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.

Darths & Droids

Screen Shot 2015-10-11 at 7.16.08 PMDarths & Droids
by The Comic Irregulars (Andrew Coker, Andrew Shellshear, David Karlov, David McLeish, David Morgan-Mar, Steven Irrgang, Ian Boreham and Loki Patrick)
and, of course, Lucas Films
2007 – present (and ongoing)

So, I’m currently reading book 3 of this series, while the authors are still regularly updating book 6. And, with the soon-to-be released Star Wars episode 7, I’m sure hoping the authors continue to write a book 7.

Because this is a graphic novel parody re-telling of the Star Wars movies and it is hilarious!

I actually blasted my way through Books 1 and 2 and am now laughing my way through Episode 3, even as I also go back to Episodes 1 and 2 to laugh at that over Anna’s shoulder as she reads it.

The great thing about this is that it doesn’t actually deviate from the plot (as best as I can tell, although I admittedly don’t really remember the movies all that well) – it uses screen captures for the illustrations. The parody aspect comes with the fact that it’s told as the adventures of a Dungeons & Dragons style role playing game and has the dialogue of the players, both in and out of character, overlaying the events. And let me tell you: all the things that make no sense in the movies, suddenly make all sorts of perfect (and perfectly hilarious) sense when you see the motivations of the players making the decisions.

I have no real interest in role playing games, but this almost tempts me to try because it’s so funny, except that then I remember that I find them kind of tedious. It doesn’t matter, though: this makes it look fun and awesome! And the author’s comments below each page are also hilarious bits of commentary either on making that particular update or on the joys/frustrations of role playing games.

Plus, I had not thought it possible to be absolutely charmed by Jar Jar Binks, but apparently I can be. And I really want to tell you all about the hilarious things that happen (Shmi! Sally! “Summon bigger fish”!) but once I started, there’d be no end and you really just need to go start reading it yourself.

Go forth and read Darths & Droids: here!

I’m also going to include a couple of other somewhat related links, which are well worth exploring too:

DM of the Rings: Darths & Droids was originally inspired by DM of the Rings, another webcomic parody with the same premise of role playing gamers being the Lord of the Rings characters. It’s also hilarious, although I think Darths & Droids does it even better, in part at least because the Star Wars movies are active/ludicrous enough to support going through it scene by scene, while DM of the Rings necessarily skips over large sections.

Star Wars: Before The Force Awakens (original Korean: “스타워즈: 깨어난 포스 그 이전의 이야기”) by Hong Jacga is actually a fully licensed and approved addition to Star Wars that is also a free online webcomic being regularly updated. It’s also beautifully illustrated and adds scenes of Luke Skywalker’s early life even as it retells much of the story of the original trilogy.

A Girl and Her Fed by K.B. Spangler

First: Happy American Independence Day!

Then we get to the part where I have various concerns regarding my country. I love it, but oof, there are some things that need to change. A Captain America: Winter Soldier fanvid that I particularly appreciate sums it up best by changing the chords of the Star Spangled Banner from major to minor. Just the music change, changes the connotations of the classic question from “does my country of freedom and bravery still exist?” to “is my country that exists still free and brave?” And given the recent prevalence of fear-mongering and preemptive actions, the second question is a timely one.

Anyway, on the same note but with a much cheerier tone: have an absolutely hilarious webcomic all about government surveillance, government conspiracies, non-government conspiracies, presidential ghosts, and some pretty raunchy jokes:

 

AGirlandHerFed_4574A Girl and Her Fed
by K.B. Spangler
2007 – present

This is awesome! It’s a webcomic, but that doesn’t really capture it, because it’s also a serial story and a graphic novel. While each update is quite awesome on its own, it’s very plot-driven and I highly recommend starting at the beginning and reading through to the end.

Of course, it’s not actually ended. Spangler is currently working her way through chapter 10 (updates twice a week!). However, the introduction thru Chapter 6 make up an entire plot arc. Chapter 7 starts with a quick montage of the next five years and then proceeds with the next plot arc, five years after the close of Chapter 6.

