Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child book coverI've had this book a while and finally got around to picking it up. And I have to admit after reading it that I think it would work better as a produced play than a script (I was thinking that myself, but a friend of mine read the book and felt meh about it, but then saw the play and said it was awesome), but I still enjoyed the story.

Harry Potter's son Albus befriends Scorpius Malfoy on their first Hogwarts train ride. They're both socially awkward but their friendship is the real thing, and a few years later, Scorpius agrees to help Albus on a quest Albus believes will right the wrong Harry did in surviving Voldemort when he killed Cedric Diggory. The two manage to steal a time-turner and chaos ensues, basically. Because 14-year-olds don't always make the best, fully-informed choices (though to be fair, they felt a little younger to me than 14). While they're off wreaking havoc throughout the last 25 years, Harry, Hermione, and the others are trying to stop them and dealing with an additional threat.

Eventually, they all meet up in a way I didn't expect, and disaster is averted.

This is a must for HP fans, of course, even though it may not give you the fix you expect. It's never the same with sequels that change generations because you're just not as invested in the characters as you were before. But it's still a worthwhile tale.

Review: Zombies Vs. Unicorns edited by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier

Zombies Vs. Unicorns book coverThis is fun collection of mostly urban fantasy stories centering on (duh) zombies or unicorns. It is framed as a competition between the two editors, where Team Zombie is led by Justine and Team Unicorn by Holly. There are twelve stories in the collection but I was only able to read ten of them due to a weird printing error (pages from one story later in the book replaced pages in two other stories earlier in the book). Not sure how that happened with a major publisher like Simon & Schuster, but okay…

The first story is “The Highest Justice” by Garth Nix, on Team Unicorn. It’s a fairly simple fantasy story about a princess being given what’s rightfully hers with the help of a unicorn dispensing justice.

“Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Alaya Dawn Johnson is the first Team Zombie story. It’s about a zombie named Grayson who’s got a big crush on a boy named Jack. There are some pretty funny moments in it. When he’s talking about how he doesn’t know who he was before he caught the prion that makes him a zombie, he says about the prion:

That means it has to be drunk, snorted, dripped, or anally inserted. Yeah, I don’t want to know what the fuck I was doing either.

The story’s told mostly in second person (“you”), which I am not a fan of. (Actually, it drives me crazy and I sort of hate it. But I didn’t hate this story, mostly because it moves at a fair clip.)

The next story is “Purity Test” by Naomi Novik, a unicorn one. It’s also funny. An evil magician has been kidnapping baby unicorns and an adult unicorn is on the hunt for a virgin to help stop the bad guy.

The next two stories—“Bougainvilla” by Carrie Ryan and “A Thousand Flowers” by Margo Lanagan—are the ones that got the pages from another story dropped in the middle of them. So I can’t say anything about them.

“The Children of the Revolution” by Maureen Johnson is another zombie story. It too is funny (this is a theme for much of this collection). In this one, a college girl dreamily follows her boyfriend to England to pick berries only to find that this is backbreaking, soul-destroying work. After he abandons her for the greener pastures of London, she ends up getting a gig babysitting some weird kids. Some very weird kids.

“The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn” by Diana Peterfreund gives an interesting take on unicorns. Maybe they’re not what they’re supposed to be—maybe they’re vicious killers. But what about a baby one?

“Inoculata” by Scott Westerfeld is another zombie story. A few years after the zombie apocalypse, some teenagers are bored living with each other and a handful of adults, running pointless drills to stay prepared. So one of them figures out a way to make things more interesting—for both the kids and the zombies.

The next story is “Princess Prettypants” by Meg Cabot and it has the honor of being my favorite story in the collection because of its humor. A seventeen-year-old is given a unicorn for her birthday and doesn’t know what to do with her—until she figures out a perfect way to use her, to great effect.

“Cold Hands” by Cassandra Clare has a slightly different take on zombies (the book says it’s like the voudin tradition of the possessed dead) that leads to a very different love story.

Kathleen Duey’s “The Third Virgin” takes a dark look at the downside of being a unicorn with healing powers. It’s told from the perspective of a unicorn who just wants it to all be over.

“Prom Night” by Libba Bray is definitely the most haunting in the collection, ending with a surprise for the reader and a promise of an unpleasant surprise for the characters.

A lot of these stories are fairly long, but they also are pretty deep. They explore different themes and in the end, I can’t say whether zombies or unicorns won. That will have to be up to you. But if you like fantasy/dystopian, you might enjoy this collection even though it’s almost ten years old.

