Review: Sanyare: The Last Descendant by Megan Haskell

I received an ebook copy of Sanyare: The Last Descendant from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Spoiler-free Snippet

I would classify Sanyare: The Last Descendant, by Megan Haskell, as an urban fantasy set in a fantasy world. While most urban fantasy I’ve read is set in our own world, albeit one with magic and such, this deals with different realms and only briefly touches on the human realm. The overall story wasn’t entirely innovative (as many fantasy tales tend to be), but it was written in a way that made it interesting, and the characters were done well. The climax felt rushed and sudden, and the ending felt a little like it was merely a set up for another book. Regardless, I think fans of light fantasy or urban fantasy could definitely find merit in Haskell’s world and its inhabitants. I will call this one READ WITH CAUTION, as the overall work was good, but the climax and conclusion had a few issues.

Here, There Be Spoilers

Sanyare: The Last Descendant, is an urban fantasy that leans toward the side of light fantasy. It has the urban locale and somewhat modern-day vibe to it, but it also deals heavily with realms other than the human one and doesn’t have the same grit that most urban fantasy I’ve read seems to contain. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it was something I thought about several times while reading.

Rie is a messenger for the high elves, a changeling who was once human and taken in by two high elves, though her human status means she can only be a servant in their culture. She’s treated well and life is good until she goes to deliver a message to a high elf living in the human realm, where she is attacked by two assassins. After finding out they are from the Shadow Realm and dealing with politics that will execute her for coming into contact with them (even unwillingly), Rie ventures into the Shadow Realm to try and find out why she was a target.

The novel contains a lot of complicated elvish names. While this is somewhat expected with so many elves running about, this traditional elf naming can be a bit cumbersome to read. Luckily, most of the main characters have simpler elf names, or go by shortened names (like Rie, herself). Otherwise, the cast of characters is one of less popular beings from the otherworld, including brutish redcaps and carnivorous pixies. Upon starting the book and reading about the pixie companions, I almost rolled my eyes (I don’t know why, but pixies always conjure up things like Barbie fairies), but was pleasantly surprised when they attacked the assassins and ate out their tongues.

There seemed to be a little too much awareness of sexuality within the story, at least between the main character and her love interest. I always wonder if perhaps I’m just not as aware of those I find attractive as other people, but I find it odd that in times of stress and being completely out of their element, characters still find the time to examine bulging muscles and get flirty. I don’t necessarily mind Rie’s attraction to the Prince, but it irked me a little how quickly and ardently she admired him, especially after having been around the beauty of high elves all her life (perhaps his differences as a dark elf made him more exotic). This may not be a problem for most readers.

The biggest issue in the book for me was that the climax, while much anticipated, seemed rushed and sudden. I felt like once it crested and started tumbling down the other side, I was still expecting or wanting more. I was very happy that Rie wasn’t imbued with all the superpowers ever, as some characters can be, and I was pleased with the way she solved her own issues. But I can’t help but feel like it just didn’t live up to the rest of the book, and that a spoiled princess getting scared and a challenge to a new ability of Rie’s were the only big things that happened. I guess I just felt like there should have been a little more, or a bigger issue with the souls, or something of that nature.

After the climax left me feeling a bit unsatisfied, the rest of the book seemed a bit off, too. The lengthy description of each child of the Sanyaro and the logistics of how Rie is his descendant may be necessary, but it felt a bit boring to read about, and seemed to go on too long. At any rate, the ending definitely led up to a sequel. I would consider reading the sequel, depending on how much it cost. I will also readily admit that my view of the ending could be flavored by feelings about the climax.
Overall, I would say this is a fairly solid light fantasy book, even if it did have its issues. I felt the characters were compelling and that the author really tried to bring life to a story that may have otherwise been a bit hum ho. I’ll call this READ WITH CAUTION, as many readers would enjoy it, but those with more discerning fantasy tastes may feel a bit underwhelmed by the last 20% of the novel.

Review: Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Spoiler-free Snippet

Dan Simmons’ Hyperion is a science fiction novel written in the style of The Canterbury Tales. A group of pilgrims set out for a mysterious destination and deity in hopes of having a wish granted. As they make the journey, they decide to share their tales. Hyperion was a READ until about 80 percent through, when you get to the story of the Consul. From then on, it’s as if the writer decides he’d rather recount The Wizard of Oz in a far-future space adventure. The book is worth reading for the compelling stories and characters prior to that, though. With an interesting set of stories and a solid delivery method, Hyperion is a solid choice for a science fiction reader. I’m calling it a READ WITH CAUTION, though. Be prepared for a let down at the end.

