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“The Love of Beauty” is collected in Bishop’s That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote, and you can read the story free online at the Weird Fiction Review.

Near the middle of the night, Seaming dithered in front of the brick arch – formerly a minor gate in the old city wall and now a decoration in a lane. If there existed a main entrance to the Ravels, it was that arch. It stood only half a furlong from the glitz of Cake Street, but the short distance marked a change of register from the demimonde to the underworld proper. Behind the gaudy theatres and beer halls the streets became dark, the buildings closely pressed, the walls bare of signs, posters, paint – of everything except light-absorbing soot.

Seaming smoked a cigarette, a last procrastination, while a polka spinning down from a loft somewhere invited him to head back, spend the rest of the night with friends, and let that be that.

Act as if you belong, she had told him, and you’ll be safe enough.

“The Love of Beauty” is one of the ur-Etched City stories in Bishop’s collection. Though none of The Etched City‘s characters appear here (unlike the Gwynn-centric “The Art of Dying”), Bishop, in playing out an alternative ending to Beauty and the Beast, here stages some of the central questions and themes that are later enacted between the artist Beth and her duellist-muse Gwynn: the exercise of power and choice by traditionally passive female archetypes; and the ability of art to remake reality, especially through alchemical modes like transfiguration, refinement, and, conversely, the generation of hybrid forms. There are also echoes of Gwynn and the Rev’s amiable debates over the baseness (or not) of humanity’s desires and capabilities: the Decadent hypothesis advanced by several of the characters in “Beauty” is that art simply represents an opportunity for humans to indulge to the maximum their sensual desires, under the guise of exercising “their highest and holiest faculties.”

I read this past summer a biography of John Singer Sargent, and couldn’t help thinking of him on this reread of “Beauty” – self-effacing, determinedly apolitical, fiendishly talented but only timidly experimental, ultimately a bourgeois sensualist, he rhymes rather well with the character of Seaming. Seaming is a traditionalist and idealist, a wan foil to the morbid recklessness of ideas brandished by the rest of the cast. It’s his idealism that invests his art with alchemical potency, but leaves him defenseless against the revelation of a world activated by animal desires. Seaming’s moral universe is incompatible with the notion that the animal might be sublime.

If “Beauty” is Bishop’s “Picture of Dorian Gray” (a connection I also didn’t think of till this read, but which now seems blindingly apparent), Seaming is also easily the analogue of the sincerely anguished painter Basil Hallward, while his poet friend Stroud is on hand to dispense ego-puncturing witticisms as the resident Lord Henry. The Wilde connection is also made easy by the rotting Victorian setting of “Beauty” – I find this story to have a more traditional dark fantasy aesthetic (meaning “Gormenghast” by “traditional,” I guess) than the sort of Symbolist wasteland in “Art of Dying,” or the steamy colonial landscape of Ashamoil.

There’s a peculiar emptiness to the physical setting of “Beauty.” The danger implicit in Beauty’s warning of “you’ll be safe enough” to Seaming prior to his entry into the Ravels never manifests as expected. The Ravels that Seaming encounters is a leashed menace: thickly eerie, but empty. There’s a sense that it’s been locally vacated in order to furnish a space where this particular allegorical drama can take place: Seaming is reserved as victim for spiritual threat, rather than physical. (It’s also a tempting interpretation that Seaming is simply below the notice of whatever is happening in the rest of the Ravels.)

The story unspools with a swift, morbid grace. Scene-setting and backstory feel much lengthier than the actual “action:” Seaming’s interview with Beauty and the Beast, and his completion of the Beast’s portraits. My one dissatisfaction with the story is that balance between build-up and dissolution, the way that the story seems to begin to slip away too swiftly during the turning-point of the interview. This creates a decided aesthetic effect – undercutting melodrama, and Seaming’s weak attempts at harvesting it. (See also the end of the journalist in “The Art of Dying.”) But there’s a larger sense of off-kilter narrative construction: as intriguing as it is, the teasing about the dangers of the Ravels perhaps belongs to a different story; and then, having found its narrative center, the remainder of this story proceeds a little too impatiently to its conclusion. The facts of the case of this Beauty and Beast are revealed in a few paragraphs of very direct exposition, and there’s a coy refusal to show any of Seaming’s artistic process. Somewhere along that stretch, I keep thinking, something could have been lingered over just a bit longer.

