Crimson Bound by Rosamund Hodge

crimson bound

Standalone, Balzer+Bray, 2015, 436 pgs.

In the days of old, the Devourer ruled the world, hunting humans in the darkness before Tyr and Zisa stole the sun and moon from him and bound him in his own realm. Not that things are perfectly safe now; The Forest, the dark world that lurks just behind our reality is still there. And the Devourer may be bound, but his servants, the forestborn, still hide in the shadows, waiting to tempt those who would stray off the path and mark them as bloodbound, cursed creatures who must kill to survive and who will eventually lose their human hearts to become forestborn themselves. Rachelle should know, she was trained to protect against them before she became one of them. Now, instead of weaving charms to ward them off, she fights for the king as a bloodbound herself, using her preternatural strength and speed to atone for her crimes in any way she can. Because the Forest is becoming stronger, the forestborn becoming more active, and signs are saying that the Devourer is about to reawaken. And, however much she has given herself to the darkness, Rachelle has still never lost the idealistic girl who deliberately stepped off the path, looking for the information needed to destroy him completely.

I love a good fairytale retelling; I know I’ve said that before when talking about “stories about stories,” but really, there are multiple ways a story about stories can go. A well-done fairytale retelling has a charm all its own, and seeing what an author chooses to keep or change from a particular tale can lead to endless analysis on endless variations.

What can I say? I like thinking about story evolution, and that urge is especially satisfied in a novel where the author is pulling from about five different tales, using and reworking some fairytale ideas that I’ve never even seen brought up in current novels, and mixing in some modern genre tropes to create something that has some of the most nicely layered lore that I’ve ever seen.

And while all that sounds spectacular, I’m going to be frank here and say outright that this only gave me about half of what I was looking for from it. I picked the novel up initially because I’d read a short story by the author and was hoping something long-form could capture the same amount of poetry and drive that did.

Which Crimson Bound does, to a certain extent. The book is split between the main story of our heroine, Rachelle, and little snippets of the world’s backstory with Tyr and Zisa. Those backstory pieces are everything I wanted here: dreamy and fable-like and timeless. The ending of each one felt like a punch to the gut, as each bit of information revealed forced you to reevaluate what was happening and who this world’s heroes really were.

The writing on the bulk of the main plot is a little more prosaic, unfortunately. It’s not bad at all, but in a novel that I picked up for the writing style, the back and forth between the two was a little galling.

The plot, too, plays into some YA tropes that I’m not that fond of. I could have done without the love triangle, even if this one was far less annoying than they usually are, and after the first couple of chapters Rachelle changes from a reckless girl who wants to be a hero, which is exactly the sort of character I like, to a more standard jaded, angry protagonist.

That’s not to say any of this is badly done. It’s all fine, and I don’t know if I would have even noticed it in a novel where the first fifteen pages weren’t so absolutely tailored to me. Once that sort of perfection was established though, the fact that I didn’t get more of it was a little disappointing.

Just a little, though. Minor problems aside, this is generally strong and put together beautifully.

The plot is fun and interesting, and Hodge is, at least in this book, incredibly talented at ending a segment of the story at exactly the right place to make a reader want more. She manages, in this, to give a plot that actually has fairly little action more than enough page-turning tension. Even where there is some padding in the main plotline, the tantalizing little pieces of Tyr and Zisa’s backstory keep things moving.

The mystery and treasure hunt aspects of this are well done, too. I was actually surprised by the ultimate hiding place of the magic sword Rachelle spends most of the book looking for, and being caught off guard that much in a novel is something that’s becoming rarer and rarer in my old age.

And the opening may have skewed my expectations for the characters, but I can’t say they were badly done at all. A large portion of her arc is about Rachelle learning that she doesn’t have to be perfectly pure and innocent to be that reckless girl who wants to save the world, that sometimes understanding darkness can help in defeating it.

So, while I may have wanted a novel about who she was at the beginning, rather than the bitter, almost hopeless person she became after a couple of chapters, I can’t say I came away completely disappointed on that front. The tension between the two states actually adds some nice layers to the character; I can appreciate a lead that sometimes wants to slap people for being blindly happy, even as she wants to protect them.

The rest of the characters follow suit with the same depth. Armand, who plays the stupid dandy at court ends up being the moral center of the novel, and la Fontaine, who comes off as the mean-girl bully at first has a similar arc. Even Erec, who from the get-go is portrayed as despicable is fun in his horribleness; he’s written with the sort of life that means the author didn’t just create him to be a moralistic plot device, and actually enjoyed writing the character.

His awfulness is never used to undercut how personally important he is to Rachelle, either, which is a complexity I like to see a novel balance. That sort of complexity in the relationships carries through, too; Rachelle has realistically mixed feelings about everyone she interacts with, and the romance plot never takes over all of her thoughts, the way it does in so many novels.

The thing that really makes me love the book, though, the thing that almost completely makes up for its only giving me half of what I wanted, was the lore. The little bits and pieces of other stories that are blended together here make for a book just so full of ideas, and I can’t help but love trying to pick them all out.

