Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Ask and The Answer - Patrick Ness

Title: The Ask and The Answer
Author: Patrick Ness
Publisher: Candlewick Press, 2009 (Hardcover)
Length: 519 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Science Fiction, Dystopian Fiction
Started: January 26, 2010
Finished: January 30, 2010

Reaching the end of their tense and desperate flight in THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO, Todd and Viola did not find healing and hope in Haven. They found instead their worst enemy, Mayor Prentiss, waiting to welcome them to New Prentisstown. There they are forced into separate lives: Todd to prison, and Viola to a house of healing where her wounds are treated. Soon Viola is swept into the ruthless activities of the Answer, aimed at overthrowing the tyrannical government. Todd, meanwhile, faces impossible choices when forced to join the mayor’s oppressive new regime. In alternating narratives — Todd’s gritty and volatile; Viola’s calmer but equally stubborn — the two struggle to reconcile their own dubious actions with their deepest beliefs. Torn by confusion and compromise, suspicion and betrayal, can their trust in each other possibly survive?

Once you get over the introductions to the unique universe and learn about what really happened in Prentisstown in The Knife of Never Letting Go, you get to the good stuff in The Ask and The Answer. When Todd and Viola reach Haven hoping to escape Mayor Prentiss and the army of men from Prentisstown, they find the exact opposite. Mayor Prentiss is already in Haven and the people there have already surrendered to him. Viola is mortally wounded and is whisked away to a healing house while Todd vows to obey the now President Prentiss if he saves her life. While the two are separated and not allowed to see the other, they are both molded and taken advantage of, Todd by Prentiss, Viola by Mistress Coyle who becomes the leader of the resistenace group call The Answer. In response, Prentiss forms The Ask, categorized by their torturous interrogation methods. Since it was mostly women who escaped and formed The Answer, the remaining women left in town are further subjugated by the men of The Ask (sound like something we read about before in a previous book?). Both Todd and Viola are used and unknowingly controlled by the leaders of their respective groups, taking advantage of the fact that both love the other and would sacrifice everything for the sake of each other. As President Prentiss says, in a world of numbness and information overload, the ability to feel is rare indeed (pg. 459). The two have such immense belief and trust in each other that it's hard to believe that we're reading about two 13/14 year olds, not many people at any age group have that level of unfailing trust in another person.

I love how both groups, the Ask and the Answer, were shown to be evil, only the children were portrayed as having any good intentions. Both groups are shown as chaotic, and can only achieve their goal by killing the other. Since Todd can't kill and Viola has only killed in the past to protect him, it's pretty obvious that those two are the only ones capable of bringing peace to their world before the settlers from Viola's ships arrive. The Noise is wonderfully portrayed again, with a new feature this time. It ends on a cliffhanger and will be concluded in the third book, and the ending was such a twist I honestly didn't see it coming. Need, need, need the third book!

If you read The Knife of Never Letting Go and enjoyed it, you need to complete the next part of the circle and read this!

Thoughts on the cover:
I love the blue colour palette and how the Noise is illustrated on this cover (same as on The Knife of Never Letting Go's cover). The men on horseback are a nice touch, at least I'm assuming it's the army of New Prentisstown, could be the women of The Answer for all I know.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The King of Attolia - Megan Whalen Turner

Title: The King of Attolia
Author: Megan Whalen Turner
Publisher: Greenwillow Books, 2007 (Paperback)
Length: 385 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: January 22, 2010
Finished: January 26, 2010

From the publisher:
By scheming and theft, the Thief of Eddis has become King of Attolia. Eugenides wanted the queen, not the crown, but he finds himself trapped in a web of his own making. Attolia's barons seethe with resentment, the Mede emperor is returning to the attack, and the king is surrounded by the subtle and dangerous intrigue of the Attolian court.

When a naive young guard expresses his contempt for the king in no uncertain terms, he is dragged by Eugenides into the center of the political maelstrom. Like the king, he cannot escape the difficulties he makes for himself. Poor Costis knows he is the victim of the king's caprice, but he discovers a reluctant sympathy for Eugenides as he watches the newly crowned king struggle against his fate.

The King of Attolia is the third book in The Queen's Thief series, and is my favourite thus far (book 4 comes out in April, so we'll see about that one). I don't know if it's because the author's skill grew during the years between each installment, or whether each subsequent book just dealt with subject matter I enjoyed more, but each book has been better in my opinion, than its predecessor.

