Novels

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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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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 4.18.2016
Book from: Personal collection

The King of Elfland's Daughter - cover

In their ruddy jackets of leather that reached to their knees the men of Erl appeared before their lord, the stately white-haired man in his long red room. He leaned in his carven chair and heard their spokesman.

And thus their spokesman said.

‘For seven hundred years the chiefs of your race have ruled us well; and their deeds are remembered by the minor minstrels, living on yet in their little tinkling songs. And yet the generations stream away, and there is no new thing.’

‘What would you?’ said the lord.

‘We would be ruled by a magic lord,’ they said.

The King of Elfland’s Daughter is a dreamy, colorful, exceedingly British literary fairy-story for adults; it’s a crucial antecedent to the Lord of the Rings, Lovecraft, and other early purveyors of rich prose and high fantasy. I’d been meaning to read this ever since I started delving into Tolkieniana in high school, and saw it discussed in one of Tom Shippey’s essay collections, and finally invested in a personal copy when Seek Books liquidated a few years ago (alaaaas).

Previously, I’d only read one other bit of Dunsany – one of his short stories, likewise in a Shippey anthology that I picked out in high school. I remember the story as being pleasantly swampy, and involving big swords, at least one lizard-monster, and monolithic architecture. Great; carry on.

Elfland unfortunately I found a slog to get through, which is one of those things that makes one feel jaded. About once a chapter there’d be a human insight or a wondrous image that made me smile; the rest of the time, I found it terrifically cloying, and poorly paced and motivated. It seems to stagger back and forth in the territory between overexplained high fantasy and mystifying fairy story, such that it’s neither quite weird enough to fly free of expectations of logic, nor quite grounded enough in recognizable motivations to feel like much more than a succession of elaborate tableaux. I’d also argue there’s something rhythmically off about the delivery of the fairy-story elements, where the repetition and flow fail to build the kind of irrefutable dream-logic that pulls good mythos onward, but this could be a secondary symptom of my dislike for Dunsany’s writing on the sentence level.

The allover layer of pastoral treacle is what did me in from the beginning. (e.g., “little tinkling songs” above.) I have a tolerance for British plumminess that easily tips over into an embarrassingly active enjoyment (see: my ability to repeatedly reread Richard Adams’ epic fantasies), but Dunsany overleaps plumminess and stands firmly in the Land of Preciousness. So many buttercups.

Returning to the idea of generic contributions: it was interesting to recognize the eventual moral bent of the narrative – where magic/sense of wonder is a good in and of itself, and its restoration to a land is a triumph – as one that I had previously thought of as typical of later fantasy. (McKillip does this a lot, for example.) That is, I see that story structure as deeply indicative of a genre that is both conscious and defensive of itself of as a genre. It makes sense, then, that Dunsany would stand as a precedent to Tolkien et al. not only in style, but in literary ethos.

Related reading:
“The Golden Key,” by George MacDonald (1867) E

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 1.28.2016
Book from: Personal collection

John Darnielle is the Mountain Goats, one of my very most favorite bands, a band-of-my-heart. Wolf in White Van was his first full-length novel, and was nominated for the National Book Award when it came out. (And, great recent news: his next novel is slated for release early next year.)

John Darnielle - Wolf in White Van

This is tragic and beautiful, a dreamy tissue of all of the themes that constitute a sort of home base for Darnielle’s work, the source from which he is always elaborating: family dysfunction in Southern California; teenage alienation, intense to the point of being inarticulable; and its expression in the potent, feral paraphernalia of 70’s-80’s Goth/metal/fantasy – skull emblems, Conan the Barbarian, late-night television programs on Satanic backmasking, bags full of cassette tapes, arcades, dreams of bone thrones and infinite wasteland.

Darnielle’s protagonist begins in a sort of mild rubble. Following a terrible incident as a teenager, he became a shut-in; he now makes his living by running a play-by-mail apocalyptic RPG. He’s just exited the legal trial that investigated his potential culpability for a tragic choice made by two of the players of his game – two of his favorite players. From here, he moves backward and inward to the scene of his own teenage trauma. He paces through a flowing series of vignettes: chance encounters with strangers who break his present-day solitude, almost imperceptibly cruel past conversations with his parents, childhood imaginings, all exuding talismanic significance.

These express simultaneously a piercing sense of humanity, and an inviolable disconnection. He is happy today, in his own way (I’m always drawn to characters who are self-made, faintly holy hermits), but still we step back and back to the black, black place of his trauma. Life is soft and sweet and bitter, and there’s a black vein running through it all.

