I’m sure I’ve mentioned it on ever Brandon Sanderson book I’ve reviewed, but I love his story telling. Sanderson writes grand sweeping novels with complicated worlds, and I have yet to meet a hero I don’t love. So when a tiny novella came out last year, I eagerly pre-ordered the book and read it the first chance I had (it made a great read-at-lunch book). The Emperor’s Soul takes place in the same world as the book Elantris, but adds a level of depth unexpected in a story so short.

The Emperor's Soul

The Emperor’s Soul

Where Elantris followed a princess trying to save her world, The Emperor’s Soul follows Shai, a notorious forger who got caught. Having a main character who is, by some accounts, a bad person with no morals doesn’t change the insane connection I felt with Shai. She may be part of the underground black market in expensive forgeries, but she is also intelligent, fiercely independent, and loyal to her family and teachers.

Shai does have to face punishment for her crimes, but like any good Sanderson story the punishment isn’t what Shai or the readers expected. To pay for the crime of forgery…she must create a forgery of the Emperor’s soul. What Shai and the rest of the world don’t realize is that the Emperor was hurt, and the only way to save him is to create a new soul that defies everything their religion stands for. If Shai can create this impossible soul stamp by the time he is expected in public again, she will be allowed to live.

If you keep up on things in the sci-fi/fantasy world, you already know that The Emperor’s Soul has been nominated for a Hugo Award for best novella. I haven’t read any of the other works nominated this year, but I hope Sanderson wins because this story was great. With very  little action compared to his normal battle-filled books, Shai still lives an exciting and dangerous life. It tackles issues of morality versus the law in a direct but subtle way, by viewing the world’s religion almost as an archaeological study would (Shai does not subscribe to the same religion as the Emperor and his government). And because Sanderson’s writing is never dull, there is even a story behind how the novella went from concept to award nominee in just over a year.

The Emperor’s Soul may not be the length or scope we’ve come to expect from Brandon Sanderson, but it’s just as well written and thought out as his other books.

Apparently everyone is in a science fiction mood right now–or at least two of my favorite stores! Powell’s is celebrating Geek Week with a sale on science fiction/fantasy games and gifts, and Out of Print is running Book Madness with a sale on science fiction/fantasy shirts and accessories (I have the Wizard of Oz shirt and absolutely love it). I recently finished Cordelia’s Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold, and am currently halfway done with the second book in the series.

Cordelia's Honor

Cordelia’s Honor

I’ve read several fantasy books by Bujold, but this is the first sci fi book I’ve read despite owning several of them so I was really excited for this one. Cordelia’s Honor is actually two stories in the Vorkosigan Saga, Shards of Honor and Barrayar (which won a Hugo Award for best science fiction novel), and follows a few years in the life of Cordelia Naismith. Cordelia is captain of a spaceship and comes from a very technologically advanced planet called Beta Colony, but has never seen the ocean or even a lake because her world mainly exists as underground cities.

While on a mission, her team is overwhelmed by a group from the rival planet of Barrayar (a planet so “backward” they don’t have electricity and computers in every home). Soon only Cordelia, a wounded member of her group, and the leader of the other group, Aral Vorkosigan, remain to make the trip back to a base to be rescued. Like any good love story, two very different people thrown together in stressful circumstances naturally fall in love…except Cordelia and Aral will do most anything to avoid admitting they feel anything but hate toward the person who should be the enemy. Yet when life back on her home planet becomes unbearable, Cordelia manages to escape the military to join her love on his strange planet.

And while Barrayar may have many similarities to Earth, it’s the strangest thing Cordelia has ever seen. She struggles to understand their political system, their food (instead of “protien packets” they eat animals, something not seen on Beta Colony), and the way marriage and sex works on this planet (they don’t have birth control, and arranged marriages are common). And when Aral becomes Regnant to a child Emperor orphaned in a bloody civil war, Cordelia barely manages to survive this strange new world.

Obviously this book has an exciting story line, and I love most anything to do with space travel. The true highlight of the book, however, is Cordelia and the contrast between women on Beta Colony and women on Barrayar. In Cordelia’s world women can fill any position in the army, control their own love lives, and live like independent modern women. In Aral’s world, however, women aren’t allowed in the army and they don’t hold political office. What appalls Cordelia most of all is the lack of medical technology–on Beta Colony pregnant women can transfer the fetus to a robot-like incubator so the pregnancy and birth don’t disrupt their lives, while on Barrayar it’s rare to even have a doctor perform a C-section!

Cordelia is an intelligent, funny, and passionate woman. Her crazy antics never seem out of place because she truly believes in everything she does, and I hope those traits continue into the rest of the series.

One of my biggest annoyances with books is when only part of a series is out and I’ve got to wait for the rest of the books–patience is not one of my strengths. Even thought only two of the three books in Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicle series are currently out, I love these books so much I can deal with having to wait for the third. The second book, The Wise Man’s Fear, was even better than the first.

