Lirael

Please excuse me while I gush about one of my favorite books ever.

SO GOOD.

The world you get in Sabriel is amazing and beautiful and dark and you get EVEN MORE of it in Lirael. Not to mention a protagonist who you might be able to identify with a lot more, if you’re anything like me. I actually love Sabriel, but in a way that absolutely pales in comparison to how much I love Lirael, as soon as I read this book. I didn’t know what I was missing, and then there it was, and it was so satisfying.

Lirael’s journey starts out with less physical journey-ing in the beginning. Sabriel kind of sets off right away in her book, but Lirael doesn’t do that. For good reason. We get to spend some time really getting to know her fears, her motivations, her history, all the feels before we get plunged into more by-the-map journeying.

Mogget is still my favorite, but I know about half the population would like the predominant secondary character in this book more than Mogget. Dog is just—a whole different level. Fans of Ponch from the Young Wizards series will absolutely love her. I absolutely love her, though I still love Mogget just a tiny bit more throughout the books.

I think my favorite thing about Lirael, as a character, is that she’s so awkward. She’s realistic, she’s unsure of herself, but brave when she really needs to be. That rings true, for me. So much of this book hit home with me, right in the gut. There’s so much beauty and darkness warring in this world, and within the characters. Life can be sucky and awful sometimes but everyone is still fighting in the name of Life, metaphorically and literally.

There’s one particular scene where Lirael sort of finds out who she is, and it’s juxtaposed with another character, Sameth, finding out who he’s not, and it’s just beautiful. Perfectly timed, and perfectly at odds, and since you care about the characters you can feel both feelings.

You can probably tell that I enjoy re-reading these books every few years. It’s been awesome to re-read them with actual new content to look forward to, in the form of Goldenhand. New and old fans can be glad that Nix decided to continue this really fabulous series. Keep reading, because you’ll want to get to Goldenhand—spoiler: it’s really good.

Sabriel

The first scene of this book always gets me. It starts out so mundane. And then, all of a sudden, it absolutely isn’t. But in a sweet, introductory way that welcomes you into this amazing world with one of the most brilliant magic systems I’ve encountered.

I first read Sabriel in middle school, back when there was no Creature in the Case, or Clariel, or Goldenhand. It’s actually been pretty surreal, re-visiting this world because there are actual new additions to it. (Can someone go poke Mary Stanton to finish the damn Unicorns of Balinor series already? I’ve been waiting on that since elementary school…)

My doctor asked me what I was reading when I went in for an appointment while I was re-reading this recently, and surprisingly (do doctors have time to read, after all that schooling?) he said he’d read it, and he remembered it as pretty dark, and scary, with dead people, right?

I had to laugh. Though, I think I was pleased that he didn’t say “zombies.” This is NOT a zombie book. No way. The magic in this book is with necromancers, and those are very different things. Personally, I think magic and necromancy are way more cool than zombies.

When it comes down to it, everything about this book is cooler than you might be expecting. I say it’s Young Adult, and then you’re surprised when things get so dark with long-dead spirits and re-born demon creatures fighting to stay in the world of Life. Likewise you might be expecting a dramatic, angsty romance, which isn’t present in this book. I say magic, and some people might scorn it as escapist fantasy (though if you do, be careful about how you tell me that, because it makes me seriously question why I’m still friends with someone when they do that). Instead, you get one of the best magic systems, akin to the Earthsea cycle or The Name of the Wind. The system is actually similar to both of those, but instead of having to know the true “name” of something, you have to know the charter marks that describe all of life and the universe. You have to be able to use the right ones at the right time, and combine them in just the right way, to get the results you’re looking for. It’s an art form in these books, one absolutely at odds with the steady march into “modern” times that you see in the juxtaposition of the Old Kingdom and Ancelstierre.

Sabriel is a kickass character. Her dad disappears, and she leaves school to travel into the dangerous Old Kingdom to try to find him. She meets mentors and villains along the way, and manages to stumble into some awkward yet fateful situations. She doesn’t falter, though. She doesn’t whine. She’s one of the most capable female characters I know of, and I appreciate that I got to read her as a young girl, because she’s a great role model.

I won’t say too much about him, because I don’t want to give you any spoilers, but Mogget is my absolute favorite. You’ll see why, when you read these books.

Oh, and speaking of—you’ll want to read all of these books. You can stop at Sabriel if you really really want to. The events of the next book, Lirael, happen a long time after the events of Sabriel, chronologically. BUT you don’t want to read Lirael without having read Sabriel, because Sabriel is a better introduction to the world. Lirael might be too much too quickly, if you don’t understand some of the more basic concepts about how this world works. And you HAVE to read Lirael. It’s one of my favorite books ever. Lirael is one of my favorite characters ever. It gives me that same indescribable feeling that certain sections of Miyazaki movies do. There’s a purity and a I’ll-never-forget-this-ness to Lirael.

The plot is well-paced in Sabriel, the characters are wonderful. The world is genius and the magic system is top notch, especially if you worried about things like Harry Potter spells not coming with any sort of cost from the caster. This magic system is balanced and beautiful, and well worth exploring. I’d say this book (and the Abhorsen series) is great for any reader, really, not just YA fans.

