November TBR Challenge: Discord’s Apple by Carrie Vaughn

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This month’s TBR Challenge theme was much-hyped books; this doesn’t really qualify, except in a personal sense. I loved meeting Carrie Vaughn at RomCon in the summer of 2010, and finding out that she had written a book with its roots in the Trojan War was exciting. When I got one of the free copies, and a had a minute while getting it signed to hear some of the author’s enthusiasm, I couldn’t wait to get it home and read it. But it turned out to be the wrong time for me to read this book, despite the fact that it hits so many of my “yes, please!” buttons. And so it has sat for more than three years, until I decided that I’d challenge myself to read it in place of the “hyped” books that I don’t appear to have sitting in my TBR pile.

Evie Walker has come home to Fort Collins, Colorado, because her father is dying. He has metastasized prostate cancer (the disease that killed my own father in February of 2010; hence my inability to read this book for so long). He is refusing any treatment other than pain medication, which means that he probably won’t live very much longer. Evie wants to help him, even though she is unhappy with him for not seeking more aggressive treatment; he wants her there not only because he loves her and wants to spend time with her before he dies, but also because she has a strange but important inheritance awaiting her.

For many generations, a member of Evie’s family has been the guardian of a storehouse of mythic treasures: the Golden Fleece, Persephone’s uneaten pomegranate seeds, Cinderella’s glass slippers, and many more. Including the ones most important in this book: the apple of Discord (which basically started the Trojan War) and Excalibur. People come looking for these treasures, and sometimes it is right to hand them over, and sometimes NOT. Keeping them safe and releasing them to the right people is Evie’s father’s job; when he dies, it will be hers. Whether she wants it or not.

Evie is a comic book writer; she writes about a kick-ass bunch of special forces agents. The book is set in a near future that’s kind of frighteningly believable — terrorism in the US has led to the rise of local militias that turn large urban areas into domestic war zones and make people in more rural areas suspicious of travelers and strangers. The world is on the brink of nuclear war, with allegiances shifting in response to acts of terror around the globe. In short, there’s a lot of discord, with the potential for global destruction; setting the apple loose in the world would almost certainly result in destruction on an even larger scale than Troy.

Into Evie and her father’s world come some characters out of myth: Hera, the Greek goddess, wife of Zeus; Merlin and Arthur, who has been brought back to meet Britain’s great peril; and some others. There’s also Alex, an ancient, mysterious (at first) stranger, to whom Evie is attracted, whose story I won’t spoil with any more details. Through flashbacks, we learn more about Alex, about the history of the Walker family, and about how those tie in with huge events that have shaped the world. Meanwhile in the main “present day” timeline, Evie, her father, and Alex, eventually aided by Merlin and Arthur, work to stop Hera and her various minions from taking the apple and creating even more discord in the world. The ending is one I didn’t see coming in many ways, but it absolutely makes sense and feels satisfying.

So what did I love about this book? First and foremost, GREEK MYTHS! I’ve been a student of ancient Greek mythology since the fourth grade (that’s age 10), because that’s when I had a school textbook for literature class that explored them. (It also tied into a science class where we looked at constellations — great integration!) I am fascinated by the Greek notion of gods as no more noble than humans, just more powerful, and of course the Trojan War saga is at the heart of all of that. There was more explanation of who’s who and what’s what in the book than I needed, but I didn’t mind it — it was entertaining, and worked into the story well enough. I think there was enough there for a reader without much beyond general awareness of the Olympic pantheon and the basic idea of the Trojan War to appreciate the story, but of course I can’t be sure.

Add Arthur to this mix and I’m done for, even though this is Arthur away from the other aspects of his story. Arthurian retellings are another passion of mine, and this one is bit more fun and light-hearted than most, since it’s after all the Morte d’Arthur stuff. And for all that this book explores serious themes and puts the characters in difficult, threatening situations, it does maintain that layer of enjoyable entertainment. A lot like one of Evie’s comics would, or at least that’s the experience I have when I read action comics. Vaughn’s other books are a pair of superhero novels (that I am definitely going to read) and a lengthy urban fantasy series about Kitty Norville, a werewolf late night disc jockey. Knowing that made me expect a lighter tone going into this book, and that’s what I found. There are life-and-death events, and decisions and challenges on a world-saving scale, but while there are sad, tender, suspenseful and sexy moments, it somehow never stops being fun.

I love books that connect myths and legends from different traditions into one big story. A tapestry, if you will. A Twitter conversation while I was working on this review had me explaining my love for Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry, a trilogy of books that does a similar thing, albeit in many more serious, lyrical, complex pages. I’m not saying that this book is a “Fionavar Lite,” but both books are written in the tradition of connecting our present to our past and our varying pasts to each other for a worldview that unites normally disparate elements of human history and belief.

