I hate epic fantasy. I hate the Chosen One trope, I hate the perspective switching that's now de rigeur. I have a strong aversion for coming-of-age plI hate epic fantasy. I hate the Chosen One trope, I hate the perspective switching that's now de rigeur. I have a strong aversion for coming-of-age plots, and love-practically-at-first-sight, and absolutely anything having to do with Fate. This book has all of those things. So why did I read it?
I love high fantasy. You must understand that I define epic fantasy as only those fantasies where the plot involves the saving of the world, while high fantasy is simply any fantasy taking place in a secondary world. Obviously, the two sub genres overlap quite a bit. So while I try to avoid it, I do sometimes end up reading an epic fantasy novel, if the secondary world seems interesting enough.
This one was.
So much high fantasy takes place in a generic medieval Europe, particularly France and the British Isles; a small but visible minority takes place in vaguely Arabian or Chinese settings. I don't think I have ever encountered another fantasy novel that draws on Hawaii for its backdrop, as this one does. It's set in Hawaii only as much as Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Legacy series is set in France or Robin McKinley's Beauty is set in England -- which is to say, Johnson took the names and some elements of the geography and not much more -- but just that much difference was enough to pique my interest and put this on Mt. TBR.
Unfortunately, there is a danger attendant upon breaking that sort of new ground. A fantasy novel set in generic medieval Europe can draw on a wealth of world-building tropes that an average fantasy reader will expect and accept with no further explanation; a fantasy novel set in an unfamiliar setting has to be built from scratch, and the average fantasy reader (at least if the average fantasy reader is at all like me) is likely to interrogate the world-building a bit more closely.
So, for example, I loved exploring the world of Johnson's outer islands -- that world made sense given my knowledge of Hawaii and other parts of Polynesia. But when the story moved to the inner islands, which are temperate rather than tropical, the world started to feel. . . confused. I believe Johnson was trying to evoke Japan, but little European influences seemed to sneak their way in -- a character playing a lute, another character using nightshade and bitterwort in a potion. Of course, this IS high fantasy, and the whole world is made up, so using European-derived items isn't inherently WRONG. . . but when the world feels so different, I found it distracting to see something suddenly the same.
Still, while I became less enamored with the world as the novel went on, I was pleased with the level of technical prowess Johnson showed in this, her debut novel. The pacing was a bit uneven, but I never found the somewhat convoluted plot hard to follow. And while I always felt distanced from the individual characters and their mental/emotional states, I was very much invested in the survival of the world as a whole, and the climax of the novel was therefore intense and effective. The cliffhanger ending (another reason I hate epic fantasy) worked, at least in that it made me want to run out and grab the next book immediately. The only thing that stopped me was the knowledge that this series is that most frustrating of types: doomed forever to be unfinished because it was dropped by the publisher....more
It's a first novel, and it has some of the weaknesses I associate with first novels: it jumps through time a lot, and those jDamn this is a good book.
It's a first novel, and it has some of the weaknesses I associate with first novels: it jumps through time a lot, and those jumps aren't always telegraphed adequately; some of the descriptions, while each individually quite beautiful, ended up feeling repetitive when taken as a whole. But most impressively, it already displays a great deal of the maturity and style that I loved in Slow River. Even in this first novel, Griffith's voice is assured, her characters are well-drawn, and her themes are delicately presented yet rigorously worked out.
Griffith's style is quietly exquisite, understatedly lyrical (in contrast to Catherynne M. Valente's muscular lyricism or Patricia A. McKillip's ornate lyricism or Peter S. Beagle's cooly intellectual lyricism)(and what is with my favorite authors and all their middle initials?) in ways that seem all the more surprising because this is a science fiction novel rather than a fantasy novel. This is Griffith's description of Marghe's landing on GP:
The doors cracked open and leaked in light like pale grapefruit squeezings, making the artificial illumination in the gig seem suddenly thick and dim.
Wind swept dark tatters across a sky rippling with cloud like a well-muscled torso, bringing with it the smell of dust and grass and a sweetness she could not identify. . . She sniffed, trying to equate the spicy sweet smell on the wind to something she knew: nutmeg, sun on beetle wings, the wild smell of heather.
Okay, so maybe that passage wasn't so understated. I delight in that sort of passage in fantasy novels, where I expect magic; I delighted in it in Griffith's Slow River, which is SF but in the more "realist" vein, practically Mundane SF. Here, in this near-planetary romance, it took me aback as it should not have, and I am grateful to Griffith for reminding me that there can be so much beauty in the alien.
Part of the reason Jeep is so beautiful (in a stark fashion) is that we see it mostly through Marghe's perspective, and Marghe is a woman deeply attuned to both the world around her and to her own body. She looks outward and inward, and Griffith paints that dual focus with an incredible eye to detail that made the book startlingly visceral. I have been thinking lately about (female) SFF characters' relationships with their bodies, and the way that Marghe is so firmly sited within hers made the beatings, the starvation, and the sex come alive on the page. (Also it really sends the message: Jeep's a tough place!) The way that that character trait completely informs the way Marghe reacts to and advances the plot is just another sign of Griffith's immense skill as a storyteller.
