Blogs: Science fiction/Fantasy

Princeless book jacketKids these days.  They get the best books!  Sometimes we get the best recommendations from patrons.  Even when they're only 7 or 8 years old!  I'm pretty sure I would have adored these graphic novels as a little girl because, I've got to admit, I really liked them as an adult. Princeless tells the story of a young princess whose father locks her up in a dragon guarded tower to await rescue by a prince.  She's having none of this. She promptly rescues herself and steals a dragon so she can have adventures instead of meekly awaiting a future spouse.  After listening to a young fan sing the praises of this series, I put book one on hold to read for myself and I'm glad I did! It's a charming adventure with some clever jokes for older readers hidden in it.

The Courageous Princess is a gentle story with a fairytale feel to it. Mabelrose is kidnapped from her loving parents, the king and queenThe Courageous Princess book jacket of a tiny humble kingdom. She manages to keep her head in the face of danger and escapes from her captor while, unknowing of this, her father sets out to try to save her.  Mabelrose has traditional fairytale virtues of modesty, loyalty and so on. She saves herself from each new problem she faces while trying to get home by doing the right thing for the right reasons.

Princess Ugg is meant for a somewhat older audience than the first two titles. Princess Ülga is a barbarian warrior princess who, on the wish of her dead mother, goes to a school for princesses in the "civilized" lands  so she can learn about her clan's neighbors. Her mother hoped that perhaps what she learned would halt the endless fighting in her homeland through diplomacy. The noble born girls from gentler lands do not understand Ülga and mock her appearance and behavior endlessly.

These titles are a great deal of fun and a quick distraction (and from an adult's perspective pretty sweet and charming) with young heroines who don't need someone to rescue them.

It is the 41st millenium. For more than a hundred centuries the Emperor has sat immobile on the Golden Throne of Earth. He is the master of mankind by the will of the gods, and master of a million worlds by the might of his inexhaustible armies ... Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the dark, grim future there is only war.

Ross and RodThus begins every Warhammer 40,000 novel. In an infinitely vast universe in which anything imaginable--as well as anything not imaginable--exists, the deathless emperor of humanity watches over his domain. There are over 350 books set in the Warhammer 40K universe so it only seems appropriate that it be included in that most remarkable of all books, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Not wanting to actually endure the violence inherent in the Warhammer universe, intrepid Hitchhiker’s Guide contributor Ford Prefect has come to Multnomah County Library to find out what it’s all about and why you need plenty of dark towels when you visit. He interviewed Rod and Ross, reference staff at Multnomah County Library who have been exploring the Warhammer 40K universe--through books, of course. There are a couple reasons why they chose books: 1) neither has access to a starship and 2) both are quiet, gentle souls who would last approximately 8.6 seconds in your typical Warhammer 40K setting before suffering some grisly end.

Ford: What is Warhammer 40,0000?
Rod: Well, it’s a universe 40,000 (40K) years in the future where humanity has spread throughout the galaxy. The peak of human technological developmentNightbringer book jacket occurred centuries before, so most aspects of life are treated like a religion because there is no longer any real understanding of how things work.
Ross: This futuristic version of our universe was first depicted in a tabletop wargame created by the British company Games Workshop, but novels and short stories by various authors have been steadily produced over the last 30 years, such that there is now an enormous body of literature all taking place in this same grim, dark future.

Ford: How did you discover this future reality?
Ross: I first discovered Warhammer 40K as a kid through the board game Space Hulk. The game was okay, but mostly I was just fascinated by the enormous scale and dystopia of the setting and the cool looking Space Marines in their power armor. When I got older and discovered all the books set in this world, I was a little intimidated and unsure where to start reading.
Rod: Yes, “intimidated” would describe my own thoughts when faced with the overwhelming number of Warhammer 40K books. After talking with Ross and doing a little research, he and I decided to dive in and create our own list of places to start reading in Warhammer 40K.

