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I first read this book over a decade ago, years before I started this blog. It’s been on my shelf ever since then, a gift from charles_midair and elaine_alina. I loved it then, and was just listened to it on an old iPod borrowed from fritz_et_al (it also seems to be one of the popular choices for fantasy collections on Overdrive, the largest library ebook platform). I was rather astonished at how vague my memories of the story were, the story just as good if not better the second time around.

The Curse of ChalionThe Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold. Read by Lloyd James. Lord Cazaril was once a castle-warder and a military captain. Now he is homeless and broken from brutal treatment on a Roknarri slave ship. He’s walked across Chalion on foot to get to the Provincara of the country estate where he was a page in his youth. He’s hoping for a place in the kitchens; instead, he is assigned to tutor the Royina Iselle, sister to the heir of Chalion, and her companion Betriz. Iselle is full of sixteen years of innocent passion and belief in justice, of the type that causes her to publicly expose a judge for suspected fraud. After a few months of trying to teach the girls diplomacy and caution along with the languages and geography of the surrounding countries, Iselle and her brother Tadez are both summoned to court. The king, their older half brother, is weak and ill and wants them to become familiar with courtly living. Unfortunately, returning to court for Cazaril also means facing the very men that Cazaril knows deliberately sentenced him to the galleys, now the king’s trusted advisers and the most powerful men in Chalion. Cazaril’s loyalty is tested to the utmost, as he becomes literally bound up with the curse that he learns is on all of the royal family of Chalion. He asks for the help of the Gods, and the Gods make it clear that they wish to work their will through him – if only he can figure out what their will is in time to save Iselle and Tadez. It was impossible not to hope for Cazaril not only that he would find his way through his dilemmas, but also that he could find a way to hope for a future for himself beyond his duty.

Despite being a book filled with bad things happening to good people, the story isn’t depressing. There’s love and beauty and plenty of humor. Politics are part of the driving force of the plot, but there are only a handful of major players to consider, so it doesn’t get confusing. The book is filled with interesting characters, including Royina Ista, Iselle and Tadez’s mother, and the Roknarri divine of the Bastard (see below) who works, oddly, as the head groom in Roya Orico’s private menagerie. Actually, the gods are major players as well, allowing the plot some literal Deus Ex Machina moments. I suppose I can think of a handful of other fantasy novels where religion and theology play such a major role, but I really enjoy Chalion’s unique religion, somewhat similar to and yet different from earthly paganism. Chalion and a few of the neighboring countries are Quintarian. The five gods are the Mother, the Father, the Son and Daughter (each assigned to a season of the year, sexes, and stages of life), and the Bastard, who watches over bastards, people of non-mainstream sexuality and events out of season. The Daughter of spring, Iselle’s patron, and the Bastard are the most featured in this book. Several other neighboring countries are Quadrenes, who do not hold the Bastard to be a god. Naturally, both sides hold the other to be heretics, and it echoes into politics as people who are natural followers of the Bastard flee from Quadrene countries to Quintarian. Though I’m condensing it here, the theology comes up naturally through the story as it is lived. Really the whole world is set up just as well, without long expository sections. This is top-notch fantasy, with something for everyone. Lloyd James has just the right voice to pull off the battle-weary Lord Cazaril, if the voices of the two girls sound just a little young for young women who are definitely taking charge of their own destinies. My love and I both separately listened to and very much enjoyed this.

P.S. What does this cover depict? Can anyone figure out if it is related to anything that happens in the story? It looks to me like a generic fantasy painting put on the book without any regard to the actual content. The cover shown for the ebook version was even worse, featuring, of all things, a large dragon.
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Did you miss me last week? I was dealing with toddler tummy flu, mericfully mild on the external symptoms, but high on the clinginess scale.

