Spiritual Drought

I went years after I finished college without participating in any Pagan groups. Mostly it was location and time-availability restricting me. And it figures that just a few months before moving away from Central California, I found the ONLY other Pagan in the area starting work at my company.

The thing is—I’m built for group work. It’s fulfilling and wonderful. I was raised in a very involved church, where members went to services or events at least three days a week. After every service was an “agape” session that was a potluck for mingling and cementing bonds. I was so involved with the friends I had at the church that I had no idea how to make friends at school—and went a few years with only a single friend there.

In middle school after I found Wicca I started a coven with my best friend and some other close girlfriends. That coven was the closest, best relationship I’ve ever had with women. That it fell apart is to be expected—I’m the only devout Pagan of the bunch. Everyone else lapsed or converted to other religions over time. But it was a beautiful, soul-enriching thing for a long time.

When I went to college I had the luck of meeting a lifelong Pagan through a mutual friend, and he quickly brought me along to the Pagan group events at the local Unitarian Universalist church. Then a friend of a friend spear-headed the creation of a Pagan Alliance at our college, and we had those rituals and group events as well.

After I graduated, I moved to a more affordable area, closer to my then-boyfriend’s job. There went my Pagan groups. From there we moved all over the place, and I didn’t always have a car, or the money to spare on gas to get to events I knew were happening.

Then I spent two years in Paso Robles, a very nice area but predominantly Christian (with only one other aforementioned Pagan that I’d ever found). I had a nice Pagan wedding, but it’s different when the only people who are Pagan are the bride and the officiant.

Now we’ve moved to my home, a place that speaks to me, body and soul. And there are Pagans here. More than I thought existed in a single area anywhere. I went to one non-denominational, all-inclusive event. Then I had to miss the next one, since we had family in town. And I’m starving for it. For the sense of community. The peace that descends when you are among people who get it. It’s a different sort of vibe, knowing that you can fundamentally agree with people on that spiritual level. Pagans are as varied as they come, but being around them and worshipping with them recharges me in a way I didn’t realize I’d been missing.

I’ve been in a spiritual drought, and I finally got some water in late February, only for the land to dry up again right away. It was just a tease, and now I’m craving more.

Some day, I’ll have a coven of my own. A small group of people who meet near Sabbats and esbats. People who support each other in all areas, not just in religion and spirituality. In the meantime, I’ll go to big group events as often as I can. I’ll take what small steps I can, on my own. Tomorrow night, I’ll celebrate the full moon.

Kushiel’s Scion

You know that I really love a book when I re-read it in less than a year. I read this Imriel trilogy while I was pregnant, and had to re-read all of the Kushiel’s Legacy series about eight months later because it’s just that good.

Some authors are fabulous at protagonists of one sex, but can’t nail protagonists of the opposite sex. One of my author friends from my MFA program was complaining about how difficult it is for her to write in a male voice just the other day. Carey has no such difficulties. Or if it was difficult for her, the writing doesn’t show it. Imriel no Montreve de la Courcel is a fabulous character, and his voice is distinct and wholy his own, the same way Phedre’s was in the first trilogy.

I really admire the way that Carey could build up suspense by using quirks of Phedre’s narrative voice. Little sentences implying that the good times weren’t going to last forever. Or that she wished she’d known what was coming, because she might have enjoyed them more.

That narrative quirk wouldn’t have been germane to Imriel’s character, and Carey stays away from it with him. She does, however, manage to build up suspense in a totally different way. This time it’s a sort of pessimism and brooding quality on Imriel’s part. Poor kid. Abducted by slave traders at the age of ten and sold to a guy pretty much worse than Hitler… (Am I allowed to say that? I know that no fictional character can actually be worse than Hitler, who was real and did atrocious things.)

Let’s just say that Imriel has to endure being a slave to what would basically amount to a hedonistic satanic cult—except worse than any satanic cult I’ve heard stories about (and I’ve heard some bad stories). And sure, Phedre and Joscelin save him back in Kushiel’s Avatar. But you don’t erase that kind of trauma overnight. Or ever, really. So Imriel is brooding and somewhat pessimistic about his chances at any sort of a happiness in his life.

You see him grow up some in this first novel. He comes of age, similar to how Phedre did, and travels to Tiberium to study at the University there. He gets into all sorts of mischief, gets caught up in a war, experiences tragedy and heartbreak and passion and intrigue.

