Book Review: The Secret Place by Tana French

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Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Writing:**** (4 stars)

Plot: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Tana French said in an interview: “You can be a perfectly healthy person without having kids or having a romantic relationship – you can live a full, happy, healthy life. I’m not sure you can do that without friends.”

Well, I’m not sure if I’d call the group of girls in The Secret Place healthy or happy, necessarily, but there’s no denying that their lives are full, full, full.

Full of each other: Holly, Julia, Selena, and Rebecca don’t care what anybody else thinks. They have each other, a stolen key to the door out of St. Kilda’s, and a vow to stay away from boys while together at school. The four girls consider their group a family, their lives at the prestigious Dublin boarding school the best they could imagine. A future without each other is not worth thinking about – the important things are now. here. together.

Full of magic: chilly nights in a moonlit cyprus grove on St Kilda’s grounds. Light bulbs that burn out when they will it. Something they all feel, four different ways: a balance that needs to be kept at all costs.

Full of secrets. Someone falls in love. Someone meddles. Someone else thinks she knows how to put things right. Someone can’t keep what she suspects to herself. The girls, in trying to keep each other safe, stop sharing everything.

* * * * * * * * * *

Last year, Chris Harper was found dead on the grounds, killed with a garden tool to the head. The groundskeeper they arrested after the fact didn’t do it, but with no other clues, the lead detectives moved on.

Then Holly Mackey goes to the police with a card off St. Kilda’s confessional post board, “The Secret Place.” Unlike the boob jobs and shoplifting on most cards to be found there, this one has a photo of Chris and the message “I know who killed him.”

This is detective Stephen Moran’s chance to get out of Cold Cases and into Murder. He knows Holly from when she was a witness in a case years ago. (I guess this was in French’s previous book, The Faithful Place, which I haven’t read.) Moran figures he can get the St. Kilda’s girls comfortable enough to talk to him, while the belligerent, insensitive, ultra-clever Antoinette Conway takes charge. Conway’s not easy or fun, but she could be his ticket into Murder. Dodging Mrs. McKenna’s iron rule over the students and reputation of St. Kilda’s, the two of them narrow their pool of interest down to eight girls. Two cliques: Holly’s friends and the bitch-princess Joanna Heffernan’s. While they originally suspect one of these girls as the confessional card maker, one excruciating day investigating and interrogating leads them to be sure that one of the eight girls is actually their murderer. No amount of Stephen’s charm or Conway’s doggedness will get the truth out easily, though, because these girls will lie to protect their own even when they don’t know the truth themselves.

* * * * * * * * * *

The Secret Place dragged me into its claustrophobic little world after around fifty pages, and was constantly on my mind. Police procedurals aren’t my usual jam at all, but I’d heard great things about Tana French, and this book in particular. Someone at a dinner party recommended The Secret Place during a conversation about how much we all loved boarding school books. Her suggestion was so spot on.

The novel’s timeline was spliced up interestingly: the detectives’ time on campus takes place over one single day, while alternating chapters lay out the whole year previous to their involvement. I’ll admit that whenever a sentence stated, so casually, “Chris Harper has X number of weeks to live,” I felt a little chill. Once the story hooked me, the St. Kilda’s girls, the Colm’s boys, even the hallowed halls seemed like my own personal acquaintances. Such a reminder of cruel fate seemed unfair.

 Unfairness is a prevailing theme, here. When a girl tries to do the right thing, or makes a difficult choice, things should work out for the best from then on. They are so loyal, the believe so hard, and the damned world just doesn’t reciprocate. I’m only just growing out of those convictions myself, and it’s painful. Tana French has done a wonderful job balancing between cold realism and sympathy in showing how teenage girls’ inner lives can’t protect them forever.

There were, of course, some things I didn’t understand. I haven’t read any of the other Dublin Murder Squad books, so the stuff about Holly’s past as a witness left me curious. Our main gang of girls – the four we live with for a year and more – develop some strange powers that may or may not be real, but we’re left hanging on the subject by the end. I liked the surreal touch of magic, myself, but I wonder if more specific crime readers might find it frustrating. Detective Moran’s easy repartee with young people didn’t quite match up with his calculating, almost desperate, interior monologue.

The detecting chapters that didn’t focus intensely on the girls or the school weren’t nearly so vivid as the chapters leading up to the murder, though I did love the alternating format as sometimes it let the reader know more than the characters, sometimes less. Sometimes I thought I knew something, only to learn one hundred pages on that I was very wrong indeed. You’ll never have a chance to get comfortable while reading this book, but you’ll want to stay in it for a long time anyway.

* * * * * * * * * *

This is the first book to grab me and not let me go since I finished The Raven Cycle while I was in Scotland. Tana French’s writing isn’t quite so sharp and lyrical as Maggie Stiefvater’s, but she has a similar grasp on the intense bonds of friendship, the lengths to which which teenagers are willing to go, the real magic of secrets and trust. This is definitely a book written for adults, but older teenagers still nursing a series-hangover after The Raven King might find some distraction in the dorm rooms and midnight grounds of St. Kilda’s.

I’ll finish now with a stanza from the Katherine Philips poem that hangs over Rebecca’s bed in their dorm room, because it is so appropriate:

“Why should we entertain a feare?

Love cares not how the world is turn’d.

If crowds of dangers should appeare,

Yet friendship can be unconcern’d.”

Near the end of the book, Detective Moran remembers that poem, but its meaning has chanced after they face three hundred pages of secrets and revelations:

“…That doesn’t mean nothing bad can happen, if you’ve got proper friends. It just means you can take whatever goes wrong, as long as you’ve got the. They matter more.” (p. 429)

So much bad happens in this story. But the sentiment proves true, and so we never fall into complete despair: they matter more. Intense? Yes. Unsustainable? Maybe. Who cares? The Secret Place reminded me how real and powerful even the smallest details can be when you’re young and your friends are your entire world. So even the wild overreactions and incomprehensible lies make sense. It’s all to protect something too rare and magical and important to let go without a fight.

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YA Books To Buy For Your Graduation Gifts

I’m away from the Somewhat United States at the moment, ceilidh dancing in Edinburgh and haunting my old haunts in St Andrews, but high school students all over America are getting ready to graduate within the next few weeks.  Congratulations to you all, especially to the young adults who are regulars at my bookshop.  I’m terribly proud.

It will come as no surprise that I recommend books for everyone’s graduation gift-giving needs.  Buy them from your local independent bookshop!  Fun, fast, creative YA novels are especially good for the end of the school year.  Seize the five seconds of not being a student anymore, before whatever further studies await, to treat your brain to something purely enjoyable.

Here are a few YA books that would make nice presents.  They’re clever, they’re intriguing, and they have wonderful characters.  Buy all three and your local bookseller might even gift wrap them for you.

The Rest Of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

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Not only has Patrick Ness created a group of friends who deserve six seasons of their own television show, he’s put them into a brilliant spoof of popular YA fiction trends.   Mikey and his friends just want to graduate high school and get on with their lives, but the “indie kids” in their school keep having to save the world from vampires or zombies or whatever eerie blue lights keep showing up in the darkness.  Patrick Ness’s subversion of the “chosen one” trend is witty and charming but also tremendously moving. Mikey, Mel, Henna, and Jared all have to fight their own battles in terms of mental health and identity, while the fantastical events around theme act as mere backdrop. I loved the notion of focusing on kids who aren’t the “chosen ones,” but just have to live there, doing their best to fall in love and find their place while the world keeps falling apart around them.  Give this book to someone who has already read a ton of YA – fantasy or realistic or both – and wants something totally unique for the summer.

