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2010-05-08 10:13 pm

The Fifth Elephant, by Terry Pratchett

The Fifth Elephant
by Terry Pratchett
321 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Fiction/Fantasy/Humor

My friend, who is a fellow ardent Pratchett fan, thrust this library book into my hands with the damning words, "Carrot and Angua." I didn't have the time to read it, but I did anyway, because those two are just that cute.

This is one stop amongst many on the Discworld tour; my fannishness started with Small Gods, which I of course highly recommend. I find it difficult to describe the novel without resorting to Discworld shorthand, but let me try... Carrot is a long-lost heir who has contrived to remain lost, a six-foot-tall dwarf, and a scarily good person. Angua is a female werewolf with--interesting--familial relations. Together they fight petty crime and treason as members of the Watch, and are all-around awesome.

That's not quite right; it makes the book sound like a thriller, which it's not, though there is a fascinating mystery element of the plot. So, um, in Discworld shorthand: Carrot/Angua in Uberwald, with a healthy dose of Vimes and politics, plus a sprinkling of Vetinari on top.

I have realized what I love so much about Terry Pratchett, to the point where he deserves a place in my personal gallery next to Guy Gavriel Kay, Ellen Kushner, and George R.R. Martin: he is consistently great. (Sylvia Kelso and Alison Sinclair have the potential for greatness, with Amberlight/Riversend and Darkborn respectively, but they haven't proven consistency yet.) There are some Pratchett books that I adore, some that I love, some that I merely like... but each has enthralled me as I read them for the first time. A rare and valuable quality, consistency--few authors can I trust as I trust Pratchett to always write a worthwhile book.
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2010-05-08 10:03 pm

A Conspiracy of Kings, by Megan Whalen Turner

A Conspiracy of Kings
by Megan Whalen Turner
316 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Fiction/YA/Fantasy

I've been waiting SO long for this book. I loved each succeeding volume of Turner's Attolis series more than the last, up through King of Attolia (especially the outside POV of Costis), but... KoA remains my favorite. Despite mixed reviews, I still think CoK is decent, and it nicely continues the overarching plot intent of Gen ruling the continent. I thought that intention was convincingly advanced, though the unresolved romantic thread made me sadface.

As a side note, the first chapter is a wonderful reintroduction to the world, and I didn't see Gen as particularly out-of-character anywhere in the book. He has evolved into Attolis, as he had to.

For those who don't know, this is Sophos's story about what happens after his mysterious disappearance. If you don't know what that means, stop and go read The Thief, then The Queen of Attolia, then The King of Attolia. Order is not absolutely necessary--I read QoA first--but then again, I read QoA first and was horribly confused. And this is a series worth savoring.
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2010-04-24 10:53 pm

The Two Princesses of Bamarre, by Gail Carson Levine (reread)

The Two Princesses of Bamarre
by Gail Carson Levine
293 pages (paperback)
Genre: Fiction/YA/Fantasy

Twin princesses Meryl and Addie are close opposites; timid Addie depends wholly on Meryl's bravery. When Meryl falls ill with the cursed, fatal Gray Death, cowardly Addie must find her courage in order to save her beloved sister.

After finishing Carol Berg's Revelation and feeling like I'd been hit with a sledgehammer, I had to cool down. So I turned to reread a childhood favorite. The Two Princesses of Bamarre is not my favorite of Levine's novels--Ella Enchanted remains the only one developed enough beyond folkish fairy-tale to touch me to tears--but it was sufficiently light, breezy, and satisfying. On this second read, I much admired the dragons and focused less on Addie and Meryl, who serve as wonderful childhood role models. This is a fable in truth, with obvious morals, but nonetheless offered with a light touch.
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2010-04-24 10:35 pm

Transformation & Revelation, by Carol Berg

I was saving these two until I had finished reading the trilogy, but I seem to have lost interest so...

Transformation
by Carol Berg
439 pages (paperback)
Genre: Fiction/Fantasy

Seyonne is an Ezzarian slave, dead to the world after being stripped of his magical powers by a horrific rite. By chance he is sold to the arrogant Crown Prince Aleksander of the Derzhi empire, and further unlucky coincidences keep him in royal interest, though not favor. But when Seyonne sees a shocking reminder of Ezzaria in the eyes of the crown prince, he is inextricably bound to Aleksander's fate while demons and foreigners attempt to undermine the empire.

