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Book Review: Fudoki by Kij Johnson (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

September 10, 2014 4 comments

A Japanese warrior woman's face has the shadow of cat ears behind her. The book's title and author name are over this picture. Summary:
An aging empress decides to fill her empty notebooks before she must get rid of them along with all of her belongings to retire to the convent, as is expected of her.  She ends up telling the story of Kagaya-hime, a tortoiseshell cat who loses her cat family in a fire and is turned into a woman by the kami, the god of the road.

Review:
I’m not usually big into fantasy, particularly not ones involving court life, but I am a real sucker for any story involving cats, especially if that cat is a tortoiseshell, since I’m the proud kitty mommy of a talkative tortie.  This book didn’t just not disappoint me, it blew me away with two side-by-side, related by different, thoughtful tales.

I had no idea when I picked up the book that the empress would figure into the story quite so much.  At first I was a bit irritated that she was a) getting 40% to 50% of the storytime and b) rambling off from one thought to another like elderly people tend to do.  But I stayed patient, and I learned that there was more to the empress than met the eye and also that the two stories were actually informing each other.  Kagaya-hime’s story shows everything the empress had secretly wished for her whole life, and the empress’s life translated into how Kagaya-hime felt trapped in her human body.  It’s artfully done in a subtle way, which is part of what makes it so beautiful.

Kagaya-hime goes from a sad lost kitty with burned paws to a warrior woman, allowed along on a quest for revenge by a moderately elite rural family.  She is able to earn respect from the men as a warrior because as a cat she sees no reason not to hunt or defend herself.  She is a woman but no one ever took her claws away (though they may be arrows and knives now, instead of claws).  Thinking of her is empowering to the empress, who always had an interest in war and politics but was forced to remain literally behind screens in gorgeous gowns that are hard to move in.  It’s interesting to note that while the empress may be jealous of Kagaya-hime’s ability to do what she wants and defend herself, Kagaya-hime herself is unhappy because she simply wishes to be a cat again.  It is the conclusion to Kagaya-hime’s story that allows the empress to see a conclusion to her own story (her life) that will ultimately make her feel fulfilled.

The details of ancient Japan were clearly meticulously researched.  Johnson smoothly writes about the outfits, land, and battles as if she was there for them herself.  The information never comes through as an info dump but instead is something that simply is, that the reader learns about naturally just by venturing into Kagaya-hime and the empress’ world.  This is what knowing your history inside and out before starting writing does for historic fiction.  It makes history come to life.

Overall, this is a stunning piece of historic fiction the reading of which feels like slowly sipping a well-made matcha latte.  Fans of historic fiction of all sorts will be engaged, those that love cats will be enthralled, and those with an interest in women’s history will be enamored and touched by how much things change and yet still stay the same for women.  Recommended to all who think they might even possibly be interested in a piece of historic fiction set in Japan featuring an aging empress and a shape-changing cat.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Better World Books

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Giveaway: The Running Game by L. E. Fitzpatrick (INTERNATIONAL)

August 12, 2014 1 comment

Brightly colored buildingsIt’s time for the sixth giveaway of 2014 here at Opinions of a Wolf.  Lots of the indie authors whose books I accepted for review in 2014 also were interested in me hosting a giveaway at the time of my review, so there will be plenty more coming up in the future too.

There are TWO ebook versions of The Running Game (review) available courtesy of the author, L. E. Fitzpatrick!

What You’ll Win:  One ebook copy of The Running Game by L. E. Fitzpatrick.

How to Enter:  Leave a comment on this post stating what is the first thing you would do with your powers if you were telepathic.

Who Can Enter: INTERNATIONAL

Contest Ends: August 26th.  Two weeks from today!

Disclaimer: The winners will have their ebook sent to them by the author.  The blogger is not responsible for sending the book.  Void where prohibited by law.

