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.

Life As We Knew It

I wanted to read this book because it has a similar apocalypse-trigger to the novel I’m writing right now. In this one, an asteroid hits the moon, it orbits closer to the Earth, and everything gets wonky, including major volcanic eruptions that throw enough ash into air to plunge everyone into a mini ice age. So, different trigger, but similar fallout, I guess.

Life As We Knew It is told in diary format, written by a 16 year-old narrator. Miranda’s life already feels kind of small at the start of the novel—she cares about her big brother and her obsession with a figure skater athlete who came from her hometown. Her world gets smaller as the fallout from the big event unfolds.

Typically, I don’t like diary-style writing. It’s too confessional, and if I don’t like the protagonist enough, it can absolutely make me rage-quit the book. I found myself drawn into this story, though, wondering what would happen next. There were a lot of good details about food hoarding, calories vs. nutrition, heat and plumbing, how much wood is really required to stay warm, etc. There’s no big romance, no love triangles. This is a character fighting for her life, learning things from her mom when her mom can’t hide the truth from her anymore. Being resentful of her younger brother. Growing up in strange and trying circumstances.

I’m usually drawn to YA that has a wider scope, and more fantastical elements. Characters who do more than just survive. I think it was really interesting reading this book on the heels of Ice Dogs, because the protagonist in that book is so competent. Whereas Miranda has to struggle not to complain, some days. Which if you think about it is probably more realistic for a teenager who grew up in a normal town with constant access to the internet and a sheltered life.

As far as apocalyptic fiction goes, this book deals with a small scale, very character-centric. You get caught up in the logistics of staying alive. You see sides of characters that you wouldn’t normally see, when all they have to do is sit quietly every night, trying not to use too many candles. Doing the laundry by hand. It’s a different pace, and an interesting story. Well worth a read if you want to expand your apocalyptic YA sphere.

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.

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…