Stuff and Nonsense: fantasy


Showing posts with label fantasy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label fantasy. Show all posts

3.26.2018

The Queen of Ieflaria


Princess Esofi has made the long journey to Ieflaria to wed Crown Prince Albion, someone she has been betrothed to since childhood. Although they have never met, they have exchanged many letters, and Esofi is looking forward to her marriage … or, rather, was. The prince has died, leaving Esofi and Ieflaria in precarious positions. Esofi does not want to return to her homeland (from my reading it seemed almost as if she couldn't) and Ieflaria doesn't want her to go, as they really need the magic she brought to fight off the dragons pillaging the countryside.

Esofi needs to marry someone royal to stay in Ieflaria. Someone like Adale, Albion's sister. And that would be an excellent solution to everyone's problems ... except Adale never expected to be the heir, is completely freaked out by the idea, and is pretty set on doing a runner. As an alternative to Adele, there are always the Terrible Cousins ... except, well, they're terrible.

Let me just be honest with your here -- I preordered The Queen of Ieflaria because Twitter promised me poofy dresses, fire-breathing dragons, adorable kittens, and girls kissing girls.

It did not disappoint.

I liked Adale and Esofi -- both very different characters, but each interesting and compellingly-written. Their romance grew slowly from an initial tentative liking into something tender and sweet and rooted. They were so cute together. Every scene with just the two of them getting to know each other left me grinning like a goof and wishing for more. Indeed, I would have been perfectly content if the entire novel had just been a series of scenes in which Adale and Esofi exchange amusing banter while wearing fabulous clothes.

I do wish the secondary characters were a bit more fleshed out. Most were very one-note -- for example, Lady Mireille was very snotty, "Lady Lisette" was very sneaky, and Adele's friends simply seemed like a mass of drunken puppies. I also felt the world-building was a bit uneven -- sometimes Esofi's interior monologue felt very infodump-y and other times I felt I was being tortured with hints of Things That Might Be Important. But, hey, The Queen of Ieflaria is both a debut novel and the first in a series -- I expect the world-building will improve as Calvin goes on and concepts/subplots that are unclear will become crystal.

Ultimately, while I feel The Queen of Ieflaria does need just a little more polish, it was still an extremely enjoyable read. I look forward to reading the rest of the series, Tales of Inthya, when they are released. The second book, Daughter of the Sun, will be out in November and I hope it contains more floofy dresses and even more kissing. Hooray for pansexual princesses!

The Queen of Ieflaria by Effie Calvin. NineStar Press, 2018. Kindle edition.

1.22.2018

Bryony & Roses


In Bryony & Roses, Bryony and her sisters have been forced to retire to a small cottage in the remote village of Lostfarthing on the outer edge of nowhere after the death of their father following a series of terrible investments. They have made friends in the village, found purpose in their new lives and are, at least for Bryony, more truly themselves than they ever were during their rich days in the city. (While they've definitely come down in the world, I saw them more as genteelly impoverished, like the Dashwood sisters, than truly poor).

Anyway, one day Bryony goes off to fetch some particularly hardy rutabaga seeds from a nearby village and she finds herself caught in a spring blizzard. Miles from home, disoriented and freezing, she stumbles upon an impossible manor house. In the manor house is ... well, you know. The Rose. The Beast. The Curse.

Bryony & Roses is a lovely, playful, and yet surprisingly dark retelling of the classic fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast. In the introduction, Kingfisher writes that she was inspired by Robin McKinley's Rose Daughter and, taken in its entirety, Mckinley's influence is clear. This is no bad thing -- McKinley’s Beauty and the Beast retellings, Beauty and Rose Daughter, remain two of my favorite fantasy novels. Indeed, Beauty was my very first fairy tale retelling and I’m always eager to find similar works.

The ending was, I thought, perfect and I loved the message it sent -- not that love conquers all or that love can turn a monster back into a prince, but simply: if you love someone, you love them for who they are not who they could be or were once upon a time.

