March 2011

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training


Lately, I've been reading a lot of steampunk, and certainly been observing the resurgence of the fantasy (or paranormal) genre, but I was still more than a bit gobsmacked by what Caitlin Kittredge has accomplished with her new title The Iron Thorn. This artful blend of machines, faerie, and the best that we have come to expect from steampunk and high fantasy, is beyond anything I have seen for teens or adults in the genre. It has action and adventure, thrills and mysteries, clockwork creations and nods to everyone from Tolkien to Rackham while still incorporating wholly original twists with setting, characters and plot. There is romance, horror and so many surprises. First in a new series -- if there is any literary justice -- The Iron Thorn will be the book found in backpacks, piled next to beds and tossed onto beach blankets this summer. My only regret is that I couldn’t discover it when I was 15, as the message found in Aoife’s struggle for freedom would have resonated that much more.

Kittredge drew my attention immediately by setting the novel in the mid-20th-century Massachusetts city of Lovecraft, an engine-powered town under the forceful grip of the Proctors, a Cromwellian bunch of control freaks who happily burn “heretics” for public entertainment. Everyone worships science in Lovecraft and has no time for magic -- whether it is of the mystical or religious kind. When we meet Aoife, she is comfortably enrolled in the School of Engines and on her way to becoming an accomplished engineer. The problem is that her father is long gone, her mother is committed in one of the city’s 17 madhouses and her older brother, who tried to kill her, is missing. Aoife can not rise above these stark personal circumstances because everyone, including her, is waiting to see what will happen when she turns 16. That is when her family is first struck with the devastating necrovirus and is set on the irrevocable path to insanity.

Everything seems beyond her control, and with the exception of her brother’s best friend Cal, who has stood by her through everything, there is not much of a hopeful future in Aoife’s life. When she receives a mysterious note from her brother bidding her to “Find the witch’s alphabet. Save yourself,” it is an obvious sign. With nothing to lose, she sets out with Cal on a journey out of the city to her long absent father’s estate where she will hopefully find her brother. Along the way she makes valuable friends, nearly dies while under attack in an airship, discovers her father’s legacy in his house which includes a library right out of Beauty and the Beast, with a workshop out of Spiderwick, and goes tripping in the lands of faerie where you can trust no one. Aoife is determined to find her brother, but the more she learns the more dangerous that mission becomes until she is face to face with the powerful secrets that keep Lovecraft under the heel of oppression. Along the way, she also finds romance, treachery, shock and awe while running for her life both above and below the city. The pacing is flawless, the characters solid and thoughtful, and the ending well earned. If teenage boys can get past the cover (I am not a fan of artfully dressed girls depicted on covers of books about steam engines, monsters, the politics of religion, and the intricacies of clockwork construction), then they will fall hard for The Iron Thorn, just like every teenage girl who will adore this protagonist who leaves spunkiness at the door and sets out to rescue her own damn self, thank you very much. Refreshing, suspenseful and fun, this is as good as it gets, I promise.

Fans of The Iron Thorn will also want to note the inclusion of a companion story by Kittredge in the new collection Corsets and Clockwork: 13 Steampunk Romances. “The Vast Machinery of Dreams” is a nontraditional romance detailing the turbulent life of Lovecraft author Matt Edison. The writer is referred to obliquely in The Iron Thorn as the author of several popular potboiler serials. In “Machinery,” Matt meets a girl named Clarice and he loves her and lives happily every after. Except that isn’t what happens. Similar to the movie Sliding Doors, Kittredge presents several possibilities with each building in some way off those that came before. Matt meets a girl named Isabelle, and she's a mystery that he can not solve but can not ignore. Isabelle is someone he falls for, but resists. Or she is someone he falls for who nearly consumes him but he escapes. Or she is someone who steals him away forever. Kittredge gives you all the possibilities of what really happened in a romance that is less about love than fantasy -- a dark one. Run away, Matt, run away for Lovecraft is a place with dark corners that must be resisted, no matter how pretty or sweet.

