Our heroine is a seventeen-year-old girl named Ai Ling, who is not married because her parents are having trouble arranging one, because of some sort of scandal that her father was involved with twenty years ago that Ai Ling doesn’t know the details of. When her father has to go back to the Palace he’d been expelled from twenty years ago, on some sort of ill-defined business trip, he doesn’t come back—so Ai Ling sets out to find him. Along the way she has many adventures of the sort that make a long ride/long walk quest fun, including being attacked by many scary demons, coming into possession of magical talismans, discovering the extent of her own magic powers, meeting a handsome young man with his own tragic backstory, gaining a fun companion who then sadly dies, eating a lot of lovingly-described food, and riding a dragon. (Is “riding a dragon” not a trope used in every single quest narrative? BECAUSE IT SHOULD BE.) There’s a strong theme of sexual jealousy running through the various backstories and larger plot, adding an element of heaviness to the standard pro-romantic-love, anti-arranged-marriage theme that’s so prominent in historical fiction and historical fantasy. (My verdict on Chen Yong, the love interest: Sometimes broody due to Tragic Backstory, but almost 100% not an annoying jerkface.) (Anyone who knows my opinions on dude romantic leads will know that this is basically glowing praise coming from me.)
This book is pretty squarely within a certain tradition of teen girl adventure stories that is unabashedly my favorite and that I tend to turn to as comfort reading, so I ate right through this with probably not enough of a critical eye for plot holes or tropes that have been overdone (they are mostly tropes I like. But I know that I have read them in, at this point, literally hundreds of different novels). The world is fun, a lived-in-feeling pseudo-medieval Chinese set of kingdoms and some nonhuman realms that I think are based at least partly on Chinese myths and legends that I’m not very familiar with (but if so, apparently there are some wicked creepy Chinese legends out there!). Ai Ling is a pretty relatable, likeable character (with the notable exception of one episode of egregious obliviousness that almost gets everybody killed), and there’s some really well-done fight scenes and a fairy-tale structure/flavor to the whole thing that appealed to me.
The ending sets up a sequel, with the broody non-jerkface mixed-race love interest faffing off on another quest to find his father instead of proposing to Ai Ling already because apparently he is also sort of obtuse, so I think in the sequel she goes on the quest with him? I hope? I’m totally up for another quest with these characters, so long as Chen Yong proposes at the end. And this is not even because I’m super invested in their relationship as because it’d just be stupid of him not to and I don’t like stupid love interests.
I could see this getting a movie adaptation if the live-action Mulan does well, although sadly I could also see it getting a really bad movie adaptation even though the book itself has a lot of strong cinematic elements, because YA adaptations.
There are a lot of things in this book that have since become cliches, and interestingly, there are some aspects to the worldbuilding that I think would have been "corrected" in a book being written today because they're too historical and not fantasy enough--mainly the use of Latin and Greek in the Church Militant, which is not only heavily modeled on the Roman Catholic Church, but uses most of the same trappings and terminology. And to be entirely frank, much of the prose is a bit clunky. Basically, it was written in 1970 and you can kinda tell.
That said, I still found it a solid, entertaining, engaging fantasy story from beginning to end. It takes place in a little pseudo-British Isles-y kingdom populated mostly by humans and a little bit by a race of sorcerers called the Deryni, who used to be in power several centuries back but are now persecuted by the Church and mostly in hiding. Some humans can learn Deryni magic, including the ruling line of our setting kingdom with its unpronounceable faux-Welsh name. When King Brion has a very mysterious heart attack despite being in prime health, a lot of things go into motion. His son and heir, Prince Kelson, needs to come into his powers, which means he needs help from the Deryni Lord Alaric Morgan. But the Prince's mother is dead set against her son dabbling in magic, and is plotting to have Morgan arrested for treason. And an old enemy of King Brion's, a rogue Deryni sorceress, plans to take out Kelson and Morgan both. Morgan, Kelson, and a few loyal others have precious little time to get the new king crowned and fully vested with his powers... and, of course, nothing goes quite according to plan during any of it. There's a good deal of fighting, magic, assassination attempts, political plots, treason, and all that good stuff we've come to expect from historical fantasy in the 45 years since it was first published.
It's probably not going to win over anyone who's not already inclined toward fantasy, and it's got some awkward representation issues (the only two prominent female characters are both villains, and then there's the stereotypically henchman-y depiction of Moors, which doesn't make sense if there's not Northern Africa, wouldn't they have another name?). And it's a little shorter on backstory than I like, although there's enough to make sense of the characters and their actions. I could probably come up with complaints about it all day, really. But for all that, I really enjoyed reading it! The pacing is good, there are a couple really good plot twists, and there's no obligatory romantic subplot. I may well check out the sequels.
Annith was brought to the convent as a baby, and she doesn’t have some of the things the other daughters of Mortain have—namely a birth story, or any sign of the various gifts that each of his daughters usually display one of. What she does have is secrets, and more skill at every task the young assassins are taught than any of the other girls, in part due to starting so early, and in part because of her treatment at the hands of the Dragonette, the former Abbess.
In addition to the ongoing war with France, which has formed the main source of conflict through this series, most of the conflict in this book comes from Annith’s being denied the opportunity to go out and actually serve as an assassin—the only thing she’s ever wanted, and the thing she’s been trained for. Instead, the current Abbess declares that Annith, because she is so biddable and obedient, will stay at the convent and train as its new Seeress. Biddable obedient Annith—who has deliberately done her best to be the perfect novice so that she will be entrusted with an off-island assignment—promptly runs the hell away. Or not that promptly, really, but quite shortly afterwards, after doing some snooping around.
The dual threads of war with France and Annith’s uncovering of her own family secrets—and they are some seriously messed-up secrets—are woven together tightly, bound with a lot of mythology about Brittany’s nine pagan gods. Up until now we’ve mostly only known about Mortain, the god of death, but here we meet followers of Arduinna, protector of innocents, and hear a lot of different versions of the story of Mortain and his ill-fated marriage with Arduinna’s sister Amourna. We also meet the hellequin, Death’s riders, earning penance for their misdeeds in life by escorting lost ghosts to the Underworld and hunting down malevolent ones. Annith’s romance with the lead hellequin, Balthazaar, seems somewhat obligatory and tacked-on for the first half of the book or so, but then plot twists happened and I changed my mind. Balthazaar has secrets too! Everyone in this book has secrets!
But this book doesn’t just use secrets for shock value—the whole book, at its core, is a surprisingly thorough exploration of how people can be bent to one another’s will—through secrets and lies, through promises and praise, through coaxing and tricking and teaching them into effacing their own wills voluntarily. Though Annith certainly has enough reasons to complain on her own—she’s been treated abominably and robbed of the expected payoff that had been her reason for putting up with it—it’s her concern for the other girls being lied to and manipulated in the same way that allows her to really become a powerful moral force.
I also love that (and here there be spoilers) in this book about assassins, the final climactic “assassination” that saves Brittany involves shooting someone—with love! Love saves the day, huzzah! But also shooting by a teenaged assassin nun! Idunno, I thought it was great.
Putting all three of the together, this trilogy is one of the strongest YA trilogies I’ve read in years—and you know how much I love YA and how many trilogies there are! Usually one of them is weak; either the middle book has Middle Book Syndrome or the last one is rushed and just falls apart. But this series, along with Sarah Rees Brennan’s The Lynburn Legacy, is really just stellar all the way through. With some surprisingly thoughtful themes lurking behind the main action of war, mayhem, and glorious medieval nonsense, it’s really everything I want in a YA fantasy.
Dark Triumph is considerably darker than Grave Mercy, and Grave Mercy was already about assassins, betrayal, and threat of sexual violence. To this, Dark Triumph adds heaping helpings of child abuse, incest, infanticide, spousal murder… you know, basically everything.
The protagonist of this book is Sybella, a secondary character in the first book, who arrives at the convent in the middle of a full-fledged psychotic breakdown from the goings-on of her previous life. In this book, she’s been sent to infiltrate the family of the sadistic Count d’Albret, a man who already has six dead wives to his name and has repeatedly threatened—and in one case, attempted—to rape thirteen-year-old Duchess Anne if she doesn’t keep the marriage contract that was made on her behalf when she was very young (one of many such contracts). Sybella’s ability to infiltrate this family and spy for the convent is made easier, from the convent’s perspective, but harder, from Sybella’s, by the fact that Sybella is the daughter of Count d’Albret’s fourth wife. And Sybella’s family makes the Lannisters look like the Brady Bunch. Sybella spends a good deal of the book, particularly at the beginning, being near-suicidal, kept going only by the hope of getting permission to kill her supposed father (as an assassin of this particular convent, Sybella’s actual father is Death).
