YA reading update

I had the flu in January and ah, my friends and oh, my foes, please get the flu shot if/when you can, for my seven days of misery was followed by several weeks of exhaustion, all due to my own laziness and stupidity. The flu left me unable to read anything demanding–all I wanted was juicy plots sans navel gazing and happy endings, preferably in paperback so I could balance the book on my stomach while lying down flat.  (I could’ve done that with hardbacks but the covers cut into my tummy.) YA fantasy, in the form of strong girl protagonists kicking sorcerer butt over the course of a trilogy seemed the order of the day. Well, there’s an abundance of those books, and yes, most of them are painfully derivative and you could’ve saved your money for wine or acetaminophen, but I did find some winners. And I’m posting this piece in March because I finally finished all instalments of all these trilogies last week.

1. The Fire and Thorns trilogy by Rae Carson: 16-year-old Elisa, the overweight and underconfident younger princess of  a made-up-name kingdom has a special stone in her navel (ha!) that gives her magic powers. The Godstone is a gift from God, and as the stone-bearer, Elisa is fated to do a special act of heroism in service of God. Over the three books, Elisa meets dudes, becomes more confident and smarter, rises up to the challenge to save her kingdom, and becomes thin.

As you might have guessed, there was a bit too much God-talk for my liking, but overall, these are fun, engaging books, whose strong finish made up for their shaky start. And apparently I can live with navel gazing when there’s a pretty blue stone to look at. The only other real downside was the emphasis on weight loss. Can we have a plus-size protagonist without making her a teachable lesson already?

2.  Agent of Hel trilogy by Jacqueline Carey: If you are looking to gift this trilogy to your 12-year-old mighty girl, be warned: Carey’s protagonist Daisy has sex, with a different person, in each of the three books. There.

Daisy Johanssen was inadvertently conceived when her mom had a run-in with a Ouija board; her dad is a demon who wants to tempt her to the dark side. Daisy. Must. Resist. or she’ll cause Armageddon. Daisy is currently employed as the goddess Hel’s liaison with the mundane world in a small American town, where she solves paranormal crimes and banishes otherworldly evildoers.

The series is powered by excellent pacing and strong secondary characters, but Daisy’s tedious love life slows the books down, and her ultimate squeeze has all the appeal of week-old guacamole. Also, if you love Carey’s Kushiel books, note that the writing in AoH isn’t anywhere near half as good, and the romance is fathoms weaker.

3. Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas: Three books in this series have been published so far, with more to come, but let’s agree to call it a trilogy for the purposes of this post. Celaena Sardothien (yeah, I know) is the official Royal Assassin of made-up-name-kingdom–she won the Hunger Games in Book 1, see?  But Celaena is hiding a big (as in world-altering) secret, and her new position is fraught with an extra supply of supernatural danger.

Lots of political intrigue, painstaking world-building, a strong assassin heroine, and a thrill-a-minute plot make this series a true page turner. I did prefer the second and third book in the series to the first though–it’s like Maas stopped trying so hard to make her protagonist likeable and relatable, and instead trusted her enough to let her be. Maas’s strength lies in her kick ass action scenes that power her narrative–there’s an episode in the third book featuring a witch and a wyvern that is packed with surprises and intense emotion (and yep, lots of cliff falls and battles to the death). I flipped back and re-read that section immediately after I’d finished.  Yes, the writing is occasionally uneven, but when Maas is good, she’s phenomenal.

4. The Bone Knife by Intisar Khanani : This is one of those free-on-Kindle short stories for which I had floor-level expectations, but oh, I was so wrong. Khanani’s disciplined, tight prose is a joy to read, her pacing excellent, and her setting and characters are executed with grace and ease. Oh, and the story features some very necessary (and refreshing!) diversity; most YA novels seem to be set in Europe with an occasional sandy desert thrown in, and their covers favor ethereal blondes holding phallic weapons.

Rae, the oldest of three sisters, is hard-headed and sensible and wary of things that seem too easy. When a supernatural visitor threatens to inadvertently reveal the secret the sisters guard, Rae must put her formidable common sense to use to protect her family despite the danger she personally faces.

It’s a very short short story, be warned! But it’s good enough that I immediately bought Khanani’s novel Sunbolt for the princely sum of $ 1.99, and I’m going to start reading this weekend. Go buy this indie author’s books here!

5. His Fair Assassin trilogy by Robin LaFevers: LaFevers cleverly incorporates mysticism and romance into a slice of real-life fifteenth century history, wherein the young duchess of Brittany sought to protect her domain from enemies within and without–powerful France sought to gobble up the region, and many in the duchess’s court would have been glad to see it happen. In LaFevers’s imagining, there’s a Brittany convent serving Saint Mortain, the God of Death, which trains young girls (who are said to be marked as Death’s Daughters) in the art of killing. Each novel in the trilogy features a young assassin who helps the duchess maintain her position–and finds love on the way. The books are a satisfying marriage of political intrigue with an assassin-coming-of-age arc, and I enjoyed the (historical) happy ending; perhaps *you* don’t need Wikipedia to learn that  Anne of Brittany finally married Charles VIII of France, and managed to ensure a measure of independence for her duchy?

