Review of Sora’s Quest by T. L. Shreffler

Wow. This is a good one.

Here’s a link to the book:

I download several free ebooks every week. I start a lot and bail once I get bored or get angry that the writer is going with some tired-out cliche.

So I started Sora’s Quest in that frame of mind — looking for an excuse to delete this book.

And this book is a fantasy book, which is a genre filled with the worst crap. Especially at the free tier. Honestly, once self-published ebooks became a thing, petabytes of beastmaster erotic fan fiction burst out on the internet.

So, like I said, I wasn’t optimistic.

But the first chapter was pretty good. A guy discovers his brother has just been assassinated moments before. He uses some magic to track down the assassin that is making his escape.

Magic is to fantasy what time travel is to science fiction. It’s hard to pull off well! Skilled fantasy writers bring something novel to the mechanics of magic works. And they explain it just enough so I understand why people do what they do. But they keep the plot moving.

Unskilled writers forget that they’re on borrowed time. They shift from the story line to an exposition of their made-up metaphysics, and it just kills the momentum.

Or even worse, they use something blatantly yanked from elsewhere. That’s usually a sign I’m reading something like a book version of those horrible bar bands that cover currently popular songs.

But this author introduced magic in this world cleverly and succinctly. Blood magic requires sacrificing living things.

The magician catches up with the assassin, but the assassin turns out to be way more difficult to kill than expected, and the magician gets wounded in the fight while the assassin gets away. And the chapter ends with the magician swearing to avenge his brother’s murder.

The story hops in perspective to follow Sora, a 17-year-old noble lady, preparing for something like a society debut. Her mother disappeared when she was an infant and her dad is an aloof jerk, mostly interested in getting her to marry into a family that will improve his status.

Lily is Sora’s maid, and their relationship reminds me of the dynamics between the maids and the ladies in Downton Abbey.

Anyhow, the coming out ball begins, and then Sora performs her “blooming” dance, and then accidentally falls down, which is just an awfully embarrassing thing.

But then the skylight above the ballroom shatters, and her father is gravely injured. Sora realizes that this was no accident when she runs into an assassin in the hallway who is about to kill her, but then decides to take her with him as a hostage.

And that’s the end of the second chapter. I was hooked. And I was surprised by how much I liked this book. Every chapter after that pulled me in more. The story bounces between the magician tracking down his brother’s murderer, and Sora who has been kidnapped by that same assassin. The story starts off following the magician, and we sympathize with him wanting to avenge his brother. But then by switching to the perspective of the people he is hunting down, and by coloring them in enough, the reader ends up empathizing with that crew as well. It becomes clear that they have their own sense of morality that’s not so different after all, especially given their situation.

So it’s not clear who are the heroes and the villains. Everyone is just trying to survive.

And there’s a gorgeous twist at the 80% mark that I really enjoyed.

Here’s the thing I’ve noticed too often about female characters in the fantasy genre. They’re usually damsels in distress or basically Xena Warrior Princess ice cold commando types. They’re paper-thin characters that are completely predictable and unrelatable.

But Sora comes off (to me, at least) as real. And she evolves and adapts plausibly. She’s not a brat and she’s not a robot.

Last thing — the author clearly spent a ton of time daydreaming and constructing this world’s history. There are all sorts of little hints about it all. Humanity won some “war of the five races” thanks to using anti-magic devices, and the other races are now almostly extinct. I really liked how she described the old civilizations (spoiler: author is a girl).

I just bought the sequel to this one. It seems to follow the assassin and for the first time we get to see into his thoughts. He’s an opaque dead-eyed killer for most of Sora’s Quest, and I hoped we’d find out his back story.

Honestly, this is an exciting story in a fantasy world that’s different from the usual Tolkien-inspired elves and dwarves tropes we’ve all read a million bazillion times. And an interesting female character!

Review of Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (Harper Fiction)

I started out loving everything about this book. Elphaba’s (the wicked witch) childhood and youth and adolescence are a beautiful coming-of-age story about a girl coming to terms with being obviously different than everyone else (she’s bright green). Then Elphaba goes off to college, where the story just keeps getting better and better, until Elphaba and her friends go to the weird trippy night club where a bunch of really far-out stuff goes down. Then in the next chapter, we skip forward a few months, the tight clique has disintegrated, and all the characters have been permanently changed and disconnected from each other.

I spent the rest of the book hoping we’d get some explanation for what happened, but we never go back. We never get any details about that night, only a few cryptic elliptical references. Instead, the story follows a monotonic downward trajectory towards an end everyone already knows is inevitable. This is a major bummer. By the end of the book, I was just glad the story was finished.

Finally, almost all the interesting plot and action and characters have nothing to do with the Dorothy plot line. By the time Dorothy and the Wizard show up in any meaningful way, the book is almost finished. I suspect McGuire is a closeted fantasy writer, but ashamed of it because of his “real literature” aspirations. McGuire only transplanted his story into the Oz universe as a marketing gimmick and/or post-modern commentary.