Finishing this, I immediately went on to read Revelation. It hit a lot of my personal buttons--power differential, detailed political subtleties. I can see why there's so much Aleksander/Seyonne fic! The character depth and epic setting reminds me of GRRM, but I'm glad that Berg is not so cruel to her characters (at least in this volume, one reason why I like it best).

Revelation
by Carol Berg
485 pages (paperback)
Genre: Fiction/Fantasy

Seyonne returns to Ezzaria a free man, but now he must deal with the prejudices and mysteries of his own culture. He meets an unusual demon that will lead him to question everything he has ever been taught, and guide him upon a path to exile more certain--and more painful--than all his prior years of enslavement.

This middle volume was quite well-plotted with a satisfying conclusion. I had read it before from the library, and liked it enough to put the whole trilogy on my to-by list; it was long enough ago, however, and with little enough context, that I read this as if it were new to me.

And yet! And yet, I didn't feel compelled to read the final volume. The emotional blasting that Seyonne takes--especially in repeated betrayals-that-aren't-betrayals of Aleksander--was too much. Though I've skimmed Restoration enough to know that Berg resolves the tale in a politically correct fashion, I'm more satisfied with the ending of Transformation; Seyonne and Aleksander's adventure is over, the world has been saved for now, hooray. Berg's chosen path forces the reader to confront the implications of imperialism, an aim that I fully appreciate. But honestly, it could have been done with less individual torture of the characters.

Maybe, overall, I prefer Song of the Basilisk--an excellent, lesser-known Berg novel that explores similar themes but wraps up in a single volume instead of attempting to save the world forever and ever. Or maybe I can just pretend that Transformation has no sequels.
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2010-04-01 09:04 pm

A College of Magics, by Caroline Stevermer

A College of Magics
by Caroline Stevermer
468 pages (trade paperback)
Genre: Fiction/Fantasy/YA

In alternate 1800s Europe, with the British Empire and Austria meddling in political affairs of small nations like Ruritania, Faris Nallaneen is the Duchess of snowy northern Galazon, currently ruled by her conniving-but-not-really-wicked Uncle Brinkar. He sends her to Greenlaw College (where the graduates are called witches behind their backs) to await the turning of her majority. What follows is a prototypical school-of-magic story, clearly modeled off the modern-day university rather than boarding school. Faris befriends various interesting people, Jane Brailsford in particular, and makes one significant enemy: Menary of Aravill, whose involvement I can't describe further without spoilers.

I picked this up as a light read, and finished it satisfyingly in one sitting; in that respect, and in the "neatness" of the plot, it's a classic YA novel. But this is very mature YA, in all respects save explicit romantic development; the political intrigue that I love so much in adult fantasy novels is not dumbed down. The ending is almost deus ex machina, but at that point I was too carried away emotionally to mind.
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2010-03-29 09:13 pm

Darkborn, by Alison Sinclair

Darkborn
by Alison Sinclair
348 pages (trade paperback)
Genre: Fiction/Fantasy

I had an inkling, from Jia's complimentary Dear Author review and from the cover blurbs--Carol Berg, Sharon Shinn, Lane Robins--that Darkborn might be my very favorite kind of book: densely political, yet romantic and idealistic. It is.

Balthasar Hearne is a Darkborn physician, born to that class of impoverished old blood so well-popularized by Austen; his wife Telmaine, of similar but non-impoverished blood, is an untrained mage. (The Darkborn, unlike the Lightborn who live in the same city for the other half of the time, prefer to ignore the existence of magic.) When a very pregnant Tercelle Amberley shows up on Balthasar's doorstep at the sunrise bell, his physician's instincts and old acquaintance lead him to take her in. She gives birth to twin boys who are Darkborn yet sighted... and so the plot begins.

