I just finished reading two books of a planned trilogy by April Daniels. I would slot them as young adult although, in the area of superheroes, fandom seemingly crosses all borders, including that of age. But since the protagonist is 15 when book #1 opens, and comes with a lot of the issues teens encounter, labeling them YA is plausible, whether or not the author intended that.
Dreadnought (Nemesis #1) follows the adventures of Danny Tozer. When the book opens, Danny is Daniel, an unhappy teen girl trapped in a boy’s body, with parents who adamantly refuse to see her for who she is or even contemplate the possibility of a transgender future. A miracle is shortly to follow, however; while hanging out alone behind the mall, Danny ends up on-scene at the murder of Dreadnought, a powerful superhero, and as he dies he passes the “mantle” of his powers to Danny. What comes with those powers is a transformation so epic that Danny’s life will be forever changed—she is gifted with a girl’s body as part of her new identity. Although becoming a superhero ought to be the most amazing thing that happens to a person, it is the realization of her secret dream of manifesting as female that is the overwhelmingly joyous news.
But Dreadnought was taken down by a “black cape” named Utopia, who shouldn’t have had enough power to faze him, let alone kill him, and now Danielle has to figure out how that happened and foil Utopia in her grand plan for the destruction of humanity. And she will have to do so while confronting the prejudice and paranoia of her parents, whose dearest wish is to find a “cure” that will turn her back into “their son,” a disillusionment regarding her best friend, who turns out to be an objectifyer when Danny turns into a girl (hey, eyes up here, dude) and, of course, her fellow superheroes in New Port, some of whom also have a problem with Dreadnought suddenly being a 15-year-old petite blonde.
This is such a fresh, wonderful, fun, and yet serious discussion of transgender in the context of fiction! The author shares the identity of the underrepresented and marginalized group in question, and in this series, the authenticity shines through. There is something for everyone here: While those who enjoy the cool powers, the fight scenes, and the trope of conflict between good and evil so characteristic of superhero books can revel in those things, there is also a lot of all-too-mundane psychology tied up with the issues of misogyny, abuse, identity, gender vs. sexuality, you name it. In addition to the transgender nature of the protagonist, we have her lesbian love interest, a non-binary superhero colleague, multiple people of color, and a villainous trans-exclusionary “feminist.” But none of these (well, with the possible exception of Graywytch, who turns into kind of a cipher as the plot progresses) is a stereotype: Danny runs the gamut of emotions—brave, terrified, powerful, weak, utterly secure, and totally lacking in self-confidence. The side characters are equally well developed, especially those who are in her inner circle of supporters and colleagues. The world-building is thorough, and especially enjoyable is all the focus on “hypertech” inventions.
I enjoyed the first book a little bit more than the second, simply because I love a good origin story, and Dreadnought dealt much more with the emotions and challenges of a 15-year-old transgender girl who is suddenly in the spotlight as the heroine of the city and has to work through all her personal issues with family and friends while simultaneously maintaining a public image and fighting crime. Sovereign landed more heavily on the superhero role and focused less on the personal, although it almost made up for it with the relationship dynamics among the main characters, including a little romance. And the ongoing question of the wisdom of taking a survivor of childhood abuse with anger issues and encouraging them to beat up on people (well, admittedly bad guys, but still) is also a powerful theme.
Having read these two, I would have felt completely satisfied with a duology; but Daniels is writing a third book to wrap up the secondary plot of Nemesis, and I look forward to reading it. This is a solid recommendation for a positive and delightful treatment of diversity within a fictional shell, not to mention a dynamic story line and an enjoyable read! I would suggest this for teens 14 and up, plus anybody who enjoys a good superhero tale. To discover other diverse books, visit https://diversebooks.org/.
The book I chose to read this week was the perfect example of being led into genre mislabeling by certain aspects of content. The book is Dragon and Thief, by Timothy Zahn, part of the “Dragonback” series. Because of the presence of dragons, and also because of the series title (making it sound like people were riding on the backs of dragons), I assumed going in that this would be a fantasy. After all, dragons are mythical creatures, right? and their presence would probably indicate world-building that involves some kind of medieval setting?
