Tuesday, November 19, 2013

REVIEW: Ice by Sarah Beth Durst

by Sarah Beth Durst

“She had a hundred reasons: because Bear had carved a statue of her in the center of the topiary garden, because she could always make him laugh, because he'd let her return to the station, because he won at chess and lost at hockey, because he ran as fast as he could to polar bear births, because he had seal breath even as a human, because his hands were soft, because he was her Bear. "Because I want my husband back," Cassie said.” 

Cassie has lived her whole life in her family's arctic research station. Her world is ice and science and tagging polar bears and survival. Her grandmother had told her fairy tales about her mother, the adopted daughter of the North Wind, who was supposed to marry the Polar Bear King but married a mortal instead. The North Wind was so angry that he threw the mother into the land of the trolls, never to be seen again. When Cassie grew up, she realized these were just stories to make her feel better about her mother's death. That is, until the Polar Bear King comes to claim Cassie as his wife. After agreeing to rescue her mother, Bear whisks Cassie away to his ice castle at the North Pole. She and Bear slowly and deeply fall in love, but when Cassie betrays Bear and he is torn from her side, she must brave the frozen wasteland to find him again.

I loved this adaptation of "East of the Sun and West of the Moon" even more than East. It is a rather faithful adaptation of the story, though elements are changed and added to enhance the themes Durst draws out of the tale. The story begins strong and ends strong, but when you hit the 3/4 mark, the story is difficult to adapt, as she travels to find Bear and encounters very vignette-y adversaries and friends, but such is the nature of the tale. Durst's adaptation is rooted in a very real exploration of a relationship: two people who love each other but have separate careers, interests, and plans for the future. They struggle and fight and that is what makes the story ring true. It is about coming to terms with who you are as a person and who you are as a couple. Cassie is 18, so she has a lot of growing up to do in a short period of time.

Cassie and Bear, the pillars of the story, are a joy to watch. Bear, unlike most Beasts or Bears or Cupids I have seen in "Beauty and the Beast"/"East of the Sun and West of the Moon"/ "Cupid and Psyche" adaptations, is not brooding or depressed or serious. His actually very loving and silly. They play together verbally and physically, ice skating in the ballroom and bantering back and forth. He cares deeply for Cassie and the polar bears he serves. He is easy to fall in love with. Cassie is smart and brave and stubborn beyond all belief. The amount of pain and suffering she must endure to find Bear is awe-inspiring. She is up there with September from The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairy Land in a Ship of her Own Making and Katsa from Graceling as some of the most resourceful badass chicks in literature.

Durst creates a fascinating mythology surrounding Bear and the creatures that help or hinder Cassie. Bear is a munaqsri, a being who cares for a particular species. He takes their souls from them when they die, and gives them to newborns. If they do not transfer a soul into the newborn, the baby is born dead. This element ends up being essential to the journey of Cassie and Bear and critical in the climax. I teared up on the metro as I read it, it is so well-crafted and emotionally satisfying.

I highly recommend this adaptation of "East of the Sun and West of the Moon."

Books Like This
East by Edith Pattou
Til We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis
Cinder and Scarlet by Marissa Meyer
Stung by Bethany Wiggins

Saturday, November 9, 2013

REVIEW: Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy

Skulduggery Pleasant
by Derek Landy

“Her parents wanted her to find her own way in life. That’s what they’d said countless times in the past. Of course, they’d been referring to school subjects and college applications and job prospects. Presumably, at no stage did they factor living skeletons and magic underworlds into their considerations. If they had, their advice would probably have been very different.” 

When Stephanie's eccentric uncle suddenly dies, she meets someone rather mysterious at the reading of the will. Skulduggery Pleasant, her uncle's old friend, covers himself with a coat, scarf, had and dark glasses. When Stephanie is attacked by a terrifying man, Skulduggery reveals himself to be a walking, talking skeleton, an ancient sorcerer whose lost his life fighting the forces of evil, and pulled himself back together to finish him off. In the last few hundred years, he has become a wisecracking detective. Together, he and Stephanie must face a new threat, and stop a villain from destroying the world.

This book was absolutely clever and charming. While the plot was rather simple and conventional for the genre, and the villain was one dimensional, but the meat of the story is Skulduggery and Stephanie's relationship. Skulduggery is witty and silly fun on his own, but together with Stephanie the banter and chemistry is electric. They bat scenes back and forth like a tennis ball, matching each other in wit, humor and grit.

