Book Review: Arabella of Mars

Arabella of Mars
By David D. Levine

Not My Edition:
Hardcover, 350 pages
2016, Tor
ISBN: 9780765382818

Arabella Ashby was born and raised on Mars on her father’s plantation. For seventeen years, she and her brother Michael were tutored by their Martian nanny, Khema, and Arabella often participated in hunting games that her mother considered unladylike. After one such game, Arabella takes a blow to the head that requires stitches and it’s the last straw for her mother. Arabella and her two young sisters are shipped back to Earth in the care of her mother to grow up as true English ladies should. Once there, Arabella is miserable and struggles to bend to the rules society places on ladies of her stature, as well as the heavier gravity. However, the death of her father and a threat against Michael’s life forces Arabella into action and she soon finds herself disguised as a boy and enlisted as a crew member aboard a Martian airship, racing against the clock to get home and save her brother.

This book checks a lot of boxes for me, so I assumed I was going to enjoy it (spoiler: I did!) We’ve got Regency England (check), steampunk (check), space travel (check) and one tough chick that can’t stand to be forced into societal and gender roles (check).

I can’t recall having read a book set in the 1800s where space travel is not only possible, but done via wooden ships much like the ones they use to sail across the ocean. This was a fun, fresh setting for me and what was especially unique is that the air in space is breathable! Yeah, this requires maybe more suspension of belief than usual, but I jumped right on board. Imagining being able to ride what’s essentially a cross between a zeppelin and a pirate ship straight into the sky, then beyond into space and floating around in zero gravity with air that’s breathable made me want to be a part of the book!

Arabella is possibly your clichéd tough girl with a heart of gold and determination of steel, but I liked her. I’ve always liked the whole girl-dresses-up-as-boy-to-gain-access-to-something-she-never-could-as-a-girl element and Arabella fit right into that role. She does struggle at her new job aboard a ship and has to navigate testosterone flooded waters and initiation into the manly world of interplanetary travel.  I do think hiding her ladyness was explained away with the ease of one sentence and then not really addressed again. I would have liked to see her struggle a bit more with keeping her identity a secret, but it wasn’t essential to the plot, so whatever.

The only other stand-out character is the incredibly lifelike (and possibly sentient?!) automaton navigator, Aadim. He doesn’t play a big part, but I was interested in how he worked and his silent influence on other characters. In fact, I wanted more automata! Give me all the robots, please.

I did struggle with imagining some of what took place on the ship when it came to daily routine and ship maintenance. I’m not at all familiar with nautical terms and adding no gravity into the mix left me constantly wondering why everyone didn’t just bounce away from the ship and never come back. I also wondered how their…uh…business…stayed in the head (toilet) when everything else seemed to float around the ship. Again, this is not essential and probably I shouldn’t have spent so much time wondering this. Anyway, some of the action scenes played out murkily in my head.

I don’t want to shout about this book from the rooftops, but it was excellent. I’m hoping this will be a series – I actually thought it already was one with multiple books in it and I’m not sure what series I confused it with. If you’re looking for a Regency romp through space, pick up this book (and then we can talk about the logistics of Regency era bathroom use in zero gravity together!)

Here’s David’s hotrod lookin’ website.

Book Review: The Bookman

The Bookman
By Lavie Tidhar

My Edition:
E-Book, 384 pages (paperback)
2016, Angry Robot
ISBN: 9780857665973

It is the 19th century and a lizard queen rules an England where a mysterious assassin kills his targets with book and authors live alongside their fictional creations. Orphan, is just that – but happy enough, living in the basement of a bookstore and working up the courage to ask Lucy to marry him. But when The Bookman strikes, targeting Lucy, he tears apart Orphans life and now Orphan must set off on a strange journey filled with automatons, pirates (both lizardine and human), Martian probes, criminal masterminds and The Bookman himself, if he ever wants to bring Lucy back.

So, if you know me at all (even via the internet), you know I couldn’t resist a book with book in the title! Especially a fantasy one!

This book is a wild mix of alternate history, sci-fi and Victorian fantasy, sprinkled with odes to a wide array of classic fiction, especially Shakespeare. In fact, there were so many references to other works of fiction that I’m sure I didn’t pick up on them all, but it was fun to spot how Tidhar calls out to those books, be it in the form of a character cameo, plot theme, or even a shop or pub.

This book is challenging to describe, as there are so many characters and plot points that Tidhar weaves into a story about revolution, equal rights, space exploration and of course, love.

