October 26, 2012


LEVIATHAN by Scott Westerfeld, (Simon Pulse, 2009).
GENRE: Adventure - Steampunk / Alt. History
AGE: 12 and up

Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan, the first book in a planned trilogy, is the sort of old-fashioned adventure novel that you don't see much of anymore. It's the sort of book that would have shared shelf-space with Treasure Island and The Time Machine if it were written 100 years ago, which it couldn't have been, even if Orwell could have conceived of genetic mutations and gene splicing. This is mostly because, for all its harkening back to the days of the "boy's adventure story," Westerfeld's Leviathan is the product of a modern phenomena - the mashed-up landscape of alt. history in all it's steam-powered glory.

The book starts on the night of Archduke Franz Ferdinand's assassination, an event that plunged Europe into the First World War. The Archduke's son, Prince Aleksander, flees for the Swiss border with a handful of trusted retainers in a Cyklops Stormwalker, as massive, humanoid war machine. With that, Westerfeld plunges the reader into an alternative world, one where WWI is fought between Clankers (nations with advanced mechanized technology) and the Darwinists (England and it's allies, who create new species based on Darwin's principles).

Westerfeld develops both sides through alternating chapters. While Alek learns to pilot the Stormwalker and dodge hostile troops, a young woman named Daryn Sharp disguises herself as a boy and joins the British Air Service. Through sheer accident, (her cephalopodic jellyfish - you really just need to read the book - gets caught in a storm), she's rescued by the Leviathan, a massive, living, hydrogen-based airship. As events on the world stage grow tense, the Stormtrooper and the Leviathan make their way to Switzerland, where Alek's Clankers and the Deryn's Darwinists finally meet.

Before you know it, you're fully engaged in the Leviathan's secret mission to Constantinople and the question of how Alek will survive the war without getting assassinated. It's Westerfeld's mastery of real history that makes his alternative history so seemlessly compelling. There is nothing inauthentic about the tension between the Clankers and the Darwinists. The fabric of cultural antipathy is woven so tightly that you never question the possibility of the mechanical and genetic advances that define each society.

And it isn't just the world that fascinates. Deryn and Alek are honestly interesting. Though they both fit certain archetypes, there is nothing of the stock character about either of them. Both are nuanced individuals who grow as a result of the rather extraordinary circumstances they find themselves in. The supporting characters are equally fun, particularly Wildcount Volger, the mastermind behind Alek's escape, and Dr. Nora Barlow, a female "boffin" or genetic engineer who tartly takes all manner of things into her own hands.These adults are quirky, flawed and capable. They leave the young protagonists ample room to move and plenty of agency without descending into the stereotypical uselessness of so many adults in book for teens.

To make a long story short - too late, I know - Leviathan is a shockingly fun read. Get past the first several chapters and you're off. Even without the maps and illustrations (which are jolly good fun), it's nearly impossible not to get sucked into Westerfeld's WWI. Entirely engaging and oddly educational, Leviathan is classic in the best sense of the word.

October 11, 2012

The Scorpio Races

THE SCORPIO RACES by Maggie Stiefvater (Scholastic Press, 2011)
GENRE: Fantastic Realism / Romance
AGE: 14 and up

Though not without issues, The Scorpio Races is an excellent book. It has countless starred reviews and a Printz Honor to prove it, and though it takes more than that to convince me of anything, I agree that, for the most part, it lives up to the hype - the plotting is solid, the language is lovely and the setting is moody and atmospheric. That said, I'd like to leave all that aside and look at the two elements that gave this book a quality rare in mainstream YA lit. The first is the seamless integration, in the form of the water horses, of the fantastic into a story that is otherwise rooted staunchly in reality. The other is the subtlety of the Stiefvater's characterizations, particularly with Sean Kendrick. But a little summary first:

Every October, the capaill uische, mythical and predatory water horses, come up out of the water onto the fictional island of Thisby. Their arrival culminates, on November 1st, with the Scorpio Races, a day of bloody racing where the men of the island ride the capaill uische across the beach, some to glory, many to death. Sean Kendrick has won the Scorpio Races four years out of six, and is respected on the island, despite his silence and stillness, thanks to his uncanny way with horses, both mundane and magical. Kate, aka Puck, Connelly, has never had use for the races and has always steered clear of capaill uische, particularly since her parents died the year before. But when her older brother announces that he's moving to the mainland, Kate decides to ride in the races, not for honor, but for the winners purse. But as Nov. 1st gets closer, the stakes get higher for both Puck and Sean until the day of the race when their fates are decided on the bloody beach.

