historical fantasy

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Date read: 8.1.11
Book from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

This is one of my most treasured finds from Readercon, picked up from the fantastic Somewhere in Time Books: Tanith Lee‘s 1988 limited-edition novella, with illustrations by Tom Canty. From the title and pastel cover I expected a tale of genteel swashbuckling, possibly YA; should have remembered that Lee never goes in for gentility. Elegance, yes – Lee is manically elegant – but never gentility.

Madame Two Swords starts in a familiar place for Lee: a sensitive, fearful, recently orphaned young woman in an early 20th-century alternate France is treated cruelly by both circumstances and humanity; her only spiritual sustainment comes from a book of poetry discovered in a secondhand shop:

“The blue cloth binding was quite pristine under its dust. It was a slender book, without lettering. I opened it out of curiosity.”

“The book was my talisman. Other girls wore crosses or medallions.”

The narrator is unemployed and evicted, and finds herself in dire straits, chased from one end of the socioeconomic spectrum to the other: too middle-class for hard labor, too unskilled to be a seamstress, too unwilling to accede to customers’ advances to be a waitress in the seedier cafés. At the extremity of her despair – enter Madame Two Swords, a black-eyed old woman of terrifying intensity, in whose museum-like house the narrator comes to some strange realizations.

In this France, the Revolution was sparked by the poet-demagogue Lucien de Ceppays in the city of Troies. This Revolution culminated in the execution of the original revolutionaries, including de Ceppays, by the fickle mob, and the occupation of France by a fearful British monarchy. Inhabitants now speak “Frenish” as often as French, and labor in a depressed economy overseen by a puppet government. The narrator’s talisman-book is, of course, a volume of de Ceppays’ work, and contains besides a haunting watercolor portrait of him. The story quickly sees her devotion to his image and memory moving beyond girlish fantasy.

The final supernatural twist, when it comes, is powerful in effect, in large part because of the supreme delicacy with which Lee constructs the fleeting image central to the revelation. There’s an also-delicate but definite touch of gender-bending, which I wish I could discuss in more detail without being spoilery, but suffice it to say that I liked how Lee addressed its implications, a lot. This is a story that makes use of deeply Gothic-Romantic tropes (duh, Tanith Lee) yet resists being just romantic; it’s fierce and intelligent and ultimately insists on the dignity of all of its characters.

And so my love affair with Tanith Lee continues! If you like Revolutionary France and cross-lingual puns and intelligent Gothic fantasy, if you love Tanith Lee and beautiful books, you might consider treating yourself to a copy of Madame Two Swords.

Two more photos (can’t help showing it off!) under the cut:
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Date read: 12.16.10
Book from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is as much a joy to hold (literally – it’s the nicest size for a hardback) and look at as it is to read:

The insides are just as beautiful, with colored text and chapter headers, and more of Grace Lin’s ornate, exuberant, full-color illustrations scattered throughout, complementing her detailed, lively prose.

The story follows the adventures of Minli, a young girl who leaves her home in the shadow of the Fruitless Mountain to seek out the Old Man in the Moon, and learn from him how to change her family’s unhappy fortune. On the way, she helps and is helped by a varied cast of characters with cleverly interwoven stories to tell, including a talking goldfish with ambitions, a flightless dragon, and an orphan boy who lives with a water buffalo.

Minli is sort of generically plucky and lovable, and occasionally the story’s sweetness borders on sappiness, but it’s all so clearly coming from a place of genuine caring that I can’t really complain. Lin’s attention to the grief of Minli’s parents after her disappearance is particularly striking and moving. Among children’s books, I can’t remember reading another Hero’s Journey that also gave page time to those left behind. Watching her parents (her mother in particular) come to their own realizations about their relationships with Minli, and then witnessing the family’s eventual reunion – again, just genuinely sweet, loving, and ultimately joyful.

All in all, I felt like I was being given a hug and a bowl of hot soup in book form. (It doesn’t hurt that Lin clearly enjoys describing details of food as much as she does fantastical scenes of red-silk bridges and monkey-infested peach groves.)

As always with really good YA, I wish I knew younger persons I could gift this to. Older readers looking for more books set in mythical China would do very well indeed to look up Barry Hughart’s rumbustious, madcap adventure-fantasy-mystery-everything-awesome series, The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox, beginning with Bridge of Birds.

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Grace Lin: bio and works reviewed

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Date read: 12.21.10
Book from: Public library
Reviewer: Emera

The cover-flap copy for this book is so absurdly, inveiglingly charming that I just have to post the whole thing:

What real reader does not yearn, somewhere in the recesses of his or her heart, for a really literate, first-class thriller – one that chills the body with foreboding of dark deeds to come, but warms the soul with perceptions and language at once astute and vivid? In other words, a ghost story by Jane Austen.

