As you can reliably guess from the fact that I write for this blog, I am a librarian. So I knew I would love Among Others by Jo Walton as soon as I read the dedication page:

This is for all the libraries in the world, and the librarians who sit there day after day lending books to people.

among othersThis book is for me! Awesome!* And this Hugo & Nebula award-winning novel is a treat. Mori is a well read 15 year old who has already accomplished a lot: she overthrew her mother, an evil witch, in a magical battle that killed her twin and left Mori with a shattered hip. She’s read just about everything that’s ever been published in the SF genre (well, everything before 1979, when this novel is set), besides Philip K. Dick, whom she dislikes. In the Wales of Mori’s childhood, magic and fairies are very real, but they aren’t all-powerful. Magic isn’t even the focus of this story; what could have been a bombastic, typical tale of good triumphing over evil (at a great cost) in a climactic magical duel  is instead a bildungsroman, the story of a smart, confident, magical girl discovering her identity. Mori’s most important challenge is discovering the value in her life now that her deed is done and her twin is dead.

When you are the hero, when you’ve already saved the world, and you’re a teenager stuck at boarding school based on the whim of a father you’ve never known, where the other girls taunt you for your Welsh accent and your limp, and where both the fairies and the magic of your childhood and your twin – your other half – can never reach you, what is the point of living? On Halloween, Mori sees the ghostly remnant of her sister near a portal to the next world and is tempted to follow and join her in death, but:

…I was halfway through Babel 17, and if I went on I would never find out how it came out. There may be stranger reasons for being alive.

Her love of books, libraries, writing, and the other worlds of the SF genre buoy Mori through the turbulent year after her sister’s death and lead her to the path her adulthood will take, so though her tale may sound grim, it’s really effervescent and uplifting.

Among Others is a fantasy novel, but Mori’s engagement with the realm of science fiction is so cogent, meaningful, and pervasive in the novel that this is a must read for fans of both genres.

 

*I have to add, though, that we do a lot more than sit and lend books! Sometimes we stand and lend DVDs :)

whathappensinlondonThe Good: What Happens in London by Julia Quinn

This is the perfect Regency romance. It’s funny (actually funny, not just peppered with lines that the characters laugh at but the reader never would), heartwarming (but not schlocky), and steamy (but not gratuitous). There’s a fussy, arrogant Russian prince, a heroine who scorns novels and reads every word of the Times, and a dashing hero who wears funny hats. It’s historically accurate (mostly), but it never gets boring by slogging through too much detail. I devoured this in just two very enjoyable sittings. (Available via WILBOR)

The Bad: A Lady Never Lies by Juliana Gray

aladyneverlies

Oh, dear. This is the kind of book that always made me hate romance novels. It’s nonsensical, it’s boring, its characters have no substance, and the romantic moments are gratuitous and badly written. Gray tries to heighten the drama by having everyone be cagey about their pasts/financial situations/parentage but honestly, it goes over like a lead balloon. Three single young women and three single young men accidentally rent the same Tuscan castle for the summer! They decide to keep both leases and stay in separate wings! They make a wager not to interact with one another to prove some bologna 21st-century-argument that the author has needlessly inserted into an allegedly historical novel! I wonder what will happen!!!???

soullessThe Awesome: Soulless by Gail Carriger

I never thought I’d like a book about vampires, werewolves, and parasols, but I was deeply mistaken. Soulless is a steampunk novel (steampunk: a sub-genre of SF in which the industrial revolution of Victorian times has gone into hyperdrive, producing steam powered dirigibles and other retro-futuristic contraptions and necessitating a lot of metal eyewear with round lenses). Alexia Tarabotti is half Italian and half an orphan, hardly a favorite in London society, but her appearance and parentage aren’t her only problems: in the middle of a ball, she has just been attacked by a vampire. The encounter breaks all the rules of supernatural etiquette AND destroys her plate of treacle tart! Miss Tarabotti soon finds herself in the thick of a mystery, one with potentially deadly consequences for the supernatural vampires and werewolves she befriends and for herself. Alexia is fierce, fun, and generally unforgettable. The romance is well balanced against the world building and it makes sense for the characters, all of which are interesting, exciting, and well written. Brava, Ms. Carriger! I can’t wait to read the other four books in this series. (Available via WILBOR)

seraphinaRachel Hartman’s Seraphina is my new favorite book of dragon fantasy. In it, dragons – an unfeeling, coldly mathematical species which can fold themselves into human shape – have shared an uneasy peace with Seraphina’s homeland of Goredd for 40 years. Prejudice and naked hatred between the two races exists everywhere, and on the eve of the peace treaty’s fortieth anniversary, tensions are running high. Add to this mix a murdered prince (whose missing head strongly suggests dragon involvement) and a smart, curious young woman with a unique ability to understand dragon culture and you have a recipe for intrigue. Seraphina is a gifted musician and the assistant to the court composer, which makes her a minor member of the royal court. Her talent is making her famous, but she has secrets to keep; preserving those secrets while at the same time investigating a royal murder and befriending the presumptive heirs (Princess Glisselda and her fiancé, the bastard Prince Lucian) puts Seraphina in a lot of tight spots. Her friends; her life; her sanity; her secrets – what will Seraphina sacrifice to protect the peace?

