Robin McKinley

As I have mentioned before on this blog, I am a huge fan of fantasy writer Robin McKinley. I reviewed my two favorite books of hers, The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword, here. I think she has inventive ideas, compelling characters, and amazing world-building. A friend and I recently discussed, however, how unpredictable she can be—we have loved some of her books, hated others, and been bored to catatonia by at least one of them. Shadows, one of her lesser-known books, is one that I like.

ShadowsBut how to describe this book? In a weird way, it’s a dystopia, because something happened a couple of generations back that changed the world and put a bunch of scary bureaucrats in charge of it. But it’s also a fantasy, because it’s all about magic and its banning from the world of science, and how it leaks and creeps back in again.

Maggie and her mom and little brother lost their dad/husband awhile back (car accident), and it’s been tough going. But now her mom has found someone new to love, and although Maggie would like to be glad for her, Val creeps her out on so many levels that she just can’t deal. There’s his wardrobe, and his weird accent, and his fairly unattractive exterior, but that’s the least of it: Val has too many shadows, which seem to loom and dart and rise up higher and create a stranger outline behind him on the wall than anybody’s shadow should, and Maggie is apparently the only one who can see them. I found it a little unbelievable how long she managed to ignore them and avoid him, rather than just coming out and asking, but on the other hand, if you put this behavior in the context of people in “science world” being jumpy about anything that smacks of magic, it made sense. And that’s where you have to “suspend disbelief” and be willing to go with it because you love McKinley.

As I said, in Newworld, where Maggie lives, there are regulations in place designed to keep people away from magic and magic away from people. In fact, there is a whole bureaucracy set up to defend against “cohesion breaks,” or cobeys, which are apparently alternate worlds or magical worlds (?) trying to push their way through to this one (or suck people out of it). It’s a crime to own magical artifacts, or to practice magic, or to BE magical, and this is a big source of Maggie’s worry about Val (who emigrated from Oldworld, where they still practice magic), because now that he’s living in their house, he puts them all at risk, even though he’s shown no obvious signs (other than the shadows) of risky behavior. Maggie’s family has a history of magic-wielders, but supposedly that gene was surgically removed from everyone awhile back—or was it?

Things I loved about this book: all the characters—her mom, her friends, Jill and Taks, her love interest, Casimir, the animals (she has a dog and also works at a shelter), the evolution of the plot. Things that frustrated me: Well, because it was McKinley I was willing to go with it, but the world-building is weird—incomplete and random, with lots of assumptions, confusing lingo, truncated history, tantalizing and infuriating hints that you could know more if only she would tell you! You are set down in the middle of a work in progress that you have to figure out as you go along, and I didn’t feel like I had completely understood it even by the end of the book—but I didn’t care all that much, because I was enjoying myself and the story.

The book ended satisfactorily, but it was more like the end of a chapter in this alternate history than the end of a world; it definitely left itself open for a sequel, but whether there will ever be one is anybody’s guess, since McKinley mostly doesn’t do sequels. I hope so, because I grew fond of these characters.

So–would I recommend it? Yes. But judging from the ratings on Goodreads, which range from one star to five, you definitely have to be a certain sort of reader to like it.

I’m tagging this with the YA Fiction category because it reads as if it could have been written specifically for teens; but as with most fantasy out there, if you are a fantasy reader you don’t discriminate between teen and adult fantasy, it’s all just fantasy!

 

Dystopian fantasy

I just finished the first two books in what I hope will be a longer series by Charlaine Harris, the author best known for her Sookie Stackhouse vampire books later immortalized as the TV show True Blood.

Harris has had a checquered history for me, with some of her books striking a major chord while others just struck out. I hated her cozy mystery series featuring Aurora Teagarden—I don’t know why, but I found the protagonist irritating and the plots excessively weird. I liked the vampire novels a lot for about the first five, and then they became increasingly silly and kind of desperate. I liked the Lily Bard mysteries that take place in Shakespeare, Arkansas, but they are grim and dark for recreational reading. The Midnight, Texas books are only okay, although I have a soft spot for the protagonist, psychic Manfred Bernardo. I tried a couple of her stand-alone novels from her early writing days but couldn’t get through them.

My favorites up until now have been a four-book series about Harper Connelly, a young woman who was struck by lightning as a teenager and survived it, only to discover that it had given her the power to know how people had died. She couldn’t see who killed them, but she could stand on her grave and reliably tell you if your wife accidentally drowned in the bathtub or if someone had pulled her under. Having no other skills that would earn her a living, she and her step-brother, Tolliver, team up (he acts as her manager) and hire her out to police departments and individuals who want or need to know cause of death. It’s an interesting lifestyle, to say the least, and the most enjoyable part of it is the sheer banality of their daily existence contrasted with the use of Harper’s particular gift. I have read the series three times.

EasyDeathI say they are my favorites up until now because they may have just been aced out by some “new” books I didn’t even know she was writing. The first Gunnie Rose book, An Easy Death, was published in October of 2018, and the second, A Longer Fall, came out this past January. There is a Goodreads note for a third one on the way, no date indicated.

