Sunbolt, Intisar Khanani

Note: I received a copy of Sunbolt from the publisher, through NetGalley, for review consideration.

So all the bloggers have been on and on about the wonders of Intisar Khanani, and I finally got the chance to read one of her books (thanks, NetGalley!). Sunbolt is the novella beginning of a new series, about a street thief named Hitomi who’s part of a resistance force against the oppressive sultanate, and who secretly is the daughter of two (deceased) mages and thus a fairly powerful mage in her own right. I’d have already been in at street thief in a non-Europeanish fantasy world, but Khanani went and added secret magical heritage on top of that, and the whole thing became my exact cup of tea.

Let’s start with the (for me) weakest link, the secret magical heritage. When I say “weakest link,” I’d like you to appreciate that I really liked this novella, and “weakest link” isn’t much of an insult within that context. It’s the weakest link because it’s got striking plot similarities — as noted by The Illustrated Page — to one of my favorite books of all time, Robin McKinley’s Sunshine. And so I kept thinking, mmmm, Sunshine, that was a good book, and not focusing on the book in front of me. So actually, let’s let that go. It’s not germane.

The worldbuilding: Sometimes you don’t realize how status the quo was — and how stifling you were finding it — until you get something that shifts away from it. Hitomi lives in a decidedly non-European world. Light skin reads as foreign to the people in Hitomi’s native Karolene, the king is a sultan, and the fishing boats are dhows. There’s something refreshing and surprising about reading a fantasy book that doesn’t make you look around for Yorks and Lancasters.

(No disrespect to George RR Martin.)

(Just, not everywhere is England. Not everywhere is even Europe. It is good when books remind you of that fact.)

Meanwhile, Hitomi’s a street thief, which means she can sneak through alleys and run across roofs and pick complicated locks with the same sort of flair and insouciance you’d like to imagine you would possess as a teenage magic street kid. See how when you put those words together, “teenage magic street kid,” you automatically start to root for that person without knowing anything further about them? And on top of that, Hitomi thinks on her feet and is ferociously devoted to the resistance cause. When you leave her behind at the end of the book, you want to know where she goes from there. One novella (to steal a phrase from Ronlyn Domingue’s The Mercy of Thin Air) is not enough for the trouble of which she is capable.

Next I shall read Thorn! Everyone raves about that too, and it will be a perfect Once Upon a Time fairy tale read in case Poison doesn’t work out for me. (Facts: I have grave concerns that Poison isn’t going to work out for me.)

I am participating in Carl’s Once Upon a Time challenge, and this has been my Fantasy book for it. Still to come are mythology, fairy tale, and folk tale books. Visit the reviews site to see what other people have been reading!

Once Upon a Time IX

The Once Upon a Time challenge is upon us once more! And this year I am not just going to talk about participating. I am going to really do it! And I mean — look at how pretty the button is (as always).

So I want to do Quest the Second, in which I will read one book apiece in each of the challenge’s categories: fantasy, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology. Here’s my plan.

Fantasy: I am already reading Caroline Stevermer’s A Scholar of Magics, so that’s going to be my fantasy read. It is about an Oxford-like college at which people do magic. There is a lady from another magical college in it, and an American sharpshooter who has been hired to demonstrate his talent for reasons that remain mysterious. I’m totally into it so far. I shall also reread Seraphina in advance of reading its new sequel, Shadow Scale.

Folklore: Maybe I’ll give the Elizabeth Wein retellings of the King Arthur story another try. But if you have other suggestions, please share them in the comments!

Fairy tale: Thanks to a recommendation from Bride of the Book God, I’m going to try out Sarah Pinborough! She’s got a book called Poison that’s a retelling of Snow White. And if that doesn’t work out, I want to try Rebecca Hahn’s A Creature of Moonlight, which if not a straight retelling of a specific fairy tale, is at least very fairy-tale-like.

Mythology: The Just City! It’s got some philosophical business in it as well, but it also has Daphne and Apollo, so I say it counts.

Looking forward to it! What will y’all be reading?

Review: A Curse as Dark as Gold, Elizabeth Bunce

Oh, the Once Upon a Time Challenge has returned to gladden our lives once again! I am delighted about this, as you may imagine, because it is making me get back into the swing of reviewing, which I completely fell out of while on vacation. Also because I love hearing about the books y’all are going to read, and also no. 2 because I have a girl-crush on Anne-Julie Aubry and rejoice in any excuse to display her beautiful art. I’ve decided I’m going to choose which banner to display based on which one I think matches the book in question better.

