If you have been a reader of the Book Adept blog for a while, you will perhaps recall my review of Diane Setterfield’s Bellman and Black, and the depth of disappointment I experienced on reading it.
It took me a while to be willing to assay another of her books, but I found the description of Once Upon A River, published in 2018, to be too enticing to resist, so I bought a copy and read it this past week. I am happy to say that it fulfilled my expectations, which included the lyrical language of her previous books but also contained a satisfying story arc, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and resolution for the varied and mysterious characters involved.
As its title promises, the book is framed as a fairy tale, or at least is fairy tale-like. The river in question is the Thames, and the river is the central character of the book, as it affects everyone who comes in contact with it—those who live along its length, in pubs, villages, towns, and isolated huts, those who punt along in its shallows or ride its currents on barges or private yachts, and those who end up drowned in its depths.
“They sat on the bank. It was better to tell such stories close to the river than in a drawing room. Words accumulate indoors, trapped by walls and ceilings. The weight of what has been said
can lie heavily on what might yet be said and suffocate it. By the river the air carries the story on a journey: one sentence drifts away and makes room for the next.”
This is the story of three children, and the impact of their disappearances (and possible reappearance) on the people close to them, as well as on the inhabitants of one small town who are caught up by chance in the events that restore one of them to life.
Amelia is the daughter of the Vaughans, a wealthy couple, who gladly pay the ransom when she is boldly kidnapped right out of her bed, but don’t receive her back again after their payment. Alice is the child of a desperate mother who, abandoned by her ne’er-do-well lover and unable to care for herself or her little girl, ends it all in a jump from a bridge above the roiling waters of the Thames, after first dropping her daughter in to drown. And Ann is the sister of Lily, a poor unfortunate who makes her way by keeping house for the local parson, but who isolates herself in a hovel by the river because she is making amends for something dreadful she did as a child that lost Ann to her forever.
Along the borders of this world lie others. There are places you can cross. This is one such place.
On the night of the winter solstice, the regulars at The Swan, an ancient inn at Radcot along the Thames, are occupied in their usual pursuit of telling stories. The door bursts open to admit a stranger, badly wounded and scarcely able to keep to his feet. He is carrying what everyone present at first identifies as a doll or a puppet, but after calling for the local nurse to examine and treat his injuries, someone realizes that it is actually a child, a little girl, already dead.
Hours later, however, the girl stirs, takes a breath, and comes back to life. No one can account for her previous deathlike state, but all are happy to have a child returned to life, against all odds.
But whose child is she? Helena Vaughan, who has been deranged with grief over her daughter’s kidnapping, is ready to embrace her as the missing Amelia, even though two years have passed. Someone else recognizes her as Alice, the granddaughter of another local family, who would be happy to welcome her although she is the love child of their wayward son. And Lily is convinced her sister Ann has returned to life. The girl herself is mute and unable to answer the questions of who she is, where she came from, and to whom she belongs. Both the principals and the villagers who were present at her dramatic denouement involve themselves in theories and possible solutions, and under all runs a dark current of deceit and, some would say, evil.
This is a compelling, thoughtful, and engaging read. The ins and outs, the possibilities, the theories and discussions encompass not only the fate of one small child but the bigger picture, the issues of life and death—how much they are worth, how they arrive, how they depart, what is the best way to pursue them. The discussion includes the new theories of a man called Darwin, who posits that man comes from water and from animals and is therefore related to and also responsible for all life, not just that of humankind. The historical details included in the occupations of some of the characters are engrossing (farmer, charlatan, photographer). And all of it is entertwined with the constant presence of the river, the giver of life and death to so many who move along its banks and in its depths. The fairy tale quality is palpable but the archetypal nature of fairy tales doesn’t dominate the story, which is individual and unique.
I think perhaps Diane Setterfield has, with this book, surpassed The Thirteenth Tale, as wonderful as that book was. But it’s hard to compare them, for although they both have literary language and a timeless feel, they are completely different stories, sharing only the theme of magical realism. Now that I have regained my confidence in her work, perhaps I will return to that book for another look—it’s been a decade since I read it.
It’s so fun when you have a friend who also likes to read and who gets excited about what she’s reading and wants to tell you all about it.
It’s even more fun when your friend thinks she has discovered a new author, only you know something about this author that she doesn’t and can share that.
I went to a concert the other night with my friend Lisa, and while we were waiting for the performance to begin, she said to me, “Oh! I’m reading the BEST BOOK right now, I just discovered this author and I love everything about it, the story, the writing style, it’s so good! You have to read it!” Then she pulled out her phone, punched a few buttons, and held up a picture of the book cover, which was
Ninth House, by Leigh Bardugo.
“Oh!” I said, “Leigh Bardugo!”
Lisa looked surprised. “Do you already know about this book?” she asked.
“No. That is, I’ve heard of it, but no, I know her because she’s a young adult author.”