I was dead wrong. The only thing I got right about this book was believing that it would be a solid addition to my list of books for middle school readers, and that I might possibly be fortunate enough to have discovered one that was particularly appealing to boys, who are more typically reluctant readers than are girls at that age.
Dragon notwithstanding, this is science fiction. The dragon is one of a race of poet/warriors (the K’da) who are symbiotic with other select species and need them in order to live. The dragons transform from three dimensions to two, and ride around on (and receive sustenance and life from) their hosts while giving the appearance of being a large and elaborate tattoo—so instead of people riding dragons, it’s the other way around. And all species involved in this book are space-faring, with much of the action taking place on ships and in spaceports and outposts on various planets.
There aren’t too many books with dragons that anyone would consider sci-fi; the dragons of Rachel Hartman, for instance, while able to shapeshift back and forth between their native shapes and human form, are set within a construct that is definitely medieval in nature, as are the conflicts explored in her books. Same with the dragons of Robin Hobb, Robin McKinley, Chris Paolini, Jasper Fforde, and, of course, Tolkien. Even Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books, alternate history in which dragons are the steeds ridden by the soldiers of the Napoleonic Wars, figure more as fantasy than anything else.
The only dragon books of which I’m aware whose author has attempted to claim science fiction status are those of Anne McCaffrey. Since these are telepathic fire-breathing dragons that bond for life with their riders, many have scoffed at McCaffrey’s claims. Her rationale for the premise is that mankind travelled to the planet Pern via rocket ships, only to discover that their new home was beset by deadly spores that traveled from a red planet to theirs in irregular cycles that lasted a decade or two every once in a while; they used their science to take the native fauna they called fire lizards (miniature dragons about the length of a forearm) and super-size them through selective breeding to wipe out the spores by breathing fire on them. (Her premise would be a lot more believable if she had also thought to use science to explain how these spores from the red star survive the unbearable heat of entry into the planetary system only to be destroyed by a simple toasty breath!)
Anyway, back to my middle school series. Zahn’s voice is perfect for his protagonist, who is a 14-year-old thief named Jack. Jack’s parents died when he was little, and his uncle Virgil, an interstellar conman, raised him to be an innocent-looking but precocious assistant for his various illegal exploits, so Jack has lots of talents like breaking and entering, computer program manipulation, and being a quick-thinking fast-talker. But his uncle died a little while back, leaving Jack alone except for the computer that runs Jack’s ship, upon which Uncle Virgil imposed his personality, so that “Uncle Virge” is still in some sense with Jack, imbued with the same sly, evasive, self-serving qualities that his human uncle possessed.
Uncle Virge is unhappy, therefore, when Jack decides to rescue and play host to Draycos, one of an advance team of K’da warriors who landed on a supposedly vacant planet where his people were intending to settle, refugees hiding out from their mortal enemies. Somehow their enemies already knew their destination, however, and managed to destroy all the advance ships and everyone on them save Draycos. Draycos has a few months to figure out what happened and from where, exactly, the threat lies, so that he can return to the main emigration ships of his people and re-route them somewhere safe, and Jack has undertaken to help him.
It turns out, however, that Draycos is at least as helpful to Jack as Jack is to Draycos, given his superb warrior skills. The two of them make a good team—the boy with lots of undercover experience to get them where they want to go with no one the wiser, and the dragon, honorable and principled, who can protect them along the way.
I finished book #1 and proceeded on to the second, Dragon and Soldier, and I plan to keep going with the rest of the series. So far, book #2 is as imaginative and delightful as was the first, my sole complaint being that each book ends rather abruptly so that you feel an immediate need to access the next volume, which is actually a decided advantage when it comes to luring the reluctant reader to keep going. I believe that those middle-schoolers (and anyone who loves science fiction and/or dragons) who discover these books will do just that.
I began reading The Paper Magician, by Charlie N. Holmberg, with great anticipation—as it turns out, too great. Its opening pages reminded me of another series (of which I have read the first two) that I recently loved (and reviewed here), the Art Mages of Lure books by Jordan Rivet, beginning with The Curse Painter. They seemed like similar systems of magic, in which the practitioner invests everything in learning how to bring magic to the world through a particular medium, in that case paint and in this, paper.
