Review: The Palace of Glass (The Forbidden Library #3), by Django Wexler

June 7, 2016
Snumpus

The Palace of GlassAlice and Ending have been working on a plan to exact vengeance against Geryon for the careless killing of Alice’s father. Under Ending’s tutelage, Alice has been learning to Write, to start to construct her own spells. It’s going to take a very long time for Alice to muster the kind of power she’ll need to confront a Reader of Geryon’s age and experience, though, and when Geryon leaves Alice alone in charge of the Library for a week, she and the labyrinthine see a narrow window of opportunity to get the upper hand. Alice must travel through two worlds to retrieve The Infinite Prison, a spell that ought to be strong enough to hold Geryon. But the Palace of Glass, where the Prison can be found, is a place said to drive mad all who visit it, and Alice must be there and back before the clock runs out…

Each book in this series has been better than the last. Once again, I feel like some of my complaints from the previous volume have been addressed and that The Palace of Glass is the most enjoyable of the books so far. In the previous novels, I’ve been bothered by the fact that for a series that talks a lot about the other worlds to be found in books, we don’t actually get to see them very much, and when we do they’re kind of lacking in vitality. But the lion’s share of The Palace of Glass is spent on Alice’s otherworldly adventure, and the worlds she visits are not just places to be fascinated by, but places worth caring about. I could read an entire spin-off about the fire-sprites and their home, their preservation of memory, their coping with the tributes and the fading of their world… Wexler does a wonderful job with the little evocative touches too, describing the sprites’ hair, voices, laughter, and deaths in ways that perfectly capture their nature as living flame.

The Palace of Glass also introduces some wonderful new allied characters. To date the only really interesting non-human ones have been the labyrinthines and their offspring, which is a bit of missed potential when you consider the possibilities of all the different kinds of beings that can exist in the worlds beyond the portal-books, but Alice’s companions in this book include an angry young fire-sprite who carries some of the oldest memories of his people, and a teenage ice giant who just wants to be an artist and exasperates her mother with her lack of fighting spirit. I took to them more than the gang of apprentices from The Mad Apprentice (except the delightful Dex, of course); with these additions, the series is growing quite a cast of characters I care about.

As far as characters go, Alice has been the weak link for me up until now, but while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this entry in the series addresses my problems with her, it certainly minimises them. The story is structured in such a way that it doesn’t over-rely on her (lacking) emotional responses to things. The aspect of the story that is built on her personal growth is primarily about consequences. Alice has known from the start that the Readers’ power is based on subjugation and death, but here is where she really has to face up to what that means, and not just in the context of what Geryon has done but in how the Readers’ society and their magic is affecting all of the worlds they touch. It’s a narrative that kind of works with her weaknesses, because this is precisely the kind of situation that requires decisiveness without getting mired in depth of feeling. That said, it is sort of hilarious that there’s another death here, and ‘You’ll take care of the body, then? Righto, good’ seems to be the sum total of emotional reaction that Alice or anyone else can be bothered to conjure.

There have been funny moments throughout the last two books, but The Palace of Glass has some truly hilarious ones. I liked the helpful fire-sprite who couldn’t quite understand why setting humans on fire is not a healing experience, and the book definitely wins my prize for Best Fictional Turtles Ever. (No cash value. UK only. Expires 31 June 2016.)

At the time of writing, I’m seeing that this is going to be a four-book series. I’m a bit concerned that the series is almost over when it feels to me like it’s finally coming into its own, and the potentially rather epic setup we’re left with at the end seems like something that would need more than one book to satisfactorily resolve. Unless the fourth book is twice the size of this one, I fear the story is going to get short shrift. Nonetheless, I’ll be looking forward to it, and I hope it’s one of those tales that might grow in the writing — there’s a lot more here to be mined.

4 stars

Review: The Mad Apprentice (The Forbidden Library #2), by Django Wexler

June 5, 2016
Snumpus

The Mad ApprenticeIt’s been six months since Alice moved to the Library and began her training as a Reader, and in that time she’s acquired more powers, but little information on her father’s fate. Geryon doesn’t seem especially motivated to look into the matter for her, but she receives an opportunity to investigate for herself when he sends her to the fortress of Esau-of-the-Waters, the Reader who hired Vespidian to negotiate with (and threaten) her father. Esau has purportedly been murdered by his apprentice, Jacob, and Alice and a group of other Readers’ apprentices are going to be sent to retrieve the apprentice, even if it involves lethal force. If Alice can get Jacob to speak to her, perhaps she can start to find the answers she’s looking for.

Right off the bat, The Mad Apprentice is both pacier and more fantastical than The Forbidden Library. Esau’s fortress is like a living Escher print, impossible geometry ever-shifting like the labyrinth of the Library, only less contained, and navigating it takes Alice and us further into the nature of the creatures, like Ending, who dominate such places. We still don’t really get to see a lot of other worlds, though. The fact that most of the book is focused on a fairly straightforward (in theory if not in execution) quest — find Jacob — keeps the narrative from hitting some of the first book’s slower ruts.