It’s very much the first novel of a trilogy. All setup, though Carey doesn’t slack off in shaping beautiful rising action and a momentous climax. It fulfills the promises of the books before it, taking the protagonist to a land we haven’t visited before, seeing them caught in difficult and dangerous situations–and of course everything is slightly god-touched.

Carey manages to weave mythology into these stories so beautifully. American Gods is fabulous, but these Kushiel’s Legacy books have an effortless way of making you believe that gods are real. Gods and ghosts and magic and sorcery. It’s really quite wonderful.

There are some people who wouldn’t enjoy the Imriel trilogy as much as Phedre’s trilogy (my husband probably being one of them). I think they’re fabulous and everyone should read them anyway—but if you have to choose, definitely start with Kushiel’s Dart. Phedre and Joscelin take much more of a backseat in Imriel’s trilogy, but it hardly matters because you still get to see them occasionally, and you still get to be in this beautiful world with its intricate mythology and well-rounded characters. If there are any writers out there looking for good examples of a protagonist dealing with PTSD (but still functional—not full-on shut down like Katniss), these books are an excellent example of the proper way to handle that.

In short: read this if you can’t get enough of Carey’s writing, like me.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

The blurb on the front cover of this book by Neil Gaiman really sums it up nicely: “A glorious balancing act between modernism and the Victorian fairy tale, done with heart and wisdom.”

This book is like a combination of J M Barrie and Neil Gaiman, with generous heaps of The Phantom Tollbooth thrown in, and plenty of references/allusions/respectful nods to The Wizard of Oz, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Narnia, and any other fairy tale you can think up. It’s a delight to read, and surprised me by being dark and wicked at times, which is so fitting for a true fairy tale.

The narration style is definitely in line with Peter Pan, and the characters are closely modeled after Wonderland characters. There’s clever wordplay like you would expect from Norton Juster—a wyvern whose father is a Municipal Library so he’s really a wyverary, for example. It’s clever and sweet.

Parts of the story reminded me of The Magicians trilogy, which isn’t too surprising considering its roots in Narnia. The narration style lends itself to a flavoring of metafiction. Our protagonist is aware of other fairy stories that came before hers, and aware that she’s in her own story. But she’s never aware of the narrator, which is good because I’m not very fond of breaking the fourth wall. It pulls me right out of the characters and tells me I’m not them, however much I relate to them or want to be them. And a story someone else tells you is never as exciting as the story you’ve lived yourself.

Probably my only gripe—and it’s small enough that it hardly bears mentioning—is that the protagonist, September, has a companion named Saturday eventually, and their names are too similar, being long and both beginning with the letter S.

My favorite part came near the end, something that Saturday says to September. Clever, and sweet, and just a little terrifying and portentous.

There are a million places in this book where you want to hold on to what you just read. A sentence or a phrase that just rings beautiful and insightful, that seems to describe yourself better than you thought a story that wasn’t about you could possibly do. I very much enjoyed all those little starbursts of connection.

Before I picked up this book I thought the ship of her own making was, for some reason, a steampunk-worthy airship. It isn’t. I wasn’t disappointed. You won’t be either.

After reading the interview with the author at the back, I think Valente is clever and fun and the kind of person I’d love to get to know, because we could probably get on great as friends. I’m glad she wrote this book, and glad I got to read it. You should go read it, too. You won’t be sorry.

Four

If the ending of Allegiant didn’t make up my mind for me, that Roth likes Four more than she likes Tris, then this book surely did.

Frankly, Four isn’t interesting enough for us to benefit much from getting his side of things.

Was it interesting? Yes. Was it a quick read? Yes. What it kind of cute, seeing a few more of the layers to his relationship with Tris? Yes.

Would I recommend it to anyone to read? Maybe only the diehard Divergent fans. It was probably a good writing exercise, and there were some good details about Four that make you understand him better and believe that he’s got much more of a part in everything that’s happennig. So, if you were reading the trilogy thinking “I just want more Four!” then this collection of stories is absolutely for you.

Again, the writing is solid, it’s just the idea that seems a little lacking. Four just isn’t as great as Tris.

