It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when I realised The Freedom Maze was something special. I felt its impacOriginally posted on The Book Smugglers
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when I realised The Freedom Maze was something special. I felt its impact from the very start: I had barely started it and already had problems falling asleep because I kept thinking about what was happening to the protagonist and where the story might go. This is a book that works on every single level I can think of: from a storytelling point of view, as a coming of age tale, as a Speculative Fiction story, as a Historical novel, as a social and cultural examination of racial identity and much more. It’s a multifaceted story that is deeply affecting, gripping, thought-provoking and as close to a perfect novel as it can be. I hope I can do it justice. One thing before I proceed any further though: I do spoil a few minor plot points, but since this is not a book about plot, this shouldn’t detract at all from your enjoyment of the novel.
The Freedom Maze follows 13 year old Sophie in the 1960s in Louisiana as she spends the summer with her aunt and grandmother at the Oak Cottage, the old family home of the grand Fairchild family from back in the “good old days”. Sophie has been left behind by her mother who is now pursuing a new career after divorcing Sophie’s father. She barely hears from her father –now living in NY with a new wife – and her relationship with her mother is fraught with tension. She constantly bemoans Sophie’s behaviour as unladylike, complains about the state of her unruly hair, about her clothes, about her time spent reading books. It’s been like this forever and Sophie has developed strategies available to her in dealing with her mother – they involve a lot of shutting up and a lot of appeasing.
In any case, the summer is in full swing and Sophie is bored, sick of being left behind by everybody she knows and there is only so much sunbathing, reading and fishing one can do. And then there is the old family maze which Sophie is attracted to – a maze in a state of disrepair, haunted by the ghosts of old Fairchilds. It’s also where she first comes across a trickster spirit that constantly teases Sophie and who obliges when she wishes she could have a grand old adventure just like the ones she reads in the books she loves. He sends her back 100 years in the past to her own family’s plantation when to her dismay – because of her darker skin, because of her hair – she is taken for a bastard child of one of the sons and as a slave. Because of her close ties with the family, she becomes a house slave, working for her “grandmother” – the Old Missy. At first, Sophie takes it all as an adventure but her trip to the past do not follow the script she expected it to and things get really serious, really fast. And Creature will not take her back until she’s done what she is supposed to do.
From a plotting perspective Sophie’s journey to the past is perhaps the basic storyline of the novel and as such it is a tale of survival: first as a house slave, then as a hand in the sugar cane plantation. But as I said before, The Freedom Maze works on many levels, and this basic storyline expands to encompass a myriad of themes.
At first, Sophie sees her trip as an adventure and has an almost detached relationship with the story she is living but soon she realises there is no easy way out and she has no idea when she is going to back to her own time. The most fascinating thing is how the story subverts traditional time-travel stories: she is not a casual observer and she is not a saviour (although she does help one person in distress) and she is certainly not welcomed. Instead, she is affected by it but not from a perspective of a “white person who comes to learn about slavery” either because as it turns out, Sophie and her family in 1960 are not as white as they like to believe they are. She spends six months in the past and those six months are worth an entire life – the more time she is there, the more she forgets about her life in 1960, the more she starts to believe she is Sophie-the-slave and embraces her own tell-tale story of being the bastard child of Robert Fairchild. When she does, eventually, return to her own time, the physical consequences of her life in 1860 are not erased magically by leaving behind only memories. She goes back a changed girl and it shows: it’s been half an hour in 1960 but she has aged. To the point where she has no choice but to tell her aunt what happened.
This fits in the coming of age theme of the novel. Sophie starts out as a naïve young girl who has to grow up fast and with no choice: her life now mirrors those of the slaves she comes in contact with. Her coming of age is both a matter of identity and a matter of history and those are brilliantly interwoven in the narrative. Her family in 1960 is a proud white family who celebrate their past as the “good old days”. They identify themselves as good people and yet their discourse is horribly, inherently, casually racist. Her mother has removed her from her school once it became a mixed race school and is constantly telling her not to speak with Black men because they are dangerous and dirty. Despite this, there is a brilliant acknowledgment of how complex people are. In that sense, it is also possible to address gender issues here as the mother is trying to find her own way in a world that despises working, divorced women. There is a generational tension between Sophie and her mother but also between the latter and her own mother.
The aunt is the figure Sophie can count on the most and who really loves her, except when she becomes silent when at one point they find a paper cut from 1860 that refers to Sophie as a slave who can “pass as white”. 100 years before that, everybody hails Dr Charles Fairchild, the owner of the plantation as a benevolent, firm yet kind figure. He even has a hospital for infirm slaves and they are tended to with care. But that is because they are worth money, and one has to tend to their property well. When his daughter mistreats a slave, he gives her a lecture about how she would never whip a dog or a horse when they misbehave. The slaves are portrayed in the very same complex manner: there are those who accept their position more easily than others; there is also the complex, difficult dynamic and hierarchy between house-slaves and plantation-slaves; there are good people, bad people, happy or unhappy and they all have voices. One of the best, most impacting quotes from the novel comes from a slave when talking about their “benevolent” owner:
"Africa spoke from the kitchen door. “You both wrong. […] There ain’t no such thing as a good mistress, on account of a mistress ain’t a good thing to be. Think on it, Mammy. Old Missy maybe taught you to read and write and speak as white as her own children. But she ain’t set you free.” "
This is a story that challenges stereotypes at every turn with astute, subtle observations. It portrays racial identity and divide in 1860 and in 1960 and in doing so, makes one wonder about race and identity right NOW. Sophie encapsulates this when, at both ends of the book, she reacts differently to her family’s observations – in the end, she has been altered by her experience in positive ways.
Because of this, the story is still fundamentally a fairytale – although a freaking gut-wrenching one. It is obviously a time-travel story and one that incorporates elements of traditional African beliefs beautifully.
I also mentioned several themes and I think I managed to somehow do so in a clinical, cold way when there isn’t anything even remotely cold about the way I reacted to the story. My heart went to Sophie’s family (not the Fairchilds though, but her adopted family, the one that took care of her) and their plight. When Sophie comes back to 1960 and has no way of knowing what happened to them, my heart broke alongside hers with sheer sadness.
Do you know what is surprising? I read this on my Kindle and it wasn’t until I was setting up this post that I realised that the book is less than 300 pages long. Less than 300 pages long and it manages to accomplish so much in those pages.
