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Patricia Wrede Enchanted Forest Chronicles Cimorene Enchanted Earth Shortbread Cookies

View Recipe: Cimorene’s Enchanted Earth Shortbread Cookies

I’ve been mulling the flavor profile of one of my most beloved fantasy heroines– Cimorene, the princess from Patricia Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles— for quite some time. I wanted to capture the essence of Cimorene traipsing through forests, starting and stumbling upon gritty and fantastical adventures, and all with plenty of spunk and temper to spare!

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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.

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

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 10.17.2016
Book from: Lent by E.

Much goodness. The Legend of Beka Cooper trilogy is a Tortall prequel (set 200 years before the main Tortall books) that combines rookie cop procedural, gritty medieval slums, subtle magic, and a dual murder/kidnapping mystery, all written in a journal format using wonderfully earthy, pungent Old English slang.* (Women and men are “mots” and “coves,” for example, while loose women are “puttocks.”) If you’ve never read any of the other Tortall books, this stands alone well, though there are plenty of tidbits to delight and reward longtime readers.

Tamora Pierce’s fantasy adventures, driven principally by tough young women, were a staple of my young adulthood. But this was my first time returning to her work since 2008 or so, when I’d tried picking up later entries in long-beloved series, and eventually gave up when I found them stiffly written and contrived-feeling – well-meaning, but a bit Very Special Episode-ish in their approach to social issues.

So I was frankly taken aback at how good Terrier was – tight, funny, thoughtful, subtle, suspenseful. Narrator/journal-writer Beka Cooper, a trainee within Tortall’s nascent police force, is pensive, driven, and capable. She’s a likable and admirable heroine to trail, with a voice that’s, again, made especially memorable thanks to the street slang. The combination reminded me actually of Karen Cushman’s obstinate historical heroines (Catherine Called Birdy, my love forevermore).

I had forgotten how well Pierce can pull off mysteries (Magic Steps also worked as a fantasy-crime hybrid), and it was particularly fun here to watch her play out cop tropes (even good cop/bad cop makes an appearance) in the context of a early lawkeeping force. As the Provost’s Dogs were established only a few decades ago, affairs are still quite rough ‘n’ ready: the Dogs are ill-paid, expect high mortality, and mix freely with criminals. All of this contributes to a captivating and convincing sense of a raw, violent world of fast-changing alliances and widespread cruelty (the disposability of children’s lives in particular is a troubling theme throughout), but a world that’s nonetheless a warm home for Beka and her friends, and where they can occasionally strike victories against violence and injustice.

Altogether, this is a solid, feel-good read – one of those books that feels trustworthy and good-hearted, without cloying (except for some silly bits about kittens). Viva tough women, good friendships, and young folks making smart decisions and beating up slimy villains. I can’t wait to find the sequels.

* Coincidentally, when reading the Old Kingdom prequel Clariel just a week before, it had struck me as mildly amusing that everyone still talked the same 600 years earlier in the Old Kingdom. So props to Pierce for the linguistic experimentation, when most high-fantasy authors do tend to keep their worlds drifting in the same medieval linguistic and technological twilight regardless of the passage of n eons.

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 6.20.2013 
Book from: Personal collection

Arriving in the English countryside to live with her mother and new stepfather, Jenny has no interest in her surroundings, until she meets Tamsin. Since her death over 300 years ago, Tamsin has haunted the lonely estate without rest, trapped by a hidden trauma she can’t remember, and a powerful evil even the spirits of night cannot name. To help her, Jenny must delve deeper into the dark world than any human has in hundreds of years, and face danger that will change her life forever.

This is the book that restored my Beagle-faith after I bounced violently off of The Innkeeper’s Song; frankly I think it’s a bit of a hidden gem, given how little I’ve seen it mentioned or discussed. I cannot recommend this more for fans of spooky English/Celtic fantasy, like Elizabeth Marie Pope’s The Perilous Gard, or even Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series. It is also quite queer, in a very sweet, nondramatized way. (Jenny remarks on her head-over-heels reaction to Tamsin by saying, “I’d never been the type to get girl-crushes before,” and that is the full extent to which she dissects any issues of sexual identity; the rest of the time she just goes on loving Tamsin.)

