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Stella Matutina
books and stories and musings, oh my!
Recent Musings 
6th-Nov-2013 11:59 am - New Blog
Psst! I'm not here anymore.

My new blog is called In The Forest Of Stories, and it's over on Blogger.

If you are so inclined, you may follow me there.
General Fiction
5th-Mar-2013 07:00 am - Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore
Cover art for Bitterblue, featuring three elaborate keys--one gold, one silver, and one bronze--against a varigated blue and light purple background. There"s dark blue scrollwork at the corners, with a girl"s face showing faintly through the background near the top right hande corner. Her right eye peers through the ring that connects the three keys.Title: BITTERBLUE
Author: Kristin Cashore
Series: this is a sequel to GRACELING and a companion to FIRE, though it works as a standalone if you don’t mind some spoilers for each of the previous books
Publisher: Dial Books
Publication Date: May 2012
Pages: 563
Pushed By: Charlotte
Status: keeper, keeper, keeper

LibraryThing Info

Bitterblue for purchase at The Book Depository

Bitterblue for purchase at Kobo

Review copy received at Book Expo America.

BITTERBLUE demands two reviews.

The Short, Gushy, Ungrammatical Version:

OMGBITTERBLUEOMG this book will not get out of my head I loved it I loved it I loved it OMGBITTERBLUEOMG seriously you guys I don’t remember the last time I felt this way it’s one of those instances where a book just totally and completely floored me and I keep coming back to little things like Death with his cats and all of a sudden I’m crying again and there’s so much here there’s just so much it’s a chronicle of disconnection and recovery and pain and joy and OMGBITTERBLUEOMG the characters are fantastic the prose is so wonderfully simple but also incredibly deep and there are so many levels and layers and gorgeous bits and heartwarming bits and heartbreaking bits and I am sosososo happy that the love interest was bisexual AND IT WASN’T EVEN AN ISSUE OMGBITTERBLUEOMG I have so many thoughts too many thoughts I’m leaving everything out absolutely everything I wish I could just open my mind to y’all and let you pick through it because I loved it I loved it I loved it OMGBITTERBLUEOMG.

The Version That (Sort of) Makes Sense:


Shocking, huh?

Some summary, for those who require it: Bitterblue is the young queen of Monsea, a country struggling to regroup after thirty-five years of misrule. Leck, the former king, possessed the ability to tell lies no one could help but believe--a power he wielded with the utmost sadism. Even eight years after his death, truth remains a rare commodity.

Bitterblue is tired of accepting the past as unknowable. One night, she sneaks out of the castle in search of the truth on the streets, and gets much more than she bargained for.

I read BITTERBLUE as a chronicle of disconnection. Bitterblue is disconnected from her people by virtue of her privileged position; from the past because of the things her father did to her mind; and from her country’s traditions due to the suppression of information that stretches back through the decades. The novel is very much her attempt to make sense of what has happened; to gain the tools she needs to become connected to her country, its people, and her own purpose in its administration.

In the beginning, everything is muddled. Leck’s lies, and certain peoples’ refusal to deal with them, have made Monsea a country with many questions and few answers. The story centers on Bitterblue’s attempt to sort the lies from the truth and bring her people to a place where they can begin to heal. It’s a constant give and take; a sphere where the known and the unknown tangle together in a rich, often disturbing, tapestry that brings Bitterblue ever closer to discovering who her father truly was, what her kingdom is, and who she’ll become. She comes of age as a person, a queen, and a survivor of abuse.

I'll warn y'all, abuse remains a central theme throughout the book. Leck did more than merely hurt his subjects: he made them complicit in their own abuse and in the abuse of others, and he forced them to like it. This has made it difficult for many of Bitterblue’s people to face the past. They shy away from what their involvement in such activities means. Certain individuals have attempted to bury the pain and degradation, rather than deal with it. Cashore takes a sensitive approach to the material, placing blame where it’s due and acknowledging every victim as a victim.

Neither does she play anything for shock value. The reader can’t help but know that Leck tortured and raped his people, so there’s no need to go into detail. What little is spelled out for us comes in the nature of seemingly smaller, but painfully personal, moments; the sorts of things that matter deeply but might be dismissed as “lesser” amidst a complete chronicle of abuse. I still can’t stop crying over some of the things we learn about Bitterblue’s compatriots.

I find these sorts of revelations deeply painful even in the mostly poorly constructioned fiction; in a book like this, with supurb characterization, they hurt all the more. These characters are fantastic, y'all.

Bitterblue herself is a hell of a girl. She cares deeply for her people and for her friends, though she’s still learning how to deal with much of what she feels. I love the relationships she forges and maintains. She has a particularly complex and fascinating dynamic with the commoners she befriends, and it’s rendered all the moreso because it’s built on lies and a power imbalance she cannot correct.

This stands in contrast to her connection with Po. Po is the only relative with whom Bitterblue has regular contact, and he’s an important part of her life. Even though she and he are cousins, their interactions reminded me much more of siblings. I loved everything that passed between them, and I'm oh-so pleased with what Cashore did with Po's own continuing story.

Perhaps my favourite relationship, though, is the one Bitterblue shares with Giddon. I can’t clearly recall what I thought of Giddon in GRACELING, but I’m pretty sure I was less than impressed on account of the way he reacted to Katsa’s rejection. It seems he’s grown up a lot in the eight years between the two books. I loved him here, and I adored his friendship with Bitterblue, which is based on a refusal to lie to one another. They quickly settle into a pattern of mutual support so satisfying that I couldn’t quite decide how I felt about them. They have a wonderful platonic relationship, and y’all know I think YA needs more of those. People are perfectly capable of working closely together without falling in love, and I'm always glad to see fiction acknowledge that. Still, part of me wanted to throw my thoughts on the matter out the window and root for Giddon, because they have exactly the sort of friendship I most like to see shift into romance.

I did reach a decision before the book ended, but I’ll keep it to myself because it’s a tad spoilerish.

BITTERBLUE is a much less romantic book that neither GRACELING or FIRE, but there is a romance in the background. I’m reluctant to say too much for fear of spoiling y’all, but I was pleased with how Cashore dealt with the limitations involved and the problems that might conceivably arise between the parties. I love, too, that she doesn’t postulate a Happily Ever After ending. The text acknowledges that both Bitterblue and Saf, her love interest, are still young. They enjoy each others’ company, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll spend together forever. And that’s fine. It doesn’t impact what they have in the here and now.

Cashore also takes a realistic, laid back approach to romantic love in all its forms. While Bitterblue herself appears to be hetero, she adopts what I think of as a “dude, whatevs” attitude towards her gay friends. Their sexuality has no effect on how she views them. Her unsettled upbringing has left her far more concerned with how they make their relationships endure than the gender of the person they’re involved with. (At one point, she’s fascinated by a woman who has remained happily married to her husband for forty-eight years.) She makes no assumptions as to anyone’s sexuality, either. When she asks Giddon if he has a partner, she inquires after potential boyfriends as well as girlfriends.

Best of all, it’s a total non-issue when she learns that Saf is bisexual. She meets a guy he was involved with, confirms that said guy is an ex rather than a current flame, and never bothers to think of it again.

I can’t begin to tell you how happy this made me.

Hell, I feel that way about the whole book (which I hope you’ll take for an explanation and an apology as to this review’s jumbled state). I adored it, I adored it, I adored it. Try though I might, I can’t think of a single thing to criticize. I’m sure there must be something, but it’s not something I, personally, can wrap my mind around. So far as I’m concerned, BITTERBLUE is a perfect book.

Welcome to my itty bitty list of Favouritest Books Ever, BITTERBLUE.

6 stars (out of 5) – OMGBITTERBLUEOMG

Strange Asides:

I was lucky enough to hear Kristin Cashore read the prologue at a New York Public Library event during Book Expo America 2011. Some hella talented musicians improvised the perfect creepy music in the background as she read. It was magical, in an “I’m disturbed” kind of a way.

