So, Books I Read In Costa Rica!
I’m not going to discuss them all in exhaustive detail, because they kind of stacked up. I’ll just say that, for me, Martha Wells’ EMILIE AND THE HOLLOW WORLD didn’t really work. Emilie didn’t seem to have much of a personality, and the story just didn’t grab me. I think my expectations may have been too high because I really loved almost every other one of Wells’ books, and even when I didn’t really love one (CITY OF BONES), I thought it was really well-written. But for me, EMILIE was just kind of a meh kind of book. I think I would have liked it fine if I were about thirteen, but I’m glad it wasn’t the first book I ever read by Wells. Which, you know, if it WAS the first book you ever read by Wells, please go read one of her others!
On the other hand, I really liked the second SHADOW UNIT book, the shared-world thing written by Emma Bull, Elizabeth Bear and Kyle Cassidy. I didn’t have internet access at the time I finished the second volume or I’d have immediately picked up the third and fourth and gone on with the series. (I got the third one as soon as I hit the Dallas airport and regained access to Amazon.) Since I couldn’t do that at the time, I looked over the other books on my Kindle and decided the try the Medair duology by Andrea Höst – THE SILENCE OF MEDAIR and THE VOICE OF THE LOST.
I really loved them! Such a relief when your second book by a still-new-to-you author is not a let-down from the first. I can see that Medair duology might not be for everyone – I’m curious now that I’ve read them, and need to go look them up on Goodreads. The main character is very introspective, and the main conflict in the story is her internal conflict (don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of stuff happening, but imo this is a novel that is driven by the protagonist’s internal conflict, not by external events). I can see that some readers might not be happy with this.
But. My God, the backstory is SO COOL. And the internal dilemma is generated directly from that backstory, and OF COURSE the protagonist is conflicted and introspective; given her history, she has to be! This duology is really a lesson on how to do internal conflict and introspection just right, so that the story is truly compelling.
See, five hundred years ago, the Ibisians fled their land (which was being destroyed by rogue magic) and invaded the Farrakian Empire. Because of their superior magic, they just swept through, rolling the native people up almost effortlessly. So Medair rode off on a quest to find the Horn of Farak, a mythical item reputed to allow a single person to defeat any army. And she found it. But when she returned, five hundred years had passed, and the war was long since over, and the two peoples had mingled (even though most political power is still held by people with mainly Ibisian blood), and there was no legitimate enemy left to destroy.
That’s the backstory. Höst really does a great job showing the complicated way two different peoples can interact and how the edges between Us and Them can blur. I mean, five hundred years is a long time, and Höst really makes you feel that. And poor Medair! Who lingered just a night too long outside of normal time and came back five hundred years too late to save the day. For her, the war was just yesterday, and yet she knows it’s wrong to blame the descendants of her peoples’ conquerors for a conquest which is long, long over and can’t be undone.
And then things happen. Anybody can see that Medair is going to be required to use the Horn of Farak eventually, on behalf of the very people she can’t help but still think of as enemies. That’s not astonishing at all. We have the nice smooth unrolling of a fairly predictable plot – though in a story well-enough written that we don’t necessarily mind its predictability – and then WHOA, DIDN’T SEE THAT COMING.
I shouldn’t have been so surprised, I guess, after AND ALL THE STARS. Höst took me by surprise several times in that one, too. But, yeah, totally didn’t expect that one major plot twist, so the whole back half of the story worked out in a way I hadn’t predicted.
This is a really good duology, with excellent writing and characterization. The story wouldn’t have worked at all if the characterization hadn’t been top-notch, because the strong romance subplot would have turned into an angst-filled cliché-ridden mess. But with great writing and strong characterization, it works just fine. The romance is actually critical to making the story work – Medair’s personal conflict would not have been nearly so sharp without it – and again, though we can see that romance coming a mile away, it’s handled extremely well and with a decided twist at the end.
So, after that, I was finally willing to try Höst’s Touchstone trilogy. I’d kind of hesitated to pick it up because the back cover copy didn’t make it sound all that appealing. I’m kind of more into fantasy than SF these days, and this is a portal SF story. Here’s the description:
On her last day of high school, Cassandra Devlin walked out of exams and into a forest. Surrounded by the wrong sort of trees, and animals never featured in any nature documentary, Cass is only sure of one thing: alone, she will be lucky to survive.
The sprawl of abandoned blockish buildings Cass discovers offers her only more puzzles. Where are the people? What is the intoxicating mist which drifts off the buildings in the moonlight? And why does she feel like she’s being watched?
