frances mellowed after Jane's execution, as portrayed in this novel, and that Katherine and Mary never suffered the rigor and expectations that their parents imposed on Jane."  There has been some discussion over Weir's ability as an historian, with some seeing her as lax or sloppy, or pandering to public popularity, but I think this author's note shows her dedication to her research and to seeking out the best, most logical explanation for disputed issues.

In the end, A Dangerous Inheritance was entertaining reading (though the quick back-and-forth between the two Kates got a bit dizzying at times, especially since Kate Plantagenet's interludes were often rather short), but rather pointless, unless you've never heard of or read anything about the two princes in the tower. If that's the case, then you should read this book as it presents an interesting and logical solution to the centuries-old mystery within a fictional framework, making for an easy and well-written read.

Read September 3-11, 2012
Reviewed for the Amazon Vine Program September 15, 2012

Saturday, September 8, 2012

"Sometimes my past felt like a heavy chain about my neck, but a Huntress wouldn't let it prevent her from moving forward and taking action."

5 out of 5 stars

Agghhhhhh! I've finished it! There's no more book to read!

*pauses for breath, is startled by a new thought*

Agghhhhhh! I'm going to have to wait a year or more until the next book comes out! NOOOOOOOO!

Okay, I will try to keep my gushing and fawning to a minimum, focusing instead on a review of the story. Though I can't promise some fan-girl enthusiasm won't slip through.

This, the second entry in Ann Aguirre's Razorland series, picks up where Enclave left off. Deuce, Fade, Tegan, and Stalker have found sanctuary in the topside settlement of Salvation. Each has found a place with a foster family and a place in the settlement, with varying degrees of success. Though it makes Deuce wary, she finds herself growing comfortable with the care she's given by her foster family, the Oakes, and while she isn't exactly happy spending her days in school when she considers herself full of all the knowledge she'll ever need, she complies as she doesn't want to make trouble. After all, she's already turned a few heads with her Huntress behavior, behavior seen as unwomanly and not in keeping with the strict religious tenets upon which Salvation was founded. But things in Salvation aren't quite as idyllic as they seem. The Freaks, or Muties as they're known by Salvationers, are behaving in ways never seen before. They're becoming smarter... and that is not a good sign for the people behind the flimsy wooden walls of Salvation.

Yeah, I don't think those are gonna hold.

Outpost is a more thoughtful entry in the series than the first book. Don't get me wrong, there's still lots of ass-kicking, especially by Deuce (who finds she has to prove herself all over again to the community--mainly the men-folk, that is), but even with the growing crisis outside Salvation's walls, there's time for Deuce, Fade, Tegan, and Stalker to grow in ways in which they never had the opportunity to grow during their adventures on the way to Salvation. There's more time for drama, confusion, mixed signals, romance, and character expansion. As we watch these kids (for that's what they are, no matter what they've been through or how they see themselves) mature, we delve deeper into their personalities, their pasts, how they think, and their hopes for a future. And though Deuce is at the center of the novel, this book is really where Tegan comes into her own. In Enclave, Tegan was a shell-shocked survivor, barely able to pull her own weight in the group dynamic, needing to be cared for by the others. When we saw her at the end of the book, she was half dead due to the massive injury she'd received to her leg. In Outpost, she's not only survived her injury, she's spreading her wings. She grows in confidence and discovers she has a lot more to offer others than she ever thought. She even finds it within herself to forgive Stalker for how he treated her when she was held captive by his gang, something she swore she would never do.

