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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!

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Clariel, by Garth Nix (2014) E

Undercover: Clariel

Two novellas of the Old Kingdom

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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.

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

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 2.14.2013
Book from: Personal collection

I’ve been doing some thinking this spring about figuring out reviewing practices, or a mindset, that don’t have me regularly consuming 3+ hours for writing and headscratching that I meant to have done in one, doesn’t give me hives, and generally achieves a higher fun/stress ratio. We’ll see how this goes.

Saga Vol. 1Oh Saga! Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ Saga is so much fun that I can only assume that if you like fun, you will like Saga. It seems like Vaughan set out to create an X-rated Star Wars in comics – galloping galactic conflict in an expansive science-fantasy universe, plus some very colorful violence, and equally colorful sexytimes wherever characters seem like they might want or need to have ’em. But its immense irreverence has me reaching for Firefly as the easiest comparison.

However, the humor feels less strained to me than Firefly‘s. (The ticking of Joss Whedon’s brain behind the goings-on, working at being quirky or heartrending or whatever, is often too loud to me.) This is helped along by how boundlessly, weightlessly, beautifully weird the universe of Saga is.

Alanna and Marko are Romeo-and-Juliet runaway soldiers and new parents – much of the emotional weight of the comic rests in the anxieties of parenthood; the star-crossing romance seems forgettable by comparison. Their getaway ship is an enormous tree powered by personal sacrifices. Their babysitter and guide is a bisected ghost-girl (whose choice in headgear and allover pinkness reminded me of Runaways‘ Molly). Their pursuers include a TV-headed robot prince who just wants to get home to his recently pregnant wife, and a taciturn uber-mercenary with relationship hangups and a puma-sized, lie-detecting hairless cat. And given that all of the characters, even those that only appear for a few panels, are believably animated by a cantankerous, stubborn humanity, none of this feels like a burden of whimsy on the reader’s patience; I moved to greet each new surprise with incredulous laughter, and greedy eyes.

Fiona Staples (check out her sketchblog here) paints lushly, lushly, with a palette heavily reminiscent of the cool, dreamy neons of, naturally, 1970’s sci-fi – the soulkillingly garish bordello planet where The Will (aforementioned mercenary) makes a detour put me in mind of Bespin’s Cloud City, on acid.

Much of the imagery is clearly, simply meant to make the reader pause, and feel the uplift of wonder; I did plenty of that. Oh, those panels of the ship-tree drawing itself together to jet through space; oh, the towering beasties and haunted blue-green woods and luminous mountainscapes.

Alana reads her favorite romance novel

I am grateful that this comic exists, and am going quietly insane until the second trade comes out (July 2!).

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Brian K. Vaughan: bio and works reviewed

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 2.28.2012
Book from: Personal collection, via Vertical, Inc.

(Yeah, the cover design is pretty punishingly cute. And also, classy! Oh Vertical, you know how to win my heart.)

The friend who egged me on in my desire to read this series, which has the proud distinction of siring the “princely girl” anime subgenre (i.e. Rose of Versailles, Revolutionary Girl Utena), described it as “nonstop shoujo bullshit.” Honestly, I can’t add much more to that than “but there’s lots of wacky gender stuff, too!!”

Adapted from the cover blurb:

“A mischief-making angel’s prank goes too far when the newborn princess of Silverland ends up with two hearts — one male and one female. Since the laws of Silverland only allow a male heir to ascend the throne, Princess Sapphire is raised as a prince. Princess Knight is the fast-paced tale of a heroic princess who can beat any man at fencing, yet is delicate and graceful enough to catch the eye of Prince Charming. Filled with narrow escapes, treacherous courtiers, dashing pirates, meddlesome witches, magical transformations and cinema-worthy displays of derring-do, you’ll be swept right along as Sapphire tackles one challenge after another.”

