Book Review: And The Ocean Was Our Sky

and the ocean was our skyAnd The Ocean Was Our Sky
by Patrick Ness
Illustrated by Rovina Cai
Fantasy
160 pages
Published September 2018

I’ve seen the movie based on Patrick Ness’s previous book, A Monster Calls, but I haven’t actually read the book. I definitely see similarities in style between the two stories, though. The blurb calls it “lyrical” and “haunting” but I’d call them both trippy.

In And The Ocean Was Our Sky, the story is told from the viewpoint of Bathsheba, a whale. In her world, whales and humans have been at war as long as she can remember. Whales have learned the human language, and how to build ships and use harpoons. (Though how they actually DO these things with flippers is never explained. Just suspend disbelief and go with it.)

I think the hardest thing to wrap my mind around was the whales have an inverted view of gravity. To them, the human world of air is called the Abyss, and it lives below them. The ocean is, well, their sky, as the title says. Bathsheba mentions the dizzying moment when she breaches and the world turns on its axis as gravity changes around her. When the whales talk of swimming up, they mean deeper into the ocean, or down, to us.

It’s a crazy, inverted, fantastical world, and you just have to go with it. The illustrations both help and confuse further, but I think the fever-dream feel of it is intentional.

Bathsheba and her pod are hunters of men, and they come across a sign from Toby Wick. (You know, instead of Moby Dick.) Toby Wick is a devil in the eyes of both men and whales, and Bathsheba’s captain, Captain Alexandra, resolves to hunt him down once and for all and rid the oceans of his menace. On the way, Bathsheba talks to their human captive and learns not all men are hunters, and they have dreams and fears just like whales do. Disturbed, she begins to question her own morality, and what makes someone a devil.

The book is a quick read at 160 pages, probably half of which are full-page illustrations. But it is magical and surreal and well worth reading.

From the cover of And The Ocean Was Our Sky:

CALL ME BATHSHEBA.

With harpoons strapped to their backs, the proud whales of Bathsheba’s pod live for the hunt. Led by the formidable, dangerous Captain Alexandra, they fight in the ongoing war against the world of men. So it has been, so it always shall be. 

When they attack a ship bobbing on the surface of the Abyss, they expect to find easy prey. Instead, they find the trail of a myth, a monster, perhaps the devil himself . . . .

Now, with their relentless Captain leading the chase, they embark on a final, vengeful hunt, one that will forever change the worlds of both whales and men.

From the inimitable author of A Monster Calls comes a dark, lyrical, harrowing tale, hauntingly illustrated, that flips a classic story of violent obsession on its head with heart-stopping questions of power, loyalty, and the monsters we make.

Book Review: Seafire

seafireSeafire
by Natalie C. Parker
Young Adult/Fantasy
374 pages
Published August 2018

First, Caledonia Styx is an AMAZING name, and the Mors Navis is another fantastic name. I had to google it – it basically translates to Death Ship. Possibly Ship of the Dead. Something to that effect.

Seafire is the first book in a trilogy, and it’s very well done. The main goal in the first book was achieved, but we can definitely see the story arc that they’ve set themselves on for the trilogy.

The world of Seafire is post-apocalyptic, though so far post-apocalypse that the old world has faded into myths and stories, and all that’s left is a mish-mash of old technology, like solar power and electricity, used on more primitive objects, like boats and rope-and-pulley lifts. Most ships are equipped with sun sails – sails covered in tiny solar panel scales to provide energy to the ship’s propulsion engines. If you’re limited to wind power, you can’t hope to escape or fight the powered ships. Instead of grappling hooks for latching onto an enemy ship, there are giant magnets. It’s an interesting mix of old and new tech, but a believable one in this context.

