Unconditional Love and Family | The House in the Cerulean Sea, by T.J. Klune

The House in the Cerulean Sea,
by T.J. Klune,
Published by Tor (2020)
Rating: *****

Introduction

I’m a sucker for books that contain the fantastic and magical, especially when they’re heartwarming reads. The blurb to this book, on Goodreads, was pretty reflective of something similar so I dived right in. I was rewarded with a journey filled with positivity and love, everything I needed at the time put into words.

Plot

The book takes us through Linus Baker’s life. A quiet man, he is a Case Worker at the Department in Charge of Magical Youth (DICOMY). His job is to oversee the well-being of magical children who spend their time growing up at Government-sanctioned orphanages. It’s a job he’s worked for a long time, no promotion, no demotion, and he follows rules to the tee. Out of the blue, he is summoned by Extremely Upper Management at DICOMY and given a super-classified assignment: to travel to Marsyas Island Orphanage.

He is not told much else prior to his departure, but once he arrives on the island, he learns that six dangerous children reside there: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist – all under the care of Arthur Parnassus, who is charming and will go to any length to keep these children safe. Over time however, it becomes clear that not everything about the orphanage, or the island are as they seem, and Linus is faced with decisions to make that go against everything he believes in.

Riding on Characters

Good books, for me, center either around well-constructed worlds, or well-constructed character arcs. Naturally books that combine the two elements are therefore appreciated by me even more. This had a reasonably well-created world, you’re introduced to it early, and through Linus Baker’s view, it becomes quickly apparent what the distinctions from the world we live in today are. That allows focus to shift immediately on to the characters. Having nine protagonists on which the story rides requires meaningful relationships to be forged between each character, something Klune develops naturally. Additionally, each character arc is extremely well thought-out and the book concludes without any unanswered questions, which is a delight. The dialogue is a delight to read, leaving little thinking or effort on the part of the reader to understand each characters’ motives. This by no means undermines the complexity of the characters, but it’s just a pleasure to read something that feels effortlessly written and enjoyed.

Asking the difficult questions

All of that – the characters and the dialogue does not take away from the tough questions the book tries to ask of us. There’s a lot of internal conflict presented within the book about prejudices and differences, and the way we actually respond to these as against the manner in which we ought to be responding to these. It asks of us why we categorize people and experiences into extreme ends on a spectrum, or into pigeonholes, rather than looking at them as they are – complex, and not necessarily classifiable. A lot of the decisions Linus Baker makes through the book are a result of his own reflections on these topics, and they’re an excellent reminder of the need to reflect about these things on our own.

Conclusions

There’s so much joy in this book. I went into it knowing it was a standalone, but I long to understand and read more about the kind of joy Linus Baker is able to spread to the kids he learns to love. I hope there’s some fanfiction to keep me occupied while I wait for a sequel (should it ever arrive).

You Go, Gurl | Equal Rites (Discworld #3), by Terry Pratchett

Equal Rites (Discworld #3)
by Terry Pratchett
Published by Harper Perennial (2005)
Rating: ****

Introduction

Like I mentioned in the earlier Discworld review, reading Discworld is a project that has been underway for a while now, and is likely to take a while still. As always, this remains a series I come back to when I’m in a slump because I know the books are short, the story arcs simple and easy to follow, and the world explicitly explained.

Plot 

Drum Billet, a wizard who is about to die,  follows the wisdom of his staff, attempting to find his successor. Wizards are generally the eighth sons of an eighth son, and in the village of Bad Ass, up in the Ramtop mountains, an eighth child is being born to an eighth son. Unfortunately for everyone concerned Drum Billet’s staff is of a particularly progressive bend of mind, and the child he leads Billet to is a daughter, not a son. It is thus that Eskarina Smith becomes destined to be a wizard.

Given the premise this sets up, as evident above, and the title, the story is very predictable. Esk faces several challenges as she seeks to become a wizard, ultimately succeeding. What I enjoyed about this is that as the third book in Discworld, you can see Pratchett seeking to examine this magical world from as many lenses as he is capable. In earlier books, he’s looked at the philosophy and mechanics of Magic, and now, he looks and introduces a series of books focusing on the gender implications of a magical world (or of any world, really).

Characters and Sass

Really well-written introductions to Esk and Granny W, who legitimately stole the show for large parts of the book. As compared to the other two books, there is humour led by the protagonists themselves; as opposed to coming out of supporting characters with whom they interact. Pratchett’s inclusion of Simon, a young boy struggling with his magic – to contrast with Esk’s own journey, helps to bring forth the challenges she faces within a setup that recognizes traditional gender roles and restricting women’s use of magic to the limitations that witches are confined to. Granny W has a lot of sass – something that made me chuckle more times than I would like to count.

