Every child wants to be whisked away to a magical land, have adventures, and set out on a fantastical quest against a tyrant.
It's a pretty typical faEvery child wants to be whisked away to a magical land, have adventures, and set out on a fantastical quest against a tyrant.
It's a pretty typical fantasy storyline as well, and it takes something special to make such stories stand out. Catherynne Valente's "The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making" is an enchanting example, filled with delightful nonsense, wryly witty prose, and a wonderfully oddball world that reminds me of a more lyrical Lewis Carroll.
A young girl named September is whisked away from her boring Nebraska home by the Green Wind, who takes her to Fairyland. But September soon finds herself traveling through Fairyland herself, encountering a soap golem, a half-library wyvern named A-Through-L, a wairwulf, the Perverse and Perilous Sea with its golden beaches, The House Without Warning, gnomish customs agents, a jeweled key, a migration of bicycles.
She also is given a quest by a pair of witches -- find the magical spoon that the cruel Marquess stole from their dead brothers. So she and the Wyverary set out to the city of Pandemonium, but soon find themselves (and a flying leopard named Saturday) on a new quest, with overwhelming results for all the people of
Normally, Catherynne Valente has a lush, lyrical, sensual writing style, and there's a fair amount of that in this book ("... the moon slowly fall down into the horizon and all the dark morning stars turn in the sky like a silver carousel"). Her Fairyland is a weird, sometimes dangerous place filled with countless oddball creatures (migrating bicycles!), making her story feel like a more plotcentric "Alice in Wonderland."
But since this book is meant for children, she also weaves in a wry, arch style that reminds me of some classic British prose (“As you might expect, the geographical location of the capital of Fairyland is fickle and has a rather short temper"). This gets a little twee sometimes, but Valente also weaves in a bittersweet thread as the story goes on, as well as some dark, delicately heartrending moments.
It takes a little while to warm up to September, since she is initially Heartless (like many children), and doesn't care much about what worry she might cause her parents. Then again, it's pleasant to have a heroine who goes happily into another world without moping about going home -- and despite being Heartless, September proves herself to be a sweet, compassionate girl who is just childlike enough to accept the weirdness.
Catherynne Valente blends her velvety prose with a quirky magical twist in"The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making." And she leaves the door to Fairyland open... just in case. ...more
Sarah Addison Allen's version of the South is a lovely place -- bright sunshine, fruit, flowers and the ghosts of the past (sometimes literally).
So ySarah Addison Allen's version of the South is a lovely place -- bright sunshine, fruit, flowers and the ghosts of the past (sometimes literally).
So you can guess what her fourth novel, "The Peach Keeper," is absolutely soaked with. It's a lush, summery little novel that spins together buried secrets, ghosts, magical realism, romance, and a decades-old mystery. But at heart, it's the story of two young women's struggle to find their place in the world.
The Blue Ridge Madam -- a mansion in the North Carolina town of Walls of Water -- once belonged to Willa Jackson's family, but they lost it when her grandmother was still a young girl. All her life, she has been haunted by this. Now the derelict mansion is being transformed into a high-class country inn by Willa's old classmate, Paxton. Paxton is slowly crumbling under the weight of tradition and family expectations -- as well as her love for her possibly-gay friend Sebastien.
Then Willa and Paxton's brother Colin find a skull buried near the house -- and it turns out to be Tucker Devlin, a devilishly charming salesman who had magical powers and claimed to have peach juice in his veins. Willa begins to unwind the past to find out what happened to Tucker, and discovers some shocking connections to her family past...
When you summarize it, "The Peach Keeper" sounds like a magical-realism murder mystery, or maybe a lightweight ghost story. However, it's not really either -- there ARE ghosts, and there IS a mystery of sorts. But Allen is much more interested in the closeted skeletons of Walls of Water, and in the troubled young woman who need to find their own place in the world.
Her prose is sweet, sunny and full of luscious sensual moments -- smells, delicious food, beautiful clothes, and a sort of misty Southern prettiness. Even in the more plotless moments, Allen's prose draws you into her little world. But she also weaves some tense moments into it, such as when Willa finds a drunk Paxton being harassed by a couple of jerks.
The only problem is that Allen doesn't explore the magical realism angle enough. The "magical, stormy nature" of Tucker and the things he could do -- as well as the ghosts -- are touched on but never a major part of the story.
But her characterizations are uniformly brilliant. Willa and Paxton are both young women who are lost -- one has always felt like an outcast from her own life, while the other desperately wants to escape the "perfect" life she has always led. Romance helps them find their places, with the elegant misfit Sebastien and the charming wanderer Colin.
"The Peach Keeper" is a lot like a peach itself -- velvety, sweet, soft and pleasing to the senses. A truly enchanting little novel. ...more
Lloyd Alexander's "Chronicles of Prydain" have become a classic staple of fantasy literature, a few rungs below "Lord of the Rings" and a few inches dLloyd Alexander's "Chronicles of Prydain" have become a classic staple of fantasy literature, a few rungs below "Lord of the Rings" and a few inches down from "Chronicles of Narnia." In this volume, all six books in his series are brought together, showing all of Prydain's beauty, richness, humor and sorrow as one big book.
"The Book of Three" opens with Assistant Pig-Keeper Taran yearning for adventure -- and getting more than he bargains for when he chases the pig into the woods, and is nearly run down by a sinister horned rider. Soon he teams up with a wandering king-minstrel, a sharp-tongued princess and a furry creature called Gurgi to save Prydain from the power of the Horned King.
