It has been three months, seven days and nine hours since Ophelia Jane Worthington-Whittard's mother died. Susan Worthington was a prolific horror wri...moreIt has been three months, seven days and nine hours since Ophelia Jane Worthington-Whittard's mother died. Susan Worthington was a prolific horror writer who died young, and Ophelia, her older sister Alice and their father, Malcolm Whittard, are still grieving.
In an effort to help them recover and give them a chance of scenery, Ophelia's father accepts a last-minute posting to a museum in another country to finish setting up the greatest-ever exhibition of swords. Malcolm Whittard is, according to his business card, the "leading international expert on swords", but with only three days to go before the opening of the exhibition on Christmas Eve, it's a demanding job that takes up all his time.
Alice seems content to sit and brood, but Ophelia spends the time exploring the museum. It is a cold place, in a city caught up in a perpetual winter, and the museum is a weird and wonderful place. The guards in each room are old ladies with black handbags who spend most of their time knitting or sleeping, so Ophelia is free to wander into parts of the museum she isn't allowed to be in. It is during her exploration that she encounters a peculiar room, with a little door and a big keyhole through which is the eye of a boy, staring back at her.
The boy, who was dubbed "the marvellous boy", has been alive for over three hundred years. He was sent here on a mission by the wizards of east, west and middle, who took his name to keep him safe. He no longer remembers it. They gave him a sword, a relatively plain and heavy sword with a carving of a closed eye near the hilt, and certain instructions. He was to find the "One Other" and give them the sword, with which they would defeat the evil Snow Queen.
The Snow Queen was unable to kill him because of the protective spell on him which also prevents him from ageing and dying, and so she had him locked up here in the museum, and the sword taken away. She need only wait out the time of his protection spell, then she can kill him and be free to take over more of the world, as she did to his homeland and this place, where she has reigned ever since.
Ophelia, unlike her mother, is not prone to fantastical flights of the imagination. She is a member of the Children's Science Society of Greater London and believes in logic and reason and science. But little by little, she finds herself on small but dangerous missions to find the key to his room, to set him free and find his sword before the Wintertide Clock strikes on Christmas Eve and the Snow Queen's plan comes to fruition. But Ophelia is only eleven, she's not courageous and relies heavily on her asthma inhaler. She's a little girl up against a frightening woman, with only the whispered words of comfort from her mother for encouragement.
In her search for the hidden key and the missing sword, Ophelia might just find her hidden courage, and save her sister, her father and the world.
I don't read enough of stories like this one; or rather, I don't make enough time to read stories like this one, which is a sad mistake. Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy was utterly wonderful, a delightful story of adventure, danger, loss, grief, wizards who think a lot, deception, sibling love, resilience, courage and the classic fight between good and evil. It is fantasy in the tradition of the Chronicles of Narnia and similar works, a children's story that will engage and entertain readers of all ages, an old-fashioned tale given new life.
Ophelia is a timid and sensible girl, and the request made of her by the Marvellous Boy requires her to not just be brave, but to put aside all things rational, suspend disbelief and trust the word of a strange boy who claims to be several centuries old. The more involved she becomes, the more danger she is placed in, and the more her old certainties come crumbling down. She doesn't become a new person, or a vastly different person, she simply becomes her full potential as Ophelia. She's a great protagonist, suffering through the classic coming-of-age trial-by-fire that fantasy stories are best known for.
Wizards, [Ophelia] thought, when she gained her composure. What good were they if they couldn't tell you how to do stuff, if they were always talking in riddles and saying they knew everything before it even happened? It wasn't very helpful.
If she were a wizard, she'd write reports for people. She'd make sure everything was very clear. She'd write, Looking for a magical sword? No problem. Go to the fifth floor, turn left, open a large wooden chest, et cetera, et cetera. She'd have check boxes. Found your magical sword? Place X here.