Ford: As any traveller of the galaxy knows, a towel is the one necessity that cannot be done without. Its uses are mind-boggling in variety. As you can see, I have this lovely towel from Marks & Spencer, but you two seem to have A LOT of towels in dark, rather drab colors. Why?
Ross: Like the intro to each Warhammer book says, “there is only war” in the year 40,000. If there’s one thing that Warhammer 40K books have in common, it’s carnage. Lots of battles, lots of cool weapons (power armor! chainswords! storm bolters!), and lots of blood. Hence, dark towels.
Rod: When starting your journey into the Warhammer 40K universe, you really need to know what you are getting into. Be prepared for gaping combat wounds, ritual sacrifices, demonic transformations--all manner of violence. Not only will you need a towel for your own injuries, but chances are you’ll be staunching wounds for everyone around you, too,

Ford: Personally, I’d much rather visit Ursa Minor Beta (you remember the ad campaign, “when you are tired of Ursa Minor Beta, you are tired of life”). This Warhammer universe sounds utterly dreadful. What could you possibly find appealing about such a dark, violent place?
Ross: Hmm... there’s something cathartic and freeing about visiting a world (through books, that is) which is so bleak and brutal. And there’s more to these novels than just unceasing violence: I get a strong sense of absurd, very black humor when I read them. They are violent, funny, and so completely over-the-top that you never know what will happen next. 
Rod: I didn’t sense much humor in the books I read, but you definitely can’t take them too seriously. These are novels built around action. While individual books don’t always bother much with such niceties as plot and character, the overall universe is remarkably deep. One of the nice things about such a large catalog of books is that there are many different series within the larger universe and many different authors, so if you aren’t a big fan of one, then another might be just the thing for you.

Ford: Well, thank you gentlemen for your insights into the Warhammer 40K universe. I think I already have my entry written. What do you think of “Mostly harmful”?

 

The Wild Robot book jacketWhen I was a kid, I didn’t particularly like robots. They seemed cold, impersonal and completely unlovable. I had my first inkling that robots could be more than just metallic tools when R2D2 and C3PO came on the scene. Since that first Star Wars movie came out, there have been lots of books for kids with wonderful and wonderfully personable bots including a novel I just finished entitled The Wild Robot by Peter Brown.  After the ship she is on sinks, Roz, the titular robot, pitches up on an island. Only when some playful otters break open the box she is in, is Roz able to start figuring out how she is going to survive. At first, the island animals think she’s a monster and try to avoid her, but they slowly warm up to her after she adopts a baby goose and begins to do things that make the animals lives better. When something threatens Roz, the animals band together to try and save her.  For a good survival story with a robot that’s all heart, despite not having one, The Wild Robot is just the ticket.  For more children’s books featuring robots, check out this list.

Recently I decided to see if I could up the number of books I finished in a year if I moved the books that were well reviewed to the top of my reading list.  I know it takes me longer to finish a book that's only just barely good enough not to put down than it does to finish a top-notch page-turner of a book.

Uprooted book jacketTwo well-reviewed titles I've finished recently are Uprooted by Naomi Novik and A Criminal Magic by Lee Kelly.  Uprooted is a charming fairy tale about Agnieszka, a peasant girl in a humble village on the edge of a corrupted Wood.  The village is kept safe by the Dragon who asks only that a girl of his choice from one of his dependent villages enter his service every ten years.  At the end of her term of service, she is let go with a fine fat pouch of silver coins for her time.  But the girls are never the same after and they always leave their village homes.  Agnieszka never thinks that she'll be the chosen one....
A Criminal Magic book jacket
A Criminal Magic is about a 1920s America where prohibition doesn’t ban alcohol; instead it bans sorcerer's "shine".  Sorcerers can bottle their shine which gives an incredible and addictive high, but the shine loses its power after only a single day.  After prohibition begins, shine distribution falls to mobsters - the same as alcohol did in the real1920s world.  Joan is a sweet young orphaned sorceress from the back woods who only wants to earn money and look after her little sister and her cousin. Alex is a Federal Prohibition Unit trainee with a scandal in his past who is forced to go undercover into the world of "shine" dens.  Both are forced to confront all the unpleasant realities of the world they find themselves in.  It's early in the year but I can already tell you that A Criminal Magic will be in my top ten titles for the year.

