Thursday, April 23, 2020

Piratica: Being a Daring Tale of a Singular Girl's Adventure Upon the High Seas by Tanith Lee

I bought this book to put into my Little Free Library, but wondered where it might fit on the range of age-appropriateness—especially because I intended to loan it first to a neighbor teen. The best way to determine this, of course, was to read it myself.

Surprise! It's a great book, and despite the story line, has little gore, with zero vulgarity and profanity. (Unless you're worried about exclamations like "Great shells!" or "Upon my father's coat!")

The cross-dressing teenage girl Artemisia (Art), who sets out to convert her crew of actors into real pirates, is a genuine sweetheart. The acting troupe she carries along in her wake are truly interesting characters themselves, and the young artist she robs at their first encounter, then later kidnaps to the West (or "Blue") Indies and carries onward to the Southern Indian Ocean's "Treasured Isle" (which may be Île Saint-Paul in our world), is an honestly intriguing figure who refuses to fall into the "true love" trope of any ordinary pirate romance.

The setting is global, but it is not the globe we live on. In Art's world, 1820's "Lundon" is the capital of Free Republican England (which ousted its monarch quite a while ago, erasing all hereditary titles and freeing slaves in all its colonies at the same time). The islands of the "Blue" Indies are still pirates' havens. The ocean south of the east "Africayan" coastal island "Mad-Agash Scar" is named "Capricorn Sea." Even the calendar is different; by Art's reckoning, the year in which the story's events occur is "Seventeen-Twelfty."

Some things stay the same, though. As in 1820, in the "Seventeen-Twelfty's," the same once-hereditary elites mostly remain in power, though with different titles. People are free to starve or freeze to death, though no one we meet does so. And a young woman who has the audacity to wear men's clothing and successfully captain a ship is a criminal because of that, regardless of the theft of ships and booty. It's there, though soft-peddled. For a younger reader than I am, I suspect these disturbing ideas will vanish into the tension of the tale.

I would recommend this seriously twisted plot for the reading pleasure of any advanced middle-school reader or young adult of my aquaintance, and many an adult as well. It will appeal to both girls and boys for its story; adults can enjoy the extra layer of twisted geography and history.


Monday, February 3, 2020

The Gift of the Shaman: Hearing the World

Cape Grace (A Shaman's Tale Book 2) by Nathan Lowell

“Normal doesn’t really apply to people. The statistical distribution of characteristics are sometimes useful for looking at big pictures but are totally useless when dealing with the individual.”

Book 2 of Lowell's Shaman's Tale duology introduces Sarah Krugg, Otto Krugg's daughter, born post-mortem when her mother was killed by a boxfish. The premie newborn may be tainted by the boxfish toxin herself. Thus the slightly-scary, strangely spooky Sarah Krugg comes into the world as the Shaman's Daughter.

Boxfish toxin and other near-death experiences serve as a real-world explanation for the mystical powers of those who possess the true gift (as opposed to the title) of a shaman. After all, as we learned in South Coast, Otto's father had the title, but did not have the true gift until he was stung by a boxfish and recovered. Otto's grandfather began as a rancher, 

'...a sheep farmer from up-country who survived getting gored by a goat and came out of it a changed man.”
Sarah Krugg is thus set up to be more than an ordinary girl. But the post of shaman is defined as "the son of a shaman," or someone who a conclave of other shaman can agree has the gift. And due to pressure, subtle or explicit, from corporate management, no woman, however gifted, will be confirmed as a shaman.

The company planet is unfair to women, right? Except fishing captains are more female than male, likewise plant managers, and so forth. It is only the hereditary position of shaman that is so restricted. That is the mystery to be resolved in this novel, with Sarah's tale winding through it to provide the personal flavor.

With Nathan Lowell's experitise at telling this story, there is much more here than gender inequality. There is a real stretch toward explaining what might be dismissed as "woo woo" in his other Golden Age tales, and a revealing glimpse of Sarah herself, before she signed on to the Lois McKendrick. The duology can be read stand-alone, although for best effect, I recommend reading at least the first two books of the Traders Tales From the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper series, Quarter Share and Half Share.

Finally, consider this: If there is something out in the world worth listening too, that gives the gifted shaman his power, how much more might be gained to actually hearing what you are listening for?