The Marvellous Boy himself remains something of an enigma, and a sad one at that. He tells Ophelia his story in segments, and the vivid rendering of his life before being locked in the little room really brings him to life. He is quite clearly something of a sacrificial lamb, a boy hand-picked by the wizards who must sacrifice everything with little say in the matter. As such, he is an infinitely sympathetic character, a little boy lost who stays calm and friendly and positive in the wake of dire circumstances. I felt so sad for him, but also proud. Foxlee deftly captures the characters and their motivations within the confines of the fantasy formula, a fantasy that is none too clear about place and time. Any apparent plot holes - a never-ending winter somehow sustaining a human population, never mind the trees, is hardly believable - simply don't get in the way of the story. Such is the strength of Foxlee's writing, that it all comes together and works, much like a fairy tale still carries the strength of its own conviction despite the fact that the details don't really make sense.
Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy oozes atmosphere and tension, suspense and the thrilling bite of danger. Among it lies the fragile workings of family dynamics and confused love, vulnerable to the atmosphere, which makes it all the more precious. While Ophelia is off exploring and adventuring, fifteen-year-old Alice is being lured in by the museum curator, Miss Kaminski, who gives her princess dresses and flattery and helps drive a wedge between the two sisters while also flirting with their father. Miss Kaminski - and it's no spoiler to say this - is the true enemy. Beautiful and elegant but infinitely cold, Ophelia sees glimpses of the woman's true self but is too young to understand it.
While the overall plot is as predictable as any fairy tale-fantasy story - whether or not you have ever read "The Snow Queen" fairy tale (which I have not, strange to say, though I don't think there are all that many similarities really), this story does follow a fairly standard fantasy formula - the story is brimming with imagination and you never really know what's going to happen next, or how things will play out. The writing is strong and near-perfect, the pacing fluid and smooth and not too fast, and the characters fleshed-out nicely. I grew quite attached to Ophelia, and the Marvellous Boy, and welcomed the satisfying conclusion. With such rich detail and atmosphere and action, the story played out like a movie in my head, and I can easily see this being adapted to film one day. It would be a costume- and set-designer's dream come true, to bring this magical story visually to life. As it was, my humble imagination did a pretty good job of it!
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley. Please note that passages quoted here may appear differently in the finished book. (less)
After spending so long trying to stay out of - or escape - the Inviernos and their blood sorcerers, Queen Lucero-Elisa né Riqueza de Vega, only living...moreAfter spending so long trying to stay out of - or escape - the Inviernos and their blood sorcerers, Queen Lucero-Elisa né Riqueza de Vega, only living bearer of a Godstone, finds herself journeying across the desert sands and into the heart of Invierno country, to their capital city, Umbra de Deus. Betrayed by a man in her own court, her personal guard and the leader of the Royal Guards, Hector, has been taken prisoner and carried off to Invierne for the sole purpose of making Elisa follow. And she does, she must, for he is not only one of her most loyal supporters, he is also the man she loves.
Hector's a clever man, and being taken captive, trussed up and beaten doesn't stop him from finding ways to incite resentment among his Joyan captors, or from reducing their number or slowing them down. He knows Elisa so well, he knows she's close behind, and he's ready for her when she catches up along with her lady-in-waiting, Mara, the assassin Belén, and the failed Invierno sorcerer, Storm.
Freeing Hector is only the beginning, though. Elisa intends to resolve the ongoing conflict with Invierne one way or another, so that she can then turn her attention to solving the treachery in Joya d'Arena, where members of her own ruling council have taken over the capital city and the castle. Storm's oblique comments over the past months have raised questions for her, especially concerning the truth of her people's own history and arrival on this planet.
More pressing still: Why does Invierne want her so badly? Why must she come willingly? And what is the truth behind the Godstones? Only in the heart of enemy country can Elisa discover the truth, but can she escape with her life - and still be queen to her own people?
The third and final book in the Fire and Thorns trilogy is just as strong as its predecessors, just as exciting and gripping, just as infused with gentle humour and vigorous plotting, and just as well developed. And even better: this one comes with a map! Ah it makes all the difference, really, not to mention the plain fact that I love maps in books.
While Elisa's personal growth isn't as noticeable in this outing, seeing as she's already achieved so much and matured so much previously, but it does build upon it. I mentioned briefly in my review of the second book, The Crown of Embers, that there was a curious colonial, superior attitude shown by Elisa towards Invierne and its people, and this still remains a niggling issue for me. Mainly, I'm not sure how deliberate it is. Certainly, throughout all three books, the sense of superiority among the Joyans is always present, and the more we learn about the Invierne's and what happened to them when Elisa's people arrived, the clearer the distinction becomes, the more solid the coloniser-colonised parallel is. I guess I was expecting something to come out of it, because it was the most interesting part of the whole plot for me. It's a story line I've always been interested in, and this Fantasy trilogy was such a good vehicle for exploring it. It's just that it didn't go anywhere, it wasn't grabbed hold of and it didn't change anything.