When I reached the front of Cashore’s BEA line the next day, I made sure to tell her how much I’d enjoyed the reading. I always feel awkward expressing such sentiments (perhaps due to some misguided feeling that my professed enjoyment is a burden to the person who caused it and I ought to stick to less in-your-face forms of appreciation), but I’m glad I did it. Should I ever meet Cashore again, I’ll be sure to tell her how much the book as a whole meant to me.

Also, I suppose I should mention that Cashore has been accused of having "an aggressively liberal agenda" with this book. If conservatism is your schtick, I doubt you’ll enjoy this as much as I did. If you’re okay with aggressively liberal agendas, though, you need to read this.

Oh! And the book reminded me of THE HERO AND THE CROWN by Robin McKinley, but without the disappointing second half. BITTERBLUE is pure gold from start to finish.

One more thing: Bitterblue is a small, eggplant-shaped person. I am a small, eggplant-shaped person, so this endeared her to me. One reads so few books about small, eggplant-shaped people.

Other Reviews:

Popular book is popular. You'll find lots of other opinions on the Book Blogs Search Engine.

Back In the Day:
How Romantic
28th-Feb-2013 07:00 am - The Chronicles of Clovis by Saki
Cover for The Chronicles of Clovis, featuring two horizontal orange bars framing a white bar on which the title is written. The legend "Penguin Books" appears in the top bar, while there"s a dancing penguin in the bottom one.Title: THE CHRONICLES OF CLOVIS
Author: Saki
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publication Year: 1911
Pages: 171
Status: seller

LibraryThing Info

The Chronicles of Clovis for free download at Project Gutenberg

THE CHRONICLES OF CLOVIS is a collection of twenty-eight short stories. The longest tale stretches to a whopping ten pages, but most of them are more in the three- to five-page range. Clovis, an affluent young man with a troublemaker’s spirit, serves as a unifying force throughout the majority of the stories, whether he acts as instigator, storyteller, or avid listener.

I bought the book for two reasons. First, it contains “Sredni Vashtar,” one of my favourite short stories. Second, the mouldering old Penguin I snagged at the Children’s Hospital’s latest Book Market is absolutely gorgeous. It looks like it’s about to fall apart, but the binding is solid and the book feels wonderful in the hand. Reading it was always a sensual pleasure (in the literal sense), even if it sometimes left something to be desired on an intellectual level.

a copy of The Chronicles of Clovis lying on a field of red
Gorgeous, yes?

It’s not that THE CHRONICLES OF CLOVIS is poorly written or unworthy of deeper thought; it’s just that it’s so bloody hateful. Saki is a satirist who writes in the Wildean mode. He’s concerned with upper class characters who care little for anything but their own pleasure. They’re quite happy to run roughshod over everyone else, provided it adds a little fun to their day.

The result is a set of stories about a classist, self-centered, altogether unpleasant group of people whose behavior is coded as funny. As I read, I discovered that my already low tolerance for this kind of thing takes a nosedive when there’s a humorous bend to it. The stories I loved, like “Sredni Vashtar” and “The Hounds of Fate,” are dark and cruel without much in the way of an amusement factor. The ones I loathed, like the anti-Suffragist “Hermann the Irascible – A Story of the Great Weep,” are clearly meant to offer hilarious social commentary.

To be fair, it’s entirely possible to read these stories as a condemnation of this sort of behavior; a sort of, “damn, rich folks can be stupid about their privileges” type of deal. I think the inclusion of “Hermann” proves Saki held with at least some of the attitudes his characters espouse, though. In this story, King Hermann of England “helps” women see they’d rather not have the vote by making it mandatory that they vote in every single election for every single kind of public official. By the end, they’re clamouring for a return to the old ways.

OMFG, y’all. O. M. F. G.

And yet, I couldn’t dislike THE CHRONICLES OF CLOVIS. I hated so much about the things it chose to be, but Saki’s evocative prose and his careful (if morally frustrating) delineations of character were often enough to see me through. I didn’t always like the book, but I usually enjoyed it--perhaps because I had a wonderful time scowling at it.

It’s worth noting, too, that there are many women herein, and outside of “Hermann,” I don’t think Saki treats them as appreciably more repugnant or flawed than any of his male characters. Everyone, regardless of gender, possesses a great number of faults, many of which spring from their vast privilege. Some of this privilege is gendered, but I feel like most of it has to do with social standing. Many, though not all, negotiations take place between people of the same gender. Problems arise when the characters are unable to reconcile their own faults with everyone else’s.

Basically, THE CHRONICLES OF CLOVIS is worth reading for the prose and the satisfaction of growling profanities at the dodgier bits, but don’t expect something progressive from it. It’s a product of its time and is often disgusting by modern standards.

3.5 stars – enjoyed it very much

Other Reviews:

Lizzy's Literary Life

Did I miss yours? Please let me know so I can add a link.

Back In the Day:
Cover art for The Madness Underneath, featuring a person walking across a nearly-bare bridge with antique streetlights on it. The cover is entirely in shades of white and purple.Title: THE MADNESS UNDERNEATH
Author: Maureen Johnson
Series: book two of Shades of London
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication Date: 26 February 2013
Pages: 384
Status: electronic (ARC)

LibraryThing Info

The Madness Underneath for purchase at The Book Depository

Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley. As I understand it, the version I read differs slightly from the published version.

THE MADNESS UNDERNEATH picks up shortly after THE NAME OF THE STAR ends. Rory is powerless to explain the first book's happenings to her parents, so they've withdrawn her from school and set her up with a not-so-helpful therapist--who surprises everyone by insisting that Rory should return to the scene of her unvoicable trauma. Back at boarding school, Rory struggles to cope with her changing abilities, academic pressure, and a new supernatural threat that looms over London.

Oh, friends, I do love Rory. She’s got such a quirky voice and a unique take on events. I especially like her sense of humour, which parallels my own, and the way she throws herself into the thick of things. The inside of her head is an awesome place to spend nearly four hundred pages. Her first person narration keeps the book fresh and interesting even when the action fades into the background. I can’t wait to spend some more time with her in the next book.

That said, TMU is most definitely the second book in a series and should not be approached as a standalone. Johnson offers a few reminders as to what happened in TNoTS, but she assumes the reader will remember all the most important things without prompting. Even though the focus rests firmly on Rory's journey forward, many prior events colour her worldview. They play into her character development as she deals with everything that's happened to her and gains a greater understanding of her powers. If you want to get the most out of THE MADNESS UNDERNEATH, read THE NAME OF THE STAR FIRST.

Trust me, this is no great hardship. THE NAME OF THE STAR is awesome, and THE MADNESS UNDERNEATH is a fine sequel. Johnson expands on her basic premise--that some people can see ghosts and deal directly with supernatural phenomena--and thickens the plot with involvement from an unexpected quarter. Some of what we learned in the last book no longer applies, while the new information we receive primes the pump for more developments in the future. The story gains traction as it rolls along, culminating in an “OMG did that actually happen?” ending that left me eager for the next book.

I didn’t love it the way I loved THE NAME OF THE STAR, though; probably because it’s not a complete story in its own right. It adds to TNoTS and sets things up for the as-yet-untitled third book, but it offers far more questions than answers. The stakes rise high but remain largely unresolved by the novel’s end.

Please don’t view that as a negative so much as a caution for those who dislike cliffhangers. THE MADNESS UNDERNEATH has much to offer the reader, even without a clear resolution. It features a fantastic narrator, great character and premise development, and some tantalizing hooks that look set to pay off big time in the next book.

3.5 stars – really liked it

Other Reviews:

There are already a fair number in the Book Blogs Search Engine, and I'm sure there's more to come now the book has hit shelves.

Back In the Day:
21st-Feb-2013 07:00 am - Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe
Cover art for Moll Flanders, featuring a vintage pastel drawing of a dark-haired white woman wearing a pale green dress with wide skirts. She"s lounging backwards suggestively with her hands draped close to her crotch, but not quite so close that the image becomes overtly pornographic. A plump white man wearing a blue coat and a long, white wig sits a small distance behind her. The background is primarily in tones of brown.Title: MOLL FLANDERS (or THE FORTUNES AND MISFORTUNES OF THE FAMOUS MOLL FLANDERS, if you prefer)
Author: Daniel Defoe
Publisher: I listened to the Tantor Audio production
Publication Year: 1722
Pages: 335
Status: electronic (freebie)

LibraryThing Info

Moll Flanders for free download on Project Gutenberg

I first read MOLL FLANDERS in 2001, in the midst of an “I’ll Read Classic Lit So's I Can Be Cultured And Shit” phase. So far as I was concerned, classic novels were Good For You, but they weren’t necessarily enjoyable. I read them to give myself a sense of the wider literary tradition, not for entertainment.