The initial few chapters – when it’s not clear yet what sort of haunted universe Jenny has stepped into, and her encounters with the uncanny are glancing and inexplicable – are by far the creepiest. But even once the central mystery is mostly laid bare, the combination of characters and world, both fantastical and actual-historical, are terrifically compelling.

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 1.30.2016
Book from: Personal collection

The House with a Clock in its Walls - cover

Orphaned Lewis Barnavelt comes to live with his Uncle Jonathan and quickly learns that both his uncle and his next-door neighbor are witches on a quest to discover the terrifying clock ticking within the walls of Jonathan’s house. Can the three of them save the world from certain destruction?

Bellaaaairs! Such a landmark of my childhood spookyscape. When I was in elementary school, I was already obsessed with spooky shit, even though I was also too weak of constitution to not end up with nightmares for a month after reading something particularly choice. Poe at 9 years old was one high-water mark; Bellairs at 10 or 11 was another. (Isn’t even just the name Bellairs perfect? So rich and old-world; it sounds like old libraries with bell-pulls.)

Bellairs’ preoccupation with the occult was, I think, several layers more complex and esoteric than the more traditional ghost stories I typically found in the library, and correspondingly struck me as something much wickeder, with potentially apocalyptic consequences. Even though M. R. James is considered Bellairs’ most immediate stylistic influence, in my head he’s more immediately the YA answer to Lovecraft (who is also a James descendant, of course). I hadn’t ever encountered something like his red doomsday skies, resurrected corpses, and convincingly evil necromancers before. That mixture of human wickedness and imminence of the terrible sublime – very Lovecraftian, it seems to me. Read the rest of this entry »

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 7.27.2016
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Kennedy Michelakos has decided to quit smoking… She likes to ride horses. Her parents are Greek. We both really dig Tom Jones.

K.M. & R.P. & 1971 is a beautifully understated 16-page comic that deals in double layers of nostalgia: one for mildly dysfunctional high school friendships (sigh), and one for 70’s culture. (The tiny Jim Morrison poster might be my favorite bit of cultural clutter, but the rumpled Valley of the Dolls paperback is great too.)

The paneling is beautiful, and the color palette and nubbly linework are delicious. If the comic had a flavor, I think hazelnuts would be involved.

I’ve had the comic open for the past couple hours, just scrolling back and forth and enjoying the look and feel.

Related reading [quiet darkness and/or disaffected ’70’s girls]:
Egg Comic, by Z. Akhmetova
The Moth Diaries, by Rachel Klein (2002)
Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel (2006)

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 2.4.2013
Book from: Personal collection

I began Gerald Morris’ series of Arthurian retellings (collectively called The Squires’ Tales and The Knights’ Tales) back when they first started coming out in the late ’90’s/early 2000’s. I remember starting with The Savage Damsel & the Dwarf in the yellow-lit, air-conditioned cool of the nearest public library when I was 16ish, and shortly thereafter hunched crosslegged in sticky summer weather over the pages of The Squire’s Tale. In a few weeks I’d read all the way up to Parsifal’s Page. Swift, witty, musing, and surprisingly gentle in moral tone despite their sharp humor and the grim fates that befall many characters, Morris’ novels fell in closely alongside my love of Karen Cushman’s medieval historical fiction, and of C. S. Lewis.

Almost 10 years later, I finally started catching up again with the series, and was delighted to find that Morris’ humanity as a storyteller registers even more deeply with me as an older reader. As my friend E. put it, the series is wonderful in embracing and illustrating “all kinds of different ways of being.”

The previous novels had as their protagonists fairly common YA types, though warmly realized: a half-fey squire navigating both mundane & otherworldly affairs, a whip-witted anti-damsel, and a Eustace Scrubb-ish prig who of course discovers valiance & humility under duress.

By contrast, Sir Dinadan’s major interests in life begin with drifting peacefully alone in the forest, and end with peacefully music-making (again, preferably alone) in the forest. I can’t recall another YA novel (suggestions welcome!) whose main character was so centrally concerned with solitude, and – crucially – was allowed to remain that way. Most children’s literature has social aims: the protagonists negotiate relationships (friends, family, romances), and struggle to assume positions of greater social responsibility.

