Sunday, July 28, 2013

Book Review: "The Arrivals" by Melissa Marr

What do you get when you combine time travel, travel between worlds, Egyptian tombs, vampires, and the Wild West? The answer, my friends, is the latest novel from Melissa Marr. And as eclectic as it sounds, it works. Mostly.

Kitty and Jack, a brother and sister from a rough Western town, have spent almost thirty years in the Wasteland, an alien world full of strange and often dangerous creatures. They don't know how or why they were brought here, but at least they're not alone; others like them from different times and places have been mysteriously transported to the Wasteland as well. The natives don't go out of their way to bother them, but neither are they an accepted part of the community. The only thing that the Arrivals all seem to have in common is that each of them, intentionally or not, has killed someone before in their lives.

Kitty and Jack look after their fellows as well as they can, while trying to steer them away from Ajani, an Arrival who exploits the Wasteland and its native people for personal gain and pursues Kitty with a disturbing singlemindedness. Tensions between Kitty and Jack's small group and Ajani have always been high, but when Chloe is suddenly swept into the Wasteland from our modern day, her presence changes everything and will lead to a final showdown with Ajani and his empire.

Let me first say that this is a really good story. It's simple, it's very creative, it involves lots of action and romance that doesn't feel smutty; the plot progression is so smooth that I didn't even notice its movement until I was already being swept along with it. The story doesn't really get started until Chloe shows up though, and so the first part of the story (which takes place in the Wasteland) was a little bit directionless. It set up a few important things, like Kitty and Jack's personalities and Kitty and Edgar's relationship, and the unusual way in which death works for the Arrivals (sometimes, six days after being killed, Arrivals wake up again. Sometimes, they don't). But I felt like I was just waiting for the story to begin until about chapter five, which was frustrating.

Ajani's character makes a really great bad guy, the perfect foil to Jack even down to questions of self-image and philosophy of existence. These are very important but subtly expressed, implied even. The plot is simple and straightforward but it is the complexity of the characters that make this an interesting read.

And as fun as it was to see so many different genre types thrown together into one book, there were some parts in which Marr wandered a little too far off the beaten track. The result of drawing from too many different detail origins (like in the naming of Wasteland creatures, where she pulls from everything from Norse folklore to psychological conditions to Biblical names. Or the use of an Egyptian spell in the middle of everything to open up a portal between worlds). The result was a cluttered feeling, like there was no common thread running through the book, origins-wise. Even an alien point of commonality would have felt more helpful. Again I point you toward the characters to pull the fraying random edges of the story together and carry them through to the conclusion.

I really did like that at the end after Ajani was defeated, the Arrivals didn't just all happily go home to their own times and places; the rules of the wormhole still applied. I also really liked how Kitty's telepathy and affinity for some of the Wasteland's denizens were worked into the plot. It was, again, indicative of a subtlety that was lacking in the collage of origins in the Wasteland setting.

So. If you're ready for an awesome, character-driven tale of good and evil, you want a story that's just plain fun to read, and you love a good cross-genre novel, pick up a copy of The Arrivals at your favorite local bookstore. It was just released this month.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Book Review: "A Spark Unseen" by Sharon Cameron

Sharon Cameron first came to my attention as an author when I read her first book, The Dark Unwinding, last fall. I fell in love with it, finished it in two days, and have been combing through piles of Advance Reader Copies ever since, looking for the next installment of the story. Welp, I finally found it, and it's called A Spark Unseen.

But before I tell you about this second book in the series, let me introduce you to our protagonist, Miss Katherine Tulman, as I first met her in The Dark Unwinding.  She was then the orphaned ward of her aunt Alice in London, where she was little better than a servant. Her only goal in life was to secure enough funds of her own to escape her aunt and useless cousin, and that goal began to seem possible when Katherine was sent to Stranwyne Keep, her grandmother's estate, on Alice's business. The estate had been held by Katherine's uncle, her father's brother, for years. But rumor had been circulating that he had lost his mind, and so Alice jumped on the opportunity to secure the estate for her own son. She did this by sending Katherine to observe her uncle and attest to his lunacy upon her return to London. In exchange, Aunt Alice would ensure that Katherine was not completely destitute.

