Book Review: A Shadow Bright and Burning

Book Review: A Shadow Bright and Burning by Jessica Cluess

Eleven years ago, Great Britain was a powerful nation with a thriving magical community.  Then the Ancients were summoned, seven supernatural beings who are hostile to human life as we know it.  Since then, the British have been at war with these occupying horrors, and quite frankly losing.  At the start of the war, orphan girl Henrietta Howel was dumped by her aunt at a dismal school where she is now a teacher, having no other place to go.

A Shadow Bright and Burning

Of late, there have been a series of mysterious fires at Brimthorn School, and a sorcerer has been called in to investigate.  The culprit is Henrietta herself, who has had trouble controlling her ability to set herself aflame.  The sorcerer Agrippa realizes that Henrietta is a rare female sorcerer, and thus the Chosen One of a prophecy leading to the defeat of the Ancients.  So it’s off to London for Henrietta to be trained!

However, it quickly comes to Henrietta’s attention that she probably isn’t the Chosen One, and the penalty for impersonating the Chosen One is dire indeed!  Can she navigate the treacherous currents of magical training and romantic interest before the  Ancients and their Familiars strike against the heart of the city?

The plot moves along at a nice clip, and there are some cool battle scenes.  In general, this book is competently written.

That said, many of the characters seem to come from Central Casting:  the heroine with a tragic backstory who believes she’ll never find love, the “lower class” childhood friend with a dark secret, the seemingly cold man who in fact feels very deeply, etc.

Sexism is the real “big bad” in this story; the branch of magic that is female-dominated is the one primarily blamed for the Ancients and is now banned completely; several of the characters object entirely to the concept of female sorcerers, and young Queen Victoria is being manipulated by male advisers who don’t trust her to run the country.

On the diversity front, which has become more relevant in modern young adult fiction:  one major character is described as having black skin, but this never comes up again and there is reason to believe that isn’t his actual appearance.  As opposed to Henrietta’s “dark” coloration from her Welsh ancestry, which is frequently mentioned.  Also, it’s hinted that two of the male characters are interested in each other, but it could also be just a very close friendship.

There is some child abuse in the early chapters.  Brimthorn is not a good school.  The Ancients tend to cause gruesome deaths or deformity, which may affect some more sensitive readers–I’d say senior high on up should be fine.

This is the first in a series, and a few plot hooks are left hanging; for example, it’s strongly hinted that the story of why the Ancients were summoned is still not fully revealed, despite some major pieces being revealed in this volume.  And just possibly Henrietta may not be a true orphan….

Recommended primarily to readers of YA paranormal romance.

Disclaimer:  I received this volume from Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing this review.   No other compensation was requested or offered.

Manga Review: Shonen Jump Weekly (2016)

Manga Review: Shonen Jump Weekly (2016) by various creators.

It’s the fourth anniversary of this blog (where does the time go!?) and thus my annual review of the online edition of Weekly Shounen Jump, Japan’s best-selling manga anthology.   The 2016 reaper has been busy here as elsewhere, with several long-running series ending:  Bleach, Nisekoi, Toriko and even the record-setting but mostly unknown outside Japan Kochikame (a gag series about a lazy cop in a quiet neighborhood police station.)  World Trigger and Hunter x Hunter are on indefinite hiatus due to creator health issues.  So let’s take a look at what’s left, starting with the weekly series.

Weekly Shonen Jump (2016)

One Piece: Now the tentpole long-runner of the magazine, the story of the Straw Hat Pirates as they sail around a world of mostly water in search of freedom and the ultimate treasure continues to be awesome, though the cast is perhaps now too large to fully utilize all of them properly.  Currently, the plot is centered around Sanji, the ship’s cook and would-be ladies’ man.  His unpleasant family has caught up with him, and Sanji is being forced into a political marriage with Pudding, the daughter of Big Mom, one of the Four Emperors.  Naturally, the rest of the crew and a few new allies are determined to rescue Sanji…even if he doesn’t want to be.