In short, a race of anthropomorphic lizards landed on Earth and took over the line of succession in England. There are those who are opposed to them, chiefly, The Bookman. He is a skilled assassin who uses books as his deadly devices. When Orphan’s fiancé, Lucy, is killed when The Bookman foils the launch of the lizard’s Martian probe, Orphan is pulled into the revolution between humans, lizards, automatons and The Bookman.

Orphan’s journey is not unlike that of Homer’s in the Odyssey, with notes of Orpheus’s journey to bring back Eurydice and a smattering of several popular classic adventures. He quickly realizes he’s a pawn in a large game and constantly battles with his own moral compass as he struggles to decide which of the many sides of the revolution to support, all while really striving to be united with the woman he loves.

My favorite portion of the book was actually the Sherlock subplot. Moriarty is Prime Minister and a staunch supporter of the lizards, while Irene Adler is chief of police and Mycroft is well, Mycroft, with his eyes and ears everywhere! No offense to Orphan, but I would have gladly tossed him aside for a full novel on Doyle’s characters running wild in the world Tidhar created.

Tidhar is excellent with his descriptions – even if I didn’t always fully understand what was happening, I could easily picture how it was happening. Here’s one of my favorite descriptions – I love the mental image I created from this:

“Things lived down here. For one crazy moment he had the notion of a vanished tribe of librarians, lost in the deep underground caverns of the Bodleian, a wild and savage tribe that fed on unwary travelers.”

I mean, what’s a better image than rabid librarians!?

I have to say, the “final battle” if you will, left me a little underwhelmed and mildly confused. In the 2016 reprint edition there’s also an extra novella, Murder in the Cathedral, included which details Orphan’s time in Paris (which is glossed over in the main story) and while it was interesting, it felt out of place after I had finished the story. I had a hard time going back to that point in the story after it had already concluded and perhaps it would have been more impactful if it were included in the main narrative, but then again, it might have felt like the story was being sidetracked.

If you’re looking for an epic literary adventure that no only tips its hat to classic literary adventures, but thoroughly integrates familiar characters, or you’re into alternative history with a little sci-fi twist, I would recommend you give The Bookman a try!

I received this book for free from Angry Robot in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review. All opinions in this post are my own.
You can visit Lavie’s page on the Angry Robot site or check out his own website, or follow him on Twitter (he’s pretty funny).

Book Review: Lumiere

pic from Net Galley

By Jacqueline Garlick

My Edition:
ARC e-book, 400 pages (paperback)
2015, Skyscape
ISBN: 9781503944558 (paperback)

I received this book for free from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review. All opinions in this post are my own.

From Amazon: Seventeen-year-old Eyelet Elsworth has only one hope left: finding her late father’s most prized invention, the Illuminator. It’s been missing since the day of the mysterious flash—a day that saw the sun wiped out forever over England. But living in darkness is nothing new to Eyelet. She’s hidden her secret affliction all of her life—a life that would be in danger if superstitious townspeople ever guessed the truth. And after her mother is accused and executed for a crime that she didn’t commit, the now-orphaned Eyelet has no choice but to track down the machine that was created with the sole purpose of being her cure. Alone and on the run, she finally discovers the Illuminator—only to see a young man hauling it off. Determined to follow the thief and recover the machine, she ventures into the deepest, darkest, most dangerous part of her twisted world.

Rather than write my own blurb for this book, I wanted to post what initially interested me and prompted me to request this book on Netgalley. Now, having actually read the book, I can firmly say the cover design (which I do think is fabulous) is the best part of this book. That, and the fact that I’m done with it and never have to read about these stupid characters again. First off, what kind of a name is Eyelet!? All I could think of was holes in cloth, for threading rope and whatnot. I obviously didn’t absorb her name when I first read the blurb prior to requesting the book, because when I started reading I was shocked at how ridiculous it was. This oddball name was followed by others – Urlick (which I decided to mentally pronounce as “Yur-lick” to keep things fun), Flossie and Professor Smrt. Yes, SMRT, no vowels necessary! I’m not sure what the thought process was behind that last one and because I don’t think the book could be any more ridiculous, I started mentally pouncing that as “Ess-em-arr-tee” rather than “smart” without the “a.”