2. Rebel Of The Sands by Alwyn Hamilton

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For someone who has already read all the fantasy books you can think of, or someone who is tired of Euro-centric settings for their magical worlds, try this new gun-slinging adventure inspired by the 1001 Arabian Nights.  It’s the best of American Westerns (sharp shooters, fights on speeding trains) mixed with Middle Eastern mythology.  Amani needs to get out of her dead-end town, Dustwalk, where her dead mother’s family hates her and the best she can hope for us an unhappy marriage.  In secret, Amani is one of the best shots around, when she’s disguised, sneaking around at night, “not up to no good,” but not “exactly up to no bad, neither.” Her chance to escape comes raging into town in the form of Jin, a fugitive and a foreigner.  Amani sees Jin as a way out.  He looks at her strange eyes and her unusual talents and sees powerful origins that might not yet be known to herself.  Rebel Of The Sands picks up speed and keeps racing across the desert to a rebel camp, creatures from stories, and a clashing of forces that will broaden Amani’s world farther than she used to ever imagine.  I was happily swept away into Alwyn Hamilton’s exciting new fantasy realm.  Amani is a heroine to cheer for, and I think determined graduates who want to get away and see wonders will love her story.  Mythology nerds and action lovers will dig this one.

3. The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater

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The Raven Cycle is seriously the best YA series I’ve read in over a decade.  The final installment just came out, so buy it for the graduates you know who have followed Blue and her Raven Boys to the ends of the earth and beyond.  If they haven’t started the series yet, do them a favor and buy them all four.  The character development, the intense magic, the sharp dialogue, and the creative use of Welsh mythology are absolutely out of this world.  In this final installment in the quartet, all the mystifying, intricate threads from the previous books come together to weave a web that’s beautiful and heart-breaking.  Maggie Stiefvater is a master writer.  Give her books to the literature devotees in your life, or the kids who made intense groups of friends and can’t imagine a life without them.

 

Book Review: The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: ***** (5 stars)

Plot: ***** (5 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age range recommendation: 13 and up.  (Swearing, violence, mild sexuality.)

Be it known that I read an advanced copy of this book and some details may change before publication in late September.

(Sorry for the overly long review, folks, but this book took up a LOT of real estate in my brain this weekend.)

Wow. This book came out of nowhere to knock me down. Captive children under oppressive rule, world-dominating Artificial Intelligence, and post-ecological meltdown politics usually tire me out but… damn. The Scorpion Rules gives me hope that sharp tongued AI and barely-sustainable futures can feel new. And heartfelt. And bloody devastating.

Four hundred years after the ice caps melted and the fresh water became scarce, the newly shaped countries have pretty much stopped fighting. There was lots of war in the beginning: fighting for space and fighting for fertile ground. But then the UN turned control over to an Artificial Intelligence known as Talis. Talis stopped the War Storms. Talis keeps relative peace across the globe. He started by blowing up cities every time a country declared war. Want to start a war or accept a declaration, even in defense of your own border? There goes Fresno. (“Because no one’s gonna miss that” – did I mention that Talis was a snide S.O.B.?)

But blowing up cities wasn’t a good long-term solution. So, as it says in the Holy Utterances of Talis, Book One, Chapter One: being a meditation on the creation of the Preceptures and the mandate of the Children of Peace :

“Make it personal.”

Greta is a Child of Peace. She is also the Duchess of Halifax and Crown Princess of the Pan Polar Confederacy. She lives at a Precepture somewhere in what was once Canada. At the Precepture, hostage children live almost monkish lives, farming and receiving a rigorous education. They learn about the ancient Stoics and sustainable development. They learn not to repeat the mistakes of history. It’s one of many similar Preceptures scattered around the ravaged globe, where a child of each and every global leader lives as a hostage. This is how Talis made war personal: anyone who wants to rule must have children, so that in case of war, that child’s life will be forfeit. But if they live to be eighteen, they become rulers and must soon send their own children to be held as insurance.

The Scorpion Rules begins with one of Talis’s messengers – a Swan Rider – coming to execute a Child of Peace: a friend of Greta’s. It’s an emotionally jarring way to dip one’s toes into a story, and sparked a slow burn of conflicted horror in me as I read on. Greta and her friends know why they’re hostages, and they know that this system is the only successful way to keep violence minimum out in the struggling world. The Abbot who teaches them – another AI – is at the same time kindly and pitiless. This is the trouble with artificial intelligence, trying to save the human race through logic: logic understands fear and love (that’s how the whole hostage thing works) but it doesn’t show any mercy.

The war that kills Greta’s friend sees the creation of a new state called the Cumberland Alliance, so the ruthless Cumberland general’s grandson joins them as a hostage. Elián was not brought up to be a royal captive and he doesn’t believe in facing one’s fate with dignity and grace. He struggles against Talis’s system, the Abbot’s authority, and the beliefs which Children of Peace take so seriously to heart. He jokes that he’s Spartacus and refuses to give up or stop smiling, even when robotic proctors electrocute him so badly he falls to the ground.

It was easy to think, I, too, would be brave and defiant like Elián in this situation. But would I really? One of the best things about The Scorpion Rules is the powerful moral ambivalence. When Elián acts out, they all get punished. But his stubbornness opens Greta’s eyes to the hideousness of their situation, and once she starts to see how wrong things are, she can’t return to being the stoic princess, prepared and willing to die with dignity whenever a Swan Rider comes calling her name.

Too bad Elián’s grandmother is likely to declare war on the Pan Polar alliance at any time, desperate for the water to be found in the Great Lakes. Knowing that they’re likely to be executed together, there’s shouldn’t be much stopping Greta and Elián from taking a stand against their captivity. But there’s no escape from all these moral quandaries: without the hostages, can there be peace? Will these children’s families really sacrifice them in order to fight? How can the Abbot be their torturer and their nurturer at the same time? Are they willing to endanger their friends for a chance of freedom?

It’s the sort of plot that tears you into pieces, because there are no right answers. Erin Bow writes about a future that could stem from our very messy present, and she doesn’t see an easy way out. The seven teenagers who make up Greta’s cohort come from all over the world, and have varying opinions about their captivity. Thandi is harsh with her friends sometimes, though Greta eventually learns what happened to make her so guarded. Gregor is easily frightened, nerdy, and deadpan in his sense of humor. Da-Xia, Greta’s room-mate and best friend, is small and beautiful but carries the powerful bearing of the goddess-queen she will someday become. Greta was always so composed and smart, until Elián’s words got under her skin. I grew intensely attached to each of these kids as they argued, and worked together, and comforted one another, always watched by the panopticon, always steeling themselves for tragedy.

So when violence comes right to the Precepture’s doors, I was all sorts of nervous about how things might turn out. Halfway through The Scorpion Rules, the psychological turbulence and sci-fi philosophy became suddenly action-packed. I’ve already summarized too much, so I’ll just say: the no-real-good-guys trend continues like woah.

There’s torture. There’s disguise. There’s a funny scene with goat pheromones. There’s a more nuanced romance than I originally expected. There’s an awful lot of blood. Talis himself gets a speaking role that’s a little more intimate than The Utterances, and even though he’s definitely a Heartless Robot Dictator I must admit that he became one of my favorite characters. Don’t get too attached to anyone in this book, though, because no one is safe. I was too wrapped up in furiously turning the pages to wipe away my tears, but my face was definitely damp at one point.

Maybe The Scorpion Rules could have been a little shorter, as it is a long book despite the short span of time in which the action happens. I enjoyed the pastoral gardening scenes and the goat cheese making because these details helped to conjure the monkish serenity of their prison, but I would have been just as happy without them. Aside from a few dips in the pacing, Erin Bow really delivered with this book. Complex characters, a many-layered plot, and philosophy that makes your heart hurt all come together to tell a story that leaves you reeling.

I’m not sure if there’s a sequel expected for The Scorpion Rules. I would definitely read more on the subject – even if just to read more of Talis’s deliciously flippant Holy Utterances – but the ending was also oddly satisfying. Not satisfying like everything’s going to be fine. Because there’s no easy way out of the dire circumstances human kind has to face, here. But satisfying as in everyone has to do what they think is best, and god do I hope they’ve made the right decisions.

And I hope, too, that our future never quite comes to this.

Book Review: Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine

I read Treasure Island!!! on Mount Desert Island.  Good stuff.

I read Treasure Island!!! on Mount Desert Island. Good stuff.

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 15 and up. (Book is aimed at grown-ups, with lots of swearing and some sex.)