For those reasons, “The Love of Beauty” has never rung to me with the assurance of Bishop’s best work. But it is, in addition to being a rich philosophical playground, as thickly beautiful and infuriatingly witty as usual.

Go to:
That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote, by K. J. Bishop (2012): master post
The Etched City, by K. J. Bishop (2003)

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Reviewer: Emera

As might have been suggested over the past couple months, I (and Kakaner too) was engaged in a full reread of Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series in order to prepare for the arrival of Goldenhand, the latest book. Some thoughts , mostly high-level, somewhat scattered –

I.

Of the Old Kingdom series, I think Sabriel is the most formally perfect – it’s effortlessly swift and lean; not a single page feels narratively wasted. (There’s an undeniable parallel there to Sabriel’s own character, whereas the later books stretch in proportion to their protagonists’ adolescent angst.) Sabriel also benefits from first-in-the-series effect, where the world, magic, and tone feel most fresh and mysterious. Sabriel is a tiny, dark explosion in my heart; I feel I could read it three times in a row in one week and not get tired of it.

The endlessly oncoming thunderstorm that is the final few chapters is still one of the most spectacular and atmospheric climaxes I’ve read. Though I still remembered much of it with almost paragraph-by-paragraph clarity, this reread still left me wide-eyed and prickling with goosebumps.

Out of context, this probably isn’t as striking, but I’ve always loved this bit of scene-setting when they’re struggling to recover Kerrigor’s coffin – darkness and the Dead are coming –

Sunshine poured down between the trees, rich and golden, but already losing its warmth, like a butter-coloured wine that was all taste and no potency.

II.

Lirael is probably the fan favorite. When I saw Garth Nix speak last winter on the release tour for Goldenhand, he mentioned that he actually first wrote that book starting from the halfway point of its current form; his editor read it, and told him that he had to go back and tell more of Lirael’s younger years. Thank the Charter: Lirael without more Lirael is unimaginable. The book’s opening half is a paean to the sorrow of the out-of-place teenage woman; it was wrenching when I was that age, and I still think it’s sensitive, loving, and engrossing. It is also an unmissable exploration of one of my most most most favorite fictional settings, the Library of the Clayr, in which it makes perfect sense that all librarians ought to be steely women with swords, combat magic, and emergency clockwork mice.

I also really, really appreciate Sameth as the secondary protagonist (be it noted that in the Old Kingdom series, the male characters are always secondary), thanks to many years of struggling with a sense of myself as a useless person. Younger Emera found the women in the Old Kingdom almost deifically aspirational, and inspirational, while identifying with nervous, striving Sam. Thanks, Sam.

III.

Abhorsen is a slog. Is grim slogging a formal prerequisite of books involving an approaching cataclysm? Arguable, but I think the book also suffers from a general shapelessness, in addition to generically motivated villains (though I enjoy the necromancer Hedge purely on the basis of picturesqueness – he looks a lot like Peter Cushing in my head) and (this is Kakaner’s biggest gripe) an overabundance of nearly deus-ex-machina-level magical solutions. Nevertheless, the ending still makes me cry like a baby.

IV.

I talked about Clariel here, and the novellas here.

Goldenhand next!

Go to:
Clariel, by Garth Nix (2014) E

Undercover: Clariel

Two novellas of the Old Kingdom

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: Nov. 2016

I’ve enjoyed the work of Sophie Campbell (formerly Ross Campbell) for 12, 13 years maybe. In high school I spent hours poring over the endless portraits (almost exclusively Wet Moon characters, at the time) in her deviantART account – humid, sexy, angsty, a little uncomfortable, very Goth, all executed in her trademark style of mostly monochrome ink and marker, with lots of lovely wash textures. There was a lot going on that you didn’t see much of in comic art those days – chubby girls, black girls. I was fascinated almost equally by the bodies and the fashion – hair, piercings, soft thighs under ripped fishnets – of all those languorously sprawling, sulkily self-possessed, implicitly vulnerable girls (and very occasional androgynous boys).

I have no good reason for why it took me so long to actually read Wet Moon, except that it used to be harder to find comics from smaller labels.

In the time since, Campbell came out as trans. To put it baldly, this presented an easy resolution to my one discomfort with Campbell’s work: that it could come off as voyeuristic, or fetishistic. To have a lingering male gaze suddenly revealed as [trans]female – suddenly consumption, desire, appreciation, longing are all construed so, so differently. Finding out that Campbell had come out as trans remains the most interesting shift I’ve ever experienced in my perception of an artist and their relationship to their work.