Review: Awakening (Monstress #1) by Marjorie Liu and Sara Takeda

I haven’t been reading a lot of graphic novels lately, probably because I’ve been on more of a contemporary kick and most graphic novels are fantasy or sci-fi. But this one caught my eye at Barnes and Noble because of the art on the front—and the cat I saw on the back when I turned it over. It comes highly recommended with two blurbs by Neil Gaiman as well as ones from EW and Cosmopolitan. 

Monstress Awakening book cover

Monstress is an epic steampunk story about a survivor of a devastating race war between humans and Arcanics. Seventeen-year-old Maika Halfwolf may have survived the war several years earlier, but that doesn’t mean she knows her past. It’s a mystery and she’s desperate to understand it, so she is searching for answers as the story opens. She kills a dangerous woman and steals something that belonged to her, which triggers all sorts of badness. As the book continues, Maika’s joined by a half-fox named Kippa and a two-tailed poet cat named Ren (both of whom are very cute, in case you were wondering). Maika has some impressive powers which she uses to brutal effect when she needs to, but she also has a monster inside her that she’s fighting for control of her body. 

Although the story is good, I have to admit sometimes I got a little lost reading it because it is deep and complex (particularly as relates to the politics). But this isn’t really a bad thing because there are plenty of people who adore stories like this. For me, the best part was the art, which was beautiful—dark and evocative. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that the themes of feminism and diversity are right there for all to see. Because while it’s steampunk, it’s not set in alternate England—it’s more alternate Asia somewhere. And it’s peopled mostly by women, who run the gamut when it comes to being good or not.  

Review: The Surface Breaks by Louise O’Neill

The Surface Breaks book coverI had high expectations for The Surface Breaks because I think O’Neill is an amazing and very skilled writer. She did not let me down. This book is different from her others, as it’s a reimagining of the fairy tale The Little Mermaid.

Now, I have to start by saying I don’t know my fairy tales at all. I don’t think I ever saw Disney’s The Little Mermaid, either. So I don’t know how much of the book comes from the original tale and how much is new from O’Neill. The little mermaid herself, Muirgen (or Gaia, as she prefers to be called), is the youngest of several daughters of the Sea King. He is a bit of a tyrant even though she and her sisters don’t see it that way. They accept all the expectations and limitations placed on them. They are to look pretty, be agreeable, and nothing more. The girls’ mother disappeared on Gaia’s first birthday. Everyone believed the Sea King’s story about her getting trapped in a human’s fish net. Gaia grows up romanticizing the idea of her mother and looking forward to the time when she too can go to the surface and see what’s up there. The book opens right before her fifteenth birthday—the year she’s allowed to swim to the surface.

When she does go, she happens upon a shipwreck and saves one of the humans—a beautiful man she’d admired all day, long before the storm that broke up the boat rolled in. This is a grave sin that would get her in big trouble with the Sea King.

Gaia has the misfortune of being the prettiest of the sisters, so she’s been betrothed to a much older mer-man who’s one of her father’s good friends. He’s pushy and horrible and soon after the book opens, he starts coming to her bedroom at night and taking what he wants. The first time is such a great example of O’Neill’s evocative writing that I have to share it. Just after gripping her by the waist and threatening to tell the Sea King about her misdeed at the shipwreck—of course he’d followed her, he’s a big creep:

He tightens his grip and claims my lips with his, his cold tongue invading my mouth like a greasy sea slug.

I mean, seriously—a sea slug. That’s such and awesomely perfect description, and so, so gross.

Gaia spends her time mooning over the man she rescued, Oliver. She visits the area where she took him and hopes to see him again. She imagines herself in love. So when Zale makes it clear that once they’re bonded he will prevent her from making trips to the surface, she starts to panic a little and eventually comes up with an escape plan. She’ll visit the Sea Witch and see what can be done.

The Sea Witch makes Gaia a gruesome offer: she has to give up something of herself that’s very valuable, will get legs that will be agonizingly painful, and has only a month to make Oliver fall in love with her, or she’ll die. She accepts.

That’s when the real adventure starts. That’s also when the dread sets in. I find that dread is a significant feature of O’Neill’s books, because you know things aren’t going to go the way the characters (and readers) want. It makes the books hard to put down, and that was definitely the case here for me. Once she got to the surface, I finished the book in two nights, staying up way too late the second night. Because even though the setup is great, the story with the humans is so good. This is when Gaia’s latent feminism wakes up, even if it’s quiet.