In this series there is a particular magical system, in which potentials attend the Tagis Praff School for the Magically Inclined and (ideally) by the end of their studies have discovered with which material or element their skills are best-suited to work. Ceony Twill has graduated at the top of her class with every expectation of being able to choose her path as a magician, and her inclination is towards becoming a Smelter, a worker of bullets, jewelry, and all things metal. Instead, she is informed by her mentor that there is a severe shortage in the world of magicians who can work with paper, and she is therefore being assigned to a Folder for an apprenticeship in paper magic.
Ceony’s level of dismay is more understandable when you realize that once a magician chooses a material with which she will bond, that is her medium for life—there’s no changing over to a different field in this system. Still, her new mentor/trainer, Magician Emery Thane, has much to forgive in her first few days as she in turn exhibits reluctance and indulges in sarcasm and sheer petulance. But as he pursues his rather quirky methods of instructing her in the folding of paper into marvelous creations with all sorts of uses (and also none, save for beauty and whimsy), Ceony is gradually won over to the idea that being a paper magician might have its own appeal.
I loved the book up to this point. The idea of binding to a specific material and only casting through that medium was intriguing, and the initial instruction by Mg. Thane (don’t you love that abbreviation?) in how “folding” works was wonderfully portrayed. Consider if you could use origami techniques to fold a paper crane—or a dog, or a dinosaur!—and, if you’d done it perfectly, being able to say “breathe” to it and bring it to life, or at least to animation. Imagine creating an entire garden out of folded paper tulips that would go back to bud every night and bloom again in the morning, or folding a paper airplane that you could actually use to fly across town.
I also loved the grounding of the book in the transitional period between the Victorian era and the Industrial Revolution. Some houses have lightbulbs while others still use gas lamps, or candles. Some drive automobiles while others rely on a horse and buggy for transport. And alongside all this mundane detail, being a magician is equally common—just another job in the world.
Unfortunately, as intrigued with the job of paper folding as she was rapidly becoming, Ceony was also in short order beguiled by the smiling green eyes of her teacher, Mg. Thane. I sighed a little and prepared to be treated to some insta-love alongside the solid characterizations and nice set-up in world-building that Holmberg had created…and then everything went to hell in a handbasket, as people in the 1870s might say.
Why the author chose to hare off on the tangent she did, especially in the first book of the series, is a mystery to me. Suddenly Thane’s ex-wife pops into the picture as a super-villain who takes over the story, even though we have previously never heard of her and are abruptly informed of her ill will towards Thane, his attractive pupil and, in fact, pretty much all and sundry, with a few short sentences about the kind of bad magic she practices; but we have no background on her history, motivations, or abilities. And we are not destined to get any! Instead, she attacks Thane, and Ceony embroils herself (despite being only a couple of weeks into her apprenticeship) in an attempt to save him. Those efforts take up the rest of the book.
I know this is a little spoiler-y, but honestly, I was so exasperated by the turn things took that I couldn’t get over it! There are three more books in this series, although by reading the descriptions it seems like #4 is an add-on; the first three are centered around these two protagonists (Ceony Twill and Emery Thane), while the last seems completely detached per its description. The other books reveal more about the magical system, in that they address people who are able to work glass, plastic, etc., and I am a little tempted to keep reading because of that aspect…but the set-up for book two has Ceony pining over her as-yet lack of attachment to Emery, and I just don’t know if I’m up for it, particularly since there are also promises of a repeat of book one: the introduction of a rogue character who upsets the apple cart again.
I’m not telling you not to read these books; the characters are appealing, and the situations, despite their lack of context, are imaginative. But when I compare this series to the afore-mentioned one by Jordan Rivet, there’s just no contest; and I could wish that this writer had had a more astute editor to say “stop, wait, think” when she decided to take a turn for the dramatic, and point out a more logical, integrated way to pull it off.
I will be teaching Young Adult Literature at the UCLA library school again this coming spring quarter, so I am starting to gear up for that by trying to catch up with a couple of years’ worth of teen fiction. Although I teach the history of the literature, I also like (and need) to be up on the latest thing in as many genres as possible. This week I chose a fantasy/paranormal by a first-time author—The Nature of Witches, by Rachel Griffin—partly because, well, it’s October! Time for witches.