LaFevers is a very fluent writer, and I zipped happily through these books. (If I found the last instalment a tad too precious, it’s probably because I passed Young Adulthood many moons ago.) But oh, that series title. None of the books prioritize the appearance of the protagonists over their skills or character; calling the series “His Fair Assassin” make the books sound shallow, and does a significant disservice to the plot and the writing.

6. Snow like Ashes by Sara Raasch:  Published late 2014, Snow like Ashes is the first instalment of a planned trilogy. The Kingdom of Winter was conquered several years ago, and its citizens’ magic stolen by Spring. Eight survivors, including the heir to the throne, escaped, and have been working to regain their magic and their kingdom. Young Meira is one of the eight, and she hopes to be the one who’ll steal the magic locket that’ll help the Winterians rise again. Meira’s weapon of choice in her battle against the occupiers is the chakram (pictured below).

Serious points for the cover, which dares not to showcase the blonde skinny heroine, but I’m afraid I found this book derivative and bit ho-hum. The big plot twist was hugely predictable, there are too many info-dumps like “The Feni river gurgles off to my left, marking the northern border of Spring before it flows out to the Destas sea”, and fatally, the world-building is borderline silly. The evil guy is called Angra, the capital of Winter is Jannuari, and the Autumn Kingdom’s capital is Oktuber. Am I the only one who reads the last as an acceptable potato? The characters didn’t grab me at all, and so I flipped to the end to confirm my plot twist thesis before quitting this book midway.  One DNF out of 14 reads doesn’t seem too bad though.

The Traitor and The Tunnel by Y.S.Lee (Agency Series #3)

The Agency novels rank amongst my favorite YA works of all-time, and so I’m  hugely chuffed that I got a review copy of Lee’s latest novel way before the scheduled North American release, so I could review it for the Hong-Kong based Asian Review of Books.  Oh, the sweet life of a reviewer.  I’m also utterly delighted that  the Kingston-based Lee *just* won the 2011 Canadian Children’s Literature Award for these books.

***

The Traitor and the Tunnel is the third installment of Canadian author Y. S. Lee’s Agatha Award-nominated YA series The Agency, which features Mary Quinn, a teen detective for a Victorian-era secret spy agency staffed and run by women. The latest novel replicates the successful formula of its predecessors—Mary is assigned a minor case, which turns out to harbor myriad complications that involve her family secrets, and a run-in with the “better than handsome” James Easton. What’s not to like?

Mary is now posing as a housemaid to investigate a rash of thefts of trinkets and ornaments—in Buckingham Palace. She soon eavesdrops her way into a maze of royal secrets, including a nasty scandal surrounding the Prince of Wales, Albert Edward (Bertie to his family). While carousing with a titled friend at an opium den, Bertie set in motion (or at least witnessed) events that led to his friend’s murder by a Chinese sailor. The kicker: the sailor accused of murder shares Mary’s last name, and just might be her long-lost father. Mary has always kept her mixed-race heritage a secret, choosing to pass as black Irish, but she must now decide where her loyalties lie.

It takes a certain confidence for a writer (even one like Lee, with a PhD in Victorian literature and culture) to assign Queen Victoria and the future Edward VII major roles in a YA novel, and I’m happy to report that Lee succeeds brilliantly in bringing them to life—they are interesting people first and historical figures next. This book made research the Prince of Wales (on Wikipedia) where I discovered that he opposed votes for women, smoked twelve cigars a day, laid the cornerstone for Parliament Hill in Ottawa—and that his long list of mistresses included Winston Churchill’s mother. This history business is more interesting than I’d thought.

And what about James Easton, you ask, whom we last saw in The Body at the Tower, tut-tutting over Mary’s unsuitable childhood? Well, James has seen the error of assuming he’s CEO of the Moral Universe and begs Mary’s forgiveness by page 71, so we can like him again. James’s engineering firm has just been awarded a secret contract to repair the sewers of Buckingham Palace. When Mary finds a mysterious tunnel that’s not in James’s maps, the two must work together to figure out the purpose of a tunnel that leads nowhere. Will their third adventure together finally lead, you know, to romance? (Incidentally, well-aware that three coincidental run-ins are a tad much, Lee sets the stage for a more organic partnership for the couple in the future.)

The Traitor and the Tunnel is the most overtly feminist of Lee’s books thus far, exploring a wide range of women’s roles from Queen Victoria (arguably the most powerful person on the planet at that time) to an infinitely helpless domestic servant, and in each instance, Lee makes a strong case for financial independence as the key to a woman’s freedom. Mary truly comes into her own in this book as a courageous, principled woman, and Lee gives her some great lines—for instance in this scene when one of the Palace equerries attempts to molest her.

He wanted her [Mary] to struggle.

He wanted her to cry, to beg, to be terrified.

He hadn’t the first clue with whom he was dealing.

“You stupid little boy,” she said in a clear, acidic voice. “What d’you think Bertie’s going to say when I tell him what you’re trying to do?”

Instantly he went still.

[…] “You’ll lose your post of course. But there’ll also be the cost of paying me off. Do you have that sort of ready money? And there’s the scandal: you’ll have to explain things to your father. D’you really want to tell him that your entire family lost favour with the future king, all because you couldn’t keep your mitts off a parlour-maid?”

