Novels

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 2.23.2017
Book from: Personal collection

Cover art by the wonderfully named Gray Morrow

“Some seventeen notable empires rose in the Middle Period of Earth. These were the Afternoon Cultures. All but one are unimportant to this narrative, and there is little need to speak of them save to say that none of them lasted for less than a millennium, none for more than ten; that each extracted such secrets and obtained such comforts as its nature (and the nature of the Universe) enabled it to find; and that each fell back from the Universe in confusion, dwindled, and died …

tegeus-Cromis, sometime soldier and sophisticate of Viriconium, the Pastel City, who now dwelt quite alone in a tower by the sea and imagined himself a better poet than swordsman, stood at early morning on the sand-dunes that lay between his tall home and the gray line of the surf. Like swift and tattered scraps of rag, black gulls sped and fought over his downcast head. It was a catastrophe that had driven him from his tower, something that he had witnessed from its topmost room during the night.”

Such mixed feelings I have about this direst and 70’s-est of fantasy novels! On the one hand, who am I to say no to prose that is that dire, and that arch. (see: my obsession with Tanith Lee) Also on that hand, M. John Harrison’s blog is one of my favorites; I’m fascinated by his intellect and sensibilities. On the other hand, this is almost 50 years distant, the plot and characters are so silly and derivative (battles for the fate of an empire, the reassembly of a band of elite warriors in order to defend a beloved queen), and there are giant sloths that are meant to be taken seriously as noble and tragic creatures. I’m not sure even 12-year-old me could have managed that sentiment successfully.

Politically, this has a provocative flavor: anti-capitalist, anti-industrialist. The conceit of the setting is that numerous high-technological societies have ravaged the earth’s resources, and fallen, leaving crumbling medieval cities that harvest glowing, deadly technology from wastelands to wage intermittent wars. Remaining civilizations, namely Viriconium, are burdened by a sense of their own impending failure; entropy is the order of the day. Jack Vance’s Dying Earth is an obvious influence, and I assume there’s a lot of Moorcock in there too, but I still have yet to read any of his work. There’s also a lot of T. S. Eliot, sometimes pastiched very directly via the not-great poetry of tegeus-Cromis. (Sorry, Cromis.)

Aesthetically, let’s just say it: this book is fucking nuts. The main appeal of the book for me is really just Harrison’s visionary, desolate, cavernous nature-writing, which could so easily be translated to some kind of 2-hour-long Pink Floyd music video, and I wish somebody would. Here’s tegeus-Cromis, he of the nameless sword, traversing the rocky hills:

“In a day, he came to the bleak hills of Monar that lay between Viriconium and Duirinish, where the wind lamented considerably some gigantic sorrow it was unable to put into words. He trembled the high paths that wound over slopes of shale and between cold still lochans in empty corries. No birds lived there. Once he saw a crystal launch drift overhead, a dark smoke seeping from its hull.”

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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: 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: 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.

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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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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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