21 May 2015

Books: The Grace of Kings By Ken Liu (2015)

When I started reading the fantasy genre back around the 1979 or 80, a lot of the writers that went through where influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien. The late 1970s, all of the 80s and part of the 90's where dominated by authors who grew up loving The Lord of the Rings. Just as much as Isaac Asimov, John C. Campbell and Robert Heinlein influenced some to become scientists and create their own books, Tolkien's reach was extraordinary. Sadly, s I grew older, I aged out of some authors that I read, in particular Piers Anthony. I adored his Xanth series for a hot minute, before I suddenly realized he was creating a formula that meant the later books were, essentially, predictable. The puns helped, but you knew that each Xanth book would follow the same layout as the previous and Anthony seemed no longer able to deviate from it. His early work, especially in the science fiction tales, were filled with wonderful ideas, but now he has devoted his final years on issuing one Xanth book after another. 
So I left the genre behind for a while, something I think I've written about before. Since then, I've read only a handful of fantasy books, mostly Tad Williams whose prose style I like. But I never got into the "urban fantasy" subset of this genre. Those are tales set in the real world, our world, but features many signature fantasy elements like magic, wizards and dragons. TV shows like Once Upon a Time appeal to non-fantasy folks because they're set in place that a viewer can identify. On some psychological level, I think these urban fantasy shows, books, and comics makes folks more comfortable viewing and reading them because it's more tangible, more "real". It's like fans of reality TV shows; they enjoy it because while they know there is some creative editing going on that propagates the fake drama, they see everyday things like cars, Starbucks and smart phones. They can "identify" with these reality stars.
But then George R.R. Martin came along and upset the applecart. His Song of Ice and Fire series owes much to The Sapranos than to the world Tolkien created, though. Martin created an elaborate world, filled with castles, horses, and dragons. But he populated it with characters that come straight from 1970s crime dramas and the European idea that heroes and the villains all live within a gray world where wrong and right blur continuously. Martin did something else most fantasy authors never did during its coming of age in the 70s, you never knew who was going to live and who was going to die. When reading the first book in that series, A Game of Thrones, I'm assuming no one saw the death of Ned Stark coming. In doing so, in killing what many thought could've been the main character of a multi-volume fantasy series, Martin changed the rules and in doing so, changed the fate of fantasy books to come. 
So this brings me to Ken Liu's The Grace of Kings, the first book in his Dandelion Dynasty trilogy. Part of the reason I took on this book was mainly because of three writers I follow on Twitter, Wesley Chu, Saladin Ahmed and Kate Elliot. And though Liu had won the Nebula and the Hugo Awards, I was not aware of him (I generally don't read short-stories). Yes, being out the book business since Borders folded in 2011 means I missing out of a lot. Still, I have enjoyed the works of those previous authors, so I thought I would try this book out.
Much like Martin, Liu upsets the applecart, creating an epic fantasy that spans decades and features a lot of action, a lot of death (and the gallons of blood that comes with it) and three dimensional characters (especially the women).
The plot starts with the land of "Dara that has been united under a single banner, that of Emperor Mapidéré. The archipelago had once been a divided set of kingdoms, all of which felt some pain living under one ruler. We meet the young, troublesome boy named Kuni Garu, who's described in the book as "a boy who prefers play to study", one who's mischievous and brilliant, hailing from the Cocru city of Zudi. Across the world, Mata Zyndu is a massive child: tall, with double pupil eyes, and the last child of the Zyndu family, most of whom had been killed in the war that unified Dara. Each man finds his way under the harsh regime of Mapidéré: Kuni assembles a gang of bandits (amongst other exploits too numerous to list), and eventually rises as the self-styled Duke Garu, a bold move for someone born of common blood. Meanwhile, Mata assembles his own army, and determined to reclaim his family's honor and place in the world, sets off to war. Each begins their own rebellion against the Imperial Army, and eventually, their paths cross. Each regards the other as a brother, and together, they drastically change the balance of power in Dara. However, once their war is won, the real struggle for power begins, and the ensuing conflict is far more devastating than the battles that came before."
While most of the fantasy genre has its roots in medieval Europe, Liu takes on the Han Dynasty of China in his tale of revolution, rebellion, and what leadership really means (though he uses this, I think, more as a stepping stone than a full parallel). In doing this, he opens the genre that seems stagnated and that allows him to play with form and style, something I admit took me a while to grasp. And Liu writes both Kuni and Mata as complex people, even if Kuni is less heavy handed in his approach to war and conquest than Mata -who is the epitome of what Star Trek's Klingons may have become if allowed. 
There are many characters that come and go like dead leaves in a whirling wind, but the book is close to a character study between two men who have two different points of view when it comes to destroying a bad empire and rebuilding it into something better. The fact the Liu does not shy away and make one too liberal and one too conservative is great example of his writing style.
In the end, though, the book's prose, while dense like Martin's series, is far easier to digest. Perhaps because Liu chose a more modern narrative? I don't know. I liked the book, I liked the fully drawn characters and I liked the idea of reading something that was the same, yet different. 
Yet, yet, once again, I have to say I'm not always onboard for the casual way in which life is treated here. Death, I know, is what happens in wars, revolutions or what not. People die both young and old, but it's the mass acceptance of death that sometimes turns my stomach and what appears to be the appeal for these 21st Century take on fantasy. I realize that this is a fiction book, that the people are not real, but it still does not appease my idea that wars are horrible on the common folk. Yes Kuni seems to want to avoid killing soldiers unnecessarily, but it does not absolve him that sometimes him (and Mata) are just as horrible as Emperor Mapidéré. 
Maybe that was the point?