Lisa had no idea that before she penned her first adult novel, Bardugo had written the Shadow and Bone trilogy, the Six of Crows duology, and King of Scars, returning to the Grisha universe (as well as Wonder Woman: Warbringer). So I got to tell her all about those books, and recommend the ones I particularly like (Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom), as well as tell her the story of when Leigh Bardugo was a brand-new, just-published author who visited Book Café at Burbank Public Library and did a stunning visual presentation for our teenagers of all the ways in which she had found her ideas for writing the Grisha books.
My comments about Six of Crows, from Goodreads:
I liked the first series by Bardugo well enough, but was fatigued by all the magic and angsty pseudo-romance by the end of it. But this one stars a good old-fashioned gang of thieves with skills and exploits attributable for the most part to themselves, not to their paranormal powers. There are Grisha in the mix, but they are much more human, and humanized by association with the rest of the characters. There is attraction among the characters, but it’s much more subtle and doesn’t take over the story, just adds to it. I particularly liked the main protagonist, Kaz, and the Wraith, Inej. And Bardugo’s writing has jumped up to beautifully lyrical, not an awkward word anywhere. Likewise, the world-building and plotting are amazing. Can’t wait to read the next one.
And about Crooked Kingdom:
I thought Six of Crows was good, but this one really raised the bar. I got about a third of the way through it and thought, how can it get better than this? and after everything that has happened, how can there still be two-thirds of the book to go? But there was, and things just kept getting more interesting, more desperate, more seemingly unsolvable and insurmountable, with a great big build-up that made me crazy to finish but made me want to savor it all at the same time. I ended up reading the last five chapters a couple of times; I’d read a chapter at breakfast and then at lunch, instead of moving on, I’d go back and read what I read at breakfast to make sure I had caught everything, seen all the possibilities, gathered all the nuance. You know a book is good when your first response at turning the last page is a more than half-hearted desire to start the book over again right that minute. Way to step up your game, Leigh Bardugo.
So now, I will have the pleasure of reading her first book for adults, and Lisa can go back and dip into her back list. Isn’t it wonderful to have friends who read?
It’s hard for me to review Robin McKinley books, because although they have (sometimes many) obvious flaws, the beauty and fluidity of the language and the tangibility of the setting and characters is so overwhelming that I am always mesmerized by it.
In The Hero and the Crown, Aerin is the daughter of the king of Damar, a country that has been led in previous centuries by woman rulers…but the thought of Aerin as ruler of Damar is laughable to anyone who knows her—shy, clumsy, inept, magically ungifted, and daughter of a witch woman from the North who, it was rumored, cast a spell over Damar’s king to insinuate herself into its royal line. Aerin grew up with the story that her mother turned her face to the wall and died in despair when she discovered she had borne a daughter instead of a son to King Arlbath. Her jealous and vindictive relatives, who wish they were the sol of the kingdom instead of in second or third place, never let her forget this story or her own shortcomings. Aerin is essentially alone, with support from her serving woman, her cousin Tor (who is slated to inherit), and her distant but fond father.
But accident and destiny combine to push Aerin out of the shadows and enable her to become the hero of her own story, as well as the savior of her people, the bearer of the blue sword Gonduran and the rescuer of the lost crown of Damar.
This book is a wonderful evocation of an uncertain girl lacking confidence in herself, alienated from all those “normal” people around her and painfully aware of her outsider status, but despite her self-doubt persisting in learning, growing, bettering herself, and turning into a champion in the truest sense of the word. Some of the other characters are slighted a bit when it comes to character development, but McKinley makes up for it with the personality and charm of Aerin’s elderly, injured warhorse, Talat, whose progress mirrors that of Aerin as they quest together.
Two major flaws I see in this book: The abrupt appearance and understanding of Luthe as a character is more than a bit bewildering; and McKinley yanks the bad guy out of a hat, never having mentioned him before, never speculating on his existence, his intentions, or his power, and then gives him one big scene in which he is defeated, somewhat accidentally! As another reviewer on Goodreads mentioned, if you asked readers of Lord of the Rings who Sauron was, they would all know; but with this guy, it’s hard to even recall his name being mentioned, let alone how he came about and the purpose for his existence.
But…despite her glossing over some details that in another writer would be fatal mistakes, McKinley’s prose and imagery and the sympathetic characters upon whom she does focus make this book a triumph.
Although she wrote The Blue Sword first and The Hero and the Crown second, this book takes place some centuries before the events in The Blue Sword, so you can read them in either order. And if you love high fantasy and were charmed by this book, you should definitely read the other one set in Damar, about Harry Crewe, the unlikely heiress to Gonduran. I don’t love Robin McKinley’s books equally–some are amazing, some are okay, and one or two I actively dislike—but The Blue Sword is one of her best.
