bloodygranuaile: (sociability)
 This past weekend was Readercon, where, for the first time, I only went for one day, a decision I regret and will not be repeating. (I have been unusually bad at scheduling and time management in 2017, for some reason, so I keep missing stuff I actually want to do.) Anyway, one of the guests of honor was Naomi Novik, the author of Uprooted, which I've been meaning to read for at least a year. After having some logistical difficulties trying to form or execute a workable plan for myself to buy a copy of the book and get it signed, I wound up borrowing Gillian's freshly signed copy off her, and promising I'd actually read it and give it back in a reasonable amount of time (unlike the copy of Kelly Link's Get In Trouble that's been sitting on the TBR Shelf of Doom for ::mumblemumblecough::).

I accomplished the reading bit in record time for a borrowed book, starting it first thing Sunday morning and finishing it just before dinner, because Sundays in the summer are for lounging around reading entire books in one sitting. 

Uprooted follows in two of my favorite longtime fantasy traditions, which are "books based on fairy/folk tales" and "books about teenage girls with magic powers." Mostly it draws on Polish fairy tale traditions that I'm not super familiar with (for example, I did not catch that the witch Jaga was Baba Yaga until she was actually referred to as "Baba Jaga"—but I do know who Baba Yaga is). The premise of the book refers clearly to the well-known fairy tale trope of dragons capturing or demanding princesses and/or village maidens—a trope I've enjoying seeing upended since Patricia Wrede's Enchanted Forest Chronicles, and that I think more authors should do stuff with—although it becomes pretty clear the second it is explained that the Dragon here is actually a wizard that we're looking at more of a Beauty and the Beast type of situation. 

Beauty and the Beast, obviously, is a not entirely unproblematic sort of situation to be in, and Uprooted features a bunch of tropes that are sort of problematic if you think about them seriously, or that some readers might be tired of, but they were also the sorts of things that I was expecting and I think they were handled about as well as they could be without turning it into too serious of a novel. There is the usual Mr. Darcy problem that someone who is a gigantic asshole but really is nicer or better in some way underneath, or otherwise is an asshole for a reason, is still an asshole, because being terrible to people is bad. Agniezka, our heroine, does at points confront the Dragon about the ethics of terrorizing the village by taking one of its girls every ten years, even if he doesn't do anything bad to them; there is, of course, no way to actually make it not terrible that he's been scaring the shit out of his entire constituency for a century. He's also an awful, awful teacher at the beginning, well into being abusively so, especially when there's no communication about what it is that he's actually teaching. While we're at it, feudal monarchy is a terrible form of government.

Also, this is one of those books where the main character is special, and while she's not good at everything, the one thing she is really good at she is the best at. You are either in the mood for this sort of story or you should go read something else. I like this sort of story when it's executed well; this one, because of the nature of Agniezka's magic, has some parallels to Tamora Pierce's Immortals series, which was one of my favorites when I was wee.

The initially really harsh mentor is a fairly common fantasy trope that probably is bad praxis for anyone trying to become a teacher, and the "has important knowledge but is hilariously bad at actually teaching" trope is a less common one but a situation that I always find sort of hilarious (although the prize for this goes to Alabaster from N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth series, if only for the bit where Essun has to teach the basics of teaching to him before he can teach her the magic stuff). The inevitable romance between the Dragon and Agniezka actually only ends up happening once they figure out how to work their two very different types of magic together, and as a result, even though the Dragon spends most of the book being almost Edward Cullen-level intolerable as a person, the resulting romance, born as it is out of highly charged drift-compatible magic workings, ended up being more compelling to me than most other Obligatory Romantic Subplots. (Magic is sexy, OK?)

The villain in the book is the Wood, which is, as one would guess from the name, an evil forest that periodically sends out all sorts of horrors to carry people off and infect cows with some sort of grotesque hell-demon disease and make people go mad. The term used throughout the book for the malevolent essence of the Wood that gets into stuff is referred to just as "corruption," which I like, because it avoids having to use the word "darkness" for what is basically the age-old fantasy convention of having to defeat Darkness as a sort of literal force, like we see in The Dark is Rising and A Wrinkle in Time and that one Dead Alewives sketch where a dude casts Magic Missile at it. So it's the same idea, but corruption has a sort of dirty rotting biological feel to it rather than grand moral absolutism; a little more like Hexxus in Ferngully except it doesn't sing and is not played by Tim Curry. Eventually Agniezka does figure out what the Wood is and starts to fix it, but not before a series of events with a numbingly high body count, especially considering that the rest of the book is generally not that dark. In fact, I found the final battle to be perhaps the weakest part of the book, but I admit that writing climactic battles is very tricky to pull off.

