I think this was the first Dahl book I ever read, though my memory's a bit confused now - it was either this book or Danny the Champion of the World;...moreI think this was the first Dahl book I ever read, though my memory's a bit confused now - it was either this book or Danny the Champion of the World; I think it was this one. I think I borrowed it so many times from the school library that my mother caved and bought it for me - inside the front cover, where I've written my name and the year (1988 - when I was 8), it says "TREAT!" in big letters. We didn't get things very often outside of birthdays and Christmas, so when I did get something as a treat it was doubly special to me.
The BFG is about Sophie, an orphan, who one night during the "witching hour" in the middle of the night, when she can't sleep, goes to the window and sees something extraordinary: a giant, as tall as a two-storey house or more, peering into bedroom windows as he goes down the street. The giant sees her, plucks her from her room and runs off, running so fast and so far she has no idea where she is when he finally stops - which turns out to be in Giant Country.
The giant has an underground cave with a giant-sized table and chair, and shelves full of glass jars. Sophie is sure she's going to be eaten, but it turns out the giant who kidnapped her is the BFG - the Big Friendly Giant. (His English isn't very good and is riddled with grammatical mistakes, so you have to forgive him for calling himself a big giant.) However, the other giants - much bigger than the BFG - aren't friendly at all. Every night they race off to different countries to guzzle down humans. They're smelly, hairy, ignorant and lazy, but they're very very big and very very strong. The BFG lives on a disgusting vegetable called the Snozzcumber - it looks like a giant pimply cucumber and tastes simply awful.
Sophie learns all about the BFG's life, and what he was doing looking into children's bedrooms at night: he collects dreams, and the good ones he blows into children's rooms while they are sleeping, so they have good dreams. His jars are full of dreams, each labelled with the gist of the dream in the BFG's childlike writing:
I IS MAKING MYSELF A MARVELUS PAIR OF SUCTION BOOTS AND WHEN I PUT THEM ON I IS ABLE TO WALK STRATE UP THE KITSHUN WALL AND ACROSS THE CEILING. WELL, I IS WALKING UPSIDE DOWN ON THE CEILING WHEN MY BIG SISTER COMES IN AND SHE IS STARTING TO YELL AT ME AS SHE ALWAYS DOES, YELLING WOT ON EARTH IS YOU DOING UP THERE WALKING ON THE CEILING AND I LOOKS DOWN AT HER AND I SMILES AND I SAYS I TOLD YOU YOU WAS DRIVING ME UP THE WALL AND NOW YOU HAS DONE IT. (pp.104-5)
The BFG's dream collection gives Sophie an idea for how to rid the world of the giants, but it will involve cunning, courage and the help of a very important lady.
I know this story so well that even though I haven't read it in years, every word seemed familiar to me as I read along. It all came back, not in a rush but in a trickle, as I read. It makes for a very comforting, fond read! I felt a little bit like I connected with my eight-year-old self, because I could also recall how I felt about the different scenes. Like the very beginning, with Sophie awake in the dead of night - the witching hour - and seeing the giant in the moonlit street and trying to hide behind the curtains. I remember how that scene filled my head as a child, seeming much larger and deeper a scene, Dahl's words crafting something much bigger than a mere children's book. And I felt some of that again, felt the chills, the anticipation, the fear of the other giants, the wonderment of the almost invisible dreams, and laughed at the funny stories the dreams wanted to share with children.
So the magic was still there. I think, with Dahl, it always will be. He was such an amazing story-teller, no one really compares to him. He had such fun with his stories, with delighting children and, I'm sure, making their parents laugh despite themselves. He wasn't ashamed to play, to have fun, and to make the world an exciting place. And he taught us how to love language, and how to have fun with it.
No doubt, if you never read any Dahl as a kid, starting as an adult probably won't satisfy as much. (For you, I would recommend Henry Sugar, a collection of short stories for adults that are quite different, almost disturbing, in a fascinating, can't-look-away way.) Then again, maybe they will. I would like to think they would. And you can start anywhere, with any Dahl book, because while we fans have our favourites, they're all treasures. Other books of his came to eclipse The BFG as my favourite - The Witches, for one - but this book will always hold a special place for me. I like to give authors like Dahl credit for encouraging my imagination as a child, my wonderment, and my openness to other possibilities.
Reading The BFG as an adult, of course you notice implausibilities - not the giants, or the dreams, but in the plan to capture the other giants, for instance - but none of it matters. It makes sense to a child who built forts out of straw bales and sticks and made towns and roads for matchbox cars out of piles of fine gravel - I'm sure if Dahl were around today he would scorn the plastic junk toys and computer games that keep kids indoors, glued to a screen or stifled by a toy that only has one function.
One thing that I still find refreshing about Dahl - especially after the spate of YA books I've read over the last few years which like to pretend that teenagers don't even swear - oh golly gosh! - is that he's very un-PC. I've never ever found his books to be offensive in any way; rather, he felt even more like a family friend for being so real about things. It does make me wonder, though, if the days of someone who writes like this - for children - getting published are over. I'm sure there are authors writing today who are just as irreverent and silly and a bit rude, I just can't think of any right now.
Dahl wasn't just an author to me, as a kid - he was like the best uncle ever, a mentor, someone you looked up to and wanted to make proud. You wanted his attention as much as you wanted to hear his stories. You wanted a bit of Dahl in your life, however small. Because he was magic, and I'm so glad I still have that.
Well, this isn't really a review of the book, is it, so much as a memorial service twenty years too late - but that's what The BFG means to me, and that's what I wanted to share. :) (less)
It is the summer holidays and Harry is once again whiling away his time at his hated aunt and uncle's house in Little Whinging, Surrey, but this time...moreIt is the summer holidays and Harry is once again whiling away his time at his hated aunt and uncle's house in Little Whinging, Surrey, but this time his time there is short: Albus Dumbledore, Headmaster of Hogwarts himself, is coming to take him to the Burrow, where his best friend Ron Weasley lives, after a little side trip to visit an ex-teacher of Hogwarts, Horace Slughorn. Slughorn has a talent for surrounding himself with students who will go on to success, likes to "collect" them, and Dumbledore knows that the lure of Harry Potter - the "Chosen One" the papers are calling him now - will be enough to make him come back to Hogwarts to teach.
Harry assumes Slughorn will be taking the cursed Defence Against the Dark Arts job, but actually Slughorn is a Potions master and it is Severus Snape Dumbledore has given the DADA position to, much to Harry's shock and dismay. In his Potions class, Harry uses an old book from the store cupboard; it is heavily marked with corrections and additional instructions, and when Harry tries them he discovers he can make perfect potions - outshining Hermione for the first time ever. The previous owner declared themselves to be the "Half-Blood Prince", and alongside great potions tips are invented spells Harry eagerly tries out.