07 May 2015

Books: The Dead Lands By Benjamin Percy (2015)

One thing that struck me as I pages through Benjamin Percy's dystopia novel The Dead Lands was how much I've seen all of this before. Yes, there is some creative passages and interesting world building -like the mutated creatures that haunt the land that reminded me of the old 1950's B films about the effects of nuclear fallout- going on, but the essences of what might happen if the world was to end and the survivors had to pick things up is very familiar. Turn on the news and you see men wanting power and what they will do to get that power, mostly through fear and intimidation, but also seem to have no qualms about hurting and killing people as well.  

In this post-apocalyptic reimagining of the Lewis and Clark saga, a super flu and nuclear fallout have made a husk of the world we know. A few humans carry on, living in outposts such as the Sanctuary-the remains of St. Louis-a shielded community that owes its survival to its militant defense and fear-mongering leaders. Set 150 years from on or around our time, this post-apocalyptic reimagining of the Lewis and Clark saga, tells the story of a super flu and nuclear fallout have made a husk of the world we know. A few humans carry on, living in outposts such as the Sanctuary-the remains of St. Louis-a shielded community that owes its survival to its militant defense and fear-mongering leaders. Many within Sanctuary know the water is nearly gone (unaware that their Mayor, Thomas Lancer, is hoarding it for his baths with his twink Vincent) but because they fear him and the men (all men) who work under him, no one is willing to speak up. But then a rider comes from the wasteland beyond Sanctuary's walls. She reports that world is moving on and is coming back to life, that west of the Cascades, rain falls, crops grow, and new civilizations are thriving. The girl comes with a message to one Lewis Meriwether from a man named Aran Burr, requesting him to venture to Oregon. But the girl Gawea warns that there is danger: a powerful of army of men that pillages and enslaves every community they happen upon. Against the wishes of the Sanctuary, a small group sets out in secrecy. Led by Lewis Meriwether and Mina Clark, they hope to expand their infant nation, and to reunite the States. But the Sanctuary will not allow them to escape without a fight.

While the historical Lewis and Clark are an aspect of the fictional ones here, I'm unsure if this book was supposed to be some sort of metaphor or allegory; because either I missed it or it was edited out to make the book shorter than its 400 pages. Like most dystopian themed novels, we see the rise of a nearly fascist empire replacing a representative government. Yes, the people of Sanctuary are thrown back in time to live like an old western town right out of a John Wayne movie, and that maybe the more truthful, but it's telling how today's authors see that if things were to fall apart with a super flu or a nuclear strike, good old democracy will be the first thing to end after the deaths have subsided. And Percy goes into great detail to sort point out the obvious, that 1% are easily corruptible and the other 99% are just fodder for their horrible goals. I can't argue with that logic, but I also sort of found it annoying just the same. Still, I'm a realist and I see men, particularly white men, believing the reason they survived a pandemic is thrust authority down everyone's throat that the liberals have taken away from them. 

In the end, the themes are nothing new here, and all the characters (even the "heroes") are damaged and mostly unlikable (another theme of modern novels). And thanks to Game of Thrones, be aware that Percy is willing to kill a character at any moments notice. It's a well crafted novel, but clearly no new themes was to be broke here as well. 

