BOOK REVIEW: The Mirror Empire, by Kameron Hurley

BOOK REVIEW: The Mirror Empire, by Kameron HurleyTitle: The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley
Series: Worldbreaker Saga #1
Published by Angry Robot
Published: September 1st 2015
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 608
Format: Mass Market
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

On the eve of a recurring catastrophic event known to extinguish nations and reshape continents, a troubled orphan evades death and slavery to uncover her own bloody past... while a world goes to war with itself. 
In the frozen kingdom of Saiduan, invaders from another realm are decimating whole cities, leaving behind nothing but ash and ruin. At the heart of this war lie the pacifistic Dhai people, once enslaved by the Saiduan and now courted by their former masters to provide aid against the encroaching enemy.
Stretching from desolate tundra to steamy, semi-tropical climes seething with sentient plant life, this is an epic tale of blood mages and mercenaries, emperors and priestly assassins who must unite to save a world on the brink of ruin.
As the dark star of the cataclysm rises, an illegitimate ruler is tasked with holding together a country fractured by civil war; a precocious young fighter is asked to betray his family to save his skin; and a half-Dhai general must choose between the eradication of her father's people or loyalty to her alien Empress.  
Through tense alliances and devastating betrayal, the Dhai and their allies attempt to hold against a seemingly unstoppable force as enemy nations prepare for a coming together of worlds as old as the universe itself. 
In the end, one world will rise - and many will perish.

 And some of us believe in freedom of the individual over the tyranny of the common good.

After reading Kameron Hurley’s Stars are Legion, I immediately wanted to read everything else she’s written. I picked up The Mirror Empire at work because it was the only other thing aside from Stars are Legion that we had in stock by her at the moment, and I started reading it as my first pick for a Tome Topple read-a-thon this month. I wasn’t disappointed, and it was one of the best epic fantasy novels I’ve read in a long time.

The Mirror Empire subverts the popular tropes found in epic, patriarchal fantasy. While not as visceral and gross as Stars are Legion, this world Hurley has created in The Worldbreaker Saga certainly skeeved me out at times. Some of the buildings are organic, some of the weapons are organic (and attached to bodies by way of seeds in the wrists, of which I imagined coming out much like Wolverine’s claws???), some of the magic is blood magic. It’s the sort of fantasy with the perfect balance of violence and horror that gives you chills and thrills down your spine.

The story is complex and ambitious and takes a little while to get used to because nearly everything about the worlds in The Mirror Empire is different from our own familiarities. It calls into question our own ideas and expectations of gender, gender roles, family structures, and “how things have always been done.” The way in which Hurley does this is subtle. The questions and observations about our own society are covert but become a series of questions you as a reader begin to ask yourself as you explore the lives of the main characters in the story. For example: why is it generally acceptable to us as a society for women to be kept small, beautiful, and always ready for (male) consumption, but when it’s subverted and the men are kept small, beautiful, and always ready for (female) consumption, it’s striking and odd? I enjoyed the trope subversion immensely, and I want to keep reading the series to see where she goes with it next.

It’s certainly a mirror that reflects the best and worst of the expectations of the fantasy genre and our society, and if that’s an intentional pun, I like it. I think if you like epic fantasy and are looking for something new and different in the genre, you should check this one out!

Little List of Reviews #4

This round of Little List of Reviews is all about children’s books! Two of them are rereads of some of my favorites and one is something I read while on breaks at work because I left my current read at home!

Little List of Reviews #4Title: Matilda by Roald Dahl
Published by Penguin Books Ltd
Published: October 1 1988
Genres: Middle Grade
Pages: 342
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

Matilda is a brilliant and sensitive child, but her parents think of her only as a nuisance. Even before she is five years old, she has read Dickens and Hemingway and still her parents think of her as a pest. So she decides to get back at them. Her platinum-haired mother and car salesman father are no match for her sharp genius, and neither is the cruel headmistress Miss Trunchbull. And then the child prodigy discovers she has an extraordinary magic power that can save her school and especially the lovely kindergarten teacher, Miss Honey.

I’ve read Matilda a lot over the years, and each time I return to it I find something new about it I liked. The last time I read it before this current time, I read it for a course in British children’s literature while studying for my master’s degree, and we looked at how adults try to present the world of children and to try to view adults through children’s eyes even though they are no longer adults. This time I noticed a lot of the criticisms of the world and its preoccupation with the media and with anything but learning and intelligence and how reading makes you more empathetic and socially aware. Matilda is precocious. She’s smart, witty, and loves learning about anything and everything. Her family, on the other hand, is more concerned about the appearance of social status, money, and the television rather than trying to do any good for anyone else in the world. When it was published, televisions were probably in nearly every household, computers were becoming more and more affordable, and the question is, what happens to intelligence and wisdom and using it for good when we have an idiot box or two talking to us constantly, telling us who we are, what we should like, and how we should like it. It’s a timeless read, and we should all try to find our inner Matildas and listen to her now and again.

