The Thief Returns

I’m going to start by saying
I don’t really know how to write a review of this book, because I am so predisposed to love it. I discovered the Queen’s Thief series, by Megan Whalen Turner, about 12 years ago when I became a teen librarian and found it in the library’s young adult book collection, and have been raving about it ever since.

Just to clear up what I think of as grievous misperceptions, I’m first going to say that this is not a young adult series. That is not to say that young adults—or even younger children, if they are bright, perceptive readers—would not appreciate it; but this is not a series that was designed specifically to appeal to the YA market like such others as Sarah J. Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses (ACOTAR), to which it has superficially and mistakenly been compared by publishers desperate to sell books. The Queen’s Thief books are both expertly and lyrically written to appeal to absolutely anyone who loves fantasy (and, probably, if you could get them to read it, to those who don’t). It is brilliantly crafted (which I will discuss further below) and in no way deserves to be dismissed as suitable only for a certain demographic.

In fact, I feel like the initial publisher did the series a grave disservice by packaging and selling it to children. The first two covers of The Thief, put out respectively by Greenwillow and Puffin, were designed with a Percy Jackson vibe to appeal to 4th-graders, and it’s a miracle anyone else ever discovered it.

Fortunately, by the third release Greenwillow got it right, and the next three books came out with similarly engaging, nicely illustrated covers that would appeal to both teens and adults. Unfortunately, the long hiatus (seven years) between books four and five meant a re-design and a re-release in hardcover, with completely new art, so the only way for people who are obsessive about their series being all the same size with the same cover art is to buy the entire six-volume set over again. (I probably won’t do that, considering that I prefer the original covers, but it is a little annoying.)

The second thing I’d like to clear up is that the aforementioned desperate publishers keep insisting in their blurbs that the books in this series are stand-alone. They are not. If you do not read them all, and read them in order, you will be utterly and completely lost as to what is happening, to whom, and why. What the publishers don’t understand is that this is actually a huge advantage, because the books are so compelling that I daresay a large percentage of those who begin with The Thief are guaranteed to continue. And the true advantage of that, in my opinion, is that the books become exponentially better with each one, up through book #4. (I am not saying that to disparage books five and six in any way, but the story shifts at book five to a somewhat unrelated segue of a tale, and comes together again in book six to conclude things properly.)

Each of the books has a different narrator, which serves two purposes: One, it gives the reader a more well-rounded and broader perspective of the tale as a whole, seen as it is through multiple viewpoints with differing roles and agendas; and two, it keeps the story fresh and interesting. And those narrators are by no means limited to the primary protagonists; book #3 (The King of Attolia) is narrated by a hitherto unknown soldier; book #4 (A Conspiracy of Kings) by a character who, though vital, was only superficially explored in book #1; book #5 (Thick as Thieves) by a slave of the Mede empire; and book #6 (Return of the Thief) by the mute, disabled son of one of Eugenides’s greatest enemies. Who but Megan Whalen Turner would have the nerve, or the brilliance, to pull that off?

How to describe this series? Especially without giving away the cleverness, the hidden agendas, the STORY….

In the simplest of terms, this is the tale of three kingdoms—Attolia, Eddis, and Sounis—and their rulers, which exist a bit uneasily side by side on the Little/Lesser Peninsula, and what happens to and within each/all when they are threatened by the mighty Mede empire with annexation. It has a vaguely Greek or Eastern flavor, particularly as regards its gods and traditions, which is a nice shift from a more usual swords-and-sorcery Medieval-type theme. There are political machinations and plots, love, heartbreak, and courage. There are relationships so complex they take the entire series of six books to understand. There are occasional interventions by the gods, betrayals by those seemingly beyond reproach, and personal relationships between the mighty and the small that endear both to the reader. There are wars, including battles both literal and emotional for the soul of the countries, those of its rulers, and to win over some of its lowliest subjects. Dare I say it has everything?

It took Megan Whalen Turner 24 years to write the entire thing. The books are not, however, gargantuan collections of names and facts and histories akin to a Game of Thrones with its over-the-top, kitchen-sink 700+-page tomes. Instead, each book is a perfect jewel of between 300-400 pages that tells everything it should to further the story, but nothing more and nothing less. It took her an average of four years (one took six, one seven, and one three) to write each one and, I have no doubt (having read the series multiple times) that she considered each and every word, sentence, thought, feeling, and event carefully before adding it.

