Tag Archives: fantasies

Tooth and Claw

by Jo Walton

In as few words as possible, the best way to describe Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw (Orb Books, 2009) is to say that although it owes a great deal of its sensibility to the tropes of the Victorian novel, the main characters are all dragons.  This is not in any sense a mash-up (do not, for example, think Abraham Lincoln and vampires), rather it’s a melding of two cultures—humanity and dragonity.  (And as far as I can tell, the main difference between the two cultures is that dragons ritually eat their dead in order to share their wisdom, strength, and power.) As Walton herself put it, the novel is “the result of wondering what a world would be like if the axioms of the sentimental Victorian novel were inescapable laws of biology.”  As a lover of both Anthony Trollope’s multitudinous works and fantasy novels, it was a natural choice for me to pick up.  Walton begins with the bare outlines of the plot of Trollope’s Framley Parsonage: a father dies and the family begins a fight over his bequests.  One son, a parson, hears his father’s last confession and learns a fact that he is not to divulge to the rest of the family; another son decides to contest the original will.  Meanwhile, the two unmarried daughters become pawns of the male-dominated society.  How will it all work out?  Will the good get their just rewards and the evil be punished accordingly? Walton’s captivating tale is not to be missed.

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To Color the Wind

Guest Blog by Jean Hays Mishler

In the trilogy To Color the Wind: The Wolf Head Amulet, The Golden Stag, and King’s Capture, Barbara Glynn has created a fantastic world.  The heroine, Jesipam, endears herself to the reader immediately with her quick wit, cunning, and outside-of-the-box thinking.  Only a child, she is thrust into adult responsibilities when she and her sister are cast out of court,  thanks to a tempestuous king who is also their father.  Alone amid strangers, Jesipam must make new alliances, keep her sister safe and fed, and discover how to use and control her own strange magical powers.  Along the way, she tirelessly works to regain the life to which she is entitled. 

Tirshaw, a rich world of desert, spices, and magic, where communication happens via “thread tubes,” will entice young readers with its unusual people and customs. Three “houses” of differing life values contend for power. Jesipam cleverly weaves her way among the houses, and in the process gives the reader a clear view of this complicated political landscape. This fantasy series gives an entertaining glimpse into a new world, but also serves as metaphor for many current events where politics and value clashes cast large shadows on individuals and their life opportunities.

Even though I am an adult, I found Glynn’s writing captivating and could not put the books down.  Her skillful suspense kept me turning the page and waiting at the mailbox for the next book delivery.  I highly recommend these books, especially to young readers, as the heroine is such a great role model for that age group.

Jean Hays Mishler is a writer and singer who primarily makes her living teaching private voice lessons. If you are interested in hearing her music, listen here:  www.mosaicthecd.com.

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Castle Waiting

 by Linda Medley

Castle Waiting, and its sequel, Castle Waiting 2 (Fantagraphics, 2006 and 2011), were originally available as a series of award-winning individual comic books. I’m hopeful that they’ll gain a much-deserved wider reading audience now that the collection has been brought together and republished in two beautifully produced volumes. Beginning with a Sleeping Beauty-like backstory of her cursed birth, the tale extends outward as the hobgoblin-infested castle where Sleeping Beauty grew up becomes a sanctuary for anyone in need. Each of the motley crew at the heart of these tales has sought out the confines of the castle looking for support, friendship, and comfort. They include Jain, a pregnant aristocrat on the run from an arranged marriage; Beakie, a merchant; a horse-headed knight named Sir Destrier; a group of bearded nuns (who were once part of a circus); as well as various other, equally distinctive characters. In the second collection, we continue to learn more about all the appealing characters before they came to Castle Waiting; we also follow their ongoing interactions with one another. The black and white drawings are precisely drawn, with small endearing touches that render each character entirely unique. The dialogue is clever and filled with subtle grace notes of drollness and humor. The set will be especially appealing to readers of all ages who enjoy seeing and reading traditional fairy tale tropes teased and played with, all with a sense of good-humored fun. Once you’ve read them, I know you’ll join those of us who are eagerly awaiting the appearance of Castle Waiting 3.

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Matched

by Ally Condie

Dystopian novels for teens have been around for a while, but this particular sub-genre of fantasy got a huge second wind from Susanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy. If a teen you know is looking for a good follow-up, point them toward Matched, a first novel by Ally Condie (Dutton, 2010). The novel is set in a world controlled by an all-powerful group known as The Society, in which everything about each person’s life—food intake, profession, marriage partner, date of death—is determined by statistical formulas. Seventeen year-old Cassia Reyes gets her first hint that something’s not right during the all-important Matching Ceremony when she learns who her husband will be. It turns out that it’s her best friend, Xander. But when she gets home and looks at the picture she’s been given, it’s that of Ky, one of the school outcasts. How could this discrepancy occur in a perfectly regulated society? And is there anything she can do? Can any individual take on The Society—and win? Matched is followed by Crossed, which is due out in November, 2011; but I somehow doubt that the story will end there. Perfect for 7th graders and up.