Wet Moon is a dark, dreamy slice-of-life comic, featuring a cast of southern, small-town punks, Goths, and art students, almost exclusively women, and heavily queer. Flavors: cigarettes, hairdye, patchouli, art-supply-store air, pie, swampwater. I’ve also seen comparisons to Twin Peaks, though being only two volumes in, the implied supernatural/mystery element is very slight. There’s a missing student who left a strange dark circular stain on her apartment floor, for example, and inexplicable, moonstruck behavior performed by various characters – midnight swamp immersions, ritualistic circling in front of windows. It’s all lovely and unsettling, and reminds me of, yes, the earliest episodes of Twin Peaks, where I had no idea what was going on, and small moments were rendered all the more terrifying because of it. (Those shots of the traffic light at night, for example – I don’t think I’ve ever been more afraid of what a traffic light might mean.)

The protagonist is Cleo Lovedrop (yes, all of the characters have wonderful, absurd names – Malady Mayapple might be the winner), with the blue forelock on both of the covers above. Her struggles with romantic confusion and low self-esteem have so far provided the most obvious or continuous dramatic impetus for the series. But the drama is deliberately minimal; the interest lies more in mood, in the understated sense of mystery, and in the affectionate evocation of the banter – listless, playful, or barbed – and small upsets within an extended network of friends.

And then, much of the series so far has been implicitly about bodies: resenting them, costuming them, wanting them to be something different, subjecting them to long minutes of mute observation and appreciation. Multiple characters receive scenes of self-examination in mirrors: sucking in stomachs, examining scars, trying to make muscles. Most of the characters are overweight; some have disabilities or deformities. There’s so much bodily difference that different becomes the order of the day. The cumulative effect is, again, lovely; all the soft curves and folds and rumpled, revealing clothing contribute their own sense of soft melancholy.

Wet Moon is a unique and soulful work of art; I’m grateful that it exists. Scuttlebutt suggests that the series does become plottier, or at least more overtly dramatic – as a devoted fan of plotlessness, I’m almost disappointed, but obviously excited too for whatever Gothic mayhem awaits. Now it’s on me to track down the remaining four volumes (hopefully in the updated editions, with Campbell credited as Sophie, and some great cover designs by Annie Mok); volume 7 is still being eagerly awaited.

Related reading:
Wolf in White Van, by John Darnielle (2014) E

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: Jan. 2017

“Nicholas Sayre and the Creature in the Case” appears in Garth Nix’s 2005 collection Across the Wall, and “To Hold the Bridge” appears in his 2010 collection of the same name; both novellas flirt with the notion of everyday life in Ancelstierre (1920’s England/Australia parallel) and the Old Kingdom (magical) respectively, but of course work up into suspenseful adventures.

“The Creature in the Case” follows an escapade of Nick’s, who’s recovering back in Ancelstierre following the events of the final book of the Old Kingdom trilogy. Higher-ups in Ancelstierre are keen on learning more about his experiences with Old Kingdom magic, so he’s dispatched to what’s nominally a country houseparty in order to be covertly questioned by officers there. As the title implies, a cross between P. G. Wodehouse and creature feature ensues.

I disliked this novella the first time I read it; I remember finding it clunky and unfunny. (My antipathy towards Nick as the trilogy’s resident magic-disbeliever couldn’t have helped, but thankfully my no-longer-teenage brain doesn’t see that sort of thing as excruciating heresy anymore.) 180 this time: though the usual Nix weaknesses make themselves known (generic villains, mediocre prose undermining psychology), I found the story zippy, darkly picturesque, and full of moments of quiet wit and thoughtfulness. Nix’s experience as a National Guard and keenness on military history always makes the military elements in his stories particularly sharp and intriguing, so the payoff in a story set partially in a secret government facility is tremendous. So many striking little glimpses like this one, as Nick is being led through the compound:

“…they came to a double-width steel door with two spy holes. Lackridge knocked, and after a brief inspection they were admitted to a guardroom inhabited by five policeman types. Four were sitting around a linoleum-topped table under a single suspended lightbulb, drinking tea and eating doorstop-size sandwiches.”

I admit Nick as a protagonist is still a puzzle to me since I find it hard to overcome the sense that the only reason I have to like him is because the narrative really, really wants me to (and because he’s so forcefully put forward as a romantic match for Lirael, sigh). This prop-ishness means that his numerous moments of heroic resolve feel contrived in comparison to the other protagonists’; they move the plot on, but don’t add up to a unified sense of a character for me. I suspect he’ll reappear in Goldenhand, though, so I do look forward to furthering our acquaintance.

