Runemarks

Oct. 10th, 2012 11:27 am
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Runemarks

Runemarks by Joanne Harris. Read by Sile Birmingham.

Once upon a time the Aesir ruled the Nine Worlds from their home in Asgard. After Ragnarok, though, both the Aesir and their fellow gods the Vanir disappeared from the worlds. 500 years later, a girl named Maddy is growing up in the country, far from civilization but still not free from the influence of the Order. The Order teaches that all the “Seer-folk” were wicked demons, and that people or animals born with their evil “ruin marks” on their skin should be killed. Also, everyone should avoid dreaming to keep from being taken over by demons while they sleep. Luckily for her, Maddy’s ruin-mark only makes her an outcast in her village. Her only friend is the old traveling man who calls himself One-Eye. He tells her that her “ruin mark” is actually a rune, an ancient sign of power. He tells her the old forbidden stories of the gods, and teaches her to make and throw runes of power with her hands, as well as cantrips and charms. As the village is invaded by more and more goblins, he tells her that war is coming. Someone, for very unclear reasons, wants to destroy what’s left of the gods and any magic left in the world. Maddy is the only one who can take the gateway under the large horse carved into the hillside, to travel to World Below and bring him back the ancient oracle known as the Whisperer. There, Maddy meets a charming red-haired boy who calls himself Lucky.

I listened to this book with my son, who could not be convinced that Maddy was dealing with Odin and Loki. It seems like it must be taking place in the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, but Maddy has quite modern sensibilities. It seems that my Norse mythology was not quite as solid as I’d realized, because I was unaware of the difference between the Vanir and the Aesir, and trying to form a new alliance between gods I’d always thought of as part of the same pantheon takes a lot of time in the book. Prophecy plays a major role, with the Whisperer telling the same prophecy different ways to different people, and other people putting yet different spins on it. The book didn’t entirely work for me. Bits that were mentioned briefly at the beginning and never came up again turned out to have major significance at the end. The difference between runes, cantrips and charms wasn’t explained so I could understand it, though it felt like it would have been helpful to understand it. Sile Bermingham read in an array of lilting British and Irish accents, which was lovely but a bit puzzling for a book about Norse people. And while I enjoy character-driven stories, the whole thing felt like it was moving too slowly. It was 14 discs long, and things did not really start to heat up until the last two or three. However, the premise was interesting and Maddy a likably sturdy and free-thinking girl, and my son really enjoyed it. It’s rated for teens, probably for the length and a small amount of foul language (nearly all from Loki.) The violence is certainly no more than in books like the Percy Jackson series. Fans of those books who are interested in other books about forgotten gods in a more modern setting and don’t need the breakneck pace should enjoy this as well.

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The year I lived in Germany, I thought I’d try to learn a language that I couldn’t learn back home in the states. I picked Czech. (I’ve since regretted not taking Mittelhochdeutsch, or medieval German, which would have been useful for my early music performing.) I didn’t make much headway with Czech, though I made some of my best friends there in that class and enjoyed our field trip to Prague. I remember a handful of things: that the nouns have four genders; that “r” is considered a vowel; the lovely onomotopic word “sprcha,” which means “shower” and sounds like it; and how to introduce myself. I learned that the suffix “ova” is added to the end of every female’s last name, even mine as a foreigner. And while Czech isn’t Russian, I’m fairly sure that the same holds true for Russian. That’s why it bothered me every time I read the name “Alina Starkov” in this book. Clearly, Bardugo did a lot of research on Russian history and culture, and it isn’t really supposed be Russia, but a similar fantasy nation, so I feel a little bad about harping on this one thing. And yet, it threw me out of the story every time I encountered it, even as I mentally renamed our heroine “Alina Starkova”.

Shadow and BoneShadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

Our story takes us to the realm of Ravka, which feels like late nineteenth- or early twentieth-century Russia (without Russian folk tale motives). It’s a world that’s been at war for decades. Not only is it threatened by the neighboring kingdoms, but there is the large area of permanent magical darkness known as the Fold. What used to be rich farmland is now barren desert filled with man-eating monsters that make it very dangerous to cross. Our heroine, Alina Starkov, was orphaned in the war and taken in by a wealthy landowner. Her best friend since then is Mal. Now they are in the army together – Alina working as a (not very good) cartographer, while Mal is the Best Tracker Ever, and popular with the opposite sex to boot. On their way through the Fold, they are attacked by Volcra. They are about to rip Mal away when Alina, desperately trying to cover him with her body, summons a sun-bright flare of light that drives the Volcra off. Mal and the rest of the people on board the land ship are saved, but Alina’s life is about to become much more complicated. She’d always been wary of the magic-users, or Grisha, who form their own separate division of the military, headed by the truly frightening Darkling. Now she is summoned to meet with the Darkling in person. He tells her that she is a Sun Summoner, whose powers when trained could destroy the darkness of the Fold. She’s rushed to the capital to train with other Grisha, where she’s both envied for her closeness to the Darkling and despised for her difficulty using her powers, since all the other Grisha have been training since childhood. And while the Darkling is making every effort to smooth her way and to make himself likeable, it’s also clear that he’s an experienced politician as well as a powerful magician, willing and able to do whatever it takes to keep the Tsar under his control and the Grisha the most powerful force in the nation. There is a creepy Apparat, some kind of high priest, who distrusts the Grisha and keeps following Alina around trying to give her warnings, but she never listened to enough of these for me as a reader to know whether she should have listened more or less. The story went along, went along, and then suddenly – flip, flip, flip – it was all wrapped up and done and looking completely different as a finished story than it had along the way, like Elizabeth Zimmerman’s famous Baby Surprise Jacket. I could see the plot going either of two ways – which I can’t really elaborate on without complete spoilerage – and it zipped off in a third direction, leaving me feeling a little stunned with the speed of it all. I’m not sure if something about the book didn’t quite work for me, or if it would work for me if I read it again and thought about it some more. However, I quite liked both the setting and Alina as a character. For teens and up who like somewhat historical fantasy, this is a good choice.

Seraphina

Oct. 1st, 2012 02:52 pm
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SeraphinaSeraphina by Rachel Hartmann

Decades ago, the Queen of a human kingdom and the King of the dragons worked out a peace treaty, still not completely trusted by anyone. Since then, the dragons (who call themselves saars) have decided that humans can be interesting. They take human form, or sarantras, and come to the city to explore human ways. This is the world that Seraphina has grown up in. She’s recently moved to the city and taken a job as assistant to the court musician, even though her Secret means that she must keep to herself, trusting no one and desperately lonely. A close friend of the family and her teacher, Orma, is a sarantras who has the special scholar’s license not to wear the visible badge. From dealing with him, she has learned to understand how dragons think – a Vulcan-like mindset that prizes scientific calculation and considers emotion dangerous and unreliable. This skill brings her to the attention of Prince Lucian Kiggs, a bastard engaged to Princess Glisselda, granddaughter of the still reigning queen who made the treaty in the first place. Her musical skill, meanwhile, was on display at the funeral for the much-loved prince whose was recently found murdered in dragon-like fashion in the wilderness. The talent lands her a position teaching Princess Glisselda harpsichord, while Kiggs decides that she’s the perfect person to assist in the investigation of the prince’s death. In her personal life, Seraphina’s mind is inhabited with people, some more and some less human in shape, who will take over her mind with visions if she doesn’t carefully visit and talk to the avatars of them in the garden she’s created for them in her mind. She’s always assumed this was her mind just being a little weird on her – until she meets one of them in person.