READERS’ ADVISORY NOTES: These books would most likely appeal to someone who enjoyed Laini Taylor’s Strange the Dreamer, Kristin Cashore’s Graceling realm books, Melina Marchetta’s Lumatere Chronicles, or some of the books of Margaret Mahy and Patricia McKillip. These books all share protagonists who are unlikely as the heroes of their own tales but who manage to rise to many challenges, and all these writers are in some sense wordsmiths of high fantasy language. For those who love fantasy (or those who are recommending it), it is always a smart idea to look to the books of the past as well as to the hits of today.
Tamora Pierce has begun a new miniseries within her larger panoply of books about the fantasy kingdom of Tortall. The three books will be based on the life of the great sorcerer Numair Salmalín, one of the most powerful mages in that world, and chronicle his beginnings as a young lad studying his craft at the University of Carthak.
Arram Draper, which was his given name, showed his gift early when he set a series of accidental fires in his family’s home in Tyra. Since his parents were cloth merchants, their wares were particularly vulnerable to conflagration, so they rapidly took counsel and sent him to the Imperial university, where he would study all aspects of magery, from animal husbandry to healing to water magic, as well as simply learning to control, channel, and use his formidable gift of power.
In the first of the expected trilogy, Tempests and Slaughter, Arram is the youngest student at the university, and comes in for a fair amount of hazing until he is taken up by his future two best friends, Ozorne (who is seventh in line to inherit the Emperor’s throne), and Varice, who struggles with her affinity for food magic and hedge witchery, since women who practice in these areas tend to be underestimated or even overlooked. The three are among the most advanced students at the university, and move up swiftly, independent of the regular students, which further bonds them together. Arram’s tendency to accidents while using his power, Ozorne’s proximity to the throne, and Varice’s magnetic personality draw attention both wanted and unwanted from professors, jealous fellow students, and more pernicious enemies. As they progress through their years of schooling, each of them draws fire, individually and as a group, adding to their chronicle of adventures.
I had looked forward to this trilogy, since I enjoyed the adult character of Numair as encountered in multiple volumes of the Tortall books, but I ended up giving this three stars out of five on Goodreads. I liked it, I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t a rave-type book.
While I appreciated the immediate and total immersion into the Pierce universe, this time in Carthak, and enjoyed the scene setting, the background, and the atmosphere, that was a large percentage of what this book had going for it. The characters were great—Arram, Varice, and Ozorne really stood out as individuals, as did most of the Masters (mage teachers); and even the incidental side characters like the gladiator Musenda, and the magical bird, Preet, were compelling and individual. I also enjoyed the depictions of the magic itself, the interaction with various gods, the animals, and the other students.
So…why did I give it three stars? Because it’s a background book. It’s true that it’s all about how Arram Draper became Numair, but there’s no real story arc. It’s an accounting of his days in school, of what he learned and how he learned it. (It’s actually quite Harry Potterish, now that I think about it.) It is occasionally enlivened by isolated incidents that show he is growing older and more skilled, that he is expanding his horizons and his knowledge of the world and the magic in it, but there is no beginning, middle or end. It’s a narrative, a record. And honestly, that was mostly fine with me. I enjoy pretty much everything about Pierce’s storytelling, because she is so surefooted in this world she has created and so able to convey its every nuance to the reader…but because there is no arc, there are no big feelings to go with this book. It’s back story. It allows the reader to develop a fondness for the characters, to wonder what will happen next, but there are only the hints of trajectories in their future. As I read through it, I kept wondering why this book merited such a dramatic title (tempests and slaughter?) and while there are storms and deaths aplenty, they come across as an almost ordinary part of the chronicling of Arram’s life.
I definitely plan to read the other two books when they come out, and I wouldn’t discourage anyone from reading this one, because it does set things up nicely for a book with some action in it…I would merely caution those who have embraced her other stories from this universe not to have big expectations beyond the familiarity of being at home again in Tortall.
“What if the stories aren’t told?
What if they’re lived? What if you were forced
to live your life in the shape of a story that is
not your own, with no choice about who you are
and where you’re going?”
Ash & Bramble, by Sarah Prineas, has an intriguing premise…and buries it so deeply (the above quote is from page 265) that it’s hard not to be confused and frustrated before you arrive at a partial explanation; and after that it’s equally difficult to put up with the lack of certain details that end up detracting from the true potential of the book.
Despite all its publicity copy, I would not
call this a true fairy tale retelling.
It’s a book with a bigger concept,
a philosophical question in which fairy tales are used as illustrations, in a way. It reminded me a little of Cornelia Funke’s Mirrorworld series (Reckless, Fearless, and The Golden Yarn), in which various remnants of fairy tales are present but in a dark and twisted setting that isn’t about that trademark feel-good happy ending they all promise (marry-the-prince trope).