Things start to look up, for a pretty messed-up definition of looking up, when Sybella springs the injured Beast of Waroch from d’Albret’s jail. Beast is a big ugly berserker dude who is nevertheless super friendly and awesome when he is not in the grip of battle rage, and who is a staunch ally of the Duchess. Additionally, the Beast’s sister was d’Albret’s sixth wife, leading to many feelings and much tragic backstory for everybody. Their romance, though of necessity pretty angsty, especially on Sybella’s part, is pretty sweet, in a dark sort of way, with both of them coming to terms with their own darkness and tragic pasts and all that stuff and supporting each other, and generally being heartwarmingly messed up.
Despite all the deeply disturbing stuff, which is really quite disturbing indeed, Dark Triumph still manages to be fun in a way that a story about medieval teenage assassin nuns cannot help but be fun. It’s action-packed, vivid, twisty, fast-paced, sometimes witty, and full of rich characterization and richer intrigues. I highly recommend the bejesus out of it.
Grave Mercy is the story of Ismae Rienne, a novice at the convent of St. Mortain, patron saint/old god of Death. Like everyone at the convent, Ismae is supposedly one of Mortain’s actual children, and therefore has a number of odd death-related gifts, including the ability to see the “marques” of Death on her targets. She also has a couple of gifts that are less common among the convent’s occupants, such as immunity to poison.
Despite many misgivings by many parties on a number of subjects, Ismae is sent off to the court of the young Duchess Anne of Brittany, in the guise of the cousin-but-probably-mistress to Anne’s half-brother, Gavriel Duval. Her actual role is to spy, and to assassinate anyone who needs assassinating. But there are layers and layers of plots afoot, and Ismae develops suspicions that maybe the people she’s assigned to spy on might not be the people she really needs to be spying on. As the threats to Brittany’s independence build and the young but awesome Duchess is betrayed by various power-grubbing nobles, Ismae’s doubts grow and she has to set herself to some serious learning—about the plots surrounding her, about the nature of Mortain and her service to him, and about her pesky feelings for Duval.
Duval is pretty much not an asshole, even though they do the classic romantic comedy bit of getting off on the wrong foot and getting mad at each other a lot, so that’s pretty good for a romance. The romance subplot is at least actually tied in pretty closely with all the fun stuff, since the main plots are dependent on questions of people’s loyalties and principles, that sort of thing, so it doesn’t feel tacked on, even if it is pretty obvious right from the beginning.
There’s a lot of historical detail here, and fairly little magic—all the magic that we see is deeply religious in nature, having to do with Ismae’s service of her god and her relationship with him as his daughter. But much of it is historical-fiction sort of stuff, and pretty heavily researched, which is completely OK by me. I like all the snooping around and trying to untangle plots and remember everybody’s family history, and am also 100 percent OK with there only being a couple of major action scenes. This book also doesn’t dick around with how limited women’s roles were in the late middle ages/early Renaissance, especially when there’s nobody to put any sort of check on the most power-hungry men.
My biggest issue with the book is that there is one small plot hole that I made into a much bigger OH NO than I think most people would. At one point, Ismae makes plans to meet with her convent sister Sybella, who may have News about Betrayal and Shenanigans and all the general badness that’s going on. On her way to meet Sybella, Ismae is interrupted by having to have a scene with the Duchess and one of the villains. And then… there is no follow-up to her missing her meeting! Sybella does show back up, but there is no acknowledgement that they had a meeting and missed it, and Ismae doesn’t go to any effort to make contact with Sybella again or wonder what information Sybella was going to give her that she now doesn’t have or freaking anything, like she completely forgot she had ever been supposed to meet with Sybella at all. I kept waiting for this to come back up because I thought missing the meeting was going to be important, and it just… didn’t.
The second book in the series is from Sybella’s point of view, and I think I’d like to read it, since Sybella was one of the best characters despite having little screen time.
This is the sort of book that would make a really fun movie if it was done properly and had any sort of budget, but if it were adapted, would probably be done improperly and with many stupid budgeting decisions and would at best end up as bad trashy fun like the Queen of the Damned movie or something.
Sourcery is one of the books that I have only read once ever, and therefore have forgotten basically everything about. There are quite a number of these, particularly early in the series. I’d had it mentally filed away as one of the “not very good” ones, comparatively speaking, and for some reason I thought it was a standalone (perhaps I was mashing it up with Eric in my head?), even though it is actually a Rincewind book.
This time around, I think it’s still not going to stick with me as a particular favorite Discworld book, but hopefully I’ll remember that it is good, because it’s worth remembering. Sourcery charts the rise and fall of Coin, a sourcerer—the eighth son of a wizard who was already the eighth son of an eighth son, and so who is himself a source of magic, instead of just someone with the ability to wield it. This is deeply, deeply dangerous, particularly as eight-year-old Coin, armed with his father’s deeply creepy staff, sets out to have wizards conquer the world. This, of course, causes chaos and death and destruction and, as usually happens, opens a path for the Things from the Dungeon Dimensions.
In all this, Rincewind, having run away, partly due to his own cowardice and partly on the urging of the Archchancellor’s Hat, falls in with a couple of weird adventurers and proceeds to have lots of chaotic shenanigans where Rincewind keeps trying to run away and his damn friends keep trying to save the world. Eventually, Rincewind, with the help of the Librarian, who continues to be awesome, manages to figure out what’s really going on with little Coin, and then things get deep and sad as well as chaotic and wacky, because that’s how Terry Pratchett books work.
There are some particularly excellent puns in this one that I am glad to have rediscovered, especially the one about appendectomies, and it’s great to start to see some more continuity and character development across books as the series starts settling into being a series, and with Rincewind’s sub-series specifically.
Colman follows directly on the events of Wise Child, which I admit I had sorta forgotten, and I might need to dig that out and reread it. But it looks like Juniper, Wise Child, Wise Child’s father Finbar, her cousin Colman, and their former-leper friend Cormac are all on Finbar’s boat running away from the town and Cormac’s religious zealot brother. At first they flee to Ireland, where Cormac has family, but then they head to Juniper’s old home of Cornwall, where she was a princess, and where she has a feeling that all is not well.
Upon arriving in Cornwall they find Juniper’s parents dead, her brother Brangwyn imprisoned and kept as a sort of puppet regent, and her aunt Meroot and uncle-in-law the Gray Knight having taken over Cornwall and a big chunk of the Northlands. Meroot and the Gray Knight are not good rulers, oppressing the people with enormous tribute demands and enacting severe violence upon them when any demand is not met. The people are also forbidden from meeting in groups larger than six, which is always a bad sign. The lot of them, with the help of Juniper’s ornery mentor Euny, conspire to save Prince Brangwyn and take down Meroot and the Gray Knight. The actual doing of this involves arms smuggling (largely on Finbar’s part), disguises, a lot of doran magic, some help from the goddess that lives on top of the tor near Euny’s hut, the obligatory getting work as a scullery maid in order to infiltrate the castle, and some surprising streaks of doran power from Colman, our narrator. Apparently there are sometimes male dorans, they just aren’t very common. I wonder what Granny Weatherwax would have to say about that.
While the general story development of this book is perfectly fine—it’s an exciting and satisfying way to wind up the trilogy, bringing in elements of both previous books into one storyline—one does get the feeling that if Monica Furlong hadn’t died, it could have gone through another round or two of editing/rewriting, and could have been better. The dialogue is sort of awkward and chunky in parts, and I think some parts could have used further development. This book was published posthumously, so I don’t really want to complain that anyone has done anything wrong in the development of the book—Ms. Furlong simply cannot be expected to rewrite sections posthumously, and I’m very, very glad that her estate did allow this story to be published, so that we her fans could read it and find out how the story ends. The whole thing’s just very sad—perhaps not tragic, as Ms. Furlong did live a long and interesting life and she died at a respectably old age (I think she was 72?), but definitely sad. The choice to make Colman the POV character is a bit odd, but I think it works, as Colman is still essentially a child so we get to see his understanding of what is actually going on grow as the story goes on. He’s also sort of a dorky and likeable and fairly everyman sort of character, which I think works well when there’s a lot of weird magic going on. It allows him to do a lot of observing.
I would particularly have liked more Finbar. Finbar is great! He goes away for part of the book, which is fine, but then he’s kind of ignored for a bit when he does come back, and I am going to assume that had this book gotten more polish, someone would have pointed out when Finbar was forgotten and added him back in.