The other apprentices also contribute greatly to the more fantastical feel of this second volume. Their powers are diverse and impressive, and the fact that there’s an entire team of mini-Readers whose abilities have been handpicked by their masters lets more potent threats be unleashed against them without ruining the suspension of disbelief when they find ways to overcome those trials. Some of the apprentices are also pretty charming characters in and of themselves — it’s hard not to laugh along with the joy of the group’s eternal optimist when she gets to ride a carpet of swarmers — and the knowledge that they don’t necessarily enjoy the same protected status as our main character raises the stakes for some of those encounters.

This addresses one of the main complaints I had about Alice in book one, her lack of friends, of people with whom she can be more or less an equal. Not all of these apprentices will really become friends, but some certainly do, and Alice’s likeability is improved by her interactions with them. There’s still something missing, though. There’s a certain emotional dimension that the books just fail to develop, which in the first book felt like it was a problem solely with Alice, but the more time we get to spend with other characters, the more it feels like it’s not an issue restricted to her. Two other characters go through what should’ve been incredibly emotional moments in this book and after a matter of pages, they feel like they’re just sort of over it. It’s nice that Alice inspires courage in others, but those moments too would be more poignant if we could actually feel Alice’s fear. Courage is feeling terrified and overcoming it to do the right thing anyway, it’s not feeling sort of hum drum in the face of danger, and Alice’s bravery reads a little too much like the latter.

Ultimately, The Mad Apprentice doesn’t really progress the overall plot very much, but it does contribute a lot to our understanding of how things came to be the way they are now. It also makes the isolated, paranoid nature of Reader society a much more visceral thing, and by the end of the book it left me with a sort of repulsed but intrigued feeling towards them that builds nicely on the doubts sown by Ending in the first book. I was really pleased with where the book finished up; if Wexler can pull it off, there’s a fabulous set up for the next book in place at the end here.

Another thing I have to compliment is that the author does not pull his punches, even if the emotional follow-through from the big moments is a bit lacking. People die, children die, and their deaths aren’t necessarily grand and heroic. At least one is kind of ugly and meaningless. That’s a realistic outgrowth of the society the Readers have created and their antagonistic relationships with some incredibly powerful beings, but it’s also a matter some children’s authors would have softened or shied away from, so I’m glad Wexler doesn’t.

Despite some continued issues I would rank this book as an improvement on the first, and I hope for continued growth in the promising-sounding third volume.

3.5 stars

Review: The Forbidden Library (The Forbidden Library #1), by Django Wexler

June 2, 2016
Snumpus

The Forbidden LibraryTwelve-year-old Alice is a stickler for the rules. She certainly wasn’t trying to eavesdrop when, late one night, she overheard her father’s heated conversation with a fairy, and about her, of all things. Nor could she find it in her heart to speak up about her innocent trespass when her obviously troubled father announced a sudden lengthy voyage at sea. Now his ship is sunk with all hands drowned, and Alice is shooed off to the estate of a supposed uncle she’s never met — an estate called the Library, and dominated by a labyrinthine example of its namesake. Within its walls Alice has to set the rules aside, because she’s surrounded by creatures that will manipulate her powers as a Reader for their own agendas, and she’ll need to play their game to find the truth about her father.

The creatures of The Forbidden Library are probably my favourite thing about the book. They avoid the simplicity of some fairy tales where everything beautiful is good, and everything ugly is rotten to the core; here, even the downright adorable is bloody dangerous. The waspish fairy Vespidian might broadcast his nature from the very first, but you also have hordes of sweet, comical kiwi-like birds that are so murderously dangerous they have to be imprisoned in their own realm, and giant talking cats who are playing the long game in which Alice might be their ally or merely their pawn.

Everything and everyone here has its own agenda, and there are no exceptions for family or the presumably future love interest. The closest thing Alice has to a friend is a self-centred talking half-cat. This very agenda-driven magical world is one of the story’s greatest strengths, but in a roundabout way it also contributes to one of its greatest weaknesses, which is the character of Alice.

I really wanted to like Alice, because she’s fabulous on paper — she’s intelligent, resourceful, and self-reliant. But I couldn’t connect to her, and I think the main reason for that is because she has no one she can be a true equal with, no one she can be herself with and thereby give me a hook into her emotions. She doesn’t have any friends. The people we choose as friends and how we choose to be with them are a significant part of who we are at any age, but at Alice’s age, it’s all the more defining. We don’t just love other plucky young lasses of fantasy like Hermione Granger because of her intellect and ingenuity, we love her because of her loyalty and her compassion and her ability to balance emotional vulnerability with great strength, and all of those dimensions that come out of a person in the way they relate to the ones they love. Without those, Alice feels sort of flat.