People may scream “spoiler” when I explain, but honestly, I would have been somewhat happy had someone spoiled things for me a little earlier on in the book. Basically, Story has become a powerful force in the world, and wants everything its way; it has co-opted the Godmother (nothing fairy-like about her) to enforce its will on the people by making them all act out the same stories, over and over and over again. In service of this series of “passion plays,” the Godmother has enslaved countless unfortunates to labor without ceasing behind the scenes to make shoes, sew dresses, dip candles, construct props, and spin straw into gold. So between the people working their fingers to the bone as prop-makers and the ones being forced onto the stage to re-enact the same tales, pretty much everyone in this book is miserable.
Pin (a seamstress) and Shoe (a shoemaker) are trapped in the Godmother’s fortress of fairy tale props, but because Pin possesses a secret artifact (a magic thimble), they have an advantage over their zombified colleagues and are able to look outside their presumed fates and aspire to something better. Unfortunately for Pin, the Godmother has her own magic thimble, is aware of Pin’s speshulness (although not aware of the twin thimble), and Pin wakes up one day to find herself cast by the Godmother as the lead in that hoary old tale of Cinderella.
In this way, the book itself echoes the state of its characters: There is the Before (everyone’s past), and the After (in which they have been brain-wiped and re-set to participate), and there is also the Before (in the fortress) and the After (in the tale) for the reader.
I’m not going to say that I didn’t enjoy the book, because it had some wonderful aspects to it. I thought the world-building and scene-setting were good; I was enamored of a couple of the characters, intrigued by the idea of Story as a power all its own, and caught up in the action of rebellion. But when we get to the end of the book without finding out one simple thing—where the thimbles came from and what was their intended use (as opposed to the perversion of powers wielded by at least one of their wearers)—I have to admit that I gave the writer a great big “C’mon!” There were several other glaring unlikelihoods that I won’t share here but that have caused an outcry among some reviewers on Goodreads. With all of that, I wouldn’t tell you not to read Ash & Bramble, because in many ways it’s better than the bulk of the true retellings out there. But be aware that it is more a foe than a fan of fairy tale.
Parenthetically, can we talk for a minute about that cover? Ornate typography? Good. Brambles with accompanying thorns? Good. Big floaty red chiffon skirt edged with ashy gray? Good. Backless sequined slutty Las Vegas-style “bodice”? C’MON. So close.
I’m always looking at other people’s (and publications’) lists, to see if there are stand-out books on them that I somehow missed reading. On a list that was called something like “best sci fi and fantasy books you may not have discovered,” I found a few with which I was unfamiliar and ordered them. The first one I read was Sorcerer to the Crown, by Zen Cho.
Most people who reviewed it on Goodreads either lauded it or hated it for one reason: It reminded them of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. Some loved it because it had similar characteristics but was “half the length and twice the fun,” while others loathed it because they found it derivative and without the same careful attention to detail given to the subject by Clarke.
I have not (yet) read Susanna Clarke’s 800+ pages, so that comparison sparked no reaction for me; but when reviewers started comparing it to Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen, I went back and took a closer look.
The story takes place in an alternate-reality London, where magic was once a powerful and primary occupation for the upper classes and every prominent family seemed to feature at least one sorcerer accompanied by his familiar. (Women are banned from practicing magic, unless it’s the hedge-witch variety of small household spells to lighten the domestic load.) But in the current day, England’s atmospheric magic is drying up. No more familiars are coming over from Fairyland, and no promising young sons are venturing there in hopes of catching the Fairy Queen’s eye.
Sir Stephen Wythe, the Sorcerer to the Crown, has recently died under mysterious circumstances; his familiar has likewise disappeared, and the man who has taken up his staff to become the new head Sorcerer is Sir Stephen’s foster son, Zacharias, an emancipated slave raised by Sir Stephen to be a thaumaturge. Zacharias, a conscientious, retiring, and painstaking person, would much rather have remained in the background, doing his research into the restoration of England’s magic; his new role throws him to the lions of extreme prejudice, with plots against his life, perilous meetings with the Fairy Court, and speeches at such frightening venues as a school of gentlewitches (he’s cautioning them against the dangers of magic for women). Then he meets Miss Prunella Gentleman, also an outcast because of her lack of good birth and the “dusky skin” that proves she is of mixed race, and Prunella’s aptitude for magic and the effrontery to practice it turn his perceptions upside down.
The book is set in Britain during the Regency period and the Napoleonic wars. Those who compare it with Heyer and Austen say it fulfills their requirements for a comedy of manners with amusing commentary also reminiscent of Wodehouse (the speech at the girls’ school being that example). I didn’t find the language or tone either of them to be reminiscent of Heyer’s lighthearted works, nor were there sufficient social interactions to spark recognition of her influence, and the romantic aspect was almost entirely lacking. I did think perhaps Austen would have enjoyed Cho’s send-up of the nobly born and pretentiously superior, commenting on their bigotry and their assumptions about “good birth” always triumphing over morals and brains.
