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Schrödinger's Bookshelf: Young Adult and Short Fiction Reviews
by Michael M Jones

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Schrödinger's Bookshelf columns.]

Beka Cooper: Terrier
Tamora Pierce
Random House, 581 pages

Beka Cooper: Terrier Nearly two centuries before Alanna the Lioness broke all the rules to become a lady knight and a legend, the land of Tortall looked to different heroes to keep them safe. Heroes such as Beka Cooper, of the Provost's Guard. But before she became a hero, Beka started out, quite simply, as a Puppy, an inexperienced trainee partnered to two of the senior Guards, more commonly known as Dogs.

As a Puppy, Beka is expected to keep her mouth shut and her eyes open, learning everything she can from the highly-respected team of Goodwin and Tunstall, who are among the very best Guards in service, especially in the dangerous Lower City. It's not an easy duty; half the Puppies who train in the Lower City die or quit within four months. But for Beka, the Lower City is home, where she was born and bred, and where she's most comfortable, and now it's the place to which she'll bring justice. If she survives. Luckily, she's got some excellent friends on her side, including a mysterious cat of possibly-divine origins, and a few magical gifts up her sleeve. Beka can hear the voices of the dead, as carried by the omnipresent pigeons of the city... and right now, the voices are whispering tales of murder.

The most hectic, exciting, and dangerous time of Beka's young life is about to begin. On the one hand, someone is secretly hiring people for a covert project, and killing them for their silence. On the other, a person known only as the Shadow Snake is kidnapping children and holding them ransom for what little valuables can be found in the Lower City. As Beka and her mentors attempt to unravel these two very nasty plots, they'll challenge the most powerful people in the underworld, and risk death on a daily basis. But will they be in time to solve the mysteries, or will more people die?

Terrier is the first part of a new trilogy that explores the land of Tortall, a century and a half before the Lioness quartet which originally introduced it. But instead of courtly intrigue and knightly challenges, this time we get to explore the setting from a street-level perspective, as the relatively new organization of the Provost's Guard (the Dogs) continues to puzzle out its role in society. This is a time when justice is fast and loose, crime is rampant, and in many ways it's every man for itself. And therein lies the fascinating sliding scale of morality that runs through the thread of the story. A heavy portion of the Dogs' pay comes in the form of bribes, and it's considered perfectly natural to accept a little extra now and again to look the other way, especially if the crime doesn't warrant the effort of arrest and trial. And not only that, but there's a certain acceptance that the Rogue, king of the thieves, will police his own people (in turn paying bribes to the Dogs to keep a certain peace going). In this way, the story reminds me much of Simon Green's Hawk and Fisher series, which also has to do with some (mostly) honest guards in a city riddled with crime, both mundane and magical. It's easy to believe in the setting, which is presented in an honestly down-and-dirty fashion without wading too deep in the muck.

Confession time. Even though I'm literally twice Beka's age, the teenage part of me (that same part which has in the past fallen for Kitty Pryde of the X-Men, Talia of the Queen's Own, and a certain Alanna) is totally crushing on her. What's not to like? Beka Cooper is strong, fast, fierce, loyal, good-hearted, and intelligent. She's the sort of heroine you definitely want watching your back when things get messy, and she strikes me as a good friend in general. Best of all, she doesn't fear, distrust, or bemoan her magical gifts like many of her literary peers seem to; she's embraced her abilities and uses them to her best advantage. Make no bones about it, this is the sort of person who grows up to become a legend. Her one real character flaw -- her self-proclaimed shyness and inability to speak in front of crowds and strangers -- is present without being crippling or overly annoying. It's refreshing to run into a teenage protagonist who doesn't wallow in adolescent angst or throw temper tantrums, no matter how rough the going gets. If it wasn't for her youthful idealism, energy, inexperience, and occasional lapse of judgment (Fishpuppy is a nickname that dogs her steps for quite some time), it'd be easy to think she grew up too fast. As it is, I eagerly anticipate the continuation of her story, and I hope the process doesn't break her too badly. Beka's already tied Aly from Trickster's Choice and Trickster's Queen as my favorite Tamora Pierce heroine.

Finally, no discussion of this book would be complete without mentioning the absolutely exquisite cover art by Jonathan Barkat. He captures Beka with such precision that I could just picture her leaping off the cover and into action. While I've seen a lot of really good covers, this is one of those rare few that truly impresses me. All in all, Terrier may be one of the must-read fantasies of the season.