They say that the test of a good book or series lies in the ability to reread it and have something new revealed with each experience; I have read the first four books either three or four times apiece, and book #5 twice, the second time as a bridge to the end volume. For me, however, rereading isn’t just about picking up things I missed the first time, it’s the joy of reconnecting with something that touched me profoundly—a reunion with the world in all its details, with the subtleties portrayed by its characters, with the humor, the emotion, the realness of it.

That end volume brings us full circle to the quandary that was set up near the beginning and then proceeds to solve it, not without cost but with perfect satisfaction. This doesn’t mean that it is an easy glide down to the conclusion, however; this part of the tale is as full of surprising plot twists as is the first, and the reader is beguiled anew by all of its actors, especially the unfathomable, mercurial, and yet completely engaging Eugenides. And while it is bittersweet to reach the end, I have no doubt that I will return to this story and these characters at least a few more times to relive the entire experience.

Have I convinced you to read it?

Significant relationships

I picked up The Marsh King’s Daughter, by Karen Dionne,
with the misconception that it would be a fantasy retelling of an obscure fairy tale. But although the author makes creative episodic use of the Hans Christian Andersen story of the same name by revealing it gradually in chapter headings, the tale told here is all too real.

Helena Pelletier is revealed as a former “wild child,” one of those who has been raised in the wilderness outside of society, under no one’s influence but that of her parents. Even that statement is misleading; her mother played no real role (except that of passive housekeeper and provider of meals). Her Anishinaabe nickname, given to her by her part Native American father, was Little Shadow, and Helena became, as she grew, a miniature version of him, learning all he was inclined to teach her—including a basic disdain for her weak and ineffective mother. Under his tutelage she learned to track, trap, hunt, gather, and survive in the combination of forest and marshland in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where their cabin was situated.

The truth that she finally discovers at age 12 rocks her world and skews all her perceptions: Her father kidnapped her mother off the street when she was 14 years old, brought her to his cabin in the marsh, and held her prisoner. At age 16 she became pregnant and gave birth to Helena, who spent the next 12 years in ignorance and freedom, being raised by the victim and her captor.

The story is compellingly told in alternating chapters of present day and past tense. After eluding arrest for two years, Helena’s father spent 13 years in prison for his crimes. But now he has managed to escape, killing two guards and supposedly heading off into the heart of a wildlife refuge. But Helena, now in her late 20s and with a husband and two daughters of her own, knows him well enough to believe that this is misdirection to get the manhunt going in that area while her father will make his way to the land he knows best, part of which is now the site of Helena’s family home. She also believes that since no one knows him and his skills the way she does, she is the only one who can track him down.

Each revelation in the present day leads to a chapter about her life in the past, and as the book moves to its conclusion, the picture of what that was like grows deeper, broader, and more fascinating. This is a cat-and-mouse thriller full of suspense: Although we know from the outset that Helena’s father is “the bad guy,” the tension of seeing how her life plays out as she grows up and becomes self-aware enough to recognize him for who he is—a dangerous narcissist, a psychopath—gives agency to some truly compelling character development. The conflict experienced by Helena, who goes from idolizing her father to questioning his authority to the major revelation of his actions, followed by an uncomfortable and protracted adjustment to her new life in society, shows all the nuances of parent-child relationships and how they help and harm as children achieve adulthood. I’m so happy to finally have read a book this year that I can unequivocally endorse! Five stars from me.

One of the attractive parts of this story is the wealth of detail about the marshes and wetlands of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in which it is set; but I should also note that there is a fair bit of detail about the trapping and killing of animals for food that may disturb some readers. I am a vegetarian for compassionate reasons and managed to get through it, but some of it was more graphic than I would have liked.

Libraries, booksellers…

So, on the Facebook page “What Should I Read Next?” a lot of people have been touting the book The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig, as a really good read. I took note because, as you know if you read this blog, I love books about books and reading, plus I’m a former librarian. Also, the description sounded intriguing! So the next time I had a break in my reading schedule, I remembered that there was a book about books that I wanted to read, and…I somehow ended up with The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, by Garth Nix.

It’s on my Kindle, which The Midnight Library is not; but I’m pretty sure that I have a physical copy of that book floating around my house somewhere (although I may have confused it with The Librarian of Auschwitz, which is definitely in my living room pile), so I will get to it. But in the meantime…Garth Nix!