Of the plot--it is difficult to follow at times, not much helped by Sinclair's tedious habit of recapping every explanation made by the characters. The narrative, told in multi-third person, fails to distinguish character voices from the author's own voice. However, these minor flaws are easily brushed aside in favor of realistic, unusual characters. Balthesar and Telmaine are parents, with Telmaine's maternal instinct a vital catalyst of the story; and in a tale with so many secrets, it's refreshing to see that people talk to resolve them instead of experiencing convenient Misunderstandings. Moreover, as far as political fantasy goes, I would rate this equal to Sylvia Kelso's Amberlight and subsequent Riversend--not the poetry of Kay, nor the epic style, but more in the extremely satisfying manner of Ellen Kushner and fantasy of manners plus magic. Bravo.
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2009-11-15 04:58 pm

A Wild Sheep Chase, by Haruki Murakami

A Wild Sheep Chase
by Haruki Murakami
353 pages (trade paperback)
Genre: Fiction/Literary/Fantasy

On first glance, this novel just seemed dang weird. Then I met a dear friend who adores Murakami and assured me that he was indeed dang weird, in a good way. Then I read A Wild Sheep Chase and personally confirmed that Murakami writes dang weird stuff--in a very good way.

The nameless narrator works in a small advertising agency, has a normal ex-wife and a strange girlfriend, and is one day sent upon a quest: to find the sheep with the black star on its back, as depicted upon a postcard from an old friend. What happens after that doesn't make much sense, but it's so glorious that I don't care. I mean, there's a picture of a sheep man. Murakami is at the epitome of both Japanese mainstream popularity and Japanese magic realism; I, of course, loved his existentialist themes.

That said, many of my friends are just bewildered by this book. Read it with an open mind; being familiar with magic realism conventions helps a lot. I am reminded of A Hundred Years of Solitude without the emphasis on folklore or family, or for that matter the sheer density.
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2009-11-15 02:51 pm

Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolpho Anaya

Bless Me, Ultima
by Rudolpho Anaya
290 pages (trade paperback)
Genre: Fiction/Literary/Fantasy

More required reading, my least favorite of the five I had to read. Anaya is a wonderful writer with a talent for landscapes and symbols; I just wish he was less brusque with Meaning and Theme and This Is an Important Bildungsroman. The sub-subgenre, Chicano (as differentiated from Latino) magic realism, does not interest me much more than Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, a brilliantly written masterpiece that I can't bring myself to like very much.

Plot, you ask? Well, Antonio Márez is a young boy (age 6, I believe?) born to a happy but divided family--his father is a Márez wanderer of the llano, his mother is a Luna farmer who wants him to become a priest. Ultima, a wise old curandera or healer (Anaya mostly avoids the inherent pitfalls in this characterization), comes to live with them, bringing mystic if not magical events with her. Antonio's religious struggle throughout the novel was the most/only interesting part to me. For example, he secretly admires Florence, a schoolfriend and declared atheist who later meets a significant end. His devout Catholic mother is almost a cariacture of blind faith, while his father's subverted agnosticism feels natural. It's certainly a novel worth exploring further on issues of faith and belief, in the supernatural or otherwise; but I can't say I liked the book much. [/Keix's never-ending search for entertaining works of literary merit, Module 496]
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2009-10-24 02:48 pm

Link Anthology 10/24/2009

* Via [livejournal.com profile] yhlee, musical stairs on YouTube!

* Also via [livejournal.com profile] yhlee, A Regency Romance in 2 Minutes.

* Michael M. Jones puts out an open call for submissions to his new anthology, Scheherazade's Facade: Fantastical Tales of Gender Bending, Cross-Dressing and Transformation.

* Recent Strange Horizons pieces that are excellent: poem "Thirteen Scifaiku for Blackbirds" by Joanne Merriam and story "Minghun: Unlikely Patron Saints, No. 5" by Amy Sisson.

* [livejournal.com profile] yhlee (Yoon Ha Lee) has an awesome story up at Beneath Ceaseless Skies called "The Pirate's Daughter," about words and poetry and music and awesomeness.

* Another enrapturing story of music from Beneath Ceaseless Skies: Michael Anthony Ashley's "To Kiss a Granite Choir," Part 1 and Part 2.

* Quite the depressing, and truthful, article about grad school in the humanities.
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2009-08-10 11:31 pm

Skin Trade, by Laurell K. Hamilton

Skin Trade
by Laurell K. Hamilton
486 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Fiction/Fantasy/Romance

Miracle of miracles, I think Hamilton is becoming increasingly more readable. Her most recent Anita books have had noticeably less sex and more plot. I approve and will be going back to read some of her earliest Anita Blake books if/when I have the time/inclination. I find that it's best to approach Hamilton like an episodic TV show; Anita reminds me of what I imagine Buffy would be like. (Note that I have no actual experience with Buffy.) If you think too hard, it's unrealistic that Anita keeps getting into this much trouble, every single book--but these books are not meant for heavy thinking. I do appreciate Hamilton's overarching plot and the small movements in it.

