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Princess Alethea's Magical Elixir
  Book Reviews by Alethea Kontis
November 2009

Title: Quatrain
Author: Sharon Shinn
EAN: 9780441017584

My friend Gayle held this book tight to her chest on the day she gave it to me. "I know you really like Sharon Shinn," she said, "but I have to say, it's a bit creepy how much you look like this girl on the cover." Crazy enough it's true -- her nose is a bit different and my hair wouldn't stay for ten minutes in that hairstyle, but whoever modeled for cover artist Dominick Finelle could easily have been a cousin. Who knows! Maybe she is. Stranger things have happened. One thing's for certain, I'd love to own that lovely blue dress she's wearing.

Beyond the cover, however, four goodies lay in store like a Whitman's chocolate sampler for any fan of Sharon Shinn. It's a bit brilliant actually: each novella is a complete, fully-fleshed-out story based in one of each of Sharon's infamous worlds. "Flight" is set in Samaria, perhaps the most famous of Sharon's creations and my personal favorite, a storm-tossed planet populated by genetically-engineered angels and absently governed by a literal Deus Ex Machina. "Blood" is set in the world from Heart of Gold, populated by the blue-skinned Indigo, the golden-hued Gulden, and the pigment-challenged Albino. "Gold" is a fairy tale involving the royal family from Castle Auburn and the dangerous fey denizens of the kingdom of Alora. "Flame" takes place in the Mystic and Rider universe of the Twelve Houses and follows a strong, solitary mystic with an incredible power to manipulate fire.

Without a doubt, Sharon's biggest strength is world-building -- a gift she possesses to such a degree that other writers would give limbs to have even a fraction of it. Traditionally, one thinks of science-fiction as the world-building genre and fantasy as more character- and quest-driven. Even the words used in the jacket copy describe Sharon's work as "fantasy," romance," and "adventure." Technically, however, two of these worlds are unabashedly science-fiction worlds. The closest parallel to Samaria is Anne McCaffrey's Pern -- yet another threatened planet populated by genetically-engineered dragons. But thanks to McCaffrey's character-driven, romantic plots, the librarians shelve her in the fantasy section without a second thought.

Don't be distracted by that beautiful girl on the cover, no matter how much she might look like me. In Quatrain you will embark on journeys through intelligent, complex worlds. You may even want to read the stories twice, just to chew on the scenery. Fortunately, there are already novels out there you are welcome to pick up when you want to read more. The only thing you have to decide is where to start. It's a tough decision. Every single one of these stories blew me away.

Personally, if you haven't visited Samaria, I recommend you all start with Archangel. (Sharon will probably kill me for saying this, but Jovah's Angel still remains one of my favorite books of all time.) I haven't read everything of Sharon's, but I've read every word out there written about Samaria, so my choices were whittled down to three. Upon finishing Quatrain, I went over to my bookshelf and moved Summers at Castle Auburn to my to-be-read pile.

I'd be interested to learn which one of these stories catches your fancy.

Title: Catching Fire
Author: Suzanne Collins
EAN: 9780439023498

I got Hunger Games and Catching Fire at the same time. I polished off Hunger Games -- the first novel of Collins' trilogy -- in one sitting. I allowed myself to stay up until 3 a.m. on a school night just to get to the end. I waited almost a whole week before starting Catching Fire, and I forced myself to read only one part at a time (there are three parts) to space it out a bit (and so I wouldn't yawn all the way through work the next day). As folks who follow me on Twitter will attest, I finished it right around 3 a.m. as well on that third day.

All that said, Catching Fire is not Hunger Games. I in no way mean to disparage the sequel; the Districts/Capitol world that Collins has created deserves an exploratory story more in depth than the original in order to do it justice. Hunger Games, however -- yes, for all its striking similarity to a certain Battle Royale -- is a beautiful, self-contained, stand-alone work of art all unto itself.

Of course, it needed to have been, or I wouldn't have made it past page two. The point of view in which both books are written is first-person-present tense (I see her walking down the hall and she says hello . . .). The argument can be (and has been) made that this is they way people talk or blog . . . but I hail from a long line of storytellers where the story is told, in past sense, because it is something that happened in the past (or else, how would you be telling it?).

Luckily, the world, plot, and characters were engaging enough to reel me back in every time I found myself being pulled out of the story because of the language; but I'll admit I was a bit disappointed when I came to the end of Hunger Games and realized that the first-person-present tense was merely an affectation, and not actually done for a reason necessary to the book. Had that been pulled off, I would have been outraged that Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book took the Newbury Award instead of Hunger Games . . . and I'm a long-standing Gaiman fan. That's saying a lot.

Without giving too much away, I can tell you that Catching Fire takes place only a very short time after Hunger Games left off. There are consequences for winning the Games beyond anything anyone ever imagined, and the political tension between the Capitol and the Districts under its rule is high. The spotlight is not turned away -- on the contrary, the subsequent "celebrity world tour" and the imminent 75th annual Games have kicked everything up a notch. Katniss must find a way to be true to herself, while at the same time playing her part well enough to preserve the lives of her friends, family, and the entirety of District 12 that hang in the balance.

The last part of the book does cover the 75th annual games, but it is not as all-encompassing as that very first game where we learned to love Katniss and Peeta and Foxface and Rue. I think I would have been disappointed had it been so -- this is such a rich world and there is a lot more happening on so may other levels. I gasped and cried and gasped again as I read this book, and I am now officially one of many fans awaiting the final book in the trilogy September. 2010

If you can't stand cliffhangers, you might just want to wait until then to read them all.

Read more by Alethea Kontis

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