Which makes me wonder whether a second series will come out of this one, a new story set in the same world which will dig into it more. Elisa's story merely establishes a truth, but goes nowhere with it. The focus remains on Elisa in a more personal, immediate way, and her immediate problems. Or is this the difference between Young Adult and Adult Fantasy? I definitely do not want to hear that you can only explore complex themes like this in adult fantasy. To merely touch upon it like this, is not good enough. Because surely the whole plot, all that world-building, was leading to this, this truth beneath the propaganda? I was disappointed that it was revealed and then...nothing. It didn't make Elisa see things differently, or even feel sympathetic (as I did). In that moment, she felt more a product of Earth than of her own place. It affected my admiration of her.
Yet it didn't really change my enjoyment of the story as a whole. It's exciting, adventurous, intriguing fantasy, and aside from the fact that it's written in ineffective present tense instead of past tense, which would have suited it much better, it's well-written and well-developed. There are a few minor surprises, plot-wise, along the way, but it does in general follow a fairly well laid-out and predictable path. But Elisa is such a strong character, and the story and its characters overall are nicely filled out with shades of grey, that they easily make up for any other flaws. The romance is handled nicely: it feels genuine, between Elisa and Hector, but it doesn't take over the story. Everything about the book, and the trilogy as a whole, is just so bloody enjoyable. It just makes such good reading that I was disappointed when it ended and it was all over. For now. I truly hope Carson writes more set in this world, because it's clear we've only just scratched the surface and there's so much going on here than we've yet learned about - we don't yet know the real truth behind the Godstones, for instance.
If I could wish for one thing, though, one thing, it would be the scrapping of present tense. Yes, it is that ineffective here, and just not used properly, or correctly, so that it ends up holding the story back rather than propelling it forward. It would be so much stronger if written in simple past tense. So much. You know that expression, Why reinvent the wheel? That's what I'd like to say to all these writers - especially YA - who are dabbling with present tense these days. It's turning into a real pet peeve of mine. It's just, it's such a restrictive tense, it really confines your writing and doesn't allow for any flexibility or artistry or flair. It's an exceptionally difficult tense to write in, and if it's not done well - or correctly - it just spoils things. I keep going on about it in discussing the Fire and Thorns trilogy because I loved this story so much, and it would have been almost perfect if it had just been written in past tense. There, rant done, I'll say no more.(less)
Gwen is seventeen and just about to start her final year of school in Oregon, after moving to the state from San Francisco with her veterinarian paren...moreGwen is seventeen and just about to start her final year of school in Oregon, after moving to the state from San Francisco with her veterinarian parents who are trying to escape the extreme upheavals of climate change. On her way to school, though, Gwen realises she's being followed by a strange man. He pursues her and in a panic, Gwen tumbles down a cliff to the wild Pacific Ocean below - and finds herself on her hands and knees on top of the water rather than fighting for her life beneath it.
The stranger introduces himself as Kian and tells a strange and incredible tale that Gwen slowly but reluctantly finds herself believing. He tells her that she is the reincarnation of a magician who was sent forward in time through magic, that she must unlock her memories of her previous life in order to unlock her magic. He tells her that she and six others were sent forward in time to battle three bad magicians who steal the magic from those who, like Gwen, inherited it naturally. And he tells her that all the natural disasters, the tsunamis and hurricanes and earthquakes, are a direct result from these powerful magicians' attempts to take over the North American continent. To defeat them, Kian was sent forward in time to find the good magicians, help them reach their powers, and fight the bad magicians. If they don't regain control of their magic, the bad magicians will steal it from them - along with their souls.
So begins a journey unlike any Gwen could have imagined: crossing the country to New York City to find more of her group, and from there to England where their search brings them face-to-face with their enemies and puts their very lives - and souls - in danger. Can this small group of teens gain control of their magic before it's taken from them?
