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
Back in 2009, Catherynne M. Valente published Palimpsest. One of that novel's main characters, a woman named November, defines herself by a 1923 novelBack 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....more
This book has, I think, carved out a little piece of my soul.
This is partly because it caused me to have an epiphany that, even if it isn't particularThis book has, I think, carved out a little piece of my soul.
This is partly because it caused me to have an epiphany that, even if it isn't particularly novel, was still needed. But it's mostly because of the characters.
They aren't Romantic heroes -- they take tumbles down passageways, and they get taken out by ignominous bumps on the head, and afterward they hurt for days or weeks, and that affects their moods and their abilities. Their lives are messy, and Isyllt admits "[I] had never set great store on honor -- it was transitory and subjective, and often directly opposed to practicality." But they live in a deeply Romantic world, where breaking an oath can literally cripple you, and the shadows are definitely filled with monsters. And so they love and they hate, they comfort and they hurt, they live and they die in epic fashion, every event a confluence of secret histories and dark magic and tangled politics.
They are exactly the sort of cast that should be the norm in fantasy, but is sadly rare: spanning three (human) races and a wider range of cultures, at least three generations, all social classes, quite a few sexual orientations (hetero-, homo-, and bisexual, plus polyamorous), the able-bodied and those with various disabilities, and three genders (male, female, and hijra, which includes androgynes, FTM, and MTF transgenders). Even the non-human race we see a decent amount of (the vampires) reflects this diversity. And while I'm sure that having more women than men as named characters was deliberate and pointed, for the most part this diversity is simply a reflection of how any city (including fantasy cities like Erisín) looks. It gives Downum's city a wonderfully organic feel, because it's clear that every person the viewpoint characters see has a history, a life outside the needs of the narrative.
And in this novel that wonderful, diverse, non-Romantic cast starts out investigating a couple of mysteries and ends up neck-deep in nefarious machinations against the kingdom -- a plot I always enjoy. The politics are delightfully twisty, and Downum makes it clear that the politics are always personal. There are no characters acting purely out of a lust for power or sheer evilness; all are doing what they think is right, based on the trauma in their past and their conflicting desires. It's not a perfect novel -- some readers will likely want more info about how the magic works, and I found some of the descriptions repetitive -- but right at the moment it feels like a great novel, one I will treasure....more
This is the third book published in Bear's New Amsterdam series; it is the second in chronological order; and while it's helpful to have the backgrounThis is the third book published in Bear's New Amsterdam series; it is the second in chronological order; and while it's helpful to have the background from the previous books, it isn't strictly necessary. Like Dorothy Sayers' Peter Wimsey novels, the characters grow over the course of the series, but each book has a stand-alone mystery that is the focus of its primary plot. Also like the Wimsey novels, the mysteries are completely fair and not terribly twisty, but they aren't the reason I can picture myself reading and rereading and rereading them over again.
No, the reason I can read both Sayers' detective series and Bear's detective series over and over again is twofold: first, they both feature complex main characters (plural, not just the lead detective) that I ache for; second, they both give me tantalizing glimpses of very complex worlds. In Bear's case, it's a paranormal steampunk world, where forensic sorcerors are turn-of-the-20th century CSIs and vampires are marginal members of most societies (but outlawed entirely in the American colonies). It's also a world where blissfully happy endings may exist. . . but they happen to other people.
On her livejournal, Bear said something, somewhere (my google-fu is weak today) about not being interested in the explosions (in other words, the what) but instead being mostly interested, as a writer, in the moment of choice (in other words, the why). It was an apt summation of this novella, and of all the others in this series. There is a mystery -- two, actually, in two separate timelines that come together at the end -- but the book (and this reader) is not primarily concerned with solving it, because there's really only only one possible suspect, and means & motive are crystal-clear. What this book is concerned with is the seemingly central (yet sadly underexplored) question of existence as a vampire (or any other immortal): how do you choose to keep living, when everything and everyone you love is constantly leaving you behind?
Appropriately, this novella shows two very different coping mechanisms, and implies that there are as many more as there are immortals.
