Tiger’s Voyage by Colleen Houck

Posted on February 11th, 2014
Tiger’s Voyage by Colleen HouckTiger's Voyage by Colleen Houck
Series: The Tiger Saga #3
Published by Random House in 2011
Pages: 560
Location: India
Mode of travel: Boat, Jeep, Magical Animal, Scuba, Trek
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With the head-to-head battle against the villainous Lokesh behind her, Kelsey confronts a new heartbreak: in the wake of his traumatic experience, her beloved Ren no longer remembers who she is. As the trio continues their quest by challenging five cunning and duplicitous dragons, Ren and Kishan once more vie for her affections--leaving Kelsey more confused than ever.

Verdict: let the synopsis stand as a warning.

In theory, Tiger’s Voyage has a huge amount of potential as an adventure story. It’s an epic-sized book which includes a trek across the Indian jungle, a yacht trip half-way around India, and scuba diving around the magical world of some Chinese dragons on a quest for the goddess Durga’s black pearl necklace which is needed to break a curse.

In reality, as the synopsis indicates, all these fantastic possibilities take a back seat to Kelsey, Ren and Kishan’s love life. It goes on and on and on, sometimes descending into misogyny. Clearly a lot of people are getting a huge kick out of reading about it. Not me, but a lot of people.

I really only have a few more observations to make about this book.

  • This is the third book in the series and I haven’t read the other two. I don’t expect the author to hold my hand over this – I was quite prepared to pick things up as we went along. If Kelsey, the first-person narrator, spent even a fifth as much time thinking about the curse, quest and adventure as she does about her love life, I probably would have done. As it is, I still have very little idea what it’s all about, though I know exactly what went on between her and Kishan in Shangri La (book 2) and between her and Ren in Oregon (book 1).
  • As a story about a love triangle and in the spirit of ‘show don’t tell’ it would help if we didn’t just have Kelsey’s friends’ constant word for the fact that she’s fantastic and the center of the universe. After finishing the book, I tried making a list I called Kelsey’s Impressive Skills and Achievements. I’m not going to post them here because they would be spoilers but there are really only three or four of them anyway. They take up a fraction of the book. I thought she was a bit of a wimp.
  • As a story about a love triangle it’s a problem that Ren’s behavior is completely unacceptable yet a) Kelsey doesn’t see it, b) nobody else tries to tell him he’s wrong and c) we aren’t given any reason for it, e.g. PTSD from his ordeal in book 2 running deeper than anyone thinks.
  • The plot of the adventure proper, the part with the dragons, didn’t have the complexity I would expect of a YA book. Most of the mythology is quite loosely made up which would be fine if it added up to something but it doesn’t. Maybe it would benefit from more in depth research to suggest plot twists and complexity.
  • Anybody who gets inspired by this series to go and visit India is in for a bit of a surprise. Kelsey only really emerges from her love haze when there’s something opulent to notice. The huge, over-crowded, noisy, complex and only very locally opulent maelstrom of modern India completely passes her by.

Map of southern IndiaAll the same, you should go. And just to encourage you further, here’s a map of southern India with the route taken by the tigers.

In chapters 2-4, Kelsey, Ren and Kishan drive to the Yawal Wildlife Reservation and hike into it over two days to visit Phet. The village they live near must be somewhere between Mumbai and Jalgaon. I love this blog post by Sundeep Krishna that gives a great idea of the Yawal woodland and the drive to get there, even if it is very 4WD orientated.

The team’s location in Goa, one of India’s smaller states, is unspecified. I’m also not sure which temple of Durga the Tiger Team visited in Mangalore but it may be Kateel. If you know better, please drop me a line in the comments thread.

This is a really beautiful page about the Shore Temple in Mahabalipuram, where Kelsey met Lady Silkworm and obtained a map through the dragons’ world.

And here’s one they unaccountably missed but which we visited many years ago, in February 2000. The temple of Devi Kanya Kumari at the very tip of India, where the three seas meet. There are some interesting resonances between the Durga stories in the book and the one related to this temple.

[Group 0]-P0000793_P0000795-3 images

The Snow Merchant by Sam Gayton

Posted on February 3rd, 2014
The Snow Merchant by Sam GaytonThe Snow Merchant by Sam Gayton
Published by Andersen in 2011
Genres: Children
Pages: 288
Location: Magic World
Mode of travel: Balloon, Boat, Magical Animal
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Lettie Peppercorn lives in a house on stilts near the wind-swept coast of Albion, with no one to talk to but Periwinkle the pigeon. Her days are filled with floor-sweeping, bed-making and soup-stirring. Her nights are filled with dreams of her mother, who vanished long ago. Nothing incredible has ever happened to Lettie, until one winter's night - the night the Snow Merchant comes.

