Owl and the Japanese Circus

Owl and the Japanese Circus, by Kristi Charish 23213197-_uy475_ss475_

Published January 2015 by Gallery Books

We should start by getting something out of the way: If you’re looking for the story of an anthropomorphic predatory bird that runs away from home to join the circus, you might be a little disappointed. There are no actual owls in this book.

If, on the other hand, you’re in the market for a fun, fast-paced supernatural adventure story that’s reminiscent equally of Indiana Jones-style adventure stories and Whedonesque banter and self-aware humour, then you’re in luck, and Owl and the Japanese Circus is the type of novel you might want to check out.

Owl…, the debut novel from BC author Kristi Charish, is the story of the eponymous Owl, an antiquities thief who tries to live her life by one simple rule: don’t get caught up with the supernatural. This is, of course, a perfectly sensible rule, and like many perfectly sensible rules in life, it gets completely ignored as she gets mixed up with vampires, dragons, and other supernatural creatures in a globe-trotting, temple-robbing adventure. Owl is a rough-around-the-edges protagonist with an interesting backstory and a quick wit, and her adventures are cinematic in pace and scope, while still containing enough depth and complexity that the reader isn’t left wanting.

This is the first book in a series, and in it Charish establishes an interesting character and status quo for the rest of the series while also telling a story that stands well on its own. Without venturing into spoiler territory, this works somewhat as an origin story for Owl, both in terms of the backstory that’s provided for her and the path that she’s set on in terms of future adventures that she will no doubt be having. For fans of urban fantasy, pulpy classic adventure heroes, and compelling, sharp-tongued protagonists, Owl and the Japanese Circus is a title that’s definitely worth picking up.

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An Ancient Peace, by Tanya Huff

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An Ancient Peace, by Tanya Huff

Published October 6, 2015 by DAW

An Ancient Peace finds Tanya Huff returning to Gunnery Sargeant Torin Kerr and her team of Marines, as they continue to work to keep the Confederation safe from a new threat. This might seem a little surprising, as their last outing brought an end to the intergalactic war the Confederation was taking part in. For Torin and crew, this mostly just means the name on their paycheques have changed form the Marine Corps to the Justice Department, but otherwise things are very similar.

For a lot of series like this, that amount of similarity would be a sign that the series was starting to get stale or boring. That’s definitely not the case here, though; Huff manages to keep the story fun and engaging throughout, primarily through her ability to create interesting characters that it’s easy for the audience to empathize with. It’s clear who the villains are and who we should be cheering for, but all of the characters are given equal treatment on the characterization front.

For readers new to this series (it’s labelled as part one of the Peacemaker series, but is really a continuation of the five part Confederation series by the same author), An Ancient Peace might be the most fun you’ll have with a book this year. For entrenched fans of the series, it’s more of what you already loved, with just enough of a new direction to keep things interesting.

(editorial note: a special thanks to the folks at Penguin Publishing Group for providing a copy of this book for review)

The Peripheral, by William Gibson

peripheral

The Peripheral, by William Gibson

Published October 2014 by GP Putnam’s Sons

Things have been rough for Flynne and Burton since the end of the war. Fortunately, Burton gets benefits from the VA, so he and his sister can still make ends meet, but it hasn’t been easy for them. So when what seems like a simple job comes up – fly a drone around in the beta for some new game – it seems like a perfect opportunity. What they don’t realize, though, is that playing this “game” is going to suck them into a world of time travel, alternate realities, and remote-piloted automatons.

At its core, The Peripheral is classic Gibson – as always, he approaches sci-fi and technology from an immersive, street level perspective. There’s no hand-holding for the reader, and Gibson discusses concepts like haptic feedback, automata, and nanotechnology with the understanding that the audience will already be familiar with them. In the hands of a less competent author, this might become confusing, but Gibson tells his story well enough that the audience remains intrigued until they’ve become fully familiar with them. It’s not necessarily an easy novel to get into from page one, but the payoff is absolutely there for readers that stick with it.

The future Gibson presents in The Peripheral is a terrifying dystopia, but a fascinating one as well. Climate change and other disasters have decimated the global population, with only the wealthiest and most corrupt surviving it. At the same time, it doesn’t really present as a dystopia for those living in it, which creates a unique moral tension when reading the scenes set in that time period. History might be written by the victors, but the future is determined by them.

While Gibson is often known as being a concept-driven author, one of the most enjoyable aspects of The Peripheral is the character-driven focus. Many readers have commented on how engaging of a protagonist Flynne is, and Netherton provides a fun straight-man to her while being an intriguing, empathetic character in his own right.

Smart, challenging, and engaging, The Peripheral is a wonderfully put-together piece of science fiction.

A Play of Shadow

PlayOfShadows

A Play of Shadow, by Julie E Czernada

Published November 2014 by DAW

A Play of Shadow continues the story of Marrowdell that began in A Turn of Light, Czerneda’s last work. In it, we see Jenn and Bannan’s relationship continue to develop, until some unexpected visitors force them to go on an unexpected journey to help rescue Bannan’s sister from peril.

One of the most intriguing things about the first part of this series was how it inverted the story of the hero’s journey through the magical world that Czerneda established. Central to that was the fact that Jenn couldn’t leave the village of Marrowdell. Her ability to now do so is explained neatly enough, but it initially feels like a difficult idea to accept. It’s a testament to Czerneda’s ability that in the opening act she manages to convince the reader that not only is the journey possible, but that it’s one that Jenn must take.

