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Date read: 10.25.11
Book from: Borrowed from a friend
Reviewer: Emera

“… or, The Enchanted Chocolate Pot: being the correspondence of two Young Ladies of Quality regarding various Magical Scandals in London and the Country.

Dear Reader,
A great deal is happening in London this Season. To begin with, there’s the wizard who tried to poison Kate at the Royal College – she must have mistaken Kate for the Mysterious Marquis (which is curious, as they look nothing alike). There’s also the man who seems to be spying on Cecelia, though he’s not doing a very good job of it – so just what are his intentions?
Then there’s the strange spell that has made our friend Dorothea the toast of the town. Could it possibly have something to do with the charm-bag under Oliver’s bed? (Speaking of Oliver, how long can we make excuses for him? Ever since he was turned into a tree, he hasn’t bothered to tell anyone where he is.)
Clearly, magic is a deadly and dangerous business. And we might be in fear for our lives . . .  if only we weren’t having so much fun!
Love, Cecy and Kate”

A mightily charming epistolary romp through magical Regency England, and a long overdue read for me. Sorcery and Cecelia is fast-paced and stuffed full of clever gambits, sardonic conversation, and plenty of historical slang and detail to please period buffs – the girls spend as much time outwitting fussy aunts and negotiating delicate social constraints as they do uncovering wizardly misdeeds. Also, there are jokes about Byron.

My one disappointment is that the book doesn’t make much room for character development beyond what’s necessary to move the plot along. Between that and the lack of detailed physical description I had trouble telling the girls, and their respective love interests, apart – everyone is witty, quirky, and dark-haired. I must also confess to fantasy-nerdly hankering for more detail about the magical system and the greater role of wizards (they seem to have curiously little influence on society) – but seeing as Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell also exists, I can hardly complain that that itch has gone unscratched.

In any case, S & C is a great divertissement: playful and vivid, with a lovable (if homogeneous) cast. Common sense says I shouldn’t (too much work to do these days!), but I’m already scheming about finding the sequel…

Go to:
Patricia C. Wrede: bio and works reviewed
Caroline Stevermer: bio and works reviewed
The Grand Tour, by Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer (2004): review by Emera
The Thirteenth Child, by Patricia C. Wrede: review by Kakaner
Dealing With Dragons, by Patricia C. Wrede: review by Emera
Talking to Dragons, by Patricia C. Wrede: review by Emera

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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: 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: 7.17.10
Book from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

What is Un Lun Dun? It is London through the looking glass, an urban Wonderland of strange delights where all the lost and broken things of London end up… and some of its people, too – including Brokkenbroll, boss of the broken umbrellas; Obaday Fing, a tailor whose head is an enormous pin-cushion; and an empty milk carton called Curdle. Un Lun Dun is a place where words are alive, a jungle lurks behind the door of an ordinary house, carnivorous giraffes stalk the streets, and a dark cloud dreams of burning the world. It is a city awaiting its hero, whose coming was prophesied long ago, set down for all time in the pages of a talking book.

When twelve-year-old Zanna and her friend Deeba find a secret entrance leading out of London and into this strange city, it seems that the ancient prophecy is coming true at last. But then things begin to go shockingly wrong.

Un Lun Dun is basically Neil Gaiman‘s Neverwhere meets The Phantom Tollbooth, and owes debts – some playfully acknowledged in the text itself – to many other classics of children’s and fantasy literature, including A Wrinkle in Time and, of course, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It’s a cleverly crafted and delightful book: Miéville lets loose yet again with his famously phantasmagorical imagination, filling out his alternate London with topsy-turvy architecture (houses constructed of obsolete technology, a ghost town whose buildings constantly flicker through various historical incarnations, a web-cocooned “Webminster Abbey”), a lovingly detailed bestiary, and a vast arsenal of puns (some of my favorites: UnLondon’s sister cities include Parisn’t and Lost Angeles).  All of these are complemented by Miéville’s appropriately inky, energetic illustrations. For fans of his adult fiction, there are also plenty of touches of eerie, deeply unsettling dark fantasy, some of which could have come straight out the New Crobuzon books – I couldn’t help feeling that the Black Windows of Webminster Abbey might be lesser cousins of Bas-Lag’s Weavers. With his usual anti-authoritarianism, Miéville also takes a good amount of pleasure in dismantling and inverting the tropes of the fantasy quest, so that we get a very unintended heroine who quite literally refuses to go by the rules of the (talking) book.

For all its delights, though, Un Lun Dun somehow failed to really surprise and engage me. It felt a bit like a themepark ride: there’s plenty to see, but it all goes by rather quickly, and you’re not sure how much it really meant to you at the end of it all. The characters are all likable enough, including the quick-thinking, occasionally snarky heroine, but few are really memorable enough to be lovable, and I had about the same feeling about the book as a whole. Its pleasures lie more in its ingenuity and dazzling wordplay than in any real emotional connection. I also had a little difficulty with the writing style, which is heavy on short, bluntly declarative sentences. And though I appreciated the plot’s pro-environmental, pro-literacy bent, the messages were shoehorned in a little awkwardly and obviously.

