the Little Red Reviewer

Posts Tagged ‘dark

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

published May 2018

where I got it: purchased new

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I don’t know what I was expecting when I bought this book.  I’d heard good things about it, it got some buzz when it came out, and then it fell off my radar. I knew it was about a kid who attends an elite military academy, gets embroiled in a war, and has to risk everything.

 

when I read the back cover copy, my first thought was “is this a fantasy version of Ender’s Game?”   Hahahahah!!!!  yeah . . . . nope. More like Name of the Wind if written by Robin Hobb and then half way through Ian Tregillis took over in the vein of the Bitter Seeds books.

 

I meant to keep this review light and happy and talk about the plot and Rin’s adventures at school and how cute it is that she has no idea how to talk to boys she likes, and that she’s great at memorizing facts but shitty at martial arts.  I meant to write a super happy funtime book review.

 

That didn’t happen.

 

Good news first!  The Dragon Republic (book 2) is already out!  You can read books 1 and 2 back to back!

 

The Poppy War  does start out fairly light and happy – a war orphan, Rin, needs to escape her opium smuggling foster family before they marry her off, so she studies for the imperial exam and hopes for a scholarship.  Not only does she do well on the imperial exam, she has the highest score in her prefecture and gains a full scholarship to Nikan’s elite military academy Sinegard. Rin doesn’t care what she studies, she doesn’t care about dorm life, she just knows that school means she won’t have to marry a stranger and that she’ll get three meals a day, and that after graduation she won’t have to go home.

 

She’s by far the poorest most provincial kid at the school, and is relentlessly bullied by wealthier upper class students and a few teachers as well. But, like I said, none of them are forcing her to get married or get involved with opium smuggling, so she shrugs it off.  I thought it was so cute that Rin has no idea how to talk to boys she likes – she thinks they are cute, she ends up staring at them, but has zero idea how to talk to them. It was funny and adorable. And as dark as the end of this book gets, I was thankful for these cute light scenes at the beginning.

 

This is not one of those long, drawn out school chronicles, where each book is one year at school.  The Poppy War is ultra fast paced. Kuang deftly uses a few school scenes for worldbuilding, where the students are discussing world history, with the professor telling them what really happened.   Oh, and a whole shit-ton of other awesome stuff happens that I won’t spoil for you.

 

Before you know it, Rin’s first year of school is over and she’s pledged to study Lore under the school’s weirdest professor, Jiang. Doesn’t hurt that she easily recognized the hallucinogens in his garden.   He is saddened that her goal is to become a good soldier.

 

So, Jiang and Lore.  why would a military school offer classes on lore, mythology, and shamanism?  Why indeed.

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Bloodstone (Rebel Angels, book 2) by Gillian Philip

published November 2013

where I got it: received review copy from the publisher (thanks Tor!)

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Earlier this year the first book in the Rebel Angel series, Firebrand, really hit me hard. No, “hit me hard” isn’t quite right, “destroyed me where I stood” is closer to the mark.  Having survived that, I thought I had an idea of what to expect with Bloodstone, I knew to emotionally steel myself.

Seth’s MacGregor’s inner conflicts are tearing him apart, and one day it’s going to rip a hole in him so wide that another person could walk right through. What do you do when your family needs you to be someone you’re not? How do you tell someone a truth that might kill them?  How do you run from one, and face the other? Didn’t matter that I thought I was preparing myself. I was still completely floored from the first page to the last.

Seth  means to do the right thing. He wants to be as brave and mature as his older brother Conal, whom he idolizes. But Seth just isn’t that person, and he’s never going to be. He’s always going to prefer flirting to politics and fists to compromise.  Seth is no one’s hero, and he doesn’t want to be. Doesn’t matter, you’ll still love him.

The Rebel Angels series has everything I look for in a good story – compelling characters who act like real people, dialog that’s got some humor to it (when Jed finds out Seth is a fae, there is no end of Tinkerbell and other fairy jokes),  misunderstood promises and prophecies with unintentional and painful consequences. No “chosen ones” here, just people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, people who couldn’t fathom the consequences of their actions. There is a long conversation in here somewhere about free will.