I highly recommend reading Wise Child sometime in the year or two before reading Colman, unless you have a really great memory, which I don’t. But even having forgotten how Wise Child ended, it was still a beautiful read, and really makes me want to learn more about early-Christian Wales and Cornwall. There’s not nearly enough really early, historically-based Celtic fantasy out there.
Oh, and the cover art by Leo and Diane Dillon is gorgeous, as usual.
Reading along with Mark Does Stuff, I've just finished rereading what might be my favorite Tamora Pierce book, Bloodhound. Predictably, the stuff I thought was the most awesome was precisely the stuff that bored some other people, and the stuff that irritated other people did not irritate me at all, and the few things that I did dislike basically bugged only me.
Whatever. I still think Bloodhound is fabulous. The main plot is about counterfeiting, which I think is amazing because economics are awesome, and it really fits in well with the “doggy books'” exploration of class, being the only Tortall subseries about people who aren't noble (or live closely with the aristocracy) and who live paycheck to paycheck. I also love the exploration of Port Caynn, because port cities are fun, and having Beka, who is so tied to Corus and whose identity is very much bound up in her home and her neighborhood and her people, have to adjust to working in a whole different environment and try on a whole new identity while she's at it.
Pearl Skinner is also a great villain because, in a refreshing departure from the sympathetic genius villains we see so much of, she is thoroughly unlikeable in every way, and she is stupid. And honestly, don't mean and stupid people often seem to rise to the top in the real world? Charisma certainly helps, and the charismatic villain is someone we should all read lots of stories about and learn to watch out for, but there really are quite a surprising number of people who seem to acquire and keep power through sheer assholitude, despite a total lack of ability to actually manage it or to get anyone to like them. And with those kinds of people, having that power seems to further insulate them from having to ever get a fucking clue, and they just get dumber and meaner until, in the real world, they're writing whiny Wall St. Journal op-eds about how those lazy peasants are so meeean and ungrateful these days, just because we crashed the entire world economy to the ground, like that has anything to do with someone being unemployed or losing their house, where do they get these crazy Communist ideas? ...Ahem. Anyway, in Pearl Skinner's case, she's mean and vicious and stupid and irresponsible, and surprise surprise, she'd rather kill herself then actually face up to the consequences of her actions. Also she abuses her minions and kills off co-conspirators until the remaining ones are chomping at the bit to turn on her the second it looks like they might get away with it, which is one of the elementary Evil Overlord mistakes on that list that was popular around these here Internets a few years ago.
There is, of course, more to this conspiracy than Pearl, because Pearl is too stupid to have come up with it on her own; just stupid enough to go along with it.
The bulk of this books seems to be Beka Learning Things, even though she's not in training anymore like she was in Terrier. She learns how to handle her adorable scent hound, Achoo, and she learns about Port Caynn, obviously. She learns more about detective-ing and continues to conquer her shyness and learn the “soft skills” needed in a people-facing job like Dog work. She also learns How To Flirt, which is a subplot of the book that I have very strong but also somewhat contradictory feelings about.
One the one hand, I do appreciate that How To Flirt is presented as stuff Beka must learn and think about, that it is awkward and uncomfortable when she just applies the usual Stuff Is Happening sorts of mental processing to it, and that she has to decide to deliberately employ certain maneuvers that she has copied from other people. I appreciate this because God damn do I hate it when people act like flirting is just a naturally occurring consequence of being older than 13 and like there is no social learning or construction going on. I mean, it's one of my pet peeves when people act like any kind of knowledge is naturally occurring and does not have to be learned, but stuff involving sex and romance pisses me off the most, most likely because if you actually start paying attention and looking at who thinks what and where are you getting your knowledge or basically apply any form of metacognitive or critical awareness, it becomes screamingly obvious that finding two people who actually have the same ideas about How It Works Obviously is next to impossible. And yet most people seem really certain that there is a universally understood Way It Works and apparently no amount of endless miscommunication will convince them that this is actually a confusing and ambiguous subject, and, for all the lip service given to The Importance of Communicating in Relationships, it's next to impossible to get someone to actually identify their expectations and tell them to you in plain English so that you can compare your ideas about How It Works. So I like that Beka is not automagically on the same page as everyone else just by existing.
On the other hand, the text still sort of presents Beka as the odd one out and all third parties as being fully on the same page about what is in the body of knowledge that Beka has to acquire in order to pursue romantic relationships. This is bollocks. Also, I really hate Dale. I never particularly liked him—I thought he was sort of boring and I used to kind of breeze through his sections without thinking about it very much like I do with most other Obligatory Romantic Subplots in fiction—but reading along with the MR community really made me hate him more. This is because in the MR community there was a lot of discussion about who liked what and what wasn't working for whom etc. etc., and generally the only thing that occurred universally was that everyone in the commentariat is a relatively sensible and aware-of-other-persons-existing sort of person and, as such, we all agreed that people's mileage may vary greatly in what they do and do not find sexy or annoying. This, for me, threw into sharp relief how much not a single person in the cast of Bloodhound thinks that anybody's mileage may vary, and Dale is the worst of the lot. It's not that Dale is a bad person. It's just that Dale is a rake, and so I hate him for the same reason I hate most rakes, which is that they get into a particular groove of this is their rakey way of doing things, and they forget that their personal groove is not an immutable law of the universe and human nature. And I realize that having the whole conversation about what individual people do and do not like and what each person's expectations are and etc etc etc all that stuff that most dudes won't even arse themselves to talk about with supposedly serious partners (I say “supposedly” because of the number of times I've seen—and, once, been subjected to—“serious” being assumed out of a certain length of time without any discussion of what it means or whether the other party wishes to take the relationship to some sort of “next level”) isn't fun, and the whole point of being a rake is to just have fun without the serious bits, but the result tends to be self-absorbed, oblivious people who expect pretty members of their preferred gender to just automatically and seamlessly slot themselves into the rake's preferred modus operandi, and apparently they somehow manage to shield themselves from ever even learning that not everyone is guaranteed to be playing their game the way they're playing it, and they act all shocked and confused and surprised like they've never heard of such a thing when one of their marks has some sort of personal like or dislike or quirk or history or, you know, anything. I think they might block it out on purpose because it would require effort to remember. Dale is not only not an exception to this, he's pretty much the quintessential embodiment of oblivious lazy rakish assumption-making. I mean, if a dude in his twenties who's supposedly met oh so very very many ladies in his day tells you he's never met a woman who doesn't like being snuck up on and grabbed from behind in the street at night, that dude is either deeply, deeply stupid, or he's lying and he thinks you're deeply, deeply stupid, because it is wildly statistically unlikely that that is actually the case.
Dale also makes Beka sit around and watch while he plays games. This is a practice that needs to die in a fire.
Unfortunately, the book rather comes down on the side of Here Is What Flirting Is, Everyone Agrees On It, You Will Like It Once You Learn Because It Is Fun, Period. Which, sorry, Tamora Pierce, 99% of what you write is pure genius, but that's the most stupid lie about human sexuality I've heard since Cassandra Clare had someone dead seriously describe Jace Wayland as “everyone's type” and had another character use him as a test for whether or not she was a lesbian. I understand it's important to have books for teens that don't shame female characters for being sexual but everyone needs to stop portraying shit as universal when it isn't universal. (This goes double for whoever wrote Blood and Chocolate; I still have a headache from trying to follow the characters' thought processes in that book.)
Luckily, Beka's being unthinkingly groped by Dale is only part of what she spends her time in Port Caynn doing. She meets a lot of characters who are actually intelligent and interesting, from Master Finer, the cranky genius silversmith, to Amber Orchid, a nightclub performer and a transwoman who lives by day as a dude named Okha in a relationship with a gay man (apparently Port Caynn's queer scene doesn't have their terminology sorted out nearly as neatly as the modern world does) and who also gathers information on Pearl Skinner and her court but simultaneously refuses to act as a birdie to her boyfriend, who is a Dog. Amber is a very smart lady and I would read an entire book just about her. Beka also learns a lot about what a really corrupt police force looks like, which I really appreciate—a lot of cop stories show the cops as being pretty unequivocally the good guys, but I feel like the Beka Cooper books do a much better job of simultaneously illustrating how cops can be the good guys and why it is that societies need well-functioning police forces, but also not shying away from the fact that well-functioning police forces are actually pretty rare and difficult to achieve, and at least as often what you get is a bunch of venal bullies with power issues demanding respect without doing much to earn it. (Although even in Port Caynn it looks like none of the corrupt Dogs have been casually choking random civilians to death. Also, can the news go away this week?) And there's a rather heartbreaking bit about one of the Cage dogs in particular, how she left the street beat and became a Cage dog (that's the professional torturers, basically) for the sake of her kids, in order to stay safe so she could raise them without worrying that she was going to die, but the job has inured her to enacting violence upon the helpless so much that she's started hitting her kids.
