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?

I’ve become known as the book person at my work, since I seem to be the only person who reads on lunch break instead of going out to run errands or pick up food. My coworker, who is also a big reader, said she had a book I absolutely must read and I never turn down a book recommendation! So big thanks to Emily for lending me The Magicians, by Lev Grossman, for the last few weeks.

The Magicians

 The Magicians follows the depressing life of Quentin Coldwater, a teenager in New York who still believes in the magical world of Fillory from a book he read as a child. Unfortunately for Quentin that belief doesn’t makes his life at a school for gifted teens, his flaky and absent parents, and his unrequited love for his best friend, any easier to bear. While he’s wishing for a magical ram to summon him to Fillory, everyone else in Quentin’s life is waiting for him to pick an Ivy League college and a career path. Until the fateful day his college interviewer is found dead, and he’s transported to another place by a mysterious EMT, Quentin believed his life would continue along this path picked by other people while he wished for something more exciting.

The beginning of the book is one of the few times things “magically happen” in the book, which makes it unique for the magical fantasy genre. The place he’s transported to is a school for learning magic, and much to Quentin’s dismay magic is just memorization of dead languages and strange hand movements. While at school Quentin starts to realize that getting everything you dreamed about (magic, a new start to reinvent yourself, a girlfriend) may not actually make your life perfect, and even once he’s given a chance to enter the world of Fillory he is still the same depressed person he always was–just with more magic this time.

I’ve written before about my dislike for forced happy endings and uber-upbeat characters. Quentin is deeply depressed for most of the book and when he makes stupid decisions he pays for them, and he is one of the most lovable characters I’ve read in a long time! When it comes to portrayals of the challenging transition from teenager to adult (the book follows Quentin for six years, starting when he is 17), Lev Grossman is amazingly realistic. Life isn’t all sunny and awesome when you’re encouraged/forced to pick a life path at 17 and later realized you picked wrong, and things can get complicated instead of happy when you finally get the things you’ve dreamed about for years. I know this makes the book sound depressing, and it certainly isn’t the most uplifting book ever, but this honest look at the struggle to become an adult (with a little magic thrown in for good measure) was incredibly refreshing.

There is a sequel to The Magicians, but I don’t know if my coworker has the book and it’s not one I’ll seek out on my own (I enjoyed the slightly sour note the book ended on). On its own, however, I found the book to be thought provoking and entertaining while making me incredibly grateful I’ve mostly outgrown my angst-y adolescent period!

I’ve fallen a bit behind in reviewing Butcher’s Codex Alera series, since I’m now working on book five! Epic fantasy has always been one of my favorite genres, and I love story lines that include personal, political, and military conflicts. As I mentioned in my author crush post a few days ago, I think Jim Butcher does this style of writing wonderfully and Academ’s Fury doesn’t disappoint!

Academ’s Fury

Starting two years after the events in book one, Academ’s Fury follows Tavi to his promised studies at the university. While not having furies of his own does hold him back in some training, his fierce determination and years of self-preservation in the Calderon Valley make him an idea candidate for secret Cursor training (training to become an elite spy for the First Lord). Tavi has also made some wonderful friends, including my favorite character Max. Max is the illegitimate son of a high lord, and Max and Tavi quickly bond over their lives as exiles. That friendship, along with help from other Cursors-in-training, will come in helpful as Tavi is faced with the impossible task of saving the First Lord, and all of Alera, from a mysterious old enemy quietly invading the realm.

The book does start out slowly, establishing Tavi’s place at the university. He’s picked on by the older kids with strong furies, works long hours as a page for the First Lord, and hasn’t seen his family in ages. The adventure really picks up several chapters in when Doroga, a Marat tribe leader, comes to warn Bernard and Isana that an enemy the Marat call the Vord has attacked. The Vord are an ancient race that can shape shirt and mind control their victims, and they kill everyone in the area once they attack. Isana, already on her way to the capital for a winter festival, agrees to ask the First Lord for additional soldiers while Bernard and Amara stay behind to help Doroga fight the Vord.

And because things are never simple in a Butcher book, while part of the country is fighting the Vord, the first Lord is fighting to protect the coastal cities from relentless fury-born hurricanes. While preventing a war between to High Lord houses that could plunge all of Alera into a bloody civil war. And dealing with hostile enemies in the capital, the Canim, a breed of fierce wolf-like warriors. And as his page, Tavi has been thrust into the middle of all these conflicts!

We also start to slowly piece together the story of Tavi’s parents, as more of Isana’s past is explained. She is extremely secretive, so even as we’re learning tons about Tavi, Bernard, and Amara, Isana remains a slight mystery. Having read the third book, I promise that her story, and her past, are completely worth the two book wait!

Jim Butcher has quickly become one of my favorite authors because of his Dresden Files series. His ability to write snarky, sarcastic characters in a way that actually come across as sarcastic instead of mean or flat is something I’ve rarely seen in other authors. So when I saw that another series by Butcher was on my NPR 100 Best Science-Fiction and Fantasy list, I was excited to try something new by a good author!

