Dark Eden by Chris Beckett

There comes a point in a book’s reading life where I can feel deep inside that the book isn’t going to be satisfying. Sometimes this happens early: a gut feeling as characters make flippant remarks about the worthlessness of women. Sometimes it’s right at the very end when I look at the small chunk of pages remaining and know that there’s no space to wrap up everything. But most of the time it happens quietly and somewhere in the middle: some mistake in the weaving that goes unnoticed until later when suddenly all the thread is being to fray and the piece unravels. This is what happened with Dark Eden.

It is the future and a group of 500 or so people are living on a dark planet called Eden. Eden has no sun to speak of, all light emitting from strange creatures and fauna that has developed on the planet, Eden itself warmed from the center of itself, heat and steam rising up from pools of water. The group is all called “Family” because that’s what they are. 5 generations ago, a small group of astronauts from Earth crashed on this planet and while 3 of them returned back to Earth to try to get help, 2 of them, Tommy and Angela remained. Now there are over 500 of them, after years and years of incest, and food is running out in Circle Valley, the place where Tommy and Angela first crashed. A young newhair (teenager) named John Redlantern believes that Family needs to travel up through Snowy Dark (mountains) and cross over to the other side, taking them away from Circle Valley, and the place where Angela promised Earth would return for them.

Right off the bat, I’m hooked. Give me a sci-fi story that focuses around space colonization and humanity having to deal with living on strange new worlds? I am here faster than you can figure out how to farm space corn, which might actually be fairly slow. Point being is that I love this subgenre. I also love the idea of watching how a culture that originated from one identity evolves over time and changes as certain truths and understandings get lost, so more points in this book’s favor on that account.

A thing you’ll notice fairly immediately, and has been brought up time and time again regarding why others didn’t like it that much, is the book’s use of language, specifically how everyone in Family talks. It’s at this point I’m going to mention that I listened to Dark Eden on audio, so expect some spelling mistakes as I heard everything rather than read it. One of the weird ticks that developed after 5 generations away from Earth (comboed with the aforementioned inbreeding) is that the Family of Eden has lost a great deal of nuance when it comes to language. Adverbs in general seem to have disappeared, with no way to qualify greater degrees of a certain emotion, like sadness. So instead of saying “I was very sad” or “I was depressed” or “I felt a hole in my very being so deep that all emotions fell into it and were sucked away until I was empty” the people of Family say “I was sad sad.” Ditto for “He was smart smart,” “I was tired tired” or “she was weird weird.” On top of that, everyone in Family has a very simplistic and childlike way of speaking, given that they only had 2 actual Earth people to teach them language and how things were, and lots of information has been lost generations down the line.

Although it took some time to get used to, I rather liked the strange dialectic that Family had. The narrators all had British accents and British euphemisms were often used (blimey, bloody hell, etc) since Tommy and Angela originally came from London, but they took it one step farther and made everything with an “a” sound be more like “eea.” So it’s “John Redlee-an-tern” or “Fee-amily.” This was a nice touch regarding how language might have developed on Eden, so far removed from Earth. Family also has forgotten how to read and write, having decided against “school” 2 generations ago when food in Circle Valley became more scarce, so the story of Tommy and Angela is passed on only though the Oldest, now. Concepts like “lecky-trickety” “sky boats” and “rad-yoh” are lost on the new members of Family, unable to figure out what these forms of technology could have been.

So what went wrong? If this is a anthropological look at space colonization and a somewhat twisted retelling of the Genesis story, why am I feeling so utterly disappointed by Dark Eden? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. I’ve been scouring goodreads looking for 2/3 star reviews to try to capture what I’m feeling and I just… I don’t know. Many people cite the language style as the reason for their lack of interest, but I loved it. Some say that they found the concept too unbelievable, but I have no qualms with a lack of realism in sci-fi. Some say that the female characters were weak and served only to produce children, but I disagree with that statement wholeheartedly as for the grand majority of the book, Family is a matriarchy and no one knows who their father even is. Women have all the power to slip (have sex with) whomever they like without shame and rape never has occurred on Eden to the point where they don’t have a name for it.

I think the problem for me was less one specific thing and more a combination of elements that just didn’t mesh. For one thing, the characters are overly simplistic and not that interesting. Dark Eden is told from several POVs (but mainly John Redlantern and Tina Spiketree) and although there are definitely differences between them, they all feel kinda samey due to how simplistic Family is in its thinking process. But combined with the flat characters, I don’t know what point Chris Beckett wanted to make with this book. Not every book has to have an underlying message, I know, but sometimes you just feel that the book is trying to tell you something. Dark Eden reminds me a bit of Oryx and Crake, where people make bad decisions and the characters aren’t very likable but Margaret Atwood is clearly using the novel to make a point about human ego and the dangers it poses when mixed with god-like science.

