The Ladies of Mandrigyn is utterly delightful. It is, in fact, exactly what I was looking for when I attempted Jennifer Roberson's Sword Dancer, whichThe Ladies of Mandrigyn is utterly delightful. It is, in fact, exactly what I was looking for when I attempted Jennifer Roberson's Sword Dancer, which so disappointed me. The Ladies of Mandrigyn makes no pretensions to being anything more than a pure sword-and-sorcery novel, replete with heroic acts and larger than life characters played out against a highly romantic background, but the execution is flawless, the characters never cease being sympathetic (or devolve into charicatures) and, most importantly, there is plenty of humor.
Sun Wolf and Starhawk, needless to say, are stock characters. What so delighted me about this novel was that Hambly handled them like real people without ever losing what has made those stock characters so successful in the fantasy genre. She spent most of the novel inside their two heads (though it was technically written third-person omniscient, because when it suited her Hambly did delve into other characters' motivations at will), letting us see the pasts that made them what they are. And by staying in their heads so closely through all the action, we were also able to see the fears and doubts that neither character would ever share with those around him/her, maintaining both the realism for the reader and the virtual perfection for the observer inside the novel.
What set this novel apart even further from the run of the mill sword-and-sorcery novel was that that realism of character extended to all of the minor characters in the novel. Every character that has a speaking role is an easily identified stock character that Hambly makes completely three dimensional. Where this is most impressive (or at least most noticeable) is with the eponymous ladies of Mandrigyn. Most fantasy novels, even those written by women, have very few female characters. This may be because fantasy is usually action or politics oriented and women traditionally have not been leaders in those spheres; it may be because the female fantasy authors today grew up reading male fantasy authors who only introduced women to their novels as damsels in distress; it may be because women still grow up in a society that places more value on men. Whatever the reason, I have learned to enjoy the occasional strong female character in isolation from her own kind. Starhawk is this type of strong female character, and if the story had been about Sun Wolf and Starhawk in their mercenary band that is exactly what it would have looked like.
But the brilliant (though of course still not unique -- I can name one or two other authors that have a similar premise, but only one or two) thing that Hambly did in this novel was make Sun Wolf the fish out of water, a lone strong man surrounded by women. She didn't take the cop-out route of making the women a bizarre Amazonian exception to all the normal gender roles; she set him down firmly among women who were used to fulfilling those traditional gender roles and are being forced out of them by circumstances out of their control. The myriad ways the women reacted to this unwanted freedom is wonderfully realized, as is Sun Wolf's gradual awareness of how similar and different these women are from the men (and the occasional solitary woman) he is used to training. I especially loved Hambly decision to give Sheera that calamitous magic that true leaders have, that charisma that turns otherwise intelligent human beings into lemmings, rather than simply making her leader because her soon-to-be husband possesses that magic.
There isn't that much else to say about the novel. I will admit, Hambly doesn't write her battle scenes terribly well; I found myself lost within them at several points. However, she seems to know that this is a weakness, because she lets most of the battles occur off stage, keeping the focus of the story on those things she does best: funny dialogue and wonderful characterization. I am eagerly looking forward to reading the second volume in this trilogy....more
This is the first Barbara Hambly novel I have read, and on the strength of it I doubt it will be my last. Her characters are likable, her world well-fThis is the first Barbara Hambly novel I have read, and on the strength of it I doubt it will be my last. Her characters are likable, her world well-fleshed out, and the plot builds tension well and set up a fairly good climax and denoument.
However, it felt like there was a lot of chaff mixed in with the wheat of this story. It was told using a rather self-conscious mix of present-day action and flashbacks that advanced the plot -- a device which, while I don't object to it as a rule, is hard to pull off well. The descriptive passages were heavy-handed, and while there were some excellent moments where a particular description hit me with immediacy and accuracy, most of the passages felt like they simply had to be waded through. I might have enjoyed the book more if there were no wonderful little moments of description, as then I would have felt free to simply skim all those passages; as it was, I felt the need to keep a sharp eye out for those bright flashes, and my enjoyment suffered as a result.
The ending wrapped things up a little too cleanly for my tastes -- Kyra's changed relationship with her parents struck me as simply far too easy a cop-out, as was the resolution of her romantic dilemma -- but the happy ending isn't totally unearned, and does leave a pleasant taste in my memory. So all in all, while not earth-shattering in any way, this is a good afternoon's read and a solid addition to the romantic fantasy cannon....more
This is a melancholy book, both because of its subject matter and because it is likely the last Kage Baker book I will ever see published, given her dThis is a melancholy book, both because of its subject matter and because it is likely the last Kage Baker book I will ever see published, given her death last January. The speculative fiction field is lessened by her loss, and this book is a reminder of exactly why.
