“What if the stories aren’t told?
What if they’re lived? What if you were forced
to live your life in the shape of a story that is
not your own, with no choice about who you are
and where you’re going?”
Ash & Bramble, by Sarah Prineas, has an intriguing premise…and buries it so deeply (the above quote is from page 265) that it’s hard not to be confused and frustrated before you arrive at a partial explanation; and after that it’s equally difficult to put up with the lack of certain details that end up detracting from the true potential of the book.
Despite all its publicity copy, I would not
call this a true fairy tale retelling.
It’s a book with a bigger concept,
a philosophical question in which fairy tales are used as illustrations, in a way. It reminded me a little of Cornelia Funke’s Mirrorworld series (Reckless, Fearless, and The Golden Yarn), in which various remnants of fairy tales are present but in a dark and twisted setting that isn’t about that trademark feel-good happy ending they all promise (marry-the-prince trope).
People may scream “spoiler” when I explain, but honestly, I would have been somewhat happy had someone spoiled things for me a little earlier on in the book. Basically, Story has become a powerful force in the world, and wants everything its way; it has co-opted the Godmother (nothing fairy-like about her) to enforce its will on the people by making them all act out the same stories, over and over and over again. In service of this series of “passion plays,” the Godmother has enslaved countless unfortunates to labor without ceasing behind the scenes to make shoes, sew dresses, dip candles, construct props, and spin straw into gold. So between the people working their fingers to the bone as prop-makers and the ones being forced onto the stage to re-enact the same tales, pretty much everyone in this book is miserable.
Pin (a seamstress) and Shoe (a shoemaker) are trapped in the Godmother’s fortress of fairy tale props, but because Pin possesses a secret artifact (a magic thimble), they have an advantage over their zombified colleagues and are able to look outside their presumed fates and aspire to something better. Unfortunately for Pin, the Godmother has her own magic thimble, is aware of Pin’s speshulness (although not aware of the twin thimble), and Pin wakes up one day to find herself cast by the Godmother as the lead in that hoary old tale of Cinderella.
In this way, the book itself echoes the state of its characters: There is the Before (everyone’s past), and the After (in which they have been brain-wiped and re-set to participate), and there is also the Before (in the fortress) and the After (in the tale) for the reader.
I’m not going to say that I didn’t enjoy the book, because it had some wonderful aspects to it. I thought the world-building and scene-setting were good; I was enamored of a couple of the characters, intrigued by the idea of Story as a power all its own, and caught up in the action of rebellion. But when we get to the end of the book without finding out one simple thing—where the thimbles came from and what was their intended use (as opposed to the perversion of powers wielded by at least one of their wearers)—I have to admit that I gave the writer a great big “C’mon!” There were several other glaring unlikelihoods that I won’t share here but that have caused an outcry among some reviewers on Goodreads. With all of that, I wouldn’t tell you not to read Ash & Bramble, because in many ways it’s better than the bulk of the true retellings out there. But be aware that it is more a foe than a fan of fairy tale.
Parenthetically, can we talk for a minute about that cover? Ornate typography? Good. Brambles with accompanying thorns? Good. Big floaty red chiffon skirt edged with ashy gray? Good. Backless sequined slutty Las Vegas-style “bodice”? C’MON. So close.
I’m always looking at other people’s (and publications’) lists, to see if there are stand-out books on them that I somehow missed reading. On a list that was called something like “best sci fi and fantasy books you may not have discovered,” I found a few with which I was unfamiliar and ordered them. The first one I read was Sorcerer to the Crown, by Zen Cho.
Most people who reviewed it on Goodreads either lauded it or hated it for one reason: It reminded them of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. Some loved it because it had similar characteristics but was “half the length and twice the fun,” while others loathed it because they found it derivative and without the same careful attention to detail given to the subject by Clarke.
I have not (yet) read Susanna Clarke’s 800+ pages, so that comparison sparked no reaction for me; but when reviewers started comparing it to Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen, I went back and took a closer look.
The story takes place in an alternate-reality London, where magic was once a powerful and primary occupation for the upper classes and every prominent family seemed to feature at least one sorcerer accompanied by his familiar. (Women are banned from practicing magic, unless it’s the hedge-witch variety of small household spells to lighten the domestic load.) But in the current day, England’s atmospheric magic is drying up. No more familiars are coming over from Fairyland, and no promising young sons are venturing there in hopes of catching the Fairy Queen’s eye.