The Wise Man's Fear

The Wise Man’s Fear

The Wise Man’s Fear continues Kvothe’s tale, bouncing back and forth between his adventurous childhood and the bitter old man he is today. This book also starts to fill in some of the history behind the legends surrounding him, and they provide a great example of how legends rarely tell what really happened. Despite how well Kvothe does at his University classes his roaming childhood did not prepare him to get along well with upper class citizens, resulting in enough trouble with another boy that he must take a break from the school.

While on this break he works for a local nobleman leading a band of mercenaries on a bandit hunt (while stopping an assassination attempt on the man and winning a wife for him!). One member of this mercenary band, Tempi, is part of a mysterious warrior tribe who teaches Kvothe their ways despite their mistrust of outsiders, starting just one of many legends about him. Kvothe also spends some time with the Fae (fairy) Felurian in the Fae realm, starting yet another legend as the first man to resist her powers. There is also continuing issues with his Edema Ruh past, a girl he fell in love with at University, and his quest to find the Chandrian (demon group responsible for killing his family).

As amazing as the stories are, it’s still the characters and the writing that make these books amazing. Kvothe is young and impulsive and eager to become an adult instead of a troubled kid, and reminds me so much of other young kids I know. He tries so hard to be a good person and seems genuinely confused when people don’t see things the same way he does, and that earnestness is heartbreaking. I found myself crying several times and I really hope the last book comes out soon so I can figure out what happens!

I’ve talked before about how much I love Powell’s, a book store most famous for its giant downtown location. Since I don’t live in downtown Portland, however, the Beaverton location is more convenient for most of my book browsing. The Cedar Hills location is half the size of the downtown location, but I’ve never had a problem finding a book.

Powell's at Cedar Hills Crossing

Powell’s at Cedar Hills Crossing

After getting our tax return we decided to spend a rainy Saturday at Powell’s with only three goals: a cookbook for our new wok (a wedding present), some books off the NPR list, and a few classics. One hour and $99 later we had three cookbooks, five sci-fi books, and five classics. One of the best things about Powell’s is the quality of used books for the price–every one of the classics we bought, along with one of the cookbooks, were used and except for the covers being slightly battered on the corners they look good as new for half the price. Even the new books at Powell’s are wonderfully priced though, since no book on this shopping trip cost more than $10.

Just like the downtown location, the staff at Powell’s at Cedar Hills Crossing are incredibly helpful and always excited to help you find a book. They also host some great events at this location–I’ve seen Brandon Sanderson speak here twice. So if you’re looking for a great bookstore without driving all the way into Portland, I highly recommend the Cedar Hills Crossing location.

Powell’s has one again proven itself the best bookstore ever–they host Brandon Sanderson, one of my favorite fantasy authors, every time he does a book tour. And this time, since he’s promoting the last Wheel of Time book, Harriet, Robert Jordan’s wife, was on tour with him! Makes for a very exciting Monday night in this introverted book worm’s world.

Me, with Brandon Sanderson and Harriet

Me, with Brandon Sanderson and Harriet

I’ve already finished A Memory of Light (review pending, but I’m happy with how it all ended), but I’d still like to share it for Teaser Tuesday this week. Has anyone else read the book? I’d love to know what you thought, so please leave a comment!

The rules for Teaser Tuesday are simple:

  1. Grab your current read
  2. Open to a random page
  3. Share two “teaser” sentences from that page (without spoiling the book!)
  4. Include the title and author so others can find the book if they enjoyed your teaser

This week’s teaser:

“There are no endings, and never will be endings, to the turning of the Wheel of Time.

But it was an ending.”

~A Memory of Light: Book 14 in the Wheel of Time series, by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson, page 908

Continuing my theme of “classics I really should have read already,” I practically devoured The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde on my recent vacation. I started this book on the flight (after finishing another book only an hour into the trip–I really do love my Kindle for travel!) and was annoyed several hours later by the flight attendants announcing the time to put away all electronics so we could land.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray

This is the second Oscar Wilde piece I’ve read, and I am really enjoying his writing. It’s both beautiful and thoughtful, and his characters are adorably misguided. The Picture of Dorian Gray follows the life of a young London socialite, Dorian Gray. Dorian is not the most educated man, nor the most well-connected or prestigious–his main skill lies in being so achingly beautiful that people cannot help but love him. Among his admirers/friends is a painter, Basil Hallward. Basil claims that Dorian has become his muse and paints a glorious portrait of Dorian. It is during the sitting for this painting that Dorian meets Lord Henry, a friend of Basil. Lord Henry claims that the only goal in life is to selfishly pursue all things beautiful and fulfilling to the senses, a life theory Dorian latches onto immediately. Despite Basil’s warnings that Lord Henry is not a good influence, Dorian begins to abandon his innocent way of life for the beautiful indulgence of Lord Henry’s theory.

It is during one of the many conversations about Lord Henry’s theory that Dorian jokingly prays for the painting of himself to age while he stays young forever, as youth and beautify are the only things of value he holds. It is only some time later, after Dorian has become a destructive force of indulgence, that he realizes he is indeed staying young and pure while his painting bears all the ill effects of his sins.

