Summer Reading, part 3

or old worlds made new…

I ignored everyone after a certain hour yesterday and read my way through the rest of Bitterblue and then I realized there was no more. Bitterblue, for those of you who are unfamiliar with Kristin Cashore‘s series, is part of the Graceling/Fire realms, and I say realms because each of these novels can be read as a standalone, though they all share some common elements, including characters and settings. Bitterblue brings these two realms together, but can be read on its own (though why would you do that to yourself? Read them all!).

*Warning! Slight spoilers for Graceling and Fire*

bitterblueIn the realm of Bitterblue, there are people with certain powers known as Graces, these are marked by their mismatched eyes. Some of these abilities are overt, like strength or fighting abilities, others are more subtle, like mind-reading and coercion. Not all the Graces are bad, and most are happy enough to shuffle along doing what they will. But there are those who use their powers to achieve their own ends and control others. Such is the case of Leck, whose influence leaves a stain in both the Kingdoms of Graceling and the Dells of Fire.

Bitterblue is Leck’s daughter, Queen of all Monsea, and heiress to a damaged kingdom. Leck’s Grace destroyed the idea of truth and reality in his Kingdom, so that no one can be certain what truly happened during his reign, or just how many atrocities were committed under his power. It is Bitterblue’s most desperate need to make these things right, but being a true Queen means uncovering truths that threaten the well-being of her closest allies, and learning things about her father that she never imagined.

*Spoilers done*

Phew! I try to keep those to a minimum, but some can’t be helped, especially when Leck’s doings are one of the elements that most closely binds these three novels. Bitterblue is a dark story, emotionally harrowing at times, almost in the same way that Robin McKinley’s Deerskin can just tear you apart. Leck is a nasty piece, but there is a method to his madness that is just as harrowing as Bitterblue’s wish to see her world made right because, in his own misguided way, that is what Leck also wanted–to see Monsea and its people turned into his notion of what they should be.

At the same time, there is a thread of hope that keeps Bitterblue from becoming unbearably sad. There are dreams and there is love–a sweet, companionate kind of love that Cashore always gets just right. There are also mysteries that keep you guessing, and a lot of to do about ciphers that are often beyond my ability to follow, but are fun to read about.

This is a young adult novel, but it’s one of those young adult novels that doesn’t pander to teenage daydreams about perfect happy endings. Bitterblue doesn’t expect a perfect happy ending, there’s no marriage and a happily ever after to this fairy tale, but there is an ever after.

Summer Reading, part 1

or book geek problems…

I love my library, but sometimes I am overwhelmed by the number of holds that I receive at the same time. Like the ones I received this week. I started Clockwork Princess, only to receive Beautiful Creatures a couple of days later… so I had to put CP on hold because BC is a no-renewals, high demand copy. Must read it now, or else! And it is awesome! I’m totally engrossed in the story and so glad I decided to give it a shot. I’m falling in love with YA again this summer.

Now, I’m almost through the book… my reading has slowed to a few stolen moments now that I’m so focused on writing… but now another of my long-time hold requests just came in! Must finish BC and start Bitterblue before I can get back to CP. ZOMG! It’s like a race to finish before my check out period is up.

And let’s not even talk about my getting back to GofT. A Storm of Swords is mocking me with its secrets.


Black Unicorn/Gold Unicorn

I started reading Tanith Lee’s Black Unicorn a few weeks before I graduated from high school, so I was forced to return the book before I was done reading it. The title and author of the book slipped my mind, but Lee’s description of the crystalized unicorn skeleton hanging from a red-headed princess’s bedroom did not. I searched and searched for this book, but it wasn’t until a couple of months ago that I decided to try an image search for the book’s cover and… Voila!

There it was! The marbled cover that caught my eye so many years ago. I snagged a used copy around January, but decided to include it as part of my YA review project. It was well worth the wait, and so much better now than the first time I read it.

The image of the crystal unicorn skeleton was as strong as ever, but I found it easier to let myself be drawn into Lee’s sparse style now that I’ve become such a fan of feminist fantasy. I really loved that; the experience of reading something that I didn’t quite get when I was a teen, but made so much sense now.