Seraphina is a character after my own heart. My lonely teen soul had a hard time identifying with any character for whom making friends came easily, and Seraphina’s loneliness brought me right back to that time. Happily for her, by the end of the book she’s found a happier place, one that felt honestly won. There was also a lot about music, and just reading about her playing the oud without her plectrum made me smile in geeky recognition. OK, I’ve never played an oud or used a plectrum, but I loved that Hartmann used real historical instruments, and Seraphina and I had flute, voice and keyboard in common. This is set in a beautifully realistic Renaissance world with a saint-based religion. It’s full of politics, music, personal discovery as well as the dragons, with some romance thrown in for good measure. While there is a villain in the end, for the most part, the sides are drawn in shades of gray, with neither humans nor dragons being the Enemy, and understandable motives on all sides. We have it in teen, and while Seraphina really is going through teen problems, the sex and violence are both low enough to make this fine for advanced younger readers. I would happily recommend this to anyone who identified with Menolly in Dragonsong.

Dust Girl

Sep. 24th, 2012 03:08 pm
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I’ve been reading Sarah Zettel for over a decade now, and wish that more people knew her wonderful books. Hopefully this book, her first children’s/YA, will help her gain some broader recognition. Standard disclaimer: Sarah Zettel was responsible for my love joining the Society for Creative Anachronism, where I later met him. But I like her books for their own merits.

Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel

Dust Bowl Kansas, 1935. Callie LaRoux lives with her mother in the Imperial Hotel, which they run. The town of Slow Run is nearly empty, as the dust and the lack of food and water have caused nearly everyone else to leave. But Callie’s mother refuses to leave, even when the doctor tells her that Callie is dying of dust pneumonia. Callie was fathered by a wandering musician who promised to come back. Callie must keep this secret, hiding behind a pretend Irish last name and staying out of the sun, because her father was a black minstrel. The doctor’s warning does make Callie’s mother worried enough that she makes Callie play the hotel’s piano, which had not been played since Callie’s father left. To Callie’s surprise, her untrained fingers bring out rolling chords, followed immediately by a dust storm. Callie’s mother goes out into it and vanishes, accompanied by the sounds of vicious, triumphant voices. Callie’s search for her turns up only an old dark-skinned man with eyes full of stars, who shares a vision with Callie. Now the plot ramps up, as what seems to a beautiful family comes to the hotel and eats everything – not just the food, but the draperies and even furniture – later revealing themselves as giant magical locusts. But while she’s still figuring out what they are, running back and forth to the store for more food, she meets and hires a boy her own age to help her. Jack has plenty of secrets of his own and, as a travelling homeless boy, tricks up his sleeve and a will to survive. Callie had always believed that her father was just a no-good bum, but from what both the old man and one of the Hopper girls tell her, he was a prince of Faerie, kept from his human lover against his will. With the hotel destroyed by the Hoppers, Callie and Jack set out to find her parents. On the way, Callie meets a couple who give their names as Shimmy and Shake. While Callie thinks that her parents are in California, Shimmy says that Callie needs to go to Kansas City, to the Fairyland amusement park. With some people claiming to want to help and others clearly trying to hurt, chased by the Seelie Court and an anti-bum crusader turned zombie, Callie has to figure out who she can trust and where to go.

There’s a whole lot going on in this book. It’s the first of a trilogy, so it’s got all the plot beginnings for three books. The traditional Seelie and Unseelie courts are used somewhat differently here. The Seelie Court appears to be white and the Unseelie black, but neither one of them appears to be what we’d consider good. Western European faerie traditions are mixed with the reality and mythology of the American West to create a compelling new American. Callie and Jack have to deal with a lot of prejudice – against blacks, Jews, and bums, which felt real enough to bring it home to kids who might not have considered it before without it turning into a hammer-on-the-head Issue book. The book is set solidly in the 30s, filled with both the ever-present dust and the rollicking music of the dance marathons popular at the time. At the same time, Callie and her quest for her own path and identity remain deeply sympathetic and universal. There's only the hint of possible future romance, and some violence, so appropriate for older middle grade students as well as teens. But my love and I both enjoyed it lots as well.

Bitterblue

Sep. 21st, 2012 04:29 pm
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I was very excited to win this from Charlotte’s Library several months ago. Anyone who, like me, read Graceling and Fire, or who heard about the massive competition for the ARCs of this book knows it was a big splash in the teen fantasy realm this summer. Still, since the book came with a request that I tweet about it and I don’t tweet, so I thought I’d review it.

BitterblueBitterblue by Kristin Cashore

In Cashore’s first book, Graceling, our heroes defeated the sadistic King Leck, whose Grace allowed him to force people to hurt themselves or others and believe that nothing bad was happening. They rescued his ten-year-old daughter, Bitterblue, and set her on the throne with a team of advisors. Now Bitterblue is 18 and trying to repair the damage her father did to the kingdom. We’re talking kidnapping girls from every village in the kingdom just as a start, so this is no small matter. Her advisors are for the most part men who served her father, as well. They have decided that what the kingdom needs is forwardthinkingness, so that nothing from Leck’s reign will be discussed or brought up for trial. All crimes committed during the reign are forgiven, because Leck could have forced any crime. But Bitterblue feels that she needs to know what her father did and what’s going on with the kingdom now if she is to do her job. She starts sneaking out at night, finding the hidden pubs where people tell stories, often obliquely related to what happened during Leck’s reign. The very first night she is out, she befriends two young trouble-makers, Saf and Teddy, giving her name as Sparks to protect her anonymity. Thus her trying to find out the truth starts out with lies, which always complicate matters. Katsa and Po make brief visits from time to time, but they are busy trying to topple evil kings in other nearby kingdoms, and so cannot stay. The more Bitterblue learns, the more she realizes that the problems in the kingdom are deep. They did not die along with Leck, and she must find out who among her advisors she can trust and who is perpetuating the problems. Bitterblue journeys through darkness trying to understand her father, comparing remembering and forgetting as paths to healing. There’s a lot of dealing with ciphers, as Bitterblue’s mother taught her the theories of ciphers in secret, and both her parents used ciphers to keep their secrets. And while Bitterblue’s darkness is dark indeed, there’s still light to balance it, from the beauty of art and the joy of friendship, with a bit of early romance. It was very satisfying to see Bitterblue find her way towards a more open justice. It’s not for reading when one needs unicorns and rainbows (one does, sometimes), but it is a hopeful treatment of a dark subject, with a most courageous protagonist.

A note: my teen librarian said she’d been hearing rumors of racism about this book. I read and read looking out for it, until finally at the very end, I found the passage that I think must have bothered people: a woman with dark skin is described as a monster. She is in fact Fire, the heroine of the book of the same name, and she is a monster not because of her skin color but because she has “unimaginable beauty and the ability to control minds”, as do other people and animals of various skin colors on the other side of the mountain. As usual, reading in context is helpful and highly recommended.
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Book of 1000 DaysBook of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale. Full Cast Audio.

This is the only fantasy I’ve ever read set in a version of Mongolia. My love is so fascinated by Mongolian culture that some of this has rubbed off on me, so that I was delighted recognizing bits of the culture.