Sir Stephen Wythe, the Sorcerer to the Crown, has recently died under mysterious circumstances; his familiar has likewise disappeared, and the man who has taken up his staff to become the new head Sorcerer is Sir Stephen’s foster son, Zacharias, an emancipated slave raised by Sir Stephen to be a thaumaturge. Zacharias, a conscientious, retiring, and painstaking person, would much rather have remained in the background, doing his research into the restoration of England’s magic; his new role throws him to the lions of extreme prejudice, with plots against his life, perilous meetings with the Fairy Court, and speeches at such frightening venues as a school of gentlewitches (he’s cautioning them against the dangers of magic for women). Then he meets Miss Prunella Gentleman, also an outcast because of her lack of good birth and the “dusky skin” that proves she is of mixed race, and Prunella’s aptitude for magic and the effrontery to practice it turn his perceptions upside down.
The book is set in Britain during the Regency period and the Napoleonic wars. Those who compare it with Heyer and Austen say it fulfills their requirements for a comedy of manners with amusing commentary also reminiscent of Wodehouse (the speech at the girls’ school being that example). I didn’t find the language or tone either of them to be reminiscent of Heyer’s lighthearted works, nor were there sufficient social interactions to spark recognition of her influence, and the romantic aspect was almost entirely lacking. I did think perhaps Austen would have enjoyed Cho’s send-up of the nobly born and pretentiously superior, commenting on their bigotry and their assumptions about “good birth” always triumphing over morals and brains.
The book did remind me of some others: Gail Carriger’s Etiquette and Espionage, because of the young-ladies-in-training aspect, as well as something about the pacing and language of the story-telling; and Jonathan Stroud’s The Amulet of Samarkand (Bartimaeus book #1), which features a similar setting of an alternate London ruled by stuffily self-regarding magicians. It’s also vaguely reminiscent of Garth Nix’s Newt’s Emerald (in fact, it looks like the same artist for the cover of that book has been employed for Cho’s sequel), which in my opinion pulls off the Heyer tie-in a bit better.
Because I read Sorcerer to the Crown before I looked at any of the reviews (including the blurbs on the back cover), I was initially quite taken aback by both the racism and the misogyny so freely expressed by Cho’s characters. The use of the term “piccaninny” on page four shocked me so much that I almost put the book down. Only the comment of Mr. Damerell, “What an edifying sight for a child—a room full of men several times his size, calling him names,” encouraged me to continue. Likewise, the discovery by Zaccharias that the gentlewitches’ school has been using a killing spell designed to drain the magic from its victims in order to keep its young ladies in line (i.e., magic-free) was a bit daunting. I had not yet put the book in context as a Regency send-up, so for me, the author’s choices were jarringly unexpected for a book written in 2015 by a woman! Once I had figured out the intended setting and atmosphere, I forgave the various liberties, but in this era of extreme care about the way the races and the sexes are portrayed, I have to confess it still left a lingering uneasiness about the book.
My final reaction was primarily that of enjoyment; but I didn’t give it the wholehearted five stars it received from many of its Goodreads fans. Perhaps, for me, Cho simply attempted too much within the context of this one volume. Perhaps I wasn’t in the proper mood to appreciate its quirks. For whatever reason, I didn’t click with it; but that isn’t to say that you wouldn’t. If you enjoyed the Finishing School or Parasol Protectorate books of Gail Carriger, you might like it a lot.
There is also a sequel, The True Queen, released just this year, that takes the reader to Janda Baik, the country from whence one of the first book’s main and powerful female characters hails. It received similarly high ratings from those on Goodreads who enjoyed the first book.
One thing you learn when becoming a readers’ advisor is,
you can’t be a book snob. Some people pride themselves on only reading “worthy” or “classic” or “literary” fiction. Others believe that while mainstream fiction is legitimate, anything that falls within a genre description is somehow less-than. When you read so as to address the interests of every type of reader, the fortunate outcome is that you discover there are “worthy” books—that is to say, engaging, well written, and with something to say—within every category of fiction.
I have wondered whether I should bother reviewing older books here, or whether I should just be addressing newly released works, to keep up with the ever-changing whims of contemporary readers. My conclusion so far has been that it’s all right to cover older reads, because no matter how long ago they were written, they will be new to someone.
Today, I just finished rereading Bloodhound (Beka Cooper #2), by Tamora Pierce. Pierce is much beloved by many fantasy readers, and has been incredibly prolific in the number of books and series she has written that are all set in the kingdom of Tortall. Tortall is a semi-feudal land populated by knights and ladies (and some knights who are also ladies), master craftspeople and master thieves, commoners both honest and corrupt, and the supernatural creatures who also make an appearance. The gods are definitely present (though mostly in subtle ways) in Tortall.
Rather than write one long series with a particular cast of characters, Pierce has broken down the Tortall legend into small “cycles” of three or four books each, that come at the world and its events from many different perspectives. While all these novels are immensely popular with a wide variety of people from 10-year-olds to the elderly, it does seem to me that the earlier books were specifically written to appeal to middle-school teens. Although many adults read them, there is a large percentage who do so out of nostalgia, because they read Pierce as a child and want to revisit the world of Tortall.
