Overall Satisfaction: ★★★★★ Intellectual Satisfaction: ★★★★★ Emotional Satisfaction: ★★★★★ Read this for: The themes. Don't read this for: The plot. Bechde...moreOverall Satisfaction: ★★★★★ Intellectual Satisfaction: ★★★★★ Emotional Satisfaction: ★★★★★ Read this for: The themes. Don't read this for: The plot. Bechdel Test: Pass Johnson Test: Fail Books I was reminded of: Just the rest of Valente's work. Will I read more by this author? Of course!
I really, really liked The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. But much though I liked it, I could tell it was never going to be my favorite of Catherynne Valente's works, and after rereading it and then reading The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There I remained firm in that belief. Much though I adored Valente's world-building, much though I relished Valente's ever-muscular prose, much though I delighted in Valente's unexpected bits of poignancy, there was still a simplicity of outlook at the core of both books that kept me slightly at a distance. In both books, no matter how sympathetic Valente made the villains, September was still able to draw a very clear line: this is right and this wrong, and this is a thing I could never do, no matter how hurt I might be.
It is an outlook I understand in books aimed at children and teenagers but which, as an adult, I find. . . somehow inaccessible. It is not relaxing to me, as I assume it is for other people; instead I find it very slightly invalidating.
So while I expected to enjoy The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two, I did not expect to be greatly moved by it. . .
Back in 2009, Catherynne M. Valente published Palimpsest. One of that novel's main characters, a woman named November, defines herself by a 1923 novel...moreBack in 2009, Catherynne M. Valente published Palimpsest. One of that novel's main characters, a woman named November, defines herself by a 1923 novel called The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, one in a series by Hortense Francis Weckweet about a little girl named September who says "Yes!" (enthusiastic consent, so to speak) to adventuring in fairyland, portal-fantasy style. That book is a through-line in November's story of helping to open up a very adult Fairyland to immigration from our world, and judging from the excerpts Valente provided it sounded delightful, full of whimsy and led by a marvelously spunky narrator.
And it didn't exist.
But one experiment in crowd-funding later, it did. Valente wrote it and posted it online; then it won the Andre Norton Award, leading to a contract with a brick-and-mortar publisher. And that resulted in the book I have in my hands right now. A book which completely satisfies all the promise implied in Palimpsest and which I can easily picture becoming a classic of children's literature.
Keeping true to what was implied about it in Palimpsest, Fairyland is set during WWI and is written in the tone of that era's children's literature. Valente is very much present as the Author, frequently breaking the fourth wall to confide in the reader and foreshadow what is coming next. Like the best in children's literature, she presents a fairyland that is full of wonders (a herd of wild bicycles, a wyvern who is the son of a library, and a little boy who met his mother before she gave birth to him, etc.) but also fraught with dangers -- dangers which our child protagonist can meet, but which push her to her limits and beyond.
It's a fairyland that jives with all our stories of fairylands, and when September stands at a crossroads and has to choose between paths "To lose your way," "To lose your life," "To lose your mind" or "To lose your heart" we know exactly which one she will choose -- and the many, many ways her choice is the worst. We know the rules about not eating fairy food and always moving widdershins, and so does September because she's a bookish child; but keeping with the theme of enthusiastic consent she doesn't let those rules or the very real danger stop her when she has to save her friends. And keeping with a theme that Valente often develops, nothing comes without a price, lacing the happiest moments with poignancy.
This is not my favorite of Valente's novels -- I prefer the gloriously ornate nested structure of The Orphan's Tales -- but it is an excellent place to start with her work, presenting glimpses of her absolutely exquisite prose and her deft hand with myth and folklore in a very accessible, downright conventional narrative. It is also the sort of book that the child I once was would have taken to heart and read to pieces; I hope, therefore, that many children get a chance to discover it and read it to pieces in turn.(less)
I love that it's character-driven rather than plot-driven. Nothing particularly happens in this novel -- a girl goes to...moreI love so much about this book.
I love that it's character-driven rather than plot-driven. Nothing particularly happens in this novel -- a girl goes to boarding school, is shunned, writes and reads a lot, and eventually finds a few friends; the "reckoning that could no longer be put off" takes place within the confines of the last few pages, and feels. . . on the whole, slightly unnecessary. Anyone who wants action should look elsewhere. This book takes place almost entirely within the confines of Mori's head, and I love that. I love that it's about grieving, and that it's about identity, and that it's about making the best of your seriously messed up family.
I love that it's about books, and that Mori engages with books, has forceful opinions about them that the reader is clearly allowed to disagree with. I haven't actually read most of the books Mori talks about (somehow I've read lots of stuff from the 60s and from the 80s on, but precious little from the 70s) but my background knowledge of the authors was enough that I didn't feel like I missed anything. Probably the only work any reader has to be familiar with is Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, because Mori uses the terms "karass" and "granfalloon" a lot before she explains them to an outsider -- but even those terms are fairly clear from the context.