I suspect I will be in the minority in holding this opinion. It's a slight book, both in length and in that it is one in which not a whole lot happens. The heavy-duty world-building went on in the previous two novels, and this one is essentially nothing more than a gentle coming-of-age travelogue and romance. It has a likeable young protagonist, some light adventure, some not-very-dark secrets, and a happy ending. All of that is usually enough for a young adult audience, which is why I think it will work best when aimed at that reading level.
But that's just the gloss, the stuff the publisher sees (based on the jacket description which, as always with Baker's novels, spoils some things better left unspoiled and gets other things completely wrong). At its core this novel is just as subversive as the two that came before in this gloriously zany fantasy world -- unlike 95% of fantasy written today, it is a novel about the commonplace events that make up the lives of the vast majority of people inhabiting any world, real or imagined. It very gently paints a portrait of the lower classes, the working (and non-working) poor, whose lives are counted so negligibly by the characters portrayed in most fantasy novels. It's about the everyday tragedies of a hard life, and the way small lives get swallowed up by large ones, and the difference that creates in perception.
There is a beautiful passage between Eliss and Krelan where they talk about the way they see the universe. Krelan, living amongst the nobility his entire life, waxes on about how ordered the world is, the strict hierarchies keeping everyone in balance, in their place. And Eliss, whose idea of luxury is eating at a Red House (an establishment Krelan thinks terribly declasse) breaks in to say "But there isn't any balance. That's just made up. A Diamondcut can end up dead in the river mud, and a demon can fall in love with a goddess. Things just happen. Sometimes they're even good things."
That viewpoint is exactly the viewpoint so often missing from fantasy worlds. This loosely related trilogy, no matter its outer trappings, has always been about the value in seeking happiness, in forming families, in striving to be true to individuals rather than principles, and in enjoying life today, because it is a fragile thing. And that message, when delivered in such a gently beguiling way, is one I hope resonates with everyone who reads it....more
Through the first three quarters of this novel, I was very much enjoying it. It seemed a curious throwback in McKinley's cannon, more akin to The HeroThrough the first three quarters of this novel, I was very much enjoying it. It seemed a curious throwback in McKinley's cannon, more akin to The Hero and the Crown than more recent works like Sunshine or Dragonhaven. It was again in a sort of distant third-person limited replete with lyrical imagery, and very much like The Hero and the Crown it completely ignored the convention of telling its story linearly. It was also set in a beautiful imaginary world that felt small but deep -- geographically it covered maybe 50 square miles (minuscule for a fantasy novel) but it felt like there was history there going back hundreds of years.
I loved the political system McKinley imagined, magically tied to the land and thus chosen by the land itself. Again very much like The Hero and the Crown, very little about the setting is ever spelled out for the reader: we see the role of the Chalice because Mirasol spends the novel trying to embody it, but the Master, the Grand Seneschal, and the rest of the circle are left in shadow. All we know about them is what we are able to glean from the corner of our eyes and our common sense knowledge of language (the titles are, after all, descriptive). I found this refreshing; it's wearying at times to read modern fantasy novels that spend page after page lovingly detailing their world but without actually using that world in their plot. None of the Circle had a major role, so giving the reader a prosaic job description for each of them would have broken the point of view (Mirasol knows what they do, so she doesn't need to think about their day to day tasks at any point) and would therefore have been pure indulgence on the author's part (a way of saying "look at what I made!").
And of course, like all McKinley novels, it is a Beauty and the Beast tale.
Unfortunately, while in The Hero and the Crown all the digressions and flashbacks subtly build to a climax that is moving and wondrous, in Chalice the ending feels abrupt, almost anti-climactic. Just as we are fitting the characters into their world and feeling the tension starting to rise toward some final showdown, the showdown is over and we are given a happily ever after that doesn't feel deserved. Mirasol never has to make a hard choice like Aerin does, her beast is magically transformed back to a man, and we are left saying "huh?" It really feels as though McKinley simply didn't know how to end her story, so she pasted some images together and sent it off to her publisher.
