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Date read: 8.20.11
Book from: Borrowed from my cousin
Reviewer: Emera

For Durzo Blint, assassination is an art – and he is the city’s most accomplished artist.

For Azoth, survival is precarious. Something you never take for granted. As a guild rat, he’s grown up in the slums, and learned to judge people quickly – and to take risks. Risks like apprenticing himself to Durzo Blint.

But to be accepted, Azoth must turn his back on his old life and embrace a new identity and name. As Kylar Stern, he must learn to navigate the assassins’ world of dangerous politics and strange magics – and cultivate a flair for death.

Wall-to-wall epic darque fantasy cheesefest, aww yeah. This came to me in a booky care package from my cousin, along with its sequels in the Night Angel trilogy. I would probably have enjoyed the whole thing when I was about twelve (I say that without – okay, with only a little bit of judgment; I welcome strategic doses of darque cheese in my life), but being shorter on reading time these days, I just skimmed the first volume for flavor.

Moody antihero with traumatic past and an even more traumatized yet brave love interest, check. Nomenclature liberally peppered with apostrophes and accent marks, check. Hard-bitten mentor, training montages, sadistic antagonists, and sundry scenes of carnage interleaved with swells of sentimental glurge, check. (I couldn’t get this particular glurge-bit out of my head after stumbling upon a bedroom scene: “Curve yielded to curve with the sweetness that inspired art.”)

The clumsy sentimentality and generally cliché-packed prose are what set me skimming after only a page or three, but on the plus side, the earnestness wasn’t entirely unappealing, there’s at least one non-white protagonist, and what I saw of the female characters (when it wasn’t their yielding curves) seemed moderately sensibly written. I’d still stick to Robin Hobb for my epic-assassin-y needs, though.

Go to:
Brent Weeks: bio and works reviewed
Assassin’s Apprentice, by Robin Hobb (1995): review by Emera

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Date read: 7.18.11
Book from: Borrowed from Kakaner
Reviewer: Emera

Mouse Guard: Winter 1152

“After Midnight’s Rebellion in the Fall of 1152, the following Winter proves to be a cold and icy season. The Guard face a food shortage threatening the lives of many a mouse in the Territories. Some of the Guard’s finest – Saxon, Kenzie, Lieam, and Sadie, with the old grayfur Celanawe by their side – traverse the snow-blanketed Territories, acting as diplomats to improve relations between the mouse cities and the Guard, and seeking vital supplies for their headquarters at Lockhaven. But hungry predators, the dangers of ice and snow, and a wrong turn into the haunted depths of the abandoned weasel tunnels of Darkheather place even so intrepid a band of Guardsmice in mortal peril…”

As Kakaner assured me, Mouse Guard vol. 2 has much more emotional meat on its bones than did the first arc. Reading this volume, it’s clear that Fall 1152 was just a taster; here our sense of the Guard’s mythology and traditions is deepened, and the worldbuilding continues apace, both within the comic and in the (again) adorable and obsessively detailed appendices.

Midnight’s obligatory power-hungry rebellion is revealed to have longer-lasting implications for the politics of the Mouse Territories and the integrity of the Guard, while Sadie, Kenzie, and Saxon’s descent into the mindblowingly byzantine tunnels and vaulted caverns of Darkheather brings us closer to the darkness and horror that lie in the Guard’s recent past. On Lieam’s end of things, Celanawe drops hints about the mythology of the Black Axe – a lone, mysterious arbiter of justice – and teaches some lessons about self-reliance. All of this is clearly paving the way for Lieam’s impending ascension to full-blown badass. And then there are epic battles with a vengeful one-eyed owl, and torrents of bats in purplish gloom, and beautifully desolate lamplit snowscapes, and Kenzie/Saxon bromance (brodentmance?)…

Also, I underwent a weird little cognitive tweak reading this volume. During the first I’d felt I just couldn’t get the characters, and tenatively chalked it up to the dialogue being a bit stilted. This time around I realized that it’s also that the mice generally only have two facial expressions: peering intently, or squinting determinedly. And once I realized that, I was fine with it; it’s like I’d placated an otherwise expectant emotional processing circuit. Conclusion: Brains are weird. Have some more cute mice.