There are books you just know will stay with you forever. This is one of them. ...more
Thea: I’ve read two books by Rachel Neumeier prior to picking up The City and the Lake, and I can attest to her skill as a storyteller, especially in the fantasy arena. But Ms. Neumeier’s excellent The Floating Islands and Lord of the Changing Winds have got NOTHING on The City in the Lake. I have to admit, I’m not crazy about either cover for the book, but my goodness is the story within jaw-droppingly awesome. Not only is The City in the Lake the best book I’ve read from Rachel Neumeier to date, it’s also one of the best fantasy novels (YA or otherwise) that I’ve read in a long time. I loved this book.
Ana: Thea has been raving about Rachel Neumeier’s books for a while now and I was in tenterhooks to finally try one and decided that City in the Lake was a good place to start and OH MY GOD, I was so not prepared for how awesome this book is. Prose, setting, story, characters, everything is top notch and I too loved this book.
On the Plot:
Thea: The Kingdom’s heart is the City. The City’s heart is the King. In the strange city on the lake, old and powerful magic unites the kingdom and keeps it hale and strong. The Bastard, named Neill and the eldest son of the ruling King, has always known that his role in the kingdom is one relegated to the sidelines. In a younger time, the King was seduced by a beautiful and mysterious woman who gave birth to Neill and disappeared from the kingdom. When the King eventually married and his wife, the Queen, bore a healthy, strong son, Neill quickly become known as simply The Bastard. Despite his title, Neill has never been resentful of his younger half-brother Cassiel – like everyone else in the kingdom, The Bastard loves Cassiel. When the prince goes missing one day after a hunt with his friends, Neill is called upon by his angry father and distraught stepmother to find the errant crown heir, but to no avail. Without the heir present, the kingdom is without its heart and begins to suffer – life grinds to a slow halt, animals and even humans are born dead. The curse spreads to the furthest reaches of the kingdom, where a young girl named Timou lives in a small village with her powerful mage father, Kapoen. When Kapoen leaves the village to seek the cause of the stillbirths and does not return, Timou fears the worst, and sets out on the path to the City at the heart of the kingdom to find him. Here, at the City above the Lake, Timou and The Bastard’s destinies collide. A great evil lurks in the City, and Timou and Neill hold the key to the Kingdom’s salvation, but also its undoing…
I absolutely adored The City in the Lake for so many reasons, from its wonderful worldbuilding to its sweeping prose. From a storytelling perspective, The City in the Lake is a dark and lushly evocative fairy tale of a novel, with a greedy sorceress, ancient magic, and powerful creatures that are neither good nor evil but rather part of the overall balance of forces that comprise this strange and wondrous kingdom. There are many different levels to the plot, as the story alternates between three characters – Lord Bastard, Timou, and Jonas – and each of these characters plays a pivotal role in the ultimate conclusion of the novel. In the City, Neill struggles with the distrust that springs up around him (as many accuse him of attempting to steal the throne for himself and suspect him of orchestrating his brother’s disappearance). On her father’s trail, Timou must find her own strength and travel through an oppressive, haunted wood to find her heart’s true desire. And following Timou, a haunted young man named Jonas struggles with the nightmares that plague him, and must decide whether or not to go after his unrequited love. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but on every level of the narrative, The City in the Lake works beautifully.
On the negative side, the kingdom and its many different dimensions may be a little confusing for newer readers of fantasy, and perhaps some readers will be turned off by the metaphysical aspects of this book (particularly by the book’s climactic scenes). But not me. I loved The City in the Lake in all its luminous abstractness. Plus, with writing this poetic, lush and evocative, I can hardly complain. Rachel Neumeier’s writing in this book is reminiscent of Juliet Marillier and Patricia McKillip – two fantasy authors whom I love and hold in the highest regard.
Ana: I have to agree with everything that Thea says. The City in the Lake is a wonderful, original fairytale in terms of story whilst having a distinct traditional feel with regards to its prose. Plot-wise, it follows three distinct characters, each on their own journeys and all of them are beautifully executed to the point where I can’t tell which was my favourite but perhaps that point is moot since the three storylines converge in the end. What is the most striking aspect of the novel is how it effectively combines those parallel, personal narratives with the overarching story of a Kingdom that has existed for a long, long time and in different dimensions as well (sort of). Not only that, but the story has elements of Quest, of Vengeance, of Romance, of Adventure and with different aspects of Magic and History and it never, ever feels like it is too much because it is all so beautiful and truly magical. It might sound as though I am committing the unforgivable sin of being too cheesy but really, the story is beautiful even when it is sad and dark.
On the Characters:
Thea: As with the storytelling and plot, the characters in The City in the Lake also shine, from the three protagonists, to the solid cast of secondary characters. When Ana and I started reading this book, there were flurries of emails back and forth about how much we loved The Bastard, Timou and Jonas, and this unabashed love for the characters sustained until the end of the book. Each of these protagonists have their own depths, backstories and formative experiences, although some of them overlap. I loved the absentee mother theme that connects both Neill and Timou, as well as the strength of familial bonds and responsibilities that unite them. As for Jonas, his own dark past (and darker future) are the stuff of excellent fantasy. Even the secondary characters, of the King, Prince, and Queen, and other members of the court, are beautifully textured and have believable motivations (especially the Queen in her feelings towards Neill).
As for The Villain – well, this character is pretty nasty, but not simply evil for evil’s sake (which would be rather disappointing). Rather, this villain is greedy for power, spoiled with it, and never understanding nor caring for the consequences of their actions. And the villain’s unflinchingness? I thought it was awesome (I mean, scary but also awesome).1 Not to mention, there’s room for more in this same universe. The villain comes to an end off-screen, which leaves me wondering as to how safe the kingdom really is. What of the much-alluded to but never present Deserisien? Could he make a possible appearance at some point in the future? For a villain as far-thinking as the one in The City in the Lake, I’m certain there might be a contingency plan for failure in the works. I am greedy and I want MORE.
Ana: I can’t begin to express how much I loved the characters – protagonists and secondary – of this book and how much their story arcs were amazing. I mean, it plays with every single one of my favourite tropes. There we have the determined heroine who wants to find her father, the wronged yet goodhearted young man, the hero who sets out after his love and meets with the Unexpected. And then each of them has to overcome obstacles both internal and external. I loved how Timou spend her whole life living by her father’s lessons and then when push comes to shove she had to make her own decisions as to whether those lessons would work for her or not; similarly with The Bastard who lived under a whole plethora of expectations and had to decide whether to meet them or surpass them. Whereas both Timou and the Bastard had to deal very real, concrete problems (even as they were surrounded by magic) , Jonas’ quest takes him on a much more supernatural path (which had real and concrete repercussions) which as Thea says, is stuff of excellent fantasy. I was reminded at every turn of Juliet Marillier’s fantasy novels which is the highest form of compliment I can think of and I demand MOARS as well.