Furies of Calderon

Furies of Calderon is the first book in the Codex Alera series. In this unique world of Alera, humans have bonded with the elements as a way to combat their strong enemies. These bonds, called furies, allow people to use nature to enhance their strengths  watercrafters can read emotions better and heal people; earthcrafters are stronger, and windcrafters can use the wind to “fly.” The world is divided into small local farms ruled by Steadholders, which report to a regional High Lord, who in turn reports to the First Lord who runs the country.

The book follows the story of Tavi, a young teenage boy growing up in the rural Calderon Valley. Tavi lives with his uncle Bernard, a strong steadholder in the community, and his aunt Isana, a powerful healer. Along with being an orphan, Tavi is the only person in Alera to not have a fury. Growing up on a farm, his lack of furycrafting has been a constant struggle–he can’t use a water fury to help heal people, he can’t use an earth fury for help traveling in the forest, and he can’t use a metal fury to make and repair farm equipment. And at 15 years old, Tavi has a secret dream to escape his remote village to attend a major academy where he would be judged on his mind, not his lack of a fury.

The other major character is Amara, a female student on her final exam before becoming a Cursor (a knight for the First Lord, who travels throughout the land taking messages and information to people). While Tavi and his family are isolated from the rest of the world in their village, Amara has thrown herself right into the middle of everything. She is currently trying to sneak into a dangerous camp of rogue soldiers and High Lords who are threatening to attack the First Lord and remove him from power.

At the same time she is discovering dangerous political plots that will harm the entire realm, Tavi is discovering a plot by the non-human Marat, powerful hunters who have invaded the Calderon Valley once before.  Amara must take Tavi’s news back to the First Lord, but many people will kill to ensure that news is never delivered.

While I obviously can’t give away how the story ends, it was exciting and full of danger up until the very end. Amara is a powerful windcrafter and Tavi’s intelligence has been honed by years of working without the air of a fury–together, they create a powerful and cunning team that can withstand most any attack. Bernard and Isana also work to protect Amara and Tavi, and the family dynamic between Tavi and his aunt and uncle is wonderful to read (although there are many hints that there may be more to the story of his dead parents than we were originally told!). Add in some romance between Bernard and Amara, and you’ve got some wonderfully developed characters!

Furies of Calderon is as great a read as the Dresden Files, and shows that Butcher is a well-rounded fantasy author. He can write smart, witty characters, great battle scenes, and deeply moving stories of loss. Like every other Jim Butcher book I’ve read, I would recommend Furies of Calderon to any fantasy lover.

It seems like the trick to liking science fiction books is to just read more of them–the longer I go between books, the harder it is for me to get engrossed in the story (although this doesn’t apply to reviewing books, apparently! I finished this book two months ago!). Because sci-fi books aren’t written to be strong character dramas, it took until the third book in the Foundation series for me to really connect and care about what happened–but when I started to care, oh boy did the story get interesting!

Second Foundation

Despite it’s title, Second Foundation is the third book in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. The series follows a colony of scientists established on the far edge of the universe, tasked with saving the world from thousands of years of war and ruin after the Empire falls. The first two books have little to do with the mysterious Second Foundation, another colony of scientists established “at stars end.” Second Foundation finally gets into some details about the role the Second Foundation has played in protecting the history of mankind, and how they maintained their secrecy all these years.

The Mule has failed to find the Second Foundation, a quest he started in the second book. His mind control is being disrupted by the Second Foundation, which gives the first insight into what knowledge they protect–mental science, as opposed to the Foundation’s physical science focus. Because the Second Foundation can manipulate thoughts, the Mule sends an Unconverted (has not been mentally manipulated by the Mule) young man named Bail Channis into space to find the Second Foundation–any behavior in mood or character would signify the mysterious foundation had messed with him and give clues to their location or spies. To keep watch over him, the Mule sends Han Pritcher, a Converted man from the Foundation. A war begins, but everyone is being manipulated by the Mule or the Second Foundation, it’s nearly impossible to know who’s on which side!

This book, along with being the most interesting, also had the first strong female character in the series. Fourteen year old Arcadia Darell throws herself into the middle of an investigation into the Second Foundation by running away from home to stow away on a Foundation ship leaving to research the Mule in a study headed by her uncle. Her father is a leading scientists, and has his own conspiracy brewing about the Second Foundation’s location. Arcadia is run off the planet because she becomes too involved in the Mule investigation, and is protected by an old farm couple who was in town to sell food and supplies. Desperate to get back to her family and let them know what she’s learned about the Second Foundation, she convinces the man who saved her to start running food to planets under siege by the warring armies–he gets to make money, and she gets to go home.

And while all of this was going on (because Asimov doesn’t seem to believe you can have too many main characters), key players from the Second Foundation are introduced. They have a school, which teaches promising young students how to control, manipulate, and protect the Sheldon Plan. The three main parts of the book–the Mule’s soldiers, Arcadia and the scientists, and the Second Foundation teacher and student–provide three distinct ways of analyzing every situation. No one side is more correct than the others, because everyone is missing critical information, but the reader has an advantage is knowing what each side is doing. But I’ll admit, I was a bit surprised at the end when it was announced who lead the Second Foundation and where they were located!