Staffing isn't the only change this year at Hogwarts: Dumbledore himself takes Harry on for additional "lessons". Together they explore memories of people that together paint a picture of Tom Riddle, now Lord Voldemort. Harry learns of his parentage, his life at the orphanage, his hunger for power and dark secrets, until finally he and Dumbledore discover the secret to killing Voldemort once and for all.
But meanwhile, Harry has his eye on Draco Malfoy, who seems up to something. Harry is convinced he's become a Death Eater and is trying to kill someone, and that Snape is helping him, but no one sees it as anything more than Harry's obsessive hatred for Malfoy and Snape.
Once again, there's a lot going on here and it's often interconnected, so it's hard to pull out the main plot points without giving everything away. After the mammoth size of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, this one seems almost short, but really it's the perfect size for the story it tells. Once again, I have no complaints with Rowling's writing, and she has managed to write a story that makes me feel like a kid again - completely absorbed in the magic of the world and the characters, something I always fear I've grown out of.
We get more of Dumbledore in this instalment than in any other, yet such is the figure of Dumbledore that I still feel like I don't really know him. I was mildly distracted during this reading by knowledge from the 7th book that I don't really want to share here in case you haven't read it, but that fore-knowledge affected the way I read scenes with Dumbledore and Snape, though my poor memory of book 7 meant that, while I knew there was something fishy going on, I couldn't remember exactly what it was. So, mystery remains intact, which is great, but now I'm thirsty to read Deathly Hallows not least to find out about the Snape-Dumbledore plot-line.
I find the title of this one interesting - it's a great title, but it's interesting to me because the Half-Blood Prince seems like such a minor element throughout. But then I thought, when you find out who the Half-Blood Prince is, it does actually work to bind the various elements of the story together, and reinforce the importance of a certain character (again, trying not to spoil it). Another part of me, the teacher part, was distracted - and always is, really - by the poor quality of pedagogy employed at this school; it's completely irrelevant really but the teachers do little more than supervise, they never actually teach, so it's no wonder a Potions book helped Harry so much. I just had to get that off my chest. I hate reading scenes set in classrooms that demonstrate poor and old-fashioned teaching styles.
Harry and his two best friends continue to mature - here, love finally intrudes. Ron and Hermione are realising their attraction to each other, but Ginny's taunts lead Ron to start snogging Lavender Brown every chance they get - though that wears thin for Ron pretty fast. And Harry starts to see Ginny as something much more than just the sister of his best friend. Dumbledore's insistence that it is love that will defeat Voldemort, that love is the one power Voldemort has never understood and continues to dismiss. Obviously there are many kinds of love, but it's so important and satisfying seeing Harry learn this kind of love.
On the other hand, I find the Bill and Fleur romance a bit odd - probably because it seems to just suddenly happen, when we had no idea Fleur was working at Gringotts and knew Bill, and also because we never see the two of them together - not until the very end, anyway. It just sticks out a bit, to me.
This is also the book where we learn about Voldemort's past, his parentage and his childhood. I loved the way this was done, it's certainly original and never dull (flashbacks can be hit-and-miss). I really appreciate the importance placed on understanding Tom Riddle - yes, in order to defeat him, but also in understanding how he is like he is, why. I would be instantly contemptuous of a story where there is Evil, with no explanation - my problem with old-fashioned Fantasy (and one of the reasons why I never got far reading Lord of the Rings). Evil doesn't just "happen", and in reality no one is "just evil" - Hitler was undoubtedly a horrible man suffering from personal issues but he believed he was a good person; it's just that his perception of good and bad was way off. Others, like Caligula, were plain mad. Then you get the ones whose deeds are proclaimed "good" depending on who's writing - like the Templars, and certain (if not all) missionaries. If Hitler had won, we wouldn't think of him as an "evil" man because we would have grown up in a different environment. My point being, there's no black-and-white, and even Tom Riddle cannot be dismissed simply as "evil", period. I find the Harry Potter books to be exceptional in encouraging children to explore the complexities of people and events, to think critically of them - children's minds are already in that space, but a poor education system and some media will quash it. There are wonderful themes and messages in these books.
As soon as I finished it, I put on the movie. It was a bit strange, going through the story all over again when the book was so fresh in my head, and the changes to fit the visual, film medium really jumped out at me and occasionally confused me - maybe I should take a longer break next time! Humour continues to be a strong element of the books, and nicely balances the darker, sadder themes and scenes, and is definitely present in the film as well. I love the Potions classes - the film even caught Hermione's increasingly bushy hair in the first class, as she struggles to make her potion work - and when Harry take Felix Felicis (liquid luck); makes me giggle! But I'm still not happy with the portrayal of Dumbledore, even if he is more serious in this book.(less)
There's nothing like re-reading absolute favourites, is there? This is only my third reading of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, and it's ama...moreThere's nothing like re-reading absolute favourites, is there? This is only my third reading of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, and it's amazing how many little things seemed new to me. The first time I read it was in I think 2000 (or whenever The Goblet of Fire came out), when I was at uni - a friend had recommended them but it wasn't until the fourth book was released and the hordes of small children queuing for a copy made news headlines that I really took notice. So I guess I jumped on the bandwagon! I don't regret it for a second though - sometimes the hype is perfectly justified, and sometimes kids really do know a good thing. I remember reading this one, and then as soon as I was done going straight out to the bookshop and getting the second one, and then the third - I think by the fourth I'd run out of money and had to borrow from my flatmate! It was like an addiction.
But this is where the story starts. Harry Potter is an orphan being reluctantly raised by his aunt, Petunia, and his uncle, Vernon, a horridly normal couple who know the secret of Petunia's sister Lily and intend to "stamp out the nonsense" in their nephew, Harry. They have a boy of their own, a repulsively fat and spoilt bully called Dudley, who's the same age as Harry. Harry sleeps in the cupboard under the stairs, gets all Dudley's cast-off clothing (which are way too big for him), and knows not one ounce of love in the Dursley household.
Then, just before his eleventh birthday, he gets mail. He has a place at Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, but his uncle is having none of it. It takes a visit from Hogwart's gamekeeper, a half-giant called Hagrid, to fill Harry in on who he really is and get him prepared for his new school. For Harry, his eleventh birthday is a day of many shocks and surprises, not least is learning that he's a wizard born. The bigger shock is learning that, in the wizarding world, he's famous: he is "the boy who lived", a baby who seemed to somehow defeat an evil wizard called Voldemort.
Harry's life has changed forever, but the adventure has only just begun.
There are so many things to love about Harry and this series, it's hard to know where to begin. From the moment I first read the opening sentence ten or so years ago, I was in love. The sardonic irony of the opening sentence reminded me so warmly of other British favourites of mine - Roald Dahl especially - that I felt like I was home. The characters are a genius of comic humour, caricatures of themselves, funny just for being who they are before they even open their mouths. Rowling describes them with a few sure, concise brushstrokes, and they leap to vivid life in your head.
