Review: City of Bones by Martha Wells

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
Date read: March 5 to 20, 2014
Read count: 2

Not the book everyone thinks of when they hear “City of Bones,” unfortunately. I have no idea what that one is about, but this one is actually about bones. Cities and wastelands littered with bones and sand and an ancient mystery tied to bones (among other things) and a lot of mysticism revolving around the usage of bones, hence the relevant title.

I think most readers would give this book a 3- to 4-star rating, but for me it’s nearly 5. I rarely reread a book right away after finishing it–this book made me to that. I rarely wish books were longer–this book made me do that too. After finishing this book a second time, I wished it were part of a series, and I have a feeling Martha Wells intended for it to be a series because there’s still so much material left that can span at the very least a trilogy. The easy pacing, engaging characters, interesting plotting, and overall atmosphere of the story makes it an very enjoyable read. Without further ado, this is a post-apocalyptic semi-steampunk desert fantasy, which means it’s mostly fantasy with some interesting sci-fi parts.

As depicted on the front cover, the story takes place in a barren setting overrun by deserts and wastelands. The few cities left alive following a long-ago apocalypse are struggling to get by under a lot of strain–socially, economically, religiously, spiritually, morally, etc. It’s not clear when or how the apocalypse came about due to all records being destroyed. The main story takes place in Charisat, the largest and wealthiest surviving city surrounded by the Waste, former oceans that have been turned into vast fiery desert pits. What’s special about Charisat is that it’s a multi-level (Tier) city and its citizens’ socio-economic statuses are tied to where they live on these Tiers, with the highest Tiers set aside for royalty, politicians, and religious figures; the middle Tiers are for merchants; and the lowest Tiers are for the poor, non-citizens, and other outcasts. More about Charisat below[1].

Half of the adventure/mystery in this story focuses on digging into the past, uncovering pieces of relics, and figuring out how they work. The belief is that these relics are part of a huge system of some kind that the Ancients–people living before the apocalypse–made. The only people believed to know how to use these machines were the Survivors–those who survived the apocalypse–but for some reason, they did not pass on the knowledge to their descendants. Instead they left cryptic texts, strange notes, and weird drawings behind, as crazy ancestors tend to do. Hunting down the relics and bartering for them, or in some cases stealing them outright, is the other half of the adventure/mystery. And what’s an adventure without political and religious intrigue or a crazy cult chasing after the relic hunters? Of course time is as limited as water once everyone realizes that by piecing the relics together they begin to unravel the mystery of the apocalypse.

The relic hunters are: Khat, a not quite human non-citizen hiding from a mysterious past in Charisat ; Sagai, also a non-citizen, relic scholar, and Khat’s partner in crime; and Elen, a young determined scholar mage (“Warder”) from the upper Tiers on a secret mission. Due to their extensive knowledge of history and valuable relics, Khat and Sagai are hired on (read: forced) to help Elen in her search. They don’t have much choice in the matter since they’re lower-Tiered immigrants who don’t want to offend the authorities or get kicked out of the city by refusing to help. Don’t worry, there’s no love triangle here, but things do become more tense as these three come closer to unraveling the mystery.

The setting is both fantastical and realistic. It’s a feat of imagination, but at the same time, the depictions borrow from familiar cultures and customs of the Middle East, such as veils and preservation of identity as a social status. The terrains and climates are distinctly that of a desert world, and details pertinent to both city and society (of Charisat) are casually slipped into narration and conversations to reinforce the feeling of being in an unfamiliar place that feels vaguely familiar. Dry heat, searing sand, scorching sun, burning paved roads, gleaming rooftops, billowing dust clouds–all minor details that add to the overall atmosphere of the story.

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Review: Retribution Falls (Tales of the Ketty Jay, #1) by Chris Wooding

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
Date read: February 23 to March 4, 2014
Read count: 1

I think Peter F. Hamilton said it best:

“A fast, exhilarating read […] the kind of old-fashioned adventure I didn’t think we were allowed to write anymore, of freebooting privateers making their haphazard way in a wondrous retro-future world.”

So, yeah, a lot of fun. That’s the best way I can describe the experience of reading this book. It’s fast-paced, high-octaned, unpredictable, and fun. The last ten chapters are un-put-down-able.

The Ketty Jay is a beloved cargo fighter craft belonging to an extremely unfortunate part-time pirate captain, Darian Frey. The story starts off on the wrong foot for Frey as he is captured and held at gunpoint due to a “small misunderstanding.” Unfortunately, things don’t get any better for Frey or his ragtag crew as the story progresses. They literally fly from one disaster to another, just barely skirting bullets and explosives enough to save themselves and the Ketty Jay.

