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 of YA – Part 5 (and probably the last)

Pegasus by Robin McKinley

*Waaaah!* Where has my summer gone? I never got to finish going through my self-appointed summer reading list :(. Now the remaining books are just part of the ol’ TBR stack. I sure miss the days when summer reading meant  lying around all summer doing nothing but reading. Enjoy it while you can, kids, because adulthood will destroy your summertime dreams.

So I’m wrapping up this segment with a quick review of Robin McKinley’s Pegasus or, as I like to think of it, the first half of a great story waiting to be revealed.

In its simplest form, Pegasus tells the tale of the special bond between Sylvi, princess of Balsinland, and Ebon, her pegasi soul-mate. But there is always more to McKinley’s narratives than a simple tale of friendship. There are obstacles! Mysteries! Dangerous magics! And so much world-building that the story almost falls flat when you get to the end and realize you’ve been building up to the worst cliff-hanging, middle-of the-story, what-happens-next?! conclusion. I know there must be a perfectly logical reason the publishers decided this novel needed to be split into two parts, but I cannot imagine what this can be. After learning all about the history of the treaty between the pegasi and human kingdoms, their bonds, the difficulties arising from their inability to communicate effectively, and the unique magic of the pegasi’s memory caves, I was finally starting to get into the story, the action was building, and then it just ends. I almost wish I had waited for the second part before reading Pegasus, then I might be able to respond to it as a complete work.

Yes, this is a great story if you enjoy reading about extremely detailed fantasy realms that feature languages all their own. If you’re not into that kind of narrative, or are not already a McKinley fan, I would not recommend starting with this one (at least, not until the second part is published). Try The Hero and the Crown instead. I love McKinley’s novels but this was a hard one for me to get through.

Summer of YA – Part 4

Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier

With all the fuss involving my non-existent dsl connection and ATT tech support, I completely forgot to post my response to Wildwood Dancing. A fault that I will not rectify 🙂

After reading Daughter of the Forest, I became hooked on Marillier’s works. Her prose and lore is wonderfully original and absorbing, and Wildwood Dancing does not disappoint in this regard.

Based on a number of fairy tales and legends, most notably the Twelve Dancing Princesses, The Frog Prince, and the Romanian legend of the Night People, Wildwood Dancing plays on the traditional coming-of-age theme, so prevalent in young adult novels, while establishing a lore of its own.

Five sisters, Tati, Jena, Paula, Iulia, and Stela are left in the care of their aunt and uncle when their merchant father’s failing health forces him to seek a more temperate clime for the winter. Jena, the cleverest, is left in charge of the estate and family business, but soon finds her position challenged by her cousin Cezar, who thinks it unseemly that Jena and her sisters are granted such freedom and encouraged in their educational endeavors. It doesn’t help that Cezar also abhors all mention of magic, while the girls revel in secret moonlight gatherings with the local faerie court. Adding to the tension, Jena suspects that there is more to Cezar’s attention than mere cousinly concern. Life at Piscu Dracului soon becomes complicated when the past comes back to haunt Cezar and the possibility of a future marked by their cousin’s domineering presence puts the girls’ safety at odds with their beliefs and desires. With her faithful frog, Gogu, in tow, Jena sets out to make things right, even if it means facing the unseen dangers of the forest and its magical denizen. Magic, love, and courage make this a must read fairy tale.

Wildwood Dancing is a slim volume that leaves you wanting more and wondering what Marillier more could have done if the novel had been written for an adult audience. Jena and her sisters are highly individual and, though the action focuses on Jena and Tati, none of the girls become lost in the background. Each of the sisters could have a story of their own, given their unique traits and wants. The threat of Cezar’s bitterness and fear-induced hatred of all things related to the Other Kingdom threatens each girl in her own way, and adds to the sense of desperation and isolation felt by the girls as they are cut off from society as a result of their cousin’s effort to control their lives.

Several subplots are combined to produce a story that is more than its parts. This is not merely a retelling of a single fairy tale, but an entirely new one. The elements of the Frog Prince are no more significant than those of the vampire legend, each supports and develops the plot as a whole. The novel also plays on the notion that desire can have a profound effect on life, no matter how off-handedly a wish might be made. Much of the relationship between Jena and Cezar [and Gogu] is based on a single moment when she and her cousin[s] were asked to request their heart’s desire. While the power of choice is linked to magic in the novel, the consequences of envy, anger, and desire are intensely human.

Wildwood Dancing is an incredibly thought-provoking novel that touches on issues of choice, self, feminism, magic, and more, and I feel this is a highly inadequate representation of it. Seriously, my summary does not even scratch the surface. As a young adult novel, it remains young in its treatment of these issues, but does not disappoint for all that. It’s just the sort of strong girl fairy tale that I love.

According to my searching, there is a sequel that I will soon be seeking.