Sunday, December 18, 2011

Mechanique, by Genevieve Valentine

Mechanique: a Tale of the Circus Tresaulti is a steampunk circus novel. I picked it up because it was on the list of well-recommended books that I could check out from the university library (which has a much longer loan period than the public library), but didn't expect to love it. I haven't had good luck with steampunk, and circuses don't sound intriguing to me.

But I really loved it after all. The circus was more Cirque du Soleil than three-ring clown cars, and the steampunk had just enough magic mixed in to activate my suspension of disbelief.* The circus performers have mechanical body parts, but the focus is less on how they work and more on how it affects their lives. Everyone who gets the bones pays a high price for it; no one gets them who wasn't already broken in some way; great care is taken to make them look frailer than they are, to keep outsiders from getting too interested in the possibilities of this magic. In particular, the Boss would like to avoid the notice of power-hungry government men, who want to rebuild the war-torn society back to its former glory - yet still carry on the wars, to achieve their own dominance. (The circus does not manage to avoid the latest government man.)

It has an interesting flow to it; it manages to slip from third-person to second- to first- and back again very smoothly, all in the same poetic voice, so you don't really notice that it's changed till well after it's happened. A bit odd, but it worked. It's very tragic and beautiful.

I think I liked Elena best. She's cold and hard and vicious, and you could never be friends with her, but there's a tiny sliver of good in her. It's all bottled up and buried, because she knows it doesn't belong in this kind of world: soft-hearted people don't survive. You never catch her doing anything nice, but there are vicious things she does that have strangely beneficent motives.

I liked Bird a lot, too. I think I have a soft spot for the crazies.

* It seriously bugs me when a story limits itself to clockwork and mechanics, yet accomplishes magnificent feats with these that would have been easier to pull off if they'd bothered learning about electricity and magnetism. It feels incredibly artificial to me - like somebody cares more about the aesthetics than about the functionality. To have that stand as a putatively scientific system offends the dregs of physics-student left in my soul. If you're going to do modern or futuristic feats with antiquated technology, I really prefer that there be magic involved somewhere.


Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Unraveled, by Courtney Milan

Of course, the instant I started wading through a library book I wasn't quite in the mood for, Unraveled came out. I bought it right away - I was a bit floored that it was only $3.99, actually - and then I held out for a grand total of six hours before I gave up, and set aside the library book to om nom nom the new acquisition.

Milan writes such intelligent romances - the characters are all very believable; the setting feels well-researched, and not like a pretty costume party; there's almost never any eye-rolling melodramatic bullshit.

Although, that said: I totally cracked up when Smite was having a heart-to-heart with his brother about how his various psychological Issues were a driving force in his goal of standing up for the oppressed, and Smite says, "...I wish that this quest had not come to me." Cracked! Up!

I was just re-reading Julia Quinn's Romancing Mister Bridgerton, actually, where there's a similar in-joke:
Lady Danbury shushed him with a wave of her hand. "How many great mysteries are there in life, really?"
No one answered, so Colin guessed, "Forty-two?"
I never noticed that one before! I'm still a little embarrassed about publicly admitting to reading and enjoying romances (omg, I think my father-in-law is reading this blog), so it makes me feel more secure with the genre, to see sf/f references from the two romance authors I'd already decided were my favorites.

Unraveled might stand alone, but I'd recommend reading Unveiled and Unclaimed first. The trilogy centers around the three sons of a madwoman, who was both overzealously righteous in her community and also abusive to her children. She's long dead, but her influence remains. The eldest son (Ash, in Unveiled) left home to make their fortune, trying to rescue his brothers financially; the youngest son (Mark, in Unclaimed) escaped their mother's wrath but inherited her passion for justice, and fears having inherited her wildness too; the middle son (Smite, in Unraveled) was the one to bear the brunt of the abuse, and carries some serious psychological scars. I enjoyed Smite's story much more for having seen hints of it through his brothers' perspectives first. I was much more prepared for the absolute crazysauce of their mother at her worst, that way.

I liked Miranda, but could not ever see myself reacting to Smite's issues in the same way she does. She's much stronger in the face of dealing with someone else's emotional baggage than I could be. I don't think I fully understand her yet - my mental model of her as I began the book was me-ish, and that is clearly not at all accurate. Obviously, will need to re-read at some point!

Edited to add: you can buy a DRM-free copy of this e-book at Smashwords, AllRomance Ebooks, or Diesel E-books.