The real key relationship in the book, though, isn't between Nieshka and the Dragon, or between the Wood and all the people around it, or between all the various intolerable political factions. It's the relationship between Nieshka and her childhood best friend Kasia, played in my brain by the late Russian model Ruslana Korshunova. Kasia was the one everyone assumed the Dragon would pick, because she was beautiful and clever and brave and kind and basically perfect, whereas Nieshka was basically a slatternly mess who was really good at gleaning mushrooms and berries and stuff in the woods, but nobody noticed because Kasia was around.

Ruslana Korshunova
Ruslana Korshunova, the "Russian Rapunzel." RIP.

Kasia and Nieshka's friendship apparently cannot be ended by anything, whether it is the lifelong knowledge that Kasia will be taken away, or any of the strange things that happen to her after Nieshka is taken instead. Their friendship endures a lot of separation and some embarrassingly soul-baring magic as they both slowly transform into increasingly bizarre and powerful creatures, Nieshka essentially being the second coming of Baba Jaga, and Kasia turning into some sort of preternaturally strong tree warrior. I want a sequel of Kasia's adventures kicking ass and taking names and being a warrior-dryad. The I want an animated movie of it.

Overall, this is a very delightful book that was exactly the sort of thing I find restorative and comforting to read, provided you don't overthink it, and it makes me wish I knew more Polish fairy tales.

 

bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was published in 2005, the summer between my junior and senior year of high school, when I was 17. By this point, I had largely stopped rereading books on any sort of regular basis, which is why I've only read this one three times: Once when it came out, once when I reread the series before Deathly Hallows came out, and this winter. My strongest memory of the summer it came out was that viral video of some guy yelling spoilers out of a car and making people cry. That never struck me as a thing very much in keeping with the spirit of the series, frankly.

Anyway. Considering I was not inspired to reread it very often, it turns out that Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is just as devastatingly good as all the other books. Clearly it's me that has changed, not the quality of the story.

It is worth it to say that the lighthearted, whimsical children's book world of Sorcerer's Stone is by now nearly gone, in the same way that the safe, economically stable, end-of-history world of Bill Clinton's '90s as viewed through the lens of a small nerd girl is now gone, and we are now maybe a vassal state of Russia and China is going to declare war on us by Sunday. Half-Blood Prince is DARK. The war is on, everyone knows Voldemort is back, people's family members are starting to go missing, and somebody is half-assedly trying to commit unnecessarily elaborate murders at Hogwarts. We do meet our first halfway decent Slytherin, a schmoozy type named Horace Slughorn who, while frequently annoying, is more of a regular kind of status-conscious rather than being murderously evil.

In this year at Hogwarts, Harry mysteriously becomes good at Potions due to help from a heavily annotated used textbook; Snape finally becomes the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher; Ron is still having self-esteem issues about being Keeper; and Harry starts taking private lessons with Dumbledore.

The private lessons in question are basically all trips into the Pensieve, a sort of magical receptacle for memories. It turns out that Dumbledore has been painstakingly piecing together the backstory of Tom Riddle and his eventual transformation into Voldemort. It's a fascinating, Dickensian story of pride, resentment, alienation, greed, revenge, fear, and ambition. It also illustrates well the self-defeating cycle of poverty and bigotry that occurs when people hold onto the idea that they are "better" than others when they don't have anything else to hold onto, but the resulting entitlement makes them such lazy assholes that they refuse to do anything to better their circumstances or develop any kind of community that could help them. (There's even an excellent dig at Merope Gaunt's father and his refusal to do housework.)

There's still some funny bits, though, and the best ones relate to the magical luck potion called Felix Felices. This includes one of the funniest drunk scenes I have ever seen — at Aragog's funeral — and an interesting study on the placebo effect on Quidditch performance. But overall, the experience of reading this book in one day was emotionally exhausting in ways I haven't been emotionally exhausted in years. I cried a bunch of times (ESPECIALLY AT THE END), because I am officially a sappy old lady now. I felt like all my feelings had been beaten up. It was great. This book is a freaking masterpiece.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I remember when Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire first came out. I remember the hype, the breathless reports that in this one, someone was going to die. I remember everyone trying to guess who it was. (We were all wrong, obviously, since it was a newly introduced character.) I remember how it was a huge deal that it was 734 pages long, because that was utterly unheard-of for a children's book at the time. (Sixteen-and-a-half years and one English degree later, I laugh at the idea that any book under 800 pages could be considered "long.") (I also look at the book and go "How is this less than 1,000 pages; how freaking thick are these pages" but that's another ramble.)

