Book Report: Recent Reads

Spoiler Alert as per usual

Children of Blood and Bone

Children Blood Bone pic

In the second-world kingdom of Orisha, magic has been brutally suppressed. Its king, Saran, lives in perpetual fear that it will rise again, and he persecutes all those who would have potential to practice it — diviners, as they’re generally called, or “maggots,” as bigots call them, distinguishable from ordinary people by their white hair. He has found a scroll that may hold the power to bring back magic, but he has to conduct a test to see what it can do. To that end, he orders his daughter’s white-haired maidservant/companion, Binta, brought to him under guard. Once she’s served her purpose, he kills her without hesitation. She’s collateral damage, and the fact that she’s very dear to his daughter, Amari, means nothing to him. She’s only a “maggot,” after all.

This is what evil looks like in Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone — raging hatred borne of fear, an “us” vs. “them” antagonism that tags “them” as subhuman. The central protagonist is Zelie, a diviner who remembers seeing her mother slaughtered by the king’s soldiers, and the memory nourishes her own rage. Thus hatred begets itself.

But hope is not lost. The princess Amari, broken-hearted by Binta’s murder, steals the scroll from her father and flees the palace. She and the fierce, bitter Zelie forge a tenuous alliance and embark on a journey to resurrect magic and overthrow the king. They’re pursued by the prince, Inan, his father’s favorite and quite the slave to his father’s good opinion, determined to retrieve the scroll, despite being a secret diviner himself.

Of the three main characters, Zelie is the easiest sell for me, a tough, outspoken risk-taker whom we first meet at a fighting lesson. When she learns of the possibility that magic might be restored to her country, she leads the leads the charge in that direction; here we have a flawed but on-the-whole good character who actively seeks to become empowered rather than feeling frightened by the prospect and wishing she were normal. At the same time, she recognizes the dangers inherent in magical power. She knows that she and her fellow maji must not become the very thing their persecutors fear.

While I expected I would like Zelie and was not disappointed, Amari surprised me. In the course of my reading I lost patience with her more than once, but having finished the book I can appreciate her as the one whose rebellious action sets the whole plot in motion and who does the most growing throughout the story. She engages my sympathy as someone who, at the book’s outset, loses the only person who has ever shown her kindness or love. She’s a naturally loving person who wants to be loved and valued in turn. Thankfully she finds Zelie and her brother Tzain, and earns their affection and respect. The friendship that grows between Zelie and Amari is the book’s most satisfying relationship.

What I disliked about the book can be summed up in a single word: Inan. His situation as someone who loathes and fears magic despite (or perhaps because of) his own powers is an interesting one. He seeks to destroy that part of himself that would divide him from his father and his people, and as such he could have made a compelling villain, the kind you can’t help admiring even while you root for him to fail. Unfortunately, what we end up getting is a drawn-out bad boy/good girl romance between him and Zelie. If at times it seems like it just might work, his weather-vane loyalties — and the way he falls for his father’s mind tricks every single time, even after he’s seen the man torture the girl he supposedly loves — make him the worst love interest imaginable. His act near the end of the book is so clearly a deal-breaker that I found myself frustrated at the amount of page time devoted to this ill-advised relationship.

All the same, I liked the book far more than I disliked it. It sticks its landing, letting the readers see both Zelie and Amari at their most powerful at the climax, and thus making us anxious to learn where they will both go from here. I’m already impatient for the next book in the series.

 

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Avengers: Infinity War — What I Loved, What I Loved Less

Warning: Spoilers! Lots of them!

Confession: I hated Doctor Strange.

My chief reasons center on the movie’s last fifteen minutes or so. The wizards of the New York sanctum, headed by Wong, are preparing for battle with the villain. These wizards are a diverse lot, plenty of POC and women, and I smiled to think of them all kicking butt at the climax. But the scene cuts away, and when we rejoin Wong, and Strange asks where his team is, he answers with a shrug, and without the slightest hint of grief, that he’s the only one left. All those people have just disappeared, without a tear shed on their behalf. This is bad enough. What makes it worse is that the gender-flipped (cool), whitewashed (not cool) Ancient One has already fallen victim to Mentor Occupational Hazard, and once the villain’s two henchwomen are duly dispatched, female wizards have effectively been wiped from the face of the earth.