There’s a reason for the three exclamation points, and the reason is this: TREASURE ISLAND!!! Isn’t Robert Lewis Stevenson’s magnificent nautical jaunt simply the best story of adventure, the best test of character, ever told? You bet your scurvy soul it is. The heroine narrator of Sara Levine’s absurdly funny, wonderfully glib novel agrees. When she reads Treasure Island, she realizes that her 25 years of unfulfilling jobs and subdued interactions have been a waste of her potential. She should be more like Jim Hawkins, swept out amongst rogues into a world of adventure! She should face all the little problems in her uncomfortably comfortable middle-class existence with seafaring spirit! She should read Treasure Island over and over, making notes on index cards, and refusing to speak about anything else! She should acquire a parrot!

Obviously, I’ve had similar experiences with pirate books. I, too, wish that more altercations were solved with a cutlass and a challenge and no care for consequences. But where I find Long John Silver to be the most compelling character in the old classic, (as do most other readers, the “spiritual healer” points out in Levine’s novel), our fearless [???] narrator cares about no one but Jim Hawkins. She decides to try and live her life based around the lad’s best qualities, which supposedly make up the Core Values of Treasure Island:

BOLDNESS

RESOLUTION

INDEPENDENCE

HORN-BLOWING

Alas, in the real world there aren’t ample opportunities for 19th century style horn-blowing. Boldness often comes across as a blatant disregard for good manners. And it’s hard to be independent when you’ve gracelessly quit your job at the Pet Library, after abandoning your post and stealing your boss’s money to buy a parrot, and must move back home with your well-meaning parents. The narrator’s new found zeal for Stevenson’s adventure story borders on religious fervor. Even while it destroys her relationship with a good-natured young man, threatens her friendships, and sets the course for a full scale mental breakdown, she cannot give up her obsession with living a boy-hero’s life; a life undaunted by any obstacle between herself and complete freedom.

So the narrator starts out seeming a little cracked and gets more gleefully unlikable by the page. At first you shake your head at her in fond bewilderment: “Oh, that volatile, self-centered lass and her funny obsession,” you think to yourself. A few chapters in: “Oh, wow, she’s really going to buy that parrot? I don’t know if that’s wise…”

And then, soon enough, “WHAT is she doing with that macaroni and cheese!??”

“WHY is she hiding in the back of her sister’s car?!!”

“HOW does she plan to get herself out of THIS mess???”

“WHERE is she going with that pie knife?!!!”

There’s a twisted good time to be found in Oh No She Didn’t type stories. And in Treasure Island!!!, the answer is always OH YES SHE DID! Every action, from a conversation at the breakfast table to an awkward moment at the local sandwich shop, seems to ring with the exclamation marks that feature in the novel’s title. !!! Because how could anything not be an adventure once you’re seeing life through a veil of gunpowder, hearing dialogue from inside an apple barrel, and treating your childhood home like the decks of the Hispaniola?

I worry about how much I related to the increasingly disturbed main character in Sara Levine’s farcical novel. I know she’s a complete wreck; out of touch with reality, a terrible friend, a total drag on her family. The Core Values don’t get her very far. In fact, her attempts at fearlessness render her incapable of even scraping by on her own. But the way her hapless story is told, with a narrative that is peppered with misused nautical terminology and no self-awareness whatsoever, absolutely cracked me up. It’s the sort of tale that encourages you to laugh at the main character rather than with her. And, yes, it’s very much the sort of novel I want to write, right up there with Daniel Handler’s We Are Pirates.

It’s damned hard to be a buccaneer in this day and age. I just hope I never end up at an intervention with the wrong kind of pie, faced by concerned loved ones who think I’ve grown addicted to a library book.

The Darkest Part Of The Forest is out today! Here’s why I love it.

I am a foolish mortal.*  When I read (and re-read) the galley of The Darkest Part Of The Forest a couple of months ago, I was full to bursting with things to say about it.  The effort it took to not wildly bang my keyboard with exclamation point and dreadful heart symbols may have caused me to physically shake.  Holly Black has a new modern tale of Faerie out!  She’s returned – triumphant as a queen – to the genre that first ensnared me to worship her work when I was but a wee sprite!  Exclamation point!  Heart symbol!  ❤  But, alas, I never got around to rhapsodizing in print, and now the book is out in the wilderness of fine bookstores across the country (independent bookshops, please).

Rather than rushing through a full review and spoiling my chance to go into wayyyy too much detail about Faerie ballads and woodland settings and promises in folklore, allow me to shout a few more not-so-subtle votes of recommendation into the Void That Is The Internet.  Then I can write a more balanced critical review later.  With way more talk about old ballads and symbolic plants.

If I were to start talking about the plot, you’d be reading for days.  Have a quick summary, snagged from the back cover of the galley:

Children can have a cruel, absolute sense of justice.  Children can kill a monster and feel quite proud of themselves.  A girl can look at her brother and believe they’re destined to be a knight and a bard who battle evil.  She can believe she’s found the thing she’s been made for.

Hazel lives with her brother, Ben, in the strange town of Fairfold, where humans and fae exist side by side.  The faeries’ seemingly harmless magic attracts tourists, but Hazel knows how dangerous they can be, and she knows how to stop them.  Or she did, before.

At the center of it all, there is a glass coffin in the woods.  It rests right on the ground, and in it sleeps a boy with horns on his head and ears as pointy as knives.  Hazel and Ben were both in love with him as children.  The boy has slept there fore generations, never waking.

Until one day, he does…

As the world turns upside down and a hero is needed to save them all, Hazel tries to remember her years spent pretending to be a knight. But swept up in new love, shifting loyalties, and the fresh sting of betrayal, will it be enough?  (Quoted from the cover of the advance reading copy.  Little, Brown.)

So, a list.  Reasons I Am Beyond Overjoyed That Holly Black Has Written Another Faerie Book:

  • Beautiful writing It’s mature while still retaining the sharp perspective of teenaged main characters. Tithe, Valiant, and Ironside were wonderful books.  They are single-handedly responsible for my early love of urban fantasy and fantasy stories with rougher, modern, teenaged characters.  That said, they are very clearly the early work of a writer who has access to a well of folkloric knowledge going fathoms deep.  The stories are great but the prose occasionally stumbled.  The Darkest Part Of The Forest contains even better writing.  The plot is delicately knotted but never tangles, and there’s barley any clunky mythological exposition.  Events flow, characters join and leave the story’s dance with logical ease, and even the magic that alters reality follows rules that seem as natural as the moon’s cycles.
  • The characters are complex.  Even the bad faeries.  Even the humans! How tired am I of YA fantasy books that portray non-magical teenagers as vapid peasants who only care about their phones?  Pretty darn tired.  Early on in this book, Hazel attends a party around the glass coffin where the sleeping faerie boy is entombed.   These parties seem to be a generally accepted part of high school life; Hazel sees people she knows – some whom she likes, and some she would rather avoid. Our heroine doesn’t hold herself to be a higher species than her classmates and friends, though.  In fact, she’s got a reputation for kissing an awful lot of people, and has no shame in acting upon it. (Something I also liked about The Coldest Girl in Coldtown.)  The town’s football star has a changeling brother, and is totally not a meat-head about it.  And the Folk who mingle with the population of Fairfold and make the town into some border between the worlds; they’ve got complex motivations too.  Who could blame a mother for protecting her child at any cost – even if humans have to suffer for it?  Why shouldn’t a brother defend his sister’s choice even if it invites the wrath of a cruel king?  And yet, the king’s cruelty isn’t one-dimensional, either.  No matter how badly faeries or humans behave, nobody’s evil just because the story needs a villain.  And the heroes are sometimes the most selfish of all.
  • Strong sibling and family bonds!  There’s nothing that sticks a barb through my heart quite like family members struggling to protect one another.  Hazel and Ben mostly raised themselves when they were younger, thanks to their well-meaning but ill-equipped parents largely neglecting to behave like proper adults.  This is how their roles as knight and bard came to be such a huge part of each sibling’s personality.  Their loyalty to one another – this us-against-the-world mentality – keeps all the supernatural drama feeling very close to home.  Likewise, there are some families in Fairfold who are half-in and half-out of the human world.  When the Folk become a dangerous presence instead of just a novelty attraction, some townspeople get a might uppity.  It’s in those moments that family strengths are tested, and the book makes quite an emotional impact.  The local faerie court has its own share of familial discord.  The Darkest Part Of The Forest reminds us to be very grateful that our parents aren’t faerie tyrants, but also drives home how important it is to stand up for your siblings no matter the cost.
  • Faerie systems that are completely new to the genre.  When you’ve got a story about a half magical town; changelings; and disappearances to which people willingly turn a blind eye, there’s a big risk of recycling old material through a slightly different point of view.  I dig re-told legends, as you may have noticed.  (See my Thoughts On Tam Lin post from the spring for way too much legend-digging.)  The Darkest Part Of The Forest has some elements from oft-adapted ballads and tales woven throughout, but Black is a confident enough writer that she creates a faerie court that could only exist around her fictional town.  The setting and the magic grow as part of one another, with individual characters contributing hugely to the unusual environment.  Complicated curses and tricky rules are important to the action, as they usually are in faerie tales. But in this case I couldn’t predict exactly which twist of a promise would set things into motion.  Black strikes just the right balance between recognizable emblems of traditional faerie-lore and innovative modern fantasy in her newest book.  Not that I would expect anything else.
  • Speaking of things I couldn’t predict: this book had several interesting romantic storylines!  What??  That’s right, not only did I find myself unexpectedly intent upon some of the tentative couples that formed during the course of this adventure, but the development of dreaded feelings didn’t seem to pop up out of the fictional blue without invitation.  Just because a boy and a girl meet in a charged and life-changing situation, it doesn’t mean they’re fated for one another (or a boy and the boy, in some cases).  Characters can want to help one another for reasons that go beyond their hormones, but the hormones aren’t completely ignored.  Trust, friendship, and shared experiences are more effective at bringing young people together than fate or insta-attraction. Huzzah!
  • Wild and dizzying faerie revels.  They’re important to me. (See my review of Thorn Jack, which was an awkward book at times but had great fay parties.) This book did not disappoint.  Time spent with the Folk makes people bloodthirsty, fearsome, brave, and foolish.  That’s the faerie land I know and love.  More, please, Holly Black!  Your books keep getting better and better.

Do you like faerie stories?  Buy this book.  Do you like unapologetic and morally complex teen characters?  Buy this book.  Want to spend hours making notes about every reference to ballads and folklore you see?  Buy a pad of paper, and then buy this book.  Want to just tear through a fun and electrifying story to take your mind off of mundane woes?  Head to your bookstore and then settle down with this book.  THIS BOOK, FOLKS.  I’m so excited that it’s out in the world.

Five very obvious stars.

*Definitely foolish.  Other parts of that statement are under debate.

Book Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: ***** (5 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ****1/2 (4 1/2 stars)

Be it known that I read an advanced galley of The Buried Giant and some details may change before publication.  The book will come out on March 3, 2015, from Alfred A Knopf.

Ishiguro is full of surprises.  His novels have become modern classics, inspiring movies and winning awards all over the place.   (How did he write so well from a young girl’s point of view in Never Let Me Go, capturing the competitive nature over favorite teachers and imaginary horses?  Kathy was given a voice I can still hear in my head whenever I remember that death exists, and somehow she is a comfort.  That book just wrecked me, it was so beautiful and the characters felt so real.  Similarly, Ishiguro is responsible for The Remains of the Day, which he apparently wrote in just four weeks.  That book has grown to be synonymous with the risky country-house discretion and Very English Butlers.)

So much of Kazuo Ishiguro’s work embodies some defining trait of British-ness.  The struggle with mortality, personal vs. political sacrifice, the faults of memory, loyalty to a culture that is not so loyal to you… I could go on.  Even his books that aren’t set in the UK seem to focus on concerns of the changing past and the burden of forgetting failures; themes that I always associate with classic English novels.  His subjects and styles change time and time again, and you never know what sort of story you’ll be getting into when you pick up one of his books.  But you can always be sure that wresting your brain out of the book’s captivating language and ambling pace will take a while once you’ve fallen under its spell.

Such is the case with The Buried Giant, Ishiguro’s newest book. The Buried Giant will come out in March and I won’t stop talking about it for some time.  It’s set in Britain during the Dark Ages, when Britons and Saxons lived in small communities scattered across the island, and a day of traveling could bring untold dangers.  The elements, disease, fearful villagers, and highway bandits were very real threats to anyone out in the open back then.  In The Buried Giant, mythical beasts cause trouble just as naturally.  While creatures from fantasy do feature in the book, the unruffled style in which this tale is told never builds the magic up to be terribly show-stopping – or even unusual – to the characters who witness it.  Just part of the scenery, and no more pressing than a powerful need to eat.  Mostly, this is a story about an old couple who want to journey from their community to see their son.  The Arthurian knights, Saxon warriors, cursed dragons, and mystical islands are merely companions and landmarks on their journey.  But, of course, the journey can not be so simple as we may hope for these kindly Britons.

Axl and Beatrice are leaving their village; a sort of warren housing the community within a hill.  The elderly couple used to be respected by their neighbors, but in recent times they’ve met with coldness and odd manners.  The more Axl thinks about the inexplicable change, the surer he grows that they are all forgetting people and events which had been important to them not too long ago.  A “mist” has fallen on the collective memory of Britons and Saxons alike, so soon after peace was finally struck between their two warring races.  Nobody discusses what they will not remember, and recollections come without warning or invitation to Axl and Beatrice throughout their time together.  It was surreal and unnerving to read as one character re-told a shared memory to another who could only trust to believe that it was true.  Unnerving in such a way that made me worry quietly about the book whenever I wasn’t reading it.  What brought about this clouded barrier to recent history?  Were Axl and Beatrice really remembering things, or just telling stories to comfort each other?  Would their devotion be strong enough to guide them half-blindly through a journey, one that so many external forces would attempt to alter to suit grander – and sometimes dangerous – ends?

I could not get enough of this book’s style or story, though it’s hard to pinpoint what was so mesmerizing to me as I read.  There was clearly something missing in my reading life recently, and The Buried Giant filled that gap.  Was I feeling nostalgic for a charming, wandering epic ever since the Hobbit movies failed to capture Tolkien’s original style?  Possibly.  And Ishiguro delivered, though I’m reluctant to compare The Buried Giant to The Hobbit, despite the dragon and folks riding down a river in things that aren’t boats.  It reminds me more of his side-stories: the tales and legends Tolkien wrote that took place in Middle Earth, but were so obviously inspired by Northern epics and British storytelling traditions.  The conversational tone that guides readers into the green and wind-torn lands is familiar and comforting.  Whomever our narrator may be, he understands that we could get lost on our own in the dark ages.  Now and then, a little interjection reminds us of old Britain’s place in the shape of modern life.

“Once inside it, you would not have thought this longhouse so different from the sort of rustic canteen many of you will have experienced in one institution or another.” (quoted from an advanced galley and subject to change)

It’s moments like that which reminded me of good old J.R.R. Tolkien.  Ishiguro, too, can weave a tale that draws from the storytelling traditions of long ago, but holds out a kindly hand to his readers now and then.  It’s the same mixture of wonder and comfort in inhospitable surroundings that makes even unhappy scenes rather a joy to read.  I couldn’t stop reading Never Let Me Go even when my sweater sleeves were sodden with tears, nor was I about to put down The Buried Giant when confusion and fear for the beloved travelers threatened to get the better of me.

Yes, there are ogres, dragons, and nastier creatures here in small doses.  They are not nearly so terrifying as the prospect that Axel and Beatrice might somehow lose one another.  There’s a Saxon warrior on a mission and even Sir Gawain, old after his adventures with Arthur.  Their bravery in protecting two old Britons and one young Saxon boy is admirably knightly, even when their motivations veer towards selfish pride.  Gawain’s one-sided conversations with his horse make him a comical addition at times, but after a while the effects of so much war become clearer and turn him into a more tragic figure.  Violence and suspicion tore the land apart once, and could do so again at any moment, so of course the book has its bloody moments.  Some are almost dreamlike; one unbelievable moment after another, told with unblinking, measured prose.  Other glimpses of brutality are cushioned with that confident, wise language I mentioned earlier.