Also, the action scenes are great. Tamora Pierce has always been fabulous about writing action scenes, but these are extra-great, because they are so visceral and gross and I really get the feeling that with Beka's books she's leaving the “YA” idea behind as anything other than a marketing designation—Beka is an adult and these are adult action scenes. Also, I think it's very important to have violent visceral action scenes in a book that's mostly about money, in order to ground it. So we get the bread riot, a solid punch in the gut to bring home what's really so bad about crop loss and rising food costs, and this is effectively placed at the beginning of the book in and among a lot of conversations about the chaos that could occur from runaway inflation, which is a thing that is basically also all the prices rising, just with different money theory stuff behind it. Also, the climax isn't just, like, smashing up all the counterfeit monies; it involves literal swimming in shit, which I think serves as a nice metaphor for a country being awash in money that isn't even worth shit.
In short, COUNTERFEITING YAY.
La Princesse de Cleves (or, in English, The Princess of Cleves) is one of the great French romantic novels, and a very early specimen thereof, having been first published in 1678. It is one of the first, if not arguably the first, psychological novels, most of the page space being dedicated to recording the various characters’ thoughts and emotions, and occasionally dialogue. There is fairly little action, although people do die a lot, mostly of vague illnesses that seem to be brought on by strong emotions.
The story takes place about a hundred years before its publication, in the 1550s, during the reign of Henri II. The French royal court is still based squarely in Paris, at the Louvre. Historical figures such as Diana de Poitiers, Catherine de Medici, and Mary Stuart run around, although it is frequently difficult to figure this out, since everybody is referred to only by their titles at all times, which is doubly confusing when people’s titles change (at one point, the king dies, and is succeeded by his son, the king). I couldn’t tell you what the hell Catherine de Medici actually does in this book because I can’t remember if she’s the Queen, the other Queen, or the Queen-Dauphin.
As a result… I can’t tell you what our protagonist’s name is. She starts off as the Mademoiselle de Chartres, a superlatively beautiful and sweet and witty young noblewoman in a France predictably full of beautiful sweet witty young noblewomen. (At least Madame de La Fayette doesn’t pull a Tolkien on us and individually introduce every female character as “the most beautiful and with the best hair” like that’s supposed to differentiate them from the others; she just introduces The Court as being a place full of fabulous attractive people, straight up.) Mademoiselle de Chartres catches the attention of pretty much everybody, but the person whose attention she catches first, and who is the only one who pursues her, is the Prince de Cleves. Since her mother had only brought the virginal innocent sixteen-year-old(!) Mademoiselle to the den of vice that (apparently) was the Court in order to make her an advantageous marriage, and since Mademoiselle has no experience fancying people at all and is a little vague on what it’s supposed to be like anyway, but like the Prince perfectly well enough as a friend and a person, the Prince’s suit is rewarded and Mademoiselle de Chartres becomes Madame de Cleves.
The Prince, who is passionately in love with his wife, keeps trying to Win Her Heart, and Madame keeps being like “Sorry? I like you just fine, honey, I’m sorry it’s not more… whatever you’re on about” but other than that things are great until the Duc de Nemours returns from wherever he’d been faffing about, probably something to do with the Italian war. The Duc de Nemours is apparently the ideal man, from French romantic perspective—in addition to being rich and titled and intelligent and brave and dashing and honored in battle, he is so terribly handsome that everybody falls in love with him, and so terribly kindhearted that he can’t help being kind and sweet and attentive to anybody that wants his attention, and is fond of pretty much everybody, and doesn’t have any macho douchy attitudes about women, instead genuinely liking their company and conversation, with the attendant result that he’s happily a giant slut. There’s enough Duc de Nemours for everybody! At least, there is until he meets his best friend the Prince de Cleves’ new wife.
Predictably, the Duc falls passionately in love with the Princess, and the Princess falls passionately in love with the Duc, which confuses her dreadfully and also makes her feel bad because she’s already married to a kind honorable man who is her very dear friend and who she genuinely holds in quite high esteem. The Duc keeps trying to find ways to see and speak to the Princesse without being obvious about it or compromising her virtue; the Princesse alternates between trying to find ways to see the Duc without being obvious either and deciding to stay away from him in order to get over him. Eventually she confessed to her husband that she’s in love with someone else and feels terrible about it and wants to stay away from Court, but she won’t tell him who it is. The Duc, who is HIDING IN THE GARDEN EAVESDROPPING BECAUSE WHAT THE HELL (apparently in the days before Facebook you had to actually stalk your unrequited crush in order to torture yourself mooning unproductively after their lovely visage, at least until you can steal a copy of their portrait, which you will actually do if you’re the Duc de Nemours), overhears this confession, and is so joyous (and so certain it’s about him) that he runs and wibbles about it to one of his friends, who tells somebody else because nobody in the French court can keep a secret (except Madame de Tournon, who has a subplot that starts with her death), and eventually it gets back to the Prince and Princess, each of whom thinks the other told the Duc. Then there’s some crazy business with a letter that was addressed to somebody other than the Duc but the other dude is trying to get the Duc to pretend it’s his so he doesn’t get into trouble with the Queen or the other Queen or the Queen-Dauphin, I don’t even know. ANYWAY. A bunch of stuff happens, the King dies in a joust, the Duc de Nemours blows off the opportunity to maybe marry Queen Elizabeth of England, one of the French ladies gives the world’s most fucking hilarious summary of the sage of Henry the Eighth and his wives I have ever heard in my life, and a lot of people fake being ill, mostly the Princesse de Cleves.
At some point, the Prince sends his manservant or somebody to follow the Duc de Nemours, and the dude follows the Duc right into the Prince’s garden outside Paris, where the Princess is shut up in an attempt to avoid Court and all its gallantries and nonsense, and to avoid the Duc. While in actuality the Duc is just hangin’ around in the gardens spying on Madame de Cleves like a creeper, the poor woobie Prince thinks that the Duc and the Princesse are sleeping together, and gets so jealous that he falls deathly ill. Madame de Cleves is distraught by this and is very attentive and stuff and eventually they actually talk out what the Prince thinks is going on and what was actually going on, but it’s too late, and the Prince dies. Of jealousy, apparently. The Princesse is still passionately in love with the Duc de Nemours, but also basically figures that he killed her husband by skulking about in the garden and causing jealousy, instead of keeping the fuck away from her like she’d been trying to keep the fuck away from him, so when the Duc shows up all declaring his love and proposing marriage, she declares her love back but declines the marriage, and moves out to the Pyrenees and joins a convent until she dies. THE END. No happy ending. Just guilt and virtue and overthinking the shit out of everything. The Princesse seriously needed some Captain Awkward in her life. The Duc probably did, too. And the Prince. And… the entire French court, really.
Predictably, I loved this novel. I always say I’m not super big on love stories, but I make an exception when the psychology is really good (i.e. spelled out every step from first principles for idiots like me who won’t understand it otherwise) and when there’s a shit-ton of drama and intrigue and ridiculousness. This book hits ALL those buttons. Much of it is genuinely moving, and a great psychological portrait of someone who has no idea what’s going on and no idea what to do except to refuse to get involved. It’s also just straight up wacky as hell. The Princess spends like half the book faking being ill and half of what’s left actually being ill, people talk in long involved paragraphs to the point where the conversations seem less like conversations and more like taking turns making speeches, random scandals pop up and have to be discussed in detail, except that everyone uses vague euphemistic terms for everything so it’s impossible to tell who’s having sex and who’s just making mutual cow eyes at each other. Madame de La Fayette’s method for describing people is the opposite of the modern laundry list of physical characteristics, nobody is ever given a hair or eye color or even so much as a height; they’re just comely and graceful and well-formed and other glittering generalities that tell you absolutely fuck-nothing about what anyone looks like except that you’d totally find them attractive, I promise. Also she tells us a billion times that the Duc de Nemours is a brilliant conversationalist but any time when she actually transcribes his words (like, in quotation marks and that sort of thing) it’s really not all that impressive.
My biggest beef with this book is some weird stuff about the translations; the titles are translated or not translated really haphazardly, so sometimes our protagonist is Madame de Cleves and sometimes the Princesse de Cleves and sometimes the Princess of Cleves, her husband is usually the Prince of Cleves but her love interest is usually the Duc (or Duke) de Nemours, and once I noticed it became really jarring. And there’s a lot of use of “you was,” which is just dated for English; I don’t care what the French was there, you done translated it wrong. This is supposed to be Court French, not gamin argot.