Eugenides has now married the Queen of Attolia and become the king. All of Attolia believes he forced the queen to marry him, and of course how could they love each other when she was responsible for cutting off his hand? The king's royal guard plays dangerous tricks on him daily, and the country's barons are scheming to kill him in order to win the favour and power of the queen. When the guard Costis assaults Eugenides openly, he is prepared for death but is instead made to spend time with the king 24/7 as his lieutenant. Costis eventually learns to respect Eugenides and learns that he is not incompetent as the nation believes, and that he also loves their queen dearly. That respect spreads to the whole of the Attolian court as Eugenides proves himself worthy as a king.

I think the best part of this book was seeing the small romantic moments between Eugenides and Irene (the queen). We were told in the previous book that they both love each other, but never really saw anything to back that up. The touches, the endearments, the glances and unsaid communication were all written wonderfully, as if the king and queen were any other married couple (except that they must be proper and discreet). You see it all through Costis' eyes too, so it's as if you're learning about the characters all over again. Eugenides' trickery and intelligence is downplayed while he plans the downfall of a baron that threatens the peace in Attolia, but the way he pulls it all together is amazing.

Best book in The Queen's Thief series so far, read this!

Thoughts on the cover:
Eugenides in his formal dress, and you can see the queen's hand behind him on his shoulder. The cover makes Eugenides look young, which he is, but I never think of him that way because he's very capable. Considering how in the novel, the Attolians think the king is controlling the queen, the cover makes it look like the queen is controlling Eugenides by the way her hand is placed and the expression on his face.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Girl Who Played With Fire - Stieg Larsson

Title: The Girl Who Played With Fire
Author: Stieg Larsson
Publisher: Viking Canada, 2009 (Hardcover)
Length: 500 pages
Genre: Adult; Mystery, True Crime
Started: January 15, 2010
Finished: January 22, 2010

From the author's website:
Lisbeth Salander is wanted for a triple murder. All three victims are connected to a trafficking exposé about to be published in Mikael Blomqvist’s magazine Millenium, and Lisbeth’s fingerprints are on the weapon.

Lisbeth vanishes to avoid capture. Mikael, not believing the police, is despairingly trying to clear her name, using all his resources and the staff of his magazine. During this process, Mikael discovers Lisbeth’s past, a terrible story of abuse and traumatizing experiences growing up in the Swedish care system.

When he eventually finds her, it’s only to discover that she is far more entangled in his initial investigation of the sex industry than he could ever imagine.

As soon as I finished The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo a week ago, I went out and bought the sequel, The Girl Who Played With Fire, almost immediately. This book is set up in a similar matter to the previous one, where the first 200 pages or so are used to introduce key plot points, and the main events described in the cover blurbs don't occur until past this point. In this case, the novel begins a year after the events of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, so readers are brought up to sped with what the characters, especially Lisbeth Salander, were doing during this year. We learn about Blomkvist's new story about to be published in Millennium, a damaging and telling report on sex trafficking written by Dag Svensson and Mia Johansson. When Dag and Mia, as well as Salander's guardian are found murdered shortly before the story is published, Blomkvist immediately suspects one of the key figures identified in the piece. Police suspect Lisbeth Salander after finding her fingerprints on her guardian's handgun. Blomkvist spends his time trying to unravel the truth, just as Salander does while in hiding, uncovering her sordid past in the process.

This installment in the series didn't affect me quite as much as the first novel due to the differences in the plot. In the first book there was an outside case that Blomkvist and eventually Salander were involved in, so there were developments in that case as well as character development and exploration of Blomkvist and Salander that you were looking forward to. In this novel, the mystery involves Salander directly, she is the suspect, and you know she obviously didn't do it (unlike the Harriet Vanger case of the first novel where you really didn't know what happened to her), so all you're looking for is background knowledge on Salander, which is also the key to solving the case (everything leads back to Salander and everything is connected). There was always something being revealed in the first book, it was never boring; this second book had its share of slow parts that I could skim and still get the gist of what I needed to know.

What I loved was the focus on Salander. Blomkvist takes a back seat to this book and gives Lisbeth some much needed development. I can't really express how much I like Lisbeth, I love her identity theft, I love her anti-social behaviour, I loved her scenes with Miriam Wu, I love her changes from the first book to the second book. She's just one of those characters you simply love, she really makes this novel what it is.