I remember trying to keep track of how many times I read this book and losing track at thirteen. I'm going to guess the current number is somewhere between twenty and thirty. It had been ten years since my last reread.

In those ten years, a lot of things have happened. One is that I grew up enough to look back critically at my memories of the series and note that Voldemort and his followers were basically just magic Nazis, and that, while effectively villainous for a children's series, I guess that ultimately it was a bit simplistic and not that original. It followed a grand tradition of British and American writing about fighting Nazis or Nazi-esque villains, because that's about as satisfyingly simple and uncontroversial a bad guy as you can get, and it is, after all, quite important to teach small children not to tolerate Nazis, but not that sophisticated.

Another thing that happened, but mostly only over the past year rather than over the course of the whole ten, is that -- suddenly, or seemingly suddenly -- Nazis have been making a bit of a comeback. As a result, "Nazis are bad; fight them" suddenly has a lot more emotional resonance and immediacy than it did not too long ago, and also I've been reading a lot of very informative articles about Nazis.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is when the series starts to be ABOUT NAZIS.

As mentioned in previous reviews, the earlier books did make it clear that Voldemort was basically a magic Nazi, although to me the earlier books' portrayals of his followers and his movement always made me think more of the Klan. And there's some of that here too, especially with the Muggles being hung high in the air with magic for fun (and at a family-friendly sporting event, too). But this is the book where we learn that they’re called Death Eaters and they have a special symbol that’s utterly taboo and something has gone very wrong if you see it, something the sight of which viscerally shocks normal wizards the same way that seeing the big red swastika banners as tall as houses hang down viscerally shocked me the first time I went to see The Sound of Music on Broadway. It is the book where we learn how many of them went back to regular society and got jobs and had families and basically pretended to be normal people (apparently none of them moved to Argentina though). As the Death Eaters all gather around their newly re-embodied leader at the finale, we get to see not just Voldemort as a lone villain, but the leader of a movement—and we start to see how that movement functioned.

But, not is all Nazis and death in this book. There is the usual whimsical nonsense in the beginning, where the Weasleys engage in an entertaining comedy of errors at the expense of the Dursleys’ living room to come and get Harry so they can attend the Quidditch World Cup match between Ireland and Bulgaria. Fred and George turn out to be clever at sports betting, and Mrs. Weasley is shocked, shocked that there is gambling going on here, although she shouldn’t be when jolly meathead Ludo Bagman is involved. Everyone makes fun of Percy for being pompous about his consumer protection work on cauldron bottoms, although I personally was totally on Percy’s side for this. There are leprechauns and veelas and a Bulgarian Minister of Magic who pretends not to speak English so Cornelius Fudge makes a fool of himself miming things all day.

Then we are back at Hogwarts, where there is, as usual, a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. This one is a grizzled old ex-Auror with a giant magical eyeball and a penchant for shouting “CONSTANT VIGILANCE!” at the students. In short, Mad-Eye Moody is great. Or at least we think he’s great.

The big story at Hogwarts is the Triwizard Tournament, where a champion from each of Europe’s three prestigious magic schools competes against the other school’s champions in tasks of magical daring and cleverness and stuff. After all three school’s champions are chosen, Harry is also somehow chosen as champion number four, which isn’t supposed to happen, but apparently does because he’s Harry Potter. Harry is tormented by a nosy journalist and goes through a lot of school drama as he prepares for his tasks. Several beloved bit characters show up to help him prepare in various levels of cheating, including Dobby and Moaning Myrtle (PS I want a bathtub like the one in the prefects’ bathroom), and then Hermione as usual is the one who trains him on regular-ass spells he needs, like Summoning Charms. There are many French characters, whose dialogue is written in thick French accents, and after all these years it is still inordinately fun to read those bits out loud.

In the hands of a lesser writer there could be severe mood whiplash in this mix of delightful and dangerous, or the goofy names for things could undercut the severity and suspense of the more dramatic bits. But J.K. Rowling did not become the richest woman in Britain for no reason, and the reason is that she can make a story told by a drunk elf that refers to herself in the third person into an emotionally exhausting, poignant, critical piece of the puzzle.

I think this was the first time reading this book where I’ve cried, because apparently I am going sappy in my old age.
 
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is not really when the series starts to get dark, but it feels like it is.

It's not hugely long, being only a little bit over 400 pages. And there's no real character deaths, although obviously it deals with the fallouts from several past murders, as do all the books.