Not much of Jean-Claude or Nathaniel in this one, though, which is sad to me.
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2009-08-10 11:26 pm

The Black Jewels Trilogy, by Anne Bishop (omnibus)

The Black Jewels Trilogy: Daughter of the Blood, Heir to the Shadows, Queen of the Darkness
by Anne Bishop
1204 pages (trade paperback)
Genre: Fiction/Fantasy

I found the omnibus edition of this at Half-Price Books and couldn't resist, given how much I've heard about Bishop's original series. While I was devouring all 1200+ pages, I kept describing it as "cracktastic" (and then having to explain that term)--because oh, its reputation is so true. Jaenelle is the most blatant Mary-Sue I've actually liked; Saetan/Daemon/Lucivar aren't much better as Gary Stus. (Speaking of which, can the demonic allusions be any more obvious and irritating?) The power dynamic became annoying at times, but it was also comforting to know that she would always save the day. This is definitely dark fantasy, complete with explicit scenes (sex, violence, or both) and magnetically disturbing anti-heroes. On an academic level, it's also a good case study of a matriarchy, and I've been collecting those. I think I may have some issues with gender roles; it feels very rigid, and wrong in that sense, but I can't articulate why.

Bishop's strength, by far, is characterization. I can think of no other explanation as for why I enjoyed reading the series so much, but can't say I loved or even really liked it. I hear that the later books can be messy--which should I avoid, if any?
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2009-06-03 11:42 am

One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez

One Hundred Years of Solitude
by Gabriel García Márquez
448 pages (trade paperback)
Genre: Fiction/Literary/Historical/Fantasy

Nobel laureate Márquez founded magic realism with the publication of this novel, considered his masterpiece. It is at once Latin American social commentary, a fictional biography of the region and its culture, an epic chronicle of a South American village's rise and fall, and the family history of the Buendias. Plot: there really isn't one, aside from the conglomeration of the previously mentioned topics. This is such a wacky novel! My head hurts from trying to distinguish all of the Aurelianos (and José Arcadios, and Amarantas/Úrsulas/Remedioses). And can there be much more incest? Unfortunately, for me the book has one fatal flaw: I didn't once care about any of the characters. They were born and they died, but I only kept reading because I wanted to finish reading.

Nonetheless, if you are interested in magic realism, lit theory, or Latin America, I highly recommend One Hundred Years of Solitude. Character development is not a strong point, but in many ways, that is the point.
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2009-04-30 08:31 pm

The Kestrel, by Lloyd Alexander

[WARNING: Here there be spoilers.]

The Kestrel
by Lloyd Alexander
244 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Fiction/YA/Fantasy

The second in Alexander's Westmark trilogy; still distinctly YA and "adventurous." I often find this type of book tiresome unless there is Martin-style realism, which would be entirely inappropriate here for both the target audience and Alexander's style. Still--teenaged monarches running off in disguise? Really?

On the other hand, I was glad for the lack of political marriage alliances, since the plot otherwise satisfies several other cliches (case in point: Cabbarus, who should have been killed in Westmark to begin with--yes, I know his forgiveness is crucial to Theo's moral development, but plot should not serve the author so blatantly). More politics in this book than the previous, which is yum. I enjoyed seeing civil war from a sociological perspective, and Theo's transformation into the Kestrel was chilling. I loved Connie and I hope he gets a starring role in The Beggar Queen.

Random questions/annoyances: When did Theo propose? I loathe off-screen turning points, which an engagement between the protagonist and his love interest definitely qualifies. What happened to Monkey--was he a traitor? Is he dead? If his ambiguous end is a next-book lead-in... Like I said, I haven't much patience for this type of book.