The capaill uische legend has a lot of variants. Based on the source materials, this could easily have become just another romance about a girl who falls in love with a shapeshifting beast. But Stiefvater takes a more nuanced approach. The Isle of Thisby is a windblown, rocky place with it's roots deep in the past. It has little need for the present. It is losing it's young people to mainland, its only real economies are fishing and tourism and there are scant opportunities for work, (issues that reflect the current reality of many small towns). Stiefvater layers the magical water horses into this reality without explanation or excuse, and the technique works. By defying the temptation to myth-make, Stiefvater grounds the story, keeping the focus on her characters' determination to transcend the limitations of their situations. Though the romance is a key element, the narrative isn't about the relationship that grows between Sean and Puck. It is much more about Sean and Puck coming into their own. They simply find each other in the process.

The other element that works particularly well is Sean's character development. Puck is plucky and emotionally true, but she is of a recognizable type (feisty red-head with plenty of guff) whereas I've never seen a character quite like Sean. He's nineteen, but an old nineteen, with a stillness and perspective that, while impressive, reads as natural to his character. His chapters (the story is told with alternating POV) contain some of the loveliest, most incisive observations I've read in a while. His arc is a subtle one and watching him rock and re-center on his foundation was a quiet pleasure.

While younger readers will enjoy the horsey elements of the book, and the romance is fairly tame and tween approved, I would say that Puck and Sean go places that older teens will identify with more readily. Though the pacing is somewhat sluggish (all those lovely descriptive elements occasionally bog down the plot), The Scorpio Races is a beautiful read, subtle in ways that are rare in YA fiction. It really is a winner - especially if you happen to like horses, and even if you don't.

September 26, 2012

Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, (Little Brown, 2011).
GENRE: Urban Fantasy
AGE: 15 and up

In a literary landscape glutted with star-crossed romance, Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone, stands out as something unique, a work so far ahead of its contemporaries that it renders comparisons unfair.

Though the novel opens in contemporary Prague, it spans two worlds - our own and Eretz, a parallel place destroyed by ancient wars, which can only be accessed through magical portals and slits in the sky. With no memory of her parents, Karou, Taylor's beautiful, blue-haired protagonist, is raised in a space between Earth and Eretz by Brimstone, a chimaera (mythical creatures that are half-human and half-animal) and his assistants. She lives two half-lives - one as an art student in Prague, the other as Brimstone's courier, until the portals to his shop are destroyed and Karou is cast out. Bent on returning, Karou confronts Akiva, one of the seraphs responsible for the destruction of the doorways, and unknowingly begins the process of rediscovering who she is.

There is so much more to this novel than summarization can sufficiently communicate. Karou is a highly nuanced heroine, a seventeen year old with piques and pettiness as well as a deep reserve of strength and the feral will to survive. She is the embodiment of agency and the places Taylor takes her are worthy of her complexity. The novel's secondary characters match Karou's full-bloodedness.  Brimstone, Zusana, Karou's tiny, crackling best-friend, Akiva, and even Kaz, her ridiculous ex - all are exceptionally recognizable as people, not constructs, in their way.

Taylor's sense of aesthetics (Zusana's giant marionette, Karou's lapis hair), her facility with imagery, (black handprints on the portal doors, the caged city), and instinct with physical characterization (a baby Karou playing w/ brimstone's tail, the anxious flutter of a chimaera's bat wings) create a landscape so light and lush, so simply gorgeous that it feels like the print equivalent of Karou's sketchbooks, but what makes the book special is the substance beneath the aesthetics. There's a perceptive depth to Karou's isolation that is just not describable. It's what makes Taylor such a writer to envy - the nebulous strength of her work is layered throughout every aspect of the book, impossible to tease out.