Other than the translation issues, it was glorious. It was everything I love about overwritten old novels. And everything I love about over-everything ancien regime France. I recommend it highly.
Talking to Dragons is the one I read the least frequently when I was younger, and as a result, it is the one I had forgotten the most about. I remembered that it took place several years after the end of Calling on Dragons, and that the main character was Daystar, and something about a fire-witch, and obviously that it wrapped up the whole Wizards Have Imprisoned King Mendanbar plot. I also mostly remembered not liking it as much as the others, probably due to the relative lack of Cimorene.
While there was indeed a sad lack of Cimorene, I found I actually did like the book quite a bit this time around! I cannot help but wonder if some of my change in opinion comes from knowing that this book was actually written before the other three, rather than before. The style is definitely a bit less developed than the other books, particularly the humor—it’s cute and silly and funny but I still feel like it’s a bit less polished than the rest of the series. I’m also really, really super impressed that the references to/summaries of the previous books match up exactly and quite specifically; I guess even if she wrote this book first she had the whole series outlined or something? I mean, I was basically listening with an ear towards seeing if she fucked up, and she didn’t, and I think that’s very impressive because honestly, there’s continuity errors between the first and second Discworld books and they’re just one story.
The basic plot of this book is that Daystar, son of Cimorene and Mendanbar, has no idea who he is, and is therefore very surprised when one day, following a visit by the wizard Antorell, his mother gives him a magic sword and kicks him out of the house in the general direction of the Enchanted Forest. Daystar survives the Enchanted Forest largely by being very polite to everyone and everything. He means a dreadfully impolite but sasstastic fire-witch named Shiara, a small excitable lizard named Suze, Morwen (yay), Telemain (also yay), a silly princess and her doofy knight, and a small, nameless, genderless, slightly whiny adolescent dragon, not necessarily in that order. At one point, Daystar, Shiara, and the dragon are in the Caves of Chance and they all meet an ineptly demanding pile of animated blackberry jelly, which is something I had clean forgotten about right up until they met it and then it all came flooding back to me that I had once thought this thing to be the cutest little monster ever.
`Overall I think it makes a solid conclusion to the series in most ways, but it will probably forever remain the odd one out for me.
Like all the best crime novels, this story actually focuses on two cases, which are related. In a deviation from the usual formula, we actually find out how these cases are related pretty early on: the Shadow Snake, the child murderer who kidnaps small children to extort treasures from their families, has killed the grandson of Crookshank, a neighborhood crime lord who seems to be doing some sort of hidden mining operation involving fire opals, and killing off his diggers. It’s the murder of baby Rolond that kicks off investigations into both of these plotlines.
Beka Cooper is just starting out as a trainee member of the Provost’s Guard, which is basically the city watch/rudimentary police force. She is assigned to the two very best and most well-known and awesome pair of Dogs (as they call themselves) on the Evening Watch, which is the interesting one. These are Mattes Tunstall, the laid-back goofy one, and Clary Goodwin, the hardass sarcastic one. They are both great, great characters as well as great Dogs. Beka, having moved out of Lord Gershwin’s house where her family lives, is also living in her very first own apartment (which is apparently a one-bedroom, as there are other people in her lodging-house but they’re not in her “rooms”, which makes me super jealous! My first apartment was an eight-bedroom. I would love a one-person apartment. On the other hand, apparently medieval apartments do not have kitchens, which would make me sad). She makes FRIENDS!! with a bunch of other Puppies (trainee police) and also some “rushers” (persons on the other side of the law) from Scanra, who are all darlings despite two of them being professional killers. Rosto in particular is like a bizarre mashup of Jamie Campbell Bower as Jace Wayland in the terrible TMI movie and Jamie Campbell Bower as Slutty Playboy King Arthur in that terrible Camelot show. He’d definitely be bad news for Beka but as a character he’s hilarious and weird and there is lots of very bizarre UST between him and Beka and it’s just gloriously awkward.
The journal format seems to have bugged a lot of people, but I have a giant soft spot for journal format books. I also love the extra-old-fashioned language—I remember it throwing me off a bit the first time I read the book, but it’s just so fun! The swears in particular! Every time I read a Beka Cooper book I remember that I have to call more people terrible medieval names like “sarden cankerblossom” in real life instead of just being like “What an asshole” every time someone’s an asshole, but alas, I keep forgetting.
Reading this with the MR commentariat also meant I learned a lot of interesting stuff along the way, including recipes, and that twilsey is a real thing that you can make with fruit vinegar because fruit vinegars are also a real thing. (My foodieism needs serious work. I must become a proper foodie; they know how to have fun. Especially in Paris.) (By the way, does anyone know what you actually do with vanilla butter? I bought some…)
Thumbs up A+ would read again, I freaking love Tamora Pierce.
We’ve just gotten through the first book in the series, The Colour of Magic, and I am revising my opinion of this book from three stars to four. I didn’t read this book first when I started Discworld, so it struck me as being underdeveloped and episodic—and it is, compared to the later works, when more worldbuilding has been done. However, going through it slowly, pun by glorious pun, rather than ripping through the whole thing in one sentence, both made the episodic nature less obvious, and reminded me how absolutely glorious the puns are, even right at the very beginning. The turtle thing is truly bizarre, and I hadn’t thought to stop to think about quite how much bizarreness is squished even into just its first introduction (THAT BIG BANG PUN), having spent ten years being just like “Yeah it’s on a turtle lol”. Rincewind is never boring, even sans potato obsession. And the Luggage… the Luggage is perfection itself.
Ze plot, for the uniniated: Rincewind, an expert coward and gloriously failed wizard, is hired as translator and guide for Twoflower, the Discworld’s first tourist, an inn-sewer-ants analyst from the mysterious and wealthy Counterweight Continent. Rincewind is also tasked given a stern lecture on inflation by the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork and tasked with making sure this tourism thing doesn’t catch on and that Morporkians don’t all decide to go get gold from the Counterweight Continent. Then there’s fire and fighting and running away, and then dragons and shipwrecks and running away, and basically a ton of absurd wacky hijinks that take them all over the Disc, particularly as they run away. And that is ze plot. Sort of. Plot isn’t really the point; groanworthy but clever puns and making fun of popular eighties fantasy tropes are the point.
Basically, it’s a pretty mediocre Discworld book, but even a mediocre Discworld book is better than most other books.
There are a couple major plotlines running through this book. Plot #1 is, of course, the journey of Re Temur, renegade prince of the Qersnyk, and the once-princess and all-around badass lady wizard Samarkar, as they journey to rescue Temur’s girlfriend Edene and claim the title of Khagan. Edene, however, has escaped her captors, and, in Plotline #2, journeys to the anciently magical land of Erem, bearing a ring that makes her the Queen of ghuls and scorpions and other creepy things, and also she is pregnant. Plotline #3 concerns a pair of twins, now both trapped in the female twin’s body through creepy blood magic (the male twin’s body died in the last book), who are working to ensnare the current reigning Khagan, Qori Buqa, on the order of the mastermind of all this war and conflict, fanatic murder-cult acolyte Al-Sepehr. The fourth and possibly most disturbing plotline involves the goings-on on Tsarepeth, home of Samarkar’s order of wizards and of the royal family she once belonged to, as the city is struck by a plague of demon eggs (this manifests as an actual plague—the eggs grow in people’s lungs and hatch there), the awakening of a dead volcano, and mass civil unrest.
Most of the stuff I liked about the last book I continue to like about this one. Her major characters are all pretty no-nonsense and relatable, but bring an interesting variety of cultural perspectives on topics as diverse as kissing, beds, guest/host obligations, and naming. (I’m never going to get over the Rasa people sticking their tongues out as a sign of respect, though.) The worldbuilding is meticulous, vivid, and quite thoroughly researched, without getting long-winded (not that I have much of a problem with long-winded novels. But this isn’t one of them and that’s definitely an accomplishment with world-building this complex!). The stuff that seems intended to be creepy all gets A+ top marks on being genuinely goddamn creepy: in addition to the people-kidnapping blood ghosts from last book, there is an entire army of ghuls, more gigantic birds, magic from Erem that has a corrosive effect on pretty much anything that comes into contact with it, FUCKING DEMONS GESTATING IN PEOPLE’S LUNGS, and the aforementioned volcano because volcanoes are really are terrifying.
