I get why a ton of people love this book. The magic system is incredibly well-developed and fairly interesting -- I may not like magic that works by aI get why a ton of people love this book. The magic system is incredibly well-developed and fairly interesting -- I may not like magic that works by a system of arbitrary rules, but I know plenty of people who read just for such things. The plot is fast-paced -- I may be tired of stories where the all of the conflict derives from the protagonist not having information that everyone else in the story has, but again, I am aware that this is simply one of my own person pet peeves. And, of course, while recent years have started remedying the defect, we have a long way to go before I start complaining about reading about too many spunky heroines, even if they're only sketchily developed.
But there were too many little things that annoyed me about this book for me to love it, or even really like it, despite the fact that I blew through it in half a day.
To start, while it's clear that Nix spent a lot of time developing the magic system, with its Charter Magic vs. Free Magic and bell ringing necromancy, I would have enjoyed the book more had he spent just as much time developing the rest of the world. The Old Kingdom is vaguely medieval England; Ancelstierre is vaguely early-20th century England; but neither place feels like more than a bare-bones sketch. And while Nix was apparently trying for a pseudo-England with more gender equality (Sabriel is takes classes in both fighting and etiquette at her posh all-girls boarding school, and it's clear that gender is no bar to Sabriel being respected as the Abhorsen) his imagination seemed to fail him in really extrapolating how different that world might be. So, for instance, there are still mores against unmarried men and women traveling together -- mores that include placing the blame all on the female partner -- and every person with any power Sabriel meets is male, and she's surprised when she finds a dead mage who is female. (The book passes the Bechdel Test on the strength of two half-page long conversations Sabriel has with female children.) The world is also strangely empty of people, which is all the more noticeable because of how many Dead there appear to be.
The prose was another negative. Most of it was fine -- nothing flashy, but serviceable. But every couple chapters there would be a horribly clunky bit of exposition that totally threw me out of things. For example:
She hadn't thought beyond her own concern for her father. Now, she was beginning to expand her knowledge of him, to understand that he was more than just her father, that he was many different things to different people.
Making this hammering of the point home worse, to me at least, is that it comes after only a single incident, not after the sort of succession of conversations implied in the text.
And while the fast-paced plot kept me turning the pages, it really cut into my appreciation of Sabriel as a character. She's traveling for weeks, but because of what I can only assume is a horror of pages of dialogue, the only time she's shown trying to figure out the puzzles set before her or interrogate the people who are clearly withholding information from her is when she's about to be interrupted by yet another attack. At one point she and two other characters spend six days at sea -- but only start to discuss their plans for when they put to shore as they're entering a harbor, so of course their conversation gets cut off. This left me with the impression that she was doing no thinking at all, just falling from one disaster into another and making it out mostly through blind luck and the deus ex machina of her father's plans.
Still, Nix did keep me turning the pages, even if he used a trick like ending the chapters in the middle of the action scenes to do it. And the magic, particularly the bell ringing, was fascinating. And this novel was published early in his career (I think it's his second?), so it's quite likely that he improved in at least some of those areas. I wouldn't recommend against this novel, or Nix in general; it just was not strong enough for me to be excited for it....more
Within the first few chapters I thought that this book might become one of those that I proselytise for; at the end of it, I find myself fighting theWithin the first few chapters I thought that this book might become one of those that I proselytise for; at the end of it, I find myself fighting the urge to order ten more copies so I can pass them out come the holidays.
And all this despite the fact that I was really turned off by the hyperbolic jacket description.
Part of the reason I don't immediately buy ten more copies is that it's not an easy read -- Fairlie's argument is scientifically rigorous, and even though he explains the math in a way that a lay audience can understand, it's still more of a 201 text than a 101 text. And, unfortunately, the subjects of food security and permaculture don't appear (yet) to be of interest to a general audience.
But they should be. The underlying message of this book, the Big Idea that we have so much trouble accepting, is that the Earth is a closed system -- a fabulously complex one, and one that we understand very imperfectly, but one which we cannot escape taking part in and affecting. From this premise, Fairlie examines the two ends of the ideological spectrum: the arguments for continuing industrialization of agriculture and high meat consumption; and the arguments for a vegan lifestyle, whether achieved organically or through technological fixes.