The Agency series is very deliberately constructed around the political and cultural climate of the era, and this book tackles the subject of Asians living in Victorian Britain. Whilst generations of Chinese peacefully made their homes in London, recent political events have led to attacks on their persons as well as their business interests, and Mary wonder whether Queen Victoria will be quite as concerned with justice when the man charged with murder is Chinese.

And as always, Lee injects her story with a wealth of information about the period, from the kind of cakes served at tea-time at Buckingham Palace (ooh, butterfly buns sound good) to the “flushers” who work in the royal sewers. The richness of detail, the intelligent writing, the intricate plots, and superbly-drawn characters elevate this series miles above most YA offerings on the shelves today; I’m delighted to hear this trilogy now has a fourth installment in store for its many devotees.

END

Spoilerish whine, not part of the original review: The only place where Lee didn’t quite carry me along was in the dissention between the founders of the Agency. The two owners, Anne and Felicity, disagree on whether to expand (and dilute the original vision), or to stay small but faithful to the dream of a woman-only organization, and ask Mary to choose whom she’d like to follow. (Typically, she finds a third way; this is Mary Quinn we’re talking about, Queen of the Daring Initiative.) I wish, though, that we knew more about the founders–they remain shadowy right till the end, and their split is thus largely academic as it is shorn of any personal history about the two women, which would have made their disagreement truly meaningful to the reader. I can’t help but wonder about the genesis of The Agency, and given the way this book ends,  I don’t think we’re going to learn much more. Sooooo…how about a prequel, Ying? And I bet the ever-multiplying horde of devotees will second my plea.

Jillian Tamaki’s illustrations

As you may know, I regularly review Asia-themed fiction for the Asian Review of Books. Two weeks ago, the ARB’s editor asked if I’d be interested in reviewing a YA novel called Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus. It didn’t really sound like my thing, but I clicked on the link, and I saw this cover illustration…

…and I immediately said yes. I don’t know if this computer image has the knock-out punch of the actual cover, which I’ve described in my review as follows: “I could gaze at Jillian Tamaki’s superb jacket illustration for hours; it’s as though we’re sitting in a glass-bottomed boat with the massive box of the whale’s head passing beneath.”

The blurb makes it sound like a Japanese version of The Coral Island, but the book is actually very excellent, and I’ll post my review once it appears on the ARB site. But the cover blew me away, and so I looked up the illustrator, the Canada-born, New York-based Jillian Tamaki. I discovered from her site that she’s not exactly unknown, and that she’s insanely talented.  The only point of this post is to introduce you to her work. Enjoy!

Here are some of Tamaki’s hand-embroidered covers for a new Penguin classics series. I. WANT. THEM.

All images from http://www.jilliantamaki.com/.

The Agency Series by Y.S.Lee

At the ripe age of twelve, Mary Lang thinks she’s seen it all. As an orphan in Victorian England, Mary has known little other than poverty and misery, and when she’s sentenced to hang for the crime of housebreaking, she almost welcomes death. But Mary is miraculously whisked away from the gallows to Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls. The Academy provides free education and the prospect of a decent livelihood to promising girls, and Mary’s intelligence and spirit have deemed her worthy of rescue.

But Miss Scrimshaw’s doesn’t just produce governesses and companions. The Academy is in fact The Agency — a secret organization of female investigators who use the prevailing stereotypes of weak, helpless women as the perfect cover for their work. Now seventeen, Mary jumps at the chance to join the Agency. After learning code-cracking, lock-picking, pugilism, and more, Mary is ready for her first assignment: to investigate a shipping merchant suspected of smuggling antiques from India. Henry Thorold is a connected with the East India Company and the Far East Trading Company, and his daughter Angelica needs a companion. Enter Mary, now calling herself Mary Quinn.

But what should be a routine investigation is complicated by Angelica’s hostility, and by the opinionated James Easton’s interference in Mary’s activities. And when the trail leads to a refuge for retired Lascars (Asian sailors), Mary finds unforeseen danger. Secrets she’s guarded since her childhood threaten to unravel; the truth would lead to her undoing in London society. Solving the mystery of Thorold’s activities will take all of Mary’s considerable wit and courage — and discretion.

My main issue with genre fiction set in Victorian England is the tendency of these books to trivialize the implications of Britain’s colonial activities — the Empire is colorful background for a story that would work just as well in another setting. A Spy in the House places the damage wrought by (mercantile) colonialism at the center of its plot. Thorold’s luxury is “built on the backs of merchant sailors. International trade and dangerous labor [were] an unacknowledged, invisible source of wealth”. The ships were often overloaded in order to save on costs, especially when they were crewed by Lascars; such ships, which sank often, earned the name coffin ships.

Lee’s narrative is mindful of historical accuracy at every turn. While the Agency is indeed pure fantasy, it is one calibrated to espouse a historically-believable vision of feminine power rather than merely cater to modern-day sensibilities. And while Mary is very much a feminist, she never comes across as an anachronism, for her behavior reflects her character rather than any ideology. So, in all, I was very glad to see Mary and The Agency again in the second book of the series, The Body at the Tower. The tower of the title is St. Stephen’s Tower, more widely known as the clock tower that houses Big Ben.