Bryony & Roses by T. Kingfisher. Amazon Digital Services LLC, 2015.

4.10.2017

Wintersong


“The last night of the year," Constanze said. "Now the days of winter begin and the Goblin King rides abroad, searching for his bride.”

Goblins, changelings, magic, riddles, ill-advised and desperate bargains -- Wintersong has them all. Set in 1800s provincial Bavaria, the novel is reads like lushly written homage to “Goblin Market” and “Der Erlkönig.” I think it’s probably a book that would appeal to Labyrinth lovers, although I found it easiest to enjoy Wintersong when I had deliberately cleared Sarah and Jareth from my mind. As far as world-building goes, Jae-Jones’s universe felt richly detailed and real – it was perfectly easy (up to a point) to become Liesl, to believe I was in rural Bavaria, to smell and taste the forbidden fruits, to feel the cold of winter and the dark fantasy of the Underworld .

So world-building, writing, and premise really appealed to me and I enjoyed those facets of the Wintersong. But … there was still too much that put me off, that kept me from properly enjoying the book, and makes me reticent to read the sequel.

Maybe I’m just a cranky old woman, but I find it increasingly difficult to enjoy novels larded with the nonsense that is on-again-off-again romance. You have relationship problems? You figure out, together, how to fix them or you go your separate, but ultimately happier, ways. And sex as a fix for whatever you think is broken within you? Just … no. I have no time for magical healing penises (or vaginas, for that matter).

Also, that ending! How did the world not end? What about the changeling? Wasn’t he supposed to wane and die if too long from the Underworld? And the whole, abrupt Beethoven/Immortal Beloved tie-in ... I just don’t understand where that was going.

Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones (St. Martin's Griffin, 2017)

3.13.2017

Frogkisser!


Princess Anya's wicked stepstepfather, the Duke, is a powerful sorcerer set on ruling the tiny kingdom of Trallonia ... and that means finding a way to be rid of obstacles like Anya and her distractible older sister, Morven. It also means turning any of the Princesses likely allies -- like Morven's suitors -- into frogs.

Anya's simple promise to turn recently frogged Denholm back into a prince -- Morven isn't in love with him anymore and isn't going to kiss a frog, regardless -- quickly evolves into an epic Quest. Anya will collect the ingredients for a Transmogrification Reversal Lip Balm, save her sister (and herself) from the Duke's machinations, right ancient wrongs, and maybe-sorta make the world a better place.

Frogkisser! is a delightful read that manages to be both irreverent and meaningful at the same time. Many classic fairytale tropes are subverted, nonwhite female characters are integral, and Anya slowly grows into a thoroughly satisfying hero. If you like Diana Wynne Jones or Terry Pratchett, I think you'll enjoy Frogkisser!

Frogkisser! by Garth Nix (Scholastic, 2017)

2.06.2017

The Star-Touched Queen


Princess Maya's birth was the death of her mother. Raised in a court that believes her curst by the stars and accordingly treats her poorly, at best, Maya's only dream has been to survive long enough in the royal harem to become a scholarly old maid, left alone to her own devices.

Then her father, the King, gets it in his head to marry his wholly unmarriageable, thoroughly star-curst daughter off to one of the neighboring countries (any one of the neighboring countries at that) to "forge peace." While Maya gets her pick of the eligible men, she still must chose one and then kill herself. For the good of all, you know. Great plan, Dad.

But then ... there's betrayal. And salvation. And the quickest marriage ceremony the world ever saw. And running. And magic tapestries. And locked doors. And ... so much happens that I can't tell you about because SPOILERS.

The Star-Touched Queen is Eros and Psyche, Bluebeard's Wife, Goblin Market, and a dozen other tales reforged into one darkly sparkling gem of a novel. A rich, vibrant book rife with flowery prose and secrets ... yum. Go. Read. It. (Yes, it's frequently shelved in YA, but it will please any adult lover of romantic fantasy).