Final Thoughts, Observations & Rating:
Thea: I cannot believe I had not heard of this book earlier, and it’s a damn shame how unacknowledged it is. From opening sentence to bittersweet farewell, I loved The City in the Lake and recommend it to readers young and old alike. For fans of Juliet Marillier, Patricia McKillip, Robin McKinley, and Sharon Shinn, looking for that next fix of luscious, romantic, flawless fantasy? Look no further – Rachel Neumeier’s The City in the Lake is for you. Easily, one of the best books I have read in 2011 and in the running for my year end top 10.
Ana: Word, Thea. I can’t believe I never heard about this book before and I wish more people would read it. I don’t think I have read a YA Fantasy as good as this in ages and wouldn’t be surprised if it made my top 10 as well.
Karl Stern is an artist, an older brother, a dreamer, and a Jew. In 1935 Berlin, Karl’s Jewishness is a curse, especially since his family is not religious, and he does not feel connection with his heritage in any way. As a blonde, fair-featured teen, he can even pass for Aryan – at least Karl thinks he’s evaded suspicion until he’s cornered by the “Wolf Pack” (a group of Nazi Youth members at Karl’s school) who decide to mete out punishment on the Juden boy. Karl takes a cruel beating, and though bruised and bloodied he rushes to help his father at the family art gallery for a the latest opening, knowing how dire the family’s monetary situation is. At the gala, an extraordinary thing happens, as Karl stands in shock when Max Schmeling, German boxing heavyweight hero, walks into his father’s gallery – and somehow knows Karl’s father. Even more astounding is the fact that Karl catches Max’s eye, and in return for a painting, the legendary boxer offers to give Karl lessons at his training club. What boy – especially a skinny, beat-up boy like Karl – could resist?
As Karl begins his rigorous training routine at the Berlin Boxing Club with his hero, the world seems to deteriorate around him. His school becomes increasingly hostile towards the few Jewish gentiles enrolled. The Nazi Youth gradually begin to take over the school, assimilating even his close friends. And, as Germany comes to a critical point with the passing of the Nuremburg Laws and poised on the precipice of calamitous change, Karl must use his newfound strength and decide who, and what, to believe in.
Based on the devastating days leading up to the brutal devastation of Krystallnact, The Berlin Boxing Club is a beautiful, harrowing beast of a novel. A sports book, a coming of age story, and a historical recounting of the early days leading to one of the greatest atrocities in human history, Mr. Sharenow’s historical fiction novel told through the eyes of young Karl Stern is an incisive, powerful read. Based on the events in Germany from the early to mid 1930s and centered with the figure of Max Schmelling, The Berlin Boxing Club is both historically accurate and manages to be emotionally resonant without being emotionally exploitative – and in a novel dealing with the events leading up to the Holocaust, this is no small feat.
Even more importantly, The Berlin Boxing Club is never preachy nor didactic – its protagonist, Karl, is conflicted and openly admits, repeatedly, how he would have loved to join the Nazi Youth, how he feels rage and exclusion when his friends start to wear the uniform and how much he just wishes he could simply join in the movement. He despairs that his younger sister and father look traditionally Jewish with dark curly hair, hooked noses, and large lips. In this sense, I loved that Mr. Sharenow never takes the easy way out and lets his protagonist off the hook. Instead of Karl turning into a champion for his fellow Jewish classmates and the weak, Karl only gradually comes to the realization that his hero Max might not be perfect. I loved the tension and internal conflict that Karl faces at each turn in the novel – from his own fervent and conflicted desires to distance himself from his Jewish birthright, with his frustrations with his pacifist father and depressed mother, to his gradual disenchantment with his boxing hero. In fact, ALL of the characters in The Berlin Boxing Club are fantastically detailed and conflicted. Among my favorites are Karl’s family (his father, mother, and younger sister), as well as Karl’s stuttering cornerman from the boxing club, with the big heart and the keen eye. Of course, there’s also Max Schmeling himself, and I think Mr. Sharenow does an admirable job of humanizing a larger than life character that never joined the Nazi party – but never stood actively against it, either.
And on top of all the writing accolades in terms of character and plot, The Berlin Boxing Club is also a love letter to the sweet science and the greats that fought in the ring in the 1930s, just as it is an illustrated novel with an Al Jaffe-esque flair. As a boxing fan, I still don’t know too much about the sport in its earlier days and it was fascinating to learn about the great Jewish boxers in America of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I loved the training sequences that Karl would engage in, the fights he finally gets to fight, his hopes and struggles and dreams. In short, I loved this book.
Powerful without being exploitative, never descending into triteness or slipping into emotional manipulative territory, The Berlin Boxing Club is one hell of a novel. Absolutely recommended, and one of my favorite, notable reads of the year....more
Addie and Eva. Eva and Addie. From birth, the two souls have shared the same breath and heartbeat, occupied tOriginally Reviewed on The Book Smugglers
Addie and Eva. Eva and Addie. From birth, the two souls have shared the same breath and heartbeat, occupied the same flesh, inseparably intertwined. The girls are twin souls, hybrid souls - and like everyone else born in the world, they grow together sharing their every thought and feeling with the other. As the years pass, they also fight for control of their shared body, learning who is stronger and who is weaker. Because in Addie and Eva's world, by the age of 10, a dominant soul is meant to emerge, the recessive soul meant to simply fade away, as though it never existed. Addie and Eva are different, though, and as the years pass, Eva refuses to disappear. The neighbors talk, the kids at school stare, and the government doctors step in. At the age of 12, after tests and treatments and thorough examination, Addie is declared "normal" and Eva is no more.
Except that Eva did not disappear, and still lives and breathes. Addie and Eva, Eva and Addie are Hybrid. After years of ceaseless war between normal, single soul Americans and invading monstrous Hybrids, fear of Hybrids is pervasive and without compare. This is Addie and Eva's greatest secret, and if they are to be discovered and revealed as a Hybrid, they will be imprisoned, killed, or worse.
So one day, when a strange girl at school named Hallie begins to relentlessly seek out Addie, Addie and Eva are terrified that she knows their secret. But that's when Addie and Eva learn that Hallie is just like them, a secret hybrid - but Hallie's other soul, Lissa, has the control and ability to move and talk on her own. Eva, who has been a passenger for so long, who has only ever been able to talk to Addie in her mind, will do anything to learn how Hallie and Lissa coexist. Even if it means risking their greatest, most guarded secret.