The one part of the book I found myself liking was the scene where Cilla Noren, head of the Evil Fingers, is questioned by Inspector Faste on Salander's involvement with the group (pg. 351). She essentially turned each of his questions back on him, it was a nice commentary on sensationalism in the media and how people get worked up over elements that have nothing to do with the issue at hand.

The plot itself really wows you once things begin to reveal themselves, you almost can't believe the implications and suggestion that a government could be that underhanded and callous. You usually don't see portrayals like that except in dystopian fiction, and Orwell of course (granted Orwell is dystopian but oh well). It was shocking and a little satisfying to see that kind of insinuation about a government that could just as easily be our own.

If you liked the first book, reading this one is a no-brainer. Some slow parts, but the focus on Lisbeth is worth it.

Thoughts on the cover:
Since this is the hardcover I read (the paperback doesn't come out till March here, I think), the covers are different. What looks like blond hair is spread out against an orange background, and it does kind of look like fire at first glance. I honestly don't get the image of the hair, but perhaps the paperback will have a different cover.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo - Stieg Larsson

Title: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
Author: Stieg Larsson
Publisher: Penguin Canada, 2009 (Paperback)
Length: 841 pages
Genre: Adult; Mystery, True Crime
Started: January 11, 2010
Finished: January 15, 2010

Forty years ago, Harriet Vanger disappeared off the secluded island owned and inhabited by the powerful Vanger family. There was no corpse, no witnesses, no evidence. But her uncle, Henrik, is convinced that she was murdered by someone from her own deeply dysfunctional family. Disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist is hired to investigate, but he quickly finds himself in over his head. He hires a competent assistant: the gifted and conscience-free computer specialist Lisbeth Salander, and the two unravel a dark and appalling family history. But the Vangers are a secretive clan, and Blomkvist and Salander are about to find out just how far they are prepared to go to protect themselves.

Usually when a book receives a ton of hype, I have a 50-50 chance of enjoying it. If it's typical chick-lit, I'll probably hate it; if it's something only guys would read (uber political sci-fi for example), I'll probably hate it. What made me take a stab at this book, a genre I rarely read, is that so many of the young adult authors that I regularly read couldn't stop raving about this series. Now that I've read it too I can safely say that the hype is well-deserved, this is one of the most enjoyable books I've read in a while. Plus it's Swedish, how cool is that?

The book opens with financial journalist Mikael Blomkvist getting convicted of libel and the first part of the novel recounts the circumstances behind how he came to be disgraced. Enter Henrik Vanger, the former CEO of a powerful conglomerate who asks Blomkvist to find out what really happened to his niece Harriet, who disappeared from the family's island in 1966 at the age of 16. Vanger entices Blomkvist to take on the case by offering him information that could be used to clear his name and prove that he didn't falsify the information that he was convicted of doing. While we learn about Blomkvist and his potential assignment, another simultaneous narrative introduces readers to Lisbeth Salander, a 24-year-old genius computer hacker who dresses like an angsty teenager. We learn how her legal guardian (apparently in Sweden a person can be appointed a guardian that handles their finances if they're deemed mentally unfit) got her a job at a company that essentially specializes in performing background checks on people for prospective employers. Salander's skill is unrivaled, and although she is difficult to deal with socially and often ignores people completely, her genius and intellect lead to discovery by Frode, Vanger's right hand man, when he is impresses by the report Salander was assigned to write on Blomkvist for Vanger.

Vanger suspects that Harriet was murdered by a member of her own family and Blomkvist uses the ruse that he is writing a chronicle of the family so that he can question and interview members of the Vanger family, many of which reside on the very island where Harriet disappeared from in 1966. To make sense of all the various characters, the author includes a family tree to help sort out who's related to who and who is the son/daughter of so-and-so. Blomkvist protests to Vanger that he doesn't think he can make any headway on the decades old case, but Vanger encourages him to simply try. Eventually Blomkvist uncovers new evidence and begins to unravel the mystery. He requests some help in the form of a researcher and is accidently informed of Salander's excellent researching skills via the background report on him. He tracks down Salander, is charmed by her anti-social intellect, and pleads with her to help him. She, puzzled by Blomkvist's kindness towards her, agrees and the pair begin to unravel what really happened to Harriet Vanger.