As a captain, part-time pirate and full-time freelancer, Frey is terribly unfortunate. He’s being sought after by the authorities (Century Knights), various scorned thugs (that’s why he has to avoid certain cities and ports), and a relentless mercenary to whom he may or may not have personal ties. As much as Frey and his crew try to stay out of trouble and fly under the radar, trouble and the people looking for them always find them just in time. It’s a mess, but a fun mess.

On top of all of this, Frey and Co. are hired for a risky job only to be framed afterward. And so they go on the run. Again. Just when things couldn’t possibly get any worse they stumble on a conspiracy plot. Pieces of the puzzle gradually fall into place, and the reason they were framed start making sense. It’s only when they set out to clear their names once and for all do they have luck and good timing on their side.

I still can’t believe this book isn’t on TV yet. It’s got all the elements of a rollicking drama: adventure, conspiracy, piracy, dodgy aircraft, dogfights, alchemy, necromancy, tortured characters, sly historical references, a whole world that still needs exploring, and of course, weird technology that comply with weird physics. On second thought, I’m glad it’s not on TV. The last time something like this was on TV it was canceled almost immediately.

A lot of reviewers compare Retribution Falls to Joss Whedon’s famously canceled TV show Firefly, and I can see how they made that connection because both are similar in tone, setting, and genre, but that’s where the similarities end because Retribution Falls is a balanced mix of science fiction and fantasy. The magical elements aren’t explored as much as the technological elements in this book, but they’re featured enough to show that both do exist, in their various forms and factions, in the world of the Ketty Jay. I don’t remember this world having a specific name, so I will refer to it as “the world of the Ketty Jay” since most of the action happens in and around the spacecraft.

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Review: A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea by Dina Nayeri

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Date read: February 20 to March 2, 2014
Read count: 1

A moving journey about a young girl growing up during the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and coming face to face with drastic cultural and social changes. Told through weaving prose and a believable voice, the narrative is similar to that of other fictional texts written about immigrant life, identity, and struggles. So not unlike the works of Amy Tan, Maxine Hong Kingston, Jhumpa Lahiri, or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

The story is about young twin girls Saba and Mahtab Hafezi growing up in a fictional farming village in Iran. The girls have a special hobby which is forbidden under the new regime: they love to collect American pop culture and basically everything American. They clip magazine articles about life in America, secretly watch American sit-coms and movies, listen to rock music, and make up stories about how great it would be if they lived in America, instead of where they are now. They dream of a life in which they don’t have to live in hiding, the life they had before the revolution. In reality, under the new regime, life is difficult for everyone, but especially for women and girls.

One day, Saba and Mahtab, along with their mother, are separated. Saba stays behind with their father. She doesn’t remember much about that day or what happened afterward, and so she assumes her mother and sister must have gone to America and that she and her father will join them at a later time. During the separation, to escape from her day to day life, Saba imagines Mahtab living the life they’d always dreamed of somewhere in Middle America and doing normal average American things, like have friends, hang out with her friends, go to school, etc. Basically all the things Saba could not do in Iran. These daydreams and wishes keep her going, she believes, until the day she and Mahtab are reunited.

We’ve all read one too many of these fictional semi-autobiographical narratives to know that these stories, what with an oppressive regime looming in the background, don’t end well. So I will only say that Saba does get to go to America later on in the story, and she comes face to face with the reality of an America she never expected. To say any more would spoil the later parts of the book.

The focus on America and Americana might turn some people away from this story. Saba and Mahtab put everything American on a pedestal, and their obsession does become grating after a while. But due to their current circumstances, it’s understandable that they would put America, as shown on the media, in place of their escapism. Fictional America is a shining beacon of assumed freedom compared to the Khomeini government, whose intent was/is to crack down on Western influence and return Iran to an extremely conservative way of life.

A reader who’s having a hard time with this book should keep in mind that America, or the ideal image of America, seen through the eyes of an immigrant is vastly different from the America as seen by the people who live here.

Those turned off by Americana might want to tune back in because every day life in Iran, both before and after the revolution, is written beautifully and described in specific tangible details. The author Dina Nayeri is an Iranian immigrant, and much of content of this book is taken from her own life and experiences. She is influenced by both American and Persian music, so both are featured a lot throughout the story. It’s a good balance, and I find that the music enhances the events in the story. It’s like having an author-selected soundtrack to go along with the journey. Speak of which, an author-selected list of songs can be found here.

There are a couple of quotes I’d like to add, which I will as soon as I get the book back from a friend, assuming she isn’t going to keep it or lend it to another friend.

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I’d like to thank Heather Kirkpatrick of Riverhead Books and Will Martin of the Penguin Group for sending me a copy.