Books of MagicThe Books of Magic by Neil Gaiman. Illustrated by John Bolton, Scott Hampton, Charles Vess and Paul Johnson. This is an old Neil Gaiman, originally a 1993 miniseries, just brought back into print as a single graphic novel. Hooray for back in print Neil Gaiman! Twelve-year-old Timothy Hunter has magic potential, and a team of four mysterious (but probably familiar to DC fans) men in trenchcoats are watching him skateboard and deciding if they should offer him the chance to have a tour of the magic world. The men include John Contantine, Dr. Occult, and Mr. E. After Timothy’s yo-yo is turned into an owl, Timothy agrees to the demonstration/tour, following which he is to be offered a chance to start proper magical training or not. Each of the four mysterious men takes him to a different realm – past, present, Fairy and future. In each realm, he meets with famous people, some universally famous, like Merlin in the past and Baba Yaga and the Fairy Queen in Fairy, but also lots and lots of magic-using DC characters. I don’t read very many of the ongoing series type graphic novels, so most of these characters were familiar to me only from my work selecting graphic novels for my library, but while knowing them might have added to the story, I didn’t feel that I was missing anything not knowing them. (I’ve read only one short Zatanna comic book, but have seen lots of her on covers, and was quite tickled here to see that Timothy reacts with horror to the sight of her in her costume, when she changes out of her everyday clothes. Like most female superhero costumes, it’s ridiculously revealing and impractical.) In every realm, Timothy is in danger, both from the dangers inherent in traveling someplace one doesn’t really belong while wanting to get back to where one does belong, but also because Evil knows that Timothy is out there, and would like to either recruit or eliminate him. Timothy will witness things along the way that you probably wouldn’t want your twelve-year-old seeing – more along the lines of death than sexuality, probably fine for older teens and less sensitive younger ones, but still put in our adult rather than teen collection. This is a basic magical journey story, something that in the hands of a lesser person might be stereotypical. However, it’s Gaiman. It works beautifully, despite having a very limited amount of space to tell the story. All of the artists are top-notch as well, a different one for each of the original four comic books. It’s beautiful to look at just as art even while it’s art with a job to do: telling the story, maintaining continuity and the ability to recognize the characters from one volume to the next, at the same time as showcasing the artists’ distinctive styles. Any Gaiman fan will of course want to read this, as will those who enjoy a good fantasy yarn.

Cross-posted to http://library-mama.dreamwidth.org and http://sapphireone.livejournal.com .

Rampant

Oct. 1st, 2011 03:59 pm
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book coverRampant by Diana Peterfreund. Unicorns have come back from extinction! And rather than being the peaceful herbivores of legend, they are vicious, man-hunting beasts with deadly poisonous horns. The only people who have any chance of defeating them are virgin girls from certain family lines. Sixteen-year-old Astrid has never really believed her mother about this, until her tryst with a popular boy on the edge of the woods ends disastrously, with him being gored by a unicorn. Now he’s spreading vicious rumors about her at school, and even her best friend won’t talk to her. Worse yet, her mother has been talking with someone on the Internet who is re-opening a convent in Rome, the Order of the Lioness, devoted to training unicorn slayers, and paying the way there. Astrid is not enthused about giving up a normal teen life and the prospect of becoming a doctor or a medical researcher for killing endangered animals, but her mother isn’t about to give her a choice. And once she’s there, her life will never be the same. Dun dun DUNN!!!

Fans of Buffy should eat this up, and I’d recommend it for teens and adults. For those wanting to put it in the hands of kids or teens, here’s the run-down: There is violence, of course, and sexual situations, though no actual first-hand sex, as Astrid is telling the story and she more or less wants to retain the ability to hunt unicorns. There is also frank discussion among the mostly teen-aged girls at the convent about why they are still virgins in a time when most girls their age aren’t, which I found honest and interesting. I would, however, probably not give it to younger kids. I’m not sure how many teen boys would be interested in picking up a book with a wide-eyed girl staring at them from the cover, but if they could get past that, I think the action is steady enough to keep them interested. Astrid is very serious about all of this, but – well, I’m back to the Buffy again. There’s action, romance, adventure, humor, and a few serious underlying issues all together. It’s good modern fantasy with a low level of world-learning required. For those who care, it’s a planned trilogy with the first two books out and no word on the third.
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book cover The Uncertain Places by Lisa Goldstein This book comes with great recommendations – blurbs by de Lint, Beagle, Le Guin, and more. It’s the 1970s in Berkley, a great time to be in college. Our narrator Will’s best friend Ben brings Will to his girlfriend’s house with him. The Feierabend family - Maddie and her sisters Livvy and Rose - live with their mother, Sylvia, in a crazy house with large and stylistically incompatible sections added on to each other. Will and Livvy fall in love, and only after things are serious between them does Will realize that the strange things that happen in and around the house are real and dangerous. A long-ago Feierabend made a bargain with the Fae – eternal prosperity for the family in exchange for seven years of the life of a daughter in each generation. The Faerie here are definitely the ambiguous, untrustworthy kind, neither all good nor all bad. When Livvy falls asleep and can’t be woken up, Will is the only one willing to do whatever it takes to get her back, even if it means confronting the Queen of Faerie. That could be the end of a satisfying story right there, but, like Into the Woods, it goes on from there. Does Livvy’s family really want to end the curse? How does one partner rescuing another change the dynamic of their relationship? How much are people willing to do for Luck, and is it worth having? I found myself looking for my parents in Will and Livvy, a young couple in college in close to the same era, which was an extra level of interest for me. But there is plenty to recommend the book without that hook, with familiar plot elements twisted together into something new, unexpected, both beautiful and frightening.