Dashti, our heroine, is a Mucker, part of the native nomadic tribes of the steppes. As our story begins, she’s relating the story of how she was orphaned, failed to find another family to take her in, and so was forced to go to the city of Titor’s Garden to find work. Although large port-wine stains on her face and hand would otherwise keep her out of sight of nobility, she knows the Mucker healing songs. She’s taught to read and write and assigned as a lady’s maid to the fragile and illiterate Lady Saren, daughter of the Lord of the city. Unfortunately, Dashti has come just as Lady Saren is about to be locked in a tower for seven years. She is refusing to marry the powerful and land-hungry lord of a nearby city, the evil Lord Khasar, citing a prior engagement to Khan Tegus, lord of another city. All of Saren’s other maids have run away rather than be locked up, but Dashti is both determined to honor her vow to serve Saren and doesn’t much care if she’s locked up as long as she’s warm and fed. The book is written as her journal, started when she is first locked in the tower. At first, things go well. Dashti is resourceful; they are well-supplied with food and their guards give them fresh milk every morning. Khan Tegus visits, talking secretly at night through their waste hole. Saren doesn’t have the courage to talk to him herself and makes Dashti pretend to be her – a hanging offense that Dashti protests but ultimately goes along with. At this point, I thought we were going to have a classic love triangle a la Cyrano de Bergerac.
Then the evil Lord Khasar arrives, attempting to burn the tower up from inside after telling Saren that even though she’s too scared to reveal his horrible secret, one day she will run to him. That night, they hear terrible screams from outside the tower, and the giant jaw of a wolf pokes through the flap. After that, there are no milk deliveries, and the rats run rampant, eating up their supplies. When they are almost out of food and Lady Saren appears to have lost her mind completely – three or four years after they were originally locked up – Dashti realizes that her duty is now to rescue Lady Saren from the tower, and the story takes yet another sharp turn.

This is a character-driven story, with plenty of adventure and a beautiful setting. Dashti’s loyalty and Lady Saren’s stubbornness both got a little frustrating, but not enough for me to stop caring about the book. The Gods - the Nine Ancestors and the Eternal Blue Sky – play important roles. As in our world, Dashti prays to the gods and feels them telling her to do things, but it’s hard to tell whether things work out because of her faith in the gods or because of her own resourcefulness. The descriptions of the culture – religion, the gehrs (more commonly called yurts by westerners these days), the clothing and the food make this feel quite authentic, even if it is fantasy and maybe a little Navajo mythology is thrown in, too. This story felt to me like the reverse of the first Shannon Hale I ever read, Goose Girl. There a lady is betrayed by her maid pretending to be her, and must find a way to rescue herself. Here, Lady Saren’s forcing Dashti to pretend to be her causes such massive tangles that I couldn’t tell until it happened how Hale was going to pull it off. The audio is read full cast, which is mostly Dashti with little bits from other voice actors. The voice actor for Dashti did a wonderful job, even singing the many healing songs in a rich alto. This was a book where I rushed to find time to listen to it, and felt a wrench at saying good-bye to the characters at the end.
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This book recently hopped in front of me and reminded me that I’d wanted to read it when it first came out a couple years ago.

Toads and DiamondsToads and Diamonds by Heather Tomlinson.
The original Toads and Diamonds tale by Perrault was in the big pale yellow book of fairy tales that I had growing up, and I remember it being one of my favorites. Thinking back, I wonder why – who would really want either flowers and jewels or toads and snakes falling out of her mouth? This novelization sets the story in a place very like India during the Mughal Empire, when the newcomers were not the English but monotheists. Diribani lives with her stepmother and stepsister Tana, in a house that is empty of servants and furniture since the death of Diribani’s merchant father. They’re a tight-knit family, despite not being blood relatives. One day at the well, the beautiful but clumsy Diribani prays to the Serpent Goddess and is granted a wish. She wishes for beauty, and finds herself with jewels and flowers dropping out of her mouth when she speaks. Tana, plain but kind, goes next and wishes for security for her family. She is given the gift of sacred snakes and lucky toads falling out when she talks. The gifts throw their lives into chaos. The governor of their town follows the new religion, which considers all magic evil witchcraft, has placed a bounty on snakes, formerly kept as rat catchers in every house, and wants to take Diribani hostage for the jewels. Perhaps luckily for Diribani, the prince is passing through and decides to take her instead. Meanwhile, Tana must flee for her life, taking temporary oaths at a monastery despite an unexpected offer of marriage from the boy she’s always secretly admired. Now separated from everyone they know and trust, both sisters must work out on their own what the goddess meant for them to do with their gifts. Neither of them doubts that they are gifts, not curses, meant for the good of all those around them – but how best to use them, and stay alive in the meantime? Woven through is the struggle to forge some sort of understanding between the rival religions, as well as the culture of the ancient stepwells of India. These I had never heard of before, and am now quite curious about. The ending might be a little easily romantic, but overall, I found this a beautiful retelling, faithful to the original while adding new depth to plot, characters and setting.
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Grave MercyGrave Mercy, His Fair Assassin Book 1 by Robin LaFevers. The setting is 15th century Brittany. Ismae is a peasant’s daughter with an abusive father. When the man he marries her off to turns out to be abusive as well, she runs away and is taken in by the convent of St. Mortain. St. Mortain is the local patron saint and former god of Death. His daughters, feared by the populace, join the convent, where they are trained as sacred assassins. The Sisters only slay those who bear the magical Marque of St. Mortain, visible only to them. Ismae finds her first real home here, and makes friends with a girl her own age, Annith, as well as another new if somewhat crazed girl Sybella, who rather soon goes missing. She finds that being the daughter of Death makes her immune to poisons, so she works with one of the older sisters distilling poisons. However, in a few years (neatly skipped over), Ismae is sent on her first real mission. At this time, Brittany is not yet part of France and is ruled by a young teenaged Duchess, Anne. She is surrounded by advisors of dubious loyalty, formally engaged to about six different men. Obviously considered weak due to her age and sex, the Duchess is also the richest woman in Europe. The Abbess and a trusted royal advisor, Crunard, send Ismae off with Duchess Anne’s bastard half-brother, Duval, to find proof that he is a traitor and with whom he’s conspiring. It’s slightly problematic that the convent is sending a novice on what would seem to be an operation requiring one of their most experienced nuns. However, I was willing to sweep this under the rug in the interests of the story. Naturally, the politics turn out to be a good deal more complicated than Ismae had been given to believe. Duval seems not at all the traitor he’d been made out as. Instead, Ismae finds him nearly the only person undivided in his loyalty to the Duchess. But can she be sure of this, or is their growing attraction masking some deeper truth. Despite these doubts, Ismae start plotting with Duval and Duchess Anne to find out who the real traitor is and how to stabilize Brittany without either giving in to France’s demands to annex Brittany or marrying Anne off to someone loathsome. Ismae will have to look beyond the convent’s formal rules and trust herself to be able to see the will of Mortain himself if they are to succeed.

