Though the title made me imagine a comic historical romance, this is actually an action-packed YA space opera with tons of sometimes wacky yet internally consistent worldbuilding. Yes! YA space opera, a genre which I had thought was extinct. I cheer its return and hope that there will be more.

Cover copy: You'd think being a Prince in a vast intergalactic empire would be about as good as it gets. Particularly when Princes are faster, smarter, and stronger than normal humans. Not to mention being mostly immortal.

But it isn't as great as it sounds. Princes need to be hard to kill—as Khemri learns the minute he becomes one—for they are always in danger. Their greatest threat? Other Princes. Every Prince wants to become Emperor, and the surest way to do so is to kill, dishonor, or sideline any potential competitor.


The surface story is pell-mell action, with Khemri madly dashing from one cool location to the next with help from his psychic ninja assassin servants, getting in lavishly imagined duels and space battles and narrow escapes. It's a bit reminiscent of a video game: lots of video games rely on cool worldbuilding and imaginative weapons and intriguing aliens as much as they do on things blowing up.

But what's most striking about the book is the sly undermining of the trope of the badass young hero with a destiny. Khemri is certainly badass. He's also a total jerk: smug, clueless, arrogant, and so detached from humanity as to border on sociopathic. Since the book is narrated in retrospect, after Khemri has (at least somewhat) learned better, he helpfully comments on what a jackass he used to be. This is mostly played for comedy, both light and dark, and I did find it pretty funny.

The narration, with its sparkling gloss over very dark undertones, matches the setting, which is one of the darkest, creepiest Evil Empires I've ever read, with virtually everything done by mind-controlled servants who are used for everything from courtesans to cannon fodder to living furniture, without anyone ever - including even the present, somewhat more humanized Khemri - thinking that might be wrong.

This is an odd duck of a book, slight in some ways but quite ambitious in others, made of pieces that don't all fit together. It overall reads like it's aimed at the young end of YA, but Khemri has casual sex with mind-controlled courtesans of both genders (this is mentioned, but not shown). When he later has a real relationship, it's assumed that when you're in a romantic relationship, it's automatic that you have sex. While this is often true in real life, I rarely see it presented that way in YA.

The chasm between tone and subject is signposted enough that it's clearly deliberate, but never quite resolved. Khemri learns better... but not that much better. Perhaps that's the point. I wonder if the younger readers will get that?

A Confusion of Princes
In an alternate 1914, Darwinists have perfected genetic engineering, and Clankers have sophisticated mecha. England’s Leviathan is a giant flying jellyfish that is both a complete self-contained ecosystem and a warship. One of its middies is Deryn, a girl disguised as a boy so she can serve. Alek, a prince from Clanker Austria, has been piloting mechs since he was a child, but when he has to flee after his parents are assassinated, he’s completely discombobulated by the flechette bats, messenger lizards, and other native fauna of the Leviathan.

In Behemoth, the Leviathan comes to cosmopolitan, multicultural Istanbul, where mech technology is nearly as cool as the biotech of the Darwinists: ghettoes guarded by iron golems, an immense ornate statue that mimics the movements of the sultan seated beneath, and mechanical elephants!

Alek, Deryn, and the crew of the Leviathan become entangled in politics: England has refused to turn over a warship and its accompanying bioengineered behemoth which the Ottoman Empire already paid for, Germany is maneuvering to be the power that pulls Istanbul’s strings, and a number of factions within Istanbul are jockeying for power or plotting revolution. It looks like a world war is about to begin. In the middle of all this, Dr. Barlow’s mysterious eggs hatch, Alek and Deryn have several hilarious conversations in which Alek fails to discern the existence of subtext, Deryn has an underwater mission, and several cool revolutionaries are introduced. Also, there is a taxi chase, a foreign correspondent with a recording bullfrog, and a Tesla cannon, not to mention the kitchen sink.

It’s all a great deal of fun, and the illustrations are absolutely gorgeous. If you liked book one, you will probably like this; if you were bit underwhelmed by book one, this is a significant improvement. Westerfeld does a particularly nice twist on the old “girl disguised as a boy likes boy, boy doesn’t realize his buddy is a girl and disses girls to her, beautiful second girl shows up for added complications.”

No major plot spoilers, but relationship spoilers for the love triangle.

Spoilers are beautifully illustrated )

Leviathan

Behemoth (Leviathan)
In an alternate 1914, Darwinists have perfected genetic engineering, and Clankers have sophisticated mecha. England’s Leviathan is a giant flying jellyfish that is both a complete self-contained ecosystem and a warship. One of its middies is Deryn, a girl disguised as a boy so she can serve. Alek, a prince from Clanker Austria, has been piloting mechs since he was a child, but when he has to flee after his parents are assassinated, he’s completely discombobulated by the flechette bats, messenger lizards, and other native fauna of the Leviathan.

In Behemoth, the Leviathan comes to cosmopolitan, multicultural Istanbul, where mech technology is nearly as cool as the biotech of the Darwinists: ghettoes guarded by iron golems, an immense ornate statue that mimics the movements of the sultan seated beneath, and mechanical elephants!