The closes Dark Eden comes to a point, I feel, is in its Genesis roots. Clearly Tommy and Angela are meant to be a twisted version of Adam and Eve (the book is called “Dark” “Eden” after all), and the novel itself has some similar beats found in Genesis: the paradise of Earth that Tommy and Angela find themselves separated from, their subsequent procreation of the human race, the eventual first murder, etc. But the Biblical overlay serves no point other than window dressing, in my opinion. Angela is simultaneously Eve and Mary: the mother of all of Family who is revered like a God herself while also being human. Tommy is a mix between Adam and Noah: father of all of family but also a sometimes cruel father who slept with his daughters. There is a first murder and it is technically between brothers in that everyone in Family is related, but the fill in for Cain has no other connection to the story other than he kills someone. The death is not caused by jealousy, and the one who commits it is seen in the right as the potential Abel was in the process of beating someone else to near death.

What am I supposed to take from these connections? What is the overall point? Dark Eden is not a book that excels in its plot or characters but in its worldbuilding and overall concept. Maybe that is why 80% into the book when we’ve exhausted everything we could regarding the world and Family’s mental and physical journey and instead tell only the conflict between John and other members of Family, that I grew bored and disastified. The characters are flat, the plot boring and the interesting Genesis comparisons are a surface dressing only. I loved the imagery of Eden and learning how this new civilization grew up, but in the end, Beckett still is telling a story about people and his people are simple simple and boring.

Advertisements

Jen’s Favorite Books of 2015: Romance

Confession time: I was an anti-romance snob for the majority of my reading life. Like a lot of girls, I grew up not wanting to be mistaken for “that kind of girl.” I.E. I shunned everything feminine in a way to legitimize my own feelings regarding my gender. I complained whenever romance interjected itself in my sci-fi/fantasy books, I ignored the dragon-level hoard of romance books my mom read yearly, and above all else, I made fun of the covers. Oh, those covers. When I worked in a library, I would constantly pull aside the more absurd covers and poke fun at them. Being a teenage nerd also did not help my crisis involving the feminine, as I quickly learned that if you actively shunned all things stereotypically feminine, male nerds would be verrrrrry slightly more likely to take your nerd cred seriously.

“But why tell us you hate romance books in a top romance post?” I hear you ask, “I came here to find out about the kissing books, not listen to how dumb they are!” Well, 2015 marked the year where I finally came to terms with how much I simply enjoy romance! Screw you, haters of all things feminine! I like reading about two people falling in love and having sex! I still have my hangups, sure, and I DNF’d a handful of romance books this year due to overly-rapey men or overly-helpless heroines, but I found a much larger number of romance books that were amazing! And thus… without further ado… COMMENCE WITH THE KISSING!

Romance

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

As mentioned above, I was (and am) a massive nerd. Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Stargate SG-1 were the primary focus of my obsessions and I miiiiiight have hit a classmate in high school with a binder because he claimed Episode 1 of Star Wars was better than the original trilogy. Look, I’m sure we can all come together and agree that despite any rage issues I might have had, my reaction was justified. But the one thing I never got into was fanfiction. Oh sure, I was aware of it (mainly how incorrect it was when written by Harmony shippers) but I never really read it and certainly never wrote it. So color me surprised that one of my favorite romance books this year revolved completely around teenage written fanfiction.

Fangirl is the coming of age story of Cath, and her twin sister Wren as they deal with their first year at college. Cath and Wren have always been inseparable, dressing alike, living in the same room, and being obsessed with the same thing: the Simon Snow Series. It went without saying that upon picking the same school, they would dorm together. Except… then they don’t. Wren sees college as a new beginning, a way to form her own identity outside of her twin sister and her Simon Snow obsession. She cuts her hair, gets a new wardrobe and specifically states on her application form that she is not to dorm with Cath.

Cath does not take this well.

Stubbornly refusing to accept her sister’s life changes, Cath instead buries herself deep within her world of Simon Snow fandom and completing the novel length epic she’s been writing online: Carry On. Simon Snow, by the way, is this world’s “definitely not Harry Potter wink wink.” It follows two wizards, our Harry and Draco if you will, as they go about their magical adventures at a Definitely Not Hogwarts and book 8, the final book in the series, is going to release later in the year. Cath (and formerly Wren) is a massive Simon/Baz shipper and has been writing her own finale for the Simon Snow series wherein Simon and Baz finally admit their true feelings for one another. As she tries to finish her fanfiction epic before the final book is released, Cath has to deal with all sorts of college awkwardness including how she feels about Levi, her roommate’s kinda sorta not boyfriend.

Fangirl isn’t the type of romance novel I mentioned above. There is no hot and steamy sex scenes, no magnificently sculpted hero or heavy bossomed heroine. What it is instead is one of the most realistic college stories I’ve ever read, complete with awkward college crushes and having to navigate your journey towards adulthood. Along with copious amounts of Simon/Baz fanfiction intertwined throughout. If you were at all an awkward nerdy college girl (hello!) and want to read an amazing revisit of those years combined with a sweet romance, Fangirl is the best book I can think of for this task!

Serving Pleasure by Alisha Rai

Imagine one of those hot wing sauce charts at sports bars. If romance novels were hot sauces, Fangirl would be somewhere around “garlic parmesan” whereas Serving Pleasure would be up around say…. super hot mango habanero. That is to say, oh my god this book was the sexiest thing I think I’ve read ever.

::ahem:: I’d like to take this brief moment to break the fourth wall and say, “Hi, Mom! I know you’re reading this because you read everything I write. I also know you read approx 125 romance books last year so explicit content isn’t new for you but it’s still a liiiiittle awkward to be writing about how hot and sexy some of these scenes are. So for my mental well being, I’m just going to pretend that you’re never going to see this while I write about super hot it was for artist Micah intensely going down on Rana. Good? Good.”

