Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Five Fakirs of Faizabad

The Five Fakirs of Faizabad
by P.B. Kerr
Recommended Ages: 12+

When siblings John and Phillipa Gaunt, age 14, learn they have to complete a Djinn rite of passage by choosing a deserving person to grant three wishes, each twin separately stumbles on a plot to tamper with the luck of the whole world. The goal of whoever is causing an outbreak of bad luck seems to have something to do with a group of mystical Muslim hermits from northern India who, centuries ago, buried themselves alive to protect the five holiest secrets known to their order. Unluckily enough, a group of "fake fakirs," who practice just enough Sufist self-denial to be dangerous, have joined forces with one of the twins' Uncle Nimrod's deadliest enemies. To save the world's luck, not to mention Nimrod's faithful butler Groanin, they must visit the worst hotel in the world, travel long distances by flying carpet, and find the lost shrine of Shangri-La.

Like other books in this series about adolescent Djinn finding their powers in the modern world, this one is filled with thrills, laughs, and a surprising amount of educational value. It satirizes the xenophobic manners of some Englishmen, the unsuitability of some hoteliers for the hospitality industry, and the reasoning behind British spies being expert gamblers. It depicts a chilling (literally and figuratively) encounter with pre-World War II Nazis who have become stuck in time, a man-made monster out of Jewish folklore, a man who has fallen out of an airplane (without a parachute) and lived, an elusive monster of the American west, and a couple interesting cases of reincarnation. It's a globe-trotting, religiously syncretistic adventure for spirits of fire and luck who are, nevertheless, touchingly (and sometimes hilariously) human at heart.

My only quibble, besides advising readers who like their religions straight and unblended about that syncretism, is the book's solution to its final dilemma, which effectively resets the characters (with a few exceptions) to their status at the beginning of the book. If I didn't know they would be haunted by déjà vu during their next installment, I would say the ending made the book pointless. But I just happened to have the next book about the Gaunt twins, The Grave Robbers of Genghis Khan, on deck to read right after this one, so that worry has been mooted.

This is the sixth of, so far, seven "Children of the Lamp" novels by Edinburgh-born young adult author P.B. Kerr, also the author of the standalone book One Small Step. As Philip Kerr, he is also the author of 13 Bernie Gunther/Berlin Noir mysteries, counting Greeks Bearing Gifts, due for release in 2018; three Scott Manson mysteries, featuring a London football coach who solves crimes; about a dozen standalone novels for adults; and the children's book The Most Frightening Story Ever Told, for some reason published under his adult fiction name.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Wandering Fire

The Wandering Fire
by Guy Gavriel Kay
Recommended Ages: 14+

Five 20th-century Canadian university students have gotten swept up in a magical adventure in the first of all worlds, of which our world is only one of many cheap knock-offs. Their acts, their loves, and their fates are now woven into the tapestry that shapes history throughout the multiverse. Tall, athletic Dave has become an axe-wielding berserker on the battlefield. Kim has been burdened with the inner sight of a seer. Paul has come back whole, and more than whole, after offering himself as a sacrifice on the Summer Tree. Jennifer has endured a violation that will strain her ability to love, just when her heart proves to be one point of an eternal story on which everything depends. And Kevin has reached the sorrowful conclusion that his only usefulness lies in the deep abandon that characterizes his sexuality. On these five visitors from modern-day Toronto hang the fortunes of kings, princes, princesses, priestesses, clan chiefs, warriors, and more. In this middle installment of "The Fionavar Tapestry," they awaken dangerous forces, summon terrifying beings, fight monstrous creatures, race against evil armies, and take journeys from which no one has ever returned before - and sometimes, they don't return. And after imbibing this heady mixture of a variety of strong spirits old and new, we the reader surface with wonder, realizing the epic is only two-thirds done.

