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.
Boaz Yakin’s comic Marathon is a retelling of the story of the messenger who ran to Athens to warn the city of the Persians about to sack them. That’s just the third act though. There are plenty of scenes of running beforehand. Eucles wants to be fighting not running, but running becomes the way to victory.
I wasn’t a huge fan. The rough linework in the art and all the beards led to people all looking interchangeably similar. I don’t really give a shit about these kinds of military honour stories either so there wasn’t a lot for me here.