The Raven King, Maggie Stiefvater

The first part of this post will not contain spoilers for The Raven King, or indeed for any book in this series. I will clearly mark the end of the non-spoiler-y part of the post, so that you can bail before I start shrieking about specific, spoilery things. I mainly want to tell you what I love so much about this book and this series.

The Raven King

The Raven Cycle is about figuring out how to be a person. Or more specifically, how to be a person when your world as it stands is not — is nowhere near — enough. One of our protagonists, Richard Campbell Gansey III,1 is looking for a Welsh king. Everyone else — Adam Parrish, who’s trying to be someone different; and Ronan Lynch, who’s looking for true things in a world full of liars; and Blue Sargent, the only non-psychic in a house full of psychics, who desperately wants something more — finds “looking for a Welsh king” to be a viable means of also searching for what they do want, so they are along for the ride. Mostly what they are all looking for is How To Be.

(how to be free, how to be happy, how to be a friend, how to make your life matter)

That they are sometimes phenomenally bad at these things makes it all the more satisfying as, over the course of the series, they get better and better at being who they want to become. Compare, for instance, the chats about relationships Adam and Blue have in The Dream Thieves versus in The Raven King. Compare the way Gansey is with Blue the first time they meet to the way he is with her — well, any time else, really, I just wanted to remind you of that whole President Cell Phone snafu because it remains one of my favorite scenes in the series. The lovely thing is that Adam and Blue and Gansey are fully themselves in all the versions of all these conversations; they are just getting better at it as they go along, in a lovely organic way.

It’s funny that I started with a spoiler warning, because in fact one of my favorite things about these books is how unspoilable they are. Or conversely how eminently disappointing it would be to go into them spoiled. Maggie Stiefvater’s maybe-best trick as a writer is that she always tells you the spoilers herself, probably more than once, but when the big reveal arrives, you’re still surprised, because she told you what was going on, but you were too distracted by something else she was doing at the same time.

(It makes rereading fun! You reread and you’re like “Oh she told me this exact information in Chapter 4.” “Oh, Ronan has been saying this all along and nobody was paying any attention.”)

Also, there’s magic and creepy trees. If magic and creepy trees are things that interest you. Or Latin. Or Tarot cards.

ONWARD TO THE SPOILERS.

Are you ready now? For spoilers?

Okay. Here they come. In no particular order.

NUMBER ONE. I cannot, and it is unfair for you to expect me to, handle a situation in an already emotional book in which a character I love walks into a creepy forest to meet his own death. You know perfectly well that gives me Harry Potter flashbacks. I had to put the book down for a minute because I couldn’t face the possibility of Gansey being alone when he died, even though I knew from previous visions that at least Blue was going to be there with him.

NUMBER TWO. I love it that Glendower was dead, and there was no favor, and the search brought them to a dead (ha ha ha) end. Mostly because I’m nihilistic that way, but also because it wasn’t ever really about Glendower in the first place (see above). It was about these people and their friendship and what they were growing into. Even Ronan knows that Gansey could have found Glendower any time he wanted, if he’d wanted to. It actually was the journey, and not the destination, that mattered.

NUMBER THREE. Everything about everything relating to Blue and Gansey, and Adam and Ronan, was perfect in every way. But my favorite thing, probably, was this:

He said, “I thought this was a night for truth.”

“Ronan kissed me,” Adam said immediately. The words had clearly been queued up. He gazed studiously into the front yard. When Gansey didn’t immediately say anything, Adam added, “I also kissed him.”

I don’t know why that amuses me so much. It’s just such an Adam thing to add, while he is talking to Gansey about, basically, how best to be careful of Ronan and what to do about it all.

Relatedly, I love Adam the best. My Myers-Briggs personality type is INTJ, which if you take a gander at a few of those “Which Harry Potter/Star Wars/Marvel Universe character are you?” Myers-Briggs charts, you will find is the personality type of mainly fictional psychopaths and life-ruiners. So it was nice to have such an exceptionally INTJ-y INTJ character like Adam to who was neither a psychopath nor a life-ruiner.2

NUMBER FOUR if I may make one tiny criticism. I am not sure we and the other characters had enough time to deal with their losses. Gansey is dead for like two seconds before they bring him back to life, and even though I find the manner in which he is brought back to life quite satisfying, I would have liked that emotional beat to matter a little more and a little longer. Like maybe if Henry Cheng hadn’t been there for it? And if they’d had to take Gansey home and once they got home he said the thing about them being magicians?