This starts out reading like it’s going to be a straight “Little Red Riding Hood” retelling, but then Hodge starts pulling from other fairytales, and British myths, and actual fairy lore (which I consider sort of a different category than the other two). There’s even a splash of modern superheroes and urban vampire fantasy, with Rachelle brooding on the rooftops at points.

The fairytales referenced aren’t the ones that you normally see picked up, either. The two major ones are “The Girl Without Hands,” which I’d never heard of before, and “Little Red Riding Hood.” And while I have seen adaptations of the latter, I’ve never seen anything working with its “The Grandmother’s Tale” variation; Hodge’s take on the idea of the “path of needles and the path of pins,” is particularly interesting, and not only because I’ve never seen that concept brought up in a modern retelling.

I also love the idea of the woodwives, country women who are the main force working against the forestborn, using charms made of string and cloth and flowers. It’s a lovely little homage to the people who originally told these tales and the setting in which they were originally told.

Mix in some “Hansel and Gretel,” some “The Juniper Tree,” some Bran the Blessed, and some Unseelie Court, and you have a wonderful, layered mishmash. And that’s not even getting into the things that seem unique to this story. The two swords of bone are perfect for this tone, but I can’t place them and google’s turning up nothing. Ditto the idea of hunger being at the center of fairyland; it fits perfectly into fairy myths, but it’s nothing I’ve ever seen before. Hodge seems to have some innate understanding of classic fables, and it means that this cherry picking from so many sources, which could have seemed random and disjointed, holds together perfectly and works beautifully with the themes and character arcs she wants to create.

Basically, while there are some slip ups, most of this works together so wonderfully that I can forgive all its faults. The themes, plot, and characters all work together here in a way that’s rare for a novel: everything just clicks. And when you add that to the sort of fable-like storytelling I love and toss in a whole lot of mythology nerdery, you have something I can’t resist.

Codex Born by Jim Hines

codex born.jpg

Magic ex Libris Book 2, DAW Books, 2013, 379 pgs.

Having managed to stop an impending war between his group of book-wielding magicians, the Porters, and Michigan’s entire vampire population earlier this year, Isaac’s finally clawed his way out of drudge work and into the research position he’s always wanted. Unfortunately, it’s a research position that involves some rather arduous tasks. Like “working out what the vengeful demons lurking just inside the boundary to magic are.” Or “figuring out how to destroy them when the best minds of several generations have only been able to keep them at bay.” All with an unknown, but crucial, time limit hanging over his head. And even things that should be a break from the stress of that, like solving the mystery of who’s been killing werewolves and wendigoes near his hometown, are having an odd tendency to explode into larger problems. Because that investigation is going to bring Isaac face to face with a long-buried rival organization who hate the Porters, who have magic like he’s never seen, and who are, for some reason, targeting his old partner and new girlfriend, Lena.

I’m going to start by saying that most of this review is predicated on the idea that my thoughts on the first Magic ex Libris book were relatively objective and that the beginning novel in the series was actually as meh as my feelings on it were.

And, well, if you go back to that first review, you’ll see that I don’t think either of those statements are particularly fair, but I also have no other basis for comparison. In spite of the fact that I’m pretty sure my feelings on that book were more to do with my mental state than the novel itself, they were what they were and, outside of a reread, I have no way to pull up anything else.

All that out of the way, I’m happy to say this played out exactly as I had predicted there. Regardless of whether it’s Hines finding his footing with the series or me finding mine with life, I had a hell of a time with this second novel. Everything that I thought was missing in Libriomancer is here in spades: this had the sort of creative, engaging, genre-bending joy that I expect out of a Hines book. The dialogue and action are snappy, the characters’ big personalities shine through, and their crazy schemes in the face of impossible odds have all of the zany vigor you could want.

This if Fun, with a capital F and enough underlying meaning to make the novel more than silly fluff, which has always been this author’s strength.

Again, it’s a little hard to compare with my thoughts on the first novel so uncertain, but even if the problems were with the book itself, it’s all fixed here. This was the sort of light, fast-paced read that I had been looking for.

Working off the assumption that my problems there were on Hines’ head, though, I think I can distill exactly what Codex Born does better than its predecessor down to one word: integration. The mystery, the characters, the action, the themes, all coexist here far more harmoniously than they did in the first, meaning that the fun and the philosophy can work together, rather than being sectioned off into chunks.

If the first book had a plot that was mostly mystery, with bursts of action at key scenes, this has both woven throughout, setting the heavier problem-solving alongside constant little showcases where our magical characters can quip and learn new tricks and show off their powers. This keeps things snappy while allowing more build, making the mystery plot both tenser and far easier to swallow.

The characters, too, feel far more consistent, not in characterization, but in presence. This is probably just down to structure. Libriomancer had Isaac hopping from place to place, trying to figure out what was going on, which meant that, by the nature of the plot, very few characters could be in the entire book. Codex Born has The Porters as an institution preparing for war, which means that everyone is present and together from pretty early on in the book, making it easier to not only build quirks and personalities for characters we barely saw in the first, but to build rapport between all of those different personalities.