“One challenge after another” is only too right: the plot twists (potions, prisons, a desirous island queen, hellish pacts, Swan Lake references, etc. etc.) are addictive to a point, but past that point get exhaustingly frenetic. My patience was also tried by the fact that Sapphire is actually pretty dull. Apart from intermittent feats of gallantry, she doesn’t accomplish much other than throwing herself into defeatist fits of tears and mooning with disturbing passivity over her square-jawed and also dull main squeeze, Prince Franz. It comes as a relief to those of us rooting for a pluckier hero/ine that Tezuka has Sapphire close out her gender-bending with a bang: even though she ultimately prefers traditional femininity (she declares her desire to just get married in a dress, please), she’s still up for a swordfight even after her “boy heart” has been revoked.

One more photo and further thoughts on characters and gender after the cut:

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 10.17.11
Book from: Borrowed from Kakaner

Legends of the Mouse Guard features thirteen Mouse Guard tales by a broad spectrum of guest artists and authors. Cute, fun, mostly not really worth reading except for a few outstanding cases of either extremely beautiful art, great visual storytelling, or occasionally both. Highlights for me:

  • Jeremy Bastian’s “The Battle of the Hawk’s Mouse and the Fox’s Mouse:” Mindblowingly detailed faux-etchings in colors of faded heraldry.
  • Ted Naifeh’s “A Bargain in the Dark:” The storytelling could have been sharper, but Naifeh’s ink-heavy, swoopingly angular style (which I’d seen before via his collaborations with Caitlín Kiernan and Holly Black) stands out here from the more traditional illustrations in most of the rest of the collection. And they couldn’t be more perfectly suited to Darkheather’s subterranean vaults, where his story of a wary alliance between a mouse and a bat takes place .
  • Gene Ha & Lowell Francis’ “Worley and the Mink:” Possibly my all-around favorite, for the combination of good humor, rich art and excellent action sequences. A tubby, bespectacled banker-mouse outwits both a tribe of hostile mice and a voracious mink.
  • Guy Davis’ wry & wordless “The Critic,” in which a warrior takes too much inspiration from an artist’s rendering of derring-do.
  • The sweeping tundra scenes of Karl Kerschl’s “Bowen’s Tale” (also wordless), which wonderfully convey the immensity and severe beauty of the arctic from a mouse-sized perspective.

Petersen provides the framing story, of customers at an inn competing in a tale-telling contest to cancel their bar tabs, the totally epic cover of horn-blowing mice (my favorite Mouse Guard cover so far), and some equally epic spreads of other legendary mouse exploits, which appear in-universe as paintings on the inn’s walls.

Go to:
David Petersen: bio and works reviewed
Mouse Guard: Fall 1152, by David Petersen, review by Emera
Mouse Guard: Winter 1152, by David Petersen, review by Emera

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 11.23.11
Book from: Personal collection

Bone: Out from BonevilleBone, Volume 1: Out From Boneville

“After being run out of Boneville, the three Bone cousins – trusty Fone Bone, grasping Phoney Bone, and obliviously cheerful Smiley Bone – are separated and lost in a vast, uncharted desert. One by one, they find their way into a deep, forested valley filled with wonderful and terrifying creatures. Eventually, the cousins are reunited at a farmstead run by tough, cow-racing Gran’ma Ben and her spirited granddaughter, Thorn. But little do the Bones know, there are dark forces conspiring against them and their adventures are only just beginning…”

Late to the bandwagon as usual! I’d wanted to read the ever-popular Bone saga for years, and was lucky enough to find a slightly battered copy for half-off while comic-shopping recently. The first volume instantly brought me back to reading Asterix comics on the couch in second grade: Smith’s old-school art is fluidly expressive and filled with gentle slapstick and visual gags. (A recurring one: whenever he’s overcome by his crush on Thorn, Fone Bone’s mouth crumples up into a scribbled line, and he litters the area with trails of pink hearts.) It’s just comforting to read, sweet, funny, and expertly paced – a good old-fashioned adventure to enjoy on a sunny afternoon.