Lives of Magic is, in many ways, fairly standard fantasy. I should really call it "urban fantasy" since it's set in our world rather than a make-believe one, but that sub-genre has been overrun with detective mystery stories so I felt it would be a bit misleading now. When I started reading this, I was rather confused into thinking that Kian came from one of those fantasy worlds; it was a while before I understood that he was from the past. Mostly because he is very vague about who he is and where he's from - at one time I entertained the notion that he was from Atlantis, a mythological place from our own world's history. It really wasn't clear (though it does say it on the back cover, which I hadn't read in a while) that Gwen's past self and Kian were all from ancient England, celtic Britannia.
In truth, it was just one of many such confusions for me as I was reading this. It's the kind of book that I read with a frown on my face, most of the time. There just seemed to be too many plot-holes that may (or may not) have been easily explained by the author, but just weren't. Gwen conveniently took too many things at face value, while not questioning some very obvious problems and holes in Kian's story. It wasn't enough to make the whole story cave in for me, but it was enough to create potholes everywhere for me to stumble in. It wasn't a smooth read, is what I'm trying to say. The pacing was good, and if the plot makes sense to you I'm sure it must read smoothly. But for me it was a very bumpy ride.
That aside (and it is a big thing), there were elements to the story that I did enjoy. I liked the kind of magic Leiderman employed, though we don't learn all that much about it here. I quite liked Gwen - not all the time, and she was very much an adolescent the way she could carry on (realistic but annoying to read) - and there were layers to the other characters that made them interesting. I was very curious about the ancient world they'd all come from, which is pieced together through unlocked memories - like visions and dreams - that Gwen has, but there's still a lot to learn. I didn't really "get" the bad magicians: the world-building to create a stable foundation of understanding was a bit rocky and patchy; without a strong foundation, it's hard to buy into the rest of the story as it plays out. The ending is mostly predictable, but the details were unknowns and kept it from being stale or boring. Gwen comes a long way over the course of the story and takes a leadership role, and I can see her becoming a strong, though still flawed, character (it's always nice for a heroine to have flaws - makes her both more interesting and more realistic, more human).
This is a debut, as well as the first in a trilogy, so there's plenty of room for the author's style to strengthen and become smoother, and for the story to gain flesh and depth. It's a fairly straight-forward premise that somehow seemed complicated and confusing while I was reading it, and I feel that that's down to the writer. It's a pretty good teen fantasy, but for me I couldn't get past the contrivances, the plot-holes, the loads of questions that I couldn't believe Gwen wasn't asking. So I'm conflicted, a bit disappointed, and not invested enough to continue reading the trilogy.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book. (less)
Based on the character of the 11th Doctor as played by Matt Smith, Jenny T Colgan has brought the Time Lord to life in this well-written, authentic an...moreBased on the character of the 11th Doctor as played by Matt Smith, Jenny T Colgan has brought the Time Lord to life in this well-written, authentic and tightly-paced historical science fiction story.
On a Viking ship headed to Iceland, Henrik - a farm boy given the chance to fulfil his dream of being a Viking warrior - helps guard their most precious cargo: Freydis, daughter of the Duke of Trondheim, who has sent her off to marry the King of Iceland, Gissar Polvaderson. Gissar is old, fat and extremely ugly, and Freydis is not going quietly. But suddenly, she is the least of any Viking's worries: when within sight of land - a weather-exposed Scottish island - a great tentacle of fire bursts from the sea and sets the ship alight. Men fall overboard and are quickly caught by the flames before they hit the water. Utter destruction seems imminent, and only Henrik remembers to release Freydis from her locked storage closet.
On the island, the Doctor has arrived by TARDIS and made his way to the small village near the coast, which is deserted. Everyone has rushed down to the beach to watch the Viking ship approach, bringing their deadliest enemies with it. When the inexplicable fire reaches out like an arm to the ship, no one is moved to help - except the Doctor.
Bringing the poor singed survivors to the hostile islanders, the Doctor encourages everyone to get along while he promises to help them solve the mystery and get rid of the threat. But this is no ordinary fire, and it has a purpose, a desperate, desperate purpose. Can the Doctor figure it out and solve it before more lives are lost?