Little List of Reviews #4Title: The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, Jules Feiffer
Published by Random House
Published: September 1961
Genres: Middle Grade
Pages: 256
Format: Mass Market
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

Every time I revisit The Phantom Tollbooth, I’m reminded how often children’s books aren’t always written for children, but for the adults who might be reading aloud to their children. Not much happens in the book in regards to plot or character development, and I think that’s all right. It’s a bit of whimsy to distract you from whatever you’re going through. The book itself is its own phantom tollbooth from reality to a bit of fun. It’s a collection of abstract language, puns and witticisms that seem to make sense once you’re older and have spent time in the world and may actually want a real life phantom tollbooth to escape things and to force you to change your perspective on the world once you’ve returned.

Little List of Reviews #4Title: Harper and the Scarlet Umbrella by Cerrie Burnell, Laura Ellen Anderson
Series: Harper #1
Published by Sky Pony Press
Published: March 7th 2017
Genres: Middle Grade
Pages: 128
Format: Hardcover
Source: Borrowed
Goodreads

I read this on my breaks at work one day because I was so drawn in by the over because Harper, the main character, has a cat companion and is given a magical umbrella. One day, Harper discovers that all of the cats in the city goes missing, and she decides that she’s going to find out why. With the help of her friends and her magic umbrella, Harper discovers a Midnight Orchestra with every kind of cat on different kinds of instruments and must rescue them from the strange, slightly scary conductor. It was a lot of fun to read and I kept showing it to my coworkers, mostly because the illustrations of the girl and the cats were so cute!

BOOK REVIEW: Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin

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BOOK REVIEW: Giovanni’s Room, by James BaldwinTitle: Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin
Published by Penguin Books
Published: 1956
Genres: Fiction, Classics
Pages: 150
Format: Mass Market
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

Baldwin's haunting and controversial second novel is his most sustained treatment of sexuality, and a classic of gay literature. In a 1950s Paris swarming with expatriates and characterized by dangerous liaisons and hidden violence, an American finds himself unable to repress his impulses, despite his determination to live the conventional life he envisions for himself. After meeting and proposing to a young woman, he falls into a lengthy affair with an Italian bartender and is confounded and tortured by his sexual identity as he oscillates between the two.
Examining the mystery of love and passion in an intensely imagined narrative, Baldwin creates a moving and complex story of death and desire that is revelatory in its insight.

 People who remember court madness through pain, the pain of the perpetually recurring death of their innocence; people who forget court another kind of madness, the madness of the denial of pain and the hatred of innocence; and the world is mostly divided between madmen who remember and madmen forget.

Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin, follows a brief episode of David, an American living in Paris who is desperately trying to figure out who he is, to himself and to the world. David meets Giovanni through an old man’s acquaintance, and he goes home with Giovanni. In poetic, lyrical language, Baldwin explores the nature of love juxtaposed with David’s idea of love. David’s idea of love clashes with his expression and exploration of love, which eventually culminates in an emotionally heart-wrenching separation.

I’ve often seen this book on lists of best gay novels, but this novel goes beyond a stark black-and-white view of homosexuality. Baldwin explores bisexuality in both David and Giovanni and how each of the two men come to terms with their emotions. David is presented as rather cool and logical, succumbing to his emotions but logically pilfering through them after. Giovanni’s behavior appears to be purely emotional and irrational at times, contrasting against David’s eventual cool behavior to Giovanni. Giovanni is that character who wants to live life to its fullest, no matter the cost to himself or anyone else. David is the sort of character that will risk it, but not too much, because David, in the end, is one who preserves himself above all else, even if it means giving up love.

David, unlike Giovanni, has a plan, knows his role back home in American society, and cannot deal with something so “extra” as a male lover. His fiancée Hella is off traveling in Spain, presumably with her own lovers, and her return to David is his savior on the horizon, a means by which he can escape back into a comfortable, unquestioning existence.

This novel not only about gay/bisexual love, but about the complexities of the emotion all together.

This short novel is heartbreakingly beautiful and tragic and should be on your reading list if you’ve not yet read it.

