Rick’s Recent Reads for November

This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for the good books I’ve read! Here are a few of my recent favorites in case you’re looking for a good holiday read (or a holiday gift). As always, your mileage may vary, but I loved all of these for different reasons.

 The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin. Adult fantasy.

I picked this one up because I greatly enjoyed Jemisin’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, but this novel was even better. Jemisin blew me away with her world-building and beautiful writing. It’s the tale of an alternate earth called the Stillness, which is plagued by constant seismic activity. This leads to frequent near-extinction events called “Fifth Seasons” that keep humans on their toes. The evidence of past civilizations litters the planet — ruined cities, incomplete ‘stonelore’ handed down from earlier generations, and strange obelisks that float through the atmosphere like low-altitude satellites and serve no apparent purpose. The civilization that we meet in this book, the Sanze Empire, has survived for centuries by harnessing the power of orogenes — people born with an innate ability to control their environment. The orogenes can stop earthquakes or start them. They can save cities, or drawn power from living creatures and “ice” them. Their powers are terrifying yet essential, so the empire develops a caste of Guardians who have the power to neutralize the orogenes when necessary. The orogenes are held in contempt and called “roggas” by ordinary humans. Despite all their power, they cannot control their own lives. They are either hunted down and destroyed or sent to the Fulcrum to be trained and used by the empire. Imagine Hogwarts, if Hogwarts treated its students like chattel. The world Jemisin creates is as horrific as it is brilliant.

My advice is to give the book at least fifty pages before passing judgment, because it takes a while to understand what is going on. There is a lot of terminology to get used to, and the book is told in three intertwining narratives that at first don’t seem to match up, but once you get into the world and into the story, it is a fantastically rewarding read. I can’t say much about the plot without giving away some of the wonderful surprises, but if you want to read about a truly dystopian world that holds a mirror to the darkest of human motivations, this novel will haunt you long after you finish it.

Revolutionary, by Alex Myers. Historical fiction.
I picked this up after reading an article about the author in the Boston Globe.  Alex Myers, a transgender man, explores the American Revolution through the eyes of one of his distant ancestors, Deborah Sampson, who disguised herself as a man to fight in the war. That premise grabbed me right away, and I was happy to find that the execution of the novel was just as interesting. Deborah’s story is told with empathy and clarity. She escapes the horrors of one life, hoping for the sort of freedom only a man could have in Colonial times, yet the price she pays is a hard military existence where she is always on guard against being discovered. There is honest talk about rape and violence, but I would certainly say the novel is appropriate for high school readers and older. If you are interested in history told from an alternate, disenfranchised point of view, this is a compelling read.
Uprooted, by Naomi Novik. Young adult fantasy. 
I love a good fantasy rooted in folklore, and Novik does a great job mining the mythology of Eastern Europe for this novel. Young Agnieszka lives in a small town in an out-of-the-way valley where nothing much ever happens . . .  except for the fact that they live near an evil Wood that occasional swallows trespassers, drives villagers mad, or sends monsters to destroy neighboring villages. Oh, and also they are protected by a wizard called the Dragon who lives in a tower and does his best to keep the evil magic of the Wood at bay. In return for his protection, the wizard takes one girl from the valley every ten years to serve him in the tower. These girls aren’t killed, but they are never the same after their ten years of servitude, and they never stay in the valley when they are released. Something about their servitude changes them . . . 
Agnieszka worries for her best friend, Kasia, who is the most beautiful girl in the village. Everyone is sure Kasia will be snatched up by the Dragon at the next Choosing. Instead, much to her surprise, Agnieszka is chosen to serve the Dragon, and that’s when she discovered how dark and frightening the world really is.
Novik does a great job twisting our expectations — inverting the tropes about fairy tale villains and heroes. You’ll get magic and monsters, princes and wizards, sorcery and chivalry, but not always in the ways you might expect. Agnieszka has to go through some pretty horrible stuff. In fact, her story got worse so many times I had to put the book down a few times and catch my breath. This trip through the evil Wood is not for the faint of heart. But if you want a fantasy with strong characters and brilliantly original variations on ancient stories, try Uprooted!

 Pacific Crucible, by Ian W. Toll. History nonfiction.

I love history, and this is one of those books that is so good it reads like a novel. Toll brings to life the major players of the Pacific War on both sides of the conflict, drawing on Japanese primary sources as well as Allied. I have read a lot about the Second World War, but I still learned a great deal about this part of the conflict, which takes us through the rise of Imperial Japan, to Pearl Harbor, and on to the Battle of Midway. I am now reading the second in Toll’s projected trilogy, The Conquering Tide, and loving it just as much. If you like accessible, highly readable history, this is a great choice.

Sick, by Brett Battles. Adult thriller.
Okay, so another novel about a plague that could wipe out humanity. We’ve read this before and seen it a million times, right? Nevertheless, this book was a great page-turner. Daniel Ash wakes up in the middle of night to find a nightmare situation. His wife is dead next to him. His daughter and son appear to be sick with the same virulent disease. He alone isn’t affected. A team of unknown specialists in Hazmat gear swoop in and quarantine the entire neighborhood. Soon, Ash is separated from his children and being studied like a lab rat. Only when a secretive agent frees him from captivity does Ash realize there is a conspiracy in the works. Someone is developing a super plague, and his family and neighbors are only the first casualties. Ash must find his children, find those responsible for taking them, and — you, know — save the world from certain destruction.
I guess what makes this different from other plague-apocalypse novels is that the disease has not yet escaped fully. It’s sort of ‘Fear the Walking Dead’ as opposed to ‘The Walking Dead.’ I found it an easy, exciting read. If you’re after pure entertainment on your next trip, or just looking to relax with a good yarn, give it a try.

Shadow Magic, by Joshua Khan. Middle grade fantasy.

It’s not really fair for me to recommend this yet, because you won’t be able to buy it until it comes out in April, but I would highly recommend you keep it on your long-term radar.

Have you ever started reading a book thinking, ‘Oh, well, I may not like it but I’ll give it a try,’ then quickly found yourself sucked into the story and thinking, ‘Holy Hera, this is good!’ That was my experience with Shadow Magic. It’s told from the alternating perspectives of Thorn, the wayward son of an outlaw, and Lillith Shadow, the heir of one of six ancient magical kingdoms.  There should be no reason for these two to ever cross paths, but they do, and the combination is explosive.

Lillith is the heir of Gehenna, the kingdom of darkness. She wasn’t supposed to become the ruler, but her family is murdered under mysterious circumstances, which leaves her next in line to the throne. Her family was once able to summon legions of the undead, speak to ghosts, and do all sorts of cool darkness magic that Nico di Angelo would approve of. Unfortunately, Gehenna’s glory days are long past, and women are not allowed to practice sorcery upon pain of death, so Lillith cannot use whatever powers she might have. Gehenna is so weak, Lillith is forced to make a marriage alliance with their ancient enemies, the bright and shiny kingdom of light. (Gross!) 

Thorn, a young nobody from the north, is captured and sold into slavery to an executioner named Tyburn, who happens to work for the kingdom of Shadow. Thorn arrives in the land of darkness, and is soon plunged into a mystery with Lillith about who killed her parents. We find out that Thorn and Lillith both have unexpected powers and many secrets. We meet some fantastic characters, including a giant bat named Hades (How could I not love that?). 

This book is a wonderful page-turner for young readers. It’s got all the elements of a great fantasy, rendered in a fresh, alluring, well-crafted world, with sympathetic characters and tons of mystery. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Come spring time, get a copy. You’ll thank me for it!

Rick Riordan