My Hero Academia:  The kids of Class 1-A have almost all gotten their provisional superhero licenses.  One of the exceptions is the explosive Bakugou, who has almost but not quite figured out the connection between formerly Quirkless classmate Deku and the now powerless All-Might.  Bakugou and Deku are now having a discussion about their relationship, and in the tradition of both superhero comics and shounen manga, they’re having it with their fists.  Still one of the best superhero school comics out there.

The Promised Neverland:  New this year, and the most promising of the newcomers.  Emma and the other children in the orphanage never questioned the rules about not leaving the grounds, or wondered what happened to the kids who were adopted.  Until the day they learned the horrible truth–the children who leave are eaten by demons!  Now Emma and the two smartest boys in the orphanage, Norman and Ray, must figure out a way to escape, even though Mother Isabella and Sister Krone are keeping a sharp eye out for potential trouble.

We’re still in the early stages of the plot, and much remains mysterious–just what is Isabella’s real motive here?  Do the demons control all of Earth, or just the area around the orphanage?  Just where is the orphanage anyway?  With all the plotting and counter-plotting, this is so far a worthy successor to Death Note.

Black Clover:  In the world where everyone has at least some magical ability except Asta (who now has anti-magic), the Black Bulls are the dregs of the Magic Knights of the Clover Kingdom.  But just because they’re a ragtag bunch of misfits doesn’t mean they’re pushovers!  Currently, two groups that are enemies of the Clover Kingdom have teamed up to attack the Witches’ Forest–good thing the Black Bulls just happened to be there to get medical attention for Asta’s arms!

Food Wars!:  Soma’s education at the elite culinary school Totsuki Institute is threatened when an embittered former student, Azami Nakiri, takes over the school and insists that everyone must now cook only the recipes he likes in the way he prescribes.  Soma and his fellow rebels have been whittled away by rigged final exams, but now Azami’s old classmate (and Soma’s father) Joichiro has shown up to propose a team shokugeki (cooking contest) for all the marbles!  Can the Polar Star team win, even with Azami’s genius chef daughter Erina on their side?

RWBY:  Based on the popular webtoon, this manga covers events that happened before the four girls who make up the RWBY team joined together at their school for monster hunting training.  The current plotline involves Blake (the “B”), who is a member of the Faunus, a humanoid species that is discriminated against by the majority humans.  She was once a train robber to help her people, but her partner Adam crossed the line….  I have not been very impressed with this tie-in.

The most recent issues have two “Jump Start” series that have just started in Japan and may be added to the regular rotation.

Demon’s Plan involves two boys who grew up in a slum together, working hard and saving money for a chance to get a wish from an artifact known as “the Demon’s Plan.”  It turns out that artifact was a fake, but in  the process the owner of the real thing shows up and turns them both into “demons” who must now battle other demons and eventually each other.  The one  who’s less enthused about that idea has made it to the big city in search of the cruel creator of demons.  Could be good, not hitting me well just yet.

Ole Golazo is about a lad named Banba who was a tae kwon do champion before being banned from the sport for fighting.  (In fairness, he was provoked beyond endurance, but rules is rules.)  Adrift in high school, he develops a crush on a girl, and tries to join the soccer team she manages.  Banba has amazing kicking skills, but knows nothing of the rules and customs of “the Beautiful Game.”  Can he be trained to work with a team to achieve victory?  Very reminiscent of the early chapters of Slam Dunk and has some likability.

And then there’s monthly features as well, so let’s look at those–

Seraph of the End:  On the post-apocalyptic world, our heroes have gone AWOL from the Demon Army (which is humans who use demon weapons that if abused will turn them into demons) and teamed up with the nicest vampire they’ve met so far.  They’re in a tenuous alliance with some vampires that seem to be rebelling against their top-heavy social order, but who are not to be trusted.  In the most recent chapter, annoying vampire Crowley reveals he is far more powerful than he’s been letting on.  But he’s still well below the person the alliance will need to beat for the next step of the plan.

Blue Exorcist:  The focus is off Rin “Son of Satan” Okamura for the moment, as his classmate in exorcism training Ryuji works with unorthodox investigator Lightning to discover what happened to several missing people on the Blue Night.  It seems there’s a secret laboratory located on a different time axis below the cram school.