The book did remind me of some others: Gail Carriger’s Etiquette and Espionage, because of the young-ladies-in-training aspect, as well as something about the pacing and language of the story-telling; and Jonathan Stroud’s The Amulet of Samarkand (Bartimaeus book #1), which features a similar setting of an alternate London ruled by stuffily self-regarding magicians. It’s also vaguely reminiscent of Garth Nix’s Newt’s Emerald (in fact, it looks like the same artist for the cover of that book has been employed for Cho’s sequel), which in my opinion pulls off the Heyer tie-in a bit better.
Because I read Sorcerer to the Crown before I looked at any of the reviews (including the blurbs on the back cover), I was initially quite taken aback by both the racism and the misogyny so freely expressed by Cho’s characters. The use of the term “piccaninny” on page four shocked me so much that I almost put the book down. Only the comment of Mr. Damerell, “What an edifying sight for a child—a room full of men several times his size, calling him names,” encouraged me to continue. Likewise, the discovery by Zaccharias that the gentlewitches’ school has been using a killing spell designed to drain the magic from its victims in order to keep its young ladies in line (i.e., magic-free) was a bit daunting. I had not yet put the book in context as a Regency send-up, so for me, the author’s choices were jarringly unexpected for a book written in 2015 by a woman! Once I had figured out the intended setting and atmosphere, I forgave the various liberties, but in this era of extreme care about the way the races and the sexes are portrayed, I have to confess it still left a lingering uneasiness about the book.
My final reaction was primarily that of enjoyment; but I didn’t give it the wholehearted five stars it received from many of its Goodreads fans. Perhaps, for me, Cho simply attempted too much within the context of this one volume. Perhaps I wasn’t in the proper mood to appreciate its quirks. For whatever reason, I didn’t click with it; but that isn’t to say that you wouldn’t. If you enjoyed the Finishing School or Parasol Protectorate books of Gail Carriger, you might like it a lot.
There is also a sequel, The True Queen, released just this year, that takes the reader to Janda Baik, the country from whence one of the first book’s main and powerful female characters hails. It received similarly high ratings from those on Goodreads who enjoyed the first book.
One thing you learn when becoming a readers’ advisor is,
you can’t be a book snob. Some people pride themselves on only reading “worthy” or “classic” or “literary” fiction. Others believe that while mainstream fiction is legitimate, anything that falls within a genre description is somehow less-than. When you read so as to address the interests of every type of reader, the fortunate outcome is that you discover there are “worthy” books—that is to say, engaging, well written, and with something to say—within every category of fiction.
I have wondered whether I should bother reviewing older books here, or whether I should just be addressing newly released works, to keep up with the ever-changing whims of contemporary readers. My conclusion so far has been that it’s all right to cover older reads, because no matter how long ago they were written, they will be new to someone.
Today, I just finished rereading Bloodhound (Beka Cooper #2), by Tamora Pierce. Pierce is much beloved by many fantasy readers, and has been incredibly prolific in the number of books and series she has written that are all set in the kingdom of Tortall. Tortall is a semi-feudal land populated by knights and ladies (and some knights who are also ladies), master craftspeople and master thieves, commoners both honest and corrupt, and the supernatural creatures who also make an appearance. The gods are definitely present (though mostly in subtle ways) in Tortall.
Rather than write one long series with a particular cast of characters, Pierce has broken down the Tortall legend into small “cycles” of three or four books each, that come at the world and its events from many different perspectives. While all these novels are immensely popular with a wide variety of people from 10-year-olds to the elderly, it does seem to me that the earlier books were specifically written to appeal to middle-school teens. Although many adults read them, there is a large percentage who do so out of nostalgia, because they read Pierce as a child and want to revisit the world of Tortall.
The first thing I like about the Beka Cooper series, therefore, is that while the books are completely teen-friendly and accessible (and are, indeed, marketed to teens), they are written from a much more adult viewpoint. While Beka, the narrator, is a young woman, she is more woman than girl, and the others with whom she interacts are likewise more mature. This is yet another in the growing list of teen fantasy series that could equally well (or perhaps more successfully) have been marketed to adult fantasy readers.
The second thing I like about the series is that it so fluidly combines medieval fantasy with mystery and police procedural, using a memoir format—basically, all my favorite genres rolled into one. The characters (and there are many) are engaging, the situations are surprisingly sophisticated (how many young adult novels expound on the effects of counterfeiting on a nation’s economy?), and the mysteries are well paced and satisfying. Beyond this, Pierce has exerted herself to provide a made-up language, reminiscent of the “thieves’ cant” you find in Regency romance novels, that give the books a particular flavor. The inclusion of this lingo also cleverly circumvents any criticisms she might get from parents who ban language and sexuality by expressing things that she couldn’t do in a teen book if she put them in contemporary English. Pierce has taken pains to spell out the differences in rank from that of the King in his palace down to the lowliest gixie picking pockets amongst the slums. There is no difference made in the characterizations between children, teens, and adults in terms of attention to detail, and while Beka remains firmly the main character, the people with whom she partners, the neighborhood from where she rose to the police force, and the “coves and mots” she encounters in the course of her work are all given a real existence. Finally, the books feature strong female heroines, a welcome departure from some fantasies.