Austen we cannot, alas, give you, but Susan Hill’s remarkable Woman In Black comes as close as the late twentieth century is likely to provide. Set on the obligatory English moor, on an isolated causeway, the story has as its hero one Arthur Kipps, an up-and-coming young solicitor who has come north to attend the funeral and settle the estate of Mrs. Alice Drablow of Eel Marsh House. The routine formalities he anticipates give way to a tumble of events and secrets more sinister and terrifying than any nightmare: the rocking chair in the nursery of the deserted Eel Marsh House, the eerie sound of pony and trap, a child’s scream in the fog, and, most dreadfully, and for Kipps most tragically, the woman in black.

So, yep, a good old English Gothic. Hill provides a smoothly paced, carefully detailed ghost story, meditative in tone and full of lovely, eerie descriptions of the silvery salt marshes and sudden “sea frets” (fogs) that surround the requisite abandoned mansion.

Unfortunately, I can’t think of much other praise for the book beyond words like “accomplished” and “polished.” Hill’s easy mastery of all the conventions of the genre – the meticulously built-up suspense, the confident young narrator whose rationality slowly buckles – has the effect of making it all feel rather tidy and expected, particularly since her prose feels about the same.  In the twisty-turny thrillery department – I guessed the overall shape of the plot about 20 pages in, and foresaw most of the twists after that well in advance.

All in all, a pleasantly chilly read for a winter night, with one or two lingeringly unsettling images, but nothing that really bit deep.

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Susan Hill: bio and works reviewed

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Once upon a time, Emera and Kakaner were high school students who shared roughly half their classes and more importantly, were badminton partners in gym.

I am writing to tell you all about a peculiar period of time in our senior year of high school during which we tried to memorize the hulking blaring entirety of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. Emera had read this first and strongly impressed upon me that if I did not read it soon, my very existence would dwindle and die away. In no time, we were both completely obsessed with JSMN and literarily worshipped its texts, and for a long time, could speak of nothing else. Reviews of JSMN will be forthcoming– it’s just that our current reviews are rather explosive and incoherent. JSMN also made it to our The Black Letters Top Books list, so you can understand what kind of literary entity we are dealing with here.

We were inspired by Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451. Although both of us had already read the book before being assigned to read it in AP English, the second time around, the concept of memorizing an entire book in secret really tickled our fancies. So, we conferred, and somehow decided that the 800-page JSMN was the obvious choice.

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Date read: 10.29.08
Read from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

In 19th-century Boston, a brilliant medical student falls in with a group of young spiritualists, only to see his hopes and plans go terribly awry as a result of their experimentations. A century and a half later, he walks the earth weary and immortal, wielding instruments made from the bones of a murdered angel, and seeking to discharge the task that he took upon himself at the height of his despair. Finally seeing a candidate worthy of becoming his successor, he enters the dreams of a boy named Walter. The young and frightened Walter learns that all he needs to do to banish his bad dreams is tell the monster in his closet to go away – only to learn too late that it was the monster who stood between him and a force banished from the universe at the beginning of time.

If the above summary sounds complicated, it doesn’t even begin to represent the full breadth of the mythology of The Music of Razors. This is a universe big enough for fallen angels, closet monsters, and a clockwork ballerina to coexist over several centuries and in the same 300 pages. The novel’s pace and complexity are undeniably demanding, especially in the beginning chapters, but the reward is that every time the page is turned, you uncover a new secret of this strange mythology, and your mind constantly stretches to keep up with the narrative’s wicked twists and hinted truths. All of these elements are convincingly and for the most part satisfyingly intertwined, and the ending of the novel delivers a volley of heavy emotional punches before leaving the reader with that perfect combination of feeling fulfilled, yet still wanting more.

I do think that the pacing could have used some stretching and breathing space to improve coherence, allow the reader more time with the characters’ emotions, and reduce the ending’s frenzied, overexplosive feel. However, from what I understand of the novel’s publishing history, there were constraints placed on its length. The first, Australian publication, released in 2001, was even shorter. Significantly more material was added to the American release, but from the sounds of it, Rogers would have liked even more.

Rogers’ writing is briskly dark, his brief sentences filled with a subtle, glancing menace, capable of both brutality and a wistful, fairy-tale loveliness. He seems to write with a grim kind of exhilaration, as aware of the emotional and spiritual weight of the story and its characters as he is of the breathtaking leaps of imagination employed in fully animating it.

This is a novel that offers immediate, visceral pleasure and sorrow, as well as food for later thought – in particular, Rogers has fascinating things to say about the role of our fears in shaping our selves. The panoply of fantastical elements also means that there is something here for all tastes, from historical fantasy to horror. All in all, I highly recommend The Music of Razors. Even if flawed, this is one of the most memorable fantasy novels I have read in recent years, and I know that many of its denizens will be staying with me for the rest of my life. Fans of Neil Gaiman and Caitlín R. Kiernan will likely enjoy this book.

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Cameron Rogers
Cameron Rogers interview with Tabula Rasa

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