Return of the Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

Return of the Theif
by Megan Whalen Turner
2020

This is a tricky book to review but first, it is FABULOUS and I HIGHLY RECOMMEND IT!

Second, however, you need to read the entire series first and I don’t want to tell you anything about any of them because the twists and revelations are just that good. It’s not really a spoiler to tell you all of the twists and turns that happen over the course of this series, because nothing is going to spoil these books, and I can and do reread them with pleasure, however it seems criminally negligent to deprive anyone of their first experience with it.

So I’m going to say, go read The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner and enjoy a wonderful light adventure story in a fantasy version of the ancient Mediterranean peninsula, and then read the sequel where consequences start to get real and then every other book after that. And don’t even read the back blurbs of each book until you’ve read the previous books.

One thing I will say about this particular book is that it is the sixth book in the series and a grand finale. I am incredibly impressed with Turner’s ability to stick the landing, because not many authors of series can do that. There are a number of different threads going through the whole series that she not only kept track of but ensured the reader could keep track of too. And in addition to the main conflict, there was a whole secondary thematic build-up that I never even noticed happening until it came to a head in this book. I enjoyed it in the previous books and had sort of noticed it becoming more intense in each book but hadn’t given it much thought until this one and just, ooooh!

This book is also possibly the twistiest of all the books as new revels keep on happening and every character has their own complexities, and themes from previous books have reprisals, and just, my god, this book was amazing and this series was amazing and this is an amazingly worthy climax. 

The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine

PrinceOleomargarineThe Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine
by Mark Twain and Philip Stead
illustrated by Erin Stead
2017

I saw this at a library book sale and it was a Mark Twain story that I had never heard of before and had beautiful illustrations so I bought it and then the sale was over so I sat down on one of the library benches and I read it and it is sweet and sharp and funny and pleasing. It also reminded me of The Princess Bride in the way it pulls back from the story periodically to remind the reader that it is a story and that the people telling the story have their own story happening.

And: I need to reiterate this: the illustrations are beautiful and make excellent use of white space.

So while this is a children’s story, it’s also an adult story, and even the children’s fairy tale section has some rather pointed aspects as one would expect from Mark Twain. Plus, the history of the actual book is incorporated into the background of the story in a way to intentionally blur the lines between reality and fiction.

But the history of the book is that Mark Twain wrote down extensive but incomplete notes for this story, and those notes were only relatively recently identified within his his archive, at which point the rights to co-author, finish, and publish the story were licensed out.

Anyway, this is very cute and I definitely recommend it, but I am sufficiently out of touch with children these days that I have no idea what the intended age range for it is.

Fanfiction: The Untamed/GoDC edition

I have now read a lot of fanfic for The Untamed / Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation. I figured it was time to make some recommendations here for some of the best of them. It was extremely hard to weed it down to just four, and I had to struggle to try to keep them solidly distinct from one another (there tends to be a lot of overlap in fanfic) and generally happy (canon gives a lot of opportunity for angst). And not too explicitly graphic, although I compromised that one a bit.

So here are my four recommended fanfics, in order chronologically through events and also in order of humor, from heart-wrenching to hilarious:

   DURING CANON, there’s always going to be a certain amount of angst:

Devoutly to Be Wished
by yunitsa
word count: 3,032

Summary: Five (and half) times Wei Wuxian fantasies about Lan Wangji, and one time he doesn’t have to.

Why I recommend it: I was going to keep this list of recommendations strictly non-graphic and then I realized that I had to include this one because it’s a gorgeous and heart-breaking look at the main character and his desire for his beloved as he grows and changes.

   IN THE MISSING YEARS, there’s a surprisingly less angst:

Scapegoat
by astrobandit
word count: 1,325

Summary: four ridiculous things the Yiling Patriarch was blamed for, and one ridiculous thing that was positively his fault.

Why I recommend it: The canonical storyline switches between the past and the present with a good decade in between the end of the past and the beginning of the present, and in that time Lan WangJi appears to have decided that he has no more fucks to give and it is glorious. This story is a few very short vignettes that show just how done with everyone’s idiocy he is. Glorious!