I feel like when the third book comes out and the trilogy can be examined as a complete work, there will be like fifty thousand academic papers one could write about it, but right now I’m just like “Very good where is Book 3 already.” So I am holding all my Srs Bsns English Major Analytics for now.
This series is highly recommended for people who like: political shenaniganry in their fantasy, horses, non-white protagonists, powerful ladies, getting creeped the fuck out, guns exploding in people’s faces (bah, I didn’t talk about the fun fight scenes! So: the fight scenes are fun!), elemental magic systems that aren’t corny, multiple viewpoints, grown-up books that are not stuffed full of tedious sex scenes to make them all Look Mom It’s An Adult Book!, and rebellious talking tigers.
Anyway. For the SF/F meetup book club, the book this month is Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon, which I think might be part of a series but works perfectly well as a stand-alone novel. Going into this book, I pretty much knew that 1, it was a fantasy novel of some sort, 2, Saladin Ahmed is sometimes funny on Twitter, and 3, from the title and cover art I figured it the world would be sort of Middle-East-based more than Europe-based.
I was pretty dead-on regarding #3. The worldbuilding is pretty decent considering it’s the first novel in a series and it clocks in at less than 300 pages; I think I’m a bit spoiled about worldbuilding these days… there’s a part of me that wants to be like “Wah it’s not as fleshed out as, for example, Tortall” but then I remember that there are seventeen Tortall books and it’s not very fleshed out in just the first one either. The Crescent Moon kingdoms are essentially Ye Olde Medieval Arabia, which can be a nice change from the continual flow of Ye Olde Medieval Western Europe books in the genre, but I would also probably not be able to put up any kind of specific counterargument if you told me it took place in the same universe as Disney’s Aladdin. (Maybe the lack of musical numbers.) It’s a vivid and accessible kind of Ye Olde Medieval Arabia setting, full of the food porn we’ve all come to expect of the fantasy genre, brief mentions of other lands outside the Kingdom’s borders, and intriguing tidbits about a fallen prior civilization with ill-understood magic. The fallen prior civilization is transparently a sinister take on Ancient Egypt, even up to the name, Kem (Kemet was the name for Egypt in Ancient Egyptian). I, for one, definitely want to hear more about Evil-Magic-Ancient-Egypt in the upcoming books.
The political situation in the Crescent Moon Kingdoms, and in particular its enormous capital city of Dhamasawaat, is tenuous. The current Khalif is cruel, greedy, and entirely self-absorbed, and the city is stressed to the breaking point under his callous mismanagement. (This mismanagement includes causing massive traffic jams that last half a day or more. THIS IS BAD FOR YOUR POLITICAL CAREER, just ask Chris Christie.) A flamboyant, Robin-Hood like figure calling himself the Falcon Prince has shown up to steal from the rich and give to the poor, give bombastic speeches, interrupt public executions, have fabulous moustachios, and that sort of thing. As one would expect, he is a very polarizing figure.
In the middle of this political unrest, a bunch of people are getting murdered in very nasty ways—hearts torn out, souls devoured, that sort of thing. The murders don’t have anything to do with either of these political factions—they are the work of some monsters: mostly ghuls, but also a nasty shadow creature called a manjackal, who is surprisingly whiny and talks about himself in the third person. The main plot follows our band of heroes as they try to fight the ghuls and the manjackal, and to find and kill whatever sorcerer is raising these creatures before he can drown Dhamasawaat in rivers of blood and steal the Crescent Moon Throne from its two current contenders.
Our band of heroes consists of three to five people, depending on how you want to count—the book jacket only mentions three but I think it’s pretty obviously five. Our protagonist is Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, who is not actually a doctor kind of doctor; members of his particular order of ghul hunters are called Doctors by tradition. (I’m not sure why. Possibly the author just likes the title “Doctor.” If so, I cannot actually fault him for this.) Adoulla is getting too old to be a proper ghul hunter—he’s about seventy—and he really just wants to retire with his books and drink cardamom tea and marry his ex-girlfriend Miri, a madam who doubles as a sort of extragovernmental spymaster around the city. Adoulla also enjoys trading insults with his friends, complaining about how old and fat he is, and making fun of his assistant, Rasheed. Rasheed bas Rasheed is a dervish of some extremely puritanical holy order or other, whose entire purpose in life is to be the perfect weapon of God. To this end, he helps Adoulla kill ghuls, but spends most of his time being scandalized over one thing or another and fretting about the inevitable conflict that crops up when his list of pious rules and proscriptions bumps up against how life actually happens.
While hunting ghuls, Adoulla and Rasheed meet Zamia, the last member of her particular band of the Badawi tribe, who were all slaughtered by the ghuls and manjackals and other horrors raised by the Mysterious Evil Sorcerer. Zamia can turn into a lioness. She and Rasheed almost immediately have awkward feelings about each other that neither of them wants to deal with, as they are both so impressed with how unbearably serious the other one is. (Adoulla, of course, endlessly makes fun of them for being soulmates in stick-up-their-butts-itude, otherwise they’d probably collapse into a black hole of humorlessness.) Zamia joins up with Adoulla and Rasheed so that she can get vengeance for her tribe. When the three of them are attacked in Adoulla’s house (which is supposed to be impossible) by the manjackal and a couple of sand ghuls, Zamia is injured and the house burns down, so they team up with two of the Doctor’s old friends and neighbors, a married couple consisting of a magus and an alkhemist. (…The vaguely Arabified spellings of words that are common in English language fantasy annoyed me a little at first, but eventually I got used to them. The same cannot be said of Microsoft Word, which keeps trying to correct the spellings to “ghouls” and “alchemist.”) The rest of the plot is a pleasant mix of all the things that make fantasy-adventure fun—unravelling old curses on old scrolls, almost getting killed by thuggish guardsmen, more monsters, magical healing, treasonous plots, unlikely allies, some musings on class warfare and the duties of kings.
The one thing notably missing from the usual roster of Stuff What Goes In Fantasy Adventure Novels is “interesting pantheon of gods,” in either its definitely-real-because-they-show-up-
Overall it was a fun, quick read; but… that didn’t entirely work for me. I’ll be very interested to see if the sequels end up providing more depth to the world and the characters, because, while I like a good escapist monster-hunting adventure now and again, for some reason I feel like this book should have been less fluffy than it was—I wanted more, although it’s hard for me to put my finger on precisely what it is I wanted more of, whether it was worldbuilding or characterization or explorations of power systems, but I definitely wanted more depth of some sort.
The Wise Child books take place in mostly-pagan early-medieval Cornwall, which is awesome. Juniper takes place in a small Cornish kingdom where Juniper—first known as Ninnoc—is a princess, the sole child and therefore heir of King Mark. Ninnoc exhibits signs of power at an early age—dowsing rods actually work for her (I found this kind of hilarious), and sometimes she can heal minor injuries (only other people’s, though) by looking at or touching them. When Ninnoc is in her early teens she is sent to live with her godmother Euny for a year and a day. Euny is a harsh, no-nonsense old woman who lives in poverty in a little hut on a hill in the middle of nowhere. She is also a doran of great power.
Ninnoc finds life with Euny a harsh adjustment, having been raised in a nice warm palace full of people and food and stuff, but she learns—first self-sufficiency skills, like dressing herself and how to kill a pig, then, later, magic and herblore. Ninnoc/Juniper also spends part of this time with another (more congenial) doran named Angharad and her apprentice, Trewyn. Angharad is a skilled weaver, and teacher Juniper to spin and dye and weave, and eventually to make her doran cloak—a protective garment, unique to each individual doran, that they keep for their whole lives. The cloak must be perfect. Juniper accidentally leaves a tiny mistake in the weaving pattern of hers, which almost gets her killed later.
When Juniper arrives back home after her year and a day of witch training, something is wrong at home—crops are failing, that sort of thing. Juniper suspects her aunt Meroot, her father’s older sister, who has always been bitter about the admittedly unfair fact that Mark got to be the ruler instead of her, and who Juniper suspects is plotting to put her own son, Juniper’s cousin and best childhood friend Gamal, on the throne. Meroot marries a “knight” who Juniper suspects is also a sorcerer and suggests that Gamal marry Juniper. With the help of Gamal’s other best friend, the squire Finbar, Juniper sets off to Meroot and the sorcerer-knight’s home to investigate whether Gamal is being ensorcelled, which he is—he has been ghosted, a type of mind-control very similar to making someone a zombie in voudu. Juniper must then use her fledgling doran powers to save Gamal and the kingdom, and defeat Meroot and her weird sorcerer-knight husband who can turn into a giant scary dog.
