Review of The Wicked King by Holly Black

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The Wicked King is the second novel in the Folk of the Air series, and won the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Young Adult SFF Novel in 2019 with 48,181 votes. This is preceded by The Cruel Prince and followed by The Queen of Nothing to complete a three-novel set. The Wicked King was published by Little Brown in January of 2019, and runs 336 pages. This review contains spoilers.

At the end of The Cruel Prince, the High King stepped down; backers of Prince Balekin slaughtered the royal family, and Jude discovered her foster brother Oak was actually an heir to the throne. In a scheme to protect him, she lured Prince Carden into a bargain that crowned him High King and left him in her power for a year and a day. In her new position as Seneschal, she sent Oak to live in the human world with Vivi and now works as the power behind the throne, pulling the strings that run the kingdom of Elfhame. Locke has abandoned Jude and is now engaged to marry her twin sister Taryn. Madoc is part of the faction that is backing Balekin, who is imprisoned in the Tower of Forgetting. The Kingdom of the Undersea offers the Queen’s daughter Nicasea as a bride for Carden, backed by the threat of war with the Land if he refuses. The night before Taryn’s wedding, Jude is attacked, and later lured to the Tower, where she is kidnapped and held hostage by the Undersea. King Carden has to make concessions to get her back. He is poisoned by Balekin in a bid for the throne, but Jude saves him and then kills Balekin. Carden offers Jude vows of marriage if she will rescind the bargain giving her control of him, and he then banishes her to the human world in punishment for the murder of Balekin. It seems she has lost control of the king, but there are still threats to her family. What can she do?

On the positive side, this story remains a gripping intrigue, and themes are now developing related to power and submission. While Taryn has submitted to her tormentors and found a way to fit in, Jude has fought her way to a position of power. Although her scheme to gain control of the kingdom succeeded brilliantly, she struggles with inexperience and makes mistakes in dealing with the challenges. The bullying has stopped, but it has been replaced by plots and attacks on a larger scale. Jude is faced with holding onto what she’s won, and she seems unable to move beyond the station of her birth as a lowly mortal. She doesn’t know how to form alliances, or how to wield power except through Carden. Court officials disrespect her and her office, and her family treats her with their usual familiarity, unable to see her as having grown into anything different. She’s still mired in a mortal worldview, unable to see the big picture, and unable to even form a new self-image.

On the not so positive side, this installment of the story is a little hectic. Jude rushes to put out one fire after another, oblivious to the fact that Carden is now the High King and showing signs of competence in using the powers that go with the position. It also looks like Elfhame has some serious issues with security, as agents of various factions seem to have easy access to the king and his court. Jude is especially blind to issues of her own safety. After barely surviving a solo fight in the forest, for example, she falls right into the Undersea’s kidnapping plot. I’m also concerned about the number of people getting killed in this story. The Fay are immortal and have a low birth-rate. This suggests they should heavily guard their lives and have strong rules for investigating and penalizing murder, but it’s just not happening.

On the whole, this remains a good read, and I finished it up fast, moving on to the series finale.

Three and a half stars.

Review of Snapshot by Brandon Sanderson

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This is a futuristic detective novella published in 2017 through Sanderson’s imprint Dragonsteel Entertainment. It runs 98 pages, and the film rights have been optioned by MGM. This review contains spoilers.

Anthony Davis and his partner Chaz are police detectives assigned to the Snapshot project. This is a technology that can recreate a city of 20 million for a single day as a resource for police investigations. Davis thinks the two of them have been taken off regular duty for this because of deficiencies—Chaz is rated too aggressive, and Davis isn’t aggressive enough. The two of them have been sent to investigate a crime that took place 10 days ago. They successfully locate a murder weapon, and then they have to wait for evening for their next assignment, a domestic dispute. Davis visits his son Hal, successfully avoiding his ex-wife, but then the two detectives get sidetracked when they run across evidence of a mass murderer, The Photographer. Headquarters orders them not to get involved, but feeling a sense of duty, they cautiously start an investigation. None of the people in the city are real so they can’t be really killed—except Davis and Chaz. Anything they do in the city causes deviations from reality. Is what they’re doing putting them at risk?

This is an entertaining read. It sets up the situation and some guys with problems and lets it play out. As usual with Sanderson’s work, it’s strongly plotted, with complexities and a sudden twist at the end that I wasn’t expecting. There’s an emotional component when Davis sneaks in the visit with his son, followed by later issues with his ex. The eventual face-to-face with The Photographer strongly suggests this might be a Snapshot of a Shapshot, in other words, an investigation of crimes committed within a previous Shapshot of the city.

The fact that both men have been taken off regular duty because of aggression issues mirrors a more developed discussion of this in Sanderson’s recent Skyward series. The repetition suggests it might be a recurring theme in his work, but there’s no real discussion of it here—Sanderson only presents the contrast, and maybe the difficulty of getting something like this right as an officer of the law.

On the not so positive side, I thought the sudden twist wasn’t that well supported by what had gone on before. It was foreshadowed some by The Photographer, but the conflict we saw didn’t quite build up enough motivation for the main characters. This could have also tied in better with the theme of aggression. What the mass murderer was doing didn’t quite make good sense, either. Still, these issues don’t detract from a good story.