Originally posted at http://library-mama.dreamwidth.org .
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I’ve written more than once about how I don’t read very many book blogs. And then I started wondering, why don’t I? So while I don’t have time to read dozens, though I know they’re out there, I’ve added two focusing on my favorite topic, children’s literature. Charlotte’s Library focuses on science fiction and fantasy for children and young adults, and I’m in love. Charlotte is a reader after my own heart, and I read this book based on her recommendation. Through her weekly round-ups of kids sf/f blog reviews and interviews, I also found the charming Bookie Woogie, where three kids and their dad review a different book every week. I’ve read this to my son, and recommended it to the mother of a reluctant reader, because what better to get kids excited about reading than other kids excited about reading? And now, on to our story….

book coverMistress of the Storm by M.L. Welsh This is a beautiful, classic-style fantasy about an unhappy child who doesn’t fit in and ends up finding her place in the world. Verity Gallant lives with her parents and younger sister Poppy in the tiny coastal town of Wellow. At home, Verity’s mother much prefers the smaller, prettier Poppy, while at school, Verity’s size and brains make her even more of an outcast. Her only friend is an old lady, Alice, whom Verity visits often as a friend of the family, and she also find refuge at the library. But things are about to change. A mysterious stranger appears in the library and gives Verity a strange book and a small wooden ball. He tells her that the Storm is coming. Soon both friends and enemies are telling her that the Storm is coming. What this means she has no idea, but of course, her life changes forever, in ways both good and bad. Verity must learn enough about herself and about the undiscussed secrets of her family to figure out what kind of trouble is brewing and how to stop it. The book is filled with character whose names, like those in Dickens and Harry Potter, tell you their nature, including Verity herself, but also Henry Twogood and Villainous Usage. The book had a nice balance of clueless and helpful adults. It includes the intruiging idea of Original Stories, stories made up and then read aloud in magical places so that they happen in real life over and over again. I wasn’t quite happy with some parts of the final confrontation, but overall, this is a book that I probably would have read over and over again had it existed when I was child. Give it to the bookish and lonely middle graders in your life.

Hounded

Jul. 9th, 2011 10:47 am
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book coverHounded by Kevin Hearne Here was a book with a promising, even drool-worthy premise: Atticus O’Sullivan, formerly known as Siodhachan O’Suilebhain, is a 21-century-old druid, though he looks and carefully acts 21 years. He’s currently hiding out in Tempe, Arizona, the owner of a small New Age store. Atticus is cool with the local supernatural population – his werewolf and vampire attorneys, even the local coven of witches, for whose leader he’s pulled a major favor. He’s got a close relationship with his Irish wolfhound. Oberon, and shapeshifts to go hunting with him in the nature preserves from time to time. But his simple life is about to get more complicated: the Morrigan (who’s been keeping him alive all these years) comes to his store to tell him that Aenghus Og, the supremely selfish Celtic god of love, has finally tracked him down. Aenghus Og wants both blood from Atticus, and the ancient sword Fragarach. The goddess of the hunt, Flidais, turns up in his kitchen that evening to pass on the same warning. Things heat up from there, in more ways than one. The magic (since I always seem to describe a book’s magic system) is pretty cool – Atticus mainly uses his knotwork tattoos to draw power from the earth, plus he stores some extra powers in an iron charm necklace. Though we spend some time getting to know Atticus, this is essentially a plot-driven book, with lots of action keeping it moving at a good clip.

I prefer a little more emphasis on character in general, but I might have gone back for the second two books of the trilogy except for two things. First, a niggling complaint about the sexual mores. Atticus talks a nice talk about the druidic sexual mores being so much more forgiving and fun than tradional Christian ethics, but his actual attitudes seem less than progressive: he gets to hop in the sack with any semi-naked goddess who comes his way, but in terms of long-term relationships, he’s really looking for a nice sexily-but-modestly-dressed girl with no signs of any attachments to anyone else. And that might be just me having a particular button pressed – I’m feeling sensitive in general to the current culture for teen girls, which seems to be, “you must always look sexy but never seem to want sex.” But then, one of the things that comes out in this book (and this is somewhat spoilerish) is that while druids are definitely good and werewolves and vampires can be fine, witches are untrustworthy in general and nearly always evil in particular. Just where, pray tell, does Mr. Hearne think the audience for this book will be coming from? The Wiccans that I know are gentle earth-loving types, who hang pretty close to the modern Druid community and are often interested in Celtic mythology and fantasy literature. They would probably be offended at being portrayed as evil black magic users in opposition to the happy druids. Though I don't like negative religious stereotypes in general, this one seems particularly misplaced. Witches have gotten bashed on in monotheistic literature enough without needing to get it from pagan literature as well. That makes this book disturbing enough that I won’t be going back for more.

Originally posted at http://library-mama.dreamwidth.org .
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It’s another bestseller. But it wasn’t on the bestseller list when I read a review of it and decided that it looked too fun to pass up. I even had to return it partway through and go back on the hold list for it, due to an unfortunate number of exciting books coming in all at the same time.

