Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints is a pair of volumes about rebellion in 19th century China. In Boxers, we follow a young man whose father is humiliated at the hands of the foreign devils and the people who’ve gravitated to their power so he turns to mystical powers to try to rid China of their influence. In Saints we follow a young woman as she tries to become a foreign devil herself.
The stories are good, but somewhat slight. I don’t know. I liked the representation of the Brotherhood of the Righteous Fist becoming gods in their fights. Whenever I read histories of the Boxer Rebellion it seems stupid that so many people would believe a little ritual would protect them from bullets. This represented things in a way much easier to empathize with.
Really though, this book is a decent enough fictionalization of history, but it felt like the characters were there as a means of showing us history rather than having real depth of their own. Which is disappointing, because Yang’s made me care about characters and their individual struggles before.
Luke Pearson’s Hilda and the Midnight Giant is a beautiful comic. It’s a story about a little girl and her mom who live out far from town, and are being harassed by anonymous messages telling them to leave. And Hilda is pretty sure there’s a giant as tall as a mountain out watching them. Hilda does not want to go live in the nasty old town so she tries to negotiate with the tiny invisible people who live in their area and want her and her mother gone.
It’s cartoony with a purplish palette, and Hilda is clever and cute and makes perfect use of her fantastical world. The negotiation with the different layers of invisible government is all kinds of awesome. It works as a story about colonialism and who gets to live where too.
I’ve read a few reader reviews (as opposed to professional reviews, or reviews by writers, or literary critiques of somewhat higher worth than oh say this one you’re reading here) of Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, and it appears that I am the exact audience for this zombie novel about ennui.
First off the three days of “the present” are cut up with tonnes of flashbacks, giving the reader the pieces of how we got to this point. Characters all have the “Last Night” (before the world changed) story and the versions and variations we witness are a big part of the story. So structurally it wasn’t “this happens, then this, then this…” which is something I enjoy.
Second, while there was zombie killing action, the scenes were short and brutal. In books that’s how I like my action. Dwelling on how bullets penetrate undead flesh holds little interest for me, since one of the strengths of the novel is the interiority of the whole experience, how the characters feel about and are changed by the actions they’re taking. Whitehead’s writing dwells on the parts I care about, and can be damned pretty at times (even if there’s a bit of an emotional detachment to the whole thing).
Third, the protagonist was a self-proclaimed average person who ended up being good at surviving. He was not a badass. He was lonely and disaffected, middle class and black. He resembled a Murakami narrator, but one who drifted into a zombie war. The moments when he has to do something besides drift feel earned.
Fourth, I loved the choice to set the main story in the “rebuilding the world” phase. The characters aren’t the first wave of marines clearing out zombie hordes from the streets, buildings and subways of New York; they’re the civilian clean-up crew taking out the last stragglers. They’re more pest-control than soldiers (though they’re being directed by military types for the greater glory of the American Phoenix). It felt more like Bringing Out the Dead than The Walking Dead.
Fifth, the worldbuilding of the war against zombies had exactly the right amount of Catch-22 ridiculousness for me. There are strict anti-looting regulations enforced by the growing bureaucracy holed up in Buffalo, which mean that companies looking for an in when society builds back up again sponsor the rebuilding effort by allowing their products to be looted. I loved those kinds of details. And the language the characters use that doesn’t get explained until you’re used to them using it didn’t feel out of place.
In short, this is now probably my favourite zombie novel.
In the Shadow of Blackbirds, by Cat Winters, was a “holy fuck that was great” YA historical/sf novel. It’s set in San Diego in October 1918 with fresh-faced teenage boys heading off to die in the war and the Spanish Influenza killing everyone else.
Mary Shelley Black is a 16-year-old girl who’s just fled to her aunt’s home because her father’d been arrested back in Portland for helping young men escape the draft. Down in San Diego, where Mary Shelley’s childhood friend (and first kiss) was a young photographer before heading off to France, she gets caught up in a world of superstition, spirit photography and death. She’s got a scientific mind and hates all these frauds that surround her, until something happens. Which I won’t spoil.