The story is simple enough… Tanaquil is the somewhat neglected daughter of a sorceress who lives in a fortress. The sorceress’ magic has leaked into the desert that surrounds the fortress, enchanting the area and the peeves (dog-like desert-dwelling creatures) that live there with the power to talk. When one of the peeves shows Tanaquil a crystal bone that it dug up, Tanaquil decides to go after the peeve and help it dig up the rest. Putting the pieces together, Tanaquil soon finds herself drawn to the skeletal thing, unaware of the power that she is about to unleash and the adventure this will set in motion.

The sequel, Gold Unicorn, recounts Tanaquil’s further adventures with her sidekick the peeve as she travels the world and meets the power-hungry Empress Veriam, who wants Tanaquil to use her ability to mend things to assist her in her plan to conquer the world.

Like many fantasy novels, this series features magic, other worlds, quests, and battles between good and evil. The narrative is descriptive and filled with dry humor reminiscent of Diana Wynne Jones and Robin McKinley. Both books were a treat to read after wrapping up my course reading project.

There is a third book in the series, Red Unicorn, that I have yet to read.

Heart’s Blood

Heart’s Blood by Juliet Marillier

Set during the time of the Norman invasion of Ireland, Heart’s Blood is an intricate blend of historical fantasy and ghost story. Trained as a scribe, Caitrin is a skilled and learned woman, but all this changes when she is subjected to the cruelty of her distant relatives after her father’s death. On the brink of losing all sense of self, Caitrin realizes that she must escape or forever become a victim. Running as far as she can, Caitrin is ill-prepared for the demands of traveling across Ireland on her own, but is spurred by her desire to find herself once again overrules any fear she might feel in doing so.

Reaching the fortified settlement of Whistling Tor, Caitrin is stunned to find herself an object of curiosity–no one ever goes to the Tor; it’s cursed. Uncertain what to believe when told tales of uncanny folk in the forest surrounding the chieftain’s keep, Caitrin is nevertheless drawn to the Tor and seeks a position translating and transcribing Latin for the chieftain of the Tor, Anluan, who never leaves his keep and is said to be monstrously disfigured.

When Caitrin reaches the keep, she finds that all is not quite as it seems, but neither is the Tor the place of horrors that she was warned against. Suddenly, Caitrin finds herself enmeshed in battle to save the heart of Whistling Tor and restore it to the holding it once was, if only she can get its chieftain to see things in a different light…

I will start by saying that I LOVED this book. I’ve read a few books that I’ve enjoyed recently, but I have not been truly engrossed by any of them (a few I went so far as to give up on after a few chapters). This is part of the reason my posts have been so short…

Heart’s Blood grabbed me from the very first. Not only was I intrigued by the mystery, I was drawn in by Marillier’s prose and ability to give me a bit of the chills when describing the circumstances surrounding the inhabitants of Whistling Tor. Caitrin is a real and believable heroine and Anluan a troubled but worthy hero. I don’t want too much away about the curse, but the ghostly, uncanny folk that live at Whistling Tor are just as intriguing as the heroes. This novel is rich with characterization and that is one of the elements that I most crave when I read fiction, something that I haven’t quite gotten recently. Reading this book felt like becoming part of something strange but wonderful.

Last post of 2010

Goddess of the Rose by PC Cast

Mikado “Mikki” Empousai has always had a special affinity with roses, as did her mother and grandmother. When she starts to have tantalizing dreams about a mystery lover, she starts to wonder if it’s the result of loneliness and an overactive imagination, or something more.  It doesn’t help that her dream man bears a striking resemblance to the mythical beast statue that guards the local rose garden. Little does Mikki realize that it’s a sign of a change to come, an awakening that brings her close to her true destiny and challenges her concept of dreams and reality.

I picked this book up on a whim at the used paperback store by my old job. The cover was a bit more sensual than the kind of covers that usually pique my interest, but I was intrigued when I read the blurb and realized that it was a Beauty and the Beast retelling.