The characters remain a strong selling point for the book – Jenn and Bannan remain their noble, likeable selves, and the new additions of Bannan’s family provide an interesting context to help us better understand the man himself. The other Marrowdell residents take more of a backseat this time around, but they’re almost all still there and remain their naive-yet-complex selves.

One particularly interesting part of the text is the role that mirrors and reflections play throughout it. This is explicitly true in the plot, with a magic mirror playing a role at one part, but also in the contrasting images of Marrowdell and Channen on opposing sides of the Verge. It will be interesting to see how this affects any later parts of the story – the two books published so far work wonderfully as counterparts to each other, and it seems like there would be little i f any space for another book to fit.

Echopraxia, by Peter Watts

Echopraxia, by Peter Wattsechopraxia_FC

Published August, 2014 by Tor Books

Horror and science fiction have a long history beside each other – one that stretches back as far Mary Shelley defining the modern science fiction novel with her Frankenstein. Often, though, when the two genres mix the horror is formed from taking the science fiction a step too far – we make contact with aliens, but they’re parasites that burst through your chest, or we perfect cloning technology, and create dinosaurs that kill us all. In Echopraxia Peter Watts manages to merge these two worlds in a very different manner, instead taking his usual penchant for hard, fact based science fiction and trying to understand concepts such as vampires, zombies, and alien blobs through that lens.

Continue reading “Echopraxia, by Peter Watts”

My Real Children

My Real Children by Jo Walton

Published May 2014 by Tor BooksMyRealChildren_Jo-Walton

My Real Children is the story of Patricia Cowan, a British woman that in 2015 is a patient in an old folks’ home, suffering from dementia and spending her days “very confused” in the words of her nurses. We soon come to learn the reason for Patricia’s confusion – she’s experiencing two different sets of memories. In one set, she married Mark, her university paramour, and settled down in the life of a housewife. In the other, she ended the relationship with Mark, embarking on a career as a teacher that eventually leads her to Beatrice, a scientist and fellow educator.

My Real Children is marketed as a story of alternate timelines and history, and it is, but on a more essential level it’s a story of the pursuit of a meaningful life, and the wildly variant forms that that pursuit might take. In both timelines there is a background of international events and news, with the characters’ lives intertwining and influenced by them, but those events are ultimately unimportant to the story – this is a story very clearly centered on Patricia’s life.

Alternate history novels often fall into a simple dialectic of presenting either a utopia or dystopia, presented to contrast against elements of our own society. Walton manages to avoid that with this work, instead presenting two different realities that are significantly different from ours. In both timelines, we see moments of joy and heartbreak; a strong reminder that life is made up both, and often in equal measures. The lives that both versions of Patricia live are wildly different from each other, but in each one we see the same core of a character: a woman of quiet dignity and grace, who does her best to live a meaningful life.

This novel was an incredible work of literature. Walton creates characters that live and breathe beyond the page, and her prose is subtly beautiful and poetic. Patricia’s lives are filled with easily recognizable moments of everyday life, which makes them all the more tragic as we experience them along with her. Throughout Patricia’s lives, Walton creates emotional connections that will stay with the reader long after they’ve turned the last page.

A Turn of Light, by Julie Czernada

A Turn oA-Turn-of-Light-Coverf Light is the story of Marrowdell, a small community at the edge of the kingdom of Mellynne. It’s also the story of Jenn Nalynn, a young woman born in Marrowdell who wants nothing more than to leave home and explore the world, and of the arrival of a series of visitors that threaten to interrupt Jenn’s plans.

At first glance, A Turn of Light appears to be a rather standard telling of the hero’s journey – the character of Jenn, especially, feels reminiscent of a Luke Skywalker or Taran character, desperately waiting for the chance to explore the kingdom. When we learn of a curse placed on Jenn, preventing her from leaving, it seems like the next step of the story is going to be obvious – that she was going to defy the curse, and go on a grand adventure with Wil to the far corners of the kingdom.

What happens instead is a fascinating examination of the hero’s journey that is accomplished by inverting it – Jenn stays in Marrowdell, and instead the hero’s journey comes to her. All of the hallmarks of those classic adventure stories are there, including a dragon, a knight, and a quest; what makes A Turn of Light different, though, is that it removes the actual journeying from the story. This allows for a greater examination of the characters involved, rather than just describing a series of events, and Czernada manages to keep true to the emotional core of those stories throughout this tale. The conflict and threat faced by Jenn and the other main characters  feels real, their choices feel meaningful, and the plot moves uniquely while also feeling familiar.

In addition to the plot and characters, A Turn of Light is worth reading just for the pure pleasure of Czernada’s luxurious prose. At over 800 pages, it’s not what one could consider a quick or light read, but a reader willing to stay dedicated to the story will be well-rewarded for doing so.

Some readers might find A Turn of Light difficult to get into, as the book opens at leisurely-enough pace that some might find it off-putting. As one continues to read, however, it becomes clear that this pacing was not only a conscious choice on Czernada’s part, but a necessary one. Marrowdell is an idyllic, pastoral environment, and the pacing of the storytelling does an impeccable job of illustrating that in a way that creates an emotional connection for readers – a connection that makes the eventual conflict of the novel much more resonant for readers than it would have been otherwise.

A Turn of Light is a wonderfully-written novel that takes the oft-told story of the hero’s journey and retells it in an innovative and novel way. Author Julie Czernada manages to do so without turning the story into an academic exercise, keeping a strong emotional and thematic core to the story that makes it an enjoyable read as well.