The Tiger's Wife, by Tea Obreht

The problem with getting in line to put a book on hold at the library is that by the time it's your turn to read it, you may not be in the mood anymore. It's particularly dangerous for books outside your usual genre, and I don't read literary fiction very often.

So it took me a while to get into The Tiger's Wife*. It's the story of a woman coming to terms with her grandfather's death, reflecting on stories about his life. The stories alternate, though: there's a thread in which the narrator is talking about what happened when she found out about his death; another in which she tells the stories her grandfather told her about the deathless man; and a third in which she tells a story about her grandfather's childhood that she never learned until after his death - the one about the tiger's wife. It took me a while to piece together how they all fit together; I liked it, when I finally got used to the flow and figured out what was going on.

There's a strong element of story-mutation going on. The narrator is often talking about how a certain person tells part of the story a certain (possibly inaccurate) way, or about the lies one family member told another to cover up a truth that would have worried them, or about a superstitious myth that the villagers built themselves to explain something outside their everyday experiences. At some point, I started to wonder how the narrator knew some of the things she was relating - lyrical tales about private conversations between two people who died without telling these stories, or about events whose witnesses only ever lied about what happened. It bugged me, until I decided that it must be on purpose: although she presents herself as rational and non-superstitious, all along the narrator is building herself a myth about her grandfather's life. Literal truth takes second place to her assembly of a coherent, romantic story of his life.

* Hipster Librariminion sez: I cataloged this book for the library when it was just an M.F.A. thesis! If you're interested in such scholarly differences as may exist between that and the published book, there it is. You're welcome. I was tempted to check out that copy, actually - it was available immediately. But it's an 8x11 hardback - definitely not one-hand-readable.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Grimspace, by Ann Aguirre

Romantic science fiction: I approve!

I found this one through Goodreads, on Felicia Day's bookshelves; her book preferences have a decent-sized overlap with mine, and she writes a lot of intelligent reviews, so she's been a good bookhunting source so far.

"Grimspace" is this universe's FTL mechanism; traveling it requires both a pilot and a navigator, jacked into each other's brains for the duration of the trip. Because of this intimate interface, pilots and navigators bond strongly enough that they often become lovers. Only people in possession of a certain rare gene can be a navigator, and navigating grimspace will eventually kill you. There's only one company you can work for, as a navigator; they have a fairly solid monopoly on the training and the ships.

We're introduced to Sirantha Jax, a Grimspace navigator, in the aftermath of a major crash that killed her pilot/lover, Kai - a crash she's suspected of causing. She's not what you'd call mentally stable, these days.

March, the guy who shows up to rescue her from her accusers, also has his share of Issues. As noted in previous posts, I prefer nice guys as the love interest; this, he is not, but I give him a pass because he actually has a reason for being the dark and brooding type. He's a telepath, and telepathy tends to drive people crazy. He's not a misunderstood rogue with a secret heart of gold; he's a dude who has done some genuinely bad things in the past, and is actively trying to be a better, saner person. I consider this a more interesting take on the bad-boy template.*

I like that both of them are broken in their own ways, struggling to hold themselves together, reaching out to offer each other support, but sometimes failing themselves and each other. I like that Kai still haunts Jax, and has a major influence on the development of the Jax/March relationship; he isn't just some throwaway plot device. I like some of the secondary characters a lot; pretty much everyone has their own distinctive personality, their own internal consistency to their behavior. (Though it was a bit hard to follow the doctor, at some points, for reasons that make sense later.)

It's not perfect; the plot takes an off-topic detour midway through the book, and then gets wrapped up very quickly at the end. In both cases, the events seem to serve the purpose of developing characters rather than story arc; since I was most interested in the characters anyway, I'm not overly bothered by this. Also, maybe there's an overarching series goal those apparently-out-of-place events are working towards. Benefit of the doubt.

We'll see how I feel about it after reading more; I've picked up the second and third already, despite my self-imposed rule on not buying Kindle books till just before reading. I call imminent childbirth an extenuating circumstance that validates a little stocking up.

I am a little sad to not be launching into the second one right away - but I got the library notice that it's my turn for The Tiger's Wife, and there's only a two-week loan on that, so it's next up.