The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi (St. Martin's Griffin, 2016)

7.22.2016

Watchtower


When I first began reading Watchtower, I was a bit disappointed, because it seemed like your standard male-centric fantasy of conquest and revenge, but Lynn very quickly disabused me. Ryke's world-view shifts as his exposure to the world outside Tornor Keep expands and, by the end of the novel, many of the female characters have moved to the forefront of the tale. However, (spoilers, yo) I was a little confused/disturbed by the author's decision to fridge Rhyke's under-represented sister, Becke (seriously, not a person or even a plot device, just window-dressing in the shape of a woman). Her death did nothing to advance the story and it felt kind of like ... I don't know ... she was killed because she (and all the other unnamed Keep women) couldn't measure up against the novel's "strong" female characters? Only women like Sorren, Norres, Maranth were fit to survive and thrive?

Excluding the treatment of the Becke and the other Keep's women, Watchtower was a fairly enjoyable read. It was refreshing how matter-of-factly Lynn wove same-sex relationships, non-binary identities, and non-traditional gender roles into the novel. Perhaps not exactly common in Ryke's world at the beginning of the novel -- he saw romantic relationships between men as a Southern thing -- but he did not seem bothered by it and accepted Sorren and Norres pairing without much surprise once he realizes what was going on.

Sorren and Norres. I'd really like a novel about them. Lynn gave us some of their backstory -- more so than many of the other characters -- but not enough. Surely, "Sorren" and "Norres" were names they chose for themselves, not the names they were given. What was it like for them, leaving Tornor and the north? How did they persuade the green clan they were ghyas and why?

There wasn't a lot of contextual world-building in Watchtower -- plenty of geographic descriptions, for example, but not a lot of explanation as to why things were the way they were. For example, I never quite understood why Col Istor attacked the Keeps. He could, so he did? Surely, that's a bit simplistic? Also, it's one thing to take and hold a Keep, it's another thing entirely to take and hold six of them indefinitely.

Watchtower, 1980 World Fantasy Award winner, is the first book in The Chronicles of Tornor and while out of print, it is still available in some library systems. Don't worry if you can only find Watchtower and not the other two books in the series as the novel neatly wraps up all its principal story lines, so you don't absolutely need to continue.

Watchtower by Elizabeth A. Lynn (Putnam, 1979)

7.08.2016

Raising Steam

I ... delayed ... reading Terry Pratchett's Snuff and Raising Steam, because I'd not enjoyed Unseen Academicals as much as I'd anticipated and felt I couldn't brook further disappointment. Pratchett was -- along with McKinley and McKillip -- my childhood gateway into fantasy literature and I maintain a serious soft spot for his works. But when it came time to stuff my Kindle with hospital reads, I found I craved the comfort of Pratchett and was willing to take the risk. After all, while the quality of Unseen Academicals had disappointed me, it still checked most my boxes for enjoyable humorous fantasy.


Ordinarily, I try to read Discworld books in order and I knew Snuff came between Unseen Academicals and Raising Steam, but it currently isn't available for immediate download from OverDrive via my library so I made do with Raising Steam, knowing full well I might have missed out on important story-lines and world-building by skipping Snuff. And I hope I'm right -- that some of my dissatisfaction with Raising Steam lies in reading the books out of order. That, if I'd read Snuff first, Raising Steam might have seemed more robust and "sensible."

Reading Raising Steam was a strange experience. Like visiting a place I once knew well, but have been away from for too long. All the characters I remembered were there, but they seemed different -- abridged, shorthand versions of themselves with little or no character development (and where was Carrot in all this talk of dwarves?). But then, I'm not so sure Raising Steam was intended to be about its characters so much as about its ideas -- technological progress, (sub)urban expansion, gender, fundamentalism, etc. If that's the case, then there were also too many ideas in play, because the story frequently felt disjointed and choppy -- dragging here, rocketing along there, too much speechifying everywhere. (Seriously, too many conversations felt larded with Portent or overladen with moralizing).