Many of Bear's stories are about aging; it's one of the things I respond to in her writing. I was more affected by the way she handled it in the last New Amsterdam novella, Seven for a Secret; but that may just be because I care far more for Abby Irene than for Jack Priest, rather than being any indication of the relative quality of the works. Still, I can't quite recommend this one quite as unreservedly; I think the original collection of New Amsterdam stories (titled, obviously, New Amsterdam) is the best entry point to this world, and this novella is a further exploration aimed more at long-time fans....more
I have seen (and read) three types of fairytale fantasy published in the last century. The first is like Patricia C. Wrede's Enchanted Forest ChroniclI have seen (and read) three types of fairytale fantasy published in the last century. The first is like Patricia C. Wrede's Enchanted Forest Chronicles: it is clever at the expense of fairy tales, mocking (usually gently) the tropes of the genre, often through metafictional techniques. This type does little for me. The second is like most of Patricia McKillip's work: it takes those same tropes completely seriously and (if done well, as in McKillip's case) reminds us why the tropes exist in the first place, because they have width and depth and resonance. This is one of my favorite branches of fantasy. The third is the rarest, because it's the most difficult: it goes beyond the form of the fairytale and into archetypal territory, quite literally writing myth.
The Last Unicorn is all three of these.
That is probably fitting, given that it is one of the classics in the genre. Being three things at once, it left me with a sense of. . . unevenness, though to be fair that sense came only in retrospect; Beagle's prose is gorgeous and sure, and I devoured the book in two large gulps then wished there was more. Reading a random sampling of reviews online just highlighted the unevenness, though, because so many people seemed to be reading entirely different books.
The first thread, the metafictional, humorous side of the novel, predictably worked least well for me, though it worked better than any of the other books of that type that I have read. All of the characters know they are in a fairytale, and they either accede to the needs of the tale or try to shape it to their own ends depending on their personalities. There is also a sprinkling of anachronisms, which I read as another metafictional device, but may just be a leftover from Beagle's original vision of the story, which was set in modern times. What made this thread work better for me than those books who rely solely on the metafictional device is that Beagle used those moments when the characters broke the fourth wall to feed into his thematic concerns, something I will get to in a bit.
The second thread, the straight-forward fairy tale, is exquisitely, heartbreakingly beautiful. Had Beagle written just this story I probably would have out-and-out loved it more, though it likely would not have lingered in my consciousness as long as I suspect this reading will. It has all sorts of fairytale tropes: the quest, the unlikely band of fellows, the evil crone and the evil king, the curse, a tragic romance. . . there's even a talking cat. This section is about finding one's true nature; it is also very much about love, and the way it makes heroes of anyone it touches. It also features the loveliest passages, like this one:
Under the moon, the road that ran from the edge of her forest gleamed like water, but when she stepped out onto it, away from the trees, she felt how hard it was, and how long. She almost turned back then; but instead she took a deep breath of the woods air that still drifted to her, and held it in her mouth like a flower, as long as she could.
The third thread, the allegory, is why this book has so much weight, the reason so many people can read totally different books in it and love them all. There are actually two related allegories here: one, running through the first half of the book, is about perception, and the way we see only what we expect to see; the other, coming to the fore in the second half of the book, is about the unicorn as a sort of Platonic Form of beauty. The presence of these allegories makes the book fail in a lot of ways as a straight fantasy novel -- as some reviewers have noticed, there are no people in the world but those absolutely necessary to the story/message, and the world-building is nothing like internally consistent. But ultimately the allegory is the reason The Last Unicorn is deservedly a classic, in any genre....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
I love that it's character-driven rather than plot-driven. Nothing particularly happens in this novel -- a girl goes toI 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....more
So much to like and so much to dislike, all wrapped up in one slim package. The good stuff first, I think, because overall I did enjoy this book.
FirstSo much to like and so much to dislike, all wrapped up in one slim package. The good stuff first, I think, because overall I did enjoy this book.
First off, there is thankfully nowhere near the same level of obnoxious unnecessary Capitalization in the text as there is in the jacket description. But the cover art is both eye-catching and accurate so the marketing's a wash overall. The cover art also captures the part of this book that I enjoyed the most: the sections starting about a third of the way in that are part of the long tradition of lost worlds fiction. I loved Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World and Edgar Rice Burroughs' Caspak Trilogy ages ago, and this book is a worthy entry in that genre. It depicts the same sort of bizarre wilderness, filled with unexpected dangers and delights. I raced through the sections traveling through and trying to survive that wildnerness and was varying disappointed and annoyed when other elements of the novel came to the fore.
The central world-building premise, that of the metaphor of God as clockmaker made literal, is absurdly cool. It's an obvious fit in the clockpunk genre, and Lake's reminders that this world is not our world were effective and rarely overplayed. I particularly enjoyed the fact that the protagonist could hear the heavens ticking along -- an ability that grows and changes over the course of the book, mirroring Hethor's character arc. But I wanted more done with this premise; with so much of the plot resting on turns and crises of faith, I wanted much (much!) more information on how Lake's Christianity is not our Christianity. Little changes like the Brass Christ and the altered Lord's Prayer are nice. . . but I wanted (and felt the story needed) to see how God's presence manifest and undeniable changed the history of the Western World, given how much of the moving force of our world's history rests of disputes over faith. I didn't buy that Hethor's world would be as similar to ours as it clearly was.