I took my sweet time moving from the first volume of the trilogy, titled The Summer Tree, which I enthusiastically loved, to this second installment. Perhaps that explains why I found my enthusiasm had cooled somewhat. I'm of two minds about this book. After reading it, I still admire Guy Gavriel Kay, who helped edit Tolkien's posthumous masterpiece The Silmarillion, as a unique prose stylist whose every sentence is an original work of art. In my other mind, however, I was a little disappointed to have to slot him in with Peter S. Beagle in a class of authors who write with breathtaking lyricism, at the expense of choosing words sometimes (or, as Beagle would put it, "betimes") more for their musical effect than for their actual meaning; in this book, for example, Kay uses the word "evanescent" that way. Also, there were occasional moments in this book when I didn't altogether catch the drift of what Kay was saying in his oh, so clever way. My education, or rather the sad neglect thereof, is no doubt at fault.

Going back to my first mind, I also recognize in Kay a master adapter and synthesizer of folklore material into a compelling, moving new fantasy epic that puts him in the same class as Ursula K. Le Guin, Peter Dickinson, Robin McKinley, etc. He frequently writes passages of intense emotion that reach deep inside me and grab something that often go months, if not years, without being touched. I literally wept tears while at a couple points in this book, and had to go back and re-read one passage, aloud, so my cat would understand why I was so upset. I don't think the cat felt it, but I sure did. In the other mind, however, I saw through what sometimes seemed a precious conceit that every emotion every character felt at every point in this adventure, including (at times) terrible numbness, was the most powerful manifestation of its kind since the beginning of time, or at least since the age of legends. Perhaps, again, the fault is mine, in having a capacity for "drama fatigue" that makes me see melodrama where there is nothing but true drama, or bathos where there is really pathos. I am, after all, the guy who lapsed into acute "lyricism fatigue" while reading a certain book I won't name here.

Returning for a third time to my first mind, Kay's talent, his work experience, the scope of his material, and the overall richness, depth, complexity, and power of the weaving he has woven here, put him within striking distance of standing alongside Tolkien as a creator of great fantasy. But the other me hastens to point out that, where Tolkien's fantasy is essentially of a Christian character, Kay's is loaded with pagan tropes. So it behooves me to paste an Occult Content Advisory on this book, as well as an Adult Ditto, since this particular book seems on some level to be all about the various ways you can screw, and be screwed by, deities of classical and Celtic tradition. It depicts, for example, the ultimate sexrifice. Yes, I just said that. Versions of a lot of neo-pagan myths, beliefs, and rites get woven together in this tapestry, including mother goddess stuff, the legends of King Arthur, a cyclic view of history, the wild hunt, the horned god, etc., etc., etc. I'm not saying it isn't entertaining. I'm saying Tolkien might have been a bit miffed to find himself classed with this kind of thing. It is because the comparison is apt that I think Christian families who read together - and I know some - will appreciate the heads-up before they plunge into this epic.

Book 3 of "The Fionavar Tapestry" is The Darkest Road. For what all I have said above is worth, I am interested in seeing where it leads. Kay is still active as a writer, bringing forth new fantasy epics every few years based, in part, on the lore of various cultures. His other novels include Tigana, The Lions of Al-Rassan, Sailing to Sarantium, Ysabel, and most recently Children of Earth and Sky.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Dead End in Norvelt

Dead End in Norvelt
by Jack Gantos
Recommended Ages: 10+

In a fictionalized version of a summer in his childhood, award-winning children's author Jack Gantos brings to life the model community of Norvelt, Pa., in the twilight of its life cycle. Norvelt, named after former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, began during the Great Depression as an experiment in giving laid-off coal miners an opportunity to live with dignity, owning their own homes, operating businesses, growing gardens, bartering goods and services, and being self-sufficient with just a little, initial boost from Uncle Sam. It was, frankly, kind of a Communist idea, and was ultimately doomed by the market forces of a country with a cash economy. By 1962, Jack is torn between his mother, who still believes in the Norvelt dream, and his father, who has grown disillusioned with the dying community and wants to move to Florida, where there is plenty of work building houses for rich people. Young Jack's dilemma comes to a head when his father orders him to mow down his mother's garden, so he can build either a bomb shelter or a runway. Caught between direct orders from each of his parents, Jack finds himself grounded for the summer. It's enough to make the boy's nose bleed, though to be sure, that doesn't take much.