In parts, this book reads like science fiction instead of classic literature. A magical painting that is linked to its subject on some sort of cellular level to share physical changes? Experiments by Dorian to prove he can in fact do anything (lie, steal, murder) without showing any sings of age or grief? Sounds like science fiction to me! But the writing is more lyrical than any sci-fi I’ve ever read, and the theme here has less to do with overall societal destruction and more to do with personal responsibility to not become a terrible person just because you can. The scenes of Dorian’s extravagant life of constant youth are intoxicating in their beauty–piles of exotic cloth for stylish new clothes, chests of jewels from far off travels, friends to welcome him wherever he goes, and hordes of women eagerly awaiting their chance to be his lover. Yet the dangers of his life are just as wonderfully described–a dependence on drugs to ease his growing paranoia that his secret may be found out, his first love dead by suicide, and many once-friends who had their reputations ruined when they could not hide the impact of the lifestyle Dorian follows.

There was some controversy when The Picture of Dorian Gray was first published because of it’s not-so-subtle allusions to homosexuality, drugs, and mistresses. Maybe our society is a morally depraved place, but I was reading along going “yup, I totally know people like this.” So much of social media today is creating an ideal, fictional version of our lives. I know many people who may be struggling to establish a career or create a stable relationship, but if you look at their Facebook or Instagram feed you get the impression that everything is perfect. While we may not have a painting to hide our fears from society, people today hide behind the self-selecting anonymity of the internet to remain youthful and beautiful forever.

All this to say, I loved this book. Dorian read as a confused young man who made some bad friends and bad decisions, Basil was helplessly in love, and Lord Henry enjoyed playing with people’s emotions more than he enjoyed living his own life. Overall, these were naive men swept up in the life of a strong personality, and I believe that’s something we can all relate to. It was a quick read, and one I look forward to rereading soon.

I’m always slightly embarrassed to admit how few of the great classics I’ve read. Sure, I read all the required and suggested readings for every  English class I took, but nothing can convince me that Wuthering Heights or Moby Dick are worth getting more than a quarter through (trust me, I’ve tried). But when my then new family-in-law wouldn’t stop talking about how great Les Miserables was, I felt that it was only fair to read the book one of my favorite musical soundtracks was based on. And with the movie out now, a better reason to read the book couldn’t be found.

Les Miserables

Les Miserables

The copy of Les Mis I read was hardback, and given its size basically impossible to take anywhere since it couldn’t fit in my purse. Because of this, it took me several months to read and I often got frustrated with my slow pace–but I never got frustrated with the story, because it was amazing. Taking place during a turbulent period of French history, Les Mis follows the story of convicted felon Jean Valjean. Placed in a prison work camp for 17 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving children, Valjean eventually escapes while on parole and creates a successful life for himself. He is constanly hunted by Javert, an officer, and must keep his real identity hidden. It’s during this secret life that he meets Fantine, a woman with a tale as tragic as his own. As a young woman she fell in love, but the man was gone before she realized she was pregnant. Afraid to go back home and unable to find work as a young unwed mother, Fantine leaves her child, Cosette, in the care of an inn keeper and his wife; once her past is found out, she looses her factory job and turns to prostitution to pay for Cosette’s care. To honor Fantine’s dying wish, Valjean promises to adopt Cosette and raise her in Fantine’s place.

The book then skips ahead several years, and Cosette has gone from a young child to a teen. Valjean is still running from Javert, and Cosette has fallen in love with a young revolutionary named Marius. The inn keeper family who took in Cosette, the Thénardiers, are also back in town trying to extort money from Valjean. There are many minor characters in this section and the book switches focus much more than it did in the first half, but Eponine, the Thénardier’s daughter, is one of my favorite characters so I really enjoyed the second half of the story as she joins Marius and the other students in staging a revolution.

While the plot line of Les Mis covers many years and follows many characters, its greatest strength lies in the detailed themes that carry the book. Victor Hugo constantly finds new ways to introduce his themes in a way that feels organic to the story, especially the idea of religion/belief. Valjean meets an old priest while he’s running from Javert, and that meeting prompts him to create the successful life he had; Javert has many moments of personal struggle, and his moral code guides his difficult choices, and Jaljean and Cosette spend several years hiding in a convent. The idea of wealth is also explored through the many life stages of the characters, and I found it fascinating to see what life was like in 19th century France for those living in poverty. The Thénardier family constructs elaborate cons to get money just to keep a fire burning in the winter and food on the table. The street children beg and steal, and create elaborate stories to distract themselves from their terrible lives. The student revolutionaries that Marius befriends are well off enough to afford an education, but the goal of their (failed) revolution is a better quality of life for all the poor people in Paris who have been ignored in previous revolutions. And of course, there is a strong undercurrent of governmental legitimacy (or lack of legitimacy) in every passage about the students and flashback to Napoleon’s rule.

A book this long with such serious themes may seem intimidating, but I cannot express how much I loved this story. The writing was smooth, despite being an English translation, and the characters are so engrossing it was impossible to put the book down for long. I loved the insider’s look it gave into French history with the many tangents to explain important battles and the history of Paris.

I also loved the recent movie version, and someday hope to see the stage version. So please, share your thoughts! Have you read the book, and did you love Eponine (and dislike Cosette) as much as I did? Have you seen the stage version, and how does it compare to the movie?