Boruto:  A sequel to the long-running Naruto series starring the son of Naruto.  His father’s turned into a boring bureaucrat who’s hardly ever home, and Boruto tries to get his attention by winning big in a multi-village tournament/exam.  Except that Boruto is talked into using some devices that are against the rules, and is shamed by his father for it.  Now, Naruto has been captured by new villains, and Boruto must regain his honor by joining the rescue team.

Yu-Gi-Oh! Arc-V:  I have actually completely lost track of what the plotline is supposed to be, though it seems that both the multiple personality protagonist and his arch-enemy have traveled back in time from when children’s card games destroyed the Earth.  I’m not even sure a full twenty-four hours have passed since the beginning of the series, and certainly the card game school mentioned early on has gotten zero development since.  This is a hot mess.

One-Punch Man:  Saitama, the superhero who can defeat any opponent with a single punch (and that really sucks for him) is participating in a martial arts tournament in a wig disguise.  Meanwhile, most of the other heroes are dealing with a huge monster infestation.  Slow going, but still very amusing.

Although the loss of several popular series seems to have caused a drop in sales for the print edition, the online version is still excellent value for money and is highly recommended for fans of shounen manga.

Book Review: Skycruiser

Book Review: Skycruiser by Howard M. Brier

Barry Martin is not as young as he looks.  He’s had three years of engineering in college, and two years training as a pilot.  But he looks like a teenager, and a perception that he was too young to handle a man’s job caused him to wash out of the Navy’s pilot program.  Now Barry is trying to get a job at Starwing Airplane Company as a test pilot, but things are not going well.  The owner, Porter J. Hamlin, has banned Barry from his office!  But Barry isn’t licked yet.

Skycruiser

This 1939 boys’ air adventure novel (my copy is a Comet Books reprint from 1948) originally appeared as a serial in Boy’s Life magazine, the house organ of the Boy Scouts of America.  Starwing is pretty transparently a fictional version of Boeing, with a touch of Hughes Aircraft.  Mr. Brier set the story in  the Pacific Northwest, as he did with most of his books, being most comfortable where he lived.

When Barry’s mentor becomes ill, the young man is able to use a contract loophole to demonstrate his test pilot skills to Mr. Hamlin, and seeing Barry in action is enough to overcome the older man’s objections.  Barry is hired  as a junior pilot, but then experiences difficulty winning over the senior pilots.  Not only do they resent the implication that they’re over the hill (a media report on Barry doesn’t help) but the last junior pilot they had turned out to be crooked.

The Skycruiser of the title turns out to be an experimental aircraft Mr. Hamlin wants to build, an enormous passenger plane that will be the equivalent of a luxury liner.   Rival companies would like to steal the plans for the Skycruiser, as it requires several innovative designs just to handle minor functions, let alone get the thing to fly; and if they can’t get that, sabotaging the prototype would work too.  There’s an ever-present threat of industrial espionage.

But there’s plenty of work for Barry even in his regular job, as he tests planes and flies rescue missions.  Barry’s pretty much married to his work–when he isn’t flying airplanes, he’s maintaining them or reading about them, and seems at something of a loss when he has to kill time without access to airplanes.

After a trip to Canada to deliver a cargo plane and demonstrate its features, Barry is approached by a smooth-talking man who offers him a job at double the salary.  This turns out to be crooked pilot Deat Proctor (yes, that’s as phony a name as it sounds).  Barry plays it cagey with Proctor, not promising anything in hopes of discovering what the criminal is up to.  Unfortunately, this convinces Starwing senior pilot Steve Cline that Barry is in cahoots with Proctor, and every step Barry takes to try to prove himself innocent only puts him further under suspicion.

By the end of the book, Barry’s brave and intelligent actions allow the criminals to be captured, and he is now friends with the senior pilots.  (There’s a sequel titled Skyblazer in which Barry has South American adventures.)