From nosebleed to nosebleed, and from one misadventure to another - including a cautionary tale about gun safety - Jack experiences a summer that transforms his character. He helps the spinster across the street write a series of obituaries for the last remaining founding residents of Norvelt, who are suddenly dying off in quick succession. He spends a lot of time digging a hole in his yard that may or may not become a bomb shelter. He gets pushed around by the local undertaker's bossy, tomboyish daughter, and witnesses scenes of gruesome death. He gets drawn into a feud with Norvelt's adult-sized tricycle-riding volunteer policeman/firefighter/rat catcher, who has a love-hate relationship with Miss Volker (the obituary lady), and between the whole town and the motorcycle gang that has aimed an evil curse at Norvelt. He witnesses acts of arson, poaching, and practicing medicine without a license, and finally, helps solve a series of murders. And he faces the consequences of lying, sneaking off while grounded, and (possibly) dive-bombing a drive-in movie theater.

In a way, this book reminded me of the Spike Jonze movie Adaptation, with its low-key, down-to-earth, introspective exploration of characters' private lives and matters of the heart, increasingly mixed with over-the-top fantasy and silly high jinks. It takes off like the small plane Jack's father learns to fly, but doesn't go very high; high enough for that down-to-earth stuff to appear smaller and more distant, in perspective, but not so high that it goes out of sight. It has humor, heart, a throbbing vein of sadness, the twitching muscle of a conscience for social justice, and a jangling nerve of creepiness. It shows a fading, failing, but still attractive experiment in a community's way of life; a wistful moment in the life cycle of fragile friendships and family relationships; and a perspective on small-time life that only an unusually observant kid might pick up. It provokes thoughts about community journalism, political ideals, animal rights, economics, courage, history, responsibility, and the essential give-and-take of relationships. Even if the details aren't altogether believable, the heart and the humor are right on target.

Jack Gantos is the author of some 20 "Rotten Ralph" books, five "Jack Henry" books, five "Joey Pigza" books, and several stand-alone novels, picture-books, and memoirs, mostly written for young readers. This book, which won both the Newbery Medal and the Scott O'Dell Award for 2012, has a sequel titled From Norvelt to Nowhere.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Dragons vs. Drones

Dragons vs. Drones
by Wesley King
Recommended Ages: 11+

Marcus, 12, has been searching for his missing father since he was 4 years old, refusing to believe George Brimley was a traitor to his country. During that time, he has noticed a freaky pattern in the dates of each year's biggest storm to hit Alexandria, Virginia - the day of the month has been counting down. Somehow, Marcus knows this is connected with his father's disappearance. This year, when a big storm blows up on the first of the month, Marcus pedals his bicycle right into the heart of it, heedless of swirling black clouds, flickering lightning, and the suspicious fact that a bunch of drones are chasing him. At the heart of the storm, he guts sucked into a parallel dimension, to a city called Dracone, where the drones immediately begin blowing stuff up, killing people, and attacking the dragons that, incidentally, exist there.

The dragons of Dracone come in four flavors: Nightwings, Sages, Outliers, and Flames. Some of them have been allies of mankind for a long time, but that time is now over. Francis Xidorne, the country's new prime minister, has decided to modernize his country, and that means doing away with the dragons and people who sympathize with them. The first person Marcus meets in Dracone is a member of the new underclass, a 12-year-old girl named Dree, whose father was a dragon rider before the regime changed. Stripped of their wealth, her family now lives in a waterfront shack, and Dree and her mother work hard to support her crippled father and the younger kids. Both Dree and Marcus have the same mysterious gift, or maybe it's a curse - their skin doesn't burn, but sometimes fire comes out of their fingertips. Dree also has a secret: the Nightwing dragon Lourdvang, whom she raised from a hatchling.

Between them, boy, girl, and dragon resolve to fight the drones that are destroying the poorer parts of Dracone, and that are also beginning to exterminate the dragons. Using Dree's genius as a welder and an inventor, Marcus' gifts as a computer whiz, and Lourdvang's ability to fly, they start a small rebellion that, through sheer spunk, spreads to include at least three dragon clans. Saving Dracone from the deadly drones will involve solving the mystery of Marcus' father's disappearance, seeking an object of great magical power that they believe is hidden in the world's most impenetrable fortress, and surviving action scenes packed with unbelievable excitement. Also, it will require a sequel, picking up on the other side of the portal between Dree's world and ours.

