Tag Archives: alternative history

Arabella of Mars (Adventures of Arabella Ashby #1)

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Sir Isaac Newton decided that instead of his usual stroll around the apple orchard one afternoon, he would take a bath and relax. As he soaked away his cares, he watched a bubble of air rising through the water. And had an idea. That led to King William III of England commissioning Capt. William Kidd to lead the first exploration of space to Mars in the 17th century,  which in turn lead to the colonization of the red planet by the British.

In 1812, 16-year-old Arabella Ashby roams the Martian landscape and her father’s khoresh wood plantation. Raised and schooled by a Martian nanny, Arabella is not the proper young English lady her mother had hoped for, so she insists on returning her to London to live properly and respectfully. Not only does Arabella have to get used to the rules and restrictions of early 19th century England, but she also finds earth gravity to be a total b*tch.

Circumstances cause her to flee back to Mars aboard a Mars Trading Company ship, disguised as a boy and serving as both a deckhand and captain’s boy, in an effort to save her brother from an unexpected danger.  Along the way, she encounters war and mutiny and automatons.

This novel started off with a lot of promise of adventure and fun. It ticks off every box on my list: steampunk, Jules Verne-esque, science fiction, space exploration, STUNNING cover, a kick-ass heroine.  And I loved it, the writing, the story, the descriptions of the air battle, the life on Mars and Earth and onboard the airship Diana. Until about halfway through.

Because… Arabella isn’t really so kick-ass. She starts that way. A young girl raised on the Martian frontier, schooled in hunting and tracking, a girl with a scientific bent who shares her father’s love and affinity for automatons sounds like my kind of heroine. And I love the plot device wherein a girl disguises herself as a boy in order to accomplish an otherwise unattainable goal. But I think author David Levine missed an opportunity with this in his novel. Arabella’s purpose in disguising herself is to accomplish a goal, a goal she is quite capable of attaining as a young woman, but would never be given the chance to do so. When she is revealed as a girl, she is still as capable as the boy they thought her to be, but instead is treated as though she no longer can cope with space travel. And the problem I found is that she does not fight to keep her position, one she earned, but meekly accepts that things are no longer the same.

That is the first of the problems. The rest… oh boy. This is a science-fiction fantasy!  The world can be anything the author wishes! And apparently, he wished for some historical accuracy, even as his sailing ships (which look pretty much like 19th century sailing ships with the addition of large silk balloons to get the vessels aloft) dodged asteroids and his airmen breathed the atmosphere between the stars. So as they did this, they were also racist and sexist and believed in the colonization of Mars and the superiority of the white British male over pretty much everyone, including the inferior Martians. Mars is the interstellar equivalent of colonial India. And in addition, Levine still ensures the reader knows that Indians, while human, are not as good as the Brits. And don’t get me started on the portrayal and description of Mills, the one black crew member.

The captain of the Diana, Captain Singh, is a flat, one-dimensional, polite, fair-minded, darker-skinned man. Nice, but sadly, that’s pretty much it. And the predominantly white crew is determined to overthrow him. And, for some reason, Arabella is attracted to him. And I do not mean that in a way that she shouldn’t be. I mean that in the way that the romance subplot doesn’t work.  We have an adventure!  Let’s leave it at that! The romance reads as if the author was actually ticking off boxes, and thought, hey, she has to fall for someone!  We can’t have a young woman wanting to just make it on her own. Here’s a handsome guy with a good position, she can go for it. And given that the captain spent most of the book believing her to be a boy, the romance seems forced.

Why can’t we have a fantasy world without all these problems?  I know there needs to be some conflict and tension to move the story along, but really? They turned me off, and turned what was a fantastic adventurous read into a teeth-grinding slog.

Levine’s world building skills are incredible. He has won awards for his stories, and no wonder. I travelled through space aboard the Diana with Arabella, floated in the zero-gravity atmosphere alongside the airmen, looked out and saw nothing but vast darkness sprinkled with tiny pinpoints of light. The battle with the French pirates had me on edge, and I didn’t know if we would find a solution to the navigational problem. Levine can weave a story that has you believing that it is only a matter of time before humankind is travelling through space, docking on asteroids to take on supplies, and landing on distant worlds. I just wish he had written a world where humanity could attain more than just another plot of land.

Arabella of Mars was published July 12th, 2016 by Tor.