Book Review: The Running Game by L. E. Fitzpatrick (Series, #1)

August 12, 2014 4 comments

Brightly colored buildingsSummary:
Rachel is a doctor in the slums outside of London.  It’s not a great place to live, but it’s safer than a lot of the other options available.  She’s also a Reacher with telepathic powers.  Since she was a young girl, she learned to hide her abilities and always know her exits so she could run at any time.  But when two brothers show up, one a wounded Reacher, and tell her a mobster sent them looking for her, she has to decide whether to run again or trust the brothers.

Review:
Near-future dystopias will never cease in their appeal to me, and so I was fairly quick to accept this one when I was choosing ARCs to read for 2014.  The book offers a grim dystopia but far less running than one would imagine from the title.

The book establishes the overall dreary setting of a dystopia fairly quickly.  Rachel’s work at the hospital and commuting home from it is dirty and grimy. Society is clearly barely functioning, a fact that is smoothly and clearly established.  It takes a bit more time to learn more about the over-arching world, and the fact that Rachel is a “Reacher,” a person with some form of telepathic powers.  For some reason, the government is seeking to eradicate all Reachers, whereas the church, which is illegal, views them as angels sent from above, metaphorically speaking.  It’s an interesting world but our view into it is quite narrow, so there’s a lot of questions left unanswered.

Rachel is a good, strong character who is well-rounded in spite of knowing little of her backstory.  The brothers, on the other hand, are kind of annoying and two-dimensional.  They and the general crime lords/corrupt cops feel much more cookie cutter than Rachel does.  In a way, they drag her down.  It’s hard to root for her when she chooses to cast in lots with this bunch.

Similarly, the plot focuses in on what feels more like a standard crime thriller plot, rather than a dystopian one.  It’s a good crime plot, but it’s not a dystopian one.  The title implies a much more dystopian style book, such as Rachel using her powers to outwit the government and start a new colony or something like that.  Instead it feels a bit more like an urban fantasy style crime plot that just so happens to be surrounded by society breaking down, somewhere out there.    I think marketing it as a running game, rather than as the crime mystery plot it really is hinders the book a bit.  Readers who would like an urban fantasy style futuristic crime novel might miss it, because it sounds so dystopian.  The title and summary give the vibe of a Logan’s Run or Maze Runner style book, when that’s not what it is.  What it is is a perfectly good futuristic crime novel, but that’s not what it sounds like.

Overall, this is a quick-moving tale of futuristic crime with a dash of telepathic powers and an easily imagined setting.  Fans of near future, fantasy, and crime will enjoy seeing the three intertwine.  Those looking for more of a scifi or dystopian focus should look elsewhere.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review

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Book Review: The City of Time and Memory Part I by J. A. Childress (Series, #1)

June 5, 2014 Leave a comment

Black and white image of a giant clock with a red person jumping from it.Summary:
Zak wakes up from a night of drunken revelry to find himself in his apartment but not his apartment building.  His apartment is now part of a massive structure of multiple different architectural styles that looks like it goes on forever. Plus his bathroom is missing.  Shreya wakes up in her car in a parking garage to Hungry Eyes playing on the radio and an ominous car nearby nicknamed “Die Pflaume.”

Review:
This first entry of a new serial does a quick job establishing a strong setting but just when the action gets going, it leaves the reader hanging.

When I accepted this review copy, I must admit that I didn’t realize it was the first entry in a serial, I thought it was in a series.  Serials offer small episodes of an overarching story in bite-size chunks the reader picks up.  Think of it as reading an episode of your favorite tv series.  I think it would help if this was marketed more clearly as a serial, since certain readers love that reading experience and others aren’t too keen on it.  Making it clearer that it’s a serial will help it better reach the right readers.