The only woman of significance left alive at the end is another underwritten Little Miss Normal, who in this film exists primarily to get treated like crap by the hero. With only a tweak or two, Dr. Christine Palmer might have been awesome. After all, her primary action is to perform a very difficult operation successfully and thus save the hero’s life, all while supernatural eruptions are happening all around her. But instead of highlighting her courage at this moment, the movie chooses to put tight focus on her tremulous confusion, and to play it for laughs, so that when she should have been seen as most bad-ass, she comes across instead as ineffectual, a crushingly ordinary woman who couldn’t have a place in the extraordinary life the hero must now lead. Most of the movie’s champions don’t hesitate to name her as the weak link.

All in all, I’d call Doctor Strange the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most dismal failure where gender representation is concerned, even worse than Thor: The Dark World (in which Jane, despite being helpless for most of the film, at least gets her chance to be heroic in the final act). Yet I accuse the MCU here not of malice, but of misjudgment. Those in charge doubtless felt that by making the Ancient One a woman, they would satisfy the audience’s desire for an awesome female character. Yet frankly I’d rather Wong have been gender-flipped (though not whitewashed) instead. Then at least there would have been one female wizard left standing at the end.

What does this have to do with the MCU’s newest blockbuster, Avengers: Infinity War? Simply that it didn’t make the best impression on me, despite the praise it received from friends whose opinion I trust. Doctor Strange and Wong are among the first characters to appear (after a prologue that slaps a grim coda onto Thor: Ragnarok‘s hopeful finish), and residual ill feeling from Strange’s solo film spilled over onto this one. To make matters worse, the first female superhero we see, Gamora, doesn’t show up for over thirty minutes into the movie. Up to that point, except for the brief appearances of a lady super villain and Iron Man’s anxious significant other Pepper, it’s all dudes, all the time.

Thankfully, things get better.

Gamora shows up, and afterwards, Scarlet Witch gets a cool action sequence. Then, at last, Black Widow appears on the scene. No longer distracted by excessive testosterone or residual Doctor Strange-hate, I could settle in and enjoy the new movie. And I did enjoy it, overall. There is much to like, as our multitude of heroes unite to defeat Thanos, a villain who believes he’s doing good by culling by half the population of every planet where he sets foot. The fight against Thanos, the King of Collateral Damage, is everyone’s fight, and all our favorite MCU heroes — even Mantis, who disappointed me bitterly in Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 — get at least one chance to shine. The latter point is, for me, the film’s chief virtue.

A few more things I loved:

  1. The action rarely lets up. I was never bored.
  2. Captain America: Civil War badly underutilized Scarlet Witch, but here she gets a bigger share of the action and a chance to show how deadly she can be.
  3. Everything Wakanda is full of win. I have high hopes that General Okoye of the Dora Milaje will carve a more substantial place for herself in the MCU as a whole. As for Black Panther himself… well, his ending isn’t happy, but unless Black Panther 2 turns out to be a prequel, we know he’ll somehow be all right.
  4. Speaking of the deaths en masse at the end: even though our common sense tells us most of them are only temporary, they still carry emotional weight. The MCU would be insane to kill Spider-Man, the comics’ most popular character, for good when they only recently won the rights to use him. Yet still, Peter Parker’s terror at feeling himself on the verge of turning to dust — “I don’t feel so good” — is absolutely heartbreaking.
  5. Captain Marvel is coming! Good signaling, movie!

But I did have problems, which, like my issues with Doctor Strange, spring more from misjudgment than from malice. Avengers 4 will have some things to prove.

First, while nearly all the characters get their chance in the spotlight, the white male ones do seem to dominate. The movie leads with them, as Doctor Strange, Iron Man, and Spider-Man get the first big action sequence. Also, in bringing all the MCU’s important figures together in one film, we get to see them interact with those outside their own sub-groups of friends and allies, yet while we get lengthy sequences of Iron Man and Doctor Strange bantering (a “goatee-off,” as NPR’s Glen Weldon calls it) and Thor traveling through space with Rocket Raccoon, the female characters interact only briefly with those outside their group. We do get an awesome scene of female solidarity in which Okoye, Black Widow, and Scarlet Witch team up to take down a villainess, but they exchange very little dialogue. Gamora, arguably the movie’s most important female character, exchanges only a few short words with Thor, and afterwards never interacts with any of the heroes outside her accustomed sphere. My hopes for face time between her and Black Widow, or Doctor Strange and Scarlet Witch, went unfulfilled. On the whole, this lack serves as a reminder that the MCU’s women haven’t really had a chance to carry the action independently of their teams.