Imagine my surprise when I devoured MOLL FLANDERS in three sittings, one of which took me through nearly a hundred and fifty pages.

The book is almost indecently fun. Moll schemes her way through the England of the 1600s, rising and falling at irregular intervals as her illegal undertakings bear fruit or go awry. She marries often, bears a multitude of children, turns to robbery whenever the need arises (or the opportunity presents itself), and deceives very nearly everyone she encounters. Her wild life must have seemed the height of debauchery to eighteenth century readers, many of whom I'm sure gloried in it anyway.

I suppose it’s possible to read MOLL FLANDERS as the chronicle of a woman forced into an indecent life of which she repents most ardently, but I find that a terribly boring take on the situation. I much prefer to view Moll as someone who’s ever in charge of her own destiny. She’s born into fairly low circumstances which she contrives to improve upon by any means necessary. Whether she's talking her way into a rich man’s bed or persuading an elderly fence to help her become London’s most successful pickpocket, she’s always in charge. She caters her lies to each individual, playing on their peculiar vanities in such a way that they can’t help but give in to her whims. Poor luck may set her back a step or two, but she never lets it keep her down for long. As soon as one scheme grows stale, she turns her hand to another. No matter what life throws at her, she finds a way to turn it to her advantage and come out on top.

The narrative conventions of the time dictate that she must deny receiving any satisfaction from her actions, but it’s obvious she enjoys herself immensely. The novel is full of moments where she vows to lead a somber and discreet life... right after she’s finished committing such-and-such a sin, and maybe one more for good measure. And hey, she’s never been involved in that line of illegal work, so she might as well give it a go before she throws in the towel. If it leads to another opportunity of a similar nature... well, so much the better.

Oh, Moll. I frickin’ love you.

Of course, I’m not an eighteenth century reader. It’s entirely possible that the original target audience would’ve been so scandalized by Moll’s doings that they took her cautions and lamentations at face value. Hell, maybe Defoe even intends them that way.

Me, I remain unconvinced of her penitence. She's an adept liar, after all; it's difficult to believe she'd restrain herself from practicing this skill upon the reader. I like to hope she keeps on scheming after the novel’s end, albeit in a wealthier sphere than was previously possible and with a willing partner in her final (or maybe just latest?) husband.

Godspeed to you, Moll, and good luck.

4 stars – loved it

Strange Asides:

Since I know rather a lot about the French Revolution, which happened near the end of the eighteenth century, I always think of the 1700s as having been "around two hundred years ago." It floored me when I realized MOLL FLANDERS was originally published almost three hundred years ago, and begins almost four hundred years ago. (Moll ends the narrative in 1683, when she's somewhere in her sixties or early seventies.) Wow.

Other Reviews:

Age 30+... A Lifetime of Books
Books Ahoy!
Books 'N Border Collies, with additional thoughts
Educating Petunia
Hannah Stoneham's Book Blog
Pagesofjulia's Blog
Sam Still Reading

I should add that most of these reviewers regard the text in a rather different way than I myself did. (To be honest, they made me feel a bit bad for viewing Moll as I do. Oh well. I'm used to that sort of thing.) It's worth reading through their opinions--and of course, you'll want to read the book so you can form one of your own.

Back In the Day:
18th Century
19th-Feb-2013 07:00 am - Mortal Love by Elizabeth Hand
Cover art for Mortal Love, featuring a Pre-Raphaelite portrait of a very pale woman with long, red hair. She wears a green dress and is positioned with some green leaves in the background.Title MORTAL LOVE
Author: Elizabeth Hand
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Publication Year: 2004
Pages: 364
Pushed By: Ana
Status: keeper

LibraryThing Info

Mortal Love for purchase at The Book Depository

A part of me would rather not talk about MORTAL LOVE.

Y’all know the most beloved books sometimes render me incoherent. This incoherent state generally goes hand in hand with verbosity--I have tons to say, but I don’t know exactly how I want to say it.

This is sort of like that, but upside down. I loved MORTAL LOVE and am sure I could say tons about it in as incoherent a fashion as one might wish, but I rather want to keep it for me.

I’ve obviously chosen to ignore this impulse (spurred on, of course, but a The People Need To Know mentality), but I felt you should know where I stand.

Okay. Let’s get on with this.

Even though MORTAL LOVE came with the highly respected Seal of Ana’s Approval(TM), I found the first chapter so confusing, and so devoid of a thread I could follow through to a satisfying story, that it looked like dark days ahead. I braced myself to abandon it by Chapter Three, after which point I would conveniently forget to mention I had ever tried to read it.

I was in love with it by page 20.

The People Magazine review excerpted on the cover calls MORTAL LOVE "a delightful waking dream;" as accurate a descriptor as I could hope for, with the caveat that the reviewer clearly shares my somewhat unconventional definition of "delightful." The novel is often dark, often wretched, often disturbing. Delightful if you’re up for that sort of thing; depressing if you’re not.

The waking dream bit, though, needs no qualifier. The story is dreamlike in the extreme, merging one scene with the next as smoothly as water flowing over polished stones. It provides few concrete answers, yet it’s never confusing or opaque. Hand spells little out, but the book’s structure encourages the reader to make every connection she needs. We know exactly what’s going on, despite the lack of overt confirmation.

MORTAL LOVE is a book about madness and art and intercourse between worlds (in all senses of the word). Like all the best dreams, it’s wild and dangerous and barely controlled, with a bizarre and vivid story at its heart.

It spans centuries, commenting on art and the soul and the very nature of creation.

It’s rich and strange; grounded and ethereal.

It reminded me of THE VINTNER’S LUCK, and of THE NIGHT CIRCUS.

It made me want to create.

It has me halfway convinced I should have asked more from it, but I’m not sure what else it could have given me without undermining itself.

It refuses to get out of my head.

I think you should read it, sooner rather than later.

4 stars – loved it

Other Reviews:

A Book A Week
Puss Reboots
Shelf Love
things mean a lot
You Can Never Have Too Many Books

If I missed yours, please let me know so I can add it to my list.

Back In the Day:
Writerly Thoughts
Cover art for Days of Blood & Starlight, featuring an amorphous, golden-orange mass roughly shaped like a cornucopia. It"s unclear whether it"s flame, a nebula of some sort, or even a piece of silk that"s been tossed in the air and left to fall. The background is a rich, deep blue studded with stars.Title: DAYS OF BLOOD & STARLIGHT
Author: Laini Taylor
Series: this is the sequel to DAUGHTER OF SMOKE & BONE
Publisher: Hodder UK
Publication Date: November 2011
Pages: 517
Status: keeper

LibraryThing Info

Days of Blood & Starlight for purchase at The Book Depository

Days of Blood & Starlight for purchase at Kobo

I have a soft policy of reading at least two volumes from any series that strikes my interest, even if I wasn’t painfully in love with the first book1.

I put this system in place because of books like DAYS OF BLOOD & STARLIGHT.

I mean, I liked DAUGHTER OF SMOKE & BONE. I didn’t love it, but that does not mean I didn’t like it. (Sorry. Pet peeve there.) I expected to feel much the same about DOB&S. I figured I’d admire the worldbuilding, the prose, and the sheer amount of creativity involved, but I’d never become as attached to the story as I might like.

Guess what happened, y’all! Guess!

Yep. I loved this one. Loved it, loved it, loved it. From the beginning, when we hang around with Zuzana (who is charming and wonderful and can she come be my best friend, please?) and worry about Karou, to the final page, I was utterly enchanted.

Understand, by "enchanted," I mean "upset and scared and terribly, horribly worried for everyone involved, which enchants me because I really, really like feeling this much for fictional characters;" though, there's a certain amount of traditional enchantedness in play, too.

