Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld


Posted by Cobalt | Posted in , , | Posted on 7:33 PM

Rating: 4 / 5 stars

Prince Aleksandar is on the run. The not-quite-legitimate son of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his love-matched spouse Sophia, Aleksandar is a bright, curious young man - who is left bereft and fugitive after his parents are assassinated and the brewing political tensions explode into the Great War. Pursued by the Germans, who want to lock him up and remove him as a political threat to their march across Europe, Aleksandar must flee in the night in a Cyklop Stormwalker - you know, those walking war machines that every major royal family had in the backyard in those days.

Oh, wait...

Meanwhile, Deryn Sharp has entered the recruits of the British Air Service, and her anxieties are in order of: a) making sure no one figures out she's a girl b) beating the tar out of all the other recruits by showing the commanders her natural flying ability and c) not plunging to her death from the platform swinging under the tentacles of an increasingly twitchy Huxley ascender -- you know, those biologically-engineered military craft that are basically giant jellyfishes filled with helium (and are a favorite for scouting missions).

Hang on...

This is World War One through the looking glass, where the sides aren't just Allies and Central Powers but Clankers and Darwinists -- the split falling between those nations who put their faith in the machine versus those who have chosen to massage Nature into organically growing their weapons and tools.

This is Way Cool.

Westerfeld does world building like no other, and the chapters are studded with some truly beautiful Victorian-esque line drawings that really bring the universe to life - it's one thing to imagine the Leviathan, the massive British biological warship that's both giant flying whale and a great floating jungle ecosystem all at once -- but it's even better to see it on the page, rising majestically through the clouds.

I'm not generally a fan of 'war' novels, but the adventure action of this novel works for me because of Westerfeld's focus on his main characters, who are both unique and engaging. Stereotypes could have easily cropped up; it would have been simple to make Aleksandar into the Spoiled Royal Brat Tossed Among Commoners, but instead we get a thoughtful, responsible young man who's acutely aware of his own privileged upbringing as he struggles valiantly to adapt to a harsh reality. And Deryn is my second favorite Tough-As-Nails female narrator in recent YA lit -- first prize goes to Jacky Faber of L.A. Meyer's Bloody Jack series. Deryn may be out to prove something, but she doesn't let her swaggering get in the way of her sense, and she also sidesteps the tired Ice Queen road to emotional self-defense.

So, lots of action, dazzling illustrations, and a creative new twist on history that's definitely worth the price of admission (in my case, free - oh thank you, library books).

How To Ditch Your Fairy by Justine Larbalestier


Posted by Cobalt | Posted in , | Posted on 8:28 AM

Rating: 3.75 / 5 stars

Charlotte, aka Charlie, is not particularly happy when we meet her. It's more than the stretchy top currently mangling her 'spoffs' -- it's her entire life situation. She's fourteen, a sports maniac (like everyone else at New Avalon Sports High) who just wants to get on the basketball team and maybe link with the new hot boy, Steffie -- but her stupid parking fairy keeps ruining her life.

Yes, a parking fairy. While her friend Rochelle gets a clothes fairy that makes everything look perfect on her (not to mention discounted 75%), and her mortal enemy Fiorenze has an 'every boy fancies me' fairy that turns all eligible males into drooling love zombies, Charlie has been saddled with the 'charm' of always being able to find a parking spot. Except that she doesn't have a car, and can't drive. Instead, she's constantly getting 'borrowed' by friends and family who are eager to make the newest concert or have a hassle-free supermarket run -- absolutely zero fun for Charlie herself.

So she's trying to ditch her fairy, any way she can. There's a number of theories as to how, ranging from the unsanitary (never bathing) to the unhealthy (fasting, odd diets). Charlie has been trying the slow-but-steady approach by walking everywhere and therefore starving her fairy of the chance to work its mojo. Of course, this makes her late to everything, which earns her constant demerits, which gets her kicked off sports teams, which makes her parents upset, which threatens her social life and therefore her growing relationship with Steffie...

If only her stupid fairy would leave, this would all be solved!

Larbalestier gets major points for originality. She has not only created a nifty world where invisible (and some say, nonexistent) fairies fiddle with the course of everyday life, but she's also set the novel in a city where fame is paramount and schools are specialized to the point of regimentation. At Charlie's school, failure to intake the proper amount and proportion of calories earns demerits, since proper nutrition is essential to one's sports performance. Classes are all sports-oriented, from the PR assignments about managing bad press after a drug enhancement scandal to the Statistics sessions calculating batting averages. There's a fine line between passion and obsession, and while Charlie seems happy with her life, Larbalestier explores some of the tensions of this performance-oriented society in interesting ways.

Within this vibrant world, there's lots of catchy slang terms to enjoy, and Charlie's voice is fresh and engaging throughout. A fun, light read, told in diary format a la Bridget Jones, but with far more substance and style than the typical 'chick lit for teens.'

Fire by Kristin Cashore


Posted by Cobalt | Posted in , , | Posted on 1:30 PM

Rating: 5/5 stars.

Ever have a book that you struggled to stop reading, because the decreasing width of pages on one side sent you into the panicked awareness that the story was going to end?