This book fits firmly in the realm of Thing That Are Catnip To Me, from the detailed, grounded depictions of early feudal Cornwall (the historical accuracy of which I am entirely unfamiliar with) to the well-rounded cast of ladies. It’s not a large cast of ladies per se, as it is a short book with a fairly limited number of characters overall, but we still get two good adult sorceresses, one evil adult sorceress, and two teenage girl sorceresses, plus Ninnoc/Juniper’s mother and her nursemaid, both of whom are pretty solid secondary characters even though they don’t have magic. There’s curses and magic, but it’s used fairly sparingly, as being a doran is really mostly just about doing work and knowing stuff. The Cornish dorans actually remind me more of the Discworld’s country witches than anything else I’ve read.
While I thoroughly enjoyed Juniper, I vaguely remember Wise Child being better, but I’d have to reread it to be sure. Wise Child was definitely one of my childhood staples, so I might be remembering it as more awesome than it is, but I think I also remember thinking that Wise Child was better when Juniper first came out.
One of these days I really need to learn more about Cornwall. If anyone knows any good books about medieval Cornwall—culture or history or myths or folklore, anything—definitely send some recommendations my way!
I do not regret this decision at all.
Range of Ghosts is a political fantasy and it’s based largely on the medieval Middle East and Asia. A major theme is the rise and fall of empires; the empire that owns most of the known world at the time of this story is the Qersnyk Khaganate, which is largely based off the Mongol Empire—the Qersnyk are a culture made up of a number of nomadic horse tribes from the steppe. The Khaganate is facing civil war after the death of the Great Khagan. Other kingdoms, empires, and former empires—some subject to the Khaganate; some on its borders—have their own cultures and their own reactions to the war within the Khaganate. How closely these other kingdoms seem to be based on other Asian and Middle Eastern cultures varies, or possibly my familiarity with the cultures in question does. The different cultures and the different factions within the political houses are all well-characterized and clearly differentiated. As far as I can tell, there are no white people in the entire book.
My familiarity with Mongol history is very limited, so around the time I began reading this book I also listened to a five-part Hardcore History podcast called “The Wrath of the Khans,” and learned stuff about Genghis Khan and his heirs. It was both educational and disturbing, because welcome to history.
One of our protagonists is Temur, grandson of the Great Khagan, and now the heir with the most legitimate claim to the throne, as his cousin has killed off his elder brothers while trying to seize the position. The cousin is named Qori Buqa, which personally frustrates me, since I noticed that Qori Buqa seems like it would be pronounced close to Cory Booker and I am like “Noooo Cory Booker is awesome; this cannot be the bad guy” but that’s all me. (I voted for Cory Booker TODAY. Yay!)
Our other main viewpoint character is the Once-Princess Samarkar, who, after arranging to be widowed, tries to remove herself from the vicious political situation in the Rasan Empire by becoming a wizard. The process for becoming a wizard of Tsarepheth involves a surgery to remove her ovaries; wizards must be infertile for their magic to manifest. Samarkar is awesome; more on that later.
The worldbuilding in this book is often really creepy, in a good way. The skies are different over each country, and change to reflect changes in political borders and leadership—so when the Khaganate takes over another land, their sky changes to the Qersnyk sky, which features a personal moon for each member of the ruling family (this provides a handy guide for who is still alive at the end of every day). The magic that can be wielded by humans comes in ways that require high costs and intense training—wizardry can only come when the body has lost its ability to procreate, and seems to be largely based on manipulating elements with one’s will. Sorcery, which is much more sinister, seems to be mostly blood magic, and frequently involves killing people. In addition, objects can be cursed or ensorcelled. The dead must be sent along to the afterlife with whatever prayers and rituals are required by their culture, or else their ghosts stick around and can be manipulated with sorcery, which is bad news, because when ghosts attack you they can suck out your life/warmth/energy, and they can only be repelled with salt.
After surviving an absolute massacre of a battle (even by battle standards), Temur hides his identity for a bit as he and his awesome horse take up with a bunch of refugees, and he develops a relationship with a badass young Qersnyk woman named Edene, who also has an awesome horse. When Edene is abducted by a huge army of scary-ass blood ghosts, because she is too badass to get abducted by anything less, Temur, accompanied by his and Edene’s awesome horses, goes in search of her. It is on this quest that he meets Samarkar, out on her first real wizarding assignment to the city of Qeshqer, which, it turns out, has been completely depopulated and its people’s bodies used for more creepy sorcery. Everything beyond this is entirely too complicated for me to sum up but suffice to say that there is a creepy blood-magic murder cult that is trying to deliberately sow war and kill people, including Temur, and they have Edene.
Edene gives us more insight into the creepy murder cult as she becomes a viewpoint character. I almost just wrote that she is my favorite viewpoint character except that’s not true—no one character is my favorite viewpoint character because the really great use of viewpoints here is in the way they all play off each other. So we get the inside view of the creepy murder cult from both Edene, the outsider, and a guy known as Al-Sepehr, the sorcerer who seems to be our main villain (one of them, anyway. It’s complicated). And when Temur and Samarkar are travelling together, which is for a pretty big section of the book, the narrative keeps switching back and forth between both their viewpoints. All the viewpoints are very distinct and shaped strongly not just by their narrator’s individual personalities (the way we think of personalities, in terms of traits and general attitudes) but are also very clearly rooted in their personal experience, particularly in terms of their knowledge of and experience of different geographies and cultural practices, etc.—some characters have seen oceans before and some haven’t; some have never seen desert; the Qersnyk do not have the custom of kissing so this is a weird foreign custom to them (it is apparently true in the real world that some cultures do not have kissing, at least according to a bunch of the anthro texts I used to read for Pearson; this is one of the things I cannot get over thinking is really weird); the steppe characters feel claustrophobic in enclosed mountain holdfasts and the mountain characters feel lost and exposed on the steppe. It helps that the characters are very well-realized, and often fairly sympathetic to modern reader biases in terms of their values and priorities, so it’s easy to get into their headspaces, and then it cramps your poor modern brain to be in the headspace of someone who is thinking about all sorts of complicated, advanced political scheming one minute and, like, boggling over the existence of pillows the next. I love it.
I have the book in trade paperback, but I strongly suggest buying it in hardcover so the next time you run into an asshole who claims that “politically correct” fantasy about anyone-other-than-white-dudes is boring, you can more easily beat them to death with it. I have no idea where this series is going except that I am pretty sure somebody will die at some point because so far this book doesn’t pussyfoot around, and I don’t want anyone to die because everybody is awesome. (Seriously, I am Mark Does Stuff levels of unprepared.) I will probably pick up the second book in October when I will be attending a book signing for Elizabeth Bear and her adorkable boyfriend Scott Lynch (author of The Lies of Locke Lamora, which I read in August). Then I will have all the awesome signed books and everyone had better be jealous.
Snuff is Terry Pratchett's latest Discworld book, and it is a Sam Vimes novel, and it is... rather dark. The title is a pun; the major plotlines involve both a murder and tobacco products. It is also a "such-and-such fantasy species and its place in modern society" book; in this case, it's goblins.
The basic plotline is that Lady Sybil has finally talked Sam into taking a vacation out in the country, at her ancestral estate. Sam is not happy about this, as he is deeply uncomfortable with the country and all the weird ways in which it is unlike the city, being full of green things and farm animals and farmers and such. Lots of the local people--both the common folk and the country nobs/gentlefolk--are suspicious of Sam, and Sam is suspicious right back at them. Sam thinks something Is Up but cannot tell what.
Then, the local blacksmith disappears, and the body of a goblin girl is found brutally murdered. Sam teams up with the local copper, a young and totally unqualified but earnest boy who has the job because his father was a copper and he inherited the badge to solve it, helped along by his assassin-manservant Willikins; Miss Felicity Beadle, writer of many children's books, including several of Young Sam's favorites; an unusually attitudinal goblin named Stinky; and some other wacky characters.
There are also a lot of people who get in the way, mainly because they think goblins are vermin, and that murdering the goblin girl doesn't count as murder, and other bigoted shenaniganry. Meanwhile, back in Ankh-Morpork, Sergeant Fred Colon accidentally buys a cigar with the soul of an infant goblin in it, which causes many weird adverse effects. Eventually this all works up to Vime & co unravelling a crime ring that I'm not going to tell you anything about except that it involves exploiting goblins in terrible ways. And tobacco.
In a small subplot that I probably think is more amusing than other people do due to family history, Lord Vetinari engages in a battle of wits with his archrival, the lady who writes the crossword for the Ankh-Morpork Times.