And while my harping on how much more fun I’m having in this book might make it sound like this is a sillier, less intelligent novel than its predecessor, that’s really not the case. This keeps all of the things that were strong about Libriomancer, and Hines’ ambitions for the series are still very obvious.

There’s still a crazy amount of things going on here, in the plotting, in the meta, in the morality, in the genre deconstruction. All those heavy ideas about collective media experience, love of narrative, and personal agency? Still here. All the surreal, metaphorical language that seemed like such a departure for this author? Check. All the shades of gray, down to the head of the Porters being the shadiest of the shady? Uh-huh. All the questioning of the tropes of urban fantasy, from simple things like giving our heroes magical therapists so they don’t have to tough it out until they’re broken to something as big as asking whether magic is even a desirable thing to have? Yep.

You’d think those weighty ideas would be the sticking point, too; they certainly were in the first book, for me. Most people don’t find philosophy fun or easy to set alongside action one-liners, but if anything we get more depth on those themes and somehow it works. Hines is a clever enough author to integrate by shading in his world rather than by flattening it, which might have something to do with how well he always thinks his worldbuilding through.

I’m trying to figure out why this flows so much better for me. Maybe it is just the structure; hopping from place to place creates a far more episodic plot by its nature. Maybe it’s the fact that we’re starting to get into the meat of the story, which means that Hines, as an author, is free to exposit less and reveal more.

Or maybe it’s just that I read this is a relatively sensible time period, rather than over two months with weeks-long gaps in between sittings, as I did with the first: that sort of thing can make any novel seem disjointed.

Either way, I’m smiling and laughing at all the neat little genre touches and references again, which is most of what I want from Jim Hines. I can honestly say I’m looking forward to the third in this series on its own merits, rather than as a litmus test for my mental state. And, while I can’t say I doubted that much, that really was what I was hoping for here.

Snack-time Reviews: For When I Don’t Have Enough Ingredients for Dinner

Hello all! So, I’ve been trying to work through my giant back-catalogue of books, some of which are still left over from last year, and, to be frank, there are a couple that I don’t really have that much to say about. So, in the interests of paring down the ever-growing list and not trying to wrack my brain for more commentary than I have, I’m just going to write up three quick reviews to fill out the post. These are in order of least-liked to best-liked, but I do have to say that none of these were particularly terrible. Which, come to think of it, is probably part of the reason I don’t have much to say about any of them.

#1—No Passengers Beyond This Point by Gennifer Choldenko

no passengers

Standalone, Dial Books, 2011, 244 pgs.

Life is falling apart for Finn Tompkins and his siblings: his family is losing their house, meaning he and his sisters are being forced to move away from everything they’ve ever known. Worse yet, their mother can’t come with them on the flight to their crazy Uncle Red’s place, leaving them to deal with the change on their own. So when they land in Falling Bird, a town that appears to give them everything they’ve ever wanted, instead of at Uncle Red’s, it seems like a dream come true. Can they trust this new place, though?

This is by far my least favorite of the three, as well as the hardest for me to talk about. That’s probably because there was nothing actually wrong here, so I’m not sure what turned me so strongly against it. Most of what I remember as my problem was that everything just seemed far too generic. The characters are archetypes that develop a little, but not enough, the plot goes about where you expect it to at the beginning, and even the prose feels like the author just pulled the stereotypical voice for a teenager, tween, and young child. Even the world it creates, while interesting, feels like it needed another draft to add some depth and meaning to it. And while it has its moments of honest emotion and has its ambitions with regards to commenting on family and poverty and the effects of the housing crisis, all those little elements that never move beyond the easy and generic really do get in the way of anything it was trying to do. Like the last on this list, it’s a book meant for pre-teen children, so I doubt most of the intended audience is going to notice, but this just failed at what it was going for, for me.

#2—One Night That Changes Everything by Lauren Barnholdt

one night barnholdt

Standalone, Simon Pulse, 2010, 242 pgs.

Ever since she was little, Eliza has kept a notebook listing all the things she’s scared to do: all the things she’d wear, all the places she’d go, all the boys she’d talk to if she were a braver person than she is. And now that notebook’s disappeared, from out of her locker and into the hands of her lying ex and his ratfink cronies. To get it back, without it being posted for the whole school to see, she’ll have to do everything she wrote down, everything she’s ever been terrified to do. She’ll absolutely have to find the strength, too, because her own secrets aren’t the only ones in that book.