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Midnight Riot

 by Ben Aaronovitch

Mysteries with a touch or more of the supernatural are not hard to find on library and bookstore shelves these days; but I found Ben Aaronovitch’s novel of elastic realism, Midnight Riot, to be something special, mainly because of the voice of the narrator, London Police Constable Peter Grant. Caught in the wrong (or right?) place at the right (or wrong?) time, he stumbles upon a murder scene where a ghost approaches him and claims he witnessed the crime.  As a result, Grant is assigned to work with Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, the Department’s go-to man for crimes involving magic. In short order, he finds himself enmeshed in a family feud among the personifications of the various tributaries (both above and below ground) of the Thames River.  Meanwhile, this being a police procedural, he and Nightingale plod away at unraveling not only the original murder, but various other nasty events that seem to be related to it.  And, under Nightingale’s tutelage, Grant begins to develop the magical abilities that he seems to have a gift for (as evidenced by his having been able to talk to the ghost witness in the first place) but of which he’s been previously unaware. Grant’s voice is colloquial and self-deprecating, the pages turn quickly, and London comes alive in all its squalor and beauty. And did I mention Toby, one of the best canine sidekicks in contemporary fiction? Fans of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere should enjoy Aaronovitch’s novel and its sequels quite a lot. Now to decide whether to shelve it with the mysteries or the fantasies…

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The Remarkable and Very True Story of Lucy and Snowcap

My nine-year-old friend Sydney and I get together once a month or so to discuss a book that we’ve both read, the writing life, and (sometimes) school.  To me, Sydney in all her realness is the future of reading, writing, bookstores, and libraries; and it’s always a treat for me to hear her ideas, comments, and insights into the books we’ve chosen to read together. 

She sent me a book review that she wrote for school of H. M. Bouwman’s The Remarkable and Very True Story of Lucy and Snowcap, the novel we just discussed last week (over lunch at a Thai restaurant).  Sydney liked this book better than I did. I felt that in some ways it was two different novels, one about Snowcap and one about Lucy; and I wasn’t convinced the author combined them effectively.  Sydney definitely saw my point. And we both agreed that there was too much foreshadowing.  We wanted to discover what happened as we turned the pages: we didn’t want someone telling us what was coming.  (That’s why I tend to ignore the jacket copy of anything I’m about to start reading.)

Here is Sydney’s book report.  If I were her teacher (and not her friend), I would definitely grade this with an A. You will note that she gave the novel a very high rating (8 ¾ out of a possible 10).  After we talked for a while, Sydney allowed as though this might be a tad too high a rating—I’m using my own words here, not hers. 

Our next book? Betty Macdonald’s recently re-issued Plum and Nancy.

Now, over to Sydney:

Guest Blog by Sydney Armstrong

This book is about two girls who live on the Colay Islands. Snowcap is the English Child Governor of one big island,Tathenland, which the British have taken over. Lucy is from the native Colay tribe. They are much alike: they both love telling stories; they both love Lucy’s baby brother, Rob; and they both have a birthmark on their faces. They meet one day when Lucy takes Rob for a walk.

The evil Protector and his helper, Renard, are searching for Snowcap to murder her so he can become king of Tathenland; and the Colay are being blamed for it. Lucy also is told by the Gray Lady of the Mountain that because her brother will be the last baby boy to be born on their island, Sunset, she must take him to a desert shaman called Beno.

Philip, Snowcap’s tutor who dreams of becoming what he calls a Great Author, gets together with Adam, who takes care of the horses, and together they embark on their own ambitious journey to find Snowcap and punish her malicious Protector. The two girls wander back into Tathenland and steal or, as they call it, “borrow” Snowcap’s gentle, kind, horse, Peat. The friends travel on him to the desert, where they find Beno (who is the Gray Lady’s son) and learn healing and other very important lessons under his guidance. 

Meanwhile, Philip and Adam struggle to survive in the vast and enormous wilderness. When Snowcap and Lucy come back, they meet up with Philip and Adam, who are more than relieved to see them, though they are not so sure about Lucy at first, since she is Colay. They all go back to Tathenland and turn Sir Markham, the Protector, and Renard in.

I like this book because as the story intertwines, you really start to care for the characters and see through their eyes.  Sometimes I didn’t like it because at times it was very difficult to understand why something could happen. I learned that two people who you believe are quite different actually sometimes are very alike and form the best friendships of all. I am also discussing this book with some one else, which will be extremely interesting. It made me wonder that if somebody was trying to poison me, if I would be as brave as Snowcap and run away. I am not entirely sure about what I would rate it, but I think I would give it an eight and three quarters.

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Under Heaven

by Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven (Roc, 2010) is, in a word, superb.  Like many of his earlier novels (including The Lions of Al-Rassan, The Last Light of the Sun, Sailing to Sarantium, and Lord of Emperors), this is historical fiction at its absolute best. It’s gorgeously written and, though thoroughly researched, wears its scholarship lightly. Under Heaven is set during the 8th century Tang Dynasty, one of the most dynamic in China’s history (although in the novel the country is called Kitai).  Shen Tai, the son of a general who’d led the Kitai armed forces in its last, devastating war two decades before, decides that he is going to spend the requisite two years of mourning his father’s recent death by journeying to the distant battle site and burying the dead from both sides of the battle, all the while living among the still suffering ghosts of the unburied.  As a result of this seemingly simple decision to honor his father in a non-traditional way, Shen Tai’s life is forever altered in ways that couldn’t be foreseen.  Here, the turn into fantasy is barely noticeable, because it makes perfect sense in the cultural context, and is both poignant and beautifully described.  For me, though, the best aspects of Kay’s novels are always his characters, who are utterly human (and therefore somewhat flawed, with difficult and complicated lives), sympathetic, and amazingly real.  They don’t always get want they want, or at least not in the way they would wish for. Kay’s endings are really never completely happy—his characters are always marked in some manner by the experiences they’ve undergone; they always pay a price for the choices they make.  It’s a shame this book will be shelved in the fantasy and science-fiction section of bookstores and libraries, because that inevitably makes it highly unlikely that fans of historical fiction will find it on their own.  (That’s a good example of one of the many reasons that I dislike our reliance on genre divisions in describing fiction).  Kay is a best seller in his native Canada, and one of my life’s missions is to have him be just as popular with readers here in the U.S., too.  You can watch an interview I did with him in 2007 at: http://www.seattlechannel.org/videos/video.asp?ID=3030703

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