While I grew up watching Doctor Who on the telly - the ABC used to show it every weekday at 6pm during the season, back in the day when a single storyline took 6 half-hour episodes to tell - this is the first time I've read any Doctor Who fanfiction. (I'm not, in fact, a reader of fanfiction in general, and don't seek it out.) Nevertheless, I was excited to have the chance to try it, and while it was both better than I'd expected and also not quite as good as I would have liked, it was certainly hugely entertaining.
Fans of the contemporary Doctor Who series will surely recognise the eleventh Doctor; Colgan has done a superb job of capturing the nuances and body language, the quiet loneliness tinged with hopeful sadness, the vague dithering punctuated by moments of piercing clarity, the classic eccentricities that mark all the incarnations of the Doctor: fripperies of attire, for example, and a preference for hot tea or some similar foodstuff. The character of the Doctor comes across at once as approachable and knowable, and yet also utterly alien. She was able to bring the reader as close to him as you possibly can, while still retaining that sense of mystery and higher thought, of the gulf of utter loneliness - all of which is made more tangible if you come with some prior understanding of the Doctor's character. Colgan does not expound on a lot of backstory. Alongside his more melancholy side is his trademark humour, which Colgan captures perfectly:
Two men brought forward Corc's boat. It was incredibly small, made of tightly stitched animal skins stretched taut over a frame of bowed wood, with two light paddles. It didn't look seaworthy for a Sunday duck pond, never mind the wild North Atlantic. The Doctor coughed politely. 'Well! Isn't she just lovely! Great!' He took the boat from the men with thanks. It hardly weighed anything. 'OK, let me just go... with this boat... and sort everything out... Who needs a TARDIS, I am perfectly happy not bothering the local ecosystem and causing mass panic... perfectly.' He reached the water's edge, took off his shoes and dipped in a toe. 'It is rather parky, isn't it? I remember this from yesterday.' He put the boat down on the bobbing waves. It immediately capsized. 'Ha! So funny when they do that, isn't it.' [p.79]
True also to the formula, while the Doctor arrives on the island alone, he manages to acquire a couple of temporary assistants: Henrik and Freydis. These two have their own side story going, with a backstory about Henrik surviving a plunge under the ice as a boy and becoming the Miracle Boy who came back to life. Freydis is arrogant and superior with a firm belief in the Gods' plans for her; she matures considerably over the course of the book, and a romance - of the tender, innocent variety Doctor Who is known for - blossoms between them.
The actual plot is interesting and with such high stakes - people die in this story - there's considerable tension. The truth of the fire is intriguing and a problem not easily solved, and you're never really sure what the Doctor is doing or thinking until the last moment.
While Colgan shows an ability to write good, well-researched historical fiction and brings to life the community, culture and individuals of the period and setting, the pace did at times become a little slow - little lulls before the storm, so to speak. I didn't mind except that when the pace drops, so does the momentum. There were several facets to the story: Vikings, more Vikings, Henrik's story, Freydis' coming-of-age, the chief's son Eoric, villagers Brogan and her partner, Braan, the fire, and little Luag, the chief's other son, who is adorably sweet. There's plenty going on here, and yet it did lose some oomph somewhere around the halfway-to-three-quarters mark. I was surprised at the number of typos and other glitches in the text - including a sentence that abruptly ends before it's finished - but these don't detract from the strength of the story. The ending was good, and overall Dark Horizons was an entertaining, thoughtful, satisfying and mostly exciting novel that successfully brought to life the eleventh Doctor.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours.(less)
Beauty is the youngest daughter of three. Her two older sisters, Grace and Hope, are beautiful and sweet and graceful, while Beauty - whose real name...moreBeauty is the youngest daughter of three. Her two older sisters, Grace and Hope, are beautiful and sweet and graceful, while Beauty - whose real name is Honour - is thin, short, plain and studious. They live in the city, where their father is a successful merchantman with a fleet of ships, and Grace becomes engaged to one of his captains, Robert Tucker. In order to prove himself, Robbie insists on marrying after his next voyage, which will take three years. Five ships set out, but several years later, just when Hope has found a man she wants to marry, disaster strikes. The ships have been destroyed in a storm, or beached or vanished, including Robbie's. Only a few survivors remain, and their father's business is ruined.
Amid their grief over losing Robbie, the family must sell all it has left and move away. Hope's fiance, Gervain, who has been working for her father, has found a position as a local blacksmith in the wild country to the north, which comes with a cottage. He proposes to the family that they all come with him and set up house there, and maybe later he and Hope can marry. And so they do.