I've always found Rowling to be an excellent writer - she laboured long and hard over these books and the effort was worth it; a far cry from the lazy writing of so many Young Adult authors, churning out the latest whatever-story to fit the latest popular fad before it gets too old. The early Harry Potter books are clearly written for children - older children, but pre-teen; as Harry ages, so did the audience, and the later books are more YA yet without alienating younger children just starting on them. Not to mention all the adults who've loved the series just as much, and you can understand why the books are so successful. There's something here for everyone, the humour reaching both children and adults, the adventures and mysteries suspenseful and exciting, the characters wonderful, the imaginative world a nice balance of traditional and original. The books still have the power to make me laugh, or bring tears to my eyes, and keep me on the edge of my seat.
It's curious, when you're re-reading a book, how you can find yourself reading a passage or even a whole chapter that feels utterly new to you. For me, it's the first chapter of this book. As familiar as I was with the opening sentence, the rest of the chapter up until the end when Dumbledore, McGonagall and Hagrid leave baby Harry on the Dursley's doorstep seemed new to me. Isn't that weird? I couldn't remember reading before about Vernon Dursley panicking at all the weird-looking people suddenly popping up, though I know I had to have read that before. So it felt like reading it for the first time.
This is actually my second copy of the book, a Canadian edition - my first (Bloomsbury) was ruined by mould: that's what comes of letting your brother store boxes of your books under his house while you're overseas - yes, on bare earth under a house on the side of a hill. It wasn't the only book to grow black mould and have to be thrown out. It's very painful, throwing out damaged books, but at least this one was easily replaceable.(less)
I had thought that the second Harry Potter book was my least favourite of the series, but on re-reading it ten or so years after the first read, I had...moreI had thought that the second Harry Potter book was my least favourite of the series, but on re-reading it ten or so years after the first read, I had to wonder: Why did I think that? This is a great story, full of adventure and mystery and suspense and danger, even more so than the first book. Harry's world keeps on expanding and being fleshed-out, the characters continue to grow (more thoughts on that below), and if it seems a shade paler to us now it's probably because of how much darker and more mature the later books are. There was so much here that I'd forgotten about but remembered enjoying hugely the first time around, and it was just as much fun this time too.
It's Harry's second year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and it's easily his favourite place to be in the world. His aunt and uncle, Petunia and Vernon Dursley, have essentially locked and barred him in his room over the summer holidays lest his presence embarrass them, and it takes his best friend Ron and his brothers, Fred and George, to rescue him with a bespelled car that can fly.
But even before the school year has started, Harry has had a strange encounter: a house elf called Dobby - who is possibly Harry's biggest fan - has taken a huge risk to warn Harry that his life is in danger if he goes back to Hogwarts. Nothing is going to stop Harry escaping the Dursley's, though, not even missing the train back to school. And once there, it seems like Dobby's warning is coming true - at least, something is attacking students in the school, petrifying them, but Harry is the one being accused by his peers of being behind the attacks. Harry, Ron and Hermione are determined to find out who, or what, is behind the attacks, and what the Chamber of Secrets is - before the school is closed down for good.
Definitely, compared to some of the later books (especially after Goblet of Fire, in which the truly dark and tragic events matured Harry quickly), Harry, Ron and Hermione are less developed in The Chamber of Secrets than we would like, and yet I have to think back to my first read years ago and remember that this series began as a children's series, and when first reading them they didn't feel under-developed at all. Like many series, Harry Potter starts out with smaller steps (shorter books) and more contained story-lines; each book gets more and more involved, the plots get more complicated, and the personal side more detailed. From the perspective of new readers, it's the best way to introduce a new world and characters, making you feel like you're discovering it all alongside Harry, the newcomer. On a re-read, that sense of wonder and excitement comes back, and small details you'd forgotten or missed the first time around are more noticeable.
That said, there's very little of Hermione in this one, and little is added to Ron's character; there are a couple of new characters in Ron's sister, Ginny, and sweet little Colin Creevey who I'd forgotten all about but who I absolutely love, he's such an adorable little twit - what happened to him anyway? I don't remember him appearing in any of the other books, which seems a sad shame. There's also the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, the insufferable and vain Gilderoy Lockhart, who is rather priceless and more layered than many of the other characters. We learn why Hagrid was expelled fifty years ago, which is a sad story, and then there's Tom Riddle, and the parallels between him and Harry are definitely creepy.
I don't know how much of it is baby hormones and how much of it simply me being my usual sensitive self, but the ending really made my heart clench in my chest - the valiant and loyal Fawkes, Dumbledore's phoenix, helping Harry defeat his enemy, almost made me want to cry. I do tend to get weepy when animals do wonderful things for humans. And Dobby, protecting Harry at the end there - it's rather incredible to think of these little ugly house elves who are possibly more powerful than their human masters, being completely subjugated by them. And once free, where did Dobby go?
And then there's Dumbledore's words of wisdom at the end, where he says "It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." (p.245) It is very true, and an important thing to say to children especially, who are all too often pressured by high expectations, their parents' ambitions, peer pressure and their own concept of how people are valued, to push themselves and focus on achievement at the expense of character and healthy morals. By which I mean, you can be a champion Quidditch player and a mean person at the same time. (less)
Harry's summer with his Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon ends badly, with him accidentally-on-purpose magically inflating his uncle's obnoxious sister, M...moreHarry's summer with his Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon ends badly, with him accidentally-on-purpose magically inflating his uncle's obnoxious sister, Marge. Fleeing the Dursley's house on Privet Drive with all his belongings, Harry doesn't get far before despair takes over: not only does he have nowhere to go, but he's just used magic outside of school and while the last time he just got a warning from the Ministry of Magic, this time he's looking at expulsion from Hogwarts. And Hogwarts is the best thing in Harry's life.
But the Minister of Magic himself, Cornelius Fudge, has no intention of punishing Harry; quite the opposite in fact. And when Harry overhears Mr and Mrs Weasley arguing about the reason why, it comes clear: a wizard believed to be high up in Lord Voldemort's entourage has managed to escape Azkaban, the wizard prison, and everyone is certain he is after Harry - since it's indirectly Harry's fault that he ended up in prison and Voldemort was defeated. The escaped wizard is Sirius Black, and he does indeed seem to be after Harry when he's spotted inside Hogwarts, the one place everyone thought Harry would be safe in.
I've always considered this to be the book where the series took a turn into a darker realm, a more mature, adult realm. There was always the feel of something rather fun about the first two books, even though they too dealt with a dark plot - somehow, there was still a feel of childlike innocence to Harry and his friends that, by the end of book 3, is no longer there. Perhaps it's the werewolf, and the deeper insight into Harry's parents' deaths, but I'd say it's the Dementors, scary things that can suck the soul right out of you, that give this novel an element of horror and time-running-out for Harry.
