Book Review: Star Wars: Phasma

Journey to the Last Jedi Star Wars PhasmaJourney to The Last Jedi: Phasma
or Star Wars: Phasma
by Delilah S. Dawson
Sci-fi
401 pages
Published 2017

Star Wars: Phasma is one of a series of books that is supposed to help us bridge the gap into The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. They call them Journey to the Last Jedi, but given that Princess of Alderaan explores Leia’s early years, parts of them at least are set prior to the original trilogy. The Journey set includes Bloodline, about Leia’s struggles to organize the New Republic, and the birth of the First Order. It also includes Legends of Luke Skywalker, but as that is actually billed as legends and tall-tales told about Luke, and not necessarily true stories, I’m less inclined to read it.

Back to Phasma! So far, all we’ve seen of Phasma was the enigmatic Storm Trooper Captain, in chrome armor, powering down the shields when forced to in The Force Awakens. We never even saw her face. (Gwendolyn Christie had a wonderful opinion on why her face wasn’t shown, in an interview with Stephen Colbert the other night. You can watch the video below.)

So in the novel, we learn Phasma’s true origins. The story is told via a framework – a Resistance spy, Vi Moradi, is captured by Captain Cardinal, Phasma’s chief rival within the First Order. He forces her to tell him all she knows about Phasma, which she does, because it’s not info directly about The Resistance, and she’s hoping to turn him to her side. Phasma’s life began on a once thriving planet that had been decimated about 150 years before her birth by some force. (I don’t want to reveal too many surprises, and this book is full of them!) One of her old tribemates told the entire story of Phasma’s youth, rise to power in the tribe, and eventual escape from the planet to Moradi. It’s a story of survival at all costs, and illustrates just how good Phasma is at it.

I rather hope we see Captain Cardinal in The Last Jedi, as he grew on me even as he was interrogating Moradi. He goes from loyal First Order soldier with a grudge against Phasma to a conflicted man who’s beginning to see how much he’s been brainwashed. It’s intriguing to read. The revelation that The First Order rewards the ruthless while overlooking those who play by its own rules also breaks him a little bit.

I really enjoyed this book, and I will definitely be picking up Bloodline and Princess of Alderaan, because I can never get enough Leia. If you’re not a Star Wars fan, I’d definitely take a pass on this book, because it won’t really mean anything. But as a fan, it’s a fascinating look at the beginnings of a villain.

From the cover of Star Wars: Phasma:

One of the most cunning and merciless officers of the First Order, Captain Phasma commands the favor of her superiors, the respect of her peers, and the terror of her enemies. But for all her renown, Phasma remains as virtually unknown as the impassive expression on her gleaming chrome helmet. Now, an adversary is bent on unearthing her mysterious origins—and exposing a secret she guards as zealously and ruthlessly as she serves her masters.

Deep inside the Battlecruiser Absolution, a captured Resistance spy endures brutal interrogation at the hands of a crimson-armored stormtrooper—Cardinal. But the information he desires has nothing to do with the Resistance or its covert operations against the First Order.

What the mysterious stormtrooper wants is Phasma’s past—and with it whatever long-buried scandal, treachery, or private demons he can wield against the hated rival who threatens his own power and privilege in the ranks of the First Order. His prisoner has what Cardinal so desperately seeks, but she won’t surrender it easily. As she wages a painstaking war of wills with her captor, bargaining for her life in exchange for every precious revelation, the spellbinding chronicle of the inscrutable Phasma unfolds. But this knowledge may prove more than just dangerous once Cardinal possesses it—and once his adversary unleashes the full measure of her fury.

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Book Review: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns

forest1kForest of a Thousand Lanterns
by Julie C. Dao
Fairy Tale Retelling
363 pages
Published 2017

You know I love my Fairy Tales! Especially re-imagining the villains. Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is an Asian take on the evil queen from Snow White. The author is a Vietnamese American, and this is her debut novel. She has quite skillfully woven a new origin story for the wicked stepmother in a fantasy land heavily influenced by East Asian mythology and culture. I don’t know enough about the individual countries’ mythologies to tell you if the influences come specifically from Vietnam, or more generically from the area. I know that their beliefs can vary pretty wildly by locale.

That said, this is another superb debut novel. I’m eager to read the sequel – it’s billed as “A Rise of the Empress novel” so I’m sure there will be one or more. Xifeng is a pretty complex character – she is somewhat single-minded in what she wants, but conflicted in what to do to get it. (It being the position of Empress.) I was intrigued by who was chosen to fill the roles of the traditional tale; Xifeng, of course, would be the wicked stepmother. The Fool is Xifeng’s version of Snow White, and Xifeng thought for some time that she knew who The Fool was. The reader, of course, knows the Fool must be Snow White, and so not the people who Xifeng suspected. The one that surprised me was the identity of The Huntsman. I won’t spoil anything – but he was unexpected.

