Sunday, June 18, 2017

Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, Dear Reader by Mary O'Connell, Star's End by Cassandra Rose Clarke and The Mad Scientist's Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke

I would like to take a moment away from the books that I will be reviewing today to say goodbye to Stephen Furst, who played Vir Cotto on the much beloved science fiction television show, Babylon 5. He died two days ago at age 62 of the complications of type 2 diabetes, which is a shame. I met him back in the early 1990s at the radio station where my husband was working, and he'd come to talk about the signs and symptoms of type 2 diabetes. He was charming and funny and a lovely guy. He signed a Peter David Babylon 5 book about Vir for me, and told me tales of Londo and G'kar behind the scenes, smoking and playing poker. Rest in Peace, you "moon faced assassin of joy," as Londo called you.  

Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake is a YA fantasy novel that was recommended to me by a book website on Facebook, because it was supposedly similar to other YA fantasies that I had read and enjoyed, and it supposedly had a "Game of Thrones" and "Hunger Games" political element. Unfortunately, I found it too similar to Game of Thrones in that there were so many political and horror elements woven into the narrative that I lost interest more than once in the story line. Here's the blurb:
Fans of acclaimed author Kendare Blake’s Anna Dressed in Blood will devour Three Dark Crowns, a dark and inventive fantasy about three sisters who must fight to the death to become queen.
In every generation on the island of Fennbirn, a set of triplets is born: three queens, all equal heirs to the crown and each possessor of a coveted magic. Mirabella is a fierce elemental, able to spark hungry flames or vicious storms at the snap of her fingers. Katharine is a poisoner, one who can ingest the deadliest poisons without so much as a stomachache. Arsinoe, a naturalist, is said to have the ability to bloom the reddest rose and control the fiercest of lions.
But becoming the Queen Crowned isn’t solely a matter of royal birth. Each sister has to fight for it. And it’s not just a game of win or lose…it’s life or death. The night the sisters turn sixteen, the battle begins. The last queen standing gets the crown. Publisher's Weekly: Triplet sisters raised to compete for the crown of Fennbirn have their own talents: Mirabella is a formidable elemental who can conjure and control storms, Katharine is being trained to withstand poison, and dark horse Arsinoe is a naturalist working to summon her animal familiar. In this series opener from Blake (the Goddess War trilogy), the sisters are in the final days of preparing for a bitter year that will end with two of them dead while the other reigns. In this bloody world, those who buck tradition are punished fiercely—a friend's loyalty is rewarded when the priestesses sever her hand, another is banished for aiding in an escape attempt—and human sacrifice is a proven way to sate the higher power and instill fear. This dark fairytale makes a slow processional toward the Beltane Festival, then rushes through the celebration to set up the next book. But along the way Blake establishes myriad side plots and relationships, builds complex characters, and leaves plenty of compelling avenues to explore in future books.
For some reason, ever since the Hunger Games and GOT, there seems to be a plethora of YA fiction authors who have to create life or death competitions for their protagonists, and each series is more gory and ugly than the last. All these books also take place in dystopian societies, of course, where only the cruelest, most ruthless people can survive. I don't understand why, after Divergent and Hunger Games came out that authors still feel the need to tread this well-worn ground with tired tropes and painful plots. Why not be inventive and try something new, like putting a "strong female protagonist" through her paces in a utopian society, where she can mature without becoming a serial killer? (Or in this book, a sister-killer). Part of the problem is that these young women aren't allowed to have compassion or any morals or noble thoughts, they're consistently poisoned by those around them into becoming bitter antagonists and prisoners of their particular fiefdom's religious leaders. I find it hard to relate to characters who are being used as pawns with or without their knowledge, and I can't relate to those who kill others and harm themselves for political gain. Therefore, I am giving this novel a C+, and I would only recommend it to someone who is really into the politics of GOT and/or Hunger Games.