Following up on Eon, her epic of dragons, magic, court intrigue, and gender-bending politics, Alison Goodman concludes the series with the hugely satisfying Eona. This doorstop of an epic fantasy (656 pages) is set firmly enough in a world like our own to make even the most elf-weary reader happy. While the dragons remain a critical part of the storyline, it's the intrigue that propels the plot: Who you can trust, who is going to try and kill you, and how to get the rightful heir to the throne back into his place of power. Remove the magic and you’ve got England, France or China circa 1550. But why would you want to remove the magic when it’s so awesome? Goodman has latched onto the perfect balance between traditional and fantastic with this series and while fans of the first are going to love the sequel, you can certainly start with Eona and enjoy it just fine.

In the Empire of the Celestial Dragons, Eona, who masqueraded as a boy in the first book, has now acknowledged to the court that she is a woman and the Mirror Dragoneye. Her power is incredibly significant as the coup that ended the first book resulted in the deaths of nearly all the other dragoneyes due to the traitorous acts of the only other survivor. Eona, along with close friends and allies, is now in a desperate race to team up with Kygo, the Pearl Emperor, and build an army great enough to challenge his murderous uncle for the throne. As if all the battling wasn’t bad enough, Eona is also trying to decipher her ancestor’s diary so she can fully tap into her own power and help Kygo. It doesn’t hurt that Eona and Kygo feel a powerful attraction for each other, but neither is willing to reveal all their cards. When it becomes obvious that she can not save the country on her own, they both must acknowledge that a bitter enemy could be their only hope. Just as you try to grasp that reality, a dozen other unbelievable plot twists hit readers including one truly out-of-left field act of deception. And then everything goes to hell in a handbasket, and it’s all up to Eona to become the hero she has to be.

OK, I loved it. I read this book in just two days because I just couldn't put it down. Eona is an excellent character, complex, confused and certainly not above making a mistake or two. Her friends are an outstandingly eclectic mix, especially transgendered Lady Dela, who prefers to wear a dress but will dress as a soldier and wield a vicious sword to fight when necessary for Kygo’s cause. (There is a particularly poignant moment when they meet Dela’s proud father and he asks for a moment to personally greet his “daughter-son.”) Goodman does an excellent job of seamlessly incorporating Dela’s sexuality into the book, giving her a solid love interest, and making her a strong character who readers will cheer for.

My only complaint is that in the very end, Goodman seemed fall for what I consider the “Rowling factor.” She wanted to make it clear to readers that things had gotten very, very serious and so, of course, someone we have come to care about had to die. Honestly, I didn’t need this death and found the loss of this particular character distasteful. I don’t think it served the plot in the manner the author wished and instead leaves readers frustrated that someone who did everything right didn’t get to stick around for the win. Call this character Fred Weasley, Hedwig, Lupin, Tonks, or anyone else who bought it in the bloodbath of Deathly Hallows; we get the point the point that bad things happen, but really, sometimes we don’t need it served to us quite so hard.

Regardless of that one complaint though, I have to say Eona satisfies on multiple levels. Readers of Guy Gavriel Kay’s outstanding Under Heaven (my review here) should give Goodman’s books a shot -- they will find the same deep story and characters and a world worth sinking into for as long as you can make the words last.

Rather delightfully, Victorian detective Langdon St. Ives returns for another rousing adventure against the nefarious Dr. Narbondo in The Affair of the Chalk Cliffs. These novellas by author James Blaylock are literary candy for fans of the Sherlock Holmes tradition, and as the Robert Downey Jr. films (sequel due this December) appeal to a wider audience and make Holmes hip in all sorts of ways, it is obvious to me that teens need only meet St. Ives to fall hard for him. He’s smart but not perfect; he has a stalwart group of friends who are equally crafty; Narbondo is a most capable foil; and there are always some fabulous steampunkish twist and turns to give the stories a classic feel. Chalk Cliffs also includes the talented Alice St. Ives (Langdon’s wife), who is in trouble but quite capable of doing some rescuing on her own, thank you very much. (No, really, thank you for not making her a total wimp!)