He claims to be an alchemist - the greatest that ever lived - and in a mahogany suitcase, he carries his newest invention. It is an invention that will change Lettie's life - and the world - forever. It is an invention called snow.

The Snow Merchant is a fantasy filled with family secrets, magical transformations and wild adventure. Join Lettie on her journey to uncover the true meaning of snow, family and friendship.

Verdict: I liked it but I’m waiting to see what my kid thinks.

Why would I give a verdict like that on a book? Well, the thing is that the book is aimed squarely at the ‘older child’ bracket, 9-12 years.

Normally, if an adult reads a book like that and enjoys it, it’s a good thing. This one is filled with little twists and surprises and nicely written. But I know my daughter. The Snow Merchant has a few edges that could disturb her and cause her to reject it. It all depends on her level of maturity and sensitivities at the time.

But first, the travel!!

This book says some beautiful things about travel, right after my own heart. It’s the story of a quest and a transition, from a sedentary to a wandering lifestyle. I think that’s why I fell in love with it. Let me try to do a round-up of some of the passages which most struck me:

 At the beginning, when Lettie is unable to leave her house… I so understand how she feels – ‘She loved the Wind, she envied it: it travelled the world; it went wherever it wanted, while she was stuck inside, held prisoner by her job and Ma’s last message.‘ ==== ‘She fell quiet and gazed out of the window, to the town huddled against the Wind. A place of brine and blubber and beer. A place she had promised Da never to go. There was mystery in that town. There were ships setting off for faraway places and others coming back with wonder and miracles… but Lettie wasn’t allowed near them.
 And then there’s Noah, they boy who’s a traveller from his roots to the tips of his branches (which he has) – ‘That’s what the sea is: freedom. A million invisible roads to everywhere. Before I get planted in the ground and turn into a tree like my grandmother, I want to see the world. And the sea is the only place I know where you can’t put down roots.‘ ==== OH BOY! CAN I RELATE TO THAT ====’The only thing lonelier than travelling,’ said Noah, ‘is standing still”

By the way, The Snow Merchant also has some amazing means of transport and the illustrator, Tomislav Tomic, really let himself go depicting them.

And here’s the list of things my daughter might have found quite disturbing, at least until recently:

  • Lettie Peppercorn isn’t who she thought she was or what she thought she was to an extent that even shocked me. Her relationship with her parents isn’t what she thought. It’s a bit like finding out you’re adopted, only more so.
  • She suffers from a condition that’s potentially fatal is going to require a radically unusual lifestyle for the rest of her life. Let’s just say Lettie will never lie on a sunny beach. OK, it’s painted in fantasy terms but it’s still obvious.
  • She’s a very lonely child at the beginning and although she has a friend, a father, a mother by the end, after a fashion, it’s not clear they’re hers to ‘have and to hold’ in any way a child would consider satisfactory.

Then there’s the interesting question of the role of the mother…

Teresa has a very strong, almost dominating role. She really has a life, and she’s extremely brave, talented, capable, etc, etc… That’s nice for mothers (me). It makes a change from being a mere support structure or killed off in the early stages.

But I wonder if what children look to in stories isn’t precisely the very unrealistic level of autonomy and agency for themselves. It’s not that Lettie is helpless, by any means, but…. I mean, Teresa even chooses Lettie’s friend for her… come on!… says the woman who’s over-analysing a book to see if it would be a good match for her daughter….

Then again, you could say Teresa is just playing the role of supreme mentor and guardian, a role usually reserved for wizardly men with long white beards. Maybe I’m off my rocker wondering whether we mothers should be settling for the subservient support role? Maybe that’s not what our daughters want either? I will find out in due course.

So there you go. There’s a sense in which, while being a whimsical fantasy book, The Snow Merchant is at the cutting edge of some of the harsher issues facing children today. And it may be important in helping them process those issues… but only if they’re ready.

Alternatively, there will be some who will barely notice the issues are there.

Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff

Posted on January 30th, 2014
Stormdancer by Jay KristoffStormdancer by Jay Kristoff
Series: The Lotus Wars #1
Published by Tor UK in 2012
Pages: 451
Location: Magic World
Mode of travel: Airship, Magical Animal
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Griffins are supposed to be extinct. So when Yukiko and her warrior father Masaru are sent to capture one for the Shogun, they fear that their lives are over. Everyone knows what happens to those who fail him, no matter how hopeless the task.