Mouse Guard: Winter 1152

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

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[Pssst – Readercon 22 reports are in the works. Thanks to some sitey issues, we’re holding off on really image-heavy posts for the moment; have an only moderately image-heavy post in the meantime.]

Date read: 7.18.11
Book from: Borrowed from Kakaner
Reviewer: Emera

“Mice struggle to live safely and prosper among the world’s harsh conditions and predators. Thus the Mouse Guard was formed. They are not simply soldiers who fight off intruders: they are guides for common mice looking to journey safely from one hidden village to another. The Guard patrol borders, find safeways and paths through treacherous terrain, and keep the mouse territories free of predators. They do so with fearless dedication so that mice might not just exist, but truly live. In Fall 1152, follow the adventures of three of the Guard’s finest – Lieam, Saxon, and Kenzie – as they seek to uncover a traitorous plot against the Guard…”

Mouse Guard: Fall 1152

In an obvious progression from my childhood love for Redwall, I’d been longing to read Mouse Guard for ages ever since I spotted its cover in a bookstore a few years back; Kakaner obliged me last week by thrusting the first two volumes into my hands. While the story is pretty much a throwaway (Petersen could really use an editor for grammar alone), the comic works purely on the basis of visuals and concepts.

Mouse Guard: Sadie receives an urgent message

Petersen’s figures aren’t very dynamic, but his panels are often beautifully composed, and his pairing of liberal hatching and stippling with a rich, autumnal palette creates delicious texture and depth. The climactic battle that spans the last chapter – heralded by a shift in the palette first to moody plum shades, then to an eerie, luminous red – is surprisingly dark and gritty; again the visuals are successful in generating drama and atmosphere despite lackluster storytelling.

And let’s be honest here: it’s SO. CUTE. Oh my god big-headed mice in cloaks. Oh my god tiny glassblower blowing tiny bottles. Oh my god tiny castle masonry and kilns and inkwells and… you get the idea.The scenes of everyday life in Barkstone, the town where the central trio uncover the anti-Guard conspiracy, and Lockhaven, the Guard’s fortified headquarters, pretty much had me spasming with glee; equally so the faux-historical tidbits and diagrams on mouse trades and settlements included at the end of the book.

Thanks for the conniptions, Petersen! I look forward to more in volume 2: Winter 1152.

Go to:
David Petersen: bio and works reviewed

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Date read: 3.5.11
Book from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

Words from the master (and by master, I mean Cimorene):

“Being upset is no excuse. If you’re going to be rude, do it for a reason and get something from it.”

I was down for the count with a stomach virus two weekends ago, which seemed an excellent excuse to loll around in bed with Talking to Dragons. I have nothing in the way of intelligent commentary, except to say that this series never stops being as clever and sharp and all-around excellent as I remembered it being. The combination in this book of Daystar being a hyperpolite semi-wuss (saved from true wussiness by his sensibleness and competence) and Shiara being as rude as possible to everyone they meet is particularly winning. Also, I didn’t at all remember that happening between Morwen and Telemain, so that ended up being a very pleasant surprise.

Cover-flap summary:

Daystar has never seen his mother, Cimorene, actually perform magic. Nor has he ever known her to enter the Enchanted Forest in all the years they have lived on its edge. That is not until a wizard shows up at their cottage shortly after Daystar’s sixteenth birthday. Much to Daystar’s surprise, Cimorene melts the unsavory fellow. And the following day, she comes out of the Enchanted Forest carrying a sword. With that and little else, she sends him off into adventure. Daystar doesn’t know why he’s tromping through the Forest fighting wizards and monsters, but others seem to know. Accompanied by a quick-tempered firewitch, Daystar stumbles upon a number of characters from his mother’s past: Morwen the witch, Telemain the magician, and Kazul the king of dragons.