But the thing I am most struck by is how perfectly the jacket description captures this book -- it is a book all about change. It's about characters changing, and it's about societies changing, and it's about the way those changes amplify or counteract each other, and then it's about everything changing again. It's not a book for people who like tight plots where every question raised is answered by the finale -- the finale just raises more questions about the future of the characters and the world. Instead it's a book for people who like history, who like to explore the hidden ways the past shapes the present and who are drawn to those turning points where the smallest decisions by individuals have the power to dramatically alter the fates of whole societies....more
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 novel picks up a couple months after the end of The Ladies of Mandrigyn, and if it isn't as surprising as that novel was it is no less delightfulThis novel picks up a couple months after the end of The Ladies of Mandrigyn, and if it isn't as surprising as that novel was it is no less delightful. While Starhawk has responded with her usual calm to all the changes in their fortunes, Sun Wolf is still assimilating the new needs his power places on his way of life and his new relationship with Starhawk specifically and women in general. Of course he immediately clashes with another strong-minded, aristocratic, redheaded woman, but Kaletha is very definitely not Sheera Galernas.
The Witches of Wenshar delves deeper into the magic system that Hambly has set up for this world, and if none of it rocked my world with originality, its very familiarity let Hambly continue exploring the things obviously dear to her heart: her characters and the role of women in the world. In the course of the novel, Sun Wolf goes through the same series of revelations that Starhawk went through in The Ladies of Mandrigyn when she was stuck in Pergemis with Ram & Orris and their family, and his melancholy as a result is handled with a wonderful delicacy.
This novel is actually better paced than its predecessor was; Sun Wolf and Starhawk are never separated by more than a day's ride, so the shifting between perspectives is much smoother because they are both party to the same events. There are no large battle scenes for Hambly to choreograph, the action all taking place among small bands of people or individuals, so there were never any moments when I lost track of who was doing what. And the denouement, though I could see it coming a mile a way, still drew a snicker from me. All in all, this novel was just as enjoyable as The Ladies of Mandrigyn, and that is no mean feat. I am eagerly awaiting getting my hands on a copy of the conclusion to this trilogy....more
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
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
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
I knew going into this that the Sword-Dancer books were light sword-and-sorcery reading. I was prepared for minimal world-building, cursory characterI knew going into this that the Sword-Dancer books were light sword-and-sorcery reading. I was prepared for minimal world-building, cursory character building, and purple prose. But what totally threw me at the start of the first book (Sword Dancer) was that Roberson seems to know absolutely nothing about how to survive in the desert. The entire novel is a trek through the desert, and yet the two main characters set off with a little dried meat in their bags and a couple of waterskins on a moment's notice. Apparently this is a desert where waterholes and oases are only a day or two apart, but Tiger spends a lot of time talking about how sometimes wells are fouled, and sandstorms come up in a moment, and there are all these dangerous animals that can lay you low, and no time at all preparing for any of those dangers. If a seasoned trekker is going off into a desert that dangerous, he rides a camel (by the way, where were the camels? it was definitely supposed to be the Arabian desert) if he's not in a major rush and he brings along at least one extra in case his animal goes lame and to carry extra supplies. He should have a small tent he can pitch around himself to provide some protection from a sandstorm. He should have a heck of a lot more water and food. It would have been one thing if the idiotic Northerner had tried to go into the desert with no preparation, but for the supposed world-wise Southerner to do it completely ruined my faith in the author's ability to handle her own world.
Del's character was also problematic for me at the very opening. She has supposedly spent five years training herself for this mission, but she is unwilling to wait a day (or an hour) to properly prepare herself for a dangerous journey through the desert? Those are incompatible world views. She should be patient after spending so much time breaking down cultural barriers in the north, and she exhibits no patience at all in the novel. With the decisions she made (or wanted to make) she should have died almost immediately having come nowhere near achieving her object for simple lack of foresight.
And because Roberson lost me so early on, I spent a great deal of time looking for other inconsistencies. For instance, the desert seems Arabian, and some of the tribes seem Bedouin, which fits, and several cultures seem Arabic, but heaven is called Valhail (and sounds quite a bit like Valhalla when it is mentioned) and all the terms related to sword fighting seem drawn from Japanese culture. I don't mind authors picking and choosing things they like from world cultures, but if they aren't cultures that naturally mingle in our world, the terms should be disguised quite a bit more so that an average reader doesn't detect the source material. That sort of thing I might have overlooked if Roberson had my trust, but since she handled her desert so poorly I wasn't willing to extend her any credit on those accounts.
I did make it through the entire first novel; it read quickly, and it was pretty much as I expected. But every time things were moving along decently well and Roberson was rebuilding my suspension of disbelief she would do something else that revealed her lack of control over her novel: the characters would do something inconsistent, or some aspect of the world would get lost that was set up earlier, or a passage of time would be handled badly. By the time the climax was reached, I still didn't like either of the main characters, I didn't buy their growth, and I didn't care at all whether they accomplished their goals. Given all that, I am undecided on whether or not to read the next novel. It is incredibly light, easy reading -- probably only an afternoon's worth -- and I already own it, but I still don't know if I want to bother....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
njoyable, but my enjoyment was hampered by its very YA-ness. The characters are all likable, the world is interesting, and the prose gets very much ounjoyable, but my enjoyment was hampered by its very YA-ness. The characters are all likable, the world is interesting, and the prose gets very much out of the way of a story that kept me turning the pages, but everything was too EASY. There were good characters and bad characters with no shades of grey (and c'mon, a decadent, evil emperor and the only description he gets is that he's grossly fat? really? THAT'S what makes someone evil?), and the good characters always seemed to have more than enough power to topple the bad characters -- there was no true sense of jeopardy, because every challenge the good characters faced they overcame with relative ease, even though they had no idea what they were doing. I much prefer the writing of Dickinson's wife, Robin McKinley -- also mostly YA, and with the same stark contrast between good and evil, but at least her characters sweat and bleed for their victories, and nothing is ever just handed to them....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