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 2.7.2016
Book from: Personal collection

DID YOU KNOW that before Patricia Wrede hit it out the park with the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, she wrote a fair bit of generic epic fantasy? It’s true! Just look at this:

The Harp of Imach Thyssel

I found a copy at a used bookstore, and could not pass it up. Those glowing tights exerted an uncanny magnetism.

The Harp of Imach Thyssel is the third in a series of five books set in Lyra, all of which appear to have been recently revised and republished in the omnibus Shadows over Lyra (1997). Here’s the plot of Harp:

“Everyone wanted the legendary harp – except the man who found it, and was wise enough to fear its power.”

Execution was as you might expect based on the cover art. Since it’s Patricia Wrede, the dialogue can be witty, the writing is brisk, and some of the characters’ relationships are mildly intriguing, but otherwise, everything, everything about this book feels almost disturbingly superficial. None of the characters have motivations or desires more specific than “I fear/desire the Harp!” + “I love, in an incredibly nonspecific way, my family and hate my enemies.” There’s little to no sense of either political or mythological reality, even after the barrage of historical exposition in the last 20 pages or so. This is epic-fantasy MadLibs and a triumph of telling-not-showing.

I enjoyed this as a historical curiosity, and derived a bit of scandalous thrill from seeing an author who’s now exclusively acclaimed for mischievous but squeaky-clean YA, write something that involves death and sex (or at least overtly expressed sexual attraction). In the abstract, it’s fun to consider checking out the revised version of this, but given the time… I’d rather reread the Enchanted Forest Chronicles instead.

Go to:
Sorcery and Cecelia, by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer (1988)
The Grand Tour, by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer (2004)
Dealing with Dragons, by Patricia C. Wrede (1990)
Talking to Dragons, by Patricia C. Wrede (1985)
Thirteenth Child, by Patricia C. Wrede (1985)

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 3.13.2016
Book from: Personal collection

Elephantasm is a violent, brooding, erotic fantasy of revenge against imperialism and patriarchy: Tanith Lee takes on Heart of Darkness, by way of colonial India. Elephants, monsoons, open wounds, whips, trauma survivors, immolation. Lush madness and harsh justice prevail against the privileged and callous. Lee’s usual interest in tough, quiet, street-bred, canny/uncanny heroines is in evidence.

More unusual is the sense of social and emotional reality around the secondary characters, especially the villains, who tend to be brutish to the point of caricature in Lee’s work. Here, she builds up thoughtful layers of pathos and longing around the Gormenghastly members of the Smolte household, as despicable as they are. This makes the book more interesting – earthier, more human – at the same time that it sharpens the implacable moral judgment that eventually arrives. Structurally, Lee also does some good work with the interleaved perspectives and flashbacks; Elephantasm had more of a sense of being a constructed novel than many of her works, which often register as simply a bewildering outpouring of strange events.

The obsession with the physical whiteness of the heroic characters is troubling, but unsurprising given Lee’s vampiric tastes in human beauty. It is meant to mirror the importance of ivory and bone in the plot, and Lee also consciously works against the ‘white savior’ narrative by positioning her heroine as a conduit, not an incarnation, of the Hindu gods. Nonetheless, it’s an off note, and undermines the book’s desired radical message.

One of the odder elements of the book is the character of Elizabeth Willow, the Smoltes’ deranged cat-daughter, who maybe crept in from a story of her own, or arrived (now that I think of it) as a weird domestic inverse of The Jungle Book‘s Mowgli. I mention her a) because the proliferative violence of Tanith Lee’s imagination never fails to amuse me – that, having established a grotesque household of sexually obsessive parvenu malcontents, she just had to stuff in one more oddity; and b) because the predatory girl-child is one of my favorite figures (see also Merricat Blackwood), and I’m always happy to see her. I hope Elizabeth Willow had an interesting, if likely not long, life after the main events of the novel blew by.

Go to:
Tanith Lee: bio and works reviewed
The Book of the Damned, by Tanith Lee (1988): review by Emera
Madame Two Swords, by Tanith Lee (1988): review by Emera
Louisa the Poisoner, by Tanith Lee (1995): review by Emera

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 10.31.13
Book from: Public library, and then personal collection.

“At an exclusive girls’ boarding school, a sixteen-year-old girl records her most intimate thoughts in a diary. The object of her growing obsession is her roommate, Lucy Blake, and Lucy’s friendship with their new and disturbing classmate. Ernessa is an enigmatic, moody presence with pale skin and hypnotic eyes.

