Back in 2012, I read Malinda Lo‘s science fiction book, Adaptation, and gave it a four-star rating and a good review. It was good storytelling, had romance both gay and straight, and hey, aliens!
Ever since then, I have meant to go back to her and at least read Ash, her Cinderella retelling with a sapphic twist, and this week I finally did so, as part of my preparation for my “speculative fiction” unit at UCLA for my Young Adult Literature class.
I have to say I was underwhelmed. There are nice things to say about the book: The writing is sometimes lyrical, and the scene-setting imagery (descriptions of forests, countryside, hunting on horseback, etc.) is lovely. Some of the characters are attractive, at least in their physical descriptions. But it seemed like Lo didn’t quite know how to both present/exploit the original fairy tale and then deviate from it effectively (or provocatively, as most readers would be expecting).
The details of the original that were retained were clichéd, with the stepmother being almost a cartoon caricature and the daughters’ personalities left unformed beyond the usual, which is to say, the elder is egocentric, frivolous, and mean, while the younger (less attractive and therefore less valuable?) retains a smidgen of humanity. The father likewise becomes the bum who didn’t pay the bills and left everyone in the lurch. And the prince (central to the original tale) has barely a cameo appearance in this book. The character of Aisling’s absent (dead) mother was so much more fully formed than most of the people in this story who were alive—it was both disconcerting and not ultimately useful.
You would think, against this backdrop, that the main players—Aisling or “Ash” (Cinderella), the King’s Huntress, Kasia, and the mysterious Fae suitor, Sidhean, would shine. They don’t, and nor do their relationships. Although Ash regards Sidhean with awe and wonder and looks forward to his visits and his company, there is little emotional involvement visible from either side (except for one or two extremely brief repressed moments on Sidhean’s part), and the prospect of going away with him does not fill Ash with joy, despite her miserable lifestyle from which one would think she would be desperate to escape.
Likewise, the meetings with the Huntress only hint tentatively and subtly at there being any kind of fascination (on either side), let alone attraction, and are so quietly and decorously handled that you keep wondering if you imagined reading the synopsis of the book in which these two supposedly fall in love. There are moments…but they remain unarticulated until almost the very end, and there is little sense of who the Huntress is, with few glimpses into her past and present and almost no indication of her feelings. There is no love story here, except in the vague dim recesses of the two characters’ minds—no verbalization, no wooing, no physical manifestation.
In effect, this book has an almost totally flat affect. Although there are conflicts (as Ash learns from her rather obsessive reading of fairy tales, it’s a big deal to go away with a fae into his land, where time moves differently and people can become trapped forever), they are not ultimately dealt with as if they are that significant. I don’t want to be a spoiler here, but the resolution with Sidhean was puzzling, abrupt, and unsatisfying.
In this setting/world it also seems that a relationship with a fae prince is so much more scandalous than is a lesbian one—which seems almost completely taken for granted—that the reader is denied even the frisson of forbidden love, and when the two women eventually get together, it verges on mundane. And I mean, we all say we want books in which same-sex relationships are accepted and taken for granted, but…this is a fairy tale retelling in which “Ash” supposedly ends up a princess, married to a prince, so…shouldn’t there be some kind of fireworks when that doesn’t happen?
I was just puzzled by this book—especially all the ways the author chose not to go. It’s not exactly a pan—it’s a pleasant enough read, and has some interesting moments—but it was so much less than I hoped or expected.
Well, I promised to come back once I had read Darkdawn, the third book in the Nevernight Chronicle by Jay Kristoff, with a final verdict. Sadly, my reaction was mostly one of disappointment.
The action is still tense, the main characters are still developing and doing unexpected things to move the story along, but for me, this was a much less successful book than the first two, for several reasons.
The main one was the love triangle. Having been a teen librarian (and runner of three teen book clubs for 10 years), I can’t tell you how many love triangles I have had to endure in the course of my YA reading. For a period of time they seemed to be an absolute requirement as one element of any book written for teens, and almost none of them improved a story line in any way. This book is not written for teens (I think I mentioned the brutality, language, and raw sexuality of the first two, and that continues here), but for some reason Kristoff just couldn’t resist putting one in, and it’s not pretty. A large part of the book was ruined for me by the callous mean-spiritedness of two of the three participants.