Go to:
Patricia C. Wrede: bio and works reviewed
Dealing With Dragons, by Patricia C. Wrede (1990) E

Daystar has never seen his mother, Cimorene, actually perform magic. Nor has he ever known her to enter the Enchanted Forest in all the years they have lived on its edge. That is not until a wizard shows up at their cottage shortly after Daystar’s sixteenth birthday. Much to Daystar’s surprise, Cimorene melts the unsavory fellow. And the following day, she comes out of the Enchanted Forest carrying a sword. With that and little else, she sends him off into adventure.

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Date read: 1.2.11
Book from: Public library
Reviewer: Emera

“The story I tell over and over and over and over is Beauty and the Beast.  It all comes from there.  There are variations on the theme–and it’s inside out or upside down sometimes–but the communication gap between one living being and another is pretty much the ground line.  And usually the gap-bridger is love.”

– from Robin McKinley’s blog (this post)

Mirasol, formerly a beekeeper, has become the Chalice of her demesne, charged with binding and unifying both its inhabitants and its restive magical energies. Unfortunately, her demesne is unsettled by the violent deaths of its last Master and Chalice. The arrival of the new Master only promises more strife. Previously banished by his brother, the last Master, to the priesthood of fire, he returns more than a little inhuman, terrifying to his own people and perhaps unable to command the land’s magic as he should.

The feeling that struck me as I was reading Chalice was that I was reading Sunshine again – which makes perfect sense, given McKinley’s above reflection. Chalice plays on that dynamic, and many more of her trademarks: fearful and inexperienced but pragmatic, good-hearted protagonists; magic that’s as often inconvenient and frightening as it is wondrous. (Mirasol, when receiving omens of her impending Chalicehood, spends most of her time cleaning up after the overflowing milk and honey that result.)

More than any of McKinley’s other books that I can recall (except maybe Rose Daughter), Chalice has an elusive, vignette-ish quality to it.  It feels as if we only spend a brief time with the characters and world before the curtain drops on the scene again. Mirasol’s world is rich with tradition and history – there are numerous mentions of a not-so-distant barbaric past, and Mirasol’s fellow Circle members have evocative, little-explained titles like “Talisman” and “Sunbrightener” – but we’re only privy to what detail Mirasol’s own experiences reveal. This guardedness lends the setting a pleasantly mysterious feel.

On the other hand, I was not so much a fan of the intense internality that controls most of the book. The vast majority of it happens inside of Mirasol’s head, with dialogue and action indirectly reported, and flashbacks and occasionally repetitive exposition occupying much of the first half of the novel. So while I was deeply intrigued by the setting and circumstances,  I felt a little stifled and not immediately involved. I was also put off by the flatness of the political conflict that eventually tests both Chalice and Master. I realize that for McKinley it’s always more about how her protagonists overcome difficulties, rather than what in particular they’re overcoming, but it can start to seem a little silly when all the villains are either greedy Overlords or mincing sycophants.

Overall, though, I was happy to sit back and enjoy the ride, just soaking up the odd, earthy details of Mirasol’s life, the rituals that she concocts and carries out, and the few characters with whom she interacts. Also, the love story is very sweet. Throughout, McKinley wields crisp, vivid language that particularly helps to crystallize Mirasol’s experiences of magic. Chalice is not a must-read if you’re not already a big McKinley fan, but it is beautiful and ultimately satisfying, if on the slower side.

Go to:
Robin McKinley: bio and works reviewed
Beauty (1976), review by Emera
Deerskin (1993), review by Emera
Deerskin (1993), review by Kakaner

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Date read: 12.30.10
Book from: Public library
Reviewer: Emera

The Bell at Sealey Head

The Bell at Sealey Head contains the most outright sexual passage I can recall reading in any of Patricia McKillip’s work. Tellingly, it’s also a tongue-in-cheek commentary on bibliomania:

The odd thing about people who had many books was how they always wanted more. Judd knew that about himself: just the sight of Ridley Dow’s books unpacked and stacked in corners, on the desk and dresser, made him discontent and greedy. Here he was; there they were. Why were he and they not together somewhere private, they falling gently open under his fingers, he exploring their mysteries, they luring him, enthralling him, captivating him with every turn of phrase, every revealing page?”