The writing is direct and free from frills, and there’s little objectionable subject matter, so this book would be suitable for middle grade readers (with a dictionary for a bit of technical vocabulary) on up.  There’s no romance, but the only women seen are wives and have tiny roles at best.  The primary and recommended audience, though, is boys with an interest in air adventure stories.  There appears to have been a 2007 reprint which should be affordable, but the collector will probably want this heavily illustrated edition.

Comet Books was evidently a short-lived imprint of Pocket Books that issued reprints of popular juvenile fiction, both boys’ and girls’ (one of the volumes listed in the back is the first entry in the Sue Barton, Student Nurse line.)

Overall, this is a well-written boys’ adventure book; a little dated, but well worth looking up.

Comic Book Review: The Last Sacrifice #1

Comic Book Review: The Last Sacrifice #1 Original story by Joe Hart, adaptation by Stuart Moore, art by Michael Montenat

Disclaimer:  I received a Kindle download of this item as a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

The Last Sacrifice #1

In the not too distant future, female to male birth ratios have declined drastically for unknown reasons, called the Dearth.  Civilization has started breaking down as various groups panic and begin hoarding woman and girls, quickly devolving into kidnapping and imprisonment.

Fifteen year old Janie Tenner and her sister have been hiding out in an abandoned house in the mountains of Washington, but Janie is sick of being on the run and quarrels with her sister.  As a result, she is captured by a group that is trying to solve the Dearth with science (and getting nowhere) while her sister may have escaped.

Several months later, the research compound is attacked by a cult; in the confusion Janie escapes, but is wounded.  She’s rescued by a man named Tom, who appears not to be associated with the cult; but is he really a better option?

This comic book series is set in the world of Joe Hart’s Dominion trilogy, which is not yet complete.  Normally when I do comic book reviews, I prefer to work with collected volumes, as they give a fuller picture of the story and whether it’s worthwhile continuing.  But this first issue is all there is so far.  And it’s pretty lean pickings.  There’s little character development; other than Janie we don’t spend more than a couple of pages with any of the characters, and Janie is focused on escaping from, then to, her older sister.

There’s a few pages in flashback to a women’s shelter just before things started getting really bad–presumably one or more of the characters from that sequence will be showing up in the main storyline.

The art is adequate, but my Kindle doesn’t support color, and the art was not optimized for grayscale reproduction; if your reader supports color, it should work better for you.

There is discussion  of abortion and dark hints at what the cults do to the women they capture.  It’s not clear what the researchers are hoping to find with Janie; all we see done are blood tests.  (According to reviews of the book trilogy, the author may not understand how sex selection of fetuses works.)

I’ll note that some similar dystopian scenarios were presented in the Sisters of the Revolution anthology I reviewed a bit back, and generally done better in those short stories.

Right now I cannot honestly recommend this comic book to anyone, and hope that future issues are much improved.

 

Manga Review: Orange the Complete Collection 1

Manga Review: Orange the Complete Collection 1 by Ichigo Takano

If you could send a letter to yourself ten years in the past, what would you say?  “Life will get better after high school”?  “Don’t drink and drive”?  “Here are the winning lottery numbers for [date]”?  On the first day of her junior year of high school, Naho Takamiya receives a letter that purports to be from herself ten years from “now.”  It correctly predicts a series of events, including that a new boy from Tokyo, Kakeru, will be joining her group of friends.  Then it gets to the reason the letter was sent.

One of Naho’s friends won’t survive the year.

Orange the Complete Collection 1

This is a shoujo (girls’) romance manga with a touch of melancholy.  Naho is a motherly girl who cares deeply about her friends, but she’s also quite timid and a bit of a doormat.  Even though she knows her future self is giving good advice, Naho hesitates to stand up for herself or tell people how she really feels, and several opportunities to influence events slip through her fingers.

There is also a bit of a love triangle involved.  Kakeru Naruse clearly has feelings for Naho that deepen over time, but he’s hurting inside and distances himself from others–he is considering suicide.  Hiroto Suwa also has feelings for Naho, but considers his friendship with Kakeru important enough to set those aside to help the couple get together.