The first thing I like about the Beka Cooper series, therefore, is that while the books are completely teen-friendly and accessible (and are, indeed, marketed to teens), they are written from a much more adult viewpoint. While Beka, the narrator, is a young woman, she is more woman than girl, and the others with whom she interacts are likewise more mature. This is yet another in the growing list of teen fantasy series that could equally well (or perhaps more successfully) have been marketed to adult fantasy readers.
The second thing I like about the series is that it so fluidly combines medieval fantasy with mystery and police procedural, using a memoir format—basically, all my favorite genres rolled into one. The characters (and there are many) are engaging, the situations are surprisingly sophisticated (how many young adult novels expound on the effects of counterfeiting on a nation’s economy?), and the mysteries are well paced and satisfying. Beyond this, Pierce has exerted herself to provide a made-up language, reminiscent of the “thieves’ cant” you find in Regency romance novels, that give the books a particular flavor. The inclusion of this lingo also cleverly circumvents any criticisms she might get from parents who ban language and sexuality by expressing things that she couldn’t do in a teen book if she put them in contemporary English. Pierce has taken pains to spell out the differences in rank from that of the King in his palace down to the lowliest gixie picking pockets amongst the slums. There is no difference made in the characterizations between children, teens, and adults in terms of attention to detail, and while Beka remains firmly the main character, the people with whom she partners, the neighborhood from where she rose to the police force, and the “coves and mots” she encounters in the course of her work are all given a real existence. Finally, the books feature strong female heroines, a welcome departure from some fantasies.
Terrier, the first book (released in 2006), takes us away for the first time from the lords and ladies, knights and squires of the other series and introduces Beka Cooper, an orphaned 17-year-old with some special gifts that lead her from the Lower City (the worst neighborhood) of Tortall into a career as a “Dog,” or police officer, in the Provost’s Guard. She is assigned as a trainee (“puppy”) to two veterans, Tunstall and Goodwin, and proves herself as an officer who hangs onto a case like a terrier until it’s solved.
In Bloodhound (2009), her second year on the force is also documented in the pages of her journal, and it’s quite a ride. As a new Dog, she is matched up with four different partners who don’t work out, and she ends up instead working solo with Achoo, a scent hound she rescues from an abusive handler. She and Clary Goodwin, one of her former training partners, are then sent by the Provost General, Lord Gershom, down the river to Port Caynn, on a secret investigation to discover who is behind the spread of counterfeit silver coins that are destroying the economy. She falls in love, falls afoul of the Port Caynn Rogue (Queen of the thief caste), and earns her new nickname as she doggedly (pun intended) pursues the solution to the case.
The third book, Mastiff (2011), is equally compelling. Three years after their mission in Port Caynn, Clary Goodwin has finally opted to promote to a (stationary) command position, and Beka is now paired with Goodwin’s former partner (and her other former training officer), Tunstall. Beka has suffered a recent tragedy—her fiancé, a fellow Dog, has been killed while pursuing slavers—and she doesn’t know how to go on, mostly because she was on the verge of breaking up with him when he died, and now she’s feeling guilty for receiving unwanted attention as the grieving almost-widow. But an assignment abruptly pulls her away from her familiar surroundings and sends her, her partners both human and canine, and a strange mage assigned to their team on a hunt the outcome of which will determine the future of the Tortallan royal family and government. As with the second book, the pacing ramps up as the Dogs get closer to their quarry, and unexpected elements throw several wicked curves into the story before it ends.
There have been two things against this series when I talked it up to others: The first was the truly abysmal cover art on the original paperbacks, which was actively ugly and made it almost impossible to “sell” these books to anyone (especially teenagers). The photographic image chosen to represent Beka was both laughable and disrespectful. The recent re-release of this series with new covers may give it a chance; if you are a librarian reading this, please consider immediately replacing your originals with the new versions!
The second is the supernatural element, which I sometimes completely leave out of my descriptions. When you say that a book is about a girl who gets messages from the recently dead by listening to pigeons, and who also gathers clues by standing in the middle of dust devils and picking up bits of conversation the dust devil has been hoarding, people look at you like you’re crazy!
This fantasy series has so many facets and is so hard to adequately describe that I don’t often find myself promoting it to anyone—but after rereading #2 on impulse this weekend, I decided to make another pitch, because these books are a worthy, intriguing, and entertaining addition to the mainstream fantasy canon.
What is the appeal of fantasy fiction? People who don’t read fantasy ask this question a lot. Here are some reasons why people might enjoy reading fantasy:
Escapism: travel into another WORLD, culture, history, set of natural laws
Heroism: the exploration of greater themes, unconscious hopes and aspirations, the experience of admiration and emotion
Specialness: a hidden talent for magic…
Wonder: the appeal of the unfamiliar
Romance: Not just “couples” romance, but the romance of the road, the charisma of the swashbuckler, etc.