Serving Pleasure is book two in Alisha Rai’s Pleasure series, which follows the 3 Malik sisters, Devi, Rana and Leena. The previous book centered around Devi, the baby of the siblings who also is the head chef at their family’s Indian restaurant. She’s short and chubby and adorable and if you’re into polyamory and lots of 3-ways involving super hot twin brothers you should definitely read it. But if that’s not really your bag and you still want well written but super hot romance, Serving Pleasure is literally everything you need.

Serving Pleasure (a title I’m sure high school Jen would have balked at but adult Jen loves) follows the oldest and wildest of the sisters, Rana. Rana is the head hostess at the aforementioned family restaurant and known within her family for her rather long list of men she’s slept with. But she’s drawing closer and closer to her mid-thirties and Mama Malik is getting more and more anxious about her rebellious daughter’s chances at finding a perfectly suitable husband (i.e. a well off Indian doctor). So Rana makes a pledge to stop her one night stands and go on actual dates until she finds Mr. Right. That is, until she notices that the super hot artist neighbor she has has a tendency to leave his house curtains down and not wear many clothes around his house.

From there, Micah (aforementioned hot artist) and Rana form a pact of sorts: they’re both very attracted to one another but both aren’t looking to get emotionally involved. So Rana will pose for Micah professionally as a model for two weeks and beyond that they might have copious amounts of unattached sex. Just to get it out of both of their systems, you know? Micah can’t possibly be the type of man Rana should settle down with and she’ll definitely go back to dating to find Mr. Right once they’re done with their fling (three guesses how well this plan works out).

Beyond the sex scenes, which are amazing in case you were wondering, the thing that really made me fall in love with this book is its characters. Micah isn’t the alpha male domineering Fabio that is assumed to be the hero of romance novels. Rana isn’t the waifish white heroine in need of a man to fulfill her. They are both complex and flawed characters with their own personal hangups they need to work through in order to make themselves happy. Rana is dealing with her mother’s disapproval at her wilder lifestyle and her own feelings of self-doubt and self worth regarding her place in her family. Micah has extreme problems connecting with people not due to a Gaston-esque sense of arrogance, but due to a traumatizing event he went through and the literal physical pain he endured and those close to him were victims of. Rana’s relationship with her sisters and her relationship to Micah beyond the super hot sex they have is what truly carries this book. Everyone feels like a real person with their own hopes and desires. And, you know, Micah is apparently a god when it comes to using his tongue.

Serving Pleasure beyond any measure of a doubt was one of my favorite books I read this year, and my favorite romance novel I read, period. I cannot wait for the 3rd book in the series to revisit the Malik siblings and see what else Alisha Rai has in store (spoilers: amazing characters being interesting and behaving like real people. Potentially with orgies.)

The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh

(As I write this, I now realize that I wedged Serving Pleasure between two fairly mild books when it comes to sex and romance. Imagine Fangirl and The Wrath and the Dawn are two pieces of very high quality artisan bread housing a very spicy piece of chicken. Also in hindsight, I maybe should have not written this post directly during lunchtime.)

I wrote a full review of The Wrath and the Dawn directly after reading it, so if you want a more in depth and less food related review, I would recommend checking that one out. However, The Wrath and the Dawn was magical book in every sense of the word. It felt like a spell had been cast over me while I read it, making me fall in love with these characters and the setting and the mythology so entirely that I didn’t even realize what had happened until the book was over.

The Wrath and the Dawn is a retelling of A Thousand and One Nights the myth wherein a cruel prince takes a new bride every evening and murders her at dawn, until one woman tricks him into letting her live by telling him a fascinating tale and leaving him hanging in anticipation just as the sun rises. Like Fangirl and Serving Pleasure, the characters in this book are marvelous and rich. Renee Ahdieh takes the one note characters from mythology and fleshes them out into multi-faceted and complex people with their own motivations and hopes and dreams. The relationship between boy-king Khalid and his new bride Sharazad evolves throughout the entire book, with me hating and fearing him upon it’s start and feeling sympathetic and scared for their relationship by the end. If you enjoy YA, Middle Eastern Mythology and a good fantasy romance, you really should read The Wrath and the Dawn and then join me in eager anticipation for book 2 I NEED IT, YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND I HAVE TO KNOW HOW THE STORY ENDS.

Jen’s Favorite Books of 2015: Horror

Fun fact: as a child, I was the world’s biggest wimp. If I saw a spider, I screamed. If I was stuck in the dark, I screamed. If I saw Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, I screamed and had unending nightmares for a month of orange-faced little people in psychedelic tunnels while chickens were beheaded. So it’s somewhat surprisingly that as an adult, I’ve fallen in love with the horrific and grotesque. According to my all encompassing spreadsheet of book stats, I read 5 horror novels in 2014. That number doubled in 2015.

Like with most genres, what I find compelling is not always the immediate go-to standard of the genre in question. I’ve read my fair share of King, but the horror I’m most drawn to tends to be less flashy and more subtle. I enjoy my horror creepy and off-putting vs. slashy and in your face. That’s not to insult the type of horror I dislike, it very clearly has its audience and it’s well earned its praise. But don’t expect Stephen King or his offshoots on this list.