While I don’t feel too driven by the storyline yet (seems like war with the carrion-eating rat creatures lies ahead), I do love the oddness of the world: the way the seasons arrive with comically accelerated timing in the valley, talking katydid Ted and his giant cousin, the introduction of comics and paper currency (the latter with less success) to the valley inhabitants by the Bones. What exactly is the relationship between the valley and the external world, and what, really, are the Bones? I’m eager to see what comes along, especially if it involves more Gran’ma Ben thonking rat creatures.

And my favorite sequence of art: the evolution of Thorn’s facial expressions and hand gestures on this page (click for a close-up of the whole page).

Go to:
Jeff Smith: bio and works reviewed

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Date read: 1.26.10
Book from: Borrowed from Kakaner
Reviewer: Emera

Jeanne DuPrau - The City of Ember

“The city of Ember was made for us long ago by the Builders. It is the only light in the dark world. Beyond Ember, the darkness goes on forever in all directions.”

At the age of twelve, every child in Ember is assigned a job. Curious, bright-spirited Lina Mayfleet longs to be a messenger, but is instead assigned to dreary, dirty work in the underground Pipeworks. Doon Harrow, her classmate, is convinced that the sporadic blackouts of the great lamps of Ember – the only lights in a world of immeasurable darkness – forebode worse troubles for the city. He longs to investigate the enormous generator in the Pipeworks that provides the city with all of its power, so when he receives the job of messenger, he and Lina eagerly swap their assignments. As the blackouts increase in frequency and fear spreads among Ember’s citizens, Lina soon comes to share Doon’s suspicions that Ember is a dying city. Together the two embark on a search to uncover Ember’s origins, and to find a way to lead their people to the bright city that Lina is sure exists somewhere in the Unknown Regions beyond Ember.

I didn’t enjoy The City of Ember nearly as much as I thought I would, for all that it’s a rather endearing book. The characters and setting are warmly evoked, with detailed and frequently beautiful descriptions, and of course the concept is fantastic to begin with – Ember is one of those fictional realms you wish you could visit, and more often than not end up carrying around with you in your head after reading. (I imagined it looking like a less anarchic version of the city in the film La Cité des Enfants Perdus/The City of Lost Children, and would pay a large amount of imaginary money to run along its streets and peer into its shops.)

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Date read: 2.18.09
Book from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

Ursula Vernon - Nurk
Nurk, a timid but sensible shrew, one day receives an urgent letter addressed to his famous grandmother Surka, the warrior, pirate queen, and general adventurer. Unfortunately, no one has seen Surka for seasons, and so Nurk packs Surka’s diary and some clean socks into his trusty snailboat, and heads off in search of adventure for the first time in his life. Dragonfly royalty in distress, perilous climes, and strange beasts aplenty await him.

I’ve been a huge fan of Ursula Vernon for years now, both of her vibrant, wildly imaginative artwork – she created the cover and interior illustrations for Nurk, of course – and of her equally weird and hilarious life and writing, as seen in her blog.

Nurk is her first mainstream published book, and is par for the Vernon course, combining a deeply practical, deeply likable hero (à la the protagonist of her long-running webcomic Digger, in which grandmother Surka is a character) with earthy wit, tooth-shattering cuteness, quick pacing, and occasional jolts of very enjoyable, very deeply creepy imagery. As a sampler: unripe salmon growing on trees; silent, voracious, cow-sized caterpillars…

Though for an adult reader, the plot is rather unmemorable (predictable twists, there-and-back-again structure), the individual elements are sufficiently weird and entertaining to make it worth the read. I do wish I knew some young persons of an age to be suitably gifted with it. Well, in a couple of years some of my cousins will be thereabouts, and in the meantime, it’s a quick, fun, slightly twisted adventure for readers of any age.

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Ursula Vernon

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