The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin

The Hundred Thousand KingdomsOne thing that is alternately very useful and very pathetic in my 2015 quest to read more diversely is the fact that my Goodreads TBR is pretty much full of diverse books and authors that I could have been reading this whole time. Case in point: this almost-five-year-old book that has been on my TBR list practically since it came out.

To be fair, the fact that this is a fantasy series didn’t particularly help it top Mount TBR all these years. I love the idea of fantasy series, but I am rarely willing to commit the time to read ALL THE PAGES, even in this series of three 400-600-page books. That sounds like effort, guys.

But it turns out that, as you may have guessed, that effort was totally worth it. I can’t really say that I enjoyed this book, but I liked it a lot and found it absolutely fascinating and full of really interesting ideas and I am totally going to read the rest of this series but probably not immediately.

So there’s this chick called Yeine, and she’s the leader of a nation called Darr and also the granddaughter of the dude who rules, um, everything. All the nations. As you do. Yeine is called to Sky, the city and castle her grandfather rules from, and she quickly finds out that a) her grandfather is dying, b) there’s going to be a literal fight to the death to replace him, and c) he has thrown her name into that fight, along with her cousins Relad and Scimina. Thanks, gramps!

Now, when I say fight to the death that makes it sound like this book is going to be action-packed and full of intrigue and subterfuge and daggers and all that good stuff, and that’s certainly what I was expecting. But it turns out that this part of the story is about politics, actually, and the ways in which people can fight without even having to see each other, which is pretty darn cool in its own right. This quieter intrigue and subterfuge plays out slowly over the course of the novel, leaving lots of room for what I thought was the more interesting part of the story, namely Jemisin’s worldbuilding.

So there’s this world-encompassing government that I’ve already mentioned, and you might be like, hey, how does someone run an entire world for any length of time without, you know, being overthrown twice on Tuesday? Turns out it’s pretty easy if you’ve enslaved your gods. All the gods. As you do. The ruling family, of which Yeine is a part, has the ability to command the gods to varying degrees, with grandpa Dekarta wielding more or less full power. Throughout the novel Jemisin parcels out information about the gods in their current state and the widely held beliefs about how the gods got there and also the actually true facts about how they got there and how they might get themselves out, which of course involves Yeine.

Oh, and, meanwhile, Yeine is trying to use her limited time left in this world (she has no illusions about her chances in the fight to the death) to help her homeland of Darr and to sift through the widely held beliefs and actually true facts about her mother’s life and recent death, and whether her grandfather had anything to do with the latter.

There’s a lot to the story, and it’s almost all really well done and intricately plotted and again, absolutely fascinating. But I have to admit that the ending was absolutely baffling to me, with all of the various threads of the story getting snarled in one big mess of a climax that probably has a logical explanation if only I could understand it. I mean, I understand the results of the crazy stuff, but I don’t really get how we got to the crazy stuff in the first place. Luckily the next book, at least from the preview pages I read, is going to move away from that weird stuff and give me different weird to look forward to.

Recommendation: For fans of epic fantasy and worldbuilding and big ideas.

Rating: 8/10

Weekend Shorts: X-Men catchup, part the last

I’m finally done! All it took was forbidding myself from reading another comic until I got through the backlog of X-Men on my shelf. Thank goodness my stack ended exactly at the end of this particular storyline. I can’t imagine what I’d’ve done if I were missing one, or if the last one started a new interesting run. I’ve definitely enjoyed the action-packed adventures of these lady X-Men, but I am frustrated by the sameness of the drawn characters, the threadbare “plot” (as you’ll see soon enough), and the fact that I am obviously supposed to know who all these people are and I just do not. I’ll stick with my tiny-universe comics in the future, thanks. But just in case you were curious how this storyline ends, here are some recaps with super spoilers:

X-Men #9
X-Men #9Deathstrike is on the move with the live sample of Arkea, and I realize that I really have no idea what Arkea is. Probably doesn’t matter. The X-Men, with the reluctant help of Arkea’s brother John Sublime, track Deathstrike & Co. to Dubai, where Arkea has unsurprisingly started taking over bodies, “upgrading” Deathstrike, Typhoid Mary, and Enchantress in unspecified fashions. There’s a cool part where one of the vaguely ethnic X-Men flies through a building at Mach 3, as you do, I guess, but I am most intrigued by the strange underwater army that shows up at the end.