Also, and mainly, nobody got a chance to grieve Noah. I guess it’s fine that they never knew he’s the one who saved Gansey — I actually like it when there’s important pieces of the story that important characters never find out — but I’m sad we didn’t see them recognizing that he was gone gone, and having the chance to grieve. And after he was so sweet to Ronan.

NUMBER FIVE, Adam borrows Ronan’s car to go see his family at the end. (I assume his Hondayota finally bit the dust?) That Adam let Ronan lend him a car, and that Ronan let Adam go do this scary feelings thing on his own, says everything about how much these two characters have changed over the course of the books. What a great series.

You may now feel free to squeal at me in the comments about any and all of the books in this series.

  1. I like to call him RG3, even though the overlap between Raven Cycle readers and minor quarterback carers-about is probably not that huge so there are probably very few people who would find this amusing.
  2. My mum doesn’t like Adam. I identify strongly with Adam. Does this mean she doesn’t like me? Who knows.

The Last Witness, K. J. Parker

tl;dr: A fantastically unreliable narrator; a twisty and intricate plot containing many machinations; a short but intensely KJ Parkery introduction to political fantasy author KJ Parker.

The subtitle for every KJ Parker novel, including this Tor novella The Last Witness might be, The Death of All Hope. Be warned of this before you go in. A lot of things will happen, you will experience feelings of suspense, and at the end, nobody you care about will get anything they want. Or if they do, they will find it is a cold and hollow victory.

The Last Witness
The Last Witness: Death of All Hope, by KJ Parker [not its real subtitle]
Anyway, if you’re unsure about KJ Parker (like maybe you have appreciated the notion of a premise but you are not quite so sure about this Death of All Hope business), this novella could be a good place to start.1 The protagonist has a particular skill: He can look at a person’s face and find himself inside the library of their memory; and once there, he can remove any memory he wants. The person no longer has that memory. Our protagonist has it, instead.

What’s forgotten might as well never have existed. Think of that. If there are no witnesses, did it really ever happen?

You know, of course. Even after the last witness has died, you still remember what you did.

That’s why you need me.

If you cannot abide uncertainty in your reading, The Last Witness may not be your book. The plot is told in a nonlinear way, for one thing, leaping about from one era of the narrator’s life to the other with only a line break ornament for a warning. For another thing, the protagonist is wildly unreliable, in all the best ways. He leaves things out, sometimes. He is trying to mislead, sometimes. The memories he relates do not always belong to him. The memories he relates do not always include relevant details.

Per usual with KJ Parker, the story throws a lot of balls in the air, and keeps introducing new ones into the act. Halfway through, I was sure there were too many elements in play for the book to resolve them all in a satisfying way. But then, of course, KJ Parker pulled them all together in an inimitably KJ Parker kind of way, where some things that had seemed trivial became all-important, and some things that had seemed inescapable became utterly trivial.

(In other news, I am loving this new line of Tor novellas! Thanks, Tor! You’re doing great work! I shall read Sorcerer of the Wildeeps next!)

Some other reviews: Strange Horizons, Bookworm Blues, SF Bluestocking, The BiblioSanctum, Sci-Fi and Fantasy Reviews

And a question for you! Whenever I read KJ Parker, I am reminded of how much I love reading about the ins and outs of political machinations (Megan Whalen Turner is also very strong on this). Do you have any book recommendations along those lines, that really get into the (fictional or nonfictional) political trenches?

  1. That is what happened to me. Memory convinced me to read Parker’s novella Purple and Black, and then I discovered I like KJ Parker’s writing style more than I disliked the Death of All Hope.