DOB&S takes everything its predecessor did and improves upon it. The settings are even more vivid, unusual (in YA fiction published in English), and well-realized. The art soars to new levels. The worldbuilding deepens in complexity.

And this time around, I truly connected with the characters. They became real to me in a way they didn’t quite manage throughout DAUGHTER OF SMOKE & BONE. By the end, I would’ve fought an army had any of them asked it of me.

(Or at least, found them some teeth so they could make an army. My fighting skills leave something to be desired.)

Their relationships struck a much stronger chord with me in this second book, making it easier for me to connect with them all. I gloried in everything Zuzana went through because of her love for Mik and for Karou. Akiva’s strong bond with his siblings sent me straight over the moon. And Karou’s grief, her desperate attempt to keep her people alive and fighting and resilient even they despised her, moved me so deeply that I all but became her while I read her chapters.

Having found the love for the characters, I couldn’t help but revel in their gorgeous (if flawed and heartbreaking) world. The story gained a new depth and richness. It won me over complete.

It almost annoyed me, this sudden and unprecedented love. I had DAUGHTER OF SMOKE & BONE in my to-go pile, ready to pass along to my young cousins. Now I’ve gotta keep both books around so’s I can reread them as soon as the final volume comes out.

Which will be soonish, I hope? Please, Ms Taylor? Please?

4 stars – loved it

Other Reviews:

The Book Blogs Search Engine is chock full of 'em.

Back In the Day:

  1. I throw this policy out the window when I hated the first book in a series. It often happens that I rather liked the first book in a series but loved the second, but I can't think of an instance where hate transformed to love. Not where books are concerned, at least; characters are another matter entirely.
Almost Angel
I recently reread DAUGHTER OF SMOKE & BONE in preparation for its sequel, DAYS OF BLOOD & STARLIGHT. Since my opinion remains largely, though not entirely, unchanged, I thought I’d rerun my old review, with an addendum where necessary.

Cover art for Daughter of Smoke & Bone, featuring a white person wearing a brilliantly blue feathered mask. The cover is in black and white aside from the mask.Title: DAUGHTER OF SMOKE & BONE
Author: Laini Taylor
Series: a sequel, DAYS OF BLOOD & STARLIGHT, is also available
Publisher: Little, Brown
Publication Date: September 2011
Pages: 420
Status: seller, I think

LibraryThing Info

Daughter of Smoke & Bone for purchase on The Book Depository

Daughter of Smoke & Bone for purchase at Kobo

Free preview of Daughter of Smoke & Bone at Kobo

DAUGHTER OF SMOKE & BONE has received so much publicity, both publisher- and enthusiastic-reader-driven, that I’m sure most of you have at least heard of it. Everyone at BEA seemed to want it. Everyone in the blogosphere talked it up. It was the YA book of 2011.

LIPS TOUCH: THREE TIMES, Laini Taylor’s collection of illustrated novellas, led me to expect something rich, strange and unique from my first foray into her novel-length work. The book delivered on all three counts. This here story is chock full of beauty and wonder.

Karou is an art student with a secret: the demons who populate her sketchbook are real. They’re her family, and she helps them in their neverending quest to obtain all the animal teeth. Not that Brimstone, the chief demon, ever tells her what he does with the tubs of molars and incisors that fill his dusty old shop; or, for that matter, how human Karou came to live with him in the first place. Karou’s not the kind of girl who can let that lie, so she investigates--and discovers that Brimstone’s secret is far stranger, and far more dangerous, than she could have imagined.

I’m ever so fond of making lists, so let’s run through all the things that brought me joy:

  • It’s set in Prague. Not Nowheresville, USA. Not the English countryside. Prague! Capital of the Czech Republic! In Eastern Europe!

    Far too many YA novels take place in featureless American towns. Those set elsewhere tend to take place somewhere in England. It means the world to me that such a high-profile title is set in a glorious, fascinating city that, in my experience, gets very little screen time in young adult literature.

    Taylor’s choice of setting would’ve been enough to send me over the moon even if she’d done a cursory job of limning it, but friends! That is not the case! I quickly lost myself in the alleyways of Prague. Taylor paints such a vivid picture of the city that I finished the book well-nigh desperate to visit. I started wondering whether my library had any teach-yourself-Czech materials, and how difficult it would be to learn the language. (My guess is pretty durned. I’m not the best at languages.) I even did some low-level research on the cost of living and other such matters. The city invaded my dreams.

    Prague: I want to go to there. And it’s all Laini Taylor’s fault.

  • It’s intimately concerned with art. Karou is a student at the European equivalent of a high school for the arts. She’s primarily a painter and sketcher, herself, but the school also offers classes in things like sculpture, costuming, and puppetry. Art plays a large role in the narrative, from Karou’s sketchbook to her BFF Zuzana’s puppets to the real reason Brimstone needs all those teeth. Even small details, like the decorations at Karou’s favourite restaurant, are steeped in artistic sensibilities. I don’t want to spoil y’all, but one might argue that the whole book is an argument for art. ‘Tis wonderful.

  • It’s seriously inventive. The imagination on this lady! One gets the sense that Taylor truly did spin this tale; that she took dozens of concepts and whirled them around together until they felted into a coherent whole. Her characters and their world embrace the best elements of both contemporary and secondary world fantasy. If I step back and consider each piece on its own, I can hardly believe the world building comes together so well. It’s a testament to Taylor’s skill and verve.

    Don’t be fooled by the jacket copy, which promises a story about an angel and a demon in love (that old chestnut). Yeah, there are some standard tropes herein, but this book is far more original, and tells a far more complicated story, than one might expect.

  • Karou has blue hair. Naturally (well, wish-inducedly) blue, at that. You know how Ikindahaveathingforredheads? Well, I also kindahaveathingforrandomfunkycolouredhair. It makes me happy, right down to the core of my bones. I’ve always wished for green hair, myself, but I wouldn’t turn down blue hair either. Especially if I could get it without damaging my hair with bleach.

So, yes. There’s lots to love here; lots of squee over and consider and rave about to your friends. I liked it very much indeed, but I’m afraid I didn’t quite love it.

I’ve spent a lot of time considering why. I loved the city, I loved the art, and I loved the inventive world building; how is it that I finished the book with a sense of great liking rather than love?

It’s all down to the plot. DAUGHTER OF SMOKE & BONE is inventive and engaging, but it takes a while to come together as a cause-and-effect narrative. There’s a lot of build-up with a few large answers right at the very end. It feels like the first chunk of a book, not a book in its own right.

The world and its mysteries were enough of a hook that I was always eager to find the story underneath, even when I had only the barest idea of where it was headed. Overall, though, I feel like the all-questions-few-answers approach, coupled with the pace at which the overarching tale unfolds, kept me from fully engaging with the text. I spent too much time wondering where the story would come out and not enough time connecting with the characters. I liked them, yes, but I never managed to love them enough that their pain became my own.

Let the Addendum Begin:

The plot wasn’t an issue for me the second time through. Since I knew where it came out, I could sit back and appreciate how Taylor structured the story. Much of what she does here only takes on its full significance in retrospect. It’s a great deal more cause-and-effect than I remembered, and it comes together quite nicely.

Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about the characterization. I liked Karou and her friends just fine, but I still wanted more from them on an emotional level. Big things happen--huge things--and I didn’t feel like the text gave me the tools I needed to react properly (ie, to totally freak out). The story remained a story. It never rose above its origins and became an experience.

Perhaps I’m just a mopey-puss grumpy-guts for wanting to experience stories, but there ya go. I enjoyed the book very much, but it lacked that special something that could’ve turned liking into love.

Please please please please please don’t take that to mean I disliked it, or that I don’t recommend it. I liked it very much, and I think it's well worth your time; I just failed to love it the way so many others do.

I did read the sequel, though, as planned. We’ll talk about that on Thursday.

3.5 stars – really liked it

Strange Aside:

I often think of how transparently excited Laini Taylor was when she saw her huuuuuuuuge line at BEA 2011. You could tell she was tickled pink to see that many people waiting for her book.