Larklight
Phillip Reeve
Bloomsbury, 400 pages

Larklight For Art and Myrtle Mumby, life is anything but normal. They dwell in the sprawling house known as Larklight, which occupies an orbit out in the blackness of space beyond the Earth's Moon. Their history is one in which Newton's discoveries allowed for the British Empire to rapidly journey into space and conquer the solar system, both dominating and trading with the many bizarre alien species which inhabit the nooks and crannies of planets far stranger than ever imagined. And when a mysterious visitor called Mr. Webster comes to visit Larklight, Art and Myrtle end up on the greatest adventure of their young lives. For Mr. Webster is a giant spider, and his race have plans for Larklight, and beyond that, the universe.

Now Art and Myrtle are caught up in an exciting race against time to free their father from captivity, even as they work with the infamous space pirate, Captain Jack Havock, and his ragtag crew of misfits, to prevent an ancient, evil plan from succeeding. It's no-holds-barred action as they outwit the ships of the Royal Navy, terror as they delve deep into the bowels of enemy strongholds, and mystery as they unravel the secrets of Larklight. And throughout it all, our heroes will have to keep a stiff upper lip, and maintain that proper British can-do attitude. For Queen and Empire!

Larklight is without a doubt one of the most intriguingly-strange, brilliantly-different books I've read in a while. It's an alternate-history Victorian kids' adventure with space pirates, evil spiders, crackpot technology, and a roller-coaster of a storyline. You won't learn anything about science or astronomy here, but you will have a grand old time. To add to the excellence of this book, David Wyatt's illustrations perfectly capture the slightly over-the-top absurdity excitement, whether he's depicting motley aliens, a battered old pirate ship, a gleaming ship of the Royal Navy, or mock-retro advertisements. He really manages to evoke the right blend of humor and action, and the combination of story and art pushes this book past good and into superb, in my opinion.

Though Larklight is targeted at somewhat younger readers, it will undoubtedly appeal to a wide audience. I can hardly wait for Phillip Reeve's next offering in the series.

Spirits That Walk In Shadow
Nina Kiriki Hoffman
Viking, 306 pages

Spirits That Walk In Shadow For those who attend college, freshman year is perhaps the strangest, most trying period of their time there. Away from home for an extended period of time, with ready access to drugs, alcohol, and the opposite sex, exposed to all sorts of new and interesting things, it's the perfect time for young adults to go a little crazy. But in Nina Kiriki Hoffman's new book, two roommates are about to find out just how weird college can really be.

Kim Calloway is an artist whose ability to capture moods and feelings through color borders on the supernatural. However, ever since her best friend betrayed her, she's been too depressed to work, almost to the point of suicide. Meanwhile, Jaimie Locke comes from a family where magic is a way of life, and the mundane world is full of uncertainty and strangeness. Can two roomies, one coping with a crippling emotional burden, the other representing the ultimate in insular ethnic groups, learn to get along?

It doesn't take Jaimie long at all to figure out that what's bugging Kim is of supernatural origin, though. Determined to help her new friend, Jaimie enlists the aid of her cousins, as well as that of her "household god" to track down the emotional vampire which has been preying on Kim for months. Now this unusual collection of erstwhile friends and allies have to survive college and the things which go bump in the night. Talk about new experiences all around!

Hoffman perfectly captures that mixed cocktail of bewilderment, excitement, alienation, experimentation, culture shock and endless possibilities which almost every college student experiences as they learn to adjust to their new setting. From Jaimie learning how to cope with her mundane surroundings, to Kim dealing with her emotions and learning to trust other people again, to Jaimie's cousins taking responsibility for the dangers they face, it's all about growing up through adversity. And as always, Hoffman's ability to weave strands of the fantastic into a real world setting is top-notch. I absolutely loved Spirits That Walk In Shadow, and I hope she'll return to these characters again soon.

Any material for consideration may be sent to Michael M. Jones, 2717 Bobolink Lane, Roanoke, VA 24018. Feel free to mark on the outside whether it's short fiction, young adult, or fan mail. Anything ticking, shaking, smoking, or glowing will be given to the cats as a toy. You can also contact me via email at everbard@gmail.com.

Copyright © 2006 Michael M Jones

Michael M Jones enjoys an addiction to books, for which he's glad there is no cure. He lives with his very patient wife (who doesn't complain about books taking over the house... much), eight cats, and a large plaster penguin that once tasted blood and enjoyed it. A prophecy states that when Michael finishes reading everything on his list, he'll finally die. He aims to be immortal.


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