If I had to choose one word to describe this novel, it would be capslocky, both literally and figuratively. This book is set almost entirely in a state of panic, and that colors everything about it, from the stupid decisions the characters make to the almost spastic thought process our lead and narrator has. Even when the text is perfectly normal, you can just see the capslock lurking under it, waiting to be brought out again. I don’t normally want a character that manages to handle all her emotions gracefully, but even I thought Eliza here needed to stop, chill, and think things through. I get why the book does this: it is, in part, supposed to be an over-the-top high school comedy where people act crazy because it’s funny, but that aspect of it is also the book’s main problem. If you, like me, have fond nostalgia over She’s All That and movies like it, you probably won’t hate this, but the execution definitely could have been better. This plot felt like it should have been over before it began because, by the time it had started, I’d already thought of three ways out of the major problem, the characters’ antics were often more annoying than funny, and my main reaction to the lead was wanting to hand her a Xanax, because most of the secrets she was freaking out about were nothing that anyone would bat an eye at. A teenager, nervous about asking a boy out or wearing revealing clothes? No one can ever know! That said, nothing happens here that I wouldn’t have easily accepted in some silly teen movie. If physical comedy and facial expressions had been available to back some of this stuff up, it could have been very funny. Basically, this probably should have been a script instead of a novel. Make of that what you will.

#3—The Disappeared by Gloria Whelan

the disappeared

 

Standalone, Dial Books, 2008, 136 pgs.

The place is Buenos Aires, and the date is 1977, a time of political upheaval and widespread government oppression. The military junta currently in power tolerates no dissent, leading to Argentine citizens vanishing in the middle of the night, whisked away by the police for their beliefs. These people are known as The Disappeared, most of whom will never be seen again, and Silvia’s brother, Eduardo, has just become one of them.

I was, actually, very impressed with this one, especially because I picked it up for the topic, in spite of knowing that it was geared at a far younger audience. It’s a children’s book, no doubt, but for all the simplifying of complex concepts that entails, it does perfectly right by its heavy subject matter. If it weren’t so simple, plot and character-wise, or so short, in fact, this would probably be getting a proper review. In some ways, that simplicity actually helps the novel, too; the prose, for example, consists of short, plain-spoken sentences and easily understood imagery, but instead of detracting from the emotional appeal of the book, it gives the whole thing a feeling of understated tragedy and despair hidden by a brave face. This also never, surprisingly, pulls its punches on anything it’s talking about. As a children’s novel it never gets graphic, but it doesn’t sugarcoat the reality of a government imprisoning its political dissidents. There are torture scenes, and people being killed secretly by the police, and people’s families being threatened because they were protesting. A lot of the topics Whelan covers, and a lot of the emotional responses the characters have seem almost like they were pulled directly from some of the nonfiction books I’ve read on Argentina’s Disappeared; it’s obvious the author did her research here. It’s not perfect, by any means. The characters don’t really develop over the course of the book, and the prose seems more like it fell out of 1940-something than the late seventies. But in spite of those things, I was pleasantly surprised with this.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J. K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne

cursed child

Harry Potter side story, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2016, 327 pgs.

Nineteen years later, Harry Potter stands again on Platform 9 ¾ watching two of his children board the train to Hogwarts, to the best years of their lives, and to their own adventures. To, presumably, safer adventures than he and his friends had; his scar has never acted up since the Battle of Hogwarts, and life has been peaceful since the war, minus some rumors about time-turners and crazy Death Eater plans. In fact, his biggest worry anymore seems to be his strained relationship with his middle child, Al. Unfortunately for Harry, that’s all about to change, with both of his minor worries coming together in the worst way possible. Children will go missing, timelines will change, and the threatened return of an enemy long defeated will once again throw Harry’s world into chaos.

Well, this was a long time coming. I read this ages ago and have been wanting to talk about it since I finished it.

I’ve been putting it off for two reasons, really. The first is that I wanted to finish my reread notes first, but, well, those are pretty firmly on the back-burner indefinitely, which I’ve known for a while now. Then there’s the other reason, which is that I’m not really sure how novel what I have to say about Cursed Child is. I really do agree with the consensus here: there’s just something about this that’s a little off for a Harry Potter story.

I also agree with the consensus that a lot of that has to do with the way the characters were written. Funnily enough, for that, the couple of big things that I’ve seen most people complaining about didn’t bother me all that much. I didn’t have much problem with the way Hermione was written, and the parts I did take issue with, like the complete lack of protection for a very important artifact in her office, I haven’t seen much discussion about.

But I had no problem with her being a complete jerk in the first alternate future, where she’s just very uptight and kind of mean. Do you remember eleven-year-old Hermione? Who was very uptight and kind of mean? She only chills out when she becomes friends with Harry and Ron, and, while this decision would have made more sense in an alternate timeline where that never happened instead of in one where she and Ron never got together, it’s not out of keeping for the character. I had no problem either with the dystopian future, where her personal life gets put on hold to fight the rebellion. That just makes sense, right? Apparently I can deal with cruel, emotionally-constipated Hermione, but stupid Hermione breaks me.

Ditto Harry telling Al that he wished he weren’t his son. I mean, it was an awful thing to do, but by the point it happened it was implied that Harry had been trying to be patient with an increasingly distant and angry kid for years. And it happened after Al had a) spit on a gift that was one of the last things Harry had of his parents and b) started in with that sentiment in the first place. Everyone has their breaking point in those situations, and Harry’s always had a temper. Snapping and then immediately regretting it seems exactly like what he’d do, to me.

