Did I mention that I can’t resist a book with ravens, crows, or other corvids? Or a book that features an artist or painter? I found one that incorporates both, and bought it mostly based on its title and cover: An Enchantment of Ravens, by Margaret Rogerson.
The story in brief: Isobel is a portrait painter who lives in Whimsy, a town outside of time (it’s always summer there, the seasons never change) because it is adjacent to Faerie and the “fair folk” like to wander the town in their avid pursuit of what they call “Craft,” which is anything creative made by human hands. Faerie don’t “do” Craft—in fact, if they take up a pen, a brush, a sewing needle, they crumble to dust. So they are eternally fascinated by its expression, and will pay in valuable enchantments.
Although she has made many portraits of and for the fair folk, Isobel’s most esteemed patron is Gadfly, who seems particularly smitten with himself and for whom she has painted multiple pictures. One day Gadfly tells her he has recommended her to Rook, the autumn king, who wishes a portrait. This flusters Isobel, because of his rank and because he hasn’t been seen in a hundred years. But he turns out not to be so intimidating (although definitely self-regarding), and while painting him, Isobel and he develop an affinity for one another, although it is far stronger on Rook’s part than it is on Isobel’s. She knows better than to fall in love with a member of the fair folk—that would be to break the “Good Law,” and there are two choices after the law is broken: Death to both faerie and human, or the human drinks from the Green Well and becomes a faerie herself. Since she desires neither, she protects her heart and remains wary.
As she paints Rook’s portrait, however, she struggles for the first time with a likeness, and when she finally solves the problem, she has inadvertently painted human sorrow in the eyes of the autumn king. He is so incensed by this that he drags her off to his court to stand trial for this crime, and that’s the beginning of their adventure together.
I enjoyed reading the first part of this story quite a bit: The details of the painting were realistically rendered, and the banter between Isobel and her clients was entertaining, as were her behind-the-scenes thoughts and her back story. I gave a big sigh as I continued, however, because I thought to myself, This is going to turn into a typical mushy YA romance—they will probably fall in love and it will end disappointingly.
I was pleased and relieved to discover myself mistaken: Isobel has a lot more to her than do most YA heroines, and she sees her adventure with Rook as a task to endure and complete with the goal of getting back to her foster mother, Emma, and her twin “sisters,” March and May (they were formerly goat kids, turned into girls by a drunken fair one and adopted by Emma and Isabel). It is her stubborn resolution that saves her (and sometimes Rook) from misadventure for a good part of the book.
I won’t reveal more of the story; I will only say that while parts were predictable fairy tale trope, most of it is fresh and not typical. See for yourself—it’s not a long read, and I found it entertaining.
If you like it, you might also enjoy The Bride’s Farewell, by Meg Rosoff; Far, Far Away, by Tom McNeal; or Reckless, by Cornelia Funke, all of which are different from one another but share the quality of quirky original fairy tale with An Enchantment of Ravens.
I was a bit conflicted about reading The Merciful Crow, by Margaret Owen—it sounded like just my kind of thing, but a rather stern friend on Goodreads panned it for ableism and said lots of nasty things about it, which made me pause. But it got such consistently good reviews from everyone else that I decided maybe she had a pre-emptive bee in her bonnet when she read it, and went ahead.
First of all, I can’t resist any reference to crows, ravens, magpies…. Second, just the description on Goodreads let me know that it was a book with complex world-building (formal castes in society, each of which has its own magical properties), and that the protagonist and her caste were the scapegoats. I love a scapegoat.
What this book turns out to be (and I can’t decide if Owen purposefully wrote it that way or not, but she had to be aware) is a perfect analogy for Black Lives Matter. The Crows are the bottom-most caste in society, and their duty is wrapped up with their so-called luck: They are the only people on the planet who are immune to the plague. Thus, when a case of plague is reported, a beacon fire is lit and the Crows show up to collect the body and dispose of it before the infection spreads any further. They are also both celebrated (by the dying) and reviled (by everyone else) for being mercy killers: The plague is not a comfortable way to die, and if the sufferers ask for mercy, the Crows will deliver the killing stroke that puts them out of their misery. The only way to stop the plague’s spread is to burn the body and all possessions.
You would think that society would appreciate this service, which protects everyone but the sufferers from a hateful death, but instead the Crows are essentially treated as the equivalent of India’s Untouchables. Not only do they suffer from disparaging remarks and taunts (and sometimes thrown garbage and other insults), but some of the people who seek their assistance then turn around and are reluctant to reward them for their service. The Crows are dependent on the viatik (payment) for survival, since their sole duty is to roam the roads watching for plague beacons, and for that they must have resources for survival—food, clothing, shoes, weapons, wagons. So the Crows have one answer for this, but they mostly suffer anything that comes rather than pull out this ultimate revenge: They refuse to dispose of the body, guaranteeing eventual death by plague to all in that village, which will be quarantined and burnt to the ground.