03 May 2015

Books: The Fifth Heart By Dan Simmons (2015)

Dan Simmons started his writing career penning novels in the horror genre, tales like his 1985 debut Carrion Comfort. But while he wrote other books like A Winter Haunting, Summer of Night, and Song of Kali, he turned to science fiction in 1989 with his critically acclaimed Hyperion Cantos and IIium/Olypos books. He's also written a mystery series under the name of Joe Kurtz. In 2007 he began taking on historical fiction, starting with The Terror, a fictionalized account of Captain Sir John Franklin's doomed attempt of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror to force the Northwest Passage in 1845–1848. In the novel, Franklin and his crew are plagued by starvation and scurvy and forced to contend with mutiny and cannibalism, but they're also being stalked across the Arctic landscape by some sort of monster. He followed that up with 2009's Drood, which was about the final five years of Charles Dickens life as struggled to finish what would be his last (and never finished) book, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The novel is narrated by Dickens' friend, novelist Wilkie Collins. Like The Terror, the plot mixes fiction and biographical facts, but because Collins spent a good number of years under the influence of opium, and it's derivative, laudanum, author Simmons gave us an unreliable narrator so long time fans of Dickens could not take umbrage with the acts that take place in the book. 
I've read both of the books, and enjoyed them. I skipped over, but still own, Simmons 2011 novel Black Hills and his 2013 Abominable (which I don't own, but still want to read). Both of those books continued his current run of mixing fiction with history. Which leads us to his latest novel The Fifth Heart
I admit I'm not a Sherlock Holmes fan and have never read a Henry James novel, but the idea of the Great Detective getting a Portrait of a Lady author mixed up in a murder mystery that spans London, New York, Washington, and Chicago was too tempting to pass up. Plus, with my fondness for history, Simmons books are always a fun read. 
It's London in1893, and a despondent Henry James has decided to end his life. But as he stands on the precipice between life and the undiscovered country, he discovers he's not the only one under the bridge contemplating their demise that night. Indeed, it appears that Sherlock Holmes (whom James always assumed was a fictional construct) is waiting for him. Holmes convinces Henry James that they need to travel to America to solve a mystery because James is a well know friend of the family. The murder mystery part begins, actually in 1885 with the suicide death of Clover Adams, wife of the esteemed historian Henry Adams -member of the Adams family that has given the United States two Presidents. Clover's death appears to be more than it at first seemed; the suspected foul play may also involve matters of national importance. Holmes is currently on his Great Hiatus -his three-year absence after Reichenbach Falls during which time the people of London believe him to be deceased. But apparently, Holmes has faked his own death because, through his powers of ratiocination, the great detective has come to the conclusion that he is a fictional character. This leads to serious complications for James -for if his esteemed fellow investigator is merely a work of fiction, what does that make him? And what can the master storyteller do to fight against the sinister power -possibly named Moriarty- that may or may not be controlling them from the shadows?
Once again, Dan Simmons takes us on journey into the past, mixing real history with fiction. We get another unreliable narrator -by the fact that we never learn who is actually writing the book. Well, obviously it's Simmons, but we get another writer who jumps in once in a while, one who is never identified (is it Simmons? Henry James? Arthur Conan Doyle? John Watson?). Still, the book reads like a buddy comedy film at times as well, which I actually think makes the narrative work better than his previous journeys into the historical fiction genre. It's a long book, well over 600 pages and while dense with real history, you cannot help but like the cantankerous Henry James, who ends up being the perfect foil for Holmes antics. It's also fun when we meet real life figures like Teddy Roosevelt (very bullish) and Samuel Clemens, AKA Mark Twain (and whom I pictured asactor Jerry Hardin, who played a version of Twain the Star Trek: The Next Generation 2-part episode Time's Arrow. There is also a visit to the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, the same one featured in Erik Larson's nonfiction book The Devil in the White City.
We do get a bit of metaphysical antics about whether Holmes is real person, who's life has been fictionalized by author John Watson and published by his editor, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in The Strand. There is also some "meta" aspects to as well, and up until Holmes mentioned Hercule Poirot, I was going to give the novel the benefit of the doubt. This book also made me think of the classic short film An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge at the beginning. 
Still, out of all his recent historical fiction books, this was the breeziest of them all and one many -including Sherlock Holmes fans- will enjoy. 

