Faerie tale magic

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.

SpinsilverI 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.

 

Circus!

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.

strangerI 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.

MeridonThe 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.

joinedThat 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
to present.

girlwireEven 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:

nightcirc

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.

johannesAnother 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.

mechaniqueMechanique: 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.

elephantsIn 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.)

bluemoonThe 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.

 

fulltiltThere 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.

 

 

New YA

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.

MidnightLieThe 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.

 

 

 

Fresh look: old 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.

WFMIn 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.

nacmacf

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.”

HowlThis 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.

m&dMy 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.

traderTrader 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 world

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…)

Night

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.”

quakerDoesn’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.

 

Another chance

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.

River

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.

oldswan

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.

 

Serendipity

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.

ninthhouseI 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.

sixMy 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.

crookedAnd 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?

19WWMcrow

 

Heroes

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.

herocrownIn 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.

blueswordAlthough 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.

 

 

Young Numair

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.

tempestsIn 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.

 

Ash & Bramble

“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.

ashbrambleDespite 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.

HEA.jpg

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.