Simplicity: the straightforward moral code of good and evil
“The more rational the world becomes,
the more we demand the irrational in our fiction.
The genre starts where science ends.”
Periodically, I blog about young adult books or series that may have adult appeal, and the series that begins with Ink and Bone, by Rachel Caine, is one such.
To any bibliophile, the destruction of the Great Library at Alexandria, the first so-called universal library, was a tragedy of epic proportions. The loss of the ancient world’s single largest archive of knowledge, the idea that so many “great works of brilliant geniuses” (Orosius) was destroyed, causes anything from a wince to a fit of weeping by those lovers of antiquity who can only imagine what they might have missed by this loss. In this series, Caine rewrites literary history by allowing the Library at Alexandria to survive, and then postulates what might have happened next.
By the present day (the series actually takes place a decade into our future, although it’s a weirdly old-fashioned and steam-punky rendition), the Library and its staff have gained immense political power and influence, akin to that of the Catholic Church and a world government rolled into one. The Great Library is a looming presence in every major city, and has complete power over the dissemination of information via its Serapeums (Serapea?), the equivalent of your local library branch. Through the use of alchemy and the highly developed mental powers of the Library’s servants called Obscurists, literally any literary work can be delivered to a “blank” book for any citizen to read…but at the same time, the individual ownership or possession of “real” (original, permanently printed) books is strictly forbidden. The Great Library wants to keep the power of the written word solely in its own hands. This begins as a noble goal to protect and preserve knowledge, but over the course of history has become a restrictive and smothering power play.
The primary protagonist of the book is Jess Brightwell, whose family has for centuries been involved in the black market trade for illegal books. Jess, however, is neither qualified for nor as interested in following the family trade as is his twin brother, Brendan, so his father decides that, since he’s a bright boy who likes to read, the best thing Jess can do for the family is to become a librarian! What better than to have a loyal family member strategically placed within the organization of your rival? This begins Jess’s association with a motley group of other teenagers, all vying for a role in the hierarchy of the most powerful organization on earth. But what they discover is that the Great Library isn’t as benign, high-minded, and well-intentioned as they’ve been brought up to believe….
I picked up the first book because of the little gold plate on the cover that said “THE GREAT LIBRARY.” I thought the book was brilliant. The alternate history, the scene-setting, the imagery, the concepts, the characters, the action, are all fully on. Every time I had to stop reading, I couldn’t wait to pick it up again. It’s a book that will definitely appeal to teenagers, what with the impulsive decisions, quickly embraced loyalties, and underlying romances among its cast, but the series is definitely worth a look by adults intrigued by the premise.
After discovering the first book, I have, over a period of years, read the sequels—Paper and Fire, Ash and Quill and, just this past week, Smoke and Iron. The subsequent books take Jess and his band of friends—including his teacher, Scholar Wolfe, and the teacher’s lover, Commander Santi of the High Garde, Thomas the brilliant inventor, Khalila the quiet diplomat, Morgan the Obscurist, Dario the haughty member of Spanish royalty, and Glain, stalwart soldier of Welsh origins—on multiple harrowing adventures as they fight the current corrupt leadership for the soul of the real Library they love and wish to save.
Although there is inevitably some variation in pacing when reading a series, Caine managed, by varying the scenery and also developing and changing the relationships among the characters, to keep the books pretty consistently at the same level of quality. I had read somewhere that this was originally intended as a trilogy, and somehow assumed that Smoke and Iron was the last in the series, only to get to the end and realize that there is one more book—Sword and Pen—still to come. This fifth book publishes in September, and I will be the first adult on the waiting list at the library to read it. Look out, teens, I’m coming through!
J.R.R. Tolkien says that “the world of fantasy is accessed by a meeting between the narrative skill of the author and the imaginative willingness of the reader.” This is a powerful quote, because it underlines the readers’ advisory tenet that only a collaboration between reader and writer determines reading preferences.
There is a huge body of work written about how to define fantasy, too long to cover here. One definition I appreciated, by John M. Timmerman in the book Genreflecting, and condensed down to a summary paragraph:
The job of the fantasy story is to create a world and characters so believable, a plot so urgent, and a conflict so daunting that the reader must live with and through it to the end. The story must have relevance to the everyday lives of the readers, and the way fantasy creates that relevance is to create protagonists with a common nature, regular folk with beliefs and values. The fantasy world must be different enough from that of the readers’ so as to engage them in its uniqueness; but it can’t be too obviously fictional. The evocation of the world must be immediate; the world is provided and we as readers step into it. There must be an essential conflict, usually between good and evil. There is oftentimes a quest, with a specific goal, usually to restore the society’s well-being. There is the presence and/ or use of magic. And fantasy is, for the most part, persistent in its optimism for humankind, with a positive resolution.