Alek, Deryn, and the crew of the Leviathan become entangled in politics: England has refused to turn over a warship and its accompanying bioengineered behemoth which the Ottoman Empire already paid for, Germany is maneuvering to be the power that pulls Istanbul’s strings, and a number of factions within Istanbul are jockeying for power or plotting revolution. It looks like a world war is about to begin. In the middle of all this, Dr. Barlow’s mysterious eggs hatch, Alek and Deryn have several hilarious conversations in which Alek fails to discern the existence of subtext, Deryn has an underwater mission, and several cool revolutionaries are introduced. Also, there is a taxi chase, a foreign correspondent with a recording bullfrog, and a Tesla cannon, not to mention the kitchen sink.

It’s all a great deal of fun, and the illustrations are absolutely gorgeous. If you liked book one, you will probably like this; if you were bit underwhelmed by book one, this is a significant improvement. Westerfeld does a particularly nice twist on the old “girl disguised as a boy likes boy, boy doesn’t realize his buddy is a girl and disses girls to her, beautiful second girl shows up for added complications.”

No major plot spoilers, but relationship spoilers for the love triangle.

Spoilers are beautifully illustrated )

Leviathan

Behemoth (Leviathan)
It was coincidental that I read these two books in succession, but they turned out to make a good paired reading as fantasies of ecology which deal with how altered humans fit into a changing environment.

Peeps, which will be available in August, is one of the more well-worked out rationalized vampire books I've read. (My other favorites in the genre are George R. R. Martin's Fevre Dream and Barbara Hambly's Those Who Hunt the Night and Traveling with the Dead.)

Nineteen-year-old Cal comes to New York City from Texas, has a one-night stand with a gothy-looking woman, develops superhuman strength, agility, and the ability to see in the dark... and then finds, to his horror, that all the women he has sex with after that turn into insane cannibals. The top-secret city agency that deals with problems like this contacts him and explains that he's a peep, or "parasite-positive." Vampirism, you see, is caused by a parasite which is transmitted sexually or even through kissing, and while a few lucky people make a good adjustment to it, most go nuts, hate everything they used to love, and end up living in sewers and sucking rat blood. Cal is recruited into the agency and sent to track down his vampirized exes... and the woman who gave the parasite to him.

His narrative is interspersed with absolutely disgusting accounts of real-life parasites, some of which grossed me out so much that I had to skim them. There is, however, a point to those interludes, and if you can read even enough of them to get the gist of how those real parasites work, it will make Peeps that much more rich and compelling. Though Cal's parasite tries to spread itself by making him constantly horny but he's unable to so much as kiss for fear of infecting his partner, this is is a notably non-angsty vampire book. Though I didn't find the characters quite as compelling as I did in Midnighters, Peeps isn't so much about Cal, his frustratingly attractive female ally, and a whole bunch of peeps as it is about the natural world, how humans relate to it, and the question of how much of our behavior, thoughts, and personality is some intangible "us," and how much is dictated by biological processes... or even the occasional parasite. Peeps has a light, brisk, casual tone and is often quite funny, but it's also got quite a lot to say-- little of which is trite or obvious, and none of which is preachy.

Ruth Park is the author of one of my all-time favorite timeslip novels, Playing Beatie Bow, in which an Australian girl is transported back to Victorian times. It's wonderful, and none of her other books that I've read have lived up to it. My Sister Sif is about fourteen-year-old Erika and her wispy older sister Sif, who are the product of a marriage between an Australian man and a Polynesian woman. When their father dies, they are sent away from their island paradise to Australia, where Sif is made unhealthy and miserable by the pressures of modern life. So they return to the island, where it turns out that they're merpeople (sort of-- the exact nature of the merfolk is Park's most original invention) and would live happily ever after, except that the oceans are polluted and the saintly whales and loving dolphins are dying and the merpeople are going to have to flee to some corner of the world where the chemicals won't kill them. Erika isn't merperson enough to survive the journey, but Sif is torn for a different reason: she's in love with a perfectly wonderful human man, Henry.

I had two problems with this book, but in a sense they're the same problem: the utterly marvelous Henry and the too-good-for-this-cruel-world Sif annoyed the hell out me, as did the wise, peaceful, spiritual whales and dolphins; and though I agree that pollution and environmental destruction are bad, I still felt preached at.

In Park's world-view, nature is good and benevolent and peaceful, children are instinctively good and wise and unselfish until society teaches them to be selfish and cruel, and ecosystems just exist until humans start destroying them. In Westerfeld's, nature can be both amazing and horrifying (frequently at the same time), humans are part of the ecosystem, those ecosytems have incredibly complex means of self-regulating that may be destroyed by human interference-- including the well-intentioned kind-- and if you look closely at any ecology, you will find that it's basically things eating each other, often in really icky ways. Having grown up in a rural part of India, I lean more toward Westerfeld's view on nature. But apart from that, Westerfeld also wrote the better book.
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