The book has a whole lot of things going for it. Ismae starts off and remains an appealing smart-mouthed character, while growing convincingly in skill and self-esteem over the course of the book. Anne, I was interested to note, was a real character and did indeed have all the fiancés mentioned in the book. It turns out she was married to two separate men at the same time, in politically necessary marriages. If only she’d had a personal saint-backed assassin in real life! There’s some difficult feminist thinking here. The convent, in historically accurate manner, is a place for women to go to escape the overwhelming control of women by men. The difficulty comes when Ismae realizes that she’s attracted to men. Is she losing sight of the goal of feminine self-determination by falling in love, as a New York Times columnist thought? Or is seeking the rare man who will view her as an equal acceptable? It is, as my friend garrity pointed out to me, the perennial feminist dilemma, and probably wouldn’t seem like any kind of betrayal of feminist values had the story not started out with Ismae being saved by the convent. The book seems quite historically accurate, given the fantasy elements. The cover, not quite so much. There she is, long, loose hair blowing around. It’s a pet peeve of mine: no self-respecting woman from the medieval era on until the 1960s would be seen outdoors without some sort of head covering. And yet, would we grasp Ismae’s fierce, wild nature without that symbolic rebellious hair? In any case, there’s both thoughtfulness and humor combined with lots of action, a fleshed-out world and good characters – what’s not to like?
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Here is what is really bothering me about this book right now: the first in the series was on one of the library reading lists for teens. I was trying to help a teen boy who’d read many of the popular series. He said, looking at the cover, “Oh. It’s a girl book.” Like this one, it features a large, beautiful photo of a girl. I have to say, as a “girl”, I find the cover appealing. But I don’t think it is a “girl book”. Yes, Digger is a girl, and yes, there’s a wee bit of romance. But mostly, it’s politics, spying, assassinations and murders - stuff I think my young patron would really enjoy if only he could get past the cover. If you’ve read the book, what do you think? Thoughts on covers limiting the potential audience?

Liar's MoonLiar’s Moon by Elizabeth C. Bunce.

This is the sequel to Starcrossed, which I very much enjoyed last year. Our heroine, known variously as Celyn, Digger and Mouse, is back in the city, despite knowing that it’s really not a safe place for her to be. She’s out doing some perfectly straightforward thieving work one evening when she’s roughed up, arrested and thrown in the jail cell of Durrel Decath, the handsome noble who saved her life at the beginning of the first book. He’s in – but he claims unjustly - for the murder of his wife, the much older Talth Ceid, member of the powerful merchant family with mafia-like tendencies. This means that Digger can’t just try to get him out (as if that were simple); she also has to prove his innocence, or the Ceid family will be even worse for his health than the dank jail cell. The next morning, her bail is posted by her roommate, who was given the money and anonymous note telling him where she is. Her arrest, she learns, was a set-up by Durrel’s friend Raffin, recently and puzzingly a Greenman, or member of the Inquisition, solely to get Digger interested in proving Durrel’s innocence. In trying to solve the mystery, Digger uncovers a tangle of politics and mysterious people, including the beautiful Koya Ceid, the young and beautiful married daughter of the dead Talth. There are missing Sarists, the illegal magic users; the mystery of why Durrel’s father isn’t trying to help; unaccountable food shortages throughout the city; and rumors of the rebellion Digger was aiding in the first book advancing towards the city. Lots of politics, intrigue, danger, close escapes, Digger learning more about her own magic, and dramatic settings from the jail to high-class parties to the temple Digger’s thief god. Also just a hint of romance, as Digger might finally accept that the lover who was killed at the beginning of the first book a year ago is really not coming back. This really is perfect small-scale politics: the fate of the nation is really at stake, but there’s only a small handful of major players, mostly all known personally, turning the wheels for everyone else. There are only a couple of flat-out villains, including the dead Talth. Everyone else is a nicely real mixture of good and good motives gone bad. Everything fits together just so, and while Durrel may be saved by the end of the book, I was happy to read that it looks like there is more in store for Digger.
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Daughter of Smoke and BoneDaughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor. Read by Khristine Hvam.

“Once upon a time, an angel fell in love with a demon. It did not end well.”
So begins this story, which has at its heart two relationships: one, between the angel and the demon, but more importantly, between a demon and his human-looking daughter. We first meet Karou, an art student in Prague, dealing with a broken heart and longing for revenge from the boy she’s recently and very deservedly dumped. Her classmates, including her best friend Susanna (I’m assuming it’s spelled that way, though pronounced “Zuzanna”), know to ask after her sketchbook each Monday. It’s filled with pictures of unbelievable creatures – beautiful Issa, with the head and upper torso of a woman and the lower half of a giant snake, tiny humming birds with moth wings, and great Brimstone, bigger than a man, with a man’s torso and the head and lower half of a great goat with curling horns. There are always stories to go along with the pictures – how a trader haggled too much over the teeth he was trying to sell Brimstone and nearly got himself strangled by the snake all visitor’s to Brimstone’s shop must wear around their necks, for example. Karou says that her stories are true, that her hair naturally grows out blue, with a quirk of expression that makes people believe that she isn’t telling the truth. Except she is. The creatures are Chimerae, and the only family Karou has ever known. She’s grown up in Brimstone’s shop, watching him make necklaces of teeth, being given wishes in various denominations, from the tiny scuppies that look like trading beads and grant correspondingly tiny wishes, to the larger lucknows that made her hair grow permanently blue and let her speak any number of languages fluently, to the great gavriels she’s never been trusted with which could give her the power of flight. Mostly now she lives in the human world, coming back to Brimstone’s shop – which has a magic door that can appear all over the world – only when he needs her to run errands for him, mostly buying teeth. Though Brimstone and Karou clearly love each other, it’s a very authoritarian relationship. Brimstone won’t answer any of Karou’s multitude of questions about where she came from and what his shop of teeth is for, but is openly critical of the casual things she spends her wishes on, and her relationship with her body, including the tattoos (but why then, she wonders, did he give her the giant eye tattoos on the palms of her hands?) and allowing “unnecessary penises” access. Still, all is hunky dory until one day in Morocco, when Karou is chased down and nearly killed by an angel with flaming eyes and sword, who’s also burned a black handprint on the door back to Brimstone’s shop. Soon Brimstone throws Karou out of his shop, but when she goes back, the door is completely burned. And meeting with the angel again, she finds that they are drawn to each other despite the bad start. Flashbacks tell us of the long-ago romance between the angel Akiva and his lover, the chimera Madrigal, whose unhappy fate has scarred him but which we learn of in detail only late in the story. The basic crime is clear: angels and chimerae have been at war for milennia, and woe to anyone who dares to fall in love with the enemy. Calling them angels and demons is deceptive, because the lines of actual good and evil aren’t clearly drawn and both sides are fighting for survival, justifiably convinced the other side would wipe them out if it could.

The big war would seem to be the major plot focus of the book, but it seemed to me tertiary in the book, behind Karou’s relationship with Brimstone, the developing romance, and the exploration of the worlds and magic/wish system. Karou’s art, her personality and friends, the scenes of Prague and Marakkesh are all vividly painted and real, while the war seemed meant to be a backdrop, and an unwelcome intrusion when it came to the surface of the story. I felt like this was essentially a character and relationship study, to which Taylor felt she needed to add an exciting plot. That being said, the overall storyline seemed Shakespearean in nature, with misunderstandings and secrets leading to tragedy. I was also frustrated by finding out at the end of the book that it’s the first book in the series, with major plot points from this book left unresolved. It’s also a fine audio production, with periodic theme music around major book sections adding to Hvam’s excellent reading.

Hex Hall

Jun. 13th, 2012 11:46 am
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Hex HallHex Hall by Rachel Hawkins.