Horror2

The Girl with All the Gifts, M.R. Carey

I couldn’t bring myself to make a straight up “top ten books” list for this year, but if I had, The Girl with All the Gifts would have definitely been in the top 3. It might have been my favorite book of the year; it’s certainly been my most recommended book of the year. Several of my friends made new years resolutions to read more in 2016 and when they asked for recs, this book has been on every single list.

I went into this book completely blind. I had remembered reading the summary at some point and knew it sounded interesting, but I thought the book was going to be much more similar to a darker version of X-Men, with the “gifts” they mentioned being superpowers of some sort. Protip: that’s not the plot of this book. Unfortunately, I cannot fully articulate the actual plot of this book. I’m going to need to write a spoiler-filled extended thoughts on this one, but it takes a sub-genre I thought dead, and somehow makes it feel completely new and fresh. Every single character in this book undergoes an arc of some sort and has aspects to them that the reader will find both sympathetic and repulsive.

So much of this book is the journey of learning the exact situation Melanie and the other children find themselves in, and what has happened to the world. Your feelings on who you find to be good and who you think is bad change throughout the book as you learn more things. Everyone is complex and interesting, and even the characters I never truly liked as people I could understand and relate to on some level. And all of this amazing character building is taking place in a truly horrific setting that again, can’t elaborate on due to spoilers. If you haven’t read this book, you really owe it to yourself to give it a shot. Seriously.

Bird Box by Josh Malerman

The Girl with All the Gifts might have been my most recommended book of 2015, but Bird Box is hands down the best horror book I’ve read, period. There’s something outside. Something that if you look at it, you will be compelled to gruesomely murder those around you before taking your own life. No one knows exactly what it is, where it came from, or how to stop it.

Our main character is Malorie, mother of 2 young children living in a world where this presence exists. They live in a barricaded house, its rooms empty and floors stained with blood. They only venture outside with blindfolds on, and have learned to rely solely on their non-visual senses to survive the world outside. But the house cannot be their shelter forever. Malorie knows of a compound where other people live and where they might be safe. But to do that they have to traverse the now desolate city. While blindfolded. Down a river.

The story jumps back and forth between Malorie and her children’s dangerous journey to hopeful safety and Malorie’s past when people first started seeing the presence. We see the changes Malorie undergoes in order to survive in such a world, meet a variety of people attempting to cope with the horrific situation they find themselves in, and slowly learn the specifics about what the presence can and can’t do. All the while you’re left wondering how the Malorie of the past becomes the Malorie of the future in 9 short months of her pregnancy and 4 short years of child rearing.

The old adage with horror films is that less is more when it comes to your monster. You want the audience to catch glimpses, letting their imagination do the work until the final climax. Bird Box masters this brilliantly. The reader learns along with the characters how to infer what’s happening without any visual cues. The descriptions are full of sounds and touch, Malorie groping around the floor, checking to see if the thing is in the room with her; checking whether or not it’s safe to open her eyes. I highly recommend the audiobook for this one. Hearing a narrator amplifies the experience, in my opinion. Any horror novel in the future is going to have a tough road ahead of it to surpass Bird Box.

Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

So on goodreads, I don’t technically have a “horror” shelf but instead file things under “dark/creepy.” I feel that description above anything else is where Broken Monsters falls into. It’s not horror in the way Bird Box is, is not meant to cause the reader to be scared, or have a wayward spirit causing trouble in a haunted house, it’s just extremely dark and creepy. Reading Broken Monsters gives you a constant feeling of unease at its imagery. It takes place in the real world as we know it, no world ending event transforming society as we know it, but it has just enough of the strange and unnatural to keep the reader uncomfortable and unsure.

The book starts off with Detroit Detective Gabriella Versado being called in to a crime scene where a very….unusual… body has been left. The legs of a young boy, not older than 13, have been left, fused together to the torso of a deer like a grotesque art sculpture.

Lauren Beukes is a master of multiple storylines interweaving in one coherent story. Her previous work, The Shining Girls, featured a dozen or so different points of view as different girls in different time periods are being murdered by a time-traveling serial killer. The same craft and care is shown in Broken Monsters. Gabriella Versado might be the first character we see, but she is by no means the only or primary character. The book also follows her teenage daughter, engaging in a catfishing scheme to try to apprehend a man preying upon young girls via chatrooms. There’s an increasingly desperate and rather obnoxious journalist turned youtuber named Jonno and his girlfriend, who are trying to get whatever scoop they can find. There’s a homeless man named TK, trying to help out the members of his ill-begotten community and keep his fellow homeless safe. And finally, there’s the killer himself, crazed and seeing visions that drive him to create this “art.”

Beukes maintains all of these competing storylines seemingly effortlessly, interconnecting them at key moments so that the reader is slowly able to piece together what is happening just before the characters do. Not once did I feel a pang of annoyance to return to a certain character or leave another. They were all interesting and had their own plotpoints that I genuinely cared about. As the killer’s plan unfolds and his deeds become more and more terrifying and otherworldly, I felt legitemate fear for our characters, knowing that any one of them could fall victim to the killer’s schemes, in more ways than one. If you enjoy murder mystery and don’t mind the story having otherworldly elements not based in our reality, Broken Monsters should be on the top of your list.