Around her swirl rumors, suspicions, and secrets – and a series of ominous disasters. As fear spreads through the school and Lucy isn’t Lucy anymore, fantasy and reality mingle until what is true and what is dreamed bleed together into a waking nightmare that evokes with gothic menace the anxieties, lusts, and fears of adolescence. At the center of the diary is the question that haunts all who read it: Is Ernessa really a vampire? Or has the narrator trapped herself in the fevered world of her own imagining?”

I had the great honor and pleasure recently of instigating Kakaner’s first-ever read of J. S. Le Fanu’s “Carmilla;” many squees were squeed between the two of us. I had first read the sapphic vampire classic in one bleary sitting around midnight several winters ago, as I was in bed with a fever: perfect.

Rachel Klein’s 2002 novel The Moth Diaries, a self-aware successor to both “Carmilla” and Dracula, absorbed my autumn last year in an even more protracted fever dream. The book is barely over 200 pages long, but I read and reread its middle parts continuously, hypnotically, for almost two months before I finally brought the affair to a close and committed myself to reading the last chapter.

The book feels hermetic, labyrinthine: a maze constructed not of stone or hedges but of wood-paneled walls and prim New England convention, boarding-school propriety fencing in the daughters of unhappy families.

The novel’s narrator – an unnamed diarist – is severe, intellectual, and morbid, but also mordantly funny in her teenaged forthrightness. Cafeteria food, the indignities of boarding-school routines, and the pretensions and fixations of her classmates are scrutinized and discussed with nearly equal intensity to her idolization of Lucy, her hateful fascination with Ernessa, and her anguish over her poet father’s suicide. Donuts, gossip, LSD, field hockey, school dances; sex, blood, fear, death, eating disorders, anti-Semitism. (The narrator and Ernessa are two of the only three Jews in their entire, WASPy school, in the 1970’s.) And the specter of homosexuality in an all-girls’ school: “We were always so careful not to be like that. Girls who go too far.”

All of it is felt keenly, absorbed entirely. “She was […] excruciatingly alive, as if she had been born without a skin,” the adult narrator says of her younger self in the afterword. There’s horror, awe, regret, tenderness, and involuntary longing all in that statement. “I had affection for her, and I have much less for the one who has replaced her.”

From start to finish, The Moth Diaries engages more passionately and personally with the opposition between youth and ageing than any other vampire story I’ve read. Eternal youth means something painfully specific in this book. It means always feeling, always needing, never having enough. It means never getting better, never being able to admit that what’s lost is lost and not coming back. It means being violently alive.

The narrator does get better; her preface and afterword tell us so. But survival, in her straitlaced milieu, also means ossification, it means surrender to convention and a convenient degree of unfeeling. The novel’s conclusion is deeply melancholy: the narrator has survived the turmoil and burning intensity of her adolescence, but finds herself adrift in a colorless marriage, with daughters who are so blissfully functional as to seem alien. Having achieved distance from her pain also means being distanced from the chief sources of meaning in her teenaged life – the loss of her father, and her relationship with Lucy. “[The girl who wrote the diary] had a father. I don’t.”

Even as someone who’s always had a peculiar relationship to ideas of childhood and childishness, I would never choose to return to my adolescent self. I am really, unspeakably appreciative of the comfortable clarity and calmness that getting older has brought. But I do sometimes feel, in a detached way, strangely admiring of that unmediated intensity of feeling: how was feeling that much, obsessing that much, even possible? Reading The Moth Diaries brought me to a troubled sense of comradeship with its narrator. The idea that the rarefied selfishness of adolescence is in some way a purer, elemental state becomes a temptation. The young woman as vampire: helplessly, reflexively appetitive; monstrous yet pure.

Relevant reading: Helen Oyeyemi’s equally Carmilla-flavored haunted-house/vampire novel White is for Witching (which I wrote about here). Oyeyemi likewise draws the connection between female vampires and disordered eating.

Relevant viewing: Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures. Mary Harron’s 2012 film adaptation of The Moth Diaries felt dismayingly insubstantial and silly, despite strong performances by both Sarah Bolger as the protagonist (named Rebecca in the film) and Lily Cole as Ernessa. Two or three of the fantastical scenes were lovely, terrifying, and eerie; otherwise, the film is very missable.

Go to:
Rachel Klein: bio and works reviewed

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