25 April 2015

Books: Holy Cow By David Duchovny (2015)

To be honest, I had no intention to read a book called Holy Cow by actor David Duchovny. I had taken my last book I finished, Willful Child, back to the library and instead of leaving it in the outside receptacle, I went in. And this is a huge mistake most of the time. I mean, I already had another book checked out, Dan Simmons The Fifth Heart, and I planned to start that. But then I saw Holy Cow, noticed it was by Duchovny, read the premise and I knew I had to read it.

Elsie Bovary is a cow, and a pretty happy one at that—her long, lazy days are spent eating, napping, and chatting with her best friend, Mallory. One night, Elsie and Mallory sneak out of their pasture; but while Mallory is interested in flirting with the neighboring bulls, Elsie finds herself drawn to the farmhouse. Through the window, she sees the farmer’s family gathered around a bright Box God—and what the Box God reveals about something called an “industrial meat farm” shakes Elsie’s understanding of her world to its core. There’s only one solution: escape to a better, safer world. And so a motley crew is formed: Elsie; Jerry—excuse me, Shalom—a cranky, Torah-reading pig who’s recently converted to Judaism; and Tom, a suave (in his own mind, at least) turkey who can’t fly, but who can work an iPhone with his beak. Toting stolen passports and slapdash human disguises, they head for the airport. 

My one question, though, is what he hell the book is really about. Duchovny tries a sort of mash up a Pixar film along with George Orwell's Animal Farm but then he goes off on topics such as vegetarianism, peace in the Middle East, religion and the oddities of actors. It's often goofy, bizarre and weird. Elsie, and her bff Mallory, talk like modern teens, but then Elsie goes off on extended rants about animal cruelty. Then there is the equally strange left turn the book takes towards the end, as our characters become involved with the religious conflict in the Middle East -apparently it involves a pig and Jews and the Muslims hatred of the beast (I wonder if Washington D.C. is aware of this simple solution).

I understand that it's a parable, but the book is too busy to be really taken seriously. I never felt that Duchovny was trying to say anything beyond creating a novel (for adults? for kids?) with a lot of ideas sandwiched in. He seems to not want to commit to one idea, or say one thing that might actually be meaningful. It all reads, in the end, like screenplay for an animated film. One totally bizarre animated film. 

23 April 2015

Books: Willful Child By Steven Erikson (2014)

There was Spaceballs, which parody Star Wars. Then there was Galaxy Quest, which parody Star Trek. These were two big budget films that took on two very popular franchises. And while parodying of both have been going on for decades in fanzines, on TV (Futurama in particular) and even books,  most are done by fans who lack a large media company to support them.
And while John Scalzi could be considered a fan of Star Trek (as many writers of the genre are these days, having grown up with it), he is also a well known science fiction writer who won acclaim for his Old Man's War series. He's also published numerous short stories and has a brilliant daily blog called Whatever. But in 2012 he released Redshirts, a send-up of the Star Trek franchise, in particular The Next Generation, but he tackled a lot in that book. It won rave reviews and, to everyone's surprise, the prestigious Hugo for Best Novel.
So true to form in the publishing industry, as in most multimedia, publishers want a piece of the pie that comes with the success of Redshirts. Namely popular fantasy writer Steven Erikson's late 2014 novel Willful Child
"These are the voyages of the starship, A.S.F. Willful Child. Its ongoing mission: to seek out strange new worlds on which to plant the Terran flag, to subjugate and if necessary obliterate new life life-forms, to boldly blow the…"

And so we join the not-terribly-bright but exceedingly cock-sure Captain Hadrian Sawback a mixture of James T Kirk crossed with Futuama's Zapp Brannigan- and his motley crew on board the Starship Willful Child for a series of devil-may-care, near-calamitous and downright chaotic adventures through 'the infinite vastness of interstellar space'...

Having not read Erikson before, I still thought it might be fun to read another well-know author take on Star Trek (because even though I love it, I'm always up for people making fun of it). Sawback is a complete idiot and misogynistic ass. There are reasons for it, but you have to slug through nearly 350 pages of story to understand it. Yet even so, he's still unlikable, which makes it difficult to like the entire book. The only fun part, however, is to see how many episodes of TOS that Erikson takes on. But over all I felt the book was too Family Guy potty humor than clever, well thought-out gags. The female crew members are intelligent -and we know Sawback choose them primarily for their looks- but they're still smarter than the captain. And yet Erickson does not allow them to get the better of Sawback, which is something I think should've happened here. There is no comeuppance for the captain's incompetence towards his crew and that makes me, the reader, wonder if this is how the author really sees women -sexy, smart, but always having to acquiescence to a man. Yes, Sawback can be seen clever in his solutions, but Erickson (via the character) writes women pretty horridly here.

