Friday, March 24, 2017

Short Fantasy Book Reviews: Near Misses, But No Banana

The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco.
I really wanted to like this YA described by the publisher as “Memoirs of a Geisha meets The Name of the Wind.” It opened with great promise, and it has many things going for it. I loved the idea of an evolving relationship between the heroine, Tea, and her brother, Fox, after she inadvertently brings him back from the dead. The author gets kudos for a non-Western setting. There are lots of details about the city, the school, the monstrous and occasionally draconic daeva, and so forth. I loved the idea of heartsglass that changes color and reveals much of who you are, although I was perpetually confused about how it worked (also the geisha “asha” and why sometimes a bone witch – necromancer is one and sometimes not). There are a number of wonderful characters like Mistress Parmina (a most un-Japanese name) and Likh, who longs do dance but who is male and so is destined to become cannon fodder for the Deathseekers) and a sense of history and tradition. Unfortunately, the development of intriguing ideas fell short. The relationship with the brother happened slowly, almost as an afterthought or something pinned on. At first I thought how cool it was to have a Japanese Hogwarts, but the culture did not ring true. Attitudes and speech patterns felt Western, and the seemingly random inclusion of elements (like cuisine) from other areas of the world created a slap-dash patchwork instead of a seamless whole. The major problem though, was that there was no clear goal or threat that built to a climax. The result was a story that felt flat and episodic. The hazing from other students had as much emotional weight as the threat of the Faceless (a generic, all-purpose enemy who seem to be evil for its own sake). The utter absence of sex, even sexual feelings, was a jarring omission. These young women are being trained as hostesses and entertainers; it is impossible that the issue of intimate favors for their patrons never comes up. Even if the younger ones are protected from forming liaisons, surely the questions must come up for the more mature asha. It’s ridiculous to thing that a YA novel must exclude all references to sex when it is so important to teens in real life. Discerning older readers may well give this one a pass.

Toward a Secret Sky by Heather Maclean  is a YA novel of the “Twilight with Angels and Demons”
sort. Our teen orphan heroine finds herself shipped off to grandparents in Scotland where she explores scenery, makes friends, and encounters the devastatingly gorgeous angel assigned the guard her. Even though she is told in no uncertain terms of the dire consequences of human-angel love affairs, she plunges into one obsessive daydream after another, refuses to heed his warnings to leave him alone, and in general behaves like an infatuated adolescent incapable of making rational decisions. To be sure, she has personality and strengths, not the least of which are keen mental abilities and a generous heart, and the story moves along nicely, with enough twists to keep the reader engaged. Logic bobbles (like why would a handsome, rich incubus need a date-rape drug when looks and money alone would get him as much sex as he wants?) flawed an otherwise enjoyable flow of prose, and the “the war [with demons] is just beginning” epilog felt tacked-on. These shortcomings may pale in comparison to the overall enjoyability of the story, particularly for a young adult reader but a more critical reader may find them annoying.

Adara Quick's The Dream Protocol: Descent offers intriguing twists on the usual dystopic YA novel. I
particularly liked the use of dreams as work incentives, and nightmares as punishment, plus the addictive nature of dreams when people cannot sleep normally. However, the work is marred by heavy-handed exposition, telling repeatedly instead of showing, the lack of world-building beyond the dream economy (how is food produced?), and simplistic characters. I do not believe this novel would have been publishable by any major house, as it certainly has not been professionally edited. I hope that with more attention to craft, the writer will become better able to to justice to her ideas.

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