PhotobucketA Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness Dr. Diana Bishop, student of alchemy, has been trying for most of her life to forget that she was born a witch. After all, being witches cost her parents their lives. She doesn’t use magic or associate with other witches. And while the magical community back in upstate New York was used to that, the witches at Oxford are being less understanding that she’s only there to do research for an upcoming paper. Two things happen that bring already simmering tensions to a boil. First, large numbers of supernatural creatures witness Diana find and even open a lost alchemical manuscript that has been magically hidden in the Bodlein Library for years. And then, an ancient vampire named Matthew Clairmont, witnesses her use her magic when she thinks she is alone. Soon magical creatures of all three types – daemons, witches, and vampires – are pressuring Diana to retrieve the manuscript again and share the contents with them. Somehow, she finds herself trusting the vampire more than anyone else. I loved all the clearly well-researched history in this book. I liked that the vampires weren’t only a century or so old, but really, really old, with Diana’s family having similar roots in Salem history. Matthew speaks Provencal and quotes troubadour poetry on occasion. The witchcraft is a blend of modern paganism with traditional storybook spell craft, which works well in a fantasy set in a realistic modern world. This is a book steeped in a love of books and history, with self-discovery, adventure and romance. It’s exciting both in characters and story to be interesting, while still feeling like literature rather than fluff. (I got into a whole conversation about this with another mother who was reading this as our children were at physical therapy.) I did get a sinking feeling as I got towards the end of the book and realized that there was no way the story could finish in the number of pages remaining. Sure enough, it’s a fat fantasy book with two more presumably just as fat planned to follow. But more good books aren’t a bad thing, right? I was also quite amused to note that you can friend not only the author but also Diana and Matthew on Facebook, and that Harkness has playlists for the main characters available on her website.

Cold Magic

Apr. 18th, 2011 01:36 pm
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On a recent, rare library date with my love, I pulled this book off the shelf. I thought that maybe Colleen at Chasing Ray had mentioned it. It felt quite brazen, taking home a book I wasn’t sure I’d even heard of before.

I looked it up today, now that I’ve read the book. She did mention it very briefly, back in November. And she also linked to this fabulous post about racism by Kate Elliott, the author of this book, which I do remember reading. You should go read it, too. I had completely forgotten it when I picked up this book. I enjoyed the book as well, if in a quite different way.

book coverCold Magic by Kate Elliot Catherine, known as Cat, is a young woman of impoverished good blood attending University with her cousin Bee, with whom she has lived since her parents’ death when she was seven. It’s the Industrial Revolution (one could call it steampunk if one wished, though there is not so very much steam power in it); today’s lecture is on the science of air ships, one of which will be available for viewing that evening. That was the plan, anyway, until a cold mage arrives at their house with a claim on her, the oldest Hassi Barahal daughter. From there, things heat up, despite the cold surrounding cold mages. Cat is forced to leave her family and make several discoveries: family secrets that leave her wondering if she can trust anyone, the unpleasant plans the cold mages have for her, and previously unknown relations. It’s an alternate earth with a lovely deep culture. The cold mages are a union of Celtic and Mande African formed a few centuries back when the Mande nobility were forced to leave Africa because of a plague of ghouls, while Cat is of Phonecian heritage. Now the cold mages are the upholders of the current powers, opposed to science and industry and opposed by a growing populist movement. Cat is a delightful character, prickly enough not to set off goody-two-shoes alarms, yet not so headstrong as to make the reader want to bash heads against the wall in frustration. And the plot took enough twisty turns that I was frequently surprised at what happened next. As is typical for the genre, this is the first in a series, so you can choose to wait to read the book until the rest are out or be impatient with me.

Originally posted at http://library-mama.dreamwidth.org .
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book coverUnseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett. Performed by Stephen Briggs. I view Terry Pratchett as a fantasy savings account. Not as in money, but as in “If I am ever in the bind for some light but good fantasy entertainment, there will always be a Terry Pratchett I haven’t yet read.” The books are enough part of the world to feel familiar, but free-standing enough that I don’t feel out of the loop for going years between Discworld visits. I had one of these moments recently, and was so happy to find an audio copy of this recent effort. In this book, the wizards of Unseen University discover to their horror that they will lose a good bit of funding if they don’t start playing the game of Foot the Ball. This is a raucous street game, with very loose rules and intensely loyal local teams throughout Ankh-Morphokh. Below stairs, we meet another cast of characters who get caught up in the ensuing madness: Nutt, a very well-educated goblin who is inexplicably working as a candle dribbler; Trev, the head candle dribbler, previously specializing in nothing much but being able to kick a tin can around wherever he goes; Glenda, the large and capable head of the night kitchen; and Juliet, her assistant, whose fairly empty but beautiful head attracts notice from every male who sees her. There’s some romance, a bit of dwarf fashion, a little reflection on racism, and a whole lot of silly fun, admirably read by the capable Briggs.