Still, none of McKinley's writing is ever unpleasant to read, and even if the ending fell flat, the rest of the novel was very much McKinley in top form. Like all McKinley novels it also leaves the reader wanting a sequel, wanting many sequels really, so we can peer longer into all the delightful little corners we glimpsed here. A sequel is highly unlikely, given McKinley's track record, but that craving indicates how good a writer she is, even when the novel isn't her best....more
For those readers who have never read McKinley before, who exist on a diet of paranormal romance or Laurell K. Hamilton or Anne Rice or Twilight, I saFor those readers who have never read McKinley before, who exist on a diet of paranormal romance or Laurell K. Hamilton or Anne Rice or Twilight, I say you must read Sunshine. The world McKinley creates in this novel goes well beyond the edges of the page, and it only gets richer on rereading. The characters have width and depth and color and not a single one is simple or easy to understand. The narrative voice is pitch-perfect, the themes of light and dark and blood and cleanliness always serving the story and adding depth. Best of all, it makes its vampires feel new, not least by avoiding making them sexy and glamorous but rather, well, undead.
For those who are avid readers of McKinley -- as I am -- Sunshine is on the surface a wild departure from her other works, but in its bones is the culmination of everything that came before. It has the requisite McKinley heroine: mistrusted and awkward, struggling to carve out an unconventional place only to have that place snatched away by events out of her control, but ultimately discovering herself and her past just in time to meet the darkness seeking her. It has the love of myth and fairy tale that led McKinley to retell the Robin Hood myth, retell the story of Sleeping Beauty, and retell Beauty and the Beast not once, but twice. It has the necessity of going on after the climactic battle, starting to put the pieces of a life back together when all has been torn apart multiple times, the sense of hope that it is possible warring with the sense that the person inside has changed too much to fit in any normal happy life from now on.
Most of all, it has many, many echoes of Deerskin, which I consider to be McKinley's greatest work, from the blood imagery to the rediscovering and reinventing oneself bit by bit to the doubt that ones resources won't be enough to overcome all the evil in the world. Especially affecting and evocative for me was the line "Sun-self, tree-self, deer-self. Don't they outweigh the dark self?" that Sunshine begins to repeat to herself like a mantra. Each time she says it it has a slightly different meaning.
There are some things McKinley does in this novel better than she has done in any other. The climactic battle scene is her most coherent and cohesive, even when I was tempted to speed through it because I so desperately wanted to reach the end. Sunshine's narrative voice, already mentioned, makes her a more approachable heroine than any of McKinley's other heroines, which makes her peril and her self-doubt all the realer (though that distancing McKinley mastered for Deerskin's third-person voice was probably necessary given how harrowing that novel is). It is jarring if you go in expecting McKinley's usual high fantasy narration, but it just gets better the deeper into the story you go. There is also more humor in Sunshine than I think there is in any other McKinley novel, and it is always found in the lightest doses when things get blackest.
All in all, the more times I read Sunshine the more I am convinced that it is a near-perfect book. None of McKinley's novels race along (well, until the climax) but I always find the slower parts necessary resting times, times to catch my breath and assimilate all that went on in the last battle (be it internal or external). It is undoubtedly an adult novel like none of McKinley's other novels are -- there is quite a bit of violence and one brief explicitly sexual scene. But it is a rich and worthwhile read that ages well, and I hope it continues to find a wide audience....more
This is one of McKinley's strongest works to date, and it makes me laugh to think that she essentially wrote it on a dare. From what she's said on herThis is one of McKinley's strongest works to date, and it makes me laugh to think that she essentially wrote it on a dare. From what she's said on her website, she had no love for the sleeping beauty myth -- after all, the princess spends it completely useless and out of the action, exactly opposite McKinley's usual heroines. The story she crafted in response to the fairy tale beautifully recasts the outside of the tale (the curse, the fairy godmothers, the spelled sleep, and rose hedge) with a new interior, upending the usual story into one in which the princess is a real person that the reader cares deeply for -- and a person who is instrumental in her own salvation, rather than a bystander to it.
But beyond the female empowerment coming-of-age tale are the glimpses of depth all of McKinley's best stories have: explorations of what family means, and the necessity of acting with courage and compassion even when it may leave you vulnerable to dark forces. The moments I loved best about this novel are when McKinley shows us that even the best ending, the one that leaves everyone happiest, may still have unexpected sharp edges, little bits of pain that come with gaining a great victory at the cost of something you didn't necessarily value in the first place. The unexpected resolution to the story (even more unexpected because it continues to remain true to the outside form of the sleeping beauty fairy tale) is brilliant and winning and just the tiniest bit bittersweet.