Even though the book is most rightly clockpunk, it is also steampunk -- it's set in the Victorian period, and there are airships in the Royal Navy. Unfortunately, I felt the entire steampunk setting was nothing more than window-dressing. There was never anything done with it. So, for example, we're told that America never broke away from England but that has no bearing on the plot and there's never any reason given for why the alternate historical elements of heavenly clockwork and working magic would have made America less likely to rebel. The Chinese Empire is the major threat to England rather than any of the other powers in Europe, but again, we're never shown why and it makes absolutely no difference to the plot who the enemy is. As far as I can tell, pretty much the only reason to give this novel a steampunk setting rather than the more natural clockpunk Renaissance setting is so that Lake can have all the adventures happen on an airship, and that's just not enough reason for me.
In fact, almost all of my reservations with the novel arise from its setting. The entire Southern Hemisphere is essentially erased, and even though that has happened for good world-building reasons it made me raise my eyebrows. If that erasure had had a measurable impact on the history of the Northern Hemisphere I would have applauded it as daring; but apparently the whole Age of Exploration (and Imperialism) was able to function exactly like ours. . . without Africa or half of the Americas to explore and conquer and mine for resources. Um, no. (One character even has a throwaway line dissing slave owners. . . who were the slaves?)
Compounding this issue is the fact that the second half of the book, the whole section I enjoyed for its Lost World air, harps (and harps, and harps) on the Noble Savage trope. Can we please retire that one now?
I had some issues with Lake's control over perspective as well -- the entire book was written from a tight third-person, except when Hethor was describing things, and then it switched to omniscient so that Lake could use references not available to his main character -- but overall this book will probably succeed or fail depending on the reader's enjoyment of lost worlds and tolerance for problematic world-building. For me it was about as much of a wash as the marketing....more
This was an almost uniformly bland collection, which disappointed me, because I quite enjoyed the previous anthology in this series, Wizards. There weThis was an almost uniformly bland collection, which disappointed me, because I quite enjoyed the previous anthology in this series, Wizards. There weren't any stories that I hated, or even particularly disliked, but there were also precious few that had any spark whatsoever; I finished the anthology yesterday, but can't recall more than four of the nineteen stories without consulting the table of contents. And even the best stories were still significantly flawed. Part of the problem, I suspect, lies in how little creativity the authors approached the subject of dragons with -- all of the dragons but two were of the typical European fire-breathing variety (the two holdouts were an ice dragon and a sea dragon), and most were presented as monsters and the thrust of the story was in finding that they are intelligent and not intrinsically inimical to humanity. There was one story that took the full-fledged companion animal fantasy route, but even that treatment brought nothing new to the table. So overall I was a tad bored throughout, and can't recommend this collection unless you are a completist about either dragons or one of the authors included herein.
"Dragon's Deep," by Cecelia Holland: This story was one of the most moving of the collection. It presented dragons in a very classical feudal European setting, and the plot was entirely predictable, but the feudalism was presented realistically rather than with the usual benign Disney-fied fairy tale atmosphere, and the protagonist's conflict of loyalties in the climax had the potential to be wrenching -- if it hadn't felt rushed. The story could have blossomed at novella-length, but the ending was just too abrupt to work.
"Vici," by Naomi Novik: This story will likely be of interest to fans of Novik's Temeraire series, as it details how the Roman military first came to use dragons in combat, setting the groundwork for the English dragon corps; unfortunately, that's all the story does. It's cute, and has one or two slyly humorous moments, but doesn't really go anywhere.
"Bob Choi's Last Job," by Jonathan Stroud: This is one presenting dragons in a modern setting, and it does have a Chinese dragon in it, but that felt like window dressing -- it was totally irrelevant to the story. But then, the whole story felt kind of irrelevant -- it might make sense in the larger scale of some novel by Stroud, but without that background I didn't get the point. I didn't understand how the world worked, nor did I care; I predicted the decision the protagonist made at the end, but never understood why, or again, why I should care.
"Are You Afflicted with Dragons?" by Kage Baker: This story is the reason I bought the anthology; Baker's short story in Wizards was absolutely brilliant, and made me go out and buy all of her novels, and they did not disappoint. So I had high expectations for another short story set in the same fantasy world, and while this story didn't meet those expectations, it wasn't bad. It returns to some characters from The Anvil of the World and shows how they deal with a minor dragon infestation of their hotel; it has enough of Baker's wry humor to be enjoyable, and the ending twist is well set-up and executed, but it was overall fairly lightweight.