Cross-posted to http://sapphireone.livejournal.com and http://library-mama.dreamwidth.org .
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book coverAmong Others by Jo Walton Our heroine – who doesn’t share her name with us until well into the book – is a Welsh teen who ran away from her mother and is now (now being 1979) being sent to English boarding school. Of course she doesn’t fit in; her leg was damaged in the accident that killed her twin sister, and she can’t participate in the all-important school sports. Although the school is out in the country, it’s less wild than the outskirts of town in Wales, and that means many fewer fairies, and the ones she can find won’t talk to her. But it’s after the great battle, she says, after the Scouring of the Shire. You don’t expect everyone to survive or for things to go smoothly. The world is still going on, and that means you succeeded. Mori spends her time reading, mostly lots and lots of science fiction. Eventually she joins a science fiction book club, her only real social outlet. Oh, how very close to her I have been! It’s a somewhat sneaky book – most of what happens in the present is pretty mundane, so that I thought at first that the story was going to be the slow and tiny revelations about the Big Battle of the past. Mori suffers through school, tries to figure out the social rules, tries to understand the father she met for the first time when she ran away from her mother. She visits her family in Wales – the people she loves who raised her in the face of her mother’s neglect and craziness. She thinks about love and sexuality, and she reads and thinks about what she reads, often comparing the magic in books to the magic that she has experienced herself. And then suddenly, she is in actual present danger and must rely on the knowledge she has gained from her reading. It was a plot twist that I was not expecting at all. I am left feeling that I ought to go back and re-read it. I was also torn between all the fabulous books that she read that I have also loved, many that I have heard of but not read (mostly sci-fi classics that were missing from my parents’ bookshelf), as well as a few authors that I have never heard of. I should read more science fiction! But I’m already behind on all the areas that I try to read already – aggh! I will also note that the cover of this book, while lovely, seemed to have very little to do with the contents and moreover, made it look like mainstream women’s fiction instead of fantasy that would be enjoyed by either gender. This fantasy is a love poem to science fiction and the power of reading, as well as a strong coming-of-age story featuring a most sympathetic protagonist.

Crossposted to http://sapphireone.livejournal.com and http://library-mama.dreamwidth.org .

Soulless

Jan. 30th, 2011 04:25 pm
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book coverSoulless by Gail Carriger Here is a nice genre-busting book, first in a series: in an alternate England, the success of the empire is due to their reliance on help from vampires and werewolves. Our heroine is Alexia Tarabotti, a soulless spinster, whose early quest for treacle tart at a ball is interrupted by the sad necessity of having to kill a very rude vampire. The BUR, the agency for the regulation of supernatural beings, of course investigates. This is headed by an irritating if attractive werewolf by the name of Lord Maccon. To the fantasy, we may add comedy of manners with romance a la Jane Austen (if a bit spicier). Miss Tarabotti’s spectacular parasol weapon and the overt presence of dirigibles add a steampunk twist. From a library reader’s advisory standpoint, this book has something for anyone willing to read speculative fiction: appealing characters, a fast-moving plot (where are all these uneducated and poorly dressed vampires coming from?), an intriguing and well-detailed setting, and witty writing. This comes recommended not only by me, but by my love and the famous Nancy Pearl. Do go read it, and let me know what you think.

The Naming

Jan. 8th, 2011 02:26 pm
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I started this series this fall, when I had a bit more reading time and less access to libraries than usual, so thick absorbing books were perfect. I made it to book three out of four, and am taking a breather before starting the last book.