A Curse as Dark as Gold is my first Once Upon a Time Challenge read, a retelling of the story of Rumpelstiltskin. After the death of her father, Charlotte Miller and her sister Rosie find themselves in financial difficulties as they work to keep their mill in operation. Working against them are an alleged curse on the mill, a mortgage that threatens to eat up all their profit, and a louche uncle who shows up to “help” them. Unwilling to lose the mill, Charlotte and Rosie call upon the services of one Jack Spinner, who claims to be able to spin straw into gold.

In the interests of full disclosure, I must say that I have never liked the girl in Rumpelstiltskin. Oh, yeah, go on and have my firstborn son, that’s totally fine, I’m sure I won’t care about the kid once I have it. Really, Rumpelstiltskin girl? Really? In a similar spirit I wanted to take Charlotte Miller and shake her until her teeth fell out of her head. Not sure what that would accomplish except I guess she would have to get dentures and I bet dentures weren’t very comfortable in pre-Industrial Revolution times. So, uh, take THAT, unsympathetic protagonist!

One of my big bookish pet peeves is when the protagonist’s big problem has an obvious solution and s/he refuses to take it for a reason that doesn’t really make any sense. Like when kids refuse to tell their parents/teachers/the cops about their problem because they don’t think their parents would believe them — this can be okay sometimes, but mostly it’s just a cheap way of keeping the plot up and running. Charlotte acquires a source of funding that would solve all her problems, particularly the problems that make her agree to the first-born-child thing (she doesn’t agree to it specifically; she says “Anything” but that’s obviously a stupid thing to say to a sketchy fairy man). But she just won’t use it. No genuinely good reason is given for this, and nobody ever says “What the hell, Charlotte?” about it later. Dislike. If you are going to have your protagonist behave badly, you should at least let her be taken to task.

The fantasy aspects of the book didn’t hang together terribly well either. Dire hints were dropped about a curse, but given wildly varying degrees of credibility, so when they start taking the curse seriously I still wasn’t sure if I should do the same. The book was a messy hodgepodge of village magic (corn dollies, things happening at crossroads), the occasional splodge of high fantasy language (people saying “gods” as an exclamation), and modernization clashing with tradition (banks with mortgages, more efficient mill tools).

Nevertheless, I am not giving up on Elizabeth Bunce! I never wanted to read A Curse as Dark as Gold in the first place. I always wanted Starcrossed, and A Curse as Dark as Gold has not put me off wanting to read Starcrossed.

Review:

Aelia Reads
Always Dreaming
bookshelves of doom
Teen Book Review
Bib-Laura-graphy
Sarah’s Random Musings

Tell me if I missed yours!

In other news, Diana Wynne Jones has died. If you have been reading for a while, you probably know that I adore Diana Wynne Jones. I am crushed. I wanted her to live forever. She wrote magic.

The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim

Oh Bruno Bettelheim, you silly bunny.  So many things about your book annoyed me until I flipped to your about-the-author and looked at your dates.  Turns out, there is some excuse for your dated Freudian psychology: you were born in 1903!  After I knew that, so many things about you still annoyed me.  I like for writers to use the phrases “oedipal conflict” and “oral incorporative stage” sparingly, if at all.  Your dates are no excuse!  I would have found it even more annoying if I had not suddenly remembered this (warning for language); and then every time Bettelheim said something Freudian, I thought of Robert DeNiro and smiled.

Bruno Bettelheim says very little of value that I haven’t already heard out of Max Lüthi.  Most of the book is intended to persuade modern parents that fairy tales are good for their children because they provide the children with safe outlets for expressing their darkest emotions.  I do not require to be persuaded of this and thus became (unfair of me really) impatient with Bettelheim for continuing to try and persuade me.  I wanted to be all I ALREADY AGREE WITH YOU DUDE!  I wanted him to say new and exciting things that never would have occurred to me otherwise, and he didn’t really do that.

Moreover, I do not know that Bettelheim is right in trying to find one-to-one correspondences between every aspect of the story under discussion and every aspect of a child’s Freudian development.  “The Goose Girl” helps to guide children from the early oedipal stage to the next higher one; “Hansel and Gretel” helps them to overcome and sublimate their primitive incorporative desires, and so on like that.  His notion was that these stories have evolved over many generations in such a way as to reflect children at different stages in their development.  I am not completely convinced.

