Mark of the Dragonfly

by Jaleigh Johnson
First sentence: “Micah brought the music box to her on the night of the meteor storm.”
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Review copy handed to me by one of my bosses, who told me to “get on it”.
Content: There’s some violence (none of it fatal), and a bit of an innocent crush. But no language. The reading level is probably a confident 3rd grader/4th grade level. It’s happily in the middle grade (3-5th grade) section at the bookstore.

Piper is a scrapper. She lives in a scrap town at the edge of the Meteor Fields, and runs out after storms, looking for salvageable items — things that have come through from other worlds to hers — in order to sell for pennies. She wants more from her life, especially after her father’s death in the Dragonfly Terrritories’ factories, but she doesn’t quite know where to start.

Then, after a particularly violent meteor storm in which her best friend, Micah, is seriously injured, Piper finds a girl. She’s not-quite-dead and bears the Mark of the Dragonfly, which means she’s protected by the king. Piper revives her, and when a sinister man (whom the girl, Anna, calls “the wolf”) comes looking for the girl, she and Piper escape. Only to find themselves on the 401, the main train connecting the northern Marrow kingdom with the southern Dragonfly one.

Once on the train, though, Piper’s and Anna’s problems don’t go away. They meet a whole host of characters and are being chased by slavers and raiders (and the wolf) on their quest to figure out who Anna is, and what Piper’s budding powers can do.

I know I didn’t do the book summary justice. I’m not sure, however, if anyone can. There’s a lot going on in this book. It does have things going for it: Piper is a complex heroine, stubborn and intelligent, a combination of drive and pluck that made her very likable. My only complaint is that Johnson chose to introduce a romance element (however slight) with a boy. I felt it was unnecessary to the whole story, and it didn’t add anything. However, I thought the relationship between Piper and Anna was incredibly well-written. It became a sisterly bond and one that was very realistic and interesting. And the world — from the objects falling from the sky, to the cool train — was fascinating. The book did feel incomplete — is it the first of a series? — and there were many threads left hanging, but it was a good, solid contribution to middle grade fantasy.

The Rithmatist

by Brandon Sanderson
First sentence: “Lilly’s lamp blew out as she bolted down the hallway.”
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Content: It’s pretty mild; there is some talk of murders, and some intense situations by the end and a mild romance. It’s only upper middle grade because of the length. I’d give it to my 10 year old, if she showed interest. It’s shelved in the YA section (grades 6-8) at the bookstore because of the length. That, and the publisher’s recommendation was 15+, which I disagree with.

Imagine a future where some unforseen disaster splits the US into several island country/states. Imagine a future where there are people — Rithmatists — who can draw with chalk and make it come… alive. Imagine a future where wild chalkings — two-dimensional chalk drawings that are sentient, somehow — can attack and kill a person. It’s in this world that Joel, a chalkmaker’s son, exists. His father used to be the chalkmaker for a prestigious Rithmatist training school, before he died. Now, Joel and his mom are scraping by. Joel would love to be a Rithmatist, but they’re chosen at age 8, in a mystical/religious ceremony, and Joel wasn’t Chosen. That hasn’t stopped his passion for Rithmacy and the history. He’s pretty much shunned until one of the top professors, Fitch, is toppled from tenure by a young upstart. And then, top students start disappearing. With another not-so-great student, Melody, Joel works at figuring out just what is threatening the students.

This was slow-going at first. I didn’t quite grasp the idea of the world, or the importance of the illustrations. Which, in many ways, is a drawback: if you can’t grab a kid in the first chapter or two, then in many ways you’ve failed as a book. But this one is worth the slog in the first couple of chapters. It takes a while, but as the mystery develops, and things become more intense, and more about the Rithmastist world is explained, Joel — and especially Melody — come into their own. The final couple of battles are quite intense and very much worth the while. And even though I kind of called the mystery, there is a bit of a twist that I didn’t see coming, which was very satisfying. And as I came to understand the illustrations — which admittedly were off-putting at first — I found them at least as fascinating as the story. If Sanderson wants to write a guidebook for the Rithmatist world, I’m sure there’d be a market for it.

I do wish — and I know that I’ve said this before — that people would stop writing series books. This one worked quite well as a stand-alone, even with a few threads hanging. I do appreciate that (even though the last three words are “To Be Continued.” ARGH). But overall, it was a fascinating world to immerse myself in.