Maybe there was just too much of muchness in Raising Steam? Many might-have-been-interesting characters or events -- like the girl who knew every language on the Disc, the interspecies love affair of Crackle and Dopey, or the goblin underground -- went undeveloped. Indeed, the whole goblins-love-trains-and-are-building-their-own-underground really felt as if it is should have been a Significant Plot Point -- especially with the Patrician's push to get the special express train to Uberwald as quickly as possible and all, but it isn't. It's just a storyline that fizzles out.

Did enjoy some of the in-jokes -- Edith Nesmith, The Railway Children, and The Fat Controller especially, but Georgina Bradshaw as reference to Bradshaw's Guide (and, maybe, all those lady Victorian travel writers?) was also a nice touch -- but mostly I felt some of the humor was flying over my head.

tl;dr:

  • Did I enjoy it more than Unseen Academicals? No.
  • Do I regret reading it? No.
  • Am I anxious to hurry up and read Snuff? No.

Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett. Random House, 2014. Kindle AZW file.

5.13.2016

Wake of Vultures


I don't read Westerns or horror and while Wake of Vultures both is and isn't either of those things, it certainly dressing up like them, and that just confused the heck out of me when I started reading it.

Ohhhh, but then ... by the time Nettie Lonesome arrived at the brothel with the other ranch hands I was hooked. Couldn't put the darn book down. Gobbled it down in three hours flat. It's a weird fantasy-Western-horror mash-up with a magickal nonwhite, mixed race, cross-dressing, bisexual protagonist. In some ways, I feel I'd waited my whole life to read Wake of Vultures and I'm thoroughly chuffed to hear Nettie's adventures will continue in Conspiracy of Ravens (also, confusingly, sometimes titled Horde of Crows) and I cannot wait for October.

I received an advance reading copy of Wake of Vultures at BookExpo America 2015 and, as an ARC, it is possible my version differs from the one currently available at your public library so caveat lector, etc.

Wake of Vultures by Lila Bowen (Orbit, 2015) [ARC]

10.06.2015

Rat Queens, Volume 1: Sass & Sorcery


I'd been hearing about Rat Queens for yonks and it was quite near the top of my tbr list, but it was rapidly becoming one of those titles of which I'd heard so much praise that I was beginning to get a little turned off. (Yes, poor shallow fool that I am). Then The Husband gave me a copy of Volume One, saying that he was sure I wouldn't read it just like I never read any of the books he gives me ... and so I, seeing the challenge, read the darn book.

And it blew my socks off. Rat Queens was just great fun to read -- full of dark humor, witty dialogue, so much swearing, drugs, candy, splashy violence, and sexytimes. The comic's heroines are all amazing badasses in their own highly individual ways -- full of sass and sorcery, indeed. I don't know who I adored more -- Violet, the Hipster Dwarven Fighter, or Betty, the Hippy Lesbian Smidgen Thief. Or Orc Dave and his bluebird beard. Oh, that beard!


As fascinating and fun as the characters are, the story is a little underdeveloped. Obviously, this is a series and the greater plot is going to play out over the course of it. But, still. While the book is rich in killin' and thievin' and drinkin' and canoodling, it's not the story that carries it along. No, it's the dialogue. The damned witty, can't-stop-grinning-my-way-through-the-book dialogue. Seriously, I can't wait to read more!


Rat Queens, Volume 1: Sass & Sorcery by Kurtis J. Wiebe & Roc Upchurch (Image, 2014)

8.04.2015

Top 10 Tuesday: Fairytale Retellings


This week's Top Ten Tuesday is all about our favorite retold fairytales. Unsurprisingly, there's a lot of Robin McKinley on my list. What can I say? I love both of her retellings of Beauty and the Beast and her retelling of Sleeping Beauty is also pretty darn good!