Flood of Fire, Amitav Ghosh

Flood of Fire is the culmination of the least trilogy-like trilogy that ever trilogied, Amitav Ghosh’s The Ibis Trilogy, of which the first two were Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke (both excellent). In  the sense that it got the band back together (sort of) and shifted the reader into the early days of the Opium Wars (about which I really will learn more soon!), it was a superb conclusion to the trilogy. In the sense that it pinged some ick sensors of mine, it was my least favorite of the series.

Flood of Fire

Do you remember that feeling when you were a kid and you would read a book that was too old for you in some way? Where you didn’t fully know why it was upsetting you, but you had that icky feeling where you just wanted to be away from the book? Did y’all experience that as kids? My memory of that feeling is why I feel so confident in kids’ ability to self-censor, so I hope it’s at least somewhat universal.

Anyway, I am a grown-up now, so I mostly don’t feel that feeling anymore. When I feel it now, it’s very often because a book starts leading up to predatory sexual practices. (At least, the last two books that gave me this feeling did it by leading up to predatory sexual practices.) Flood of Fire made me feel that way. (Lolita didn’t, but I was, of course, forewarned.) In the end, nothing as bad as what I was imagining happened, but the feeling lingered.

To be more specific, and a bit spoilery for some things that happen in the middle of the book: A white lady becomes overinterested in the onanistic tendencies of a mixed-race man in her employment and keeps asking him to come to her bedroom to discuss, you know, that. And that is a situation so fraught with badness that if it hadn’t been a book I’ve anticipated for years, I’d have stopped reading.

As with the rest of the series, though, Flood of Fire is kaleidoscopic in scope and more vivid than any other historical novel I’ve read. The people from the Ibis come back together in unexpected and tragic and joyful ways, and that was immensely satisfying. But I’ll probably reread the first two oftener.

Did you have that feeling ever, when you were a kid reading books? Have any of those books stuck with you?

Fiendish, Brenna Yovanoff

If you ever feel I’m not giving enough love in this space to Brenna Yovanoff, there just is not a good answer I can give you. I thought The Replacement was quite terrific, and if I hadn’t heard bad things about Fiendish, I’d have read it way sooner. I regret the error.

Fiendish is about a girl called Clementine who lies sleeping inside the cellar of a burned-out house, tangled in leaves, for ten years. When she wakes up, the world has changed. Her mother is dead, her own aunt doesn’t remember her, and her town hates and fears people like her, people who can work magic. And everyone who knows about magic says that a second reckoning is coming.

Confession: I finished the book the night before writing a rough draft of this post, and I already couldn’t remember the protagonist’s name; I had to look it up. And that’s in spite of there being several references to the song “Clementine” in the book. Which is to say that Brenna Yovanoff’s forte is not character, and you will want to look elsewhere for that. Fiendish excels at being hella creepy. Here are some things Fiendish contains:

  • an angry small-town religious mob that wants to burn things down
  • catfish with mouths full of rows and rows of sharp pointy teeth
  • a group of teenagers whose combined power is at substantial risk of destroying the whole world
  • a swampy place that responds to (but is not controlled by) the emotions of the boy who rescued Clementine from her cellar; this is fine if the boy is happy and NOT GREAT if he is cross
  • blurry, poisonous black dogs that I picture as being like dog-form versions of the smoke monster from Lost, except they excrete a black tarry poison as well as biting and scratching the living shit out of you
  • burned-down houses that people still live in

The morning after I stayed up late to finish reading Fiendish all in one go, my mum mentioned that she had seen reviews of Fiendish that decried the lack of agency on the part of the heroine, Clementine. Which: Okay, I can see that, she’s more reactive than proactive. But it didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of what was a wonderfully creepy book, and it’s the wonderful creepiness I come to Brenna Yovanoff for anyway.

ODY-C, Matt Fraction (vol. 1)

Note: I received an e-book copy from the publisher for review consideration.

ODY-C: What.

And look, I didn’t want to say What in that disparaging, not-really-a-question sort of tone. I wanted to say, Hooray! Matt Fraction! Trying things! So to be clear off the top: I support trying things in this bold manner. When you find yourself confronted with a comic that gender-swaps the whole Odyssey and transposes it to a science-fictional universe in which Zeus (a lady) prevented anyone from ever having sons ever again, you have to pause to admire the attempt.