I have several friends who are huge fans of Garth Nix, particularly of his Abhorsen series that begins with the book Sabriel, and also the series containing The Keys to the Kingdom. I have picked up the book Sabriel several times meaning to read it, and then put it down again, because the whole necromancy theme doesn’t, in general, appeal to me. But people whose reading tastes I trust have consistently raved about him, so last year I purchased his YA book Newt’s Emerald as a remainder from Book Outlet. The description roped me in because Nix said he was inspired to write this historical fiction based in Regency England by one of my absolute faves, Georgette Heyer. And he got all the details right, plus he added magical elements, but…there are some books that—no matter how much you enjoy them in the moment—are just not memorable. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the book, but the things that were right with it were not quite enough. I liked it, it was cute, it was mildly entertaining, and…that’s it. So I wasn’t sure, when I started Left-Handed Booksellers, of what my experience would be.

I can definitely say that I liked it much better than I did Newt’s Emerald. There were several things that made it instantly appealing. First, it’s a “quest” book. The protagonist, Susan, is enrolled in art school for the fall semester in London, but decides to come a few months early, for several reasons: She wants to scope out her new surroundings, having visited London before but never lived there; she wants to try to pick up some work waitressing in a café to put some extra spending money by for the school year; and, last but not least, she wants to find her father. Her mother, an exceedingly vague lady whose manner most assume is the result of an excessive intake of drugs during the 1960s, has never told her who her father is, and in fact Susan isn’t positive Jassmine even knows for sure. But Susan, with a keen desire to find out, has written down a list of men her mother has mentioned over the years, and has collected a few artifacts that might be related to him in some way, and she is fully prepared to play detective.

Unfortunately, her first research foray is not only unsuccessful, but lands her in the middle of a situation with which she is not prepared to cope. The first man on her list was a vaguely gangsterish fellow named Frank Thringley, who used to send her a birthday card every year, but before she can question him, he is turned to dust by an exceedingly handsome young man wearing a glove on his left hand like Michael Jackson. Merlin turns out to be a left-handed bookseller, and explains to Susan that along with the right-handed ones, he is part of an extended family of magical beings who police the mythic and legendary Old World when it intrudes on the modern world, in addition to running several bookshops. This is the second thing that makes the book appealing: It is full of beguiling concepts and characters that all hang together to make a plausible, if not entirely logical, alternate London, offering constant surprises as you continue to read.

Susan has drawn unwanted attention from the wrong people, both human and otherworldly, with her mere presence at the death of Thringley, and discovers that her best bet is to stick with Merlin and his sister, the right-handed Vivien, to gain some protection and some aid from the booksellers, while trying to find her father and, incidentally, helping the siblings with a quest of their own.

Although the main and two subsidiary protagonists in this tale are all around 18 years of age, I would not necessarily characterize this book as Young Adult, although I’m sure it would appeal to any teenager who likes fantasy. But I think it would equally appeal to any person who likes fantasy, regardless of age. It’s briskly paced and intelligently written, and immediately engages you in the story, which is full of fanciful descriptions of all the old-world denizens. There are lots of adventures, mysteries, and surprises contained within its pages, and it comes to a satisfying conclusion while leaving the door open for more possible stories about the booksellers of London, which I, for one, would welcome.

I don’t know how it stacks up to Sabriel, but based on my enjoyment of this book, I may decide it’s worth my while to find out someday.

2020 Faves

I don’t know if anyone is dying for a reprise of my favorite books of 2020. Since I am such an eclectic reader, I don’t always read the new stuff, or the popular stuff. Sometimes I discover something popular three years after everyone else already read it, as I did The Hate U Give this past January (it was released in 2017). Sometimes I find things that no one else has read that are unbelievably good, and I feel vindicated by my weird reading patterns when I am able to share it on my blog. But mostly I just read whatever takes my fancy, whenever it comes up and from whatever source, and readers of the blog have to put up with it.

Anyway, I thought I would do a short summary here of my favorite reads for the year, and since they are somewhat evenly populated between Young Adult and Adult books, I will divvy them up
that way.

YOUNG ADULT DISCOVERIES

Fantasy dominated here, as it commonly does, both because fantasy is big in YA and because I am a big fantasy fan. I discovered a stand-alone and two duologies this year, which was a nice break from the usual trilogy and I think worked better for the authors as well (so often the middle book is weak and the last book is rushed in those cases).