  • The Wrath and the Dawn by Renée Ahdieh (Scheherazade/One Thousand and One Nights)
  • Deerskin by Robin McKinley (Donkeyskin)
  • East by Edith Pattou (East of the Sun and West of the Moon)
  • A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce (Rumpelstiltskin)
  • The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale (The Goose Girl)


  • Beauty by Robin McKinley (Beauty and the Beast)
  • Rose Daughter by Robin McKinley (Beauty and the Beast)
  • Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley (Sleeping Beauty)
  • Cloaked in Red by Vivian Van Velde (Little Red Riding Hood)
  • Five Hundred Kingdoms series by Mercedes Lackey (Cinderella, The Snow Queen, The Little Mermaid, etc)

7.21.2015

Cruel Beauty


After I devoured Crimson Bound, I went in search of more books by Hodge and was shocked to realize there was only one other -- Cruel Beauty. What have you been doing with your time, Hodge, that there aren't more books by you? Now, the Young Adult librarian sold Cruel Beauty to me as fast-and-loose retelling of Beauty and the Beast -- and that's true -- but Cruel Beauty also plays with elements from East of the Sun and West of the Moon, Eros and Psyche, and even Bluebeard.

Anyway, Cruel Beauty is just YUMMY. A rich yet bittersweet tale that twists and turns like the passages of Ignifex's house, constantly hinting at more than it reveals (or maybe I'm just not so smart, afterall) until suddenly everything is made clear. The world is kinda-but-not-really Ancient Greece by way of Victorian England -- lots of classical Greek names but also cabbage rose wallpaper and puffed sleeves. It's an unexpected combination, but I found it refreshing and fun. It felt as if anything thing could happen in a world like that and it pretty much does.

I guess I should talk about our heroine, Nyx? She's frequently a rather angry person and her internalized wishy-washyness about her own feelings (embrace your anger!) can be a bit exasperating. Of course Nyx is angry. She was born to marry The Destroyer and kill him or die trying. Where was Nyx's opportunity for silly, girlish dreams? What reason had she to grow up with a gentle heart or sense of lovingkindness? So, yes, Nyx is an angry girl. She's also witty, intelligent, and bold.

And she saves the world. So hurrah for Nyx.


Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge (HarperCollins, 2014)

7.10.2015

Crimson Bound


Crimson Bound is another one of those books the Young Adult librarian thrust upon me when I last wandered through her demesne, complaining about how I had "nothing" to read. I'd never read anything by Hodge, but the cover was attractive (yes, I do that) and the Young Adult librarian promised me a dark retelling of Little Red Riding Hood with a well-written female protagonist and proper scary monsters.

Crimson Bound delivered all those things and more. If you're a fan of Little Red Riding Hood or a want a retelling that hews close to the source material, Crimson Bound probably isn't for you. Yes, there's a red cloak. And a wolf of sorts, I guess, if you accept "wolf" as a metaphor. And an elderly female relative in a woodsy cottage ... but she's no granny and no-one averts her doom.

No, it's best to think of Crimson Bound as quite its own story. A rather mesmerizing, darkly beautiful, and lyrical one, at that. The story takes lots of twists and turns in its telling with friends revealed as enemies, enemies becoming friends, and help springing up from unexpected places. In the end, nearly all the predictions I made as I read the story were proven deliciously wrong. Hodge's world building is fascinating. Much of story feels as if it's set in a dark dream Versailles with a weird there-are-monsters-in-the-woods vibe running through it that I found utterly absorbing. Also, I really enjoyed the use of the story of Tyr and Zisa as a framing story. Germanic folklore, hurrah.

If I have one quibble with this book, it's a small but persnickety one. I don't understand why Hodge decided to merge Rachelle's forestborn and the traitorous bloodhound into one character. For me, it made the bloodhound's betrayal less horrifying. Of course he was going to do wicked things to Rachelle! He. Was. Forestborn. It also skewed the story somewhat for me because it suggested The Devourer and its ilk had been interested in Rachelle for quite some time and, suddenly, she wasn't just a random girl who'd made a rash choice and was daily atoning for the consequences. No, suddenly, she was some kind of Fated Hero.

So ... more wickedness, please, and make it complicated!