And then there was this:

Since in response to such direct and obvious seduction [the wolf inviting her into bed] Little Red Riding Hood makes no move to escape or fight back, either she is stupid or she wants to be seduced. In neither case is she a suitable figure to identify with.  With these details Little Red Riding Hood is changed from a naive, attractive young girl, who is induced to neglect Mother’s warnings and enjoy herself in what she consciously believes to be innocent ways, into nothing but a fallen women.

Bruno, Bruno.  I’m sorry, but we can’t be friends.  I’m returning you to the library and reading Marina Warner instead.  I believe that she will not anger me but will indeed have insightful remarks to make about gender, and I further believe that she will not be using the phrase “fallen woman” unironically.  I trust Marina Warner that way.

The Uses of Enchantment was my eighth (if I’ve counted them up right) and final read for the Once Upon a Time Challenge, as it ends tomorrow, and I won’t be reading Marina Warner before then because I am too busy with Sea of Poppies.  I was totally successful at this challenge and read more books for it than I anticipated I would.  Some of them surprised me by being wonderful, and some I wanted to love but did not.  You know how that goes.

Other people what read Bruno Bettelheim:

Tales from the Reading Room
books i done read

Did I miss yours?  Tell me and I will add a link!

Review: A Conspiracy of Kings, Megan Whalen Turner

When I was a little girl, I used to finish a book and turn around and read it all over again.  The Little Princess, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Travel Far, Pay No Fare.  I’m not talking about rereading (I still do loads of rereading), but finishing a book and flipping it over and starting all over again, because you can’t stand the idea of leaving it behind right away.  And look, I was serious about Megan Whalen Turner before.  I loved those books.  When I finished the first three and got the fourth from my ever-obliging big sister, I left the fourth one lying around for several days while I reread the first three.  All of them.  In order.  Picking up on details I hadn’t noticed the first time through.  Only then did I carry on with A Conspiracy of Kings.

A Conspiracy of Kings is about Sophos – remember Sophos?  Darling studious bookworm Sophos from The Thief?  Don’t keep reading this review right now, if you haven’t read the foregoing three books, because I can’t really talk about A Conspiracy of Kings without spoiling the books that have come before.  Again I say unto you, stop reading this review and go do something else, if you have not read Megan Whalen Turner’s other books.

Are you gone?

Okay then.  So Sophos, heir to the king of Sounis, is on the run.  The barons of Sounis and the ambassadors of the Mede are making trouble for Sophos, necessitating a flight to Attolia, where his old friend Gen is now the King.  The book opens with Sophos, whom Gen has believed dead, finally reaching the sanctuary of Attolia – well, relative sanctuary, given that the country of which Sophos is king is at war with the country of which Gen is king.

I’ve read several reviews of A Conspiracy of Kings that expressed regret at the way the narrative shifts away from Gen.  Now look, I enjoy spending time with Gen as much as anybody, but I thought Sophos was a splendid point-of-view character.  In this book, Turner deals with the question of choosing the sort of person you want to be: Sophos has the opportunity to decide whether he wants to go back to his old life.  Or in fact he has several opportunities, and until he’s practically forced by circumstance, he doesn’t step up and take responsibility.  It’s only when he’s got his back against the wall that he makes the decision to grow up.  Sophos.  Bless him.

(Anyway, there’s plenty of Gen.)

What can I say?  Everything I loved about the foregoing books, I loved about this one.  I loved seeing Sophos grow up, especially because he comes to terms with doing things he’d rather not do for the sake of his country, without losing his (can I say this and not make you gag? Only I can’t think of any other way of putting it) sweetness of spirit.  There were further political machinations, and a gaining-the-throne scene that pleased me by being quite unlike Sophos and yet perfectly in line with the arc of his character development.

Have you read this yet?  Do you think it would be a good thing to have one of the queens narrate the fifth book that Megan Whalen Turner is undoubtedly engaged in writing at this very moment so that she can release it tomorrow and fill my life with yet more joy?  I suppose it would be tricky to have Attolia as a POV character, given that she’s so buttoned up, but I think Eddis would be an interesting narrator.

Other reviews:

Book Lust & The Written World
Stella Matutina
Charlotte’s Library (incidentally expresses exactly how I felt when I started reading this book!)
Book Nut
Angieville
A Chair, A Fireplace, & A Tea Cozy
Truth, Beauty, Freedom, and Books
Dear Author
One Librarian’s Book Reviews

Did I miss yours?  Tell me if so, and I will add a link!

Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales, Max Luthi

By astonishing coincidence, I find myself needing to research fairy tales right in the middle of the Once Upon a Time Challenge (about which, if anyone is wondering, I have never forgotten at all but have kept it uppermost in my mind at all times).  Max Lüthi has written a book that provides an insightful and very readable overview of the conventions of the European fairy tale.  As a starting place for my research into fairy tales (I am going to research the crap out of fairy tales, y’all), I could hardly have picked a better book.

Lüthi talks about the conventions of fairy tales and what they mean to us.  I spent the entire book shrieking “OH YEAH! THAT IS TOTALLY TRUE!” because Lüthi writes about patterns in fairy tales, mainly Grimm’s.  I read Grimm’s fairy tales like mad when I was a little girl, way more than Lang’s, so Lüthi was writing about all the stories I read, in the versions that I read them.

For instance, I have previously remarked upon stories that violate ontological boundaries.  Fairy tales do this all the time, with talking animals and like that, but Lüthi points out that while we may be surprised by this, the characters aren’t.  An animal walks up and starts talking to our fairy tale protagonists, and the protagonists are perfectly chill about it.  One of Lüthi’s lovely, concise observations: “[In fairy tales], everything can enter into relationship with everything else…[they] free people from their natural context.”

Or, oh, this was good, Luthi notes that relationships and feelings are externalized rather than explained in emotional terms.  Relationships and connections between characters are tangible: a princess will slip something into her lover’s pocket before he leaves.  A girl who walks a long way in search of something or someone will wear through three pairs of iron shoes, her weariness represented rather than described.  True story, right?  That kind of thing happens all the time in fairy tales. Tangibles.  Love ’em.

As I have a troubled relationship with time, I appreciated this the most:

The fairy tale conquers time by ignoring it.  Part of the power which it has to delight the reader derives from this triumph over time and the passage of time….[these stories] remove us from the time continuum and make us feel that there is another way of viewing and experiencing life, that behind all birth and death there is another world, resplendent, imperishable, and incorruptible.

I took copious notes on this book, with a pen that I am trying to use up its ink because I can’t bear to throw a gel pen away.  It’s the most obnoxious color of pen ever, this terrible orangey dark coral, but the pen’s a Uni-ball Signo with a 0.5mm nib.  I can’t throw that pen away.  I have a finite number of pens, and anyway, it’s got a 0.5mm nib!  But it’s the ugliest damn color ever, and the day this thing runs out of ink is going to be a happy, happy day for me.

Immoderately gushing about Megan Whalen Turner

May I begin in justifying myself slightly for the fact that I have not read these books until now although my sister Anna read and recommended them, like, a decade ago?

When I really love a book, I want everyone who I think would like it to read it so that they can love it also.  To this end, I will wheedle and cajole and sometimes manipulatively give the book to them as a gift so they will feel guilty for not reading it.  It’s for their own good.  In short, I cannot rest until the joy has been spread.  I am an evangelist for the books (and films and TV shows) that I love.  I know that marketing principle where you have to remind people a whole bunch of times before you can expect them to take action, and I do it.  Only because I want my loved ones to have the same joyous reading experiences that I have had.

My sister Anna does not operate quite in the same way.  From what I can observe, she has a more live and let live philosophy.  If she tells me a book is good, and I then don’t read it, it’s possible she may never bring it up again.  If she tells me a book is good, and I start it and don’t like it, she will probably leave it at that.  SO NOT LIKE ME!  I will pester the crap out of people until they give my books another chance.  Anna, not so much.  So I can’t always tell from her recommendations the difference between a book that is good and my life is empty without it, and a book that is, you know, fine.

(Or else possibly Anna and I act the exact same way in regard to books we love madly, and I am making up a lot of self-justifying claptrap because I feel that without a reason for my not having read these books years ago the universe is too bleak and wretched to be bothered with.)

I do not necessarily know that your life is empty without Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief series.  But mine was.  These books – The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, and A Conspiracy of Kings, which I have not yet read – are set in an ancient-Greece-like (but not ancient Greece) fantasy world with religion and mythology and politics.  They are made up of pure win.  They make me want to stride up and down gesturing energetically and shouting about how good they are.  The politics are twisty and complex and feel realistic but do not bore me to tears.  The characters grow and change, and when they interact with each other, there is all this boilingly tense subtext underneath the actual words that they are saying.

A very true story about me: I love subtext.  I’m mad for subtext.  Considering the epic crush I have on words, I am mighty appreciative of things left unsaid.  Subtext.  The simmery-er, the better.  When I find an author who can make me quiver with tension during a scene where it’s just two people sitting around talking, I’m hers for life.  (Or his, of course!)  I will overlook a lot of flaws in a book that knows how to play its subtext.