I have many issues with this book, but I’ll do my best not to rant. In a nutshell, this book was full of confusing imagery and half-developed ideas, which led to the feeling that Garlick was making up the rules as she went, to suit each situation, rather than establishing solid rules and boundaries for the world she created. I thought this would be a post-apocalyptic steampunk adventure and while I think Garlick did focus on the steampunk elements, everything else seemed to fall to the wayside. The “mysterious flash” and following blackout described in the blurb was the most disappointing element. One would think, with there no longer being any sunlight in England, that there would be catastrophic consequences and that Eyelet’s daily life would be greatly impacted by this factor. But no.  I think it was mentioned maybe once, that the sun didn’t shine and that she used something called a “bumbershoot” (never came close to figuring out what that was) for light, then it was never discussed again.

About halfway through the book there are also magical elements, such as demons made of vapors, ravens that can shape-change and a motorcycle made of bones with leather wings. His name is Bertie, if you were wondering, and he is “alive,” in that he can whimper, chortle, shudder, whine and sigh when you talk to him. Perhaps Bertie (what a terrible name for a potentially awesome character) could have been developed into something fantastic, but there was no mention of how he came to be created or what gave him his sentience. Like Bertie, the magic system was never really addressed, so it wasn’t clear what the rules where and who possessed magic or how it could be used. It felt like a convenient plot device to help our heroine when needed, only to be discarded moments later when it was no longer of use.

The characters are cardboard cutouts. Eyelet is your traditional beautiful, smart, witty, headstrong, somewhat clumsy heroine. In fact, she appears to be the only good-looking person in the world. There’s a man with no arms, a girl without a tongue, a rival with a harelip and a big hairy mole on her face and her semi-albino lover. She does suffer from seizures (which she insufferably refers to as “the silver”) which was intriguing and unique, but I don’t think Garlick pushed that envelope far enough. Urlick is an albino…with black hair…and a wine stain birthmark (on his face, described several times as a snake’s open mouth, ready to strike) and a permanent hand-shaped bruise on his throat. Eyelet eventually falls for him, as anyone with half a brain would know was coming, and their “relationship” felt rushed even by YA standards.

With quotes like “My heart rattles like a bag full of snakes,” and a scene where Eyelet shakes Flossie’s hand and can smell “weakness and a lack of a warm heart,” (WHAT.EVEN.) it’s no wonder I wasn’t impressed. I could probably dissect this book into a million, horrible, disjointed little parts, but this review is already longer than I planned. Sadly it’s just easier for me to rant about a bad book than praise a wonderful one. I really can’t say I’d recommend this to anyone.


Mini Review: Boneshaker


By Cherie Priest

Not My Edition:
Paperback, 416 pages
2009, Tor
ISBN: 9780765318411

From Amazon: In the early days of the Civil War, rumors of gold in the frozen Klondike brought hordes of newcomers to the Pacific Northwest. Anxious to compete, Russian prospectors commissioned inventor Leviticus Blue to create a great machine that could mine through Alaska’s ice. Thus was Dr. Blue’s Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine born. But on its first test run the Boneshaker went terribly awry, destroying several blocks of downtown Seattle and unearthing a subterranean vein of blight gas that turned anyone who breathed it into the living dead. Now it is sixteen years later, and a wall has been built to enclose the devastated and toxic city. Just beyond it lives Blue’s widow, Briar Wilkes. Life is hard with a ruined reputation and a teenaged boy to support, but she and Ezekiel are managing. Until Ezekiel undertakes a secret crusade to rewrite history. His quest will take him under the wall and into a city teeming with ravenous undead, air pirates, criminal overlords, and heavily armed refugees. And only Briar can bring him out alive.

This book has been buried in the depths of my Amazon cart for many years. During a recent trip to the library it caught my eye, and I’m glad I decided to finally read it! Boneshaker is a steampunk novel with a handful of American history sprinkled in for good measure. I often find that many of the steampunk novels I read are set in England or perhaps a fictional country modeled after England. It was a nice change of pace to read something set in my country.

Briar and Ezekiel are likeable characters and their backstory is a rich one – one I’d actually like to know more about. I was intrigued  by the Bone-Shaking Drill Engine and it was featured less in the story than I imagined. That’s really my only issue with this book – there were plenty of other steampunk creations to read about, but I wanted to know more about that drill! The war is mentioned from time to time, but if you’re looking for a version of the Civil War with more steampunk elements in it, this is not the book for you. Personally, this didn’t bother me (though I do think that’s a cool premise and if you know of any books like that, let me know!)

This book also took me longer to read than I’d guessed. I never felt bored or bogged down, but it was one of those books that I’d read for a few hours and think that I must be half done, only to find I’d made barely any progress. I don’t consider that a negative, just something to think about.

I had a lot of fun reading Boneshaker and it was very easy for me to picture the world Priest created. I’ll definitely seek out more of her work!