“The soldier let out a sound such as a bucket makes when, dropped into a well, it first strikes the water; he then fell forward onto the ground.  Sir Gawain muttered a prayer, and Beatrice asked: ‘Is it done now, Axl?’ ” (quoted from the advanced galley and subject to change)

The language here might seem strangely honest and simple at first, especially if – like me – you’ve been reading lots of fast-paced sarcastic writing lately.  But there is great depth below the surface.  There is a so much hidden underneath the mist that pacifies the people in Ishiguro’s early Britain.  As the real quest in The Sleeping Giant is that for memory and purpose, each character – and surely each reader – questions the benefit of forgetfulness, of forging one’s own memories based on remnants of love or hatred that fuel the current moment.  What would the state of Britain be if nothing could be left, untouched, to history?

But of course, we need to know the story.  So we keep reading as they keep walking.

I’m not exactly sure how to recommend The Buried Giant to friends or customers, but I intend to do so the best I can.  Rather than saying that it’s a good choice for anyone who liked Ishiguro’s earlier work, I’ll try to classify it as a restrained and moving quest story for fans of Romantic (capital R) epics and personal journeys.  I loved it in the same manner that I love reading Tolkien on a quiet day, but others might find the early-Medieval setting more reminiscent of Juliette Marillier’s writing, or various re-tellings of Arthurian legend.  This book is certainly not just for history lovers.  It’s a good choice for anyone who appreciates a simply-told story with unexpected layers of fallible humanity, each step leading to riddles even the best swordsman can’t cut through cleanly.

Book Review: Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (5 stars)

Character Development: ****** (6 stars. Deal with it.)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age range recommendation: 14 and up.

Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle will always be the Big Fat Exception to the I-rarely-read-sequels rule.  The third installment of this four book series comes out on October 21, and I urge everyone following the adventures of Blue and her Raven Boys to rush right out and buy it.  Buy it and read it and make bothersome noises at your friends until they read it too. The cover is gorgeous.  The premise continues to be sublime.  And these characters are so addictive I honestly don’t know what I’ll do without without them after the fourth book is over.  (Settle down on a rainy day and re-read the whole series in one go, I expect.)  Same as when I first read The Dream Thieves last year, I’m too excited about Blue Lily, Lily Blue to be eloquent or organized.  (My better Dream Thieves review can be found here.)  This review will be very long, and I’m not at all sorry.  I read an ARC of Blue Lily, Lily Blue last month, but stalled my review to reduce the risk of ruining things for people who still need to catch up with the series.  Be that as it may, there might be a some spoilers for the previous books ahead.  And as I read an ARC, a few details may have changed before publication.

The summer has ended, and Henrietta, Virginia, continues to be a weird; dangerous; wonderful place.  At 300 Fox Way – my favorite House Full Of Psychics in literature (and I’ve read a lot of Alice Hoffman) – Maura has gone missing.  Blue has no idea why or where her mother has gone, only that she’s underground and it has something to do with Blue’s father.  Blue is angry that her mother went off right before she started senior year.  She may be the only non-psychic in the house, but she’s determined to find Maura anyway.  Persephone is helping Adam develop his powers as the eyes and hands of Cabeswater.  It’s not easy for a teenage boy balancing a laborious job, school work, and the demanding expectations of an ancient enchanted forest.  Ronan sullenly adjusts (as best he can) to the realizations about himself and his family which he had to face the previous summer; a summer fraught with dangerous boys and hit men and dreams.  There’s still a lot to learn about Ronan’s powers as the Greywaren, and his own deep connection with whatever gives Cabeswater forest its magic. Noah has been struggling more and more to remain corporeal, despite his friends’ best efforts.  For the most part he’s as odd and lovable as ever, but something must be changing on the ley line, because his spooky moments have turned terrible to witness.  Gansey – Richard Campbell Gansey III – continues to be rich, determined, and (unbeknownst to him) doomed.  His fussy academic friend Malory comes over from England to assist in the friends’ quest for the sleeping Welsh king Glendower, but despite Malory’s often-comical huffing and puffing, the search has grown even more dangerous than before.

What if Gansey gets stung by a wasp?  What if they wake the wrong Sleeper?  Persephone, Maura, and Calla have seen that there are three sleepers: one to wake (presumably Glendower), one to leave very much alone, and one they aren’t quite sure about.  Three guesses which one they wake up.  In between their spelunking adventures, psychic consultations, and mystical research, Blue and the Boys have to worry about regular teenage stuff as well.  Blue wants to have adventures after high school, but money has always been a problem.  Adam’s money woes are even worse.  Ronan’s attraction to one of his friends might get in the way of the group’s dynamic, and Ganesy is preoccupied with keeping that precious balance at all costs – even when his own feelings for Blue must suffer for it.  They’re all worried about Noah.  Even school life at the prestigious Aglionby Academy takes a turn for the ultra-dramatic when the boys meet their new Latin teacher.  Remember how their first Latin teacher tried to kill them?  Well, this one might be even worse, and a whole lot better prepared for the job.  Even with a reformed hit man on their side and magic all around them, Henrietta has become a treacherous place for five young people on a quest.

I’m going to admit right now that Blue Lily, Lily Blue is, in my opinion, the weakest installment of the Raven Cycle so far.  That said, it’s also one of the best YA books I’ve read all year.  The Raven Cycle continues to be my favorite ongoing YA series.  Huh?  Well, the plot felt unnecessarily tangled here and there, while a few new characters struggle to carry the narrative’s building tension. Colin Greenmantle, the Very Bad Man who sent Mr. Gray after the Lynch family in the previous book, is wicked just for the sake of gleeful villany. This makes him and his bloodthirsty girlfriend extremely fun to read about, but their motives are never clear enough to inspire real concern. Where Ronan’s dreaming abilities as the Graywaren were integral to the plot of The Dream Thieves, and central to his character’s place in their banner of knights (for that’s what it seems like they’re becoming), the stakes against him aren’t nearly so compelling with such a shallow antagonist.

Gwenllian – another new character – was similarly frustrating sometimes, though I bet the mystery of her existence will be developed further in the next book. Basically Helena Bonham Carter’s ideal crazy-lady role, she acted as a good reminder that even with all the side-dramas playing out, the quest for Glendower is at the heart of this series. The magic that has taken over their lives is largely of the ancient and Welsh variety. Gwenllian makes it impossible to forget that history is full of scary, dark, heavily symbolic mythology.  Watching Gwenllian try the patience of every single woman at 300 Fox Way was immensely entertaining, too, since you can see how Blue is a product of her house whenever she gets impatient.  I’m interested to see how she changes the nature of their search.

The little weirdnesses are so very easily forgiven, though.  You won’t find a better ensemble-driven fantasy series around.  The setting is unique, and host to wonderful minor characters which could thrive nowhere else but in modern rural America.  Take the mountainous and booming Jesse Dittley, who blames Blue’s small stature on the suggestion that maybe she never ate her greens as a child.  He’s a much needed interjection of good-hearted Virginian warmth into the atmosphere, with his cursed cave and spaghetti-os. It was also terrifically amusing to finally meet the ever-so-British scholar Malory, on his own quest for a decent cup of tea.

The strength of the cast as a whole just keeps getting better and better. Everyone has hidden depths, and even when you know people are doomed, you just want to learn everything about them. Watching Ronan and Adam realize over and over that they’ve only seen the surface of their friends made me proud and sad and fiercely attached to them all at the same time. The passions behind the boys’ and Blue’s decisions are based on the intense bonds of friendship and loyalty. They find one another more interesting than all the big-ancient-magic stuff that goes on around them. Aarrghh I just want these young people to be happy, and I don’t know if they ever will! Maggie Stiefvater may be a fantasy writer, but she takes the follies of free will and the cruelties of fate to their realistic conclusions every damn time. Free will and fate like to behave unkindly to her characters, so reading plays hackey-sack with my heart. A++ character development. Six stars.