Dear Reader by Mary O'Connell is an odd but distinctive YA novel about a quirky young woman desperate to find her favorite teacher and find herself in the process. Here's the blurb:
For seventeen-year-old Flannery Fields, the only respite from the plaid-skirted mean girls at Sacred Heart High School is her beloved teacher Miss Sweeney’s AP English class. But when Miss Sweeney doesn't show up to teach Flannery's favorite book, Wuthering Heights, leaving behind her purse, Flannery knows something is wrong.
The police are called, and Flannery gives them everything—except Miss Sweeney's copy of Wuthering Heights. This she holds onto. And good thing she does, because when she opens it, it has somehow transformed into Miss Sweeney's real-time diary. It seems Miss Sweeney is in New York City—and she's in trouble.
So Flannery does something very unFlannery-like: she skips school and sets out for Manhattan, with the book as her guide. But as soon as she arrives, she meets a boy named Heath. Heath is British, on a gap year, incredibly smart—yet he's never heard of Albert Einstein or Anne Frank. In fact, Flannery can't help thinking that he seems to have stepped from the pages of Brontë's novel. Could it be that Flannery is spending this topsy-turvy day with her ultimate fictional romantic hero, Heathcliff, reborn in the twenty-first century? Publisher's Weekly: Columbia-bound senior Flannery Fields is anxious to trade Connecticut for New York City. When her AP English teacher disappears, leaving behind her purse and a worn copy of Wuthering Heights, Flannery sets out on a whirlwind quest to find her. Flannery is stunned to find that the book has inexplicably transformed into Miss Sweeney’s diary, with new entries popping up as the teacher searches N.Y.C. for a young man named Brandon, who Flannery discovers has been killed in action in Afghanistan. As she chases an increasingly unbalanced Miss Sweeney through the city, Flannery is joined by Heath Smith, a charming boy on a gap year, who seems oddly similar to Wuthering Heights’s Heathcliff. O’Connell (The Sharp Time) neatly juxtaposes Flannery’s anticipation for the “adventure, reinvention, to become someone new” with Miss Sweeney’s journal entries, illuminating the complex chaos of life and love, demonstrating that seemingly inconsequential choices and people can have lingering effects. The use of Wuthering Heights intensifies the impact of Flannery and Miss Sweeney’s corresponding journeys; even readers who haven’t read the classic will find significance in the parallels.
Flannery's voice is fresh and fascinating as she reads poor Miss Sweeney's decline into madness (she's off her pills due to grief from the death of her one true love) within the pages of Wuthering Heights. I loved Flannery's falling in love with Heath, and their trysts all over New York, especially in places that are icons of the area. O'Connell's prose is juicy and gossipy in a literary-nerd way, and the plot ziplines down the mountainside at record speed. My only complaint is that (SPOILER) we never learn what really happens to Ms Sweeney, though we can assume that she died of a drug overdose. Readers are also never certain if Heath was real, or even who he said he was at the outset. I mean British born "Heath Smith" seems a bit much considering the protagonist and her teacher are both obsessed with Healthcliff from Wuthering Heights.  Still, this novel was a page-turner without an ounce of excess prose anywhere, so I think it deserves an A, and a recommendation to anyone who was a fan of Rory Gilmore from Gilmore Girls, who would have swooned over this novel.