Fie, the protagonist, is the future chieftain of a band of Crows, and she is learning the various aspects of being a leader from her Pa, including delivering the killing stroke, and what her people call “bone magic”—they save the teeth of dead witches, which can be called upon to deliver various defenses, including inattention (invisibility) and fire. Fie has developed a justifiably cynical attitude in her 16 years as a Crow, watching her Pa and their troop receive more abuse than coin, and so when the royal palace—housing the pinnacle of castes, the Peacocks—sends up a plague beacon, she understandably hopes for a decent payout that will support her people for a while. Instead, the troop receives, along with the bodies of the Crown Prince and his personal guard/body double, the ultimate insult from Queen Rhusana; so when they discover that the two young men have faked their deaths in order to escape the queen’s plans to reign (which have included multiple attempts on the prince’s life), Fie is ready to cut their throats anyway. Instead, she drives a hard bargain with Prince Jasimir: If the Crows help him reach his supporters and he lives to assume the throne, he will materially protect her people—with guards, with respect for their function in his society, with acknowledgement that they are also his people.
The rest of the book is an account of Fie’s desperate attempts to honor her oath. The other members of her troupe are betrayed and taken hostage, and she must step up as chief, making her responsible for getting Jasimir, the Hawk Tavin, and herself halfway across the country of Sabor, undetected by the Oleander Gentry (a group of vigilantes who target Crows), skin witches, ghasts, and everything else the queen can throw at them. It’s an exciting tale of near misses, tragedies, and miraculous recoveries, but what really struck me was the progression of understanding, as the story goes on and the three become more intimate, about what the oath between the Crown Prince and the Crows really means.
Jasimir is the epitome of white privilege: He has been raised in the highest caste, and believes in the abstract that he has a responsibility to rule his people well, but doesn’t take into account that a portion of his people are left out of his concern or indeed of his attention, and that far from being taken care of, they are persecuted at every turn. As he begins to realize the breadth of the bargain he has struck—that he will compel members of his guard, the Hawks, a higher caste than the Crows, to protect them—he and Fie have a series of conversations that reveal how shallow is his understanding of what it means to be an advocate for all of his people, and how unwilling he is to change.
Fie was sick of bartering for her right to exist. She stood to face him down. “And who in the twelve hells do you think Crows are? Someone else’s people? Someone else’s problem? Because you already made my oath with the rest of Sabor: You protect your people and set our laws, and we pay for your crown. That’s your oath as king. You just don’t want to keep it with Crows.”
It’s such an on-point discussion of what those who are at the top are willing to witness in the mistreatment of those at the bottom, without caring or maybe without even noticing, and what happens when this inequity is brought to their attention. Will they step up and do the right thing? Or will they make excuses—it’s too radical a solution, others won’t go for it, maybe someday, of course we’ll take this under consideration, we can’t do that but maybe we can do this…. It’s a microcosm of every so-called conversation between white men in power and black people subject to their influence.
At the same time, it wasn’t obvious or preachy, it wasn’t made clear that this was the secret agenda for which the book was written—The Merciful Crow is a fantastic saga of an adventure, of good against evil, of hunters and hunted, of choices, chance, and character. The protagonist is the perfect mix of uncertain with stubborn, fueled by anger, pride, and honor. Her two companions exhibit their own personalities uniquely and completely. The bad guys are sufficiently overwhelming and scary to justify the terror in which the trio operate at the thought of being caught by them. And the story, as all really good fantasies are, is complete within itself and yet leaves the door open for a sequel (The Faithless Hawk, which is being released today!). I was blown away by this book (especially knowing that this was a debut author), which gave me similar “feels” to Graceling, by Kristin Cashore. It’s billed and published as Young Adult, but recommend it to everyone you know who loves a good saga.
I picked up a Young Adult fantasy book mostly because of the title: It’s called Thief’s Cunning, by Sarah Ahiers. Who doesn’t love a good thief story? In fact, one of my favorite books ever is The Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner. Then there’s The Book Thief, The Pearl Thief, The Tale of the Body Thief, The Thief Lord…you get the picture. I have had excellent luck with reading and thieves! My luck seems to have run out, however, with this one.
First of all, despite its title the protagonist isn’t a thief! Allegra is part of a family of assassins (called “clippers”), and in fact the point is made early in the story that if they were to stoop to thievery in the course of their duties as assassins, their reputations would be destroyed. So what the heck? I searched in vain for thieves. There are Travelers in this book, and one of the triad of gods they worship is a sort of patron saint of thieves…but none of the Travelers follow through by stealing anything! There are two “thief” associations that could apply if not for the addition of the second word, “cunning.” The first is that Allegra wears a necklace that properly belongs to someone else, and it is, in fact, forbidden that she wear it. But she was given it by her uncle for her birthday, has no knowledge of its significance until much later, and didn’t in fact steal it. Her uncle could be characterized as stealing it, but there was no cunning involved, it was a simple notion: Mom’s dead, I’m being separated from my people, and I’m taking her necklace to remember her by.
The second association was that Allegra, in the course of her life, has herself been stolen several times and not told from whom, so she doesn’t have a clear sense of who she is. She has grown up with one story, learns there is a completely different one, then gets diverted into a third, and goes to pieces. The kicker line on the cover is, “With her past stolen, she’s taking the future into her own hands.” Um, not noticeably.
And boy, does she whine about it! The entire book is seething teenage rebellion against nothing in particular. Oh, these people took you in and made you a part of their family and loved you, fed and clothed you, trained you, but you can’t stand being with them for one more minute because they’re not “your” family and they lied about it? Oh, you have discovered your real family and long to go to them but you aren’t sure you’ll fit in there either (because they are the sworn enemies of your actual family)? Oh, you have taken up with a lovely boy (who likes you) and his pretty interesting tribe of people, but you still feel caged by their wants and needs and have to be on your own? Well, aren’t you special.