Magic functions so inventively in this series, with one foot in old Welsh mythology and one foot in dreams.  Maggie Stiefvater is rather a wizard at handling both styles.  She describes the uncanny creations that are dreamed into life as though she has a window into our own nightmares.  And the mythology… just… damn.  If you don’t want to dash to your library for books full of words spelled like lwwlywllyylwl after you’ve finished, then I don’t know how to get you excited about anything. (Lots of Ls and Ws in the Welsh stories.)  This year I found a review of The Dream Thieves over at Girl In The Pages which celebrated the way that characters never lose the sense of wonderment whenever they encounter magic in the world. So true! This is such an important element to fantasy – especially stories where regular modern life gets suddenly mystical – and I wish that more authors would embrace the eternally surprising nature of new discoveries.

The plot was so complicated, I know I will have to go back and re-read all three books in rapid succession before I can really wrap my head around all the intricate threads that are woven into these characters’ lives. It’s hard to believe that so much can happen in less than a year! It makes sense that each character has one or two plot lines which are most important to them, and since this is an ensemble-driven series that means there will be many different story arcs struggling to some fate at any given time. As a piece of a series, Blue Lily Lily Blue is a magnificent book, but it doesn’t stand so well on its own as the other two did. Suffers from a little too much going on at once, but I think that it will be worth it by the series’ conclusion. (The only real plot that begins and ends in this book was Maura’s disappearance, but even that hinges on unexplained cave phenomena and various prophecies.) For sure it has introduced and built upon some truly gripping, complex layers for the story, and I have faith that Stiefvater will develop all those twists and turns before she tragically finishes the cycle. The cruelties of literature, to keep us from being able to read them all straight through at once! Maybe I should have waited until the whole series was released to save myself the torture… But no, because then I would have never realized that Stiefvater’s newer books are so wonderful.

Holy heck do I need to know how this all comes together in the end. The plot is so twisted and involves so many cool pieces, but honestly it’s the characters who keep dragging me back to Hentrietta, VA. I would to follow these people to their fates even if it messes with all my reading plans. (Honestly, I had planned to read a different novel the day I finally saw this ARC on the shelf. Those other plans disappeared in a puff of ancient tomb-dust.)  I’ll drag this over-long review to a conclusion, now, with a fervent demand that anyone who hasn’t started reading The Raven Cycle picks up The Raven Boys straight away.  With such a lively mix of characters and an exciting plot, it’s highly recommended reading for all genders and all ages from 14 and up. A content advisory would include language and sex and violence. All of which are necessary. All of which are great.  Maggie Stiefvater has become one of my very favorite YA writers, and I stand in constant reverence of the mind that drives her pen.

Book Review: Daughter Of The Forest by Juliette Marillier

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: ***** (5 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ****1/2 (4 1/2 stars)

Age Range Recommendation: 15 and up. (The main character might be quite young, but there’s torture and sexual violence.)

I had no idea that such a spellbinding, heartbreaking re-telling of “The Wild Swans” existed until I read this review on my blog feed.  Thanks, Elizabeth, for drawing my attention to what has become one of my new favorite historical fantasy books!  Daughter Of The Forest sets the fairy tale of the “Six Swans”/”Wild Swans” (depending upon the source) in 9th century Ireland.  The plot follows the important landmarks of it’s fairy tale inspiration, but the historical setting and extraordinary characters turn the story into something new and breathtaking.  Daughter Of The Forest is the beginning of a trilogy, but it stands quite well on its own.  It took me a few days to get through the book, mostly because – after a slow start – it kept crushing my heart and I didn’t want to get too emotionally compromised.  The sorrow felt by Sorcha as she weaves stinging plants into shirts to save her brothers, never saying a word despite the awful things which befall her, made me walk around sighing tragically myself. I was left feeling mute and weepy with my head stuck in Marillier’s tale, but also very much in love with the story.

The Kingdom of Sevenwaters is sheltered by forests: the sort of old Celtic wilderness that confounds anyone who wasn’t invited and may contain otherworldly spirits.  Sorcha and her six older brothers grew up half wild, raised more by the woods and each other than by their father Lord Colum.  The Lord of Sevenwaters is respected and brave, but not a very caring father.  So Sorcha and her brothers rely on each other for good advice, for games, and for sympathy.  She should have been the seventh son of a seventh son – particularly magical associations in the Irish beliefs which flesh out this re-located fairy tale. Instead, she will finish her childhood by becoming part of a more tragic story. 

When the malicious Lady Oonagh entrances Lord Colum and gains control of his household, she turns Sorcha’s brothers into swans. Sorcha goes into hiding. She must weave six shirts from the painful starwort plant to break the curse, as she learns from a mysterious forest lady (a sidhe or fey woman very much like the Tuatha De Danann). But we’re playing by fairy rules here, often cruel and complicated just for some amusement. Simply weaving the shirts would not be enough; if Sorcha speaks one word, makes one sound, signifies any part of what she must do to save her brothers, the curse will be eternal and her brothers will always be swans. If she can remain silent and brave and true throughout all the tribulations which may befall her (and oh lord are there some difficult times ahead), then Sorcha can have her brothers back. Alas, when she gets half rescued/half kidnapped by a Briton Lord – the Britons being enemies with the Irish and with Lord Colum especially – Sorcha’s diligence and fierce love might not be enough to keep from speaking. Life on Lord Hugh’s land is brutal for a young, half wild, Irish girl. Between the rumors that her weaving is witchcraft and suspicions about her political purpose at court, it will be a miracle if Sorcha can finish the shirts without crying out in fear, snapping in frustration, or giving up hope entirely.

So far, so like the fairy-tales by the Grimms or Andersen. Daughter Of The Forest is a nice re-telling of the tale we already know. But the historical details, the setting, the characters, and the writing really turned it into a book I would read and love even if I didn’t already adore “The Wild Swans.” It follows the same general plot, so I wasn’t particularly surprised by any of the huge plot twists. I was often surprised none-the-less. Aside from the business of curses and occasional meddling by fairy folk, the book is richer in historical atmosphere than in fantasy. Even before Lady Oonagh cast her dark cloud of influence over Sevenwaters, the plot wheels were a’ turnin’.

The initial set-up took a little while to get going; we had to meet Sorcha and all her brothers, and learn how to tell them all apart . But then – calamity! A young Briton – possibly a spy, and definitely uninvited – is captured in the Forest and brought to Lord Colum. The methods used to coerce information from foreign intruders back in the 9th century were pretty horrific, so Sorcha helps her brother Finbar free the boy and bring him to safety. Aside from establishing Finbar as a thoughtful-yet-rash young lad (you can see why he’s sort of Sorcha’s favorite), this gives us an idea of the turmoil which was always churning in the Celtic lands back then. Sorcha’s family follows the old religion, yet they hide the Briton with a trusted and beloved Christian hermit. They have been brought up to fear outsiders, yet can feel sympathy for a boy who is caught up in the endless madness of ongoing war. The historical climate which gets introduced through this early harrowing experience sets up for really important conflicts later on. Without all the details about medieval Ireland and religion and general distrust, the drama would have to ride on the powers of love alone. Love is pretty strong in this sort of tale, but the bigger picture made it all feel real, and made Sorcha’s struggle all the more urgent.

Six brothers are a lot to keep track of. Six brothers, one sister, a hermit, various mythological presences, and a castle full of noblemen and women are an even bigger crowd. So it’s a testament to Juliette Marillier’s skill as a writer that I felt so connected with the entire cast of characters throughout the book. I do think that Lord Hugh’s villainous uncle was a little too nauseating to be believed, but he did fit into the fairy-tale mold quite well. Nearly everyone else had depth and an important role to play.