Sophie Mercer, age 16, is a witch. She’s lived all her life with her normal mother and never met her father, the warlock who passed on his powers. Like all Prodigium, Sophie’s had her powers since about age 12, but only now has she flaunted them in front of humans enough to be banished to Hecate Hall. Hecate Hall, popularly known as Hex Hall, is a boarding school/juvie center for magical teens off the coast of Georgia. The term Prodigium encompasses witches, were, shapeshifters, fairies and vampires, and Hex Hall has them all. But just because they’re all magical doesn’t mean they all get along, as Sophie finds when she’s assigned to room with Jenna, the school’s lone student vampire (though Lord Byron is one, and teaches English here.) Right away, Sophie finds herself in the middle of high school social drama. She’s saved from an out-of-control werewolf by the cutest boy in school, Archer. Archer’s dating the superficial but beautiful and popular Elodie, who wants Sophie, whose powers are strong if undeveloped, to join her coven, which needs four members. The coven’s previous fourth member, Holly, died last year under highly suspicious circumstances – drained of blood, with two small holes in her neck. It’s widely suspected that Jenna, who was Holly’s roommate, is responsible, but Jenna is scared and depressed and seems to be sincere when she claims that Holly was her best friend. Meanwhile, Sophie is finding that she knows nothing about the magical world that all the other kids have been raised in. She didn’t even know that her father was head of the Council, and as the Council is responsible for banishing teens and some adults to Hex Hall, that makes her pretty unpopular. Also, though she’s told that she has potential for great power, she can’t seem to control it. The plot thickens as more witches on campus start turning up dead or nearly dead. But if Jenna is innocent, who is really responsible? Were Elodie and her coven successful in their attempt at raising a demon last year, or has L’Occio del Dio, one of the ancient groups founded to wipe out all Prodigium, found a way to penetrate Hecate Hall’s formidable magical defenses? If Sophie doesn’t both learn how to control her powers and find out who is behind the killings soon, it will be too late: the killer is targeting the school’s most powerful witches, and she’s next up on the list. This reminded of Buffy in the very best Demonglass way, with the felicitous combination of magic, almost-typical high school experiences and snappy dialogue, even if Sophie is on the other side of things. As an example, at one point Sophie is trying and failing to charm herself a ball gown, and describes one failed attempt as looking like “the really slutty bride of Cookie Monster.” Though it has spycraft instead of magic, the Gallagher Girl books have a similar combination of boarding school setting, danger and fun dialogue.

The second book in the series, Demonglass, intensifies everything, as Sophie travels to London with her father and has even less idea who might be trustworthy. But if Sophie might be somewhere on someone’s hit list in Hex Hall, in Demonglass, she’s clearly at the very top of at least one and possibly more, with, you know, the fate of all Prodigium instead of just the Hex Hall students at stake.
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I’m sure I heard about this book when it first came out, but somehow, my library didn’t buy it (I’ve since requested that we do so) and we can’t interloan new books… so I forgot about it, until, once again, Charlotte wrote about the sequel.

The Coming of the DragonThe Coming of the Dragon by Rebecca Barnhouse.

As the book says on the cover, this is a story of Beowulf. Specifically, it’s the story at the end of the epic poem, when Beowulf is an aged king, and a dragon comes and disrupts the peace. At the beginning of the story, we see a baby wash up to shore in a boat with a dead man, formally and properly laid out. Though there is some dissention from those who think the baby an offering who should be left to the gods, the old woman Amma takes and raises him. Fast forward sixteen years, and young Rune, called so for the rune on the necklace he came with, is living in a hut on a farm with Amma, with a foster father and two unkind stepbrothers in a house nearby. In the summers he helps on the farm, while Amma sings him ballads of kings and of Peaceweavers, noblewomen sent to marry into another tribe and make peace between them. Only in the winters is he allowed to join the other town boys in sword training, which of course puts him at a permanent disadvantage. Even though he’s close to the right age, he isn’t one of King Beowulf’s official warriors. One evening on the mountain, chasing after a runaway goat, Rune meets a stranger hiding a gold cup, who recognizes the rune. While Rune is still on the mountain, the dragon makes its first pass, burning farms, people, and even the king’s Golden Hall. Burning with desire to avenge Amma’s death, Rune sets off on his own to slay the dragon. Though he fails, he learns where the dragon’s cave is, and so comes along on the next, official expedition with Beowulf and his best warriors. Can even King Beowulf defeat a beast whose very presence strikes terror into the hearts of the bravest warrior? And (just supposing here that they actually succeed in killing the dragon), Rune might just find that the hardest part comes afterward. A country whose houses and crops have been burned down and which is surrounded by hostile nations isn’t exactly in the clear, even without a dragon.

I’d really like some of my friends who specialize in Viking to read this for their opinion, but from my point of view, this is bang-up historical fantasy. I didn’t notice any jarring anachronisms either in the setting or, as happens even more often, in the main character’s mindset. That can work in some cases – the Jacky Faber books, for example, which are aiming at adventure more than historical accuracy. Still, the kind of attention to detail found here is a joy. There are no potatoes, velvet, spinning wheels, people saying “hello” or believing in their heart of hearts that slavery is wrong and women are oppressed, to name just a few of the anachronisms that I regularly see in historical fiction. (Though Barnhouse, in her notes, says that it isn't entirely accurate, incorporating bits of Anglo-Saxon culture from a few centuries later.) Even though this is fantasy from a modern point of view, it’s a book that feels like it isn’t fantasy from the point of view of people of the same time from our world. They call for help from the gods, and are encouraged when they see ravens or goats with two-color eyes, r animals beloved of their gods. Everyone has lost people they love, due to war or the dragon or other causes, and this also felt realistically dealt with: lots of pain, and yet life has to go on. One of the reviewers on Amazon complained that Rune lacks self-confidence through the whole book: shouldn’t he start believing in himself at some point? And I would say, why should he? He starts the book as one of the unpopular kids, and getting thrown into a position of power doesn’t stop him from realizing that he’s young for what he’s got to do, and any mistakes he makes would have dire consequences. Really, I find this attitude both believable and much easier to get along with in a protagonist than, say, Eragon, whose unearned self-confidence struck me as arrogant.

At the very end of the book, we meet Hild, sent to Rune’s tribe as a Peaceweaver. She is the heroine in her own right of Peaceweaver, which came out this year. I don’t have time to give it a full review, but it starts and ends at the same point as The Coming of the Dragon, and I enjoyed it hugely as well. More, please!

For some reason, the first of these two books was billed as middle grade fiction, and the second as teen – um, thinking about it, probably because Rune doesn’t kill any people himself, while Hild accidentally kills a would-be murderer. Overall, though, no sex, and what felt like similar amounts of violence with thoughtful reflections on the effects and limitations of using weapons for conflict resolution.

Linger

Mar. 14th, 2012 02:26 pm
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It occurs to me that I finished listening to Shiver, the first book in this trilogy, in early September of 2010, driving to and from the hospital. I didn’t get the books I read those couple months reviewed at all. And while I’d normally prefer to write the review of the first book of a trilogy rather than just the second, my memory is just not that good. And I just now got around to listening to this one.

LingerLinger by Maggie Stiefvater. Read by Dan Bittner, Pierce Cravens, Emma Galvin, & Jenna Lamia. There isn’t really a way to tell this story without spoilers for the first book. In the first book, Sam, a young werewolf, and Grace, bitten as a child but somehow never turned, fall in love and risk it all to find a way to stay together, as Sam will otherwise just turn into a wolf and stay that way forever. A new werewolf, Jack, also attempts a cure but dies instead. And Sam is horrified to see the leader of the pack and Sam’s adopted father, Beck, turn up with a truck full of new werewolves to ensure a future for the pack.