Other Reviews:

You can find eleventy billion more reviews on the Book Blogs Search Engine.

Back In the Day:
Ethereal Fantasy
cover art for A Natural History of Dragons, featuring a grey and red illustration of a walking dragon with the flesh stripped from its wings and hindquarters to show the muscle below. The background is whiteTitle: A NATURAL HISTORY OF DRAGONS: A MEMOIR BY LADY TRENT
Author: Marie Brennan
Illustrator: Todd Lockwood
Series: this is the first of Lady Trent’s memoirs
Publisher: Tor
Publication Date: 5 February 2013
Pages: 336
Status: electronic (ARC)

LibraryThing Info

A Natural History of Dragons for purchase at The Book Depository

A Natural History of Dragons for purchase at Kobo

Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley. Illustrations courtesy of Tor's publicity department.

A NATURAL HISTORY OF DRAGONS is the first in a series of memoirs by Isabella, Lady Trent, as recorded by Marie Brennan and illustrated by Todd Lockwood. This premiere volume deals with the famed dragon naturalist’s early life, including her first foray into fieldwork.

I love Brennan’s Onyx Court series, so I couldn’t wait to tackle this new offering. While it’s still a solid read, I would caution other Onyx Court fans to expect a beast of a different sort. Isabella’s memoirs are much smaller in scale, with a more linear narrative structure and a decidedly personal approach. The focus rests firmly on Isabella’s own life, and her explorations into How Things Work. The larger issues revolve around who she is and how she fits into this world.

Said world is similar to early Victorian England. Isabella is born into an affluent family in a society where respectable women are meant to be showpieces. They must marry, and once they’ve done so they’re responsible for little more than organizing their husbands’ home lives.

This isn’t enough for Isabella. She’s been interested in natural science since she was very young, but her country’s sense of propriety limits her. She can read scientific publications only if her husband will purchase them for her, and she can’t discuss them with anyone else without being considered strange and unnatural. While she’s lucky enough to marry a man who can be a friend and conversation partner, her ultimate goals remain difficult to achieve. Much of the book’s tension springs from whom Isabella is versus what society would have her be.

Pencil drawing of a very small, crested dragon with its right wing spread wide.
Sparkling by Todd Lockwood

Isabella, for all her intellect, is dependent on her husband. She must wait for his permission to pursue even so so small a goal as studying sparklings in her backyard--and Scirland’s social mores insist that he is a terrible, horrible cad if he "allows" her to explore natural science. The reader, of course, hopes he will be a cad; that he’ll support Isabella no matter how unconventional her aspirations. And of course, his desire to treat his wife well wins out over the threat of social censure, as there would be no story otherwise.

Brennan never downplays the problematic angle to this setup. Instead, she emphasizes the ways women like Isabella work within the system to make something different of their lives. Isabella’s struggle to reconcile who she is with her country’s sense of propriety reminded me of Rachel Hartman’s AMY UNBOUNDED, another book where women in a male-dominated sphere nonetheless carve themselves a welcoming space, with varying degrees of success. Isabella can’t tackle her goals the same way a man would. She has to exploit any and all loopholes the system gives her, grasping at chances as they come; however, she’s still so young that I’m not sure she quite realizes she’s doing it. She treats the expedition at the novel’s core as her one chance to study dragons. It’s not until almost the end that she realizes she could make this a regular thing.

The novel is narrated by an elderly Isabella whose life experience informs her commentary on these long-ago events. Given that she’s enjoyed great professional success, I have every hope that future installments in the series will show a shift in Scirland’s attitudes towards women, perhaps spurred on by Isabella herself. You'd better believe I love the thought of a fantasy series that deals with the way attitudes change over an extended period.

I very much enjoyed considering Brennan’s approach to gender, but I’m afraid I wasn’t quite so enamoured of the plot. While its linear approach isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it did leave me less to chew over, story-wise. The overarching stakes (ie, Isabella’s future happiness) may be high, but the plot’s driving force centers on a relatively simple mystery to which I felt little connection. I often found myself focusing on the social issues and the gorgeous, period-appropriate prose to such an extent that I lost the thread of the story. I was interested, but I’m afraid I can’t say I was gripped. I stuck with the book mostly because I’ve loved Brennan’s past work.

In the end, though, I’m glad I finished. I did like Isabella very much, and the conclusion was sufficiently enticing that I’ll certainly read the sequel. I look forward to watching Isabella take her next step on the road to becoming a famed naturalist.

3 stars – liked it

Other Reviews:

Ageless Pages Reviews
Liz Bourke for Tor.com
Only the Best Sci-Fi/Fantasy

Did I miss yours? Please let me know so I can add it to my list.

Back In the Day:
Writerly Thoughts
cover art for Live Through This, featuring a painting of a white man and a white woman (Angel and Faith), both dark haired, superimposed over an image of the Thames, with Tower bridge directly below the two figures. There"s a line drawing of a white man wearing glasses (Giles) in the bottom left hand corner. Cover art for Daddy issues, featuring a montage painting of two dark-haired white women (Faith and Drusilla) and a pale grey demon with a long, skinny nose. There"s a line drawing of a white man (Angel)in the top left hand corner. Cover art for Family Reunion, featuring a painting of two dark-haired white men (Angel and Connor) facing each other at an angle, with a dark-haired white woman (Faith) in the background. The figures are positioned within a thorny grey landscape, with a swirl of red occupying most of the right hand edge of the picture. There"s a line drawing of a white woman (Willow) carrying in a scythe in the bottom left hand corner.

You know, I might make weekend comics a tradition ‘round my place. Every week or so, I’ll hole up inside (or outside, once it warms up) with a favoured series and perhaps a nice pot of tea. (Or a bottle of beer. Books + beer = happy Memory.)

Two weekends ago, I decided it was about durned time I revisit the premiere volumes of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, SEASON NINE and its cognate title, ANGEL & FAITH. My first reread (LIVE THROUGH THIS) was such a success that I promptly purchased the most recent bundled volume of each series from Dark Horse’s digital store and spent a few glorious hours wallowing in the Buffyverse.

Good times, y’all. Good times.

I’m loving both series, though I’ve found that it takes me a couple of readings to full appreciate each story arc. DADDY ISSUES and FREEFALL both began as 3.5s (books I really liked, but didn’t quite love) but jumped up to 4s (books I loved) the second time through, and it looks like FAMILY REUNION and GUARDED will run in the same vein. I remain excited about where each series is headed, though, and you can bet I’ll get the next bundles as soon as they go on sale. (Despite my recent conversion to digital comics--more on that at a later date--I’ve decided not to buy the individual issues. They're cheaper when they're bundled, and I know I wouldn't read them until the arc was complete anyways.)

ANGEL & FAITH remains my favourite of the two series. I love what writer Christos Gage and artist Rebekah Isaacs have done, and continue to do, with these characters. Faith’s in a relatively new position for her: she’s the responsible one. She’s got to look out for the other London Slayers, many of whom are still uncertain of themselves, and she’s got to keep Angel from self-destructing. She messes up along the way, but she learns from her mistakes and tries to improve. I love that about her.

Angel, now, is pretty well as obsessive as he’s always been, and it’s become apparent that this ain’t the way to live. As Faith points out to him, he’s always after the grand gesture; the one thing he can do to achieve redemption and make everything right again. Trouble is, redemption isn't a set of scales where you can balance every bad act with something good. There are no easy fixes, and the ones he tries to put in place almost inevitably hurt the people he cares about. His whole let’s-resurrect-Giles thing, for example, is dangerous on multiple levels, not least because it might destroy or fundamentally cripple the very person he’s trying to save. Even if he does succeed, there’s a good chance he’ll annihilate his own personality in the process. It’s bad news all around, as the text makes a little clearer with every volume.