If you are looking at a title in the newer version of the catalog (Bibliocommons), scroll down past the title information to "Opinions" then look for "From the critics" to see professionally published reviews.  In the classic catalog, click on the cover picture for the book (you'll need allow new windows to pop up) and any published reviews will be available in the new window.  I found these two titles as delightful as the reviews promised and finished both in short order since I didn't want to put either one down!

Photo of Ross on cell phone, with copy of Press Start to PlayYour XBOX is broken, your iPhone is dead and, on top of all that, the power is out. You need a book to read! I recommend Press Start to Play, a new collection of short stories inspired by video games.

The stories are short, snappy and really diverse in the ways that they translate video-gaming into fiction and then use it to speculate on the future of our society. Action? Yes. Dystopia-utopia, with laughs? Sure. Horror-filled text-based-game bleeding into reality? That too. Some big-name authors are included in the book, like Charlie Jane Anders (All the Birds in the Sky), Ken Liu (Grace of Kings) and Andy Weir (The Martian), among many others. You can find Press Start to Play in my reading list Great reads for gamers v2.0.

It is a good time to be a video gamer in Portland. OMSI has an exhibit called Game Masters which is running through May 8, 2016. Local super-arcade Ground Kontrol is getting ready to expand and double in size. Multnomah County Library is in on the action, too: Troutdale Library will be holding a spring break gaming week for teens in March 2016, and local nonprofit Pixel Arts is presenting game design programs for kids and teens at libraries around the county.

So, what are my personal top 5 favorite video games of all time? I’m glad you asked.

  • Curse of the Azure Bonds (1989, DOS)
  • Ultima VII: The Black Gate (1992, DOS)
  • Street Fighter II Turbo (1993, Super NES)
  • Gran Turismo 2 (1999, PlayStation)
  • Dragon Age: Origins (2009, PlayStation 3)

Share your own favorites in the comments! Bonus score if you can suggest a book match for your favorite game.

Now let's play some Curse of the Azure Bonds! (Warning: the following video contains spoilers as well as 1980s D&D awesomeness.)

C:\>_

Maile Meloy's The Apothecary combines the tension of cold war politics with science, and magic. It's a great read for teens and adults. What's not to love?

The Book of Jhereg book jacketWhile I have absolutely no interest in meeting in real life a professional assassin that runs a protection racket, drug dealers, prostitutes and fences as a mid-level crime boss, I don’t mind coming across one in books.  There’s an old favorite series of mine by Steven Brust that has just such a character. Vlad Taltos is an unrepentant criminal. What the character has going for him is a witty observation of the world around him that reminds me a lot of my favorite series and character Harry Dresden in the Dresden Files

Vlad Taltos is a human, or as the local inhabitants of his home city prefer, an "Easterner".  He lives in a vast fantasy city peopled by Dragaerans who are all taller, stronger, much longer lived and more magically inclined than humans. The Dragaerans divide themselves into 17 houses, each with their own set of talents and traits. Mixing bloodlines between the clannish houses is nearly taboo.  The only house that will take mixed house members in is the Jhereg.  The Jhereg will sell anything to anyone without scruple including a minor title to a social-climbing Easterner. Vlad finds he has a talent for beating up Dragaerans and decides it suits him much better than working in his father's little restaurant paying protection to the nearest Jhereg thug.  Better to claw his way up to neighborhood boss himself!   The first three books by Steven Brust about Vlad can be found in The Book of Jhereg. As all the titles are based on made up animal names and the series is very long, I recommend checking Novelist Plus for series order.

