romance

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Date Read: 6.10.09 (fourth[?] reread)
Book From: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

Caribou is a dreamer of dreams, a solitary figure isolated from her tribe ever since the death of her father. One day her sister-in-law comes to her, bearing a strange golden child whom she begs Cari to conceal and raise. At first unwilling, Cari is nevertheless struck by the child’s beauty and takes him in, naming him Reindeer – for as she reluctantly comes to realize, he is a trangl, one who can take the form of both human and stag. Though she longs to keep him by her side, his blood will always call him to run with the wild deer that course the land. As the years pass, stirring spirits and strange upheavals in the mountains and hot springs send the tribespeople to Cari’s door for advice. From Reindeer, she learns that the world is being remade, and that if she is to save her people, she and Reindeer must guide them over the Burning Plains to the safety of the lands that lie beyond the Pole, where only the wild deer have run before.

Of all the authors I’ve read, I’ve most deeply identified with the work of Meredith Ann Pierce, for the longest period of time. I first read her books when I was eight or nine, and though there were many literary loves before then, and have been many, many more since, I always think of Pierce’s books – particularly her Darkangel Trilogy – as The Milestones. She’s most often written tales about strange, wise girls who become strange, wise women, fall in love with transfigured or supernatural lovers, and have adventures in worlds of beautifully realized mythology. Mythology, because her books often read to me like myths from alien planets: her images and language have a timeless, jewel-like purity to them, coupled with deliciously archaic diction and – this might be the part that most gets me – a deep, deep sense of yearning that encompasses both human and immortal desires.

This was the first time I’ve re-read one of her books in about eight years, and since a lot has changed in that time, this doesn’t have quite as immediate an emotional impact on me as it used to. I used to get a lot of vicarious rage and anguish on Cari’s behalf. The older me is both slightly more phlegmatic (though really not that much less romantic), and slightly savvier: this time around, I was a little squicked at Cari having a relationship with her foster child, despite Pierce’s care in emphasizing his inhuman nature and unfamilial relationship with Cari.

Regardless, I was still deeply affected by the wondrous and joyful imagery: gambling trollwives, rivers of silver caribou running, a sledge with belled harness and golden runners, firelords with lava-seamed palms… And while the younger me fumed (again on Cari’s behalf) when she read the inconclusive ending, the older me was pleasantly surprised to recognize its maturity and realism. This will continue to be a story, and a world, that I treasure, and that I suspect will still surprise me every time I re-enter it.

Meredith Ann Pierce’s works will very likely appeal to fans of Patricia McKillip and Robin McKinley; I’ve never entirely understood why she hasn’t become more well-known and widely read. Not that I’m biased or anything.

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Meredith Ann Pierce

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Translated 2009 by Deborah Boliver Boehm.

Date Read: 4.11.10
Book From: Personal Collection, from Vertical, Inc.
Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

The Cat in the Coffin is a romance/suspense (rather than a romance/mystery as the back cover claims) novel set in Japan that revolves around three lives: Masayo, an aspiring painter who is simultaneously a casual student of Goro, one in a family of famously lucrative artists, and a live-in tutor for Goro’s reserved and precocious daughter, Momoko. As Masayo eagerly begins her duties in the househould, she beings to naively fall for Goro, until the entrance of an old flame sets catastrophic events into motion.

Review

Unfortunately, I have much more gripe than praise for this book, despite giving ample room for consideration given that I was not reading it in the original language. Overall, it is a superficial, cheesy, predictable, simple story, heightened by the fact that it is very apparent Koike was trying to weave a masterful complex tale. First, I would use this book for the classic lesson of “Show. Not tell.” Most of the suspense in the novel would have been halfway effective had Koike not prefaced every twist with flashing red warning signals. Momoko goes out into the snow at night, and Masayo is “filled with a sense of foreboding” and “knows something bad is about to happen.” As she rushes out in the snow after Momoko, she images a sinister scene unfolding (which, I might add, had been set up from the first chapters anyway), which lo and behold, just happens to be the same as the events that actually do take place. In this way, several crucial scenes are effectively ruined throughout the book. It’s actually pretty surprising how Koike manages to wrangle so many elements of Suspense 101 yet is still described as a celebrated mystery and romance writer in Japan.

