Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 8.11.2016
Book from: Personal collection 

Newly orphaned Peggy Grahame is caught off-guard when she first arrives at her family’s ancestral estate. Her eccentric uncle Enos drives away her only new acquaintance, Pat, a handsome British scholar, then leaves Peggy to fend for herself. But she is not alone. The house is full of mysteries—and ghosts. Soon Peggy becomes involved with the spirits of her own Colonial ancestors and witnesses the unfolding of a centuries-old romance against a backdrop of spies and intrigue and of battles plotted and foiled.

Elizabeth Marie Pope wrote a grand total of two novels in her lifetime, which is a damn shame. She spent most of her time as a professor of English at Mills College in California, Wikipedia informs me (in addition to being a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, oh gosh); I can only assume that she was delightful in the classroom. Her first novel, the dark, Tudor-era Tam Lin retelling The Perilous Gard, is one of my tippy-top favorites – I had a probably 10-year streak of rereading it annually, starting from when I was about ten. It took me quite a while longer to turn my attention to The Sherwood Ring. Subconsciously I was afraid it couldn’t possibly measure up.

Resemblances between the opening chapters of The Perilous Gard and The Sherwood Ring:

  • Habitually solitary heroine
  • approaches an ancient estate
  • through a dripping wood
  • where she encounters a mysterious hooded lady.
  • (Also, the two novels are alike in taking inspiration from folklore/balladry: The Sherwood Ring‘s title isn’t a coincidence, as the spirit of Robin Hood is present throughout.)

All of this made me smile hugely – how comforting to see the familiar shape of a beloved story subtly transfigured (and to recognize an amusing partiality on the part of the author).

The Sherwood Ring immediately strikes a different tone from Gard: even shot through as it is with the melancholy of Peggy’s solitary childhood and her cold treatment by both her father and uncle, The Sherwood Ring quickly registers as a comedy – a sparklingly witty, romantic comedy, to be precise. Though battles, imprisonment, and privation all eventually, necessarily feature in Peggy’s ancestors’ wartime history, Pope plays a game of sustaining suspense while nimbly dodging any possibility of mortal stakes. The protagonists, both female and male, are all clever, dashing, and buoyant, executing numerous daring escapes and double-crosses in order to emerge triumphant (and happily engaged).

The Sherwood Ring falls short, though, in its breathlessly brisk handling of Peggy herself. Though Peggy receives a few scenes in which we can fully register her as a person – her quiet determination, her hopes for companionship from Pat, and her loneliness – Pope, unfortunately, mostly uses her to perform a few perfunctory acts of mystery-solving, thereby cueing the reemergence of her ancestor-ghosts, so that they can continue to unreel their bigger, brighter story.

So while The Sherwood Ring absolutely measures up to The Perilous Gard in terms of brilliance of prose, historical detail, and dialogue, it feels more like a charming pageant and less like a full, human story; I truly wish Pope had treated the framing story with more depth. Still, the mischievousness and elegance of her writing is rare and to be treasured: The Sherwood Ring has both sweetness and panache in spades.

Related reading:
Tamsin, by Peter S. Beagle (1999): review by Emera

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film-prettything1

Director Osgood Perkins’ The Blackcoat’s Daughter was one of my favorite horror movies of the past couple years: an extremely quiet, extremely tense little maybe-supernatural horror movie with an almost exclusively female cast. Thematically and artistically it seemed to end up standing in the shadow of The Witch (far and away the horror movie of the last, oh, five years at least, for me): I watched them within a month or so of each other, and Blackcoat immediately appealed to me as being the The Witch‘s little sister. They share the theme of female alienation being answered by the supernatural, and they share, shall we say, manifestations. But Blackcoat is smaller, sparer, and in a way, weirder and more personal-feeling, even if it does employ a few more conventional horror tropes. (I think it’s difficult for The Witch to feel as immediately personal – despite the fact that it’s a deeply humane narrative – due to the distancing effect of its historical setting.)

Lo, did I lose my shit when the existence of Perkins’ I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House, a Netflix original movie, was brought to my attention. (Thank you, S.) First of all, THAT TITLE. Secondly, its trailer suggested, again, an extremely quiet, slow, weird film with a predominantly female cast. Yes.

The outlines of the plot are as follows: a present-day hospice nurse, Lily, arrives at the beautiful, historic Massachusetts house of an elderly horror novelist, Iris Blum. Prim, nervous Lily is lonely and scares easily; Iris has dementia and only addresses Lily as “Polly,” when she is responsive. From day one, Lily is troubled by small disturbances: knocking sounds, disarranged objects. As her months with Iris pass, it’s eventually suggested that one of Iris’ novels, The Woman in the Walls, was narrated to her personally – by the ghost of Polly, the 19th-century bride for whom the house was constructed, and who disappeared on her wedding day.