Contained within this broad description are nearly endless small differentiations of subgenre, which are defined by their world (unique, alternate, paranormal, crossworld), by the kind of protagonist (hero, commoner, adventurer), by the origins (unique, faerie, fairy tale retold), by the setting (legendary, urban, dark), and by the tone (humorous, epic, frightening). Lou Anders, an editor at Pyr Books, says that “nothing will land you an ax in your skull or a dagger in your spine faster than trying to define fantasy subgenres.” He notes that there are always exceptions to the rule.
With all that as lead-in, let me tell you about a particular fantasy I just read. It fits into the “fairy tales retold” subgenre, but the setting could be described as a “crossworld,” since the primary protagonist is physically transported from our own contemporary world sideways into a fairy tale. She is a “commoner” dropped into a role in a medieval kingdom still defined by swords and daggers as weapons, horses as transportation, and rulers and servants as characters. The world-building is fairly minimal, but both sufficient and believable because of its extreme familiarity. The conflict is provided by the specific fairy tale trope, but the author has inserted some twists. There are multiple conflicts, both personal and kingdom-wide, with enemies and heroes within and without. There is a specific goal; there is magic; and there is a resolution.
The book is A Curse So Dark and Lonely, by Brigid Kemmerer. I bought it along with four other fairly new young adult titles, and I left it until last to read because I was almost sorry I had chosen it. First of all, I am not particularly enamored of fairy tale retellings; I’d rather have an original story any day than one that is restricted by a precursor. And “Beauty and the Beast” is among my least favorite fairy tales, for so many reasons, paramount among them the compulsory nature of the romance—she either loves the Beast or experiences an epic fail, but who (besides sufferers of Stockholm syndrome) believes this is possible? I equally dislike the dark, original tale (the father’s love being used against him), and the first Disney version (with the dancing dishware). There’s just too much coercion and self-effacing pity involved for it to survive as a believable romance.
Second, as is usual with YA literature, the critics, the publishers, or other readers are way too busy comparing it with other books. At least a dozen sources said, “If you liked A Court of Thorns and Roses, you will like this.” Well, I didn’t read ACOTAR (heresy, I know), because I read Throne of Glass, by Sarah J. Maas, first. A brief synopsis of my review is that the protagonist (and thus her author) couldn’t decide whether to be a ninja or a Disney princess, which was really irritating. Other readers opined, “If you loved Caraval, by Stephanie Garber, you should read this book!” I hated Caraval. Apart from the flimsy world-building, vague story line, and confusing game, here is my quote, which should also enlighten re: my previous caveat: “The protagonist, Scarlet, reminds me of the supposed badass assassin, Caelena, in Throne of Glass, who can’t decide whether to kill the male characters or to ‘pillage’ them (plural). I call it ‘dithery fiction’ because we spend the entire book listening to the characters saying ‘what if’ a lot but never settling to a decision. Yes, they show moments of resolution…which dissolve like sugar in water at the first sign of opposition, and then it’s reset: start over. It’s tiresome.”
I have said all that to emphasize that taking read-alike claims seriously will sometimes backfire, either on the reader or on the publisher. I got it out of the way in order to give an original review to this book, which I read in less than 24 hours and couldn’t have loved better.
First of all, major props for originality on the part of Kemmerer. The protagonist, Harper, is a tough lower-class kid with a brother who’s an enforcer (but only because he owes guys money) and a mother with cancer. One of Harper’s legs is affected by cerebral palsy, so she isn’t as strong as she could be, and moves with a limp, but she doesn’t let any of this stop her. One day, she sees a guy attempting to kidnap a girl off the street and, realizing there’s no other help nearby, she tackles him. Somehow, the girl has suddenly disappeared, and the guy and Harper are…somewhere else. Somewhere that looks like a medieval fantasy, with a castle and swords and horses, filled with food and drink, posh accommodations and fancy dress, but no people except for her kidnapper, Grey, commander of the Royal Guard, and a guy called Rhen who says he’s a prince. Is she sticking around for this? She is not. They lock her in; she climbs down a trellis, steals Rhen’s horse out of the stables, and tries to escape…but where, exactly, is she going to go? She’s in the middle of nowhere, she has no idea where her home world is or how to get there, and so, when she’s recaptured by the two men, she decides to let things play out and try to figure out what’s what.