I also didn’t care for what happened to the story line. The first book dealt with origin stories for its characters; the second advanced the revenge plot with a truly horrifying and compelling twist; but in this third book it seemed like everyone involved was just flailing around trying to triumph over one another in a really disorganized way. There were a few saving graces in the early part of the book, such as the interval spent on board ship with the delightful pirate Cloud and his crew, and Mia’s attempt to put things right with her little brother, but by the end the whole thing felt like it had disintegrated into a mash-up of sarcasm and sex, alternating with interventions by various gods and monsters.
Part of what didn’t work for me (and I think this is probably the central issue) is how exactly Mia would manage to counteract her enemies’ moves and at the same time achieve the gods’ ends as she was apparently destined to do. Motives and objectives kept wandering randomly, and at some point it felt to me like Kristoff lost the plot.
You will find, if you look at ratings on Goodreads, that many people disagree with my analysis of this book. It seems like everyone gave it either five stars or one, with no one in between. For the sake of all those (admittedly in the majority) who went with the five and loved this book as unreservedly as the first two, I will say, If you like a sizzling fantasy story with nonstop action, fascinating characters, and big intentions, give the Nevernight trilogy a try. But don’t say I didn’t warn you if you end up on the same page with me by the end of #3.
My only previous experience of author Jay Kristoff is as the co-writer of the Illuminae books, with Amie Kaufman, which are clever and entertaining but don’t have a singular voice like his Nevernight Chronicles. Someone in a fantasy thread recommended the series; I don’t know how I had gone this long without hearing of it, and decided to give it a try. It didn’t hurt that my Kindle Unlimited was offering the first two for free this month!
I was going to wait until I had read all three books before writing my review, but the combination of how long it is taking me to get through them with the fact that I am still #7 on the wait-list for the library copy of the third book made me decide to review after two. I will come back and comment when I am done with the whole.
My verdict so far is that this series is terrific. I can see why I hadn’t heard of it in the context of young adult literature, because he’s definitely not an author of whom many teens’ parents will approve, since he slings around both traditional and unorthodox language like a dock worker, shockingly emerging from the mouth of his pale, petite, teenage assassin, Mia Corvere. The books are pretty edgy, with graphic descriptions of blood and violence and sex, but the language he uses to describe everything is powerful and sometimes lyrical—it made me happy to read individual passages. (I will say, though, that others have described it as too flowery, over the top, unnecessarily verbose. To each their own.)
This is a series, however, that could be thoroughly enjoyed by older teens (I’m talking 17 up, maybe?), as well as by anyone else who likes sterling world-building, a provocative protagonist, and a driving story line.
The prevailing theme is a battle between light and dark; but in this tale, the dark is represented by a wronged child who finds refuge in kindly shadows, while the light consists of a bunch of powerful, hypocritical politicians who use the gods of their three suns to reinforce their will as rulers.
Mia Corvere is 10 years old when her father, who has led an uprising to place someone else on the throne, is executed as a traitor in front of her horrified eyes. She is the only family member to escape capture, and hides in the city of Godsgrave, searching for a group of people who will help her with revenge—the Red Church. They are a deadly “school” of assassins, and Mia plans to advance through their ranks to gain the skills to claim the lives of the two powerful men who gloated on the sidelines as her father was hanged.
The first book, Nevernight, consists of Mia’s introduction to and progress amongst the acolytes of the Red Church. Life becomes a competition to the death between herself and her fellow students as they seek to survive while gaining knowledge of steel, poison, and the subtle arts, the eventual goal to be inducted as a Blade of the Lady of Blessed Murder. What she doesn’t know when she enters the dark halls of the school is that a plot is brewing that will, if it succeeds, disastrously counter all her plans for revenge.
In book #2, Godsgrave, Mia is now a Blade, although her induction was a matter of controversy. As the story opens, she is working out of a backwater station of the Red Church, taking assignments to assassinate victims designated by the Church on behalf of their clients. But she begins to suspect that the Church’s motives are far from pure and that their interdiction of her revenge on Consul Scaeva and his priestly cohort, Cardinal Duomo, is less about their need for her to follow orders and more about protecting her mortal enemies in favor of their own self-interest. So she hatches a plot that involves her adopting a desperate masquerade to achieve a confrontation with the men whose lives she seeks to end.