Increasingly unnerved, Cass is overjoyed at the arrival of the formidable Setari. Whisked to a world as technologically advanced as the first was primitive, where nanotech computers are grown inside people’s skulls, and few have any interest in venturing outside the enormous whitestone cities, Cass finds herself processed as a ‘stray’, a refugee displaced by the gates torn between worlds. Struggling with an unfamiliar language and culture, she must adapt to virtual classrooms, friends who can teleport, and the ingrained attitude that strays are backward and slow.
Can Cass ever find her way home? And after the people of her new world discover her unexpected value, will they be willing to let her leave?
Plus, this story is written in a diary format, which is not one I always appreciate. But . . . Höst hadn’t let me down yet, right? So I opened up the first book (STRAY) and started reading.
It’s completely different from the Medair Duology: first person instead of third, SF instead of F, a diary format instead of a straightforward narrative, a contemporary protagonist instead of a straight secondary world type of story. And it is SO GOOD.
Cassandra has a very strong, appealing contemporary voice in an amazingly believable SF world that is complicated yet clearly drawn; her situation is tense and believable; and the narrative tension is maintained despite the diary format. Höst manages that format very well – it can be tricky, because the person writing the diary must have lived through the crisis being described, right? If you want to know how to create and maintain tension despite that drawback, well, read this book! We never forget it’s a diary, but we certainly wind up holding our breath over and over, through one crisis after another.
Still, despite all the crises, there’s a lot of ordinary life in this story, too. In this trilogy, unlike the Medair duology or AND ALL THE STARS, I could see that some readers might have trouble with the pacing. Cassandra’s diary doesn’t cover every single day she lives through, but we do get a lot of details about her life and about the world she finds herself in and about the “psychic space ninjas” and everyone, and there is a day-by-day feel to the story. Think of Tolkien, and the way we got at least a glimpse of every day that passed. There’s nothing like, “And so, after two years of training, I finally learned how to blah blah blah” in this book, either. None of that “time has passed” stuff. I bet some readers probably feel like the pace is too slow.
Emphatically not me, though. I loved the unhurried way the story unfolded, with plenty of time given to Cassandra’s slow integration into her new society. That is exactly why the society felt so real. Without that level of detail, I think it would be impossible to capture that feeling.
Plus, Cassandra is just a great character. This is not the kind of story where Cassandra gets transported to a new world and finds herself with Awesome Kickass Super Powers and singlehandedly saves the universe from Evil while every eligible male character falls in love with her. I mean, Cassandra kind of does have Awesome Super Powers, but she is so not a kickass heroine. She is not at all a natural fighter, plus those are definitely not the super powers she would necessarily have chosen, plus those powers comes with a pretty high cost. Plus, the society she finds herself in is really complicated, and not just in good ways, and as you might imagine, having a computer interface in your head comes with certain privacy concerns. So does being really famous in a highly connected society – Höst really deals with issues of celebrity and privacy in this story, in ways that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen in SFF before.
And Höst also manages something tricky: she doesn’t include a universal translator (well, sort of, but not really) and so Cassandra has real trouble with the language. And so she speaks with a very contemporary fluent voice while writing in English in her diary, but with a very broken phrasing when speaking in her new language. And since time passes over the trilogy, her fluency improves, until by the end her spoken language skills are much better, though still not perfect. I was really impressed by how Höst handled that gradual smoothing of Cassandra’s language skills over time.
Okay, one more comment: There certainly is a romance in this story, but it is very believable and slow. The first time Cassandra sees the man she will eventually fall in love with, she barely notices him — so different from the insta-attractions we see all over in YA today. Harking back to recent posts and comments about romances and relationships, let me add that this romance winds up with a long engagement and then marriage and a solid married relationship. Plus, there are important parent-child and sibling relationships that are very well drawn. To get all of this, you should definitely pick up the “Gratuitous Epilogue” once you’ve read the trilogy; it’s a separate short novel that lets the reader see all the various relationship stuff work out.
So this makes six books by Höst I’ve read now – six and a half, counting the “Epilogue” – and she hadn’t let me down yet. I was very pleased to buy the other three she has available. Many thanks to The Book Smugglers and Heidi of Bunbury in the Stacks, who brought Andrea Höst to my attention, because I would never have looked at a self-pubbed-only author if not for their reviews, and Höst is now on my auto-buy list.