Even laying aside how wonderful the novel ends, it is a joy from start to finish. It has more humor than any other McKinley work, and the Gig (and Woodwold within it) is certainly one of McKinley's most delightful worlds. For those who have read her obsessively (as I have) there are even hints that this is Damar, the world of The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword, many generations later, and it is implied that the princess' mother comes from the kingdom that Lissar settled in in Deerskin. On rereading, I am even further convinced that this is one of my favorite novels of all time....more
This is a decent collection, pleasing throughout but not excellent and likely not terribly memorable. Needless to say, I come at it from the fantasy eThis is a decent collection, pleasing throughout but not excellent and likely not terribly memorable. Needless to say, I come at it from the fantasy end of the spectrum, and I suspect that fantasy readers will be more pleased by it than romance readers, for only one of the stories properly delivers the happily ever after ending that the romance genre demands. Still, as mind candy it works admirably well, and I spent a very enjoyable afternoon reading it.
I picked the anthology up for the first story, Patricia McKillip's "The Gorgon in the Cupboard." It is also the best in the book -- so good, in fact, that it was later included in the Science Fiction Book Club's anthology The Best Short Novels: 2005. It is a story about Harry, a struggling painter desperately in love with his mentor's beautiful wife, and Jo, a girl destitute and forsaken on the streets after several hard turns of fortune. The fantasy element comes into play when Harry pulls out a painting he never finished because his model disappeared and paints his mentor's wife's mouth onto it in a fit of despondency that he will never be able to create a work worthy of her; he is understandably shocked when the mouth comes to life and begins to speak to him. That is the only fantasy element obvious in the story (though it is a rather glaring one); the setting is vague and paintings speaking are clearly not a common occurrance. The romance is also very slight. This is because what the story is really about is perception, the ways that we see what we want rather than what is. It's gossamer-light, yet far richer than it seems on the surface, wise and sensitive to the myriad ways life is fragile and bittersweet, particularly for women. It is stop-me-dead-in-my-tracks (reading-wise) beautiful.
The second story, Lynn Kurland's "The Tale of Two Swords," is the one I suspect romance readers will be happiest with, and it made me smile and roll my eyes in equal amounts (often at the same time). It made me roll my eyes for more reasons than I can count -- the self-conscious modern fairy tale narration (complete with "In which [blank happens:]" as the title of each chapter); the combination of hopelessly modern actions on the characters' part even as they speak in hopelessly archaic (and likely inaccurate) dialogue; the fact that the man has just lost his family and his kingdom in an epic battle, the woman has a price on her head, and all they do is frolic in the forest getting muddy. It also doesn't have time to even get to the two swords part of the title -- the story is entirely the romance component (and the true happily ever after ending). I believe the story is something of a prequel to one of Kurland's ongoing series, so perhaps the two swords part is dealt with in one of the novels. However, despite all those things that irked me, I still couldn't help liking the characters and liking their romance, so I suppose Kurland did her job well. (Should I hate myself a little for falling for it?)
The third story, Sharon Shinn's "Fallen Angel," is the one romance readers will have the most trouble with, and it may even be hard for fantasy readers that are unfamiliar with Shinn's Samaria series. It's set ten years after the end of Archangel (and even has a fairly toothless cameo by the Archangel Gabriel) and Shinn seems to assume that the reader has enough background knowledge of her books that she doesn't need to explain the slightly unusual way Samaria works. Unfortunately, this has led to some readers calling the story sacrilegous, because they have no context for this tale of angels behaving badly. For those who want to read the story and don't have that context, please keep in mind that the angels are nothing more than humans with wings -- they are not actually the angels of Christian mythology. Even more unfortunately, "Fallen Angel" just doesn't quite work as either fantasy or romance -- as I already mentioned, Shinn doesn't give enough grounding in the fantasy world-building to satisfy those fans, and the romance is decent (if of the "ooo, what a sexy bad boy" variety) only until the ending totally destroys suspension of disbelief with an out-of-left-field resolution that heaps all the evils in the world on one head. Still, I didn't hate the story, because it actually starts to address some of the thornier side of the world of Samaria -- the sort of chaos that can ensue when a ruling class with a free love worldview comes into conflict with a merchant class with very strict rules of propriety.
The fourth story, Claire Delacroix's "An Elegy for Melusine," is a retelling of the Melusine myth. It hews very closely to the story as described on Wikipedia (I wasn't overly familiar with the myth, so I looked it up, lol) and is rendered in serviceable enough prose that the myth's full power shines through. It has a totally unnecessary framing story, unfortunately, but other than that I quite liked it. However, romance readers should again be warned: the myth does not have a particularly happy ending....more