Honestly, apart from the lifestyle details depicted for the Travelers, which were interesting and somewhat in line with Travelers from our culture, I was so wearied by this book. It reminded me of the worst of the teen fantasy novels (I’m looking at you, Throne of Glass), in all of which the heroine can’t decide who she is and, rather than take positive steps to find out, she just lashes out indiscriminately and to no purpose, and gets herself in more and more trouble because she can’t control her temper or her impulsiveness or whatever we’re calling it in that book.
I also didn’t know this was a sequel when I bought it, and was initially going to stop reading it and seek out the first book (Assassin’s Heart), but I quickly realized that the events of the previous novel had taken place 18 years earlier, and plenty of context was given in this one so that I didn’t feel like I missed anything crucial. It’s possible I might have liked this one better had I read that first…but I don’t think so. That one sounds like a fairly kickass story about a woman who goes all out for her goddess and is rewarded with resurrection for her and her companion, which was interesting. Thief’s Cunning was not.
I woke up this morning and checked the calendar to discover that it’s International Cat Day! I must commemorate that, or Gidget and the spirits of all my house cats who have gone before will haunt me. Here, therefore is an eclectic and by no means complete list of some books that feature felines as protagonists and companions. The array of adult books seem to fall into one of two camps: The cats who solve mysteries with their human counterparts, and the cats of science fiction, who are sentient to various degrees. The children’s books celebrate cats in all ways possible from the realistic to the bizarre. These are in no particular order, except possibly by the age of the humans to which they may appeal. If you wish to find hundreds more books about cats, look here, under “lists” in Goodreads.
The Cat Who… mysteries, by Lilian Jackson Braun, in which a reporter and his cat solve mysteries. First book: The Cat Who Could Read Backwards.
The Mrs. Murphy mysteries, by Rita Mae Brown & Sneaky Pie Brown, in which Mrs. Murphy and her human companion solve mysteries. First book: Wish You Were Here.
The Joe Grey mysteries, by Shirley Rousseau Murphy, in which there are talking cats and also a human who discovers an ability to morph into a cat. First book: Cat on the Edge.
Catfantastic: Nine Lives and Fifteen Tales, by Andre Norton, editor, in which sci fi and fantasy writers tell tall tales about furry felines. (Short stories.)
The Dalai Lama’s Cat, by David Michie, in which the Tibetan Buddhist leader’s cat offers insights on happiness and meaning.
The Chanur novels, by C. J. Cherryh, in which a leonine species—the Chanur—take in a human refugee and by so doing threaten the interspecies Compact. First book: The Pride of Chanur.
The Cinder Spires books, by Jim Butcher, in which there are also cat clans and some naval airship action. First book: The Aeronaut’s Windlass.
The Cult of the Cat books, by Zoe Kalo, in which Trinity is left with a dead grandmother and a thousand grieving cats. A sort of Egyptian urban fantasy. First book: Daughter of the Sun.
Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, by T. S. Eliot, in which the author describes cats each by their distinct personality. (Poetry.) Someone should set this to music…
Millions of Cats, by Wanda Gág, in which a lonely old couple acquires companions. This is known as the original picture book for children.
The Cat in the Hat, by Dr. Seuss, in which Sally and her brother receive a visit from a madcap cat.
Socks, by Beverly Cleary, in which the cat has to learn to share his family with their new baby.
The Warriors books, by Erin Hunter, in which a house cat discovers clans of cats living in the wild in the forest…. First book: Into the Wild.
Varjak Paw books, by S. F. Said & Dave McKean (illustrator), in which a cat goes Outside and overcomes challenges.
The Wildings books, by Nilanjana Roy, in which a small band of cats lives in the alleys and ruins of Nizamuddin, an old neighborhood in Delhi, India.
The Feline Wizards series, by Diane Duane, in which feline wizards time travel to avert disasters. First book: The Book of Night with Moon.
The Cat Pack books, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, in which brothers Marco and Polo go adventuring. First book: The Grand Escape.
The Black Cat Chronicles, by Aileen Pettigrew, in which there are cats, zombies, and magic. First book: Soul Thief.
Stray, by A. N. Wilson, in which a cat without a home tells his own rather bleak story.
Tales of the Barque Cats, by Anne McCaffrey, in which cats are essential members of the crews of space vessels…until an epidemic threatens their extinction.
The Incredible Journey, by Sheila Burnford, in which a bull terrier named Bodger, a Labrador retriever called Luath, and Tao, a Siamese cat, travel 300 miles through the Canadian wilderness to reunite with their people.
As I have mentioned before on this blog, I am a huge fan of fantasy writer Robin McKinley. I reviewed my two favorite books of hers, The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword, here. I think she has inventive ideas, compelling characters, and amazing world-building. A friend and I recently discussed, however, how unpredictable she can be—we have loved some of her books, hated others, and been bored to catatonia by at least one of them. Shadows, one of her lesser-known books, is one that I like.
But how to describe this book? In a weird way, it’s a dystopia, because something happened a couple of generations back that changed the world and put a bunch of scary bureaucrats in charge of it. But it’s also a fantasy, because it’s all about magic and its banning from the world of science, and how it leaks and creeps back in again.