I loved this book so much. I think what I loved most was that it kept knocking my expectations off-kilter. I thought it was going to be a story about this practical skeptical girl staying steadfast in her belief in facts and waiting for her true love to come home from the war and her father to get out of jail. Then I thought it was going to become a story of rebellion against her young widowed aunt (who works building battleships and is distraught she had to cut her hair and lose so much of her femininity for going to séances) who believes too much in what other people say. Then I was scared it was going to turn into a wide-eyed ghost story, and then I was happy to see it become a mystery. It didn’t settle into a pattern early.
One of the things they say about writing is to start as late as you can. Have the most interesting thing happen right at the beginning and then you can fill in backstory later. Though Mary Shelley’s father is arrested pretty much on the first page, there are other later parts where the story maybe could have started. But I’m so glad it didn’t. The way this skeptical heroine was set up in the beginning would not have worked as well as backstory. Seeing her before and after for ourselves was, in my mind, integral to the layers of shifting belief and the scientific mindset on display throughout what is to be honest a ghost story.
Along with being a historical ghost story, it also feels apocalyptic with the flu and all that death and folk-remedy hanging over everything. Plus it’s got this great anti-war activist stance running through it. It’s not anti-heroism, but it calls out so much of the adventure story bullshit. The heroes in this story are all about these basic acts of decency in a world that’s sick.
So yes, this is highly recommended. I’m bringing it to my Teen Book Club meeting next week even though our library won’t be getting it for a while (it was just released last week, I think).
I tend to read more science fiction than fantasy, but The Blue Sword is a good example of why I love fantasy too. There’s just a timelessness to a fantasy novel that science fiction can’t really lay claim to. Fiction about the future always has so much of the present embedded in it, but there’s nothing about The Blue Sword that lets you know it was written 30 years ago. The Hero and the Crown is the prequel to this book, but I think I’m glad I read them in internal chronological order rather than publication order.
In The Blue Sword a young woman named Harry who’s living the colonizer’s life in a land far from her home. She’s kidnapped and made a part of the Hillfolk who are trying to eke out an existence while being besieged by not-quite-human magical Northmen and her own people. She becomes the bearer of the titular sword and becomes a legend herself. There’s a sense of inevitability to the story (in a way that George RR Martin would destabilize at every turn if he were writing it) but it’s very beautifully done. It’s not Le Guin-level amazing, and I don’t think it’s as good as The Hero and the Crown, but Harry is a heroine that you can see being emulated in stuff like The Girl of Fire and Thorns and other more contemporary fantasy. I will gladly recommend it far and wide.
Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World is kind of a gonzo post-apocalyptic novel. One of the main characters is, in fact named Gonzo. But it’s also the story of how the world came to be this way, through the use of Go Away bombs that destroyed the world with no pesky fallout. Except for making the planet a place where nightmares become real.
The story starts with the narrator and Gonzo’s company of truckers and general bad-asses being called in to do a job, put out a fire, save the world. There’s a cataloguing of the various kinds of pencil-necks one finds in the world, ranked according to their dangerousness, and the idea that resonates through the book is introduced: being a professional means giving up your personhood to be part of a machine.
Can you see why I liked this one?
But then the first chapter is over and the trucks are rolling towards doom and glory and we drop back to childhood. We learn about being trained to fight ninjas by a daft elderly man, and having lots of sex as a political student, and absurd stupid wars featuring absurd terrible soldiers (and fearsomely brilliant ones) and terror and friendship. It’s awesome. And funny. And there are mimes.
I liked this better than Angelmaker, but that might be because I wasn’t trying to figure out how seriously to take it the whole time. It was the kind of crazy awesome book the world needs more of.