The debut novel from author Kat Zhang, What's Left of Me is a new entry in the sci-fi dystopia YA realm - an overpopulated, largely bland and somewhat homogenous landscape with a few amazing, brightly shining exceptions. Whenever I find a new novel of this particular subgenre, I am wary, but try to be cautiously optimistic - yes, there are many bland Not Dystopias that seem to use a pale, halfbaked totalitarian society as a mere backdrop for contrived insta-romance. At the same time, this is one of my most beloved subgenres, and home to many of my favorite books - from The Giver through Obernewtyn, The Knife of Never Letting Go through Blood Red Road.
It was with trepidation that I began What's Left of Me; it was with complete and rapt exhilaration that I finished the book. What's Left of Me is an original, harrowing, and unforgettable novel, and I loved every second of it.
The thing that first caught my eye about Zhang's debut novel was the conceit of two different souls born into the same body, living together until one emerges dominant and the other dissolves. In Eva and Addie's case, though, the two souls remain occupying the same flesh - which seems impossible, doesn't it? How could you live with two completely different entities within, knowing each other's every thought and experience? How could two souls live together and have one fall in love?
The very idea of Hybrids is fascinating, but more importantly, Zhang delivers in the execution of this unique concept brilliantly, through clever writing and the characterization of Eva. What's Left of Me is narrated by Eva, Addie's repressed soul who has clung tooth and nail to life - or whatever small semblance of life she can have as a secret observer to Addie's life, communicating only with Addie. From the time they were children, both accepted and loved by their family and society in the years before they were due to Settle, Addie was always the dominant one, quicker and stronger than Eva in controlling their body. And, through Eva's perspective, we see just how isolated she is, how cruel her very existence is - Addie gets to walk and talk and live, while Eva is a secret that no one can ever know about. Not her parents, not her brother, no one. Yet for this, Eva isn't resentful or bitter - but when she is given the chance to move and live like Addie, it makes sense that she desperately clings to that possibility, regardless of the risk involved. At the same time, even though the book is narrated by Eva, we also learn and feel for and understand Addie, too - who must love and resent Eva's existence, keeping her from being "normal" but at the same time her greatest confidant and an inseparable part of her. It's amazing to read the kind of quiet symbiosis the two souls have achieved - at one point, Addie and Eva fight and stop talking to each other, and as a result, Addie forgets where her hairbrush is, or to turn off her alarm because Eva is the observant one that reminds Addie to do these things each day. Little touches like that add a believable dynamic to the girls' complicated relationship.
What's Left of Me also weaves the nature of these conflicted dual souls into the writing of the book - we can see Eva and Addie's relationship change as the pronouns start to shift, from me and mine to us and ours. Addie begins to vocalize the forbidden "us" in reference to herself and Eva; Eva does not feel guilt for her existence and feels tactile things and emotions of her own volition. This is incredibly, mind-blowingly effective, and I love the careful even-handedness of this narrative development.
On the dystopia-meter, What's Left of Me also delivers. The xenophobia that characterizes the novel - the intense fear and hatred of the Other in the form of Hybrids is palpable and exceptionally well done in this book. Addie and Eva's world is truly a dystopian one, and their society guards terrible secrets - what happens to those children who don't Settle and emerge with one Dominant soul? Why are there Hybrids in the first place? There's so much more, too - there's a Golden Compass sort of horror and reveal at what exactly is being done to children Hybrids taken in by the government. There's the characters of Hallie and Lissa, and her older brother Devon and recessive soul Ryan - who comes to mean something very important to Eva. There are nefarious and conflicted doctors alike, and, most of all, there are other, much larger reveals about the nature of this future America and its place in the rest of the world.
In short, allow me to summarize: What's Left of Me is a dazzling, utterly memorable first novel, and in the running for one of my top ten favorite books of the year. This is the stuff of great science fiction dystopia, YA or adult alike. Absolutely, wholeheartedly, emphatically recommended. ...more
Thea: Awe. Horror. Utter, depraved delight. All of these are emotions I experiencOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
Thea: Awe. Horror. Utter, depraved delight. All of these are emotions I experienced while reading The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls, the debut novel from Claire Legrand. Cavendish has a little bit of everything - a dash of Matilda, a heaping dose of Coraline, a touch of Tim Burton, topped off with a whole lotta original awesomeness, too, naturally. This is one fantastic book, and I loved it from cover to cover.
Ana: When I finished reading The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls I decided I needed to tell my colleagues all about it. It was just after lunch break and I was decidedly giddy about it. This is how I presented it: a fabulous horror book for children featuring cockroaches, cannibalism, a perfect little girl who she sets out to save her best friend. As I grew more and more enthusiastic about my recounting of the book, I stood up and I might have re-enacted a scene or two of the book – one of them, to the horror of those around me, involved an army of roaches. This is going to be our book club read for Halloween. Long story short: I loved this so much, I subjected myself to ridicule by re-enacting a scene with cockroaches.
On the Plot:
Thea: Victoria Wright is twelve years old and the top of her class at Impetus Academy. The pride of her stylish mother and well-connected father, Victoria makes sure that everything in her life is orderly and perfect, from her gleaming curls to her impeccable grades. In fact, the only thing that is not just so for Victoria is her one and only friend Lawrence Prewitt. Lawrence, also twelve years old, is a quiet boy with gray hairs that make him look a bit like a skunk, who doesn't care about his grades or what others think of him. What Lawrence cares about is music - he's a prodigy on the piano, but not much good at anything else. One day, after witnessing some particularly rude and disorderly taunting of Lawrence, Victoria decides to take him on as her own special project and befriends the strange musical boy (even when he resists and rejects her). Victoria and Lawrence grow to be close friends, until the day that Lawrence disappears.
Although the Prewitts insist that Lawrence is simply off visiting his ill Grandmother, Victoria notices that something is wrong - and this wrongness is not just with Lawrence's parents, but with so many others in the pristine town of Belleville. Peoples' smiles are garishly tight, their teeth too gleamingly white, and something else scuttles around the dark corners that Victoria can't quite see.
At the heart of all this wrongness is the orphanage on Nine Silldie Place - The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls. Children, like Lawrence, are disappearing from Belleville, and no one seems to care - no one but a few quickly silenced adults (like Professor Alban) and Victoria, that is. Victoria is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, to find her friend, and to restore sanity to the world.