The book is full of wisdom and an awareness of the utter lack of fairness in the world for girls and women. Gaia watches men at a party:

They estimate the beauty of each passing girl, weighing it up with their friends. Listing pros and cons as if it is their decision to make, that the girls’ beauty will be determined by their opinions rather than objective fact, because they are men and a man’s word is final.

It’s brilliant and beautiful, too. After the party,

The evening plummets into night, the moon rowing across the ocean’s skin.

I just love it. And then there’s the ending—just, wow. I really didn’t know where it would end up (I was dreading it, after all) and it totally surprised me in a very good way.

If you consider yourself a feminist or even if you don’t but you’ve just noticed how rough things are for girls, you should check this one out. It was seriously great. A genuinely entertaining story loaded with so much more.

Review: Children of Blood and Bone (Legacy of Orïsha #1) by Tomi Adeyemi

Children of Blood and Bone book coverThere’s a lot of hype surrounding this book (for instance, I saw Entertainment Weekly called Adeyemi the next J. K. Rowling). Hype can be both good and bad. It had a lot to live up to, but I was still excited to read it, even though it’s way longer than my normal reads.

If you haven’t already heard about it, Children of Blood and Bone is an epic fantasy with all the elements you’d expect—magic, sword fights, magical artifacts, and an epic journey—but it’s set in a world inspired by Nigeria and West African legends. It’s a story of oppression, unjustified violence, class, and privilege—and it’s cast is entirely black. Eleven years before the book opens, the king of Orïsha killed all the maji (people who could use magic) in the Raid. He also did something that destroyed the ability to do magic, but he let divîners live. Divîners are children who will become maji when they reach the age of thirteen, but now that magic is suppressed, they won’t. Divîners and maji both are marked with white hair so it’s instantly clear who they are. The divîners who survived the Raid are treated very badly (this is a significant understatement) and called “maggots” as the slur of preference.

The book features three teenage characters who all have POV chapters: Zélie, Amari, and Inan. Zélie’s the main star, being a divîner and effectively chosen by the gods for the book’s important quest. Amari is the kingdom’s princess and Inan is her older brother. Amari sees her best friend killed by her father for no good reason. She flips out, steals a magic scroll, and flees. Poor Zélie is the one she runs into and who helps her escape. Prince Inan is sent to retrieve Amari, with instructions to bring her back alive—unless people find out what she did. Once Zélie and Amari (plus Zélie’s brother Tzain) reach Zélie’s village, they learn that there is a way to bring magic back to the land. Thus begins the quest. The three of them head out, with Inan on their heels the whole time.

The book’s very well-plotted and pacing is good. In my view, quest books frequently end too rapidly. This one moved quickly at the end, but it didn’t wrap things up prematurely. The ending was very satisfying.

All three main characters are amazing—they’re multi-dimensional and well-developed, with each of them changing dramatically over the course of the book. Their emotional journeys are all interesting and deeply-felt. Zélie’s brother is the fourth major character and while he doesn’t change as much as the others, he’s still important to their character arcs.

Then, the world building is fantastic. The magic system is unusual (at least in my experience) and well-explained. I loved that the language of magic in Orïsha is Yoruba, a real language native to Nigeria. I also appreciated all the slightly gratuitous diacritics on so many of the place names and magic-related words. And they ride giant cats. Cats!

I do have one complaint about the book, but it only detracts from the full reading experience a tiny bit. That is that a lot of the conflicts are resolved to easily and quickly. Some terrible obstacle would be thrown in their path and then some solution would appear. For instance, when they’re needing to charter a boat to an island at one point, they have to convince the captain of a ship to do it for no money. I didn’t 100% buy his fast acquiescence.

Despite that, it’s an excellent book that you should seriously consider reading. YA fantasy lovers should definitely love this one, but I think it’s fresh and engaging enough that even those who don’t read that should enjoy it. I’m definitely watching for the sequel.

Review: How to Hang a Witch by Adriana Mather

How to Hang a Witch book coverI joined one of those new monthly book clubs where they send you a book you aren’t specifically expecting, and this was the first one they sent me. I hadn’t heard of it, although I was at Barnes and Noble the other day and they had about 5 outward-facing copies on display, so I’m guessing it’s gaining in popularity. It’s certainly got good reviews on Amazon (4.8 stars, which you rarely see).