The other characters are less developed in this first volume (which contains volumes 1-3 of the Japanese version.)  Azusa Murasaka is a bit loud and flashy; Takako Chino is more elegant but has a short temper; and Saku Hagita looks gloomy and serious, but has a gift for saying funny things.

The story is set in Matsumoto, a small city in the mountainous area of Nagano Prefecture.  Every so often there’s some nice art of the local scenery, but most panels skip backgrounds.  Otherwise, the art is decent and conveys the action and emotions well.  The location also plays into the motivation of “mean girl” Ueda, who tries to start a romance with Kakeru based on the fact that they’re both from big city Tokyo, not like the provincial locals.

After a while, we do get glimpses of future Naho and her surviving friends, as the events that lead to the letter being sent back slowly unfold.  There’s some discussion of how time travel might work–will changing the past overwrite the previous events entirely, or does it simply create a new timeline starting from the deviation point?  Naho’s letter becomes less useful as she does start making decisions that vary from the original; by the end of this volume, Naho has decided not to rely on it anymore.  This decision is helped along by plot twists at the end of Japanese volumes 2 & 3, which genre-savvy readers will see coming.

The story does deal with suicide and its effects on the survivors, the regret and guilt it causes.  It’s made clear that there’s no magic bullet for suicide prevention.  The support and attention of friends does help, but they can’t always be there, and it is clear that they might still fail.  (And of course, Naho can’t just tell responsible adults what she knows without revealing her source.)

An anime adaptation is running as of this writing, and you can probably find it on a streaming service.

Recommended for teens who enjoy a touch of science fiction in with their melancholy romance, and are able to handle the theme of suicide.

 

Book Review: Lois Lane: Fallout

Book Review: Lois Lane: Fallout by Gwenda Bond

Getting in trouble her first day at East Metropolis High School was not Lois Lane’s plan.  Keeping her head down, fitting in, allowing her family to settle in for her general father’s new long-term assignment, that was the plan.  But when she witnesses a student’s report of bullying being laughed off by the principal (especially odd as Anavi Singh claims the Warheads are somehow bullying her inside her own brain), Lois’ curiosity and hatred of injustice are aroused.

Lois Lane: Fallout

While her interference is not appreciated by Principal Butler, local newspaperman Perry White sees some potential in Lois, and invites her to join the staff of the “Daily Scoop”, a teen-oriented website attached to the Daily Planet.   Lois decides to make school bullying her first news story, but she may be getting in over her head.  The Warheads are not ordinary bullies, and almost every adult in Lois’ life is against her pursuing this scoop.  Good thing she has an online friend “SmallvilleGuy” that can help out some–now she just needs to make friends in real life!

This young adult novel re-imagines veteran comics character Lois Lane as a modern teenager just starting out on a journalism career path.  This works pretty well, and Lois makes a good YA protagonist.  She’s mouthy, incurably curious, stands up for what she thinks is right and is clever enough to get herself in trouble but not always clever enough to get herself back out solo.  Her background as a military brat is a plausible explanation for such skills as she has, while allowing her to clash with her authoritarian father.

Romance is mostly on the back burner (thankfully); while Lois does have some romantic thoughts towards the fellow she met on an UFO website after reporting she saw a flying man, she’s well aware that SmallvilleGuy is keeping secrets such as his actual name and appearance from her.  He does seem to be a good friend, though.

Other characters tend not to develop much; a couple have hidden depths that are likely to provide subplots for further stories.  (There’s already a sequel.)

While Lois hasn’t realized this yet, she does live in a superhero world, and there’s some science-fictional technology that plays a part in the story.  Notably, it is not played as inherently bad, though it can be abused.  (In some cases, relatively harmlessly, as Lois’ little sister Lucy demonstrates.)

The main problem for me was the central mystery of the book–possibly it’s because I have decades of experience reading science fiction and superhero comics, but I figured out all the twists by about Chapter 4 of 25.  This meant that the story dragged for me while I waited for Lois to catch up.  I hope that this will not be so much of a problem for the intended audience of young adults.

Overall, it’s a good first installment in what could be a long series, and I recommend it to fans of plucky reporters who enjoy knowing something the heroine doesn’t.

