Review: Kiki Strike The Darkness Dwellers

Kiki Strike: The Darkness Dwellers by Kirsten Miller. Bloomsbury USA. 2013. Review copy from publisher. Sequel to Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City and Kiki Strike: The Empress’s Tomb.

The Plot: Kiki is back, along with Ananka (the narrator) and the other Irregulars: Luz, Oona, Betty and DeeDee. Inside the Shadow City told how the gang got together, and introduced the “Shadow City,” the tunnels and basements underneath New York City.

In The Empress’s Tomb, the Irregulars battled a criminal mastermind who also happened to be Oona’s father.

The Darkness Dwellers breaks the girls up — no, not that way. By geography. Kiki pursues justice for her murdered family by returning to Europe, and when she goes missing, disguise artist Betty follows her to France. Along the way, the Irregulars come across another mystery, involving spies, World War II, the Paris catacombs, proper etiquette, lost loves, crushes, and hair tonic.

The Good: The Darkness Dwellers begins with a quick recap that includes a listing of all the prominent characters, making it easy to catch up and remember who everyone is.

The girls are fifteen; and, as before, future-Ananka is telling the story. When the story splits up between three narrators (Ananka, Kiki and Betty), Ananka is clear that she is still telling the story, just with input from Kiki and Betty.

Quick points: all that was lovely and wonderful about the other two Kiki Strike books are found here. Girl power, smart girls, plots grounded in real history, fast action, amusing lines, mini lessons from Ananka, and terrific friendships.

The Darkness Dwellers shakes things up by moving some of the girls from New York to Paris. I adored the new history! I’m not sure whether or not this is the final Kiki Strike book, because Kiki’s own story as the lost heir of Pokrovia, fighting to expose her murderess aunt, is resolved. However, Ananka and Kiki have always been the two main characters; the second book focused on Oona and this focuses on Betty. That leaves possible books featuring Luz and DeeDee. In addition, the underground worlds of many cities can still be explored, such as Rome or Edinburgh.

I mentioned how boys didn’t figure that much into the first two books; with the girls getting older, well, it matters more here. But even then, wow, it’s from a girl-power perspective. Ananka has a crush on Betty’s boyfriend, Kaspar, and I love how The Darkness Dwellers addresses this. It’s the perfect mix of feelings and choice, with a whole lot of sisterhood trust.

Last words: The Darkness Dwellers was well worth the wait. This is a Favorite Book of 2013.

 

Review: Eon

Eon: Dragoneye Reborn by Alison Goodman. Penguin Books. 2008. Reviewed from audiobook by Brilliance Audio provided by Brilliance Audio. 2008. Narrated by Nancy Wu.

The Plot: Eon is a twelve year old boy. He has been training intensively for years to get the opportunity, along with a handful of other boys, to be selected by a magical dragon, thus becoming a Dragoneye. Sword work is difficult, because of an accident years ago that left Eon lame. Eon is gifted with magical gifts, able to see energy and dragons. He and the master who discovered him as a slave on a salt farm believe that these gifts will be enough to have the Rat Dragon choose Eon.

Eon has a secret. Eon is actually Eona, a sixteen year old girl.

Eon’s world is one with strict laws and beliefs about class and gender. A female Dragoneye? Ridiculous! Discovery means death. How far will Eon’s charade go? And who else will be swept into the intrigue?

The Good: Goodman creates a complex world, the Empire of the Celestial Dragons, with references to Chinese astrology and mythology. Dragons are real; the twelve Dragons each has an Dragoneye and each Dragoneye has an apprentice. Every twelve years, a dragon chooses a new apprentice, the former apprentice becomes a Master, and the old Master retires. The relationship between the Dragons and their Dragoneyes are complex; it takes those twelve years for the chosen boy to master the skills and gain the stamina needed to interact with the dragon and control it’s powers. The Dragon council work to serve the land, preventing natural disasters. They are supposed to be removed from politics, but as Eon/Eona soon learns, some Dragoneyes pursue power at any cost.

What to tell without revealing whether Eon is chosen as a Dragoneye? Well, the book is called Eon: Dragoneye Reborn. She gets what she desires, but not quite in the way she planned. Her masquerade gets more intense and complicated as the game escalates, and lies build upon lies. Eon’s game is simple: one of survival. She didn’t seek this out — her master bought her, and if she fails him, he can sell her, send her back to the salt farms. While she didn’t seek this life out, Eon quickly realizes she has a role to play, and an important one. How she embraces that, while juggling her lies, is fascinating. What is the right answer? Should she reveal her true self?