Allegiant

So, I think I was right about the direction the trilogy was headed in. This third book introduced a bunch of new characters who I could care less about. They don’t have a lot of depth or complexity, and we don’t spend enough time with them to get to know them.

The new setting is fairly boring, as it offers a lot less moving around and war-zone type action than in the previous two books. And the entire time it feels like Tris and Four and the others just came in halfway through someone else’s battle, and they take it up because there isn’t anything else left to fight for, and they were groomed to fight by their past experiences in the city.

In this one we see a greater disintegration of the relationship between Tris and Four, as well, one that was pretty good in books one and two. Now it feels played out and repetitive.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t think people should read these books. Or watch the movies. The first movie is actually pretty great, though the second one felt to me like it was dropping the ball majorly. I wouldn’t count these books as a waste of time, more like frustrated hopes. There was so much potential, and to watch it leach away as the trilogy progressed was just–disappointing.

I think I’d still love to read other work by Roth, though. Her writing is good, I just want to see her with a story that doesn’t peter out.

Insurgent

I see it so, so often in trilogies nowadays. I think I first noticed it when I was reading the Chaos Walking trilogy. Book one is fantastic. Fast-paced, intriguing world, exciting characters. Then book two is kind of a journey, obviously a bridge to get to the finale, but already things are getting sort of bogged down and complicated. And by the time book three comes out, you hardly care anymore, because everything is convoluted and just too much. I was super bummed to feel Justin Cronin’s The Passage trilogy going in that direction—enough so that I’m so hesitant to read the third book now that it’s out, even though I think his sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph writing is superb.

Insurgent feels like the bridge to an epic finale that I’m not going to care about because everything has gotten way too complicated. When everyone’s in the city, just fighting one particular enemy with a very clearly defined end-goal, it’s great. Throw in more politics, more locations, more types of people, new characters, new enemies…and you’ve pretty much lost my interest.

I think the problem might be in that writers often lose their protagonists while they’re trying to make the world stuff work. All I want is more Tris, and instead I get convoluted busy-ness. And a sneaking suspicion that Roth likes Tobias more than Tris. Which was a total bummer for me, because I like Tris so much more. Even Four is better than Tobias, if that distinction makes sense.

One thing Roth really does well, though, is action scenes. They’re snappy and have a great back-and-forth balancing act that keeps the suspense up. She writes them really well, and that was basically what kept me reading. The action scenes and wanting to know what happens to Tris. These books are quick reads, and it definitely isn’t a waste of time to read them. I just got that sinking feeling during this one that I was entering more convoluted, confusing territories, and that Tris was edging away from center stage.

Divergent

There’s good and bad parts of this trilogy, and a large portion of the good ones happen in the first book. Which isn’t to say that people shouldn’t read them all—but the first book is the best, in my opinion.

I know the story well by now, having read the first book a couple times and having enjoyed the movie. It’s pretty fantastic, the world that Roth created. I love the idea of the factions, even though it all seems to be a bit flawed in practice. I like to think I would be Dauntless, but then, bravery is a most desirable quality, if we consider the number of Harry Potter fans who want to be Gryffindors (whether they actually would be or not). Tris is great, too, as far as protagonists go. She’s strong and smart and very brave. Almost too smart, though.

Roth’s writing takes a little getting used to. Her sentences are short and to the point, which keeps the pace up. It’s similar to Hunger Games, but not quite as good at keeping me 100% invested in every detail.

Following in the wake of the Hunger Games craze, I’d say Insurgent isn’t quite as good. But then, Suzanne Collins is hard to beat. Anyone looking for a brave female protagonist who drives a lot of action sequences and fulfills the “chosen one” role will probably like Divergent. There’s some romance thrown in for flair, and I actually really like Four in this book. He’s dark and still mysterious, something that we lose in books two and three. Dystopic YA sort of blew up after Hunger Games made it big, and there’s a lot of not-so-great stories out there. Divergent is solidly in the you-should-read-this-even-though-it-isn’t-quite-The-Hunger-Games camp.

Beauty and the Werewolf

This was my first Mercedes Lackey book. I know, I know. How can someone give their graduate lecture on fairy tale re-tellings and NOT include some Mercedes Lackey? In my defense, there are just way too many fairy tale re-tellings out there. I couldn’t hit them all.