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)

Clockwork Angel

by Cassandra Clare

ages: 14+
First sentence: “The demon exploded in a shower of ichor and guts.”
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You don’t have to read The Mortal Instruments series first, but I think it helps.
Tessa Gray is an orphan on her way to London to be with her older brother when she’s kidnapped by a couple of women calling themselves Dark Sisters. They force her to wake up a latent power she has, called Changing, saying they’re prepping her for the Magister. She manages to escape with the help of a couple of Shadowhunters — Will Herondale and Jem Carstairs — who take her back to the Institute in London. Where Tess learns about the whole Shadowhunter world, and the fact that no one knows quite who she is. Oh, and that the Magister isn’t going to give up looking for her. 
There’s more to this — of course there is — including a wicked cool twist I didn’t see coming. I enjoyed seeing the Shadowhunter world from the perspective of Victorian London. And the smattering of steampunk with the automatons was a nice touch.  In fact, in many ways, I liked this one better than the Mortal Instruments. It’s funnier, it’s more intense, and it’s got a more interesting plot. Oh, and Tessa is a WAY better heroine than Clary. Sure, it’s kind of confusing: you never find out what Tessa is, or why the Magister wants her. And the beginning leaves your head spinning. But the end is completely worth it.
On to the next one.

Etiquette & Espionage

by Gail Carriger
ages: 12+
First sentence: “Sophronia intended to pull the dumbwaiter up from the kitchen to outside the front parlor on the ground floor, where Mrs. Barnaclegose was taking tea.”
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I’m going to say this up front: I was drawn in by the cover and by the back, which has a very catchy and kind of awesome blurb on it:

It’s one thing to curtsey properly
It’s quite another to learn to curtsey & throw a knife at the same time.
Welcome to Finishing School.

But I couldn’t finish it. In fact, after about the first paragraph, I was questioning my desire to read it at all.

From what I can gather, Sophronia (Really? REALLY? What a terrible name. Then again, all the names are terrible) is a 14-year-old tomboy in 1850-something.  It’s a steampunkish world, with machinery and robots, but there’s also paranormal beasties (you know: werewolves, vampires and the like). Because she’s such a handful, her mother’s neighbor (I think that’s who Mrs. Barnaclegoose is; I was never really quite clear on this), takes it upon herself to enroll Sophronia in Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing School. Which, as it turns out, has a lot more to do with finishing than Finishing. (Ha.)

I never really got the rest of the plot, because after the attack of the flywayman (double ha) and the revelation that Mademoiselle Geraldine is actually a 17-year-old student named Monique (who has an Agenda), I lost interest. I wanted this to be awesome in the over the top but way cool sort of way,  but instead it ended up just being convoluted.

Orson Scot Card said once (I think it was him) (and I’m obviously paraphrasing here) that a good story needs more than one good idea. But that’s the problem with this one: a Finishing school for assassins is a good idea. A fellow student who has an Agenda is a good idea. A steampunk world is a good idea. Werewolves and vampires are good ideas. But all of them  together? Not so much. The book felt — and granted I only got about 70 pages in — cluttered.  Crowded. It made me feel claustrophobic.

And the writing? Sure, it’s the 1850s, but this is just banal:

“Your mother is occupied in an important private audience. I was going to await her leisure. But for this, I shall disturb her. It is 1851 and I believe we lived in a civilized world! Yet you are as bad a a rampaging werewolf, young miss, and someone must take action.” (3)

Dimity sidled up to Sophronia and whispered, “Isn’t he simply scrumptious?”
Sophronia pretended obtuseness. “The coachman?”
“No, silly. Him!” Dimity tilted her head toward their new escort.
“He’s a little old, don’t you feel?” (47)

(Much talk like Yoda, hmmm?)

“Oh yes, lead on, do. To the Squeak deck.”
“What-ho.” (73)

And that sound you hear? It’s the sound of my hopes being dashed.

Pity.

Steampunk!

An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories
edited by Kelly Link and Gavin Grant
ages: 13+
First sentence: “Orphans use the puppet of a dead man to take control of their lives.”
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I went into this knowing about this much about Steampunk: it’s a meld between the past and the future, giving new technologies to a time period that didn’t have them. The only steampunk I’ve read before this was Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series. And, even though M really really wants a steampunk costume, I really don’t have much invested in thknois fantasy sub-genre.