Which is interesting, this feeling of time in The Prisoner of Azkaban: time plays a very important role, and the plotting of the book is very clever. I was impressed the first time I read this, and just as impressed now. I will say, though, that I really liked the movie adaptation of this one, and a lot of the scenes and visuals from the film filled my head as I was reading this, which made it feel a little lacking in lustre in comparison to the first two, the films of which I didn't care for and haven't seen as often as this one.
But I do love the third book, a great deal. It introduces two of my favourite characters: Professor Lupin and Sirius Black. I adore Lupin, he could very well be my favourite of the entire series - and the fact that he was played by David Thewlis only makes me love him even more. Same for Gary Oldman playing Sirius. Perfect casting (for all the films, in fact). Really, as a side topic, the movies are a who's-who of British acting, with all the big names nabbing a character. It's quite fun really, seeing who turns up. Anyway, the scene where Lupin is sleeping the carriage on the way to Hogwarts, eavesdrops on Harry's conversation with his friends, drives off the dementor and then offers chocolate - especially the latter - is, strange to say, one of my favourite bits of the book. I know, weird huh? But I find Lupin's presence so utterly comforting and reassuring and warm, never mind how he looks or what he really is, that he puts me in mind of Tom Baker's Dr Who. And later scenes where he rescues Harry from Snape's wrath, and comes to the Shrieking Shack... He's like a guardian, a good one, and I'm so glad he pops up in the other books too.
I find Azkaban to be exciting, and the over-arching plot gets deeper and more details are revealed, both from the past and the present. There's such a great sense of plot control and direction, and I love how Harry, Ron and Hermione continue to mature.(less)
This is one I've only read once, when it first came out, and I've only seen the movie once too, so there was lots of "ne...moreThis review contains spoilers.
This is one I've only read once, when it first came out, and I've only seen the movie once too, so there was lots of "new" details for me on this re-read. This isn't the copy I originally bought back in 2000 (it was first released in paperback; book 5 was the first hardcover edition on release); I had to put that one in the recycling bin and buy a new copy (and I was shocked at how expensive it was: at $32, it's much more than the other children's/YA hardcovers) because it had water damage and black mould on the bottom from the time when my brother stored some boxes of my books under his house - on dirt, on a steep hillside - while I was in Japan. Idiotic thing to do. I also lost my original copy of Philosopher's Stone too, which is why I have the Raincoast (Canadian) edition of it now.
The Goblet of Fire starts, as usual, at the end of the summer holidays before Harry's fourth year at Hogwarts. Because Harry now has a godfather - escaped mass murderer Sirius Black - the Dursleys are being, not nice, but careful not to overtly abuse Harry less this mad protector hears about it. So when Harry is invited to the final match in the Quidditch World Cup by his best friend, Ron Weasley, Uncle Vernon reluctantly agrees.
The World Cup final is between Ireland and Bulgaria, and the Weasleys have seats in the top box. After the game, several Death Eaters - supporters of Lord Voldemort - make an appearance, as does the Dark Mark in the sky. It's just the beginning of the signs that Voldemort is on his way back, and when Harry's name comes out of the Goblet of Fire, making him a fourth school Champion in the Triwizard Tournament, it's clear that something foul is afoot.
I tend to think of this book as the end of Harry's childhood, because things get extra serious, Cedric Diggory is murdered, and Lord Voldemort returns. The next three books are noticeably darker in tone and deed, and unlike in Chamber of Secrets, people - Harry's friends - start dying. I always felt more tense, here on out (in a good way).
The ending of this book always makes me cry. Cedric's death is one of those horrible, senseless deaths. Rowling makes sure you're going to have a personal stake in Harry's drive to defeat Voldemort, after Cedric's death, for Cedric was a genuinely good, likeable boy. Dumbledore's memorial speech at the end is incredibly moving - truly, Dumbledore gets some of the best lines, and is a phenomenal character and role model. To be honest, this series is as good for children learning about right and wrong etc., as the fairy tales used to be. (Fairy tales are cautionary tales using analogies to impart warnings etc.) If children learn morals from books, this series has lots to impart.
Goblet of Fire is a busy book, with a great deal happening over the course of a school year. We also learn more about Snape, though we've barely scratched the surface with this complex character. I love Snape as a perfect example of someone who seems bad but fights for "good" - not black and white, in other words. The introduction of two other wizarding schools - Beauxbattons and Durmstrang - as well as learning about Hagrid's giantess mother, also introduced issues of race and prejudice (further from the Muggle and Mudblood prejudices) into the story, as well as some fun new characters.
We not only get this wider scope of the wizarding world in terms of learning about other schools, we also get a more political novel - ministry officials not only make an appearance but have important roles in the plot, their "adult" politics filter into Harry's world and awareness: that awareness that adult decisions have huge impact on a child's world, their life, and that adults don't always make the right decision or know everything; that it's more than okay to question an adult. Because, just because adults are adult, doesn't make them irreproachable, or wise, or unquestionable. And when kids realise that, they've taken the first step into the adult world of disabused notions, unfairness, hypocrisy and ulterior motives.
And Hermione's determination to make the school's house-elves see that they're slave labour and insist on fair wages and freedom, raises questions not only about workers' rights but also misguided assumptions and placing your own views and beliefs on others just because you're sure you're right, regardless of other "people's" culture and belief system. (Yes they are technically slave labour, but it was more interesting reading it as an analogy for colonialism and/or religious preaching/missionary work in "uncivilised" parts.)
The events in this book make it one of the more exciting ones, as well as its climactic ending, but there's still some very nice character development going on. Ron's insecurities, as coming from a large family that overshadows him, comes out again and you have to feel for him, his reaction is understandable (as someone who comes from a family of five kids, all of whom are much louder than me, I know the feeling!).
One of the things I noticed this time 'round, knowing who the enemy at Hogwarts is (who put Harry's name in the Goblet), was how much Harry learnt off Moody, who, yes, was making sure Harry won the Tournament, but in doing so taught him much, gave him the tools or motivated Harry to get them for himself (all the hexes and jinks he learns, for instance), to battle Voldemort and defend himself. It's quite ironic really. I always felt equally betrayed by Moody/Barty Couch, because I liked him so much as Harry's teacher and mentor! The real Moody I feel you never really get to know, in comparison.
It's funny, I've only seen the movie once too but I was surprised, when reading the book, that it's Dobby who gives Harry the gillyweed and solves that problem for him - Moody plants the information with Neville but Harry never asks around for help. In the movie, Neville does help him in this task, and I loved that. I love it when Neville gets appreciated, he's one of my favourite minor characters and more important than you ever realise. The movie did a good job in changing that around, it worked well for the screen. But I had completely forgotten that it's Dobby who helps Harry, in the book!