Sunday, February 2, 2020

The Son of the Shaman: Listening to the World

South Coast (A Shaman's Tale Book 1) by Nathan Lowell

“Honey, everyone here fishes,” his mother said with a smile. “Even your father. It’s just some of us catch different things."

We met the slightly-scary, strangely spooky Sarah Krugg in Half Share, Book 2 of Lowell's Traders Tales From the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper series. In one sense, this is the first volume of Sarah's backstory. More than that, it is the background tale for the whelkies, carved animal figures inlayed with purple-shell hearts, that play such a crucial role in those stories.

The whelkies that Ismael Wang purchases at the flea market (in Quarter Share) on the orbital above St. Cloud speak to him. At various points in the Traders Tales, each whelkie "finds" someone it will help, and Ismael makes it a gift. Shamans on St. Cloud create the whelkies—and by tradition, they are never sold, only given to those they match. The shamans walk the beaches to collect driftwood and purple whelk shells that are carved and combined to form the mystical figurines. And they "listen to the world." 

Otto Krugg is the son of such a shaman. By company rules on St. Cloud, he will be a shaman because he is the son of a shaman, and as such, he is exempt from the requirement to be working for the company by age eighteen, or he will be kicked off-planet. Only Company employees—and shamans—may reside on St. Cloud. But Otto really would rather be a fisherman, like most of his schoolmates. His father Richard, however, insists he must "go into the family business," and learn to listen to the world as he does.

When a business threat derails the fishing community's comfortable way of life, many things will change. Including Otto's future, his parent's, and indeed, that of the entire South Coast of St. Cloud.

There are multiple levels of story here. At its simplest, it is a tale of a community industry under threat, and the clever ways its members find to work together to solve their dilemma. Slightly more nuanced, it is the story of how a father can teach his son to follow in his footsteps when he himself isn't quite sure where he is going. And deeper than that, it shows how the respect of man for his environment can lead beyond mere survival to contentment.

But only if we are listening.

Friday, January 31, 2020

One Charm to Rule Them All

The Will and the Wilds by Charlie N. Holmberg

Enna and her mentally-damaged father live far from the village, but close to the Wilds, a dangerous locale for anyone who doesn't know how to control or fend off the "mystings," ravening creatures that can come into the world from its shadowy depths.

Her father's damage came from descending into the normal world of the mystings, to retrieve a charm to help his daughter track them so she can avoid them. Now he has just sufficient memory to grow mushrooms, although he frequently mistakes Enna for her mother, who was killed by a mystings pack of "grinlings" in the Wild when Enna was younger.

Enna lives a semi-secluded life, caring for her father and their small farm, selling their mushrooms in the village, tending her herb garden, and studying the Wild and the mystings. She dreams of attending a school and sharing her knowledge with the world, but neither the money it would require nor her need to stay close with her father will allow this luxury.

All that changes when a demon-beast from the Wild charges past their protective herbal boundary, and marks Enna for destruction. Her solution is to make a bargain with a different kind of mysting, and trade a willing kiss for a pledge to destroy the pack that has targeted Enna.

And that is when things really begin to go wrong...

Charlie Holmberg's material magician novels—starting with The Paper Magician—often share this tension between gifted-yet-ignorant young women and powerful, skilled men who serve as their tutors. In The Will and the Wilds, Enna and her pledged demon Maekellus are equally ignorant of each other's worlds and abilities, and the tension comes as much from what they share with each other as it does from their battle to save both worlds from the power invested in Enna's Ring-like charm.

The tale neatly skirts the trap of fairy-tale Beauty and Beast, and goes directly to a deeper question: can a woman surrender to a man, yet retain her self? Can a man truly love a woman, yet not conquer and consume her?

The answer is worth the trip into the deep, dark Wilds.

Homeless in High School

Roam by C.H. Armstrong

Nothing breeds angst like being a teenager in a new school. 

Being new in school partway through your senior year is bad enough, but Roam's protagonist Abby Lunde has been ripped from a comfortable upper-middle-class lifestyle with two working parents, and a highly successful high-school life—cheerleader, member of a clique of "populars"—to land in Minnesota, in winter, her family homeless in an otherwise-wealthy community.