This is a fun, screwy adventure, full of magical thrills, high-tech gadgetry, and danger. The dialogue is snappy; the characters have a lot of emotionally grueling issues to work through; and it proves themes of black-helicopter paranoia, coexistence with sentient alien creatures, the impact of space-age technology on the environment, and family melodrama can be mixed with good results. It also shows how quickly a nervous nerd like Marcus can develop into a swashbuckling hero, once he's in his proper element; the image of him free-falling from the back of a drone that he has just disabled in mid-flight, screaming, "Anyone?" while dragons and drones battle each other around him, seems likely to be my most durable memory of this book. On the other hand, I felt a little let-down by the way Dree's family dropped out of the storyline. After setting up her devotion to her sister Abi, the book proceeds to make awkward excuses for keeping the sisters apart after a relatively early point in the plot. The family drama aspect of the story would be more interesting if the family were more present.

Wesley King is the Canadian author of The Vindico, The Feros, The Incredible Space Raiders (From Space!), OCDaniel, and Laura Monster Crusher, besides the sequel to this book, titled Enemy of the Realm, and the upcoming book The World Below, set for release in March 2018. His works have won several awards, including a 2017 Edgar Award for "best juvenile" (for OCDaniel).

Monday, July 10, 2017

Shadow Scale

Shadow Scale
by Rachel Hartman
Recommended Ages: 13+

This sequel gratifies the burning desire in the heart of practically everyone who read Seraphina - namely, to explore further the world of Goredd and its neighboring realms, where dragons (called saarantrai) walk in human shape, and where many humans worship a pantheon of "saints" who, half-dragon/half-human heroine Seraphina now learns, were actually people like her. As the civil war between the saarantrai heats up, she travels to the ends of the world as she knows it, seeking to collect her fellow halfbreeds and bring them home, so they can combine their mental powers to defend her city from the anti-human faction of dragonkind. Meanwhile, she has to solve a number of interconnected mysteries - such as how the saints came into being, and why the anti-human dragon ideology suddenly arose, and above all, how to stop one especially bitter half-dragon from destroying everything.

The name of Seraphina's true nemesis turns out to be Jannoula. They are well-matched adversaries, the one traveling the world in search of her kind, and the other arriving either just ahead of her or a few steps behind, to sink her psychic hooks into the minds of those like them. The few half-dragons (a.k.a. ityasaari) who have the ability to unhook Jannoula from each other's minds, are helpless when she takes control of them. And though Seraphina is the only one who seems impervious to being controlled by Jannoula, she finds herself no less helpless when the self-appointed saint finally has everyone where she wants them. The seeming inevitability of disaster, for a nation and for a whole civilization, is stomach-twisting. Equally painful is the personal revenge Jannoula wreaks on Seraphina, whom she blames for abandoning her to years of hideous torment. But the real concern is whether Seraphina will ever learn to open her mind, which she has been at pains to keep closed most of her life, when the survival of her whole world depends on it.

I was mostly delighted with this sequel, though I did not think it struck quite as pure a note as the first book. I noticed, for example, Seraphina's first-person narration dropping phrases of 20th century psychobabble, like "cognitive dissonance," which struck me as something like an anachronism - though I am fully aware Seraphina's world is not on the same historical timeline as ours. I suppose a little anachronism might be excused, in a world in which the quigutl - human-sized, but not anthropomorphic, cousins of the saarantrai - appear able to operate electrical generators and devices similar to today's computers, and in which an earlier age's dragon-fighting martial arts, now lost to human memory, included flying machines and missiles. The relationship between technology and human history is mysterious in Seraphina's world; there are even hints that more advanced human cultures live across the sea, or on the other side of the land barrier occupied by the dragons, so inaccessible to Goredd and its neighboring countries that they have faded almost to the status of legend.