"The Tsar's Dragons," by Jane Yolen & Adam Stemple: I wanted this story, which adds dragons to the Russian Revolution, to come to more than it did. It was dragged down by too much literalness, and far too surface-oriented a reading of history. There was no atmosphere, no sense of desperation, and the villains managed to be neither villainy (which might have worked here) nor well-rounded human beings (which I think is what the authors were going for). Too ambitious, I suspect -- all the story made me want was someone else to do it better.
"The Dragon of Direfell," by Liz Williams: This was probably the most unique treatment of the dragon; it also had the feel of a well-developed alternate world behind it, enough to make me wonder if it's set in the same world as one of Williams' novels. Unfortunately, neither the characters nor the plot was interesting, and other than earning a snort for a line in the closing paragraph it left no impact.
"Oakland Dragon Blues," by Peter S. Beagle: This story is probably the strongest technically in the collection; Beagle was clearly in complete control and the story delivers everything it should. It's another that places a dragon in a modern setting, and it has some humor and a nice metafictional twist. If the collection had been more interesting I would have quite liked it. Unfortunately, it was just too slight a story to carry over 400 pages of "meh."
"Human Killer," by Diana Gabaldon & Samuel Sykes: This story spends a very long time doing very little, then has the climax occur entirely off-screen. It is probably the story I liked least, simply because I felt I invested quite a lot of reading time for very little payoff. It's another straight-forward medieval dragon & world, and the characters were all loaded down with too much backstory that never came to anything.
"Stop!" by Garth Nix: This is the second short story I've read by Nix, and both struck me as ugly and pointless. It's very short, and places its dragon in what appears to be a nuclear test zone during WWII, but there were too few details for me to be sure -- about the setting, or any of the characters, or why on earth I was bothering to read it. It also uses "f--ing" a lot, and that isn't my ellision, which annoyed the hell out of me. If it's a YA story and you don't believe you can use "fuck" in a YA story, then don't use it; the dashes are a copout that simply draws attention to your hypocrisy.
"Ungentle Fire," by Sean Williams: This story had the potential to be brilliant, but needed a firm editorial hand. It was set in a steampunk alternate Australia, and there were some beautiful images and beautiful character moments. Unfortunately, the ending was a total clunker, because Williams felt the need to spell out all the stuff he implied so gently just moments before. If it had ended one page earlier I would have loved it, but lines like "He was aware now that the emotional pitfalls he had been skirting during his quest. . ." really dragged it down.
"A Stark and Wormy Knight," by Tad Williams: This wasn't a bad story, but it kept reminding me of a blog post by John Scalzi in which he talks about the difference between clever and good. This was merely clever, unfortunately it didn't make me laugh, so it didn't work for me. The title is a very good sample of what the whole story is, so if you like the title you'll probably like the story, and if the title leaves you cold, well, there's a lot more of that coming.
"None So Blind," by Harry Turtledove: This is a Milieu story if ever I've seen one; I suspect it's set in one of Turtledove's alternate histories, but haven't read any of them so I can't be sure. It never ends up being more than a travelogue, and the constant repetition that in this world the tropical savages are blonde and the colonial oppressors are dark(er) get really obnoxious, mostly because there's never any reason given for WHY the tropical people would be light-skinned and the people from the cold-climate would be dark-skinned. It also hammers the titular point home, which I did not need.
"JoBoy," by Diana Wynne Jones: This story felt like it was aimed very young. The setting is barely established at all (I believe it's a modern English city) and the characters get only slightly more treatment; the whole story revolves around a very simple mystery and then stops.
"Puz_le," by Gregory Maguire: This was one of the few stories that managed to develop an interesting atmosphere; the dragon and the magic creepy and intriguing. Unfortunately, it read like chapter 1 of some novel or, worse, a treatment for a novel. The instant that the tension was at its highest, another character came in, broke it, and basically said "I have so much to tell you!" The end. It made me want to read more, but simultaneously resent Maguire and therefore want to swear him off forever.
"After the Third Kiss," by Bruce Coville: This very heavily fairy tale influenced story was doing moderately interesting things that looked rather like Robin McKinley's brilliant Deerskin -- until it said outright "no, that isn't happening here," at which point I got bored and started paying less attention. Then (possibly because I was paying less attention, but maybe not) the ending came out of nowhere, and was heavy-handed to boot.
"The War That Winter Is," by Tanith Lee: This is my favorite story of the collection. It is lyrical and epic and (unusual for this collection) exactly the right length. It feels rather like a Norse Saga (this is the one with the ice dragon) and if it weren't for a slight stumble on the dismount I would have loved it unreservedly; as it is, it too fell into the trap of spelling things out just the slightest bit too clearly at the end.