 

Well then. All the dark and scary stuff is out of the way. How about something a little lighter? How about ~*~**~ROMANCE~**~*~? Wait, why are you all running away? COME BACK, DON’T YOU WANT TO HEAR ABOUT THE KISSING BOOKS????

Jen’s Favorite Books of 2015: Sci-Fi

Sci-Fi is a bit of a tricky genre to define at this point. What kind of sci-fi are we talking about? Hard sci-fi with aliens and spaceships? Within that, is it military sci-fi like Starship Troopers? Space Opera like Star Wars? Space Colonization sci-fi like Speaker for the Dead? We have realistic sci-fi like The Martian. Sci-fi/horror mixes like the Area X trilogy. Sometimes you even get a Sci-fi/fantasy blend. And where do we house dystopian fiction? A zombie dystopian future is horror but what if it’s parasites originally developed by humans to combat disease and large portions of the book are dedicated to the science of said parasites? What if it’s a dystopian future that’s not necessarily meant to imbue the reader with terror but instead teach us about the dangers of climate change or other environmental science?

The point of all this being, I had a fairly difficult time trying to distinguish what I considered “sci-fi” vs other genres, and my top 3 demonstrates that. It’s not going to be all hard sci-fi and space, and arguments can be made that genres like horror are more prevalent than sci-fi, but in my opinion, these books all should be classified as “sci-fi.”

scifi2

Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

Do you listen to podcasts? Do you like strange and weird things like Twin Peaks, The Twilight Zone and The X-Files? Are you interested in a small desert town where time doesn’t work properly and the leading mayoral candidates were a faceless old woman who secretly lives in your home and a literal 5-headed dragon? Do you enjoy listening to or reading short stories told from the viewpoint of this strange desert town’s local radio station host? If you answered yes to most of these questions, you most definitely should check out Welcome to Night Vale! The podcast, that is. I’m sure you could check out the book that is on this list as well, but the book doesn’t work very well as a stand alone.

Welcome to Night Vale has been one of my favorite things since it began releasing its episodes in 2012. It is the perfect mix of other-wordly and strange without ever fully falling into the realm of horror. When I heard there was going to be a novel written, I was excited yet apprehensive. How exactly would this radio show podcast translate into prose? Would it require you to be caught up on the podcast to read it? How well will it serve those unfamiliar with the show? And for the most part, the novel assuaged all of my fears. Instead of keeping with the radio show format, we instead follow two side characters in the show, Jackie Fierro and Diane Crayton as they have their own adventure within this strange little burg. The plot was separate from any current events happening in the show at time of release, focusing instead on one of the lesser mysteries: who is the man in the tan leather jacket holding the deer skin briefcase?

The main downside is that if you haven’t ever listened to at least some episodes of the show, you’re going to be very confused. Night Vale doesn’t necessarily follow any sort of standard story structure, given how strange everything is. If you are unfamiliar as to how things work in Night Vale, or what is considered “normal” within the show (examples include: a sentient glow cloud (all hail) running the school board, a dog park that you must NEVER speak of and certainly never take dogs to, another dimension where radio show host Cecil’s boyfriend is trapped, a secret police monitoring everything you do with black helicopters, and definitely NOT angels), then you’ll probably not understand what in the book should give you tension and what shouldn’t. That being said, as someone who loves the podcast, I adored this book. It expanded upon the Night Vale mythos very nicely, gave me insight into side characters I never would have learned about otherwise, and all the while kept the strangeness of the show completely in tact. If any of this sounds interesting to you and you haven’t listened to the show, try a couple episodes before tackling the book! If not, well, this should probably get a pass from you.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood is one of those authors that I had been meaning to read for years and never got around to. Time and time again I had people whose opinion I trusted tell me that I need to read her books, that she’d be perfect for me: dystopian semi-sci-fi fiction generally with feminist undertones (or overtones if you’re The Handmaid’s Tale)? That right there is a perfect mixture for a Jen book. I’ve consistently put off reading The Handmaid’s Tale, convinced that the time is not yet right for me to read this. But, 2015 was the year I finally broke my Atwood dry spell and read Oryx and Crake.

Oryx and Crake begins with a strange hermit named Snowman being pestered by strange almost alien-like children. “Snowman, oh Snowman, tell us about the world Crake has made for us. Tell us, oh Snowman, what these strange items are? Where is our beloved Oryx, dear Snowman? Please tell us when we shall see her again?” As their questions continue, you begin to realize that the place we are on is not some alien planet, but instead Earth, and Snowman is one of the last, if not the last human as we know and recognize them. The story flits back and forth between Snowman and the man he once was, Jimmy, as he relays to the reader the events leading up to the desolate and unrecognizable landscape that Earth now is.

As mentioned, Margaret Atwood tends to write very message filled fiction, and that is clear throughout Oryx and Crake. The book’s plot continually raises questions within the reader, challenging their views on the increase in genetically modification of our food and our lives. What lengths can science go to to help humanity, and how dangerous do those lengths become? What are the ethics of animal testing if it means a positive for humanity? What defines us as human and others animal? Atwood asks us all these questions, all the while maintaining a respect for science. Science itself is not the culprit or evil factor in Snowman’s tale, it’s the morals and decisions of humanity in their use of certain sciences that cause the danger.