In this book, it is March in Minnesota, freezing days alternating with warm. The narration also alternates between main characters, here four instead of Shiver’s two. The audio version of this is wonderful, as each is narrated by a different person. Sam is essentially secretly living with Grace in her parent’s house. This works because they are pretty classically neglectful parents, assuming that she is perfectly obedient without supervision and able to take care of herself (and them) on her own. Isabel, Jack’s sister, is struggling with Jack’s death. She’s the high school’s popular mean girl, but adversity has given her a prickly bond with Grace. Sam is still struggling some with what he learned about Beck in the last book, but more trying to trust in his cure enough to make plans for his own life and also to adjust to his role as the new leader of the pack in Beck’s absence. ShiverEveryone is waiting for warm weather to turn wolves human again and answer mountains of questions. Are Beck and Ulrich really permanently wolves? Did the new wolves, including Grace’s friend Olivia, survive the winter? Will the pack be able to survive the impact of Cole’s turbulent past? Will Sam and Grace remain undiscovered, and what will her parents’ reaction be if they find out? I was really wishing that I had more time in the car (something I rarely wish) so that I could finish this sooner. Stiefvater has for me a perfect combination of good characters, compelling plot, just detailed enough world, and beautiful writing. She’s able to make me believe that two teenagers could fall in love and know it’s forever, even when most of the time in real life, I’d advocate for waiting a bit longer. I love the shifting theories about how being a werewolf works – rules that, like real-life science, exist but aren’t easy to nail down. This is the middle volume, and so of course you’ll want to start at the beginning and end at the end. But even with all of that against it, this was a story that grabbed me and hasn’t let me go yet. I recommend this trilogy to anyone who enjoyed Twilight, especially Team Jacob, as supernatural romance done better.

[Cover for Shiver posted as well, because I find these covers so beautiful.]

Cross-posted to http://library-mama.dreamwidth.org and http://sapphireone.livejournal.com .
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Clockwork AngelClockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare I pulled this off the returns cart, labeled new… and discovered only later that it’s a 2010 book that just gone out so much that no one here had a chance to take the New sticker off.

This is a prequel series to a series that I haven’t read, Mortal Instruments, and, as it’s described as horror, probably don’t want to. Also, the original series doesn’t seem to have the Victorian and mechanical elements that make this series Steampunk, the element that first attracted my attention.

It is the early 1870s. Our heroine, Tessa, sails from New York City to join her brother Nate in London after her aunt’s death. He’s sent the tickets and a letter in his hand inviting her, so when she is met by a pair of creepy women – the Dark Sisters, aka Mrs. Black and Mrs. Dark – she is shocked. They tell her that Nate is being held hostage based on her good behavior, and teach her to change shapes, mostly into recently murdered people. All of her attempts to escape are useless, however, until the night before she is scheduled to marry the otherwise undescribed but certainly evil and powerful Magister. Then, a handsome and roguish young man appears in her room and takes her away. Will is a Nephil, a Shadowhunter, whose work on earth is to keep it from being overrun with demons, vampires and the like. Here, unlike in Madeline L’Engle’s Many Waters, the Nephilim are not fallen angels, but angels who live on earth to carry out God’s work. Tess doesn’t necessarily trust the Shadowhunters at the London Institute, either, but she’s willing to work with them as long as they will help her find and rescue her brother.

The Institute is populated mostly with young people of about Tessa’s age. In addition to Will, a stereotypical cad if there ever was one, there’s sweet and open Jem and rebellious Jessamine, as well as two young serving people who are humans with a touch of Sight. Even the director, Charlotte, is only 23. (Her husband is officially co-director, but is a genius type who spends his time building clockwork devices of dubious reliability and is generally unaware of the real world.) There’s definitely a love triangle with Jem and Will both vying for Tessa’s attention in a way that was for me strongly reminiscent of Fruits Baskets – but really all the single young people have a tangled web of unrequited feelings for each other. Unlike Fruits Basket, though, (slight spoiler alert) there is actual kissing in this book. Tessa, a proper Victorian girl, then has to deal with her feelings of having done something so very inappropriate which she knows she doesn’t actually regret. In a modern novel, I’d find this inappropriate, but here, I found it appropriate to the time period, and Clare does a fantastic job with things like the tension of just sitting close to someone you’re attracted to. Despite not getting very far on an overall scale, those kissing and even not-quite kissing scenes were steamy hot. I am not prone to swooning over book boys, but I was here, both over the dark-haired poet boy and the half-Chinese violinist. There’s also politics – both between various factions of Shadowhunters and different types of magical beings – and lots of action, including battles with vampires and clockwork automatons. There were a few instances where the dialogue felt a bit anachronistic, and I wished that Will were not so very clearly pretending to be a bad boy, as usually one should believe people who say they can't be trusted.

Only after I gobbled the first and the second fat book in quick succession to each other (three days each, maybe?) did I notice that it’s on the children’s and YA’s Publisher’s Weekly bestseller lists. The second book’s ending was decidedly bittersweet, and I find myself once again waiting anxiously for a sequel.
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Dear readers,
I very much apologize for my spotty posting as of late. I’m not entirely sure what’s going on, but these three factors are probably influencing things:

1. My deep dark secret (but totally legal according to work) is that I write these posts in slow moments between patrons on the reference (or youth or reader’s advisory) desks at work. Slow moments seem to have been few and far between of late.
2. Various health concerns (but! Minor and ordinary!) have kept little L. up at night recently. Somehow, my brain seems to have a lot more difficulty putting a coherent post together on less than six hours of sleep a night.
3. Lightning Bolt has now officially been diagnosed with dyslexia, which means that my to-read shelf is now crowded with titles like The Secret Life of the Dyslexic Child and The Twice Exceptional Child, as well as needing to re-read The No-Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers and Preschoolers. I dunno – are any of you, dear readers, interested in reviews of dyslexia books? I was thinking not, but let me know.
4. Tiredness and reading more professional book blogs leading to inferiority complexes regarding my little hobby blog. I have more followers that I know about on my little new Pinterest account than on the blog I've been posting mostly faithfully to for the last eight years. Hard to even put that in print, but there it is.

Anyway, I have been reading some more fun stuff, so here’s a bit.


The Ruins of Gorlan

Ranger’s Apprentice. Book 1: The Ruins of Gorlan. By John Flanagan. Narrated by John Keating. Will has grown up an orphan, raised in a group of foundlings sponsored by the Baron at Castle Redmont. Now all five of them are 15, and it is Choosing Day, time for them to be chosen as apprentices. Will is small and mischievous, but, believing that his father was a hero knight who died in the battle against the evil Morgarath, his dearest wish is to go to Battleschool and train to be a knight himself. All the other four foundlings are given their wishes, but Will is apprenticed to the Ranger Halt. Rangers are mysterious and much distrusted, even suspected of using black magic. Will is less than thrilled about this assignment, but as the alternative is field labor, he takes it. Of course the apprenticeship itself is lots of hard work, taking care of the menial tasks around the Ranger’s cabin as well as learning volumes of new things. He is learning things like tracking, how to stay hidden moving or holding still, how to use range weapons and to stay out of the line of battle if possible. The Rangers, it turns out, are spies of sort, spending their time in the wilds and small villages in and around the kingdom, keeping track both of political tides and the lay of the physical land. They are, in short, very cool, in a subtle way completely opposed to the flashy, bashy knights. Early on, Will’s story alternates with that of his rival from the castle, the big boy who made it to Battleschool. This boy is bullied very badly, and then takes it out on Will whenever they meet. In a plot turn that seemed inevitable from the beginning, events conspire to make these two the best of friends. Eventually he will proceed to help Halt and a former apprentice defeat some new monsters that Morgarath has sent forth in his latest bid for power.