I love the way the magic works. . . no flashes or puffs of smoke to let you know something has happened, just a sudden string of coincidences (going back long before you cast your spell) leading to the outcome you wanted. It's the sort of magic I think makes sense in a contemporary setting with our history, and it's the sort of magic I wish there was more of in fantasy, because it seems so much more magical than the magic-by-numbers currently popular. And yes, it IS magic: Mori thinks so, and the author says so, so I see no reason to question that fact.
But somehow. . . I did not quite love this book. Maybe it's because I wasn't particularly alienated as a teenager. Maybe it's because I wanted just a little bit more. . . magic, in Mori's voice, to carry through some of the boarding school drama. Or maybe this is one of those books that will hit me harder the further I get from it -- it certainly has that potential. I expected to love this book, and maybe that's why I didn't; very little can live up to the level of expectation produced by the knowledge that there's a new book by a favorite author that's getting tons of praise from other favorite authors. Whatever the case. . . I will absolutely recommend this to anyone who likes the stuff I laid out above. It's absolutely going on my keeper shelf, and I'm glad I bought it in hardcover. But it isn't quite a book that immediately carved out a place in my soul.(less)
This was my first experience with Discworld, and thus also my first experience with Tiffany Aching, and it was overall a quite enjoyable experience. T...moreThis was my first experience with Discworld, and thus also my first experience with Tiffany Aching, and it was overall a quite enjoyable experience. The book stood alone well, and while I could tell there were quite a few references to events in previous novels (both in the Tiffany Aching series and in the larger Discworld series) they didn't get in the way of the story being told and didn't seem to spoil anything if I decide to pick up the earlier novels. (At least, nothing more than the jackets would have spoiled for me anyway.)
It's very definitely aimed at young adults (say 10-12 and up), with its teenage protagonist dealing largely with the issue of learning to act as a thoughtful independent agent. The Discworld setting was there as backdrop, but largely irrelevant to the story at hand, and while there were comic moments, particularly with the Wee Free Men, this was not a laugh-out-loud sort of book. It was focused on several themes common (but nonetheless vital) to young adult novels: finding your place in the world, thinking before you act (especially if you are short on sleep), and most importantly not standing idly by while those around you suffer. It also sounds a stern warning not to get caught up in the madness of crowds. And, impressively, all of those themes were well served, because Pratchett makes sure that the reader sees that there are no Bad Guys, just people reacting (often without thinking) to the people and circumstances around them.
Tiffany is a good heroine, strong-minded and action-oriented, but with a knack for self-reflection and enough humility that she quickly owns to her own mistakes and errors of judgment. I particularly enjoyed the fact that, unlike most heroines, she was expected to stand on her own two feet, and there was no one waiting in the wings to save her if she fell. This was unfortunately undercut by a mild love story that, while not in any way objectionable, simply didn't feel like it belonged in the tale of such an independent character. However, what was lacking in that department was made up by two very strong central images (the title and the hare) that Pratchett wove throughout; they are what I will take away from the novel long after I've forgotten (though not totally forgiven) its little bit of soppiness.
So all in all, a solid, well-paced and well-written work of fantasy for younger readers.(less)
I love Patricia McKillip's writing. That bald statement doesn't do the depth of my feeling justice, but there it lies. She turns the simplest statemen...moreI love Patricia McKillip's writing. That bald statement doesn't do the depth of my feeling justice, but there it lies. She turns the simplest statement into poetry, creating exquisite images that shimmer before the mind's eye long after the book has been closed; she imbues the whole world with magic, drawing forth colors unimaginable from the stark black text on a white page.
It is possible that Winter Rose is her best book. Where normally her prose creates just the slightest distance, separating the reader from the actions described, the prose in Winter Rose is immediate, urgent, driving. Where normally her characters are just a little bit of a cipher, subject to motivations just the tiniest bit outside human ken, here her characters are warmly, achingly human. And where normally I finish one of her novels awed and melancholy and delighted, I finished Winter Rose wanting to scream.
She does all this by a simple change in perspective.
Normally, McKillip writes in a tight third-person perspective, shifting between characters at the chapter breaks. It is this that creates just the little bit of distance, this that keeps her characters ciphers. It gives her scope, for she often writes novels where the characters start spread across the map and only come together during the climax; but it does lessen the emotional punch. In Winter Rose, however, she is concerned with only one character: Rois Melior, the wild child of wood and water and bramble. Given that narrowing of focus, McKillip wisely delivers an arrestingly beautiful first-person perspective, gifting Rois with all of McKillip's own skill at seeing showers of gold in a summer sunbeam and the Wild Hunt coursing across a windblown sky. From the very first page that "I" makes Rois as ethereally flawless as McKillip's prose.
