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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 10.2016
Book from: Library

 

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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:

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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.

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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

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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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