Terrier, the first book (released in 2006), takes us away for the first time from the lords and ladies, knights and squires of the other series and introduces Beka Cooper, an orphaned 17-year-old with some special gifts that lead her from the Lower City (the worst neighborhood) of Tortall into a career as a “Dog,” or police officer, in the Provost’s Guard. She is assigned as a trainee (“puppy”) to two veterans, Tunstall and Goodwin, and proves herself as an officer who hangs onto a case like a terrier until it’s solved.
In Bloodhound (2009), her second year on the force is also documented in the pages of her journal, and it’s quite a ride. As a new Dog, she is matched up with four different partners who don’t work out, and she ends up instead working solo with Achoo, a scent hound she rescues from an abusive handler. She and Clary Goodwin, one of her former training partners, are then sent by the Provost General, Lord Gershom, down the river to Port Caynn, on a secret investigation to discover who is behind the spread of counterfeit silver coins that are destroying the economy. She falls in love, falls afoul of the Port Caynn Rogue (Queen of the thief caste), and earns her new nickname as she doggedly (pun intended) pursues the solution to the case.
The third book, Mastiff (2011), is equally compelling. Three years after their mission in Port Caynn, Clary Goodwin has finally opted to promote to a (stationary) command position, and Beka is now paired with Goodwin’s former partner (and her other former training officer), Tunstall. Beka has suffered a recent tragedy—her fiancé, a fellow Dog, has been killed while pursuing slavers—and she doesn’t know how to go on, mostly because she was on the verge of breaking up with him when he died, and now she’s feeling guilty for receiving unwanted attention as the grieving almost-widow. But an assignment abruptly pulls her away from her familiar surroundings and sends her, her partners both human and canine, and a strange mage assigned to their team on a hunt the outcome of which will determine the future of the Tortallan royal family and government. As with the second book, the pacing ramps up as the Dogs get closer to their quarry, and unexpected elements throw several wicked curves into the story before it ends.
There have been two things against this series when I talked it up to others: The first was the truly abysmal cover art on the original paperbacks, which was actively ugly and made it almost impossible to “sell” these books to anyone (especially teenagers). The photographic image chosen to represent Beka was both laughable and disrespectful. The recent re-release of this series with new covers may give it a chance; if you are a librarian reading this, please consider immediately replacing your originals with the new versions!
The second is the supernatural element, which I sometimes completely leave out of my descriptions. When you say that a book is about a girl who gets messages from the recently dead by listening to pigeons, and who also gathers clues by standing in the middle of dust devils and picking up bits of conversation the dust devil has been hoarding, people look at you like you’re crazy!
This fantasy series has so many facets and is so hard to adequately describe that I don’t often find myself promoting it to anyone—but after rereading #2 on impulse this weekend, I decided to make another pitch, because these books are a worthy, intriguing, and entertaining addition to the mainstream fantasy canon.
What is the appeal of fantasy fiction? People who don’t read fantasy ask this question a lot. Here are some reasons why people might enjoy reading fantasy:
Escapism: travel into another WORLD, culture, history, set of natural laws
Heroism: the exploration of greater themes, unconscious hopes and aspirations, the experience of admiration and emotion
Specialness: a hidden talent for magic…
Wonder: the appeal of the unfamiliar
Romance: Not just “couples” romance, but the romance of the road, the charisma of the swashbuckler, etc.
Simplicity: the straightforward moral code of good and evil
“The more rational the world becomes,
the more we demand the irrational in our fiction.
The genre starts where science ends.”
Periodically, I blog about young adult books or series that may have adult appeal, and the series that begins with Ink and Bone, by Rachel Caine, is one such.
To any bibliophile, the destruction of the Great Library at Alexandria, the first so-called universal library, was a tragedy of epic proportions. The loss of the ancient world’s single largest archive of knowledge, the idea that so many “great works of brilliant geniuses” (Orosius) was destroyed, causes anything from a wince to a fit of weeping by those lovers of antiquity who can only imagine what they might have missed by this loss. In this series, Caine rewrites literary history by allowing the Library at Alexandria to survive, and then postulates what might have happened next.
By the present day (the series actually takes place a decade into our future, although it’s a weirdly old-fashioned and steam-punky rendition), the Library and its staff have gained immense political power and influence, akin to that of the Catholic Church and a world government rolled into one. The Great Library is a looming presence in every major city, and has complete power over the dissemination of information via its Serapeums (Serapea?), the equivalent of your local library branch. Through the use of alchemy and the highly developed mental powers of the Library’s servants called Obscurists, literally any literary work can be delivered to a “blank” book for any citizen to read…but at the same time, the individual ownership or possession of “real” (original, permanently printed) books is strictly forbidden. The Great Library wants to keep the power of the written word solely in its own hands. This begins as a noble goal to protect and preserve knowledge, but over the course of history has become a restrictive and smothering power play.