I have no complaints about this novel; it’s perfectly paced, gorgeously written, and well imagined, all of which shines through a multi-layered and complicated plot that never gets out of Hartman’s control. The characters are inspirational in their intelligence and bravery yet relatable in their worries and failures. There’s intrigue and mystery as well as philosophy and breathless action, and even a bit of romance. Seraphina’s romance with Lucian is wonderfully subtle and genuine – a true meeting of the minds. Hartman is so busy writing about their meaningful conversations and compatible personalities that I’m not even sure I know what Lucian looks like! Seraphina has more important things to think about than the color of his eyes.

Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer’s co-authored epistolary novel has a very long title: Sorcery and Cecelia, or, The Enchanted Chocolate Pot: being the correspondence of two young ladies of quality regarding various magical scandals in London and the country. Please don’t judge it by this wordy title or by its tragically hideous cover. It’s great!

It’s Regency England, magic is real, and cousins Cecelia (Cecy) and Kate correspond over the course of a summer, unraveling alone and together the mystery surrounding the titular enchanted chocolate pot and the “Mysterious Marquis.” The action is very exciting, the letters brisk and forthcoming, the characters sympathetic, the romance delightful, the magic subtle and delectably menacing. It’s a delight – the only complaint I can offer to temper my enthusiasm is that Cecy and Kate are virtually indistinguishable. I cannot recall a single difference between them, whether in temperament, opinion, age, physical appearance, or letter-writing style. The only difference between them is that Kate is in London and Cecy in the country; or did I switch that around? I’ll have to look back at the letters to check.

By sheer good luck, my reading of this novel overlapped with my listening to the also epistolary, also long-titled, also co-authored, and also excellent The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. This was an enormous hit with book clubs a couple of years ago, but if you missed out on it then, treat your ears to this audiobook right away! It has become my standard audio fiction recommendation, even surpassing At Home and Twenties Girl. Juliet Ashton corresponds with and befriends the people of Guernsey, an island in the English Channel which was occupied for 5 years by the Germans during World War II. Each character’s letters are read by a different voice actor, and the result is entirely winning. It’s a lovely book read by lovely people, and it’s about resilience and friendship and bravery and the love of books. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

In case it wasn’t already obvious, the librarians who write for this blog LOVE A Song of Ice and Fire. We really can’t seem to stop writing about it. If you do too, these two brand new items are definitely worth a look:

Inside HBO’s Game of Thrones by Bryan Cogman: an in-depth look at the HBO series, with material from both the first and second season. Interviews of the cast, behind the scenes photography, stills from the show, family trees, interviews with production designers and costume designers and conceptual artists: everything you could really want. If you’ve combed the extra material on the DVD sets, most of this isn’t new, but it’s gorgeous anyway.

 

The Lands of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin: This brand new non-book is more than it appears: it’s a set of twelve full-color poster sized maps folded up and packaged in book shape. But when you unfold them, it’s a fantasy reader’s dream! Detailed, beautiful maps with tons of new information: before now, the exact parameters and proportions of Martin’s vast imagined world were not exactly defined. But now, NOW we finally know where the Dothraki sea sits in relation to the Red Waste; where the Shadow Lands and Asshai are; the layout of the canals of Braavos; and oh, behold the new details of the smoking ruins of Valyria!! It’s glorious, but a warning: if you are a show-watcher and not a book-reader, there are spoilers inside!

(And in case you’re just starting out, you can find the novels at many Rivershare libraries.)

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman is the first in a trilogy of fantasy novels, but don’t worry: since they’re written for a YA/mature child audience, it’s not nearly the kind of time commitment that most fantasy series are. The first novel follows Lyra Belacqua, a precocious 12 year old girl who lives in a universe parallel to our own: in her world, each human is accompanied at all times by an animal daemon – a physical manifestation of their soul and a lifelong companion. For children like Lyra, the form of the daemon is in flux, taking the shapes of different animals depending on the person’s mood or circumstances. Lyra is a wonderful fantasy heroine: she’s tough and smart and relatable, and her journey isn’t just an adventure but a moving tale of growing up. She sets out to rescue a friend who’s been kidnapped by the mysterious, possibly malevolent Magisterium; on the way, she meets gypsies and witches and powerful Magisterium officials, and learns how to use a device called an Alethiometer that can answer any question with absolute truth.

The next two novels, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, follow Lyra’s further journey to fulfill her destiny. The trilogy has been banned or challenged on the grounds of Political Viewpoint, Religious Viewpoint, and Violence. To learn more about this book, censorship, and Banned Books Week, check out the ALA Banned Books Week website.