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Date read: 4.4.08
Read from: Fantasy Magazine
Reviewer: Emera

… The Mumbaki came, as did the elder warriors, and they sang of Bugan the sky goddess who descended to earth to marry the warrior Kinggawan. They sang of how the lovers lost each other and how Kinggawan seeks his Bugan to this day. When the Mumbaki poured the wine over your head you did not cry.

It was a good sign, the village people said. But no one could explain why. It just was so.

After this, there was more dancing and feasting, but your mother took you away to the quiet of her hut where she stared into your face and tried to read your future while you suckled at her breast.

“Hi Bugan ya Hi Kinggawan” is inspired by the mythology of the mountainous Ifugao region of the Philippines, where the author was raised. It’s both thematically and aesthetically satisfying, playing on personal and cultural anxieties through parallel narrative threads: the emotional and sexual coming-of-age of a young woman named Bugan, after the Ifugao sky goddess, and the upheaval in her small village as contact is made with Western colonizers.

Loenen-Ruiz’s language is vibrant and wonderfully rhythmical (I’d love to hear the story read aloud), and she skillfully conveys the turbulence of the forces working on the protagonist and her culture. Against the themes of loss and disruption, Loenen-Ruiz sets the heady sensuality of the story’s resolution. Renewal of tradition is coupled with the building of new unities; an act of sexual transgression becomes an act of cultural resistance.

Also, the love interest is hot. Just sayin’.

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Rochita Loenen-Ruiz
Fantasy Magazine Author Spotlight with Rochita Loenen-Ruiz

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Date read: 4.8.10
Book from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

Blast from the past! Between the ages of about ten and thirteen, I made my way through most of Anne McCaffrey’s major series*, starting with (of course) the Dragonriders of Pern books. The Crystal Singer trilogy was always my favorite guilty pleasure, though, at least in part because re-reads entailed a lot less effort than a trek back through the monumental Pern series would have. Emphasis on the guilty part of the pleasure, also, because it’s one of her more brainless series – it’s world-building detail porn, with McCaffrey’s characteristic focus on the workings of an imagined elite profession.

In the first book, we follow the conveniently meteoric rise to fortune of Killashandra Ree, a headstrong, ambitious type who ditches her home planet and 10 years of rigorous operatic training after being told that her voice isn’t suitable for solo work. After learning that the only explicit entry requirement is perfect pitch, Killa becomes bent on becoming a member of the mysterious, fabulously wealthy Heptite Guild of the planet of Ballybran, whose silicate crystals provide the galaxy with unmatcheable communications and transportation technology.

The later books take Killa off-planet for more adventures, but the first book is basically an extended training montage set almost entirely on Ballybran. Crystal cutters, Killa learns, are those who have made a full transition to a symbiotic bacterium endemic to the planet. In consequence, they gain vastly augmented lifespans and sensory abilities, but also suffer from gradual onset of dementia and paranoia caused by addiction to the intensely sensual process of “singing” the planet’s resonating crystal ranges. On top of that, Ballybran’s three moons create intense storm systems that have claimed numerous victims. Nonetheless, Killa accepts the risks, and quickly rises to become a full-fledged crystal singer.

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Date Read: 1.29.10
Book From: Personal Collection
Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

When Elizabeth Philpot and her sisters move to Lyme Regis, resigned to a life of spinstershood tucked away in a modest English seaside village, she finds herself befriending a queer fossil hunter, Mary Anning. Through Elizabeth’s education and readings, and Mary’s instinctive knowledge of the shore, they grow together in their mutual love for paleantology and fossil hunting. But the lives of the Philpots, Annings, and the very town are turned upsidedown when Mary discovers a prehistoric extinct fossil, causing an uproar in the scientific community and the entrance of many distinguished gentlemen in the field. Behind the scenes, Elizabeth and Mary explore a friendship that is strained by their respective failures to find a suitor, and interwoven with the fervor and drama of scientific discovery in a male dominated intellectual society is the sorrow and resignation that comes with spinsterhood.