There is quite a lot of revelation about her circumstances, unlike in the original fairy tale; Rhen lets her know that he’s been caught in an enchantment loop for many years, and the only thing that will get him out of it is if one of the girls he sends Grey out to kidnap falls in love with him. Upon hearing this, Harper is not just skeptical, but aghast, and determined not to fall for any wiles. What does move her, however, is her eventual knowledge about the sad state of his kingdom and the people in it while he has been otherwise occupied; apparently a horrifying wild beast has been savaging and killing whole communities every year! This is the one factor not revealed to Harper (that Rhen becomes that beast). So she turns on him and chastises him for not caring about the people he was sworn to protect while he ruled, and together the three of them—prince, warrior, and girl from another world—begin to take that commitment seriously. But there is more to his curse than she knows, and more evil awaiting his subjects than he himself offers them in his guise as the beast. And amidst all of this, Harper yearns to return home before her mother succumbs to cancer and someone makes a permanent example out of her brother Jake.
The book is written from dual points of view—those of Rhen and Harper. This proves quite effective, giving the reader the inner thoughts of the proud but needy enchanted prince, who wants nothing more than to resolve his situation but can’t quite bring himself to trust, and the scrappy import, who has to figure out, on the fly, how to deal with a completely new situation. This book is the antithesis of YA “insta-love,” and the emotions of the two protagonists are ably portrayed from every angle. The writing is good, the scene-setting and details are excellent, and the story moves along at a satisfying pace, with little of the “dithery” bits included in each character’s self-examination. The side characters are equally well fleshed out and provide extra drama without distracting unduly from the main story. Finally, although there are threads left hanging at the end that will be addressed in a sequel, the book has a satisfying resolution and could be read as a stand-alone, if you’re not a sequel kind of person.
If every fairy tale was retold this well, I would happily read them all.
Holding my breath…
If you don’t know this series, set your alarm clock for around June of 2020, start with The Thief, go on to The Queen of Attolia and The King of Attolia, follow the fate of the kingdom in A Conspiracy of Kings, get some necessary background from Thick as Thieves, and wrap up your reading just in time to celebrate the denouément of the sixth and last book in the most amazingly underrated series in the world of fantasy. Seriously. I’ve read the first book four times and the others three apiece. Do yourself the favor.
There are, particularly in the fairy tale tradition, many stories of children who disappear, some never to return, while others go away for awhile and come back but are never quite the same. Taking their cue from that old chestnut “Rip Van Winkle” are such series as the Chronicles of Narnia (a door at the back of the wardrobe), Cornelia Funke’s Mirrorworld (a mirror in the study), and others that perpetuate stories of strange worlds accessed by odd little doors and windows, burrows and mirrors that lead somewhere….
But finally, in Every Heart A Doorway, by Seanan McGuire, we have the bringing together of a group of “the returned” to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, a boarding school run by a schoolmistress who went away, herself, to another world when young and therefore can empathize with their plight, stranded back in this one. Bewildered parents try to get their blessedly restored children to behave as they used to, but the children spend all their time longing to go back to the worlds where they finally felt at home, and the desperate parents send them to Eleanor, hoping for a miracle. But they may not get the one they’re wishing for….
This book is truly magical. Furthermore, the writing, the descriptions, the characters, and the mystery are all both lyrical and inspired. And although the description sounds old-fashioned, the telling of it is anything but: It’s a touching story about unconditional love.
The first thing I did as soon as I finished this book (which didn’t take long—the books in this series are novella-length) is to immediately read the next, Down Among the Sticks and Bones. That one turned out to be a prequel, since it details what happened to two of the characters (twin girls) from Every Heart A Doorway, immediately before that book started. Jack and Jill’s sterile background and their sojourn in the forbidding world of the moors dovetailed nicely into the first story and was such a satisfying explanation of their behavior in that book. The essence of this one is that there is no one way to be a girl, and there is no one way to love.
The third tale, Beneath the Sugar Sky, was as much a tiny jewel-like masterpiece as the other two, but it was both everything I was expecting and nothing like what I thought it would be, which is the best that you can wish from a book.
We meet characters from the first two stories—Christopher, who longs to return to his love, the Skeleton Girl, in a world best compared to an eternal celebratory Dia de los Muertos; Kade, who is preparing to be Aunt Eleanor’s successor at the Home for Wayward Children; and Nadya, who has been at the school going on five years but hasn’t yet given up and gone home. We also meet some new characters: Cora, the fat girl and champion swimmer, who yearns to return to the world where she was a mermaid with blue and green hair who never had to leave her element, the water; and Rini, who bursts upon the teens at the school like a revelation of what a Nonsense world can produce, Rini with her candy corn eyes and naïveté, in search of her mother, Sumi. This cast accompanies Rini across several worlds, being careful not to become stuck in any of them, intending to help Rini but also secretly hoping to find their several ways back to their own doorways. This book contains a powerful message about loving yourself, no matter your shape, size, or individual peculiarities.