On the other hand, I can’t ever see him trying to get his child to do something by saying “I need you to obey.” That’s never how he was won over by authority, and in turn that was never his method to try to win other people over. The demand to obey without question seems farther away from the spirit of the character and, really, of the series, than any awful comment made in anger ever could.

Mostly, though, my issue with the characterization comes from other people. I can’t see Cedric ever becoming a Death Eater; people that decent just don’t go that way because of a single, humiliating event. I can’t see spitfire fighter Ginny Weasley in the role of kind, forgiving saint who is trying to get everyone to accept Draco Malfoy as a friend. And at some point during the writing process, someone seems to have confused Ron with either Fred or George.

Again, it’s all just a little bit off.

That feeling has roots in everything, too. It’s in the framing: if this is supposed to be the second generation’s story, then why is it left to Harry and company to save the day again? It’s in the plotting: bringing Voldemort back seems too much like an attempt to return to a story that’s already firmly ended. It’s in the small mistakes of the world details. Hell, it’s in the overall feel of the piece: the seemingly too-fast pace is probably down to medium, but even considering that it’s still missing some sort of essential cleverness or intrigue necessary for a Harry Potter story.

And this may be a small detail and a non sequitur, but it really does bother me that, after all these years, nobody’s learned to go on high alert whenever boomslang skin goes missing from Hogwarts potion’s cupboard.

I’ve seen people talk about Cursed Child as fan-ficcy, and yeah, from the weird characterization to the recycled story elements.

For all the faults that causes, though, that’s also a lot of what I loved about it. The analytical side of my brain might have spent most of its reading time raising its eyebrows, but the lizard brain was definitely jumping for joy at a lot of this.

I don’t think it was just being able to return to this world, either. For all the weirdness and rehash, there were parts of this that made me genuinely happy to see, and those parts were also elements that could be considered fan-ficcy.

Some of that comes from its looking into the untold stories of the world, the alternate universes, the ways things could have gone, the things the second generation gets up to. Some of that is in the parts that are straight wish fulfillment. Getting to see Snape be openly funny and helpful, or to see Malfoy getting to go on an adventure with the leads are dreams long deferred for certain parts of the fandom; parts which generally include me.

And the best of these aspects comes from what is possibly the most fan-ficcy: the fact that the characters actually sit down and talk about their various traumas rather than just silently dealing on their own, and use them to relate to each other. This is a far more human happily ever after than the perfect, golden vision of the epilogue.

Arguably, part of the problem with this script was that they didn’t push the fanfic aspects far enough, or pulled too much from what fandom does wrong instead of what fandom does right. Instead of creating a new villain and storyline, they stuck too close to what had already been done. Instead of meticulously working out character traits, they inserted a bland original character. Instead of picking through every detail of how this world works, they just did what they wanted to make their plot easy. Where every fan writer worth their salt would have done the former every time.

As much as I can’t hate this, and even really loved some of it, those former examples were what I wanted. I wanted that attention to detail. I wanted a new story. I wanted to see the second generation come into their own.

And that’s really the problem here. They needed to move to the future, they needed to do it by paying close attention to the past, and they only halfway accomplished either.

The Ruining by Anna Collomore

the ruining

Standalone, Razorbill, 2013, 313 pgs.

Annie finally feels like her life is beginning. She’s moving away from her run-down, broken home in Detroit to go to college in California and make something of herself. Moreover, she’s moving away from her awful past and into a taste of what she hopes is her future; she’ll be working as a nanny for and living with a rich couple who have the sort of life she’s always dreamed of. Life in California seems wonderful, too. Walker, the father of the family she’s staying with, is funny and easygoing, Zoe, the little girl she’s watching, is sweet and adorable, and their house is beautiful, like something out of a magazine. There’s even a cute boy next door and the excitement of finding herself in her classes to round things out for Annie. So if the mother, Libby, is a little nit-picky and gets worked up over tiny things, that’s fine, right? She’s still fun to be around, and attentive, and seems to think of Annie as a little sister, even if she sometimes does strange things. Ok, so maybe it’ll be a little tougher than she thought it would, but Annie can’t throw this chance away. She just can’t.

I’ve read quite a lot of smart books; it always brings me a little pang of joy when an author does something clever with the characters or plotting or references. I’ve read quite a lot of stupid books as well, sometimes unintentionally, but also because sometimes everyone needs to relax with something fun and light.

I don’t know that I’ve ever read something that is somehow both at the same time.

I realize that’s sort of an odd statement to make, but this book is pretty clearly split on how well it was thought out. There are parts of this that are done beautifully, where the author obviously did detailed, studious research, and there are parts of this where things seemingly happen only because it’s convenient to the narrative.

To start, though, I will say this to the book’s credit: the parts that don’t really fall into either of those categories are generally good. The characters are engaging and decently three dimensional, and the prose is pretty evocative and beautiful. If you’re not going to be bothered by some plot contrivance then you’ll probably be perfectly fine with this.

Similarly, the major driving theme is really well-researched, especially for a YA novel.

