The Empress: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

*The Empress is the second book in Kincaid’s Diabolic trilogy. This review contains spoilers for book one. Start at the beginning with The Diabolic*

Previously seen as less than a person, Nemesis is now poised to become Tyrus’ wife and rule the Empire at his side. Together they hope to bring massive changes to the Empire by restoring the sciences, sharing information, and lessening the gap between the ruling Grandiloquy and their human Excess subjects.

But it turns out gaining power isn’t the same keeping it. Nemesis and Tyrus have to face outright challenges to Tyrus’ claim to the throne from the Gradiloquy and questions of whether a Diabolic–a creature that was never human–has any right to rule alongside the Emperor.

Nemesis’ old tricks are no longer enough to help or protect Tyrus. Nemesis has to use more than brute force and base cunning. She needs to be more than a Diabolic. Now, she’ll have to be an Empress and prove her humanity. But even Nemesis has to wonder how far she can go–how many terrible deeds she can condone–if she ever truly wants to embrace her humanity in The Empress (2017) by S. J. Kincaid.

The Empress is the second book in Kincaid’s Diabolic trilogy which began with The Diabolic. Originally, The Diabolic sold and was published as a standalone novel before its breakout success prompted the publisher to sign a deal for two more novels about Nemesis and her world.

Kincaid dramatically expands the world of the Empire in the novel as Nemesis and Tyrus move beyond the insular confines of the Chrysanthemum into the far reaches of the galaxy. Along the way readers learn more about the galaxy’s society and religious system. Although this novel remains in Nemesis’s clinical first person narration, the story is carefully blocked to offer a wider view sometimes with Nemesis literally eavesdropping when she isn’t involved in key conversations.

Throughout The Empress Nemesis struggles with her newfound humanity and accompanying conscience as she contemplates how far she is willing to go and how far she should go to protect Tyrus and herself. Nemesis and Tyrus continue to mirror each other but this time around the contrasts and changes are especially heartbreaking as both characters are pushed far beyond their breaking points.

The Empress spends a lot of time asking characters and readers how far they are willing to go to get what they want and, perhaps more tellingly, how far is too far. And what happens when even going too far isn’t enough to save yourself?

By the end of the novel, which of course I won’t spoil here, readers are also left to wonder what can possibly come next. Can there be such a thing as redemption for these characters who seem so determined to watch the world burn? Only time (and book three) will tell.

If The Diabolic was already at eleven, then this book turned the dial up to fifty. It is no exaggeration when I say that my jaw was on the floor for most of the time I was reading. I love this series and have to say that The Empress in particular is easily one of my favorite books that I read this year. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Cruel Prince by Holly Black, The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Incarceron by Catherine Fisher, That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E. K. Johnston, Proxy by Alex London, Legend by Marie Lu, The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows, Wires and Nerve, Volume 1 by Marissa Meyer and Douglas Holgate, A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix, Birthmarked by Caragh M.O’Brien, For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab, And I Darken by Kiersten White

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That Inevitable Victorian Thing: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Years from now Victoria-Margaret will be the next Queen and continue the work her ancestor Victoria I started two centuries earlier to strengthen the British Empire for all of its people and promote genetic diversity and inter-Empire politics with an advantageous marriage. First  the crown princess will have a summer of freedom for her debut season in Toronto. Although her brown skin, epicanthal fold, and freckles make her easily recognizable as the current Queen’s daughter, Margaret is able to disguise herself with the help of her natural hair and a non-royal alias.

Helena Marcus is looking forward to a quiet debut in New London and making her unspoken understanding with August Callaghan official. August wants nothing more but hopes to delay their official engagement until he can see himself clear of the American pirates plaguing his Canadian and Hong Kong Chinese family’s lumber and shipping business.

When her mother’s position as a placement geneticist brings Helena to the far more prestigious Toronto debut scene she and Margaret strike up an immediate and easy friendship with a hint of flirtation.

Spending the summer up north at the Marcus cottage near Lake Muskoka allows Margaret to see more of the Empire and to find her own place among the raucous Callaghan family. As Margaret, Helena, and August grow closer and learn more of each others’ secrets they realize they may be poised to help each other get everything they’ve long wanted in That Inevitable Victorian Thing (2017) by E. K. Johnston.

Johnston’s standalone novel blends light science fiction elements in a near-future setting with the tone and style of a Victorian novel. Chapter headers including maps, society gossip pages, and correspondence serve to expand the detailed world building and highlight how deliberately and thoughtfully inclusive the Empire is (despite realistically damaging colonialism in the Empire’s distant past).