Westmark was nonetheless a compelling read and a slim volume. Many of my friends (*cough* [livejournal.com profile] mrissa, [livejournal.com profile] yhlee) are in love with it, so I would recommend giving Alexander a try despite my own tepid feelings. I promise you won't lose too many hours of your life. I'm still not a fan of Alexander or this series, but unlike after Westmark, I am persuaded to at least read further.
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2009-03-30 02:26 pm

Interfictions, by Delia Sherman and Theodora Goss

Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing
by Delia Sherman and Theodora Goss (eds.)
291 pages (trade paperback)
Genre: Fiction/Literary/Fantasy/SF

After only managing to skim a few stories back in 2007 when I borrowed it from a friend, I finally bought this "alternative" and obscurely-acclaimed anthology and read it for my monthly Book Club. I only found 3 favorite and 4 hated tales out of 19 total, but--surprisingly--my overall impression is quite positive. Interfictions has earned a place on my long-term bookshelf.

If you aren't familiar with the concept of interstitiality, I would recommend reading Heinz Insu Fenkl's laborious introduction; otherwise, it is probably best left to the academically inclined. In contrast, definitely read Sherman and Goss's conversational "Afterword: The Spaces between" (although you still should read the stories themselves first, for necessary context).

So let me begin with the favorites, first. Jon Singer's "Willow Pattern" is probably the shortest story in the collection, and to me also one of the most interstitial. As Goss says, there isn't another story out there that combines science fiction and china patterns. After my first read-through, my only thoughts were, "Oh, that was pretty." Two years later, I began to "get" the SF aspects; I still don't entirely grasp the point simmering deep beneath the surface, but this flash piece epitomizes what I love best about genre--the extra layer of depth waiting to be plumbed, a depth unique to alienation and surreality.

For pure story pleasure, the title goes to Csilla Kleinheincz's lyrical and poignant tale about a man and a lake: "A Drop of Raspberry." Translated from the Hungarian by Noémi Szelényi, it is interstitial in its superrealistic treatment of surreal/fantastical events (yet tonally different from magic realism). Kleinheincz also happens to hail from the same country as Goss, and she is Hungarian-Vietnamese--too cool!

Finally, "Queen of the Butterfly Kingdom" by Holly Phillips (also coincidentally a Canadian author) is a cross between mainstream and fantasy that seduced me into caring despite a seeming lack of originality. The protagonist is a writer, even, which typically repulses me. But I suffered along with her as she waited for news of her beloved, and the last scene made me stop for a moment to smile.

Then we have the have-nots, those stories that flatly did not work for me. However, of the four I would only label one terrible per se; the rest are a matter of conflicting tastes. For instance, I found Karen Jordan Allen's "Alternate Anxieties" a pretentious deconstruction of Story using the trite writer's-notes conceit; but another reader might think it a brilliant piece of experimental fiction (the experimental classification does tend to draw such extreme opinions). Similarly, I was confused by the mythological underpinnings of Joy Marchard's "Pallas at Noon"--another "writer" story--and I thought that Chloe's (Allen's) poem, once revealed to the reader, was frankly incomprehensible.

In my review of Loghorrea, I have previously blasted Leslie What for her unthinking vilification of a chronic illness; her story here, "Post Hoc," thankfully commits no such sins, but I thought the story unoriginal, uninterstitial (save for the "liminal" post office conceit), and largely unengaging (the main character, anyway--I did like Joe the postman). It's not a bad story, though, just not a very good one. I would rank it above Rachel Pollack's "Burning Beard," an explicitly hip yet faithful retelling of the Biblical life of Joseph. Personally, I'm not a fan of Biblical allusions (even when written by a literary master like Milton); Pollack is considerably less skilled than Milton, and her retelling comes off as trite and silly rather than uniquely interstitial.

Some stories just did nothing for me. I don't understand Anna Tambour's story "The Shoes in SHOES' Window" at all--only that the world appears to be Communist-esque?--and unlike Singer's tale, it gave me no superficial pleasure. After praise heard through the grapevine about K. Tempest Bradford's "Black Feather," I was disappointed to read an unremarkable fairy-tale variant that didn't seem particularly interstitial. Veronica Schanoes's "Rats," a fictionalized biography -slash- Cinderella story about two depressed drug addicts destined for love, was too consciously grungy for me. Similarly, "Timothy" by Colin Greenland could be read as an eroticization of bestality if one were so inclined. And I was unconvinced by the m/m relationship in "A Map of the Everywhere" by Matthew Cheney, which is interstitial by virtue of sheer weirdness but failed as a tale first and foremost.