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clarkesworld4

I was lucky enough to get a copy of Clarksworld Year Four, which includes 24 pieces of original short fiction the digital magazine published during their fourth year of publication.  Never heard of Clarkesworld? Please, allow me to enlighten you,  because these people simply rock it.  A digital magazine featuring original speculative fiction, interviews, and editorials, Clarkesworld published their first issue in 2006 and their original  short fiction has been winning awards ever since. The magazine itself has even picked up a few awards along the way (can you say three Hugo’s!!).

So I don’t have to tell you how awesome this magazine is.

You know how usually when I review an anthology or collection, I only talk about a handful of stand-out pieces, my favorites? Not this time.  The handful of short stories I’ve read so far (or listened to. Yay podcasting! I love you Kate Baker!) are some of the strangest, most out-there fiction I have ever come across. We’ve got McDonald’s terrorists, interstellar runaways, reincarnations of people who aren’t dead yet, the end of the universe, and an AI who thinks she’s a fairy tale.  Because everything in here is just so damn weird, I want each piece to get some much deserved attention.   I’ll review 3-4 short stories at a time, so you, dear readers and followers, can get the full treatment.

Want to make a comment on my review? By all means, comment here. I’ve linked each story back to Clarkesworld, so you can read the whole thing (or listen to the audio) and comment over there and give the magazine some direct attention.

Let’s get started:

Alone with Gandhari by Gord Sellar –  Kenny used to work fast food. He used to be a fat guy. But now, after a therapy that finally worked, with his taut belly and his clown-like facial tattoos, he’s a high ranking follower of Guru Deepak. Like all the other followers, he answers to the name Ronald, even though he prefers Ron. This opening paragraphs of this story were completely off-putting and disorienting to me, which makes the story hard to get into, but I’m happy I kept reading because I really ended up enjoying it, or at least I enjoyed the mental mind-fuck aspects of it.  Guru Deepak wants to help people change for the better, his followers will help him change the world. He is especially welcoming to people who need to stop eating fast food all the time. All are welcome, the blessings of Ghandhari are available to anyone who chooses to listen. The vegetarian lifestyle and meditation is probably good for Ron/Kenny’s health, but he’s unwittingly joined a cult. The hyped up Ronalds commit “Mac Attacks”, terrorizing patrons of fast food restaurants.   Ron/Kenny has been chosen by Deepak to lead an important mission to a corporate farm.  Far worse than eating a cow is abusing one on a farm, but what the Ronalds find on the farm isn’t exactly a cow. Is this a commentary on Fast Food or on food in general? A nightmarish satire? I’m not sure.

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Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis

published in 2010

where I got it: purchased new

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I’ve been avoiding this book for a while now. Alternate history is always fun, but I tend to shy away from War stories. When this book was chosen for my local book club, there was no getting around it.

The first few chapters were a little rough going for me, more because the time and place jumps around with little context than that I wasn’t sure I wanted to be reading this. A british boy is caught ripping plants out of a garden, another British child is hidden from his terrifying grandfather, and elsewhere two dark complected siblings survive a harrowing journey to an orphanage in Germany. Time jumps forward nineteen years, it’s 1939, and suddenly I wished I’d paid more attention in history class.

The young boy in the garden is Raybould Marsh. Mentored and then sponsored by John Stephenson, Marsh grows up to become a spy for Her Majesty. Sent to Spain in 1939 to meet an informant,  Marsh gets the clue that something strange is going on when the man bursts into flames, taking most of his evidence with him. The evidence that Stephenson’s team is able to reconstruct makes no sense, and to investigate it, project Milkweed is born.

The siblings are Klaus and Gretel, and the orphanage later becomes Reichsbehörde für die Erweiterung Germanischen Potenzials , the Authority for the Advancement of German Potential. For the glory of the Reich, Dr. von Westarp has spent twenty years trying to create supermen. The subject’s willpower, or willenskrafte, is augmented by battery power, allowing the person to fly, or set something on fire, or read minds, or disappear, or who yet knows what else. Klaus’s talent lies in dematerializing into an ethereal ghost capable of moving through walls and people, and Gretel’s talent lies in seeing the future. The surgical procedures are experimental and dangerous, and nobody talks about the rows and rows of child sized graves.