If you haven’t read Atwood before, I highly recommend starting with Oryx and Crake, especially if you tend to be a genre reader like me. I definitely am hoping to continue the trilogy this year and read Year of the Flood. And who knows? Perhaps 2016 is the year I finally deem myself ready to read The Handmaid’s Tale.

Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie

I wrote a full on review for this book so I shall endeavor not to repeat myself too much here. Needless to say, all those reviews Anne Leckie won for Ancillary Justice? Definitely well deserved. It’s the only classic sci-fi novel on this list, but it far exceeds any expectations I had for the genre.

Ancillary Justice revolves around a sentient spaceship AI named Breq who ends up trapped in the singular body of one of her helper cyborgs. The reader follows her on her journey of exploration and revenge as she attempts to learn what happened that caused her from controlling hundreds of ships attached to her central mothership and even more cyborg robots throughout the planet she was stationed, to being all but destroyed.

The prose of this one can be somewhat confusing if you’re not accustomed to hard sci-fi and the worldbuilding therein. Breq’s very unique point of view can be a little difficult to follow for some, as she was used to being in multiple places at once and controls literally hundreds of different entities. There’s also some gender politics throughout the novel, as Breq has problems distinguishing gender differences between anyone she meets. Everyone is “she” regardless of physical description or their own self-identity, which can trip up the reader if not careful.

But those reasons were primarily why I loved the book. I had never read a sci-fi novel with such an interesting point of view, and Breq’s journey was compelling and exciting to read. The alien lore and worldbuilding was a bit tricky for me, but I adored this book. If you are a sci-fi reader accustomed to the styles of hard sci-fi and wanting a fresh take on the genre, I cannot recommend Ancillary Justice enough.

 

That’s all for sci-fi! Next up…. horror.

Jen’s Favorite Books of 2015: Fantasy

So 2015 is officially over. Overall it was a fairly good bag for me. Matt and I got engaged, got a place together, none of my family members died this year compared to the onslaught of funerals I had to attend in 2014, and I feel like I’m in a better place as to where I want to go in my career than I was in the beginning 0f 2015. I don’t really intend to ever make this blog super personal but overall 2015 was pretty good. It had its downs most definitely but the good outweighed the bad in my opinion. And, of course, I read a whole lot of great books this year!

I keep an obnoxiously detailed google spreadsheet on all the books I read in the year and will be compiling the data in a fancy looking infographic later this month (hopefully. I’m not very good with keeping self-imposed deadlines it seems). That being said, I thought I’d take some time to go over what some of my favorite books I read this year were. As opposed to making a single top ten list, I decided to break everything up by top three books of genre, since I’m such a heavy genre fiction reader. And so, I give you my favorite fantasy books I read in 2015!

Fantasy2

Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

Wizard lawyer necromancers try to sort out the cause behind a dead fire God and partake in magical courtroom battles to defend the church from the prosecutor wizards.

There’s more nuance to the book but that’s been my salespitch to my friends and family when trying to get them to read this book. Three Parts Dead was great. Modern wizard lawyer description aside, do not believe that this book is an urban or otherwise modern fantasy. No, this is still a fantasy world of mythos and magic, where technology doesn’t exist and powerful Gods rule and people can harness magical energy to bring back the dead. The worldbuilding particularly impressed me, staying fairly centralized in the fire and steam powered city of Alt Coulumb, but showing enough of the surrounding world to hint at fascinating adventures in new places in the future. The characters were wonderful and diverse, with our main protagonist being young lawyer associate Tara (a black woman), with side characters ranging from a chain-smoking and nervous priest of the dead God to a smarmy vampire pirate to a drug addicted young woman who allows the consciousness of a former moon goddess to possess her in pursuit of justice to gargoyles. If you like fantasy, I highly recommend checking this book out. I am sure you’ll have an entertaining time.

Poison Study by Maria Synder

Ok, can someone please explain to me why so many people marked this book as YA? I’m not saying it shouldn’t be YA, it just doesn’t strike me as a YA book. Our main character is in her 20s, the other primary characters are also in their 20s or 30s, and we cover fairly dark topics such as abuse both physical and mental (not saying that YA books can’t cover those topics, it just doesn’t mesh here as a YA).

Regardless of the question on whether or not this is YA, Poison Study is a remarkably well written book. Yelena is imprisoned and awaiting her execution for the crime of murdering the son of one of the kingdom’s highest Generals. However, right before her scheduled execution she is given a choice: the commander’s chief poison taster has recently died (3 guesses what the cause was) and the law of the land states that whomever the next person scheduled for execution will be offered the position in replacement of death by hanging. The choice is a complicated one. Her execution will (most likely) be quick and expected. There is no way out of being a poison taster other than a slow, most likely painful, death by poison at an unknown time. Fortunately for the contents of this book, Yelena chooses the poison option. As Yelena begins her dangerous training as a poison taster, learning the different ways to distinguish the telltale signs of oncoming death, she learns more and more about the political struggles of the kingdom, and reveals slowly to the reader a cruel sequence of events that lead to the murder she was imprisoned for.

