A More Diverse Universe: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

Cover image of The Hundred Thousand KingdomsBook bloggers were the ones who put The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit Books, 2010) on my radar, so reading it for the A More Diverse Universe Blog Tour seemed like the perfect reason to move it to the top of the TBR list.

First in a trilogy, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms lays the foundation for an overarching story but also has a satisfying completeness in itself. It took me a little while to get hooked, but about halfway through, I realized why so many readers liked this book so much.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, as you might guess from the title, mentions multiple countries in the course of the story, all under the rule of the Arameri family of Amn, in the palace of Sky, in the city of Sky. The story is set many years after the Gods’ War, when one of three powerful gods vanquished the other two and the world changed for the humans living under the sway of the pale-skinned Arameri, who wield the power of the one remaining god, the Skyfather, also known as Bright Itempas.

Yeine, the main character and narrator of the story, is a nineteen-year-old warrior chieftain from the forested country of Darr, the child of a Darren father and an Amn mother, who was the exiled daughter of the ruling Arameri family. Yeine describes herself near the beginning of the book as “short and flat and brown as forestwood, and my hair is a curled mess.” When she is thrust into the thick of palace intrigue and succession squabbling right at the start of the book, no one is more surprised than she is.

It doesn’t take Yeine long to get her bearings. It took me a lot longer, what with all the skillful world-building going on and the backstory of world mythology that was common knowledge to Yeine but had to be told to the reader. (I’ve never been good at geography. Or mythology, for that matter. All those gods and who does what…) Themes of race, gender, slavery, wealth, power, and religion thread through the book, but are never allowed to take over. The strong plot and the ultimate bad boy love interest move the story along quickly, once the story gets going and as Yeine starts to understand more.

I haven’t read a lot of straightforward fantasy to compare The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms to, so I’m not the best reviewer of this book, but The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms won the 2011 Locus Award for Best First Novel, so judges who are very familiar with the genre have recognized its merit. Readers looking for a fantasy with a strong female main character and detailed world-building should definitely give it a try.

Read the first chapter of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms here.

View the complete schedule for A More Diverse Universe Blog Tour hosted by Aarti at BookLust.

The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont

The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont could become A Separate Peace for a new generation. But, in a coming of age story, what a difference 40 years make!
However similar in setting (New England prep schools) and themes (friendship, betrayal, guilt) they may be, The Starboard Sea isn’t likely to replace A Separate Peace as assigned reading, except in maybe the most progressive of schools – due to the adult activities of the late ’80s teenagers in this novel, who are more sophisticated and are growing up faster (at least, in some ways) than the prep school boys just before World War II in John Knowles’ classic novel. I don’t want to spoil the author’s careful construction of The Starboard Sea by giving away details of the narrative that are revealed over the course of the story, so I’m just going to speak very generally about the plot in this review.
Jason Prosper has washed up at a third-tier prep school on the Massachusetts coast for his senior year (Class of 1988) after the death of his roommate, best friend, and sailing partner at his last boarding school.

For years, I’d been happy to simply experience my life as an extension of Cal’s. Another limb that picked up the slack. While knowing him, I’d always searched for similarities. For anything that might make us interchangeable. Cal and I looked alike. Both of us had wild brown hair that turned woolly when our mothers forgot to have it cut. Our bodies were trim and athletic. We were sporty sailors, lean and lithe, not larded or buff. We walked with the same crooked swagger and low bent knees. Each of us had a cleft in our chin, a weakness in the muscle that we thought made us seem tough. But there were differences. Cal had broken my nose by accident and joked that my face was asymmetrical, that he had caused my good looks to be a millimeter off. I had to agree that he was the movie star and I was the movie star’s stunt double. My eyes were a dull slate gray, Cal’s were magnetic. His eyes were two different colors. One was green. Not hazel or tortoiseshell, but a rain forest green. The other varied from misty gray to violet: his mood eye. My face received comfortable, comforting glances, but people stared at Cal. He commanded an electric attention. The only other physical difference between us was obvious at the end of a summer’s day. Cal’s skin tanned olive brown, and mine turned red with blisters. Cal belonged on a postcard from the Mediterranean. I, on the other hand, would always be Prosper the Lobster. At least, that’s what he called me.