As with Enclave, the story is a page-turner, and the writing keeps you involved as you await each new development with breathless anticipation. Aguirre has a knack for writing heart-pounding action, yet she's also able imbue her characters with real emotions and depth. Once again, they grow and change, behaving just as real people behave. It's hard for me to express just how much I adore reading Aguirre's novels. My eyes fly across the page, and the pages flip by fast enough to raise a breeze, even though I try to slow myself down in order to savor the story rising up from those pages. All I can say is that if you'd like to get in on this new trend of post-apocalyptic YA novels, but don't know where to start, start with Aguirre's. Pick up Enclave and I guarantee, as soon as you finish it or perhaps even before then, you'll be rushing out to the store to grab Outpost. I'd say Hollywood needs to pick up these books and make it into the next series of blockbuster movies, a la "Harry Potter" and "The Hunger Games," but I'm afraid Hollywood would screw up the magic that is Razorland.

Read August 30-September 3, 2012
Reviewed for the Amazon Vine Program September 8, 2012

A powerful ending to a powerful series.

5 out of 5 stars

This is the final novel in Conn Iggulden's violent, bloody, exhilarating, dramatic, masterful series on Genghis Khan and his descendents, focusing on Kublai Khan as he transitions from scholar to warrior to Great Khan of the Mongol empire.

You know, as much as I loved this book and the series, the thing I most took away from the story arc is the confirmation that men are pigs. No, dogs. No, pig-dogs. And I don't mean men as in “the human race.” I mean men as in the gender. Men are the ones who revel in war, who drive their armies across the land because the land they've got isn't good enough. Men are the ones who destroy cities, melting down precious artifacts so they can stare at the bars of pure gold and silver in glee, who set fire to libraries because they don't contain any knowledge they need, destroying generations worth of learning. Men are the ones who kill the men and children in enemy villages/towns, who kill the women but not before passing them around and raping them several times over, keeping them around to act as slaves for a few years before the women finally give out from the abuse. Men are responsible for all the misery in the world.

Anyway, to proceed to the actual review and step off my soapbox: I hate to categorize novels along gender lines, but I have to admit that there are historical fiction novels with storylines aimed more towards men (having more action, war, bloodshed, violence, etc. and less “mushy” stuff) and women (having more romance, personal conflict, drama, basically lots of “mushy” stuff). Iggulden's Genghis series is most definitely a masculine historical fiction series: heavy on the violence, light on romance. However, that's not to imply that characters are cardboard cutouts and no time is spent on character development. Far from it. As with all of Iggulden's previous books in this series, each character is imbued with humanity--the good, the bad, the ugly, the saintly. No one character is ever mixed up with another due to vague descriptors or similar voices.

Speaking of characters, though there are many others in the novel, it's Kublai who takes center stage (naturally). The evolution of his character, from a sheltered scholar to canny general to visionary leader of the Mongol nation, is fascinating to watch. Iggulden lets us peer into the mind of this legendary man, lets us see his fears, his machinations, his strategies and battle plans; only with Genghis did we see this kind of intimacy, their outer strengths as well as their inner fears and doubts. And I believe Iggulden did this on purpose, to forge a link between grandfather and grandson, creator of the Mongol nation and its savior.

For the first time, I actually have a nitpick about one of Iggulden's books, and it concerns the character of Guyuk, who seems to undergo a 180 degree shift in personality. While, admittedly, we didn't see a lot of him in the previous novel, what we did see of Guyuk seemed to imply that he was somewhat happy-go-lucky, willing to go where others led, and not much inclined to put up a fuss if plans seemed to go awry. Suddenly, though, in Conqueror, Guyuk has become a narcissistic psychopath: Things must go his way or else people begin to die. Perhaps it was the delay in him being named Khan that brought about this change in personality, but when he does, finally, become Khan, he remains a bloodthirsty (beyond even Mongol standards) tyrant, so that when his death comes, it's a welcome relief, both to the Mongol nation and to the reader. Perhaps that kind of personality shift is completely natural under such stressful circumstances, but it was still jarring.

Aside from the minor point, once again I was blown away by Conqueror. The power of Iggulden's writing is damn near awe-inspiring and it makes me quite eager to pick up his other series concerning Julius Caesar.

Read August 23-30, 2012
Reviewed for the Amazon Vine Program September 8, 2012