That Inevitable Victorian Thing alternates close third person point of view between Margaret, Helena, and August as all of the characters face what it means to be an adult in charge of one’s own responsibilities and, regardless of consequences, also one’s own mistakes. The voice throughout is pitch perfect for an homage to Victorian novels and works exceedingly well with the near-future world these characters inhabit.

While Margaret faces the prospect of an arranged marriage in her future, and August struggles with how best to deal with American pirates demanding protection money, Helena faces her own surprise. At eighteen every member of the Empire is able to log into the -gnet to see their full genetic profile and seek out prospective matches. When she logs in for the first time Helena is shocked by her genetic profile and uncertain what it means for her future.

Fortunately, Helena has nothing but support from her friends and loved ones. Even as this story builds toward conflict and shocks, Johnston’s tight control of the narrative serves to suggest that regardless of the outcome, these three characters will not just make it through but thrive.

That Inevitable Victorian Thing is a self-aware novel set in a fascinating world that is filled with wit and humor. Helena’s chemistry with both Margaret and Henry crackles despite being couched in Victorian manners and conventions. A perfect introduction to speculative fiction, a sweet romance, and a delight for fans of alternate history That Inevitable Victorian Thing is a must-read for all. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, Incarceron by Catherine Fisher, These Broken Stars by Aimee Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid, For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a starred review in the August 2017 issue of School Library Journal*

Decelerate Blue: A Graphic Novel Review

In the future the world is obsessed with efficiency. Adjectives are a waste of time. Reading needs to be streamlined. Even conversation is utilitarian with “goes” at the end of every sentence.

Angela’s parents are on board with everything the Guarantee Committee is selling. Why would they do anything to jeopardize their guarantee and its promise of a better life?

Angela isn’t so sure. She wants a chance to slow down. To think. To feel.

After reading a book called Kick the Boot Angela realizes she isn’t alone. Soon she finds herself at the center of a radical movement determined to slow society down in Decelerate Blue (2017) by Adam Rapp, illustrated by Mike Cavallaro.

This standalone graphic novel offers a startling view of a bleak dystopian future where human interaction and contemplation are secondary to speed and efficiency.

Rapp’s fascinating and disturbingly possible premise is dampened by a simplistic plot and world building that falls short of developing many of the story’s most interesting points. Who are the Guarantee Committee? What exactly is a Guarantee? Decelerate Blue is short on answers.

Cavalarro creates some interesting spreads but the impact is often diminished by the comic largely being in black and white. (Blue is a key color to the story–a fact which is often lost given the black and white palette.) Although the comic does some clever things with full color panels contrasted with black and white it isn’t enough to make the artwork cohesive. A blue and white palette might have been more effective.

Angela has a romance with another girl during her (brief) time with the underground resistance. But instead of creating an empowering queer relationship readers instead get yet another tragic lesbian death.

Decelerate Blue takes on a lot of things to create an interesting sci-fi dystopian comic but it doesn’t always negotiate the form well leading to questions of how the story might have functioned with different artistic choices or even as a novel with a bit more development.

Readers looking for an intriguing piece of flash fiction or a superficial treatment of dystopian themes might find what they’re looking for in Decelerate Blue.

Possible Pairings: Feed by M. T. Anderson, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, 1984 by George Orwell, Every Exquisite Thing by Matthew Quick, Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

*A copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Landscape With Invisible Hand: A Review

“We all have to find some way to live with the world as it is now.”

When the vuvv first landed they told humanity that they could cure all illnesses. No one would have to work anymore. New technology would change lives.

It should have been perfect.

But no one thought about what no one working would mean for the economy. No one considered that all of this wondrous technology would be behind a pay wall. The early adopters–the ones who could buy into vuvv tech and tap into things the vuvv might want to buy–they’re doing fine. The rest of the world, the people like Adam’s family, not so much.

His mother used to be a bank teller but vuvv tech handles that now. His father, a former car salesman, can’t sell cars to people who can barely afford food thanks to rampant inflation. Adam processes everything that’s happening through his art–gritty and meditative landscapes painting the world he sees not the shiny, retro world the vuvv think of when they look at Earth and certainly not the bright, opportunity-filled one inhabited by the rich living in their elevated houses above the planet.