Although I shouldn’t be surprised at the extent of Harris’s imagination (especially after the cast she developed for the Sookie Stackhouse novels), I was so taken with the concept for this book. Perhaps it is conditioning from all the dystopian teen fiction I have read during my 10-year career as a teen librarian, but I do love an alternate history, and this one really delivers.

The setting is the former United States, but one event—the assassination of Franklin Delano Roosevelt—has significantly altered the history of the country. Without Roosevelt’s guiding hand during the Great Depression, the crippled country fractures, and various states were either absorbed into surrounding countries, taken over by former rulers, or banded together to form small nations. The original 13 Colonies pledged fealty to the British Empire; a few of the “top” border states became part of Canada; the south-eastern states are now “Dixie” while Texas and Oklahoma and a few others formed “Texoma”; the “flyover” states remained “New” American territory; the rest of the southwest was annexed by Mexico; and the biggest surprise was California/the Pacific Northwest, which was taken over—by a combination of invitation, treaty, advantageous marriages, and magic—by the tsar Nicholas and the remains of the Holy Russian Empire, which is now its new name.

tsar_nicholas_ii_1898_by-a-a-pasetti-public-domain-via-wikimedia-commonsYes, magic is what I said: This dystopia is not only an alternate history, but also includes wizardry, mastered primarily by the Russians, who value it, and the British, who don’t, so many British wizards have migrated to the new HRE on the Pacific coast, inter-
mingling with their Russian counterparts to maintain the rule of the Romanovs. Readers of history will remember that the Romanovs had a fatal flaw in the male bloodline—hemophilia—and it is this flaw around which Harris has built this first story about Gunnie Rose.

It seems that only the blood of Rasputin (and his descendents) can keep Nicolai’s heir, Alexei, alive, and now that Rasputin is deceased, the hunt is on to find the descendents who can help the Russians maintain their hold. Two wizards travel to Lizbeth “Gunnie” Rose’s home in Texoma, seeking an illegitimate granddaughter rumored to live in the state, and hire Gunnie to protect them while they make their search. Gunnie Rose is between jobs and desperate for cash, so she packs up her arsenal and takes them up on their offer, despite her distrust of Russia and wizardry. But Gunnie is nothing if not brave, and she has ample opportunities to prove this as people intent on preventing the wizards’ mission keep trying to take them out.

longerfallThis series is pure delight, from the elaborate world-building to the laconic Western flavor of Texoma, and the characters are so alive they could step off the page. Harris has written this with just the amount of detail you crave, without drowning you in either description or explanation, and the pace of this mystery/adventure story is perfect. The minute I finished the first book, I jumped without hesitation into the second one.

The second book takes Gunnie Rose and the reader on a train trip into Dixie with a crew new to her, guarding a crate with mysterious contents and not even knowing its ultimate recipient. The mission is quite literally derailed, along with the train, and Gunnie is left, once again, with most of her crew dead or disabled, wondering what could be so important that the people who wanted the crate’s contents would kill that many people by blowing up the train to get it. When her former partner and lover, Eli the grigori wizard, shows up, she begins to winkle out some answers, but the truth is stranger than anyone could imagine.

What a fun and imaginative read. I hope she doesn’t take too long to produce the third volume.

(I loved the cover on this one, showing Gunnie Rose basically sulking because in Dixie she has to appear ladylike by wearing blouses and skirts and petticoats and stockings—and foregoing her gunbelt—in order to fit in. I greatly sympathized with her sigh of relief when she could finally resume the jeans and boots of her everyday wear.)

 

Fresh look: old books

Continuing our exploration of books published years ago—some many years ago—but not discovered by some of us until now, in our hour of need: Here are some bewitching fantasies sure to capture your imagination and attention, should you deign to read them…

The first is a series within a series, but then, the majority of Sir Terry Pratchett‘s books fall into that category, I think—Discworld is all-enveloping. But this series is specific to itself as well, and delightful in all ways. It’s the set of five Tiffany Aching books, beginning with The Wee Free Men and ending with The Shepherd’s Crown, which also happens to be Terry’s last book.

WFMIn the beginning, it’s young Tiffany Aching, armed only with a frying pan and her enormous common sense, who stands between the monsters of Fairyland and the Chalk country that is her home. Her beloved grandmother, the Witch of the Chalk, has died, and now it’s up to Tiffany, young and unprepared as she is, to take over. When her brother is kidnapped by a fairy and Tiffany has to enter Fairyland to find him and get him back, Tiffany discovers some unusual allies, the Nac Mac Feegle, or Wee Free Men. They are a clan of sheep-stealing, sword-fighting, six-inch-high blue men with proper kilts and Scottish accents, who may be small but are definitely fierce enough to make up for it. Together Tiffany and the Feegle must confront the cruel Queen of the Elves.