The first was The Hazel Wood and The Night Country, by Melissa Albert, and although I characterized them as fantasy, they are truthfully much closer to fairy tale. I say that advisedly with the caveat that this is not the determinedly nice Disney fairy tale, but a real, slightly horrifying portal story to a place that you may not, in the end, wish to visit! Both the story and the language are fantastic, in all senses of the word.

The stand-alone was Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik. The book 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 prosaic fairy godmother. It is a beautifully complex, character-driven story about agency, empathy, self-determination, and family that held my attention from beginning to end.

The second duology was The Merciful Crow and The Faithless Hawk, by Margaret Owen, and these were true fantasy, with complex world-building (formal castes in society, each of which has its own magical properties), and a protagonist from the bottom-most caste. It’s a compelling adventure featuring good against evil, hunters and hunted, choices, chance, and character. Don’t let the fact that it’s billed as YA stop you from reading it—anyone who likes a good saga should do so!

I also discovered a bunch of YA mainstream/realistic fiction written by an author I previously knew only for her fantasy. Brigid Kemmerer has published three books based on the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast” (and they are well done), but the books of hers I fell for this year were about typical teenagers with problems that needed to be solved and love lives that needed to be resolved. My favorite of the four was Letters to the Lost, but I also greatly enjoyed More Than We Can Tell, Thicker Than Water, and Call it What You Want.

These were my five-star Young Adult books for 2020.

ADULT FICTION

As YA selections were dominated by a particular genre, so were my books in Adult fiction, almost all of them falling in the mystery section. But before I give you that list, I will finish up with fairy tale by lauding an original adult story that engaged me from the first page and has stuck with me all year: Once Upon A River, by Diane Setterfield. The fairy tale quality is palpable but the archetypal nature of fairy tales doesn’t dominate the story, which is individual and unique. It 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 beside the river Thames who are caught up by chance in the events that restore a child to life. But the story encompasses more than her fate: It gives extraordinary insight into the issues of life and death—how much they are worth, how they arrive, how they depart, and what is the best way to pursue them.

Another book I encountered in 2020 that didn’t fall into the mystery genre or belong to a series was the fascinating She Rides Shotgun, by Jordan Harper. This was a short, powerful book by a first-time author, a coming of age story set down in the middle of a dark thriller that bowled me over with its contradictory combination of evil deeds and poignant moments.

And the last stand-alone mainstream fiction novel I enjoyed enough to bestow five stars was Just Life, by Neil Abramson. The story showcases the eternal battle between fear and compassion, and involves a deadly virus and a dog shelter in a fast-paced, gripping narrative that takes over the lives of four people. It made me cry, three times.

Most of the mysteries I enjoyed this year came from a “stable” of staple authors I have developed over the decades and upon whom I rely for at least one good read per year. The first is Louise Penny, whose offering All the Devils Are Here in the ongoing Armand Gamache series is nuanced, perplexing, and utterly enjoyable, all the more so for being extracted from the usual Three Pines venue and transported to the magical city of Paris.

Sharon J. Bolton is a reliable source of both mystery and suspense, and she didn’t disappoint with The Split, a quirky story that takes place over the course of six weeks, in stuffy Cambridge, England, and remote Antarctica. Its main character, a glaciologist (she studies glaciers, and yes, it’s a thing) is in peril, and will go to the ends of the earth to escape it…but so, too, will her stalker, it seems. The Split is a twisty thriller abounding in misdirection, and definitely lives up to Bolton’s previous offerings.

Troubled Blood, by “Robert Galbraith,” aka J. K. Rowling, is my most recent favorite read, and is #5 in that author’s series about London private detective Cormoran Strike and his business partner, Robin Ellacott. It’s a police procedural with a lot of detail in service of both the mystery and the protagonists’ private lives, it’s 944 pages long, and I enjoyed every page.

Finally, this year i discovered two series that are new to me, completely different from one another but equally enjoyable.

The first is the Detective Constable Cat Kinsella series by Caz Frear, which currently encompasses three books. I read the first two earlier in the year and promptly put in a reserve at the library on the third (which had yet to be published at the time), and Shed No Tears just hit my Kindle a couple of days ago. They remind me a bit of Tana French, although not with the plethora of detail, and a bit of the abovementioned Sharon Bolton’s mystery series starring Lacey Flint. Cat is a nicely conflicted police officer who comes from a dodgy background and has to work hard to keep her personal and professional lives from impinging one upon the other, particularly when details of a case threaten to overlap the two. I anticipate continuing with this series of novels as quickly as Frear can turn them out.