Katherine is determined to send her uncle "Tully" away to an asylum and finally win her freedom from the vile Aunt Alice. But once she arrives at Stranwyne, she discovers an entire world built around her rather unique uncle. The townsfolk think of him kindly, despite his many oddities and reclusive nature, and the town's commerce is thriving with the pottery that is produced there. The estate is well-managed, and in no real need of Aunt Alice's intervention. Indeed, Katherine becomes more and  more aware of what she would be destroying should she choose to put her uncle in an asylum, as she well could. But the marvels that he designs in his workshop with the help of the handsome but aloof Lane fascinate her, as they do Ben Aldridge, who is studying Uncle Tully's creations and how they work.

As her time at Stranwyne continues, Katherine becomes more and more convinced that Uncle Tully must not be committed. But as her certainty grows, she becomes less and less sure of herself, and her strange bouts of lost memory and strange states of mental vacancy worsen. Is she losing her own mind just as she gains the trust and possibly love of Uncle Tully's closest caretakers (including Lane, a silent boy named Davy and his bunny, and the dour Aunt Bit)? Will she be packed off to an asylum just as poor Uncle Tully?

*SPOILER ALERT* I'm happy to report, dear reader, that she is not. In fact, it turns out that poor Katherine is being drugged with opium by the seemingly nice Ben Aldridge. He is actually a French spy, who plans on using Uncle Tully's innovations as the basis for a new weapon that we would today most closely liken to a torpedo. After nearly killing Katherine and flooding the lower village as well as part of Stranwyne Keep, Ben tries to make his escape with Uncle Tully's prototype device. However, Katherine manages to blow up his small boat as he's making his getaway. Ben is presumed dead, although his body is not recovered. In the fallout from all the intrigue and Katherine's refusal to go along with Aunt Alice's plan to take over Stranwyne, several things happen that prove important in A Spark Unseen: Aunt Alice comes to Stranwyne for an update and finds that Katherine and Lane are a couple of sorts. This is troubling since Katherine is a lady and Lane a servant. Additionally, Katherine discovers that her father left her a very large inheritance, and that Aunt Alice never had much of a hold on her to begin with. Katherine becomes the steward of Stranwyne Keep with the help of Mr. Babcock, the estate's solicitor. But this happy new life is clouded by the arrival of Mr. Wickersham, an agent of the British government. Troubled by Ben Aldridge's actions and by what the French could be planning, Mr. Wickersham enlists Lane with his French heritage to travel to France and spy for the British.

This is where A Spark Unseen picks up, with Katherine safely in charge of a once again thriving Stranwyne Keep and her uncle happily at play with his mechanical creations. But there has been no word from Lane in months, and most of the household has lost hope that he is still alive. After two men attempt to kidnap Uncle Tully out of Stranwyne, Mr. Wickersham arrives with the intention of bringing Katherine and Uncle Tully to London to continue work on a British prototype of a torpedo. Uncle Tully, in his mental state, does not react well to the new and unknown. So to ensure that he does not become a lab rat to the British government, Katherine and her faithful maid Mary contrive to fake Uncle Tully's death and take him away to Paris. Of course in addition to protecting her uncle, Katherine is determined to find Lane. But the situation is much more complicated than she imagines, and soon she's in over her head with both French and British spies, nosy English neighbors, a missing Mr. Babcock, the Emperor of France, Ben Aldridge, and still no sign of Lane. For just how long can one hide someone as brilliant as Uncle Tully in a city like Paris?

Please, please, please don't be fooled by the covers on these books. They look like ditzy teen romances, yes, but they belie the intricate story within. Katherine is a strong female protagonist who sometimes gets in over her head, but recognizes the hopelessness of anything other than slogging onward, and Mary is a wonderful, endearing friend and coconspirator to Katherine. In addition to Lane (who is still self-righteous enough to annoy me sometimes but it works well in context) and Mr. Babcock, a host of new characters is introduced including Frenchmen Henri and Jean Baptiste, and Josef, the return of Ben Aldridge under a different name, and the revelation of Mrs. Hardcastle as an ally.

The introduction of electricity to Uncle Tully's work is another stroke of genius, although not as much happened with it as I would have imagined until the final scene with Uncle Tully and Ben Aldridge. But I have a feeling that it will be playing a larger role in the next book, as will Lane's heritage. Ben's near insanity was very well written, and entirely believable. Similarly believable were Lane's actions while he was missing, although again here his attitude about not being good enough for Katherine made me "harumph" and shake my head in disapproval.