So I didn’t really know what to expect from this collection of short stories. However, while I enjoyed many of them, I kept wondering: what is steampunk, really? Because these stories were all over the map. Some, like Kelly Link’s “Summer People”, were just straight fantasy. Others, like Ysabeau S. Wilce’s “Hand in Glove” (a mystery) or “Steam Girl,” by Dylan Horrocks or “Seven Days Beset by Demons,” by Shawn Cheng, felt more straight fiction than fantasy/steampunk at all. Does the throwing in of some mechanical somehow make a story steampunk? Even when the mechanical element doesn’t play a role in the larger story?

Others, like Libba Bray’s “The Last Ride of the Glory Girls” and Cory Doctorow’s “Clockwork Fagin” and M. T. Anderson’s “The Oracle Engine,” felt more “authentically” steampunk to me, and as a result, those were my favorite stories. It could also be that I know Bray’s and Anderson’s writing (not so much with Doctorow, though I’ve met the man)  and love the way that they tell stories. But, I felt that they did what I expect steampunk to do: marry technology with a pre-tech state, and give me a good story where the technology is important to the outcome.

Perhaps the whole idea of this anthology was to stretch the definition of steampunk, and allow for it to encompass more genres. But I’m not sure that worked for me. Steampunk really is at its best when it limits itself to its stated definition. And when you find an author that can do that, it’s fascinating to see the outcome.

The Peculiar

by Stefan Bachmann
ages: 10+
First sentence: “Feathers fell from the sky.”
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Imagine a world in which faeries came through a portal, waging war against the humans, destroying most of England, including the entire city of Bath.

Imagine that the cost of this is that the faeries are trapped in our world, for hundreds of years.

Imagine a world in which half-breeds (half human, half faerie) are despised and hanged.

Imagine a half-breed boy, Bartholomew, who lives in hiding with his sister in the city of New Bath, scraping by an existence while his mother (his faerie father left years ago) tries to make ends meet.

Imagine a faerie so desperate to return to the “other world” that he’s willing to kill half-breeds to make it happen.

Imagine a man, without ambition or direction, who manages to get caught up in all this, and ends up hanging on for dear life.

And you will pretty much have imagined “The Peculiar.”

I have to admit that the cover was underwhelming. It kind of looks like clockwork chickens, or something of that sort. But a woman at work read it and liked it enough that I picked it up, just to see what it’s about. And honestly? Steampunk fairies equals win. You have traditional Victorian steampunk (hence the mechanical bird, which makes more sense after reading the book), crossed with some pretty spooky faerie stories; a hero that’s both accidental and intentional — he’s out to save his sister from her nasty fate; and a bumbling adult who’s more endearing than annoying. I couldn’t put this one down. Sure, the plot’s probably a bit confusing — especially near the end — and maybe even a bit predictable (okay, it’s not hard to figure out who the bad guy is), but there are some nice surprises, and an ending that both resolves the plot as well as leaving a thread for a sequel to follow.

I probably would have been turned off if I had read the author bio before reading the book: Bachmann is one of those wonderkids (he’s 18) who comes off as insufferably pretentious in his author bio. But, you know what? This worked. It’s an original idea (at least that I know of), and it’s a well-written story.

Which makes me wonder just what this kid will come out with next.

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)  

Goliath

by Scott Westerfeld
ages: 12+
First sentence: “‘Siberia,’ Alek said.”
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Others in the series: Levithan, Behemoth

When we last left our fair heroes, Deryn and Alek, they had helped the revolution against the Ottoman Empire succeed, and prevented them from entering the Great War. Now the crew of the Leviathan is headed for Siberia, to pick up some unusual cargo — inventor Nikola Tesla, who claims that his invention, Goliath, can bring the Great War to an end, once and for all.

Of course, there’s still the problem of Deryn being a girl and Alek thinking she’s a boy, and plus she’s in love with him and he’s a prince and she’s a commoner. So, of course, there will be stickiness when he finds out.

Like the previous two books, Goliath is many things all at once: action-packed, filled with battle scenes and daring escapes and cool contraptions; gorgeous, with Keith Thompson’s art elegantly complimenting Westerfeld’s words. I have to admit flipping through the book to look at the pictures, just so I can see them before reading the words so I can figure out what the heck is going on. It’s a bit of a love story this time around as well, and even though Westerfeld doesn’t have the swoon-worthy prose of, say, Maureen Johnson, he does fairly well keeping a balance between Deryn and Alek’s friendship and their budding love. (Though I have to admit here that one of my favorite characters was Alek’s perspicacious loris, Bovril. He was awesome.)