Construction of the tower is twenty-five years behind schedule, madly over budget, and dogged by trouble, and Mary, in the guise of a young boy, joins the work crew on the building site to investigate the mysterious death of one of the bricklayers. As expected, James Easton reappears in a meaty role, and things progress nicely between the two. Lee’s narrative strengths (she is adept at withholding information so as to make readers pant for more, without skimping on plot detail) and command of the period are evidenced yet again in this installment, and she honors her teen audience’s often under-rated intelligence with her attention to historical detail. But while The Body… works well as a stand-alone mystery, many tantalizing loose ends from the first book continue to dangle at the end of this one. I assume All Will Be Revealed in The Traitor and the Tunnel, the concluding part of this trilogy to be published later this year. It’s going to be a long hard wait.

This review appears in the current edition of The Asian Review of Books.

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A Spy in the House, The Body at the Tower by Y.S.Lee

Candlewick 2010

Genre: YA

Visit Lee’s website and blog here.

 

Two Indo-Canadian Tales of Transformation

Song of India by Mariellen Ward: I’ll admit to a jaundiced-verging-on-chrome  eye when reading travelogues about India. In my experience, such books either romanticize the country–it’s all Rajasthani palaces and IT fortresses–or they  condescend, wherein the writer, on the strengths of a few Indian friends and few Kingfishers too many, decides to explain the country to us ignorant folk. Ward’s book however, steers well away from such cliches; hence this review.

Song of India (2011) is a (self-published) collection of travel articles that appeared in a number of venues, including the Toronto Star. Ward, who lives in Toronto when she’s not traveling, combines a journalist’s eye for detail with an unapologetic passion for India, and the result is a splendidly personal account of the country’s transformation of her philosophy of life (and death). Ward’s experiences center around Yoga and spirituality, but her uplifting, informative  tales will appeal to Indophiles of all stripes. If, at times, I was skeptical about the ease of her travels–all hardship is self-imposed, and the author has apparently escaped (how?) diarrhea/sexual harassment/taxi drivers demanding five hundred rupees to reach the idli-stall round the corner–Ward herself acknowledges the magical quality of her relationship with the country.

The pieces could perhaps have been thematically arranged for a more cohesive read (the collection occasionally feels a tad scattershot), but Ward’s tensile prose, free of any hint of self-aggrandization, goes a long way in helping the reader overlook such minor flaws. After reading Song of India, you can’t help being glad for Ward for finding herself a happy place; would that all of us could. Ward conducts tours of India as well; on the basis of this book, I’d say you couldn’t find a better guide.

You can read more India-centric writing by Ward at her website.

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Maya Running by Anjali Banerjee:  It’s the 1970s, and as the only brown girl in her small Manitoba town, Maya faces incomprehension, scorn, and occasional racial slurs  for her Indian heritage. Then her cousin Pinky arrives from India, and suddenly, being Indian is cool, for Pinky is beautiful and accomplished, and unapologetic about her ethnicity. Maya is delighted–until Pinky catches the eye of the boy Maya likes.

Obviously, serious intervention is called for.  Maya prays to the (Hindu) God Ganesh to change things around, and Ganesh answers her prayers, but the beware-of-getting-what-you-ask-for clause kicks in. How Maya gets  things sorted provides the note of suspense to the story.

In the main, I was charmed by Maya Running.  The novel is sharply-written and deeply-felt, and while Banerjee doesn’t sugar-coat issues of racism, she doesn’t let it bog the plot down either. The magic realism (for want of a better term) was an unexpected and welcome touch–works like this are often predictable, conforming to the cultural-conflict-solving “issue” book mold, and I was very glad that Banerjee injected something new and fun into this genre. My only real issue was with the pacing of the story.  Ganesh’s machinations begin only midway through the novel, and then everything moves very fast; I felt Banerjee could have explored Maya’s altered reality in more detail, rather than hurtling towards the climax.  Having said that, I was impressed with this book overall.  Banerjee, who grew up in Manitoba and now lives in the USA (presumably in warmer climes), writes for adults as well, and I’ll be trying those books soon.

You can read more about Banerjee at her site. And here’s an interview with her on this month’s Bookslut.

Random Bookish Stuff #2

Sloughing off my dealings with ethically-challenged magazines and focusing on my upcoming reviews.

1. My review of TOK 5, a collection of stories and poems about immigrant Toronto, will appear in the forthcoming issue of This, a progressive Canadian magazine. Contributors to the anthology include M.G.Vassanji, Emma Donoghue, Shyam Selvadurai, Nalo Hopkinson, and several talented newbies. TOK 5 is published by Diaspora Dialogues, an organization which “supports the creation and presentation of new fiction, poetry and drama that reflect the complexity of the city [Toronto] through the eyes of its richly diverse writers. Publishing and mentoring activities, as well as a monthly multidisciplinary performance festival, help encourage the creation of a literature that is vibrant and inclusive, while bringing these works to a wide audience.”

What’s not to love?