X-Men #10
X-Men #10Oh, hey, turns out Arkea is a virus. And the bad guys all got what they wanted from her (them? it?) even though I didn’t see them asking. Exposition does have its benefits. After the recap, our human missile gets picked up and sent back to work as the X-Men continue trying to hunt Arkea down. Meanwhile, there is a bit of one-way dissent between Deathstrike & Co. and Arkea as the Ana Cortes part of Deathstrike realizes that things have not gone at all according to plan. Then Arkea asks for more backup in the form of yet more people I have never heard of but are apparently super dangerous, and the underwater army turns out to be SUPER HUGE and I am not sure how this showdown is gonna go down.

X-Men #11
X-Men #11Sooooo Ana and Enchantress go rescue some mutant who is somehow being stored as particles in air, which, AWESOME, but also wtf. I really wish I knew who any of these people were. Meanwhile, the X-Men finally figure out that they’re being played, John Sublime talks some shit, and Ana Cortes solves her problems by somehow putting a sword through herself. Then, FINALLY, the epic underwater showdown begins, but it’s mostly just more X-Men I don’t know (except for their names handily printed alongside them) flying around doing… stuff? And then apparently Jubilee is a vampire, which, wait, what? Come on, guys. I am totally unclear how this is going to wrap itself up in one more issue.

X-Men #12
X-Men #12Uh, quickly, apparently. Arkea gets her super dangerous people all resurrected and ready to go, and then the X-Men show up and there is the briefest of standoffs during which Storm is like, hey, we’re here for Arkea, you leave now and we’ll call it a draw. The new ladies are dangerous but not stupid and take the deal, leaving Arkea alone with Karima and Karima’s new toy that will apparently kill Arkea, though we see how that went last time. Then some X-Man or other psychics the giant army to death, or whatever, the end. And that’s all you’re getting from me on this subject EVER AGAIN.

Everybody Sees the Ants, by A.S. King

Everybody Sees the AntsThis book had been sitting in my office for approximately forever, requested in a fit of “read ALL the A.S. King” and then ignored because I am terrible. But eventually I found myself without a million other things to read and I seized the opportunity to continue my magical King journey.

And I do mean magical — all of King’s books that I’ve read have a slightly supernatural feel to them, and this one is no exception. In this story, our protagonist, Lucky, dreams that he visits his POW grandfather and wakes up with items from his dreams littering his bed. Lucky also has some imaginary ant friends who wander around pointing out important things and saying things about other people, but who doesn’t? Hence the title, I guess.

But as usual, the magical part of the story isn’t really the focus; what we really have here is the story of a high school freshman who just wants to get through high school but is hounded on one side by school bullies and on the other by a school administration that cares more about Lucky’s poor taste than his daily struggles. Lucky’s parents aren’t any help as they’re busy ignoring the problems in their own relationship, and of course Lucky isn’t too proactive about talking to anyone either, figuring that the adults in his life should just understand what’s wrong without him having to actually tell him. But with time and a sweltering summer trip to Arizona to visit family, Lucky is able to see that he’s not the only person with personal and family problems and is able to see that he’s a pretty cool dude regardless.

I quite enjoyed this book, which so perfectly captures the awfulness of teenagerhood and also reminds the reader that everyone has problems that feel like the only problems that exist, and that solving those problems mostly involves facing them head on. I also enjoyed the POW storyline more than I thought I would at the start; the connections to Lucky’s life and story are strong and the resolution of Lucky’s quest to save his grandfather is as complex as it should be. There were a few simplistic bits, including a quasi-manic quasi-pixie definite-dream girl and some awkward fat shaming, but in a story narrated by a 14-year-old it’s a touch more allowable than usual.

Recommendation: For teens as well as adults who are safely past the traumas of teenagerhood.

Rating: 8/10

Weekend Shorts: X-Men and Watson and Holmes

It’s comics time! I’m still sloooowly making my way through those back issues of X-Men and I’ve got a new take on my old friend Sherlock Holmes. What are you reading?

X-Men #8, by Brian Wood
X-Men #8Back to these crazy hijinks! There’s a break-in at the Jean Grey School, and one of the vaguely ethnic and also telepathic X-Men chases the intruder down but fails to catch her. Said intruder, our pin-up from last issue, makes off with a box of apparently Everything, including a live sample of our friend Arkea from the first story arc. Turns out our villains are super interested in Arkea and her powers, enough that they’re willing to venture to BFE Norway and team up with some other character I don’t know anything about (Enchantress, apparently a foe of Thor?) to get said powers. Meanwhile, lesbian subplot? I don’t even know. How many more issues until I can quit this thing?