This go-round, St. Ives is a bit down in the dumps and facing some marital trouble; his wife has left London for a vacation -- from him. Longtime friend Tubby Frobisher arrives early on with startling news that everyone at the legendary Explorer’s Club collectively lost their minds in a frightening psychotic episode that he himself was part of. In short order, St. Ives and crew discover that they were all suffering under the manipulations of Narbondo, and his current target is none other than the village where Alice St. Ives has sought respite. Rapidly, a train ride is undertaken, protective headgear obtained, some folks are captured, some set free, a lighthouse liberated, and a deep dark cave investigated. What does Narbondo want, and how can he be stopped? You must read the story to find out, but rest assured all is not as it seems, and the witty repartee is matched only by the thrills in this stylish adventure. Along with Blaylock’s text, readers will also enjoy the always impressive interior illustrations from J. K. Potter, whose aesthetic is perfectly matched to the author’s, and makes these books not just fun to read but objects to treasure.

Mike Resnick bills The Buntline Special as a “Weird West tale,” and he couldn’t be more right on target. This is Tombstone with all the expected players: the Earps, Doc Holliday, the Clantons, the McLaurys. But key players also include Bat Masterson, Johnny Ringo, Ned Buntline, and -- wait for it -- Thomas Edison. Yeah, Edison is in Tombstone, working for the federal government to find a way to combat the magic of Native American leaders like Geronimo and Hook Nose. The problem is Geronimo and others have managed to largely halt U.S. western advancement at the Mississippi River. (Tombstone exists as a distant mining outpost and is not considered a threat.) The U.S. doesn’t have magic, but does have plenty of science, so Edison is out there with Buntline to design and build all sorts of things that will both measure and, hopefully, combat what Geronimo is dishing out. They have managed to make some cool guns, horseless carriages, a variety of fully functional body parts and, um, metal prostitutes. (Because it’s not cheating on your wife if the other woman isn’t alive, of course.) Of course events have a way of getting beyond the best-laid plans of men (and governments) even in an alt-universe Wild West, and that is exactly what happens when an attempt is made on Edison’s life. The Earps call for backup from Holliday and Masterson; Geronimo takes offense to Masterson and turns him into a part-time bat; Hook Nose decides to take matters into his own hands and send zombie gunslinger Johnny Ringo into the mix and, of course, the Clanton Gang is as stupid as it was in real history and decides to push everybody to the dramatic conclusion. It’s the site of the OK Corral. You know there’s going to be a gunfight.

If you're familiar with Resnick’s work, then you won't be surprised to hear that Buntline is such a good read. The characters are well-researched and true to history, while packing plenty of fun and killer dialogue that ranges from Holliday reminding Wyatt Earp that he isn’t the best shot ever, Ringo and Holliday trading opinions on Shakespeare, and Holliday reminding everyone who will listen that the reason he isn’t scared of dying is because he has been doing that for years already. (For all that it is true to history, this really is Holliday’s book, and he is as smart, sardonic and casually bloodthirsty as you would expect.) The inclusion of the metal prostitutes at Big Kate’s place (yes, Kate Elder is here too) provides a lot of opportunities to discuss the sexual double-standard, but as for actual sex, the content remains comfortably in high-school level (which is where the rest of the story resides anyway) and should prompt no worries that it’s some big cyborg sex story. The Buntline Special (the title refers to a gun) is a classic shoot-'em-up with more than one twist, but it never gets so far off track as to bring on the weird simply for the sake of weirdness. Louis L’Amour would approve, I bet, and so would Neil Gaiman.