I have mixed feeling about the novel itself… I found the concept original. The plot draws on Greek mythology and casts the Beast as the misunderstood Minotaur who guards Hecate’s Realm of the Rose, the place where the mundane world’s dreams are made. Mikki is portrayed as a strong, determined woman willing to chase her dreams, while the Beast is presented as a creature who is well aware of his position as a man-beast. The magickal elements also seemed a natural part of the world created by Cast. However, I had some trouble with the prose. I’m very particular about my idea of romance, dialog, and description when it comes to sex in literature, and the language just fell short in my opinion.

Green Rider

Green Rider by Kristen Britain

Expelled from school after getting into a fight with a noble lord’s son, Karigan G’ladheon decides it’s time to leave the famed Selium academy and return home. Too bad fate has something else in store for her… Making her way home on foot, Karigan encounters a wounded Green Rider, a member of the King’s messenger service, sworn to deliver messages of import no matter the challenge. Finding that the Greenie is mortally wounded, Karigan agrees to complete the messenger’s final task, to deliver a message that others would kill to intercept. Facing dangerous creatures, magical foes, and countless dangers, Karigan fights her way to King Zachary’s castle, accepting the call of the Rider.

Green Rider was an interesting read with just the right amount of fantasy and adventure to keep me engaged and up into the night despite a head cold. It was a completely serendipitous find, just a cover that attracted my attention on PaperBackSwap. It has the feel of a Tamora Pierce novel, as if Karigan belonged among the sheroes of Tortall. I find this is quite a good thing :). Unfortunately, I did not realize that it is part of a series, so now I’ve sucked myself into another series… I keep telling myself to stop doing that.

Shades of Milk and Honey

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

Jane Ellsworth has settled into the quiet life of a soon-to-be spinster. She busies herself with the feminine arts–music and glamour–knowing that these are the only things that recommend her as she lacks the conventional beauty sought by gentlemen. Her sister, Melody, is beautiful and passionate, sparkling at every ball, but has no talent for the arts that her plain sister wields. When Melody’s passionate nature gets the better of her, the two sisters become antagonists and Jane gets caught in the middle of a tangled affair involving several parties, her own passions coming to the fore when she acknowledges the jealousy and negative energies that mar her feelings towards her sister. As Jane learns to harness her feelings for art, she learns more about herself and the talents she possesses.

Shades of Milk and Honey is the sort of book that needs to settle a bit before I can truly say whether I enjoyed it or not. This is such a gentle, well-mannered sort of book, I liken it to a soft, pink-hued vapor, something ephemeral and bright that passes you by. That’s a frilly way of putting it, but it’s the kind of book that leaves me feeling as if I didn’t quite get it, but that it’s not the sort of book that you can get with one reading. In many ways, it reminds me of Robin McKinley’s Chalice; there’s a quiet magic to it that I don’t quite understand. But that’s alright, I enjoyed the parts that I did understand.

There is magic in this book, but it’s more akin to Jane Austen than any fantasy novel I’ve ever read. That is one thing that Kowal does really well–this book feels like a Regency novel. She really captures the nuances of language that mark a true novel from the era. I started the novel expecting it to be similar to the Sorcery & Cecilia series, but it was more like reading Sense and Sensibility.

I can’t say whether I am satisfied with the story; it felt too brief, for one thing. At times, it seemed too similar to Austen, as if I could spot the Austen characters that served as a references/influences for Kowal’s characters. It’s an unexpected sort of book.

I <3 Fantasy

I’m taking a class on library collection development this term (my last core class! hurrah!) and one of our assignments is to create a list of core titles for a public library collection. Of course, I chose YA fantasy literature because

1) I love YA
2) I love Fantasy
3) I have far too much knowledge of the genre not to.

I now have a very long list of titles that I can’t post for self-plagiarism reasons (in other words, don’t want to confuse the SafeAssignment submission thing). I have also come to the realization that I have read an awful lot of YA fantasy over the years. More than I thought, I mean. I knew I read a lot, but my list doesn’t even cover half of what I’ve read and I only stopped because it was growing far too long for the assignment.