This particular one is a clever mishmash of Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast, primarily. There are some other tales referenced as well, but those are the main ones. The protagonist has a strong will, and enjoys her independence–something you would expect from the Beauty trope. She’s interesting, and there are enough subversions of normal fairy tale stories that you’re kept guessing, and intrigued.

There were times where I had strong suspicions about the final outcome, only to find myself doubting those again in the next chapter. Lackey keeps you on your toes, definitely, trying not to give you the same predictable tale you’ve heard a thousand times.

The first half of the book was more enjoyable for me than the second in some ways. Around halfway things start getting sort of…well, meta. The characters aren’t so much aware of being in a book as they are aware of an outside force dictating their destinies to make them align with traditional fairy tale paths/endings. It felt a lot like Lackey was using her characters to describe the difficulty of writing this kind of story–being so tempted to take it in one easy direction, but managing to rebel and take it in another.

Still, that awareness on the parts of the characters meant that they tried even harder to choose their own destinies, working for what they actually wanted rather than accepting the first easy path that came along. That felt genuine and gave them complexity and good motivations, so I ultimately enjoyed it.

One thing that was done exceedingly well was the werewolf parts. I don’t think I’ve encountered any other Beauty and the Beast retelling where the beast is a werewolf, though it makes so much sense I have to imagine someone else out there has done it. It was a delightful play on the story, and the transformative nature of werewolves meant that the character got to be human and interact normally with the protagonist most of the time, which helped make their relationship relatable and interesting.

There was also enough of the fairy/magical elements to keep me comparing this work to others of a similar nature, like Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses or Pattou’s East.

This is the first of the 500 Kingdoms books I’ve read (and the first Mercedes Lackey I’ve read), but I’ll definitely be seeking out more now. She’s a very good writer, with clever ideas and solid execution.

Clariel

My husband and I finally went to our local library to get new library cards. We’ve been living here for almost two years, so it was about time. It’s a small town, with a small library, but it’s dialed into the greater Central Coast network of libraries, so you can request any book at any of the various libraries. Our location is pretty small–I can’t imagine how they choose what goes on the shelves, because there’s just not enough room.

We got our shiny new library cards (with access to new Overdrive materials, so that’s fabulous for audiobooks for our long car rides!), and then we walked around a bit. On the featured “New” YA bookcase I saw a familiar looking design, and went to it right away.

I have an interesting love affair with the Abhorsen trilogy by Garth Nix. It’s dark, edgy, has some absolutely fantastic characters, and escalates in a beautiful way. My cousin dislikes what he thinks of as the formulaic fantasy escalation of “Fix something small in book one, introduce a bigger conflict in book two, save the whole f-ing world/universe in book three.” I love it. And the Abhorsen trilogy does it SO WELL.

(Other notable trilogies that do the same thing: The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman, His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, in a lot of ways the Young Wizards series, leading up to Wizards at War…)

Lirael is my favorite character by far, but I’ve never disliked Sabriel. I was actually really surprised when my husband listened to the audiobook and said he wasn’t crazy about her. She’s smart and resourceful and teaches herself how to become a master at something. Much like Lirael.

So when I read Clariel, I was expecting much the same thing. An intelligent, resourceful, go-getter type of young woman who figured out how to fix her own problems, and ends up saving the world in the bargain.

For those of you who have read this, you realize now how disappointed my expectations were.

Not much happens in the entire first half of the novel. It’s mostly Clariel whining and being pushed around by a whole host of other characters whose motivations drive the plot. Clariel has a motivatation, sure, but she never does anything to try to achieve it. And then she sort of throws it out the window eventually and switches to revenge. It’s all rather strange, considering that Nix’s other protagonists are so much more consistent, believable, and likeable.

There was one sort of fan-service moment that kept me going–a favorite character from the original trilogy had the first half of his name mentioned. And that was honestly enough to keep me going through all the boring parts, because I was hoping he would show up again.

When things do start escalating, the protagonist makes a lot of strange choices, and by the nature of the differences between Free Magic and Charter Magic, she doesn’t have to employ the same kind of intense study that Sabriel and Lirael do. Unfortunately, the study and practice and sheer effort involved in getting good at something is what makes me love those characters so much. Clariel is just–not that compelling, in comparison.