This is only one example of the thought-provoking themes that peek out of the polyphonic texture of this fantasy epic, but not all of the themes are equally satisfying. For example, the neighboring culture of Porphyry has a fluid concept of gender, with the result that good manners dictates the greeting "How may I pronoun you?" when being introduced to someone. In my opinion, there is a (cough) cognitive dissonance between the essentially medievalist setting of the book and this piece of post-modern sophistry; and also, it persuades me to drop an Adult Content Advisory on this book, to encourage traditional-family-oriented parents to be alert to this theme when sharing the series with their children.

Rachel Hartman's third book, also set in the world of Seraphina, is expected in February 2018, and will be titled Tess of the Road. I don't know what her plans are for it, but I hope she explores the quigutl in more depth. I really liked those guys.

Thursday, July 6, 2017


by Rachel Hartman
Recommended Ages: 12+

I can't wait to say it: This is the best book I have read so far this year. It isn't just good; it's beautiful.

Seraphina is a lawyer's daughter; yawn, right? Ah! But that particular lawyer, Claude Dombegh, is the foremost legal expert on dragons in the kingdom of Goredd. Have I got your attention now? Why did Dombegh become the leading authority on the treaty between Goredd and the fierce reptiles of the north, with whom they were at war until 40 years ago? He has eaten, drunk, breathed, and slept the treaty for 16 years, since the day Seraphina was born and her mother, dying in childbirth, was revealed to be a dragon in human form. He honestly didn't know until then. And now he has an awful secret to protect - a daughter whom many dragons and humans alike would consider an abomination - and so, while learning every line and loophole in the law, he has become its greatest interpreter, and even a noted legal defender of dragons. As for Seraphina, she has led a life of loneliness, forced to hide scaly patches on her arm and around her waist, afraid to become too close to anyone, afraid to share her musical gifts, hollow with loneliness. In an act of rebellion, she runs away to the royal palace and auditions successfully to be the crusty old court composer's assistant.

The book compresses all this into background information that you learn while the story is in progress. It actually begins sometime later, while Seraphina is directing the funeral music for the queen's son, whose body was found headless in the forest after he became separated from his huntsmen. As the 40th anniversary of the treaty approaches, along with an anticipated visit by the dragon general Comonot, who co-signed the treaty with the now-elderly Queen Lavonda, anti-dragon sentiment runs high in the streets of the capital. Many, including the queen's bastard grandson Prince Lucian Kiggs, suspect a dragon of having killed the older prince. But unlike the hate-filled mob in the streets, Kiggs wants to learn the truth - he wants to save the peace - and he knows that means protecting Comonot from a danger only he and a certain secretive young music mistress seem to see.

Seraphina becomes increasingly tangled up in Kiggs' inquiry into the slaying of his uncle. But both of them also develop an emotional conflict, as they fall in love with each other, although they both care about his fiancee, the young Princess Glisselda, granddaughter of the queen. And for her part, Seraphina becomes hopelessly tangled in the lies and secrets she must keep to protect herself and her family from the backlash they expect, should anyone find out she is a half-dragon. Adding to her trouble is a series of visions that seize her with dangerous suddenness, and her growing realization that the garden of grotesques she must daily tend in her mind is actually a connection to the minds of other half-dragons - some of whom will become her friends, and some who may be her enemies. Then there is a series of maternal memories, passed to her by her dying mother at the moment of her birth, bursting upon her consciousness at the most inopportune moments. As ties of family loyalty, romantic love, friendship, and the preservation of peace between her two peoples press on her with growing urgency, it becomes more evident every moment that she cannot save everything and keep her secret as well.

And so I come back to this point: This is a phenomenally beautiful book. I'm apparently not the first person who noticed it; it won the 2013 William C. Morris YA Debut Award, a medal given annually since 2009 by the Young Adult Library Services Association division of the American Library Association; in other words, it's a Newbery Medal for the best "first-time author writing for teens."1 It builds an engrossing fantasy world, with an intriguing concept of dragons I would be willing to explore at much greater length; it depicts a varied gallery of breathing, speaking, fully original yet believable characters; it develops a culture with a complex pantheon of saints and a rich culture of beautiful music, dreamed up by a writer who knows how to write about music - and with my background, similar to the author's in multiple ways, I'm not easily fooled in that area. Besides all that, or rather above all, her scenic invention and deft hand for dialogue are but instruments in a symphony of storytelling that throbs with danger and sings with emotion, from the anguish of loneliness to the exhilaration of love. I do not exaggerate, even a tiny bit, when I say there were several prose passages in this book during which I paused and said to myself, "Someone should set this to music." And I wouldn't be surprised if the author herself has written tunes to go with some of the lyric poems sprinkled throughout the book. It's a fantasy so perfectly conceived, I would have enjoyed it even were it indifferently well-written. But it is, rather, differently well written; and that difference puts it on a level apart.