Also, amazingly, this is a stand-alone novel of fewer than 400 pages — not an epic, not part of a trilogy or series. In my recent fantasy reading, that’s worth remarking on.

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**In the interest of full disclosure: Ms Vaughn and I are alumni of the same undergraduate institution, albeit more than a dozen years apart. Other than meeting her for a panel at RomCon as described above, and writing her a quick note4 about this book which she graciously acknowledged, I have not interacted with her. I don’t follow her on Twitter and we aren’t Facebook friends.

Shanghai Steam: A More Diverse Universe Review

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This weekend is the second iteration of the More Diverse Universe effort, where participants review speculative fiction books by writers of color in an effort to call attention to the diversity that’s out there in the field. You can follow posts on Twitter with the hashtag #Diversiverse; the event is the brainchild of Aarti at the Booklust blog. Her post on the event is .

ShanghaiSteamI chose to read Shanghai Steam, an anthology of wuxia steampunk stories. The cover art is by James Ng, a favorite of mine, and the mix of stories is quite good. There are 19 authors, each with one contribution. They are Tim Ford, Amanda Clark, Laurel Anne Hill, K.H. Vaughan, Crystal Koo, Brent Nichols, Julia A. Rosenthal, William H. Keith, Shen Braun, Jennifer Rahn, Emily Mah, Frances Pauli, Camille Alexa, Tim Reynolds, Ray Dean, Frank Larnard, Derwin Mak, Nick Tramdack, and Minsoo Kang. As you can guess from the list of names, not all of these are writers of color, but I love the diversity among the authors as well as the different take on steampunk they provide here.

One of my favorite things in several of the stories is the concept of qi-powered machinery, either in place of or addition to steam power. I also really appreciated the number of strong women characters in the collection. (I was sad not to see more diversity of sexual orientation or gender identification explored, but one can’t have everything, I guess.) Most of all, I loved the aesthetic that ran through the book, used very differently by each author, of Chinese spirituality, tradition, philosophy and history. The wuxia tradition of the martial arts hero who fights against oppressors is brought to life in a variety of ways in this collection. Some were funny, some were sad, some were uplifting, and while some spoke to me more than others, there were no weak stories in this anthology. I had a list written of the seven or so that spoke most strongly to me, but I managed to lose it while writing the rest of this post. I can’t recreate it, because going back through the stories, I’m finding different nuances and new favorites; I think that says a lot about the overall quality of the work here.

ETA: Here’s a link to the list of other More Diverse Universe participating reviews.

On the Same Page: Cold Magic

A lot of what I have to say about this book is in my review from the September TBR Challenge. I thought the world building was strong, and the story is complex enough to sustain a pretty hefty fantasy trilogy. That’s what strikes me, thinking back on this reading experience — because this is fantasy, there’s a whole world of plot that isn’t directly about the romance, and consequently, the romance aspect is drawn out and given time to develop in a way that wouldn’t work in genre romance.

Cat and Vai start off very much on the wrong foot, They are forced into marriage, they don’t know each other at all beforehand, and before they have a chance to figure anything out, the marriage is termed a “mistake” and he’s ordered to kill her. Which he can’t, of course, because he is already falling in love with her. No surprise that she is suspicious, dismissive, prickly and so forth — she’s not playing hard to get or over-reacting, because the man married her at the command of the same lord who has now commanded her death. Of course she doesn’t trust him, even if she does find him attractive, and of course she’s glad to see him frustrated, humiliated, or thwarted. I was glad that it took her the better part of three long books to completely trust him — anything faster would have belied important aspects of her character.

Aside from not immediately falling for Vai out of suspicion and fully justified fear, Cat has other issues that she needs to resolve before she can believably love and commit to anyone. She has fundamental identity issues — who is she, who were her parents, how did she end up in the Barahal household? What about her magic power(s) — where do those come from, and of what is she capable? In addition to figuring all of that out, she has a concern that takes priority over a potential romantic relationship. She knows that her beloved cousin Bee is the next target for the cold mage, and she doesn’t want to see that happen; after staying alive herself, her next priority is Bee’s safety and welfare. She has a lot to figure out, she has herself and her cousin to keep alive and safe, and she has very little reason to trust Vai to help with any of it.

More than anything (the secondary characters, who are fabulous, the world building, which is rich and rewarding, the use of history and myth to make a mash-up that feels familiar, new and consistent all at once), it was this aspect of the novel (and eventually the trilogy) that I found most rewarding. The romance had time in which to develop, the two characters went through a lot for and with each other to prove how strong their feelings were, and there was so much going on that I didn’t feel that anything was dragged out or put off in a frustrating way. In other words, reading this reminded me why fantasy with strong romance is still my favorite genre.

So what did others think? What did and didn’t you enjoy about this novel? What aspects do you think deserve deeper analysis? Comment here, or link to your thoughts posted elsewhere.