Etiquette & Espionage

I have to admit—I started this one as an audiobook, but had to jump to a print copy in order to stay motivated to finish it. I should have taken my librarian friend’s advice and listened to it on 1.5x speed. It was wearing on me, the length of time it was taking to get through relatively little action. I think the accents and more verbose speech patterns of the characters (germane to their time period and setting) might be contributing factors?

In any case, I got the print copy from our library, and blew through the rest of it in a single night. It was much more engaging as a page-turner than a listening practice.

I like Sophronia. She’s sharp and clever and quick, and doesn’t ask for responsibility but often finds herself taking it on because she thinks it’s the right thing to do. Often, she’s absolutely right. It’s fun reading a character set in such proper times who is actually “progressive” in that she takes charge of her own life and doesn’t always let society dictate what she thinks about herself.

I’m a little on the fence about how and why there are werewolves and vampires in this steampunk world, but they haven’t detracted from the story. They’re more of a curiosity, like a peculiar-looking bookend you want to examine up close. It makes me wonder if subsequent books in the series get into the lore of the wolves and vamps more than the first one does.

The cast of supporting characters are interesting and at times funny. I think I grew to like the story right alongside Sophronia growing to like Madame Geraldine’s finishing school.

Fans of a proper British setting (plus steampunk) and the speech patterns to match it, combined with a clever female protagonist supported in her hijinks by a disparate cast of intriguing bit players, would enjoy this immensely.

Kushiel’s Mercy

Imriel’s great quest in the wilds on his own is over—but Carey’s stories are never that simple. He’s made great sacrifices, and terrible mistakes. And now he has to win the right to be with the woman he loves.

You feel sorry for him. No one should have to endure the amount of travesty and pain that Imriel has faced in his life. And you admire him, because he continues to rise to the occasion when he’s called to.

In the first two books of the series we see Terre D’Ange, Alba, Lucca, Tiberium, the Flatlands, and Vralia. This time, we get to see Carthage and Aragonia. The focus isn’t so much on the distances, and the different cultures, but on a quest to overcome dire magic. Imriel agrees to be subject to magic himself, and the spells wrought are intriguing. To Carey’s credit, she handles the transition of narrative voice requisite because of one of the spells very well.

Ultimately, if you’ve read the first and second book of this trilogy, you’re going to read this final one. How can you not? Imriel and Sidonie are fascinating. They cater to a slightly different fanbase than Phedre and Joscelin did. They’re a little bit more relatable, because they make mistakes and are very human. That isn’t to say that Phedre and Joscelin aren’t still my favorite (they are—though Moirin from the next trilogy is beginning to challenge that). Imriel and Sidonie are wonderful in their own way.

I wish I’d read these books a long time ago. There’s some really fabulous stuff in here that could spark valuable conversations about consent. No one talked about consent when I was young—we all knew what rape was, of course, but no one tried to flesh out the nuances of actual vs. implied consent. I was lucky to have found my religious beliefs before I became interested in sex—Paganism taught me to view sex as sacred, an act to be approached with reverence and respect. That was my roundabout education on consent, since no one actually used the word consent with me ever. I could have benefitted from having read these books in high school.

I think I enjoy the sex between Imriel and Sidonie a lot more than what is between Phedre and Joscelin. They are different manifestations of perfect love and perfect trust, to be sure. These books are fabulous, and I can’t get enough of Carey’s writing and storytelling, which is why I immediately moved on to Moirin’s trilogy after finishing my second run-through of this trilogy. 🙂

Kushiel’s Justice

This is the second book in the Imriel trilogy, and it’s just so darn sad! In the best way possible, because I’m beginning to think that Carey’s incapable of writing anything bad. But I definitely cried while reading this book. I actually was reading a particularly weighty scene during a pumping break at work (still breastfeeding at the time I wrote this book review…which was a while ago), and had to wipe away the tears and pretend like nothing had happened when I went back to my desk afterward. Silly.

The title of this book is apropos. The message would basically be: no one is exempt from the karma the gods wish to exact. Imriel does something a little stupid, that has huge consequences. A good chunk of this book happens in Alba, which we went to before in Kushiel’s Dart with Phedre and Joscelin, of course. This is different, though. We see more of the customs there, more of the day-to-day life. We meet new characters and learn to love them just as much as the others we’re already fond of. And terrible, horrible things happen to Imriel, which propel him on a quest that takes him to the flatlands, Skaldia, and as far north as Vralia, which is basically an approximation of Russia, where a fanatical group of religious extremists are gearing up to start their own Crusades.

By the time Imriel comes home, he’s completely changed. He’s finished growing up, through tragic circumstances. He’s earned this reader’s love, admiration, and respect. Usually when a character is brooding and immature you don’t see them do a complete 180. Imriel does, though. He finds his strength during all his trials to start demanding his own happiness, instead of waiting to see if he’s worthy of it. I like that sort of journey for a character. I think it’s smart, and I think Carey does it really well.

You’ll have to read the book to see what I mean, and to experience the sad parts, and the beautiful parts, and the heart-wrenching parts involving the karmic justice enacted by the gods. It’s really quite well-wrought.

If you enjoyed the first Imriel book, you’ll love this one even more. If you didn’t really like the first Imriel book, that’s okay—you’ll love this one more.

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.