The premise (without any spoilers: this gets covered in the first 5 pages) is that a journalist who speaks to the ghost of Benjamin Franklin is on the terrorist watch list after an article on civil liberties. The fed in charge of monitoring her was part of a secret government experiment that implanted a cybernetic computer chip in his brain that includes an interface avatar that looks like George W. Bush.

And conspiracies abound!

Our two main characters have widely divergent political leanings but they’re both good intentioned. And our primary main character (the titular “Girl”) is incredibly outspoken and, while she has doubts about what to do, she is fearless in doing what she decides to do. Which is often incredibly dangerous and maybe she should be a bit more fearful, and yet, I love her because she is not.

There’s also a talking koala, Speedy. Speedy was the result of another government experiment, who is very smart and capable and yet remains very much a sexually-mature male koala (think tom-cat, except koala.) Speedy is largely the reason this story is PG-13 at minimum.

The whole thing is a joy to read and I love it. You should read it too!

You can read the author’s About the Story here (the webcomic equivalent of the back of the book.)

Or you can just dive in and start reading here.

Also, the art is lovely. I wouldn’t give a positive review of a graphic story if the graphic portion wasn’t good. Something to note is that Spangler developed a great deal artistically over time, and while she’s gone back and started redoing earlier pages to match up with the more mature art style, there’s a couple of chapters in the middle that are still significantly rougher than the rest. It’s not bad, by any means, but it is a bit jarring to hit that point where it starts to look like a rough draft to the final version rather than the final version.

But still: lovely!

Go read it!

 

The Shadow of Albion

By Andre Norton and Rosemary Edghill

Book Cover: Shadow of AlbionWhen I first read this book, I recommended it to Kinsey as “the best time-traveling, regency romance, espionage fantasy book you’ll ever read” and I stand by that, even if it isn’t time-traveling so much as alternative realities, but that’s splitting hairs a bit, I think.

The only drawback is that the authors pack the plot so full of intrigue and plot threads that they weren’t able to tie them all up in this book, or even the sequel, and then most unfortunately, Andre Norton passed away in 2005, and I’m just a little resentful that Rosemary Edghill didn’t finish off the third one on her own. (The second one has a blurb at the end saying that they are working on the third! Also, the sequel was published in 2002, and Norton didn’t die until 2005, so what were they doing those three years?!)

Anyway, the premise is a little difficult to explain, especially with my very murky knowledge of history. The year is 1805, and our heroine, Sarah Cunningham, is introduced both dying in her ancestral mansion in England and orphaned in colonial Maryland. In order to fulfill mystical oaths to the land, the living Sarah is brought from her world (our world) to take the place of her dying double in a world in which magic exists. Magic!

So, in this other world, each artistocratic land owner is magically tied to their land, and each king is tied to his country through even greater magic, which means two things: one, overthrowing kings is much trickier to do, so the Stuart family still rules England; and two, Napoleon is playing even more havoc with Europe than he did in the mundane world. Politics!

Also, in this other world, Sarah turns out to be betrothed to the dashing and dangerous Duke of Wessex, who of course she has never met. Wessex is also an undercover agent for not one, but two government agencies, where he foils assassinations and facilitates treaties. Espionage!

Honestly, I don’t know why I’m trying to summarize the plot for you – dukes and duchesses, kings and queens, spies, assassins, fairies – honestly, that should be good enough, just read it!

I’m not even going tell you anything about the sequel, except that it has all of the above, but shifts the setting to the new world, where there are pirates, native mysticism, and the Marquis de Sade, communing with very real demons. Read it!

Long Fanfictions

In preparation for writing my review of Rainbow Rowell’s most recent book, Fangirl (expect the review soon), I decided it was time to recommend a few more fanfiction stories. What makes this selection stand out from my prior recommendations is that, in honor of Rowell’s main character’s fanfiction epic, all of these are recommendations are really incredibly long.

Previously I’ve recommended short fics, because they’re intended to lure unwary readers into fandom or maybe point out a hidden jewel to someone already in fandom. The longer stories tend to be well known to those already in fandom and be a bit daunting for those outside of it.