I was curious, as I got towards the end, how Erikson was going to tie-in the prologue and I got to admit, he did it wonderfully -even if I have issues with the characters. 

16 April 2015

Books: I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett (2010)

I suppose, in some sense, the creation of Tiffany Aching by Terry Pratchett came because of the success of the Harry Potter franchise. This happens a lot in almost every aspect of media, as publishers are quick to jump on the bandwagon once other publisher takes a certain financial risk. Then again, Scholastic Books, which published J.K. Rowlings Harry Potter books, has been releasing kids books for decades, but it took the huge success of that franchise for other publishers to see that there was profit in what was now being addressed as Young Adult book (as opposed to intermediate readers of say The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia). The huge success of the Twilight and The Hunger Games series would have never probably happened if those books ended up in the horror and science fiction sections of bookstores. By branding and marketing towards teens, by creating a middle part beaten kids and adult books, publishers and authors saw a large leap in reading. Which is always good. Whether the books are well written, that's debatable. 
Still, Pratchett had a long and established career writing adult novels. Yes they're satirical, yes they were parodies of the fantasy genre, but most of the Discworld novels were well written with jokes and some situations that were adult-ish in nature. And whether the creation of Tiffany Aching (though Ysabell, the adopted daughter of Death and Susan, his granddaughter are very much the templates that would eventually become Tiffany) was Pratchett's idea or his publisher, the British author joined a list of writers who were generally known for more advanced aged readers and started writing books for a much younger crowd.
Still, like Rowling before him, Pratchett's Aching novels take on a lot of adult issues. And in I Shall Wear Midnight, the 38th Discworld book and fourth featuring Tiffany, the lines between young adult and the adult world get blurred. And much like the last book, Tiffany Aching is still working as the Chalk's only witch at a time of growing suspicion and prejudice. And as modern as Discworld can seem to be, it is clear that Pratchett's universe is set at time before the industrial revolution, a time when reason and logic was surpressed in favor of superstition and fear.
The Baron, who rules the land and who has been ill for years (and is the father of Roland, whom Tiffany saved in Wee Free Men) and whom Tiffany has been taking care of for the last two years, finally dies she is accused of murder. It seems the Duchess (who resembles The Dursely's), the mother of Letita who is Roland's fiancee, does not like Tiffany because she is a witch. At the time of the Baron's passing, Tiffany was taking away his pain by using a poker. This and money the Baron wanted Tiffany to have convinces the Duchess the witch killed the man. But, of course, Tiffany is a bit clever and before much can happen, she travels to Ankh-Morpork in search of Roland to give the sad news. But on the way Tiffany is attacked by the Cunning Man, a frightening figure who has holes where his eyes should be. In the city she meets Mrs Proust, the proprietor of Boffo's joke shop, where many witches buy their stereotypical witch accoutrements. When they find Roland and Letitia the Nac Mac Feegles, who have, as usual, been following Tiffany, are accused of destroying a pub. Tiffany and Mrs Proust are arrested by Carrot and Angua, and (nominally) locked up - although it is mostly, in fact, for their protection as people start to resent witches. But it is here that Tiffany meets Eskarina Smith (a character that has not been seen since the third Discworld novel Equal Rites) and learns that the Cunning Man was, a thousand years ago, an Omnian witch-finder, who had fallen in love with a witch. That witch, however, knew how evil the Cunning Man was. She was eventually burnt to death, but as she was being burned she trapped the Cunning Man in the fire as well. The Cunning Man became a demonic spirit of pure hatred, able to corrupt other minds with suspicion and hate. And now the Cunning Man (who first became aware of her because of the events of Wintersmith) is after her. 
With some knowledge of how to block the Cunning Man from finding her, Tiffany returns home to the Chalk, only to find things in disarray: the new Baron has his soldiers digging up the Feegle's mound. Even though she stops them, Roland throws her in the dungeon. But it is here we learn all of this was the doing of the Cunning Man and Tiffany also learns that Letitia is an untrained witch. But as events move towards a funeral and a wedding, Tiffany finds herself confronting the the Cunning Man, who has overtaken the body of a prisoner. And despite the many witches that have gathered for the historic events, Tiffany knows the only one who can defeat the evil is her.
As I said, this fourth book gets a little more adult, as in the opening chapters Tiffany must deal with the Seth Petty, a man who has attacked his own thirteen year-old daughter who has gotten pregnant. In hurting her, Mr Petty has killed his unborn grandson and it's up to 16 year-old Tiffany to deal with the consequences. There is some very adult things here, probably things some adults may not want their children reading, yet if we look at history and go back in time to England's medieval past, issues like this, while horrible, probably happened. I applaud Pratchett for trying to balance this reality in his lovely fictional world of Discworld. There is also the continued issue of responsibility along with cause and effect. It never occurs to Tiffany that her actions of kissing the Wintersmith would draw the attention of the Cunning Man, yet she knows clearly that it is her and her alone that must confront the evil, even while taking care of everyone around the Chalk. And I give credit to Pratchett who does not use the deus ex machina to solve all of Tiffany's problems, that the very smart, very quick witted teenager must solv her problems with great thought. It's a rarity in fiction where the hero does this.
Notee 1: Since I'm not reading these novels in order of publication, I'm sure I'm missing bits and pieces of information that get played out here. I know certain characters, in particular the witches, come from other books I've yet to read (there are six books in his witches cycle) and that the Cunning Man is the spirit of a long-dead priest of Omnianism, a religion established in Small Gods is referred to many times throughout other books. I have plans to get to them over the coming weeks and months. I hope that I continue to read them, I get a better understanding of Discworld and of Pratchett's view on the human condition. 
Note 2: On September 25, 2015 we'll see Terry Pratchett's final Discworld novel, The Shepherd's Crown. Once again, it will feature Tiffany Aching. And now I feel sadness, despite the fact I have many other Discworld novels yet to go. I guess, maybe, because there is an end in sight with this final novel? I like Tiffany a lot and I will be sad this fall when I read her final adventure. Maybe though, as I mentioned at the end of my Wintersmith review, his daughter Rihanna will take over this magically odd universe. If she is half as talented as her father, I would be happy to see this world continue...