Sarah Beth Durst wades into traditional territory with her enjoyable teen adventure, Enchanted Ivy. Lily dreams of attending Princeton, her grandfather’s alma mater, and looks forward to spending an alumni weekend there with him and her ailing mother. What she discovers is that all is not as she thought (of course); her destiny is much different then she could have imagined (of course); and her family has been keeping very big secrets about who she truly is for her entire life (of course!). So yes, while there are no vampires, we are still safely in Buffy territory with a teenage girl who has the weight of the world (or at least New Jersey) on her shoulders. What Lily has to do is respond to a challenge, uncover clues, and broker a lasting peace deal between two Cold War-locked college campuses (one of which is not of our world). (And she must also defeat a rather two-dimensional villain, evade some blood-sucking magical creatures, plus figure out which guy is the right guy to fall for. All of this is exciting and involves several life-threatening moments, but the most compelling is the boy trouble, of course.)

Lily is smart and capable, and the thrills and chills come with reliable regularity, but what really makes Enchanted Ivy rise above the herd is the fantastic way that Durst utilizes the Princeton setting. Ivy includes monster battles, sure, but it's also a love letter to the college campus. Stone gargoyles talk; the shelves in the library move; the leaves, trees, and ivy come to life; and the gates are much more than they appear. Durst leads you across the campus and into the buildings with the turn of each page, making sure that readers will recognize Firestone Library or Dillon Gymnasium based from her own careful descriptions. The narrative is so immersed in Princeton, the story so dependent upon it, that it is questionable that Enchanted Ivy would work in other environs. Happily, that’s a non-issue, as Lily runs from one end of campus to another, through gates, up stairs and out onto ledges (so she can talk to the gargoyles, obviously), and Princeton’s gothic Old World architecture is allowed to shine. Come to this one for Lily’s epic test, but stay for her magical collegiate adventure.

Finally, almost twenty years ago, I was living in a new state, facing a lot of questions about my future, and lost in a dozen different ways when I reached for an urban fantasy collection called Borderland, edited by Terri Windling. I’m sorry to say I was largely unfamiliar with the contributors, who ranged from Charles de Lint to Emma Bull, Ellen Kushner, Midori Snyder and Will Shetterly, but I took a chance and found a place I have come to treasure. As described by Windling, the anthology and those that followed were all about “Bordertown: a modern city at the edge of a mysterious, magical realm -- a border city where runaway children gather to create new lives for themselves... sometimes successfully, sometimes disastrously (reminiscent of Real Life teen meccas such as Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s).” The kick was that Bordertown was set right up against the gates for “Elfland,” and thus was populated not only by humans desiring to be close to that magic, but by elves interested in living among us. It was a place where magic and technology blended together forming something other; unplanned, unpredictable and equal parts frustrating and exciting. The teens who ran there were curious and interesting and determined, and even when things did not go well, the stories written about them did not disappoint. I fell hard for the Bordertown stories, and immediately became an avid fan of all the writers involved. When the series went out of print after four titles, I was quite disappointed, but happy to have been along for the ride while it lasted.

Flash forward to this month, and a new book, Welcome to Bordertown, edited by Holly Black and Ellen Kushner. With an introduction by Windling, this anthology brings together many series favorites, as well as a host of amazing additions who offer up stories and poems in what is still the best mash-up of music, faery and coming-of-age drama. The table of contents includes Christopher Barzak, Cory Doctorow, Neil Gaiman, Jane Yolen, and Cathrynne Valente, among many others, and as I expected the collection is truly stellar. It surges right out of the gate with the titular Windling and Kushner novella. It brings new readers easily into the mythos, while sharing the story of siblings Trish and Jim, one of whom chose to leave for Bordertown and one who was left behind. All the stories that follow build off of the events described in this story, so it is critical reading, but it also stands alone nicely as a tale about leaving home, finding yourself and making surprising choices. Here’s a bit about Trish that particularly resonated with me, for obvious reasons:

All around her the world was sharp and strange and full of promise. “There’s so much I want! I want to read every book in the world. I want to live a beautiful life and have friends who talk about books and music and poetry. I want to hear every story. I want to learn about everything there is...”