Jason doesn’t get a completely fresh start at Bellingham Academy  – where, he explains, “If you could pay, you could stay” – because he’s trailed by rumors, and a couple of old acquaintances have landed there ahead of him. Known to be a gifted sailor, Jason is immediately recruited by the sailing coach, but sailing is a pleasure he can’t allow himself, until joining the team becomes a means to an end other than winning races. Jason restricts himself to explaining nautical terms and how to sail to Aidan, a boat-shy fellow student, a girl with no real friends at Bellingham, whom Jason’s jock buddies ostracize and taunt but Jason secretly befriends.
The tension in The Starboard Sea swells gradually, blending events from the present and the past so well that I never got the impatient (“Tell me the secret already!”) feeling that I sometimes get when the first-person narrator holds back something big. (In addition to A Separate Peace, The Starboard Sea is getting compared in blurbs to The Secret History by Donna Tartt, but I think The Starboard Sea is better.)
If you’re in the mood for atmospheric fiction; you don’t mind a book whose characters aren’t unambiguously good or bad; and the privileges of the wealthy won’t make you so outraged that you won’t want to read about them, I highly recommend The Starboard Sea. I hope the author has the draft of a second novel well underway.

Disclosure: I received an electronic advanced reading copy of this book from St. Martin’s Press through NetGalley.

The Starboard Sea
Dermont, Amber
St. Martin’s Press, February 2012
Hardcover
9780312642808
$24.99

Read Janet Maslin’s review of The Starboard Sea in The New York Times.

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Wow!: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (Audio)

Audiobook Review — The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2008. (Yes, I am behind in my reading.) I finally came around to it after listening to Jonathan Davis narrate the audio version of Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (a cyberpunk novel with a variety of accents, male and female voices, foreign phrases, cultural references, hacker jargon, and made-up words, a fast-paced plot set in a near-future America where corporations ride roughshod over government and individuals) so incredibly well that I had to hear more by Jonathan Davis. His reading of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao with Staci Snell is another tour de force of audiobook narration; he deals out Dominican-style epithets, geek references, and the dolorous histories of Oscar Wao, his family, and the Dominican Republic under the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo as if he’d been talking like this all his life.
In case, like me, you were too lazy or disinclined to pick up the book when it came out (maybe because you heard it has so many unexplained references to esoteric topics from comic books to Dominican legends that it requires annotations and so many untranslated Spanish expressions that you would need a glossary) the audio edition will make all the diferencia. (Confía en mí.) If you have even a miniscule smattering of Spanish and geekery, this novel will be more enjoyable, but the audio narrators add so much attitude to the dialogue that you can gather enough meaning from the context and delivery to get by.
There are some footnoted explanations on Dominican history and legends, but why is so much left unexplained? The author explains in this Slate interview that, with this book about an outsider in the Dominican diaspora (which is already outside mainstream American culture), he wanted readers to resort to using a dictionary or to ask someone the meaning of an idiom, just as non-native English speakers often have to do. (Subtext here from the author?: If you want to read it and you don’t know Dominican slang or any Spanish at all, fine, please do, but don’t expect everything to be handed to you on a f***ing platter. )
Though Oscar de León eventually adopts it, “Oscar Wao” is a mean nickname derived from “Oscar Wilde”, given to make fun of Oscar’s ineradicable nerdness, his writing, and his dream of becoming “the Dominican Tolkien.” Unwilling or incapable of putting up social facades or pretending to be different, Oscar is an overweight geeky boy bullied by his Dominican peer group, tolerated by his few friends, disdained as a romantic prospect by girls, and prodded ineffectually by his mother and sister to lose weight, go outside, get exercise, stop reading so much fantasy and science fiction, etc. — who grows up to be an overweight, geeky adult, disowned by Dominicans and unwanted by almost everyone else.
Readers are told at the start that Oscar’s extended family is under a curse, a “fukú”. Here’s the book’s first line:

They say it came first from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles. Fukú americanus, or more colloquially, fukú–generally a curse or a doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and the Doom of the New World.