Dinadan does indeed venture forth and meet all sorts of people, befriending some and looking askance at others. And, as Sir Tristan’s younger brother, he is dragged again and again towards the center of that most outrageously tragic of romances. But what he sees of Tristan & Iseult’s violent folly ultimately leads him to affirm his sense of sufficiency in himself and his art – even though his friendship with another “savage damsel,” as skeptic-minded as Dinadan, presents a tantalizing romantic charge throughout.

Without trivializing the essential tragedy of the violence and human wastefulness of Tristan & Iseult’s tale, Sir Dinadan affirms those who prefer to live small, live quietly and inwardly. I laughed often while reading, and closed the book feeling both heartened and melancholy. I plan to revisit Sir Dinadan often, especially since his quietness, skepticism, and steadfast unconcern with dramatic involvement reminded me of a very dear mentor of mine, whom I don’t get to see nearly enough. In Dinadan, Morris combines elements both of the fool and the hermit: capable of moving in society, he evenly judges the people and hierarchies he encounters there, but ultimately, contentedly, remains a man apart.

Go to:
Gerald Morris: bio and works reviewed

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 8.13.2013
Book from: Personal collection

The Water Mirror, by Kai Meyer: two pale-faced girls, one blonde and one brunette, are poled in a gondola down a grey-green Venetian canal

“In Venice, magic is not unusual. Merle is apprenticed to a magic mirror maker, and Serafin – a boy who was once a master thief – works for a weaver of magic cloth. Merle and Serafin are used to the mermaids who live in the canals of the city — beautiful creatures with hideous mouths that split their faces from ear to ear.

But Venice is under siege by the Egyptian Empire; its terrifying mummy warriors and flying sunbarks are waiting to strike. All that protects the Venetians is the Flowing Queen. Nobody knows who or what she is – only that her power flows through the canals and keeps the Egyptians at bay. When Merle and Serafin overhear a plot to capture the Flowing Queen, they are catapulted into desperate danger. They must do everything they can to rescue the Queen and save the city – even if it means getting help from the Ancient Traitor himself.”

Disappointing. I glommed onto this while bookshopping with Kakaner when I saw the cover art (by Jonathan Weiner), and couldn’t put it back on the shelf. This could have been a very nice dark-fantasy YA morsel – fast-paced, with a motley cast and an alternate Venice satisfyingly redolent of wartime paranoia and esoteric secrets whispered in clammy alleyways.

Unfortunately, the setting proved to be more interesting and memorable than the perfunctorily developed characters, and the prose is often awkwardly juvenile, e.g.,

“Merle appeared to be spellbound by the disgusting appearance of the fiery figure.”

Note that this is written from Merle’s perspective, so it makes no sense that she should “appear” to be spellbound. Of course it’s hard to say whether choices like these are original to the (German) text, or due to the translator, but there are also occasional outbreaks of ridiculousness that are more easily attributed to the translator, as when a mermaid’s skeleton is described as resembling a “supergigantic fish bone.” SUPERGIGANTIC. Boo, translator. This makes me curious about the editorial process for works in translation.

In any case, good brain candy if you’re one for intriguing world-building, but I didn’t find too much else of substance to enjoy. I’m still thinking about framing the cover art, though! That mermaid, boy o boy.

Go to:

Kai Meyer: bio and works reviewed

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“Claudia knew that she could never pull off the old-fashioned kind of running away. That is, running away in the heat of anger with a knapsack on her back. She didn’t like discomfort; even picnics were untidy and inconvenient: all those insects and the sun melting the icing on the cupcakes. Therefore, she decided that her leaving home would not be just running from somewhere but would be running to somewhere. To a large place, a comfortable place, an indoor place, and preferably a beautiful place. And that’s why she decided upon the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.”

E. L. Konigsburg, beloved and multiply Newbery-winning author of the wry, quiet, and brainy children’s classics From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. FrankweilerThe View from Saturday; Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth; and many others, passed away at 83 on this past Sunday, April 21.

I can’t count how many times I’ve read From the Mixed-Up Files…, thrilled to the furtive elegance of Claudia and Jamie’s runaway plot, and dreamed about harvesting coins from the Met’s fountains and sleeping in its brocaded beds alongside them. There’s so much to love about Konigsburg’s portraits of watchful, thoughtful, growing kids. With concise wit, she captures their probing intelligence; their capacity for nurturing odd thoughts in secrecy; their pride; and, both humorously and sympathetically, their disaffection. Her affection towards them isn’t so much the fond downward gaze of an adult, but the admiring, good-humored glance of one comrade at another. Thank you, E. L. Konigsburg.