The cottage is small and they must do all the work themselves - no more maids or cooks or footmen - but they all rise to the occasion and find themselves growing strong again with the hard work and fresh air. Grace still grieves, but having so much to do from sunup to sundown keeps her going. After a year, Hope and Gervain marry and they expand the house a little. Ten months later, they have twins, Mercy and Richard, and in late September their father receives news from the city that one of his ships has returned to port, and he must go straight away and see.
It is during a blizzard several months later that their father returns to the cottage, surprising them all, and with a strange and scary tale to share. On his return home he found himself at a strange castle in the forbidding magical woods, a place that welcomed him, took care of him and his horse, fed him, cleaned his clothes and put him to bed - all without anyone showing themselves. Indeed, the place seemed to be deserted. But the next day, before he leaves, he takes a rose from an enchanted rose garden to bring back for Beauty, and that is when his angry host appears with a terrible bargain to make. At the end of the month, he must return with one of his daughters, who will stay with the beast in the castle forever. In exchange, the beast will spare his life.
Most likely we all know the story of "Beauty and the Beast", though it's the animated Disney version that probably comes to most people's mind. My earliest experience with the fairy tale was in my sister's book of Dean's Book of Fairy Tales, gorgeously illustrated by sisters Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone, from the 1960s. In fact, I have one of their Beast illustrations I can show you, of a tusked lion (and not all that ugly, really!):
McKinley's version is very much the same as the classic fairy-tale, though I don't have a copy of the older work on hand to double-check. Rather than a retelling, Beauty is more of a fleshed-out, novel-length version of the fairy tale - and most of that fleshing out is in the lead-up to Beauty meeting the Beast, which doesn't happen until page 129 in my edition. Since the story, as we read it these days (separate from any theoretical meanings or symbolism), is an inherently romantic one, this delay creates for a great sense of tension in what would otherwise be a humdrum story.
I haven't read anything else by McKinley, though I do have copies of Sunshine and Chalice; her writing has that lovely ability to take on the cadence and tone of a much older period. This is a historical fantasy story with no clear setting but which clearly implies an English one, perhaps in the 17th or 16th century. It hardly matters, however, and isn't a relevant detail. McKinley instead focusses on family relations, moral traits (like "honour", love and respect, and of course vanity) and the deeper messages of inner beauty, and beauty being "in the eye of the beholder". Classic Beauty and the Beast messages. Magic is, naturally, a means to an end, though in McKinley's retelling, she's managed to create a fantasy environment that feels genuinely magical and other-worldly.
It is a character-driven story, with firm fairy-tale boundaries. People are often either this, or that, with little room for grey - except for Beauty herself, that is. Of them all, she manages to bridge the divide between characterisations typical of fairy tales (captured in her sisters, for example, who are just so good), and the contemporary reader. She's relatable, and familiar, and human, without coming across as too "modern". The Beast has charisma and a rough kind of charm, and Beauty succinctly captures those qualities about him that make him sympathetic and all-too-human - it just takes her a while to reconcile them with his visage. He was an endearing character and I wanted to spend more time with him; at the same time I felt that he wouldn't be half so charismatic or interesting - or, indeed, romantic - if he became so familiar through extra "scene time" as to be rendered ordinary.
Beauty is about looking beneath the surface, of not judging people on appearances, and of not holding physical beauty over and above other personality traits, abilities and merits. Just like the fairy-tale. This relatively short novel is an ideal format for engaging with the story in a richer, more in-depth way than that provided by a short story (or, indeed, the Disney version). It's a slow-paced, gentle story that nevertheless has darker undertones - undertones that are, sadly I thought, never explored, though perhaps there really isn't a place for it. Ultimately, it is about finding friendship and love in unlikely places, about the genuine versus the superficial (symbolised through the magical castle versus Beauty's real-world poverty and simple, hard-working life), and about honouring your promises and being, in general, a genuine person.
McKinley's version lacks the gothic atmosphere of other retellings (which perhaps I expect only due to Jane Eyre, another kind of retelling) but more than makes up for it with rich visual descriptions, a strong sense of place and character, and an engaging heroine.(less)