Maggie and her mom and little brother lost their dad/husband awhile back (car accident), and it’s been tough going. But now her mom has found someone new to love, and although Maggie would like to be glad for her, Val creeps her out on so many levels that she just can’t deal. There’s his wardrobe, and his weird accent, and his fairly unattractive exterior, but that’s the least of it: Val has too many shadows, which seem to loom and dart and rise up higher and create a stranger outline behind him on the wall than anybody’s shadow should, and Maggie is apparently the only one who can see them. I found it a little unbelievable how long she managed to ignore them and avoid him, rather than just coming out and asking, but on the other hand, if you put this behavior in the context of people in “science world” being jumpy about anything that smacks of magic, it made sense. And that’s where you have to “suspend disbelief” and be willing to go with it because you love McKinley.
As I said, in Newworld, where Maggie lives, there are regulations in place designed to keep people away from magic and magic away from people. In fact, there is a whole bureaucracy set up to defend against “cohesion breaks,” or cobeys, which are apparently alternate worlds or magical worlds (?) trying to push their way through to this one (or suck people out of it). It’s a crime to own magical artifacts, or to practice magic, or to BE magical, and this is a big source of Maggie’s worry about Val (who emigrated from Oldworld, where they still practice magic), because now that he’s living in their house, he puts them all at risk, even though he’s shown no obvious signs (other than the shadows) of risky behavior. Maggie’s family has a history of magic-wielders, but supposedly that gene was surgically removed from everyone awhile back—or was it?
Things I loved about this book: all the characters—her mom, her friends, Jill and Taks, her love interest, Casimir, the animals (she has a dog and also works at a shelter), the evolution of the plot. Things that frustrated me: Well, because it was McKinley I was willing to go with it, but the world-building is weird—incomplete and random, with lots of assumptions, confusing lingo, truncated history, tantalizing and infuriating hints that you could know more if only she would tell you! You are set down in the middle of a work in progress that you have to figure out as you go along, and I didn’t feel like I had completely understood it even by the end of the book—but I didn’t care all that much, because I was enjoying myself and the story.
The book ended satisfactorily, but it was more like the end of a chapter in this alternate history than the end of a world; it definitely left itself open for a sequel, but whether there will ever be one is anybody’s guess, since McKinley mostly doesn’t do sequels. I hope so, because I grew fond of these characters.
So–would I recommend it? Yes. But judging from the ratings on Goodreads, which range from one star to five, you definitely have to be a certain sort of reader to like it.
I’m tagging this with the YA Fiction category because it reads as if it could have been written specifically for teens; but as with most fantasy out there, if you are a fantasy reader you don’t discriminate between teen and adult fantasy, it’s all just fantasy!
Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novic, is so exquisite, both in the writing and in the telling, that after having spent three days reading at breakfast, lunch, and bedtime, I stayed up from 2:00 until 4:00 a.m. this morning to finish it; and when I got up at 9:00 and made my breakfast, rather than starting a new book I opened Spinning Silver
to page one and began reading again, to remind myself of all the reasons why.
I purposely used the alternate spelling of “fairy” in the title because, although this book is billed as a fairy tale retelling, it is light years away from most of those. It borrows a couple of basic concepts from “Rumpelstiltskin,” turns them completely on their heads, and goes on with a story nothing like that mean little tale. There are actual faerie in this book, but they have more to do with the fey creatures of Celtic lore than with any relatively prosaic fairy godmother from the Grimms’ tales.
This is, above all, a character-driven story, and so you have to be patient as a reader for the first little while until you are sufficiently acquainted with the three protagonists. As a readers’ advisor, I am always one to tell a reader that if they aren’t enjoying a book in the early chapters, by all means drop it and find another. I’m not saying that this book isn’t good from page one—it is. And things begin happening from fairly early in the story; but it takes about 120 pages (which is a pretty big commitment out of 480) to complete your introduction to the pivotal characters and provide some action that really moves their joint story forward in a significant way.
As a person who loves character development, that didn’t matter to me in the least, because I was so fascinated with the way the first protagonist, Miryem, morphs from a cold, hungry, desperate girl into a tough, confident one who, once she decides that she is the one who will have to take care of her family, shows no hesitation.
Miryem and her parents, the Mandelstams, are Jews living on the outskirts of their little village near the forest. Miryem’s mother’s father is a moneylender in the larger town of Vysnia, and a hugely successful one; but Miryem’s father, who decided to take up the same profession based on the dowry from his wife, is too gentle to make a living the same way. When he attempts to collect on the money he has lent, his customers jeer at him, shout racial epithets, and chase him from their doorsteps, or else make excuses that they know will touch his soft heart and cause him to give way. All around the Mandelstams, the other people in the village are benefiting from the money they have borrowed, with their investments in more livestock, better farm tools, warm clothing, and fields of crops, while the Mandelstams starve. Finally, with her mother ill and her father helpless and discouraged, Miryem decides that she will have to be the moneylender of the family and, taking up her basket, she treks from door to door insisting on her just desserts. Soon there is a new thatched roof, warm clothing, and meat in the pot, but her parents weep that she has become cold inside from this “unladylike” profession.
