book review: all the birds in the sky

Charlie Jane Anders’ debut novel, All the Birds in the Sky is great. The main characters start off as a couple of weird kids, one who talks to birds and another who builds a two-second time machine, and the story is about how they, well, interact is a clinical word, but it’s an appropriate one. Each of them embodies a different way of looking at the world off-kilterly, one through nature-magic and the other through mad-science.

It’s really good, but don’t expect it to feel realistic. For the first third of the book I was unsure why this wasn’t marketed as a more science-fictional Eleanor & Park. As kids there’s an assassin sent to deal with them but he’s not allowed to directly kill minors so he becomes their guidance counsellor and becomes really well-liked in that role. Then there’s a time jump to adulthood and the fate of the world starts to become an issue (and it loses some of that YA romance feeling). Later in the book it feels much more like The Magicians, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Makers or Seveneves.

One issue might be its optimism in the face of the end of the world, like there’s going to be an escape valve that we’ll actually all be okay. I think it walked the line well, but your mileage may vary.

book review: the name of the wind

I’ve been hearing about Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind for years it feels like, but maybe that’s just because I read the blogs of writers who are friends of his. It’s a good fantasy novel that reminded me a lot of Ender’s Game, or a less postmodern The Magicians.

This is the first volume in a series about Kvothe, who is now an innkeeper named Kote, but was once much more. There’s an elaborate framing device wherein Kote is telling his story, the true story, to a Chronicler over three days. This first book is the first day of the story, and covers his boyhood to attending the magickal university. In the frame though we know that the Skraelings are being seen again and that people in his chosen hideyhole are ill-prepared to deal with them.

It’s all well-told, even if young Kvothe is a showoff asshole who has to assert his superiority at every turn. It’s a self-aggrandizing tale even as the innkeeper is trying to tell it warts and all, which is less than exciting to me. I just have a bit less patience for stories of people who are so obviously “better” than everyone surrounding them. And the flaw of pride in being awesome is an annoying kind of flaw in my books. The gender politics are really traditional, and though there are a few interesting economic interactions in the society fuelled by magic, the world doesn’t feel that fantastical.

But whatever. The story is engrossing enough, and in the end of this volume the idea of encouraging Kote to tell the story of his old self as heroically as possible is revealed to be part of the larger tale, which I found intriguing (I am a sucker for metatextual elements, I guess). This’d be a great book for a reader who’s read the Ranger’s Apprentice series and wants something a bit more sophisticated (and isn’t put off by the word-count of the tome).

book review: mr. penumbra’s 24-hour bookstore

There are a great many things to love about Robin Sloan’s novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. A great many things. What I love best about it is how perfectly “now” it feels. It’s a book I will use to say “this is how 2012 felt to me.”

The narrator of the tale is a designer who can’t get work because of the economy, and takes a job as the night clerk in a 24-hour bookstore. It’s a weird bookstore though, with three storeys of tomes (and to the delight of library-nerds rolling ladders for access) in the back which are arranged in no clear order and have eccentric people coming to trade for them. And these eccentric folk must be kept track of and observed, written about in the log for each shift. So yes, there is the old and odd to this story.

And then a woman who works at Google walks in (the bookstore is in San Francisco) and the story becomes this beautiful melding of all that old weird stuff with data-visualization schemes and parallel processing power to break codes and dreams of the Singularity. Plus of course the digitization of books.

Put it together with a fantasy novel overlay, that has our narrator using the D&D character name of his best friend since they were 12 when he needs him to really do something and I’m in heaven.

It’s about the intersection of these worlds of tradition and innovation, design and shortcuts that make it amazing. If you liked Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, there are echoes here, but it’s mostly in the shared nerd culture aspects. It’s a much less heavy tale. The narrator doesn’t take all the robes and mumbo-jumbo or the Googlarchy so seriously as anyone in The Magicians would. It’s more like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

It was a quick read. It didn’t change the way I thought about the deep mysteries of life. But it was so damned enjoyable.

book review: the magician king

The Magician King is the sequel to Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. There were parts of this one that I liked better than the first, and things that weren’t as good, but the biggest difference is that there’s no Harry Potter school stuff in this book.

The story starts with Quentin as one of the royals (with his magician friends) of the magical land of Fillory. He’s a little bored and goes off on a quest to be a hero. A bit of that seemed like a step back from where he got to by the end of the first book. The action takes him to Earth again, and he learns how little he knows about everything. Parallel to that is Julia’s school of hard magical knocks story of how she became a magician (she didn’t go to Brakebills, the school in the first book).

Overall it’s a good book and the ending is more satisfying than the end to the first one. I’d gladly suggest this for a mature YA audience.

book review: the magicians

Mary at WPL recommended Lev Grossman’s The Magicians years ago but I shied away, mainly because I thought it was going to require a deep love of Narnia, which I do not have. It didn’t, though the Narnian parallels are important. (Here the magical world is called Fillory and is a bit different, for story purposes.)

In the novel the main character is a disaffected snotty upperclass teen who loved the Fillory books. He’s about to graduate from high school when he receives a mysterious invitation to attend magic school. He passes the gruelling examination and learns to be a magician in the first part of the book. Honestly, I wasn’t a fan early on. It felt too much like Harry Potter but with more drinking and cussing. Once they’re out of school though, the book really picked up. Then it became a story about figuring out what to do with yourself when you can do anything.

The tedium of learning magic was conveyed really well and there were some very good worldbuilding things. The whole thing built to an appropriate climax, which seemed inevitable even as it wasn’t completely expected. I’d generally recommend this one. There’s a sequel out now, but I’m not rushing to read it, as I liked where this ended.