Second, it’s obvious the bulk of this movie was made before anyone had much of a clue that Black Panther would become the phenomenon it eventually did. T’Challa had already intrigued me in another big-team film, Captain America: Civil War, so even if his solo film hadn’t happened yet, I would still be disappointed with how little screen time he gets.

Third, I know Captain America and Black Widow are in this movie, but beyond Widow’s helping Okoye and Scarlet Witch dispatch the evil Proxima Midnight, I couldn’t tell you what they do. Blink and you’ll miss them.

Finally, while again I know most of the people turned into dust will come back, here are a few stats I find bothersome:

  1. The Guardians of the Galaxy now consist of Rocket Raccoon.
  2. Both major heroes of color, Black Panther and Falcon, are gone.
  3. Black Widow is now once again the Avengers’ Smurfette.

True, Okoye remains, and with very little training she could easily take up a superhero’s mantle. Since we didn’t actually see Black Panther’s sister Shuri turn to dust, I insist she’s still alive and could become Black Panther, at least until her brother’s resurrection. (Or maybe they could both be Black Panther?) If I see these things in Avengers 4, that will salve the ache. But in the next film, Cap and Black Widow had better get some meaningful screen time, and we’d better see what was so conspicuously absent from Doctor Strange — mourning for the fallen.

And a Starbucks sign being raised in Wakanda.

 

Book Report: Recent Reads

Anthony Ryan, The Waking Fire (Warning: Spoilers)

Waking Fire

Ryan is a rising star in fantasy; praise blurbs on the cover of this opening volume of the Draconis Memoria series call him the heir-apparent of the late David Gemmell. Though the popular Raven’s Shadow trilogy came before it, this is my first experience with his work. I was drawn to it when several Goodreads reviewers named the novel’s female lead, Lizanne Lethridge, as their favorite character. They described her as a “female James Bond,” so naturally I had to make her acquaintance. As far as she was concerned, the book didn’t disappoint.

The story concerns the Ironship Trading Company, a kind of “econo-mocracy” in which sailing ships have names like Viable Opportunity. Trouble is brewing between this nation and its neighbor, an Empire keen on doing what Empires generally do, that is, add nations to its ranks. Its best line of defense are the “blood-blessed,” people who acquire special powers by drinking the blood of the drakes (supposedly non-sentient dragons) that are hunted and harvested. Ryan presents us with three point-of-view characters: spy Lizanne, street tough Clay, and steady, practical sailor Hilemore, the only one of the three who isn’t blood-blessed. Each POV sequence has its own distinct feel, with Lizanne in a drama of political intrigue, Clay in a trek through the jungle, and Hilemore in a seafaring adventure involving pirates and betrayal. At the very end, the plotlines intersect.

Put simply, The Waking Fire is a lot of fun. The prose is brisk and solid. The action rarely lets up. The figure of “the White,” a draconic Moby Dick both desired and feared, and as the threat from abroad escalates, our protagonists are faced with a possibility that could turn their society upside down: the drakes may not be as non-sentient as originally thought, and they just might be out for revenge. Even while we hope they’ll succeed in protecting themselves and those closest to them, it’s hard not to think that revenge is a little bit justified.

The weakest point is Hilemore’s storyline. In and of itself, it’s actually quite interesting, as our straight-arrow “normal” hero must form an alliance with a pirate queen who’s one of his country’s Most Wanted. But while Lizanne and Clay interact telepathically at regular intervals as they move through their separate plot threads, Hilemore is on his own, and no sooner do we start to care about him and the fearless Zenida Okanas than they disappear from the book and remain out of sight throughout the exciting last third. It’s as if Ryan takes the trouble to develop Hilemore and his situation, only to decide he doesn’t really know what to do with him. What role he’ll play in the next book, we can’t be sure.