While this is a police book and most of the police officers involved are men, this book still has some pretty awesome ladies, including the aforementioned writer of children's books who also has a rather amazing backstory involving goblins; Lady Sybil Ramkin being totally awesome and kicking as much ass with her letter-writing as Sam kicks by actually kicking people's asses; a young, musically inclined goblin girl named Tears of the Mushroom, and some brief cameos by Cheery Littlebottom. (I love Cheery Littlebottom.) Also the country police officer's old mum, who I imagine as being played by that lady who plays Cousin Violet in Downton Abbey and Simon Pegg's mom in Shawn of the Dead.
The main Big Themes in this book are slavery, dehumanization, how scary nature is, the ways in which cute small towns can cover up really terrible stuff, religion, bodily fluids, and the usual The Nature of Being a Copper stuff that features in all of the Night Watch books. Somehow this is all wound up in poop jokes (actual clever poop jokes, not ones where the word "poop" is used as a replacement for making a joke), stuff about complicated chickens, and general high-adrenaline wacky hijinks, and it all ties together.
While not as unendingly hilarious as most other Discworld books--Pratchett seems to be getting increasingly serious--it's still a very enjoyable read, provided you are not full up on fantasy that deals with genocide and the banality of evil and other depressing stuff.
Anyway. The Provost's Dog books take place about two hundred years BEFORE the beginning of the Song of the Lioness quartet, and Beka is George Cooper's something-great-grandmother (there are some interesting bits of character backstory that we learn to explain why George still has Beka's last name even though he's descended from her in the maternal line). Tamora Pierce definitely made Beka Cooper's Corus seem like a different time period than Alanna's Corus, including being less socially progressive in a lot of ways (there is still slavery, for instance) although there is less Women Are Super Delicate stuff going on--the Cult of the Gentle Mother is a social influence that is pretty new and gaining power during this series, which I think is awesome, because backlashes/regression, they really do happen. There is also lots of fun with medieval slang! This takes some getting used to, but overall I think it ends up being a lot of fun, particularly the swearing. The swearing is wonderful.
These books are big compared to the earlier ones, clocking it at around five or six hundred pages apiece. This is good, as it allows a lot of room for elements of Literary Fantasy, such as listing delicious-sounding foods, describing what everyone is wearing, and talking about going to the bathroom. Also the aforementioned swearing.
On a more serious note, there are also BIG CRIMINAL CONSPIRACIES that Beka and her partners have to unravel because they are AWESOME MEDIEVAL COPS. And many of them are ladies! I cannot even deal with how many awesome lady cops there are in this series, from bit characters like Desk Sargeant Kebibi Ahuda to Beka and one of her partners, a veteran Dog named Clary Goodwin, who is just awesomely cranky and completely zero-bullshit. Goodwin especially shines in the second book, where she and Beka go to Port Caynn to try and unravel a counterfeiting conspiracy. (Tunstall is sadly at home in Corus with broken legs in this one.) There is also another lady knight, Lady Sabine of Macayhill, because it would be cruel for Tamora Pierce to give us a whole series without any awesome lady knights. There are some pretty cool nonmilitary women as well, like Beka's friend Kora the hedgewitch, and Serenity, who runs a lodging house in Port Caynn and just keeps randomly being awesome.
Beka, in addition to being a policewoman, is also a sort-of mage; she doesn't have the Gift, but she has the ability to hear the spirits of the dead when they ride on the backs of pigeons (pigeons are the messengers of the Black God, apparently), and she can also listen to dust spinners, which apparently hold bits of conversation and want to dump them off on somebody else (it makes more sense in the book).
I don't want to go into the plots because it'd be hard to say much of anything without giving it all away, but the basic premises are: In the first book, there's a possible serial killer who kidnaps small children for ransom and kills them if the parents don't hand over their prized possessions, plus someone is hiring crews of diggers who then mysteriously disappear; in the second book, somebody is producing large quantities of counterfeit silver coins and they seem to be coming out of Port Caynn; in the third book, somebody has kidnapped the heir to the throne and hidden him as a slave, plus the realm's mages are in a big snit.
I really do have a lot to say about these books but I don't really want to end up writing another 8-page review. Maybe someday I will go back to school and do a paper on Pierce! That would be the best paper-writing experience I think I could ever have.
In this case I think it works because you can really only let spy stories get so big before they become either slow and unsurprising or too complicated to follow. So two books works well for the Trickster series, otherwise known as The One About Spies.
Our heroine in this series is Alianne of Pirate's Swoop, only daughter of legendary Alanna the Lioness, who is now crabby and middle-aged, and former Rogue King of Corus George Cooper, now Baron of Pirate's Swoop. Aly is clever and very into games and puzzles and winning and that sort of thing, and since her daddy is King Jonathan's chief undercover agent and her granddaddy Miles of Olau is his chief spymaster, this means that Aly has been learning to break codes and other fun spy stuff since she was in the cradle. Aly basically enjoys spy stuff and goofing off and that is it, leading to many family conversations like this;
ALY'S PARENTS: You're a grown-up now and you should pick a career.
ALY: I want to be a spy!
ALANNA THE KING'S CHAMPION, PROFESSIONAL HAVE-PEOPLE-TRY-TO-KILL-YOU-ER: No! That is dangerous.
ALY: Fine then, I my career is to goof off and have fun.
GEORGE AND ALANNA: No really please pick a profession, any goddamn profession at all EXCEPT SPY.
After one too many of these conversations, Aly goes sailing until she feels better, and is promptly captured by pirates and sold into slavery in the Copper Isles. The Copper Isles is a massive political clusterfuck of a country, with serious tensions between the raka (native Islanders) and the luarin (descendents of the white people who conquered the Isles three hundred years ago), and a lot of laws designed to disempower and punish the raka for pretty much everything, a highly unstable monarchy (there's insanity in the royal line but it's an absolute monarchy so when the monarch has a breakdown there's nobody who can make them get treatment... this is not even their main problem), a large slave economy (slaves can be of any race, which makes things even more complicated), a large mixed-heritage population (which does nothing to ease the tensions between the raka and the luarin), and a bunch of other stuff. To top it all off, there is a divine element in the conflict, with the original patron god of the Isles, the Trickster god Kyprioth, planning to take the Isles back from the luarin gods Mithros and the Great Mother. Aly is one of his chosen tools to accomplish this.
This is where things get a little awkward as it is kiiiiind of a Special White Person Rides In And Saves All The Brown People From The Bad White People story, although it does deviate from your basic white-guilt-assuaging Pocahontas or Avatar storyline in a couple of important ways. Aly is not the general/leader of the raka rebellion, nor is she their candidate for queen--she has a specific set of skills, in this case her extensive spy training, and she becomes part of the rebellion strictly as its spymaster. The rebellion has several raka leaders and their candidates for Queen are half-raka and half-luarin, descended from royal lines on both sides, in accordance with an old prophecy. Aly also doesn't really do the "switching sides because she's so enlightened that she realizes she's on the side of the Bad Guys"--she's not connected with the Island luarin ruling classes; Kyprioth pretty much just yoinked her out of a totally different country and gave her an assignment. She also doesn't marry the mysterious-brown-people's chief's beautiful daughter or whatever; she instead hooks up with A DUDE WHO USED TO BE CROW. Which means he looks like a grown-up guy but HE IS ACTUALLY THREE. I think Tamora Pierce wrote up this romance to shut up everyone who was complaining about how Alanna and Daine each ended up with dudes several years older than themselves. That said, Nawat really is kind of adorable, because he is a Tamora Pierce Sassy Animal, and they are the best.
I think I would feel more comfortable with this series if there were more viewpoint switches and it didn't use Aly as Our Viewpoint/Bridge Character. Even though that actually kind of makes sense on this one, because readers, regardless of our real-life ethnicities, will probably be more familiar with Tortall and with Aly's fabled parentage than we will with the Copper Isles, since they are made-up places and Tortall is the one that there are other books about. But I still think that a more ensemble-cast approach might have benefited this story just to make it smell a bit less Great-White-Savior-y.
That complaint aside, YAY SPY REVOLUTION! I do love me a well-done spy story. And this one is well-done indeed! There are badass teenage girls and multiple conspiracies in varying degrees of seriousness and all sorts of politics and there is lots of Women Being Friends And Allies With Each Other and there is even An Awesome Stepmother, which I appreciate, because stepmothers are not always evil and this is rarely acknowledged in stories. Also there are Sassy Animals and lots of clever dialogue, as usual. I think I have been insufficiently appreciative of Pierce's clever dialogue in my past, and I will seek to incorporate more of her lines into my life.