The geography is also fascinating; there’s a sea of constant storm bordering the known lands, and the known lands are mostly sea themselves. Caledonia and her crew are women and girls she’s rescued from the grasp of Aric Athair, the warlord who controls pretty much all of the seas. He does this by forcing boys to serve him and getting them addicted to a substance called Silt, which encourages loyalty. The threat of going through withdrawals from Silt also encourages loyalty! We never actually see Aric on-page in this book, but I have no doubt he’ll show up in the sequels, which I am anxiously awaiting. Aric is ruthless, killing those who defy him as Caledonia’s parents did. She only survived because she was off-ship gathering food when the attack came.

I realize this review is a little disjointed, but the book is a bit hard to explain. The world-building is complex but makes perfect sense, and the plot is fast-moving. The blurb compares it to Mad Max: Fury Road, and I definitely get that vibe from it. I can’t wait to see where the next two books take us, but they don’t even have titles or publication dates yet!!

There is a little bit of LGBT content in the book as well, with relationships forming between girls in Caledonia’s crew.

From the cover of Seafire:

The first in a heart-stopping trilogy that recalls the undeniable feminine power of Wonder Woman and the powder-keg action of Mad Max: Fury Road, Seafire follows the captain of an all-female ship intent on taking down a vicious warlord’s powerful fleet.

After her family is killed by corrupt warlord Aric Athair and his bloodthirsty army of Bullets, Caledonia Styx is left to chart her own course on the dangerous and deadly seas. She captains her ship, the Mors Navis, with a crew of girls and women just like her, who have lost their families and homes because of Aric and his men. The crew has one mission: stay alive, and take down Aric’s armed and armored fleet.

But when Caledonia’s best friend and second-in-command barely survives an attack thanks to help from a Bullet looking to defect, Caledonia finds herself questioning whether to let him join their crew. Is this boy the key to taking down Aric Athair once and for all . . . or will he threaten everything the women of the Mors Navis have worked for?

Book Review: Heart of Thorns

heart of thornsHeart of Thorns
by Bree Barton
Fantasy
438 pages
Published July 2018

I almost bailed on this book. It’s not bad, exactly, it’s just – mediocre. Mia discovers that she is the thing she’s been taught to hate, discovers that maybe they’re not all bad, that what she’s been taught is probably wrong, but, y’know, maybe not entirely wrong – it’s just one trope after another. It was rather predictable.

And there’s this problem with the world. If every woman is suspected of being a witch, (sorry, Gwyrach) and they work their magic through touch – how is anyone having kids? Sure, women are required to wear gloves in public, but – the touch-magic doesn’t keep men from abusing women. Not like in The Power, where men start getting actually scared to touch women for fear of what could happen.

The only character in this book that I actually LIKED was Prince Quin. And maybe Dom, the flirtatious gay boy. Mia was rather thoroughly unlikable. First she blindly accepts that she should hate and kill Gwyrach, then is appalled to find out she (and her mother) are/were Gwyrach, and refuses to accept that because of course she can’t possibly be one of those reviled women. She refuses to take Quin into her confidence, despite him showing blind trust in her for most of the book. What does he have to do to prove himself to you, woman?

I’ve read much better feminist dystopias. This is oppressed-women-finding-their-hidden-powers-and-fighting-back clothed in a fantasy instead of a dystopia, and it’s not nearly as good as it could be. Despite ending on a cliffhanger, I don’t care enough about these characters to read the next book.

From the cover of Heart of Thorns:

Mia Rose wants only one thing: revenge against the Gwyrach who killed her mother.

In a world where only women can possess magic – and every woman is suspected of having it – the half-girl, half-god Gwyrach are feared, reviled, and hunted. After training under her father and his infamous Hunters, Mia is determined to scour the four kingdoms and enact the Hunters’ Creed: Heart for a heart, life for a life.

But then her father announces a quite different future: She will marry Prince Quin, heir to the throne. Just like that, smart, headstrong Mia is thrust into the last role she ever wanted: pretty, wifely bauble to the future king.

So on the eve of her wedding, Mia plots a daring escape, only to discover the unimaginable: She has magic. She may be a Huntress, but she’s also a Gwyrach.

As the truth comes to light, Mia must untangle the secrets of her own past. Friends darken into foes and logic begins to fray – as do the rules she has always played by. If Mia wants to survive, she must learn to trust her heart . . . even if it kills her.