This book defies certain descriptions. Lisbeth Salander is an amazing female character, very broken in some ways but very capable in others. To get a true sense of why she's such an awesome character, you just need to read this book. The plot in itself is good, at one point I predicted one part of it (and was right to a point) and then it just got turned on it's head when the plot twist occurred. The original title of the book in Swedish translates to "Men Who Hate Women", that should give you an idea about the kind of sick and twisted stuff the characters uncover. Essentially, they connect Harriet's disappearance to a series of horrific murders that took place all over Sweden in the 50s and 60s, all of them involving torture and disfigurement of the victims, really disturbing stuff. The whole misogyny theme pops up quite frequently from interactions with the Vanger family, the murders, and Salander's interactions with her government appointed guardian. It's interesting to see such a portrayal of those themes in a book written by a man, or at least it's surprising to me. All in all, this is a great read, and considering that I can't remember the last time I read a mystery or a crime fiction novel since my Nancy Drew books, that's saying something.

What are you waiting for? Go out and read this! Not for the faint of heart though considering the squick factor involved.

Thoughts on the Cover:
Since I bought the paperback, the cover is very different from the hardcover versions, which focus on the dragon tattoo that Salander has. I almost like this cover better from the others I've seen, the blue, black, and cold/ice images that represent the setting of Hedeby Island where most of the novel takes place.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Knife of Never Letting Go - Patrick Ness

Title: The Knife of Never Letting Go
Author: Patrick Ness
Publisher: Candlewick Press, 2009 (Paperback)
Length: 479 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Science Fiction, Dystopian Fiction
Started: December 28, 2009
Finished: January 11, 2010

Todd Hewitt is the only boy in a town of men. Ever since the settlers were infected with the Noise germ, Todd can hear everything the men think, and they hear everything he thinks. Todd is just a month away from becoming a man, but in the midst of the cacophony, he knows that the town is hiding something from him — something so awful Todd is forced to flee with only his dog, whose simple, loyal voice he hears too. With hostile men from the town in pursuit, the two stumble upon a strange and eerily silent creature: a girl. Who is she? Why wasn't she killed by the germ like all the females on New World? Propelled by Todd's gritty narration, readers are in for a white-knuckle journey in which a boy on the cusp of manhood must unlearn everything he knows in order to figure out who he truly is.

Todd's village of Prentisstown on New World was colonized by Christian settlers from Earth seeking a new home. The war with the Spackle (native alien creatures) released The Noise, a germ that killed all the women and half the men and for the men left alive, it allowed them to hear everyone's thoughts. As the last boy in Prentisstown, the last place left on New World, these are the things Todd knows, the things his guardians Ben and Cillian have taught him. At least these are the things he thinks he knows.

After going through the surrounding swamp with his dog Manchee (who can also talk), Todd discovers something he has never known: silence, a place with no Noise. The mayor and the preacher hunt Todd down after realizing what he has found. Todd's guardians give him a book written by his late mother and tell him to run to the nearest settlement, which is the first shocker for Todd because he was taught there were no other settlements other than his own. They say all the answers are in the book, which is problematic because the boys in Prentisstown were not allowed to learn to read.

Todd flees with Manchee and eventually joins up with something else Todd has never seen before: a girl. After crash landing in a scouting ship that killed her parents, Viola joins Todd in his quest to unravel the past of Prentisstown and to outrun the army of men from there that are hunting them.

This book is amazingly written, not necessarily through Todd's very colloquial narration, but in the ideas represented. The Noise itself was creatively shown, using different fonts and sizes to show the Noise of an individual person or animal. The Noise also pops up suddenly, almost as if you really were reading someone's thoughts. The characters have a very specific dialect, almost Southern sounding, and the author actually spells it out in his writing as well as various spelling mistakes and phonetic spelling to show the lack of education they have.

The men of Prentisstown all have issues with Noise. They learn at a young age to protect their privacy as much as possible by reciting drivel to mask what they're really thinking. What does get through to others though, is pretty messed up, you can tell early on that the men of Prentisstown have some serious issues.

There's a lot of gender themes in this novel. Later on when Todd encounters other settlements and women and girls other than Viola, he learns that women are immune to the Noise. It makes him wonder what happened to the women of Prentisstown if the Noise didn't kill them. Todd is constantly frustrated by Viola's silence, the fact that she can hear his thoughts but he can't hear hers, that he's so used to knowing a person by their Noise and how that's not the case with her. Eventually, as he begins to see her as a person and not just "the girl", he gets to know her to the point where he doesn't need the Noise to tell him what she's thinking, he does what people have done forever: read her body language and pay attention to little quirks and facial expressions. His relationship with Viola is a microcosm of the larger problem of men vs. women in New World, that because women's thoughts aren't immediately known like men's, they are viewed as dangerous and are done away with. The gender issues also combine into other themes of control and violence. And man, is this book ever chock full of violence and creepy stuff in general, not like blood and gore, just systematic violence like you would find in wartime.