* Though superficially they sound similar, I do not consider vampire romances to be interesting in this way - I feel like the whole concept of a hot vampire is loaded with Abusive Husband. The subtext is chock full of he can change, and your love will bring him back to his humanity, and you're in no danger from him as long as you don't tempt him with that soft, tender flesh of your lovely neck. If he fails to keep it together, the consequences are limited to you and him and your little "love bite", which you can hide from the world with turtlenecks and lies, and tell yourself it was your fault to begin with. I think romanticizing this is very, very creepy.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


Grumpy: my latest books aren't awesome.

I started Grave Dance, the sequel to Grave Witch, but it's not terribly interesting to me. It feels like it has a lot of loose threads, which will probably eventually get tied together, but at the moment it's more than I feel like paying attention to. Did not finish.

I finished that fairy tale retelling I'd started earlier - Beast, by Donna Jo Napoli - and did not like it. It's Beauty and the Beast, from the Beast's viewpoint, with him being a Persian prince whose sin is that he doesn't ask for help, gets an important ritual wrong as a result, and gets turned into a lion for it. I don't really see that dude ever learns his lesson; he continues to see himself as a prince and other people/lions as tools throughout the book. Even Belle (who doesn't even show up until well over halfway through the book) is just a means of breaking his curse, until maybe the last minute. Also, enthralled I am not with his preference for a child bride.

Courtney Milan's Unraveled will be awesome, but it is not out quite yet. I'm browsing my Kindle samples and my library stash, but haven't had anything scream my name yet.


Monday, December 5, 2011

Once Upon a Winter's Eve, by Tessa Dare

79 cent novella: a pretty good price for a trial on a new-to-me author.

Verdict: I dunno.

I liked the setting; Spindle Cove is a village that young ladies go to on holiday, or wallflowers to hide from society, or others to hide from scandal. I guess there's a whole series of books that this author sets here, and that could be interesting.

But I wasn't impressed by the hero or the premise, which was basically that spy-dude has heard that the love of his life will shortly be sent off to the marriage market, can't bear the idea, and pulls tons of strings so he can abandon his duty temporarily and come back for her. And then he has to be all secretive and shit when he gets there, and is all my seduction: let me show you it, before even admitting he really is the man she thinks he reminds her of. I just find him totally unreasonable. Would it have been so hard to just write a letter now and then?

Friday, December 2, 2011

Killing Rites, by M.L.N. Hanover (mildly spoilerific)

Killing Rites came out on Tuesday! I read it all in one gulp Tuesday night, and I'm still not sure I have much more coherent to say about it other than om nom nom right now.

The series is now at a stage where it's impossible to talk about the plot of the latest installment without spoilering prior books - even the back of this book outright tells you that Jayné has a rider. (I kind of think the series is more interesting if you read it already knowing that, though.) Killing Rites is about the attempt to get the rider out, the way in which that plan fails spectacularly, and how Jayné and the rider - the eponymous Black Sun's Daughter, finally brought to light - come to terms with each other.

I like the rider, actually. From Darker Angels, we know that beneficial riders are at least possible. From hints dropped throughout the previous books, we know that either this rider or its mother has been involved in very evil shit in the past - but as a slave, not necessarily out of her own inclination. She seems to be free of bondage from any of her evil brethren now; either she was released somehow, or the mother was the enslaved one* and this daughter has always been free and hidden away. It seems like one of her primary functions is to cast out other demons, or purify them somehow; in prior books, the word angel is thrown around, in the context of never met one or I don't believe they exist, and it comes up often enough that it seems significant to me. So I wonder if this rider is as close to an angel as you're going to get, and the other riders hate her and enslave her because they don't particularly want to go back to Hell.

But whether she's a good guy or not is outside the scope of this story - here, she's just trying not to get exorcised, just trying to survive. She acts like a good guy, and has consistently done so in the past, but it could all be a survival tactic. I think she's a good guy, though, and I'm looking forward to learning more about her later. (I hope she's OK; she has a rough time of it in this book. She's got to be at least OK enough, since the whole series is named after her... but this author employed his magic system to break the whole damn world in The Long Price Quartet - repeatedly! - so it's not like he's the sort to keep the gloves on and play gentle with his characters. She could very well be irreparably broken in some plot-driving way.)

I wish there'd been more Midian, though. The back of the book implied there would be more of that dude, but he really just passes through the story relatively briefly. Well, I can still hope he'll turn up again later. He's a very entertaining sort of lesser evil.

* I favor this option. If the mother rider was still enslaved, even up to the point of her death, it would explain quite a lot about Uncle Eric's behavior. But that might be just making excuses for him.