Book Review: A Whole New World

a whole new worldA Whole New World
by Liz Braswell
(#1 in the Twisted Tales series)
Fairy-Tale Retellings
376 pages
Published 2015

I’ve been wanting to read the Twisted Tales series for quite some time, and finally requested the first book. To be honest, I’m not thrilled. Aladdin was never my favorite Disney movie, though, so it might just be unfortunate that it’s the first book in the series. I’ll probably still try the rest.

The book actually sticks pretty closely to the Disney movie in descriptions, characters, and setting. Everyone looks like their Disney movie counterparts. I had to check the inside cover to find that the book is indeed an official Disney product. There’s no way they’d get away with it, otherwise; it’d be blatant copyright infringement, and Disney is rather strict about that.

Basically, the book takes the script of Aladdin and asks one question – what if Aladdin really did give Jafar the lamp instead of keeping it when he got stuck in the cave? We know what Jafar does with the lamp eventually, but what if he had it first, before Aladdin? A lot of the plot is familiar – Jasmine and her tiger, the hourglass with people stuck inside of it, the Sultan playing with his toys. It’s really interesting to see the plot elements deconstructed and put back together in new ways.

I’m not sure whether I like this plot or the movie plot more; I never had strong feelings about Aladdin so I’m probably not the best judge.

It’s alright. If you’re a fan of Aladdin you might like it more than I did. I’m withholding judgment of the entire series until I read a few more, though.

From the cover of A Whole New World:

What if Aladdin had never found the lamp?

Aladdin is a street rat. There’s really no getting around that. Like most, he’s just trying to survive another day in impoverished Agrabah.

Jasmine is a princess, one who is about to enter into an arranged marriage. All she wants is to escape her fate, to see what lies beyond the palace walls.

But everything changes when the sultan’s trusted adviser, Jafar, suddenly rises to power. With the help of an ancient lamp, Jafar becomes determined to break the laws of magic and gain control over love and death. Soon Aladdin and the deposed princess Jasmine must unite the people of Agrabah in rebellion to stop the power-mad ruler. But their fight for freedom grows costly when it threatens to tear the kingdom apart.

This isn’t the story you already know. This is a story about power. About revolutionaries. About love. And about one moment changing everything. 

Book Review: The Poppy War

poppy warThe Poppy War
by R. F. Kuang
Asian Military Fantasy
530 pages
Published May 2018

Have you ever read a book that is so good you don’t know what to say about it? It’s taken me almost two weeks to even attempt this review because I just don’t know what to write. The Poppy War is your typical story of downtrodden, disadvantaged girl testing into the highest school in the land and gaining the opportunities and privileges that come with that, but then the book takes a sharp twist into war. Rin doesn’t exactly get the most typical of educations, even before war breaks out. And when war breaks out, the school is disbanded, the students getting flung all over the land to where the government thinks they will help the most. For Rin, that’s joining The Cike. The Bizarre Children. The division of people who can do….things. Things the rest of the military isn’t comfortable with. The Cike can call on the powers of gods, and doing so makes them not-quite-untouchables. Rin, who was never short on resentment before this, grows ever more resentful.

Rin is an interesting character; she’s been hard done by, yes, but she makes decisions that only make things harder on herself. So I feel for her a little, but at the same time, girl. Check yourself. What’s been done to you doesn’t justify what you plan to do to others. I am hoping she comes to see that in the next book, because her rage and need for vengeance definitely gets the best of her in this one.

The Poppy War is an excellently written blend of military fantasy, epic fantasy, and coming-of-age novel. Unlike some books, where the military aspect far overshadows the characters, leaving them flat, Poppy War doesn’t ignore the characters to focus on the bigger picture. It’s a very good mix of both close-up focus on characters, fights, battles, and zoomed-out strategy and war. It’s probably the best military fantasy I’ve read, and the Asian aspect of it makes it even better. So much military fantasy is western European, or Steampunk, or both. I’ve been finding more and more Asian and African fantasy, and I am SO HERE FOR IT. I need to try to find more South American fantasy. I know it’s out there.

