Fearless

I always enjoy Cornelia Funke stories. Reckless was great, and the English translation quality was excellent, as per usual. Given how much I liked Reckless, I was surprised when I read Fearless and loved it SO MUCH MORE.

There’s an absolute beauty to the interactions between Jacob and Fox. There’s history there, and emotions, and a complexity that just makes your heart ache with its sincerity and authenticity.

Couple these fabulous characters and they’re fascinating relationship with one of the absolute best, creepiest villains I have encountered in a story in a good long time, and you have a novel that kept me absolutely riveted.

True story: I was reading this on the train on the way home from work and got so pulled in that I almost got off at the wrong stop.

There are fairy tale elements in this second book of the Mirrorworld series, of course. There’s even intriguing references to Jacob’s past, similar to what we got in the first book.

Fearless is devastatingly good. Y’all shouldn’t take my world for it—go read it for yourself. Then come talk to me about that villain (you’ll know which one it is). 😀

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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.

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.

Reckless

I tend to love Cornelia Funke‘s stories, and this one is no different. Having to read all her work in translation is a little disappointing, depending on the skill of the translator and how well her prose survives the transition. The translator of Reckless did a fabulous job, though.

I was expecting Young Adult, like so many of her other books that I enjoy, but instead we get Jacob, probably in his late 20s or early 30s. He is a cynical, tortured soul, and the events and battles are darker and more violent than I was expecting. All in the best possible way. I was continually surprised by the smooth way that Funke folds fairy tale motifs into this new, interesting world.

Fox is my favorite character, and I think we learn more about her in what is NOT said than in what is, which I think denotes excellent writing. The ending, too, is understated compared to what we are used to lately. But it is satisfying in a better way, since you can’t tie up every little complication with a pretty bow in real life.

This is a beautiful book, just strange enough to stand out, and inventive enough to be engaging and exciting. Lovers of fantasy and of fairy tale inspiration would enjoy this one.

Throne of Glass

I’m not particularly fond of the Cinderella fairy tale in any of its forms, so as a loose retelling of it there were bits of Throne of Glass that bugged me. I was drawn to this book because I’m always on the lookout for badass female protagonists. A female assassin MC sounds wonderful. Did this book deliver on my expectations? I’d say maybe 50/50.

As a capable, kickass chick, Celeana Sardothien doesn’t disappoint. She can totally hold her own, and she works really hard to be the best. A point of pride, with her. But then there’s the fact that she’s still very much a naive teenager. She’s got some major PTSD from being in a prisoner labor camp for a year, but above and beyond that she just makes stupid decisions sometimes, or acts really girly/silly, or is too blind to what’s going on around her for my tastes. To some extent I can believe that she wants to live in denial because of everything she’s been through prior to the events of this book—but I read Throne of Glass before the prequel stories in The Assassin’s Blade. I didn’t know the full details of her past and therefore didn’t know why exactly she was being so obstinately blind.

As far as the writing goes, my only real complaints were the girly silliness. Maas does an awesome job with battle scenes. She really captures the back and forth, the seesaw balancing act of a good power exchange that keeps us guessing who will win. Which is important, when your main character is fighting or performing daring acts of physical prowess pretty darn often.

I wasn’t crazy about the love triangle angle, but I think I’m a little burnt out on love triangles in YA right now. I haven’t seen anyone do it quite as well as Hunger Games in a long time, so it tends to underwhelm. Actually, the more intriguing bits were all the allusions to her past, and relationships that ended tragically. I might not have wanted to read more, not being crazy about Cinderella-esque stories, if it weren’t for all those teasers about what happened in her past. Pretty much directly after reading this book I checked out the prequel stories to read, and then from there was actually invested enough in the character to want to read the second book in the series.

I’m still way more eager to see what Maas does with her loose retelling of Beauty & the Beast, it being my favorite fairy tale, but while I wait for that to become available on OverDrive I’m enjoying the Throne of Glass series. Worth a read for anyone who likes kickass female protagonists in YA, though I would definitely encourage people to read The Assassin’s Blade collection first, or at least not to just read Throne of Glass. By itself the first book leaves a little to be desired, but the prequel collection is pretty excellent as far as breadth of setting and character development go.