Friday, February 28, 2014

Eyes Wide Open

Ted Dekker has a seemingly endless stash of ideas. In Eyes Wide Open, he tried something a little different, releasing the book in four parts, like TV episodes. That's how I got ahold of the first part called Identity as an ebook a while back. Then, at the time, the second part, Mirrors, was going for only a dollar, so I paid to read a little more of the story. After that, I didn't really want to pay to get the other parts on ebook when I knew I would eventually want to own a physical copy of the book itself. There are very few Ted Dekker books I don't have paper copies of! So, I waited for the paperback to be released, and finally, I got a chance to read the whole thing. It had been awhile since I'd read the first two parts, but I found I only had to skim a little to remember most of it. There are also very few Dekker books that aren't uniquely memorable.

In Eyes Wide Open, seventeen-year-old Christy finds herself in bizarre circumstances when she goes searching for an empty locket that holds sentimental value for her. Unsure of who she really is, with no memory of her parents or the first thirteen years of her life, she's suddenly thrust into a situation where everything she's ever known is called into question. Is the little she thinks she knows about herself even true?

Austin, also seventeen, is brilliant. He relies on his mind for everything, but now it appears something might be wrong. Headaches plague him. Still, his mind is strong. He can reason through anything...except perhaps the fix he and Christy have found themselves in. When they accidentally trap themselves in a mental health institution and are mistaken for delusional patients, Austin and Christy's options quickly narrow until the most important question becomes: Who am I?

As usual, Dekker delivers a thrilling, suspenseful, twisty mind trip, but also packs in a message of Truth, narrowly focused on a single idea. This one is clearly about identity and what makes us who we are. Is it what we do, how we grew up, what we think? (Minor SPOILERS follow.) I don't think I'm spoiling too much to say that Austin's mind isn't going to be enough, but just in case, I did warn you. Interestingly, shortly after finishing the book, I came across a verse in my Bible that meshed really well with this novel. The verse talks about Jesus' "love that surpasses knowledge" (Ephesians 3:19). That might give you a glimpse of where this book ends up thematically (and we're not talking about romantic love, by the way), but there's so much more to it. And I didn't think this would happen, since the book is part of a new series, but as usual in the Dekker-verse, this book relates to some of Dekker's older novels. It's also connected to the separate stand-alone novel, Outlaw, but that shouldn't come as too much of a surprise, considering the title.

Eyes Wide Open is part of a series called The Outlaw Chronicles. Water Walker, the second installment, is partially available now (the first two parts have been released in ebook form), and the paperback will be released in March. I already have my copy on order. Four stars.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Cress (The Lunar Chronicles #3)

Cress (Book 3 of The Lunar Chronicles), by Marissa Meyer is finally here! If you want to know how it all started, read my review of Cinder. I won't post a long review of Cress here because that might involve too many spoilers. But the basics are these: Cress is a hacker who has lived alone in a space satellite for half her life. Her only visitor is a Lunar Thaumaturge, one of the queen's right-hand staff, who gives her different jobs monitoring Earth and is the closest thing Cress has ever known to a mother, cruel and demanding as she is. But Cress has begun to fall in love with the planet below. If only, her fantasies would come true and a real live hero would come and rescue her.

Suffice it to say, this is a great series. Each book continues the story of Cinder while also introducing us to a new made-over fairy tale character. The second book is Scarlet (based on Red Riding Hood), and this one is based on Rapunzel. The story takes place in a world where Earth is united under one emperor, and Luna (the moon) is ruled by an evil queen. The Lunar people have special abilities Earthens don't, such as the ability to alter their appearance and control minds (especially the Thaumaturges). And as if aliens and fairy tales aren't enough, Cinder is cyborg to boot! This story is modern fairy tale, fantasy, and science fiction all mixed together in just the right doses. What's not to love?

I'm very happy with where this series is going. Having seen the continuation of Cinder's story, I'm no longer upset about the end of the first book, as mentioned in that review. The next book is Winter (based on Snow White) and will be released next year. Four solid stars!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Queen of the Tearling

I was not the first to get my hands on The Queen of the Tearling, a fantasy novel by Erika Johansen. My sister-in-law beat me to it, but both of us were pretty excited to read this advanced reader's copy. And now that we have, both of us love it. It's adult fiction, but this is the kind of story that attracted me to young adult fiction in the first place: a young, gutsy heroine (she's 19) and high-stakes danger. There are obviously elements that separate this story from young adult fiction. It's more detailed and longer than typical YA fare, and there are swear words (though sparse) and a few gruesome scenes (one character's vivid recounting of debauchery and rape, for instance) most YA fiction generally avoids. I hope that those adult elements, however, do not scare you off. They are very tactfully handled and not overused.

Kelsea is supposed to be the next queen of the Tearling when she reaches her nineteenth birthday. That day has come, and she must leave the little cottage that has been her entire world. But in the world she is to rule, there are many who would rather things remain as they are and are willing to pay big money for her head. There's the regent, her uncle, a despicable man with many vices. There's the evil Red Queen, who has the power to destroy the Tearling. And there are others hiding in the dark, waiting for an opportunity to profit in whatever way they may. Kelsea has a big job ahead of her, and it could kill her, if she doesn't die before she gets there. All alone, accompanied by a handful of old guards who are sworn to secrecy but know nothing about her, Kelsea must earn her place every step of the way.