From a pure plotting and storytelling perspective, The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls is a delightfully terrifying, deliciously creepy read - one that effectively plays with familiar tropes and images, like scuttling bugs in dark corners, mystery meat for breakfast, lunch and dinner, a house with voices and shifting halls, and a terrifying puppetmaster under a sheen of glamour in the form of Mrs. Cavendish at the center of it all. In Claire Legrand's blog post today, she cites a few MG titles that influenced her work (in particular her heroine Victoria), and the homage she pays to these fabulous books are strewn throughout Cavendish. There's Roald Dahl's Matilda - from the terrifying Home's "hangar" (where children are...hanged), which feels very much like Dahl's Chokey, to the horrific coaching Mrs. Cavendish gives to a boy who cannot resist eating sweets, which feels very much like Miss Trunchbull's abusive cake-punishment inflicted on a sweet-toothed student. There's also glimmers of Neil Gaiman's Coraline in Cavendish, too - the shimmering facade of the Other Mother in Mrs. Cavendish's tight, sunny smiles hiding a monster beneath, the oddness of the Other Mother's realm in the other dimension that the Cavendish Home embodies.
But, most importantly, while some of the elements are familiar and the hat-tips to influential works are unmistakable, The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls has no shortage of its very own original magic. At heart, Cavendish tells the story of a prickly heroine that learns her own worth and the value of friendship - that different and disorderly does not always mean worse. To make this point, Claire Legrand is as gleefully sadistic as her titular Mrs. Cavendish - inflicting all kinds of deranged punishment on her characters, including (but not limited to) physical, emotional, and psychological torture; swarming, stinging beetle-roaches; and stinking food with mysterious chunks of rubbery meat for every meal. Even better - Legrand's writing is even-handed and never gratuitous or pandering, as she manages to keep the voice consistent with its middle grade heroine, but still make the story appealing (and properly horrific) for older readers alike. The story is brisk, the tension high, and as Victoria learns the true nature of the Cavendish Home and the secret of her perfect town, I was utterly, wholly under Cavendish's spell.
Ana: Unfortunately I am not schooled in Horror stories and more to the point, I am most definitely not well-read in children’s Horror stories . This means that even though I do understand some of the references and recognise some of the influences that Thea noted above, to me the sense of the familiar that the book engenders stems from archetypical fears rather than specific works. As such, Cavendish plays really well into those familiar fears: the fear of the dark and of confined spaces; of losing one’s parents; of loneliness and being at the mercy of enemies; of the monsters under the bed (or behind a wall) and of the creepy crawly insects. And then it goes beyond by combining those archetypical fears with the book’s own thematic elements: self-acceptance and the value of friendship and the importance of memory – of remembering people that are gone and the things have gone wrong in the past so that they are not repeated again.
This is a Horror story and it is meant to be horrific. I love that the author does not pander to her audience - although at times I admit found myself clutching my imaginary pearls in extreme horror and going “I can’t believe she went there”. I loved the book because it was a proper horror story and it doesn’t shy away from it. Interestingly, it is hinted that the parents of those children actually would have wanted them to go to the Cavendish Home to become perfect, well-behaved little children. As such, this makes the book all the more impacting because then the Cavendish Home might as well be a mirror to the world outside: a world that strives for a certain type of perfection that is fake and unnatural.
Of course, it also helps that the prose itself is pretty awesome and that the story is developed beautifully as a Quest to save a Best Friend (and in the process of doing so, also save the town).
On the Characters:
Ana: Victoria, the main character is an incredible MG heroine. Assertive, intelligent, self-sufficient. Incredibly self-aware about certain things: about her sense of self-worth and about her integrity, sense of honour and extreme dedication to her own education with a love for knowledge and a desire for victory. But she was also completely oblivious to others: like her potential for cruelty, the sense of superiority that effectively distanced her from the other kids and her real feelings for Lawrence (whom I loved from basically page 1).
I loved that the majority of those characteristics are not presented as negative aspects in themselves – they only become negative when Victoria thinks of herself as superior (and therefore better) to everybody else when they don’t show the same features. Her character arc is great - as per the thematic core of the novel, she learns to accept others for who they are (e.g. completely different from her) without changing her own personality. In fact it is her very own non-nonsense way to look at the world that saves her life.
As for Mrs Cavendish: Mrs Cavendish is that sort of unrepentant, black-and-white villain that is so easy to loathe. She reminded me of Professor Umbridge with her potential for unparalleled cruelty, the kind that entwines both physical and emotional torture.
Thea: Allow me to break out of serious reviewer mode and commence gushing: OH MY GOSH PEOPLE I FREAKING LOVE LOVE LOVE VICTORIA SO MUCH. Just as the author says in her guest post about heroines, Victoria is a prickly, snobbish, perfectionist of a heroine. The mere thought of earning a B is horrific to her, and she goes about her pristine, ordered life with nary a thought for what she might be missing or whom she is hurting in her quest for Utter Victory (Academic or otherwise). And yet, despite her frosty princess qualities, Victoria is an incredibly compelling and likable heroine, because underneath that hardened shell of self-importance, she actually is a loyal, true friend (though she's oblivious to this fact). Heck, the only reason why she stands a chance against Mrs. Cavendish and her cohorts is because she has such a hard head and a stubborn streak a mile wide.
On the other side of the coin, however, there is Mrs. Cavendish - our villain, who also quests for and demands utter perfection of everyone in the town of Belleville. At different parts of the book, comparisons are drawn between Victoria and Mrs. Cavendish, showing the similarities between the two characters - both Victoria and Mrs. Cavendish demand others conform to their standards and beliefs. And through the horrors inflicted on children and the townspeople by Mrs. Cavendish, Victoria gradually learns that sometimes perfect is not perfect at all. In particular, I love one scene where Mrs. Cavendish forces one of the girls to paint the same bland, pretty picture over and over again, and Victoria reflects on Jacqueline's art before - how it was shocking and disturbing and made people feel things, in stark contrast to the perfect, soulless pictures Mrs. Cavendish forces Jacqueline to create. Mrs. Cavendish perhaps was once like Victoria, gone down a different, dark path - I love the contrast painted between these two characters, and how Victoria breaks free from Mrs. Cavendish's cruel grip.
Although, I should mention that what I love most of all about Victoria is the fact that while she does change over the course of the novel, she does not emerge from Cavendish as some benevolent, repentant child. No, she is still prickly, still overacheiving, still hyperorganized to a fault - but she realizes that she wants and needs more than distant approval from her parents and wants their love, just as she knows she yearns for Lawrence's friendship just as much as he yearns for hers. And that is all kinds of awesome.
Final Thoughts, Observations & Rating:
Ana:The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls is an amazingly fun and creepy read. The author develops its thematic core of self-worth without being preachy and without pandering to readers – this is Horror, yes. But Horror with a Heart.