I like how Gage and Isaacs make an effort to incorporate characters from Angel’s show, too. Harmony popped up at the end of LIVE THROUGH THIS, and FAMILY REUNION brings Angel back into contact with Connor and Gunn. (Though, way to do absolutely nothing with Gunn. He’s basically just a chauffeur. Doesn’t the guy deserve better than that?) I’ll admit, I’m a little sad they did away with a certain aspect of Connor’s personality (one I very much enjoyed during Brian Lynch’s run on ANGEL: AFTER THE FALL), but I can see why it would happen now that the world is cut off from magic. I hope they continue to explore the new Connor as the series rolls along, but I’ve got a feeling his appearance was a one-off type of thing.

Cover art for Freefall, featuring a close-up of a blonde white woman (Buffy). A small line drawing of the Golden Gate Bridge appears in the top right hand corner, just under the book"s title. Cover art for On Your Own, featuring a painting of a seated white man (Spike) and a standing white woman (Buffy) looking down at a coastline through the front window of an airship. A small line drawing of a demon-faced vampire appears in the centre at the bottom, just to the left of the title. Cover art for Guarded, featuring a painting of a blonde white woman (Buffy) wearing a suit, with her right hand raised to her right ear. A few steps back and to her left, a dark haired white woman (Kennedy) watches her. The figures are against an ambiguous black background with a few flames. A small line drawing of a leaping demon appears in the bottom left hand corner, beside the title.

BtVS, now, is crafted on a much more personal scale. Buffy’s sort of up against a Big Bad, insofar as Simone wants to end her, but that’s more of a side plot. The series focuses on What Happens Next. Buffy has changed the world, for good or ill, and it’s had a huge effect on her own prospects. She’s got a lot to figure out, personally and professionally, and she's reeling. As if dealing with the dramatic shift from a magic-filled world to a magicless world wasn't enough, the series has slowly stripped away her support system. Xander and Dawn are less active in her life now that they don’t all live together. Willow is off pursing her own projects, as are Buffy’s fellow Slayers. Spike got out for his own good. Andrew is more a hindrance than a help. Giles is dead, and Buffy can’t stand the sight of the guy who killed him (which: Angel).

The season feels like a testing ground for Buffy. She has the opportunity to try a bunch of different, grown-up-type things: roommates, a variety of jobs, life in a world where everyone knows about (and likes) vampires. It seems like the natural next step for her, after the epic events of S8, and I’m enjoying it all very much--even though it's utterly heartwrenching at times. The stuff with Spike and Andrew in ON YOUR OWN really got to me, but I think I'm perhaps most worried about where things are headed with Xander. We've had a couple of deeply distressing hints as to what's going on with him. I hope he'll get some more screen time nice and soon.

I believe there’ll be two more collected volumes in each series, plus two mini-series featuring Willow and Spike. (Spike’s just wrapped up, so I’ll buy it as soon as Dark Horse bundles it. I imagine that’ll be in a month or two.) I can haz tomorrow, please?


3.5 stars each to FAMILY REUNION and GUARDED

Strange Asides:

YA author Mindi Scott, who is herself a big Buffy fan, has written novels called FREEFALL and LIVE THROUGH THIS. Coincidence? Probably, but it's still cool.

Back In the Day:
yet again, Buffy - Buffy and Spike
31st-Jan-2013 07:00 am - A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge
Cover art for A Fire Upon the Deep, featuring a space ship shaped rather like a silver manta ray hovering in space. The background is pink and blue with hints of smokey blackness peeking throughTitle: A FIRE UPON THE DEEP
Author: Vernor Vinge
Series: book one of Zones of Thought
Publisher: Tor
Publication Year: 1992
Pages: 613
Status: seller, I think

LibraryThing Info

A Fire Upon the Deep for purchase at The Book Depository

A Fire Upon the Deep for purchase at Kobo

The first three hundred pages of A FIRE UPON THE DEEP are perhaps the best science fiction I’ve ever read.

By "best" I mean, of course, "most interesting to me, personally." While I’ve done my time in the fantasy trenches, science fiction and I are still getting to know one another. We hang out a couple dozen times per year and have had a few scholarly conversations, but I’m sure many folks who believe in the concept of the "true fan" wouldn’t hesitate to sneer at my paltry knowledge base.

Given everything I’ve heard about this particular book, though, I suspect I’m far from the only person who considers it a paragon of the genre. Damn, is it ever fascinating!

If you require something resembling a plot summary: two children, Johanna and Jefri, crash land on a medieval world while fleeing a world-destroying power called the Blight. They're promptly taken into custody by two rival political groups who seek to exploit their knowledge. Ravna, a librarian, gets wind of the crash and launches a rescue mission. She hopes the children's undamaged cargo will be the key to ending the Blight before it consumes everything she loves.

Vinge weaves the sort of intricate, wallowsome tale I eat straight from the jar. I found the prose and the ideas so dense that it took me two or three minutes to read each page, but I couldn’t regard this as anything but time well spent. I did decide to break out my handy-dandy segmented reading method, though. It seemed to me I would enjoy the book more, and get more out of it overall, if I paused to read something else every hundred pages.

Pausing proved a struggle throughout those first three hundred pages, as Vinge presented me with piles of awesome including:

  • Aliens who are, in effect, packs of talking dogs whose intelligence depends on group minds comprised of four, five, six, or eight members working in concert. Hello, fascinating race unlike anything I've seen before.

  • A mythic Age of Princesses, wherein awesome ladies did awesome things to bring their people out of an artificial medieval period.

  • Craploads of stuff about communications technology and how it might apply on an interstellar level.

  • Aliens who are sort of like talking trees with memory-enhancing scooters. (A simplification, yes, but this is basically what I saw in my head as I read about the Skroderiders.)

  • A daring rescue founded on misinformation.

  • More social science than you could shake a stick at, including a keen examination of how a society might progress from medieval to technological within a short period of time due to outside influences, thereby introducing issues of colonialism.

  • Sympathetic, flawed characters who prove easy to connect with.

  • An ancient and seemingly unstoppable force that looks set to destroy every known civilization if our heroes can't complete their quest.

  • A (relatively) smaller conflict that is nonetheless vitally important to those involved in it.

  • Really cool stuff about how different parts of space allow for different kinds of space travel. (Earth, if you were wondering, is in the Slow Zone, where FTL isn't possible. Most of the book takes place in the Beyond, where it is.)


And that's leaving scads out. I loved it to bits. Vinge gave me so much to mull over that the book occupied my thoughts even when I was reading something else.

The communications technology, in particular, got me thinking about how much the Internet has changed since 1992. The people of Vinge’s far-future, intergalactic civilization love their newsgroups. Many of these newsgroup postings appear in the book so's the reader knows what's going on outside the main characters' sphere of influence.

I initially thought this was a terribly dated conception of the Internet. When I got my first computer, back in 1997, my e-mail program included a section for newsgroup subscriptions. It seemed of little value, so I ignored it. Sixteen years later, we use the Internet in such a variety of different ways that it felt odd to read a far-future story where everyone was mad for newsgroups.

Vinge is a computer scientist, though, so I’m sure he must’ve had some idea of where the Internet was headed. It’s true, too, that almost all the Net-based communication we’re privy to in A FIRE UPON THE DEEP is between worlds that are days, if not months, apart in physical space. Perhaps text-based newsgroups are the most efficient way to transfer information over such vast differences, especially with hefty data fees in place. Economics play a key role in the first half of the book, and it doesn't sound like anyone involved wants to spend extra money on fancy stuff like images when all they really need is text.

Anyways, I spent a lot of time thinking about that sort of thing while I read. Combined with all the social science (which is my favourite kind of science), the awesome characters, and the epic vision underlying the text, I decided there was no way I could keep reading A FIRE UPON THE DEEP in hundred-page increments. I would read the last three hundred pages in one big gulp (or several, consecutive big gulps, in deference to my reading speed with this particular book), and that was an end to it.

Except it wasn’t. Because as soon as I designated A FIRE UPON THE DEEP as my primary, read-all-the-way-through-with-no-breaks book, the air whooshed out of the tires. My interest in the story didn’t dry up, but it definitely moved into the Slow Zone, whereas before it had rested firmly in the High Beyond. I still liked the characters. I still liked the world building (or maybe I should call it universe building?). I just didn’t feel the same connection to anything that happened, and I’m at a loss to explain why.