Review

For me, Tracy Chevalier has never quite accomplished the same breathtaking, luminous achievement that was The Girl with a Pearl Earring  with her other books, but Remarkable Creatures is a complete turnaround. I ran away to BNN one day, picked it up for two hours, and simply could not put it down so I paid the $26.95 + tax to have the privilege of finishing it that very night in my bed. Overall, Remarkable Creatures is the historical novel I’ve been craving for a long while, whisking me off to 19th-century seaside England and embroiling me in the scandal, loneliness, and scientific discovery of the time.

Remarkable Creatures made me fear for my own life, made me examine my aspirations and accomplishments, and specifically the incredible brevity of a lifespan. Elizabeth and Mary have such purpose and drive, and are both gripped by an urgency to uncover more and more truths, working furiously to overcome social and cultural barriers. I, on the other hand, sit in my cubicle writing mundane scripts and am safe from the discrimination and prejudice of a century ago. And once Elizabeth and Mary reached a certain age in their lives, the despair seeped in, and both resigned themselves to many stagnant, loveless remaining years.

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Date read: 3.22.06
Book from: Borrowed from Kakaner
Reviewer: Emera

book-kindl-woman

Rendered nearly invisible by her painful shyness, Anna is the middle girl of three sisters living with their mother in a rambling Victorian home. At seven years old, terrified by the impending threat of school, she retreats into passageways and secret rooms of her own construction, and lives within the walls of her home for the next seven and a half years. Anna is content to hide away as a sort of household ghost, nearly forgotten by even her family, until her own growth as a woman renders her “invisibility” no longer possible. A stray love note pushed through the walls of her refuge appeals to her developing emotions, and the time approaches for Anna to once more venture into the outside world.

I randomly spotted The Woman in the Wall on Kakaner’s bookshelf at some point around when we first began exchanging reading material on a regular basis, and the premise deeply appealed to me since I’m a. sorta shy and b. obsessed with secret nooks and passageways, to the point that a home-within-a-home sounds right up my alley. Even outside of my particular quirks, the concept is an emotionally powerful and imaginatively appealing one.

Unfortunately, Kindl’s writing isn’t up to the task. Although the book aims for a wistful, playful mix of Gothic fairy tale and magical realism, it increasingly dissolves into a weepy, unconvincing pastiche, with the narration lurching between “artsy,” “quirky” whimsy and banal adolescent histrionics. Too much pretension (or, more charitably, ambition), not enough substance. Though Anna’s story could have been a moving modern fairy tale about escapism and self-isolation, The Woman in the Wall more often seems clumsy, superficial, and implausible.

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Patrice Kindl

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Date read: 2.8.09
Read from: Borrowed from Kakaner
Reviewer: Emera

Young, unworldly, and hopelessly shy, our nameless narrator finds herself swept off of her feet by the widowed and much older Maxim DeWinter while working as the companion of a wealthy American woman on the French Riviera. Maxim takes her away to his estate in England, Manderley, where the soon-disenheartened narrator learns that her lot is to live in the shadow of Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife. Rebecca was glamorous, flamboyant, the consummate wife and hostess; Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper, is fiercely devoted to her memory, and regards Maxim’s second wife as an interloper and a poor replacement. Between Mrs. Danvers’ cruel manipulations and Maxim’s moody secrecy – which the narrator fears is a sign that he still loves Rebecca – the narrator finds herself without allies in Manderley, and is driven both to uncover the truth of of what happened to Rebecca, and to come into her own as a woman.

Hmm, awkward summary. Anyway, I read this following Isaac Marion’s The Inside, and together they ended up being a one-two punch of delicious, delicious suspense. I couldn’t read Rebecca in anything less than 100-page chunks – addictive to the max, it is.

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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.

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Sarah Rees Brennan

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Date read: 2/20/06
Read from: Public library
Reviewer: Emera

[Warning: Summary contains spoilers for the last two books of the Samaria trilogy, though the back-cover summary of the very first book spoils it all anyway (wtf).]