Also, from her obituaries I’ve learned that she was a woman in the sciences (chemistry, specifically) long before it was widely accepted. I feel proud to be following her, and women like her. I would have loved to be able to talk with her about science and writing.

Obituaries:

And see Wikipedia for a full list of her works.

 

– E

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 3.25.2011 (reread)
Book from: Personal collection

book dragonkyn

Flight of the Dragon Kyn is the second in Susan Fletcher’s Dragon Chronicles, and a prequel to the rest of the series. (At the time that I found the books, they were a trilogy; a fourth that I’ve yet to read came out in 2010.) The series was one of my childhood favorites, combining as it did a number of my best-beloved themes and elements: an Arctic setting; a young female protagonist negotiating loyalties divided between the human and the inhuman world; and what amounts to an ecological crisis, rendered here in fantastical terms. All heady ingredients for a wannabe biologist/budding fantasy nerd. (Also falling under that rubric: Julie of the Wolves and The Woman Who Loved Reindeer.)

Kara, a young woman treated with fear and suspicion for her ability to communicate with birds, experiences a sudden reversal in fortunes when summoned by the king, who gives her rich gifts and takes a clear interest in her talent. Eventually he reveals – to Kara’s horror – that he wishes for her to use her power to call down dragons, so that he might earn recognition as a dragon-slayer. As readers of the preceding novel, Dragon’s Milk, will know, Kara gained her power when she was nursed by a dragon as an infant; the king’s demand forces her to choose between facing his punishment, and betraying her foster kin.

Re-reading the novel, what struck me the most strongly this time were not the movements of the plot, which are fairly standard, though well-told, as is Kara’s gradual evolution from a sullen, fearful loner to a young woman of resolve. (Though when it came to the plot, I could still barely face the scene in which [highlight for spoiler] the dragon who nursed Kara is slaughtered.) What stood out was the grace and lucidity of Fletcher’s prose, and the captivating immediacy with which she paints the the Nordic setting, both natural…

“It was one of those clear, frosty days when the wind snaps your cloak and fleets of clouds scud like warships across the sky. The sun lay low about the mountains, piercing the air with shafts of liquid light that glittered on the fjord and haloed the rime-shaggy firs. […] A whitchild called from a hawthorn tree; I called back. It swooped down and landed on my wrist, eyeing me unabashed, its fierce little claws pricking my skin. I called down a gull, too, which landed on my elbow, and a crake, and a sleepy stony owl that tucked one foot up and tried to take a nap on my arm. ‘Wake up,’ I said, twisting my arm so they all lost their balance and clutched me and wildly flapped their wings.

I laughed and stroked them one by one.”

…and human:

“I hesitated. My eyes, accustomed to the brightness out of doors, gradually made out the shape of the hall. Narrow, horn-covered windows striped the walls, shedding a dim, honeyed glow across a shifting tide of warriors and an undertow of dogs. A darkish smoke-haze lingered high in the network of beams and rafters, where perched a flock of doves.

One by one the warriors broke off talking and turned to look at me. Silence grew until it seemed to fill the hall, until the doves’ placid burbling sounded loud.”

Falconry was/is also one of my pet subjects; the novel weaves in absorbing scenes of Kara working with birds under the tutelage of a taciturn and irascible (of course) falconer, including her own gyrfalcon, Skava. And on the fantastical side of things, Fletcher invents some wonderful details of dragon biology – like the fact that infant dragons, being so full of combustible gases, float in their sleep, until grounded again upon breathing out little gouts of flame. And all of the scenes – often fraught with awe-ful tension – of Kara moving among the wild dragons are vivid and convincing.

All told, it made me happy to my roots, to step back into the world of an old, old favorite and find so many of its details as fresh and fascinating as I remembered them to be.  I’m thinking now of also revisiting Fletcher’s Shadow Spinner (1999), a retelling of the Thousand and One Nights’ frame story from the perspective of a young girl who helps Shahrazad to find new stories.

Go to:
Susan Fletcher: bio and works reviewed

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