Being, as I said earlier, a 201 text, Fairlie spends most of his time taking down the vegan argument, assuming that anyone reading the book is already fairly convinced that industrialized agriculture is an unsustainable system. The way he does this is by showing, again and again, the sorts of cycles various nutrients pass through, and the many ways that domestic animals have been bred to faciliate those cycles. Industrialization has usurped those roles by making it possible to mine for or synthesize much of that; but this creates vast inefficiencies, and it is those inefficiencies that vegans hold up as reasons to eliminate livestock altogether. Fairlie is quite convincing in showing the way numbers have been manipulated by both sides of the argument, and in making the reader question whether the low-tech sort of agriculture practiced by humanity for thousands of years was perhaps the most efficient system yet designed.
I do not agree with him on every point; being from the urban elite, his picture of a re-ruralized future was, quite frankly, frightening to me, and I am not so dead-set against developing technologies that mimic the roles livestock traditionally held rather than going entirely back to animal-power. But the greatest strength in this book is that Fairlie invites the reader to argue with him, making his own prejudices transparent and giving the reader as much unbiased information as is possible. He is also, being English, understandably most knowledgeable about (and interested in) the British Isles and their ecology; there are several sections that are useful to an American reader only for the template they provide, rather than any of Fairlie's specifics. Still, this is overall an important book, and one I hope finds a wider audience....more
I do not know where to start in talking about this book.
I suppose I should start with the fact that I choked up in every single on of Hagia's sectionsI do not know where to start in talking about this book.
I suppose I should start with the fact that I choked up in every single on of Hagia's sections, and half of Imtithal's. This is partly because I am a sap, but mostly because this book (and this trilogy, given the foreshadowing) is about a fall from paradise, about the elves going off to the Grey Havens, about the horrible inevitableness of the change you don't see coming. And that atmosphere hangs over every passage of those two narratives, infusing them with an exquisite sense of loss.
Three narratives, actually, because Hiob's framing narrative is also imbued with that grief, though at a remove.
There are four narratives, by the way -- the three previously mentioned and that of John the Priest. That complexity of structure is typical of Valente's novels (at least the four I have now read); she weaves together disparate narratives better than any author I have ever read, ignoring linearity in favor of thematic resonance. So Hiob says "I have boys to scribed for me now -- for I have often and in secret thought that it is boys' work, to copy and not to compose, to parrot, and not to proclaim" and four pages later Hagia writes "I have been all my life a scribe. . . But in the end. . . I attempt, with clumsy but earnest need, to compose and not to copy. . ." Characters echo one anothers' thoughts without knowing, and their actions are mirrored or reversed to throw light on the sorts of people they are.
This is the sort of book that rewards careful reading, and punishes any lack of attention or attempt to skim.
John's narrative, at first, does not seem to fit with the other three. It is the most chronological, mostly confining itself to whatever events it is relating rather than musing on what came later (though John does do a little of this sort of foreshadowing); it is also the most surreal, and the first section when he is adrift on the sea of sand is downright hard to figure out, because we don't yet have enough knowledge of the world to know what is real and what is metaphor. But that discordant note is a very carefully measured choice on Valente's part.
There is a passage in Lois McMaster Bujold's The Curse of Chalion that seems appropriate, so I will quote it here:
You have to make a cup of yourself, to recive that pouring out [necessary to becoming a saint]. You are a sword. You were always a sword. Like your mother and your daughter, too -- steel spines run in the women of your family. I realize now why I never saw saints, before. The world does not crash upon their wills like waves upon a rock, or part around them like the wake of a ship. Instead they are supple, and swim through the world as silently as fishes.
John is just such a sword. He is the catalyst, the thing that, when added to Hagia's delicately balanced world, changes the world rather than being changed itself. That's why when he finally is mirrored it's by Thomas, another Christian who stumbled into paradise, with vastly different results.
And Hagia is. . . absolutely the most perfect challenge her world casts against John. The book is incredibly sensual -- far more sensual than Palimpsest, which was all about sex. Each of the men of the Church is confronted with the world of the body he thought he left behind: Thomas by Imtithal's physical affection; Hiob by the fragrant, liquid rot that worked against him in his task of copying; and John by Hagia, with her eyes where her nipples should be, at the tips of abundant breasts, and totally comfortable in that body. The tension in the book comes from those challenges, even though we already know who ends up the victor.