Take, for example, Mary Renault’s The Charioteer, a very imperfect book, God knows, but I love it quite passionately for its dialogue, every line of which means at least one thing other than the actual words being said.  Or take nearly any scene between Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane in Dorothy Sayers’s mysteries, and you will see it is rife with beautiful, crackling subtext: see in particular the scene by the riverbank in Gaudy Night.  You know that one?  Damn good scene.

Megan Whalen Turner is also very good at this, so I may have been too high on subtext to spot any flaws.  I have seen reviews that found the plots of (some of) the books in this series slow, but I didn’t mind.  I was too busy enjoying the lovely character interactions.  The central character is a person with a tendency towards self-concealment, and many of the twists in the plot arise from your (or other characters’) (or both) not knowing him as well as you think you do.  This is a very cool kind of plot twist – the kind that makes you go back and reevaluate actions and words that you thought you understood the first time around but you really did not.  (Unless you’re me.  If you’re me, you did. I sneakily find out plot twists ahead of time by causing my sister to tell them to me.)

(While I’m gushing, can I get some love for the phrase “plot twist”? I dunno who came up with that, but that’s a brilliant phrase for it!  It makes a wonderful image in my mind!  TWIST.)

I guess since I have gone on and on about them, I should briefly say what these books are about. They are in a series, and since I know other people who are not me dislike spoilers, I don’t want to say too much about any one book and spoil the ones that came before it.  Very vaguely then: The Queen’s Thief books are about a thief called Eugenides (Gen), who lives in a section of the world that is not altogether unlike ancient Greece (before Alexander the Great, this would be).  For one reason and another, Gen finds himself mixed up with people in high places, and political turmoil, of varying scope and consequence throughout the several books, ensues.

I gobbled up The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, and The King of Attolia this weekend all in one mighty gobble, and then I had to wait and borrow A Conspiracy of Kings from my sister.  I hope the fourth book lives up to the previous ones and does not wrap up everything up tidily but rather leaves many things open for future books that Megan Whalen Turner is going to write swiftly and release promptly.  Thanks to Memory for reading these recently – your reviews tipped me over the edge!

Once again there are too many other reviews of these books for my slow old computer to load and then link to, plus I am tired and want to go to bed early tonight, so if you are yearning to see what the blogosphere thinks of Megan Whalen Turner I refer you to the glorious and oft-consulted-by-me Book Blogs Search Engine.

Because it is rich with mythology and features the gods, I am counting these books towards the Once Upon a Time Challenge, yet another challenge about which I have in no way forgotten.  How could I?  It has such a pretty button!

So how about it, everyone?  Are you a book evangelist?  Once you have made your initial recommendation to your loved ones about a book you adored, do you keep knocking on their doors in suits with copies of the book in your hands, or do you shut up and leave them alone to read whatever they darn well feel like reading?  How good is the phrase “plot twist”?  Are you, too, a subtext junkie?

Review: The Wee Free Men, Terry Pratchett

You know how sometimes you really, really want to like a book?  Because maybe people have suggested it to you with great enthusiasm, and you think they are lovely people, and you don’t want to hurt their feelings by disliking their book?  And also it is a book by a British author full of British humo(u)r, and when you were in England maybe several different people told you that Americans have bad senses of humo(u)r and don’t understand irony, and even though you know those people were absurd and Alanis Morrisette is Canadian, there is still a tiny portion of your brain that wants to continue to prove them wrong by appreciating British humo(u)r wherever you encounter it, even if in this case you find it self-conscious and prone to telegraphing its punch lines a bit?  And you spend maybe half of the book feeling frustrated because it’s not enjoyable in exactly the way you expected it to be not enjoyable, but then after a while you start liking it a bit better and at the end you feel perhaps a little fond of its heroine and you think you might read another?  And you wonder if it’s the same sort of “think you might have another” that happens when you encounter a new cookie that proves ultimately to be addictive and before you know it you’ve eaten twenty of them, or the sort of “think you might have another” where you want to want another so you go ahead and have another even though you are not sure you really want one?

Well, that’s where I’m at on this book.  The Once Upon a Time Challenge this year is turning into the Deeply Ambivalent Challenge for me here.

Reviews by people not overwhelmed by conflicting motives:

Book Lust
Fyrefly’s Book Blog
The Written World WITH Stephanie’s Confessions of a Book-a-holic
Valentina’s Room
Adventures in Reading

Tell me if I missed yours!