Eon: Dragoneye Reborn is also an interesting look at gender and gender roles. Eona hides herself as Eon to gain opportunities barred from women. She muses on how learning how to be a boy is much more than wearing trousers. Eunuchs also play a role; and a major character is a Contraire, a man who lives as a woman. The Emporor has concubines. Class and rank also matter; and some implications are deadly. Part of the reason that political intrigue and danger exists is that the present Emperor did not follow protocol. When becoming Emperor, he should have executed all his younger brothers. He did not, and one of those brothers, Sethon is now a threat — a threat with power, because the trusting Emperor made his brother Commander in Chief of the Armies.

If you don’t like spoilers…. don’t read the title of the sequel!

Review: Rot & Ruin

Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry. Simon & Schuster. 2010. Reviewed from ARC picked up at ALA.

The Plot: Benny Imura has turned fifteen, which means he has to get a job or lose half his rations. Morningside and its inhabitants have survived the First Night of the zombies and fourteen years later, the zombies still moan outside the town’s fences. Benny tries a number of different jobs; he manages to find something wrong with each one of them until he has no choice but to become his brother’s apprentice.

His brother, Tom Imura, is a professional zombie killer. Benny knows it won’t be exciting; he knows Tom isn’t as brave as people think. Tom never talks about killing zombies, doesn’t boast about daring feats like the other bounty hunters, Charlie and the Hammer.

Tom takes Benny beyond the fence, into the Rot and Ruin. Turns out, almost everything Benny thought, about zombies, humans, and even about First Night, was wrong.

The Good: Rot & Ruin begins humorously, with Ben and his slacker friend Lou Chong trying job after job. Locksmith, because even bedroom doors need locks on both sides… in case someone dies, becomes a zombie, and turns on his family in the night. The zombies of Rot & Ruin are the type that, with death, lose coordination and planning.  Also, the dead always rise, not just the ones that were bitten by zombies. Locksmith is actually a bit boring and, well, unnecessary as zombie’s usually can’t even turn a door knob. Then there’s Carpet Coat salesman, because carpet coats are so thick they hold up well against zombie bites. They hold up so well pretty much everyone already has one. Funny, yes — but always lurking in the background are the zombies. Benny’s saga of job-seeking not only establishes Benny’s character, it is also a terrific way to show the reader Benny’s world, a world of zombies, of isolation, of Benny thinking the way he lives is normal.

Benny’s journey with Tom outside the gate is the actual, physical journey of hunting zombies — and even that phrase, “hunting zombies,” turns out to not mean what Benny thought it was. It is the journey of Tom and Benny becoming brothers. Finally, it is Benny’s journey from child to adulthood as he learns the truth about the world and those he thought were heroes and cowards. That journey is scary and violent and action packed.

Maberry examines the question — what will life be like for that first generation of survivors? Rot & Ruin is set safely away from the actual events of First Night and the months that immediately followed, the months of running and fighting until the town that would be Mountainside was founded. Benny knew (or thought he knew) his own story: his father a zombie, his frightened mother shoving her toddler son into the arms of his older half-brother with the one word: “go.” Now, there are houses with cisterns for water and trade routes between the isolated towns. Now, there are fences to keep the zombies out. Now, the people who live behind the fences can almost — almost — forget.

Rot & Ruin also addresses the fact that the dead were once alive, and not just alive but loved ones. Family. Father, mother, child, sibling. After running, after survival, how does a person handle that their loved one is out there? Erosion artists, one of the jobs Benny flirts with, creates zombified pictures of relatives.

How does surviving zombies impact people? Does it make them kinder? Traumatized? Do they value life more, or less? Benny is forced out of his teen slackerhood into adulthood, forced to make these decisions out in the Rot and Ruin.

I am thrilled to say that there is a sequel coming this summer, Dust & Decay.

Because zombies aren’t in this book just because they’re the latest cool thing. Because zombies manage to be both terrifying and sad. Because Tom Imura is an amazing zombie fighter, even if it takes a while for Benny to realize it. Because I am as  haunted as Benny by the Lost Girl, the human child surviving beyond the fence. Because after I read this, I went into my kitchen to try to figure out how much food I’d have when First Night struck and realized, at most, I’d last a few months. Because of all this, Rot & Ruin is a Favorite Book Read in 2011.