But the mission proves far less impossible, and far more deadly, than anyone expects – and soon Yukiko finds herself stranded: a young woman alone in her country's last wilderness, with only a furious, crippled griffin for company. But trapped together in the forest, Yukiko and Buruu soon discover a friendship that neither of them expected.

Meanwhile, the country around them verges on the brink of collapse. A toxic fuel is slowly choking the land; the omnipotent, machine-powered Lotus Guild is publicly burning those they deem Impure; and the Shogun cares about nothing but his own dominion. Yukiko has always been uneasy in the shadow of power, when she learns the awful truth of what the Shogun has done, both to her country and to her own family she's determined to do something about it.

Verdict: Wow, that was … fun, actually!

Here’s the thing. On the one hand, I am a bit tired of books, films, tv, everything, where the plot is basically one damn thing after another, glands on overdrive, intellect in the bottom drawer and go for the jugular. On the other hand, I’m not going to criticize a book for doing what it manifestly set out to do.

What makes one ‘one-damn-thing-after-another’ book better than another is if the damn things are original, varied, well depicted and take place against an interesting backdrop. Stormdancer has that.

But first, the journey: I sometimes feel that I’m not talking as much about the travel aspect of books as I really want to in this blog. There is a journey in Stormdancer, a long unpleasant one (for the characters) in a stinking steampunk airship. Although it’s not really central to the book it exists for two important reasons:1) to depict the ruin of Shima’s countryside and 2) because there needs to be a significant distance between the two main environments of the book: the reeking metropolis and imperial court of Kigen and the wild mountains of Iishii. It ends View Spoiler » I really liked that part, especially as it’s the only time View Spoiler ».

The interesting backdrop: is an ecological and economic disaster of a totalitarian, imperialistic state called Shima whose ancestral culture slightly resembles that of Japan. To about the same extent as Middle-earth resembles Britain. Middle-earth has kings, Shima has a shogun. On Shima, they use Kanji, on Middle-earth they use runes. People on Shima have black hair and people on Middle-earth are often blond. A few legendary beings typical of Japan and Britain appear in the respective books. That’s about as deep as it gets though.

Shima’s Kigen City seems to resemble Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam more than most other places I’ve been. It’s forests might contain nominally Japanese essences but they remind me more of New Zealand’s primeval jungle (what’s left of it). I have heard that the version of Japanese they speak in Shima is rather different to modern Japanese. Actually, if Shima really has any common ground with Japan, it’s in the rather globalized world of anime. So maybe it’s not that original after all. But still cool. It even has some cool music to go with it.

The original, varied and well-depicted damn things consist of violent conflict at various levels and of various types, between individuals and groups, across class, race and species boundaries. Almost any kind of violent conflict you can imagine. A revolution is brewing – The Lotus War of the series title. It’s an inevitable fact that all books, or at least their characters, have an ideology, and this one has some interesting ideas about political violence:

‘Sacrifices must be made,’ said Kaori. ‘The people of Shima are addicted to chi. The system will not die willingly, it must be killed. Those enslaved will adapt or perish, like any addict denied his fix. But better to die on your feet than live on your knees.’
‘… you want to start a civil war?’ … Daichi shook his head….  ‘I want chaos. Formlessness.’
No more fear. No more regrets. Not for vague ideology or someone else’s notion of what was ‘right’. For the ones she loved. For her family. … All right then. Let’s start a war.

With plans like that, I expect nothing more of #2 of The Lotus War, Kinslayer, than that it should be a full-blown bloodbath. I expect I’ll get round to reading it in due course.

ArashitoraSome funny stuff: This is one of those books very obviously written by a guy masquerading in the form of a young woman’s viewpoint. I admit the phrase ‘I want a woman who can touch her ears with her ankles, cook a decent meal, and keep her opinions to herself, but they don’t exist either’ is now permanently engraved in my memory. Also the part where two young lads are spying on Yukiko as she strips off in the bathroom and the author tenuously rescues the passage from gratuitous voyeurism by having them discover something of (non sexual) significance to the plot as they’re doing it. It’s all too obvious that Jay Kristoff doesn’t have a clue what turns women on to men and he depicts View Spoiler ». I had a good laugh about it but perhaps he was wise to stick to making Yukiko’s primary relationship a platonic one with a non-human life form. Yukiko is a Boy’s Own Fantasy Kickass Heroine, not a Girl Power one. That isn’t necessarily a criticism but it is a point worthy of awareness.