Last weekend, I managed to get myself good and sick. I’m not quite sure what I ended up getting, but whatever it was, it pretty much left me in bed for most of a weekend and then some, either sleeping or resting or just hiding out from the world so I didn’t pass along this weird plague that I’d caught. It made for a pretty lame way to spend the weekend, especially since the weather seemed pretty nice from what I could tell; that being said, in the interest of trying to be glass-half-full, I can’t deny that one big advantage was the chance to catch up on quite a bit of reading while I rested and lay in bed.
First up, I finished up D.B. Jackson’s Thieftaker, the first entry in a series about a professional thief catcher working in Boston during the Revolutionary War era (well, technically, it’s in the run-up to the war, but I’m feeling lazy in my descriptions this morning). The catch? This particular thieftaker – a man named Ethan Kaille – is also a conjurer, a set of skills that both makes him very dangerous and very much at risk from a population that’s still pretty heavily influenced by a Puritan tradition, even if it’s fading. Thieftaker is a lot of fun; Jackson (a pen name for fantasy author David B. Coe) makes excellent use of his era and his setting, and nicely avoids the traps so many period pieces step into (dramatic irony where characters make jokes about future technology, that kind of thing), while actually making the choice to set it during this time period relevant to the story and even an important part of what’s happening. The story moves along nicely, unfolding a lot like a private detective story; Ethan starts off investigating the apparent magical murder of a rich young woman, only to discover that there’s a lot more going on than he ever realized. That being said, when you’re doing, you’re going to feel like the story spun its wheels a couple of times; there’s plenty of scenes of Ethan being beaten up, and they all start to feel like variations on a theme, especially since the beatings usually come courtesy of the same two characters. Still, Jackson’s magic is compelling and strange, bringing a lot of personality to the story, and his work with characters is great, engaging me in this rich world beyond any simple story. Thieftaker is the first book in a series; I think the best I can say about it is that I’m pretty interested in checking out book 2, given how much I enjoyed this one. Rating: ****
Next up was another book from Alex Bledsoe, whose Dark Jenny I’d so recently read and enjoyed. This time, though, we couldn’t be farther from the private eye genre. No, Blood Groove is a vampire novel, albeit one with a pretty unique setting and tone that nicely sets it apart from many of the genre. After all, there’s plenty of books about ancient, powerful vampires returning to the modern world and finding their way; how many books are there where “modern world” is substituted with “1970’s Memphis,” complete with all the racial tension the era could bring to bear? Now, I’m not the world’s biggest vampire fan, and more to the point, is there any need for a book like this when you have something awesome like Blacula that covers some of this ground? (This blog is a no-Blacula trashing space, just so you know.) Luckily, Blood Groove becomes its own wonderfully odd thing, turning its vampires into antiheroes while never softening them up, playing with its setting in interesting and novel ways at all times, making use of the racial tensions to set up its characters and its ideas, and much more. It’s a bit of an overstuffed novel at times, to the point where a long-dormant plot thread’s abrupt (and shocking) return near the end of the book feels a bit jarring and almost unnecessary – after all, this book focuses on a returning ancient vampire, a modern day group of vampires trying to find their place, a coroner tracking them all down, and a drug that could be targeting vampires specifically, and all four of those parts keep colliding and causing ripple effects in interesting ways that get a bit chaotic. Nonetheless, Blood Groove is compulsively readable, and surprisingly fun; as he did in Dark Jenny, Bledsoe displays a gift for keeping scenes moving at a good pace, delivering interesting dialogue, and creating interesting characters that we like, even if he takes these to far darker places than anyone from Dark Jenny. Also, it pays its respects to both Blacula and Vanishing Point, and that’s no small thing for me. Enjoyable, splattery fun. Rating: ****
Finally, I also read – well, re-read – Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, a tale of a young German girl during the run-up to and early going of World War II. It’s the story of this girl, the books she steals, the Jewish fist fighter her family shelters, the boy she befriends…oh, and it’s all narrated by Death himself (itself?). This is my third time through Zusak’s wondrous creation (I’m about to start teaching it again, and needed to brush up on it), and it’s managed to never lose any of its impact; this is the unique book that spoils itself, repeatedly tells you how it’s all going to end…and if that ending still doesn’t make you tear up a little bit when you get there, you’re a stronger person than I am. World War II seems like a stale concept for YA authors, but The Book Thief‘s choice to focus on regular Germans who watch as their town becomes more and more stridently Nazi-aligned gives it a unique feel, reminding us that not everyone we saw in those towns agreed with what was going on. More than that, The Book Thief‘s fascinating, dry, heartbreaking, thoughtful narration truly makes it soar; this is a book about death, about what war does to people, about how the constant threat of death shapes a life, about how just because a story ends in death doesn’t mean that it’s a depressing one. It’s a book that I recognize has some flaws, but works for me anyway; the voice absolutely works, and the world it creates is interesting and thoughtful, serving as part love-letter to literature, part sobering look at war. It’s become a bit of an instant classic, and re-reading it only confirms for me that it’s earned that position and then some. Rating: *****