Crimson Bound by Rosamund Hodge (HarperCollins, 2015)

2.13.2015

Wee Free Men


The Wee Free Men is the first of the Tiffany Aching books which, while marketed and shelved as young adult books, are perfectly appropriate for adults. In making that declaration, I am not without bias, as the Tiffany Aching books are one of my favorite Discworld sub series and I cannot wait until the fifth book, The Shepherd's Crown, is released in 20whenever ... and I am an old woman of nearly forty.

I’ve read The Wee Free Men multiple times now and so was quite surprised by how fresh and entirely new Briggs’ reading made the audio. His Nac Mac Feegle (irrepressible tiny blue men whose swords glow blue in the presence of lawyers) are a hoot and, miracle of miracles, sound exactly like the Nac Mac Feegles in my head. And the female characters are similarly well-rendered and I frequently forgot that the actual human “being” Tiffany was male. Tiffany remains one of my favorite Discworld characters due to her for love of learning, her mad cheese-making skills, and her strong sense of self. She’s an excellent role model for everyone and I'd love there to be many more Tiffany Aching books.

5 out of 5 frying pans

Wee Free Men written by Terry Pratchett & read by Stephen Briggs (HarperChildren's Audio, 2005)

1.27.2015

Lark Rising


Lark Rising was a real pleasure to read (and look at -- Marcela Bolivar's jacket is just lovely). The world Waugh has created is an interesting one and I quite like that she managed to fill it with rich, lyric detail while at the same time not being very explain-y. It allowed me figure out some things about Lark's world on my own as I read along and that's always excellent. Certainly, I want to spend a lot more time in Castle Tarnec with Nayla and Ilone.

To me, Lark Carewe made an admirable heroine. She not particularly brave or strong or adventurous, but she accepts it is her burden to leave her village and find help for her village. Lark doesn't always understand what's going on and is sometimes afraid, but she does her best to do good by other people. (I mean, yes, she was so surprisingly and obviously wrong in her interpretations of the visions she had about Gharain, but bad story does happen to good characters. Also, I've read a lot of books while Lark's never been in one before. She doesn't know how her story is supposed to go).

Lark Rising is the first book is a four-part series, Guardians of Tarnec. The forthcoming second book, Silver Eve, is about Lark's sister Evie and set in a different (not-Tarnec) part of the world. Unfortunately, I didn't find Evie all that interesting in Lark Rising and I'm not sure I want to tackle new characters and geography so much as fangirl all over Tarnec Castle with characters I've already met.

Lark Rising by Sandra Waugh (Random House, 2014)

8.22.2014

Mewingham Manorl; Or, Too Much Cute

Do you like butterflies? Do you like kittens? Do Victorian country ladies' diaries give you a thrill? Then Mewingham Manor: Observations on a Curious New Species is just the thing for you!

A twenty-seven-year-old unmarried lady inherits her uncle's rambling country estate, Mewingham Manor, and hastens to set up housekeeping. She keeps a diary of her days, as good gentlewomen do, and in it she begins to note strange flying creatures in the garden:
It was tiny, with fluffy, black and white fur, and, although by all other evidence a mammal, it wore a pair of dazzling jewel-toned wings!


Yes, Mewingham Manor is infested with Flittens -- tiny butterfly-winged cats collected from all over the globe by her roving uncle (just as other Victorian gentlemen might collect rare species of orchid, etc)! What follows is page after page of illustrations of Flittens and Minis (tiny winged mice). It's an adorable natural history of nonsense:
Hatchlings congregate for safety and comfort. When they mature, they become very independent and only associate with their own species (although on especially chilly days, I have observed adult Flittens of every type napping in a mound by the hearth).
Many thanks to my coworker for pressing this book on me! Four out of five Flittenus arboreus.

Mewingham Manor: Observations on a Curious New Species by Edwina Von Stetina (Greenwich Workshop Press, 2002).