Overall, the story becomes more complex and more gripping, with this fourth instalment. Things are chugging along at a fine pace, the stakes are higher than ever, Voldemort is a real threat now and the wizarding world continues to be developed and added to so that it's hard (or simply more fun) to remember that it's not real. Now I'm off to watch the movie again! :)(less)
After another summer spent stuck at his aunt and uncle's house in Little Whinging, Surrey, Harry is chafing and tense waiting for Lord Voldemort to ma...moreAfter another summer spent stuck at his aunt and uncle's house in Little Whinging, Surrey, Harry is chafing and tense waiting for Lord Voldemort to make his move. But there's nothing in either the wizard news or the Muggle news. Then late one day he and his cousin, Dudley, are attacked by Dementors and Harry is forced to break the under-age use of magic law to defend them.
Now facing a hearing at the Ministry of Magic and possible expulsion from Hogwarts, he is brought to number 12 Grimmauld Place in London, ancestral home of his godfather, Sirius Black, and new headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix. The Weasley family is living there, as is Hermione, but Harry only feels more resentful and angry at being left out and kept ignorant. Isn't he the one who saw Voldemort return to full strength and kill Cedric Diggory? Isn't he the one who battled him and escaped to return and warn everyone that Voldemort had returned?
But now that he's back in the wizarding world, he learns that the Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, is denying it all and making Harry look attention-grabbing and even insane: "Potty Potter." Dumbledore, too, is being vilified for insisting the Dark Lord is back and they must be prepared and united to fight him. In their attempt to control Dumbledore and Harry, the Ministry instates one of their own, Dolores Umbridge, in the cursed position of Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher. While Voldemort takes over Harry's dreams at night, Umbridge is determined to ruin his life by day.
This is probably my favourite of the series. I love how involved and detailed it is, how it gets immersed in life at the school, and how complex the world has really become. It feels so real to me: Harry, his life, his world. It's also, I find, the most emotionally rich (with the possible exception of the final book, but I've only read that one once so far so I'm not sure). Not only is Harry continuing to mature and grow and is very true to his age - Rowling writes with exceptional skill and nowhere is this more apparent than in bringing Harry to life in each book, a whole year older.
This book is all love to me. Yes it's the longest and perhaps the slowest in the series, but it's actually extremely eventful and busy. There's A LOT going on here, and it's a more, shall we say, "adult" plot. One of my favourite lines is when Sirius says to Harry, the world isn't divided into good people and Death Eaters. It's an important distinction for Harry to really learn and understand, especially as in every book he suspects Snape and he's always wrong. Here, he was thinking Umbridge was in league with Voldemort, because she's so awful and cruel, and that's when Sirius tries to explain that the world isn't that straight-forward. It marks Harry's real turning point, leaving childhood and a lingering belief and trust in adults (anyone other than Dark Lord supporters and his relatives) behind. It's not that this wasn't clear to us in the previous books, but until the ministry itself turned on Harry and Dumbledore, he had a naïve trust that the truth always wins. Now, he learns that people can have complex motivations and their own agendas.
Umbridge in particular teaches him this harsh lesson. She's a wonderful character, absolutely horrible with no redeeming feature but with a scary certainty that she's in the right. People as inflexible as Umbridge are always dangerous characters in fantasy, and Umbridge takes the cake. Rowling paints a vivid portrait of her, appearance-wise, and it really sticks in your head. Inherently racist, Umbridge has a fear of half-breeds and an arrogant belief in the superiority of wizards and witches over all humans and non-humans alike; add to this her position of power and she becomes quite the enemy. She may be an obvious character (Rowling clearly had some fun in making her so absolutely horrid), but she's sadly representative.
Alongside Umbridge, who's a favourite of mine (you just love to hate her!), other things in this fifth book that I love include the thestrals, the skeletal winged horses that only people who've seen death can see; the showdowns between Umbridge and the other teachers; getting an intimate glimpse into Neville's life; Snape's memories from his own days as a student at Hogwarts; the battle at the Department of Mysteries; Fred and George Weasley's send-off mayhem; and the DA meetings. In a way, this instalment gives us some breathing space in the series, especially after Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, in terms of adventure, yet it's also hugely important in terms of not just the over-arching plot (Harry finally learns the truth about his connection to Voldemort), but in terms of Harry's own personal development.
It's also really sad - actually, books 4 to 7 all end sadly, with a death and some hard-hitting stuff. I always felt that the death here was the worst, because it's so personal and so unfair - is Harry never to have family to love?
The violence in this book really struck me - it's not that there wasn't danger and a lot of hexes thrown around in the previous books, but somehow here the stakes are so much higher, the spells that much more vicious. It's not just hexes and jinxes to bring on sudden deformities, like those the students inflict each other with, but grown and experienced Death Eaters directing killing curses at Harry and his friends. Those scenes are filled with tension, suspense, danger, and since Cedric died in the previous book, it feels like no one is safe anymore. And I felt absolutely awful for the "baby-headed Death Eater", especially as I had my own 3-month-old asleep on my lap at the time and since becoming a mother, the cries of the floundering, panicking, scared baby-headed Death Eater was really quite upsetting.
This was also a real "kick me" story, like when Harry unwraps Sirius' present at the very end of the school year to find a kind of two-way magic mirror with which he could contact Sirius - if only he'd unwrapped it earlier and he would never have been lied to by Kreacher!! I also felt anger at Dumbledore for not being honest with Harry: why should he expect a boy to take occlumency lessons from someone he hates - Snape - without telling him why it's so bloody important? At least Dumbledore apologised and told Harry everything at the end; he became human in that moment, and remains a kind of surrogate father-figure.
On a side note, it suddenly occurred to me while reading this big fat book that in all the Harry Potter books, I've never come across a typo. No typos, no missing articles, not even a "ay" instead of "lying" or a "lead" instead of "led". And trust me, if they're there, I always find them. So well-done to the proof-reader, I wish more books were this clean.
When I finished reading this book for the third time, I watched the movie which I hadn't seen since it came out in the cinema. I remembered Imelda Staunton (wonderful actress) playing Dolores Umbridge to perfection, and the DA meetings were captured so well - I loved how the Room of Requirement vanished for those who weren't members of the DA, which it didn't do in the book. I remember thinking, the first couple of times I read the book, that I really really wanted to see Snape's memories in the film, but I had misremembered and thought it wasn't included, so seeing it there - even if it was quick - was a nice surprise. But I wasn't satisfied with Michael Gambon's representation of Dumbledore - he seemed so angry and even bitchy, and not as in-control as he is in the book, nor with the kind of sense of humour Dumbledore's always displayed.