As the Morris award suggests, this is a first novel by a U.S.-born author, now living in Canada. It has a sequel, which I am already reading, titled Shadow Scale. A new book set in the same world, titled Tess of the Road, is due to be released Feb. 27, 2018. This book, also nominated for a 2013 Andre Norton Award2, comes (at least in some editions) with a bonus prequel short story titled "The Audition," revealing how Seraphina got her job as (among other things) Princess Glisselda's harpischord teacher.

1Among the award's past winners and nominees that I have read are Graceling by Kristin Cashore, A Curse Dark As Gold by Elizabeth Bunce (a winner), and Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride; the full list contains a bunch of titles I suddenly want to read.
2That was the year China Miéville's Railsea won; a tough book to beat.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017


by Tonya Hurley
Recommended Ages: 14+

As a new school year starts at Hawthorne High, Charlotte is determined to cross over from being the invisible girl to fitting in with the popular crowd, and even having a chance to kiss Damen Dylan at the big dance. But just after scoring Damen as her lab partner in first-period physics class, she crosses over in a way she didn't intend, thanks to an imperfectly chewed gummy bear. Now she's stuck in the afterlife, attending Introduction to Dead Ed class with such gruesome classmates as Piccolo Pam, a marching band member who tripped and swallowed her instrument; Rotting Rita, who always has maggots crawling out of her nose; Call Me Kim, whose death proves the link between cell phone use and brain cancer is no myth; and an angry girl named Prue, who is ready to blame Charlotte if the house they all haunt together gets condemned and torn down.

Unfortunately, Charlotte is too caught up in her own, selfish issues to worry about her dead friends and the fate of their home. She hasn't given up on Damen, even if it means stirring up trouble for everyone. She makes a pact with the alpha cheerleader's goth sister, possessing Scarlet's body while Scarlet, in spirit, delightedly explores the other side. But what she hasn't told Scarlet is that she plans to use her body to get Damen to fall in love with her, and (if possible) to enjoy being just a little popular, for a little while. Naturally, mayhem breaks out, including a flood in the gym and a fun haunted house that turns just a little too real. In the end, everything depends on Charlotte getting her ghostly head on straight, and thinking about someone else before herself.

Tim Burtonesque cover art drew me into this book with a promise of satirical, black-comedic ghoulishness. While I wasn't fully satisfied with the book after reading it, that promise went not entirely unkept. I enjoyed some guilty giggles, particularly at some classic film references it would probably take a grown-up well-read in popular culture to appreciate fully. The songs mentioned in the book would make an interesting soundtrack, with plenty of teen goth appeal. On the other hand, each chapter is prefaced by an explanatory blurb that lays out, in general terms, the issue Charlotte has to work through in the next few pages; reading like cards from a deck of pop psychobabble, these blurbs add little the book wouldn't be better off without. There is some legit mystery, suspense, and romance in it, though, and some of the characters show emotional growth. But even in a book that openly acknowledges the shortcomings of its self-absorbed teenaged characters, one that confronts some of them with their need to change, it was hard to sympathize with the brats depicted in this book. They became irritating in large doses, even with tongue in cheek; and in spite of suspense winding up to a tight climax, I was a little let down by how easily their issues were resolved. Perhaps I'm being premature, though; this book has two sequels, Homecoming and Lovesick. So their problems, somehow, must not be altogether over.

Their author, a sometime music publicist, TV writer/producer, and video game creator, has also written a trilogy about modern day urban martyrs, comprising The Blessed, Passionaries, and Hallowed.