Here, There Be Spoilers

Hyperion is basically a science fiction version of The Canterbury Tales, as I said before (with less kissing of bare ass). We follow seven pilgrims on their journey to see the mystical Shrike, a bladed, metal monster that resides in the Time Tombs on the outer planet Hyperion. Each pilgrim has the potential chance to propose a wish to the Shrike, who may choose to grant the wish of one person, then kill the rest. As the journey unfolds, they all decide to share their stories, detailing how each one’s life has been irrevocably changed by the Shrike and Hyperion’s existence. The tales are even named similarly to Chaucer’s Tales, such as “The Detective’s Tale.”

Simmons touches on some grand and engaging themes and locales in Hyperion. We see a giant tree ship that hurtles through space as a living vessel for a grand race of Templars. At one point, the group crosses a vast sea of grass on a wind ship in a Ghibli-esque situation. Giant manta rays pull a barge down a river. Great Tesla tree forests spit fiery electricity at anyone unlucky enough to be in their midst. Houses contain windows to other worlds through teleportation-style transportation devices. The mysterious Shrike legend and cultures themselves are fairly vibrant, even if some aren’t explained enough for me.

The story is solid, but the writing falls prey to something that a lot of fantasy and older science fiction books seem to have a weakness for: over description. The intricacy of buttons on a coat and the mind-numblingly complex functionalities of completely fiction future tech are presented in excruciating detail. It was the sort of thing that makes my eyes glaze over. After I read five paragraphs about buttons, I can’t remember who was wearing the coat. Some folks might like the descriptions of the crazy future tech, but for me it encumbered an otherwise good story, and brought the whole thing down a notch.

There was an unfortunate amount of what I would consider the author’s passions in the story, to the point that it felt phony. I find it hard to believe that seven centuries after Earth dies in the future that people would quote Twain. Occasionally, there was reference to someone who had done something in poetry or literature beyond our own time line, but every other referenced was bogged down in our time (the Hawking drive and Hyperion itself). Simmons seems to have a fascination with the poet Keats. In the realm of the story, it seems fairly reasonable for the poet to know Keats, but overall it jarred me from immersion.

The tales are each worthy of a review in their own right. Sol’s story was the most moving, as I think we can all understand the pain and awful circumstances he is going through (although the Abraham/obedient Jew angle seems a bit dry). Simmons wrote Martin into a character that I very much disliked. While it is generally a good writer that makes one feel palpable distaste for a character, Martin became a bit of a one-trick pony.

In all, the last 20 percent of the book ruined it all. The Consul’s story felt like it was some odd Romeo and Juliet tragedy with dolphins and time debt, and I skipped a large chunk of it. The ending of the book was baffling. Quite literally, the group of pilgrims holds hands and sings a song while walking toward the Shrike waiting for them with a horrendous space battle happening overhead. I half expected them to skip. It felt so different from the rest of the book, like they had all somehow solved their problems by telling their stories and now they were perfectly settled and ready to face certain death from a red-eyed, blade-covered foe that had caused them all hardship in the past.

I would call this book a READ WITH CAUTION. I don’t intend to read the second book. Really, the book is a READ until you get to the end.

Edit (10/21): Removed my notion that the Templars were assassins. For some reason, I had the sense that they were talking about Masteen as though he was from a race of assassins, but my lovely fiance asked me what I was talking about and I did some research.

Review: The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi

Spoiler-free Snippet

The Ghost Brigades, by John Scalzi, is the second novel in the Old Man’s War trilogy. Existing in the same basic time period as the first book, we see new and familiar faces. My general feelings of this book can be summed up by a simple statement: it existed to connect the first and last book. While it wasn’t a horrible read, it felt largely superfluous to the overarching story, and I had a hard time caring about the main character. Since it is the middle book of a trilogy, I’ll call this one a READ WITH CAUTION. It wasn’t bad, but I had little patience for a lot of things that took place, and I felt like it was a bit of a deviation from what made the first book, Old Man’s War, interesting.

Here, There Be Spoilers

Scalzi’s The Ghost Brigades follows Jared Dirac, who was created in a manner slightly different than his fellow members of the Ghost Brigades. He is thrust into a world where he must cope with being born an adult and slowly learning that his consciousness is a copy of a traitor to his species, though he isn’t an exact copy in the sense of feelings and emotions. He is eventually key in tracking down and bringing justice to the traitor, along with Jane Sagan from the first book.