2. The thing about books is that they’re made from mashed-up trees.  Eco-Libris is running a campaign to promote green books by reviewing “books printed on recycled paper or FSC-certified paper. [Their] goal is to use the power of the internet and social media to promote “green” books and increase the awareness of both readers and publishers to the way books can be printed printed in an eco-friendly manner.” so, on Nov. 10, “200 bloggers will take a stand to support books printed on environmental paper by simultaneously publishing reviews of 200 such books.”

I’m happy to be part of that multitude, and I’ll be reviewing Can’t Lit (ECW Press), a collection of edgy Canadian short stories. Yes, edgy can appear in the same sentence as CanLit, except the latter’s then called Can’t Lit. See?

3. I’m going to be reviewing Fauna by Alyssa York for Herizons, a Canadian feminist magazine.  From the publisher’s site: “The wide ravine that bisects the city is home to countless species of urban wildlife, including human waifs and strays. When Edal Jones can’t cope with the casual cruelty she encounters in her job as a federal wildlife officer, she finds herself drawn to a beacon of solace nestled in the valley under the unlikely banner of an auto-wrecker’s yard. Guy Howell, the handsome proprietor, offers sanctuary to animals and people alike: a half-starved hawk and a brood of orphaned raccoon kits, a young soldier whose spirit failed him during his first tour of duty, a teenage runaway and her massive black dog. Guy is well versed in the delicate workings of damaged beings, and he might just stand a chance at mending Edal’s heart.”

Damn, I wish they hadn’t made a point of mentioning Howell’s handsomeness. I suspect the book is a lot better than this sappy summary would have us believe.

4. I’m about a third into, and thus far enjoying, Aatish Taseer’s novel The Temple-Goers, a book firmly set in Delhi, a city I’ve spent much time in and mostly dislike. From the publisher: “A young man returns home to Delhi after several years abroad and resumes his place among the city’s cosmopolitan elite – a world of fashion designers, media moguls and the idle rich. But everything around him has changed – new roads, new restaurants, new money, new crime – everything, that is, except for the people, who are the same, only maybe slightly worse. Then he meets Aakash, a charismatic and unpredictable young man on the make, who introduces him to the squalid underside of this sprawling city. Together they get drunk and work out, visit temples and a prostitute, and our narrator finds himself disturbingly attracted to Aakash’s world. ”

I’m deleting the rest of the summary because it includes a spoiler. Whoever wrote it was really idiotic inconsiderate.

5. Just finished reading Laila Lalami’s beautifully-written Secret Son. From the publisher: “Youssef el-Mekki, a young man of nineteen, is living with his mother in the slums of Casablanca when he discovers that the father he believed to be dead is, in fact, alive and eager to befriend and support him. Leaving his mother behind, Youssef assumes a life he could only dream of: a famous and influential father, his own penthouse apartment, and all the luxuries associated with his new status. His future appears assured until an abrupt reversal of fortune sends him back to the streets and his childhood friends, where a fringe Islamic group, known simply as the Party, has set up its headquarters. ”

Before I write my review, I want to re-read Flaubert’s Sentimental Education–the two books seem intimately connected, and I suspect my piece would be incomplete otherwise.

6. I want to review about 10 other books before the year ends. So, starting today,  I’m not accepting any unsolicited requests for book reviews till next year. Please write to me in Jan. 2011 if you want me to consider reviewing your work.

7. Women’s Web is running a contest for blog posts on your fave female character in fiction.  Easy-peasy, and there are prizes! Visit their site for more information.

Fire by Kristin Cashore

Seeing as I loved Graceling, I was a twitchy wreck till I got my hands on Fire, the companion book.  If you’re wondering (as I was) as to what a companion book is: it’s kinda sorta related to the first, but not a prequel or sequel; the books are essentially independent of each other, but work nicely together (like  real companionship, eh?)

Fire is a human monster whose great and terrible beauty makes most men into dribbling idiots. Much of her allure is to do with her hair–a multi-hued crimson mane she covers  up  (cutting does not help, as it grows back within the hour). Fire has the ability to read and  influence minds, but she’s scared and ashamed of her power,  believing that her skills amount to trespass. And then, when war seems imminent, she must decide whether or not to use her powers to save the kingdom she lives in.

I found the central conceit of equating excessive beauty with  monstrosity so interesting.  Of course, my first thought was of the trope of beautiful women as dangerous objects causing men to risk life and limb and sanity. It’s a notion that pervades every culture–think of Helen of Troy or Sita or Mata Hari (of course, men tend to be absolved of blame for their actions in such scenarios).  Also, a woman’s hair has always been viewed as a device to seduce and ensnare men, which is why hats are worn in churches and Hindu widows, not long ago,  were required to shave their heads bald. So having Fire’s beauty so explicitly related to this feminist issue made me very excited as to Cashore’s plans for Fire.

Sadly, my excitement was interred by the fourth chapter. The main impression I have of Fire is that it was written in a rush. There are some brilliant ideas, some beautiful writing, but the book itself is bit inchoate.  Many themes–rape, illegitimacy, the imperative to procreate–are touched upon but not explored in enough depth, and after finishing the book, I felt Cashore hadn’t done justice to either her intelligence or skills in the  execution of her ideas.