All of these conventional Gothic elements are conveyed, stylistically and structurally, in ways that push hard against conventionality, and are used in the service of exploring a rich interweaving of themes: isolation, time as nonlinear, the inevitability of death, and communal experience of female trauma.

The movie has a looping, drifting, intensely hushed aesthetic; elliptical is an easy word for it. Lily narrates from the beginning, for example, with unsettling authority, that “I am twenty-eight years old; I will never be twenty-nine.” In other words, this is a ghost story within a ghost story, the story of a second death nested within a first.

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 10.13.2016
Book from: Personal collection

(Sorry for the disordered posting schedule lately; I lost my posting buffer, and only just got the time to make it back up again. Wednesday posts will resume next week.)

Clariel is the daughter of one of the most notable families in the Old Kingdom, with blood relations to the Abhorsen and, most important, to the King. She dreams of living a simple life, but discovers this is hard to achieve when a dangerous Free Magic creature is loose in the city, her parents want to marry her off to a killer, and there is a plot brewing against the old and withdrawn King Orrikan. When Clariel is drawn into the efforts to find and capture the creature, she finds hidden sorcery within herself, yet it is magic that carries great dangers. Can she rise above the temptation of power, escape the unwanted marriage, and save the King?

Clariel was a long-awaited prequel to Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series, coming a long, long 11 years after the publication of the final book of the initial trilogy. In the intervening time, Nix had promised that he was working on telling the story of the mysterious Free Magic sorceress (i.e., villainess) Chlorr of the Mask, who was revealed to be a lost member of the Abhorsens, the family sworn to banishing the unquiet Dead.

When it first came out, Clariel was out at the library for so long that I actually forgot to follow up on it, until this fall’s release of sequel Goldenhand sent Kakaner and me into a joint catch-up tizzy (as previously mentioned in my feature on Clariel‘s cover case design).

The distinguishing flavor of the Old Kingdom books is darkness and desperation: Nix roots the reader deeply in the textures and difficulties of life in a kingdom that has long lost its royal family, where order and prosperity have been eaten away over centuries by the re-encroachment of chaotic Free Magic and greedy Dead. The series’ staunch heroines endure arduous journeys across a stark landscape, disturbing magic, and above all, uncertainty.

Clariel is a very different beast to the rest of the series. Though it’s seeded with darkness from the beginning, its first, city-bound act must be described as genteel – I thought of a cross between Tamora Pierce and Ella Enchanted. Wild-blooded Clariel, who wishes only to work as a solitary forest ranger, is thrust into the fussy conventions of city living, burdened with chattery finishing-school classmates, socially ambitious parents, and political intrigue. This means we have to deal with numerous chapters of her brooding, resenting, and not-very-compellingly longing for her forest refuge. (Normally Nix is very good at evoking place, but Clariel’s ruminations on her forest idyll feel too shallow and generic to give a real sense of what’s she’s lost.) And though the economic and political context is interesting – in the absence of an active king, city functions have largely been privatized by corrupt merchants’ guilds, which of course foreshadows the later threat of a monarchy completely dissolved – the snippy, rulebound urban world that all this entails simply isn’t as singular and gripping as the wider Old Kingdom.

But even if Clariel’s sulking and “I’m not like the other girls”-ing can’t quite escape the burden of being fantasy clichés, Nix does a lot of work towards making her character more specific, more interestingly difficult: she’s not quite a run-of-the-mill Angry Action Girl, as she’s eventually revealed to be a berserker, which even in-universe is stated to be unusual given her gender. On top of that, she’s explicitly asexual, which I think is the most directly I’ve ever seen that possibility addressed in a young adult novel. Finally, Nix’s examination of Clariel’s estranged relationships with her obsessive artist mother and weak-willed father lends a softer and often more genuinely sad nuance to her general misfit tragedy.

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 10.17.2016
Book from: Lent by E.

Much goodness. The Legend of Beka Cooper trilogy is a Tortall prequel (set 200 years before the main Tortall books) that combines rookie cop procedural, gritty medieval slums, subtle magic, and a dual murder/kidnapping mystery, all written in a journal format using wonderfully earthy, pungent Old English slang.* (Women and men are “mots” and “coves,” for example, while loose women are “puttocks.”) If you’ve never read any of the other Tortall books, this stands alone well, though there are plenty of tidbits to delight and reward longtime readers.

Tamora Pierce’s fantasy adventures, driven principally by tough young women, were a staple of my young adulthood. But this was my first time returning to her work since 2008 or so, when I’d tried picking up later entries in long-beloved series, and eventually gave up when I found them stiffly written and contrived-feeling – well-meaning, but a bit Very Special Episode-ish in their approach to social issues.

