Friday, May 19, 2017

What we're reading: YA fantasies for everyone

There are some books that are specifically for teen readers, and some that, while written for teens, transcend that pigeonhole by their sheer excellence. There are a couple of new fantasy series and some older ones that I would, without hesitation, recommend to anyone who loves imaginative world-building, compelling characters, and a riveting story.

One such series is a new duology by YA author Leigh Bardugo. Although her Grisha trilogy that began with Shadow and Bone was well done and popular among teens (and probably among some adults), with these two new books Bardugo has created such an engaging bunch of characters that you long to be a part of their inner circle. Their leader is Kaz Brekker, a member of the Ketterdam underworld who has risen by a combination of smarts and ruthlessness to a position of some power in one of the city's many gangs. But this isn't enough for Kaz--he is motivated by both acquisitiveness and a thirst for revenge on a man who almost ruined his life, and when an opportunity comes up to score a treasure, rescue a hostage, and make a name for himself, he recruits six of the deadliest outcasts to help him, and the adventure is on.

I really enjoyed the first book. I liked the first series about the Grisha by Bardugo well enough, but was fatigued by all the magic and angsty pseudo-romance by the end of it. But this one stars a good old-fashioned gang of thieves with skills and exploits attributable for the most part to themselves, not to their paranormal powers. There is attraction among the characters, but it's much more subtle and doesn't take over the story, just adds to it. I thought Six of Crows was good, but the second book, Crooked Kingdom, really raised the bar. I got about a third of the way through it and thought, how can it get better than this? and after everything that has happened, how can there still be two-thirds of the book to go? But there was, and things just kept getting more interesting, more desperate, more seemingly unsolvable and insurmountable, with a great big build-up that made me crazy to finish but made me want to savor it all at the same time. You know a book is good when your first response at turning the last page is a more than half-hearted desire to start the book over again right that minute. Way to step up your game, Leigh Bardugo.

Another YA author who has stepped up her game is Laini Taylor, who wrote a previous trilogy that began with Daughter of Smoke and Bone (yes, sometimes confused with Bardugo's series due to their similar names). While I enjoyed that series and admired how she took tropes and stereotypes and turned them on their head, I still relegated that one to YA status; but the first book in her new duology is so beautifully written, with such glorious imagery and imagination, that I don't think anyone who loves fantasy will be able to resist it. It's called Strange the Dreamer.

This is the book that I was waiting for Taylor to write, the one that captures her ability to lure you into a world so completely and complexly drawn that when you come up for air, you can't believe that you're not really there.

It starts with an orphan, named Lazlo Strange. All orphans are given the surname of Strange, but Lazlo really is a little offbeat. He survives being raised by a community of priests who were ill prepared and not particularly beneficent towards all the orphans they got stuck with after war caused parentless children to "arrive like shipments of lambs" at the monastery. He grows up repressing an active imagination that is obsessed with a lost city that lies on the other side of a vast desert; he learns about it from one of the elderly and senile monks for whom he must fetch meals, and Brother Cyrus's stories possess his mind almost to the exclusion of all else. But the practicality of the monks doesn't allow for stories, or play, or anything, really, but work. So Lazlo works in their scriptorium, copying manuscripts, until the day he gets sent on an errand to the Great Library of Zosma. He never goes back. The library entices him with its stock of stories, and he disappears into its grasp until he is discovered days later, and taken on as an apprentice. The master who discovers him in the stacks says, "The library knows its own mind. When it steals a boy, we let it keep him."

Lazlo assumes he will end his days as a librarian, but after years of doing his job while indulging his passion for researching the lost city he has never forgotten, a surprising and wonderful thing happens: Proof of its existence manifests, and changes Lazlo's destiny.

This book is a combination of the best of everything. At its heart, it's the story of an underdog who gets the chance to become something more. But it's not just that; there's also the rich world-building, the magical, dreamy language, the powerful and intriguing ideas about gods and monsters. The book is completely immersive.

It is the first book of a duology, so you do have to suffer through the "to be continued" aspect when you read it. But it's so good that I know fantasy mavens will want to read it now and then reread it later when the sequel is ready to drop.

As for the older series, one is by Australian author Melina Marchetta, and the other by American writer Megan Whalen Turner. Both of their series suffer from a peculiar malady: They get better as they go on. That doesn't sound like a bad thing, but in practice, it can be. Many reviewers (and readers) have noted "second book syndrome" when it comes to the YA series--the first book was great, the second book was meh, and then the author pulls out all the stops and brings it together in a great third volume. But Marchetta's series begins with a book that's a good, solid fantasy but maybe not so special as to make you want to keep reading, and then goes on to a second and a third book that are so exponentially better than the first that I almost had trouble believing the same author wrote them. Thus, the challenge is to get people to read the first book but not stop, despite them perhaps finding it less than compelling, so as to have the sublime experience offered by the second and the third.

The first book in Marchetta's Lumatere series is Finnikin of the Rock. We read it in 10-12 Book Club twice over the past eight years, and on neither occasion was it anyone's favorite book. The club members liked it well enough; but it didn't engender the kind of rave reviews or provoke series loyalty like others have done. Don't get me wrong: It's not a bad book, it's actually quite clever and interesting. But when I moved on, first to Froi of the Exiles and then to Quintana of Charyn, I was blown away by the complexity of the moral dilemmas, the beautiful creation of the worlds inhabited by these characters, and the sophistication of this story.

The plot of the first book: A false king has taken over a kingdom, slaying the entire royal family; he has also put to death the high priestess of one of the goddesses worshipped there. As she dies, she curses the kingdom so that all still in it are trapped inside, and all outside its borders are exiled. The story starts 10 years later, as Finnikin, best friend of the young prince of the true ruling house, meets Evanjelin, a strange novice from a religious retreat, who claims that the ruling family is not all slain, and that both Finnikin and Evangelin have a role in breaking the curse and returning home to restore the kingdom.

I can't detail the plots of the other two books without spoilers, so I will just share another reviewer's summation of the two books: "Gripping, intense, complex, richly imagined, dazzling."

Not quite as extreme an example is Megan Whalen Turner's Queen's Thief series that begins with The Thief. I personally loved the first book, particularly the twisty nature of the plot that reveals itself only at the end and makes you want to reread the book immediately to see how it fooled you so thoroughly; but the first book barely begins the saga that takes place in the subsequent three volumes, and as it advances to The King of Attolia, The Queen of Attolia, and A Conspiracy of Kings, the reader becomes further and further invested in the characters, personalities, and fates of these wonderful characters in their interesting kingdoms. But without the back story and foundation of The Thief, you experience none of the anticipation and revelations gifted to you by the other three books. Turner is a slow writer with long intervals between books, so I'm over the moon that the fifth book in this series, called Thick as Thieves, was just published two days ago; it will be on library shelves soon, and is at the top of my summer reads list.

Some other series that rate a look by adults who love good fantasy fare:

The Graceling Realm books, by Kristin Cashore
The Beka Cooper trilogy, by Tamora Pierce
The Great Library series, by Rachel Caine
The Tiffany Aching books by Terry Pratchett
The Mirrorworld series by Cornelia Funke

Fantasy readers, you have a rich trove of series to read at Burbank Public Library!

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