A-hem.

McKillip was possibly my most protracted love affair during my high school reading. Though I’ve grown away from her work a bit since then (particularly since I wasn’t much taken with her last two novels), reading The Bell at Sealey Head was a pleasant return. It’s a bit like Georgette Heyer meets Ombria in Shadow. Much of the novel concerns itself with gentle comedy and small dramas of courtship, set in the titular seaside town “at the edge of the known world.” But the underlying mystery that drives the plot concerns a ghostly bell that rings at sundown, and a strange world of knights and ritual occasionally glimpsed through the doors of a decaying manor.

McKillip occasionally writes overwhelmingly large, hectic casts, but here the slow pace and loose plot give the characters room to breathe. I found most of them endearing, if not all terribly memorable as individuals. There’s a book-obsessed innkeeper’s son (Judd); a merchant’s daughter being courted by a cloddish squire, but who would much rather write novels; an itinerant scholar with a keen interest in the history of the phantom bell; a maid who has befriended the princess who lives in the manor’s past; and so on.

As in The Tower at Stony Wood, there’s a strong feminist thematic, with a particularly pointed attack being made on the conventions of the courtly romance: the princess is made to constantly fulfill fractured, meaningless rituals in service of the faceless knights who ride in and out of the castle, with the expectation of eventually being married off to one of them purely for the purposes of bearing another child to carry out the rituals. (Spoiler: We eventually learn that she has literally been imprisoned in images out of a storybook.) Several of the other female characters are quietly rebellious, and seek self-determination or otherwise subvert social expectations. One of the most interesting, though least-seen characters is a woman of wealth who is forced to conceal her intelligence and private desires by perfecting a mask of exquisite boredom and frivolity.

All in all, a sweet, thoughtful, and frequently witty read. Not as urgent or eerie as my favorites of McKillip’s works, but as usual, it’s full of memorable, otherworldly imagery, rich and occasionally glinting with menace. It also has some wonderful lifestyle inspiration, in the form of an herbalist who runs around barefoot and lives in a book-filled, garden-surrounded house built in and around a hollow tree trunk. Excuse me while I radiate envy/aspiration…

P.S. Happy 2011, all!

Go to:
Patricia A. McKillip: bio and works reviewed

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Date read: 6.8.10; umpteenth re-read
Book from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

book dealingwithdragonsI feel like I shouldn’t need to introduce this book or this series. If you’ve never read the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, what have you been doing with your life? Before Catherine, Called Birdy, before Ella Enchanted, before Robin McKinley’s heroines, Cimorene rocked my life. A princess who really just wants to fence, learn Latin, and be a dragon’s librarian/cook/mystery-solver? Sign me up, please. Add in Morwen, an acerbic, ginger-haired, hypercompetent witch with spectacles, bottomless sleeves, and a house full of attitudinal cats, and you have two pinnacles of no-nonsense badassery. In this first installment (actually published second, as the fourth book, chronologically, was the first written), Cimorene runs away from home and, thanks to the advice of a talking frog, promptly becomes the princess of a dragon named Kazul. While occupying her days with cooking, cataloguing, and fending off meddling wizards and persistent knights bent on her rescue, Cimorene uncovers a plot that threatens the dragon kingdom, and sets out to unravel it with the help of her new friends.