   IMMEDIATELY POST-CANON, specifically to the TV show

The Absolutely True Story of the Yiling Patriarch: A Manifesto in Many Parts
by aubreyli
word count: 19,692

Summary: In which the junior disciples (namely, Lan Jingyi, Ouyang Zizhen, and a reluctant Lan Sizhui) turn to RPF in an attempt to rehabilitate Wei Wuxian’s reputation so that he and Hanguang-jun can get together and get married and live happily ever after. It’s… surprisingly effective.

Why I recommend it: This is both beautiful and hilarious and does an amazing job of capturing that dichotomy that’s also present in the original story of balancing humor and drama.

   FURTHER POST-CANON, our main couple are an established couple and dealing with other things:

A Civil Combpaign, and it’s companion, Besieged
by Ariaste
word count: 31,015

Summary: “And,” said one of the pompous ministers, “there’s the matter of a marriage to consider as well!”
Jin Ling, who at the beginning of that sentence had expected to slam into the very last wall of his patience and lose his temper entirely, paused. “A what?”
Thing was… it wasn’t such a bad idea.

Why I recommend it: This is side-splittingly funny. I had to struggle through some second-hand embarrassment but it’s worth it because this is the most awkward courtship attempt ever between two of the younger generation with our main couple established and looking on. And Wei Wuxian’s perspective on it all is an utter delight. Also, in some ways, this version of Wei Wuxian reminds me of Eugenidies from The Thief.

 

The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation by: Mo Xiang Tong Xiu

mdzs coverThe Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation 
Written by: Mo Xiang Tong Xiu
Translated by: K.san
2018-2019

This is a phenomenon.

I first discovered this because someone I follow on tumblr was posting a steady stream of amazingly beautiful screencaptures of beautiful people and scenes from the show, The Untamed, showing on Netflix.

theuntamed

I convinced Anna to try it out with me, and we were quickly enthralled and had to watch all 50 episodes even though the plot was confusing enough that we had to read the episode summaries before watching each episode and then discuss the events to make sure we understood what was going on.

It wasn’t helped by the fact that we were dealing with names that we weren’t used to, so mostly gave everyone a nickname: Protagonist, Beloved, Beloved’s brother, Protag’s brother, Protag’s sister, Red girl, Red guy, Fan guy, Douche, Psycho, Douche’s Cousin who makes Douche look better in comparison… etc.

It says something about how charismatic the acting is that we were drawn in despite the initial confusion.

So, we watched all 50 episodes and it was done. There was an amazing and beautiful conclusion. But also: what was I going to do with my evenings now????

I mean, the answer is clearly: fanfic. But before that, I discovered was that the tv show was based off a book, Mo Dao Zu Shi, that has a freely available online fan translation, Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation by K.san, of all 113 chapters plus 13 “extras”.

There is action and adventure and mystery and intrigue and magic and it is so freaking funny. What was funny in the tv show is ten times funnier in the book because we get the internal monologue of our main character. What was subtext in the tv show is very much text in the text. On the other hand, what was known-but-unspoken by the characters in the tv show is dumb-ass boys being absolutely terrible at communication in the book.

Anyway, this is an east asian fantasy world with swords and magic and ghosts and a variety of supernatural spirits that are probably more culturally known in China but easy enough to just go with as an American reader.

The basic premise, is that a much reviled and yet also much respected character was killed some sixteen years before the start, but has been brought back to life as part of a revenge (on someone else) plot. Wei Wuxian finds himself alive again, somewhat insulted that his reputation after death had gotten so bad that someone brought him back to life to kill their family. And things quickly spiral from there, because sixteen years is just long enough for the next generation to start dealing with the world but not enough for the earlier generations to have forgotten Wei Wuxian or moved on.