Uncle Tully in himself is a magnificent character, not just because he provides a focal point for the evolving story but because of who he is. If I had to make a guess, I'd diagnose Uncle Tully with some form of autism. He is brilliant and often single-minded in his work, creating the most fascinating machines from inside his own head. In addition, he has a preoccupation with time and numbers, and loves clocks, Lane, Katherine (whom he calls "Simon's baby" in reference to his brother, Katherine's father) and Marianna, who was Uncle Tully's mother. He is sweet and endearing but also sometimes frightening in his reactions to things that he perceives as "not right" and to things that interrupt his personal schedule. Katherine's struggle to understand and provide for her uncle are rewarded with the appreciation she develops for him and his talents, and the eventual demonstrations of love that he shows her. It's a beautiful sort of relationship that is often overlooked by popular literature, and I give an (extra) tip of my hat to Cameron for depicting it so beautifully.

So I tell you, get up and go find yourself a copy of The Dark Unwinding as soon as your favorite local bookstore opens! If you're a sucker for steampunk and Victorian England like I am, you'll adore it. And while you're at it, check out the inspiration behind Stranwyne Keep here at Sharon Cameron's website! The second book in the series, A Spark Unseen, will be released in October of this year. Check with your bookstore to find out about preorders! 

Monday, July 8, 2013

Book Review: "Queen's Gambit" by Elizabeth Fremantle

King Henry VIII is probably best remembered for his string of six unfortunate wives and for the rift he created between the Crown and the Catholic church with his reformation attempts. This book by Elizabeth Fremantle addresses both defining issues, primarily from the perspective of Katherine Parr, King Henry's sixth and final wife. After the death of her second husband Katherine is summoned to court to serve one of the king's "illegitimate" daughters. She never imagines, over thirty years old, that she will be the one to catch the king's eye and be chosen as his next wife. But with the aging king progressively more unpredictable and prone to bouts of rage and senility, Katherine's life hangs by a thread as the tides of court intrigue swirl around her.

But Katherine doesn't want to be just another docile woman under the thumb of her monarch husband. She is a fervent religious reformer, reading banned books and writing some of her own religious thoughts, and treads a fine line between playing the good wife and trying to convince Henry to promote more reform. But such progressive thinking earns Katherine some powerful enemies within the king's inner circle, and they will use whatever sway they have to try and oust her from King Henry's good graces. And Katherine's enduring and forbidden love for the courtier Thomas Seymour may provide them with the ammunition they need to seal her fate.

Fremantle uses real historical figures from the court of King Henry VIII to tell the story of a strong, smart, determined woman trying to blaze a trail of reformation in a world where women had no power. Katherine's perspective in the story is complemented by the perspective of Dorothy Fownten, one of the queen's servants. This creates an interesting "Upstairs/Downstairs" feel to the whole novel. It also serves to deepen Katherine's eventual legacy beyond her title and her heir, to imagine the impact she had on the people immediately around her, servants and peers alike.

While many of the details of personal relationships during this time period are lost down the well of history, Fremantle creates a very believable web of friendships and rivals, with many of them intertwining and overlapping. While the author openly admits that she has taken the liberty of fabricating many of the relationships as she imagines they would have been, I found the friendship between Katherine and Huick, a court physician, to be particularly endearing. Their kinship is a silver thread woven throughout the novel's entirety, the bright spot in some of the darkest situations.

**SPOILER ALERT** I found it frustrating, however, that the strong convictions about religious reform and education that Katherine had at the beginning of the book disappear as the novel continues. I understand that she must have been feeling worn down and threatened at every turn, but to have her turn into a weak woman waiting for her own demise, whose only wish in the world turns out to be having a baby, was a disappointment. I find fault here not with the facts, but in the presentation of Katherine's personality change. It is so complete that by the end of the book there is not a trace of the adventurous protagonist who caught my attention in the beginning. Instead, she just wants to be a wife and mother. I'm not saying that these are not admirable goals for a woman in any time period; they are just a far cry from her initial character presentation, especially in that she had no additional aspirations.

Anyone who appreciates detailed and engaging historical court intrigue, where some of the most subtle plays have the most profound consequences, will be blown away by Queen's Gambit. The sincere personal relationships that form even in the midst of King Henry's violent court make for a very compelling read. Queen's Gambit was released on June 18th and is available at your favorite independently owned bookstore now.