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.

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.

Tarzan of the Apes

I love Tarzan. I’m fascinated by the way that some characters can exist beyond their original forms—Tarzan is right up there with Dracula, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland. To say that I’m excited about the coming movie would be a gross understatement. I joke with my friends that going back to work after having the baby is going to be devastating, but I already have the babysitter lined up for when I can leave the kid and go watch this new movie.

I grew up on the Disney version of Tarzan, which in and of itself is pretty great. When I first read the actual book by Edgar Rice Burroughs, though, I realized there was so much more there. There are some minor differences, like Jane actually being American instead of English. Tarzan’s parents built a cabin on the beach instead of an elaborate (and pretty darn cool—way to go, Disney concept artists) treehouse. There’s no close friendship with any of the apes, though in the books Tarzan is said to be friends with Tantor the elephant (though we don’t get to see it in action, at least in the first book).

All these minor differences are great for someone who already loves Tarzan as much as I do. But what about the first-timers, or the people more interested in the style of the writing? Here’s what you get from reading the original Tarzan of the Apes by Burroughs.

The books are classic pulp fiction adventure romances. The narration style is formal, sometimes waxing philosophical, but never straying too far from suspenseful action that keeps you turning the pages. You understand Tarzan on a very basic, primal level, and you admire him, as you would have to admire anyone who can teach themselves to read when they can’t even speak the language they’re reading! The characters and situations are compelling, with enough human error folded in to have you shaking your head at them while still hoping that everything turns out all right.

My first time through, the ending really surprised me. It gave me so much more respect for Tarzan, though. Here is a character who bridges the gap between the most primal instincts and the most proper etiquette and gentlemanly manner. Tarzan is a good person because he hasn’t been corrupted by society, by other men. He operates on his own moral grounds, and is more or less above reproach when we understand why he does what he does.

I’ve talked to my husband about why I like Tarzan so much, and I still can’t fully understand or communicate what it is about him that is so appealing. I’ve always been drawn to more traditional masculine men, just as a matter of personal taste, and Tarzan is pretty much the epitome of that. Temper it with the manners of an English lord, and you’ve got an extremely attractive juxtaposition that I don’t think exists much in reality.

I suppose my attraction to the Tarzan character is rather a moot point, though. For anyone out there who has enjoyed this character on any level, it’s well worth it to read the book. You might be opening a can of worms to some extent, because the following novels are just as good and work to continue the story chronologically, tying up loose ends and offering more elaborate adventures—but they’re quick reads, and essential for the lover of adventure science fiction stories.

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.

Eleanor & Park

I spent all of yesterday with the Eleanor & Park audiobook playing while I nursed my post-bachelorette party hangover. I rehydrated to the two different voices reading Eleanor and Park’s parts (genius idea, really, to increase the emotionally impact by having two distinct voices in actual sound as well as diction). When I knew I should be going to sleep because tomorrow was the first day at my brand new job—I let the audiobook play for another two hours instead.

Rainbow Rowell captures the teenage voice so beautifully. My heart ached, and even the pop culture references that usually make me feel woefully out-of-touch and un-cool didn’t matter in that swirling mass of nostalgic teenage emotion. For a while I was worried, knowing what I do about stories, because the conflict of whether or not there is a romance was settled far too soon. Which foretold a far darker conflict later on—which Rowell delivered.  The body issues were explored with such grace. No heavy-handed moralizing here, just speculation. What would happen if you took a normal teenager, self-conscious and facing body-shaming from all sides, and made them feel temporarily safe with someone who loved them exactly as they were? And how true to life, that both Eleanor and Park felt the same way, that they just couldn’t imagine what the other saw in them.

I first heard about this book when Robin Benway visited one of my graduate school residencies with UCR Palm Desert’s MFA program. Someone asked her what she’d read recently that she loved, and she mentioned Eleanor & Park. Then a young adult editor a couple residencies later seconded that. I’ve seen people name it as their recent favorite fairly often since then, in articles and Facebook posts. With the wedding coming up so soon, I wanted a reminder of romance in its most passionate form. No one knows how to love more passionately than teenagers. We might love in healthier ways when we get older, but you have to admire the tenacity and intensity of teenage love.

If I had to pick a favorite, between Eleanor and Park, I think I would be completely stuck. That’s how well Rowell writes both of them. They are real and beautiful and unique. So real that you can’t say you like one more than the other. They both have flaws, they are both amazing. I did find myself frustrated with Eleanor sometimes, when she would pull away, or not say things that I thought she should. And then I would remind myself what it felt like to be a teenager, knowing the percentage of the time things actually worked out in your favor when you were brave or stupid enough to speak up. Knowing how often adults just didn’t seem to listen, or care. And when Eleanor started to trust Park, even if she still struggled, even if she still pulled away, it was so real. I don’t know many people who escaped childhood without trust issues of one kind or another, and of course Eleanor would have a harder time trusting in their relationship. It’s like any time I notice someone making a mistake—if I can see why they’ve done it, I’m not angry or frustrated anymore.

I would recommend Eleanor & Park to anyone. It brings back wonderful nostalgia, if you had a high school sweetheart you cared intensely for, and it’s so real that it could convince people who didn’t experience teenage love that they really knew what it felt like, just by hearing Eleanor and Park’s story. And I imagine as a teenager, it would feel like the truest story, like it really got me in a way other literature seldom did.

I hope I can pick up a physical copy of this one, as I’d like to be able to go over some sections a few times, to really savor them in a way you can’t when the audiobook just keeps on playing. It’s more than worthy of a re-read, and I’m going to see if I can slip it onto my soon-to-be-husband’s playlist for one of his long drives. I think he’d love it.