There’s also more going on than just the Snow White plot. There are gods and goddesses and spirits and an underlying war. I am quite eager to see how those play out.

There is a slow spot in the middle – I set the book down for a couple of days before picking it up again, and that’s always a sign I’m not as absorbed in the book as I could be. But I did pick it up again and read straight through to the end, so it’s not too bad!

If you like Fairy Tales and Asian mythology, this is definitely a neat blend of the two. I really liked it.

From the cover of Forest of a Thousand Lanterns:

Eighteen-year-old Xifeng is beautiful. The stars say she is destined for greatness, that she is meant to be Empress of Feng Lu. But only if she embraces the darkness within her. 

Growing up as a peasant in a forgotten village on the edge of the map, Xifeng longs to fulfill the destiny promised to her by her cruel aunt, the witch Guma, who has read the cards and seen glimmers of Xifeng’s majestic future. But is the price of the throne too high? Because in order to achieve greatness, she must spurn the young man who loves her and exploit the callous magic that runs through her veins – sorcery fueled by eating the hearts of the recently killed. For the god who has sent her on this journey will not be satisfied until his power is absolute.

Book Review: The Clockwork Dynasty

clockworkThe Clockwork Dynasty
Daniel H. Wilson
Fantasy
309 pages
Published 2017

Well. This one was unique! Pretty good, too. The story bounces between the present and the past, telling the story of a – race, I suppose – that has always lived alongside humans, but hidden. Typical urban fantasy, right? Except this – race – is robots. Automatons, they call themselves. Created by a race they call the progenitor race, or First Humans, they have waited alongside mankind for their creators to return. Their energy reserves are running low, however, and some have resorted to cannibalizing each other’s parts to stay alive. Enter our human protagonist, in possession of an ancient artifact passed down from her grandfather, who obtained it in World War II. Fascinated by it since she was a little girl, she’s made a career out of studying old clockwork toys, and has started to get a little too close to the truth.

The chapters of the book set in the present center on June Stefanov, the human woman who stumbles upon the truth. The chapters set in the past show history from the vantage point of Peter, her automaton companion. The bouncing back and forth happens a touch too quickly in some places, though it does do a good job of showing us what we need to know rather than telling us, which I always like. The details of how the automatons worked were fascinating, though obviously a bit magical. The automatons themselves don’t really understand much of it. The author has written other novels about robots, and in fact has a Ph.D. in robotics, so it’s pretty cohesive.

The plot rockets right along – I read the book in one sitting – and the action is pretty awesome. I wish there had been a bit more characterization of June. Other than being good at clockwork stuff, and a very curious person, we really don’t know much about her, and never find out. The book is more Peter’s story.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. It was definitely a different spin on “hidden race existing beside humans.” Oh – and the villain’s armor was badass!

From the cover of The Clockwork Dynasty:

Present Day: When a young anthropologist specializing in ancient technology uncovers a terrible secret concealed in the workings of a three-hundred-year-old mechanical doll, she is thrown into a hidden world that lurks just under the surface of our own. With her career and her life at stake, June Stefanov will ally with a remarkable traveler who exposes her to a reality she never imagined as they embark on an around-the-world adventure and discover breathtaking secrets of the past…

Russia, 1710: In the depths of the Kremlin, the tsar’s loyal mechanician brings to life two astonishingly humanlike mechanical beings. Peter and Elena are a brother and sister fallen out of time, in possession of uncanny power, and destined to serve great empires. Struggling to blend into pre-Victorian society, they are pulled into a legendary war that has raged for centuries. 

Book Review: That Inevitable Victorian Thing

victorianThat Inevitable Victorian Thing
by E. K. Johnston
Fiction/Alternate History
327 pages
Published 2017

Representation, bitches! This book features a bisexual, intersex young woman. (I say woman, because she is female-presenting and uses female pronouns.) It also features a not-quite-love-triangle that turns into something more like polyamory. (Sorry, that’s a bit of a spoiler, but you can see it coming from a mile away, and the cover description heavily implies the same.)

It’s not realistic in the least – everything falls together nicely and it’s a bit of a “princess saves the day by virtue of being a princess” kind of plot. But the twist on the history is a very pleasant one – and making the British Empire an Empire that values diversity and the melding of cultures and not looking down on anyone because they’re different is a really nice change of pace. It’s a WONDERFUL bit of escapist fantasy given today’s world, I have to say.