The action is a little slow in the beginning, I could have done without a lot of the descriptions of landscape, but it really picks up once Todd and Viola reach the first settlement and you get these little hints as to what happened in Prentisstown that's got everyone up in arms as soon as they hear the name.

The characters are all likable, even the villians for how amazingly evil and creepy they are. I loved Manchee, Todd's dog, I loved seeing Todd grow to like the dog he never wanted just as he grows to like Viola. Ben and Cillian were wonderful, I liked how you could view them as a gay couple raising Todd or just ignore it altogether (there wasn't a lot of evidence, nothing completely obvious, but c'mon, two men living together even when the women were around and then raising a kid together?) I also like how Ben and Cillian, possibly gay men, are portrayed as the only decent men in the whole town. Todd himself has some wonderful insights for an illiterate almost 13-year-old, a testament to the men who raised him, which contrasts to the thoughts of the other men, further illustrating the theme of innocence vs. experience which the readers don't fully understand until they find out what a boy has to do to become a man in Prentisstown.

If you like dark, dystopian fiction, read this! Due to the creepy subject matter I wouldn't give this to anyone not of high school age, unless they are very mature for their age and could handle it.

Thoughts on the cover:
The image on the cover is a little blah, but I love the shades of orange and the fact that the cover is littered with Noise, all in different fonts and sizes.

The Queen of Attolia - Megan Whalen Turner

Title: The Queen of Attolia
Author: Megan Whalen Tuner
Publisher: Greenwillow Books, 2006 (Paperback)
Length: 362 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: January 7, 2010
Finished: January 10, 2010

From the back cover:
When his small mountain country goes to war with the powerful nation of Attolia, Eugenides the thief is faced with his greatest challenge. He must steal a man, he must steal a queen, and he must steal peace.

But his greatest triumph-as well as his greatest loss-can only come if he succeeds in capturing something the Queen of Attolia may have sacrificed long ago.

I had thought The Thief was good, but that it could've used more mature themes. The Thief was quite humourous, whereas The Queen of Attolia is darker by comparison. Eugenides is caught spying on the queen of Attolia and something happens to him that completely changes his personality. It's because of this incident that Eddis and Attolia go to war with each other, dragging Sounis into it as well. Eugenides falls into a deep depression and fails to notice the changing political landscape around him until the magus of Sounis essentially tells him to suck it up and look at what's going on around him. Propelled into action, Eugenides manages to use his cunning wit and intelligence to come up with a solution to the war...the only problem is getting the queen of Attolia to agree to it.

I liked this book much better than The Thief. The action moved along a lot quicker, and the subject matter was very much character-based (but balanced with plot and political intrigue once you got past the mid-point). Eugenides is faced with something he'd rather not deal with and hides from it, something we're not used to seeing from him. Attolia was an interesting character, where you only saw short little glimpses into her true self compared to the front she puts on to maintain control over her country. The interaction between Eugenides and Attolia were wonderfully written, but I'd hoped to see more glimpses into their supposed romance, because they aren't together very often all we have to go on is Eugenides' word that he loves her, though her love for him seems a little more believable (don't ask me why).

If you like a political fantasy story with a good dose of character development, read this!

Thoughts on the cover:
I'll say one thing for this cover, I had no idea what exactly the queen was holding until about half way through the novel when I looked back at the cover and thought, "oh, that's what that is!", so kudos to this cover for stumping me (ouch, really bad pun, sorry Eugenides!).

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Sunday Salon - Best of 2009, Must-Reads for 2010

The Sunday

I just started this blog in October, but there were a lot of great books I read this past year (not necessarily all released in 2009):
- The Hunger Games/Catching Fire - Suzanne Collins
- Little Brother - Cory Doctorow
- Thirteen Reasons Why - Jay Asher
- Graceling/Fire- Kristin Cashore
- The Forest of Hands and Teeth - Carrie Ryan
- The Garden of Eve - K.L. Going
- Evil Genius/Genius Squad - Catherine Jinks
- The Boy in the Striped Pajamas - John Boyne
- A Perfect Gentle Knight - Kit Pearson

The best part of reading other book blogs is that you get so many recommendations of excellent books to read, especially now when everyone is making their "best of" lists. Right after Christmas I started making a list of all the books I wanted to read this year, partly based on what authors and book bloggers were recommending, partly based on next installments of series I'm already reading.