To bring a long rambling squee to the point, every moment of this novel is perfectly constructed, every choice deliberately calculated to further the story being told. Because of this (not despite it) it is deeply moving. The best thing I read last year was Valente's two-volume The Orphan's Tales; so far this year, it is definitely The Habitation of the Blessed....more
First, I have to say, that jacket description is riddled with so many small inaccuracies about this story that I was tempted not to include it. They aFirst, I have to say, that jacket description is riddled with so many small inaccuracies about this story that I was tempted not to include it. They aren't fundamentally important inaccuracies -- though it is very important to realize that the "she" referred to at the start of the second paragraph is Kagaya-hime, not the "aging empress" who isn't an empress at all -- but it bugs me now that I've read the story to see how wrong it is. Ah well, moving on.
This is a wonderful book, sure to appeal to fans of Patricia McKillip and Catherynne Valente, though it's more accessible than either of their work. It's very much rooted in the myths of Japan, and while I don't know a ton about the time period, nothing of what I do know was contradicted by what Johnson wrote, so I am assuming that she captured the era (Heian-era Japan I believe) with some degree of accuracy. Like in McKillip and Valente's work, this is not fantasy that lovingly details a set of rules for its magic system; it is fantasy where there are gods and there are humans and there are animals and the lines between these things are not sharp at all, where anything can happen and no one is much surprised when anything does. Logic plays a role, but it's dream logic, and the worst error to commit is in assuming that any other being's motivations match our own.
But what made this book brilliant (and caused it to be nominated for the James Tiptree, Jr. Award) is the way in which it is fundamentally a womens' fantasy. The fudoki of the cats is entirely female; there is no place for males, and none of the fudoki cares to even know the names of the toms that fathered their kittens. Harueme (this would be the aging noblewoman narrating Kagaya-hime's tale, half-sister to the former Emperor Shirakawa) also lives in an almost entirely female world, where women have husbands and lovers but their days are spent hidden from male sight (and even the seductions take place with an eye to maintaining the illusion that no man can see their faces). Harueme loved her half-brother, and reminisces about her soldier-lover Domei, but the most important relationship she has is with her attendant, Shigeko. The novel even acknowledges that women menstruate -- I'm pretty sure I can count on one hand the SF/F novels that do that -- and there are elaborate (historically-based, I assume) codes of conduct built around that simple fact of life. It's a novel about women's issues: family and home and place in a society when all of those things are rigidly proscribed.
It works on a pure fantasy level too, with the cat-transformed-into-a-human element and the presence of the kami (which are a whole class of gods, not the name of a specific god as the jacket implies) and even a small war of revenge that leads to a seige; and I'm pretty sure it works as historical fiction, though as I've said I don't know very much about the time period so I can't attest to its accuracy. But it will linger in my memory because it shows a slice of life fantasy novels too often forget, not with any particular message, but just because these are stories that rarely get told. I wish there were more novels like this....more
Really, really beautiful. The language is rather fraught with simile, especially in the beginning, but the tales are wondrous, and the structure of taReally, really beautiful. The language is rather fraught with simile, especially in the beginning, but the tales are wondrous, and the structure of tale within tale within tale ad infinitum is endlessly engaging, as Valente moves confidently between layers every few pages. I would strongly recommend you read this book rapidly -- it would be difficult to track the various layers of story over too many days or with breaks to read other novels, and characters reappear without warning a hundred pages after you thought they were done with, so it's good to have their stories still fresh in your mind. But Valente keeps everything clear, demonstrating a very impressive mastery of her story. If I have one quibble it's that she is not kind to her male characters, and I'm not entirely sure why this book won the Tiptree Award, but it is definitely a book I will cherish, and one I am already planning to someday inflict on my children at bedtime. It made me laugh and it brought me to tears; I have magical images dancing behind my eyes; and I will definitely, definitely be reading the next volume the instant I can get my grubby little hands on it. (Do I sound like a frantic fangirl? I am, I am. . .)...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
This is a fairly strong young adult fantasy collection. Even though none of the stories is perfect, each one is engagingly written and features a diffThis is a fairly strong young adult fantasy collection. Even though none of the stories is perfect, each one is engagingly written and features a different creature of fire.