I’d actually really like to see the darker side of this same world explored. One of the main plot points in the book is that there is a computer database of genetics. Everyone in the British Empire, when they turn 18, is encouraged to have their DNA sequenced and entered into the computer to find good genetic matches. They then have the opportunity to chat with those matches and eventually meet them. It’s accepted custom, and you’re definitely viewed as odd if you choose NOT to do it, though Helena’s parents were a love match and never had their DNA matched through the computer. Helena’s love interest is a boy she grew up with, she really only ran her DNA through the computer for kicks. So it’s not mandatory – except for royals. But that this computer and database exists leaves room for a darker side. What about genetic modification? Forced marriages for certain genetic outcomes? That has to be happening somewhere. That Inevitable Victorian Thing really only looked at the fun, light-hearted, good uses of this technology. I’d love to see the other side.

Oh – while the book definitely has a Victorian flavor, it’s definitely set in modern day, or perhaps a little past. It’s not Victorian era.

Fun little book. A good escape from a racist, homophobic world to a more diverse, accepting one. But a little TOO fluffy bunny for my personal tastes.

The book is set entirely in Ontario, making it part of my Read Canadian Challenge. You can find the rest of my Read Canadian books here:
1. An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
2. The Red Winter Trilogy
3. Station Eleven
4. The Courier
5. The Last Neanderthal
6. American War
7. Next Year, For Sure

From the cover of That Inevitable Victorian Thing:

Set in a near-future world where the British Empire never fell – a surprising, romantic, and thought-provoking story of love, duty, and the small moments that change people and the world.

Victoria-Margaret is the crown princess of the Empire, a descendant of Queen Victoria I. The traditions of genetically arranged matchmaking will soon guide Margaret into a politically advantageous marriage and a life of duty. But first she’ll have one summer of freedom in a far corner of the Empire. Posing as a commoner in Toronto, she meets Helena Marcus, daughter of one of the Empire’s greatest placement geneticists, and August Callaghan, the heir to a powerful shipping firm besieged by American pirates. In a summer of high-society debutante balls, politically charged tea parties, and raucous country dances, Margaret, Helena, and August discover they share an extraordinary bond and maybe a one-in-a-million chance to have what they want and to change the course of history in the process.

Book Review: Next Year, For Sure

nextyearNext Year, For Sure
Zoey Leigh Peterson
Fiction
241 pages
Published 2017

(WARNING: SPOILERS AT THE END OF THE REVIEW)

I’ve been procrastinating on this review because I’m not 100% sure how I feel about this book. I liked it – but I didn’t. It was not at ALL my normal style of book, but it is about a topic near and dear to my heart. It was very realistic but also relied heavily on a stereotype.

So first off, Next Year, For Sure is about a couple opening up their relationship. Not just to casual sex, but to actual other relationships. (It’s called polyamory, though the word is never mentioned in the book.) Kathryn and Chris have been together for 9 years and have what everyone would call the perfect relationship. And they really do. But then Chris gets a crush, and Kathryn encourages him to follow up on it. The rest of the book is the year following this event, and how it affects their relationship.

I’ve mentioned previously that I am polyamorous – coincidentally, we opened up our relationship almost nine years in, but not because he had a crush. It was mostly because my husband is bisexual, and I wanted him to have the freedom to explore that. We’d been introduced to the concept by some friends of ours, and had discussed it for almost three years before officially opening up. So we had a lot more communication and preparation than the couple in the book did. However, the emotions that Kathryn goes through as Chris explores his new relationship are very, very accurate. We did not have the same end result as the couple in the book do (Spoiler: that’s a good thing!) but the feelings and thoughts that Kathryn has for a large part of the book I am intimately familiar with. Even down to the time she spends very, very sick when her husband is out of town with the other woman. That actually happened to me. I could have called him home (he was a three hour drive away) and on later reflection, all parties concerned agreed that I SHOULD have. (He did not realize how sick I was until he got home a few days later.) So it was really interesting watching all this play out in the book when so much of it felt so familiar.

I was, however, extremely disappointed with how the book ended. I feel a bit like I’m missing the last third of the book. I don’t feel like there was any closure, more like the author simply got tired of writing and just – stopped.

Quick digression before getting to the spoilers: the author is Canadian, so this book is part of my Read Canadian Challenge. You can find the rest here:
1. An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
2. The Red Winter Trilogy
3. Station Eleven
4. The Courier
5. The Last Neanderthal
6. American War

(SPOILERS FOLLOWING)

Another thing I was extremely disappointed by is Peterson falls back on the stereotype that opening up doesn’t work – that the first relationship doesn’t last in poly. Chris and Kathryn break up, though they remain friends. That bothers me. Some of the most solid relationships I know of are poly couples – one is actually a triad, and has been for several years. At least two others are LONGtime couples, where each partner has other partners. My husband has been with his other partner for almost four years now. We’ve had a couple of rough spots, ironing out how this works for us, but we’ve never come close to breaking up. So it’s frustrating to see a novel that treats poly in an otherwise positive light relying on an old stereotype of breaking up the founding couple. It just feeds into “obviously something is wrong in the relationship if they’re looking elsewhere.” So while the portrayals of emotions involved in opening up are SO. SPOT. ON. I find it really hard to recommend this book because of how it ultimately misrepresents something that has so little representation in media to begin with. I kind of wanted to throw the book across the room, to be honest.