—–

“To Hold the Bridge” is set I’m-not-sure-when in the Old Kingdom. (The Bridge is finished in Goldenhand, so decades prior at the least.) It follows Morghan, a young man from rough circumstances who’s seeking to join the Greenwash Bridge Company, the Old Kingdom’s equivalent of the East India Trading Company – a daring commercial venture with a lucrative royally-issued monopoly. The Bridge Company has invested decades in building a bridge across the vast Greenwash River north of the Kingdom’s capital, in order to open up trade with the northern steppes and mountains; at the time of the story, the bridge is still incomplete, and held by select guards of the Bridge Company.

All of this means that the story is porn for those who enjoy pseudo-historical logistical detail [me]. There is a great deal of touching detail about Morghan’s difficult childhood with pathologically selfish and drug-using parents, and how he survived to become (of course) a quiet, strategic, and resolute young man, talented but nonetheless on the brink of poverty due to his lack of formal training and connections.

But even more detail is lavished on the Company’s operations, training, and recruitment; as always, I find Nix’s observant eye for a sense of practical living in an an invented world very rewarding. There’s a lively, brisk sense of the Bridge Company as colorful and bustling yet shaped by the expectation of danger, and the way the story’s grounded in the experience of a more vulnerable member of society is refreshing compared to the focus of all the other Old Kingdom stories on elites.

I think, though, that the pacing of the novella is a mess; I was forced to admit by the end that that abundance of practical detail ended up being a narrative liability. The vast majority of the story is dedicated to Morghan’s first day trying out at the company, such that the climactic action sequence at the end feels disproportionate (disproportionately small, that is) and unearned. Here again the weakness of Nix’s villains is a factor: we know in advance that the Bridge Company is wary, but there isn’t a concrete sense of what exactly they’re defending against, so that the climactic attack feels arbitrary.

Altogether, I was ready to love this novella, but came away with the sense that it was fragmentary and rushed – the last third feels like Nix was either running out of time or lost interest in developing the narrative, having already established the worldbuilding elements that were most to his satisfaction. Still, I’d recommend it for fans of the series as being, again, a less usual perspective on life in the Old Kingdom, and as usual populated with tough, likable characters with hints of intriguing backstory.

Go to:
Clariel, by Garth Nix (2014): review by Emera
Undercover: Clariel

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 1.1.2017
Book from: Borrowed from J.

For the diver Kino, finding a magnificent pearl means the promise of better life for his impoverished family. His dream blinds him to the greed and suspicions the pearl arouses in him and his neighbors, and even his loving wife cannot temper his obsession or stem the events leading to tragedy.

Spare, dreamlike, caressing, bitter. I kept having to stop reading every five pages to writhe in the dread and certainty that John Steinbeck was definitely, definitely going to do the Steinbeck thing: kill whatever symbolizes innocence. The graceful nature writing, all pricked with color and sensual detail – sometimes crisp, sometimes impressionistic – it’s just misdirection, dammit.

The Pearl centers on much the same moral territory as Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath – the moral quality of simple people, their vulnerability to the wealthy and cruel, their structural powerlessness – but explores the new dimensions of race and colonialism. Though Kino also traps himself with his inability to deviate from traditional, aggressive masculinity, Steinbeck targets above all else, with rage and sorrow, the systemic ignorance and poverty enforced by colonization of the Mexican natives. The scenes where the town doctor and the pearl buyers collude against Kino are stomach-turning.

Speaking on aesthetic grounds – this is the most unusually filmic, or even balletic, piece of prose that I’ve ever read, in that Steinbeck writes for the narrative an explicit musical “score,” which rises and falls very beautifully and convincingly with the action. The Song of the Family, the Song of the Pearl, the Song of Evil, and other motifs twine throughout, mingle and distort. (I read afterwards that The Pearl had indeed been solicited to be used as a film treatment by a Mexican film company, so the filmic quality’s not just a coincidence – and I do look forward to finding the movie sometime soon.) This deepens the elegiac and dreamlike, nonverbal quality of the narrative.