Discworld Itself

While I fully recognize that this is the first book in the Witches subseries on Discworld, I felt that there was still scope to introduce elements about Discworld to the reader by having Esk or Granny W interact with fresh parts of the world that we hadn’t heard of. What I enjoyed about the previous two books is that they added layers to the physical space that is Discworld. I wished that had happened a little more here.

Conclusion

A solid read that’ll guarantee laughter. Short and predictable, perfect for a reading slump.

Intriguing Shadow Realms | Nine Princes in Amber (The Chronicles of Amber #1), by Roger Zelazny

Nine Princes in Amber (The Chronicles of Amber #1)
by Roger Zelazny
Published by Avon (1986)
Rating: ****

Introduction

The thing about finding genres of books that you prefer reading is that you’re able to locate books in the genre a lot quicker. Since I properly began reading science-fiction and fantasy books (in that I took my reading of the genre a little more seriously), I’ve been trying to tick off the classics – the books people recommend as foundational texts that have introduced new dimensions of storytelling, or pushed the boundaries of the genre. Zelazny’s Amber Chronicles series was one of these, recommended to me because I enjoy worlds that have complex, but complete and intricate magic systems. It was also recommended because I enjoyed reading Brandon Sanderson.

Plot 

Carl Corey wakes in a medical clinic, with little to no knowledge of who he is or how he got there. He finds the manager of the clinic, and learns that he was recovering from a car accident in a private clinic, paid for by his sister, Evelyn Flaumel. Fleeing from the clinic, he heads to her house. That is where he discovers his identity, as Corwin. He hides his lack of memory from her – and everyone he comes into contact with, discovering his family and his relationships which each of them.

As one of his brothers, Random, makes contact with him, he decides to try to seize the throne of Amber, which is currently held by his brother Eric. Thus begin his adventure across the shadow realms, mixing reality and fantasy.

Amnesia as a plot device

Personally, one of the best creative decisions I’ve come across in recent times is Zelazny’s decision to give his character amnesia. Amnesia is a curious, painful thing: with the loss of memory is the loss of identity, and the desire to build oneself up is evident right from the start of the book when Corwin chooses to flee from the hospital because he feels unsafe over there. Additionally, amnesia adds layers of complexity to the plot. Aside from Corwin’s concealment of his condition throughout the book – which has a huge impact on the way he behaves with others (compared to what he actually wishes to ask), it allows for the reader to be introduced to Amber and the Machiavellian family that seems to rule it along with the protagonist. Corwin is learning these things almost for the first time, and so are we. This allows for a natural introduction of detail, a natural world-building, where no amount of description feels too dreary since Corwin needs to know all the information to help him make better decisions.

Pacing

Zelazny uses few words to communicate intricate plot depths. The pacing in this book is incredible, and I found myself exhausted after reading it because so much happened in just over 150 pages. I speak, and write, in very long sentences, with a lot of commas. Zelazny uses short sentences – crisp, and to the point, achieving his ends with what feels like minimal effort.

Conclusions

Quite honestly, Amber’s construction is extremely complicated – and for a while, I was not sure whether Corwin was in the real Amber or not. The discussion of shadow realms makes it even more complex. However, that’s what has me intrigued, and I’m also eager to see what happens next in this family. It’s why I hope to be reading the whole series.

Rinsing Rincewind | Interesting Times (Discworld #17), by Terry Pratchett

Interesting Times,
by Terry Pratchett,
Published by HarperTorch (1998)
Rating:
***** 

Introduction

I was introduced to Terry Pratchett in my second year of Law School, by a junior who had just come in and shared a love of reading, but was also willing to talk about his books and share them with me. By then I had read Good Omens, but had never ventured into Discworld. This friend of mine shared with me the Discworld Reading Guide 3.0. Although I remain aware that every book in the Discworld empire (if I can call it that) can be enjoyed independently, it felt nice to have some direction in the manner I approached all the books. And so, in 2017, it was, that I finally began this task. I return to finish and tick books off my list whenever I feel like I’m going through a reading slump or I need more dry wit and humour in the material I’m consuming, and Sir Terry never disappoints me. A quick addendum before I begin the actual review: I’ve not written any reviews for other Discworld novels, but will be writing them henceforth.