Some book extras. As Bookshelves of Doom says, “the pages practically turn themselves.”

Review: The Ring of Solomon

The Ring of Solomon: A Bartimaeus Novel by Jonathan Stroud. Disney Hyperion Books. 2010. Reviewed from unedited version from publisher.

The Plot: Jerusalem, 950 B.C.E. King Solomon (yes, that King Solomon) rules Israel with wisdom and strength. And a ring — a ring that gives him unbelievable powers. King Solomon controls Israel, including the magicians of his court. Magicians control djinni. One of those magicians has a djinni named Bartimaeus.

The Good: I’m addressing this to three different readers. Sort of like choose your own adventure! First, new readers to this series; next, members of awards/lists committees; finally, people who have read the other books in the series.

New Readers: In The Ring of Solomon’s world of magic, magicians bind djinni and other creatures to do their bidding. Bartimaeus is one of those djinni, summoned to do a master’s bidding. Djinni are rarely willing conspirators; elaborate spells and ceremonies are required to both summon and bind them and one misstep by a magician frees the djinni. The djinni are not happy to be summoned and commanded, so those missteps usually don’t end well for the magician. Usually the magician ends up eaten. So there is danger and risk in magic. The djinni do have some free will. With Bartimaeus, that means he is snarky, looks out for number one (that would be himself) and always tries to figure a way out of serving his current magician. Oh! And whatever you do, don’t call a djinni a demon. It’s rather insulting.

In The Ring of Solomon, Bartimaeus serves a magician who serves the mighty Solomon and, of course, it is Bartimaeus’s story. It is also the story of Asmira, personal guard to the Queen of Sheba. Sheba hopes to protect herself and her country from the personal, political, and military advances of Solomon so she sends Asmira on a secret mission. Kill Solomon. Take the ring. 

There’s no way you cannot like Bartimaeus, in part because he’s funny, sarcastic, and smart. Does Bartimaeus speak the truth? “Dissemblers as we sometimes are when conversing with humans, higher spirits almost always speak truth amongst themselves. The lower orders, sadly, are less civilized, foliots being variable, moody and prone to flights of fancy, while imps enjoy telling absolute whoppers.” An example of Bartimaeus’s behavior is, despite Solomon’s power, Bartimaeus sings bawdy songs about him and, at one point, takes the appearance of hippo that bears a startling resemblance to one of Solomon’s wives.

Asmira is also very likable. First, she’s strong — as a member of the guard of the Queen, she’s been taught to fight from the time she could walk. Second, she’s smart. She even knows a bit of magic. She’s on a journey anyone can respect: save her queen, save her country. Since Bartimaeus is linked to someone who protects Solomon, and Asmira is out to get Solomon, well, you know these two kids will hook up at some point.

So, you have action, humor, great characters. You also have a continuation of a series, but set several thousands of years before the other series, so you do not have to have read the trilogy to understand this book. Be warned: once you read this book, you will want to read the entire trilogy.

People on awards and lists: while this is a part of a series, because it is set so far before the trilogy, this book truly stands alone.

If you have read and enjoyed The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Stroud, here’s what you need to know: it’s the Bartimaeus you know and loved. The Ring of Solomon is set thousands of years before the trilogy, so none of the humans mentioned in the trilogy appear here. It’s a whole new cast of characters. If, like me, it’s been four years since you read the books, that’s OK because the only character you need to know is Bartimaeus and how can you forget him? You don’t have to worry about remembering anything about plot or characters from the other three books. The final version of the book will have a list of main characters as well as a map.

Is The Ring of Solomon stand alone? Yes; no cliff hangers here. As someone who loves Bartimaeus and his unique voice, which makes me laugh out loud, I hope that The Ring of Solomon is just one of many additional books about Bartimaeus.

Is this one of my Favorite Books read in 2010? Does a djinni call when summoned?

Review: Ship Breaker

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi. Little, Brown. 2010. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: In a future America, teenage Nailer works light crew with other teens, scavenging the parts of rusted-out, abandoned ships that only those small and thin enough can get into. If Nailer is lucky, he will bulk up enough to qualify for the heavy crews that strip the ships. If he is really lucky, he will discover a “lucky strike” that will let him buy his way out of the endless cycle of poverty, work, and brutality that is life on the Gulf Coast.