Yelena was a very well written character. Her relationships with potential allies and enemies evolve and change throughout the course of the book, and the reader is often second guessing along with Yelena on whether or not someone is truly trustworthy. There’s hints of magic here and buildup for future world exploration along with engaging and interesting political intrigue. Definitely a great read for me this year.

The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch

I didn’t get around to writing a full review for this one but I’d like to formally start by saying this: SCOTT LYNCH YOU WONDERFUL BASTARD YOU. YOU KNEW EXACTLY WHAT WAS GOING TO MAKE ME REACT THE MOST IN THAT ENDING AAARRRGHHH IT WAS SO GOOD BUT GODDAMMIT WHY DID THAT HAVE TO HAPPEN I MEAN I GET WHY BUT I DIDN’T WANT THIS.

::ahem::

Now that that’s out of the way, I can get onto the actual contents of this book.

So if you read any of my other two reviews of the earlier Gentlemen Bastard books, you’ll recall that a recurring theme was a near constant flow of praise interjected with a constant refrain of “BUT WHO IS SABETHA????” If you too felt the way I did and was getting slightly fed up about the Sabetha references with no concrete information about her or her existence, you’re in luck! The Republic of Thieves could essentially be re-titled as Everything You Wanted to Know About Sabetha, and that’s a wonderful thing.

Republic of Thieves opens where we left off in Red Seas Under Red Skies, and pretty much immediately fixes all the criticisms I had with the previous book. Bondsmagi threat? You got it. Locke and Jean back in an environment where we can swindle and con and do what the bastards do best? We have swindling out the butt. More elaboration on Locke’s past and true name? Here! Have the aforementioned name along with an entire backstory (although I side with Jean on this one and am not fully buying it as truth). Plus you get pre-Lies backstory with the whole team including Sabetha?? Yes please, count me in!

Sabetha herself was a delight. After so much build up and pedestal throwing that Locke established earlier, I was worried she’d be a manic pixie dream bastard and only exist for Locke. But she’s a strong character in every sense of that word. She has her own aspirations, own set of morals, own wants and fears. Lynch wrote her with flaws and they’re actual flaws that counter Locke’s own flaws nicely. The two of them are near equally skilled but are both their own people, allowing themselves to exist with and without each other, and never have I seen a more competent foe for Locke to take on, both in conwork and emotionally. Sabetha shone in every scene that she was in and was well worth the wait. Fans of the Bastards, even if you were discouraged by Seas, you really need to read this one. It’s everything I wanted out of a sequel to Lies and THAT EPILOGUE. I eagerly await the next book in the sequence.

Maplecroft by Cherie Priest

You ever have one of those books that you go into expecting one thing and about 50 pages in figure out that your brain was tricked at some point and the book is something tonally different than you expected? That was me with Maplecroft. I’m not entirely certain where in life I was misled, but when I picked up this book, I was quite certain this was going to be a fun, quick read about Lizzie Borden on a vendetta against the paranormal, somewhat similar to the tv show Supernatural. So I settled in, ready to be entertained by a somewhat dark but in the end popcorn-level book of fun undead axing. Turns out, there was one small but very specific mistake I made. Lizzie Borden, infamous axe murderess from the late 1800s/early 1900s, is definitely chopping up unearthly beings in attempts to protect her family and town, but they aren’t demons with snappy one liners. Nope, instead it’s Lovecraftian fish people.

This mistake might seem inconsequential to those not familiar with Lovecraftian horror, but it changed the entire tone of the book. Lovecraft is slow and meaty text, full of lumbering monsters from unknown depths and serving unfathomable Eldritch Gods. A physical threat exists, but it’s much less important than the threat to our minds. There is a sense of hopelessness and despair to Lovecraft, where even the smallest glimpses of the horrors beyond our world can drive the sanest of men mad and where any solution found is only a bandaid put on top of a severed arm.

This tonal shift transformed everything about this book for me, and I was delighted. The book no longer felt that we were making light of historical figure Lizzie Borden’s (probable) murderous actions to tell a fun and entertaining jaunt making her the hero figure of the story. Instead, Lizzie’s actions are slow and eclipsed with a sense of ongoing dread as we have to watch more and more townsfolk falling victim to the Eldritch horrors that are slowly transforming them into crazed fish-people.

Speaking of fish people, Maplecroft seems to have drawn the majority of its Lovecraftian influence from The Shadow Over Innsmouth, one of the more well-known Lovecraft works. In the story, our unnamed narrator relays his investigation into the small Massachusetts town of Innsmouth, and the strange goings on there. He describes with first a strange curiosity and later abject horror at the transformation the townsfolk seem to be undergoing, along with their continual obsession with the sea and the “deep ones” that reside in it.

Similar to many Lovecraft stories, Maplecroft is told via letters and journal entries, although unlike the story it has drawn from, there is not one sole narrator telling this tale. Instead, we get the POVs of multiple characters ranging from Lizzie to her ailing sister to the mind of a professor slowing going mad due to the eldritch influence of the deep ones. This helped with the unsettling atmosphere and sense of dread, as you could watch throughout the book as different characters begin their transformation, or react to the transformation of others. Down side of this writing style, however, was that the passage of time is solely conveyed through journal entries at the beginning of each chapter and several times I got lost about how much time had actually progressed since we last heard from our characters.