Final verdict – it’s good. It’s probably worth reading, especially if you’re poly. But the ending SUCKS.

In typing the jacket description up, I was reminded of a few other things. One: the book alternates between Kathryn’s perspective and Chris’s perspective, but never gives us Emily’s perspective, and that’s a problem. There are three people in this relationship, not two. Also I’m a bit peeved at the last line of the description – it implies that true openness and transformation require the breakup at the end of the book, and that is not at ALL true. Again with the bad stereotypes!

From the cover of Next Year, For Sure:

After nine years together, Kathryn and Chris have the sort of relationship most would envy – warm and loving and deeply intertwined. But, as content as they are together, an enduring loneliness continues to haunt the dark corners of their relationship. When Chris tells Kathryn about his attraction to Emily, a vivacious young woman he sees often at the laundromat, Kathryn encourages him to ask her out on a date – certain that her bond with Chris is strong enough to weather whatever may come.

Next Year, For Sure tracks the tumultuous, revelatory, and often very funny year that follows. When Chris’s romance with Emily evolves beyond what anyone anticipated, both Chris and Kathryn are invited into Emily’s communal home, where Kathryn will discover new possibilities of her own. In the confusions, passions, and upheavals of their new lives, Kathryn and Chris are forced to reconsider their past and what they thought they knew about love.

Offering a luminous portrait of a relationship from two perspectives, Zoey Leigh Peterson has written an empathic, beautiful, and tremendously honest novel about a great love pushed to the edge. Deeply poignant and hugely entertaining, Next Year, For Sure shows us what true openness and transformation require.

 

Book Review: Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom

six of crowsSix of Crows (479 pages)
Crooked Kingdom (561 pages)
by Leigh Bardugo
Fantasy
Published 2015/2016

Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom are a duology set in Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse. Grisha being the magic users in her world. I haven’t read the rest of the Grishaverse (Shadow and Bone, Siege and Storm, and Ruin and Rising) – but I will definitely be doing so, because Crows and Crooked Kingdom are AMAZING. I’m also looking forward even more to Bardugo’s Wonder Woman novel, Warbringer.

I was pretty surprised – normally books rotating between several viewpoints are confusing, but Bardugo handles the transitions seamlessly and unmistakably. I was never unsure of what character I was reading – each one really had their own unique voice. I also loved that she worked in an LGBT romance without it being in any way odd. No one in the novel found non-heterosexuality weird at all. It was treated just as matter of factly as opposite-sex romances, and I loved that.

Six of Crows opens on a gang being blackmailed into a job they don’t want to do. I can totally see the gang has a D&D group – and the books definitely feel a bit like a D&D campaign, albeit one with a mostly experienced group and a very experienced DM. crookedkingdom

You’ve got Kaz, the ringleader, who’s an all-around great thief but a superb tactician.

Inej, the acrobat assassin.

Jesper, the marksman hiding his magic ability.

Wylan, the rich merchant’s son on the outs with his father and fallen in with a bad crowd, and talented with demolitions.

Nina, the sexpot who wields magic, and has a love/hate relationship with Mathias, the barbarian who’s spent his life hunting magic users but is irresistibly attracted to Nina. (I can see the DM telling these two to hash out a background that will let them co-exist, which they obviously did.)

Each character has a complex back story that influences most of their actions, and different relationships with other members of the gang that also affects how they react. Their back stories don’t just explain their actions in the books, people and events from their backgrounds also show up to complicate matters in the present. The wheels-within-wheels of the plotline is EXACTLY what I love about good political fantasies. The world-building is superb, and Bardugo has given just as much thought to the seedy underbelly of her world as she has the magic and politics.

I really, really loved this duology, and I see now why people rave about this universe. It is VERY well deserved.

From the cover of Six of Crows:

Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price–and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can’t pull it off alone…

A convict with a thirst for revenge.

A sharpshooter who can’t walk away from a wager.

A runaway with a privileged past.

A spy known as the Wraith.

A Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums.

A thief with a gift for unlikely escapes.

Six dangerous outcasts. One impossible heist. Kaz’s crew is the only thing that might stand between the world and destruction―if they don’t kill each other first.