Cory Doctorow fans will fall hard for “Shannon’s Law,” which showcases one of his classic tech-punk characters now unleashed in a world where electronics operate on a whole different level. (I can’t help but think that in many ways, Bordertown is a place Doctorow has been waiting for.) “A Voice Like a Hole” by Catherynne M. Valente opens with “The trouble is I ran away when I was fifteen.” Valente takes the cliche of cruel stepmother and tosses it back at the reader, daring us to challenge her character’s brutal honesty. This is a much sweeter story than I expected, with a surprisingly tender twist at the end.

Emma Bull’s amnesia story “Incunabulum” gives us a peek into the Elfland side of things, while still holding firm to the overall theme of personal reflection and reinvention. In an added bonus, her protagonist is both snarky and defiant. Jane Yolen brings “Tam Lin” into the 21st century with her poem “Soulja Grrrl: A Long Line Rap.” In Tim Pratt’s “Our Stars, Our Selves,” Allie Land, “lesbian future rock star for hire,” is offered one of those classic fairy tale boons -- an actual wish for anything she wants. Of course she learns a lesson but not the one you'd think, and her decision is the least lame one I have ever read in the wish-accepting business. Belligerent and ballsy, Allie is a standout heroine.

Delia Sherman’s poem “The Wall” explains the existence of Bordertown better in a few lines than nearly anyone else. Here’s a bit:

I formulate theories.

Here is one:
The lives of elves are long.
They are easily bored.
They eat dreams for breakfast.
Are empty again by lunch.

Here is another:
Mortal dreams are like snowflakes.
No two alike.
Each reflects the soul that dreams it
Like a mirror in a fun house.

Christopher Barzak’s “We Do Not Come in Peace” is a lot about music and a lot about friendship, with a little bit of revolution thrown in for good measure. And Holly Black and Cassandra Clare have a pastiche of Old Hollywood, new theater, and some serious cloak-and-dagger action that manages to give readers one protagonist who is not nearly as flighty as she seems, and another who turns out to be hiding a Bruce Wayne side. Both of these stories are more about the regular workings of Bordertown, not so much those who run there, but rather those who live there and thus serve to take the collection up a notch, offering up another perspective of this dark, complicated, subversive, and beguiling place. Maybe I liked them so much because they are a lot like me now -- they aren’t about escape but rather acknowledgment that where you are right now is the best place for you to be.

Long live Bordertown, and thanks to all who brought us back there again.

COOL READ: Moving beyond fiction for some real life adventure, David Bristow has done a great job of collecting reports for his recent title Sky Sailors: True Stories of the Balloon Era. Dating back to the eighteenth century, Bristow writes about the men and women who took to the air in what can only be considered the most extreme of circumstances. This was ballooning when no one knew how to control the balloon. From the Harvey children, who were whisked away on a runaway balloon in 1858 (and lived to tell about it), to an unplanned journey across the Great Lakes that left the balloon’s occupants “shaken, their clothes tattered...”, Bristow has clearly done his research. While the disastrous Andree expedition to the Arctic will likely be familiar to some, I can’t imagine many readers will have heard of parachutist Dolly Shepherd, who ushered in the 20th century by hanging from a trapeze bar below a balloon until she reached her desired altitude, then let go and parachuted down. Problems arose if she was unable to release the parachute -- which on one occasion found her holding on up to a frigid 12,000 feet. The balloon finally descended on its own and she rode it all the way down. Illustrated with full color photographs, drawings, and other ephemera, Sky Sailors provides a series of tightly written chapters that each can stand alone. Older reluctant readers in particular will likely find this one well worth tackling.

Colleen Mondor can be found blogging about many literary things at Chasing Ray.