Thea: I completely, wholeheartedly agree. The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls is a beautifully written, gleefully horrific novel that is perfect for readers young and old. Starring a truly remarkable protagonist in Victoria (who can go toe-to-toe with the finest heroines in the middle grade canon), and featuring terrifying (but appropriate and never gratuitous) horror in the form of Mrs. Cavendish, The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls simply rocks. Easily one of my notable reads of 2012. ...more
I cannot begin to express how happy I am to have read this book before the end of the year and just in tReview originally posted on The Book Smugglers
I cannot begin to express how happy I am to have read this book before the end of the year and just in time to add it to my top 10 of 2011: a veritable Smugglivus miracle! The Song of Achilles is so good, it is one of those books that makes me want to be a better reviewer so that I can do it justice, so that more people can read it. This is my attempt to sing its praises.
In Greek Mythology, Achilles is one of the greatest heroes of the Trojan War and one of the main characters of Homer’s Iliad. Son of a minor Goddess, the Nymph Thetis and of a human, King Peleus, it was foretold that Achilles would be a great hero, immortalised forever by his exploits during the Trojan War, but that he would die young if he joined that war. Choosing to follow that path to Glory and Fame, Achilles is effectively the Greek’s main weapon against the Trojan army: his aim is sure, the invulnerability of his body legendary and his beauty a thing to behold. He is also extremely arrogant, prone to unquenchable wrath and proud to the point of hubris. And it is his pride that eventually costs the lives of thousands of Greece when he withdraws from the fight due to a feud with Agamemnon, the Greek Army’s leader. He only returns to battle after his best friend Patroclus dies killed by Hector, Troy’s beloved hero. This sets the stage for the final act of the War and of Achille’s life. His revenge on Hector for Patroclus’ death is pitiless and cruel as he not only slays him, but he dishonours his body by dragging it behind his chariot and denies him a proper funeral. At least until Hector’s father, the King of Troy begs him for his son’s body. Soon after that, Achilles is killed and his ashes are buried together with those of Patroclus.
Needless to say, Patroclus and Achilles’ is a seminal relationship in Greek Mythology and in The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller posits that it is also a deeply romantic one. Told from Patroclus’ point of view, the story starts with his own childhood, growing up as a Prince, hated and bullied by his own father for his weakness and naivety until he is exiled to the court of King Peleus after killing a noble’s son in an accident. It is there that he meets prince Achilles, who soon becomes a childhood companion, a close friend and eventually, the love of his life. In this book, Patroclus becomes more than a secondary character and through his eyes, Achilles is presented in a different light.
Their budding love story is absolutely beautiful. Patroclus can hardly believe that a Prince like Achilles, a semi-God with a real future could take any interest on an exiled, nameless boy and yet he does. Their baby steps toward becoming lovers are awkward, fraught with fear of discovery but also extremely tender. Achilles is absolutely devoted to Patroclus (and vice-versa) in a relationship of equals: Achilles might the greatest hero of the Trojan war but whenever he steps back in their tent, he is Patroclus’ comrade, playful mate and ardent lover. Mind you, Patroclus’ perspective goes a long way in humanising Achilles and making him more of a nuanced character but never letting us forget that Achilles is a self-centred and proud warrior and has but one goal in life. The key element of this story is how Patroclus’ narrative unveils the possible motivations behind Achilles’ actions. He is fearful of his ultimate demise but wants the glory more than anything in the world: after all, he was brought up to have it. His refusal to fight in the war, an inaction that causes so many deaths could be interpreted (but never excused) as a fierce protection of his honour, the one thing he will have after his impending death. His hubris is such that he wants to be the greatest hero that has ever lived but also hopes and expects for the happy ending that has been denied to all heroes before him. And in one of my favourite scenes in the novel, Achilles tells Patroclus that his happy ending is wholly dependent on Patroclus’ being with him. Another favourite is how the author incorporated the prophecy that Hector’s fall precedes that of Achilles. He knows that and for ten years manages to avoid facing off Hector in the battlefield by saying – to the puzzlement of his fellow warriors – that Hector has never done anything against him, why would he pursue a fight against him? Of course the savvy reader knows exactly what Hector will eventually do, and there is a sense of impending doom and tense narrative that is all the more impressive considering how well, everybody knows how the story ends.
And when it does end in tears and grief so intense, the tears and the grief within the story were mirrored by my own. Major kudos to the author for being fateful to the original but writing it in a way that makes the very ending to this story, a happy one.
In addition, even though I feel that the main focus is the love story between Achilles and Patroclus, their story does not happen in a vacuum. There are other interesting, well developed characters (I especially loved Achilles’ mother Thetis and her side of the story) as well as themes that are intrinsically linked to a story such as this. There is the potential discussion of fate and free will and the fact that Greek Gods are meddlesome and even cruel and yet humans hardly questioned it. There is also Achilles’ heroism itself which is fabled and expected even before he has done anything even remotely heroic. Not to mention the fact that the ideal of Greek heroism is so completely different to our own ideal of what being heroic means: it is more about deeds than behaviour. In that sense, I feel that in this book’s version, Patroclus could be constructed as the heroic one of the duo (due to his actions during the War) and to a certain extent this is a modernised, contemporary view of this story and one that I truly enjoyed.
Finally, I loved how The Song of Achilles is ultimately, Patroclus’ plea for Achilles to be not only remembered as the self-centred, egotistical Trojan War hero whose selfish actions were directly responsible for the deaths of thousands of Greeks but also as a wonderful musician, playful mate, someone capable of deep feelings and a devoted companion and lover.
My own plea is that you read this book immediately. ...more
Ana: All Men of Genius has been marketed as a Steampunk retelling of Shakespeare’sOriginal review posted on The Book Smugglers HERE
Ana: All Men of Genius has been marketed as a Steampunk retelling of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Well, I love Steampunk (when done well) and the two aforementioned plays are my favourites by their respective authors so I was super excited to read this. At the same time, I was quite wary as there is this really thin line separating great homage from simple reproduction. I need not have worried: Mr Rosen’s book is basically made of awesome and I loved every single second of it.
In fact, you will have to excuse me while I wax poetic all over this review.
Thea: I remember catching wind of this title right before BEA and then excitedly telling Ana that this sounded like an awesome candidate for a joint review – there’s the steampunk goodness PLUS the wonderful literary allusions/inspirations, not to mention the fun cover and clever title. It is, in short, the perfect amalgam of things that we Smugglers love. I went into this book expecting a delightful romantic comedy of errors and a lighthearted romp through a steampunkified Victorian London – and I am happy to report that All Men of Genius delivers exactly that, with some surprising depth to boot.