8.05.2014

Top 10 Tuesday: Books For Pratchett Noobs


This week, for Top Ten Tuesday, we're talking about the books we'd recommend to readers who have never read X where X is, in my case, Terry Pratchett. I picked Pratchett because I actually had a conversation with a friend a few weeks about how he wanted to read the Long Earth books because he'd never read any Pratchett before, but was afraid to as there was just so much Pratchett in the universe.

While the list is not in any particular order, I do recommend starting with Good Omens or Small Gods. Good Omens has the added cachet of having been co-written by Neil Gaiman and some new Pratchett readers seem to find that ... comforting? "Even if this Pratchett fellow is terrible, Gaiman never disappoints," etc. Small Gods is (imho) an excellent place to start with The Discworld as it is a standalone and amusingly (and bitingly) skeptical of organized religion.

I tried not to put too many Discworld books on the list as it's meant to be an introduction to Pratchett and not necessarily the Discworld, but it's difficult because there are so many great books in the series. In the end, I included only a few standalone that require no prior knowledge of the Discworld to appreciate.
  1. Good Omens
  2. Small Gods
  3. Only You Can Save Mankind
  4. The Carpet People
  5. Strata
  6. The Amazing Maurice & His Educated Rodents 
  7. The Wee Free Men
  8. Going Postal
  9. Nation
  10. The Long Earth
The nonfiction work, The Unadulterated Cat, is also very good -- providing you like Real Cats and don't mind a heavy dose of Britishisms!

4.13.2014

Gods Behaving Badly


Then the tree said, "I'm Kate. I work in mergers and acquisitions for Goldman Sachs."
"Do you know what happened to you, Kate?" said Artemis.
The longest silence of all. Artemis was just about to repeat the question when the tree replied.
"I think I've turned into a tree," it said.
"Yes," said Artemis. "You have."
In a world dominated by Christianity (but surely Islam is also statistically significant?) the Twelve Olympians are alive and living in Hampstead. With no-one believing in them anymore, their power and glory has faded over the years and they have been reduced to living like mortals. And not rich, powerful mortals. No, indeed. Aphrodite works as a phone sex operator. Artemis, a dog walker. And Apollo is sure his star is on the rise when he becomes a TV psychic ... only to shoot the worst pilot ever. And then he falls in love (with help from Eros) with Alice (played in my head by Shirley Henderson), a cleaner. And everything goes from bad to worse.

Gods Behaving Badly was a fairly amusing and quick read well-suited to an afternoon spent in various waiting rooms as I found it easy to put down and then take up again. Some books are hard to read in fragments -- I need to gobble the whole thing up in one big gulp -- or hard to take up again after being put down, as there's no strong pull or connection. With Gods Behaving Badly, while I needed to know what would happen the Alice and the gods, I wasn't breathless with need. That makes it sound as if I didn't enjoy the novel ... I did enjoy it, but many of gods were (unsurprisingly, if you've read any Greek mythology) a tad insufferable and best absorbed in small doses.

Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips (Little, Brown, and Company, 2007)

8.18.2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane


Grown-ups don't look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they're big and thoughtless and they always know what they're doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren't any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.

A man returns to Sussex for a funeral and, while driving through his old village, ends up at the house of a friend he has not seen since childhood. She's not there -- "gone away to Australia" years ago -- but her mother is and greets him warmly enough and allows him to look around. He goes out back to the pond ... and falls down the rabbit hole of memory.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane grabbed me at the start, held me firmly until the end, and then faltered a little -- mostly, I think, because the ending moved the story squarely out of the magical possibility of childhood and back into a wholly unmagical adulthood. I really had no real reason to care for the adult narrator. Particularly as he would not remember any of it again!

However, I did like that there wasn't a lot of explanation about why the world worked as it did -- things happened and while some where quite terrible they fit the story and made sense. More explanations would have just muddied things.

Over all, I was surprised by how much I liked The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Gaiman's works are pretty hit-or-miss for me and this book arrived on my desk so highly recommended that merely looking at it made me feel positively skittish.