If swords suit you better than a scoundrel, I also have loved the Tiger and Del books by Jennifer Roberson for years.  This series being from the 1980s it The Novels of Tiger and Del book jacketincludes a common trope in fantasy at the time of having the heroine be the one and only woman warrior in a men's world.  In these books, a lot of these characters felt not very female, but Roberson’s novels are an exception.  The characters also age and change as the series matures with time. I like my novels character driven and Tiger and Del are interesting, well-developed characters throughout. The first two books can be found in The Novels of Tiger and Del Volume 1. Again, check Novelist Plus to get the books in the right order.

Some final words in favor of these books: I have room on my personal shelves for no more than 2000 books and I usually have hundreds less than that.  I've held onto these complete series since 1983 and 1986 because they're good enough to rate keeping for decades.  Even though you can see the decades on the first book in their stylistic choices (and I've gone from seeing them with a child's eyes to an adult's perspective), the interesting characters and the authors growing and changing their writing style as the decades pass by make these both fantasy classics in my books.

Falling in Love with Hominids book jacketSome writing just speaks to you. You relate to a situation, you long to experience a setting, you thrill at an exciting plot twist, or maybe you smile at a fanciful phrase and turn it over in your mind a bit before speaking it out loud. I LOVE it when that happens! I had some of this good fortune recently when I heard about the short story collection Falling in Love With Hominids by Nalo Hopkinson. I'm only a few stories into this and I know that this 2015 release may be my favorite item of 2016.

 
What it's like: Imagine Twilight Zone episodes, really good ones. Now add a splash of something that is hopeful and touching (but maybe still a bit weird). For me, that would be It's A Wonderful Life. Pepper it liberally with thoughtful, revealing, sensual dialogue. Her writing is a bit like that. There are themes around gender and culture and the future. It's science fiction, but think Octavia Butler, not Star Wars
 
Each story has its own spice. Each could have been written by a different author, but there is a tone that unites them. It might be the hopefulness, or the 'heart'. One story that doesn't end well for the main character still manages to find triumph in what we might think of as defeat. 
 
The best part, for me, is what lies ahead. She's written books that I now am keenly aware of, well-reviewed and safely ensconced on my For Later list. For right now, I want to read these short tales, written and published over a span of fourteen years, and savor them.
 
Thanks to NPR for the review that led me to this writer!

Photo of a stormtrooper reading a book.It is only a matter of days until the premier of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. (!!!!!) So how am I getting ready? By stocking up on new CoverGirl Star Wars makeup? Um, no, but maybe I should!

What I am doing is reading the official Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens books which fill in the gaps between the events in the previous movies (episodes IV, V, and VI) and give hints and teasers about the story that will be coming in episode VII.

Thrill as Leia climbs up space-rat infested tunnels on a secret mission between episodes V and VI!

Shudder as Wedge gets captured by Imperial officers who aren’t ready to accept that their Emperor is dead and the Death Star destroyed!

Take in more Star Wars trivia than your brain can possibly handle!

Find them all at the library with my reading list, Multcolib My Librarian Ross: Journeying to Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And until December 18th... may the Force be with you!

 

When I heard that the BBC miniseries based on Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was going to be available soon, I decided to reread the book before enjoying the treat of the miniseries.

The year Jonathan Strange came out, I bored all of my friends by going on about it. It’s just the kind of book I like, a big story with fantastically rich characters and plenty of wit that takes its time to unfold. It's written with assurance and with great plotting, a lot of little stories beautifully folded up in the big one. It offers the same kinds of pleasures offered by Dickens-- but without the occasional over-sentimentality or distressing racism. And there’s magic-- absolutely dazzling feats of magic. From the moment that Mr. Norrell brought all the statues in York Cathedral to life in order to win a bet, I was entranced.

When I reread it this year, I loved it all over again. When I finished, I watched the miniseries, and it was fine--some good performances and gorgeous sets-- but it turned out that rereading the book was the real treat.

If you need a little magic in your life, consider reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. If you need more options, this list might be just the thing. And if you need even more ideas about what to read, feel free to ask me.
 

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