Fire was that book for me. I love Cashore's writing so much; I still haven't figured out how she manages to wrap such a rich world around her reader in very simple, elegant prose, but I fall under her spell every time I pick up her books. At least I was prepared this time, and took advantage of a snowy evening and a nice roaring fire to start savoring Fire -- I managed to stretch it out for half a week, with breaks for Real Life and necessary winter chores (like gathering more firewood).

I had read Graceling when it came out in hardcover, and I remember a similar experience of begrudging college classes and assignments for their piddling claims on my attention. Fire doesn't cover the same main characters and it's set in a different time and place, but there are some connecting threads that naturally tie the two novels together. Thematically, they are similar in that both feature strong female characters who possess frightening abilities -- in Graceling, Katsa is Graced with the ability to kill (pretty much anything, with or without weapons), and has been forced into service as the King's appointed thug. She rebels against being made into a royal murderer, even as she wonders if that is her true nature; is she doomed to be a walking weapon, a danger to all around her?

In Fire, the main character lives in a kingdom full of monsters -- creatures made unnatural by their stunning beauty and abilities -- and she herself is a hybrid, born of a human mother and a monster father. Fire is endowed with captivating beauty and the ability to manipulate others' minds, both traits inherited from her breathtakingly cruel and compelling father, Lord Cansrel.

Advisor to the King, Lord Cansrel urges his daughter to revel in her powers as he abuses his own; but when the royal household collapses in debauchery and ruin, the entire kingdom spirals towards civil war as rival lords begin making claims. From her homestead in the far north, Fire had assumed that she was irrelevant to these wider events, but she finds herself drawn into the war of the Dells along with her childhood friend, Archer. She not only has to decide her place in the coming battle, but also confront what using her powers will mean to herself and those she loves.

Cashore's characters are sheer works of art by themselves. I loved Katsa for her fierceness and her fears; Fire captured my heart in a different way, painfully alienated by the illusions of her appearance and damaged by her father's twisted love, yet somehow still struggling to protect and connect to others when it would be so simple and easy to shut herself away. No one is allowed to be simply a stock character in Cashore's world; they are all complex, sometimes infuriating, and sometimes awe-inspiring.

Really, a rough synopsis can't do this justice, so I'll have to ask you to trust me and read this book. It's far too nuanced and beautiful to slap labels on it, and trying to sum it up will miss the entire experience of reading it - the sheer delight of falling completely into Cashore's fascinating world.

And while you're at it, pick up Graceling as well, if you haven't read it yet. You can thank me later.

Rampant by Diana Peterfreund


Posted by Cobalt | Posted in , , | Posted on 4:31 PM

Rating: 4/5 stars.

Think you know about unicorns? Those adorable, dewey-eyed mythological beings with the shiny rainbow hooves and fluffy tails?

Think again.

Astrid Llewelyn knows the truth: unicorns are not cute. They are not cuddly. They are vicious killing machines with slavering fangs and razor-sharp horns, and they'd like nothing more than to impale you and rip your flesh from your bones. Or so Astrid's mother has always taught her; along with her family lineage, of course -- as a descendant of Alexander the Great, Astrid is part of a long line of female unicorn hunters. However, she only retains this birthright (and the immunity to unicorn venom that it includes) so long as she remains a virgin.

So of course we must begin with some Macking in the Backyard with a Boy, And The Consequences. Astrid has long cultivated a tolerant dismissal of her mother's unique brand of crazy (researching Killer Unicorns is hardly a sane career choice), so she's a bit dismayed when a unicorn charges out of the woods and gores her boyfriend.

I promise not to reveal more. But it appears that the unicorns are back, and Astrid is shipped to Italy to join the ancient order of unicorn hunters, who are re-establishing themselves in their ancient abbey with news of the Resurgence.

A smart, fun twist on the typical mythology with a great cast of teen girls-turned-warriors (who each deal with their Chosen-ness in different ways). The book moved along nicely, with bloody battles relieved by Astrid's developing relationship with Giovanni (The New Boy Interest, but with Actual Depth), along with some really pertinent questions about feminism and morality -- in the modern world, how do you justify cloistering a bunch of young girls and training them to kill? What rights does one have as a huntress? And how do ideals of 'purity' and other constraints interact with sexual independence?

I love that Peterfreud's characters debate these points in the story, in very intelligent ways -- these young women are both personally and socially self-aware in a refreshing way (instead of the more typical 'self-absorbed teen' model). Astrid is an aspiring doctor; the ancient order of unicorn hunters developed a Remedy that could cure all disease, one that has murky links with the unicorns themselves. How far should she go to unlock this secret? Does her work as hunter make her into a kind of poacher, or even murderer?

Astrid's voice is fresh and compelling, and the cloisters are an intriguing backdrop for her adventures, as she bonds with and/or alienates the other girls in the huntress group. An engaging read along the lines of Graceling, with a heroine you can cheer for as you see her battle for her own definition and mission in the world -- girlpower without the preaching, this is really best summed up in the following equation:

Killer Unicorns + Kickass Girls = Total Awesome.
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