In the end, though, it’s Sorcha and her brothers who I’ll be remembering the most. For a group that spends over half of the book either silent or transformed into birds, they really played hacky-sack with my emotions. The too-short nights at each solstice, when the boys could turn back into humans, broke my heart and made me cry every time. It was just too unfair that Sorcha couldn’t tell them how she intended to help, and that they didn’t have enough time to help her in return. The romance and fighting in this book were moving, but nothing could compare to the bond between these siblings. Any time that bond was threatened I wanted to weep and wail, though I found myself trying to stay silent as long as our heroine had to bite back her own anguish.

I knew how the book would end. I’ve read so many versions of this story. All the same, I was surprised and enchanted by Juliette Mariller’s vision of the brothers turned into swans, and the sister who would do anything to save them. If you like old fairy tales or historical fiction steeped in folklore, go get Daughter Of The Forest from the library. (Or buy it from an independent bookshop!) If you are ok with getting your head stuck in medieval Ireland, and don’t mind worrying about these brothers as though they were your own, start reading this book. It now has a home on the same shelf as my other favorite re-told fairy tales, and I think they’ll find it’s very good company.

Some other fairy tale books I’ve reviewed:

Boy, Snow, Bird

Thorn Jack

Tam Lin

My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me

Black Thorn, White Rose

Book Review: The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: ***** (5 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age range recommendation: 13 and up

“It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.”  That sentence appears twice in Maggie Stiefvater’s breathtaking novel The Scorpion Races.  The moment I read it, the first words in the prologue, I could feel that this was going to be a good story; a dark story; a story that draws on something old and deep and scary.  I knew it was inspired by the capaill uisge myths – vicious, man-eating water horses often called kelpies.  And that all of my friends who had read it before recommended it highly.  What I didn’t know was how beautifully Stiefvater would describe the island of Thisby, somewhere off Ireland, and the people who live there.  I didn’t expect to fall under the water horses’ spell myself.  I’m not really much of a horse whisperer: I think they’re cool and pretty, but sometimes it feels like they’re laughing at me.   (One time a big horse stepped on my foot to hold me in place while he bit my shoulder, and it has inspired some distrust.)  My own reservations were powerless in the hands of Maggie Stiefvater’s writing, though, because after a few chapters of The Scorpio Races I could feel why Puck and Sean devoted their lives to their horse-y companions. 

The Scorpio Races is about this island where, every November, a deadly race is held on dangerous water horses.  People capture the capaill uisge when they come out of the sea, the very act of which is the stuff of eerie seaside nightmares, and then try to train them into something they can ride.  But the sea is always calling the horses, driving them to drown and eat the men who would tame them.  As November approaches, tourists come to Thisby, more terrible creatures rise up from the sea, and the stakes get ever higher.  Two teenagers, living very different lives, have lost parents to the capaill uisge.  Sean’s father was killed in the races, long ago.  Now Sean trains water horses for the richest man on the island, and is famous for his victories in the Scorpio Races.  Puck Connolly is very much a Connolly, even after her parents died in a capaill uisge related boat accident.  She helps keep her family together; the only girl in a trio of siblings which isn’t so close as it once was.  She and her beloved horse, Dove, have to win the Scorpio Races if they’re to keep their home and independence.  The odds aren’t in Puck’s favor.  She’s the first girl to ever compete, and some people don’t think she should mess with tradition.  And even while the odds have been kind to Sean before, animosity from the boss’s son, and some troublesome feelings for Puck, might keep him from winning this year.  And that would mean giving up his dreams to own Corr, the capaill uisge who has become his closest friend.  When Puck and Sean become close their determination will have an even higher cost, because not everyone survives the Scorpio Races, and only one rider can win.

Setting is usually the most important thing when I’m reading.  If I can get drawn into the rhythm of a place and not want to leave, I’ll read the whole book no matter what.  And Thisby drew me right in.  (Not quite so fatally as the way capaill uisge draw humans into the sea and then eat them.  But pretty close.)  I loved Puck’s ramshackle house, where she and her brothers struggle to get by on their own.  I could picture Sean’s regular haunts on the cliffs and at Malvern’s stables.  I was afraid of the beach, but entranced by the shoreline all the same.  I felt safe from the storm in the butcher’s kitchen with his wife, Peg Gratton, dispensing sharp wisdom all over the place.  I’m sad that I’ll never witness the dark magic of Thisby’s Scorpio Festival, even though I’d probably turn senseless from all the colors, foods, people, and drums.  The seasons, rituals, and traditions of the Scorpio Races are an ancient, integral part of what Thisby is.  Puck and Sean even talk about how the island feeds off the blood – or bravery – of its people, and how they are as much a part of the weathered land as it is of them.  It’s been rather autumnal weather where I am this past week, and thank goodness for that, because reading about all the rain and wind made me want to go fetch one of my sweaters from Scotland.  The setting was just that good.

I’m pleased to report that the other aspects of this book were nearly as good as the sense of place.  Puck and Sean were complex narrators with interesting, honest motivations.  The story is told in alternating sections from each of their points of view. They were selfish sometimes and brave sometimes, and never one-dimensional.  My one gripe would be that sometimes it was hard to tell whose narrative had just begun, but that’s partly my fault for forgetting to read the chapter headings as I fervently read.  Their voices were similar, but that’s just because they shared such a fierce love for the island and for their respective steeds (I wouldn’t dare to call Sean’s Corr a horse, just as Puck can’t stand to have Dove called a pony).  They were each proud in their own ways, but learn to take the world in stride a little better by the end of the novel. 

There’s a little bit of romantic tension, but nearly all of the emotion in The Scorpio Races came from loyalty, family, and bravery rather than mercurial teenaged passions.  That’s the sort of story I like to read: one which doesn’t require amorous moping to make characters interested in one another.  So huzzah to that.  Puck’s relationship with her brothers was also done well.  She’s confused about her older brother Gabe’s sudden urgency to leave the island, especially since he’s been their main source of support ever since their parents died at sea.  She also wants to protect her sweet and slightly odd little brother, Finn, who was one of my favorite characters.  The townsfolk were lively and made Thisby seem real.  People on islands, man.  They’re my favorite sort of people.

For me, Maggie Stiefvater’s work can be either a hit or a miss.  I love the Raven Cycle and am beyond excited for the next installment.   On the other hand, I was wildly disappointed by Lament, and couldn’t get into the Shiver series either.  I don’t know why she suddenly started writing books I love around 2011.  It’s a happy mystery, though, and The Scorpio Races has solidified my belief that she’s become one of the best YA writers of modern fantasy writing today.  This is a stand-alone novel with an ending that left me satisfied but wishing I could stay on Thisby longer.   I’m kind of glad it’s not the beginning of a series, because I rarely have the time or presence of mind to follow through with sequels even if I love the first book.  It was just the right length, with an excellent balance of action and character development, and beautiful writing to carry the story through the weeks of October, leading up to the races.

Thoughts About Ballads: “Tam Lin” Re-tellings

“Tam Lin” is a Scottish ballad which has been adapted into a great many songs and stories. There are many different versions of the ballad, all of which follow the same general plot and central characters. My favorite musical recordings of the song are probably those by Fairport Convention and Tricky Pixie, though there are countless others out there for your Youtubing pleasure. If you want to look at a large selection of the ballad variations, have a scroll through this page. “Tam Lin” is Child Ballad #39, and the story is still well-known today. I’ve summarized the general story here, based on my own favorite versions.

tam lin

Tam Lin – The Faery Host by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law

The legend: Janet, daughter of the lord who owns the land, breaks the rule never to go to Carterhaugh and picks a forbidden rose there. The woods are off-limits because, as the song tells us at its opening, young Tam Lin guards the place and takes either the green mantles or maidenhead of any girl who trespasses. Tam Lin appears to Janet, demanding why she’s come to Carterhaugh without his permission, and she retorts (rather smarmily, in some versions) that she can come and go as she pleases because she was given Carterhaugh by her father.