To add further apprehension to her social situation, Abby was badly traumatized by the way her "friends back home" reacted to her change in circumstance, and lives in fear of the day her new schoolmates will learn she is sleeping in a car with her family in the local Walmart parking lot, pretending to shop there when she needs to use the toilet, eating at the local soup kitchen, and doing her morning ablutions in the high-school restroom.

Nevertheless, she does gain friends almost immediately, from a ready-made group of Disney-nicknamed classmates to an interested young man who turns into a potential prom date. This rich-boy/poor-girl trope is a major part of the tale—along with a snobbish bully antagonist, a pre-prom "makeover," and a vocal competition straight out of High School Musical

So is this just a soap-opera teen drama with a homeless twist? Not at all.

The strongest message here is the crucial importance of family in overcoming teen angst. From her perspective, Abby's family was broken by the unforgivable choices made by her parents. In her new school, and in the homeless support community they came to Minnesota to find, she builds a wider family, and eventually learns to heal what is broken in her own heart.

And nothing could be less soap-opera than that.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

The Magic Words of Babel

Lexicon by Max Barry people at the top, the scariest thing is how many people there are below. They need to watch us. They need to monitor what we’re thinking. It’s the only thing between them and a guillotine. Every time something like this happens, anytime there’s death and fear and people demanding action, to them that’s an opportunity.  —Lexicon

This terrifying science fiction thriller combines a host of sharp observations on society and individuals, a multitude of cultural origin stories that echo the Old Testament's Tower of Babel, and cutting-edge-of-tomorrow technology that might actually exist today—only "they" don't want us to know. "They" are the verbal elites, a dark Illuminati who know the secret words that, when spoken, can enslave anyone—even another member of the elite—and turn them into a virtual slave, permanently or for a defined time.

The concept supposes a tower of puppets, a looming world-wide heirarchy of commanders and commanded. There are categories, of course, of these verbal whips, and for each personality type, some will work and others will not. In the lexicon of command, there are phrases to subjugate each group, as long as you can determine which type they are.

The cabal of elites selects and trains likely youngsters to gather and interpret data about individuals so that their category is known. A hundred, even fifty, years ago, this would have been difficult. It would have been piecemeal, using the few persons able to determine the type of a person by direct interaction. Social media has changed that.
People resist a census, but give them a profile page and they’ll spend all day telling you who they are.

Then there is the "bareword." A bareword is a rare thought which, whether vocalized or visualized, can command everyone, regardless of their type.

Except, perhaps, one immune. Maybe there are others, but one is known for certain. This unique individual may have died in an experiment—but if not, he or she has experienced first-hand the release of a bareword. And for the elite commanders atop their tower, this person may be their last hope to recover that bareword, to give them ultimate power.

They pursue it despite knowing that, whenever this power has been acquired in the past, a Babel-like tower and the subsequent shattering of the common language has been the result.
Their power lulls them into comfort. They become undisciplined. Those who had to earn power are replaced by those who have known nothing else. Who have no comprehension of the need to rise above base desires. Power corrupts, as the saying goes, and the bareword... is not only absolute power, but worse: It is unearned.

The interleaved neuro-linguistic concepts play well against the political-thriller action of Lexicon, provoking an intermittant recognition of real-world events, and leaving the reader at the end with a deep sense of satisfactionas well as more than a little queasiness about using social media.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Laughing at Death: Johnny Optimism

Johnny Optimism - Volume One: What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stranger by Stilton Jarlsberg

You can't read this book and stay blue! Well, not unless you hold your breath while searching in it for a cartoon that's NOT funny. Or one that is too dark to laugh at.

Truly, Johnny Optimism has the worst luck—and the best sense of humor—in the hospital, if not the world. You've got to love him!

You'll also meet an astounding array of characters, like Tickles the creepy clown, the homicidal child with her duck puppet, cowboy-kid Pepe the epileptic, and the reading girl with her gloomy predictions of all the things that can kill you. Like a slipper. (I'm not telling. Read the book and find out. Or live the rest of your life in fear of comfortable footwear.)

The only downer in the book? It's Volume One. There's a whole 'nother book, at least, of Johnny Optimism jokes I'll have to wait to read.

Note: If you can't wait, try the excellent blog where new Johnny Optimism posts appear at a frequency of around three per week. A recent post:

Note2: Please observe the "Fair Warning" on the cover: These cartoons are "not for kids or the overly sensitive. (Read: Easily Triggered.)