Watson and Holmes, Vol. 1, by Karl Bollers and Rick Leonardi
Watson and Holmes, Vol. 1I am a sucker for a lot of things Holmes-related, and this modern-day story wherein both Watson and Holmes are black dudes in Harlem seemed like a pretty easy way to up those diverse reading numbers while not having to stray far from my comfort zone. But in a strange turn of events, I found myself a little frustrated when things from the Sherlock canon made their way into the narrative.

That seems unfair, probably, but really it’s a testament to how engaging the story was that every time something Sherlock came into it — Afghanistan, 221B Baker Street, Irregulars, Mycroft the gourmand — I was like, yes, yes, I get it, this is a Sherlock Holmes story. A little detail here and there, sure (I mean, really, where else is Sherlock going to live?), but I think the author could have trusted his characters and us as readers just a little bit more.

In this version, Watson is drawn in by the case of a kidnapped girl and sticks around after solving that one to find the fellows who had held her captive and who subsequently started murdering other people, as you do. There’s the requisite hyper-observation on Holmes’s part, as well as the disdain of of the police (led by Leslie Stroud, what what), but there’s also a surprising amount of gunplay and action sequences. This Holmes puts practice with his theory, and I like that a lot.

I wish it were a super lot, but the clunky references were bad and the penchant for bolding seemingly random words (my absolute least favorite thing in comics) kept it from making that leap. But it’s got a good story and strong characters and I have faith it will hit its stride as the series continues. I will definitely be picking up the next volume when it comes out.

The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the TrainIf you’ve talked to me about books any time in the last month or so, you’ve probably heard me ask the following questions: Did you read and like Gone Girl? Were you okay with the fact that almost everyone in that book was an awful human being?

And then, if the answer is yes, an exclamation: You should totally read this book The Girl on the Train that’s coming out really really soon!

Really really soon is finally now, so seriously, if you liked Gone Girl, look into this one.

The story starts off innocuously enough. Our main narrator, Rachel, rides the train into and out of London every day, and passes by a house on the tracks where she sees a lovely young couple and imagines their wonderful life together. But then, one day, she sees the wife kissing a man who is not her husband, and then shortly afterward Rachel sees this woman’s picture all over the media on account of she’s gone missing. Rachel is sure that this mystery man had something to do with it, so she decides to go to the police and tell them what she knows. But as she gets more involved with the investigation, we (both the reader and Rachel) learn that Rachel’s life isn’t exactly what it seems.

It’s absolutely fascinating. Rachel is a super unreliable narrator, and we find out very quickly that she’s lying about her reasons for being on the train, lying about her interest in the missing girl’s neighborhood, lying about how much alcohol she drinks — really just lying to us and herself about a lot of things. We learn some of this through her admissions, but we learn even more when the narration switches over to her ex-husband’s new wife, Anna, and even more than that when we get narration from the missing girl, Megan. All three ladies’ lives are intertwined, more than any of them really knows, and the pieces from each story they tell add up to an even spookier story than it looks like from the start.

We already know I’m a sucker for unreliable, multiple, and awful narrators, so clearly this book was made with me in mind. But it’s a really great work of suspense, with danger at every turn and terrible decisions being made and that sense of never knowing which way is up in the narrative. And for all that the narrators are terrible people, I really wanted things to work out for all of them. It’s hard to talk about any specific part of the book without spoiling how the story got to that point, so really you should just go read this now and come back and then we will talk about ALL THE THINGS.

I will say that the ending is weak compared to the rest of the book, with things wrapping up just too nicely, but I think for most people that’s a welcome change from the end of Gone Girl, which ending I liked way more than anyone else. For me, if I don’t know what the heck is happening in the rest of the book, it only makes sense not to know what’s going to happen after the book ends you know? That’s probably just me.

Anyway. Go read it. Do it.

Recommendation: For and possibly only for people who like unreliable, multiple, and/or awful narrators, because that’s pretty much the entire book.

Rating: 9/10

Descent, by Tim Johnston

DescentI picked this book up on a whim, knowing nothing except that the cover is cool and that the jacket copy promised a disappeared girl and a bereft family, and you know there’s nothing I like more than a bereft family. Okay, that’s totally not true, but I am definitely fascinated by how people react to trauma, especially a close-knit group of people, so I was intrigued.

The book starts off pretty okay, with a girl and her brother gallivanting about the mountains of Colorado on a family vacation. The girl, Caitlin, is a distance runner looking forward to athletic-scholarship-funded college in the fall. The brother, Sean aka “Dudley”, is, as you may expect by the nickname, less athletically inclined but still for whatever reason willing to grab his mountain bike and at least attempt to keep pace with his sister. But then an accident happens and the kids’ parents get that call that no parent ever wants to get, that Sean is in the hospital with lots of injuries. And Caitlin? She’s gone missing, in the mountains, where no one is going to be found who doesn’t want to be found.