I never expect - or want - book adaptations to be exact replicas of the book; they need to bring something new, and they need to adapt to a different medium. But with a book of this size and scope full of so much detail, it is sad to see what they decided to leave out, or condense, in order to make it work as a film that's not too long. I'm definitely a bigger fan of the books than the movies.(less)
Merlin wakes up in a helicopter that has crashed in a forest. The pilot is dead, there's a metal collar around her neck with a broken chain hanging fr...moreMerlin wakes up in a helicopter that has crashed in a forest. The pilot is dead, there's a metal collar around her neck with a broken chain hanging from it, and her memories are patchy and impersonal. Not to mention that these memories - memories of the world as we know it - do not match the world in which she finds herself: asphalt roads almost disappeared beneath grass, crumbling buildings and skyscrapers swallowed up by vigorous forest. It is silent and deserted, and Merlin wanders lost and confused until she meets Ford, a young man who looks nothing like the people in her memories.
So begins Scatterlings, one of my favourite books by one of my favourite authors. It's fantasy with, I guess, a sci-fi bent, and philosophical underpinings. I love the twist at the end. Ok, it's not a "twist" like in Fight Club, but it's a perfect resolution to the mystery of Merlin.
I was captivated by this book. Set on a world which revolves so slowly that everyone has to move steadily West in order to escape Dusk and Night, whic...moreI was captivated by this book. Set on a world which revolves so slowly that everyone has to move steadily West in order to escape Dusk and Night, which is a devastating ice world, and avoiding High Summer, so hot it kills everything in its path, West of January is highly original and superbly written. Not only is the world divided into Months and Days, each a particular climate steadily moving west, but the inhabitants are very segregated, each following the same patterns every cycle, never learning from the previous one (that often ends in disaster) because they do not pass their knowledge down.
Knobil is born into the savage herder race, where family groups of several women and their children belong to one dominant male, slowly making their way across the grasslands with their huge stupid beasts that must be constantly walked. With his blond hair and blue eyes, he is obviously the child of an Angel, a group of men of various races who live in Heaven, hoarding knowledge, and travel in their chariots trying to prevent disaster every cycle by getting different groups through the passes or around water to safety.
When he reaches puberty he avoids his destiny - being sent out with one of his many sisters, who he may trade with a girl from another herd to start his own - by falling in with an Angel. This starts his own awakening, and his determination to reach Heaven and become an angel, something he must do alone. This goal loses its importance when he is taken in by the sea folk and starts fathering children left right and centre. When the sea begins to dry up as High Summer approaches, he looks for passage south for his adopted family but is caught by Ants. Ants, miners who use captives as slaves to mine in the temperate southern parts of the world, are brutal, and Knobil spends several years merely surviving.
He is sold, because of his blond hair and blue eyes, to the traders, whose men are small and crafty and the women are huge and stupid, but doesn't find out why until it is too late. His adventures continue, but I don't want to give everything away!
In the course of his journeys, Knobil examines and confronts stereotypes, elitism, and learns not only the history of people on this strange planet but also that things are transient, and changeable.(less)
Alyzon is struck in the head one day and when she wakes up she finds she can smell things - people's thoughts and feelings, and something sinister and...moreAlyzon is struck in the head one day and when she wakes up she finds she can smell things - people's thoughts and feelings, and something sinister and foul around the cute boy at school and the man wanting to manage her father's music career.
This is yet another great YA fantasy from my favourite author. If it's not available in your country: complain!!(less)
This review contains some spoilers of the first book.
It has been two years since the climactic events of the first book, Obernewtyn, occurred. Elspet...moreThis review contains some spoilers of the first book.
It has been two years since the climactic events of the first book, Obernewtyn, occurred. Elspeth is about seventeen years old and still recovering from the burns to her feet and legs, not helped by the aching cold of the mountains in winter - the same mountains and weather that keep Obernewtyn, now a safe refuge for misfits with unique powers, safe. Under the new master of Obernewtyn, Rushton Seraphim, the Misfits - as the ruling Council has named them, and would Burn them if caught - have organised themselves into guilds, based on their different powers. Farseeking, Coercing, Empathy, Beast-speaking, Healing and the Teknoguild are some of the groups, and Elspeth, being the strongest Farseeker, is guildmistress. Few know she can also Coerce and Beast-speak, and has some minimal Futuretelling abilities, premonitions that rise unbidden.
With Rushton back from a trip to the Lowlands with news, a hasty Guildmerge (meeting of Guild leaders) is called. Rushton wants to establish a permanent contact, or spy, in the capital of Sutrium and has chosen Domick, a Coercer, for the task. Elspeth proposes a joint expedition: the Teknoguild want to find a hidden library in a ruined city near Aborium, on the south-west coast, and the Farseekers have discovered a strong Misfit talent in the same location that they want to rescue and bring back to Obernewtyn. A small group is picked to go, including Elspeth and her Farseeker friend Matthew, Domick, Healers Louis Larkin and Kella, and Pavo from the Teknoguild. At the last minute, a recently rescued Herder novice called Jik and his dog, Darga, are added to the group because the Futuretell guildmistress Maryon has Seen that Jik is instrumental to the success of their mission, though she cannot See why, and that they must make it back to Obernewtyn before the next winter or their safe haven will be gone forever.
With such responsibility resting on their shoulders, the group sets forth with the leader of the equines, Galtha, and a few other horses to lead the caravans. Disguised as gypsies, they make their way into the Lowlands, looking for an Olden pass they believe to be there, but are taken captive by the Druid's men. This is just the start of their troubles and new discoveries, in a story brimming full of adventure, suspense, delight, and excitement, as the unique world Carmody has crafted comes alive with every step of the journey.
Like the first book, I had read this several times in the past, but not for many years now. I was thrilled at how much it felt both like reading a new and exciting book, and like being reunited with a beloved old friend after many years apart. There was lots I had forgotten, and yet as I read it all came back to me, but only up to the line I had read, so the overall story was still hazy in my mind. I could remember bits, scenes mostly, but few details. There is a lot going on in The Farseekers, it's a rich post-apocalyptic world and like the misfits, we are feeling our way in it.
Narrated by Elspeth, we only learn about this world as she does, though with our knowledge of our own time there are some things we can deduce or figure out ahead of her. The past has been banned by the Council and denounced as evil by the Herder Faction, so the people are largely ignorant and easily spooked by anything from the past. Elspeth is cautious and not at all keen to unearth the past: she alone knows that the machines that caused the Great White are still here, slumbering in their hiding place, ready and able to unleash yet another apocalypse. And it is her mission, her lonely quest, to find them and destroy them before this can happen.