A novel about the way abuse can work its way into your brain and make you think that the only problem in a situation is you could have easily been hackneyed and melodramatic, but here nearly every part of the novel that works toward exploring that side of things is well drawn.

What our villain, Libby, is doing to Annie isn’t exactly subtle, but you do really get the sense of her deliberately fishing out another person’s weaknesses and using them. You do really get the feel of Annie blaming every little thing on herself, because obviously no one would react that strongly if she hadn’t done something wrong. You are confused along with her as she begins to doubt her own senses and memories. It’s clear Collomore looked into how an abusive situation works and tried to do as much justice to it as she could.

And Annie herself is set up very well, with regards to that. It’s made clear at the beginning of the novel that she comes from a sort of neglectful background anyway and has some mental issues along the lines of PTSD and self hatred from her sister’s death when she was younger. She’s fresh from escaping the first and has never really dealt with the second. These are all things that make her susceptible to Libby’s manipulation in the first place, and, when she trusts Libby with them towards the beginning of the novel, they become hinge points for Libby to work her way in.

Again, this is all set up fairly cleverly. There are parts of this book that are smart.

Also again, there are unfortunately parts of this book that are stone-cold stupid.

Like Collomore’s tendency to make her lead behave in irredeemably dumb ways when the plot calls for it. I never expected Annie to see through the abusive behavior of someone she trusted and liked, especially when she saw this job as her one chance to get away from her awful life and Libby’s craziness and impositions were introduced slowly. I did, on the other hand, expect her to be a reasonably intelligent person who could put two and two together from easily offered pieces of information.

There were several key points along the way that Annie really should have figured out sooner. For at least one of them I’m not even sure if you could rightfully call it plot contrivance, because knowing it wouldn’t have broken Annie’s mindset of “Libby is good and giving me far more chances than I deserve,” so it wouldn’t have really affected how things played out. Knowing it might have even given her more sympathy for Libby.

I’m not sure why Collomore decided to dumb down here character there, except as for a cheap twist that didn’t work because it was too obvious. I suppose that’s a sort plot contrivance too, though.

And in some ways this tendency toward plot contrivance breaks the typically good characters. Annie’s supposed to be a smart person, and fairly fighty. She spends most of the novel trying to keep herself up out of the swamp of manipulation, even as she’s slowly slipping down. Then, at the end, the author completely throws out what has been some careful work with this character’s arc in order to have her break down completely, seemingly overnight.

And this example is plot contrivance in a way that the former might not be: this needed to happen for the love interest to have motivation to actually interfere in the situation. So, complete breakdown from a character who really didn’t seem that far gone.

It’s just little pieces of sloppiness that destroy something that could have been really interesting. Like some other things I’ve read, Collomore really needed to take the careful thought she put into taking apart an abusive situation and seeing how it worked, and expand it out to the other pieces of her novel.

Indexing by Seanan McGuire

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Indexing Series Book 1, 47North (Originally by Kindle Serial), 2013, 404 pgs.

You may know her better as Snow White, but her name’s Henry actually. And she really must insist on Henry, too; she hasn’t spent years avoiding apples and fighting the urge to be a shrinking violet just to let her Aarne-Thompson designation define her, even if she can’t shake the unfortunate coloration. She’s only one of many, anyway. There are thousands of possible Snow Whites out there, ready to wake up one day and start talking to the birds and collecting groups of short men. There are thousands of every possible fairytale character. Because underlying our reality, the one where people get to make choices about who they’re going to be and what they’re going to do, is The Narrative. You probably know it, or have at least heard its stories. They pop up in almost every culture across the globe. And fighting it is what Henry and her team do for a living. She and the others at the ATI Management Bureau are who they call in to save lives when a Sleeping Beauty activates and sends everyone in an office building downtown into a coma or to when a newly awakened Cinderella decides to ditch her loving fiance for a prince she barely knows. So, Henry please, and some respect. Even if you’re a completely normal human, you might need her some day.

Have we ever talked about how much I love stories about stories?

As much as I do appreciate individuality in a piece, and as much as I’ll complain about certain tropes, nothing will get me into a work quicker than the idea that the writer knows and loves storytelling as an art form. It might show up in something as simple as having the lead be a reader who makes references to other pieces, or it might come from something as complex as the sort of interwoven myths and history you get from a high fantasy piece. It might even just be in the self-aware use of a predictable element.

But books and stories have had a huge impact on my life, and I like when an author clearly has that background too. That’s part of the reason I like mixed genres, and part of the reason I like retellings when they’re done skillfully and cleverly.

What I’m saying here is that I’d been meaning to read some Seanan McGuire for a while now, and I’m glad this book was my first, because it has both of those things. This is a book entirely about stories, and the way we create them, and the way they take over, and the way we try to control them.

I have to say, though, this would have been a fun book even if it wasn’t as metatextual as it is. I may read more fantasy than anything anymore, but I grew up on Agatha Christie and old Law and Order reruns, and this captures the spirit of those episodic procedurals pretty well.