But it is the book where we meet the dementors, and so begins to really look at fear and despair and power in a more complex way than it had previously. And it is the book where we meet Sirius Black, which means it is also the book that starts complicating the long, deep web of trusts and betrayals that so inform the rest of the series. This isn't just unknown quantity Quirrell hiding his allegiances for a year; this is the decades of secret drama Voldemort sowed among families and close friends. We've spent the first two books learning history, both common knowledge and hidden, and now we start to learn about the ways that our understanding of history can be wrong. But to do that, we have to first learn about fear.

In this book, we learn that Harry's biggest fear is fear itself, which Franklin D. Roosevelt would be very impressed with if he were around, but since he isn't, kindly secret werewolf professor Remus Lupin does it instead. (Side note: While it is eventually revealed that Lupin was bitten as a child, it is never explained how his parents knew to name him something so wolf-y as Remus Lupin.)

In and around all the scary stuff about Harry being supposedly hunted by an escaped mass murderer and the deep stuff about fear and cowardice, there are plentiful infusions of the series' signature hopefulness and good humor. Harry starts the book off by making the dreadful Aunt Marge swell up like a balloon, and spends a whimsical three weeks ogling broomsticks and eating ice cream in Diagon Alley after a short adventure pretending to be Neville Longbottom. At school, he discovers the Marauder's Map and sneaks into Hogsmeade. Harry and Ron start taking two new classes; Hermione takes ALL the new classes. Gryffindor finally win the Quidditch House Cup. And the cure for exposure to dementors -- the embodiments of depression -- turns out to be, of course, chocolate.

Somewhere along the line of five bajillion new characters are introduced, both inside and outside the school, every single one of whom will show up at least once more in the series, with the possible exception of the clerk in the pet store who sells Ron rat tonic. It's impossible to thoroughly list all the delights in this book and the little bits and pieces of the puzzle that are so carefully set up. Rowling knows how to set up a Chekhov's gun (or wand, as the case may be).

This book is still in the "I have read it upwards of fifty times" part of the series to me, and now that none of it is surprising, I feel I can fully appreciate just how masterful and delightful every bit of it is. Every word is precisely where it should be. I refuse to even try to nitpick the time travel stuff. My brother has our old broken-in copy so I have a distressingly shiny new one. Its crisp, creamy pages and straight binding seem to rebuke me for not showing them any love over the years since I have acquired this copy. I can't let this happen again. This book is one of my best friends.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
2016 having been an epically exhausting year on a number of fronts—including the reading one, where I skimped on fiction and instead subjected myself to many math-heavy poker books—I decided to end it with a nice reread of the Harry Potter series during my week off. I got started pretty much the second the Christmas festivities were over, spending most of the 26th curled up either on the couch or in the tub with my first American edition of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

While I remember the basic storyline and many of the most pop-cultural moments very, very well indeed, what with having read this book at least a hundred times before (I was an early adopter), I still found myself surprised at just how familiar some of it was: I could remember the exact flow of entire sentences and paragraphs as I'd read them previously, years and years ago; I could remember pronunciations I'd gotten wrong in my head back when I read it last. I don't think I've read these books since the seventh volume came out about five years ago.

Somehow, probably because the books eventually get so serious and because they had such a profound effect on myself and on our culture, the one thing I had managed to sort of forget was just how freaking funny they are. Things aren't super heavy in this book yet, although we are introduced to the basics of Voldemort's story, and the finale is pretty damn creepy. Mostly things here are still a little bit cartoonish, with a similar vibe to other snarky British children's fantasy like Roald Dahl, featuring amusingly gross wizarding world hazards like troll boogers. The images in my head of this one are still heavily shaped by Mary Grand-Pre's drawings and a lifetime of watching Muppets more than they are the actual Harry Potter movies (Hagrid is the Ghost of Christmas Present, pass it on), since the movies didn't start getting made until nearly half the series was published.