The second, which is a mash-up of several genres, is Charlaine Harris’s new offering starring the body-guard/assassin Gunnie Rose. I read the first two books—An Easy Death and A Longer Fall—this year, and am eagerly anticipating #3, coming sometime in 2021 but not soon enough. The best description I can make of this series is a dystopian alternate history mystery with magic. If this leads you to want to know more, read my review, here.

These are the adult books I awarded five stars during 2020.

I hope you have enjoyed this survey of my year’s worth of best books. I am always happy to hear from any of you, and would love to know what you found most compelling this year. I think we all did a little extra reading as a result of more isolation than usual, and what better than to share our bounty with others?

Please comment, here or on Facebook, at https://www.facebook.com/thebookadept. Thanks for following my blog this year.

Addie! Addie!

There has been a lot of anticipation leading up to the publication of The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, by V. E. (Victoria) Schwab, not the least of which was following Schwab on her Facebook page as she agonized over the completion of the manuscript and talked about how much this book (10 years in the making) meant to her. It made me almost afraid to read it, despite the fact that I adore her book Vicious (read it three times, won’t be the last) and her “Shades of London” fantasy series. I have found with this author that I have unreservedly loved everything she has written for adults, while the stuff she wrote for teens (The Archived, Monsters of Verity) has pretty much left me unsatisfied. Since it’s hard to say where this book should fall—the protagonist is, after all, a young woman in her early 20s—I really didn’t know what to expect.

The other weird experience has been watching it grow in popularity because of its presence on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list. That list is usually dominated by a combination of popular genre authors (Michael Connelly, Nora Roberts), and so-called “realistic” or “mainstream” fiction, so to have a fantasy entry such as this sitting at #14 is not the norm. I have watched, bemused, as the “What Should I Read Next?” group on Facebook started buzzing, asking each other, “What is this Addie LaRue book? Is it good? Should I read it?” Since their common fare is a combo of suspense fiction and books like A Man Called Ove and Where the Crawdads Sing, I am fascinated to see what they make of Ms. Schwab’s latest offering.

Adeline is a dreamer. She begins in the small French village of Villon, born in 1691 and expected to grow up as other girls do, to do her duty—to marry, to have children of her own, to die. But at 16, when the villagers are looking at her as a bloom ready for plucking, she feels like the world should be getting larger instead of tightening like chains around her body.

“She is at odds with everything, she does not fit, an insult to her sex, a stubborn child in a woman’s form, her head bowed and arms wrapped tight around her drawing pad as if it were a door. And when she does look up, her gaze always goes to the edge of town.”

At 23, having managed to avoid commitment for another seven years, she is unexpectedly trapped by the will of her parents, who gift her “like a prize sow” to a widower with three small children. She numbly goes along, dons the dress, gets ready for the inevitable and then, like more brides than you would believe, she runs. And after she has run, she prays to the gods for an alternative. She has forgotten, however, that it is unwise to pray to the gods that answer after dark. She asks to live. She asks to be free. She asks for more time. She promises her soul. The god grants her wish to be “untethered” in return for a promise that he can have her soul when she doesn’t want it any more. She should have known there was a greater price, but she made the deal. And with that promise she was doomed to eternal anonymity, to pass through the world without making a mark. She is the literal embodiment of “out of sight, out of mind.” Then, after nearly 300 years, someone speaks to her the fateful, blessed words: “I remember you.”

This is not, as some people might expect, a sweeping historical saga. Its goal is not to illuminate the time periods through which Addie lives, but rather to mark the poignant encounters through which her life briefly touches others. Although there is a rich cast of characters, there are only three who matter; but this is definitely a character-driven story, based on the relationship of a god to two humans whose test is melancholy and loss of hope versus the power of sheer stubbornness and the love of beauty and art. The story takes shape slowly, in a past-and-present format of Addie’s beginnings and her circumstances in present-day New York City. There is, admittedly, a lot of navel-gazing on the part of at least two of the characters, but it serves the themes of the book, which echo through your head with a resounding consonance.

I found some of the language almost too flowery; but given that what sustains Addie in her continued existence is the unexpected joy of words, art, nature, and novelty, I couldn’t fault the author for the fact that her prose was a little purple.