I suspect it was my problem, not the book's.

Either way, it broke my heart. When I say the first three hundred pages were the best science fiction I’ve ever read, I mean it. We’re talking 5-star territory, folks. Y’all know how rarely I hand out 5-star ratings in the first place, and I've only given two previous SF novels (TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG, which one might as easily call an historical novel, and THE TIME TRAVELLER'S WIFE, which was marketed as mainstream) that honour.

Had the less engaging bits occupied the beginning or the middle, I’d probably still have given the book a 4.5. (Really, y’all, it was that awesome.) Since they occurred at the end, though, I’m afraid they’ve coloured my whole reaction to the thing. It’s THE HERO AND THE CROWN all over again, albeit somewhat less extreme.

Still, I plan to read both the prequel and the sequel, and I encourage you to read this one for that perfect beginning. You might find, too, that the ending engages you more than it engaged me.

4 stars - loved it

(It's probably more like 3.75, but y'all know I round up.)

Strange Asides:

I didn’t visualize many of the characters--this wasn’t that sort of book for me--but Ravna looked exactly like Freema Agyeman in my mind’s eye. (Hence my choice of userpic for those of you reading this right on my blog.)

The Tines all looked like a cross between German Shepherds, the Doberman from Pixar's UP, and an illustration of the Hound of the Baskervilles I saw when I was very small.

Other Reviews:

Fantasy Cafe
Jo Walton for Tor.com
The Literary Omnivore

I must have missed some. If yours was one of them, please let me know.

Back In the Day:
Martha Jones
Cover art for Welcome To Lovecraft, featuring a skull-topped key overlying a tall wooden house. The cover is in tones of red. Cover art for Head Games, featuring a head-topped key overlying a rocky, seaside cliff. The cover is in tones of green. Cover art for Crown of Shadows, featuring a flame-topped key overlying a narrow gate in a stone wall with a lighthouse in the background. The cover is in tones of blue.
Cover art for Keys to the Kingdom, featuring a key topped with a music note overlying a round, snow-covered building. The cover is in tones of white and grey. Cover art for Clockworks, featuring an hourglass-topped key overlying a garden containing a state of a woman with her right arm raised. The cover is in tones of grey and orange.

We had a blizzard a couple of Saturdays ago. I took this as an excuse to hole up inside with every published volume of LOCKE & KEY.

Y’all know about LOCKE & KEY, right? It’s a horror comic that follows the Locke family (Tyler, Kinsey, Bode, and, to a lesser extent, their mother Nina and uncle Duncan) as they move to their ancestral home in Lovecraft, MA, after their father is murdered. They soon discover that Keyhouse isn’t just a creepy old mansion--it’s also the repository for a series of magical keys that give their users an assortment of useful, and potentially dangerous, powers.

And deep beneath the house, a dark force works to harness the keys to its own purpose.

Let’s make one thing clear, right off the bat: LOCKE & KEY is not a nice story. Truly terrible things happen to good people, sometimes at the hands of other basically good people. Violence and intolerance are ever-present entities. The series needs a hefty trigger warning and should not be undertaken lightly.

If you think your mental health can handle it, though, it’s so totally worth it. Here’s why:

  • It’s about family. Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode look out for one another. They have their differences, just like all siblings, but at the end of the day, they’re there for each other. They aren’t about to give up, even though they’ve been thrown into a nightmare that’s already robbed them of their father and might very well take the rest of their family before it ends.

  • The art and the script work together. LOCKE & KEY is one of those rare, wonderful series where the art and the script are in perfect sync. There’s no disconnect between what we see and what we read; or if there is, it’s entirely intentional and works well in service to the plot.

    While we’re on the subject of art, and recently removed from the subject of family: Rodriguez does a bang-up job of making all the Lockes look like they’re related. The kids resemble both of their parents, as well as the ancestors we see in flashbacks (and, of course, each other). Ditto every other family we meet.

  • These are puzzle books. Hill and Rodriguez clearly know exactly where they’re headed. My first time through, I had to space the books pretty widely apart due to library availability, making it difficult to see exactly what they’d done. This time, I picked up on many (though I’m sure not all) of the clues strewn throughout the text. Many of these are visual--a key we can see but the characters can’t; a background detail that takes on new significance once we learn a little more of the family’s history. They might seem minor at the time, but small details often pay off in a big way down the line.

    You can’t turn your brain off when you read LOCKE & KEY, because everything means something.

  • The answers, when they come, are unexpected. Everything we learn, every piece of the puzzle we unlock, adds another dimension to the story. As one character says, children always think they’ve come in at the beginning, when in fact they’ve almost reached the end. The overarching tale Hill and Rodriguez have set out to tell is more than just Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode’s story, though they’re certainly at the crux of its current act. It stretches back centuries, and the weight of the past is an ever-present influence on the future.

  • None of the horror is gratuitous or titillating. The violence and intolerance are never, ever condoned by the text. We’re meant to be horrified by Sam’s actions; Dodge’s cruelty; the betrayals the kids face; the racism; the homophobia. It’s terrible, all of it, and it’s never presented as cool or fun or acceptable. We’re meant to hope and pray the Lockes can escape it, even as we know that much of it is down to the imperfect world we live in, not the supernatural horror that plots their demise.

  • It’s genuinely moving. I hadn’t read CLOCKWORKS before this most recent binge, and I’m still shocked at how deeply one of the revelations about the antagonist affected me. And it’s far from the only place where the text shook me.

LOCKE & KEY needs one hell of a trigger warning, but if you can handle it, it’s awesome. I urge you to seek it out.

4 stars to volumes 1, 2 and 5 – loved them
3.5 stars to volumes 3 and 4 – really liked them

Back In the Day:
24th-Jan-2013 07:00 am - The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Cover art for The Night Circus. Two silver silhouettes flank a rondel in which there is a black and white circus tent topped with a large clock. The left hand silhouette is a slender man wearing a bowler hat and carrying a closed umbrella. The right hand silhouette is a slender, dancing woman wearing a full-skirted dress on which the silhouette of a lark is visible. The background is black, with silver stars around the two figures.Title: THE NIGHT CIRCUS
Author: Erin Morgenstern
Publisher: Anchor Books
Publication Date: September 2011
Pages: 516
Status: keeper

LibraryThing Info

The Night Circus for purchase at The Book Depository

The Night Circus for purchase at Kobo

Review copy received at Book Expo America.

At first, I thought THE NIGHT CIRCUS, Erin Morgenstern’s much-lauded debut, was like a book described within a book.

Do you understand what I mean? I’m sure every bibliophile has encountered a fictional book at some point or another; that is, a book that does not exist in our world, by which has had a large impact on a character who inhabits a book that does. The fictional reader inevitably describes this fictional book, always in brief. They give us the high points; the basic plot, some memorable imagery, and the emotional crux, with few (if any) of the bits that connect the story together.

I always think these books sound fabulous--ethereal, emotionally intense, and utterly unlike most of what I read. They seem like the sort of thing one can truly lose oneself in, like a vivid dream where we needn’t be told the details because we immediately know everything we might require to make sense of the story.

As I pondered this, I realized it wasn’t so much that THE NIGHT CIRCUS was like a book within a book, but that both books within books and THE NIGHT CIRCUS have much in common with dreams.

Reading THE NIGHT CIRCUS is like reading the very best sort of dream. It doesn’t always make real-world sense. Sometimes, the connections one might expect to find are either missing or only present off the page. And yet, the reader (or dreamer) is so completely immersed that everything does make sense; every relevant detail is there for her to grasp at will. It’s beauty made tangible within the confines of someone’s mind, which I think we can all agree is a vast space indeed.

Every book I've read since I finished it has suffered in my estimation simply because it was not THE NIGHT CIRCUS.

The more I think about it, the more I love it.

4.5 stars – loved the hell out of it

Strange Asides:

The comma splices, though. The comma splices. They weren't enjoyment-destroying, but they distracted me to an unfortunate degree.