But as you might expect, Lizanne makes the book for me. The moment we meet her, we learn she isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty in the service of her government, but there are certain lines she won’t cross; when she’s ordered to kill Tekela, a spoiled-rotten daughter of privilege who has seen too much, she refuses, instead becoming a mentor to the girl, who improves measurably under her guidance. When her own mentor turns out to be a duplicitous double agent and meets her end between the jaws of a drake, Lizanne steps up and takes charge of the defense of her city, and proves an awesomely competent authority figure. More active than acted upon, adept at thinking on her feet, she’s a satisfying heroine to read about, and I look forward to seeing how she’ll handle the next crisis she has to face.

My Top 25 Fantasy Novels/Series of the 21st Century

With a brief explanation of each.

25. The Emperor’s Soul (Brandon Sanderson). Shai, artist and forger and eventual hero, is my favorite of all Sanderson’s female characters.

24. The Second Mistborn Trilogy (Brandon Sanderson). This series of books solves its predecessor’s Smurfette problem.

23. The Books of Pellinor (Allison Croggon). YA fantasy on an epic scale, with a female musician as its protagonist. Music + Magic = Delight.

22. The Books of the Raksura (Martha Wells). For this immersive epic series, Wells creates a cast of nonhuman characters that readers can relate to.

21. Dhulyn and Parno (Violette Malan). Inseparable friends and occasional lovers, this female/male mercenary duo always have each other’s backs.

20. Scriber (Ben S. Dobson). One of the few fantasy novels to focus on the growth of a 100% friendship between a man and a woman — in this case, a reclusive scholar and a battle-leader.

19. Elantris (Brandon Sanderson). Bookish diplomat-princess Sarene is my kind of heroine, one who won’t stop even when she’s at a disadvantage.

18. Cygnet (Patricia McKillip). McKillip writes some of the most breathtaking prose in the genre, and her two female leads in this duology, one a sorceress and the other a fighter, are nothing less than awesome.

17. The Shadowed Sun (N.K. Jemisin). This involving, often disturbing tale focuses on a shy cleric who grows from self-doubter to full-on badass.

16. The Fifth Season (N.K. Jemisin). I’ve only read this first book of the Broken Earth series, but I’m already highly invested in its powerful lead character.

15. City of Stairs (Robert Jackson Bennett). Another series I’m just starting, this one touches on the nature of faith and divinity and an intriguing clash of cultures.

14. Bitter Greens (Kate Forsyth). A skillful blend of fantasy (a retelling of “Rapunzel”) and historical fiction (the story of French author Charlotte-Rose de la Force).

13. The Curse of Chalion (Lois McMaster Bujold). This story of a queen’s rise to power features one of my favorite male protagonists in SFF.

12. Paladin of Souls (Lois McMaster Bujold). The sequel to #13, this one features one of the most unique female protagonists in SFF, and also one of my favorite endings.

11. Among Others (Jo Walton). A coming-of-age tale centering on an imaginative nerd girl — how could I not love that?

10. Uprooted (Naomi Novik). I’m very fond of this novel’s underdog hero and its vividly detailed descriptions of magic.

9. The Spiritwalker Trilogy (Kate Elliott). An epic fantasy with a steampunk touch, this one features some gorgeous world-building and an endearing female buddy pair.

8. Black Wolves (Kate Elliott). Exciting, disturbing, satisfying — where is this book’s sequel, already? My hands ache to hold it.

7. The Golem and the Jinni (Helene Wecker). Wecker’s masterful prose in this historical novel with fantasy elements makes me both ambitious (I want to be a better writer!) and frustrated (can I ever measure up?).

6. The Twelve Houses (Sharon Shinn). This criminally underrated series tells an epic story with an intimate feel.

5. The Shadow Campaigns (Django Wexler). I’ve praised this series multiple times already.

4. The Eternal Sky Trilogy (Elizabeth Bear). Exquisite prose brings a magnificent Arabian Nights landscape to life.

3. Who Fears Death (Nnedi Okorafor). Warning: this one is very dark, almost painful to read at times. But its immense power can’t be denied.

2. The First Sevenwaters Trilogy (Juliet Marillier). This series features lovely, dreamlike prose and three generations of resilient women.

And finally… The Stormlight Archive (Brandon Sanderson). This series may not feature the most gorgeous prose or the most edgy characterizations, but it practically defines Epic Fantasy. Also, Dalinar and Jasnah Kholin, Kaladin, Syl, and Lift are in it.