Is this book confusing, complicated, and a bit slow at times? Yes. But was it a good read? Undoubtedly! I’m always glad when books can stump me, because I’m so rarely wrong in my predictions for how the story will end. The three different plot lines don’t fit perfectly together, but Asimov’s style is much more focused on individual ideas coming together than character personalities working together. While my love for fantasy books has not been replaced, I’m glad I took the time to rediscover just how much I enjoy science fiction.

When I reviewed Foundation in December, I predicted that reading science fiction would be an adjustment for me. Instead of plot heavily driven by characters, the plot is driven by the world evolution–and as I’ve documented many times on this blog, I really love a good character drama. But I want to try my hardest to expand my literary taste and complete the NPR Top 100 Science Fiction, Fantasy books list. So I started Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov, and was it was both everything I expected and so much better.

Foundation and Empire

Just like Foundation was so fond of doing, Foundation and Empire jumps ahead a few hundred years to start the story. All the characters we knew from the first book are dead, and the Foundation is once again in trouble. The Empire is starting to visible collapse and lose power, but the Foundation still struggles to remain safe. A Seldon crisis is looming but the Foundation’s win is guaranteed, right? Except…there are some things coming to light about the Second Foundation that might make the Foundation’s win not so safe.

There are several main characters in this book: first up is Bel Riose, an Empire soldier determined to turn the Empire’s demise into his success; Ducem Barr, an old man with a curious knowledge of the old Traders and Hari Seldon; and Lathan Devers, a captured Foundation Trader. In the second part of the book, after war has started between the Foundation and the Empire, we meet Bayta and Toran, two young newly weds. They get along rather horribly, and the rest of the book follows them. Turned into Foundation spies by Toran’s father and uncle, Bayta and Toran go on their honeymoon on the planet of Kalgan. On Kalgan, a mysterious man called the Mule has taken military control without resistance by manipulate other people’s emotions.

Bayta and Toran are thrown into a crazy mystery figuring out who the Mule is–a mutant who stands outside the history predicted by Hari Seldon. He can change the course of human history, and potentially doom humanity to a violent barbarian life. He is obsessed with finding the Second Foundation, the little-known other foundation established by Seldon. The Mule is an interesting character because he is the only one truly in control of his actions. He is portrayed as a horribly manipulative and un-lovable person, but in the end you feel sorry for him even as he does horrible things. Of all the characters, I found the Mule to be the written!

Foundation and Empire has a much more solid story line, and better developed characters. There is still a lack of connection between the individual parts (it feels very much like several short stories were strung together, which is apparently how the Foundation series started), but the overall world narrative is developing as well as I had hoped. By the end of the book I was eager to start the third book and see where things go. I’m not 100% sure I’m a science fiction fan yet, but I enjoyed this book a whole lot more!

I was looking for the reviews of the first and second books in this series just now, I didn’t realize I read them over year ago! Sometimes I don’t like a series enough to read all the books one after the other, but I always plan to finish it eventually. This series, The Night Angel Trilogy by Brent Weeks, was one of those–I love the characters, but the writing and story line aren’t always compelling. At the same time, this is the first series by a local Oregon author and I wanted to support him.

Beyond the Shadows

In the end, I’m glad I decided to finish this series. The last book, Beyond the Shadows, perfectly exemplified why I love these characters. There were unexpected deaths, surprising sacrifices, and incredibly sweet love stories. By the end of the book I was simultaneously crying and yelling! Beyond the Shadows picks up where the last book left off: there is a succession battle between Logan and Terah, Kylar is mourning his lost life with Elene, and Vi is still running for the consequences of “ring-raping” Kylar. This book also adds in a new story line, as Dorian is forced to take his father’s throne and become the new Godking.

As with the previous books, the moral theme of the book is heavily applied to every story: how to deal with the consequences of our bad choices. Kylar is emotionally dead from betraying Elene, and Vi is forced into a subservient student role so she can learn to control the magic she’s unintentionally unleashed. Elene struggles with anger and jealously at the bond Kylar and Vi share, but learns to accept it. Dorian becomes a monster to save the woman he loves, and then sacrifices his love for her to save her life. These poor characters never receive a break in this book, but the fast-paced action forces them into situations that reinforce the morality of fixing your mistakes.

In the end, no one is really happy–there are hints that happiness may be in the future for some of them, but this is the last book so we’ll never know. I was bawling the last few chapters for the sacrifices Kylar, Elene, and Dorian had to make to save the world. They all stepped up and bravely faced their worst nightmares because it was the right thing to do and I was cheering for those sacrifices, and yet it was heart wrenching because I was also hoping they would be selfish and be happy for just once!

Brent Weeks is not the best author I’ve read, but he has such great potential. I had such a strong emotional connection to these characters that I greatly enjoyed the books despite stylistic issues I normally can’t stand. For other emotional readers, I highly recommend this series for a quick weekend read that makes you laugh and cry every few chapters.