There’s a lot of flashbacks in the book as we alternate between seeing what’s going on now, with the newly alive Wei Wuxian, and what happened prior to his original death, and how it got the point where he was killed in a coordinated attack. Meanwhile Wei Wuxian and Lan WangJi have the most slow-burn, mutual-pining, idiot-boys-cannot-communicate, romance going on in both time periods.

It also starts off quite funny, and gets progressively darker as it goes along, even as it maintains some of the humor, and finally breaks through into lightness again at the end.

All this goes to say, I loved this and I want to recommend it to everyone who thinks they might like this kind of fantasy action shenanigans, but if the genre is not your thing, then I’m not sure if the book is good enough to break through. But maybe give the tv show a try just to see.

However, a couple of warnings:

Warning #1: the translation is very, very good for an amateur, but is rough for a professional. I did find the translator notes quite interesting as she discussed some of the word choices she made. And since she was posting the translated chapters as she went, it’s also interesting to see how the translations changed and improved over the course of the full book.

Warning #2: there is explicit sex near the end of the book and even more in the “extra” chapters after the story arc is complete. The scenes say more to me about the author’s kinks rather than staying true to the characters. Since the kink in question, playing with consent issues, is kind of my anti-kink, even when it’s clearly desired by both, I didn’t care for it and look forward to fanfic fixing that particular aspect.

The Orphans of Raspay by Lois McMaster Bujold

OrphansOfRaspay1The Orphans of Raspay
by Lois McMaster Bujold
2019

Yay! Another Penric & Desdemona short story by Bujold! For the first time, Amazon’s update email was actually useful to me despite going out a full week after the novella was published on July 17th. Normally I stalk Bujold’s listing much more carefully but I’ve been busy recently and thus only learned about this title on the 24th when Amazon finally got around to emailing me.

It is a delight! It’s also a novella of extreme self-indulgence, with both plot and character arc being mostly absent, but adventure and swashbuckling in quantity!

This is also an amazing example of what you can get away with if you set up the world-building right. Because in this fantasy world, there are five gods (father, mother, son, daughter, and bastard) and Penric is a devotee of the Bastard: literally the god of luck (good and bad) and all things out of season. And thus, it actually makes perfect in-universe sense for Penric to have amazingly good and bad luck in all things, especially when one takes into account his demon Desdemona who sheds chaos even as she also provides him with extraordinary powers.

The story starts with his ship being attacked by pirates and continues on in wacky hijinks after he’s taken on the temporary guardianship, as best he can, of two young orphans who were also taken by the pirates.*

This is an utter delight and I have no idea how comprehensible it is to anyone who hasn’t read the rest of the series but I’d be interested to know if it’s so indulgent that it actually can stand on its own. It’s essentially a day-in-the-life (or, in this case, week-in-the-life) of a temple sorcerer in a fantasy world.  And I love it!

* While I love this story, here’s a warning for pirates being pirates and actually genuinely bad and there are threats of sexual assault.

The Bedlam Stacks

By Natasha Pulley

Bedlam_StacksOh, man, you guys! This book is so good! The Bedlam Stacks is the second novel by the author of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, and I’d forgotten how good that novel was, too! They both have this beautiful atmosphere of dreaminess and suspense, and all the characters are so smart and interesting, even when they are at odds with each other, and the dialogue is so witty!

So, The Bedlam Stacks is about a guy who works for the East India Company as a smuggler, which the book fully recognizes is super problematic. Merrick Tremayne travels around the world, steals other countries’ protected resources and brings them back to London for the English company to sell at a huge profit. When the story starts, he has been injured in China and convalescing at his decrepit family estate. Though he isn’t fully able to walk yet, the company asks him to go to Peru to steal some cuttings of a native tree that is the main ingredient of the only known malaria cure at the time.

I would say that this is a stand-alone book and you don’t have to read The Watchmaker first, but you actually do. There is very little overlap in characters and setting, but to borrow from the clockwork theme, there’s a small but important cog in the story that you won’t understand if you don’t already know the secret of The Watchmaker. One of the very cool chapters when things start falling into place won’t make any sense at all, and will probably just confuse everything worse.