In the second book, A Hat Full of Sky, Tiffany’s exploits in retrieving her brother have brought her to the notice of witches, under the leadership of Granny Weatherwax. They arrange for her to be apprenticed to Miss Level, from whom she learns that there’s little magic involved in witchcraft—it’s more a case of midwifery, hospice, herbal lore, and the settling of village disputes. Tiffany scorns much of this, acting like a typical angsty teenager…but this is unlike the usually practical girl. It seems that something more sinister is at work, a malign influence that took hold when Tiffany learned the trick of hopping out of her body for a bit and leaving an “open house.”

In the third book, Tiffany confronts the Wintersmith; in the fourth, I Shall Wear Midnight, she has completed her training and has returned home to become the Witch of the Chalk, only to encounter the seeds of great evil taking over the world; and in the final book, The Shepherd’s Crown, she stands with all the witches against the fairy hordes wanting to overrun her land. It’s a great series, enlivened by dark humor, profound pronouncements, a few bad puns, and of course by the little blue men with their equally blue vocabulary.

nacmacf

All you Miyazaki fans out there have probably long since discovered his animé of Howl’s Moving Castle, by Dianna Wynne Jones, but have you ever read the original source material? If not, you are in for a treat; the movie greatly abridged and “adjusted” the plot, which is so delightful that it deserves to be visited or revisited, depending.

It has one of those first lines that I love:

“In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three.”

HowlThis misfortune falls to 18-year-old Sophie Hatter, who is turned by the Witch of the Waste into an old woman. In search of a cure, Sophie tracks down and confronts the local wizard, who travels about the countryside in a castle that moves of its own accord, courtesy of its resident fire demon. Sophie has to figure out how to outwit Howl, employ the fire demon, and overcome the Witch of the Waste to regain her youth. But along the way, what an adventure it will be!

Totally original and delightful, this book will appeal to all ages and genders. Don’t be fooled by its allocation into middle school book lists, this is a fantasy for everyone. Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways are the two sequels.

Another writer with a body of work that mostly connects between all books (like those of Ursula K. LeGuin’s from another recent post) is urban fantasy writer Charles de Lint. If you are a fan of books that seem to be set in the contemporary world but have another, parallel world connected through whose gates the faery folk and Native American archetypes slip from time to time, you must check out his Newford books. They number in excess of 20 by now, but although he has numbered them sequentially, you don’t necessarily have to read them in a particular order. While it is true that characters who reappear will be minor in one and the main protagonist of another, you don’t miss much by jumping in wherever you feel like it. Also, a fair number of the books consist of short stories that bring you up to date about individual people and story lines, should you wish to seek them out.

m&dMy favorite two books of his are Memory and Dream, and Trader, which are actually #2 and #4. The first book is written partly in the present, partly in the past, and I am reluctant to reveal too much, because the book is specifically designed for you to discover its surprises as you go along. It begins in 1992, with successful but reclusive abstract artist Isabelle Copley having two jarring experiences on the same day: She receives a letter from her best friend, who has been dead for five years, and is then contacted by another friend, a publisher who wants Isabelle to illustrate an anthology of her dead friend’s short stories. But Isabelle has sworn an oath to never again paint realistically…. Then the book jumps back to 1973, when Izzy is living a bohemian lifestyle with her two best friends (the writer and the publisher) in the city of Newford, studying art under the formidable Vincent Rushkin. One of the greatest living painters and know for his eccentricities, he agrees to take Isabelle on as an apprentice…but despite the miraculous painting techniques she is learning from him, Izzy doesn’t know how much longer she can put up with his controlling and abusive behavior….

The book explores a number of ideas, on a variety of levels, from the nature of art to the knowledge of the people in our lives, to what we are willing to put up with in order to learn the things we want to know. It’s dramatic, magical, and beautifully written.

traderTrader is a somewhat familiar story—a body swap—that is nonetheless fresh and arresting in the hands of fantasist de Lint. Johnny, an unemployed, womanizing, hard-drinking wastrel, falls asleep wishing for a different life, one with money and advantages, in which people appreciate him. His dream, influenced by the Native American artifact he clutches in his hand as he sleeps, intersects with the discontented, weary spirit of Max, whose existence has become about little more than his work, and who has lost his initial joy in his trade as a musician and guitar maker. They wake up in each others’ bodies, and while Johnny gleefully adapts to Max’s comfortable lifestyle, Max is left penniless, homeless, and with enemies seeking him, and has to figure out what has become of the real Max Trader. Their journeys intersect in both worldly and other-worldly ways, abetted and hindered by friends and foes both human and, well, not.

Some other fantasy duos, trilogies, and series that might appeal to you as long and involving reads:

Strange the Dreamer and Muse of Nightmares, by Laini Taylor
The Shades of Magic books, by V. E. Schwab
Seraphina and Shadow Scale, by Rachel Hartman
The Lumatere Chronicles, by Melina Marchetta (three enormous volumes)
Mary Stewart’s Arthurian saga, beginning with The Crystal Cave

If you read any of the books discussed here, I’d love to hear what you thought of them—did you enjoy them, and did they meet your expectations based on these book-talks?