I enjoyed the first book more than the second for two reasons: 1. I always like the origin story the best, and gaining knowledge of the world and learning about where Mia came from and how she arrives at where she needs to be was thoroughly engrossing. 2. The second book is overwhelmingly brutal, bloody, and gory, depicting as it does a group of slaves who fight as gladiators in an attempt to gain their freedom (and some of whom who compete just for the “sanguis et gloria” of it). The second book was also long and involved, and the first half, consisting as it does of a present-and-past flashback/flash forward style, was a little taxing to keep straight. But the whole story bowls along towards the initial revenge plot in a satisfying arc, and after the breathless events of this book, I am greatly anticipating reading part three.
Although…I have to say I’m a little relieved that Darkdawn hasn’t arrived on my Kindle yet, because after two of these books, I need a short break before re-immersion! I finished Godsgrave by pulling a four-hour stint in the middle of the night (did I mention I have chronic insomnia these days?) and I’m kinda exhausted! I’ll be back when I have completed the series.
I began reading The Paper Magician, by Charlie N. Holmberg, with great anticipation—as it turns out, too great. Its opening pages reminded me of another series (of which I have read the first two) that I recently loved (and reviewed here), the Art Mages of Lure books by Jordan Rivet, beginning with The Curse Painter. They seemed like similar systems of magic, in which the practitioner invests everything in learning how to bring magic to the world through a particular medium, in that case paint and in this, paper.
In this series there is a particular magical system, in which potentials attend the Tagis Praff School for the Magically Inclined and (ideally) by the end of their studies have discovered with which material or element their skills are best-suited to work. Ceony Twill has graduated at the top of her class with every expectation of being able to choose her path as a magician, and her inclination is towards becoming a Smelter, a worker of bullets, jewelry, and all things metal. Instead, she is informed by her mentor that there is a severe shortage in the world of magicians who can work with paper, and she is therefore being assigned to a Folder for an apprenticeship in paper magic.
Ceony’s level of dismay is more understandable when you realize that once a magician chooses a material with which she will bond, that is her medium for life—there’s no changing over to a different field in this system. Still, her new mentor/trainer, Magician Emery Thane, has much to forgive in her first few days as she in turn exhibits reluctance and indulges in sarcasm and sheer petulance. But as he pursues his rather quirky methods of instructing her in the folding of paper into marvelous creations with all sorts of uses (and also none, save for beauty and whimsy), Ceony is gradually won over to the idea that being a paper magician might have its own appeal.
I loved the book up to this point. The idea of binding to a specific material and only casting through that medium was intriguing, and the initial instruction by Mg. Thane (don’t you love that abbreviation?) in how “folding” works was wonderfully portrayed. Consider if you could use origami techniques to fold a paper crane—or a dog, or a dinosaur!—and, if you’d done it perfectly, being able to say “breathe” to it and bring it to life, or at least to animation. Imagine creating an entire garden out of folded paper tulips that would go back to bud every night and bloom again in the morning, or folding a paper airplane that you could actually use to fly across town.
I also loved the grounding of the book in the transitional period between the Victorian era and the Industrial Revolution. Some houses have lightbulbs while others still use gas lamps, or candles. Some drive automobiles while others rely on a horse and buggy for transport. And alongside all this mundane detail, being a magician is equally common—just another job in the world.
Unfortunately, as intrigued with the job of paper folding as she was rapidly becoming, Ceony was also in short order beguiled by the smiling green eyes of her teacher, Mg. Thane. I sighed a little and prepared to be treated to some insta-love alongside the solid characterizations and nice set-up in world-building that Holmberg had created…and then everything went to hell in a handbasket, as people in the 1870s might say.
Why the author chose to hare off on the tangent she did, especially in the first book of the series, is a mystery to me. Suddenly Thane’s ex-wife pops into the picture as a super-villain who takes over the story, even though we have previously never heard of her and are abruptly informed of her ill will towards Thane, his attractive pupil and, in fact, pretty much all and sundry, with a few short sentences about the kind of bad magic she practices; but we have no background on her history, motivations, or abilities. And we are not destined to get any! Instead, she attacks Thane, and Ceony embroils herself (despite being only a couple of weeks into her apprenticeship) in an attempt to save him. Those efforts take up the rest of the book.