The first, by Peter Dickinson and about the phoenix, is marred by sudden shifts in perspective that feel too rough for the gentleness of the story; however, it features some of the most beautiful imagery of the collection and is one of the more unique premises.
The second, by Robin McKinley and about a hellhound, is very much for animal lovers (which I am) and may be slow through the first five or so pages if you aren't interested in horses, dogs, cats, birds, and reptiles. After that (or if you don't mind that) however, it features the best pacing through its midsection, setting up a fairly large cast of characters for a short story and building a well-realized world with perhaps the best sense of jeopardy. The climax felt a little too easy, unfortunately, but the story as a whole may have been my favorite.
The third, again by Peter Dickinson and about the fireworm, was the most peculiar. It started very badly, with Dickinson's fictional Native American tribe feeling about as authentic as Disney's in Brother Bear. It was, however, only uphill from there, and the climax was incredibly moving, and caused me to feel angry in the best way. Its denoument again felt a bit easy, but the story was worth it nonetheless.
The fourth, the last by Peter Dickinson and about the salamander, was the only total miss of the collection. It started out very strong, but the instant its main character (a young slave boy named Tib in a pseudo-Middle Eastern setting) became emotionally removed from his actions I did as well.
The last story, by Robin McKinley and about the dragon, was the most well-rounded but unfortunately also the one with nothing about it that really stood out. It was reminiscent of her novel Dragonhaven in its male first-person narrator and semi-stream of consciousness style, but this narrator is far less self-absorbed than Jake was, making him likable even in his total denseness about his world. The world was interesting, if not quite believable (there has never to my knowledge been a culture that despises healers -- it's just not realistic, because people everywhere will get sick and they can't work if they're sick), the pacing was steady and the ending just right for the story.
All in all, while nothing in the collection is earth-shattering in any way, it is a pleasant read and suitable for late elementary school children and up....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 the closest de Lint has come to writing a sequel to any of his Newford novels; it takes place two years after the events in The Onion Girl andThis is the closest de Lint has come to writing a sequel to any of his Newford novels; it takes place two years after the events in The Onion Girl and finishes Jilly's story. Still, it isn't absolutely necessary to have read The Onion Girl first; de Lint does a decent job of catching new readers up.
As with The Onion Girl, the thing that takes me the most by surprise is that the returning characters hold less interest than the new characters for me. I was involved with Lizzie from her very first chapter as narrator, but it took until mid-way through the book for me to particularly care what was happening with Jilly and Geordie -- even though when they were new characters in the stories in Dreams Underfoot they were two of my favorite characters. Part of it may simply be that I'm tired of de Lint's descriptions of his regular characters -- Jilly is always messy, petite, with masses of tangled hair and a perpetual smile, which is a great description the first time you see it in a short story, but by the time she's been the focus of two novels and appeared in dozens of other stories the description is getting rather hackneyed. The same goes for Geordie, Joe, and Cassie in Widdershins -- I've just heard them described way too many times by now and it's always exactly the same no matter what other character is describing them.
Still, by halfway through I was invested in all of the characters (with the exception of Galfreya who seemed like a wasted viewpoint), and the story was moving along briskly. Then the other major problem with Widdershins became apparent: de Lint simply had too many moving pieces in this novel. By the halfway point the plot felt poised on the brink of the climax -- buffalo cousins living and dead had massed in between and had brought out the war drums and everyone else was scrambling to find some way to stop it. I could feel the tension permeating the novel -- until that was followed with over 100 pages of jumping from viewpoint to viewpoint to get all the characters who needed to be there in position, which totally wrecked the tension, so that by the time the showdown occurred I was totally taken out of the story. Pacing is commonly a problem with novels that have such large casts of viewpoint characters, and de Lint does not overcome it here.
Still, despite those two (fairly sizable) issues, I liked Widdershins better than The Onion Girl. It does conclude Jilly's story happily, it introduces us to more cousins (always my favorite parts of de Lint stories), and despite the pacing issues it has more action than The Onion Girl did, more jeopardy for everyone involved, so it feels like a more rounded out novel. Definitely recommended for de Lint fans....more