BOOK REVIEW: Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

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BOOK REVIEW: Fahrenheit 451, by Ray BradburyTitle: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Published by Del Rey Books
Published: October 1st 1953
Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 190
Format: Mass Market
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

The terrifyingly prophetic novel of a post-literate future.
Guy Montag is a fireman. His job is to burn books, which are forbidden, being the source of all discord and unhappiness. Even so, Montag is unhappy; there is discord in his marriage. Are books hidden in his house? The Mechanical Hound of the Fire Department, armed with a lethal hypodermic, escorted by helicopters, is ready to track down those dissidents who defy society to preserve and read books.
The classic dystopian novel of a post-literate future, Fahrenheit 451 stands alongside Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World as a prophetic account of Western civilization’s enslavement by the media, drugs and conformity.
Bradbury’s powerful and poetic prose combines with uncanny insight into the potential of technology to create a novel which, decades on from first publication, still has the power to dazzle and shock.

 I reread Fahrenheit 451 this year for a discussion with students at my school, and what struck me most this time was the reliance of so many of us on technology and the media that some of us forget (or don’t think) to think about the world around us. Ray Bradbury’s novel deals with the dissolution of literacy and the saturation of media in the future. In the 1950s when it was first published, the novel deals with a future imagined by Bradbury, and through the years, the warnings the novel shows its readers still remain relevant.

I gave a little talk to incoming freshmen about the novel as it was a campus-wide reading requirement for all incoming freshmen, and I spoke a little bit about the Cold War, a little bit about Bradbury writing it, and then I contrasted it with media and literacy today. I talked about how things are different now than they were in the 1950s, especially with the rise of technology, and I compared the walls of TV in the novel to the constant companion of our phone familiars. In Bradbury’s novel, the characters sit in literal rooms of screens and are fed an endless stream of entertainment and information. Today, we sit with phones in our hands and are fed an endless stream of entertainment and information. I asked them to consider where the information is coming from, I asked them to consider a bias, and I asked them to continually seek out answers to any questions they have and to use whatever is available to them to get those answers.

After the election results, I’m astounded at how culturally relevant this book still is. Our society is so dependent upon the media for information and does not seem to value using one’s own mind and abilities to read, to research, to question what’s put before us. Our society has devalued education, and I feel as if so many students are no longer taught how to think but what to think, and this is reflected in the constant, consistent bombardment of information through our televisions, through our computers, and through our phones.

How and why are we moving away from a culture that values literacy and knowledge to a culture that places more importance on inciting fear and hatred based on superficial, bigoted information? I’ve been thinking about this for a long while now, and I’m going to continue thinking about it and writing about it and talking about it.

Let this time in America’s history be a reminder to never stop thinking, never stop questioning, because if we stop, we’re going to live in a world in which thinking about ideas rather than merely absorbing them will become a way of the past.

Little List of Reviews #2

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Little List of Reviews #2Title: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
Published by Penguin
Published: September 6th 2001
Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 249
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

It’s interesting to note that history and its aftermath all rest on a series of single actions. If something hadn’t gone the way it had, it could have catastrophic influence on everything else (which is why, sadly, time travel cannot really work). What would our lives be like if a certain president weren’t elected or if certain events hadn’t happened? How much different would our lives really be? Philip K. Dick’s take on what could have happened had the United States lost WWII is eerie and true enough to life that it’s like looking into another dimension (and at some point in the novel, one of the characters does cross between that world and “our” world). I wouldn’t necessarily call this “science fiction,” as the most science-y fiction-y aspect of it is that the Germans are going to the moon and there’s that slight shift between universes, but I find this sits more under the sub-genre of speculative fiction. Science fiction focuses heavily on the “what if,” and this book certainly asks that question. What if the Germans and the Japanese took over the United States? I found it engaging, nuanced, and surprisingly modern.

Little List of Reviews #2Title: Graft by Matt Hill
Published: February 2nd 2016
Pages: 448
Format: Mass Market
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

Matt Hill’s Graft is certainly interesting. It’s set in a futuristic, dystopian Manchester, England, in which a car thief gets mixed up with a cyborg woman who’s had an extra arm and various other enhancements grafted onto her body. It’s touted as something that draws influence from The Fifth Element andThe Handmaid’s Tale, and I think that sort of fits. It certainly would appeal to fans of either or both. It’s visceral, it’s dirty, it’s dark both in content and in atmosphere. Having lived sort of near Manchester for a bit while doing my master’s degree, I can vouch for it being cloudy, a bit dingy in places, and certainly edgier than the pristine countrysides of England we’re used to seeing in various books and films. I enjoyed it, although I wish there was more development both in character and in setting. Compared to Atwood’s writing, this just seemed like a three-fourths formed thing. Still enjoyable, and it definitely comes recommended to those who like the darker, grittier side of science fiction!