This is some of what I’ve been reading lately:
Realmgolds – Mike Reeves-McMillan – I think I got a copy of this during a free promotion months and months ago, but I forgot and bought it on Amazon a few weeks ago. Oh well. Mike has reviewed several of my books (all in the Erdemen Honor series), coining the term cheerybright to describe what I (and he and a few other people) write. I’ll write a separate article on cheerybright soon – it’s basically the opposite of grimdark. He didn’t know I was reading his book. This is Mike’s first book, and I’m already impressed. It’s not a high action book, nor is it a book of particularly complicated political intrigue. I can see certain similarities in our styles… character growth over explosions (although there was tension and danger), good characters who are actually allowed to be genuinely good, loyal characters who aren’t just lying backstabbers, etc. There are dwarves and gnomes, but much to my relief they were not painfully obvious caricatures drawn from an existing intellectual property (read: games or Tolkien or whatever). It was enjoyable, although the characters fell a little flat for me. The emotional depth wasn’t quite there… but I know Mike has worked on that since this book was published, so I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the series. The series is about heroic civil servants, and by heroic Mike means basically “doing the right thing, even when it’s hard.” That’s an idea of heroism I can get behind. It doesn’t mean there will always be tons of life-and-death drama, but it does leave room for important (and interesting) character growth. Like my books, they are clean fantasy – not young adult (YA), but appropriate for YA readers.
Born of Persuasion – Jessica Dotta – I got this while it was temporarily free on Amazon, and was pleasantly surprised. It’s a gothic Christian romance and the first in a series. I didn’t realize it was the first in a series when I read it (it’s clear in the Amazon title, but I got it quite a while ago, so I’d forgotten), so I expected a bit more closure than I got. It was quite good, if you’re looking for a very gothic romance… something like a modernized (in language, but not in setting) work by one of the Bronte sisters (Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, etc.) with a bit of the focus on manners and propriety of Jane Austen. It was very well done. I spent a considerable portion of the book wanting to shake the main character until her teeth rattled because she was such a stupid-head… but then, I felt like that while reading Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre too. That’s part of the tension of the story… you know the character is being an idiot, but it’s like a train wreck that keeps you watching in horror. She’s also younger than I thought (seventeen… I initially pictured her as about twenty). My one issue was that, like I said, it is nominally a Christian book, published by Tyndale. There wasn’t a lot of Christian anything in the book. The main love interest is a Christian, and is a good example (most of the time) of a Christian vicar trying to be faithful in difficult circumstances. The main character (narrator) is an atheist with a chip on her shoulder about it. There are predictable conflicts about this. But… at least some of the good behavior of the vicar could be almost as easily attributed to his status as a gentleman and the standards of acceptable behavior of the time. It’s not bad… it’s just not heavily Christian in the sense that many Christian readers might expect. Since so much time passed between when I got it and when I actually read it, I had forgotten that it was nominally Christian, and it was not entirely obvious by reading the story. Maybe it gets more obvious through the series. This isn’t exactly a flaw – it’s probably much more likely to appeal to non-Christian gothic romance fans who will see realistic portrayals of Christians as both sinful and redeemed. It’s not preachy. I enjoyed it.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and Hollow City (Miss Peregrine’s Children #2) – Profoundly weird and interesting. These were from my library, and I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t know they were bestsellers, although I did think the name was vaguely familiar. Peculiar children are children who have something very strange about them, and it’s not necessarily a good thing. One is invisible, with all the attendant conveniences and inconveniences (must be naked and silent in order to be unnoticed, otherwise he looks like a disembodied suit walking around), a boy who is filled with bees (literally… they live inside him), a girl who is ridiculously strong, etc. They’re hunted by evil monsters, and one of the peculiar children (the POV character) is the only one who can see them. There’s also a bit of time travel, as the story is set during WWII and modern times (2000s?). Highly recommended if you’re looking for weird-but-engaging fantasy. YA but definitely enjoyable for adults.
The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern – I had no idea what to expect from this, which was probably good, because apparently it was hyped a lot. Blissfully oblivious of the hype, I was free to form my own opinions, which ended up being conflicted. As a debut novel, it’s absolutely beautifully written. The descriptions are wonderful, the scenery is magical, the world itself is magic. The characters are both sympathetic and bizarrely enigmatic… I never really got a handle on how they felt, or what they really thought. Too many characters seemed to have lots of answers that they didn’t share with the protagonists for unknown and unexplained reasons. The contest itself was never adequately explained to the reader (I understand that the protagonists may not ever get an explanation, but I as a reader wanted a little more understanding by the end of the book). It was thoroughly enjoyable, and yet for a while in the middle it felt like nothing was happening. No character growth, no explanations, no mysteries being solved… just beautiful prose and scenery. The ending for the protagonists was satisfying. It was beautiful, but in a way that made me aware of the writing rather than being completely immersed. Definitely recommended, but not if you’re looking for a keep-you-up-til-dawn-suspenseful pageturner.
Wolf Totem – Jiang Rong – I finished this a while ago but am only now getting around to including it. It’s the story of a Chinese student sent to live with Mongolian shepherds on the border of Inner and Outer Mongolia. It’s the Cultural Revolution in China, and nonsensical things like that happen… send a city-bred Han Chinese university student out to the boondocks to raise sheep. He spends years learning about his new Mongolian friends and coming to respect their way of life, based on the constant struggle between the humans and the wolf packs and the inhospitable environment, in a relatively peaceful interlude. Then the government decides that the grasslands in which they live and raise their sheep and horses would be better used for centrally-directed agriculture, and consequently everything falls apart. It’s a beautiful and sad story, and also a critique of China’s current economic and environmental policies and explosive growth. There are a quite a few places where the political discussion contrasting Han Chinese culture and Mongolian culture gets pretty heavy… I found it interesting because I’m a cultural and political science junkie, but others might not. It was not difficult to follow and was far from text-bookish; it was just a LOT of political discussion. It’s a very different view of China than I had read before. Recommended if you’re looking for political/cultural interestingness with a side of wolves.
I am far from a scholar on Mongolian culture and history, but I read Ghengis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford in grad school. If you’re even the slightest bit interested in learning more about the Mongols and their effect on the world, I highly recommend it. A few reviewers have picked out a couple factual inaccuracies in Weatherford’s account, primarily in repeating bits of lore about the Mongols that are either incorrectly attributed to the Mongols or just completely fabricated (by others, not by Weatherford). However, the book overall is incredibly interesting. You might see bits of both this book and Wolf Totem in the Tarvil people… the Tarvil are not modeled on ancient Mongols, but I was inspired by some tidbits from these books when I thought about the Tarvil.