So that’s pretty sweet, right? And really, this is the only reason I stayed ’til the end — I had to know what happened to Caitlin and whether she’d be found and how her family was going to survive this whether Caitlin survived or not.

But everything else, ecch. I just told a friend the other day that I love non-linear stories, but I forgot the caveat that I like non-linear stories when I can take the non-linear pieces and slot them into a timeline that will be nice and pretty by the end of the book. This one, not so much. Not only does Johnston hop back and forth in time, but he does so without warning, without segue, and without any darn proper nouns. He’ll set up a scene with a girl and a boy and you have no idea which girl and which boy they are or when they are or where they are for at least a paragraph and that’s an interesting style, sure, but I do not like it.

And then once you figure out what characters the author’s even talking about, they are mostly inscrutable. I have no idea what’s up with the dad or the brother for the most part, and there’s this whole extended bit with the brother and a hitchhiker and a bar that serves, to me, only to show that dudes are horrible even when they’re the good guys, which is a recurring theme throughout the novel. On the chick side, Caitlin’s plight is pretty straightforward and the mother’s issues are pretty standard, and for the most part they’re just weak and helpless women waiting for one of those horrible men-folk to help them out, which bah. The only character who gets any semblance of an arc is the sheriff’s deadbeat brother, who starts off one-dimensional and then is magically given new and interesting dimensions and becomes actually very cool, and I cannot figure out why all of the characters couldn’t be that cool from the start.

Luckily that gripping plotline comes around again to become this utterly horrifying and awful ending which would have fit better on a much different story, but I wouldn’t have read that story due to it being far too visceral. If I could have that ending as a standalone short story, though… that might work.

Overall there were enough good pieces to this story that I think it turned out decent, but knowing what I know now I would probably not have started this book. It’s like catching one of those murder-of-the-week shows on TV — I didn’t particularly want to stick around another hour (or several, in this case), but I just had to know.

Recommendation: For those who like suspense and intrigue, but really moreso for people who aren’t put off by unusual narrative styles.

Rating: 6/10

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, by Alan Bradley

As Chimney Sweepers Come to DustI just don’t even know what is going on with Flavia these days. I mean, I’ve always had my problems with these books, which have decently interesting mysteries and a delightful protagonist but which can’t decide if they want to drag on too long or not enough. But there was that short story a month or so back that just left me kind of cold, and then… this novel.

I was pretty excited about this book and the fact that we were going to get Flavia! In! Canada!, because seriously those graveyards in Bishop’s Lacey must have been overflowing after six books. And also because I was promised intrigue and secret organizations and general interesting new things. But what I got was confusion and more confusion and also some befuddlement.

So Flavia takes the boat to Canada, right, and then she settles into her dorm room at the horridly named Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy and then there’s a strange altercation and then there’s a dead body. In Flavia’s room. On day one. I’m not sure even Jessica Fletcher could do better. But this time Flavia doesn’t get to be terribly involved in this investigation because there are actual functioning adults around to take care of such things, and also because she has to, like, go to school and try to work out a dozen other mysteries of the campus.

Well, probably not a dozen. But there’s a lot. There are mysterious disappearances and faculty acting oddly, and then also there’s this whole thing about Flavia being a society so secret that she apparently doesn’t even get to know who else is in it? Except that some other students are possibly dropping hints about it, but they’re so subtle they might not actually be hints, and then Flavia’s trying to drop hints and getting the stink-eye, and I am like omg wtf.

In the midst of all this Flavia does actually manage to solve that whole murder thing and also the disappearing students thing, but the solutions are both so ridiculous I don’t even want to talk about it except to say OMG WTF.

And then it gets worse! SPOILERS AHEAD: After Flavia solves these mysteries it is somehow determined that she no longer needs to be at the horridly named Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy even though she was there for like ten seconds and she gets shipped back to Britain to do God knows what. I wonder if Bradley realized his geographical mistake in the middle of writing the book, but having promised us Canada couldn’t take it back and this was his way of “fixing” things? Ugggggggh. (END SPOILERS)

It’s so awful. I mean, Flavia is still delightful, but the mystery is bad and so is the rest of the plot and I am just so disappointed. And yet you and I both know that as soon as the next Flavia book comes out I am going to read it, because I am a glutton for punishment and precocious eleven-year-olds. And really, it can only be better than this one. (She said, jinxing everything.)

Recommendation: For Flavia addicts only.

Rating: 4/10