Book Review: A Weird and Wild Beauty: The Story of Yellowstone, the World’s First National Park

Book Review: A Weird and Wild Beauty: The Story of Yellowstone, the World’s First National Park by Erin Peabody

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book through a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.

A Weird and Wild Beauty

In early 1871, the readers of Scribner’s Magazine, one of the best-selling periodicals in the United States, were treated to an article about a mysterious land south of the Montana Territory.  According to the article, there was a place of geysers that shot steaming water hundreds of feet into the air, where mud pools exploded on a regular basis, and trees were encased in stone.  This was the first widely-published  account of the Yellowstone, and many dismissed it as an absurd traveler’s tall tale.

But the Yellowstone River and its surroundings were very real.  It had been named “Mi tse a-da-zi” (Rock Yellow River) by the Minnetaree tribe, and translated to “Roche Jaune” by French trappers before English speakers gave it the present name.  Native Americans had often visited or lived there for its special properties, and stories of it were shared by the few hardy white people who’d managed to survive a visit.  They were generally disbelieved by those who had not been there.  It took a proper expedition organized by former banker Nathaniel Langford and staffed by sober, reliable citizens to show the reality.

This volume is a history of how Yellowstone became a National Park written for young adults by a former park ranger.  The primary emphasis is on the two important expeditions, first Langford’s and then a full scientific expedition led by government  geologist Ferdinand Hayden.  In addition to the hardy scientists and support staff, the expedition had two artists and photographer William H. Jackson, and their visual evidence was key in convincing Congress of the reality of the fabled wilderness.

The writing is clear and concise, rated for twelve and up, but quite readable for adults.  There are multiple sidebars about related subjects such as the Transcontinental Railroad and Henry David Thoreau, and many illustrations in both black & white and color.

The history section briefly covers what is known of the history of the Yellowstone area before the expeditions, and up to the point where the National Park bill was signed into law.  More recent events concerning the park are not covered in the main text, although some are mentioned in the sidebar.

After the history section, there’s a map of America’s National Parks and other federal preserves, then a couple of chapters on the science of why Yellowstone is a unique area.  There are endnotes, a bibliography, index and photo credits (in readable sized font!)

Part of Yellowstone’s importance is mentioned in the subtitle; it was not just the United States’ first National Park, but the world’s.  Previously, when land was set aside to preserve it, it was only for the powerful (“the King’s forest”) or the very wealthy to enjoy.  This was the first time a national government had set aside wilderness for the sake of the public at large.  And just in time, as the Hayden expedition had already run into people planning to exploit the Yellowstone area for private commercial gain.  (At this point in history, the U.S. side of Niagara Falls had already been completely privatized and commercialized!)

The book briefly touches on mistreatment of Native Americans, the extinction or near-extinction of animal species and other difficult topics, but these are not the main concern.  The bibliography contains books that go into much more detail on these matters.

Most recommended for teens interested in history and the outdoors, but also good (and affordable) for adults with similar interests.

Manga Review: So Cute It Hurts!! Volume 4

Manga Review: So Cute It Hurts!! Volume 4 by Go Ikeyamada

Quick recap:  Meguru and Mitsuru Kobayashi are fraternal twins who look a lot alike.  Due to a zany scheme, they switched uniforms and went to each other’s school for a week.  While there, each fell in love with a student at their sibling’s school, complicated by the fact of the disguises.  Now the week is over, but the romantic comedy is just starting!

So Cute It Hurts!! 4

In this volume, the Kobayashi twins go on first dates.  Meguru is out with the dashing Aoi Sanada, a tough but gentle lad who reminds her of famous Japanese warlord Date Masamune.  They get along quite well, despite Aoi being afflicted with anxiety attacks whenever a woman (including Meguru and his half-sister Shino Takenaka) gets too close.  So they can spend time together, but not touch.