So I was frankly taken aback at how good Terrier was – tight, funny, thoughtful, subtle, suspenseful. Narrator/journal-writer Beka Cooper, a trainee within Tortall’s nascent police force, is pensive, driven, and capable. She’s a likable and admirable heroine to trail, with a voice that’s, again, made especially memorable thanks to the street slang. The combination reminded me actually of Karen Cushman’s obstinate historical heroines (Catherine Called Birdy, my love forevermore).

I had forgotten how well Pierce can pull off mysteries (Magic Steps also worked as a fantasy-crime hybrid), and it was particularly fun here to watch her play out cop tropes (even good cop/bad cop makes an appearance) in the context of a early lawkeeping force. As the Provost’s Dogs were established only a few decades ago, affairs are still quite rough ‘n’ ready: the Dogs are ill-paid, expect high mortality, and mix freely with criminals. All of this contributes to a captivating and convincing sense of a raw, violent world of fast-changing alliances and widespread cruelty (the disposability of children’s lives in particular is a troubling theme throughout), but a world that’s nonetheless a warm home for Beka and her friends, and where they can occasionally strike victories against violence and injustice.

Altogether, this is a solid, feel-good read – one of those books that feels trustworthy and good-hearted, without cloying (except for some silly bits about kittens). Viva tough women, good friendships, and young folks making smart decisions and beating up slimy villains. I can’t wait to find the sequels.

* Coincidentally, when reading the Old Kingdom prequel Clariel just a week before, it had struck me as mildly amusing that everyone still talked the same 600 years earlier in the Old Kingdom. So props to Pierce for the linguistic experimentation, when most high-fantasy authors do tend to keep their worlds drifting in the same medieval linguistic and technological twilight regardless of the passage of n eons.

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The long-dormant Undercover series features the design quirks hidden under hardcover books’ dust jackets.

Kakaner and I have both been binge-re-reading Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series, building up to an attack on the two latest: the extra-dark prequel Clariel (which neither of us had just read), and the just-released sequel Goldenhand.

While I really, really do not like the over-the-top, video-gamey new hardcover designs, removal reveals a metallic Charter mark (the symbolic basis of the Old Kingdom’s magical system):

book-clariel-undercover-1 book-clariel-undercover-2

Satisfactorily magical!

To resume griping: I know illustrative covers are out of fashion, but as an American reader, the switch to covers that scream “I WAS DIGITALLY RENDERED” feels particularly disruptive because the original American editions of the Old Kingdom books were beautifully designed and had such a coherent visual identity, built off of Leo and Diane Dillon’s elegant, grim, chilly illustrations (see middle row here). I bought Sabriel purely because of the cover art – I was quite young, and hadn’t ever seen anything quite like it before, inhabiting the borderlands between fantasy and horror as it did. It took me an oddly long time to actually read the book after buying it, but in the intervening years I would still pick up the book just to wonder at it – Sabriel’s severe gaze and ceremonial gesture, her mysterious bells, Kerrigor’s slitted grin.

I wish we had gotten the chance to see the Dillons illustrate Clariel. In the meantime, her hardcover and Goldenhand will be running around my house naked, as it were.

Go to:

Undercover: Pretty Monsters

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 6.20.2013 
Book from: Personal collection

Arriving in the English countryside to live with her mother and new stepfather, Jenny has no interest in her surroundings, until she meets Tamsin. Since her death over 300 years ago, Tamsin has haunted the lonely estate without rest, trapped by a hidden trauma she can’t remember, and a powerful evil even the spirits of night cannot name. To help her, Jenny must delve deeper into the dark world than any human has in hundreds of years, and face danger that will change her life forever.

This is the book that restored my Beagle-faith after I bounced violently off of The Innkeeper’s Song; frankly I think it’s a bit of a hidden gem, given how little I’ve seen it mentioned or discussed. I cannot recommend this more for fans of spooky English/Celtic fantasy, like Elizabeth Marie Pope’s The Perilous Gard, or even Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series. It is also quite queer, in a very sweet, nondramatized way. (Jenny remarks on her head-over-heels reaction to Tamsin by saying, “I’d never been the type to get girl-crushes before,” and that is the full extent to which she dissects any issues of sexual identity; the rest of the time she just goes on loving Tamsin.)

The initial few chapters – when it’s not clear yet what sort of haunted universe Jenny has stepped into, and her encounters with the uncanny are glancing and inexplicable – are by far the creepiest. But even once the central mystery is mostly laid bare, the combination of characters and world, both fantastical and actual-historical, are terrifically compelling.

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Charming Baker’s new covers for Roald Dahl’s short fiction

First of all, why is my name not Charming Baker? Secondly, these are really elegant and disturbing. (The Cruelty cover makes me wonderfully uncomfortable.) I do feel that Dahl’s adult fiction still has a decided cartoon or slapstick element that is not so elegant as these, but of course the elegance works against the perception that Dahl is just for kids.