On the Plot:
Ana: Violet Adams is a brilliant inventor and mechanical genius who would love nothing more than to attend the world-famous Illyria College. Unfortunately for Violet, the College will not accept women, who are regarded by society as the lesser gender. But that will not stop Violet and aided by her twin brother Ashton and their best friend Jack, she comes up with scheme to masquerade as her brother and attend the colleague: her goal is to become the College’s best student and at the end of the year, reveal herself as a woman. Things get a little more complicated when Ernest, the Duke of Illyria and the headmaster of the College, becomes infatuated with Violet-as-Ashton (who reciprocates the feeling much to her own dismay) at the same time that his ward Cecily also develops feelings for the student. Violet has to deal with all of this and attend the lessons and concoct the experiment that will prove her genius amongst serious competition with other students. Meanwhile, there is something afoot in the labyrinth beneath the College where long lost secrets still dwell.
I can’t even begin to express how much I loved this book.
In terms of the plot it follows Violet and her friends during this one year at College and it deals with several different threads. In this alternate universe London, the College is a centre for scientific experiments in a proper Steampunk manner featuring not only automata and steam-powered machines but also biological/medical advancements in genetics that allow (terrible) experimentations with animals and even with human beings.
As an aside, this is probably my only main criticism of the book: that there is little ethical questioning about this (although some of the characters do show some horror to what some of the students are doing) but since learning that there will be a sequel, I hope this will be addressed somehow.
There is also the mystery of what is going on in the basement of the school which may or may not relate to a group of Mad Scientists that wish for World Nomination and that sounds a bit trite because well, not all Science Fiction needs to feature the mad conspiracies. BUT it not only kept me going and what’s the best thing about this, is that the eventual revelation is completely anti-climatic and I totally loved that it was so. It not only fit the story but more to the point it fit its mood and atmosphere.
And then of course, there is the scheme itself and how to keep Violet’s identity a secret from everybody; there is all the falling in love and falling out of love and love returned and love spurned. Most of it is a comedy of manners and a comedy of errors and I am a sucker for both especially when done with such aplomb. I mean, I loved everything about it: the writing, the narrative style which features an almost omniscient narrator, the banter between the characters and their adventures. This is where the novel follows the original plays very closely – if you are familiar with either play, you will know exactly where the story is going and who ends up with each other (well, more or less since Ashton don’t really play his original role, but more on that later). But what fascinated me the most is that even with that, this story was still fresh and original and the author’s own not only because of the Steampunk elements but because of how it developed. For example, it is very common in Shakespearian plays for characters to fall in love at first sight and this happens here when Jack falls in love with Cecily but she totally calls him on that – how is it possible that he can love her at first sight without knowing her?
More than that though, I loved how the story was set in a somewhat similar Victorian London and despite the scientific advancements, it was still a society with prejudices and sexism. I thought the author was at extremely ease with exploring and examining subtly and with compassion those issues, dealing with gender bias, sexism, racism and homophobia really well.
To sum up: All Men of Genius is charming, fun, funny, romantic and as the English would say, totally my cup of tea.
Thea: What Ana said. If you’re familiar with Twelfth Night and The Importance of Being Earnest, you can basically guess how All Men of Genius plays out. I loved the allusions, both obvious and subtle, to each play; Violet’s invention of a mechanical perambulator (in which neither a baby nor a novel can be forgotten or switched); the phonetic similarities between Ashton/Sebastian, Violet/Viola, Miriam/Maria, the delightful “Malcom Volio” for Malvolio; and so on and so forth. But more than the similarities in names and plot devices, I loved that this hybrid version of Wilde’s and the Bard’s comedy of mistaken identities has a much deeper examination of sexism, sexuality, and status. It’s actually incredibly impressive that Mr. Rosen is able to stay so close to the source material while translating it to a context that is both engrossing speculative fiction AND a bitingly relevant societal critique.
Like Ana, I was easily drawn in by the comedic elements of this story – Violet, dressed as a man, heads to Illyria to fulfill her lifelong dream and prove that a woman is just as eligible for a career in the sciences as a man. Like her inspirational Shakespearean counterpoint Viola, Violet defies convention in order to find a place in a society that forces women into set roles – and she’s not the only one to do so. Her twin brother, Ashton, also plays within the niceties towards outward facing society, but is an unapologetic “invert” (the Victorian term for homosexual) that loves as he wills – which is freaking awesome. There’s also Cecily, the sixteen year old ward (the embodiment both her Earnest namesake and Olivia from Twelfth Night) who is beautiful and believes herself to be in love with Violet-as-Ashton. But rather than stunting her character as a love-struck girl, Mr. Rosen gives her a voice beyond that of the blandly naive young ward and shows that part of the reason she falls in love with “Ashton” is because “he” treats her as an equal and admires her scientific skill and know-how. There’s also Miriam, Cecily’s governess, who is so much more than her Twelfth Night counterpart, Maria, with her desire for freedom, both socially and sexually. Long story short – I loved the way that Mr. Rosen managed to pay tribute to the plays that inspired this novel, but managed to make them relevant and thematically brilliant by dealing with sensitive issues of gender, sexuality, and social norms.
But let’s not forget about the Speculative Fiction element! After all, this is a steampunk novel set in an alternate Victorian London. Like Ana says, I think the charm of this book in terms of world/setting is in that Illyria is not a mere college devoted to the creation of dirigibles and automata. While Violet IS a mechanical genius, Illyria allows for other kinds of brilliance – from the genetically/biologically ambitious (Victor Frankenstein would have been gleefully at home here) to those who long to gaze at the stars and divine the meanings of their celestial movements.
The only plot element that I felt was slightly undercooked was that of young Volio and his nefarious schemes. The mystery of the school’s labyrinthine corridors and the secrets they harbor are the underlying impetus for the climax of the novel, and while it works in a wonderfully absurdist Wilde-esque way, it felt a bit of an easy way to pin everything on a main villain. Plus, by the end of the novel we only really learn a tiny bit about the mysterious society of Illyria – but as there’s a sequel in the works, I’m certain more will come to light in a future installment.
On the Characters:
Ana: If I loved the plot because it was so close to the originals, I loved the characters all the more because this is where All Men of Genius deviates from the original stories the most because the author took some of the characters into different paths and gave some of them voices.
A significant difference for example comes with Ashton, Violet’s twin brother who, in this story, is gay and although he is a bit of a secondary character, there is enough exploration of his difficult situation in a society that doesn’t accept queer people. At the same time, I loved how sister and his friends accepted his sexual orientation without any problems whatsoever.