This is a challenging, engaging novel and though it is driven by a romance (as are so many YA novels), the romance has unexpected elements and is stricken by very real difficulties. It will no doubt resonate with older teens readers who have, perhaps, already tasted their first heartbreaks. Taylor does not pander to her reader. She writes to the fullness of the concept's potential, which is really quite high. An exquisite, perfectly paced pleasure.

September 5, 2012


FALLEN by Lauren Kate (Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2009)
GENRE: Paranormal Romance
AGE: 13 and up

Every once and awhile, an extraordinary book comes along, one that breaks new ground, re-envisioning tropes long since tapped dry and changing the landscape of a genre. Fallen is not one of those books. 

Stomping over the ground Stephanie Meyers cleared with Twlight, Fallen is the story of seventeen-year-old Luce, sentenced to reform school after a boy she likes dies in a fire. Less than 24 hours after arriving at Sword & Cross, she is already torn between two preternaturally hot guys - smooth, sweet Cam, and moody, GORGEOUS Daniel (forgive the caps, but it was the only way to communicate the degree to which Luce lingers, in Bella Swan style, on Daniel's rippling perfection). Though Luce herself is anxious, socially weak and easily cowed (not a fantastic role-model), she finds herself in the middle of an enviable love-triangle, but though Cam is tempting, she is overwhelmed by her attraction to Daniel, who is, of course, beyond hostile so that he might protect Luce from their epically shared past.

Hindered dramatically by an enormous amount of interruptive, repetitious description, (most readers don't need multiple reminders that something happened just pages before), Fallen is much longer than the slender narrative requires. Though the concept compelling enough, one gets the sense that Kate didn't make the most of her material - there is very little in Fallen that doesn't directly mirror some aspect of Twilight, from lingering love-sick descriptions to the fact that Daniel, once his love is declared, makes huge sweeping decisions for Luce while she gratefully accepts. Though the climax is action-packed and exciting, the romance between Daniel and Luce never takes off - a frustration given the amount of time Kate spends trying to convince readers of it's gravity. Many loose ends, such as why angels are at a reform school to begin with, are left hanging, presumably to be answered in the sequel.

All of that said, Fallen does move, and though there are a shocking number of eye-rolling moments, the basic elements work well enough to give the story a certain appeal. Bella and Edward... pardon me - Luce and Daniel... might be little more than cardboard on the page, but the pages do turn, thanks mostly to the unanswered questions scattered throughout the book. Fallen, though weak in its own right, may prove to be the start of a strong, compelling series. If nothing else, its popularity is testament to the fact that people are reading and loving it, if only to get a Twlight-esque fix.

August 30, 2012

Lies, Knives and Girls in Red Dresses

LIES, KNIVES AND GIRLS IN RED DRESSES by Ron Koertge; illustrated by Andrea Dezso, (Candlewick Press, 2012)
GENRE: Poetry / Fairy Tales
AGE: 14 and up

Tapping into the burgeoning popularity of fairy tales and fairy tale adaptations, poet and novelist Ron Koertge presents this slender little volume of free-verse. But though aesthetically pleasing, (thanks to Andrea Dezso's cut paper illustrations and a gorgeous lay-out), and occasionally inventive, Koertge's trim, darkly funny collection is a bit of a mixed bag. While all of the stories are solid, only half contribute something new to the source materials, and of those, only a handful truly stand-out, making the rest dim by comparison.

Among the stand-outs are a fantastic re-imagining of "Hansel and Gretel" with a gruesome twist at end, a lovely re-telling of "Thumbelina" told from the mole's point of view, a strong, incisive look at Bluebeard's young wife and a version of "The Emperor's New Clothes" with some truly cutting social commentary woven through. Also, quite nice were the re-telling of "Rapunzel" from a five different points of view, and a quietly heartbreaking account of the Cinderella's step-sisters' Ever After. Each tale is accompanied by one of Dezso's strange, unsettling cut paper illustrations, all of which lend the casual, contemporary tone of the volume a somewhat gruesome, silhouetted depth. Koertge's free-verse has a wry, cutting quality that sometimes overwhelms the material, (as in "The Robber Bridegroom), but for the most part, it's a strong compliment to the black humor with which he re-tells these tales.

Overall, Lies, Knives and Girls in Red Dresses does not uncover any new ground in the dark, fairy tale forest. It does, however, add a nice bit of nuance and smirky humor to the territory, making it a good volume for the fairy tale inclined and a nice introduction, if nothing else, to the appeal of free-verse.