I loved Stephanie's slow assimilation into the magic culture. Once she knows it exists, she must choose to turn back to her old life, or plunge forward wholeheartedly into the danger and the dark. As she steps further and further in, her understanding of the very real threats that face them grow and her continuous determination to help Skulduggery is heartening. In this world, people have three names: the secret name they are born with, the name they are given by their parents, and the third name that they choose. That third name protects a sorcerer from using their other two names to control them, and it is usually deliciously descriptive. The moment Stephanie chooses her name was so powerful, I got shivers.

It bothered me how much Stephanie was on the sidelines of the fighting, either hurt or watching. However, she is 12 and a magic noob, so it makes sense that Skulduggery does most of the ass-kicking. Tanith Lee, a female swordslinger who joins up with them, gives us ample badassery on her own. And Landy allows her to giggle with Stephanie, which makes me so happy. No stoic, cardboard, humorless fighter chicks in this book!

I also appreciated Stephanie's family life. Usually in stories like this, the protagonist's family abuses them, or is apathetic, or is dead. Stephanie's family cares! Her dad is absolutely lovely, and has one of the most touching scenes in the book. You worry that in the sequels, Stephanie is going to break his heart.

A fun and fast juvenile read. I did wish it was more of a magical detective story, and less of an epic battle of good vs evil, but it was a joy to sit in the Bentley with Skulduggery and Stephanie and listen to them talk. I look forward to see where this series goes (there are 8 of them!)

Monday, November 4, 2013

REVIEW: Dodger by Terry Pratchett

by Terry Pratchett

“Dodger made haste towards the house of the Mayhews while in his mind he saw the cheerful face and hooked nose of Mister Punch, beating his wife, beating the policeman and throwing the baby away, which made all the children laugh. Why was that funny, he thought? Was that funny at all? He’d lived for seventeen years on the streets, and so he knew that, funny or not, it was real. Not all the time, of course, but often when people had been brought down so low that they could think of nothing better to do than punch: punch the wife, punch the child and then, sooner or later, endeavour to punch the hangman, although that was the punch that never landed and, oh how the children laughed at Mister Punch! But Simplicity wasn't laughing...” 
It was a dark and stormy night in turn-of-the-century London. A girl's scream rips through the air as she tries to escape a carriage with two brutish men on her heels. Suddenly, a young man emerges from a sewer drain and saves her. Thus Dodger, common geezer and tosher (person who explores sewers for lost items), gets swept up in a mystery that involves Charles Dickens, Henry Mayhew, Benjamin Disraeli, and even foreign powers. Will he be able to solve the mystery of the woman in the coach, and will he be able to maintain his identity as his star rises?

Pratchett calls this book a historical fantasy, and I can definitely see how that is true. It is more like historical fan fiction, where he manipulates facts to give you a really fun story. It took me a while to get into the rhythm of his long, convoluted and clever sentences, but I really enjoyed the book.

The world was excellently drawn, almost too much so, for I felt sometimes he was letting the historical personages run wild with their opinions on the world more than letting the plot advance. However, the characters are really fun, if a bit flat. The two characters that stand out in relief from the others are Dodger himself and his mentor and landlord Solomon. Solomon is a practical, cosmopolitan Jewish refugee. He lives simply and speaks wisely, and plays his cards close to the chest. It bothered me that Pratchett seemed to be implying that Fagin from Oliver Twist was based on Solomon, for Solomon was nothing if not an amazing role model. Dickens actually went back and apologized for the anti-Semitic portrayal of Fagin in Oliver Twist, so it colored my view of Dickens in the novel.

Dodger is a surprisingly compassionate hardened geezer (clever, streetwise person). He is more complex than you realize at first, protecting his town, and if he lies and manipulates a good person, he makes sure they are recompensed. He sees all sides of a situation, and feels sympathy for those who are portrayed as "villains" in the eyes of the public. I do sometimes wish that he was actually genuinely scared or that he failed horribly once or twice in the story, because his constant successes made me hate him a little, but just a little.

I honestly was expecting a lot of horrible things to happen in this book which never happened. Perhaps, I forgot this was a Pratchett novel, and not just a regular historical/ literary adaptation where they try to take the story down dark roads.

All in all, a pleasant and fun romp through 17th century London.

Books Like This:
The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett
Sacre Bleu by Christopher Moore
Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance by Gyles Brandreth