My Lady Jane

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If you are the type of person who really wishes that history class could be livened up a little, the type who reads your textbooks and thinks up alternative endings to actual events, the type who wouldn’t mind chopping off a few heads that did NOT belong to the wives of Henry VIII, then My Lady Jane is for you. Especially if you are also amused by men who turn into horses at sunrise, a king who doesn’t actually shoot the messenger but eats him instead, and the mystery of who wrote Shakespeare’s plays finally being solved.

16-year-old King Edward Tudor is dying. But given that he has yet to have even kissed a girl, much less done anything that could produce an heir (bastard or otherwise), England is on the edge of turmoil. Moreso than even Brexit could cause, because not only is the land to be without a monarch, there is also trouble brewing between the Edian and the Verities. Or, those that can shapeshift into an animal form at will, and those that believe such a skill is an abomination. This is unrest on the scale of Henry VIII’s Catholic vs Protestant divide, but much more fun.

Edward’s favourite cousin is Lady Jane Grey. Practically raised together, the two are fast friends and understand each other completely. Edward knows Jane would rather read a book about the cultivation of beets in Eastern Europe than get married. She’d rather read a book about anything than do anything else, actually. She has spent her life avoiding social interaction on any level. But Edward needs an heir, and Jane is one of the few people he trusts. So he marries her off to Gifford Dudley, second son to a Duke and afflicted with an “equine issue,” proclaims her heir the Throne, dies, and Jane becomes Queen. Much to her dismay.

HO. LEE. CRAP. I have not giggled so much and so continuously in I don’t know how long. This book was recommended to me by Kim over at By Hook or By Book, and you need to visit her right away. She has fabulous posts on everything from book reviews to current events, and I lose hours perusing her site. She called this novel a cross between Monty Python, the Princess Bride (as you wish!) and Ladyhawke, and I cannot improve on that description.

This is a hilarious, laugh-out-loud, historical comedy. There is not one serious word in it, and when even an impending beheading can make you giggle, you know it is going to be good. It is full of mockery and jokes and puns and quips and plays on words that will have you snorting your proper English tea straight out of your nose.

The story behind the humour is backroom politics that would impress even today. Backstabbing and plotting and deal-making are apparently timeless pursuits. Not sure that it makes me feel any better, but at least we know it is an honoured practice. Then add in a battle of the sexes and a few budding romances, and you have an unbeatable plot.

Obviously, what makes this story so outstanding is the characters and their language. Edward’s obsession with a second opinion that he might like better than his diagnosis of death, his realization that maybe everyone was letting him win when they practiced swordplay and played games (he approves), and his acknowledgment that being king was maybe not the be all and end all that he initially thought were all done so smoothly and with so much humour.  Jane’s desire to read and not be married to a horse is totally understandable, and her choice of frying pan as a weapon practical. And above all, Edward’s and Jane’s devotion to each other is written so wonderfully and believably, a deep abiding affection that doesn’t need humour to prop it up.

The secondary characters are as in depth and developed as Jane and Edward. I love that the authors do not make them farcical, but individuals in their own right, even when they shapeshift into skunks. Gracie and Pet and G and Bess and even Mary, Queen of Scots, are so alive and totally dominate their scenes. And Gran is friggin’ hysterical. Strong, opinionated, sarcastic, forceful and lovely, but hysterical. I think I might love her.

Coauthors Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows manage what I would have thought to be near impossible. Three authors, writing three different characters that flow seamlessly. They keep the humor constant throughout the novel, it never feels forced or contrived, and the thought of them writing together makes me picture three friends sitting with glasses of wine, throwing out ideas and laughing themselves silly far into the night. I absolutely adored the references to poems and stories and people and events throughout the novel, most of which won’t occur for the next hundred years or so. And the editorial notes throughout are as funny as the dialogue.

The novel might initially intimidate at 500 pages, but I flew through it in one sitting. It is impossible to put down. Take an evening, pour a glass of wine (or three), ignore the family, and prepare to laugh your a** off.

My Lady Jane was published June 7th, 2016 by HarperTeen.

Front Lines (Soldier Girl #1)

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In 1942, the Nazis, the greatest fighting force mankind has ever seen, sweep through Europe and North Africa, seeking no less than world domination. But this time, women face them alongside men.

Rio Richlin is 17 years old, just too young to join the fight. But a gold star is sewn on the service flag of her parents’ home, signifying the ultimate sacrifice. And Rio wants to avenge her sister’s death. Her best friend wants to escape her home, and convinces her to enlist. Frangie Marr is a young black woman from a family on the edge of losing their home. She dreams of being a doctor, a tough sell in segregated America. She joins up as a medic, and fights a war within a war. Rainy Schulterman is a Jew in New York. She volunteers, hoping to enter the intelligence service, hoping to find out why her family no longer hears from relatives in Europe, hoping to use her brilliant mind to make Hitler suffer. None believe they will see the front lines.