I know this is a little spoiler-y, but honestly, I was so exasperated by the turn things took that I couldn’t get over it! There are three more books in this series, although by reading the descriptions it seems like #4 is an add-on; the first three are centered around these two protagonists (Ceony Twill and Emery Thane), while the last seems completely detached per its description. The other books reveal more about the magical system, in that they address people who are able to work glass, plastic, etc., and I am a little tempted to keep reading because of that aspect…but the set-up for book two has Ceony pining over her as-yet lack of attachment to Emery, and I just don’t know if I’m up for it, particularly since there are also promises of a repeat of book one: the introduction of a rogue character who upsets the apple cart again.
I’m not telling you not to read these books; the characters are appealing, and the situations, despite their lack of context, are imaginative. But when I compare this series to the afore-mentioned one by Jordan Rivet, there’s just no contest; and I could wish that this writer had had a more astute editor to say “stop, wait, think” when she decided to take a turn for the dramatic, and point out a more logical, integrated way to pull it off.
I was trying to decide what genre would next receive attention for possible summer reading recommendations, as August winds down. Some people who are turned off by traditional fantasy (quests, medieval societies, talking animals, etc.) are hooked by what some designate as urban fantasy—a story that takes place in a contemporary setting with “normal” people, but eventually fantastical creatures or events invade that space and change it or them. I started pondering, then, what crossovers there are with urban fantasy—so often, paranormal creatures are the fantasy part of urban fantasy, so I looked to my paranormal list to see what fit and what didn’t within that broader category. It also crossed my mind that works of magical realism could, in some cases, twin as urban fantasy. So this will be a mashup of all of those, which, while technically being separate genres, share the characteristic of something “wyrd” intruding on everyday life. (It is obviously not comprehensive, since that would take a post five times as long. But hopefully it is a representative offering.)
The first urban fantasist who comes to mind when thinking about that genre (at least for me) is Charles de Lint, a writer who sets all of his stories in the fictional Canadian city of Newford. People refer to his work not only as urban fantasy but as magical realism and mythic fiction but, whatever you call it, it’s compelling. He has written at least two dozen books that are consciously numbered Newford #1-21 etc., but many of his nondesignated works also take place in and around that city and its anomalies, as well as several collections of short stories featuring characters from various novel-length works.
I have enjoyed reading most of his books, but my two favorites are Memory and Dream, and Trader. Memory and Dream takes place mostly in flashback: It begins with the story of an artist, Isabelle Copley, who has retreated from the city to an island where she isolates herself and paints only abstract works; but in her youth, she was a vital part of the art scene in and around Newford, and studied with a master painter who abused her but also taught her a method of painting that could (at least theoretically) bring the subjects of her portraits to life. Trader is about a musician and craftsman (he makes musical instruments, mainly guitars) who is going through a bad patch in which he has no joy in life and no appreciation of his situation. Across town, there is another man who is going through an actual (rather than psychological) life crisis generated by his own bad behavior—he’s a gambler and a cheat, and has just been evicted from his home with only the clothes on his back. He has come into possession of an Inuit artifact and, as he goes to sleep that night, he clutches it in his hand and wishes hard for his life to get better, just as the other man is wishing the same. In the morning, everything has changed for both of them.
While de Lint’s books are filled with both events and characters who are out of place in their everyday environment, his are based on myth and legend (mostly from the Original Peoples), with archetypes such as Coyote and Crow (as well as more whimsical made-up characters) making appearances. But the next writer who springs to mind—Seanan McGuire—has much more crossover with the paranormal genre than with magical realism, because her unorthodox characters are mostly scary supernatural creatures—were-people, sentient snakes, monsters that cause those bumps in the night. The protagonist and her family call them cryptids. The early books take place in New York City, where Verity Price (a cryptozoologist) is working in a bar while trying to become a competitive ballroom dancer. But she keeps getting drawn into conflicts between the native cryptids, both advocating for and fighting on their behalf for their right to life against the monster-hunting society called the Covenant of St. George, whose members are dedicated to wiping out the monsters one and all, regardless if they are talking mice or dragons in the subway system.