Small spoiler I had forgotten about Ariel. In Obernewtyn, he is only 12/13 years old and already a manipulative, cunning little devil in angel's guise. He escaped at the end and was believed to have died in the winter storm, but they never sent out a search party to confirm this. Now he's reappeared, and it's hard for me to imagine a boy of about fifteen, having that much influence with the Council and Herders. But, such is the strength of his character. It was never said that he had any mutant gift, or why he was sent to Obernewtyn as a Misfit in the first place. Elspeth never tried to read his mind, but she also never wonders and that is a bit strange to me. I also can't remember him from the next two books (which is as far as I got in my reading of the series; I'm two books behind overall), which is partly why I wanted to re-read all of them before starting the ones I haven't read yet; I'd forgotten so much. /Spoiler
The philosophical and moral dilemma faced by the misfits in this world is a strong theme throughout the series. When Elspeth meets Brydda, a rebel against the Council and Herders, and has to reveal some of what the misfits can do, he's excited and wants an alliance.
I agreed to try to organize a meeting between him and Rushton, but I was not sure our aims coincided. 'At the bottom of everything we are Misfits, and few men would have reacted as you did. Can you say for certain all your people would think as you do? Not be disgusted by us, or frightened?' Brydda looked thoughtful at this. 'I don't know. Maybe the thought of someone who could talk inside your head, or make animals do anything they want ... would seem frightening.' I had told him little about our abilities, letting him assume he had seen all there was. 'If people are frightened, it is because of their ignorance and Herder lies about mutations. They could learn,' Brydda said at last. 'Maybe, but we have to be sure,' I said. 'There is no good in our exchanging one kind of tyranny for another.' [p.193]
This is the ultimate goal and driving force of the Misfits at Obernewtyn, especially of Rushton, and it's so sad that Elspeth has been given this other task, one she might not survive, that she can't share with anyone, or tell anyone about, and so maintains her aloofness, her loneliness. She can't even see that Rushton loves her - she's so rusty with trusting people, being close to them and friends with them, that she misses or misunderstands the signs. As a young reader, I always felt close to Elspeth, and a bit sorry for her too. She never complains, she strong and stoic and comes across as patient and considerate, but every now and then one of her companions will make some comment about not being able to really get to know her, and you realise how much apart she keeps herself. She's good at making decisions, and leading others, even if she doesn't realise it. After everything she's been through, you want some happiness for her. Some peace. So her mission, and Obernewtyn's ambition, becomes yours.
There's so much to love in this book, and this series. I love Dragon, her ability is awesome and how they found her is pretty cool. Uncovering the buried library, very cool. Rescuing her friends from the Herders, very exciting. Discovering Lidgebaby, a bit scary and with mind-boggling implications. The truth of Jik and Darga's inclusion on the trip, sad. There is quite a bit of sadness in this story, in the series, it's like a light coating over everything, which just makes you empathise with them all the more. Their situation is so precarious, their fate so terrifying if caught, the stakes so high on everything they do, that you forget for a while that these are just children and teenagers, for the most part (being the easiest to come to terms with their mutant abilities; adults tend to have closed minds and fight their knowledge, seek only to pretend to be normal). So much rests on their shoulders, and they're so young.
When I read these books, I live inside the pages, in this world. Like a ghost or spirit that follows Elspeth, untouched physically but present nevertheless. It's the ultimate in reading experience, the way you hope to connect with every book you read, when you start it. I couldn't ask for more. Oh, except for the final book to come out! Let's hope it doesn't get pushed back, again! :) (less)
Re-reading the third book in the Obernewtyn Chronicles, I was quickly reminded of why it was my favourite for such a lon...moreThis review contains spoilers.
Re-reading the third book in the Obernewtyn Chronicles, I was quickly reminded of why it was my favourite for such a long time: things REALLY start happening, on so many levels.
A year has gone by since the events of The Farseekers, making Elspeth about eighteen years old (I'm determined to keep track of her age this time, as it's never mentioned since she was first introduced to us at the age of fourteen). There are again rumours of a soldierguard camp planned for the Highlands, putting the secret community of talented Misfits living at Obernewtyn at risk of discovery. If caught by the oppressive Council or the fanatical Herders, they would be Burned. Keeping a low profile is paramount, so when Elspeth rescues a gypsy woman from being burned at the stake for practicing Herbal Lore, she risks not only her own life but that of everyone at Obernewtyn.
That deed sets Elspeth on a new, dangerous path, one with personal implications. The Guildmistress of the Futuretellers, Maryon, has foreseen that within seven days, Elspeth herself must return the gypsy to her people in Sutrium, the capital and the home of the Councilcourt - a dangerous mission. But Maryon has also foreseen that Elspeth must discover the meaning of "swallow" or she will die.
With only her friend and fellow Farseeker Matthew for company, as well as the horses Gahltha and Jaygar and Elspeth's long-time companion, the half-mad cat Maruman, Elspeth journeys quickly to Sutrium on the far south coast, in their usual disguise as gypsies. But as they search for their dying gypsy's people, Elspeth learns that there are half-breed gypsies, despised and hated, and the Twentyfamilies gypsies, the original race who came from over the seas and made a pact with the Council that gives them wealth and prestige, but prohibits them from settling.
Also in Sutrium is the Misfits' rebel friend, Brydda, or "the Black Dog". He has been working on getting the different rebel groups across the Land to unite, and an uprising against the Council seems imminent. Rushton, the master of Obernewtyn, has been hoping for an alliance with the rebels, for when the Council falls the Misfits will just be trading one enemy for another if they can't be allies first. Elspeth finds herself entangled in Brydda's aim to find the elusive man behind the lucrative slave trade, Salamander, and meets with the rebel leaders in an effort to show that she's no halfwit Misfit. Things do not go as planned, and as a select group of Misfits travel with Elspeth to the newly-opened desert land of Sador, there to compete in the Battlegames to prove their worth as rebel allies, everything is at stake, including Elspeth's understanding of her role in the fate of Obernewtyn.
Cover Commentary: I have the first edition - the inscription inside reads "To Shannon, Happy 16th Birthday, Love from Mum and Dad. 30.11.95" - and it has to have the worst cover of all the editions of all the books (and they went through four cover changes). Here's a story for you: only a few months before this book came out in 1995, Isobelle Carmody came to my rural high school to do a workshop with us grade 10 students (can't count how lucky I was to be at high school at this time! One year later and I would have missed out!!), but first she gave a kind of presentation on her writing and the publishing industry, which was fascinating. She held up a copy of the cover design that she'd recently received from her publisher and remarked that she really didn't like it (I can't remember the details of why). I couldn't see it very well at the time, being about two rows back (yes, hiding from my favourite author, that's how shy I was! Still don't know that I'd be able to say anything intelligent, articulate or interesting to her today, either), but once I got my copy for my birthday, I could see why. Two things stand out the most for me: Elspeth and Matthew. Elspeth is wearing pretty cool clothes, but her face is kinda squashed and ugly, and her hair!! She practically has a mullet. I don't know what Connell Lee, the artist, was thinking. Even worse though is Matthew, behind her. He's only a couple of years older than Elspeth, which would make him about 20, but he looks at least 35 in this image. Details like that always bug me. In contrast, the horses are so beautifully rendered! And I'm not entirely sure what the artist was aiming for, with the planets in the sky like that.