It’s an interesting book about the Salem Witch Trials and the modern-day consequences—and how that relates to bullying. Which ies a really interesting take on the situation. Mather (the author) is a direct descendent of Cotton Mather, who is famous as the instigator of the Trials. So her main character, Samantha, is also one of his direct descendants. She moves to Salem into her dead grandmother’s house with her stepmother after her father has gone into a mysterious coma.

This triggers what appears to be an old curse that’s only active when all of the descendants of the major players of the Trials are in town. There’s a group of goth kids—four girls an a boy—who are known as The Descendants, because their direct ancestors were the ones executed in the Trials. Since Sam is a direct descendant of the man who started it all, they hate her. And the rest of the town, including many of the school’s teachers and administrators, also dislike her.

That’s partially where the connection to bullying comes in. Mather’s point is that its somewhat arbitrary—it can happen to anyone for any reason, but the community as a whole has to support it. This rings true for me, as although we usually view bullying as a kids’ problem, in many cases adults are nearly as complicit. In may own experience of being bullied, many adults explicitly blamed me while others just looked the other way. In her Author’s Note, Mather says, “Group agreement and group silence are equally as deadly.”

Anyway, in the book, The Descendants don’t like Sam and they blame her for the string of deaths and bad luck that have been hitting their families since she arrived. But Sam befriends a prickly ghost living in her house who also helps her uncover the cause of all the deaths, which can be traced back to the time of the Trials. Sam tries to tell everyone that the curse isn’t new and that she and her father are both in as much danger as anyone else, but instead they continue to blame her. Somehow she has to convince The Descendants to work with her to break the curse.

Sam is a complex character trying to make sense of her past. She’s grown up believing she’s cursed, so when she finds out she sort of really is, it’s a shock and she has to figure out how to deal. Her stepmother is also interesting because it’s really hard to tell if she’s good or bad or what. The ghost and his formal way of speaking are entertaining. Also, I should mention that there were moments late at night when I had to put the book down because I was getting a little creeped out. I get a tiny bit superstitious in the dark. A ghost, creepy woods that Sam is sensible enough to be scared of, and magic.

Review: Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

Nimona book coverI don’t remember how I found out about this graphic novel, but I’m glad I did, because it was highly entertaining. Although art is generally a matter of personal preference, I liked it. The book features Nimona, a shapeshifter whose base form is that of a teenage girl, and Ballister Blackheart, the kingdom’s purported notorious villain. Blackheart has a vendetta against Ambrosius Goldenloin, who destroyed Blackheart’s right arm. These are the folks you see on the cover. The comic is set in a vaguely medieval world with advanced science. It’s clever and even subversive at times, all while managing to be hilarious.

Nimona hangs a stocking

Oh, and there are dragons.

Blackheart is in a bit of a rut as the kingdom’s supervillain, though his scientific experiments are continuing. He has an issue with killing people, so mostly he’s a nuisance. Enter Nimona, who shakes things up as his self-appointed sidekick.

Nimona's a shark

She’s precocious and annoys him at first, but she’s relentless enough in her commitment to him and her interest in furthering his supervillain career that they take on the Institution of Law Enforcement, who Goldenloin works for.

Nimona meets Goldenloin

Back in the day, Goldenloin and Blackheart were heroes in training, but now Goldenloin is the sole hero of the kingdom. The Institution isn’t as squeaky clean as they would have everyone believe. No, they’re carrying out dangerous experiments that are risking the health of the entire population. Things escalate and Blackheart and Nimona have several violent encounters with Goldenloin and/or the Institution, culminating in one big battle.

I loved the fact that Nimona doesn’t have a perfect model body—she’s got these big thighs that made me adore her. And I appreciate it all the more because she’s a shapeshifter, after all—she could take any form she wanted. I also loved that the kingdom’s legendary hero was a woman who slayed a giant scaled creature rumored to be a shapeshifter. The clever “mad scientist” that Blackheart turns to in an attempt to save Nimona is also a woman.

The major characters are all complex, but Nimona and Blackheart are both especially good. Nimona is damaged (as an abandoned child), impulsive and gung-ho about everything. Blackheart is always subdued and deadpan. And their father-daughter-like relationship is cute to watch.

Nimona's a sore loser

Their dialogue is always funny and full of subtext giving sneaking glimpses into their insecurities. And there’s more than meets the eye with Blackheart and Goldenloin, reminiscent of Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On.

I’ll leave you with my favorite scene:

Nimona watches a movie