The ballads usually gloss over the following events, but it seems that Tam Lin likes her defiant/entitled spirit, and she falls for him too (once he stops shouting at her about flowers, I assume). The point is: things get consummated in the woods. Probably a little mossy, and most certainly a bit surprised by the un-planned direction of her afternoon, Janet returns to her father’s hall. It quickly becomes obvious that she’s pregnant, but Janet refutes everyone’s curiosity about who the baby’s father might be by declaring that her lover was an Elfin knight, who she’d not trade for any knight of her father’s human court.

After nine months, our forthright and loyal lassie returns to Carterhaugh (sometimes she’s looking for an abortive herb at this stage), and asks Tam Lin how he got stuck guarding the forest in the first place. It turns out he was kidnapped by the Fairy Queen and has become a human member of her court; he haunts Carterhaugh at the Queen’s bidding. Tam Lin also tells Janet that every seven years the Queen must pay a tithe to Hell, sacrificing a member of her court. Being a human, handsome, and one of the Queen’s favorite knights, he is almost certain that the sacrifice this year will be himself. Janet’s not keen to let the Fairy Queen give her lover over to the fiends of Hell. When Tam Lin tells her that she might be able to save him if she yanks him from his horse as the Fairy Host rides through the woods on Hallowe’en, she gets all heroic despite the added inconvenience of being incredibly pregnant.

At Miles Cross, Janet waits on a stormy night to witness the court go riding by. As Tam Lin had instructed, she lets the black horses pass by, and then the brown, and when she sees the white horse at the end of the procession she pulls the rider down. The faeries turn Tam Lin into all sorts of horrible creatures in an attempt to force Janet to release her hold on him: lions, snakes, bears – it varies from song to song but they’re always mean and bite-y. But she was warned of this, too, and hangs on. Even when Tam Lin turns into a burning brand in her hands, she holds fast, and eventually he turns back into himself, naked and rather bedraggled, and she covers him with her green mantle. The end of this action is usually the end of the narrative.

The Fairy Queen almost always ends the song with some bitter and imperious line about how she would have turned Tam Lin’s heart to stone; or his body into a tree; or taken out his eyes, had she known what would transpire that night. We’re left to assume that Janet and Tam Lin limp off into the night to figure out their unnatural family dynamic in peace, while the Fairy court presumably has some last-minute alterations to make to their plan.

It’s a wonderful ballad, with several important symbols and elements which make it work out both as a piece of fairy-lore and as a compelling story. You need the forbidden woods to be mysterious, and their guardian Tam Lin to be both powerful and vulnerable: frightened for his own life while still in touch with Fairy land’s magic. Janet’s got to be youthfully hot-headed at the beginning, and turn into a brave, compassionate heroine by Hallowe’en. The ballad might be named after Tam Lin, but the story’s actually about Janet. I think that her behavior upon learning that she’s pregnant is incredibly important: Janet’s not going to be bullied by the expectations of stuffy old court traditions. She’s comfortable with herself and generally the sort of leading lady you want to cheer for.

Most importantly, in my opinion, the scene at Miles Cross needs to be dangerous and otherworldly, so that Janet’s bravery in the face of the Fairy Court can be properly appreciated. The Fairy Queen is one of my favorite characters out of every myth, legend, and ballad I’ve ever encountered. She doesn’t ascribe to mere human manners or morals, but there are folkloric conventions her character really ought to fulfill. The Queen of the Fairy Court – sometimes specified as the Unseelie Court – should be powerful, impatient, and utterly self-obsessed. (You see why we would get along.) The dangers of crossing this lady cannot be taken lightly, so her formidable presence highlights Tam Lin’s peril and Janet’s courage.

Finally, the rules and magical logic which apply to freeing a knight from the Fairy Court are steeped in tradition and very important. Various interpretations of the story change up the forms Tam Lin takes, but the point is that Janet holds on. She gets beaten, bitten, bruised, and burned, with whole host of immortal creatures watching her agony from horseback. But fairy stories are governed by tests and loopholes, so when she wins her love fairly, there’s naught the court can do. Names are always important in fairy stories. Promises are binding and when you’re forbidden from speaking or moving you’d better hold your tongue and stand very still. Just as characters in these songs and tales must follow the twisted rules which create their world, so should re-worked interpretations pay attention to the necessary patterns. A novel which draws on any folk ballad or legend can change all sorts of characters and plot points to its heart’s content, in my opinion, as long as the canon functions of Fairyland get their due respect. Sometimes authors bend the rules, and when it’s cleverly done those alterations are exciting. If bits and pieces of similar stories are wisely, cleverly sampled to form one big narrative, the results can be spectacular; Fire & Hemlock contains threads from “Tam Lin,” and “Thomas the Rhymer,” all twisted into one big ol’ gorgeous novel. It’s frustrating when an author ignores vital parts of the folkloric tradition just to suit their own convenience, especially when drawing inspiration from such a well-known ballad as “Tam Lin,” but any story with hints of Fairy’s sinister, timeless magic is worth investigating.

Below are some of books inspired by “Tam Lin” which I’ve read. There are so many different versions of the ballad itself, so certain themes are more prevalent in each authors’ writing style. Not everything inspired by the ballad is necessarily a faithful re-telling; some of these books just borrow from the plot or make use of the key elements. Tithes to Hell, forbidden woods, and angry Fairy Queens tend to make for an interesting story. Anyone with books to add to the list and opinions to share should speak up in the comments, because I’m always on the hunt for more to read on the subject.

Books I’ve Read:

Fire & Hemlock by Dianna Wynne Jones

souce: goodreads

One of my favorite fantasy novels, making a near-perfect use of all those mythical rules I went on about, and then twisting them in the best of ways. Even though the main character is a child for most of the book, it is (and should be) a favorite amongst adult fantasy enthusiasts. I love that Polly recognizes the similarities between her own adventure and the old ballads, and uses this to her advantage. Very highly recommended to anyone who likes their stories to be full of layered inferences to the old stories and songs.

Tithe by Holly Black

source: goodreads

Again, a book which includes certain characters and plot points of the ballad without being a thorough re-telling. Good, gritty YA with a firm grasp on fairy lore. I loved Tithe as a pre-teen and still think it’s pretty great. The Fairy Courts (both Seelie and Unseelie) are described particularly well.

Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

source: wikipedia

You can read my full rant and review here, in its own post. Pamela Dean’s book contains interesting allusions to the old folk stories and songs, which are fun to hunt for through the pages, but with a title so obviously referencing the ballad I was disappointed with the re-telling. The action of the ballad is set on a college campus in the 1970’s, over the course of Janet’s four years as an undergraduate. Rather than just borrowing from the legend, Tam Lin enticed me with the idea of a thorough re-telling with connections between nearly every character and plot point. Unfortunately, it felt imbalanced with too much homework and not enough of a magical atmosphere.

Added July 13, 2014: Thorn Jack by Katherine Harbour

I read Thorn Jack without so many expectations, after learning my lesson with Dean’s Tam Lin.  Despite some immature writing and a bothersome romance, I really liked it.  Goes to show that it’s better to read with an open mind.  Thorn Jack borrows from the Tithe aspect of Tam Lin, and has a magnificent Faery Court disguised as wealthy young people.  The plot twists away from the ballad’s original pattern, borrowing an awful lot from Celtic faery mythology to create a huge (and sometimes confusing) cast of minor characters.  The references to Tam Lin are pretty good, and it was a fun book despite the clutter.  My full review is here.

Books inspired by “Tam Lin” which I haven’t read yet include:

The Perilous Guard by Elizabeth Marie Pope

Winter Rose by Patricia A. McKillip

The Mirk and Midnight Hour by Jane Nickerson

Which of these should I read first? Suggestions? Opinions? Books I’ve not yet heard of that I need to track down ASAP? I’m always excited to read another take on my favorite fairy story – be it literary fiction or pulp fantasy or something in between – so please chime in with whatever comes to mind.

I feel like I’ve saturated the blog with fairytales and folklore this spring, so maybe it’s time for some other subjects, soon. I hope my unofficial Fairy Fest, 2014 hasn’t been too unbearable for those of you who prefer cutlasses to curses. Swashbuckling heroics and clever kid’s books are on the way, I promise. For now, I’ve just got to wait out this folklore virus and enjoy every page of it.