The primary protagonist of the book is Jess Brightwell, whose family has for centuries been involved in the black market trade for illegal books. Jess, however, is neither qualified for nor as interested in following the family trade as is his twin brother, Brendan, so his father decides that, since he’s a bright boy who likes to read, the best thing Jess can do for the family is to become a librarian! What better than to have a loyal family member strategically placed within the organization of your rival? This begins Jess’s association with a motley group of other teenagers, all vying for a role in the hierarchy of the most powerful organization on earth. But what they discover is that the Great Library isn’t as benign, high-minded, and well-intentioned as they’ve been brought up to believe….
I picked up the first book because of the little gold plate on the cover that said “THE GREAT LIBRARY.” I thought the book was brilliant. The alternate history, the scene-setting, the imagery, the concepts, the characters, the action, are all fully on. Every time I had to stop reading, I couldn’t wait to pick it up again. It’s a book that will definitely appeal to teenagers, what with the impulsive decisions, quickly embraced loyalties, and underlying romances among its cast, but the series is definitely worth a look by adults intrigued by the premise.
After discovering the first book, I have, over a period of years, read the sequels—Paper and Fire, Ash and Quill and, just this past week, Smoke and Iron. The subsequent books take Jess and his band of friends—including his teacher, Scholar Wolfe, and the teacher’s lover, Commander Santi of the High Garde, Thomas the brilliant inventor, Khalila the quiet diplomat, Morgan the Obscurist, Dario the haughty member of Spanish royalty, and Glain, stalwart soldier of Welsh origins—on multiple harrowing adventures as they fight the current corrupt leadership for the soul of the real Library they love and wish to save.
Although there is inevitably some variation in pacing when reading a series, Caine managed, by varying the scenery and also developing and changing the relationships among the characters, to keep the books pretty consistently at the same level of quality. I had read somewhere that this was originally intended as a trilogy, and somehow assumed that Smoke and Iron was the last in the series, only to get to the end and realize that there is one more book—Sword and Pen—still to come. This fifth book publishes in September, and I will be the first adult on the waiting list at the library to read it. Look out, teens, I’m coming through!
J.R.R. Tolkien says that “the world of fantasy is accessed by a meeting between the narrative skill of the author and the imaginative willingness of the reader.” This is a powerful quote, because it underlines the readers’ advisory tenet that only a collaboration between reader and writer determines reading preferences.
There is a huge body of work written about how to define fantasy, too long to cover here. One definition I appreciated, by John M. Timmerman in the book Genreflecting, and condensed down to a summary paragraph:
The job of the fantasy story is to create a world and characters so believable, a plot so urgent, and a conflict so daunting that the reader must live with and through it to the end. The story must have relevance to the everyday lives of the readers, and the way fantasy creates that relevance is to create protagonists with a common nature, regular folk with beliefs and values. The fantasy world must be different enough from that of the readers’ so as to engage them in its uniqueness; but it can’t be too obviously fictional. The evocation of the world must be immediate; the world is provided and we as readers step into it. There must be an essential conflict, usually between good and evil. There is oftentimes a quest, with a specific goal, usually to restore the society’s well-being. There is the presence and/ or use of magic. And fantasy is, for the most part, persistent in its optimism for humankind, with a positive resolution.
Contained within this broad description are nearly endless small differentiations of subgenre, which are defined by their world (unique, alternate, paranormal, crossworld), by the kind of protagonist (hero, commoner, adventurer), by the origins (unique, faerie, fairy tale retold), by the setting (legendary, urban, dark), and by the tone (humorous, epic, frightening). Lou Anders, an editor at Pyr Books, says that “nothing will land you an ax in your skull or a dagger in your spine faster than trying to define fantasy subgenres.” He notes that there are always exceptions to the rule.
With all that as lead-in, let me tell you about a particular fantasy I just read. It fits into the “fairy tales retold” subgenre, but the setting could be described as a “crossworld,” since the primary protagonist is physically transported from our own contemporary world sideways into a fairy tale. She is a “commoner” dropped into a role in a medieval kingdom still defined by swords and daggers as weapons, horses as transportation, and rulers and servants as characters. The world-building is fairly minimal, but both sufficient and believable because of its extreme familiarity. The conflict is provided by the specific fairy tale trope, but the author has inserted some twists. There are multiple conflicts, both personal and kingdom-wide, with enemies and heroes within and without. There is a specific goal; there is magic; and there is a resolution.