Meanwhile, Mitsuru finds himself spending the day with “mean girl” Azusa Tokugawa rather than the lovely Shino.  She blackmailed him into a day with her in exchange for not revealing his crossdressing adventure, but Mitsuru didn’t understand what she meant and showed up in kendo dueling gear, while she’s in Gothic Lolita finery.  Onlookers assume it’s some sort of cosplay date.   Azusa is confused by her own feelings, alternating between anger at this stupid boy and being charmed by his good points.

But drama lurks in the wings.  Aoi’s trauma runs deeper than he’s been letting on, and Mitsuru may have waited too long to reveal his true identity to Shino.

Again, this is an adorable series with innocent feelings, and some amusing reaction faces, particularly from Azusa.  The crossdressing is mostly over, confined to an extended flashback.

Abuse in Aoi’s backstory is hinted at, and Azusa’s bullying is mentioned.  There’s also some brief non-graphic violence.  But in general, this is safe for its target audience of junior high readers.

If you liked the previous volumes, this one is also good.

 

Book Review: Hokas Pokas!

Book Review: Hokas Pokas! by Poul Anderson & Gordon R. Dickson

The Hoka of the planet Toka are the galaxy’s best live-action roleplayers.  Given a story they find interesting, the teddy-bear-looking aliens will take on the characters as their own personalities.  And they especially love Earth stories.  Thus it is that they have entire subcultures based around Sherlock Holmes, or the pop culture version of Napoleon or the Lord of the Rings novels.  Alexander Jones, Ambassador Plenipotentiary of the Interbeing League, has his hands full trying to keep the Hoka safe until they’re considered advanced enough to join galactic civilization.

Hokas Pokas

The Hoka stories are comedic science fiction; some of the funniest ever written.  This volume contains three of those stories.

“Full Pack (Hokas Wild)” gives Alexander Jones’ wife, Tanni, a rare day in the limelight.  While her husband is away, Tanni goes to investigate a downed starcraft, along with her young son Alex Jr.  It’s in the Hoka version of India, which is based more on Rudyard Kipling books than on the Mahabhrata.  The mission is complicated when her Hoka escort overnight switches from a British military regiment to a wolf pack from The Jungle Book.  Yet those who are familiar with the book rather than the Disney movie may catch on to the twist more quickly than Tanni does.

“The Napoleon Crime” explains where Alexander Jones was during the previous story, on Earth negotiating for an upgrade in the Hokas’ status.  But back on Toka, someone or something has been twisting the Hoka games, and the planet is on the brink of having actual wars.  With the aid of the heavyworld free trader Brob, Alex must return to Toka unannounced and go undercover as Horatio Hornblower to head off a deadly reenactment of the Napoleonic Wars.

Star Prince Charlie moves the setting to the world of New Lemuria, and the archipelago kingdom of Talyina.  This feudal society has been contacted by the Interbeing League, which hopes to eventually bring the Lemurians up to galactic standards with the minimum of outside interference.  Talyina is visited by young Charles Edward Stuart and his Hoka tutor, taking a vacation from the cargo ship of Charlie’s father.

There’s trouble in Talyina, though.  The current king is a usurper and tyrant, and the people grumble.  One drunken night for the tutor and a local warrior later, a prophecy about a destined prince and the tradition of the Young Pretender cast Mr. Stuart in the role of Bonnie Prince Charlie, and the Hoka is now his Highland Scots retainer, Hector MacGregor.  A local lord is pushing Charlie to fulfill the prophecy, and due to the League rules, the boy can’t just have technologically advanced guards come get him.

The prophecy begins to come true, with a little “help”, and the people rally behind their alien prince.  But as events sweep Charlie along, he comes to realize that overthrowing one tyrant may only lead to a worse one taking the throne.  For the sake of Talyina, he must become the hero they deserve, if not the one they think he is.

This is actually a short novel, written for the young adult market.  It’s very much a boys’ adventure in the spirit of Robert Louis Stevenson, with rather more humor.  (All the chapter titles are literary references, for example.)  Charlie moves in a world of men; women are mentioned from time to time, but none are important to the plot, and I cannot remember Charlie ever having a conversation with one.  He does, however, learn not to look down on people just because they’re less educated or technologically advanced.  The bittersweet ending demonstrates how much he’s grown as Charlie chooses to do the right thing rather than the easy thing.