Some others, I enjoyed but did not love: I liked the collective narrator of "What We Know of the Lost Families of --- House" by Christopher Barzak, a horror tale that doesn't aim to scare. Mikal Trimm's "Climbing Redemption Mountain" wasn't as good as Kleinheincz's version of superrealistic surrealism, but it did emotionally satisfy. I likewise enjoyed reading Vandana Singh's "Hunger," especially the POC focus and all the foodie details, but found her sole fantastical element extraneous--the story is much better read as straight realism, which would not be interstitial. Two other translations also fail to live up to Kleinheincz: Léa Sihol's "Emblemata" from the French by Sarah Smith was interesting for its Buddhist philosophy but just missed the cut for favorites; Adrián Ferrero's "When It Rains, You'd Better Get out of Ulga" from the Spanish by Edo Mor had no plot and not enough theme or insight to make up for said lack. The anthology's closing piece, "A Dirge for Prester John," was typical of Catherynne M. Valente's style in its outlandish, monstrous imagery.

I applaud Sherman and Goss for their conscious shaping of geographic and cultural diversity, as well as their willingness to publish utterly unknown authors. I understand interstitiality a little more now, at least; I just wish that experimental fiction would constitute a smaller part of the (ironic) genre.
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2009-03-14 09:37 pm

Westmark, by Lloyd Alexander

Westmark
by Lloyd Alexander
184 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Fiction/YA/Fantasy

Read for [livejournal.com profile] mrissa's book-club discussion. My comment, abridged:

I clearly felt the influence of children's (vs. YA) literature in the heavy-handed characterization, the simple prose, and the arc length. Cabbarus seemed like a flat villain, and I never became much enamored of Theo. His philosophical struggles about morality appear distinctly childish, although perhaps I'm comparing unfairly to recent readings in philosophy at a layman but much more sophisticated level (solidly adult nonfiction).

The politics became more interesting, but again, I prefer the denser machinations of adult secondary-world fantasy. I did like the absence of magic; what subgenre is this exactly? Not fantasy-of-manners in style, but no apparent magic either. In terms of type, I'm also not fond of adventure stories.

Were it not for your discussions, I probably would not continue reading the series simply because I can think of so many better books to read (though I don't think WESTMARK is bad really); but I will persevere, and hopefully the other books are more satisfying intellectually.


All three of Alexander's books in the Westmark trilogy are classified as children's lit in my library; is this the younger side of YA or middle-grade?

Random comments: I haven't read a classic bildungsroman adventure fantasy in so long, but now that I have, I'm reminded that I dislike it. Many of the characters, like the dwarf Musket and his mountebank master Las Bombas, border on cariacture. I guessed Mickle's secret-ish when she and Theo met Cabbarus, so the drawn-out hinting from that point on was painfully tedious. The apprentice=devil jargon in the very first sentence was confusing; I've never heard that terminology before, and at first I thought it was meant as a funny allusion/pun.

Oh yes, the plot: Theo is an (orphan?) boy apprenticed to the printer Anton, happy with his simple life. When he agrees to print pamphlets for a mysterious Dr. Absalom, the press is unexpectedly raided by royal soldiers and destroyed. With that, Theo sets off on an unwilling adventure across Westmark.

Overall, I am not entirely repulsed, and the books are short enough for me to give the improving plot another chance; but were it not for [livejournal.com profile] mrissa, I don't know when that second chance would come given the length of my TBR list. I've already gotten The Kestrel from the library and I have been told it is a stronger book than Westmark, which for me did not live up to high praise from [livejournal.com profile] mrissa and [livejournal.com profile] yhlee.
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2009-03-12 11:24 pm

Chalice, by Robin McKinley

Chalice
by Robin McKinley
263 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Fiction/Fantasy/YA

Mirasol is a common beekeeper unexpectedly named the Willowlands' Chalice, a member of the ruling Circle second only to the Master--who is a third-level priest of Fire barely returned from the temple and not quite human. The usual power-grab complications ensue.