I listened to this book on my own to see if it would be appropriate to share with my son, now seven, who loves all kinds of epic fantasy and battle-type things. And I came to the conclusion: he would love it. I am not comfortable sharing it for another couple of years at least, solely due to the strong and bullying subplot. That bullying was described in great and painful detail over multiple episodes. It was eventually resolved by Halt allowing Will to beat up on the bullies. While this is probably a very satisfying resolution for kids who have been bullied, it doesn’t seem a good solution to me. I don’t want to go on with the series myself without knowing that those types of unpleasant events wouldn’t continue. I felt with the five friends that Flanagan was assembling a crack gaming party, with a varied assortment of characters, each exceptionally good in a different area. None of these have yet been tapped in this first book, but there are ten books in the series, and I’m sure there are seeds for future plot points that I missed.

Despite my gut negative reaction to the bullying, it isn’t really any more violent than many other teen books, and there are a lot of good points to this book. It’s got constant action paired with a strong and likeable main character. Even though Will and his friends are all Above Average and it’s a fantasy, the skills are all ones that exist and could be useful in our world – no simple wand-waving. This series is aimed squarely at teen and perhaps pre-teen boys. Although most of the characters are boys, two of the five foundlings are girls, and they are given real, important careers as well, making it less gender-imbalanced than, say, LOTR. So far, there’s only the smallest hint of romance. All in all, not quite a series for me, but definitely one I’ll keep in mind for teen patrons and maybe even my son down the road a bit.

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

Ruby Red

Jan. 11th, 2012 02:43 pm
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book coverRuby Red by Kerstin Gier. Translated from German by Anthea Bell.
16-year-old Gwyneth (Gwendolyn in the original German book) has grown up living life as a normal kid, except that she now has to keep an eye out for her cousin Charlotte. Charlotte, glamorous and sophisticated, has been trained all her life to prepare her to be a time traveler. Except that Gwyneth turns out to be the one with the time travel gene, something she never wanted. Time travel is dangerous unless controlled – Gwyneth ends up in the same place but a different unknown period in the past for an unpredictable length of time, with only a few minutes of nausea and dizziness for preparation. To counteract them, the secret organization known as the Guardians trains time travelers and owns the Chronograph, a clockwork machine that can send time travelers to a planned place for a planned length of time. For that reason, Gwyneth’s mother takes Gwyneth to the Guardians, despite a distrust she hasn’t explained. It turns out that Gwyneth is the Ruby, the last of twelve known time travelers, each represented by a jewel. The other time traveler in her generation is handsome 18-year-old Gideon de Villiers. The previous two time travelers, close friends with Gwyneth’s mother, fell in love and are hiding in the past with the only other existing Chronograph. The Guardians want to send Gideon and Gwyneth on missions to get blood samples from all of the previous time travelers, which were lost when the original Chronograph. When all twelve samples are present, something will happen – but what? Should Gwyneth trust the Guardians, or Lucy and Paul, the couple she’s never met but whom her mother trusted? Though it’s fairly clear that Lucy and Paul are Good Guys, Gwyneth and her best pal and research buddy Lesley, have yet to figure out why Lucy and Paul distrusted the Guardians enough to give up their lives in the present. There’s a slowly percolating romance between Gwyneth and Gideon, which helps nicely to make Gwyneth’s choices harder, as Gideon has no reason to distrust the Guardians.

German book coverDespite the dangers of time travel and the potential evil nature of the Guardians, the book never gets bogged down in heaviness. (I think the German cover conveys this better.) There’s the romance, more fun than fraught; Lesley and Gwyneth’s friendship, and – I really loved this part – costumes. The Guardians hire a full-time French costume designer, whose sole job is to make historically accurate clothing for each of the trips back in time, which are all described in detail. I really liked the original German covers, but I guess you can’t have everything. This is the first of a trilogy, all of which are now published in Germany but which I guess are taking some time to be translated. The translation is done by the inestimable Anthea Bell, who also translated the Inkheart books as well as tons of others. The time travel, romance and history combined to make this a quite lovely book for me, and I’m now anxiously waiting for the next installments to arrive.

Entwined

Dec. 20th, 2011 08:09 pm
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This was the last Twelve Dancing Princesses retelling that I’ve read. I haven’t found any others, so unless one of you, dear readers, knows of another one, this is the last of the series.

book coverEntwined by Heather Dixon. Dixon boldly sets the story of the Twelve Dancing Princesses in the Victorian era, which we can tell by the clothes and the customs. (The cover, while beautiful, is much less historically accurate than the story.) She manages to give many more of her twelve princesses distinct personalities, better than any of the other books except for Wildwood Dancing, where there were only five sisters to keep straight. Blessedly, she even named them alphabetically - Azalea, Bramble, Clover, Delphinium, Evening Primrose, Flora, Goldenrod, Hollyhock, Ivy, Jessamine, Kale and Lily – making them the first dozen princesses I was actually able to keep track of. But onwards to the story. It’s the night of the Christmas Eve Ball. Azalea, the oldest princess, is hosting, due to Mother’s illness. Before the ball starts, Mother calls Azalea to her room and makes Azalea promise on her mother’s silver handkerchief to take care of her sisters, as well as talking about dancing. At the ball, Azalea meets a somewhat rumpled but very kind young gentleman, Lord Bradford, and it’s immediately clear that this is not the last we’ll see of him. Interestingly, Azalea is princess in a figurehead monarchy. The kingdom is run by the Parliament, which gives the royal family an allowance that isn’t quite enough to keep up the rambling, ancient palace. They also make the final choice on the spouse of the heir, which will make our Princess hesitant in matters of the heart. The country is run this way in large part in reaction to the defeated High King D’Eath, who in ancient times (Medieval? Enlightenment?) ruled the kingdom about as kindly as one might expect, given a name like D’Eath. He it was who built the palace, filling it full of secret passages and enchanted objects. Most of these are no longer in the castle, though one animated silver tea set remains.

The ball goes all right, despite all of the younger siblings hiding in the Christmas trees to watch. But in the morning, they discover that their mother has died, leaving new sister behind. The King – their father, though they call him the King – does not tell them in person. He only tells them that they will be in strict mourning for a year: All black clothes. All windows draped, all clocks stopped, no going outside except for church or Royal Business, and no dancing. But dancing is the girls’ sanity, an essential part of their relationship with each other and with their mother. So when they discover that there is a secret passage in their room that takes them not to a storage room, as they’d been told it would, but to an obviously enchanted dancing pavilion, they are delighted. They don’t ask very many questions of the pale, obviously magical man who invites them to come every night, saying that he is the Keeper of the castle. The reader will likely be more wary of him, even if he tells them that he is an ancient enemy of the High King D’Eath, trapped by him in the walls of the palace. He starts out creepy and gets truly scary, though at first he only reveals this side to Azalea.

In spite of this, the book felt much lighter than Wildwood Dancing - still probably appropriate in the teen books, rather than youth, but leavened by comedic attempts to find suitable partners for all three of the oldest sisters. There is a lot of discussion of the actual dances, so this is the book I’d recommend to dancers. (It’s rather funny how many books about dancing princesses gloss over the actual dancing.) There’s also a lot of family relationships, as the girls try to negotiate a new relationship with the King, now their only parent, no matter how cold and strict. This turned out well, though I found the King’s conversion to kindness a little too glib to be completely convincing. In any case, the story came to an exciting and satisfying conclusion, with Azalea doing a significant part of the rescue of the sisters herself. I think it’s being marketed as a teen book because of the focus on romance, though I didn't find anything that would be inappropriate for older middle grade readers.