The following stories range from 109K to 757K long. To give you some context for those numbers: A harlequin romance (one of those romance books often sold at the check-out line of grocery stores and titles things like The Billionaire’s Baby or The Tycoon’s Virgin Mistress or some such) is generally 10K words. Anyone who has completed the NaNoWriMo challenge to write a novel in the month of November, has written 50K words.

The following recommendations are a demonstration of not just the skill that some fanfiction writers have in weaving together words and worlds and characters, but also the dedication they have in continuing a story line that has gotten immensely rich and complex, and keeping at it until they can bring the story to its intended conclusion.

These stories have required a serious commitment by some fan to write. They take a reasonably serious commitment from some fan to read, too. But they’re worth it!

So, from shortest to longest:

Into the Rose Garden
by Dryad13
Fandom: Labrynth
109,232 words long
first chapter posted: June 10, 2004
last chapter posted: January 8, 2006

Summary: Sarah has good grades, a circle of friends, and a cute boyfriend. Life’s great…right? So why does she have the strange feeling that something’s missing? Fairy tales show that magic will make you or break you. Which category does she belong in?

Why I like this: This is a gorgeous story that does an incredible amount of world building regarding both magic and society, to how the Underground works and where exactly Jareth’s place is, in it and the consequences to Sarah for having defeated him.

 

The Least of All Possible Mistakes
by rageprufrock
Fandom: BBC’s Sherlock
118,096 words long
first chapter posted: January 31, 2012
last chapter posted: February 20, 2013

Summary: If ever a people deserved tasering, it’s Holmeses.

Why I like this: Lestrade doesn’t get much attention in the Sherlock Holmes stories and it’s a shame given how awesome she (the author decided to make Lestrade a female for this story) is. She’s not brilliant, but she is smart and, more to the point, she’s also practical and pragmatic and with enough self-confidence to know when to ask for help and when to call that help out for being an ass. And she is not at all the sort to put up with kidnappings by the mysterious older brother of her consultant (see the summary.) 😀

 

Divided We Stand
by KouriArashi
Fandom: MTV’s Teen Wolf
156,742 words long
first chapter posted: July 10, 2013
last chapter posted: October 4, 2013

Summary: Derek is being pressured by his family to pick a mate, and somehow stumbles into a choice that they didn’t expect and aren’t sure they approve of….

Why I like this: This uses a fairly common trope of fanfiction, but one that I enjoy immensely, and says what if this secret society is actually common knowledge? They’ve been around forever and all sorts of their cultural oddities have just been incorporated into society at large. In this case, everyone knows werewolves exist. And then we get to an immensely fun and satisfying romp of a story in which there is romantic drama and mysterious conspiracies and an eventual happy ending. It’s pretty much a perfect comfort story.

 

Pet Project
by Caeria
Fandom: Harry Potter
338,788 words long
first chapter posted: March 3, 2005
last chapter posted: June 9, 2013

Summary: Hermione overhears something she shouldn’t concerning Professor Snape and decides that maybe the House-elves aren’t the only ones in need of protection.

Why I like it: This is a brilliant story focused on Hermione Granger as she matures enough to realize that teachers are people, too, and starts to notice some of the complexities and tricks of the adults around her, with a focus on Severus Snape in particular, and his role as a double agent. As she begins to delve into the mystery of Severus Snape, she and the author really delve into the magic and magical culture of the Harry Potter world. (Plus, I am completely in love with the house elves of this story, even though I never much cared for that plot line in the original books. “Ears are flapping!”)

 

Embers
by Vathara
Fandom: Avatar: The Last Airbender
757,222 words long
first chapter posted: September 24, 2009
last chapter posted: January 18, 2014

Summary: Dragon’s fire is not so easily extinguished; when Zuko rediscovers a lost firebending technique, shifting flames can shift the world…

Why I like this: So many feelings! This is an amazing story delving into Zuko’s character as an exiled prince and abused child and doing amazing world building while also delving into the causes and repercussions of genocides and world wars and cultural clashes and children loaded with responsibilities and adults loaded with secrets.