The fourth book, In An Absent Dream, which was just released January 9th, is being confusingly billed on its flap as “a stand-alone tale in the award-winning Wayward Children series.” Although this is misleading (it is definitely a part of the series), if you read the first book and then jumped immediately to the fourth, you would still feel yourself firmly situated, since it cites nothing and includes no one from books two or three, but does solve a mystery presented in the first book.
Katherine Lundy is only six years old when she realizes that her entire life has already been planned out for her. Her father is the principal of her school, which ensures she has no friends; left to her own devices, she sees herself continuing on, quiet, polite, studious. She will sit in her room by herself, reading her books, until one day maybe she will become a librarian and then a wife and mother, as is expected by her family. But even at six, Katherine knows this isn’t the life she wants, and one day, she finds a door, her door, to somewhere she can be herself. (My favorite portal yet, btw.)
It’s a wonderful, evocative, and bittersweet chapter to this ongoing story; once again McGuire provides the language pictures to carry the reader completely into the worlds she paints. I couldn’t put it down, and I strongly suspect I will re-read this series more than once. McGuire has really struck a nerve with the idea that for those who feel like misfits in their own lives, there may exist doorways into places where they feel completely themselves, where they are loved, wanted, needed, where they belong. The yearning to get there lives with some people their whole lives, but in McGuire’s books, some of the people actually get to experience this coming home, for a little while—or, for a lucky few, forever.
As I was driving along the other day,
I found myself behind someone whose car had a personalized license plate that read “STREEL.” This is a place-name (and something more) in a large and dramatic story I haven’t thought about in a long while, and it made me reflect about everything that goes into the writing of an epic fantasy. We have rich examples of this subgenre, both in book and visual form, with Tolkien’s masterpieces on the large screen and Game of Thrones on the small one, as well as recent epic stories such as Laini Taylor’s Strange the Dreamer or N. K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy. But what, exactly, keeps so many mesmerized by this story form?
The job of the fantasy story is to create a world and characters so believable, a plot so urgent, and a conflict so daunting that the reader must live with and through it to the end. The story must have relevance to the everyday lives of the readers, by creating characters who are people with a common nature, regular folk like us; perhaps a bit naïve, retaining a certain innocence of character. The world must be different enough from that of the readers’ so as to engage them in its uniqueness, but it can’t be too obviously fictional; in fact, it needs, despite all of its anomalies, to feel real to the reader. We as readers step into it. We don’t call it up or create it, but we do commit to it, believe it, and go with it.
There must be an essential conflict in fantasy. It can vary in its nature, but it is usually a keen sense of right and wrong, good and evil, and a driving necessity to act to preserve good and defeat evil. That premise leads directly to the quest. It may be a spiritual or religious undertaking, with a protagonist fated to pursue it, so it is a serious undertaking, that includes danger, struggle, willpower, and perseverance. And since a quest is undertaken only when the well being of a society is threatened, the quest is often pursued to restore that society’s original well being. So perhaps a final element of the epic saga is (in some sense) a happy ending?
The author Richard Adams is best known for Watership Down, his classic heroic fantasy featuring a group of rabbits. It was the first book he ever wrote, and although 13 publishers turned him down (“you want to publish a book about a bunch of rabbits, one of which has ESP? really?”), once someone finally said yes, the book has remained continuously in print since 1972. It has won multiple awards, is regularly assigned reading in classrooms across America, and is a wonderfully told, moving story. But Adams also penned another lesser-known heroic tale written in two volumes: Shardik, which he wrote in 1974, and its sequel, Maia, which he didn’t complete until 10 years later, writing two other books (The Plague Dogs and The Girl in a Swing) in between. It is this saga that the powerful word “streel” on the license plate summoned up for me.
The people who live on the river island of Ortelga, a tiny part of the vast Beklan Empire, worship a bear-god named Shardik. The Ortelgans used to rule the empire, but now they inhabit a few insignificant islands on the outskirts. Although Shardik is a mythical creature from ancient history to most, to Kelderek, a simple man known as “Play-with-the-Children,” the immense bear that was driven by a forest fire to shelter on his island is the literal embodiment of the Power of God.
Kelderek labors to heal the bear of its extensive wounds sustained during its escape from the fire, and then convinces the local priests and barons of its divinity. Its appearance at this particular time is taken as (or used as) a portent by both religious and secular powers that it is Ortelga’s destiny to rise to greatness again; and a series of events leads to Kelderek assuming a high rank in the kingdom of Bekla. Building your power base on the whims of a wild beast, however, is bound to have unexpected consequences, as Kelderek finds when Shardik escapes the imprisonment imposed upon him by the power-hungry, and Kelderek must choose whether to cling to his position without the bear, or once again abandon everything to roam the land after Shardik, seeking to know his will.