I will definitely be watching for the next book in this series, because it’s awesome.

From the cover of The Poppy War:

She is a peasant.
She is a student.
She is a soldier.
She is a goddess.

When Rin aced the Keju – the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to study at the academies – it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who always thought they’d be able to marry Rin off to further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was now finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard – the most elite military school in the Nikara Empire – was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Rin is targeted from the outset by rival classmates because of her color, poverty, and gender. Driven to desperation, she discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power – an aptitude for the nearly mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive – and that mastering control over her powers could mean more than just surviving school.

For even though the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied the Nikara Empire for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people in the Empire would rather forget their painful history, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away.

Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god who has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her her humanity.

And it may already be too late.

Book Review: Snow Like Ashes

snow like ashesSnow Like Ashes
by Sara Raasch
YA Fantasy
422 pages
Published 2014

The world-building in this book is fascinating. At first, it seems like yet another YA novel about displaced royals trying to win back their kingdom, but this royal is in much more dire straits than most. Meira is a refugee living on the run with seven others, one of them her rightful King. All the rest of their people have been enslaved by the conquering country, and their kingdom’s link to the magic inherent in the land has been broken.

A little backdrop is needed. In Meira’s land, there are eight countries. The Rhythm countries, where seasons proceed as normal, and the Seasons – 4 countries locked in one season each. The rulers of each country have a magic conduit that lets them feed magic to their people – but the conduits are gender-locked. In four of the countries, only women can use the conduit; in the other four, only men. Meira and her little band are all that’s left of the free people of Winter. Spring invaded sixteen years ago, killed Winter’s queen, broke the locket that was their magic conduit (each ruler has one) and enslaved their people. Because the queen only had a son, he can’t wield Winter’s magic anyway. They’re still trying to find the two pieces of the locket so when he has a daughter, she can wield it. You’d think at this point, since he’s of age, he should be trying to get as many women pregnant as possible to up the odds of getting a royal heir who can wield the magic, but that…doesn’t come up.

The book does delve into the country’s people being oppressed, used as slaves, and being incredibly abused by the conquering country, and this is where I ran into a quandary. The Season’s people reflect their countries: Autumn’s people have copper skin, Spring’s citizens are blond-haired and green-eyed – and Winter’s people are white. Pale skin, snow-white hair, blue eyes. Writing white people as the oppressed people just rubs me the wrong way. (In that false “help I’m being oppressed because other people want equal rights!” kind of way.) Yes, this is fantasy, yes, it has nothing to do with our world’s politics – but it bothers me. It’s at least not white-savioring, as Meira’s trying to save her own people, but I don’t know. Is it better or worse to write white people as the oppressed protagonists?

That question aside, this was a well-written novel of fighting against an oppressor. There is definitely still work to be done at the end of the book, and there are two more books, as well as two short stories. While I am a little curious what ultimately happens, I don’t know if the series has earned more time on my reading list.

From the cover of Snow Like Ashes:

Sixteen years ago the Kingdom of Winter was conquered and its citizens enslaved, leaving them without magic or a monarch. Now the Winterians only hope for freedom is the eight survivors who managed to escape, and who have been waiting for the opportunity to steal back Winter’s magic and rebuild the kingdom ever since.

Orphaned as an infant during Winter’s defeat, Meira has lived her whole life as a refugee, raised by the Winterians’ general, Sir. Training to be a warrior – and desperately in love with her best friend and future king, Mather – she would do anything to help Winter rise to power again.

So when scouts discover the location of the ancient locket that can restore their magic, Meira decides to go after it herself. Finally, she’s scaling towers and fighting enemy soldiers just as she’s always dreamed she would. But the mission doesn’t go as planned, and Meira soon finds herself thrust into a world of evil magic and dangerous politics – and ultimately comes to realize that her destiny is not, never has been, her own.