Though I guess that fits in with the “story about stories” theme, too. We have all of the standard stock characters here, from Henry, who’s a hard-nosed detective even while she’s Snow White, to Sloane, the eccentric goth girl/evil stepsister, to Jeff, one of the shoemaker’s elves, whose need for detail work makes him the go-to computer expert, rounded out by Demi the guileless rookie who gets dragged into the crazy because the team needed a Pied Piper type to end a story takeover without deaths. Oh, and Andy, who’s sort of the brawn, but is mostly the straight man, as he’s perfectly normal and only has a secondary connection to the fairytale side of things.

If it weren’t for their fairytale alter egos they could almost be an episode of NCIS.

And the plot follows along those lines, as it’s mostly a series of cases that the team takes on as they attempt to prevent “memetic incursions,” or fairy tales taking over and messing up people’s’ normal lives, from running wild in their city.

The episodic nature allows for a lot of flexibility, which gives McGuire the ability to look at a lot of different types of cases as the book goes on. It’s not exactly the most fast-paced plot structure or the one with the best build, but it does allow the novel to be light and fun, in the way a send-up procedural should.

Even if what problems the book does have also seem to stem from this structure. The long drag of a slow case between two incredibly tense ones, or the piece’s tendency to be very repetitive are both probably lingering elements from its original, serial publication. I can’t be too hard on either, considering they were probably necessary for the way it was originally released, but they are off-putting when reading the story in one sitting.

Basically, though, if you have any fondness for cheesy cop shows, there’s a good chance you’ll like this.

But the real fun for me comes from the way the fairy tales are reinterpreted and used. I’m the sort of folklore geek who knew the Aarne-Thompson-Uther index existed before this novel, so all of the little meta touches and nods to lesser known fairy tales of course made me incredibly happy. If you’re also the sort of person who’d get a kick out of our characters trying to classify a Sleeping Beauty story down by variation, this is definitely for you.

I think, though, if you have any idea of the way a story can shift and warp in each retelling, you’ll get the general idea. In the book’s world, there are thousands of potential Cinderellas and Sleeping Beauties, all ready to awaken in the narrative and disrupt the normal world, with its ability to change, by forcing it to conform to the story.

Which is the other wonderful, metatextual thing about the book’s setup: its effect on the character.

There’s a quote in one of the Discworld books, Witches Abroad, I think, where one of the leads rails against the idea of “feeding people to stories,” of letting the role you think someone is supposed to play override any of their actual goals and desires, override any of the things they choose to do. It’s an idea that’s always stuck with me, and one that I think has relation to a lot of real world issues.

It’s part of the reason we talk so much about representation. How are you supposed to know you can become an astrophysicist when everything is telling you the role you’re “supposed” to play is nanny? How are you supposed to accomplish something when every force, social, economic, and media is telling you that people like you don’t do that? We do, sometimes, have a tendency to “feed people to stories.”

This is a novel almost entirely about that idea, down to its very bones. Most of the cases break down in roughly the same way: a “memetic incursion” will pop up, drag everyone in its immediate vicinity into whatever story it is and give them a proscribed role, and then our heroes, all of whom have been badly affected by the overall narrative, will have to go in to fight it. And the heroes are the ones who fight it, because whether the narrative popping up is dangerous to lives or just to personal autonomy, letting it go just allows it to gain strength.

You can read a lot of different things into that. The first and most obvious, like I said, is as a representation of the societal forces that have a hand in dictating where our lives go, but there are definitely others. Sloane’s sudden urges to kill her teammates, which horrify the part of her that is her own person, can be read as a metaphor for intrusive thoughts, for one.

Or you could take it straight back to storytelling: the ways in which stories become entrenched, until they’re seen as just how narrative works, and how hard it can be to do something new when that happens. There’s a reading here that relates as much to fiction and authorship as much as one that relates to real life.

What I’m saying, though, is that this book does what all the best fantasy does, and that’s to use its fantastical elements as layered commentary, whether it’s to give us some road map for real world issues or to try to pick out the nature of narrative itself.

And while this is far from a perfect book, I’ll very happily take that.

Wayfarer by Alexandra Bracken

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Passenger Series Book 2, Hyperion, 2017, 532 pgs.

So now the timeline has shifted once again, separating Etta and Nicholas at the very crux of their journey. Stranding them from the only person each could trust, right after they’d failed at their goal of finding the Astrolabe and needed each others’ support the most. And without a plan, without knowing how their actions have changed the timeline, without even any idea of what year they’ve each been thrown to, the journey back to each other could be the most perilous yet. Because Etta finds herself badly injured and stuck with the Thorns, whom she can neither trust nor agree with. Even if their leader is her father. Even if he begins to call into question what little her mother, Rose, has told her about the time traveler’s world. Nicholas, for his part, finds himself forced to deal with both the arrogant and intractable Sophia Ironwood, a former enemy turned reluctant tag-along, and the mysterious mercenary that’s been stalking the both of them, claiming to have knowledge of what they’re looking for. Together, and separately, they’ll all stumble down into the dark secret of the Traveler‘s existence.