Fans of the book can find delightful princess Azalea paper dolls on the author’s website.

Cross-posted to http://library-mama.dreamwidth.org and http://sapphireone.livejournal.com .
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This book came in on hold at one of those times when five or six books that I’d been waiting for came in for me all at the same time. Since it was the longest book, I saved it for last, with the result that I had to turn it back in and go back on the list for it. By then, I’d completely forgotten why I’d wanted to read it in the first place… but it was worth the wait.

book coverThe Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson We meet Princess Lucero-Elisa on her sixteenth birthday. She is popping the buttons on her already large wedding dress and hoping that her groom, King Alejandro de Vego, will be old or ugly enough not to care that he has a fat bride who has never cared much about politics. She’s the younger sister and always felt overwhelmed by her smart and beautiful older sister. Her hobbies are embroidery and studying the ancient texts, the art of war and the scriptures. Scripture is highly personal to her, for on the day of her temple dedication, a glowing blue stone appeared in her navel – the Godstone, given to one bearer every hundred years. It’s there for a purpose, she knows, but she has yet to discover what her call is. All too soon for her peace, she is journeying through the jungle with her new husband, lots of armed guards, her nurse Ximena, and her lady-in-waiting. (I really loved the names that seemed New World Hispanic with bits of older New World culture peeping through, rather than straight Spanish.) They are attacked; Elisa must defend herself and her companions, discovering new sides of herself, Ximena, and her husband. She is unsettled again when she moves into the palace without being formally recognized as the King’s wife, and even more so when she is kidnapped by the border desert people a few weeks later. Eventually, they gain her sympathy and she begins to plan with them how to resist the massive army of Invierne that is massing on the border and destroying their villages. Not only is she their only hope, but it turns out that the Inviernes will do anything to take her themselves.

Cross-posted to http://library-mama.dreamwidth.org and http://sapphireone.livejournal.com .
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The bloggers at The Book Smugglers reviewed The Princess Curse the same week I did, and said this was their favorite Twelve Dancing Princesses retelling. I’ve got one more retelling on hold – also mentioned in their post – and then I’ll be out, unless anyone has any further retellings they want me to read.

book coverWildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier I’m including this book in my series on The Twelve Dancing Princesses, though it doesn’t have all the parts of that story and does have bits of a good many others put in. The story is told by Jena, the second oldest of five sisters aged sixteen to five. They live with their merchant father in an old castle, Piscul Dracului, in Transylvania. It’s nominally fifteenth century, but though I didn’t encounter any glaring errors in the time, the place setting felt much stronger than the time setting to me. Early on, Jena tells us about a formative event in her life, when she and her two older cousins, Costi and Cezar, were playing in the wood. They decided to be King of the Lake, King of the Land and Queen of the Forest. It was supposed to be just a game, but then Drăguţa, the legendary witch of the woods, appeared, offering to grant them their wishes for real. Costi drowned in the lake that day, and neither Cezar nor Jena has been the same since. Already we can tell that this is a much darker retelling than many.

The true story takes place ten years later. Jena’s faithful companion is a pet frog, Gogu, who rides on her shoulder and talks directly into her mind, where no one but she can hear him. Every month on the full moon, she and her sisters put on their finest clothes, hold their hands up to make a star with the shadows on the wall, and follow a secret passage to the Wildwood. This both is and is not the same woods outside their castle, but here they meet with the fairy folk – trolls and dwarves and all sort of people. They dance and talk; scholarly Paula mostly spends the time discussing arcane magical subjects with like-minded folk – and go back home in the morning refreshed by the contact with beauty and magic, though they know enough to be very careful in the magical realm.

This has been their life, and they have loved it, but things are changing. Their mother died long ago, and their father is in poor health. He goes off to the coast in hopes that the change of climate will heal him, leaving the girls and a pair of aging retainers in charge of the castle and surrounding lands. Money will be tight and finding enough manpower difficult, but Jena, who has been learning accounting at her father’s side her whole life, is determined to do a good job running the family business. Cousin Cezar starts visiting more and more often. He soon takes their money box and tells Jena that he will run both their personal and business finances. When the girls go to their Wildwood Dance that month, there is a group of Night People there, the pale people rumored to drink blood. Tati falls in love with one, and increasingly withdraws from the outside world. Both of these are frightening, and of course things go downhill from there. What amazed me about the writing was that even though there were vampires – and they were scary and threatening – the part that gave me insomnia was Cezar taking over the girls’ lives, saying he was doing it out of love for them while clearly doing it for the love of power. He was a real abusive human, not a fairy-tale villain, and that made him terrifying. Though I’m not a horror fan myself, this is what my husband says of the best of Clive Barker’s writing: there might be supernatural horrors galore, but nothing is scarier than a human gone bad.

When one of the Night People kills a village girl the same age as Jena, she feels responsible. Cezar, meanwhile, takes it as a sign that the Wildwood is encroaching too far on their lives. He determines to wipe out all of the Wildwood folk, by chopping down the entire forest if necessary. He starts nightly hunts with bands of villagers through the forest. Even though these roving bands make the monthly walk through the night forest more dangerous, Jena is determined to do whatever it takes to save both her sister and the Wildwood. The leader of the Night People has promised to give her answers, but can she trust him even that far? Her activities are not unnoticed by Cezar, who decides that the girls must be in league with the Night People, and who decides he will lock them in their rooms with a man to follow them if they won’t talk.

The question that Twelve Dancing Princess novels must answer is why the girls do it. This novel approaches the whole story inside-out from the usual telling, and so it’s clear from the beginning that the girls go every month because the Wildwood is the place they feel most at home. Instead, Wildwood Dancing is a quest for independence and self-determination, for a way to find in the real world the fulfillment they find in the Wildwood. Both the human and the magical characters feel particularly real. It might be a little scarier than I usually like my fairy tale retellings, but it was definitely beautifully done, with strong characters in a world of humans and magic both beautiful and terrifying.


Cross-posted to http://library-mama.dreamwidth.org and http://sapphireone.livejournal.com .
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When I first read The Thief and its two sequels, I mentioned that I was waiting for more. And more came out… last fall, but I only just now got to it.

book coverConspiracy of Kings by Megan Whalen Turner. Read by Jeff Woodman Most of this book is told in the first person, narrated by Sophos. He was in The Thief, which I apparently don’t remember as well as I thought, because I didn’t remember him at all. Other characters that I remember from the other books do come in, though – the King and Queen of Attolia and the Queen of Eddis. Sophos is a young man exiled to an island by his uncle, the King of Sounis. He never wanted to be the heir to the kingdom, and knows that he is a disappointment both to his father and to his uncle. Then he is kidnapped and sold into slavery. It is only when he learns of treason against the king that he makes up his mind to escape and try to claim his kingdom from the Mede Empire and from the rebel barons. Turner does her usual excellent job of mixing the political with real human characters. I didn’t find that the plot had that same kind of unexpected twist that I found with the first couple, though there was certainly plenty of plotting and double-crossing. There are also the workings of the gods, which in realistic fashion are never entirely clear. The narrator, Jeff Woodman, has a perfect voice for a boy coming into manhood, which works perfectly for most of the book. He shares the downfall of many male narrators, unconvincing female voices. They either sounded very young or ancient, and he made the odd choice of giving the love interest the old lady voice. Fans of Turners other books will want to make sure to read this. Newcomers might want to start at the beginning – it’s a series well worth getting into.

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