Star's End by Cassandra Rose Clarke is a science fiction take on Shakespeare's King Lear, with one extra sister thrown in to make things interesting. Esme is the heir apparent to her father's vast empire, and while her mother is a soldier who had a one night stand with her father and got pregnant unexpectedly (and then decided to just drop Esme off on him because she didn't think she'd be able to raise a daughter in the military) Esme's father married a younger woman (almost every woman is bound to be younger than he is, as he's taken rejuvenation treatments for 300 years) and she had twins and is pregnant with a third child when the family compound is attacked by aliens who were native to the planet before her father terraformed it (he tried to wipe them out so he could have the planet and its resources for his company). The second wife is therefore killed, and her baby is infected with the DNA of the aliens, something her father tries to exploit as she becomes a teenager. 
Here's the blurb:
A new space opera about a young woman who must face the truth about her father’s past from critically acclaimed author Cassandra Rose Clarke.
The Corominas family owns a small planet system, which consists of one gaseous planet and four terraformed moons, nicknamed the Four Sisters. Phillip Coromina, the patriarch of the family, earned his wealth through a manufacturing company he started as a young man and is preparing his eldest daughter, Esme, to take over the company when he dies.
When Esme comes of age and begins to take over the business, she gradually discovers the reach of her father’s company, the sinister aspects of its work with alien DNA, and the shocking betrayal that estranged her three half-sisters from their father. After a lifetime of following her father’s orders, Esme must decide if she should agree to his dying wish of assembling her sisters for a last goodbye or face her role in her family’s tragic undoing. Publisher's Weekly: In this skillfully orchestrated tale set nearly 2,000 years in the future, Clarke (The Mad Scientist’s Daughter) foregrounds a family drama of Shakespearean scope against the backdrop of an interplanetary “corpocracy” run by Phillip Coramina, a manufacturer of bioengineered weapons. When Phillip is diagnosed with a terminal illness, he deputizes his oldest daughter, Esme, to call her three estranged stepsisters home to the family estate at Star’s End. As Clarke’s narrative toggles back and forth between these events and occurrences in the past, it reveals sordid secrets that Esme has gradually become aware of—especially those connecting her youngest sister, Isabel, to the Radiance, a mysterious alien influence intimately bound up with the Coramina Group’s commerce. Clarke’s smoothly calibrated mystery is also a coming-of-age tale for Esme, as she accepts her responsibilities as heir apparent to her father’s business. The well-developed characters enhance this novel of grand ideas, bringing relatable human motives and vulnerabilities to a world in which industry, government, warfare, and space travel are inextricably intertwined.
Phillip Coromina is, like King Lear, obsessed with his legacy and his wealth/company. He's cruel and ruthless and somehow expects his daughters to come running now that he's dying of a brain tumor. While reading this novel I often wondered if Esme was actually an android, as she always seems to obey her father and make excuses for his ruthlessness and complete lack of care, empathy or love of his three daughters from his second family. Esme seems to have more concern for them and their safety than does her father, but she has no problem manipulating them with that concern to get them to meet up with him one last time, so that they can renounce their share of the family company in favor of Esme, whom Phillip assumes will continue his legacy of building armaments, cloning super soldiers and killing native populations on various planets so that the company can plunder and terraform them.Fortunately, she decides to bring the company around to creating better environments for people already in need of help, and she shuts down the cloning and weaponry dept.   Clarke's fine prose and excellent storytelling skills are on full display here, and I loved her well developed characters, even the clone soldiers had interesting lives and things to say. I'd give this novel an A, and recommend it to anyone who likes Shakespeare adaptations.

The Mad Scientist's Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke was yet another science fiction novel with a twist, this one reminiscent of Bicentennial Man or the Silver Metal Lover by Tanith Lee with a bit of Blade Runner thrown in for good measure. Here's the blurb:
Nominated for the Phillip K. Dick Award, a science fiction fairy tale set in a collapsing future America about a girl and the android she falls in love with.
When Cat Novak was a young girl, her father brought Finn, an experimental android, to their isolated home. A billion-dollar construct, Finn looks and acts human, but he has no desire to be one. He was programmed to assist his owners, and performs his duties to perfection.
His primary task now is to tutor Cat. Finn stays with her, becoming her constant companion and friend as she grows into adulthood. But when the government grants rights to the ever-increasing robot population, Finn struggles to find his place in the world. As their relationship goes further than anyone intended, they have to face the threat of being separated forever. Publisher's Weekly: Caterina Novak's life changes completely the day her roboticist father brings home Finn, a startlingly lifelike android. As Cat negotiates high school, university, marriage, and motherhood, Finn becomes her tutor, her best friend, and her first love. Of course, loving an android isn't simple in a near future where android rights are hotly debated, and Cat has much to learn about her and Finn's place in the world. Supporting characters are sometimes hazily sketched, and Cat's occasionally unsettling love for Finn is only questioned by characters clearly meant to be villains. However, Clarke's writing is elegant and often deeply moving, placing the reader's sympathies firmly with her star-crossed lovers.
Cat's vacillation and fear of actually admitting her love of Finn is somewhat frustrating in this science fiction romance novel. I just kept wishing she'd do what is so obvious to the reader and run away with Finn and live her HEA. But the ending, which I expected to tackle that HEA head on, never comes to fruition, and we are left wondering what happens in the future for Cat, her son Daniel and Finn, who will never age, but will watch his beloved Cat wither and die. Still, there's Clarke's wonderfully mesmerizing prose and her swift, sure plots to keep readers turning pages into the wee hours. For that reason alone I'd give this novel a B+, and recommend it to fans of science fiction romance and those who felt moved by PK Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?"

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