This was interesting but not absorbing; and I was only a little freaked out by the bees. (I'm just glad I don't live in the Willowlands, because I physically could not deal with that in real life. Fiction, though, is okay.) The societal structure appears very patriarchal--Chalice is always female, Master is always male, and the two remain unchanged, stereotypically gendered roles. I also disliked the unrounded, too-EVIL antagonist (not Deager, the Overlord). I guessed from the start that Mirasol and the Master would triumph and live happily ever after; the weird flashback-as-memory narrative structure implicitly promises a happy ending, and it would probably have worked better without cover blurb spoilers.

I hear that Chalice is not among McKinley's best works. Definitely not in the mood for fairytale retellings anytime soon, but what else does she have to offer? This one was not bad at all, just not outstanding. I did like the magic and political systems, the former twisting elemental tradition just a bit to be interesting.
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2009-03-08 07:11 pm

The Tales of Beedle the Bard, by J.K. Rowling

The Tales of Beedle the Bard
by J.K. Rowling
111 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Fiction/Fantasy/YA

Such fun meta-fiction! Dumbledore's commentary is not entirely truthful, prompting me to go back and selectively reread book 7. This is a collection of five Wizarding bedtime stories, with sagely snarky comments following each. In fact, Dumbledore's comments are much more interesting than the stories themselves. It's not worth the outrageous price for a slim hardcover volume, however pretty; but your local library will have it, and for HP fans 'tis a speedy, amusing read.

In the first story, "The Wizard and the Hopping Pot," a Muggle-helping wizard passes away, leaving his lucky cooking pot cauldron to his cranky son. The pot, which has been carefully enchanted, begins to hop and clang incessantly until the young wizard continues his father's kind acts and is allowed to put a slipper on the pot's metal foot. Second, three witches ally together to quest for "The Fountain of Fair Fortune". By seeming coincidence, a bedraggled knight joins their party. On the way to the fountain, each has resolved his or her tragic misfortunes without any magic from the fountain at all. In "The Warlock's Hairy Heart," a young warlock cuts out his heart to protect himself from the infatuations of love. When he finally falls in love (of a sort) with a maiden, he shows her his hairy heart in its casket. The maiden pleads with him to put his heart back, but in its long absence the heart has gone mad and takes over the warlock's body, causing him to cut out the heart of his beloved maiden. And then, of course, he kills himself in tragic love. "Babbitty Rabbitty and Her Cackling Stump" is a funny tale about a foolish Muggle king decides to learn magic and hires a charlatan to help him. The charlatan enlists Babbitty the old witch (who delightfully reminds me of Pratchett's Granny Weatherwax) to help him, but the king attempts to resurrect a dead hound, the charlatan is unveiled and Babbitty pulls a trick of her own in revenge. Finally, "The Tale of the Three Brothers" discusses a certain set of three brothers and their encounter with Death. Readers, of course, know perfectly well that the three gifts from Death are utterly false and imaginary. Of course.
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2009-03-03 05:16 pm

The Enchantress of Florence, by Salman Rushdie

The Enchantress of Florence
by Salman Rushdie
355 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Fiction/Literary/Historical/Fantasy

An experimental-ish magic realism novel, with interesting new perspective on historical figures--Amerigo Vespucci, Niccolò Machiavelli, Akbar the Great (the one who tried to invent one faith that encompassed all, I believe). The setting is European but with a global feel and non-Western reach. What plot exists revolves around a travelling storyteller who calls himself Mogor dell'Amore (the Mughal of Love in butchered French), who seeks and entrances Akbar the Great with his tale. Storytelling is definitely vital here, although I'd need to reread the book to understand fully. The frame tale is intricate and confusing but a beautiful reading experience with equally resonant prose--a good thing, because I wasn't kidding about the lack of driving plot motivation. Rather, it is a novel that wanders leisurely around time and space and grabs the reader's curiosity just enough to sustain itself, like Jodha is sustained by Akbar's passion/love/imagination. And if I hadn't read it too late, I might have chosen this novel instead of The Handmaid's Tale (similar drifting style, but totally different in genre) for my research paper.

I believe Rushdie is either atheist or agnostic, which may account for the appealing philosophical bits. I loved Akbar's musings on I/we pronouns, on the divine right of kings, on morality, on creation (where the magic realism part comes in). "Wherever goodness lay, it did not lie in ritual, unthinking obeisance before a deity but rather, perhaps, in the slow, clumsy, error-strewn working out of an individual or collective path" (310). I will be reading Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude in May, so I look forward to mentally comparing the two.