That said, The Watchmaker had one key magical element that transformed the very mundane London setting. The Bedlam Stacks exponentially expands the world-building to an entire region in Peru, where what we would consider magic is built into the way of life, both to the benefit and detriment of the locals. I loved it, it broke my heart, and I can’t stop thinking about it!

Bullet Rain

By Robert Swartwood

Bullet_RainI don’t know what inspired me to get Bullet Rain from the BookBub deal – I even had to pay a dollar for it! It is the sort of tough-guy genre that I generally don’t like: ex-military (usually sniper) loner gets coincidentally caught up in a bad situation and kicks all kinds of ass. I mean, I like a badass loner as much as the next reader, but these books invariably also have the sassy but naïve (read: dumb) young woman to be rescued by our loner, and she always gets on my nerves.

Bullet Rain checks off all of these points, and yet I still got a kick out of it, and I can’t explain it at all. I think it might have been the very first chapter, which opens with a sniper enjoying an audiobook while waiting for his target, and spends more time describing the audiobook than the gun. I figured this was probably a novel that had priorities more in line with mine than usual.

Main protagonist Nova is a recently retired black-ops assassin who is sort of aimlessly traveling across the US when his car breaks down in very rural Nevada. One of the first things we find out about Nova (in this book*) is that he is a fan of Guns ‘N Roses, and is a little embarrassed by that fact. When his car gets two flat tires, he is as annoyed as the rest of us would be to find that his cell phone has no service — and he doesn’t have any special military equipment or McGyver-esque tricks to fix this. So, as someone who both likes Guns N’ Roses, and has gotten more than her fair share of inconvenient flat tires, he was pretty immediately in my favor.

Of course, he soon meets attractive young Jessica, who of course needs his rescue, though she is then obnoxiously ungrateful for it, which I suspect was supposed to be “feminism.” She is clearly out of place in the small, rural town, and has her own hidden agenda. Jessica is ridiculously out of her depth, and I would consider her incredibly stupid if she wasn’t quite so young, and if she didn’t have a pretty solid motivation. It helped, too, that Nova himself seemed to view her similarly.

There is little romance, and while there is a lot of violence, it is not bogged down with gruesome details, so Bullet Rain is a very serviceable book that does its genre better than most.

*Bullet Rain is apparently a one-off novel about a side character from another series from the author, but I didn’t feel that I lacked any information. I don’t think it is the type of series that sets up complicated plot arcs over multiple books.

Six of Crows

Six of crowsIf I told you that a book was like a YA Game of Thrones crossed with Ocean’s Eleven, would I even need to say anything else?

I haven’t been reading a lot lately–due to a combination of work and personal events, I’ve been so busy and distracted and stressed that I haven’t been able to concentrate enough to read much beyond Twitter. Which is unusual for me, but it does mean than when a book manages to break through the fog, it’s something to note. Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo is actually the first in a set of two books (and it’s basically just one big story, so you might as well go ahead and get Crooked Kingdom at the same time, because you’re going to need to start it right away) that I just thought were terrific. Tense and dark and sweet and magical and twisty–the kind of story that drags you completely out of your world and into a new one.

Like Ocean’s Eleven, this story has an ensemble cast with a crafty leader who is always one step ahead of everyone else. In this case, the ringleader of the group is Kaz Brekker, an up-and-coming gang boss in a city that reads like an alternate universe Amsterdam where magic is real. When he gets offered a can’t-say-no job breaking into an impenetrable ice palace, he has to assemble a group of other disreputable underworld teenagers with the skills–including sharpshooting, demolitions, and magic–needed to pull off the heist. But this is not a simple theft, and the gang gets swept into disputes both international and interpersonal. Reading Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom was like a roller coaster–I would get more and more tense as things went wrong and situations got dire, and then there would be this rush of glee as all the double-crosses and plans were revealed.