For the past few years I’ve been hunting down, very much out of order, the original hardback editions of the series, with Trina Schart Hyman’s cover illustrations (see above). When I finally got Dealing With Dragons, I couldn’t resist an immediate re-read, and luckily, the humor, energy, and inguenuity of Wrede’s writing hold up just as well with later reads. Though it’s clear to me now how utilitarian much of her writing is (e.g. “here I will insert a scene of Cimorene giving Kazul a bath so I have an excuse to make them talk about dragon history for a chapter”), and how often the plot relies on convenient coincidences to move it along, the characters are still utterly winning, and the world full of marvelous, clever detail. The book can be summed up, really, as delightful.

I was also struck this time around by my realization of how extremely polite Cimorene is, at the same time that she’s entirely intolerant of fluff and indecision – I had remembered how sarcastic she is, but not how carefully and strategically sheathed she keeps that sarcasm. Tears of admiration were wiped!

Go to:
Patricia C. Wrede: bio and works reviewed
Talking to Dragons, by Patricia C. Wrede (1985) E

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Date read: 8.13.10
Book from: Personal collection, via Conlan Press
Reviewer: Emera

This here’s the manticore. Man’s head, lion’s body, tail of a scorpion. Captured at midnight, eating werewolves to sweeten its breath…

The Last Unicorn comic adaptation #2 (review for #1) arrived at my door last week, and despite being exhausted I had to squeeze it in before falling asleep that night, in part because this is the issue that I can’t help but think of as “Meet Schmendrick,” and what self-respecting fan could resist the tawdry horrors of Mommy Fortuna’s carnival, to boot? In this issue, the unicorn wakes to find herself imprisoned in a two-bit witch’s menagerie of illusory monsters, and her best chances for escape lie with a well-meaning but inept magician named Schmendrick.

This time, I got Frank Stockton’s alternate cover art:

The Last Unicorn #2While I love his graphical approach, and particularly liked his cover variant for the first issue, it irks me that his unicorn tends to look kind of witless, and on principle I have trouble condoning the idea of a unicorn having “the hair of a Hollywood starlet.” Also, I really, really loved the de Liz/Dillon cover design for this issue. But life goes on, and Mommy Fortuna’s hand looks awesome here.

Basically, everything that I liked about the first issue I liked just as much, if not more, here: atmospheric color choices, expressive human characters, effective panel layouts, and pretty much pitch-perfect adaptation of the text. Very occasionally I was still bothered by coloring choices, but I found the use of textures much less obtrusive in this issue than in the first, and particularly effective in conveying the murk and grime of Mommy Fortuna’s carnival. There were also a couple of mostly-wordless compressions of action and narration that made me go YESSS, that could not have been done in any medium other than comics.

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Date read: 7.26.10
Book from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

This will be possibly one of the world’s least impartial reviews, in that my love affair with The Last Unicorn started when I was about six, when I first saw the animated movie adaptation, then proceeded to sort-of forget about it in such a way that it became a native feature of my mental landscape. For a really, really long time, I thought it was actually a really amazing, really sad dream that I had once had. For all that it’s typically praised as “whimsical” and “charming,” it’s also a story that’s profoundly concerned with mortality, sacrifice, and loss of wonder and innocence, all of which was both troubling and stirring to me as a child. Attached to my dream/memory of it was both a great yearning for the film’s melancholy, twilight-shaded beauty, and a certain sense of haunted anxiety.

Like many other fans, I didn’t rediscover the movie till years later, after which I proceeded to re-watch it an egregious number of times, attempt (unsuccessfully) to foist it on friends, and finally, very belatedly discover that it was based on Peter S. Beagle‘s 1968 novel. Said novel, read at twelve or thirteen, went on to become part of what I think of as my core canon; I’m often hard-pressed to find the words to explain how much it means to me.

Given all this, I was a bit leery but mostly excited to see the news this spring that IDW would be releasing a six-part comic adaptation of the novel, under Beagle’s supervision, adapted by comics writer Peter B. Gillis,with art by wife-and-husband team Renae De Liz (pencils) and Ray Dillon (ink and color). Being the sucker I am, I immediately sprung for the signed preorders (hey, signed and inscribed copies ship for free, so it’s like I saved money… right?) available via Conlan Press, Beagle’s affiliated publisher. Recently I got around to sitting down with the first installment. A blow-by-blow review follows, with quotes here and there from the original novel – which, for those who have not encountered it in one form or another, is the story of a unicorn who learns one day that she is the last of her kind in the world, and leaves her wood in order to seek out her imprisoned kin.