As much as I liked it, though, I admit it wasn't surprising. If you've read Gaiman's other works then you're pretty familiar with the idea mythical beings dwell among us, lurking in hidden corners down forgotten footpaths. And there's a lot of that in The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It's well done with some exquisite descriptions, but it wasn't anything new.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (William Morrow, 2013)

7.26.2013

A Hidden Magic


Jennifer, an impoverished and altogether ordinary princess, enters through a magic gate into an enchanted forest at the instigation of a handsome-but-self-centered prince. The self-centered prince then proceeds to makes some unfortunate decisions and ends up bespelled by a magic mirror. Jennifer, finding herself more-or-less obligated to rescue the prince, heads deeper into the forest in search of a way to save him.

A Hidden Magic is a lighthearted fantasy adventure that successfully spoofs many standard fairy tale tropes. The protagonist is well drawn and, while the story's outcome might be clear from the beginning, the novel is still a jolly romp. Comedic encounter follows comedic encounter, the dialogue is generally quite witty, and everything wraps up very nicely and neatly. If you have an hour or so to spare, A Hidden Magic is well worth the time.


(And it is beautifully illustrated by my favorite children's book illustrator, Trina Schart Hyman ... which is, admittedly, my whole reason for picking up the book!)

A Hidden Magic by Vivian Van Velde (Harcourt, 1985)

7.05.2013

The Anvil of the World


I'd avoided reading anything by Kage Baker because I only knew her for her Company novels of which there are many and these days my attention span is much too short to cope with long series. Even trilogies are frequently too much. But the cover art for The Anvil of the World really drew my eye and the first paragraph sucked me in and, faster than you can say "joyous couplings," I'd read the entire novel.

TROON, the golden city, sat within high walls on a plain a thousand miles wide. The plain was golden with barley.

The granaries of Troon were immense, towering over the city like giants, taller even than its endlessly revolving windmills. Dust sifted down into its streets and filled its air in the Month of the Red Moon and in every other month, for that matter, but most especially in that month, when the harvest was brought in from the plain in long lines of creaking carts, raising more dust, which lay like a fine powder of gold on every dome and spire and harvester's hut.

All the people of Troon suffered from chronic emphysema.

Priding itself as it did, however, on being the world's breadbasket, Troon put up with the emphysema. Wheezing was considered refined, and the social event of the year was the Festival of Respiratory Masks.

The Anvil of the World was truly delightful, one of the funniest fantasy novels I have read in a while. It seems improbable that a fantasy which deals so heavily with racial intolerance, religion, and ecological destruction should be charming and yet it is. If you enjoy Terry Pratchett's Discworld or Terry Brooks' Magic Kingdom novels, I think you'll enjoy The Anvil of the World. The characters, from the protagonist down to the smallest bit character, are fully-fleshed beings who seem quite real and who live in an improbable world which, thanks to Baker's skillful writing, seems perfectly possible and, indeed, functional.

I admit the novel felt a little uneven to me -- the story breaks quite cleanly into three parts so if you'd told me I was reading the omnibus edition of a trilogy, I'd have believed you. But it's apparently all one long work and thus, to me, a bit choppy. The Smith of the first third is not the Smith of the second or third. I'm all for character development, but sometimes Last Smith felt like a completely different character from First Smith. It's probable, however, that if I hadn't gulped the novel down all in one big chunk, I would not have noticed the differences between Smiths or the story breaks so much.

Regardless, I greatly enjoyed reading The Anvil of the World and wish there was more of it. There's a prequel, I know, and another work set in the same universe, but that's not the same. I don't feel I need to know what happened before or parallel, but what happened after. I need more of Lord Ermenwyr and "Nursie." And what of Mother and Mr. Silverpoint? Ohhh, Mother!

The woman had clear, clear eyes, and their gaze hit him like a beam of light. She was the most beautiful woman he had even seen in his life, but somehow that face went unnoticed by his flesh. She was spare and perfect as a steel engraving, and as ageless. She was simple as water, implacable as the white comber rolling, miraculous as rain in the desert.

The Anvil of the World by Kage Baker