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Magical Realism
Cover art for The Master of Heathcrest Hall, featuring a blonde white woman in a white Empire-waisted gown perched on a window seat, a scroll in hand. She"s looking out the window at a daytime forest alight with tones of green, orange and yellow.Title: THE MASTER OF HEATHCREST HALL
Author: Galen Beckett
Series: this is the third and final novel about Ivy Lockwell
Publisher: Spectra
Publication Date: March 2012
Pages: 718
Status: keeper

LibraryThing Info

The Master of Heathcrest Hall for purchase at The Book Depository

The Master of Heathcrest Hall for purchase at Kobo

THE MASTER OF HEATHCREST HALL was my most anticipated book of 20121, and I had grand plans for it. I intended to begin last April with a reread of the two books that precede it (THE MAGICIANS AND MRS QUENT and THE HOUSE ON DURROW STREET), after which I would dive straight into this one, giving myself at least a week of wonderful, wallowsome reading.

Alas, my plan went awry. Early April saw me wrestling with such intense concentration issues that I failed to enjoy the first two books as I should have done. I limped through them at a pace of no more than fifty pages a day--and y’all, I’m all but incapable of loving something I read that slowly, no matter how much I’ve adored it in the past2.

So I shelved THE MASTER OF HEATHCREST HALL and determined to wait until my reading speed was back up to snuff and my mood had evened out some.

It took a while, but early this month I finally felt like yeah, okay, I could give it a shot. Given the trouble I’d had with the first two books, though, I figured it was probably best if I tackled THE MASTER OF HEATHCREST HALL via my handy-handy 100-pages-in-between-other-books method. I stuck an assortment of bookmarks in at hundred pages intervals and got down to it.

This didn’t work out. I managed to pause long enough to read STEALING PARKER after the first hundred pages, but I couldn't have torn myself away after that. Most times, I read two hundred pages per sitting. I made bargains with myself; I’d turn my light out after another thirty pages. Or maybe sixty. Certainly, no more than sixty.

You get the picture, yeah?

In essence, I loved THE MASTER OF HEATHCREST HALL for the same reason I loved THE MAGICIANS AND MRS QUENT and THE HOUSE ON DURROW STREET; or, for that matter, the same reason I love almost everything I love. I adored the characters. I felt for them, I bled with them, and I couldn't help but turn their struggles into my own. My feelings ran so deep that I didn't read the book so much as live it.

I could say more than that, I suppose. There's plenty I could tell you about the setting, or the book’s wonderfully Regency feel, or the way Beckett slowly turns things around so that the first volume’s villains appear in a somewhat different light here. If you want the truth, though, I don’t fancy it. 5 stars is my "I loved it to the point of incoherence" rating because I don't much care to analyze anything I love with this intensity3. I want to bask in my love for it. I want to ramble about it just long enough that y’all can tell how I feel about it, then leave it at that.

I must say, though, that one aspect of the worldbuilding tripped me up. It wasn’t enough to destroy the book in my eyes, but it certainly led to some inconclusive thoughts about loving problematic books.

THE MASTER OF HEATHCREST HALL, like THE HOUSE ON DURROW STREET before it, is an overtly queer book. Eldyn, one of the three protagonists, is gay. He also has a form of magic that allows him to shape light into illusions. In this book, we learn that all the men who possess this ability--and it’s exclusively a male talent--are gay.

This bothers me as much as if someone were to suggest that everyone with a particular talent must be hetero. Does it mean, then, that this world has no gay men who aren’t illusionists? Are some of the illusionists perhaps hetero but celibate (or particularly quiet about their activities because they're not what's expected of them)? And what about lesbians? Where do the lesbians fit in?

It also ties into the series-wide issue of there being different sorts of magic for men who’re descended from particular families (magicians), women who’re descended from particular families (witches), and men who’re sons of witches (illusionists). There’s too much gender essentialism for me to be truly comfortable with it; so much, in fact, that I feel bad for loving these books as much as I do.

But I do love them, make no mistake. The characters are so wonderful that I’m able to file the problematic elements under "important and worthy of consideration, but not enjoyment-destroying." This may change in the future, but for now I adore this whole series and will continue to recommend it to anyone who'll listen. Discussions with other readers have shown me that it's not for everyone, but those who love it love it a lot.

5 stars – loved it to the point of incoherence and/or verbosity

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Back In the Day:

  1. Okay, it was tied with THE REPUBLIC OF THIEVES by Scott Lynch, but let’s not nitpick here.

  2. I keep meaning to write something about the whole "it’s impossible to truly love something if you read it quickly; slow, deliberate sips are best, so one will read fewer books overall" mentality and how it's so, so far from the way I operate, but I haven’t managed to squeeze it out yet. My few attempts have always struck me as too judgemental, which I want to avoid. Y’all gotta do what’s best for you. If you like to sip your books, go right ahead. Me, I’m gonna keep on gulping.

  3. Not after the first reading, at least. Nitpicks and deep insights are for readings two through eight.
Historical Fiction
an image of a small, grey poppet standing on an elevated portion of a dock in front of two black swans, with a lake in the background

This is Edgar Allan Poppet. Almost two years ago, he visited Rotorua, home of black swans and therapeutic waters.

an image of a sunset across a lake in shades of pink and purple, with a low-hanging branch silhouetted in the top left hand corner

They also have great sunsets, as evidenced by this totally unedited picture.

Edgar Allan Poppet went to Rotorua with some friends who wanted to Do All The Touristy Things. One of these Things involved a van ride with a friendly orc, who took Edgar Allan Poppet and his friends to a place you might recognize.

A photo of the Shire, looking up towards the hill upon which Bilbo"s house sits

The friendly orc also gave Edgar Allan Poppet and his friends a stern (but cheerful) (but stern) lecture about keeping their many, many pictures to themselves so this place could be a surprise for everyone. (Well, everyone who didn't pay a friendly orc to drive them forty-five minutes out of Rotorua.) This is why Edgar Allan Poppet waited almost two years to show you his photos. He hopes it's okay for him to do so now, since the movie has been out for a while and millions of people have gone to see it. Also, much nicer pictures have appeared on all the major news sites.

A group of tourists walking up a very green hill studded with round-doored houses

So pretty! It was ever so slightly rainy when Edgar Allan Poppet went, which made it magical but a tad difficult to photograph.

Edgar Allen Poppet outside a house with a round, yellow door, built into a grassy hill. He rests on a black hand. There are strings stretched in front of the yard to keep people from venturing too close to the door

There were no obliging fenceposts near any of the houses, so Edgar Allen Poppet got his friend Michelle to hold him while I snapped this picture.

The front yard of a house with a round, green door built into the side of a hill

Michelle got me to take a picture of her outside this door, since she's always wanted to visit it. (She asked Edgar Allan Poppet first, but he had some trouble with the camera on account of his arms are molded against his body.) Michelle is not fond of sharing her visage with the world, so Edgar Allan Poppet urged me to show you the Michelle-free photo.

Image of a small, thatch-roofed wooden pub viewed from across a pond

This pub was closed to the public back then, but you can go there, if you want. You lucky duck.

Image of four large, foil-lined baskets filled with chicken, lamb, potato, and kumara. The potatoes and kumara also have large, foil-wrapped items on top of them. Nine pairs of feet are visible in the background.

Back in Rotorua, Edgar Allan Poppet's friends dumped him at the hostel. They ate a delicious hāngi dinner and watched some talented dancers, including a guy who'd spent 55 hours getting traditional tattoos on his upper legs and buttocks.

They took few pictures, since they were too busy enjoying themselves.

A photo of a small, brownish green fern leaf curled in upon itself in a spiral. The picture was taken at night and so is quite dark aside from the bright splash of green in the middle

It was a good day1.

Back In the Day:

  1. Well, other than the point in the evening when the MC asked Michelle if she could sing a Zulu song. Michelle is Canadian, as he ought to have known from the start of the festivities, when everyone shared their nationalities. She and I sang "Oh," Canada" instead.

    The rest of it was great, though. Pretty, green spaces! Friendly orcs! A van Seth Green had also ridden in! (I didn't think I was the kind of person who'd get excited about riding in a van that had previously held someone who'd been on BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. I was wrong.) Delicious food! Talented people! Yay!
Mythology & Folklore
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