(MILD SPOILERS ALERT)

I had three main issues with Fire.  First, the lack of character development for anyone but Fire. There’s  a huge cast of mostly unmemorable secondary characters–fathers, brothers, guards, illegitimate children, and animals. (Fire’s romantic interest Brigan, who is written flatter than a pancake, unfortunately falls into this category. ) And I didn’t find Fire all that appealing. Her self-doubt comes across as myopia, and her bravery seems more like sacrificial do-gooding designed to make the readers love her. For a monster, Fire is a lot like an EMO girl,  with a whiff of talk-show confessional about her “I forgive myself”. Also, to my dismay,  Cashore did very little with the hair and seduction trope. When Fire finally stops hiding her beauty, she does it with the purpose of beguiling the enemy into revealing their secrets. Ho hum, here we go…

And the romance, which is an essential part of this book, is a weak-kneed, weepy mess. Brigan is such an unmemorable character that I feel I air-kissed him at some party and then moved on; I actually had to look up the book to remember his name while writing this piece. Brigan doesn’t inhabit this book–he visits to show how brave and heroic he is, and then goes away somewhere to fight some more. The pacing of their relationship is so poor that I still don’t understand why he and Fire fell in love. Oh, and I hate that there’s a misunderstanding of the “keep away from my brother, monster” sort followed by  “I can’t help myself” love. I hate that Brigan falls in love with Fire when she is weeping in distress–she’s saved him from death, saved his army from being eaten by monster raptors, but somehow, she’s most lovable when she’s vulnerable?  Yuck. And then there’s lines like “I don’t want to love you if you’re only going to die,” [Fire] cried, burying her face in his arm. “I don’t love you. ” The restraint that made the romance in Graceling so powerful is grievously absent in Fire.

And the plotting was just meh. There’s a war, because there needs to be a war in such books,  you know? I feel as though Cashore needed a conflict to heighten Fire’s situation and plumped on war as an easy solution. There’s no attempt to make us acquainted with the perpetrators–it’s just a bunch of greedy kings with weird names who covet Brigan’s kingdom, and I frankly didn’t give a damn who won. I was also really irritated with the series of reveals towards the end of the book. The whole  raison d’être of a reveal is that it makes the reader re-look at everything she believed about the prior narrative; a reveal that causes no shift in the reader’s perceptions of the characters’ behaviors and actions is redundant. The last third of Fire, IMO, was peppered with pointless reveals. Graceling was a character-driven story, but Fire relies on plot twists for most of its momentum.

(END OF SPOILERS)

As I said earlier, there is much that is good about the book, notably some really skilled prose,  and I’m still a Cashore fanwoman.  I won’t be revisiting Fire though; I’m pinning my hopes instead on the third installment–Bitterblue,  out in 2011. Bring back the magic, please!

Note: The only character from Graceling who appears in Fire is Leck, and a child Leck at that, and only peripherally. The book doesn’t have any other connections to Graceling, apart from a brief mention of the Seven Kingdoms, so if you are looking for more Katsa, you’ll have to wait for Bitterblue.

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

I’ve been reading a lot of paranormal YA fiction lately, and I’ve been struck by the gendering of the powers authors bestow upon their protagonists. The hero’s powers usually involve him turning into a  vampire/werewolf/Hound of Hell, often against his will. The heroine  communicates with ghosts, finds dead bodies, reads minds.  I’ve concluded that there’s a basic rule in this genre: thou shalt never grant a heroine a power that diminishes her looks. Show me a book where a girl grows  a snout or sprouts facial hair, please.  And: the hero’s powers will enhance his “masculine” traits–strength, speed, night vision; he will never be allocated  a “feminine” power like empathy, or serenity.

So I am thrilled to have read a YA book that shoves all these notions into the bonfire of the stereotypes.

Katsa is a Graceling, a person possessing a special talent known as a Grace. Katsa’s  particular Grace is killing. We’re not talking about death rays or Avada Kedavra here–Katsa kills by being fast and strong and brutal, snapping necks by the time her opponent locates his sword hand. Oh, and she’s eighteen.

(This part has some spoilerish bits, beware.)

Ever since she was eight, Katsa has been the cat’s paw for her uncle the king, intimidating the rebellious into following his orders. But the day comes when she sickens of her role and her Grace, and refuses to carry out the king’s orders. At this time she meets Po, a prince from a neighboring kingdom Graced with fighting skills. Po is searching for his missing grandfather, and Katsa decides to accompany him on a  quest to find the abductors. Along the journey,  they learn some surprising things about their world, and their respective Graces, which are not what they seem. At all.

(End of spoilers, which do not extend beyond the first fourth of the book, I promise.)

And here are the reasons why I recommend this book.

1.  The lack of emphasis on Katsa’s looks.  She’s a fighter, her face gets messed up. Period. When she cuts off her hair, we don’t have a character reassuring her that it brings out her cheekbones or makes her look like a tulip.  She just cuts the damn mess off because it gets in the way. It’s probably a buzz cut.