The book has an interesting premise: There are weather witches, who are each attuned to a particular season—Spring, Summer, Fall, or Winter—and their gifts allow them to manipulate both the weather and the well-being of the earth, in ways that specifically relate to that season. So Spring-born witches, for instance, are skilled at digging their fingers into the earth and making plants spring from seeds and grow to maturity in whatever time period they wish, while Winter-born witches are better at manipulating water, making it rise up out of the ground into the atmosphere, creating storm loops that provide more precipitation. All witches draw their power from the sun.
In their world, as in ours, the populace is in general ignoring climate change, and its effects are worsening. In this story, the depredations to the earth by greedy developers and exploiters are beginning to outweigh the witches’ abilities to preserve the status quo, and witches are burning out attempting to keep the earth from spiraling into a decline. The general population of non-witches are called “shaders.”
The protagonist of the book is Clara, who is a rare and special “Ever” witch—that is to say, she has an affinity with all seasons, not just one, and can use her powers no matter what the season, while those identified with a particular quarter of the year are powerful during those three months and much more helpless during the other nine. But Clara doesn’t have good control of her powers; she has, in the past, injured or killed people when she unintentionally diverted her power and overwhelmed them, and as the book opens, she is considering staying outside during a total eclipse, which would strip her of her powers, in order to be able to live a normal life. But the fact that she is an “Ever,” able to work in every season and to harness powers not available to regular witches, means that this would be an incredibly selfish act on her part, so she is torn.
On Goodreads, I rated this a three, for concept, and also for some of the truly beautiful visual images the author presents as a part of her earth-loving witches’ consciousness. But you could definitely tell that this was a first effort on the part of the author, without some of the world-building skills necessary to a good fantasy, and also with a particular kind of teen vibe that, while common in YA Lit, is neither endearing nor enjoyable.
I loved the idea of weather witches, and having them be identified with one season, with all those season’s priorities and perspectives, was effective. Also effective was to have the one “special” witch, the “Ever,” as the protagonist. So far, so good. But to characterize everyone not a witch as a “shader” and give so little attention or perspective as to who the “shaders” are (yes, we know, the “common person,” but there’s a big spectrum there!) was to slight the entire background of the story.
First of all, am I being obtuse when I don’t comprehend how the word “shader” relates to ordinary non-witchy people? I don’t get the term. Second, although it is mentioned multiple times that the shaders have ignored the limits of the witches’ abilities to maintain the world in their eagerness for continued expansion and growth, there is little attention paid to how those communications between the two factions take place, what specific warnings have been delivered, who is in charge, etc. There are a couple of organizations mentioned by name and subsequently by initials that you have to keep looking up because they are so unmemorable, but nothing is included about their interactions except that, latterly, shaders are “beginning to pay attention.” Not good scene-setting. We needed more detail, some history of association, some BACKGROUND.
As for my second caveat about the specific teen nature of the protagonist…what I am talking about is a self-involved view of the world that relates anything and everything back to the feelings and emotions of the main character. The world revolves around her, and her obsession with her powers cuts in front of any regard she may have either for her loved ones or for the world at large. Yes, she spends a lot of the book protesting that she would give up her powers in order to keep her loved ones safe…but then she continues on, justifying and hedging her bets and putting them in danger anyway, only to cut them off again when playing with her powers gets her in trouble. And she continues to muse fatalistically on the necessity for her to be stripped of her powers in order to live a happy life, regardless of how it would deprive the earth at large of a savior of whom it has desperate need. In other words, she’s selfish, self-involved, myopic, and kind of whiny!
Far from being reserved to this particular book/author, this kind of character is prevalent in a percentage of teen-directed fiction, and although a certain amount of the observation of teen behavior and (lack of) emotional maturity may be true and accurate, it’s not fun to read. I’m not saying that authors shouldn’t write teens authentically, only that there might also be a little bit of aspirational imagining of them as rising above those thought patterns and behavior, and not at the end of an interminable 300+ pages but nearer the beginning!