book coverThe Naming by Allison Croggan Australian poet Croggan brings this lyrical fantasy, first in the Books of Pellinor quartet together from familiar elements, with recognizable influence most notably from Tolkien’s Middle Earth, but also with elements of Valdemar and Prydain. So: Maerad, a young slave girl, is discovered by an older wizard named Cadvan. He takes her to one of the ancient bardic schools, where she learns reading, riding, and basic sword. Then they are on their way: the dark forces of the Nameless One, long believed to have been completely defeated centuries ago, are rising again. There seems to be betrayal in the inner circle of the bards. Maerad is quite likely the person foretold in ancient prophecies to overthrow the dark, and she might even be in possession of an ancient magical artifact that the Nameless One is searching for. Pretty familiar, right? I might have enjoyed it a bit more if I could have turned off the Tolkien commentary in my head that kept saying, “Oh, look… this is just like when Gandalf… and now we’re at the siege of Minas Tirath.” However, Croggan is a poet, and her language is worth reading on its own, her characters interesting. The book moves along at a pace much like Tolkien’s, which is to say slowly, so you will turn to this when you are looking for something to savor and take your time with. This series will also appeal to those who found Tolkien’s ideas on gender roles, sexuality, and race troubling – you’d never find a Tolkien character tracking time by her menses as Maerad does, and Cadvan’s best friend (who takes on a bigger role in the later books) is black, from a black city prominent in the defense of the Light. Croggan also takes Tolkien’s appendices one step further by making them discussions by various scholars of the ancient civilization of Pellinor, referencing multiple imaginary scholarly works. If you are in the mood for Serious Fantasy Epic, this is a sterling example.
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book coverThe Bards of Bone Plain by Patricia McKillip This new book from long-time favorite Patricia McKillip is a misty tale of magic, music, mystery and archaeology. In the distant past, Nairn was called the Pig-Singer, because the pigs were his only audience. Then he found himself studying at a newly-emerging school for bards, pushed into training to compete to be bard to the equally new but self-appointed king. This story is interwoven with a story of a time that feels closer to our present, where Phelan Cle, graduate student at the School for Bards, is in need of a topic for his final paper. Hoping for something easy, he picks a topic that has been done at least once a decade for centuries: What happened to Nairn after the legendary competition? Does Bone Plain, the site of the competition, really exist, and if so, where? His research may (oh, ok, will of course) turn out to be more relevant than he thought as he tries to finish his paper while keeping his drunken, wandering father from getting into trouble. Also in the present day is the stereotypically lovely but unconventional Princess Beatrice, who runs Phelan’s father’s archaeology dig in the city, and whose work will have more in common with Phelan’s than either of them realize. There is something about McKillip’s writing – perhaps the way the magic is clearly there with workings invisible to all the characters – that makes her magic seem more, well, magical, than most fantasy books, where magic is often a thing clearly understood. I haven’t read a bad McKillip yet, and this is worthy of her name.

Crossposted to Livejournal and Dreamwidth.
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book coverZombies vs. Unicorns edited by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier. Zombies are in right now. Really in, and I personally really don’t like them. That’s why I’m so glad that this anthology of short stories has come out, so that everyone can see once and for all why unicorns are so much cooler than zombies. That would be my way of looking at it, anyway. The book is geared towards a teen audience and has twelve stories, six each zombie and unicorn, each team headed by a separate editor. Here are the authors that I’ve heard of: Garth Nix, Naomi Novik, Maureen Johnson, Diana Peterfreund, Scott Westerfeld, Meg Cabot and Libba Bray. These are very good authors, though I admit that the only zombie story I made it all the way through was Alaya Dawn Johnson’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, and that only because the opening comments described it as funny. Every story is preceded by an argument between the two editors on the background of the story, tidbits about zombies or unicorns (depending) and the relative merits of zombies and unicorns. Even when I didn’t read the story, the notes were priceless. A thoughtful feature of this book is that every story is marked with a zombie or unicorn icon so if you are a diehard member of one team or another, as it turns out I am, you can avoid the stories from the other side. Some of the stories are dark, like Kathleen Duey’s “The Third Virgin”. Some, like Naomi Novik’s “Purity Test” (what if the girl the unicorn picks isn’t really a virgin?) and Meg Cabot’s “Princess Prettypants”, where the unicorn literally farts rainbows, are hilarious. I hear the zombie stories were pretty good, too.

Crossposted to http://library-mama.dreamwidth.org and http://sapphireone.livejournal.com
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book coverSpellwright by Blake Charlton In a world where magic is literally spelled, dyslexia can have deadly consequences. Not only can the dyslexic person cast deadly misspells, but their touch can cause the living words in magical texts to misspell themselves. Nicodemus Weal is a cacographer, possessed of magical abilities but unable to spell correctly. He’s apprenticed to the wizard Anwu Shannon, an older man who’s taken a cacographer in each generation under his wing. A convention of wizards and other magic-users is gathering at the wizards’ home of Starhaven. Some of them believe that Nicodemus might be the Halcyon, destined to prevent a magical apocalypse. Others think he might be the Storm Petrel, destined to cause it. Certainly, some unsavory magical creature seems to be stalking wizards in Starhaven, and Nicodemus may be their ultimate target. The magic concept is fascinating and unique, but the characters around Nicodemus never felt quite jelled to me. Large bits of back story also seemed to rise up out of the blue just in time to provide a plot twist. It’s clearly the start of a longer series, and I’m hoping that Charlton will have time to iron out the wrinkles before the next entry. It’s still a book for most who enjoy traditional fantasy.

