The little corner of Connecticut I call home has been swamped by a heat wave of the most horrid and muggiest sort. I’ve been cowering inside, hiding from the heat and the spider webs, which seem to have been blasted with some sort of magic-gro potion and appear to be intent on dominating the world. Or at least my garden.
The severe lack of sticking my nose outside means I’ve been catching up on my reading. It’s a relatively bug-free selection, so don’t worry, arachnophobes.
Recent Reads: Maps, ahoy!
There’s been a common theme of maps threading through my recent reads. First off was Stephen Palmer’s Beautiful Intelligence. The story is set in a distant future where world resources are dwindling, Europe and the USA are an economic wasteland, and everyone is connected to the nexus, a vast, sprawling interactive information web. In this setting, two teams of scientists race to become the first to create true artificial intelligence, while they try to stay a step ahead of the technology mogul who is hunting them down.
I was entranced by the different approaches to mapping out human intelligence and attempting to recreate it in machines. At the same time, the story is fast-paced and exciting as the teams are forced to constantly uproot their labs and move on to avoid leaving identifiable trails in the nexus. This was my first time reading Stephen’s work, and I was definitely impressed.
After that, I took a break to dive into some middle grade fiction. My current writing project is middle grade, and it was time to catch up on some of the best of 2014. First out of the gate was The Witch’s Boy by Kelly Barnhill. This is the tale of Ned, the son of a witch tasked with caring for the last magic left in the world. When bandits invade, Ned becomes the unwilling guardian of this magic, carrying voices and spells mapped out on his skin into the enchanted forest. There he meets the Bandit King’s daughter Áine, and together they struggle to avoid capture and save Ned’s land from war.
The Witch’s Boy is not only a charming tale, but beautifully written in prose that often flows like poetry.
The next book I picked up was The Glass Sentence, by S.E. Grove. I’d seen this compared to Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and it definitely has a similar feel. But at the same time, it also reminds me of a favorite of mine, Brandon Sanderson’s The Rithmatist. After the Great Disruption of 1799, time broke apart, flinging countries, and sometimes whole continents, into different Ages. The protagonist Sophia lives in Boston, in the New Occident. The daughter of two explorers who have gone missing, she lives with her mapmaker uncle, Shadrack. After Shadrack is abducted by a faction seeking an important map, Sophia is forced to cross the border into the Baldlands, helped by pirates and a bandit boy.
For me, the maps were the true stars of this tale. And not just paper and ink maps, but maps on clay, water, metal…even onion maps. Besides the all-important glass map Sophia must keep from enemy hands. A fun read.
Next, I took a breather from middle grade fiction to read Inish Carraig by Jo Zebedee. I know Jo from an SFF forum we both belong to, and she’s a superb writer. You can read my review of her first novel, space opera Abendau’s Heir, here on the blog, and Jo was also a good sport and talked a little about the settings for Inish in my Spotlight series.
Inish Carraig is a post-alien-invasion thriller set in present day Northern Ireland. When Belfast teenager John Dray inadvertently helps release a compound that wipes out the alien invaders, he ends up in a high-tech prison run by the Galactic Council. Together with police officer Henry Carter, he uncovers a conspiracy that could mean the end of all humans. Now the race is on to get the word out and save the world.
Inish is one of those fast-and-furious reads, the sort of book you pick up for a look and only put down hours later with a satisfied sigh. One of Jo’s strengths is character building, and both John and Carter are a testimony to this. And yes, there are maps: John’s personal, visual mapping of the ruined streets of Belfast, as well as the maps of the prison itself, crucial to the plot.
Now Reading: Or hey, more maps!
I’m back in my middle grade list with The Map to Everywhere, by Carrie Ryan and John Parke Davis. When homeschooled adventurer Marrill stumbles upon the Pirate Stream in the middle of an Arizona parking lot, she gets swept up in a quest to find the map that controls the very Stream itself. This has pretty much everything a younger me would have wanted in a book: great characters, fabulous world building, pirates, adventure, and magic, lots and lots of magic. Because the Pirate Stream is literally liquid magic, and everything it touches is wonderful and mysterious, and sometimes downright scary.
I’m almost at the end of this, and I can say for sure that Carrie and John do a lovely job of introducing their madcap world without unnecessary explanations. The reader just slips into the Stream along with Marrill and her ship, the Enterprising Kraken, and is swept away. Perfect.
To Read: Probably involving more maps…
I still haven’t got around to The Last War by Alex Davis, which I mentioned last month, although that’s next up on my list. There are also new releases by Robin Hobb and Joe Abercrombie, and I’ve been carefully avoiding reading reviews and spoilers for both Fool’s Quest and Half a War, though all the tantalizing tweets and random facebook comments have been driving me nuts.
So many great books to read… I should probably take advantage of the last lingering bit of summer, with heat and spiders keeping me inside. After all, eventually the weather will cool down and I’m going to have to go outside and face the rampant garden weeds and webs. Perhaps I should take a map. After all, you never know to which labyrinth a spider’s weave will lead!