On the angel-governed planet of Samaria, Tamar is a member of the Jacobites, a cult persecuted and nearly destroyed by the Archangel Bael for their insistence that the god Jovah is no more than a mechanical spaceship that once ferried the original Samarian settlers to their new planet. Once again forced to flee the destruction of her friends and comrades, Tamar finds herself unwillingly entangled with the angel Jared, who, despite his lazy and easygoing nature, is expected to become the next Archangel. Jared himself is wary of Bael’s increasing fanaticism and strongly anti-technology stance. In a Samaria that is on the brink of industrialization, Jared begins to aid Tamar in her search for the Alleluia Files, the mythical documents that reveal the truth of Jovah’s identity.

I expected to be not-very-impressed as usual by Shinn’s work, and several times had second thoughts about bothering to pick up The Alleluia File, which is the third book of the Samaria trilogy. Nevertheless, I actually rather enjoyed this one, so I’m glad I took the time to finish up the trilogy. To reiterate my review of Archangel, the Samaria books are very conceptually engaging, this one especially so, as it’s rare for authors in fantasy to push the typical pastoral-feudal (or Renaissance, tops) society towards industrialization. In this sense, it’s a satisfying close to the overall arc of the trilogy. Particular fans of Jovah’s Angel, the second book in the trilogy, may also be gratified by the numerous nods made to characters and plot points of that book – though I get the feeling that it’s one of the least liked in the series, given its goody-two-shoes protagonist. (I’d comment more on Jovah’s Angel but I never wrote a review of it.)

To return to The Alleluia Files – as a whole, it’s significantly weakened by its loose construction and annoying reliance on coincidence to move the plot, and although Shinn generally writes good romance, a number of the romantic scenes in this book were unaccountably dorky and saccharine. Also, though its characters are likable and often moving, I found myself quite unable to remember anything about them only a little while after reading the book – which was also the case for me with the first two Samaria books. Ultimately, I found the Samaria trilogy entertaining and readable, but not outstanding. I haven’t bothered to follow up on the two standalone novels that follow it.

Go to:
Sharon Shinn
Archangel, by Sharon Shinn (1997) [E]
The Shape-Changer’s Wife, by Sharon Shinn (1995) [E]

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Date read: 9/15/05
Read from: Public library
Reviewer: Emera

Samaria is a utopian, hierarchical world, its people divided into strict social castes, from the wealthy, land-holding Manadavvi to the nomadic Edori. All are guided by the winged angels, who arbitrate mortal disputes and pray directly to the god Jovah through their music. Gabriel is an uncompromisingly principled angel due to become the next Archangel, who must therefore find his wife, the Angelica, in time for the next Gloria, when mortals and angels from across Samaria must gather and sing to show Jovah their unity. Unfortunately, he finds that his wife is Rachel, an embittered Edori slave girl who couldn’t care less about Gabriel or becoming the Angelica. Complicating Gabriel’s problems is the current Archangel, Raphael, who seems increasingly unwilling to cede his power, and has begun to foster corruption in the ranks of the angels.

Sharon Shinn‘s Samaria books are romantic science fantasies much along the same lines as Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books. I actually read the second book of the original trilogy, Jovah’s Angel, first, but liked Archangel much more because the characters were so much stronger in personality.

I find, though, that the main interest of the books lies in the fascinating and well-developed world concept – almost more than I enjoy actually reading the books, I enjoy playing with the world-building and geography in my head after reading. (The same holds true for me, to varying degrees, for series like Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom books and Storm Constantine‘s Wraeththu books.) Shinn writes what I might call “workhorse” fantasy – it’s reliably well-written, and there’s nothing really wrong with it, but it lacks spark and stylistic interest. But after all, having a compelling world is one of the main selling points of fantasy, so Shinn certainly succeeds there, as she also does in her romantic plotlines. Her descriptions do grow a shade purple every now and then, but in general she avoids mush and plays out convincing character chemistry.

But really, it all comes back to the world-building for me. I can’t help wishing that her books would explore more of Samarian culture, particularly that of the angels – I’d love to know details of how angel children are raised, for example…

Go to:
Sharon Shinn
The Shape-Changer’s Wife, by Sharon Shinn (1995) [E]
The Alleluia Files, by Sharon Shinn (1999) [E]

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