There’s some college papers waiting to be written about colonialism and cultural appropriation in the Hoka stories–much of the humor derives from the latter being turned on its head, and the League tries to avoid the worst effects of the former, but those things are worth considering.

While the first two parts are not specifically written for young adults, they should be okay for junior high students on up.  Some references are likely to go over the heads of younger readers, which makes this a good choice for re-reading later.   Highly recommended to fans of science fiction humor.

 

Book Review: Wintersmith

Book Review: Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett

Tiffany Aching is a witch in training.  She in some ways is already a very powerful witch, and has endured some hard lessons that required growing up fast.  But she’s also very much a girl who’s almost thirteen.  Miss Treason, on the other hand, is over a century old and has not been a “girl” in a very long time.  So when she tells Tiffany not to move during a dance, it doesn’t occur to her to explain what the dance is or why moving during it is a bad idea.  Tiffany senses a spot in the dance that seems to be shaped for her, and her feet dance her right in.

Wintersmith

That was a huge mistake, as the dance is the change of seasons.  And now the Wintersmith, the personification of winter, has become fascinated by Tiffany.  He sees her as the Summer Lady somehow in his time, and wants to hold her forever.  And if Tiffany doesn’t make it to spring, then spring will never come…..

This is the third Tiffany Aching book within the Discworld setting; the first book in the sequence is The Wee Free Men.  Tiffany is a farm girl who grew up in sheep-herding country called The Chalk.  She’s very practical and straightforward, which serves her well in witchcraft.  (In the Discworld setting, witchcraft, while it certainly includes a heaping of magic, is more about being a “wise woman” who provides skills and knowledge to a rural area.)  On the other hand, she is very young and has many things to learn, and sometimes Tiffany will get her back up and turn stubborn at the wrong moment.

Tiffany is aided as always by the Nac Mac Feegles, tiny blue men that combine the more disturbing aspects of Smurfs with the more violent aspects of highland Scotsmen stereotypes.  They have their own special dialect, and there’s a glossary at the front that also helps readers and parents know what they’re in for with the Feegles.  The tiny men provide much of the comic relief in the book, and are usually annoyances, but they are helpful when pointed in the right direction.

As well, Tiffany interacts with the community of witches, from the fearsome Miss Treason who has mastered the art of Boffo, through the harsh but highly competent Granny Weatherwax and jolly Nanny Ogg to the vain and in way over her head Annagramma.  Each of them has lessons to teach Tiffany (yes, even Annagramma has her uses) and help her on the way in her Story.

And Roland, the baron’s son, Tiffany’s friend who is a boy, comes into play as he has his own problems, but sets them aside for the time being to be the Hero that the Story needs at a crisis point.  His highly unpleasant aunts sound like they will be an issue in the next volume.

The Wintersmith, of course, is the antagonist of the book.  As the anthropomorphic personification of the idea of winter, it isn’t evil.  But Tiffany’s mistake has thrown the Wintersmith out of balance, and unbalanced winter is highly dangerous.  Worse, it’s trying to make itself more human without understanding what that means or caring about the effects it has on others.  It chillingly (pun intended) follows a children’s rhyme about what “makes a man” until it gets to the most important ingredients and just skips those.  It’s both funny and scary when the Wintersmith tells random people “I am a human being.”

A nice twist of the book is that it starts with a version of the final showdown between Tiffany and the Wintersmith, then rewinds the story, reminding the reader “the future is always a bit wobbly.”  When we reach the ending again, things are somewhat different.

This is listed as a “Young Adult” book but should be fine for precocious middle-schoolers on up.  Some parents may be disturbed by references to sex and childbirth (no gory details), but it makes sense in setting; Tiffany’s a farm girl with older sisters in a society that doesn’t shy away from those topics.  But the important thing here is relationships and learning how to say “no” to ones that are not a good idea.  Younger readers should probably start with the first Tiffany Aching book.

Recommended to fantasy fans, young readers and fans of practical, straightforward women.

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