Now, Kino’s people had sung of everything that happened or existed. They had made songs to the fishes, to the sea in anger and to the sea in calm, to the light and the dark and the sun and the moon, and the songs were all in Kino and in his people- every song that had ever been made, even the ones forgotten. And as he filled his basket the song was in Kino, and the beat of the song was his pounding heart as it ate the oxygen from his held breath, and the melody of the song was the gray-green water and the little scuttling animals and the clouds of fish that flitted by and were gone. But in the song there was a secret little inner song, hardly perceptible, but always there, sweet and secret and clinging, almost hiding in the counter-melody, and this was the Song of the Pearl That Might Be, for every shell thrown in the basket might contain a pearl. Chance was against it, but luck and the gods might be for it.

The sixth and final chapter of the novella also stands out to me for its stark, towering beauty and darkness. I close with some of my favorite passages from early in that chapter:

The sun arose hotly. They were not near the Gulf now, and the air was dry and hot so that the brush cricked with heat and a good resinous smell came from it. …

Kino stirred in a dream, and he cried out in a guttural voice, and his hand moved in symbolic fighting. And then he moaned and sat up suddenly, his eyes wide and his nostrils flaring. He listened and heard only the cricking heat and the hiss of distance.

The “hiss of distance” is so perfectly evocative of immensity, solitude, oppression.

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 10.2016
Book from: Library

 

book-ratqueens-violet

Rat Queens is a rambunctious Dungeons ‘n’ Dragons parody featuring a gang of ultraviolent, foul-mouthed lady adventurers: Hannah the moody, uptight elven mage, dwarven warrior Violet (pictured above with her orc boyfriend Dave), escaped-from-a-Lovecraftian-cult cleric Dee, and candy/hallucinogen-obsessed smidgen (i.e., halfling) Betty. In Volume 1, the Queens deal with the consequences of their inability to rein in their penchant for destructive brawling, which has earned them enemies within the walls of their own town. In volume 2, the airing of old grudges escalates to the summoning of Lovecraftian beasties; the ensuing ruin is intercut with flashbacks that begin revealing the younger lives of most of the Queens.

Rat Queens is inextricably linked with Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ Saga in my mind: they’re both recent Image comics that feature racially/sexually diverse casts, obstreperous women, “pretty” art with a light anime influence, sarcastic humor, and graphic violence. In that match-up, though, Rat Queens comes up lacking. Wiebe writes pretty awkwardly at times, and tonally, the comic is in that regime of sarcastic trope-busting where if you’re even slightly not feeling it, it just comes off as try-hard.

In terms of art, Upchurch is likewise okay. He’s good at facial expressions, and occasional panels are quite pretty, but his art often mashes down into strange scribbled shapes that betray a mediocre sense of volume and anatomy. The backgrounds are weak as well; they often feel kind of incoherent and joylessly drab to me. Here’s a representative Upchurch page – theoretically pretty chicks with wandering facial features, backgrounds blurred beyond usefulness:

book-ratqueens-17

Stjepan Sejic picks up art duty partway through Volume 2: Kurtis removed Upchurch from the series after he was confirmed to have committed domestic abuse. Sejic, not Upchurch, is responsible for the cover art featured up top. Sejic’s work is strong – seductively painterly and with great taste in color and light, as evidenced by the cover – and he’s an excellent match for the comic thematically since he’s done a number of hilarious trope-busting joke comics. His only obvious weakness is his inability to draw kids without them looking like creepy adult heads pasted onto miniature bodies. My understanding is that unfortunately Sejic departed the series after Vol. 2 due to work conflicts.

But between Sejic’s work and increasingly substantive storytelling, the comic did grow on me as I dug into Volume 2. That whole volume felt narratively solid to me: the character development is thoughtful, mostly dwelling on issues of authority, belonging, and trust (familial, cultural, religious), and also deepened my appreciation of the Rat Queens’ friendships.

Still, I think I could drop this series without feeling like I’d missed that much. First, the interpersonal conflicts, while humanely portrayed, are pretty standard for fantasy (“I’m an outsiderrrrr”). (I think a significant part of why Saga is so unique and successful is that Vaughan investigates familial relationships in a much more specific and personally informed manner, rather than drawing from the typical sff stockroom of Generic Angst Causation.) Second, there isn’t yet a compelling overarching external conflict. Finally, though I feel fondly towards several of the characters (mainly Dee, Hannah, and Braga), I’m not so invested that I feel the need to keep reading just to see what happens to them.

Altogether, I’d call this fun but not unmissable. Blessings on the proliferation of media focusing on female protagonists, though.

Go to:
Saga, vol. 1, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples (2012) E
On the road to Saga

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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 and romantic comedy. 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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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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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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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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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