I will give you a second to do that.

Admire. Admire.

Here is my problem, apart from hating the art (because in comics I do truly prefer the art to have nice clean lines and not all muddy blurriness with blurry faces because I have a hard enough time with faces in real life, let alone drawn ones, let alone blurry drawn ones): For all the boldness of the concept, the execution isn’t bold enough. It really is just the Odyssey, but in space and with ladies. The Circe creature lures them in. The Cyclops creature gobbles them up. The trappings are fresh, but the story is beat-for-beat the old one we already know.

I’ve talked about this before: Homer is Homer. If you are going to give us a new take on Homer, it should make us see Homer differently. Fraction’s trying to be Homer, albeit in a science fiction universe where everybody is female. Once you get past the startling and wonderful weirdness of the premise, there isn’t a whole lot more there except the attempt — which fails, I think — at the sound and feel of the original Odyssey. And it is just no use Matt Fraction’s trying to be Homer. Homer has already got that covered.

No one’s sadder about this than me. Matt Fraction is one of my favorite comics writers, and I wanted to love ODY-C. But so far my feelings to it are mainly an urge to reread my dear, dear Odyssey in my dear, dear Fagles translation.

Please congregate in the comments to tell me why I am wrong about ODY-C and should give it another chance.

Shirley Jackson Reading Week (a round-up)

I read Hangsaman for Shirley Jackson Reading Week, you guys, and I feel like I did not understand one single thing about it. ?Cultural differences? So instead of reviewing that this week, I’ll be writing about “The Lottery” on Thursday (inshallah).

Anyway! It’s Shirley Jackson Reading Week around these parts, and people are writing awesome posts:

Words for Worms on We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Helen of a gallimaufry on the short story “Paranoia.”

Desperate Reader on The Sundial (my fave!).

Emerald City Book Review on The Sundial (my fave!!).

I will round up more later in the week, but you may content yourself with these for now!

Binny in Secret, Hilary McKay

Note: I received a copy of Binny in Secret from the publisher for review consideration.

Oh frabjous day when Hilary McKay has a new book! Hilary McKay — in case you have not heard me sing her praises in the past — is a British children’s writer who should be much more famous than she is. She writes the kind of old-fashioned children-doing-adventures books you loved as a kid, like Elizabeth Enright’s Melendy Quartet or, more recently, Jeanne Birdsall’s Penderwicks books; but with more carefully-drawn family dynamics than the former and more humor than the latter.

Binny in Secret, by Hilary McKay

Binny in Secret, the follow-up to Binny for Short, sees twelve-year-old Binny once again displaced from house and home. She and her mother, her teenage sister Clem, and her wriggly, personable little brother James, are forced out of their home by a massive storm. The new home is far from everything familiar, and Binny inadvertently becomes the enemy of the landlady’s daughter, and what is more, there are Creatures.

Where the Cassons are completely tangled up in each other, each Cornwallis is more of a discrete unit. Binny is especially solitary: Separated from her ?best?friend Gareth, and unexpectedly the enemy of one of the most popular girls in her new school, she spends a lot of her time alone. This limits what Hilary McKay is best with, family relations.

LUCKILY: To fill the tragic lack of family relations in Binny’s storyline, alternating chapters include the story of the family who lived in Binny’s house in the 1910s, three cousins and the museum of natural history they’re constructing. These chapters are a madly poignant counterpoint to the humor of Binny’s hunt for [redacted because it’s an incredibly charming spoiler].

Seriously: Hilary McKay. Look into it. She does not get the love she deserves and would that I could singlehandedly correct this problem. Let’s make Hilary McKay as famous as she deserves to be, people! Together we can!

(I really love Hilary McKay.)

The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies, Martin Millar

Note: I received a copy of The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies from the publisher, Soft Skull Press, for review consideration.

Martin Millar writes books like classic British sitcoms, where there is a central organizing event (or several) around which the action is oriented, and the characters all have their separate and incompatible visions for what is to happen at this event, and everything goes magnificently to hell, and then in the end it all turns out okay, or doesn’t. Whether or not this works for you as a structure will most likely be the determining factor in whether you enjoy any Martin Millar book, ever — including his most recent novel, The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies.