Plot

Rincewind is returned to Unseen University and makes a deal with Ridcully to go to Discworld’s oldest Empire to help them with their current revolution in exchange for being allowed to come back for good to be called a wizard. Due to the fact that the old Emperor is about to die, the struggle to determine his successor was about to begin, but there were also workers uniting after reading What I did on My Holidays. We get a History lesson, Sir Terry style, what with an Asian empire, diplomacy, slavery, and oppression, Barbarians, and pretty much everything else all wrapped up into one.

Dialogue

I’ve always enjoyed Pratchett’s work because of the rapid exchanges and dialogue weaved into the book. While large portions of the Discworld novels I’ve read so far are written in the third-person descriptive, there are several bits of dialogue to help further the characterization and contextualize plot development. However, given that this is a world of it’s own, it is easy to slip to large bits of dialogue – swathes and pages of exchange between characters. Tolkien is often accused of doing this – although, that is something that is worth getting into in another piece altogethr. Pratchett keeps his exchanges short and sweet and filled to the brim with bone-tickling humour. A prime example of this is the exchange amongst the faculty at Unseen University.

Setting Up Ankh-Morpork

Ankh-Morpork features prominently in Discworld, and this is the first Discworld novel I’m reading that takes place for the most part away from Ankh-Morpork. One of the things I admire about this series is how it’s both stand-alone and a series. Books therefore need to establish some level of context, and also need to further larger plot narratives within Discworld. I’ve been super interested in the art of world-building, and what creative decisions authors take while building up worlds and conjuring up stories. What I found most unique to Interesting Times was Pratchett’s use of the historical empire to reflect various aspects of Ankh-Morpork from the previous books, while using Rincewind’s own ruminations to introduce someone reading this book exclusively to the mad world that is Discworld.

Conclusion

An extremely fast-paced, humorous read. Classic Sir Terry.

Spidey Sense | Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Children of Time (Children of Time #1)
by Adrian Tchaikovsky,
Published by PanMacmillan (2015)
Rating:
****

Introduction

In 2016, this book seems to have set the Science Fiction world alight. My discovery of the book was only in late 2019, and this was my first read in 2020, which was quite a nice way to start off the year. What intrigued me the most when I found the book on Goodreads was the fact that the author’s last name was Tchaikovsky, and for a while, I thought there was a connection with the famous composer. Turns out there is none. Then I discovered that the author was a legal executive – and the commonality in profession and vocation perhaps drew me to the book even more. This was a solid read, and I’d gladly recommend this as an excellent starter book for those curious about themes that you will meet frequently in Science Fiction/Fantasy writing.

Plot

An experiment seeks to uplift monkeys to sentient levels through an engineered nanovirus, in order to place them on a habitable planet. Unfortunately though, that project is tampered with, and all the subject monkeys are killed. Nonetheless, the nanovirus is transported to the intended planet, infecting several species of insects. Spiders end up becoming the chief beneficiaries as a result of this “botched” experiment. Thus begins one prominent narrative throughout the book, which explores spiders as rulers of their planet – looking at the kind of society they set up. The second, interconnected narrative is a group of humans fleeing from Earth, now destroyed by a final world war – who end up finding the spider-race planet. Thus begins an intermingling of worlds.

History 

Over the past few years, I have noticed that the Science Fiction/Fantasy books that I enjoy indulging in the most are books which have elaborate histories constructed for the world they seek to establish. This, for me, enables a greater contextual understanding of the issues that the book seeks to deal with, and allows me to immerse myself in the world that the writer envisages with more ease. With this genre particularly, there needs to be an element of relatability for me – a fine tightrope between creating a distinct world and actually allowing for some elements to continue uninterrupted from the world we know. History does this best. Tchaikovsky accomplishes this wonderfully. Aside from all the chapters aboard the ship fleeing Earth, Gilgamesh, Tchaikovsky weaves the history of compelling spiders like Portia, looking at how her species develops language, understands rules to live by, and develops culture to pass down through their civilization. It’s amazing.

What’s even more remarkable is the fact that Tchaikovsky weaves what is clearly an inter-generational saga into a singular, mammoth book, without losing track of the key plot points he seeks to elucidate. That takes a fair amount of foresight, and inspired writing. For me, only one other author has managed that successfully, and perhaps that speaks to how recently I’ve discovered how much I enjoy this genre, but that’s Cixin Liu.

 Conclusion

This book is a great introduction to science-fiction/fantasy because it establishes a planet afresh, and perhaps gives the nicest overview of the kind of dilemmas the genre seeks to engage with.