It’s tempting to go on here and talk about what was effective in her two relationships, one with the god and one with the man who sees her; but I think it’s more important to preserve at least that much of the mystery and let other readers discover those effects for themselves.

One thought that comes to mind, having read and appreciated the ending, is that this entire book could, in one way, be summarized by saying “It’s all about semantics.” As a person who is extremely conscious of language, I found that idea delightful.

As Neil Gaiman said in his cover quote for Victoria, “For someone damned to be forgettable, Addie LaRue is a most delightfully unforgettable character, and her story is a joyous evocation of unlikely immortality.” Pick up the book and see if you agree.

And a timely sequel

I previously enthused here about The Merciful Crow, by Margaret Owen, and mentioned how excited I was to move on to the sequel, The Faithless Hawk. I picked that book up this week, and right away discovered two things I liked about it:

  1. It continued to be timely, in the same weird way as was the first book, as far as its association with current events is concerned;
  2. Although I had thought (I think because of the title of #2, which didn’t seem to indicate finality) that this was going to be a trilogy, it turned out to be a duology, complete in two books. I wouldn’t have minded reading more about these characters, but the second book was as tightly and dramatically written as the first, and you couldn’t ask for a better wrap-up. Since so many times a trilogy turns out to have either a weak second book or a rushed-to-be-completed third one, I was satisfied and happy with the arc of this two-book story.

The second book picks up about a month after the first one left off; Fie’s troop of Crows are still on the road, and they’re taking her Pa to a Crow way station, which is the equivalent of retirement. He will live there and provide safety and supplies for all Crow troops who seek sanctuary. While at his designated way station, Fie meets with an enigmatic caretaker who is supposed to be the contemporary stand-in for the mythical god “Little Witness.” But to Fie’s surprise, awe, and unease, the person she meets is the actual Little Witness, and she hints things to Fie about her past and her future that are truly disquieting. One of them is that Fie has not yet fulfilled her contract with the Covenant, which she thought she had met by saving Prince Jasimir and bringing him to the General who is keeping him safe while championing his cause. But apparently Fie’s indebtedness to the Covenant goes back many lifetimes and is, in fact, the reason why the Crows roam friendless on the roads.

Just when Fie is absorbing all of this, she and her troop learn of the death of the king, Surimir, by Plague, and they decide to make their way to the Prince, who is with General Draga and her son Tavin, Fie’s love (and the Hawk of the title). A short time after they reunite, however, they are all thrown into dismay and confusion by the machinations of Queen Rhusana, who will do anything to ascend the throne. Once again Fie realizes that the fate of the kingdom may rest on her unready but stubborn shoulders.

In The Merciful Crow, the focus was much more on the journey (both physical and metaphorical) made by Prince Jasimir, Fie, and Tavin, discovering more about the current situation of the kingdom and about each other, and specifically cultivating the romance between Tavin and Fie. By comparison, The Faithless Hawk focuses on a bigger picture: the system of magic, the history of the various castes’ birthrights, and politics in general. This book really fleshed out the world-building, but it didn’t neglect its characters; we also get to learn more about Fie and start to fathom why she is such a central character to this conflict.

The content I mentioned at the top of this review—about its being timely and in synch with current events—has to do with the examination of the entire system of governance, caste, and society. One character remarks,

“We made a society where the monarchs could ignore the suffering of their people because it was nothing but an inconvenience, and we punished those who used their position to speak out.”

I don’t want to give away the entire plot here, but a seminal part of this story is how the characters come to realize that if this world is going to work for everyone, simply substituting a new ruler at the pinnacle of the government probably won’t serve. The rules and systems need to be examined, and must adapt, change, or be abolished in order to make things safe for all people going forward. In The Faithless Hawk, it takes the predations of an unexpectedly corrupt ruler and the threat of a worldwide plague to make that plain.

Some trigger warnings about this duology: There are seriously gory, disgusting scenes with realistic and thorough descriptions of what has occurred; and the use of teeth in their form of magic/wizardry is creepy/troubling (especially to those of us with dental anxiety to begin with). But the books are well worth a few squeamish moments for their powerful portrayals. I hope this immersive fantasy gets the attention
it deserves.

Enchanting

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.

A timely fantasy

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—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.

No thieves

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.

Internat’l Cat Day

GidgetGelI 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.

ADULT BOOKS

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.)

CatAlberta

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…

FOR CHILDREN:

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.

CatGeorgeSocks, 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.

CatQueenBea