In the end, this book has a lot of the traits that make Harry Potter appealing: it reclaims the fantasy genre from the Dungeons and Dragons geek domain and the characters deal with problems that are at once alien and also very human.

Here’s a pretty Amazon link that includes my referrer ID:

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Summary: a good book about the downfall of civilization written by an author that doesn’t normally write science fiction.

Oryx and Crake is highbrow science-fiction. It’s not hard science fiction, like something written by Clarke or Sagan, where you’ll learn plenty of physics along the way. I mean it’s written by an author with literary credentials. Mainstream critics tend to all say the same thing about this book: “It’s sci-fi, but it’s good,” which is more than a little insulting to the rest of us. That put aside, this is a good book.

Most of the book reads sort of like what you would expect from everything else Atwood writes, despite the futuristic setting: children lose their innocence and discover their parents aren’t saints; love turns to jealousy; admiration turns to hate and fear and people do things they previously never could have imagined. In the end, which is usually where the book starts, the characters try to piece together some meaning out of it all, and grieve their loss.

If I didn’t like this book, I would say it’s sort of like A Separate Peace meets The Omega Man. But I did like this book. However, it’s still some seriously emotional stuff.

Margaret Atwood’s style by this point is well established: her characters change names when their situations change. The book starts off at the end, and the reader discovers what happened when the characters reflect on their lives in thoughts and conversations. Margaret Atwood loves writing about male-female and parent-child dynamics, and the subconscious forces that drive us, and Oryx and Crake is no exception.

I’m not going to run through the entire plot, but the book begins with somebody named Snowman picking through the detritus of western civilization. The plot unwinds while Snowman reflects on his life from childhood until the present. Along the way, we get the story of how the little boy named Jimmy grows up in a world that looks sort of like our near future, and becomes Snowman right after that civilization comes crashing down around him.

In Jimmy/Snowman’s childhood, the world looks vaguely like a more privatized, slightly more technically advanced version of today. As an adult, civilization has collapsed, Snowman is all alone, and he spends his time picking through the wreckage looking for snacks.

I’d wager that at least half of the books on the shelves in the sci-fi section in any bookstore revolve around some sort end-of-the-world scenario, leaving one or a few survivors to make sense out of it all. Atwood dodges the rookie mistake of trying to make her scenario seem plausible, or even worse, mentioning certain years, or real-life politicians. Instead, she goes in the opposite direction. We piece together a picture of the world in the future from snippets of conversation, consumer products, and advertising. We don’t get a detailed roadmap of how we got to a world where corporations run most everything, and their employees live in combination housing developments/office parks/shopping malls.

Crake is Jimmy’s childhood friend; they grow up together in the same private compound where their parents work. They play computer games together, they get high, they watch inordinate amounts of porn (no word on whether Atwood lurked on slashdot to research).

Like a lot of the little aspects of life in this future world, the computer games that Jimmy and Crake play are fleshed out almost to the point that it’s hard to believe these aren’t real games. “War of the Roses” is one game; it seems sort of like Magic The Gathering, or Pokemon, except the mythical monsters are replaced with the highs and lows of humanity. One player can play the Holocaust card, and another player can play the Sistine Chapel card” to negate it. Crake actually gets his name from another game, “Extinctathon”, where the players take turns wiping out species.

The boys grow apart. While Jimmy becomes more aware that he has none of his parents’ aptitude for science, Crake takes off in school. Jimmy goes to a crappy art school and Crake goes to a top science university where student research is sponsored by corporations.

Later, they come back together when Crake hires Jimmy to write marketing copy for the Crake’s corporation. Jimmy becomes possessive of Oryx, a woman who previously worked as a not entirely consensual prostitute in some unknown third-world region. Now, Crake employs her at his company, and they have some nebulous relationship that drives Jimmy away from Crake.

I liked this book because Atwood made the characters seem real. She really captures the alienated teenage boy vibe in Jimmy. The highlights of the book are Jimmy’s adolescence. Besides that, Atwood creates a fascinating view of a possible future, with pigs that are genetically engineered to provide compatible organs to humans, chickens that are refactored without sense organs, brains, or anything extraneous to the purpose of getting fat enough to harvest as quickly as possible, and popular revolts battling with corporatization. Inside all that clever scenery, there’s some pretty good characterization of children abandoned by their mothers that grow into alienated adults.

The next paragraphs could be construed as spoilers, so stop reading if that sort of thing bothers you.

Besides all the good things I mentioned above, I gotta say that the ending of Oryx and Crake left me dissapointed. We never get an explanation for why Crake wiped out humanity. We spend the whole book wondering about how civilization gets destroyed, and we eventually find out how, but we never get to the more important issue of why Crake destroyed it. Crake has been a cypher throughout the plot, so it’s not out-of-character, but, like I said above, the ending is a little dissapointing.

Maybe Atwood is trying to make some point about humanity in general: people do crazy stuff and the rest of us are stuck trying to pick up the pieces and figure out why; but, to borrow a line from Marge,

“That’s a pretty lousy lesson.”