This book got some enthusiastic five-star ratings, and I’m betting a lot of those are from teens who felt the romance and allure but didn’t mind the erratic and selfish thinking so much. But I would have enjoyed more back story and less angst. I call this “dithery fiction” because we spend the entire book listening to the character saying “what if” but taking forever to settle to a decision. Yes, she shows moments of resolution…which dissolve like sugar in water at the first sign of opposition, and then it’s reset: start over, dither some more. It’s ultimately so tiresome that it makes it hard to enjoy the rest of the story.
(I did like the cover image!)
I am a sucker for time travel stories—although I really hate it when they are poorly conceived and/or realized. Likewise, I am a huge Jane Austen fan, but have learned to be wary of embracing the countless Austen spinoffs and glorified fan fiction spawned by authors who don’t have the chops to write anything close to canon. (I don’t know which is worse—the juxtaposition of Pride and Prejudice with zombies, or the creation of an Austen theme park in which young women can act out their Regency-born fantasies.) So imagine my delight when I discovered a book that sends a couple of intrepid explorers back to 1815 to see if they can retrieve additional Austen materials and bring them up to the present day to delight literary scholars everywhere?
In The Jane Austen Project, by Kathleen A. Flynn, Rachel and Liam are sent from their rather sterile and unsatisfying present—they live in a world that has experienced “the Die-off” (no more trees), and eat food created by 3-D printers—back to 1815 England. They have been immersed in history for months, properly clothed (albeit with only one outfit apiece), and furnished with what will be an inordinate amount of money for the time period (although it’s mostly counterfeit), and the opening to the past has dropped them in a field near a town called Leatherhead. Most important to their mission, they have been cautioned that they must interact as little as possible so as not to effect change while trying to achieve their mission, which paradoxically will require a particularly close acquaintance with their subject! They are cast as the Ravenwoods, brother and sister, recently arrived in London from Jamaica after having manumitted their slaves on the coffee plantation and sold up to make the move. This back story ensures that they have a ready explanation for small awkwardnesses in local custom, as well as their lack of acquaintance with anyone who could expose them as impostors.
Their mission is to cultivate sufficient intimacy with Jane Austen and her family so as to gain access to letters she wrote to her sister Cassandra, as well as to an unpublished manuscript that was previously thought to be incomplete—only three chapters exist in their time—but, it has been learned through the recent discovery of a letter from Jane Austen to a friend, was rather held back from publication because Jane thought it too revealing of her own personal family situation.
Apart from staying in character, which is particularly difficult for Rachel, since she is an independent single woman and a medical doctor in the present day, the challenges are enormous. They have about a year to become established enough in London to curry an acquaintance with Henry Austen, Jane’s brother, and then to win an introduction by him to his reclusive sister, whose books are not even published under her own name. It would be hard for Jane to imagine the extent of her fame and the reverence for her work held by scholars and commoners alike, a couple of centuries hence; almost as hard as it is for Rachel and Liam to restrain their enthusiasm and wonder at being a part of her close circle.
All sorts of things go awry, as they are wont to do in time travel adventures, given the necessity for lying through your teeth, sticking to appropriate behavior for the times, and knowing your specific place in society—whether it’s how familiar to be with your kitchen staff, or how much flirting you can venture without compromising your reputation. There are many surprising turns in this book, and with a year to accomplish their mission, the author was able to space them out nicely and make everything feel logical and/or inevitable.
I really enjoyed reading this and, unlike some books where you wish an editor had stepped in to cut a couple of hundred pages, I could have asked for more. There was adequate detail about everything, but absolutely no excess. I would have liked to know more about Liam, in particular, before the adventure began (the book is told from Rachel’s viewpoint), and also welcome would have been just a little bit more detail about the specifics of daily life in both past and future, and some explanation of why particular interactions turned so awkward. But over all, I have to applaud the author for pulling this story off so well—it had enough history, enough romance, enough intrigue, and never went overboard. If you have enjoyed the Outlander books, or Connie Willis’s multiple forays into time travel, I venture to say you will also get a huge kick out of The Jane Austen Project.
(One exception that I have to confess as a guilty pleasure in this oeuvre is Lost in Austen, a four-part British miniseries in which a P&P fan opens a hitherto unknown door from her bathroom into the Bennet household, trading places with Elizabeth, who steps into the present day, whereupon the door disappears and each is stuck in the other’s life. It’s hilariously well done. Jane Austen is spinning in her grave. Check it out.)