We’re introduced to the concept of the Ghost Brigades soldiers in the first book, where the main character ends up directly interacting with them after the intrigue of seeing his dead wife’s body. While the creation, design, and moral implications of the Ghost Brigades are interesting in concept, the focus on them in the book felt largely like a repeat of the training sequences in the first book, but with less interesting characters. The reader is forced to relive the training that occurred in the first book, only in a more rapid manner, and is introduced to an upgraded version of the CDF soldiers.

Jared’s journey to find himself and come to terms with the fact that his consciousness was a copy of a traitor is fairly interesting, though it doesn’t really feel compelling to me in a larger sense. The cast of characters here just isn’t what I had expected, and I felt myself yearning for the charisma that the first book’s protagonist had. I feel like Scalzi wanted to develop Jane’s character a little more before he got to the third book, so he created this story arc in order to add a little more oomph to her character while revealing a bit more of the galaxy’s politics.

I did enjoy learning more about the alien species in the galaxy, as well as the ways the CDF was furthering their research when it comes to human modification and those sorts of things. I feel like this could have been an intriguing standalone novel, but as a follow up to the first, it fell a bit short.
While not an altogether unenjoyable story, I will label this READ WITH CAUTION. Breeze through it in order to get to the next book, in my opinion.

Review: Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

“I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I  visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.”

Spoiler-free Snippet

Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi, is a sci-fi novel centering around the somewhat near-future expansion of the human race across the galaxy. Elderly people on Earth are recruited by the Colonial Defense Force to become young soldiers with the wisdom of age to fight for Earth, rather than simply fade away and die of old age. With a solid overarching story and likeable characters, it’s fairly easy to enjoy. Though this is a book about people in the military, the fact that the organization tries to be very different from Earth military saved it for me from being some annoying plod through military code words and processes. Nothing against the military, but if you read this blog you probably know I’m not big of realistic military books. In short, I would call this a READ, as it brings up some interesting concepts and is a generally entertaining story.

Here, There be Spoilers

My fiance recommended this book to me ages ago, but my brain kept passing over it. I finally got the chance to read it, and I’m glad I did (you can see his review here, if you’re curious). The basic story follows a recent widower who joins the Colonial Defense Force recruitment program and goes to space to fight in a new and improved younger body, but with the wisdom of age. His exploits lead him to make friendships, find out things about the galaxy that he never knew, and eventually learn some truths about the brave new worlds he is defending that bring forth a font of heroism from deep within.

Scalzi’s writing has a sense of somewhat cynical humor to it, which was showcased well in this book. When the old folks from Earth who joined the CDF got new, young bodies, they immediately had an orgy, just to give an example. But the overarching ideals represented in that humorous cant are also intriguing. We see war for no reason, war for plenty of reasons, and a general breakdown in the way we assume life as we know it should go. Earth is sheltered from most of what goes on in the rest of the galaxy.

There is a brief, well-done look at the truth of what we conceive of as monsters versus what can truly be a monster (hint: anything, even something cute). This book doesn’t try to be an epic satire or commentary, but still has those elements.

There wasn’t too much lingering on scientific principles, but enough to make things interesting. The sheer amount of science and math needed to understand what was going on in the travels through space is a bit overwhelming, but like most of the characters, the reader isn’t required to have a firm grasp on it beyond the basics.

The main character does seem to be unnaturally lucky and good at things. While this works out for him and it’s easy to see that he has a good outlook to handle what he goes through, it does seem a little convenient at times.
Overall, I would definitely call this book a READ. It’s hard to capture the true essence of it in a review, but it was a fun journey through space in a manner that I had never thought of before, without the tedium of most military-based sci-fi.

Review: Mrs. Frisby and The Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien

Spoiler-free Snippet

Mrs. Frisby and The Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O’Brien, follows the struggles of widowed mouse Mrs. Frisby as she endeavors to save her sick son. This quest soon leads Mrs. Frisby to realizations she never expected about  her late husband’s origins and the actions of the mysterious rats in the rosebush. This is definitely a book geared towards a younger audience, though I think it would be enjoyable for most readers. The characterization is done well, weaving in with the plot to create a rather charming, if somewhat mildly dark, tale. I’ll call this a READ, because it’s a nice break from the somewhat stuffy overcomplexity that so much adult fantasy harbors. Also, nostalgia.

Here, There Be Spoilers

I read this book because I loved the movie (The Secret of NIMH) as a child. I only found out that a book existed a few months ago, so when I was able to procure an ebook copy, I decided to indulge. Overall, the story was fairly simple and straightforward, but dealt in interesting angles of morality and sentience.

