Friday, December 29, 2017

THE PRINCESS CURSE


THE PRINCESS CURSE by MERRIE HASKELL
(based on a review copy)

At first I feared this book may not live up to the glowing quotes I read from other authors. Marketed as a twist on The Twelve Dancing Princesses, the story feels very familiar for the first few chapters. The sole twist appears to be our protagonist (and, as most readers will expect, the princesses’ eventual savior), a young girl named Reveka - as well as her unexpected interest in herbs.

However, the novel really hits its stride about a third of the way through, when it becomes apparent that this is a much twistier version than I anticipated. The plot actually melds two favorite fairy tales and the second (one of my personal favorites) becomes glaringly apparent about halfway into the book, about the same time when the story veers off into delightfully unexpected and compelling directions.

I struggled a little reconciling Reveka’s young fourteen years of age with her maturity and the decisions she makes, but I don’t fault the story for that. If anything, her youth adds to classic fairy tale tropes and it’s nevertheless pleasing to encounter a young girl with so much agency against such overwhelming odds.

You can add me to this novel’s list of admirers.

Friday, December 22, 2017

THE DARKEST PART OF THE FOREST


Review of THE DARKEST PART OF THE FOREST by HOLLY BLACK
(based on a review copy)

I love Holly Black’s work. I find her premises unique and imaginative, her protagonists complex and engaging, and her tone delightfully sinister. Holly Black, it seems, loves fairies. THE DARKEST PART OF THE FOREST harkens back to a much earlier series I read by her called TITHE. In many ways, this latest novel feels like TITHE’s older sibling (yes, even though it was “born” second). I particularly enjoy Black’s classic mysterious and creepy take on the fey.

Hazel and her older brother Ben live in an unusual town. The manmade structures live close to fey inhabited forests. The humans and the fey live together, well, semi-peacefully. The fey mostly leave the town residents alone; however, tourists and those who can’t mind their own business are fair game. Hazel and Ben’s unique childhood included hunting down cruel fey and fantasizing about the fairy prince trapped in an endless sleep in a glass coffin in the woods. When they find the coffin empty and the fey start behaving more unpredictably violent, Hazel and Ben take it upon themselves to look into everything.

Black’s lead characters usually win me over with flawed, original personalities. However, I found Hazel a combination of two tropes: Mary Sue and Crazy Manic Pixie Girl. Everyone wants her, wants to be her, or wants to kill her and she’s kind of a hot mess, emphasis on the hot. While I liked her brother Ben, Hazel didn’t have enough depth or distinguishing characteristics for me beyond the standard trope elements I mentioned.

As implied by the title, this tale will take you back to old interpretations of fairies laid against a more modern backdrop. A fun read for any fey fan.

Friday, December 15, 2017

THE CONSTANT PRINCESS


Review of THE CONSTANT PRINCESS by PHILIPPA GREGORY

This installment in Gregory’s loose series (set during the same historical time period with overlapping historical characters but can be read in any order) follows Katherine of Aragon, Henry the VIII’s first wife and the woman known primarily for being set aside for Anne Boleyn.

Gregory is the author who first drew me to historical fiction and her work remains the bar against which I measure whatever else I read in the genre. She clearly does significant research and every book feels bursting with historic detail and atmosphere. However, what I relish most about a Gregory novel is how she makes these historical figures her own. Her characters come to life on the page. Whether or not her interpretation of the inner thoughts of someone long dead remains open for dispute, but regardless she pens a huge cast of compelling, believable characters with plausible motivations for the real-life figure. This book was a re-read for me, but I found myself glued to the page and reading longer than I should just the same.

Katherine of Aragon usually plays a secondary character in our account of Anne Boleyn’s or Henry VIII’s story. What I adore so much about this book is that it is Katherine’s story. The book ends well before Anne disposes Katherine from the throne, instead focusing on Katherine’s early years, ambition, and much overlooked accomplishments.

Whether Gregory got Katherine’s real psyche entirely wrong or not, her Katherine’s strength of character blows my mind. We often define strength by the physical or by flashy displays of exerting power over another, even if the power is more intellectual. However, I have a soft spot for characters with incredible emotional strength, like Katherine, characters whose circumstances overwhelm my empathy even on a hypothetical level. Katherine accepts her life with a matter-of-fact resolve, but I find myself marveling at the kind of restraint and determination life demands of her every single day. Court intrigue novels always unnerve me, probably because I shudder at a life where every word, every move must be carefully calculated, and one slight misstep could destroy your social standing and, therefore, way of life. Katherine finds herself in such a viper’s nest, but she handles everything with an admirable grace and poise.

In contrast, Gregory’s interpretation of Henry VIII is anything but flattering, though entirely believable as well. In fact, he’s a frighteningly familiar figure across history: a narcissist more concerned with his own ego and immediate gratification than anything of real substance, including other people’s well being not to mention the well being of the country he rules. One could almost mock him for his immaturity, but the ripple effect his actions take on the lives of others zaps all the humor out of his childish selfishness.

Gregory’s work will always hold a special spot in my heart as what introduced me to historical fiction and re-reading this book proves to me that special fondness is well deserved.