White Cat

Jul. 5th, 2010 02:28 pm
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book coverWhite Cat by Holly Black The more I read of Holly Black, the more a couple of themes come across: Magic is real and scary. Family is not to be trusted. This book is set in a slightly different modern-day than her other books. Teenaged Cassel wakes up on the snowy roof of his boarding-school dorm room, knowing that his cover is blown. He’s been trying to pass for normal, even though he comes from a family of curse workers, all of whom work for one of the big five crime families. Cassel himself isn’t a worker, but con games are in his blood. Even lying low at boarding school – trying to escape some truly dark memories – Cassel is supporting himself as a bookie, running betting schemes all over the school. Now that the school sees him as a danger to himself, he’s sent to stay with his family until he can get a doctor’s consent to go back home. Once with his family again, the plot thickens. His oldest brother, a strong man for the crime family, is clearly up to something, and his young wife is suffering from some kind of spell. His next oldest and favorite brother is losing large amounts of his memory – is someone doing memory work on him, or is he doing such large amounts of memory work that the blowback is tearing holes in his own memory? All magic is called cursing here, and all the magic Cassel sees is used for cursing, controlled by the crime families ever since it became illegal shortly after Prohibition. Then, at his mother’s house (abandoned until she gets out of jail), he finds a white cat, the same white cat that he was following in the dream which ended up with him on the roof. In the dream, the cat’s name was Lila, the same name as his childhood best friend, the daughter of the head of the crime family; Lila, around whom his terrible memories center. Cassel needs to figure what is going on, and decide if there is anyone he can trust or if there is such a thing as real friendship. The plot is full of twists in the main plot, and has some nice subplots as well. The overall tone is dark and sarcastic, the plot fast-moving, and Cassel a likeable character despite his repeated assurances to the reader that he is not a good person. Fans of Holly Black’s other work will enjoy this, of course. The urban setting calls to mind Charles de Lint, though Black’s work is less dreamy and much faster paced, while the crime world fantasy is reminiscent of Stephen Brust’s Jhereg series, but less comedy than some of those works. It’s good stuff, and the cover makes it look like there will be more.

The only really annoying part was the cover – which looks fine on its own, until you read the descriptions of Cassel in the text, where he is described as definitely not white of indeterminate origins. That pretty boy on the cover looks lily-white to me, another frustrating example of covers being whitewashed on the theory that dark skins don’t sell.
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book coverPeter & Max by Bill Willingham This is the first non-graphic novel in Fables, an otherwise graphic novel series. Peter and Max takes a break from the main storyline of the series to delve into the past history of Peter Piper and his brother, Max Piper, with some input from Peter’s wife Bo Piper, nee Peep. Long ago, during the invasion of the Homelands, Peter and Max had a conflict, the exact nature of which is gradually revealed over the course of the novel. Without going into too many details, we will say only that Max turns out to be a Bad Egg who is murderously jealous of his younger brother. A hundred years ago in our world, Max came again to try to find Peter, but was driven out by Frau Totenkinder, the famous Black Forest witch. Now Max is back, and Peter is determined to find him before he brings down the rest of the world. The story cuts back and forth between the modern world and the old Homeland, with plenty of tension in both stories, all of them weaving together various stories and rhymes involving Peters and Pipers. It is by turns, as one expects of Willingham, horrifying, funny, exciting, and sometimes a wee bit romantic. This tale in particular has extra doses of music, magic and mayhem. Those who are fans of the series already will want to read this as well; those who thought the series sounded interesting but were put off by the format will find Peter & Max an easier portal.
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book coverExcept the Queen by Jane Yolen and Midori SnyderThe first thing I noticed about this book when I opened it up was Jane Yolen’s dedication, which I will reproduce here in it entirety. This, my friends, is a recommendation list from one of the grande dames of fantasy. I find that I have read many of them, but there’s a good handful that I plan on hunting down:

For Terri Windling, Ellen Datlow, Isak Dinesen, Angela Carter, Alice Hoffman, Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman, Pamela Dean, Patricia Wrede, Holly Black, Emma Bull, Patricia McKillip, Ellen Klages, Kelly Link, Diana Wynne Jones, Robin McKinley, Shannon Hale, and all the other sisters of fantasy.

