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.

The Key Trilogy

Nora Roberts generally has a sort of pattern to her trilogies. The first woman is fighting for her self-respect, the second generally has some sort of specialization to round her out, like knowledge or fitness or a business, and the third is courageous and stubborn, fighting against all the odds.

The Key Trilogy is one of my favorites of the Nora Roberts trilogies, competing for first place with The Three Sisters Island Trilogy. In these three books, resourceful Malory, Dana, and Zoe have to work to find three mythical keys that will unlock a box of souls to save three trapped demigoddesses. Their mystical quest is mirrored by one in the physical world, as they work together to open a combined bookstore/cafe/art gallery/salon. They conveniently all fall in love with wealthy men, who have been friends since childhood.

When I first started grad school, I was embarrassed to say that I read Nora Roberts. Her plots are formulaic, predictable, and she uses more adverbs and flowery prose than I’d like. And yet—there’s something there, in these books. A heart, a soulful center that exhibits the author’s deep-held belief that women are badass, that they will triumph. Sure, it’s steeped in love stories, in always finding a man and marriage at the end of the line. And that doesn’t ring very authentic for the world we live in today. There’s also never any gay relationships, which is frankly disappointing.

There’s a comfort in knowing what is to come, though. These books are steady, reliable. They aren’t the worst thing for a young girl to read, even if they aren’t the best, either. As an adult, I enjoy the steamy sex scenes, the fast pace of the effective, if flowery, prose. There’s emotion in it, and plenty of strength and steel in the women to relate or aspire to. And aside from most other adult fiction, romance novels often have a pleasing emphasis on love, or should I say, a distinct lack of emphasis on the practical side of things, like money, sickness, age, etc.

It’s funny that the women tend to be in their sensible late twenties when they’re finally finding the right men in these books, and interesting to see how Nora Roberts’ writing evolves from her early books to these. I think the Key Trilogy comes from what I like to view as her magical milieu of trilogies and stand-alones. Before that were the Ireland stories, and after came the romance novels with clear horror elements that got too difficult for me to read, sometimes.

I’ve read this trilogy a few times, and sought it out recently when I no longer had copies of my own because they it is a comforting, “guilty pleasure” read that restores my faith in interesting stories after tiring slogs like A Song of Ice and Fire. Romance novels and Young Adult novels can always be counted on for that sort of thing.

I suppose I would recommend this trilogy mostly to Nora Roberts fans. If you haven’t read a romance novel, these are as good a place to start as any, and if you like adding a bit of magic to our mundane world, you’ll like the way that Roberts weaves in mythology and the fantastic to her tales. They’re not classics, to be sure, but I’m definitely glad to have read them as a kid, and to be able to read them again now.