If you adore Harry Potter, do yourself a favor and check out Harry Potter: Page to Screen, the Complete Filmmaking Journey. It’s a big, heavy, hardcover behemoth absolutely stuffed with photographs and text from all 8 Harry Potter films. Interviews with the cast and crew give insider information, and viewpoints from the set designers, costume designers, directors and actors show how meticulously the details of these movies were planned. From the small things – Hermione doesn’t wear red or green, as “those are Ron colors,” the story behind Harry’s blue eyes (a controversial change from the books’ oft-referenced bottle green), and the talon design of Bellatrix’s wand – to the big things: hours of makeup for dozens of actors cast as goblins; the complex design of the set for Snape’s final scene; the massive miniatures built to stand in for Hogwarts castle, and the equally massive undertaking of covering those miniatures with “snow” for the winter scenes (and then meticulously brushing and cleaning that “snow” away before the salt it was made of could corrode the material beneath).

Whether you’re into the boy wizard or just into movie magic, you’ll adore this book. It inspired me to re-read the novels and re-watch the movies, which of course launched a relapse of full-on Potter mania at my house! These are some of the other library items I’ve been checking out:

One of the most buzzed-about books of the summer, The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker raises the question:  what would happen if the Earth’s rotation suddenly began to slow down?  Narrated by 11-year-old Julia, the novel explores not only the ramifications of this global disaster but also how it affects the already tumultuous time between childhood and adolescence.

I read this book several weeks ago and held off on blogging about it because, frankly, I was disappointed.  But I realize now that perhaps I just went into it with the wrong expectations.  As a reader who adores sci-fi and fantasy literature, I felt that the earth’s slowing rotation and its effects were extremely underdeveloped.  I wanted more information about why it happened, good descriptive passages about the effects it had on life all over the planet, and to feel the sense of danger and dread that should have been felt with this sort of catostrophic event.  But that’s not really the focus of this book, and if you go into it prepared to practically ignore the science of it all, it becomes a better story.

The Age of Miracles is really a coming-of-age story about Julia, who just so happens to live in a time when the earth’s rotation is slowing.  It’s a novel about growing up and the changes that come along with it no matter what kind of crisis is happening in the outside world: friends still grow apart, bodies still change, your parents still don’t understand you.  The passages focusing on Julia’s feelings and her relationships are beautifully written.  Walker quickly draws the reader into Julia’s story and makes you care about her; you’ll want to jump right into the book and punch the bully who picks on her at the bus stop right in front of the boy she likes.  Overall I would recommend this book if you’re looking for a nicely written coming-of-age story in a unique setting, but aren’t too concerned about sci-fi elements.

At a wedding I attended recently, I ended up having a long, open-bar-fueled argument with another guest over our favorite speculative fiction books. She loves Robert Jordan; I love George R.R. Martin. I won’t bore you with the details, but I do want to emphasize how vehemently opposed our tastes were, so that when I tell you that we both adored The Left Hand of Darkness, you’ll know: wow. that must be a seriously awesome book.

And it really, really is. This is about as pure sci-fi as sci-fi can get: a tale of fiction that speculates on the future of science and how it may alter human culture. And, in this book, even human genetics.

The story takes place on the planet Gethen, mostly known as Winter, where Genly Ai has been assigned as a diplomat. His mission is to bring the people of Winter into the broader galactic civilization. His task is complicated by the alien culture and politics of this world, where the human inhabitants are genderless beings whose sexual characteristics and reproductive abilities only surface during mating seasons, when they can become either male or female (depending on their chosen partner). LeGuin is a master: this novel is excellent. It’s not about aliens, or sex, or politics, but it is about the way all of those things affect friendship, culture, and human nature. Like all great science fiction, this isn’t a work with a limited scope or audience – it’s one that uses speculation about the future to make sharp observations and thoughtful arguments about the way we live now.

 

His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik is a lighthearted, escapist novel, and part one of a series. I downloaded it from WILBOR and read it on my kindle, though many Rivershare libraries own paper or audio copies. If you enjoy alternate history or dragons, the Temeraire series is your new best friend! In Novik’s world, the Napoleonic wars are fought on the backs of dragons, sentient aerial warships that are manned by not just a single rider, but a crew of trained aviators. Throw in a bit of Austenian comedy-of-manners, a touch of Serious Military Jargon (it’s much pleasanter when it’s applied to a dragon instead of a ship or some other boringly realistic war machine), and finish with a sharply interesting main character and you have a summertime winner.

That sharply interesting main character is not Laurence, the human whose point of view we read: it’s Temeraire, the dragon he befriends and rides. Temeraire is vastly intelligent, aloof, regal, and enigmatic, but he’s also kind, deliberate, and deeply loyal. His motivations are largely a mystery, as Novik chooses to spend more time on aerial action, b-stories, and descriptive passages than on the depths of the dragon’s psyche. Why would a dragon, with immense strength and intelligence and free will – not to mention the occasional ability to spit acid or breathe fire – choose to remain subservient to humans and fight in their wars? Why would a species capable of creating its own society lack almost any interest in doing so? These are the questions His Majesty’s Dragon leaves hanging. There are five additional novels in this series to tackle them!