Meanwhile, six miles away, Wanda lives with her Da and her brothers, Sergey and Stepon. Her mother is dead, buried in the yard under a white-blossoming tree with her six miscarried baby boys, and her father is a drunkard and a wastrel who has borrowed six gold kopeks from the moneylender, more than he will ever be able to repay. When Miryem comes calling asking for payment on the debt, he reviles her and tries to drive her away. She knows that if she lets him win she will confront the same problem at every turn, so she tells him that his daughter, Wanda, may pay off his debt a half cent a day by working for her and her parents. Although Miryem believes this will be a hardship, Wanda is secretly delighted, since it gets her out of the house and away from her father’s constant abuse; so Wanda becomes a fixture in the Mandelstam household, and soon becomes the debt collector in Miryem’s stead, while Miryem pursues other business.
Finally, after an ill-advised boast by Miryem about being able to turn silver into gold attracts the attention of the king of the Staryk, who comes to her with a bargain she is unable to refuse, we meet the third leg of the stool of this story: Irina, daughter of a duke and a quarter-breed Staryk “witch” and, up to this point in life, a plain and silent girl with no expectations. But the advent of Staryk silver alters her worth in the eyes of her ambitious father, and she suddenly finds herself betrothed to the dashing Tsar Mirnatius, who is both less and a lot more than he seems, with dire effect. Although the men in the book play pivotal roles, it is this triad of women whose thoughts and actions control the progression of their layered, interwoven lives, and who end up saving the kingdom of Lithvas from powerful enemies.
The themes in this book—agency, self determination, pride, empathy, duality, the embracing of family wherever you find it—are pervasive, and poignant but also raw. Watching each protagonist rise to her challenges with ingenuity and quiet determination was a joy. And the best praise I can give is that the quality of the character development, the language, the scene-setting, everything you would want from a story like this were maintained from beginning to end. The final sentence was as satisfying as all the rest, and was the perfect ending to a gripping and entertaining tale. It’s been a long time since I read a book that I loved with as much fervor as this one. I wish I hadn’t waited so long to read it after I heard about it. I was and am thoroughly beguiled.
ADDENDUM: I must address one issue with this book that was brought up to me by a friend on Goodreads. Although the author otherwise goes out of her way to be inclusive and expansive in her representation of characters of different religious and economic status, she is not similarly sensitive when it comes to the one gay character in the book. There is a courtier who makes it obvious that he is smitten with his cousin the Tsar, and Novik has the protagonist Irina scheme to marry him off to a woman for her own political gain, and is mocking and dismissive of his true preferences, actually threatening him to get him to comply with her plan. Novik needs to recognize that gay people merit the same sensitivity of treatment as her other represented groups. She should know that bad gay representation is worse than no gay representation. Yes, it’s two pages out of 480, but it continues a precedent and a prejudice that should not be present in this jewel of a book. I’m sorry to see it here.
I’m at the end of Week Six of self-quarantine, and feeling restless. That’s not to say that I agree with any of these initiatives to hurry to open things back up—we stay inside to lower the curve, to protect others and ourselves, and it isn’t time yet. But I can acknowledge my feelings and those of others who are going a little stir-crazy.
So, what could be better to read in a time of restriction than something completely escapist? And what could be a more familiar escape trope than running away to join the circus? It’s a notion secretly cherished by people young and old. Running away is one thing, but in this fantasy, destination is all.
I have a few favorites in the run-away-to-the-circus panoply of titles. First on my list is A Stranger at Wildings, originally titled Kirkby’s Changeling, by Madeleine Brent (otherwise known as Peter O’Donnell). At age 13, Chantal discovers the devastating truth about her parentage, and is about to be sent to an orphanage; instead, she decides to disappear into the world of the circus that has just paused in her English town on its way to Hungary. We follow Chantal’s career as a trapeze artist until she turns 18, at which point events conspire to change her life and send her back to England. But she’s not sure she wants this change, especially if it means leaving her circus family. It’s pure gothic magic in the style of Mary Stewart.
The book Meridon, by popular historical fiction writer Philippa Gregory, is one of my personal favorites, because the protagonist is both a gypsy and a bareback rider, so you get lots of horsey bits. But the book is the third in the Wideacre trilogy, and you really do need to have read the first two in order to understand particularly the second half of this book. All three books are engaging (although a bit scandalous here and there), so if you have the time…and you do…? The first two are Wideacre and The Favored Child (neither of which has any circus motif).
The following would most likely be found in the young adult section:
Wonder When You’ll Miss Me, by Amanda Davis, is a coming-of-age book, a triumph over adversity book, a story in which a seriously damaged and divided girl gets the chance to work through it all and pull herself together, with a backdrop of circus life that jumps off the page. The writing is beautiful, the characters are real and individual, and the story-telling is captivating. I wish the publisher had designed a cover to match.
That Time I Joined the Circus, by J. J. Howard, tells of Lexi, a snarky New York City girl, who makes a huge mistake and faces a terrible tragedy. In the face of this, she decides she must track down her mother, who is rumored to be traveling with a circus somewhere in Florida. Lexi doesn’t find her mother there, but she does find a temporary home with the circus. In this story, what the protagonist is running from is equally as important as what she is running to, and she
has to resolve these issues, which are dealt with in jumps from past
Even in the circus sub-genre, there are books with “girl” in the title!