Spoilers for both books

I wonder if Alexandra Bracken’s work is always going to throw me for a loop regarding how to talk about it, because much like the first book in the series, I have badly mixed feelings regarding Wayfarer.

It’s a little frustrating, honestly, because I thought this was going to be the book that gave me what I wanted out of this series. And in a lot of ways it did. Given, the problems I had with the first book were still there, considering most of my issue was with the main character. Etta did still annoy me, even if I thought she was far better here, but for most of the novel there was enough awesomeness to make up for her.

Perhaps that’s partially because, in a lot of ways, this felt more like Nicholas’ book to me; Etta certainly has her own journey, but most of the memorable emotional beats revolve around what Nicholas and the people traveling with him are doing.

And that makes me far more tolerant of this novel. A focus more on Nicholas apparently means a loosening up of the hard-set, black and white view that permeated the first book. This isn’t exactly a case of moral relativism, but even in Passenger Nicholas was the more forgiving presence.

That was part of why I was excited for the sequel in the first place. When, at the end of the first book he met up with Sophia again, I knew I was going to enjoy what was coming. I knew it was going to involve a lot of development for her, as well as probably some of the other characters that had been written off in the first book. And adding a major part for a trained traveler was probably going to give me some of the deepening of this world that I’d been wanting.

And for those things Wayfarer delivered in spades. No only did we get the bickering road trip through time that I was expecting from Nicholas and Sophia, we got a growing, mutual respect that I completely wasn’t, but am entirely happy about. Sophia gets more sympathy and gets to be more heroic than I could have ever hoped for coming out of Passenger; I was absolutely certain, for example, that my pipe dream of badass, eyepatch-wearing Sophia was destined to remain just that, but I got it here, along with a nicely detailed character arc. She even got a love interest!

Like I said, I even liked Etta better than in the first book. Early on here, she meets up with the long missing Julian, and putting her in contrast with his breezy, carefree attitude cuts a lot of what bothered me about her in book one. Her sections now have a sense of humor to them, and just giving her someone to challenge her perspective makes it seem less gratingly like the be all and end all of righteousness. I honestly felt for Etta at some points in this novel, which was something that never happened in the first.

And for the parts that did still grate, well, those bothered me less with the addition of major parts for Sophia, Julian, Rose, and Etta’s father, Henry, as well as the introduction of Li Min. Making the cast an ensemble rather than just Nicholas and Etta far diminished the annoying bits in overall effect.

For the most part, the plot gave me what I wanted, too. We get all the family politics, and traveler backstory, and history and lore that I was looking for. There wasn’t as much along the lines of time-travel mechanics as I would have liked, but I’ll take where the travelers came from and how they developed into the society that they did as a very acceptable substitute.

Bracken’s even upped the ante with a new villain that’s older, crazier, and far more powerful than Ironwood, leading to some great tension and some great twists. Keeping the action quick and exciting was something that Bracken never had a problem with in the first, though, so seeing that continue here was no surprise.

Rose’s backstory also adds some wonderful mystery to the piece, calling into question a lot of what we’d thought was established about this world and story, and that mystery keeps the plot moving at the same blistering pace that the time limit and chase sequences in the first one did.

I was, in fact, happily reading along until the ending.

Those spoiler tags are up there for a reason, and that’s because it’s very hard to talk about my reaction to this novel without mentioning the ending. And by that I mean this would have been almost perfect if the ending hadn’t been far, far too easy.

Look, so much of the first novel was Etta coming to accept that, even with time travel powers, she couldn’t change the bad things that happened in the past. That was most of her journey, but now I’m supposed to accept it when I’m told that “Oh yeah, the original timeline was so much better! Millions more people survived and several wars never even happened!”?

That’s, cheap. That’s handing your character a perfect ending without any concern for earning it.

It’s even more galling that I’m supposed to believe this from a guy whose initial portrayal is as ruthless and cunning, and who is clearly telling Etta everything she wants to hear. Who we’re explicitly told at one point not to trust. And I’m supposed to just accept it when, at the end, he’s completely good and doing the right thing? Everything about the build here was telling me that Henry was manipulating her, but then at the end he’s just…not.

I’ll be fair here: this is mostly because it was very rushed. Loose ends are tied up too tidily so that the book doesn’t end up being nine hundred pages long. Ironwood gets taken out completely anticlimactically so that the novel has room to actually focus on taking out the new villain, whom we don’t get that much more from. Etta gets her happy family and her reunion with Nicholas with almost no struggle just because the book needs to end.

If the stuff with Henry had more room to grow and develop, this might have felt like less of a cop out. Specifically, we needed more time to see that he was doing good, without the specter of his potential evil over it. Or we needed more room in general, because there’s something so off about this ending.

It feels like this had the setup for at least another book, with Henry playing Etta in this one and coming in at the end as a third force working against our heroes. I don’t know if that is the case, and the rest of the series was nixed at some point, or if Bracken just wrote in some things that she never meant to pick back up. Either way, even getting most of what I wanted, I’m once again left wanting more.