The book is A Curse So Dark and Lonely, by Brigid Kemmerer. I bought it along with four other fairly new young adult titles, and I left it until last to read because I was almost sorry I had chosen it. First of all, I am not particularly enamored of fairy tale retellings; I’d rather have an original story any day than one that is restricted by a precursor. And “Beauty and the Beast” is among my least favorite fairy tales, for so many reasons, paramount among them the compulsory nature of the romance—she either loves the Beast or experiences an epic fail, but who (besides sufferers of Stockholm syndrome) believes this is possible? I equally dislike the dark, original tale (the father’s love being used against him), and the first Disney version (with the dancing dishware). There’s just too much coercion and self-effacing pity involved for it to survive as a believable romance.
Second, as is usual with YA literature, the critics, the publishers, or other readers are way too busy comparing it with other books. At least a dozen sources said, “If you liked A Court of Thorns and Roses, you will like this.” Well, I didn’t read ACOTAR (heresy, I know), because I read Throne of Glass, by Sarah J. Maas, first. A brief synopsis of my review is that the protagonist (and thus her author) couldn’t decide whether to be a ninja or a Disney princess, which was really irritating. Other readers opined, “If you loved Caraval, by Stephanie Garber, you should read this book!” I hated Caraval. Apart from the flimsy world-building, vague story line, and confusing game, here is my quote, which should also enlighten re: my previous caveat: “The protagonist, Scarlet, reminds me of the supposed badass assassin, Caelena, in Throne of Glass, who can’t decide whether to kill the male characters or to ‘pillage’ them (plural). I call it ‘dithery fiction’ because we spend the entire book listening to the characters saying ‘what if’ a lot but never settling to a decision. Yes, they show moments of resolution…which dissolve like sugar in water at the first sign of opposition, and then it’s reset: start over. It’s tiresome.”
I have said all that to emphasize that taking read-alike claims seriously will sometimes backfire, either on the reader or on the publisher. I got it out of the way in order to give an original review to this book, which I read in less than 24 hours and couldn’t have loved better.
First of all, major props for originality on the part of Kemmerer. The protagonist, Harper, is a tough lower-class kid with a brother who’s an enforcer (but only because he owes guys money) and a mother with cancer. One of Harper’s legs is affected by cerebral palsy, so she isn’t as strong as she could be, and moves with a limp, but she doesn’t let any of this stop her. One day, she sees a guy attempting to kidnap a girl off the street and, realizing there’s no other help nearby, she tackles him. Somehow, the girl has suddenly disappeared, and the guy and Harper are…somewhere else. Somewhere that looks like a medieval fantasy, with a castle and swords and horses, filled with food and drink, posh accommodations and fancy dress, but no people except for her kidnapper, Grey, commander of the Royal Guard, and a guy called Rhen who says he’s a prince. Is she sticking around for this? She is not. They lock her in; she climbs down a trellis, steals Rhen’s horse out of the stables, and tries to escape…but where, exactly, is she going to go? She’s in the middle of nowhere, she has no idea where her home world is or how to get there, and so, when she’s recaptured by the two men, she decides to let things play out and try to figure out what’s what.
There is quite a lot of revelation about her circumstances, unlike in the original fairy tale; Rhen lets her know that he’s been caught in an enchantment loop for many years, and the only thing that will get him out of it is if one of the girls he sends Grey out to kidnap falls in love with him. Upon hearing this, Harper is not just skeptical, but aghast, and determined not to fall for any wiles. What does move her, however, is her eventual knowledge about the sad state of his kingdom and the people in it while he has been otherwise occupied; apparently a horrifying wild beast has been savaging and killing whole communities every year! This is the one factor not revealed to Harper (that Rhen becomes that beast). So she turns on him and chastises him for not caring about the people he was sworn to protect while he ruled, and together the three of them—prince, warrior, and girl from another world—begin to take that commitment seriously. But there is more to his curse than she knows, and more evil awaiting his subjects than he himself offers them in his guise as the beast. And amidst all of this, Harper yearns to return home before her mother succumbs to cancer and someone makes a permanent example out of her brother Jake.
The book is written from dual points of view—those of Rhen and Harper. This proves quite effective, giving the reader the inner thoughts of the proud but needy enchanted prince, who wants nothing more than to resolve his situation but can’t quite bring himself to trust, and the scrappy import, who has to figure out, on the fly, how to deal with a completely new situation. This book is the antithesis of YA “insta-love,” and the emotions of the two protagonists are ably portrayed from every angle. The writing is good, the scene-setting and details are excellent, and the story moves along at a satisfying pace, with little of the “dithery” bits included in each character’s self-examination. The side characters are equally well fleshed out and provide extra drama without distracting unduly from the main story. Finally, although there are threads left hanging at the end that will be addressed in a sequel, the book has a satisfying resolution and could be read as a stand-alone, if you’re not a sequel kind of person.
If every fairy tale was retold this well, I would happily read them all.