When Adam and Chloe start dating, they think they can capitalize on their love by broadcasting their dates to vuvv subscribers. Their pastiches of 1950s hangouts with slang and affectations to match are just what the vuvv ordered. But it turns out dating someone and loving someone authentically while aliens watch isn’t easy. As Adam’s relationship falls apart he realizes that sometimes the only way to win the game is to stop playing all together in Landscape with Invisible Hand (2017) by M. T. Anderson.

Landscape with Invisible Hand is a strange, caustic, and sparse. Adam’s near-future world changes when aliens arrive but his struggles are depressingly timely as his family is left reeling in the wake of unemployment and skyrocketing costs.

The skies around his suburban home are filled with vuvv tech and floating buildings while malls and stores are abandoned and looted in the changing economy. Thanks to the polluted water supply Adam suffers dangerous complications of Merrick’s Disease while trying to save up for a visit to a vuvv doctor who could treat him almost immediately.

Instead of chapters this short novel (160 pages, hardcover) is framed in vignettes based on the art that Adam is creating–painted landscapes of his dilapidated house, portraits of Chloe when they first meet and fall in lust, drawings of the stuffed animals his younger sister wants to sell and ultimately throws out in her desperation to help and also to grow up. Adam’s first person narration is incisive and introspective. Anderson uses minimal details to vividly descibe the vuvv and Adam’s bleak and absurd world.

Landscape with Invisible Hand is a provocative and engrossing novel. Adam’s journey and his ultimate realization are surprising and completely satisfying. There are no neat answers or tidy resolutions here but that makes the story all the more authentic and shocking. An excellent choice for readers who aren’t sure about sci-fi yet as well as devoted fans of the genre. Read this one with a friend because so you discuss all the plot points and twists. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: All Rights Reserved by Gregory Scott Katsoulis, The Thousandth Floor by Katharine McGee, The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness, A Long, Long Sleep by Anna Sheehan, The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher at BookExpo 2017 for review consideration*

Wires and Nerve: A Graphic Novel Review

To preserve the unstable alliance between Earth and Luna, Iko decides to hunt down  rogue wolf-hybrids who have been attacking both planets. As an android Iko is uniquely suited to the task. She’s also determined to do anything to help her friends Cinder and Kai heal the rift between their two planets.

Iko’s hunt takes far from Luna as she tracks the wolf packs across earth with help from other friends including Cress and Thorne. Unfortunately Iko is also saddled with an unwanted sidekick in the form of Kinney, a royal guard who has little use for Iko and androids in general.

As they come closer to the rogue wolf’s Iko will unearth a conspiracy that threatens everyone she cares about–a threat so big she might even welcome Kinney’s help this once in Wires and Nerve, Volume 1 (2017) by Marissa Meyer, illustrated by Douglas Holgate.

Wires and Nerve is a new graphic novel series. It picks up shortly after the conclusion of Winter, the final book in Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles series. The graphic novel series focuses on Iko, a character who never got her own book in the prose novels. While readers might appreciate a basic knowledge of the novels, this graphic novel series can be read on its own. (I read Cinder when it first came out and later read recaps of the other books in the series. That combined with Iko’s narrative flashbacks was enough for me.)

Iko’s graphic novel story is surprisingly delightful. In the midst of a cross-planetary hunt for rogue wolves Iko has to grapple with what it means to be an android and how she is treated because of it. She has been erased from the Lunar Chronicle adventures largely because she is “just” an android and even some of her allies (like Kinney) question Iko’s ability to care about anything or anyone when she’s not human.

Holgate’s illustrations are in a blue and white palette that is used to great effect and compliments Meyer’s world. The writing is fast-paced with snappy narration from Iko. This volume also uses the graphic novel format effectively with panels that are well designed to create a cinematic feel to the story (check out the spread on page 197 to see what I mean). Wires and Nerve, Volume 1 is some of the best of what graphic novels have to offer. A great choice for fans of the Lunar Chronicles series as well as readers looking for a new sci-fi comic to enjoy.

Possible Pairings: Dove Arising by Karon Bao, The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray, The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid, A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix

*A copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Spill Zone: A (Blog Tour) Graphic Novel Review

No entry. No photos. No survivors.

No one has been allowed in the Poughkeepsie Spill Zone since the night of the Spill. Addison Merrick was out of town and came back to a town she didn’t recognize, missing parents, and a sister who hasn’t spoken since.

With nowhere else to go she’s kept herself and her sister near the border of the Spill in their family home. From there it’s easy for Addison to periodically sneak into the Spill and snap photos of the weird aftermath to sell to art collectors.