Girl on a Wire, by Gwenda Bond, is a little different, in that most of these stories start with someone running away to the circus, but Julieta Maroni is already a circus performer who is fleeing her family to convince her father, the best wire walker in the world, to join the giant Cirque American despite his feud with their other stars, the Flying Garcias. It’s a rather obvious Romeo-and-Juliet set-up, but it’s also a mystery, a fantasy, and a great depiction of performances on the high wire and trapezes. It has a sequel,
Girl in the Shadows, with a different protagonist but taking place at the same circus.
Some more adult books in this sub-genre:
One title to which your mind will probably immediately go is The Night Circus, by Erin Morganstern, in which the circus is the magical, seductive background for both a battle of wills and a deeply romantic love story.
Another is Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, by Jonathan L. Howard, a funny gothic tale about a man who sold his soul to the devil, but decides he wants it back. Satan agrees to a wager: Johannes has to persuade 100 other people to sign over their souls in exchange for his own. He can have one calendar year and a traveling carnival as the timeframe and setting to achieve his task. Johannes summons an unearthly crew and takes his show on the road.
Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, by Genevieve Valentine portrays a post-apocalyptic future in which a band of lost souls travels from one ruined city to the next, bringing their marvels to eager crowds of war-ravaged humans. It’s been described as steampunk, as a prose poem, and as a disjointed tapestry of image and text that will only appeal to a few—but those few rave about it.
In Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen, Jacob Janowski, 23 years old and only days away from his final exams to become a veterinarian, is devastated (and stricken by poverty) when his parents are killed in an auto accident. He hops a freight train that happens to be transporting a circus, and soon becomes an integral part, caring for the animals while yearning after a married woman and a difficult elephant. The story is told in flashback, from the viewpoint of an elderly nursing home resident reflecting on his past. (There is also a movie, though I haven’t seen it.)
The Blue Moon Circus, by Michael Raleigh, is the highly rated story of ringmaster Lewis Tully, who gathers together an eclectic group of people to form an independent traveling show. It’s sweet and funny, with likeable characters both human and animal, and a lot of heart.
There are also those stories of circuses that occupy the dark end of the spectrum, the evil circus or carnival from which you wish to escape, such as the classic Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury, Full Tilt, by Neal Shusterman, or The Carnivorous Carnival, by Lemony Snicket. (To this day, hearing the eerie carousel music soundtrack to the movie version of Something Wicked can really mess with my mood.)
Goodreads has quite a comprehensive list of “circus and carnival books” you might want to visit, if one of these books whets your appetite for more “escapist fiction”! One I have always wanted to try is Nights at the Circus, by Angela Carter.
I was excited to get and read The Midnight Lie, by Marie Rutkoski, just a month or so after it was published. I usually end up reviewing books quite a while after they come out, and find myself only adding to the reviews of others, rather than being among the first. Unfortunately, this book left me confused and a bit frustrated, and I don’t know for sure whether it’s the fault of the book itself or of my expectations going into it.
First of all, let me say that I admire the writing of Marie Rutkoski—it’s fluid, intelligent, lyrical, expressive. I greatly enjoyed her middle school fantasy series, The Kronos Chronicles. I also enjoyed The Winner’s Curse, first book of a trilogy for older teens, but somehow never got back to reading the other two books in the series—not for lack of interest, but simply because of the rapid progression of so many other young adult titles that stole my attention.
The cover notes to The Midnight Lie identify it as a book “set in the world of the Winner’s Trilogy,” and other readers on Goodreads note that it takes place between 10 to 20 years after the events portrayed in those books (although I don’t know where they came by this infor-mation). No one comments, however, on whether this story is closely identified with that one, and that is the source of my confusion.
On the surface, you could read this book as if it were the first in a brand-new series. I found the initial set-up of the three-tiered society in which it takes place—the High Kith, the Middlings, and the Half-Kith—to be less well defined or explained than I would have liked, but I kept reading, expecting it would become more clear. The mechanics of the three classes were disclosed—that there were things the Half-Kith, the people behind the Wall, were strictly forbidden from doing, using, eating, or wearing; that the Middlings had a few more privileges; and that the High-Kith were akin to the ruling class in The Hunger Games—frivolous, indulged, silly, extravagant, and without social conscience—and may possess a kind of magic unavailable to the other castes. But because of the plot device that no one in any of the three castes remembers their history, there is no explanation for how things came to be this way. The favorite expression of all castes in the face of questions is, “It is as it is,” and no one save the protagonist wonders about the why of anything.
When Sid, the “traveler,” is introduced to this island kingdom, it is obvious that this person must be the wild card element from the previous trilogy, present to shake things up. The romantic element certainly shakes up Nirrim, the protagonist, who has had a long-standing but reluctant relationship with one of her own caste but longs for something different. In Sid she definitely finds that, but has no idea what else will be opened up by her pursuit of novelty.
This is the point at which I became confused and frustrated. Is Sid actually a character that people who read the Winner’s Trilogy would recognize? Is there some nuance of which I am unaware but that would make more sense to those readers? I think a big part of my lack of enjoyment of parts of this book was that I kept wondering what I was missing by not having read those books. And there is the possibility that I was missing nothing, that this book “is what it is” and I thwarted my own pleasure by constantly second-guessing my knowledge instead of just going with what was actually on the page.
