Review of Dragon Child by Janeen Webb

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This is a fantasy novella published by PS Publishing Ltd., in July, 2018. It runs 105 pages. Janeen Webb is an Australian writer, critic and editor.

The shape-shifting dragons of Hong Kong can easily pass for human. They are wealthy, charming, sophisticated, glamorous, and completely ruthless. In a moment of high spirits, Lady Feng makes a mistake and eats a human infant in a remote mountain village. Feeling remorse, she leaves one of her own eggs as a replacement to be raised by human foster parents. The egg hatches, and the dragon child’s foster mother Mai Lin names the child Long Wei (Iron Dragon). The child quickly finds he can manipulate the village humans to do whatever he wants. The Lady Feng starts to worry, and belatedly, she tries to establish controls. She removes the child from his human family and places him in a school for young dragons, but he resists her authority, constantly at war with the other dragons and trying to break out of the school compound. Is there a solution for this problem?

This reads like a middle-grades story. Long Wei is a selfish, greedy, petulant child and constantly challenges adults. He has a huge chip on his shoulder because of being abandoned as a child, and hates the Lady Feng, even though other dragon young are not raised by their parents. He has no respect for people, and little for his dragon betters, at least until one of them slaps him down. He doesn’t seem to learn from that at all, and still looks for ways to get around authority to what he wants, which seems to be power and treasure. The story moves quickly and has a strong, rising action line that begins with Lady Feng’s oops and continues along smartly. The characterization and world building are decent for a novella, if not deep.

If this is supposed to be a morality tale, then it didn’t pan out so far. Long Wei doesn’t seem to learn anything in this installment. Lady Feng fails at getting him under control and he ends up more selfish and greedy than ever. On the not so positive side, the narration seems simplistic and the characters and world only painted in with broad strokes. There’s nothing intimate or touching here, and I didn’t really connect with the characters.

Three stars.

Review of “The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat” by Brooke Bolander

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This short story is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It was published by Uncanny Magazine July-August 2018. This review contains spoilers.

Once upon a time, there were three raptor sisters named Allie, Betty and Ceecee. They are happy, but one day a fair but stupid prince totally ignores all the signs in the surrounding lands and rides into their forest, whereupon Ceecee eats the prince’s stallion. He seems unconcerned. Suspecting treachery, the three sisters confer and Ceecee volunteers to accompany the prince to his nest to find out what is going on. At the castle, she is greeted by the prince’s fiancé (who is also a witch), and lodged in the stable. At first there seems to be no treachery, but eventually Ceecee is drugged and trapped by iron shackles to become the prince’s personal plaything. Meanwhile, her two sisters set out to look for her. The princess witch comes to their rescue, casting a glamour to make two raptor sisters look like humans and unlocking the shackles so Ceecee can escape. The sisters take the witch away with them to live in their forest, and all goes well for a while. Then the four of them have occasion to ride through the prince’s lands again and encounter him on the road. The hunt is sweet.

On the positive side, the narrative here reflects the sisters’ point-of-view and unfolds like a fairy tale that a raptor parent is telling her brood. The narrator’s tone is warm and entertaining, and the humans are generally characterized as terrified and inferior; except the princess witch, of course, who is a huntress and one of their own; and the prince, who is exceptionally stupid and obnoxious besides. One interesting detail here seems taken from tiger lore: the farm workers wear masks on the back of their heads to discourage the raptors from attacking. The picture of the witch living in the forest with the raptor sisters also evokes some fairly strong archetypes.

On the not so positive side, this feels long and is easy to predict. Although the raptor sisters are an interesting take on dragons, they still end up lacking depth, and the human characters tend to be totally flat stereotypes. It’s a fairly long story, and most of the words are used in creating effect rather than revealing what this world is like. Of course, the story is quite sexist, too. The ending where they all go back to the prince’s lands seems pasted on, as if Bolander thought the story wasn’t strong enough when the women just went off and did their own thing. Instead, it has to go on to demonstrate how stupid the prince’s assumption of authority over them is. And of course, they eat him up in the end.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “Children of Thorns, Children of Water” by Aliette de Bodard

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s fantasy, based on the author’s Dominion of the Fallen series and apparently falls between the novels The House of Shattered Wings and The House of Binding Thorns. The novelette was published in 2017 in Uncanny Magazine.
This review contains spoilers.

The House of Hawthorne is running its annual test for the Houseless where successful candidates will be taken in and escape the dangers of the streets. Thuan and Kim Cuc are dragons from the underwater Seine kingdom and charged with infiltrating the House. They join the candidates and are placed on a team with a Maghrebi girl named Leila. The test supervisor Sere gives them a hodgepodge of materials and instructions to produce something, so they decide to cook pastry. Part way through the recipe, the house’s wards fail and it’s invaded by the Children of Thorns. The candidates are evacuated, but Kim Cuc goes missing. Can Thuan rescue her, save himself and Leila and cement a position with the house?

This read like the tip of a really big iceberg, which would be the series where these characters live. I was impressed with the creativity and apparent structure of the universe, where the kingdoms of dragons and fallen angels juxtapose in the ruined city of Paris. The imagery and otherworldly feel of the house are very well done.