Books on my to-read list that have already been released:

The King of Attolia - Megan Whalen Turner (Book 3 of The Queen's Thief series)

This series came highly recommended and the first two haven't disappointed thus far (almost done with book 2, The Queen of Attolia).

The Ask and The Answer - Patrick Ness (Book 2 of the Chaos Walking series)

This series came highly recommended as well. Currently reading the first book (The Knife of Never Letting Go) and am pleased with it so far.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo - Steig Larrson

Again, bought this based on pure hype, hopefully it delivers.

Alice I Have Been - Melanie Benjamin

This is a fictional take on the life of Alice Liddell, the little girl who inspired Lewis Carroll's (Charles Dodgson) Alice in Wonderland. I always thought the history between these two was fascinating, so this book went on my list as soon as I saw the ads in Shelf Awareness.

Books on my to-read list that have yet to be released:

The Dead-Tossed Waves - Carrie Ryan (March)

This is the follow-up to The Forest of Hands and Teeth, following who I'm assuming is Mary's daughter.

A Conspiracy of Kings - Megan Whalen Turner (April)

The final book in The Queen's Thief series.

The Line - Terri Hall (March)

More dystopian fiction, woohoo!

The Twelve Kingdoms vol. 4 - The Skies of Dawn - Fuyumi Ono (March)

Series of Japanese fantasy novels that were the basis for an anime series that came out a few years ago. Thankfully Tokyopop began translating these a few years back and are churning out about one novel per year. March is always a happier month for me because of these books.

The Necromancer - Michael Scott (May)

Book 4 of The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel series. Wonderful modern fantasy series that incorporates a lot of myths and legends.

Dead in the Family - Charlaine Harris (May)

Book 10 of the Sookie Stackhouse novels. This is my guilty pleasure reading that I've also gotten all my girlfriends hooked on.

The Hunger Games Book 3 - Suzanne Collins (August)

I love how we know exactly when this book is coming out, but it doesn't have a title or cover art. The last book in The Hunger Games series, this is going to be one of those "showing up at the bookstore at midnight" releases for me, I don't think I've done that for a book since Harry Potter #4.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Thief - Megan Whalen Turner

Title: The Thief
Author: Megan Whalen Turner
Publisher: Greenwillow Books, 2005 (Paperback)
Length: 280 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: January 4, 2010
Finished: January 6, 2010

From the author's website:
The most powerful advisor to the King of Sounis is the magus. He's not a wizard, he's a scholar, an aging solider, not a thief. When he needs something stolen, he pulls a young thief from the King's prison to do the job for him.

Gen is a thief and proud of it. When his bragging lands him behind bars he has one chance to win his freedom-- journey to a neighboring kingdom with the magus, find a legendary stone called Hamiathes's Gift and steal it.

Simple really, except for the mountains in between, the temple under water, and the fact that no one has ever gone hunting Hamiathes's Gift and returned alive.

The magus has plans for his King and his country. Gen has plans of his own.

This is the first book in The Queen's Thief series. I have heard nothing but complete love for these books, and since this first book was first released in 1996 when I would not have known about it, I decided to give them a try.

Eugenides aka "Gen" is a trickster and a liar, boasting that he can steal anything, which lands him in the dungeons of the King of Sounis. The king assembles a team to go and steal something they're not sure even exists, and he recruits Gen to do the stealing. The five men travel from Sounis through Eddis and Attolia in search of Hamiathes' Gift, a stone with the symbolic power to pass on the kingship of Eddis to anyone that receives it (hence why the King of Sounis wants it).

Narrated by Gen himself, it's almost impossible to not like his voice. He reminds me of those teenage boys I teach that are nothing but trouble, but they're so charming in their manner that you can't help but like them anyway. The magus and the others believe Gen is their tool but little do they realize that Gen is more than what he seems.

There were a few slow-moving parts, usually in the beginning when scenery is described, but for the most part the action moves along quite well. The universe in which the characters live is medieval yet slightly modern (they use guns and wear watches) with a belief system modeled on the Greek gods with some name changes and original names. The detail put into this background of gods and goddesses is quite impressive, including some original myths written into the book as stories the characters tell each other.