What was on the page was mostly fairly engaging. This is a coming-of-age story in the sense that the protagonist goes from being a rather downtrodden, even pathetically naive sort to finding her own agency, discovering her courage, and reaching for what she wants despite warnings to the contrary. The romantic entanglement is also satisfyingly real, although too short and too much interrupted by other concerns. But the part of the book that confounded my pleasure was the magical element. Although there is one dream or vision of Nirrim’s that telescopes later events, the explanation for the magic was for the majority of the book too vague, too diffuse, and left for way too long. The abrupt changes that took place within the last 25 pages were jarring in light of the previous narrative.
One could say that Rutkoski shouldn’t be penalized for that, because this is, after all, the first in a duology and will undoubtedly pick up and explain all of this in the second volume. But in terms of a story arc, I felt at first deprived and then rushed into the acceptance of something for which I didn’t feel properly prepared. As part of a series this book may well satisfy, but as a single book, I felt it had failings.
I did love the explanation for the title: The midnight lie is
“a kind of lie told for someone else’s sake, a lie that sits between goodness and wrong, just as midnight is the moment between night and morning.”
And the cover was a beautifully illustrated evocation of elements from the book.
I would probably recommend this book to older YA readers (high school and up), but I would really like for someone who has read both the preceding trilogy and this book to tell me what, if anything, I missed, so I could definitively say, Yes, you can read it without knowledge of The Winner’s Trilogy, or no, you absolutely have to have read those books.
Continuing our exploration of books published years ago—some many years ago—but not discovered by some of us until now, in our hour of need: Here are some bewitching fantasies sure to capture your imagination and attention, should you deign to read them…
The first is a series within a series, but then, the majority of Sir Terry Pratchett‘s books fall into that category, I think—Discworld is all-enveloping. But this series is specific to itself as well, and delightful in all ways. It’s the set of five Tiffany Aching books, beginning with The Wee Free Men and ending with The Shepherd’s Crown, which also happens to be Terry’s last book.
In the beginning, it’s young Tiffany Aching, armed only with a frying pan and her enormous common sense, who stands between the monsters of Fairyland and the Chalk country that is her home. Her beloved grandmother, the Witch of the Chalk, has died, and now it’s up to Tiffany, young and unprepared as she is, to take over. When her brother is kidnapped by a fairy and Tiffany has to enter Fairyland to find him and get him back, Tiffany discovers some unusual allies, the Nac Mac Feegle, or Wee Free Men. They are a clan of sheep-stealing, sword-fighting, six-inch-high blue men with proper kilts and Scottish accents, who may be small but are definitely fierce enough to make up for it. Together Tiffany and the Feegle must confront the cruel Queen of the Elves.
In the second book, A Hat Full of Sky, Tiffany’s exploits in retrieving her brother have brought her to the notice of witches, under the leadership of Granny Weatherwax. They arrange for her to be apprenticed to Miss Level, from whom she learns that there’s little magic involved in witchcraft—it’s more a case of midwifery, hospice, herbal lore, and the settling of village disputes. Tiffany scorns much of this, acting like a typical angsty teenager…but this is unlike the usually practical girl. It seems that something more sinister is at work, a malign influence that took hold when Tiffany learned the trick of hopping out of her body for a bit and leaving an “open house.”
In the third book, Tiffany confronts the Wintersmith; in the fourth, I Shall Wear Midnight, she has completed her training and has returned home to become the Witch of the Chalk, only to encounter the seeds of great evil taking over the world; and in the final book, The Shepherd’s Crown, she stands with all the witches against the fairy hordes wanting to overrun her land. It’s a great series, enlivened by dark humor, profound pronouncements, a few bad puns, and of course by the little blue men with their equally blue vocabulary.
All you Miyazaki fans out there have probably long since discovered his animé of Howl’s Moving Castle, by Dianna Wynne Jones, but have you ever read the original source material? If not, you are in for a treat; the movie greatly abridged and “adjusted” the plot, which is so delightful that it deserves to be visited or revisited, depending.
It has one of those first lines that I love:
“In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three.”
This misfortune falls to 18-year-old Sophie Hatter, who is turned by the Witch of the Waste into an old woman. In search of a cure, Sophie tracks down and confronts the local wizard, who travels about the countryside in a castle that moves of its own accord, courtesy of its resident fire demon. Sophie has to figure out how to outwit Howl, employ the fire demon, and overcome the Witch of the Waste to regain her youth. But along the way, what an adventure it will be!
Totally original and delightful, this book will appeal to all ages and genders. Don’t be fooled by its allocation into middle school book lists, this is a fantasy for everyone. Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways are the two sequels.
Another writer with a body of work that mostly connects between all books (like those of Ursula K. LeGuin’s from another recent post) is urban fantasy writer Charles de Lint. If you are a fan of books that seem to be set in the contemporary world but have another, parallel world connected through whose gates the faery folk and Native American archetypes slip from time to time, you must check out his Newford books. They number in excess of 20 by now, but although he has numbered them sequentially, you don’t necessarily have to read them in a particular order. While it is true that characters who reappear will be minor in one and the main protagonist of another, you don’t miss much by jumping in wherever you feel like it. Also, a fair number of the books consist of short stories that bring you up to date about individual people and story lines, should you wish to seek them out.