Three and a half stars.

Review of Starsight by Brandon Sanderson

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This novel is science fiction and #2 in the Skyward series, following the novel Skyward. It was released by Tor in November of 2019 and runs 461 pages. This review contains spoilers.

At the end of Skyward, Spensa Nightshade has found that reality is a long way from what she’s always believed. Humans have been imprisoned on Detritus, guarded by the Krell, and Spensa has found she has cytonic abilities to hear and teleport ships through the Nowhere—the method her ancestors used to get around in space, which can be amplified by an unknown “cytonic hyperdrive.” As the humans have made advances into space, conflict with the Krell has increased. Human techs locate a video on one of the orbiting space platforms and, watching it, Spensa has a terrifying vision of delvers (inhabitants of the Nowhere). She screams cytonically and accidentally contacts an alien pilot, who hyperjumps into Detritus space. The ship is damaged by the automated guns on the platforms. Hoping to capture its hyperdrive, Spensa and her Skyward flight try to rescue the ship, but find there’s no hyperdrive aboard. The pilot is injured in the crash landing, but gives Spensa coordinates for Skysight, the center of alien government. Spensa and her flight leader Jorgen make a quick decision, and Spensa disguises herself as the injured pilot, then uses the coordinates and her cytonic ability to hyperjump there. She is welcomed by Cuna, a representative of the Superiority, and enters a training program to provide fighter pilots for the Superiority, supposedly to defend against the delvers. With the help of her ship’s AI M-bot and Doomslug, her odd pet that has stowed away, Spensa tries to navigate the alien politics and manages to make friends with various representatives of the “inferior” races Cuna has assembled into his fighter units. Spensa builds a spy drone from a cleaning bot and finally learns the secret of the hyperdrives. She gets caught with the drone, but there’s a coup afoot in the Superiority government. Can Spensa save Detritus, rescue M-bot and Doomslug and get away?

This is a really condensed summary, of course. The novel has a great plot, full of twists, turns and revelations. The characters are very well developed, full of alien idiosyncrasies, and the action/suspense starts up right at the beginning, making this a pretty gripping read. Spensa operates by the skin of her teeth, developing into a leader herself within the assembly of misfits that makes up her new flight. The book also features a constant undercurrent of discussion about aggression versus non-aggression and how each one affects a particular society. The Superiority prides itself on non-aggression, for example, but has to draft alien pilots to do the dirty work of defense. Meanwhile, they suppress these “inferior” races, keeping hyperdrives away from them so they can’t develop economically. Humans are painted as the real bad guys in the picture for their highly aggressive and dominant tendencies. Meanwhile, M-bot is finding ways to work around the programming that keeps him confined and enslaved. Will that turn out to be dangerous?

On the not so positive side, Skysight doesn’t seem that alien of a place, and some of this seems a little over-simplistic, especially the way Spensa interacts with the aliens and the way she develops a method to deal with the terrifying delvers. M-bot comes across as immature and sulky, and we all knew Doomslug was going to figure in this somehow, right?

Highly recommended.

Four and a half stars.

Horror infesting the awards ballots?

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As I was doing reviews for the awards cycle this year, I got some comments about the popularity of works recently that lean to horror. I’ve just never really understood horror as a genre, though I’m better at managing to be less disturbed by it now than I used to be. Part of the problem is that I have tendencies toward depression and anxiety myself, and I really don’t like wallowing in it—there are better ways to deal. Reading about boiling babies in hot water, for example, just doesn’t help me to cope. No offense to people who like that kind of thing, of course.

Various people have made statements recently about the political content of SFF literature reflecting the interests and viewpoints of readers. So, I guess we can say the same thing about horror, right? It’s infiltrating science fiction and fantasy awards ballots because that’s what the majority of fans want to read? All right. So why?

One possible theory is that this reflects the mental health state of the readers. Supposedly the mental health status of teens and young adults in the 21st century (not to mention that of older adults) has seriously declined. About 50% of teens between the ages of 13-18 now have at least one diagnosed mental health disorder, and about 17% suffer from depression. I’m suspecting this is about average for most generations because of changing hormones and the tendency of the current mental health system to want to diagnose and medicate you if at all possible, but still that’s what the articles say. So maybe people with mental health disorders find horror strikes a resonant chord?

It turns out there is some research on the subject. A 2005 study by Hoffner and Levine found that people respond to horrific stories according to levels of three variables: empathy, sensation seeking and aggression. In other words, individuals with low levels of empathy and high levels of sensation seeking and aggression really like those stories about baby torture. There are also gender and age splits, as teens and men are more likely to enjoy horrific works than older fans and women.

Another researcher, Zillman (1980, 1996), developed a paradigm about excitation transfer. According to his theory, readers or viewers experience “fearful apprehension about deplorable events that threaten liked protagonists” and then feel relief when the threats are resolved. However, he doesn’t say what happens when everybody dies. Worse mental health?

Hm.

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