The twist at the end will completely surprise you and leave you wanting to read more, hence why I'm cracking open The Queen of Attolia (second book) once I'm done this review.

If you're looking for a good fantasy quest story with a funny narrator, read this!

Thoughts on the cover:
Thank heaven they reprinted The Thief with a new cover around the time when the third book was released. When you have a series that covers 14 years between the first book (1996) and the last book (2010), you're gonna see a prime example of changing cover art for the better. The first three books are done in this new cover style with the title at the bottom with the flowing design around it, it brings a more regal and sophisticated look to the books. The cover illustrations look as if they could be from classic paintings, which adds even more fancy to the look.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Hunchback Assignments - Arthur Slade

Title: The Hunchback Assignments
Author: Arthur Slade
Publisher: HarperCollins, 2009 (Hardcover)
Length: 275 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Science Fiction, Historical Fiction, Steampunk
Started: December 30, 2009
Finished: January 4, 2010

From the back of the book:
When Mr. Socrates, a member of the shadowy Permanent Association, hears of a hunchbacked infant with the ability to transform his appearance, he decides to take him in. Naming him Modo, he raises the boy in isolation, training him to become a secret agent.

When Modo turns fourteen, his education is complete. He must first survive in London on his own, then, with the help of beautiful Octavia, he uncovers a sinister plot being carried out in the very sewers beneath London.

Will they be able to stop the mad scientist Dr. Hyde and his even more terrifying associates before they unleash their monstrous plans upon unsuspecting Londoners?

I picked this up because someone recommended it to me to the point where I thought they must've written it because they praised it so much. This is probably the first time someone recommended a book to me that I didn't at least find tolerable. But hey, at least I read this one all the way through.

The novel takes place in Victorian-era England and has a lot of steampunk elements (basically science fiction concepts executed using steam powered machines). Mr. Socrates finds a hunchbacked infant in a gypsy freakshow that has the ability to change his appearance. He names him Modo and trains him in the art of being a secret agent of sorts with the intent of using him in his secret society when he is older. At the age of fourteen, Modo is taken from the only home he has known and Mr. Socrates leaves him to fend for himself as a test of his abilities. Along the way Modo meets Octavia and they work together to uncover a plan that will endanger all of Britain.

This book has a lot of promising concepts: Modo's ability to change his appearance, the relationship between Modo and Octavia, and the undercover agents switching between aristocracy and the lay people. They aren't developed enough though, it feels like you've only read half the book or that the book should be longer. The story feels like a blatant stitching of various classics: Modo's circumstances and disfigurements are taken out of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (they even said he was left in front of the same church). Dr. Jekyl and Mr Hyde is referenced through the character of Dr. Hyde as well as the tonic taken by Oscar and the other victims that changes their personality and actions drastically. Frankenstein comes in when Dr. Hyde creates near cyborgs from his human experiments. Granted there are a lot of stories that borrow from other novels, authors do it all the time without really knowing, but some authors do it with class and finesse...that's not present here, it feels like an excuse to not come up with more creative character names. Seeing as though most of my students aren't as well read as I'd like them to be, a lot of kids simply won't notice the references.

The story wasn't all that stellar either. The first half of the book is taken up with developing Modo and setting him up as a decent character and then you get the rushed action at the end trying to solve the issue with the huge mechanical body and why there's a bunch of wolf-like children running around London. Apparently this is the first in a series so that explains a few things, but you can still have a series of novels with well done one-shot plots strung together to make a cohesive story overall, too bad this isn't one of them.

There are some things I liked about this book. The writing is amazing, and since it takes place in Victorian England there is a wonderful use of higher level vocabulary that I wish kids would use, or at least understand (when our students don't understand the word "function" in the context of a sentence, you know their vocabularies have gone down the toilet). Again, there's some great concepts here, I just think they need to be fleshed out a bit and we'll have a really good series here.

A decent example of steampunk, but there are better ones out there. Might be a good book for a boy looking for some action (but can sit through character development in the beginning).

Thoughts on the cover:
This thing looks like a bad movie poster. Cartoon-style villian Dr. Hyde at the top (can he look any more cliche?), Octavia at the left, and Modo in the centre. The US cover (the picture and description is of the Canadian cover) looks much nicer, shades of blue with hooded Modo scaling a building looking down over London. The US cover actually makes the book seem more grown up.