The widow Mrs. Frisby only wants to safely  get her family moved out of the field where they spent the winter, but her youngest son comes down with pneumonia and cannot risk going outside in the still-chill air. Calling on her friend Mr. Ages, a wise and fearsome owl, Jeremy the capricious crow, and ultimately the rats living under the rosebush, she finds out that there is a great deal more going on around the farm than she could have imagined. Her husband’s connection to the super-intelligent rats means that her son will be saved, but then the rats need her help — and she’s merely an ordinary mouse.

The characterization in this book, although not too complex, was well done and pleasing. The rats of NIMH are genetically modified to be intelligent, learning the ins and outs of most human technology through observation and trial. Mrs. Frisby is therefore not nearly as smart as they are, but the author never once portrays her as stupid. She struggles to follow certain concepts that the rats discuss, but she’s able to help them where she can, and the rats trust her to do so, in general. This is refreshing, as I feel like most books would have had this relationship be quite different and potentially involve discrimination. This also showcases wisdom versus intelligence, involving the interesting concepts of types of intellect rather than simply assuming one type of intellect being superior.

There are certain somewhat dark themes in the novel that deal with morality and the concept of sentience. The scientists at NIMH are trying to genetically modify rats and mice to be more intelligent, and they manage to do so successfully. As such, the now-self aware rats realize that the basic existence (and hatred) of rats is based on scavenging and stealing from humans. As such, the escaped rats dream of a civilization where they live completely separate and make their own power, food, and no longer steal. This is a rather noble goal, but it also showcases the concept of whether it is moral or satisfying to borrow or live off another population, even for the betterment of yourself and your family. In fact, this is the sort of thing that politics often discusses these days.
Overall, I quite enjoyed Mrs. Frisby and The Rats of NIMH. Admittedly, I may be riding the high of nostalgia, but the book is different from the movie after about 50% of the way in, and it deals much less in the mystical and more in the scientific. The characters and relationships were handled well, allowing the book to be appropriately entertaining and charming. I call this a READ, because I think most people would enjoy it, if nothing else but for the delightful world itself.

Review: The Giver by Lois Lowry

Spoiler-free Snippet

The Giver, by Lois Lowry, is one of those books I somehow missed out on reading in school. I recently grabbed it from the library and gave it a read. My overall impression of the book is that it was quite short and quite sad. Definitely written for a young audience, the story nonetheless deals with very real dystopian issues in a society where color and emotion are gone. I wish the book had been longer and that a little more about the society had been explored in juxtaposition to the vague memories the reader is shown. It was a good short story, and I would feel safe calling it a solid introduction to dystopian fiction for young and old — a READ.

Here, There Be Spoilers

The Giver follows a young boy on the cusp of his culture’s rite of passage into adulthood: becoming a twelve and being assigned a profession. In the community where Jonas lives, everything seems as wonderful as a black and white sitcom and works like a well-oiled machine. At the age of 12, children transcend into adulthood by being assigned a job to train for, and Jonas is assigned to the rare Receiver position.

As a Receiver, Jonas is responsible for holding the memories and subsequent emotions of hundreds of years, while the rest of the community operates in blissful ignorance.

Throughout the entire story, I found myself overwhelmingly sad. It was predictable, but not in a negative way. The world was one of overarching melancholy, feeling lonely and hollow.

The concept of the Giver and Receiver (the Giver being what the old Receiver calls himself) is explored in relation to an unfeeling society. At first glance, we see the family units sharing feelings daily, along with rituals of forgiveness, apology, and affection. As Jonas gets more memories — things like riding a sled, a broken bone, or war — he realizes that all the emotions being felt around his community are merely facades of what they could be. Jonas can see color, which has been bled out of his comrades, who ostensibly see only in black and white.

I think the culture presented in The Giver is something that will always be relevant, as humans often seek to escape the truly powerful bad emotions, and often are willing to sacrifice the height of the good to avoid the depths of the bad. For this culture, removing war, poverty, hunger, and a variety of lesser evils from their society was worth losing true joy, love, excitement, and contentment.

Since the community doesn’t really feel, they have no concept of true emotion. It’s hard to understand depth of emotion if your most intense feeling is mild frustration. One interesting facet is the focus on precision of language and how it removed the so-called vague word “love” from their diction. Jonas’ mother calls love “a very generalized word, so meaningless that it has become almost obsolete.” The control of language in this way is similar to Orwell’s 1984.