I’ll post the list as soon as the term ends… This process makes me want to go back and re-read. Terribly tempting.

Silver Phoenix

Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon

I so wanted to like this book. When I first read about it (during the great cover controversy), I was taking a class on multicultural books for children and teens and I thought it sounded perfect for the unit on literature on Asian culture, but I wasn’t able to get a hold of one of the three copies in my local library system until two weeks ago.

The premise (highly reduced to the basic plot): Asian fantasy with a female hero.

Ancient Chinese fantasy world? Definitely something I can enjoy. Female hero? Have you read this blog before? I crave books with sheroes.

The execution, however, was another matter. The writing is flowy and lyrical, just what you would want in a story that almost reads like a myth, but I just couldn’t get into it. It took me a week to get halfway through the novel, which felt terribly long considering this is a genre I usually gobble-up in a day. I asked myself if I really cared if I never learned what happened to Ai Ling at the end and realized that I didn’t and could just let it go.

I wish I could have enjoyed this, but something about the pacing and writing style just didn’t work for me. It sounds like a very interesting book and I’m sure other readers will really enjoy it, but it was starting to feel like I was reading it just to prove some point that I didn’t need to prove.

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede are a humorous series of fantasy novels featuring a strong-willed princess, a dragon who loves cherries jubilee, a witch who is immune to melting by water, and a motley assortment of magical misfits and mischief makers.

Dealing with Dragons
In which Princess Cimorene decides that she does not want to be married off, thank you very much, and would much rather be a dragon’s princess. Cimorene meets the she-dragon Kazul and gets to display the many skills she acquired when not learning to be a proper princess and gets to put her quick-thinking to use when a group of dastardly wizards decide to get a little too involved in Dragon politics.

Searching for Dragons
In which the wizards return to stir up all kinds of trouble, King Kazul goes missing, and King Mendanbar shows off his sword. Cimorene, now Head Cook and Librarian to King Kazul, teams up with King Mendanbar to avert disaster and find her friend, going on an adventure that takes them across the Enchanted Forest and introduces them to new friends and foes.

Calling on Dragons
In which Queen Cimorene and King Mendanbar have some trouble with an enchanted sword, King Kazul loses her patience with the wearisome Society of Wizards, and the witch Morwen finds a giant rabbit in her garden. There’s always a new challenge to be met in the Enchanted Forest and nothing can stop Cimorene & Co. from facing it head on.

Talking to Dragons
In which the Enchanted Forest is duly enchanted and Cimorene sends her son Daystar on a quest to set things right with the help of the Sword of the Sleeping King. He encounters numerous trials along the way, faces meddlesome wizards, and makes new friends. With the help of the fire-witch Shiara, a young dragon, and the cat Nightwitch, Daystar is ready complete his journey and discover the truth of his birth.

This is a fantastic series! It is witty and ironic, the dialogue is cleverly constructed and amusing, and the characters break with tradition in a good way. Throughout the series, Wrede makes light of the genre, referring to well-known legends, myths, fairy tales, as well as more recent additions to the fantasy canon like The Wizard of Oz. Wizards are melted with buckets of soapy water and lemon juice, Rumpelstiltskin’s descendant decides to open a boarding school for all the children he acquires on the job, and all the Jacks just keep stealing from the friendly giants.

Cimorene is a no-nonsense sort of girl and a very strong character who stands out as a fantasy heroine. Her relationship with Mendanbar built on affection and mutual admiration; Mendanbar respects and supports her choices and listens to what she has to say, even if he doesn’t agree with her. Kazul is a wonderful matriarch and makes a very logical case for female king-hood. Meanwhile, Morwen is the perfect example of the perfectly content cat lady who does exactly what she wants to do.

There are many more memorable characters in the series and some great moments. It’s the sort of YA series I wish would receive some more attention as I think it can appeal to boys as well as girls and provides some subtle lessons in gender equality.

Overall, this series has become one of my favorites and I will be looking out for more Wrede when next I go to the book store (FYI… Two of Wrede’s Regency fantasy books are being reissued as a single volume called A Matter of Magic. It’s already on my wishlist 🙂 )