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.

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…

The Shadowed Sun

The Killing Moon gives us a really beautiful mentor/apprentice relationship in Ehiru and Nijiri. It isn’t a relationship that is explored as often as I’d like in main through-lines of fantasy, probably because the Hero’s Journey format is more about a mentor who comes and goes as needed, or different characters filling different mentor-like roles at different times.

Jemisin, however, hits on the best possible dynamic of a mentor/apprentice relationship. Love and respect, as a motivation for success in their trade.

I think often about how I wanted to please my elders when I was young. There’s still a big part of me that wants to do that as an adult. It’s a major factor to contend with in my life, and I see it so rarely in the fantasy I read. The heroes/heroines are orphaned, or perversely independent by nature, or trying to prove themselves to themselves, not to anyone else. I’m not sure why that is, unless you look at Disney’s track record and believe that introducing parents to the mix just makes things way too complicated for a nice compact story. I think any therapist anywhere would agree with that.

So I really loved, in The Shadowed Sun, how Jemisin weaves the mentor/apprentice relationship into the plot. It is integral to it, but doesn’t completely define the protagonist. Hanani has her own motivations, her own need to prove herself as the only female in her healing trade, but her relationship with her mentor also moves the plot forward, and offers twists and motivations that are deep, rich, and beautifully crafted to give us the full in-depth treatment of Hanani’s heart.

Wanahomen, sort of a co-protagonist, is interesting as well. He is also driven by a motivation to please an elder–his father, who died in the first book. This makes Wanahomen’s character complex, and accounts for the very realistic mistakes he makes that help drive the plot. I think I might have liked him a lot less if he was as dismissive of women as the barbarian tribe that he has been living with–but his reverance for women in accordance with his birth culture saved me from that.

Ultimately Hanani and Wanahomen’s stories are woven together in a beautiful pattern of pride, passion, grief, and growth. The ending is satisfying in a realistic way, and feels germane to the characters. I’m eager to read Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy, after having enjoyed the Dreamblood Duology so much. I highly recommend these to anyone who enjoys fantasy and is looking for more than the usual, tired old tropes.

The Killing Moon

There’s a lot of beauty in this book. I haven’t read Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy yet (I’m borrowing it from my cousin later this summer), but her writing flows. There’s grace in it, in the way she describes the settings and the mannerisms of the characters.

I really admire when an author can jump right into a story without doing too much infodumping. So often you can tell you’re in the beginning of a story because there’s so much explanation of this and that. But good writers just jump right in, because it’s an entire world that exists for them, not just something that springs into being on page one and disappears after the last sentence. The worlds contained in these stories are not finite—they have history and the character was alive and awake and doing things the day before the story started, too. Jemisin gets that.

Nijiri is a wonderful character. Ehiru and Sunandi are great, too, but the majority of my love for this book comes from Nijiri. He’s willful and prideful and young but never quite naive. He feels things purely. His emotions bring out the best responses and reactions in the other characters. He drives everything, even though things happening in the plot seem to be happening to other people or by other people’s design. He’s a joy to read.

In depth and richness of cultural and religious background, Jemisin’s world in this book reminds me of Jacqueline Carey’s world in the Kushiel’s Legacy series. Even the way she throws out the limiting frivolity of labeling people’s sexual preferences reminds me of Carey. You don’t have to call someone gay or bisexual or heterosexual when love and sex are not culturally restricted. I wish I didn’t feel like that was such a cool thing—because it means we’re so far from throwing out those labels in our own society. But it’s nice to escape to places where no one questions or cares or limits things. Attraction is attraction, love is love, sex is sex.

All that said, there aren’t actually any sex scenes in this book. I don’t want to mislead by talking about it so much. 🙂

There’s political intrigue, a fascinating system of magic that’s entwined with healing and dreaming, all set in a rich cultural system modeled on that of the ancient Egyptians. Jemisin’s writing is deep and thoughtful and exciting. This one is an excellent choice for lovers of fantasy fiction.

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.

The Assassin’s Blade

I was really curious, after reading Throne of Glass, to learn the details of Celeana’s past that are alluded to so often. The stories in The Assassin’s Blade didn’t disappoint. You learn more about Celeana, her relationship with her master and with Sam, and even get to see a friendship between her and another teenage female that helps give some history to how Celeana is with Nehemia in Throne of Glass.

My favorite story in the collection was “The Assassin and the Desert”. Celeana travels to the Red Desert to be trained by the Mute Master of the Assassins. It has a feel to it similar to those mentor/mentee movies where you get a nice training montage of time passing.

Each story in this collection furthers your understanding of Celeana a little bit, all in ways that help you understand her actions and motivations in Throne of Glass. Maas is really good at action sequences, too, so to have her narrative broken up more often with action like it is in these stories is nice. I sometimes felt like I had to wait too long before the next action scene in Throne of Glass.

I still think it’s interesting how Celeana can be considered the best of the assassins, but still manages to make mistakes because of her pride and anger. And her mistakes cost her—big time. It doesn’t seem quite right, even though she is very young and therefore wouldn’t have all the experience/wisdom necessary to always see the misfortunes ahead. She seems to be betrayed a whole hell of a lot for a young kid. To Maas’ credit, none of the characters doing the betraying felt two-dimensional. They all had compelling reasons to act the way they did. It just felt like a pattern after a while, of people continually betraying her and Celeana being too trusting because she wanted to believe in people.

After finishing these stories I went to Crown of Midnight, hoping that my increased understanding of Celeana would help me enjoy the sequel to Throne of Glass even more. Unfortunately, the characters in the main series aren’t anywhere near as cool to me as the ones in The Assassin’s Blade, so I found myself disinterested. I’m still going to hit A Court of Thorns and Roses, though, because I like Maas’ writing and I think a Beauty & the Beast tale would be right up my alley. I guess I should have guessed that I wouldn’t be that into a story inspired by Cinderella themes.

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.