A good serial entry will read much like an episode in a tv show with a large, overarching plot, but also a smaller plot that can be told in one episode that is, ideally, tied to the overarching plot in some way.  This gives the reader the satisfaction of completing a piece of smaller plot but also keeps them engaged in the series as a whole.  This serial does a good job setting up the overarching plot.  People are waking up in what appears to be an alternate universe that is possibly punishing them for something they did that they can’t remember with sinister beings chasing them or tormenting them from afar.  It’s a good mystery, but it is just getting going when the serial entry stops.  This would be ok, but the big weakness of the serial entry is that there is no self-contained smaller plot.  Thus, instead of feeling any sense of satisfaction of having learned something or completed one mystery, the two main mysteries of the overarching plot are just getting going and then stop abruptly.  Without the presence of a second, self-contained, smaller plot for this entry in the serial, this just leaves the reader feeling cheated out of getting the whole story, rather than the dual experience of satisfaction at the wrap-up of the smaller plot and intrigue at the larger plot.

The setting of the alternate universe is well-established and delightfully creepy.  Everything being just a little bit off is creatively written without being in the reader’s face.  The author also includes a drawing of a mysterious symbol that Zak sees, which helps build the atmosphere.

In contrast, Zak and Shreya feel a bit two-dimensional, but this is possibly because they have such a short time in which to be established.  Similarly, the demonic character who chases Zak comes across as corny, straight out of a B movie, not frightening like he is, presumably, supposed to.  The world building is so good that the two-dimensional good guys and cheesy bad guys stick out like a sore thumb.

The one flaw in the writing style is there are way too many similes.  At times it feels that every other sentence contains one.  Any descriptor used too much can go from artful to annoying.  A lighter hand on these would be helpful in future entries.

Overall, this first entry in the serial establishes a delightfully creepy alternate universe where everything is just off.  The lack of a smaller, self-contained plot in addition to an overarching plot will make this frustrating to read, unless the reader has the next entry at hand to read immediately.  Recommended primarily to horror fans who like their horror in small bites and enjoy the concept of a serial who won’t mind waiting a bit for the conclusion to the mystery in future entries.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Kindle copy provided by author in exchange for my honest review

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Book Review: Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer (Series, #3) (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

June 1, 2014 2 comments

A girl in old-fashioned clothes looks at hersself in a mirror.Summary:
When Charlotte goes away to boarding school for the first time, she’s very excited to get the bed with the particularly pretty wheels right next to the window.  When she wakes up, though, the view from the window looks different, and people are calling her Clare!  She discovers she’s traveled back in time to the same bed in the same boarding school, but during World War I.  The next morning, though, she wakes up in the present again as Charlotte.  This pattern continues, meaning both she and Clare are Charlotte….sometimes.

Review:
I picked this book up because I have an affinity for both boarding school books and time-travel books.  This looked like the best of both worlds to me.  A fun middle grade book that introduces to the reader to two different past time periods–the 1970s of Charlotte’s present and the nineteen-teens of Clare’s present.

This book is the third in a series, but it is completely possible to read it as a standalone.  No mention is made of the events in the first book, and the second book is actually about what Charlotte’s little sister does while she’s away at boarding school.

The concept is intriguing, because instead of time-travel happening once and landing the person stuck in the past (or future), Charlotte keeps switching, spending every other day in the 70s and every other day in the teens.  In addition to the usual issues time-travel books bring up, such as what stays the same and what is actually different throughout time, it also brings up the key question of identity.  What makes Charlotte Charlotte?  Is she still Charlotte when she’s being called Clare?  Why does hardly anyone notice that Clare has changed? Or Charlotte for that matter?  The book thus addresses identity issues that middle grade readers might be going through, but in a subtle way through the time-travel trope.

Were you some particular person only because people recognized you as that? (page 66)

The time-travel itself is left as a fantastical mystery, rather than being given a scientific explanation.  There’s something magical about the bed that only makes Charlotte and Clare switch places, but no one else.  This works without an explanation because the young girls being subjected to the time-travel just accept it without explanation.  This is their reality, and it doesn’t matter why it’s happening, they just have to deal with it.  Some readers, though, might struggle with the fact that the time-travel itself is never explained.

