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.

Holi-Days

Holi is usually a very vibrant time on campus. Especially when it occurs midweek. The only thing I look forward to, since I’m a little averse to how much Holi one can play, is the thandai they prepare in the mess for us each year. I’m looking forward to that this year as well. However, University declared the Monday before Holi (tomorrow) a holiday. That has meant a 4-day long weekend, and most people have taken advantage of this to take trips and go places – or to go home and visit their families. I wasn’t too interested in travel, given my music exam and my general lazy desire to spend time on campus as much as possible – to enjoy all of it before we graduate. Campus is incredibly dead though, and it reminds me of some of the nicest time I spent here, back in December 2017.

The quiet and long weekend also offers the opportunity to use time however you wish. I spent my entire day reading The Chronicles of Narnia, aside from doing the work that I needed to get done and ticking off things on my OneNote to-do list. [I love OneNote and it has dramatically changed my life, but more about that later]

Narnia was a world I was not introduced to when the movie came out in 2005. I was deemed too young to be exposed to that genre of film, and ended up watching the movie to prepare for my watching of Prince Caspian. Prince Caspian released the day my Grade 5 final exams ended in 2008, the same year we relocated from Dubai to Bangalore. To celebrate, my mother allowed me to invite all my friends to my house [we broke the curtain rod, which disappointed me] and took all of us out to Al-Ghurair Mall to watch Prince Caspian in the evening. We were understandably an excited bunch of 10-12 year olds. My mother and my uncle knew nothing about Prince Caspian, and I remember them cluelessly looking to us to try to understand our joy at the return to Narnia and all of the adventures the Royals went on through the entire show. My mom also did this incredible thing [I really do not know when], where she made us take a photograph outside the Prince Caspian poster and made us all individual mugs with the photo on it.

My memory of Narnia is just that. That amazing day, filled with wonder. I didn’t watch the third movie. Today, Goodreads prompted me that The Chronicles were the most-read in the Fantasy genre this week, which was more than enough excuse to launch into myself.

What a fabulous day it has been. I’ve been sitting on my laptop, in my room, yet transported with each book into a new adventure. Launched into a world other than my own. Narnia fulfilled everything that good fiction books have done for me. They’ve all allowed me to live a life that’s removed from the life I live here. Another planet, almost, where anything appears possible, and chapter on chapter, the unimaginable takes place.

Love that fifth year is giving me so much time and reason to read.

The Astonishing Colour of After | Emily X.R. Pan

The Astonishing Colour of After,
by Emily X.R. Pan
Published by Little, Brown Books (2018)
Rating: ***** 

Don’t let the number of chapters or pages in this book fool you. It’s a fast-read. Page-turning, emotionally engaging, and gripping, you’ll find yourself wondering where the time went as you finish. If you’re looking to get out of a reading slump, and fall in love with good writing again, this is a great starting point.

The story follows Leigh Sanders, a half-Taiwanese, half-American girl, as she struggles to cope with loss. On the same day she kisses the boy she’s pined over for years, her mother, Dory, commits suicide. At first the grief is overwhelming. She feels trapped in her childhood home with her distant father and the bloodstain marking her mother’s demise haunting her thoughts. Then, the night before the funeral, Leigh is roused from her nightmares by a huge crimson bird calling her name. She knows immediately the bird is her mother, the whys and hows brushed aside in the face a daughter’s longing for her mom. The plot then takes us to Leigh’s discovery of family she never knew, and her journey of “moving on” from an event she struggles to talk about or understand. All the while, her desperation to make contact with her mother once more drives her between the fantastical and the real, making this a journey unlike any other.

There’s a lot of plot depth to the book, which deserves a bit of analysis.

The first is the theme of identity. Leigh’s identity is clearly complex – she’s half-Asian and half-white, and Pan brings this out by describing how society views her. The Americans call her “exotic”, while the Taiwanese call her “hunxie”/”mixed blood”. Through these individual instances, Pan is able to portray the otherization that mixed-race people usually feel, without a strong connection to either cultural group. This conflict is also given a new layer by the presence of Axel, who is half-Filipino, and half-Puerto Rican. Their friendship and understanding, and their journey of family discovery points to the fact that both characters find comfort in each other – because there’s no other place they fit in.

The second, is how Pan tackles mental health. Now, the conversation on mental health has improved drastically – people are now more comfortable to discuss it in society, but Asian countries are notorious for their inability to accept diagnosed mental health illnesses as being real. There’s an ignorance in Asian society, which Pan is able to describe very realistically. Leigh struggles to use the word “depression”, unable to admit to herself that her mother suffers from the same. The suicide that takes place is without a note, and is committed by OD-ing on antidepressants, and several episodes are described in great detail in the novel. Pan is able to explain depression as it really is – difficult to understand, tough to explain and articulate. The biggest thing Pan achieves is that she doesn’t display “continuous sadness” as equal to depression, something I admired after I finished the book. Another achievement lies in steering away from psychonalysis or patient-blaming/patient-shaming. There’s no sugarcoating of the condition, or of death. It’s difficult, but the truth of depression is just that, and Pan’s judicious use of words deserves credit.

The third is art. Now, I wasn’t sure whether to highlight this as a theme within the book, but there’s layers to this which deserves some amount of description. Leigh, Axel, Caro, and Dory, are all artists. Each, unique, and each, with a different connection to their art. Leigh’s father, is an American academic. Stereotypes lead us to believe that strict Asian parents undermine art, viewing it as being a gateway to University, or a skill that deserves mastering purely for the purpose of mastery. What Pan does is flip the stereotype, by showing a large majority of Leigh’s social circle being pleased with art as a career choice, while Leigh’s father attempts to track her to become more “serious” and asks her questions about her future. That narrative was one I found incredibly interesting to read. It creates a tension in the familial relationship that persists throughout the novel, right until the very end. Why I believe art is a theme is also because of how well Pan is able to use colour throughout the entire book. Just like shades on a palette, I learnt about emotions I didn’t know I could ever feel – and the correlation between colour and emotion will strike a chord with any reader. It’s use as a device for me was not distracting, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Finally, the fantastic imagery and fantasy elements deserve a lot of praise. The plot is very tight, and the fantasy weaves very smoothly with plot developments taking place in reality. Pan’s conclusion hits the heart hard, describing the truth of experience and memory unlike anyone else I’ve read. Reading the book reminded me a lot of the Disney movie Coco. It incited similar emotions in me, I guess.

My only qualm with the book was the romantic side of the story. Romance sells, but in parts, the romantic uneasiness felt out of place. The conclusion to the romantic arc within the book was predictable and well built-up. It’s pace at the end, however, was rushed, and artificial. No natural love story progresses like that. There’s a lot more conversation – one that I would have loved to see the protagonists engage in. The book leaves a few things unsaid, which might annoy some readers.

All in all, a must-read, quick-read. Will make you feel things. Would recommend.