"The Black Cauldron" has Taran and the others setting out to destroy Arawn Deathlord's evil cauldron, which turns dead men into unkillable zombies. But other forces are after the cauldron, including three peculiar witches who insist on trading something for the cauldron. What is worse, the company faces treachery from someone in their own camp...
"The Castle of Llyr" ties up some loose ends from the first book, as Princess Eilonwy is sent to the isle of Mona to become a fine lady. But she has barely arrived when she is kidnapped by a minion of the evil enchantress Achren, her "aunt." Taran sets out to save her, but must team up with the young man who wishes to marry Eilonwy -- even though Taran is rapidly falling in love with her.
"Taran Wanderer" has Taran setting out to discover his past, since he feels he can't ask Eilonwy to marry him if he is lowborn. With only Gurgi at his side, he encounters evil wizards, malevolent bandits, and finally learns that his father just might be a shepherd... until a new revelation leads him to learn of his true worth.
"The High King" wraps up the saga, with Taran returning home. But no sooner has he arrived than he learns that noble Prince Gwydion has been half-killed -- and the magical sword Dyrnwyn has been stolen by Arawn Deathlord. Now the heroes set out one and for all to attack Arawn's stronghold and get back the sword -- but how can they defeat a deathless army and a shapeshifting enemy?
Finally, "The Foundling" fills in a few of the gaps with short stories that illustrate the backstory of the Prydain novels. Among the stories are the tragic history of Dyrnwyn, how the wizard Dallben was reared by the three witches (and where he got the Book of Three), and the love story of Eilonwy's parents.
Take two parts "Lord of the Rings," add a bit more humor and comedy, and stir in bits and pieces of Welsh mythology. That pretty much sums up the Prydain Chronicles, which is one of the rare series that is meant for kids, but is as rich an experience for adults. Even better, if they know the origins of the old legends and myths that make up the edges of these stories. Alexander populates this little world with evil enchantresses, deathless warriors, eager teenagers and talking crows, all the while coming up with an original storyline that doesn't smack of lifted legends.
In a sense, the whole series is a coming-of-age story, where Taran learns wisdom, maturity, loss and love. Oh yeah, and that that Chinese curse about interesting times is quite correct. Princess Eilonwy and the bard-king Fflewddur Fflam add a bit of comic relief, but they are also strong characters in their own right, as is the fuzzy sidekick Gurgi, who goes from being an annoyance to a loyal and lovable friend.
"The Chronicles of Prydain" are fantasy at its best, mingling myth and legend with a fast-paced plot and endearingly quirky characters. Definitely not something to miss. ...more
The Sandman has returned to his country of dreams, but his long absence is still showing -- he's gotten his magical items back, but not all of his folThe Sandman has returned to his country of dreams, but his long absence is still showing -- he's gotten his magical items back, but not all of his followers. "The Sandman Vol. 2: The Doll's House" picks up some threads from the first collection of Sandman stories, and while the story is often confusing and scattered, Neil Gaiman's writing is a glittering jewel of sadness, horror and beauty.
Among the current-day stories, we get some Dream backstory. As part of his coming-of-age ritual, a young boy is told of how a beautiful woman fell in love with Lord Kai'ckul, king of the dream realm. And we see a story of a man untouched by Death, and his ups-and-downs over the centuries as he keeps meeting with his Endless friend.
In the present, Dream learns that a dream vortex has appeared. That vortex is Rose Walker, the granddaughter of Unity Kinkaid (who has slept most of her life), who is searching for her imprisoned little brother. She goes to live at a boarding house full of eccentrics, and is taken under the wing of the mysterious Gilbert (who looks a lot like G.K. Chesterton, and is named "Gilbert").
Additionally, some of Dream's creatures have escaped -- the horrifying Corinthian, who is the guest of honor at a serial-killer convention; Brute and Glob, who have made their own "New Sandman" out of a dead superhero; and Fiddler's Green, who is already close to the dream vortex...
"The Sandman Vol. 2: The Doll's House" is a somewhat messy story -- the two "past" stories feel disconnected from the rest of the book, and it takes awhile for some of the subplots to fully flower. Additionally, I was a little confused by the sudden inclusion of a pair of DC superheroes who have been folded into the world of Dreams -- although their story is the beginning of a much larger, more pivotal one.
And as the story winds on, Neil Gaiman's spellbinding style draws you in -- he fills these pages with bloody horror, love, sorrow, and the occasional glimpse of the lonely lives of the Endless. His style that is all glassy edges and lush poetry, and he pops in some moments of ghastliness (the Corinthan finally taking off his glasses, revealing empty sockets lined with teeth) as well as some moments of warmth (Unity's final shared dream with Rose).
Similarly, Gaiman's characters are a mixture of the lovable and the horrifying -- we get to see Morpheus as he has been throughout the centuries, as well as his flaky, devious sibling Desire (whom I desperately want to sock in the mouth) and the ghastly Corinthian. And he spins up the down-to-earth Rose, as well as a motley band of eccentric characters -- the lace-shrouded lesbians and the creepy yuppies spring to mind, as well as the genial Gilbert.
While some parts of it are clunky, "The Sandman Volume 2: The Doll's House" gradually twines together its many subplots, and sets the stage for what is to come. ...more