Now, this isn’t a comedy. As appears to be the thing in YA books now, there is violence and death and things do get very dark. I should also note that this story is set in the same universe as another trilogy of books, starting with Shadow and Bone. I haven’t read those yet (they’re all waiting on my Kindle) but they happen some time before Six of Crows. So if you’re very intent on reading things chronologically and not getting any hint of other story lines, you might want to start there.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Gritty, magical caper

You might also like: We’ve already raved here about Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series, but I really think that if you liked one of these, you’d like the other. Kaz and Gen have an awful lot in common. And this is great opportunity to tell you that Turner just came out with a new book in her series (technically, a stand-alone story in the same universe) called Thick as Thieves. Quick like a fox, go check it out!

online comics / graphic novels

I never quite know what term to use for comic strips or comic books or graphic novels now that the medium has expanded so wildly beyond what those terms originally referred to. But I’ve got two online comic strips that I highly recommend because they’re charming and delightful and I just love the characters and the stories and the artwork.

First up:

WildelifeWilde Life
by Pascalle Lepas
2014 – ongoing

The plot is: “A graphic novel about a writer who rents a haunted house from Craigslist and makes not-friends with a werewolf.”

It’s essentially a series of short stories set in a rural town around the main guy who’s rented a house for a while to just get away from his previous life that’s mostly not mentioned. The illustrations are excellent (and just keep getting better) but the characters are where this really shines. Every character is so very much themselves and so very delightful. (And don’t forget to check for roll-over text comments from the author on later pages because they’re pretty darn funny too.)

The author has just finished the sixth chapter / plot arc, and it’s so incredibly delightful and I really hope she does another kickstarter so I can order hardcopy versions. In the meantime, you, gentle reader, should immediately go check this out: http://www.wildelifecomic.com/comic/1

Second up:

powerballadPower Ballad
by Molly Brooks
2017 – ongoing

This only has eight issues out so far but it’s scheduled to be updated weekly and those eight issues are an utter delight!

Meera is the personal assistant to international pop star / masked vigilante Carina. So while Carina does music videos and fights crime batman-style, Meera tries to make sure appointments are made and kept. And they both have adorable pining crushes on each other but neither have said anything (yet!) and it’s just too cute for words.

Also, the illustrations are amazing and doing some really interesting things, because first they’re working with the online medium by displaying each issue as a single page down which the reader scrolls rather than trying to mimic a hardcopy comic book (at some point I think it would be really interesting to see if hardcopy comics can be made on scrolls to mimic websites), and second, they’re illustrated with just a couple of colors in a handful of shades, which gives it a sort of quick-sketch first impression while still being amazingly effective and detailed.

So check it out here: http://www.webtoons.com/en/drama/power-ballad/list?title_no=987

 

Newt’s Emerald

NewtsEmeraldNewt’s Emerald
by Garth Nix
2015

This was a fun book, but I went into it with high expectations and it never matched them. I’ve read a lot of really good, fun regency romance adventures, with and without magic, and this one feels like what it is: a fan of that genre wrote his own take for fun, but without really going all out.

Regency romance is fun genre over all, with complex manners and dresses and marriage missions, and Georgette Heyer is the clear founder and leader of the genre. Her characters are quirky and her plots of romance and manners are complex, and it all defines a time and culture of arbitrary rules that make so little external sense and yet have perfect internal structure. Garth Nix is clearly a fan, but his characters are a too flat and caricatured while the rules of society don’t have the same clarity and internal consistency.

For regency romance with magic, Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer with their Sorcery & Cecilia series or Patricia Wrede alone with her Mairelon series have brilliantly added layers of magical realism to the rules of society and it all really works well. Despite how amazing the world building was in Nix’s Old Kingdom series (a series I definitely recommend), the rules of magic in Newt’s Emerald are mostly vague and hand-wavy while occasionally contradictory.

The book that Newt’s Emerald was trying to be would have been awesome. Unfortunately, it just never quite developed enough–not the characters, the plot, or the world. None of this means that the book is terrible. It just… wasn’t great.