August 28, 2012

Teeth: Vampire Tales

TEETH: Vampire Tales edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, (Harper, 2011)
GENRE: Short Stories / Vampires in Multiple Genres

As with all of their anthologies, Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling have put together a formidable collection, this time on the now ubiquitous subject of... Vampires. What more could there be to say, one might ask? Windlow and Datlow answer this question with a surprisingly scholarly, yet undeniably compelling "well, quite a lot".

The collection's introduction is written in Datlow and Windling's trademark voice - earnest, accessible, in touch - and yet, they concisely cover the multi-cultural history of vampire literature in a matter of pages, giving the reader (whom both the editors and authors do not coddle) the background needed to fully appreciate the layered aspects of the stories that follow. That said, some of the stories, though beautifully written, lack a certain bite (please forgive the pun). Elegant though it is, Tanith Lee's "Why Light? " trods well-trodden ground, while Ellen Kushner's "History" takes a potentially interesting premise down a disappointing, anticlimactic road. That said, there are gems of inventive beauty in here too - most notably Catherynne M. Valente's "In the Future When All's Well", a 1st person account of life after humans begin to spontaneously turn (the language, characterization and society are subtly addictive), while the collaborative efforts of Holly Black and Cassandra Clare make "The Perfect Dinner Party" by turns hilarious, shocking and grim as they take the child vampire trope to an entirely new place.

These two stories alone are worth the price of the collection, though none of the tales disappoint. With substance, intelligence and snap, these stories ask the reader to look beyond tortured anti-heroes and the mortal women who love them, and to once again consider the real strength of the vampire in literature as a metaphor for the moral tangle of ourselves and our society.

August 25, 2012

Clockwork Angel

CLOCKWORK ANGEL: The Infernal Devices Trilogy, Book 1 by Cassandra Clare, (Simon & Schuster, 2010)
GENRE: Paranormal Romance / Historical Fantasy
AGE: 14 and up

Tessa Gray's  arrival in England is portentously unsettling. Met not by her brother, Nate, but by his self-proclaimed landladies, two women calling themselves the "Dark Sisters," Tessa is swept away and held prisoner for nearly two months. In that time, the Sisters unlock an ability in Tessa that she hadn't known she had - the ability to literally become someone else. Plunged into the Shadow World, a realm of faeries and warlocks, vampires and werewolves, overseen by the Nephelim, (angel descended warriors called Shadowhunters), Tessa struggles to master her unsettling ability and find her missing brother. When a young Shadowhunter named Will Herendale rescues Tessa, she becomes the key to discovering the identity of The Magister, the mastermind behind a plot to topple the order imposed by the Nephilim, a role the bookish, practical Tessa must learn to embrace.

Clockwork Angel is a compellingly atmospheric book. Tessa's dogged search for her brother, Nate, drives various subplots while providing momentum and color to the overall arc. The tone is pleasantly gothic with plenty of sinister houses and fog shrouded London streets, the perfect backdrop for a clockwork army and a demonic mastermind. Though the characters are somewhat idealized - the handsome, self-destructive Will who harbors a dark secret beneath a sardonic grin; beautiful, silver-haired Jem whose compassion and perspective exceed his seventeen years; and Tessa, whose earnest authenticity is balanced with a seriousness that makes her a surprisingly practical heroine - all three protagonists are oddly likable characters with flashes of real emotional resonance, though I do wish that Tessa's ability had played a more active, (and less theoretical role) in the events of the book as they unfold. The romantic aspects of the novel are age-appropriately steamy (several searing kisses and many a longing glance), while never threatening to derail the rest of the plot. Even still, the tension between Tessa and Will adds a great deal to the overall tension of the narrative arc.

Clockwork Angel is the first in a trilogy set in the same world as Clare's Mortal Instruments series. The dishy Victorian setting adds a nice bit of background to the happenings in that series, while ensuring that this new trilogy stands on its own. Despite lagging a bit towards the end (too much denouement) and fight scenes that beggar belief at times (death by parasol commonly occurs), Clockwork Angel is a well-written, tremendously enjoyable read and a great introduction to what will certainly be a popular new series.