In addition to these InCryptid stories, McGuire writes another urban fantasy-ish series called Rosemary and Rue, around the protagonist October Daye, a half-human, half-faerie changeling who keeps getting burned by both sides of her heritage. It is set in San Francisco, and is about the remains of the fae (faeries) who exist in the cracks of that city and keep intruding on its existence, sometimes in nefarious ways. Although McGuire has a lot of fans for this series, I found it wordy and tedious compared to the witty, light-hearted tone and fast pacing of the Incryptid books.
Finally, McGuire has a new series about which I have raved in reviews on this blog: the Wayward Children books. They are compact little gems of literary writing based around the fascinating premise that some of the children who disappear every year into the back of the wardrobe or under the faeries’ mound on the heath or down the rabbit hole have been kicked out of their alternate worlds back to this real one, and their sole desire in life is to return to whatever world they discovered when they walked through that mirror. Eleanor West runs a Home for Wayward Children that takes in these unhappy souls; their parents believe that West is attempting to re-acclimate them to their mundane life in this world, but Eleanor’s secret goal is to aid them in finding their way back to the magical lands they long for.
A couple other well-known urban fantasy writers are Jim Butcher, who writes the engaging Dresden Files, about wizard Harry Dresden, who consults with the Chicago P.D. whenever a crime seems a little “out of this world” to be solved by a mundane police force; and Charlaine Harris, who has written full-on paranormal (vampires as a part of everyday life in the Sookie Stackhouse books) and also has been more restrained (as in the wonderful Harper Connelly series, about a woman who was struck by lightning and can, as a result, stand on someone’s grave and tell you how they died). Harris has recently extended her imaginative worlds into both alternate history and dystopian fiction with her Gunnie Rose series, which is also urban fantasy with the inclusion of wizardry by Russian and British practitioners.
There is some debate about whether Melissa Albert‘s books The Hazel Wood and The Night Country should be included in the urban fantasy category, since they are predominantly new fairy tales. But the fact that the protagonist and her mother live in the real world while her grandmother, who wrote a cult classic book of dark fairy tales, has thus created the Hinterland, a parallel land into which the protagonist ultimately travels, makes this duology a candidate for both.
It is difficult—and sometimes arbitrary—to differentiate between urban fantasy and paranormal as two different categories, and after thinking it through, I have decided for myself that the paranormal books only qualify as urban fantasy if the urban setting and mindset predominate. In other words, the scene is first and primarily set in the real world, and the fantasy intrudes upon it to the surprise of the characters living in that setting.
One young adult duology that I adore that qualifies in both categories is Lish McBride‘s Hold Me Closer, Necromancer, and its sequel, Necromancing the Stone. While both books are filled with all sorts of paranormal critters, the first book starts out in a commonplace setting and with an all-too-characteristic protagonist. Sam lives in Seattle, still at home with his single mother despite having graduated high school. He’s not exactly a loser, but he lacks focus and ambition; rather than going to college, he has chosen to continue working in the fast food joint where he and his friends have a light-hearted routine of playing “potato hockey” in the back parking lot during slow periods. But when a potato flies out of control and smashes the headlight on a brand-new Mercedes, Sam comes to the attention of Douglas, a scary dude who turns out to be the neighborhood necromancer and reveals to Sam that he, too, has this “gift.” Douglas is threatened by the presence of what he sees as a rival for his territory, and gives Sam an ultimatum; but Sam, baffled by this amazing discovery, feels helpless to know what to do. Fortunately, his mother, his uncle, and even some of his friends have abilities that can help him out of his dilemma.
Another young adult author who specializes in the urban fantasy/paranormal mashup is Maggie Stiefvater. Some, like her Wolves of Mercy Falls books, fall more heavily on the supernatural side, with setting being instrumental (the necessity of a cold climate) but not primary, while others, such as her Dreamer books, feel a lot more like urban fantasy. The Raven Cycle, four books set in the small town of Henrietta, Virginia, straddle the line between urban fantasy and legend. All are intriguing and beautifully written.