The ending of the story felt a bit sudden. Jonas flees the community with no preparation and just pedals his bike into the middle of nowhere. Though he and the Giver had planned to have him escape so that the memories he had absorbed would flow back into the community, I almost feel like the Giver knew quite well that Jonas would end up dying (I interpret the ending of the book as a death, though same may not). My feeling is that the Giver knows only by letting those memories leak back in will society begin to feel again, and the more experienced Receiver is the one that must work to heal the panic that will pour through the community. I don’t think this is malicious, but a calculated sacrifice — Jonas becomes the true Giver, in a sense.

For me, the author’s main point is that the essence of humanity comes from a variety of vibrant emotions. Passion, love, and joy will always have the opportunity to be skewed for different circumstances, even if we attempt to create a utopia. Perhaps eliminating these feelings is the only way to prevent the more unfortunate feelings. Are fleeting moments of happiness worth experiencing pain and discomfort?

Though the story has some issues, I do think this is a READ, if not simply for the emotions it evoked for me. I don’t think this would have been as interesting or meaningful had I read it in middle school, though.

Why I’m Avoiding Another Trip to Maycomb: Thoughts on Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

Some things are better left untouched.

If you pay any attention to the book world, you probably know that Harper Lee, author of To Kill A Mockingbird, has published a new book: Go Set A Watchman. Even as a large fan of TKAM after a re-read last summer, I find myself hesitant to grab GSAW. The controversy surrounding the publishing coupled with the origin of the book make me feel as though it might be a mistake.

Go Set A Watchman was Lee’s original work, offered up to a publisher. It was rejected, and an editor suggested writing about the main character as a little girl. This advice gave us To Kill A Mockingbird, taught as part of high school reading curriculum and considered a classic by most. Lee never published another work and didn’t intend to, until last year some time when the world suddenly got wind of GSAW. Though Lee’s mental state is often questioned and her attorney and others are suspected of pushing her, GSAW has been published. I’m not going to discuss the probability of these situations here. I sincerely hope that Lee hasn’t been exploited, because “Well, it’d be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?” (TKAM, p. 267).

Thus far, I haven’t looked at any reviews. I read the first chapter for free when it came out. It was definitely Harper Lee style as we know and (some of us) love, but it was also a dalliance into a realm that we may not need to plunder.

For decades, Scout, Jem, Dill, Boo, Atticus, and all the beloved characters of TKAM have stood the test of time. Year after year, high schoolers delve into this world of the small-town old south. Though I was born in the late 80s, I found much of my own small southern hometown lurking in the depths of Maycomb, in a manner that I couldn’t truly understand until I re-read the book last summer. There I saw the guilt, the subtle undertones of racism, tradition, and fear of change that permeate most of the folks that reside there. It is a specific state of mind I haven’t encountered elsewhere, aside from others who’ve shared similar experiences. I was caught in that state of mind myself for a while, if on the fringes more so than in the midst of it. I would characterize myself growing up as sharing a kinship with Jem, caught on the cusp of understanding and the right path, but misunderstanding the limits of my own ability to stand apart from it all.

On my second read, last summer, of TKAM, I was moved by the story. I knew Atticus, I felt the weight that rested on Miss Maudie’s shoulders, and the frustration of Scout trying to figure out just what all these adults were doing. I truly understood the magic of the scene before the jail where Scout stops a riot, and I understood the political and social machinations that made the trial even occur. The last line of the book brought tears to my eyes, as the adult me realized I had that same faith in my father — that he would be there.

I don’t want to break those characters up into different parts, where life has had them transcend into different people. Readers have stated that Atticus is a racist old man in GSAW. While this doesn’t quite jive with what he does in TKAM, and ignoring the fact that GSAW isn’t really a sequel, people do change. To fall into the trap of considering this book a sequel is to let those characters become confusing.

The thing is, I have the power to make them not change. I don’t have to read GSAW.

I don’t blame Lee, really. It’s her book and her world, and if she really did want to publish the book, then that was great for her. I don’t think we’ll ever really know the truth. I don’t think the public relations folks involved with GSAW truly understood that the general public would never not view GSAW as a true sequel, even when the situation around the book was illustrated to the public frequently. There are people who thought Titanic was just a movie.
In light of all this, I don’t think I’m going to partake in GSAW. The prices seem exorbitant, even in ebook form, and I just can’t countenance throwing money into it. I might pick up the third book, though, as outlined in this Onion article: My Excellent Caretaker Deserves My Entire Fortune. Sounds like a winner.