And that was why I wanted to scream at the conclusion of her tale. From the very first page I took Rois to my heart and I did not want to let her go -- and the ending McKillip weaves for her, enigmatic and difficult as always, cut me to the bone. It is, by fairy tale standards, a happy ending; but she deserved so much more.
Oh, you wanted to know about the plot? Well, it's a mixture of The Snow Queen and Tam Lin, and either I've gotten better at deciphering McKillip's climaxes or this is a remarkably coherent one. It is also about the stain that child abuse spreads through a family, and that element is handled so deftly that it is far more heartbreaking than anything more preachy could be.(less)
I don't think I'm well-read enough to review this book -- as is the case with many British writers of that period, Mirrlees is far better classically...moreI don't think I'm well-read enough to review this book -- as is the case with many British writers of that period, Mirrlees is far better classically educated than I am, and I'm sure I missed quite a few of her references. However, I now firmly agree with Neil Gaiman that this is "the single most beautiful, solid, unearthly, and unjustifiably forgotten novel of the twentieth century" so I felt I should attempt to review it here in the hopes that I get a few more people to seek it out.
This is most distinctly not the sort of fantasy novel that would be able to get published today. Tolkien's Shire feels strongly influenced by Mirrlees' Lud, but it's not the Shire that so many fantasy writers and publishers have taken as their model, it's all that pesky questing and evil-battling. There are no epic quests in this novel, and there is definitely nothing as comforting as a black-and-white delineation of good and bad.
Instead, Lud-in-the-Mist is somehow at the confluence of high fantasy rooted strongly rooted in folktale and a political thriller. It is written in a surprisingly straightforward, earthy style that nonetheless has plenty of room for some of the most beguiling and delightful descriptive passages I've ever read. It uses broad comedy side by side with the melancholy and the bittersweet. It can be read as a parable of class struggle, or as an endorsement of mind-altering drugs (keep in mind that it was published in 1926, so I highly doubt that this was what Mirrlees intended). It is most certainly about balancing the mundane and the miraculous (paraphrasing Gaiman's introduction), which perhaps explains how it came to be all these things at once.
There are quite a few elements that turned people off (judging from the reviews I've seen online) but every single one of them worked for me: yes, the first third or so was highly episodic; yes, Nathaniel Chanticleer seems a bit of a bumbling fool at first, and isn't exactly likable; yes, it is very British, and quite old, so everyone reads white (though the women come off quite a bit better than in most of the fantasy written by men at the time) and as I mentioned above there are plenty of classical references. If your reading diet is entirely post-Tolkien fantasy, this novel will come as a bit of a shock to the senses. But if you actually enjoyed some of those classics they forced on you in school (things like Gulliver's Travels, for instance, whether you read the satire or not) and want some fantasy with both a brain and a heart, this is absolutely the book for you.(less)
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 and...moreThis 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.(less)
This is a good book. The writing is fairly good, the world well researched and evocative, the action well paced, and the story resolves well emotional...moreThis is a good book. The writing is fairly good, the world well researched and evocative, the action well paced, and the story resolves well emotionally while leaving the larger plot open for the next two novels. Its main flaw is that it seems so terribly familiar. It is an imaginative chronicling of Bridei, son of Maelchon, who ruled the Picts in Scotland in the 11th century, but it could be any number of historical fantasy novels. There is the requisite young boy destined for greatness; his distant but devoted mentor; his boyhood companions, who fall by the wayside; and of course, there is a girl with mystic powers who falls deeply in love with him and who he has sworn to guard but who none of his guardians approves of. There are, of course, obstacles put in the boy's path -- politics and destiny intrude at inopportune times, and everyone goes about making long faces and refusing to listen to each other. Finally, difficulties melt away and the boy steps into the shining light of his destiny as was ordained.
This book did its job well -- I want to read the next one in the series. But I spent the entire time reading it thinking about how I had seen every character before (with the minor exception of Faolan, who I want more of but who would probably disappoint me if I got what I wanted), and how ridiculously simple resolution of everyone's problems would be if they simply sat down and talked to one another. That, I think, was the biggest failing of the book for me; I get so tired of novels where people -- supposedly GREAT people -- make the simple things in life so complicated by refusing to speak of them. It was the same difficulty I had with The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (which of course also featured a young boy destined for greatness), but I was able to rate that novel higher because it didn't have the added annoyance of doomed lovers thrown in.
I wish there was more fantasy written by authors who worked a little harder at developing their conflicts. Take Lois McMaster Bujold's dictum of simply throwing the worst thing possible at her characters and seeing how they do; you wouldn't find as many plots hinging on simple misunderstanding. Follow Patricia McKillip's example and make your characters fundamentally opposed to each other as they are in The Forgotten Beasts of Eld or Alphabet of Thorn, or if you don't want to do that, give them a real opponent -- not assassins that are always bested just in time and an election that is never really in doubt. In short, write about adults, not these perennial teenagers, and especially not precocious youngsters that are more staid and set in their ways than many an old man of eighty.(less)