But the actual book. Two fairy sister, Meteora and Serana, witness the Queen engaged in a certain act with a human man. The Queen! With a human! They try to stifle their giggles quickly, as they know that revenge will be swift and terrible if word ever gets out. Of course, inevitably, it does and it is. The Queen finds them both and turns them into ugly, fat and magic-less old ladies (how ugly or fat? It’s hard to say coming from people accustomed to eternal youth) and sends them to far cities in the human world. Serana is taken to the hospital as a homeless woman, and eventually set up with an apartment and a small allowance by a social worker. Meteora is found by the Great Witch herself, Baba Yaga, and assigned to watching over her house, the lower stories of which she rents out to college students. The story follows these two as they try to establish communication with each other and to survive among the bewildering ways and proliferating cold iron of the human world. We also meet two young people, both with magic but living in the human world. The Dog Boy, Robin, tries to escape from his cruel father, while Sparrow, who does not know her own name or history herself, finds herself being sucked into a black spell: A friend of a friend guides her to the tattoo parlor of one Hawk, who promises her the most beautiful tattoo she has ever seen, just for her. But the tattoo bleeds at night for weeks, though Sparrow heals even from knife wounds overnight, and Sparrow’s dreams grow increasingly dark. (Meteora’s musings on tattoos are interesting, as she sees bad spells in almost every tattoo she sees – butterflies for a short and meaningless life, or barbed wire for pain and suffering.) The old sisters, too, sense darkness attempting to rise and use what frail powers they have left to help the young people, trying to find a purpose in the human world. The characters are compelling and the plot nicely not obvious. This fey are authentic, the Unseelie Court terrifying, the Seelie Court maybe good but still not necessarily trustworthy or friendly to humans, both sides deeply respectful and fearful of Baba Yaga, who aligns herself with neither court. This is fantasy done well, and, I’ll note, a good stand-alone for those who want a solid fantasy fix without committing to a trilogy or more.
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book coverThe Princess and the Bear by Mette Ivie Harrison Here’s one I grabbed randomly off the teen new book shelf, rather than finding through reviews or from being previously familiar with the author. It turns out to be a second book, and so is somewhat mistitled to match better with the first book, The Princess and the Hound. Really, this book is about a hound (who was for a while in the previous book turned into a princess, and who becomes human partway through this book) and a bear, who really used to be a prince. If you got all that, I think that The Prince and the Hound would have been a more accurate title. They have been companions for a long time, living peacefully in the forest, and the chapters alternate perspectives between these two characters. As the story opens, the hound meets a cat-man who is spreading magical and literal death in the forest – unmagic. The hound and the bear reluctantly decide that the only way to stop this is to visit the Wild Man in the mountains, who first turned the prince into a bear a couple centuries previously. The bear who was a prince has a bear come to realize how terrible he was at being human, so that he is ashamed and even more reluctant when the Wild Man says that the only way to stop the problem is to go back in time to when he was prince and try to undo some of the harm that he did. The premise does not come off quite as convoluted as it sounds, though there is a bit of set-up. Anyway, the hound and Chala, when she is a woman, reflect a lot on the various natures of humans and animals, how they are alike and how different. The Bear/Prince, on the other hand, thinks about the nature of magic, gifts, and power. If the ending felt a little sudden and tidy to me, it’s still both exciting and thoughtful. Animal lovers especially will enjoy this tale of animals, humans and magic.

Ash

Feb. 3rd, 2010 11:52 am
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book coverAsh by Malinda Lo It’s fairy tale time! Here is Cinderella re-envisioned both more modern and more magical. It’s set on the edge of Woods, and there are rumors of Faeries in the wood. The modern Philosophers discourage belief in them, but the old Greenwitches still do. Our heroine Aisling’s mother was once apprentice to the local Greenwitch, but Aisling’s education in magic is limited to the fairy tales her mother tells her. (A note for those not familiar with Gaelic: Aisling is pronounced ASH-ling, so that Ash is a natural nickname.) Then her mother dies, and Aisling is grief-stricken. She takes to spending all her time on her mother’s grave, much to the concern of her father and the local Greenwitch. They’re afraid she’ll attract the Fairies, but she is too young and too absorbed in her grief to care. He remarries, probably hoping that new sisters and a new mother will help. And then he dies, debt-ridden, and the new stepmother, never overly kind, takes out her disappointment and anger on Ash. They move closer to the capital, hoping for a rich husband for the oldest stepsister, and Ash is forced to take the place of the household servants to repay her father’s debt. But all this time, Ash has been sneaking to the Woods whenever she can, occasionally meeting with a handsome but eerie Fairy lord. In spite of the new Philosophers, the Hunt, led by the King’s Huntress, is an ancient tradition still kept, and the town where Ash now lives is the starting point for the Hunt. Gradually, during her occasional escapes into the forest, Ash comes to know the young Huntress, Kaisa, who teaches her to track and ride. Increasingly, Ash is pulled between the inhuman and powerful attraction to her fairy lord and the complete escape from the human world that he promises and her attraction to the Huntress.

Besides being beautifully told, the story has some unique points to recommend it. First, many fairy tales don’t have any fairies in them, but this retelling turns the bland and benign fairy godmother of the original back into the chancy Good Folk that have always felt more real to me. They are neither good nor safe, and yet they are the closest thing to an ally that Ash has. There’s magic, and adolescence, for you. Secondly, I confess that I didn’t notice much until a bi friend pointed it out to me, but fairy tales’ assumption that finding the right person of the opposite gender will lead to happily ever after is problematic. This is the first fairy tale to my recollection that isn’t blindly hetero. Ash has to choose between her fairy and her human love – clearly between a natural and an unnatural attraction, but it is the pull to the male fairy that’s depicted as unnatural. That Lo was able to make this work without feeling out of a place is an accomplishment for which I applaud her. This might just be one of my favorite fairy tale retellings of all time.

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