No one knows what happened the night of the Spill but when Addison receives an offer to venture farther into the Zone than she ever has, she might be closer to finding out–whether she wants to or not in Spill Zone (2017) by Scott Westerfeld, illustrated by Alex Puvilland with color by Hilary Sycamore.

Spill Zone is Westerfeld’s latest graphic novel and the start to a new series. You can find a copy at your local library, buy a copy, or you can read the entire comic online with neat blog posts from Scott and Alex talking about their process at thespillzone.com.

Spill Zone starts with Addison getting ready to venture into the Spill Zone to take another batch of photos. By this point Addison has the process down from sneaking through the border to how to get out of the Spill in one piece and protect herself and her sister while selling the highly illegal photos to art collectors like the owner of the Vandersloot Gallery (which you can find online). It’s risky but, thanks to Addison’s meticulous rules, it’s manageable.

Inside the Spill is dangerous and eerie. No one knows what happened. Time doesn’t seem to work the same way. Dangerous creatures are everywhere. Even colors are different. When Addison receives an offer she can’t refuse she’s forced to travel even further into the Spill Zone and confront dangerous truths about that night and the aftermath. The combination of Westerfeld’s story and Puvilland’s art keeps the tension taut throughout this volume as it builds to the dangerous climax and, of course, leaves readers with more questions.

Spill Zone is a fascinating and fast-paced story perfectly situated to appeal to both fans of speculative fiction and comics. Spill Zone is a deceptively fast read that packs a punch–guaranteed to reward multiple reads and close examination of each panel. Highly recommended.

As part of the Spill Zone Blog Tour I also have an exclusive photo from inside the Spill Zone!

This photo was taken by artist Alex Puvilland during his research for this book in Poughkeepsie. Spill Zone has had a lot of fun publicity that started well before its publication including the Spill Zone site where you can read the entire comic (and cool blog posts about Scott and Alex’s writing process) and also a web presence for the Vandersloot Gallery which displays some of Ms. Vandersloot’s impressive collection of Addison’s photos from inside the Spill.

Be sure to check out the rest of the blog tour for more exclusive photos. You can find the full schedule here: http://fiercereadsya.tumblr.com/post/160085874816/no-entry-no-photographs-no-survivors-three-years

Where Futures End: A Review

“All accidents are magic.”

One year from now in “When We Asked the Impossible” Dylan is desperate to believe that there is more out there and that he can be more himself if only he can get back to the tantalizing world that haunts his childhood memories.

Ten years from now in “When We Were TV” Brixney is positive she can get her brother, and by extension herself, out of a debtor’s colony. All she needs is more views on her social media feed. An unexpected visitor to Flavor Foam could be exactly what she needs.

Thirty years from now in “When We Went High-Concept” Epony is running out of ways to save her family when their town is flooded. Soon she’s forced into an impossible position, her entire online presence erased and her life inextricably altered in a bid to go high-concept.

Sixty years from now in “When We Could Hardly Contain Ourselves” Reef struggles to survive while finding distraction if not comfort in the virtual game playing out across the city’s streets. Until it all goes wrong.

One hundred years from now in “When We Ended it All” Quinn embarks on her coming-of-age quest to find a token to bring back for a husband she isn’t sure she wants. During her travels she meets a stranger. On the first day Quinn will tell her story. On the second day he will tell his story and things will begin to come together. On the third day, one of them will die. Quinn will choose who.

Five people. Five stories. Two worlds. One moment they have all been moving toward in Where Futures End (2016) by Parker Peevyhouse.

Where Futures End is Peevyhouse’s debut novel.

This ambitious novel is broken into five interconnected sections that work on their own as short stories and seamlessly come together to create a larger narrative of a world and its mutable future.

Where Futures End strikes a fine balance between science fiction and fantasy as readers and characters try to reconcile a changing world with basis in scientific fact with the wondrous consequences of those changes.

This eerily prescient book is filled with distinct and haunting characters as well as rich and intricate world building. Where Futures End is a smart and thoughtful book that is perfect for readers looking to completely immerse themselves in a story. Ideal for readers who enjoy tales of portal fantasies, parallel worlds or alternate universes, and short science fiction. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson, Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore, The Magicians by Lev Grossman; All Rights Reserved by Gregory Scott Katsoulis; The Curiosities: A Collection of Stories by Maggie Stiefvater, Brenna Yovanoff, Tessa Gratton; The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick