Two mega-buzz accompanied releases of recent months were Ann Aguirre's GRIMSPACE and Meredith Duran's DUKE OF SHADOWS.
Mega buzz generates storms of reviews; there are many, many traditional reviews in print and cyberspace for gentle readers who care to peruse them. Apprentice Writer proposes something different: twin reviews. Why? First, she came upon one by recommendation from the other. When authors heap high praise on other authors, it's often worth paying attention. Second, she read them at the same time. Third, there are some remarkable parallels, despite one being a sci-fi suspense type story, and one a historical romance. Fourth - who's going to stop her? That's the beauty of having your own blog!
Sole survivor of a spectacular and politically far-reaching spaceship crash joins renegades intent on toppling the monopoly of a big-brother type galaxy conglomerate.
Sole survivor of a spectacular shipwreck arrives in India on the eve of politically far-reaching native uprisings intent on toppling British occupation and joins those caught in the crossfire, trying to suvive.
Typical 'butt-kicking heroine' type cover in blue tones with female figure sporting long hair, pants, midriff-baring top, and tatoos. There are countless such covers, but still, would probably have attracted Apprentice Writer's attention enough during a bookstore meander to pick it up.
Yet another in a sea of headless, bare-chested male torsos. One would think there is an unbelievably huge swell of people who hope to become thoracic surgeons, judging by the gross tonnage of freshly waxed, anonymous manchests in the aisles. Apprentice Writer would never have picked it up without word-of-mouth. The gold tones and minaret in the background are nice, though.
March is a mercenary with psychic abilities which brought him to the brink of insanity before he learned to control them. Unsurprisingly in such a person, he is physically and emotionally hardened. Due to loss and innate character, he is not in the habit of getting close to anyone - yet, perhaps to atone for earlier actions, routinely puts himself at risk so as to protect those more vulnerable. He mirrors the heroine in being emotionally guarded and not backing down from a fight. A satisying hero; AW's favorite moment with him was during his interaction with a newborn of a non-humanoid alien species.
Julian is of mixed English and Indian descent and as such, forever caught between two worlds, neither fully ignored nor fully accepted by either group. He receives a lot of attention from women attracted to his great looks, a lot of derision from men threatened by his influence and unwilling to accept the warnings he offers in regard to Indian anger prior to the uprising, and rebuffs from both sides of his family. Outright hate and racial bigotry from the cousin who would have inherited the ducal title and holdings did Julian not exist (no one who reads romance will be surprised to learn that this person is the heroine's fiance), and requests to keep his distance from the Indian relatives with whom he spent part of his childhood but who now find it difficult to have a British member amid rocketing anti-British sentiment in their community. He mirrors the heroine in being more or less socially adrift. A satisfying hero; AW's favorite moment with him was any in which he interacted with the heroine.
Sirantha (known as Jax) is struggling to keep things together, with no clear memory of the catastrophic events that claimed the lives of so many, fearful that she may indeed somehow be partially to blame, and certain of an unpleasant fate in some form or another with her employer determined to make her the scapegoat. When a stranger appears to break her out of the facility and off the planet for his own reaons, she takes the opportunity and runs with it. Which pretty much characterizes the action for the remainder of the story, in a whirlwind of action-adventure with a side of romance and frequent stirrings of self-examination thrown in.
Emmaline was supposed to have arrived in India as a sheltered heiress, accompanied by loving parents, feted by the British community as the fiancee of aristocrat and Indian Army officer Marcus. Instead, she arrives traumatized by physical hardship and emotional loss, and is subjected to the moralistic suspicions of a community refusing to believe that the sailors who rescued her left her untouched. An artist, she is curious about her new surroundings and immediately drawn to the local people and colorful marketplace, but soon learns that she is to remain solely with her compatriots in 'safe' places. Feeling increasingly stifled, she is also disillusioned about her fiance, and decides to return home. Then the country explodes with uprisings. How she reacts - immediately while her life is in peril, and later when her sanity is - forms the rest of a compelling story.
OFF NOTES (WARNING! SEMI SPOILERISH COMMENTS!)
Jax spends a whole lot of time reflecting on how people don't like her and she doesn't blame them. Yes, her thoughts are distorted by grief and fear that she may be culpable, and yes, the story is told first-person so a fair amount of rumination is part of the package, but the frequency of her bemoaning how unlikable she is and being surprised when someone is halfways decent towards her got old fast.
Emma spends a lot of time reflecting on how Julian disappointed her by not seeking her out again as promised following the uprisings. Yes, she has genuine (if falsely understood) reasons for thinking this and yes, his apparent abandonment so soon after the loss of her parents and break from her fiance is an almost fatal blow. But - hello? - he didn't leave her to go to the races or a poker game. He left to try and use his unique position to prevent massive bloodshed and save his family. By contrast, Emma spends no time at all reflecting on the fate of other individuals whose personal actions led to her survival. While literally in the midst of fighting for one's life, this is understandable. But four years later, she still has given no apparent thought to the Maharajah who opened his small Kingdom as a place of refuge to British women, to the crown princess who orchestrated her escape from murderous sepoys, to the detachment of Indian soldiers who remained loyal to the Raj and escorted her to safety across the hazardous countryside. All of them may have had a lethally steep price to pay for choice not to hand her over to the mob. If Apprentice Writer recalls correctly (remember: she flew through these books) Emma does not even bother to ask Julian the fate of his family when they meet again, so wrapped up is she in his link solely to her. To be fair, she does agonize over the fate of some others, and is truly saddened when she does learn of his family. Also, her behaviour is in keeping with a spoiled single child upbringing. But it aggravated AW so she chose to mention it (see: 'my blog, I can do what I want' above.)
One of the most appealling aspects of sci-fi (at least, those examples with which AW is familiar) is that the human characters no longer make distinctions among themselves. They're all from New Terra or Old Earth or wherever, and that's that. No continental/appearance/ligual distinctions. If there is conflict, it is usually with other life-forms, but even so, there is usually a marked degree of shipboard- and planetside integration of species. 'Grimspace' takes the concept a step further by reflecting on relationships with species that are not humanoid. The team lands on a planet whose dominant life-form is perhaps best described as amphibian. Events cause Jax to ponder whether she somehow values such life less than humanoid life, and criticizes herself for projecting humanoid thoughts where they may be inappropriate. It was a fascinating and thoughful jaunt into new territory, and one this reader hopes the author will continue to explore.
Whether she wishes it so or not, Emmaline's world by contrast is tragically defined by distinctions of 'us' and 'them'. Regular readers of this space know that AW has marked thoughts on the topic of novels set in India; she was delighted to find that the author avoided potential pitfalls by the simple but brilliant strategy of having characters with heroic and villainous traits distributed among Brits as well as Indians, and by having Emmaline be a true artist. This ties back to Apprentice Writer's philosophy that art, music, and food are the ultimate uniting forces of humanity, in the sense of her belief that a 'true' artist will find inspiration in the landscape, architecture and people of whatever place they find themselves, a 'true' gourmet will always be interested in new tastes and cooking techniques, and a 'true' musician will always be interested in new sounds and instruments.
Ms. Aguirre maintains a lively internet presence, came up with an excellent marketing strategy for this, her debut novel (in the form of an entertaining quiz helping readers identify with key characters as well as a great prizes in a word-of-blog contest), and without intending to do so nevertheless slaps slow-producing Apprentice Writer in the face by working on and completing multiple manuscripts per year despite having small children.
Ms. Duran maintains no internet prescene that AW could detect, came up with an excellent marketing strategy for this, her debut novel (in the form of winning Gather.com's first chapter contest and thus securing a contract), and without intendind to do so nevertheless slaps slow-producing Apprentice Writer in the face by dashing off this novel for a little light relief in between completing her Ph.D. (shades of Diana Gabaldon.)
Jax, alone with her thoughts in a locked cell, grieving the death of her pilot and life partner, dreading the return of the sadistic conglomerate interogator determined to force a confession of guilt out of her. Emmaline, alone with her thoughts on the endless sea, grieving the loss of her beloved parents, dreading the ease with which she might choose to let herself slip under the waves but also the reception she might receive in straitlaced British India should she survive.
Both of these stories grabbed this reader by the throat from the opening paragraphs and never let go. Absolutely gripping. Apprentice Writer has no hesitation in recommending both for readers who want an intense, thought-provoking story with memorable main characters.
Being emotionally wrung out (in a good way!), she will now recuperate with something on the lighter side, and restore her balance with a hit of funny. Bring on the chicklit.
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