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KOT2King of Thorns (Broken Empire, book 2), by Mark Lawrence

published in 2012

where I got it: purchased new

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It’s all about a change in perspective.  Getting yourself somewhere where you can see the bigger picture, because there is always a bigger picture.

The story begins with a knife and a box. All Jorg can remember about the box is that it should never, ever be opened. If he opens it, it will destroy him.  So strange, how something so small could destroy a person so completely.  If the dream-witch Sageous can get into Jorg’s mind, the only place his thoughts, plans, and memories are safe are someplace out of his mind. The box contains Jorg’s salvation and his destruction.

Split into two timelines (and each with multiple flashbacks), King of Thorns is far more complex than it looks.  In the “now” timeline, Jorg is 18 years old, about to get married, is surrounded by the armies of his enemy, Orrin, Prince of Arrow.  If he’s going to defeat Orrin, he’s going to need the memories and strategic plans that are locked in that box.  Haunted by the ghost of a child, Jorg continues to allow his baser instincts to influence him.

The other timeline is four years earlier, a few months after the end of Prince of Thorns.  Jorg is King of the Renar Highlands. Not the crown he planned on, nor the last one he expects to wear, but he’s got to start somewhere.  Young Gog is having trouble controlling his fire-magic, nearly setting the castle on fire more than once.  Jorg decides to travel to  a northern firemage, thinking if he can help Gog, maybe he can help himself.   Gog’s storyline was one of my favorite parts of the book.

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Blackbirds, by Chuck Wendig

published in 2012

Where I got it: the library

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Everyone is going crazy for Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds.  Action packed and with an engrossing premise,  shattered characters, and Richard Kadrey-esque prose, it’s no wonder this little book is getting a lot of attention.

Although a growing number of people are fascinated by her, Miriam Black wishes she could just disappear. As an adolescent, she gained the power to tell people the circumstances of their death. Perhaps the person lives until they are 95 and dies peacefully in their sleep. Perhaps it’s a housefire, or a drug overdose, or suicide. Living alone and on the run, she tries to avoid touching people. But of course it doesn’t work.  Once upon a time she tried to save the life of a child whose death she’d foreseen.  That didn’t work either.

Miriam comes off fairly crass, but it’s a facade. She’s not a mean person, she’s just really sick of shaking hands and seeing terrible visions in hospitals and bathroom floors.  Her diary, nearly out of pages, is the only therapy she has, the only way she can get these feelings and fears and self hatred out of her system.

Miriam isn’t the nicest person in the world, so it’s doubly unfortunate that she’s mostly surrounded by assholes. Frat boys looking to get laid, truckers who might rape her, violent drug addicts, the scum below the bottom crust of society.  Miriam doesn’t expect to meet anyone nice. And then she meets Louis, and everything changes.  Louis is a completely normal, kind man. And in the moment before his death, he calls Miriam’s name.

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Anno Dracula, by Kim Newman

published in 1992, reprinted by Titan Books in 2011

where I got it: purchased new

(and don’t you just adore that  cover art?)

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If you’ve never read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, I’m going to spoil the ending for you – the good guys win. Dracula and his brides are destroyed by the silvered weapons and quick thinking of Van Helsing and his friends. (If you’ve never read Dracula, you really should. I don’t do so well with the classics, and even I found it highly engaging.)

But what if that wasn’t how the story ended? What if Dracula won? What he traveled to England to be “among the teeming masses”,  married Queen Victoria, and set London up as a safe haven for vampires? What if being reborn as the undead became acceptable, even fashionable? This is the premise of Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula, and a brilliant premise it is. The story has many of the trappings of Victorian literature, but with a number of deliciously dark twists. This was a book I absolutely couldn’t put down, Newman had me on page two. The premise was fascinating, the plot was engaging, and I adored the characters.

Under Dracula, who now styles himself the Prince Consort and Lord Protector, more and more businesses and society in London run from dusk to dawn, with socialites hosting “after-darks”, banks and merchants only being open at night, and a massive upswing in the sales of luxury coffins.  For many, receiving the dark kiss allowed them to rise even higher in society, but for others, the opposite has been true. Those of the lower classes still starve and prostitute themselves, drunks still beg for money (but to buy pig blood, not booze).

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.