Following Shardik leads Kelderek from the heights to the depths, and Adams’s story is really a saga of self-discovery and a study of the effects of faith on the behavior of people. This is an extremely simplistic summary of a complex story, containing a wide array of characters and a deep exploration of philosophical issues. It’s also an enthralling read!
The second book, Maia, is actually a prequel of sorts, with events that begin about a dozen years earlier than Kelderek’s story; but my recommendation would still be to read the books in the order they were written (Shardik first, Maia second), so that you will understand the setting and context.
Maia is a beautiful, lighthearted and engaging teen girl whose indiscretions with her stepfather lead her jealous mother to sell her to a passing slave-dealer. The rest of the book is the tale of her experiences as a slave (mostly as a “bed-slave”) that take her to both the most degraded and the most elevated levels of society. Adams uses Maia’s naiveté and provincial outlook to explore the politics, religion and philosophies of his fantasy kingdom, as seen through her eyes and those of her best friend, the concubine and spy Occula.
Although this second book shares only a few characters in common with Shardik, the events also transpire within the kingdom of Bekla, in the middle of similar religious and secular political struggles, and this book expands upon a particular theme—the existence and morality of slavery—that was treated as only a small part of the first book. Again, the themes are sweeping but the characters are specific, beautifully evolved, and memorable, and the language is rich.
By the way, the Streels of Urtah (which provoked this review) are a series of dark, narrow chasms in the middle of a vast plain. The people of Bekla believe that no one goes into them unless they are drawn there by their own evil. Once someone enters the Streels, they are not permitted to leave alive. Well, nobody ever said that epic sagas were supposed to be consistently cheery…
Just as there are “crossover” books written for adults but both suitable for and interesting to teens (see “Alex Awards“), there are also some teen books that are equally readable by adults. In fact, for some of them, it’s a shame that they have been marketed and sold as a Young Adult title, because they deserve to be widely read.
One of these is the historical fiction book Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein.
The book starts out a little confusingly: It’s about two young women in World War II England, mostly before America has entered the war. One of the women is a spy; the other is a pilot. Together, they make a great team. But the team has been split up: One of them has fallen into Nazi custody, and is being tortured to write down every detail she can dredge up about the British War Effort. She decides to write it down not from her own point of view but from that of her friend’s. It took me a while to get comfortable with the way the narrative has been switched around, but once I did, I was riveted.
I can say almost nothing about this book without giving away significant details that you should be allowed to discover on your own. I will say that the first half of the book is heart-breaking, but by the time you get to the twist in the middle, you are no longer reading the story, you are living it. I am not an emotional reader, but this book made me weep, both with sorrow and with joy. This story is among the best historical fiction I have read.
Nation, by the inimitable Terry Pratchett, creator of Disc World, is a stand-alone story of apocalyptic adventure in an alternate world much like ours. Its protagonist, Mau, is woefully unprepared for the catastrophe that changes everything; he has been living alone on the Boys’ Island, preparing to leave his boy soul there and make his transition to manhood in the ways of his tribe. But on the morning he sets out in his canoe to return to the island and people he knows as the Nation, everything there is destroyed by a giant tidal wave. The wave does wash something up on his shore, though—a ship with a sole survivor, a girl from an empire halfway around the globe, who will help him work through both shattering doubts and confidence-building certainties about the new life they both must create.
This book is deeply philosophical, examining complex religious and cultural concepts, but Pratchett dresses the philosophy in a wardrobe of ghosts and gods, talking parrots and mutineers, cannibals and secret treasures, forming a seamless story that keeps you enthralled to the very last page. While this was an honor book in 2009 for the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature and will certainly appeal to teens, it is a wonderful story for all ages. And, as with all Pratchett novels, it has many funny moments as well.
Although Meg Rosoff is best known for her post-apocalyptic teen book, Where I Live Now, one of her lesser known titles sticks in my mind as a great read for both older teens and adults. In The Bride’s Farewell, set in 1850s rural England and with a Hardyesque feel, Pell Ridley leaves her home in the middle of the night to avoid marrying her childhood beau; she can’t bear the thought of repeating her mother’s life of domestic drudgery and constant child-bearing. Her mute little brother, Bean, refuses to be left behind, so the two ride her white horse, Jack, to the Salisbury Horse Fair, hoping to find work. When she loses everything dear to her, Pell must discover her own resources—both inner and outer—and decide what’s worth fighting for, clinging to, or surrendering.
I couldn’t put this book down—I started it at 7:00 p.m. one night, and finished it at midnight. It contains wonderful scene-setting as well as compelling characters and situations. Rosoff’s language is spare, but deeply emotional.
So…adults out there—by all means recommend these to your teens, but read them yourselves as well! And mention them to your mother and your friends and to strangers on the bus!