The one thing that disappointed me about the book, and that I think would have made it a classic and a five star read, is that the book only explores what happens to Charlotte when the girls switch places.  Clare, her experiences, and her perspective are only heard about through third parties.  The book, while in third person, is entirely Charlotte’s perspective.  Clare, a reserved, proper girl from the nineteen-teens must have been shocked by both the technology and the mores of the 1970s she suddenly found herself in.  So much more could have been explored by telling both Charlotte’s and Clare’s story.  The book misses an opportunity by only focusing on the modern day girl going back in time.  The girl being thrust into the future, a future where she finds out Britain wins the war, and there is suddenly no food rationing or flu epidemic, that is such a cool story in and of itself, and Farmer just never ventures out to tell it.

Overall, this is a book that sets up a fantastical world of time-travel within a boarding school.  It utilizes the switching of two girls with each other in time to explore questions of identity in a way that surely will appeal to many middle grade readers.  The book does not fully explore the story the way it possibly should have, but the young reader will probably enjoy filling in those gaps themselves.  Recommended to all fans of boarding school, time-travel, or historic fiction set during World War I’s homefront.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Better World Books

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Previous Books In Series:
The Summer Birds
Emma in Winter

Book Review: The Golden Torc by Julian May (Series, #2)

April 10, 2014 Leave a comment

Image of a silver torc against a gold and black backgroundSummary:
The group of people who traveled from the future to the Pliocene past for a willful exile were split into two by the alien race, the Tanu, who, surprisingly, inhabits Earth.  Half were sent to slave labor, while the others were deemed talented at mind powers, given necklace-like torcs to enhance those powers, and sent to the capital city of Muriah.  In the first book, we followed the daring escape of the group sent into slavery.  They then discovered that the Tanu share the Earth with the Firvulag–an alien race from their home planet that has many similarities to their own.  They also organized an attack on the industrial city of Finiah.  This book at first follows the adventures of the other group, the one sent to the capital city of Muriah.  Through them we discover the inner workings of the Tanu, the intersections of humans and aliens, and the impact of the human/Firvulag attack on Finiah.  When the time for the Great Combat between the Tanu/human subjects and the Firvulag arrives, the survivors of the escaped slave group end up coming back into contact with the group of humans in Muriah. With dire consequences.

Review:
I really enjoyed the first book in this series, finding it to be a delightful mash-up of scifi and fantasy.  When I discovered my library had the next book in the series, I picked it up as quickly as possible.  This entry feels more fantastical than the first, although science definitely still factors in.  It is richer in action and intrigue and perhaps a bit less focused on character development.

This is a difficult book to sum up, since so very much happens.  It’s an action-packed chunkster, providing the reader with information and new settings without ever feeling like an info-dump.  The medieval-like flare of the Tanu and the goblin/fairie/shapeshifter qualities of the Firvulag are stronger in this entry, and it is delightful.  Creating a medieval world of aliens on ancient Earth is probably the most brilliant part of the book, followed closely by the idea of torcs enhancing the brain’s abilities.  May has created and weaved a complex, fascinating world that manages to also be easy enough to follow and understand.  The sense of the medieval-style court is strong from the clothing, buildings, and organization of society.  She doesn’t feel the need to willy-nilly invent lots of new words, which I really appreciated.

The intrigue is so complex that it is almost impossible to summarize, and yet it was easy to follow while reading it.  Surprises lurk around every corner, and May is definitely not afraid to kill her darlings, following both William Faulkner’s and Stephen King’s writing advice.  A lot happens in the book, the characters are tested, and enough change happens that I am excited there are still two more books, as opposed to wondering how the author could possibly tell more story.  In spite of the action, sometimes the book did feel overly long, with long descriptions of vegetation and scenery far away from where most of the action was taking place.