2. Strong, memorable protagonists made unique by who they are rather than any gimmicky mannerisms. Graceling is the antidote to books where the author seems to have doled out one trait per character as though allocating chores (patient dad! nervy mom!). Katsa’s Grace is the least of who she is.

3. No sappy gender roles played out by the protagonists. No forced end where the boy saves “his” girl, even if the girl is super-powered and the boy is Joe the apprentice plumber. Graceling subverts almost everything  I find disappointing about this genre.

4. Recognition that marriage and children are not the ultimate aim for all. No passive-aggressive judgements on right and wrong in matters of personal choice. No privileging of heterosexual relationships. Are Banf and Raffin a gay couple or just friends? I don’t know, and really, it doesn’t matter to the story.

5. No misunderstandings, love interests introduced solely to evoke jealousy in the protagonists, or teenage angst. A believably-paced relationship. No big reveal that we guessed long ago anyway.  In sum, no cliches. When was the last time….

6. The quality of the prose.  There isn’t a single passage that is not owned by this book and this book alone. All my other paranormal YA reads featured numerous  interchangeable passages–substitute werewolf for vampire or blue for hazel eyes, and they were essentially the same book. Cashore  actually makes her words count.

7. A most potent romance that includes an understated but very hot scene, which actually highlights the minds of the characters rather than their bodies.

8. A thumping good plot of the old-fashioned kind. A cause worth fighting for, truly creepy villain, genuine obstacles to struggle with, and satisfyingly scary climax.  If I did find some plot holes (are there no deaf people in Monsea?) I am more than willing to overlook them because of 1-7.

How good is the book? When I finished Graceling, I flipped it over to begin reading again.  If I were fourteen, I’d probably get a Katsa tattoo. Read it now. And then buy a copy for all the budding feminists you know.

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Harcourt Children’s Books 2008

Genre: YA paranormal

Devil’s Kiss by Sarwat Chadda

Bilquis SanGreal is fifteen, female and a modern-day Knight Templar, fighting the Unholy in between avoiding detention and the mean girls clique, and feeling like, you know, that no-one *really* understands her.  

Holy crap, what a hook. It’s been a long time since I fell so hard for a book soley for its premise (and a wicked cool  cover). 

Devils Kiss

Bilquis’s father Arthur is the Master of the modern-day Knights Templar, a group who fight the Unholy to protect humanity against evil, for no reward or recognition.  Bilquis (who goes by Billi) has had a pretty miserable life thus far. Her mother was murdered by ghouls when she was five, and, she was co-opted into the Templars by her father when she was ten. Since then, she’s been studying fighting techniques, ancient Latin and Greek and the occult arts along with regualr schoolwork, and now she’s now an active member of the Templars, banishing the undead back to their  realm. Then comes the biggest danger of them along…adolesense. And Billi must figure out whether she wants to be a Templar or whether she’d rather hang out with cute tattooed boys in malls–and what she’s willing to sacrifice in either case. 

Flipness aside, Billi’s dawning sexuality is at the heart of this novel, for it is key to the Templars’ fight against the Unholy. Chadda foreshadows the dangers of  sexual desire in an episode where one of Billi’s chief tormentors at school is revealed to be pregnant, whereby her social position is destroyed immediately. Billi struggles to contain her own desires, which are fraught with potentially dire consequences, for they cloud her judgement at the most critical of times. But Chadda also shows that salvation–for Billi, for the Templars, and for the entire human race, ultimately lies in love. Whether sexual or romantic or maternal, love is indeed dangerous precisely because of the immense potentialities it contains.     

There’ so much to like about this book. Bilquis is half Muslim (her mom is Pakistani, her dad (white) British)–a much-needed dash of diversity in the mostly monochromatic world of YA paranormal fiction.  And although much of the conflict is framed in the language of Christianity, Chadda doesn’t exalt (any) religion–the Templars are mostly happy to use anything that helps them in the fight between good and evil.  One of the Knights works with a Sufi mystic to hone his occult powers. The Templars’ wards against evil include a (Jewish) mezuzah. Vedic (Hindu) astrological charts are consulted to figure out the best time to go to battle. And Billi’s father “had told her that believing in God isn’t the same as believing in religion. …the prayers, the exorcism rites and the crucifixes worked in their fight, so Billi had learned them in the same way she learned the sword.” All this makes me…happy. 

Devil’s Kiss is one of those novels that begs for translation into film or a game–lots of swords and axes, rooftop and catacomb fights, and last-minute swoop’nsaves.  And just like those films, the action gets a bit repetitive at times, and  comes at the cost of character development (more on that later). But first, props to Chadda for never making the violence cool; in fact, the first scene sets out how the Templars’ work makes Billi “sick and hollow”. And it’s not just the wicked who die, but the innocent too, right down to little babies. While the idea of being a bad-ass killer is indeed seductive, speaking directly to the sense of powerlessness that many teens struggle with, Chadda is careful to show the devastating toll the violence takes on Billi’s emotional life. Much as you may admire Bilquis, you don’t want to be her.  