The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies is set in ancient Athens, about midway through the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. Athens and Sparta are holding a peace conference, and the city is preparing for the Dionysian festival at which new plays will be presented to the city. Demigods and immortals descend on the city to watch these events unfold (or sabotage them). Aristophanes struggles to get his pro-peace play Peace sorted out, and common-born Luxos does his best to jump-start his career as a poet.

Describing a Martin Millar novel — and this is a very good one — is tricky because all of the adjectives that come to mind come loaded with unwanted connotations. I always say sweet, or charming, and The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies is both sweet and charming, but that undersells its cleverness. Clever implies that there isn’t any heart, and there is because it is impossible not to fall for the sincerity of Millar’s characters (and the super simplicity of their motivations). Sincere misses how funny it is.

I’ll go with funny in the end, and also self-aware: Millar clearly recognizes a level of absurdity in writing a comic novel set in ancient Greece, and his book lets the audience in on the joke without getting too winky. The story has simple stakes, but Millar knows that the historical background was far from simple, and this also shows.

Martin Millar is one of my favorite authors in the sense that you know what one of his books is going to be, and it always is most satisfyingly that. The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies is as solid an introduction to his particular brand of madcap scheme-making story as any he’s written in the past.

Really important question tho: Do you like Athens or Sparta better? (The correct answer is “Athens, but”.)

Shirley Jackson Reading Week (13-18 July)

Get pumped, you aficionados of the weird and creepy! This July 13th through 18th is going to be Shirley Jackson Reading Week, a time to revisit everyone’s favorite spooky-ass author or, if you’ve never read one of her books, meet her for the first time! Simon of Stuck in a Book, Ana of Things Mean a Lot, and I are the co-hosts for this event, and we hope you’ll join us!

Lucky for you, the good folks at Penguin have put all of Jackson’s books back into print, so you’ll have the pick of the litter. If this is your first time out, let me recommend We Have Always Lived in the Castle, a story about the two sisters who survived attempted murder and the life they live in a village that fears them. Otherwise, pick your poison! We’ll be waiting.

And spread the word! Everyone should take the chance to read Jackson’s mordant, terrifying, hilarious work this summer!

The Just City, Jo Walton

So, hmmm.

At the start of The Just City, Apollo can’t work out why Daphne chose to be turned into a tree rather than mate with him. When he goes to discuss it with his sister Athene, he finds her deep in the process of planning an experiment where she will put together a working version of the Just City envisioned by Plato in The Republic. Adult devotees of Plato from all throughout history will oversee the city’s establishment (with some robots to do the heavy lifting), and freed slave children will live there with the adults, learning and growing and reproducing in the ways stipulated by Plato. Apollo decides to become human and participate in this city, in order to get a better grip on human volition.

As strange as that made the book sound, that’s exactly how strange the book is. Jo Walton admits in the epilogue to having been nudged to read Plato at a too-young age by my girl Mary Renault, and this book is essentially what you would expect from that: Something Renaulty and Socratic-dialogue-ish, with not always quite the exact perfect ratio of scene-setting to plot advancement.

Having said that, I still found myself getting lost in this book, glancing up to find that I was just about to miss my opportunity to notify the bus driver of my stop. I expected to be annoyed with Socrates when he came onto the scene — it feels like many authors who portray Socrates want to puncture his myth and make him overwhelmingly annoying and gross — but Walton’s Socrates is wonderful, exactly what you would want Socrates to be. (If you are the sort of person who wants Socrates at all.) (Which Legal Sister is.)

And when I finished The Just City, I wanted The Philosopher Kings straight away.

And also, I would never ever ever go live in any attempt at a utopian society because that seems to never work out.

This has been my fourth and final read for the Once Upon a Time IX challenge, the mythology book. Thanks so much, as always, to Carl for hosting, and do go visit the reviews site to see what other people have been reading!

Question for you: Would you ever live in a utopian commune? What kind of utopia would you want it to be?