My favorite two books of his are Memory and Dream, and Trader, which are actually #2 and #4. The first book is written partly in the present, partly in the past, and I am reluctant to reveal too much, because the book is specifically designed for you to discover its surprises as you go along. It begins in 1992, with successful but reclusive abstract artist Isabelle Copley having two jarring experiences on the same day: She receives a letter from her best friend, who has been dead for five years, and is then contacted by another friend, a publisher who wants Isabelle to illustrate an anthology of her dead friend’s short stories. But Isabelle has sworn an oath to never again paint realistically…. Then the book jumps back to 1973, when Izzy is living a bohemian lifestyle with her two best friends (the writer and the publisher) in the city of Newford, studying art under the formidable Vincent Rushkin. One of the greatest living painters and know for his eccentricities, he agrees to take Isabelle on as an apprentice…but despite the miraculous painting techniques she is learning from him, Izzy doesn’t know how much longer she can put up with his controlling and abusive behavior….
The book explores a number of ideas, on a variety of levels, from the nature of art to the knowledge of the people in our lives, to what we are willing to put up with in order to learn the things we want to know. It’s dramatic, magical, and beautifully written.
Trader is a somewhat familiar story—a body swap—that is nonetheless fresh and arresting in the hands of fantasist de Lint. Johnny, an unemployed, womanizing, hard-drinking wastrel, falls asleep wishing for a different life, one with money and advantages, in which people appreciate him. His dream, influenced by the Native American artifact he clutches in his hand as he sleeps, intersects with the discontented, weary spirit of Max, whose existence has become about little more than his work, and who has lost his initial joy in his trade as a musician and guitar maker. They wake up in each others’ bodies, and while Johnny gleefully adapts to Max’s comfortable lifestyle, Max is left penniless, homeless, and with enemies seeking him, and has to figure out what has become of the real Max Trader. Their journeys intersect in both worldly and other-worldly ways, abetted and hindered by friends and foes both human and, well, not.
Some other fantasy duos, trilogies, and series that might appeal to you as long and involving reads:
Strange the Dreamer and Muse of Nightmares, by Laini Taylor
The Shades of Magic books, by V. E. Schwab
Seraphina and Shadow Scale, by Rachel Hartman
The Lumatere Chronicles, by Melina Marchetta (three enormous volumes)
Mary Stewart’s Arthurian saga, beginning with The Crystal Cave
If you read any of the books discussed here, I’d love to hear what you thought of them—did you enjoy them, and did they meet your expectations based on these book-talks?
In The Night Country, sequel to Melissa Albert’s The Hazel Wood, we find Alice, known in the Hinterland as Alice-three-times, back in the “real world” of New York City. (Spoilers for the first book ahead…)
She has been followed fairly precipitately by many of the other inhabitants of the Hinterland, because when Finch broke her out of her story he didn’t do it gently, and the trailing threads and gaping holes began to disintegrate patterns, then stories, until none of the so-called “characters” were safe there. So although Alice is back to living with her mother, going to school, working in a bookstore, and exploring the concept of normality, she is uneasily aware that there are other inhabitants of the city who are also refugees, and who have more in common with her than she does with the oblivious humans surrounding her.
In addition to following the fairy tale people when their stories crumble around them, the book contains a murder mystery: Characters are turning up dead, and not just dead but missing important parts of their bodies. There is a certain method to the killings, as first a left hand, then a right, then a left foot, then a right, go missing from each subsequent victim. The frightening part for Alice is the state of the corpses—as far as she knows, no one but she has the ability to freeze people with a touch, and doesn’t like the idea that she is therefore the prime suspect.
In a parallel tale, when the Hinterland started to disintegrate, Ellery Finch saw his friends to safety as best he could but then made another choice—not to go back to his world of origin, but rather to go on, whatever that meant. We catch glimpses of him here and there throughout the first half of the book through the letters he writes to Alice from strange worlds, and then halfway through the book we turn more fully to his story. How all the stories—and Stories—come together in the end will stay a mystery ready for you to read.
One thing I love about these books is the descriptive nature of the prose. There are three escaped characters who in the Hinterland were known as the Acolytes of the Silver Dagger, the Red, the White, and the Black (after the colors in which they dress). But here on Earth, they are simply known as the Trio. They have found their way to the Christian God, and hang out in a church in Midtown. Alice goes there to confront them, to ask if they have a message for her:
“Looking over the pews I saw that they weren’t quite empty: three heads just peeked over the top of a bench on the left side. The heads were hooded, from left to right, in red, white, and black…. I slid into the pew in front of theirs and turned around, facing them over its back. They had eerie little oatmeal box faces, like an illustrator’s idea of how a wholesome child might look. If the illustrator were terrified of wholesome children.”
Doesn’t your mind immediately flash to a picture of a child sporting the rounded pink cheeks and sly smile of “the Quaker man,” with just a hint of menace somewhere in the expression?
Although the author plans to bring out the actual volume, Tales from the Hinterland, containing Althea Proserpine’s original stories, in January of 2021, that feels more like a whimsical addition to round out the worlds she has created than it does a sequel. Unless Melissa Albert contradicts me sometime in the future, The Hazel Wood and The Night Country form a perfectly complete duology.