Rick’s Recent Reads for March ’13

A quick break from my revisions to tell you about some recent books I’ve enjoyed:

Grave Mercy hooked me with a great premise: medieval nun assassins who serve Saint Mortain, the god of death. The novel is set in an alternate realm of Brittany, where the local gods have been subsumed by Christianity and renamed saints. The old ways live on, however, especially among the daughters of Saint Mortain, who serve as the realm’s assassins, killing those who need to be killed.

Our lethal heroine, Ismae, escapes a life of poverty and abuse by joining the convent. Soon she is plunged into a game of intrigue and villainy as the realm tries to maintain its independence from France. Unfortunately for Ismae, one of the people she is sent to spy on (and possibly assassinate) is the first man she feels she might love.

The novel is driven by mystery, romance and subtle skulduggery. It isn’t exactly an adventure novel, so don’t expect a fight on every page, but if you stick with it, it’s well worth reading! I’d recommend it to YA fans, especially those with an interest in history. The closest parallel I can think of is Cashore’s Graceling — another fantastic romance about a deadly heroine.

Another winner from Dennis Lehane, Live by Night is an adult gangster novel set during Prohibition. It features Joe Coughlin, the little brother of the protagonist in Lehane’s previous novel about Boston in the 1910s — The Given Day. For my money, this book is even better.
We follow Joe from his early days as a Boston criminal to his time in prison, to his eventual rise as a lord of crime in Florida, overseeing rum-running. As you’d expect in a Lehane novel, the writing sparkles, the characters are all deftly draw, and the time period is evoked so well you’ll wonder how Lehane managed it without living through the 1920s.
Again, this is not a book for kids! But if you’re an adult reader who enjoys a good gritty crime novel that will haunt you afterward, check this out.

Leviathan Wakes was recommended by George R.R. Martin (one of the two authors who comprise the team of ‘James A. Corey’ apparently works for Martin). It had been a while since I’d read a straight-up space opera sci fi, so I gave it a try and loved it.

I especially liked the scope of the novel, which is set a few centuries in the future, when humanity has colonized much of the solar system but still has not reached the stars (or found alien life). Sadly, human politics and jingoism haven’t changed much. Earth and Mars are in an uneasy alliance, and the humans living out on the asteroids of “the Belt” feel like exploited colonists. A fringe group called the OPA are agitating for war, with echoes of the American Revolution. Against this backdrop, two men from very different backgrounds are pulled into a horrifying mystery — a disappearing ship, a girl with a complicated past, a Black Ops attack that threatens to start a solar-system-wide war, and a discovery that could change or destroy humanity.

The mystery will keep the pages turning. The characters are vividly brought to life. And the world is just alien enough, and just familiar enough, that I’ll be anxious to read more books about. An adult novel, but YA sci fi fans will also love it.

Prince of Thorns — wow, I’ve heard of dark fantasy and anti-heroes, but this is the darkest fantasy with the anti-est anti-hero I’ve ever encountered. Our protagonist Jorg is only thirteen, but do not mistake this for a kids’ book! Jorg is already the leader of a cutthroat gang of marauders, and has killed more men than most seasoned warriors — including innocent civilians and a few of his own followers. Despite all this, I found myself rooting for Jorg, especially as more of his past is revealed, and we learn why he has become such a hardened, unrepentant killer. He lives in a broken empire where minor lords are constantly squabbling, but who is really pulling the strings of power? Jorg intends to find out. He aims to become king by the time he is fifteen, and once you meet you, you won’t be betting against him! If you’ve ever wanted to read a first-person book about a hero who is also the darkest of villains, try this out. It’s not like anything I’ve ever read before.

Think you’ve read everything about dragons? Think it’s a worn-out concept? Seraphina will make you think again. Our heroine of the title lives in a human kingdom that is about to celebrate forty years of a peace treaty with the draconian race, but old prejudice dies hard. When the ruler of the dragons comes to the capital to commemorate the treaty, many factions on both sides wish to sabotage the fragile peace. Hartman’s dragons are fascinating. They are part Vulcan from Star Trek — logical beings who assiduously suppress their violent emotions — and part Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock — high-functioning sociopaths who can do trigonometry in their heads and tell you exactly how many people are standing in a crowd, but who don’t understand the concept of music or shaking hands (or sometimes even wearing clothes).  The dragons can take on human form — saarantrai — which only makes things more complicated. Needless to say, dragons and humans are forbidden from falling in love, which doesn’t mean it never happens . . .
A great YA fantasy with plenty of intrigue and romance and several intertwining mysteries that will keep you reading.
Divergent has been getting a lot of buzz, so I’m late to the party on this, but I definitely enjoyed it. At first, I had trouble convincing my older son to read it, because he was convinced that every dystopian novel is a “Hunger Games” wannabe, but he read it on a recent plane trip and we had a great in-depth discussion about the characters and their motivations.
The premise: Chicago of the future is a closed city-state. The citizenry really doesn’t have any idea what is beyond their borders. They just know it’s dangerous. Inside the city, humanity is divided into five factions based on moral imperatives. Candor, for instance, values truth above all else. They serve as lawyers and public speakers. Erudite values knowledge. They serve as teachers. Abnegation values self-denial and community service. They are the community’s leaders, since they alone can be trusted not to be power-hungry.
Our heroine Tris is born into Abnegation, but during her choosing ceremony at age sixteen, she decides to join the Dauntless, who value fearlessness and serve as the society’s soldiers and guards. The novel follows her through her initiation training, during which Tris discovers that their society is not as harmonious as she once believed. Making things even worse, Tris must keep her true aptitude secret. She is in a small minority of people who are divergent — whose skills could suit them for more than one faction. What this means is not at first clear, but it will make Tris’s life very dangerous.

Lastly, my favorite recent non-fiction read: The Warmth of Other Suns.  This is one of those rare history books that makes history as fresh and relevant as local headlines, and as gripping as a novel. I’ll admit that even with my background as an American history teacher, I didn’t know much about the Great Migration of the early twentieth century, during which millions of African Americans left the Jim Crow South for the North and the West, permanently changing the demographics of the U.S. Wilkerson follows the lives of three such people in different decades, while augmenting their stories with anecdotes from many sources. The result is a riveting personal narrative, powerfully written, that may open your eyes (as it did mine) to part of our national history that needs much attention. Highly recommended to high school and above.

Rick Riordan