Although there’s a lot of humor in this book, it’s gallows humor. Oscar’s is a sad, violent story; the stories from his mother, aunts, and grandparents’ lives in the Dominican Republic are bloodsoaked and tragic. Lola, Oscar’s sister, who loves him her whole life, also struggles to escape the weight of the family’s curse. The flawed characters in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao may represent the tragic political mistake of the American government (and the American people?) for backing Trujillo’s reign of terror, but they’re also fully developed characters who will linger in your mind long after the audiobook is over.

Listen to an excerpt from the Penguin audiobook edition.
This book may be available to borrow/download through your local library’s Overdrive service.

Other opinions on the audio edition of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (all good):
Audiofile
1330v: Thoughts of an Eclectic Reader

One Sentence Review

Bittersweet Love: Vaclav & Lena by Haley Tanner

Like a magic trick, Vaclav & Lena, a first novel by Brooklyn author Haley Tanner, is quietly dramatic and deceptively simple — satisfying the human craving for the mysterious and the straightforward at the same time. A best-book-of-the-year review from Hey Lady! got me to read this book despite its bland title and even blander cover, and I’m glad I did. Books about magicians are big right now, but this novel is determinedly down-to-earth, non-fantastical, a realist’s romance, a love story with the illusion of disillusion. There’s a touch of fable in the author’s writing style, but the only magic is Houdini-esque, not Potter-esque.
As young children, Vaclav, a child of Russian-immigrant parents and Lena, who entered school speaking no English, become friends by default. Vaclav is shy and a bit strange, with his magic tricks and obsession with Harry Houdini; little Lena is quiet, still more comfortable speaking Russian over English. Vaclav’s workhorse of a mother, Rasia, who singlehandedly wrested her husband and son out of Russia for a better life, sees that, in America, Vaclav is going to need a friend and that parent-less Lena needs rescue.
For Lena, it’s a relief and an escape for Lena to visit Vaclav’s family after school every day. For Vaclav, it’s settled: when they grow up, Vaclav will be a famous magician and Lena will be his beautiful assistant. Knowing she is necessary to the act, Lena occasionally resents her secondary status, but Vaclav’s better command of English gives him power over the list-making and plans. For Rasia, it’s a worry every time she has to bring Lena home where she is neglected by an aunt.
This is how it is until adolescence when everything changes; the children are separated. The story skips over a gap of years and resumes when Vaclav and Lena are seventeen years old, moving along faster after the halfway point. Everyone’s English skills have improved, but the ability to communicate feelings to one another hasn’t much. Painful secrets are too hard to discuss, whether in Russian or in English.
The novel touches frequently on assimilation (which Rasia wants for Vaclav), and the author has said in interviews that the experience of immigration is part of being American already, but Vaclav & Lena isn’t intended to be a detailed portrayal of the Russian immigrant experience in Brooklyn. (For novels about the immigrant experience, go with Jhumpa Lahiri or one of the many other novelists listed on this list from Cornell University, for example.) Love — romantic and maternal — is the central theme in this story. Some reviewers have complained that the Russian-American characters are either too stereotyped or too atypical. Others have pointed out that Vaclav is a Czech name and that Vaclav’s mother’s name should be “Raisa” not “Rasia”, but these are minor flaws that can be forgiven in a first novel.
Vaclav & Lena is recommended for readers looking for a contemporary love story or family story, not a novel about the Russian-American immigrant experience. It is sweet — in many ways unbelievable — but it is a touching story that sheer grit (especially in the characters of Rasia and Lena’s aunt) keeps from veering into sentimentality.

Read The New York Times review of Vaclav & Lena.

Other opinions about Vaclav & Lena:
Hey Lady!
The Indextrious Reader
That’s What She Read

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