The Last Unicorn: Issue #1First reaction: augh @ awkward author/title placement for a composition that was obviously supposed to have a vertically centered title. Also a little disappointed that De Liz’s unicorn looks pretty distinctly horsey, when Beagle is very strong in his insistence that unicorns look not-much like horses:

She did not look anything like a horned horse, as unicorns are often pictured, being smaller and cloven-hoofed, and possessing that oldest, wildest grace that horses have never had, that deer have only in a shy, thin imitation and goats in a dancing mockery. Her neck was long and slender, making her head seem smaller than it was, and the mane that fell almost to the middle of her back was as soft as dandelion fluff and as fine as cirrus. She had pointed ears and thin legs, with feathers of white hair at the ankles; and the long horn above her eyes shone and shivered with its own seashell light even in the deepest midnight.

That aside, it is a pretty gorgeous cover, and one I’d like to see as a poster.

My personal preference artwise would have been for a more old-fashioned illustrative style (think Charles Vess, Michael Zulli, Michael Kaluta), but maybe that’s too obvious and literal, anyway. And any time I start feeling too picky, I flip back to the first page:

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Date read: 5.7.10 (or thereabouts)
Book from: University library
Reviewer: Emera

After witnessing the resurrection of his dead love from a riverbed, a village boy sets off in wild pursuit of the cloaked women in whose company she now rides. One is a sailor-swordswoman-storyteller; the other, a soldier-nun on the lam from her convent. Under the roof of one inn in a distant land, all of these stories interweave with those of a varied cast of characters, including a fox who’s not always a fox, a stable-boy dreaming of adventure, and a cantankerous innkeep.

Alas. I’m a Peter Beagle fan to the end, primarily on the basis of The Last Unicorn, but The Innkeeper’s Song was a dud for me. Wondrously imaginative concepts, compelling characters – but only in summary. In execution, the rapid multi-character narration distracts from the action, and while Beagle does an impressive job of differentiating the various voices, I found most of them – and I really hate to say this – unbearably irritating, with “folky” or “lilting” speech patterns that came off as stilted and artificial.

About the same sentiment applied to the plotting. While there are moments of incredible emotional intensity and sublime, twilit weirdness, they were by far outnumbered by the points at which I had to put the book down and say “REALLY? Did that really just happen?” (Also – for one of the most awkward sex scenes I have ever had the displeasure of wincing through – “was it really just described in those terms?”)

Considering my reaction more carefully, it’s not so much that the events in question (most of them) were that outrageous. Rather, the affected narration left me disengaged, fenced outside the story and its characters by a barricade of theatricality. Half the time I felt that I had no idea what the characters were doing, or why – and not in the good, pleasurably mystifying kind of way; I was just left squinting in skepticism/confusion as this massive cast frantically played out acts of obscure significance. Even worse, I didn’t really care, despite all the potentially thrilling setpieces, like a showdown between Nyateneri (the soldier-nun) and a pair of ninjas assassins in the inn’s bathhouse. The only sequence that I wholeheartedly enjoyed was the second-to-last chapter, in which one of the characters undertakes a nightmarishly intense descent into death – as in many of Beagle’s works, mortality is a chief concern of The Innkeeper’s Song.

Unfortunately, the novel’s stagy, borderline sententious quality undercuts the obvious care with which it’s crafted. Under all the bluster, I could still dimly glimpse all of the things that I normally associate with Beagle’s works, the bittersweetness and the playful lyricism and the dusky, mysterious feel. Here, they just left me all the more bummed that I didn’t actually enjoy the book.

Go to:
Peter S. Beagle

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