It has a wider scope than the previous two books, as the Leviathan basically circumscribes the world, going from Siberia to Japan to California through Mexico to New York. It’s almost as if Westerfeld felt like he couldn’t leave any part of his new steampunk world untouched. It kind of felt forced, though I do get the historical implications; he was, after all, just following the path that the actual World War I took.

Even with that criticism, it was wonderful to follow Deryn — who is really one of those awesome, cool, capable heroines you just have to cheer for! — and Alek’s — who has really grown on me over the trilogy — story come to a good end.

And you can’t ask for more than that.

Behemoth

by Scott Westerfeld
ages: 12+
First sentence: “
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When we last left our dynamic duo, Alek and Deryn, they were floating on the airship, Leviathan, headed toward Instanbul and the Ottoman empire. Deryn, who is masquerading as a boy, knows pretty much all of Alek’s secrets: he’s a prince, his parents’ death started the war, and he’s on the run. The crew of the Leviathan have a wary peace with Alek and his companions, especially because it’s their Clanker engines that are keeping the Leviathan up.

Deryn has still managed to keep her secret safe, though she’s slowly realizing that Alek means more to her than just a pal. Then again, he’s a barking prince. (What is it about Westerfeld’s writing that gets me talking like he writes? Seriously? I said “happy-making” for ages after reading the Uglies series, and now I’m swearing like a seampunk Darwinist sailor. Barking spiders, indeed!)

And when they get to Istanbul, it all breaks loose. Alek and his companions escape the Leviathan (they’re increasingly afraid that “guests” means “prisoners of war”), and end up falling in with a group of revolutionaries determined to overthrow the shah and end the German influence in their city, at least. Deryn, on a secret mission of her own, ends up in the same place: aiding Alek and his new friends.

Although the book is slow to get started, especially if it’s been a while since you’ve picked up Leviathan (like me), once it does, it delivers everything you’d want from a Westerfeld book. Action, adventure, mystery, romance… and a great imagination. There’s some amazing machinery and creatures in this book; things that will have you gaping and scratching your head: where does he come up with this stuff? And, of course, by the end of the book, enough happens that you will be on the edge of your seat, wondering what, possibly, could happen next.

Waiting is always the hardest part.

Leviathan

by Scott Westerfield
ages: 12+
First sentence: “The Austrian horses glinted in the moonlight, their riders standing tall in the saddle, swords raised.”
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First, a disclaimer: I have never, ever heard of steam punk before this book, let alone read it. I had no idea what it entails, what makes a good steam punk book, or what even to expect.

But if this is even remotely typical of the genre, I’m hooked. It was an awesome, wild and weird ride, a fabulous adventure — no one writes nail-biting action like Westerfield — and a grand beginning to a story that has the potential to be absolutely amazing.

It’s 1914, on the eve of the Great War. Alek is a prince of the Austro-Hungarian empire and it’s the murder of his parents that sets off the war, as well as sends Alek on the run for his life. All he has with him is a few loyal men, and a Stormwalker in order to fend off the Germans. Deryn is a commoner, a girl, who desperately wants to fly in the British Air Service. Mind you, they’re not flying planes, but rather Darwinist living creatures — huge ecosystems of creatures that work together to get off the ground. Deryn disguises herself as a boy, and by a fluke or two of nature (ha!), ends up as part of the crew of Britain’s newest airship, the Leviathan.

Told in alternating chapters, the book details not Alek’s escape from his palace and Deryn’s entry into the air service, but their eventual meeting and the results of that meeting. As I mentioned before, there’s tons of nail-biting action from Alek’s initial escape to a couple of attacks by the Germans. But what I found most fascinating (and wild and weird) was the combination of historical fiction and futuristic elements, as well as a re-imagining of science. I loved the Clankers versus Darwinist feud, as well as each individual science. The clanker machines were awesome, powerful, and captivating to read about. But the Darwinist inventions — the wild cross-breeds, the machinations to keep them up in the air, the things (like flechette bats, for instance) that Westerfield created — were the things that kept me turning pages and shaking my head in amazement. What kind of imagination dreams this stuff up? (Well, Westerfield’s, of course.)

The book ends somewhat abruptly, but I’m totally sold: I want to know what happens next. I want to know what adventure Deryn and Alek are going to go on, and I want to know about the small mystery that’s part of the larger story.

The problem — like all books with sequels — is being patient until the next one comes out.