There is quite a diverse cast of characters, the majority of them beautifully rendered in depth. I even felt that the villain had his reasons (but that might be because I secretly always felt bad for Malvolio in Shakespeare’s play). I loved the bittersweet relationship between another young, Sir Toby and the older Governess Miriam. I loved that Miriam was given a personality separate to what was happening to her ward Cecily, that she is just like Violet, an independent woman who wants to be able to do more with her life and be as free to love and have fun as she wants. There is this beautiful scene where Violet – just like Miriam- muses about the simple pleasure of going out with friends to a tavern to drink and be merry, a pleasure that is denied to her because she is a woman. And I loved that – I loved every single female character in this book because they had personalities and arcs of their own independently of any male counterpart even though all of them were involved in a romantic storyline. This to me, is awesome.
Thea: I completely and wholeheartedly agree. There are many familiar elements and homages paid in All Men of Genius, which makes those differences all the more potent. With his portrayal of Violet, Mr. Rosen gives our heroine not only the pluck and survival instincts of Viola, but also takes into account the context of Victorian England and prevailing sexism. Should Violet be caught in her disguise, she, like other women who dared to pose as men in order to gain an education, would be thrown in prison indefinitely (or worse). I loved that Violet addresses and weighs these possibilities against her own actions and makes the conscious decision to go to Illyria, because the stakes are so high. I also loved that while Violet discovers freedom when she poses as a man, she also discovers her own desire to be and grow as a woman. The balance is wonderfully wrought, and I loved the finesse and skill that Mr. Rosen shows his heroine.
I also have to agree with Ana that all of the female characters in this piece are fantastic and my easy favorites – Cecily grows in her own confidences and becomes a young woman, but it is the widowed Miriam that captured my heart. A governess, a widow, but still a young woman yearning for freedom and life outside of marriage, Miriam’s quest for happiness was completely unexpected (to me) and added a depth and nuance to a novel that was for the large part a sparkling, light comedy. I also adored Ashton and his support for his sister and his resolve to be happy, just as I loved the easygoing prankster Jack, who also grows and learns what it means to truly love someone. Finally, there’s the Duke of Illyria himself, the Ernest of this piece (who is also equal parts Orsino). Ernest is a sympathetic hero that one can’t help but feel for – romantic and soft-spoken, his romance with Viola-as-Ashton (and as Viola) is hilarious and heartfelt. There’s a kiss that literally comes out of nowhere that had me gleefully laughing, and I’m kind of glad that Lev Rosen goes there (I always wondered about the attraction between Orsino and “Sebastian” in Twelfth Night, and I think the way it is handled here, with much introspection, is very clever indeed).
Final Thoughts, Observations & Rating:
Ana: As you can see, I loved this book with all my heart to the point I can hardly contain myself. It’s been a while since I had so much unreserved fun reading a book. All I can say now is that All Men of Genius is an Ana-Book through and through and I hugged it when I finished reading it. It has a secure spot on my top 10 this year.
Thea: I also truly loved the book, and like Ana, had a very fun time reading it. Absolutely recommended to all, and a Notable Read of 2011....more
But at first, it totally threw me. I started reading it and was all like what iSo, this book.
My last Frances Hardinge (woe).
Kind of blew my mind away.
But at first, it totally threw me. I started reading it and was all like what is this? Because this is the only Hardinge that is not set in a secondary world. It is the only Hardinge set in our own contemporary world. It is the only Hardinge that has a boy protagonist. It is the only Hardinge that is more Horror than Fantasy:
Three friends Ryan, Chelle and Josh find themselves without their bus fare home and daredevil Josh climbs down the local Wishing Well to collect some of its coins to pay for their journey. Then weird things start to happen. Ryan gets warts on his hands – warts that turn out to be eyes that give him second sight. Chelle starts to broadcast other people’s thoughts, uncontrollably babbling out loud what they are thinking. Josh affects the magnetic fields around him giving him power over metal and electronics. In the meantime, Ryan also starts dreaming about a terrifying figure and that’s when it hits them that what they stole were wishes and now the spirit of the well expects them to grant those, aided by their new powers.
At first, things seem easy enough. A guy wants a Harley Davidson, let’s get him one. A girl wants to hook up with the person she is in love with, let’s get them together.
But soon the kids realise that wishes are not as straightforward as that because sure, the guy might wish for a Harley Davidson, but what he really wants is to be cool. And how can they possibly ascertain those different layers? And what happens when someone wishes for something negative to happen to their enemies?
Just then, things get really out of hand when Josh starts to enjoy his powers a bit too much.
Verdigris Deep might sound like the Odd One Out among Hardinge’s bibliography but it’s not really. There is the awesome concept, just like her other books. There is the cleverness of the plot, the creativity of the story and the refusal to pander to children. The love for language shines through and oh my God, how could I not be completely head over heels in love with how language finds new highs in her books:
Some ten yards away, Ryan stood there stupidly holding a carrier bag full of canned sweetcorn while he watched the continents of his world collide and the stars fall out of the sky. Almost involuntarily he started counting through the Fibonacci sequence in his head to keep himself sane. One, two, three, five, eight…Today the numbers failed him. The way they built up only seemed an echo of what was happening before him, where every bitter sentence added to the last to make something bigger and worse.
Although in a way this does feel like more of an internalised story. Her other books deal with characters growing up in the middle of revolutions or in grandiose, extravagant settings and as such, internal and external conflicts develop side by side.
In Verdigris Deep , the story is informed by the three characters and the powers they gain are granted according to their personalities.
Popular, energetic but unloved Josh gets the most flashy of the powers, the one that allows him to ascertain more control over those around him. Both Ryan and Chelle worship Josh to the point of blindness even as he is cruel and unsympathetic.
Chelle is insecure and shy and kind of the outsider in the group, always babbling away even though the others never pay attention to what she says. At one point, Josh cruelly refers to her as the coleslaw of the group – a side dish that you eat up but don’t really care for.
Ryan is the focal character and he is quiet and lonely, never saying what he really wants or means. His narrative starts off as unsympathetic, detached and even a little bit callous when describing the people around him.
The story progresses as the powers they have gained help Ryan developing a great degree of self-awareness. The realisation about the hero-worship behind his relationship with Josh as well as his own capacity for cruelty (after all, doesn’t he also think of Chelle as the coleslaw?) are only part of how the relationships and the characters are deconstructed, pulled apart and then built up again with sympathy and compassion.
In spite of all of the hijinks, the fear and the creepy factor of the novel as the kids get more and more involved with the Spirit of the Well, this is much more of an understated, quiet novel. Because this is a book that is much more about the microcosm than the macro, it doesn’t end in Revolution or Change with capital letters in quite the same way that Hardinge’s other books do. But it is still in many ways, a book about revolution and change just as much because in the end, the kids’ lives have been altered, bettered and they have grown up. It is a very emotional, touching and humane story.
So basically, what I am saying is: Frances Hardinge is right now, my favourite writer. Let her career be a long and prosperous one. ...more