This book moves both fast and slow: the pacing deftly balances a busy bundle of plot-lines while also taking the time to focus, think and reflect. This is Elspeth's story, and as the narrator, we get her perspective on it all. Elspeth has grown again: she's colder, more distant, and quick to anger in this book, but she's also learning - learning to temper her words, her tone of voice, to notice how others are feeling and to think about what they might be going through. It's not that Elspeth has been a very selfish person, no more so than any of us. It's that she's always held herself aloof, due to her orphan upbringing (it's dangerous to make friends in an orphanage) but also, especially now, due to the added pressure of the mission the Eldar of the Guanette birds, Atthis, has given her: to find and destroy the weaponmachines that caused the Great White Holocaust, before another on the same path discovers them and releases a new Holocaust, one that will end everything.
I've always loved the philosophical elements of Carmody's storytelling; she skilfully weaves thought-provoking ideas and social commentary into her stories, something that tends to be sadly lacking from a lot of YA these days. This series touches on a great many relevant themes: environmental destruction, proliferation of "weapons of mass destruction", human greed, religious dogma, fear of the Other, censorship, the notion of human superiority, not learning from our mistakes, the welfare of animals, freedom, love, friendship, loyalty, home. Having a home. And that's one of the things that Elspeth learns at the end of this book: that she has a home, and that she doesn't have to cut herself off from everyone because of her secret mission, a mission she probably won't return from, alive.
Which bodes well for a relationship between her and Rushton. The romance in this book is light and delicate, as fragile as what is growing between the two of them. Elspeth takes a long time to own up to her feelings, and to not be afraid of them, and it's handled in such a realistic, believable way, that you can practically hear the gears ticking over in her brain as it catches up to her heart. The anticipation - and the uncertainty that anything would actually happen between these two (or anytime soon) - made their moment of coming together extra special. And tt's not the only kind of love that Elspeth has to grow to understand. Her thoughts on the cat, her protector on the dream paths, Maruman, reflects that:
Was [Maruman] wandering, mindless, in Sutrium? Again, I wondered if I should have restrained him for his own good? Since I loved him, hadn't I the right to stop him from harming himself?
With something of a shock it occurred to me that this was the sort of thinking that had caused Gahltha to try to stop me helping the little mare, Faraf. And which had once caused Rushton to forbid me to go on dangerous expeditions.
I would never exchange safety for freedom, I thought, regardless of the danger. I had the right to risk my life as I chose.
"Truly danger is part of freedom/freerunning," Gahltha sent unexpectedly, sounding as if the thought startled him. "It is easy to forget this when it is not us/me."
[...] "It's easy to have one rule for others and another for myself but there's no honour in such double standards," I sent mildly.
"Honour?" Gahltha snorted. "That is a littleword for a great thing. Funaga have freerunning thoughts. But instead of admiring/joying in them, you would cagethem with words. Some things will not be tamed to words."
[... I]t was not enough for me to admire words and ideas as beautiful abstractions. I had to see how they could be applied. And I knew only too well that what worked in words was often very different when you tried to apply it to a real situation. In essence, freedom of choice sounded a fine and noble thing. But in reality? [pp.245-6]
This is such a subtle theme, slipped in there, but an important one: the balancing act of love and repression, or love and freedom. And I love the "alien" (non-human) perspective the animals give, their different way of thinking, it works so beautifully and feels so believable. Elspeth finds that the animals have decided she is Innle, the one who will free the beasts, and the horse Gahltha is her special daytime protector.
The other concept that really sticks out in this story, as it's meant to, is Elspeth's understanding of what the outcome of the Battlegames in Sador means for the Misfits of Obernewtyn. Because of their compassion and loyalty, they lose the games. But as the templeguardian points out:
"As for the Misfits, if they are truly represented by these before me, they are no warriors. They care too much for life and for one another. They are not stirred by the glories of war, and the shedding of lifeblood brings them sorrow, whether it be of beast or human, friend or foe. All their instincts are for defence and so their great powers are all but useless. They are not cowardly or weak, but their minds appear incapable of allowing their great powers to serve them as weapons.
"Witness that they used the incredible ability which they call empathy to its greatest effect in a song, rather than to turn their enemies' hearts to terror.
"They will never have the rebels' singlemindedness of purpose, nor therefore their driving force, because they cannot see things in terms of simple goals."
He turned in the dead silence wrought by his powerful oratory, and faced the rebels. "We here in Sador value the earth above all life - humans and beasts alike are short lived and unimportant. This you know. We have thought that Landfolk valued their own lives too much, regarding themselves as the chosen of their Lud. But these Misfits seem to value all life and this is strange for us to contemplate. But think you this. You rebels opposed alliance with the Misfits because you thought them monsters and inhuman. Ask yourselves now which team has this day shown the keenest humanity and which has shown itself to be more monstrous." [pp.496-7]
I love that speech. I had wanted the Misfits to win, oh so badly - to prove their worth, but also to show that they could fight alongside the unTalented, and be respected by them. It's exciting but hard to read the Battlegame scenes because they seem so unfair, and because they lose. But Elspeth comes to a stronger realisation: so they're not warriors, but the Battlegames taught them what they couldn't do, "so that we could begin to think of what we can do." [p.514] Which means, indeed, starting again from the beginning, with a new plan. It also means they now have the rebels as enemies, or most of them - and unlike the Council, the rebels know some of what they can do, and the ones that hate them, fear them.
The fun thing is, is that I cannot remember ANYTHING that happens in the next book, The Keeping Place. I'm not sure how many times I've read it in the past, but unlike with the first three books, the entire plot has slipped my mind. This makes me super excited to read it again, from that perspective, but also because I have NO IDEA what path the Obernewtyn Misfits will take, what choices they now have, what decisions they'll take. I am keen to learn about the fate of Matthew - I feel sure he will survive his misadventure, and be wiser for it. There are lots of clues about Dragon's origins and why she fears water, though Elspeth hasn't yet realised that she's discovered this (she doesn't tend to trust her dreams). And Rushton and Elspeth's fragile romance... sigh. They have a long road ahead of them.
The Obernewtyn Chronicles is some of the best Fantasy-Dystopian-Post-Apoclayptic Young Adult fiction out there, and while some little slips that should have been caught in the copy-editing stage would normally bug me, with this beloved series I just don't care. Start reading it and learn why those of us who began reading the series as children are still faithfully, and with great pent-up excitement and enthusiasm, awaiting the final book. Yes, it's been that long. Eat your hearts out, A Song of Ice and Fire fans!
Note: You can get Ashling and The Keeping Place (books 3 and 4) in a single volume called The Rebellion in the U.S. It's over a thousand pages long. You can get them in separate volumes as well, though.(less)