Now, given all that, I actually am not at all sorry that I read this book, nor do I think it was a waste of time. I think as a prequel it definitely should NOT be read before the original trilogy–but rather read in order of publication, so that the reader can see where it fits in to the greater universe and issues at play in the main trilogy and beyond. It offers interesting new information, and a friend of mine with an Advanced Reader Copy of Goldenhand (which comes out next month!!) says she can see why Nix published Clariel, because it gives you background on things that will come up in Goldenhand.

Ultimately what Clariel did was submerge me in the world again, and get me excited to re-read and then buy Goldenhand at its release. I think that’s pretty effective. It may have been better served as a novella, like The Creature in the Case, but it is still a valuable and interesting addition to this fictional universe.

Now I’ve got to finish these other library books before I can go off to re-read Sabriel et al…

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

It doesn’t seem nice (or business savvy) to waste the time of literary agents who are obviously not excited about the type of book you write. So you do research, you target your queries based on what they’ve represented and the books they say they enjoy reading.

Dunham Literary, Inc. is friendly with my graduate program, and both Jennie Dunham and Bridget Smith have come to visit our residencies before. They are fabulously nice people, and it made sense for me to do some research on Bridget’s likes and dislikes, because she is looking for YA authors to represent.

Thankfully, an old high school friend and former roommate of mine had lent me his copy of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. He loved it, and since I trust his taste in most things (movies, books, boards games, his lovely wife, their wonderful cats), I was going to read it eventually. When I heard that Bridget loved it, I bumped it up on the list.

It’s a long book, of course. It can be a bit of a slog to get through some parts, though eventually there always seemed to be a good payout. All in all I’m very glad I read it, since I now know that I don’t (and might never) write the kind of books that really excite Bridget. It isn’t the type of book I would write, but it has plenty of merits to recommend it.

First, for the good.

The characters of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell are fascinating. Likewise their close friends/advisors are sufficiently fleshed out, and everyone has a different motivation and ends up mucking things up one way or another because they’re slightly at odds to what someone else wants. The sheer pride and obstinate vanity of Mr. Norrell is humorous and frustrating at once. The mentor/apprentice relationship seems to be entering my reading sphere fairly often lately (what with The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun), and this one is a nice exploration of a mentor too full of himself to see straight and a respectful but refreshingly independent apprentice doing his own thing regardless.

The magic is woven into the historical aspects with grace. The descriptions of magic done on the fields of battle, the illusions used to fool enemies, all are delightful and well-executed. Clarke has very clever notions, and folds them into the story organically.

The “villain” if you want to call him that, acted just as his nature bid, and saw no fault in his actions. He wasn’t menacing so much as unknowable, living a life at cross purposes with normal mortal souls.

Sometimes the characters and turn of events surprised me, and I usually enjoy that sort of thing.

Now, to the not so good.

It’s a long book, and covers a long span of time. I feel like it takes a great deal of setup to even get to the main plot and relationship that matters most. It feels accurate, that a story this complex would unfold over such a span of time, but it was slightly frustrating for me to not see the general direction the novel was going in sooner than three-fourths of the way through.

There aren’t enough women, and the ones who are in it tend to suffer too much in silence. Yes, it’s a product of that time period, but I didn’t see much of the fire in their souls that commends me to characters. It’s a man’s world and men dominate the book. The women act to provide plot twists and motivation for the men to stop sitting in salons debating the future of England’s magic.

The footnotes didn’t really add or detract anything for me, which tells me they were probably unnecessary. I suppose once you’ve read House of Leaves it’s difficult to ever consider footnotes necessary if they aren’t being used to create a whole new layer of meta in a story. Still, I can’t say that I would have enjoyed this book any less without the information contained in the footnotes, which makes me think they aren’t worth distracting your attention from the main narrative to hunt down and read.

Even with the bad, though, this is still a beautiful book for what it wants to be. The writing on the sentence level is great, and the ending was fitting and beautiful in a kind of sad, lonely way that perhaps only people with tastes similar to me would appreciate (nothing’s tied up in a nice bow. It’s more complicated and germane to reality, and I like it).

If you’re looking for an interesting historical fiction with a touch of the fantastical thrown in–and you don’t mind long novels–this one is definitely for you. Also, props to the author for writing this exactly the way you would imagine Brits of that time period dealing with magic. On that alone it’s worth a read, because it makes you laugh when you stop to think about it.