Another positive of this being influenced by Lovecraft as opposed to actually written by him is that you get to avoid some of the author ickiness surrounding his works. I greatly appreciated having multiple female POVs as our primary voices, something which Lovecraft himself would have balked at. There weren’t random lines about how inferior black people or women are to startle me out of the dread I was experiencing with a stark reminder of how incredibly racist Lovecraft was. Instead, I got to experience all the thematic elements of a proper Lovecraft Horror with more relatable and somewhat diverse characters (or at least more diverse than Lovecraft would have ever written).

Unfortunately, the ending of the book didn’t quite land for me. Around the time where a certain character begins to succumb to the strangeness surrounding the town, the book seems to come to a stuttering halt. Time seems to be passing more quickly going by the journal dates but nothing much is happening story wise. A large section near the end felt like we were sitting around just waiting for the finale to start, and once it did start, everything seemed to happen at once. The pacing of everything seemed off, and not deliberately. Characters start behaving in more illogical ways but you can’t tell if the author intended this to be a sign of their oncoming madness, or if it’s just inconsistent character writing.

That being said, I still greatly enjoyed this book. The actual ending (not the build up to the ending that I struggled with) felt very fitting for the Lovecraftian style, and I came away from this book feeling small and hopeless, but in an intended way. I’m unsure if I’ll read the next book in the series, although that’s not a condemnation of this book. Instead, it’s because I enjoyed this book so much that I don’t want to read the next one. Coming back to this world and the horrors within it seems to destroy the point of this book. The hopeless note we ended on was so fitting and perfect, telling any sort of continuation or epilogue seems contrary to the book’s thematic influence. Regardless, Maplecroft was a wonderfully dreadful book of horror and hopelessness and I’m very glad to have read it.

The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh

The Wrath and the Dawn is a retelling of A Thousand and One Nights, classic collection of Middle Eastern folktales from days of old. Sadly, I never read A Thousand and One Nights, although I’m much more inclined to after reading this book. But even without having read the original work this book is inspired by, the premise was one that was familiar to me due to the ever-constant presence of stories within our world.

The land of Khorasan is under the rule of the mad boy-king Khalid, who strikes a blow at the hearts of his people every sunrise. For months now, the cruel caliph has taken for himself a new bride, a new young girl to wed, only to have her strangled to death with a silk cord come the dawn. When her best friend becomes Khalid’s newest victim, 16 year old Sharazad vows vengeance on the boy-king, making herself his next bride and using her skill at weaving stories to entice him and keep herself alive for one more day, hoping to find a way to destroy Khalid’s grip of fear on her people once and for all.

I remember when I was little and first heard the premise of A Thousand and One Nights and being amazed that a young girl telling stories could soften the heart of such a cruel man. How could only words and the promise of hearing what happens next in the story be enough to prevent her death? Thinking about it now, isn’t that what all good stories do? They weave a magical world that doesn’t tangibly exist and yet keep the reader entranced and enthralled and wanting more even when the story is finished. The Wrath and the Dawn did precisely that for me. The word I best can use to describe it is “magical” even though actual magic are only hinted at at best. But the book entranced me, pulled me in and caught me in its spell until it was over. And just like Scheherazade in the original tale, it left me before the story was finished, but with the promise that more will come.

The characters of The Wrath and the Dawn are far more complex than their folklore counterparts. Sharazad is not simply a weaver a words, she’s a force to be reckoned with. She holds her own in a world that wants to chain and silence her. She refuses to be a quiet little pet of a seemingly mad king and demands to be heard and valued equally. Khalid is not just a single-minded cruel boy, caring so little for the wives he’s killed. There’s suffering behind his callous exterior, reasons for the deaths, pain and sadness and remorse even while he continues to destroy lives. There’s layers to him to understand, even while his tendency for violence horrifies and disgusts. Similarly, the advisors and servants within the palace each have their own stories, their own wants and needs outside of our main characters which add a richness to the story. Even the family Sharazad leaves behind is not a forgotten sidenote in her life. As her understanding of Khalid grows, her family rears their heads, reminding her of what she has sacrificed to be in this position, scorning her for feeling any sympathy for the king who murdered so many.

I will say not everything worked perfectly in this book. Although I appreciated Sharazad’s journey of emotions as her time with Khalid grew, I found the jumps back to Tariq and her family a bit confusing to follow. Once the storylines converged more, things fell more into place but whenever we’d cut back to them, I’d find myself growing restless as I cared much more about Sharazad and her journey than I did anything Tariq was planning. Although I understand and appreciate the importance he serves in Sharazad’s backstory, I found him more annoying than anything else, a smaller player in a much larger story that he didn’t fully understand.

I loved this book, although I didn’t realize how much until it was over and the story was not yet done. I wouldn’t use the word cliffhanger to describe the ending, for there wasn’t any singular event cut short. The story of Sharazad simply wasn’t done yet. But the spell had already been cast and there was nothing I could do but wait until the Renee Ahdieh came back to me with more magical words to weave and a promise of a conclusion to the story.