On the not so good side, this doesn’t really provide enough information for me to understand the world and how these characters fit into it. Despite the rich promise of the universe, this turned out to be more action than character driven. There was little background on the angels or the master of the house. Also, the characters didn’t quite seem to match what they’re supposed to be. Sere acts more like a company employee than a magical being, and Thuan and Kim Cuc didn’t come off very dragonish, either. Instead, they seem comfortable as humans, joking around in a competitive way without much depth. If Thuan is 300 years old, then he must be developmentally delayed—he comes off as very young and inexperienced. The description of the test said the team performance would be weighed as a whole, so I thought everyone on the team would be accepted; then I was surprised when Kim Cuc wasn’t.

This is a good introduction to the book series, where readers get a taste of what the novels are like. I expect some will be go on to try out the books.

Three and a half stars.

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Review of “Blood Grains Speak Through Memories” by Jason Sanford

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This novelette is a science fiction Nebula finalist published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. It ended up with 11 recommendations on the Nebula Recommended Reading List. Spoilers below.

Frere-Jones Roeder is an anchor who has to stay in one place because her blood grains dictate it. Day-fellows may pass through her land, but may not stay. This morning Roeder is greeted by a grain fairy wearing her dead partner Haoquin’s face, which annoys her—the grains killed him because of his political views. She sees a caravan off, but the family returns later in the day with an emergency—the couple’s daughter Alexnya is seizing. It turns out she has been infected with anchor grains. Roeder tries to dose her with medicine to kill the infection but it persists, and eventually she realizes that the grains mean for the girl to replace her. The fairies report this to the other anchors, and Roeder has to fight off an attack. She makes an agreement with Alexnya to erase the memories of all anchors except those of Haoquin. As his memories flood into her, she dies, giving up her position to Alexnya.

This has enough futuristic elements that I’m sure it’s SF, but it’s hard to sort into any kind of sense. What are the grains? Nanotech? Alien infection? How do they control the civilized world? How do they make fairies to serve as spies and enforcers? How do they morph the anchors into what sounds like reptiles? Beats me. As a result, I couldn’t suspend disbelief on this one. It just doesn’t jell into a reasonable universe. Besides this world-building issue, the sentimentality seems forced and the prose is pretty clunky.

Two and a half stars.

Review of The Smoke Thief by Shana Abe

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To balance all the young adult reviews, I’ve got a couple of adult books coming up, as in R-rated. These are clearly meant to be fan-pleasers and not literary award nominees. The first one is by Shana Abe, and is billed as a “fantasy romance.”

The drakon are a race with magical powers. Some of the men are very powerful and can shape change through a smoke phase to dragons, but the women seem to have lost this power. The group has a community in the English countryside about a nine-hour carriage ride from London, and the ruling council strictly controls the activities of all the drakon to make sure they aren’t discovered. Rue is half human and thinks she is unwanted in the community because of this. She fakes her own death by drowning and runs away to London. Years later she has learned that she can make the change to dragon form, and uses the smoke phase to become a successful thief. When she tries to steal one of the drakon diamonds, she is discovered by Christoff, the current lord of the tribe, captured and taken back to his manor house. Although the council would like to execute her for running away and risking their safety, she makes a deal to help them find another smoke thief who is operating in London. She and Christoff set off to spend a fortnight looking for the thief. During their time together, they remember how attracted they were to one another as teenagers. Christoff thinks Rue is his natural mate because of the way she can change, but she wants her freedom. Eventually they have to work out these different desires.

This has a fairly common romance plot with little in the way of surprises. Rue has managed to overcome her early self-esteem issues and established a free life for herself. She has to make a decision about whether she wants to give this up for love. The introduction of the drakon is a nice addition here, and London and the English countryside have their charms. It’s generally well-written with believable characters, but it’s definitely an adult book. The sex is minimal, but the whole thing reads like erotica. Every encounter between the main characters is dripping with lust. I’m not a huge romance fan, but this is well-done for what it is. Three stars.

The Pleasures of Young Adult Books

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reading-clipart-6These days the pleasure is mainly in the larger print and wider spacing between lines. Really, that’s one of the annoyances of being a little past your prime—not being able to see squat. But recently Ruth Graham said in Slate that I shouldn’t be reading books meant for children. That means I have to justify it now. Seriously, I’ve always liked young adult books, and now new adult has come along with a little bit of added spice.

With apologies to Ms. Graham, there’s a long list of why I really like this segment of the market. First, young adult characters tend to be fresh and hopeful, while adult fiction characters can be harsh and cynical. This means I get that touch of wonder that used to make science fiction and fantasy such wonderful genres. (Shhh. I still love those dragons and elves.) Second, young adult books generally have an upbeat or thoughtful ending. No offense, but if I want, gritty, realistic drama, I can always visit people in the hospital. If I’m feeling depressed, I certainly don’t need more darkness. Last, young adult books are a quick read—I’m a busy person, and I need to get done with the book before I lose it. So, Ms. Graham, am I a case of arrested development? Maybe I’m just too scattered to sit down and work through all those weighty adult tomes.

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