A hurricane hits and Nailer gets lucky. A luxury clipper ship wrecked. Scavenging this would bring him riches, if he can keep it secret long enough. Only problem is, there is a survivor, a teenage girl, a rich, spoiled “swank.” Rescuing her could mean losing his “lucky strike” — or could be an even luckier strike, if the reward for finding her and keeping her safe is high enough. To “keep her safe” he’ll have to out smart or out fight the desperate people who want to loot the ship, all of them bigger, stronger, and better armed than him. He’ll have to go against the blood oaths he swore with his light crew friends. And scariest of all, he’ll have to confront his father, Richard Lopez, a man whose days are passed in drug-fueled highs and violent fights to the death.

The Good: Bacigalupi’s vision of a post-fossil fuel world offers a look at a “what might be” as well as “what is today.” This is true science fiction. There is no magic, just an imagined scientific future. Coal and oil burning ships are replaced with clipper ships that use high-altitude parasails to harness the jet stream to sail. And wow, talk about “reuse, repair, recycle” in action. The old wrecks of ships are stripped down until nothing is left, each staple, each wire reused. Problem is, the recycling going on is not a clean yuppie version, it’s a dirty, backbreaking, health-killing process that is carried out by the poorest of the poor. I read about ship breaking (taking apart a ship to use its parts) thinking, “wow, Bacigalupi has some imagination!” Then I checked out the book website and saw the report on modern day ship breaking in Bangladesh.

Nailer’s view of the world is limited by his class,  his poverty, his geography. He cannot read or write; his knowledge of history, the past, the present, is all based on oral stories. Nita, the “Lucky Girl” he rescues, is rich and educated. Both teens are smart; Nailer is smart enough to want to escape his circumstances, Nita is smart enough to figure out how to adapt to her new circumstances. Bacigalupi weaves their stories and knowledge in such a way that no infodump ever occurs. The book starts with Nailer deep in the ducts of a ship, an action filled beginning that includes Nailer almost getting lost and trapped in the maze of the inside of the dead ship. The reader is quickly brought up to speed with what Nailer is doing, the economics of it, the blood oaths that crew members take and just how important that loyalty is to everyday survival and what it means to betray it. Later on, the contrast between Nita’s and Nailer’s lives and experiences provides more information to the reader, via conversation. The reader learns more as Nailer learns more. It’s a deeply complex world, one of those where the sequel (and the author is working on one!) could be the continuation of Nailer’s story or could just as easily take place in Nailer’s world but in a different time and place.

Nailer’s world is multicultural and multiethnic. Nailer describes himself as no one thing: brown skin and black hair like his mother, blue eyes from his father, Richard Lopez. His best friend Pima is “black as oil and hard as iron,” someone else is “skinny and pale,” another is “the shade of brown rice.” Nita, part of a powerful family, is a Chaudhury and a Patel.

One of the many fascinating things Bacigalupi has done is create  not just a future world, but a future culture. There are throwaway religious references that never overwhelm but instead give depth to the story, letting us know that the future has a mix of strange and familiar beliefs: Fates, Ganesha, Jesus Christ, the Rust Saint, the Life Cult. Nailer and his friends and family are marked by tattoos and piercings to show who they are, what they are a member of, or whether — if a tattoo is cut — they belong nowhere. One of the first things Nailer notices about Nita is how smooth and clean her skin is. The use of markings to show identity or membership is not new; but what struck me, reading it, is the permanence of it that reflects both how serious that membership is and how impossible it then would be for someone to move beyond their current existence. Nailer’s body will forever mark him as a ship breaker from the Gulf Coast. 

Ship Breaker is breathless, non stop action, with barely room to breathe. Getting lost in ships, hurricanes, deadly infections, knife battles, and that’s just the first third! The world-building is done so seamlessly that it’s not noticed. Along the way, much is given to the reader to think about. This is set in the future, but all the big questions are about our today: the divide between the haves and have nots, the ecological impact of actions, the use of child labor, as well as questions about loyalty, choice, and fate.

Everything is stacked against Nailer, from his violent upbringing to his daily exposure to health risks to his scarred body. Still, he strives, to escape, to better himself, to be a better person. I love this boy. I want him to win. I want him to triumph. So of course this is a Favorite Book Read in 2010.