"The Dragon's Tale," by Tamora Pierce: Like Jones' story, this one felt aimed just a little too young for my taste; it has a first-person dragon narrator that veers a bit closer to precious than I would have liked. Other than that, it works well enough; I assume it's set in one of her established worlds (maybe even with already established characters?) and so I felt I was missing some of the references, and the resolution is too easy for the amount of jeopardy the characters were placed in, but it's a decent enough example of a short story for pre-teen readers.
"Dragon Storm," by Mary Rosenblum: This is the story with the sea dragon, and the only one that does the full companion animal fantasy treatment; it suffered from being entirely predictible and having an ending that was too easy for the jeopardy set up just before.
"The Dragaman's Bride," by Andy Duncan: This final story ended the collection on a strong note. It was set in Appalachia in the 1930s and felt authentically Southern -- the Dragaman was not a European dragon transplanted wholesale, but rather what a dragon myth might have evolved into in a new environment (I know little about Southern folktales; maybe it *is* authentic) -- and the mix of fantasy and history was perfectly balanced. (Also perfectly horrifying.) I didn't love the voice, and the villains got off incredibly easily, but this was a good story, and one of the few that got me interested in seeking out the author's other work....more
This was a deeply disappointing collection for me. It doesn't work for two reasons. The first reason is that, to borrow Jo Walton's phrasing, the initThis was a deeply disappointing collection for me. It doesn't work for two reasons. The first reason is that, to borrow Jo Walton's phrasing, the initial volume in any of Shinn's series always blows me away, then each successive volume is only half as good as the one before. Two of the four novellas in this volume are set in the worlds of Shinn's two longest series, and those two novellas have reached only homeopathically good territory. The second reason is that I just don't think Shinn is capable of writing stories with the sort of thematic freight she attempted here -- the two non-series novellas are drawn from two of her more message-heavy novels, and the two series novellas attempt to address some of the seriously thorny issues inherent but not really addressed in her previous world-building.
Still, it's the sort of volume that if you are a Sharon Shinn completist, you simply have to read it. And since her prose is always pleasant and easy to read it goes very, very quickly.
Flight (set in Samaria, just before Archangel) This was by far the worst story in the bunch. It features the return of Raphael as the Biggest of all Big Bads, doing evil just because he can; a really, really, really clunky and histrionic speech about the evils of a system where women are only valued because they can produce angel babies; and a completely forced romance. I rather wish I could erase my memory of it.
Blood (set in the world of Heart of Gold) The novel this is based on is one of the few by Shinn that I have never re-read; though I don't remember disliking it nothing about it ever stood out enough in my memory that I wanted to revisit it. So this was the one case where I could not tell what information was new for the novella and what was a reference to the novel, which probably made it feel fresher than it would have otherwise. It too features some clunky speachifying on the evils of a patriarchal system, but there is a greater focus on the budding friendship between Kerk and Jalci, a very Hollywood but still somewhat heartwarming set of scenes at a sort of shelter for abused women and their children, and an actual honest-to-goodness moment of heartbreak and moral ambiguity. That moment gets completely ruined a moment later when Jalci recasts everything as black and white, but it made the story worthwhile for me. I think this was the best of the bunch.
Gold (set in the world of Summers at Castle Auburn) I think this novella would actually work better for people who have not read the novel. If you have not read the novel, it's a fairly straightforward story about the dangers of living in fairyland -- not a particularly memorable entry into that canon of literature, but I happen to like those stories with their depictions of dangerous beauty. If you have read the novel, as I have (though not tremendously recently), something about the story just doesn't quite seem to match what came before -- I spent the whole time trying to figure out what on earth happened in the interim to twist the recurring characters' motivations to this result. The story also featured a tremendously whiny teenage girl protagonist, and again the romance seemed forced.
Flame (set in the Twelve Houses, just before Mystic and Rider) Senneth is my second-favorite of all of Shinn's characters (right after Jovieve in Wrapt in Crystal) and Shinn went a fair way to ruining her for me in this story. Here she is wishy-washy and whiny or self-righteous by turns. Because of the difference in her character, I assumed that the story was set several years before Mystic and Rider; I would believe that this teenage Senneth would grow into the wonderful Senneth I so loved. Unfortunately, Shinn then made it explicit that Senneth went straight from the events of this story into the events of Mystic and Rider, so my interpretation was invalidated and I was left feeling merely annoyed. Plus the resolution was completely predictable (which is problematic because the story is set up as a pseudo-mystery rather than a romance) and again there were far too many soapbox moments. (It's bad to burn witches. I know this already.)...more