The book is full of characters but every single one of them manages to come across as a unique person, even the ones who are not on-screen long enough to be fully three-dimensional.  The cast continues to be diverse, similarly to the first book, with a variety of races, ages, and sexual preferences represented.  I was surprised by the addition of a transwoman character.  She is treated with a mix of acceptance and transphobia.  I think, certainly for the 1980s when this was published, it is overall a progressive presentation of her.  She is a doctor who is well-respected in Tanu society.  However, she also is presented as a bit crazy (not because of being trans but in addition to being trans), and it is stated by one character that she runs the fertility clinic because it is the one part of being a woman that will always be out of her grasp.  I am glad at her inclusion in the story but readers should be aware that some aspects of the writing of her and how other characters interact with her could be considered problematic or triggering.  I would be interested to hear a transperson’s analysis of her character.

Overall, this entry in the series ramps up the action and more thoroughly investigates the world of the Pliocene Exile.  Readers disappointed by the lack of information on the half of the group heading to the capital city in the first book will be pleased that their story is told in this one.  Characters are added, including a transwoman doctor, and all continue to feel completely individual and easily decipherable, in spite of the growing cast list.  The fast action pace sometimes is interrupted by lengthy descriptions of settings far away from the action, but overall the chunkster of the book moves along at a good pace and remains engaging.  Recommended to fans of fantasy who want a touch of science in their stories and who are interested in the idea of medieval aliens.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Previous Books in Series:
The Many-Colored Land, review

Book Review: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer (Series, #1) (Audiobook narrated by Carolyn McCormick)

April 5, 2014 2 comments

A viney green plant with a flower and a dragonfly wrap themselves around the title of the book.Summary:
Nobody quite knows what is wrong with Area X, but everyone has their speculations.  It’s been cut off from the rest of the world for decades, and the government has kept precisely what is going on rather hush-hush.  The government periodically sends teams in to investigate it.  The narrator, a biologist, is part of Team 12.  The team is entirely made up of women, based on a supposition that women are less badly effected in Area X than men.  The biologist’s husband was part of Team 11.  She is curious to know what happened to him but also entirely intrigued by the tunnel her team finds.  She insists on calling it a tower.  Through her mandatory journal, we slowly discover what may or may not be in Area X.

Review:
I picked this book up since it sounded like it would be a mix of scifi and Lovecraft style fantasy, plus it features an entirely female investigative group.  Although it is an extremely interesting premise, the actual book does drag a bit.

The biologist narrates in a highly analytical way that is true to her character but also doesn’t lend itself to the building of very much tension.  Since the biologist calmly narrates everything, the reader stays calm.  She also, frankly, isn’t an interesting person due to this same tendency to view everything through an analytical lens.  Imagine if Star Trek was 100% written by a Vulcan, and you can begin to imagine the level of ho-hum.

This narration style could have really worked if the language used was stunningly beautiful.  While I think that’s probably what the author was going for, it largely missed for me.  While the language was good, there was also nothing particularly special about it.  I marked three passages that I enjoyed throughout the whole book.  Looking back, two were extremely similar.  The passage I found to be the most beautiful is:

That’s how the madness of the world tries to colonize you. From the outside in. Forcing you to live in its reality. (time 3:15:47)

While pretty, it’s not pretty enough to make up for the rather dull narrator.

Since the story has four women to work with, it probably would have worked better to bounce around between their four narratives.  This also would have given the bonus of seeing the mysteries of Area X through multiple sets of eyes, enhancing the tension the mystery, while also giving the opportunity for a variety of narration styles.

The mystery of Area X is definitely intriguing and different from other Lovecraft style fantasies.  In particular, the passage describing the terror of seeing the thing that cannot be described was particularly well-written.  However, the passages describing the horror in Area X are mostly toward the end of the book and are not as well spaced-out as they could have been to help build the tension.  The end of the book is definitely the most interesting and managed to heighten my interest enough that I was curious about the next book in the series.

Overall, this is a unique take on the idea of a scientific investigation of an area invaded by Lovecraft style, fantastical creatures.  It features an entirely female investigative crew but unfortunately limits itself to only the narration of one overly analytical and dull biologist.  Recommended to big fans of Lovecraft/fantastical invasion style fantasies.  To those newly interested in the genre, I recommend checking out Bad Glass by Richard E. Gropp first (review), as it is a more universally appealing take on the genre.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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