12 April 2015

Books: Wintersmith By Terry Pratchett (2006)

Let us now return to Discworld with Wintersmith, the 35th novel set there and the third featuring Tiffany Aching. Almost two years have passed since the last book and Tiffany is still in training as a witch. She spends her days with Miss Treason, a scary witch who -like many other witches of Discworld- use very little magical power and more common sense. In many ways, these witches are more like wise woman of stereotypical small towns, helping solve land, chicken, and cow problems. Helping the sick and the infirm and being the midwife to all that are born. But as a soon-to-be thirteen year-old, Tiffany still feels lost. She misses her family, and even Roland the son of the sickly Baron (and whom Tifffany rescued in Wee Free Men from the Queen of the Elves). As a matter of fact, she's not sure if she even has feelings for Roland, despite the sense that everyone around her thinks she does. Things get complicated when Tiffany is taken to see the Dark Dance, or the Morris Dancers, that is the crossover between summer into winter. Caught up in the beauty of it all, Tiffany does what no else has ever done -she leaps into the dance. This propels her into one of the oldest stories ever told and draws the attention of the Wintersmith. But as an elemental, the Wintersmith does not know humans. So as Tiffany, with help from Granny Weatherwax and, of course, the Nac Mc Feegle, tries to deal with the consequences of her actions -as giant Tiffany-shaped snowflakes hammer down along with giant Tiffany-shaped icebergs causing ship wrecks- Tiffany must figure out how to stop a god bent on becoming human. Of course, even this elemental has never met an Aching who is backed up by a group of blue pictsies who will do a lot of fighting' and thievin' to save their "big wee hag."
What makes these young adult books work is that Pratchett does not water down the themes for kids. As a matter of fact, he seems to think there is no reason to forgo those ideas, which makes for a wonderful, very touching and always funny tale. Tiffany, through her own blundering, must figure out how to save herself and the people around her from the Wintersmith, who really does not know or comprehend the damage he does. This theme of responsibility is woven through out the book. We see her lose a fellow witch, though the sadness is lessened a bit by a cameo appearance of Death. But there is a deep philosophy here about death and about acceptance of it. And Pratchett goes out of his way to alleviate the superstitiousness of witches (apparently there a store where witches can buy everything you would find in tales about witches. It reminded me of the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. Picture her not as evil, but as helpful -yet bitter- woman who must put on the "face" of a witch because no one believe witches could look normal) along with just everything else. And while there is some seriousness to the tale, there is plenty of humor in the form of the ever brave, Nac Mac Freegle.