 I assumed this story would have more romance (it was advertised on the back cover), but it really doesn't, at least not in this first installment of the series, and the main character is described as plain and mannish. The point is that this girl is different than her mother, the beautiful and shallow queen before her. Kelsea is a girl who's studied her entire life to be a good judge and moral ruler, and when faced with the chaos of her country, she tackles it head-on, despite feeling nothing like a queen. I liked that there wasn't the distraction of romance (though there are very tiny hints of what might come), and actually, Kelsea's plainness lends a certain gravity and strength to the story. We see right off the bat that she's a woman of depth, something the country desperately needs. We know she is the right person for the job, if she can manage to get it. Sometimes romance is all the entertainment value of the story, but this one doesn't need it to be interesting and keep things moving along. The mystery of Kelsea's ancestry and the secrets hidden from her, even though she's supposed to be queen, pull the reader into the story, and throughout, Kelsea and the reader must piece together the larger picture of what happened to this country's people and what she must do about it.

Now, I must talk a bit about the setting. It's highly unusual. At first glance, it appears somewhat medieval, like most fantasy worlds. Horses, no modern conveniences, castles, peasants, and magic--pretty straightforward fantasy, nothing unusual there. But actually, there are hints throughout the story about a world that existed before, a world that sounds a lot like our modern world. America is mentioned. Books exist from our time, like The Hobbit and The Bible. The details are extremely murky and pieced together, but from what I can tell, people left our world in an event called The Crossing. Whatever they brought with them was all they had to start over, completely new. There were some doctors, so some medical knowledge was saved. A few books came over, but not a way to print more. What I can't figure out is where this new world is. Is it a new part of Earth, or is it a parallel dimension? Did they cross the stars (though it seems they speak of crossing an ocean)? And what happened to the rest of Earth? And how did magic enter the equation? These questions don't need answered for the story to work, but they were always part of the backstory, just enough information given to make me curious about the rest. Essentially, the setting is medieval fantasy, taking place in a world that comes after our modern one.

One more thing bears remarking on. I'm not sure how I feel about how the book presents religion. Kelsea studies The Bible as part of her training to rule, just as one might study one book of many but also because the Arvath (a religious group with roots in Catholicism) is a corrupt power to be reckoned with. It's not presented as a true book, and though Kelsea reads it cover to cover, she doesn't believe in it. So, I thought the author had a negative inclination toward religion, but then she has a character who's devout, a priest who's not corrupt but truly believes in his faith. He's a sympathetic character, despite his beliefs. Granted, he's a great lover of books, like Kelsea is, so I think the emphasis is on the value of knowledge rather than faith. But I was pleased to see that religion wasn't thrown out as entirely evil. I don't have any hopes that it will progress beyond what it is, though.

Overall, I just loved this book for being a story about a girl going up against high odds with nothing in her favor but her strong mind and kind heart. I loved the mystery, and I grew to love numerous other multi-faceted characters along the way. That the main character is a queen and the setting is medieval doesn't hurt one bit either.

The Queen of the Tearling will be released in July of this year. Four stars.

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Winner's Curse

The feel of this young adult novel is very different than a lot of young adult novels I read. It's not really historical fiction, but it's historical influence is obvious. It's like an alternate world, but it's also not fantasy.

In The Winner's Curse, by Marie Rutkoski, Kestrel is Valorian aristrocracy. Her father is a top-ranking army General, and as is the case with every Valorian woman, Kestrel must either join the army or marry. She has a keen mind, but she's not a very good fighter. She prefers to play music. But neither is she too thrilled about the other option. On a whim, she purchases a slave for far too much money, unsure why she does it except that her father could use an excellent blacksmith and the auctioneer says the man can sing. Though she's paid too much, Kestrel cannot imagine the true cost of what she's done. It's the winner's curse.

Although this book is fully fiction, it feels like something straight out of Rome, and the author even admits the influence from that time period. The Valorians are a proud warrior people who conquered a race that was much less savage and more artistic, adopting some of its customs and enslaving its people. But a slave has pride too, as Kestrel discovers. It's only a matter of time before the conquered arise to throw off their oppressors. You really get the sense that this society is as ill and fat and debauched as Rome grew to be, but from Kestrel's vantage point, we don't see the worst of it. No graphic scenes. No sex scenes, and the main characters are moral.

Kestrel, despite being who she is and growing up in the culture she does, is happily not brainwashed by the aristocracy around her. She doesn't lord it over anyone. She's compassionate. When her motives are called into question, she questions herself and isn't naive to the fact that she might be wrong. As a reader, you appreciate her stance on slavery among other things, but you can't help but wonder a bit how she got there. Readers can chalk it up to a difference in personality, perhaps, but she does seem to be the only one in her circle of acquaintances who wants to buck the system. There's not much set-up for it, but it's easy enough to accept, once you get past the part where she outrageously outbids everyone else for a slave. Explanation is given for why this happens, and it works well enough to patch up the logic holes.

(Minor SPOILERS this paragraph) The romance is rather strange, bordering on something like Stockholm Syndrome. It's not really a surprise that Kestrel falls in love with the slave, but it builds slowly, at least, and doesn't feel forced. Later on in the book, there's a reversal in their relationship, and that's when it really begins to have Stockholm Syndrome vibes. Yet the romance itself is almost lost amidst the political turmoil of the rest of the book. That's not to say it's all politics. The book alternates between Kestrel's and Arin's points of view and pretty much stays in their heads, so you don't see more of the world than they see. But for being romantic interests, they don't spend a great deal of time obsessing over each other. I'm not sure whether that is refreshing or a sign of something lacking in the book. The story is clearly supposed to be a romance, but the characters barely spend enough time together to qualify. In future books, I hope the romance develops a little more depth and plausibility.

The book has a surprising end I wasn't expecting. It's dramatic and heartbreaking and promises an entertaining future for this series. Despite its flaws, I really did enjoy reading this non-stereotypical YA novel. Three and a half stars.