For a bibliophile like myself, book-based magic is an easy sell, but I really do like the magic system presented here. Alice is a Reader, which gives her the ability to read books that would be incomprehensible to an average person. Some of those books are portals to other worlds. Some of them lead into prison realms which hold nasty critters captive, and the only way out is to kill them or force them to submit, at which point they and their powers become the Reader’s to manifest. There’s a good ethical quandary here too — due to the nature of their acquisition, the Readers’ powers are rooted in death or slavery, which does get called out by at least one character, and it’s not a quandary that Alice can resolve in one book.

This is where the book’s other weakness lies, though. This is a library full of magical books that can take you to other worlds. That’s basically everything I ever fantasised about as a kid. I am the target audience for this book (well, okay, the me of twenty years ago is), so I should’ve been really excited. But the other worlds just aren’t really that fantastical. We don’t get to see all that much, and those we do get to see feel like fairly mundane set-pieces rather than wondrous pocket worlds. Even Alice never seemed to have any emotional reaction or sense of wonder about what she was experiencing, when, as someone passionate about books, shouldn’t she be pretty blown away by the fact that they contain worlds and she’s one of the chosen few who can traverse them? Ten-year-old me is off hyperventilating somewhere at the very idea.

I like the book enough to continue with the series, for sure. Wexler’s writing is really enjoyable to sink into. He doesn’t talk down to his audience and he has an evocative but not overwrought way of describing things that makes me think I would enjoy his adult books very much. But I’m hoping that this book’s sequels can deliver a little more depth and a little more wonder. All of the ingredients are here, they just need to gel.

3 stars

Review: Europe at Midnight (Fractured Europe #2), by Dave Hutchinson

June 1, 2016
Snumpus

Europe at MidnightSeparate from the Community, but overlapping the geography of our world’s Europe in the same fashion, is a pocket universe called the Campus, which, true to its name, is made up of a giant university. Unlike the citizens of the Community, those of the Campus don’t know about their world’s nature, or about Europe and the Community at all. Over generations, families make the gradual rise from Student to loftier positions like Research Assistant or Doctor. When a coup replaces and imprisons the Old Board, Rupert — not his real name, but the only one we will know him by — makes a sudden jump to Professor of Intelligence, and among the many duties he struggles to complete with limited resources is to track down a missing group who might just have escaped the Campus… and to figure out how, before one harsh winter robs the already severely impoverished new regime of the last of its food.

Rupert’s narrative connects, in a decidedly non-linear fashion, with that of Jim, a London detective whose investigation of a seemingly mundane bus stabbing leads him into the secret of Europe’s parallel worlds. After the pacing issues that Europe in Autumn suffered from, I thought that the last thing this book needed would be more hopping and jumping around in the timeline, but actually, Europe at Midnight’s non-linearity serves it very well. Where the first entry in the series bafflingly skipped over many of the moments that ought to have provided the greatest suspense, this second novel uses the gaps in its timeline to heighten them, often introducing the resolution of startling and curious events in one character’s storyline only to backtrack and explore them in the other’s.

Of the two lead characters, Rupert is by far the more developed and interesting, although the deck is stacked in his favour by both his exotic origins and the fact that his perspective is delivered in first person, whereas we experience Jim’s through the remove of third person. He’s also a bit more engaging to read about than Rudi, because of the more accomplished presentation of his tradecraft; the years pass by fast, as they did in Europe in Autumn, but here the ones we miss are the ones in which the great amount of mundane groundwork required by any plausible spy story is laid, rather than the ones dealing with a number of Situations that sounded like interesting plots and character development in their own right.

Europe at Midnight also improves upon something that didn’t bother me too much about the first book, but probably would’ve become a serious irritant if the series had continued in the same vein: The lack of women. Although none of them are POV characters, this story is populated by a number of female characters who stand out quite impressively as individuals given the limited page count.

One of my frustrations with Europe in Autumn was that when Rudi was introduced to the Community, we weren’t, another fascinating and defining moment that was skipped over. I wanted to explore the Community on the page and experience it as a culture, not just as a plot device. I was therefore thrilled that this book juggles the settings of the Campus, the Community, and the series’ futuristic, Balkanised version of our Europe such that they each feel like living, breathing places with their own distinct aesthetic. Both the Campus and the Community are versions of an England that never was, but where the Campus feels like a post-war England still finding its footing after the harsh rationing and the loss of substantial parts of a generation — if, you know, such an England had actually been a Prisoner-style experiment with complementary higher education — the Community is a Tory’s wet dream, a genteel and stultifying Merrie England in which the wheel of social advancement has stopped turning, providing an idyllic existence for those fortunate enough to be on the top at the time, and a static nightmare for those on whose shoulders they stand.

For the most part, the tale runs tandem to Rudi’s from the first book, not really touching it until the end. It does finally connect, though, and it finishes in a place that looks promising for both sides. This really was a marked improvement over Europe in Autumn, and if Hutchinson can deliver a third book that’s as clever and polished, I can entirely forgive the first book’s flaws for setting up such a promising work of geopolitical fiction.

4 stars

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