So, like Kakaner, I’m going to have to make a conditional recommendation for this one: try it out if you’re a big Miéville fan, are looking for pure entertainment, or have a younger reader of strong constitution to share it with. I would have loved this so much more had I read it when I was about twelve – too much younger and I think certain scenes might have kept me from sleeping at night, though I would have read them with relish anyway.

Go to:
China Miéville
Un Lun Dun, by China Miéville (2007) K

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Date read: 11.15.09
Read from: Clarkesworld #38
Reviewer: Emera

Jason Chapman’s “Brief Candle” is a clever, winning tale of an unpreposessing sanitation robot onboard an imperiled ship. In an AI-fueled homage to Flowers for Algernon (down to the name of the protagonist), the robot finds himself taking on much more responsibility than, literally, he could have ever imagined. It’s a breezily entertaining story, with a quick, crisp narrative that revels in the meticulously imagined details that it unfolds.

Some of the humor was a bit too cute and obvious to work for me, and by the same token, the efficacy of the ending may depend on your willingness to have your heartstrings tugged; I felt a little resistant to the overt emotional appeal, but possibly I’m just being curmudgeonly. After all, I do tend to smile whenever I think of this story – it’s hard to be a grump about something so warm and fun.

Go to:
Jason K. Chapman

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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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Date read: 10.29.2009
Read from: Coyote Wild (Aug. 2008 issue)
Reviewer: Emera

Very vaguely following in our theme of fairy tales for December, “An Old-Fashioned Unicorn’s Guide…” is a dryly funny parody of fantasy romance and quest tropes, both old and new. Call it a PG-13 offering for fans of Patricia C. Wrede and Gail Carson Levine:

“Your principles disgust me,” Brianna murmured, entwined with Fernando’s manly form. “No matter how muscular your thighs, I will never be yours!”

She proved this by sealing her mouth against Fernando’s in a passionate yet distinctly defiant kiss. They toppled into some conveniently-placed ferns.

“Rowena,” Ethel [the unicorn] said in a dark voice. “Aren’t you going to do something about that?”

Rowena [the other unicorn] looked up from the ferns, which she was chewing thoughtfully. “Have fun, kids!” she called. “Stay safe!”

Unfortunately, it gets far too serious and sentimental for its own good in the end, succumbing to a whole ‘nother set of clichés, but overall it’s terribly amusing.

Go to:
Sarah Rees Brennan

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Date read: 8.14.09
Read from: Subterranean Press
Reviewer: Emera

John Scalzi’s “Denise Jones, Super Booker” is a superhero satire that makes me not tired of the superhero satire trend. It’s a wry sketch in the form of an interview with an agent who books superheroes for employment opportunities ranging from contracts with cities in need of protection from giant Gila monsters, to bar mitzvahs in need of entertainment. Pretty much every line is quotable, so I won’t even bother to pick pull quotes – just go and read it when you have the chance!

This was my first time reading anything by John Scalzi, but I can see now why both his blog and his writing have such a following.

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John Scalzi
Subterranean Press

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Date Read: 3.31.07
Book From: Personal Collection
Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

Deeba and Zanna begin to experience strange phenomena until suddenly, one day, they find themselves in the alternate universe of Unlondon. Here they find that Unlondon has been waiting for a long time for Zanna, the “Shwazzy,” to fight the evil Smog, an evil cloud of pollution. However, things are not what they seem when events contradict the prophecies and Deeba is forced to fight the Smog on her own.

Review

I MISS BEING 12.

I have a feeling that if I read this while in middle school, I would have deemed Un Lun Dun The Best Book Evar. The book is incredibly reminiscent of Phantom Tollbooth, chock full of strange realizations of imagination, each a quirky interpretation of something we find in our reality. There’s not much to say plot-wise… the bulk of content was simply the adventure and development of Unlondon and numerous characters, a delightful afternoon romp for the appreciative reader.

As I organized my thoughts for this review, I remembered the China Miéville event I attended at which I saw him speak about Un Lun Dun and the entire YA genre with vivid boyish excitement, and the memory is coloring my opinions of Un Lun Dun with much fondness. I crushed hard on the fact that so much of the humor and wit in Un Lun Dun was derived from references and puns concerning books. Some pun examples, though not necessarily book-related, are the Black Window, Unbrellas, and Bookaneers! But most of the circumstantial humor was centered around books, and made me suspect that Un Lun Dun was really a huge elaborate scheme to write a book to promote the message: “BOOKS ARE TEH SH*T!” and it made me extremely happy.

Unfortunately, I actually don’t consider Un Lun Dun a must-read. But if you’re a die hard Miéville fan, definitely check it out. The main character is very likeable, and it is an insanely easy read with maximum 4-page chapters. To top it all off, you get to see Miéville‘s very own original illustrations. There’s nothing better (or sometimes worse) than observing an author treading new ground, and Mieville does so quite expertly. There is indeed a deep understanding of the YA psyche and which elements excite the imagination.

Go to:
China Miéville
Un Lun Dun, by China Miéville (2007) E

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