But nothing ever goes as planned. Or, in the language of the Army, the girls learn quickly, it is FUBAR.

The book is not a short one.  Well over 500 pages in length, it takes the reader through the background, decision to enlist, and the initial training for each girl, before even discussing the war, which happens about halfway through. But the story does not drag. I was captivated from the first page onward.

I LOVE that Michael Grant wrote each girl equally. They are each the heroine of their own story, their narratives intertwining, and each strengthens as they come to know and lean on each other. Throughout the novel, they grow and change as each faces the reality of war. Rio thinks she can avenge her sister as a sharpshooter, until she has her sights trained on an actual soldier. Frangie learns to trust her hands, when her brain betrays her as the guns fire all around. And Rainy learns that all her plotting and planning is carried out by real people, it is not just lines on a map.

Grant’s description of the battles and beach landing ring incredibly true, and illustrate his tireless research. (He includes an extensive bibliography following the story.) Capsizing troop transports, bullets spraying sand, bodies falling as they reach the shore. Grenades exploding in foxholes, loss of limbs and life; blood and horror and thirst and cold and noise and silence.

The language and attitudes are definitely of the time. Rampant racism, sexism and anti-semitism are prevalent in the story, and provide a tough social commentary. It is shocking and thought-provoking, and highlights the battles fought within their own units.

I have only one minor criticism of the story. I found the scattered narration from the mysterious young woman unnecessary and gimmicky. She is only present about 3 times, and yet it is written that she narrates the entire story of these girls’ lives as if she is present throughout. The whole “Gentle Reader” thing annoyed me and was unnecessary to the story.

That picky issue aside, book one in the Soldier Girl series is an important and unusual YA story, and a fantastic way for teens to learn a little about that dark time in our history.

After perusing Grant’s bibliography, if you want even more information about the time and battles (and you will want to learn more, after reading this book!), especially at Kasserine Pass, read Samuel Fuller’s incredible and autobiographical The Big Red One. There are shades of the iconic WWII novel in Front Lines, with the bonds of sisterhood forged through training and in war.

Front Lines was published January 26th 2016 by Katherine Tegen Books.

Wolf by Wolf

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So much for a nice, light read. Wolf by Wolf will grab your heart and leave you gasping for breath. This is one that you will not be able to put down.

In 1956, in the capitol of the alternative reality Third Reich, Yael carries the hopes and the weight of the resistance on her shoulders. As the survivor of a painful medical experiment in the death camps, she escaped with the ability to change her appearance at will, or skinshift.  This supernatural ability is her hope for a successful mission to change the world.

The victorious Third Reich and Imperial Japan control half the world. To commemorate their Great Victory over Britain and Russia after WWII, Hitler and Emperor Hirohito host the Axis Tour: an annual motorcycle race from Germania to Tokyo, 20,000 kms long, with the best of the best of elite teenage racers competing. The victor is honoured with wealth and celebrity, and the chance to meet with Hitler himself.

Yael has one goal: win the race and kill Hitler. Avenge and honour the lives of millions, but specifically the four lives that haunt her, and the one life that taught her to live again. But she can’t race as herself; she does not exist. Yael must become another in order to compete, she must stand out to blend in.

Yael is an amazingly relatable character, given the torment and torture that defined her childhood.  With her ability to skinshift and take on new faces and personas, she must find a way to define herself beyond her physical presence. She learns to channel her pain, not to leave it behind, and to use it to fuel her purpose.

The various supporting characters are as alive as Yael. With a few strokes of her pen, author Ryan Graudin paints vivid characters that fight and race and scheme and die around the reader. The five wolves that mark Yael are as distinct as the rest of the cast; while their actual appearances in the story were necessarily brief, their images haunt throughout.

The world building, difficult to do in a “what if” recent past, was impeccable. Graudin transported me to the dark streets of Germania, dingy beer halls, arid deserts, exotic cafes and humid jungles. The various scenes had me on the edge of my seat, and I can say with complete honesty that the ending was a total surprise. I did not know who to trust, and who to avoid. I did not know if Yael would be successful in her mission; Graudin gave nothing away. The twist at the end left me reeling.

There will be a second book – thank goodness! I need more.

This is an excellent book, but with dark imagery of death camps, medical torture and wartime. It may not be for everyone.

Wolf by Wolf is published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.