Then we come to the crossover with magical realism. Urban fantasy and magical realism have the connection that there are uncanny things happening within a mundane setting; but in magical realism, the setting is often not as important, and this is seen by some as the dividing line. Who could argue, though, that it wasn’t crucial for the book Chocolat, by Joanne Harris, to be set in the straight-laced French village of Lansquenet, with its narrow-minded mayor and contentious residents? Or that the events in Practical Magic, by Alice Hoffman, would have had the same impact had they not taken place in the Massachusetts town where the Owens women had been renowned for more than 200 years as witches? Or that the events of Once Upon A River, by Diane Setterfield, would have differed significantly had they not been centered on an ancient inn on the banks of the river Thames? Looking through my list on Goodreads of the 50+ books of magical realism I have read, these are three that stand out for their significant settings, while the others could most of them have happened anywhere, as long as it was within this ordinary world and featured extraordinary events or characters. But you can see that there are commonalities that can be significant.
The bottom line for me is that all of these permutations contain the wonderful premise that there are things taking place around us in our everyday lives that, could we only look up at the right moment and see them happen, would change everything in a heartbeat. I love this premise and, therefore, the books that promote it, be they classified as magical realism, paranormal fiction, or urban fantasy. I hope you will find a book or two from this blog post that appeal to you in the same way they have to me.
In the category of “Better late than never…”
I had a lesson this week in my year-long portrait-painting class that took as its inspiration Picasso’s harlequins. It was a complicated, lengthy, and convoluted lesson and I almost didn’t do it…and then I got an idea. I decided, instead of painting the boy and girl harlequins like the teacher did, that I would illustrate Robin Hobb’s fabulous Farseer books by making a painting of one of the main characters, the Fool, an albino court jester who (in the early books) sits at the feet of King Shrewd, dressed in black and white motley and playing with a rat-head marotte. So I did, and here it is!
The teacher who taught this lesson is a big proponent of collage, and I found some fun and symbolic stuff for this one. In addition to using tissue paper to good purpose for the ermine of the King’s cloak, I found a dragon, which figures significantly in later books; a Queen of Hearts card, which I interpreted as Queen Kettricken, my favorite female character (well, she was until Bee arrived); and a tiny jester, who is gesturing up towards my Fool from the corner.
Perhaps this will intrigue more readers to look into Robin Hobb’s three trilogies about the Farseers!
Robin Hobb wrote the Farseer Trilogy, the Tawny Man trilogy, and the Fitz and the Fool trilogy. There are also other books set in the same universe, about the Liveships and their Traders, the Rain Wilds, and the Elderlings.
I have spent the past couple of weeks immersed again in the land of the Six Duchies, the cities of the Elderlings, the oceans sailed by the liveships, and the mysterious white island of the Servants, origin of the enigmatic character known variously as the Fool, Lord Golden, and Lady Amber. Yes, I am referring to the third and last trilogy by Robin Hobb that details the story of FitzChivalry Farseer and all his many friends, enemies, family members, and connections. The end of the tale was a fascinating, unexpected, breathless pleasure to read—at the same time as I dreaded its conclusion.
After having gone missing for many years without a word to “Tom Badgerlock,” the Fool makes an abrupt and unexpected re-entry into FitzChivalry’s life that spells disaster for all. Fitz’s little daughter, Bee, is kidnapped from her home in her father’s absence, and borne away to the white island of the Servants, who believe she is the “Unexpected Son” of their prophecies and wish to exploit her talents and control her dreams. Given the almost insurmountable challenge of retrieving her (not to mention the two men’s intention to slaughter every single Servant and raze their city to the ground), Fitz and the Fool seek out all the allies they can muster, including visiting the descendents of the fabled Elderlings, engaging with the Traders who sail the sentient vessels known as liveships, and even entreating the aid of dragons.
I didn’t think I could love anything more than the last trilogy, but with the intriguing introductions of new characters and the rediscovery of old ones in this, it just blew me away. I definitely haven’t been getting enough sleep, because I haven’t been able to put it down!
The adventure is convoluted, the personalities ever more compelling, the confrontations fizzing with action. I dare to say that this is the best extended fantasy tale I have ever read, with this trilogy being the perfect conclusion, and I know I will return to it someday to re-experience the pleasures of this exquisitely detailed saga.
I am somewhat consoled for its ending by the fact that there are other books by Hobb set in this universe, including The Liveship Traders books and the Rain Wild Chronicles. I am reluctantly pulling away from it for a while, because I need to read and review more for this blog after having neglected it so shamelessly for weeks while I indulged my fantasy binge. But I will definitely go there sometime in the near future.