Friday, December 8, 2017

SABRIEL


Review of SABRIEL by GARTH NIX
(first in the ABHORSEN series)

I first read this book back in junior high and it stuck in my mind ever since as an all-time favorite. Re-reading such books fills me with excitement to re-live the wonder the story aroused in me the first time as well as trepidation that it won’t live up to my memory. Over a decade later and SABRIEL impressed me as much as on my first read as a teenager.

This story follows Sabriel, daughter of the Abhorsen responsible for keeping dead things dead. A literal wall divides the magical from the non-magical. On one side, you have creatures rising from the dead in abundance while skilled necromancers keep them from ever reaching or passing the wall. On the other, you have a world more recognizable to us. Many guards on the wall believe the fantastical rumors, but the farther away from the wall you go the more haughty skepticism you’ll encounter about undead threats. Ironically, Sabriel grows up among these doubters while her father handles said threats. One day, through a mystical, telepathic-type connection, Sabriel realizes her father has died, making her the next Abhorsen, not to mention a daughter determined to find out what happened to a father she loved but barely knew.

There’s a quote on the back of my copy from Philip Pullman describing this book as “fantasy that reads like realism.” I entirely agree. As someone who spends a better part of her life pushing book recommendations on others, SABRIEL stands out as one with an unlikely, eclectic mix of fans. Generalizing, I don’t like undead stories, but Nix’s take on zombies doesn’t even feel like the same genre that I dislike. I also don’t like action scenes; I skim the chase or fight parts and skip to the resolution. Yet when Nix writes a battle or an escape I find myself glued to the page, savoring every word of the scene playing out in my mind. I have also recommended this book to people who don’t like fantasy and nevertheless they enjoy it.

I believe the core of making any book feel so real is the characters. While Sabriel herself doesn’t go down in my mind as a fascinatingly unique character, instead I see her almost as a kind of every person. True, her exceptional bravery in unlikely circumstances should be acknowledged, but there’s also a relatable sense of child groomed to follow in a parent’s footsteps. Maybe we see this situation in our modern world more with doctors and business owners than necromancers, but I view Sabriel as a down-to-earth, every day heroine fated with an absurdly heavy burden of responsibility.

It’s been so long since I last read this book that I managed to forget several important details and twists and found myself delighted whenever the story took me by surprise. I entirely forgot about Mogget, a literal demon cat. There’s something so darkly whimsical about Mogget, and reminiscent of Salem from Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Once upon a time he was a horrifying creature from our worst nightmares, until someone imprisoned him in the form of a cat with a catlike personality to boot. However, for a morbidly humorous twist, Mogget has a way of escaping his cat form at the worst possible moments. Whenever Sabriel finds herself attacked by some terrible beast, you should bet on Mogget slipping his leash, too, so to speak, and adding himself to her list of problems.

I also love the concept of the wall marking literal division, both geographical and social. On one side you have horrors as well as those who protect us from said horrors and on the other a quiet, content lifestyle so safe one doesn’t even believe in said horrors. It’s a powerful metaphor and a thought-provoking dynamic.

SABRIEL more than lived up my memory on re-reading and I look forward to delving into the rest of the series.

Friday, December 1, 2017

COURT OF FIVES


Review of COURT OF FIVES by KATE ELLIOTT
(first in the COURT OF FIVES series)

Above all else Jessamy lives to compete in the Fives, a popular obstacle course competition in her society. However, a ruthless, rigid class system rules said society and Jessamy’s unrealistic dreams could undermine everything for which her family has worked so hard.

This book presents a heavy-handed (but nevertheless invaluable) look at prejudice. Social stratification remains the forefront theme throughout the story, soaking into every character, relationship, and plot thread.

Sadly other readers overhyped this book too much for me. It’s a great book and I come up short for a list of complaints, but it flailed against how many people described it to me as “the best book ever.” I wrote a whole blog post on overhype a while back and expectations will always play a role in our perception and final opinion. A book I go into expecting I won’t like can wow me for the surprise of being good at all while a wonderful book that has been inhumanly idolized can’t help but fall short of such lofty expectations.

The Fives game appealed to me very much conceptually. I’m a big fan of American Ninja Warrior and heard this author speak at a conference where she quoted that competition as one of her specific influences. That said, I struggled picturing the individual obstacles, which detracted from the impact of those actions scenes.

As is standard for me, I found myself most invested in the relationships, particularly those among Jessamy’s family. Elliott crafts such distinct, dynamic characters and I especially enjoy seeing them play off each other. Frequently, Jessamy learns that someone isn’t how she perceived them. She realizes that she made all the right observations but drew all the wrong conclusions. I’m impressed with how the author handles these moments, too, because as a reader I went along with the protagonist Jessamy’s conclusions more often than not only to discover later that the author provided me the same clues and I let myself misread them.

Jessamy’s relationship with her father strikes me as the most interesting. I adore nuanced characters and he comes across to me as a man trying oh-so-hard to be a good man in a society where the odds are stacked against him and where a seemingly easy turn from his values will reward him enormously. He’s a far cry from an ideal father, but he’s no oversimplified, pure evil villain either. 

Populated with a fascinating cast, COURT OF FIVES begins a new series about making our own place in a world that tries to tell us to stay in our place.