Fond flashbacks now to Kakaner lending me her giant hardback Dahl short fiction collection in high school…

Iconic book covers + subtle animations by Javier Jansen

Quiet magic. I think this is so wonderfully proximal to the quiet stirring of excitement that one feels upon seeing a favorite book cover.

Both of the above links sent my way by friend C.; thank you!

– E

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 7.14.2016
Book from: Personal collection

The Lies of Locke Lamora features long cons, crime-boss uprisings, and bloody revenge plots amid the cluttered criminal underworld of a bustling, sweltering, alchemy-infused alternative medieval Venice. Our heroes: the Gentleman Bastards, a tiny brotherhood of con artists, led by the unparalleled liar Locke Lamora.

One of my good reading buddies went crazy for this novel shortly after it came out, and I had always wanted to read it since, especially because the title was so mischievous, lyrical, and evocative. The fact that it continually resurfaces as a fan favorite 10 years on also piqued my interest. (e.g., it’s still on the bestseller list at my local sff bookstore, Pandemonium.)

Based on the hoopla, I’d been expecting something Dorothy Sayers-esque – exceptionally witty and elegant – but unfortunately found this, prose-wise, to be a solid B+ at best. Lynch’s writing is markedly juvenile: he overuses italics and parentheticals, and treats profanity in large quantities as funny per se. Characters emote by gritting their teeth, gulping, and squeaking. I would describe the humor as geekily goofy, rather than witty. His descriptions are colorful and involving, but not sharply observed. He does a good job of conveying personality more through dialogue than exposition, but again, isn’t quite sharp enough to fully resolve characters purely through these means. I wouldn’t say the characters feel hollow, as they often do in mediocre fantasy – symbols of people rather than people – but there’s a general feeling of a slightly unfocused photograph about the whole thing. The villains in particular are dreadfully boilerplate.

That said, I stuck it out, and had a lot of fun with it. This book has vim – it has bounce and fun and grit and texture – qualities that are helped along by Lynch’s obvious enjoyment at sharing his created city, and a greater part of lightheartedness than grimness. Read the rest of this entry »

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 9.3.2016; 9.17.2016
Book from: Personal collection

book-wizardofthegrove

Wizard of the Grove is an omnibus reedition of Tanya Huff’s 1988/1989 romantic high fantasy duology, Child of the Grove and The Last Wizard. I picked this up back in high school based on the lovely cover art (which I note has been redone recently to be trendily dark, teal, and high-contrast), subsequently reread it several times, and then lent it out repeatedly for a number of years. I only just recovered it, in fact, and celebrated with a rapid reread (the first in almost 10 years, I think).

Child of the Grove concerns the birth and ascendance of the world’s final wizard, a quasi-dryad named Crystal, who is conceived in order to combat the world’s cruel, corrupt, imperializing second-to-last wizard. The Last Wizard details Crystal’s adventures after she’s already saved the world – a narrative conceit that I enjoy.

The series is firmly middle-of-the-road high fantasy, complete with many glowing jewel-colored eyes, internal monologues about the fate of the world must rest on one’s young shoulders, and a villain remarkable only in how generic he is. (He does have chest hair in addition to his flowing red-gold locks, which is how you know this is from the ’80’s.)

However, Huff executes the usual conventions with a really likable combination of toughness and sweetness, her characters (minus aforementioned villain) are credible (if some of them are eye-rollingly juvenile, other characters actually call them out on it), and her plots are briskly paced and incorporate a fun variety of narrative elements.

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 1.30.2016
Book from: Personal collection

The House with a Clock in its Walls - cover

Orphaned Lewis Barnavelt comes to live with his Uncle Jonathan and quickly learns that both his uncle and his next-door neighbor are witches on a quest to discover the terrifying clock ticking within the walls of Jonathan’s house. Can the three of them save the world from certain destruction?

Bellaaaairs! Such a landmark of my childhood spookyscape. When I was in elementary school, I was already obsessed with spooky shit, even though I was also too weak of constitution to not end up with nightmares for a month after reading something particularly choice. Poe at 9 years old was one high-water mark; Bellairs at 10 or 11 was another. (Isn’t even just the name Bellairs perfect? So rich and old-world; it sounds like old libraries with bell-pulls.)

Bellairs’ preoccupation with the occult was, I think, several layers more complex and esoteric than the more traditional ghost stories I typically found in the library, and correspondingly struck me as something much wickeder, with potentially apocalyptic consequences. Even though M. R. James is considered Bellairs’ most immediate stylistic influence, in my head he’s more immediately the YA answer to Lovecraft (who is also a James descendant, of course). I hadn’t ever encountered something like his red doomsday skies, resurrected corpses, and convincingly evil necromancers before. That mixture of human wickedness and imminence of the terrible sublime – very Lovecraftian, it seems to me. Read the rest of this entry »

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