Everybody Sees The Ants is a YA book about a kid named Lucky Linderman who gets bullied and goes to Arizona with his mom to recuperate. Put like that it doesn’t sound too exciting. But because this is A.S. King writing the story things aren’t that straight-forward. She uses a fragmented storytelling technique to show us scenes from the present, from Lucky’s freshman year at school, from his childhood, and most importantly from his dreams where he tries to rescue his grandfather from a Vietnamese POW camp.
The story features adults being idiots and perfect lives being not so perfect. The relationship between Lucky and his dad is really interesting and a big part of the story. It’s interesting because his dad is kind of an absentee father, spending all his time at his fancy restaurant and caring more about cooking than anything else. By the end of the book, his dad hasn’t changed, but everyone has a bit more perspective and tolerance for why people act the way they do. The same goes for Lucky and his mom. King is really good at setting up situations where characters seem unreasonable and then showing us a key to understanding them (even if we don’t have to like them).
It’s a really good book. Probably the best I’ve read that’s expressly about bullying since it never ends up in a clichéd place. Kudos to King on another great read.
Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Drowned Cities is a sequel to Ship Breaker, but not a direct one. It features Tool, the half-man war machine from Ship Breaker, but also two new characters who live in what was once long ago the eastern seaboard of the U.S. Now Washington DC is underwater and being fought over by myriad warlords after an interlude a bit more than a decade previous when Chinese peacekeepers were on the ground trying to keep a lid on the fighting.
Mahlia is a cast-off war baby, disliked because of her obvious Chinese descent, and her friend Mouse is another scavenger. When one of the factions of soldierboys end up in their village chasing Tool, everything goes to hell.
The book does a great job in exploring how you negotiate a life in a violent world. Tool was built for war but Mahlia and Mouse weren’t. Mahlia’s mentor is a doctor who is kind and mollifies the people who irrationally hate her for her Chinese father. But when she gets the chance to ally with Tool and let violence into her house, she finds she likes the power it brings. Mouse gets turned into a child-soldier and learns to do terrible things to be a part of a terrible world. Very good stuff.
It feels less YA than Ship Breaker did, and more like a regular science fiction novel that happened to have young protagonists. If you’re into stories about war that don’t glorify it, this’d be a great choice.
The Path to the Nest of Spiders is Italo Calvino’s first novel and is very different from the ones that came after. It’s a story of Italian partisans in World War 2, told from the perspective of Pin, an orphan boy who attaches himself to a unit through the act of stealing a pistol from a German soldier.
It was designed to be a story of non-heroic participants in the war and succeeds in that. The people in the book are full of lice and weaknesses. The thing that is strangest is how un-strange the story is. The spiders’ nests are the only sort of fantastical and Calvino-ish thing about the story, and even they are described in ways that don’t place them undoubtedly outside the world of actual experience.
It’s a fine story, but I don’t know to whom exactly I’d recommend it. It’s kind of like Rushdie’s Grimus, which feels like it wasn’t written by the famous writer at all.
Wildwood is Colin Meloy’s fantasy novel about Pru, a girl in Portland whose brother is stolen by crows. The crows take him into the Impassable Wilderness on the edge of town and Pru goes in to rescue him, along with a nerdy classmate. Within the wilderness there’s a world of talking animals and magic and politics, three nations plus bandits and coyotes and witches trying to destroy it all out of spite.
Meloy tells the story well, creating sympathetic characters who aren’t idiots. There are places where a lazier storyteller could have fallen back on cliches, but he generally avoids that kind of thing. Still, nothing feels terribly new. It’s predictable in the way an old story (or perhaps more appropriately for the lead singer of the Decemberists the way a song) is. The bandits aren’t as terrifying as they might seem, a hero is tricked but manages redemption, there’s military assistance when all seems lost.
It’s good. I enjoyed my time in the world of the book (whose atmosphere was helped by Carson Ellis’ illustrations). And though there’s a sequel, this didn’t end on a cliffhanger, so I can go about my life thinking of the story as its own little thing.