I’d love to have praised this book without reservations, but it was not to be–none of the characters, not even Bilquis, were fleshed out to my satisfaction. Yep, I get that she’s angry she has so little control over her life. But all of her actions are predicated around this rather obvious fact and not much more, with the result Billi’s a two-dimensional creature, with sulks and sword-weilding skills and little else. Chadda just doesn’t give us enough about her to like her, let alone make that vital leap into empathy. And once you get past the Knight Templar job description, Biquis is an ordinary teen with ordinary woes, and Chadda has little that’s new or exciting to say about the latter. 

Plot holes further undermine Billi’s character development.  I can’t discuss most them without awful spoilers, but here’s a big gaping chasm: Billi’s  been trained to kill the undead, to battle unarmed with werewolves and dark angels, and she’s overpowered by three untrained yobs on a London train? Worse, the entire episode is a weak contrivance to introduce another character–a handsome guy steps in and saves her.  Devil’s Kiss can seem formulaic at times, and some plot turns are so close to the Harry Potter series that I was surprised the editors didn’t remark on it. 

In sum, I’d say Devil’s Kiss more than delivers on premise, and would make a great game. But the execution is rushed, and I think the book might not quite satisfy those (like me) who like their stories driven by character rather than action setpieces. Is it wrong to wish that Phillip Pullman had written this book?

Devils’ Kiss by Sarwat Chadda 

(Hyperion Book CH (September 1, 2009)

Genre: YA

The sequel to Devil’s Kiss, titled Dark Goddess, will be out July 2010. Will I read it? Heck, yes!

Devil’s Kiss is one of my books for the POC Reading Challenge, which encourages us to read more books by people of color. Please visit them at POC Reading Challenge.

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You may have noticed some changes in the blog’s appearance. The font was way too small for my poor old eyes, so I’ve gone with a theme that provided more readable text. The books on the header are from my bookshelf. I also thought I’d provide some details about the book  reviewed at the end of each post.  And I’m trying to post more regularly, aiming for two a week. Let’s see how that  pans out…

Seventeen and Sikh after 9/11: Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger

Buy now from Amazon!Seventeen-year-old Samar has never thought about “Isms,” but 9/11 changes all that. When Samar’s long-lost uncle visits her New Jersey home a few days after the attacks, the two are pursued by racist taunts and shouts of “Osama” from boys who’ve known Samar since kindergarten. For Samar is Sikh, from an Indian community whose religion (Sikhism) requires its followers to not cut their hair; Samar’s uncle hence wears a turban.

Samar’s mom Sharan, an atheist who has long been estranged from her family, has always taught Samar that race and religion are inconsequential—good grades and good decisions lead to success in America. But 9/11 rams Samar’s “happily assimilated Indian-American butt… into the cold seat of reality.” Samar no longer believes Sharan’s wisdom, but wonders about her too-convenient ignorance of her roots. Is she a coconut—a wannabe white person, brown on the outside but white inside?

As Samar tries to explore her Sikh heritage, her social circles come undone. Mother, BFF, boyfriend—every relationship seems to sour as Samar wonders what her ethnicity could mean to her. Samar’s boyfriend Mike, for instance, pretty much tells her to pass as Hispanic:

“When I first met you, I thought you were Mexican.”

My voice comes out as a gravelly whisper. “But I’m not. I’m Indian-American, just like my mom… and Sikh, like my uncle.”

“Who has to know?” he says.

I look out the window on my side.

“Me. I know.”

What is the cost of assimilation? What are the penalties for not conforming with the norms of the majority culture? Is there more than one way to be American? Meminger spells these questions out in as many words, and her clean prose and unfussy approach are perfect for Shine, Coconut Moon’s weighty themes. When Samar decides to learn more about her religion, she doesn’t go to some generic wise crone, but Google. She finds answers to her questions about Sikhism in a chatroom (her handle is JerseyCoconut). I can hear hundreds of Indian-American teens sighing in gratitude as they read this book. Someone out there actually understands! All adults aren’t idiots!

Meminger’s agenda for her work is evident from about the fifth page. In no way is my observation a criticism—I’m glad, glad, glad to see a YA novel tackling this topic head-on. And for all its apparent simplicity, this tale is beautifully nuanced. Sharan is a single mom, a self-confident rebel who turned her back on her heritage for understandable reasons—uber-controlling, parochial parents. When Samar starts looking to her past, Sharan is bewildered, and cannot help viewing her daughter’s actions as a betrayal of her hard-won independence. (Yay, an Asian mother who isn’t an arranged marriage-promoting kitchen goddess of spice!)

The novel has too many layers to unpeel in this review, but I must mention the author’s quiet rebuke of those who refuse to ‘see’ racism because they consider themselves color-blind. Shine also has many interesting subtexts. For instance Samar’s class is reading The Great Gatsby, and the reader can’t help but compare that story of the failure of the American dream against the present moment, notably Samar’s realization that her own American dream—the assumption that race does not matter—may not be completely true.

I cannot stress strongly enough that Meminger never champions the primacy of religious identity over other loyalties or affiliations. Sharan’s rejection of her heritage is presented as a reasoned and hence valid decision; Samar is now making a similar informed choice. Meminger’s ultimate vision is for Samar to possess the knowledge and the courage to choose her identity—whatever shape that might take.

And what could be more American than that?

(This review appears in the current issue of Eclectica magazine.)