Pros: Interesting worldbuilding; once plot gains momentum it moves quickly; adoptive family is generally kind, fairly rounded-out, and interesting.
Cons: Slow and meandering in the first third; clunky writing in the beginning; protagonist's parental dynamics are largely glossed over despite looming tragedy.
Intellectual Rating: 6 out of 10 stars
Emotional Grade: B
Book Blurb: (from Goodreads) Twelve-year-old Henry York is going to sleep one night when he hears a bump on the attic wall above his head. It's an unfamiliar house—Henry is staying with his aunt, uncle, and three cousins—so he tries to ignore it. But the next night he wakes up with bits of plaster in his hair. Two knobs have broken through the wall, and one of them is slowly turning...
Henry scrapes the plaster off the wall and discovers doors—ninety-nine cupboards of all different sizes and shapes. Through one he can hear the sound of falling rain. Through another he sees a glowing room—with a man strolling back and forth! Henry and his cousin Henietta soon understand that these are not just cupboards. They are, in fact, portals to other worlds.
100 Cupboards is the first book of a new fantasy adventure, written in the best world-hopping tradition and reinvented in N.D Wilson's own inimitable style.
Alz's Mini-Take: Picked this one up on a whim based on the title and blurb at the library. The writing was pretty clunky and simple right from the start, but quickly smoothed out; unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the narrative. The story drifted aimlessly a long for a good chunk, focusing more on Henry's adapting to life being adopted by his aunt and uncle and dealing with his three girl cousins and worrying about having never played baseball than anything promised by the blurb.
As for that one con mentioned above, about the glossed-over parental dynamics, it's because (not really a spoiler because it doesn't matter and is mentioned in the very beginning) Henry's parents were on a business trip in Columbia and were kidnapped/disappeared. Because of this, Henry was sent to live with his aunt and uncle--and yet curiously only ever feels some token sadness/vague emotion/thoughts about his missing parents who might or might not be dead or being held for ransom. The book hints at the fact that Henry was never close to his parents because presumably they were off traveling all the time, but there's never any real focus on it; I received the impression that the only reason they were kidnapped was so that Henry could move into the mysterious 100-cupboarded house.
Nevertheless, once the book picked up (which was sometime after the cupboards made their appearance), it moved along quickly. Henry begins to have second thoughts about exploring and poking around these magical cupboards, especially since one of them in the lower corner gives him the creeps--and later, creepy things start happening involving said cupboard. This is compounded by the fact that he's sleeping in the attic literally within arm's reach of the cupboards, in a small closet-sized "room" of which the cupboards make up one wall.
Not to mention one of his cousins finds out about the cupboards and begins demonstrating childish careless stupidity about them--surely Henry's just imagining creepy things or else is just a chicken and doesn't want to explore. She takes matters into her own hands with predictably terrible consequences, and things devolve from there.
Despite the shaky beginning, I enjoyed this MG book with its combination of slice-of-life and fantasy-adventure, and would read the sequel. The plot-hints at the end of the book are basic but tantalizing, and I'd like to know more about Henry and the cupboards and the history of the house.
Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve
Pros: Imaginative worldbuilding; non-exoticized minorities in important roles; a few astonishingly epic scenes.
Cons: Not very deep on character; some plot points were a bit meh; book was generally a bit light/shallow.
Intellectual Rating: 5.5 out of 10 stars
Emotional Grade: B+
Book Blurb: (from Goodreads) "It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea."
The great traction city London has been skulking in the hills to avoid the bigger, faster, hungrier cities loose in the Great Hunting Ground. But now, the sinister plans of Lord Mayor Mangus Crome can finally unfold.
Thaddeus Valentine, London's Head Historian and adored famous archaeologist, and his lovely daughter, Katherine, are down in The Gut when the young assassin with the black scarf strikes toward his heart, saved by the quick intervention of Tom, a lowly third-class apprentice. Racing after the fleeing girl, Tom suddenly glimpses her hideous face: scarred from forehead to jaw, nose a smashed stump, a single eye glaring back at him. "Look at what your Valentine did to me!" she screams. "Ask him! Ask him what he did to Hester Shaw!" And with that she jumps down the waste chute to her death. Minutes later Tom finds himself tumbling down the same chute and stranded in the Out-Country, a sea of mud scored by the huge caterpillar tracks of cities like the one now steaming off over the horizon.
In a stunning literary debut, Philip Reeve has created a painful dangerous unforgettable adventure story of surprises, set in a dark and utterly original world fueled by Municipal Darwinism -- and betrayal.
Alz's Mini-Take: I've seen this book touted as YA but having read a lot of YA and a lot of adult fantasy, I'd have to say this falls more definitively into the adult fantasy category. The characters are in their teens, but I thought they were around 13-14 from the way they acted and due to the simple narrative style; it wasn't until over halfway into the book that I read bits indicating they were at least 15 and likely a couple years older.
Most of the themes that characterize YA are not present here, i.e. coming of age (not really), first love (it's there but it's not really developed or a focus), search for identity (not to any depth), struggle for acceptance (again, not really), etc. Mortal Engines is all about worldbuilding and plot--characters are more vehicles for the plot and less than oceans of depth and deep character development, but since the book isn't aiming to be a character-driven piece, Tom and Hester are fleshed out enough to serve their purpose.
The worldbuilding was fantastic though, with a beautiful balance struck between details for realism and letting your imagination do the work--which is quite a tricky balance when you're writing super-futuristic post-apocalyptic steampunk. In other books, I'd be hung up on details that were supposed to give a sense of realism but did not realistically make sense; here, I was able to swallow the notion of steam-powered tank-treaded cities traveling around and eating other traveling cities for their resources. Municipal Darwinism? I'm there, baby.
The plot was good enough, with a few twists thrown in and generally enough setup that things didn't come out of nowhere. There were a few pretty spectacular action scenes and with Tom and Hester's part of the story, the book trotted right along. On Katherine's side though the book dragged because most of her early chapters are about her marching off to do sleuthing and actually not ever succeeding much. Once the shizzle began going dizzle, things became more interesting.
I was also glad to see that there was an Asian woman who is essentially a sky pirate and yet was not exoticized or molded from stereotypes like Dragon Lady or Delicate Blossom (ignore the fact that her nickname in her home city is Wind Flower). Anna Fang is a powerful and deliberate woman in her own right, classy and courteous, and willing to fight for what she believes in. Alz approves.
As for more non-stereotypical female characters, there is Hester, whose face is hideously disfigured. It was a terrible wound that didn't heal right and it shows, and when Tom first sees her it horrifies him and makes him physically ill; Hester herself is well aware that she is no beauty and takes refuge in anger and solitude. Their blossoming friendship and possible romance is one of the few character things the book actually works to develop, as Hester isn't likely to express gratitude for anything and remains abrasive, but eventually is able to apologize, and Tom has to struggle with whether or not he should like and support her considering that he thinks she's a terrorist at worst and an attempted murderer at best.
Mortal Engines was a character-light but generally entertaining action-adventure book, and I'd read the sequel if I noticed it in the library.
In general, I've been liking my latest random library haul or at least not hating anything. I also realized that I haven't read much MG or big people books lately. There are a good many more reviews on my Goodreads page as I tend to post my gut-reaction just-finished-this-book probably-has-some-typos impressions there, which are then occasionally condensed and/or expanded and regurgitated here in either mini- or full-length reviews.
Got any fantasy/steampunk/scifi MG or big people book recs? I realized that I rarely ever poke my nose into the MG section since it's all the way on the other side of the library, but I perused the area last time and picked up some good stuff, but other than tried-and-true read-and-loved childhood favorites, I've no idea what's recent and good!