The book itself is still a delight to hold and to read, with nice creamy parchment-y paper and that jauntified Copperplate lettering at the top of every page. I admit I did a lot of uncontrollable nostalgic giggling and a good deal of reading sentences aloud to myself just to delight in them. Rereading this one was a beautiful and pure experience that put me back in touch with my inner child and was overall GOOD FOR MY SOUL, a well-deserved and much needed joy, from "Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much" to the typographic note at the end.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Well, I am on a roll with reading books wrong. In the case of Diana Gabaldon's Voyager, the third book in the Outlander series, it's because I got it out of the library, only read 25% of it before I had to return it about two months ago, got back in line, and read the rest of it last week when it finally cycled back to me.
While Outlander took place almost entirely in Scotland, and Dragonfly in Amber brought us as far as France, the aptly named Voyager brings us basically everywhere. Acting on news from the research project she, Brianna, and Roger started in 1968, Claire moves from Boston back to Scotland, travels back through the stone circles at Craigh na Dun to sometime in the 1760s, tracks down Jamie in Edinburgh, and from there a relentless flood of shenanigans takes them all around Scotland, then to France, and then back over the Atlantic to the Caribbean. And that's just the main plotline, from Claire's perspective. We also get POVs from Jamie, as he does all sorts of dramatic Highlander things like hide in a cave for seven years and escape from an English prison; from Roger; and from one Lord John Grey, who seems to have a bunch of his own spinoff novels now.
The book is also kind of all over the place in other ways, too. Some of it is very serious--Jamie's time in Ardsmuir, for example, is pretty dark, treated with all seriousness and mostly not filled with highly improbable action-hero hijinks. Other bits are, uh, not--once they get on a boat everything basically becomes "Highlanders of the Caribbean" and it's all very colorful and almost absurdly action-packed, and develops a serious case of Les Mis-level small world syndrome (you know how in Les Mis, Paris has like twenty people and one policeman and one apartment to rent? In Voyager, the entire British Empire has about twenty people, one ship, and two military officers).
One of the big effects of leaving the rural Scottish highlands is that there are a lot more people of color in this book, which is a thing that can obviously go very wrong very quickly, especially considering the time period is really the height of British colonial power in the New World (it's like, 10 years before the American Revolution starts, I think) and the slave trade is in full swing. I have... mixed feelings about how this is handled. It's clearly well researched, which certainly helps it avoid some of the more common myths and pitfalls about the time (most notably, Gabaldon knows what involuntary indenture is and the ways in which it is similar to and different from chattel slavery; this shouldn't be noteworthy but it is). But the general approach she takes to characterizing pretty much all ethnicities--which is not so much to avoid stereotypes, but to deliberately walk straight into them and then try to build up more perspective/characterization on top of it--works slightly less well with, for example, the one Chinese character--a short, frequently drunk man with very bad English whose skillset is basically a grab bag of Chinese Things, including Chinese herbal medicine, acrobatics, calligraphy, acupuncture, and, of course, magic--than it does with any one of the ten billion Scots that populate the series. (Granted, one of the things I do kind of like about the books is that every culture the characters come into contact with has its own magical traditions and they all appear to work equally well, but the execution can still feel a bit clumsy--like, this random English lady keeps finding herself in situations where every time she meets new people she gets to witness their magic in action. Every single time.) The one Chinese dude is an especially interesting case of both being an interesting character and giving me wincy feelings because he's a fairly major secondary character and he gets a good amount of page time. He's known throughout the book as Mr. Willoughby, which is obviously not his name but was bestowed upon him in a well-meaning but ultimately worse-than-useless attempt to help him blend in. He's sometimes a comic character but other times a very tragic one, especially when you finally learn his backstory--something I found particularly interesting was that a major part of his backstory is that he is actually kind of a sexist dillweed, in the hopeless-romantic-with-ludicrously-unrealistic-views-of-women method that made me like him a bit less as a reader but is clearly a huge point of commonality between him and a lot of the white dudes in the book. By the end of the story I actually did like him, but there were a couple of cringeworthy scenes to get to that point.
Also cringeworthy is an appearance of one of my least favorite tropes EVER, actually I don't really know if it's a trope but I have seen it in one other book at least, which makes two too many--where a nice white lady who is very opposed to slavery gets so upset about it that she winds up owning one, because that is totally a thing that happens, and it is very upsetting, because clearly the important thing about slavery is how hard it would be on anti-slavery white people to be landed with one, and now she has to decide how best to go about being a good white savior, which in both cases I've read have inexplicably involved steps other than "ask person what they want and do it." I partly don't like this trope because it smacks very strongly of "author's personal self-examination and thought exercises leaking onto the paper"; in this case, many of the compounding issues that cropped up in the Jackie Faber book where this happens are thankfully avoided, but at least in the series so far, I can't help but think that the entire subplot with Temeraire could have been completely excised with no harm done to the rest of the book whatsoever.
These are the low points. There are many, many other things going on in this book (these books tend to be pretty densely packed with a wide assortment of Things), including the reappearance of Geillis Duncan (who is a major creeper), our first gay character who isn't predatory and terrible, hints of family backstory and things for Claire's Boston doctor friend Joe Abernathy (JOE ABERNATHY IS GREAT), lots of ladies with lots of agency in different ways all along the moral spectrum, and, as usual, a lot of sex, although kilts have been sadly outlawed at this point so Jamie is reduced to constantly wearing breeches. And have I mentioned the MELODRAMATIC ADVENTURES ON THE HIGH SEAS? It is everything you could want out of a melodramatic adventure on the high seas; I think Gabaldon had a checklist of Stuff That Happens When Adventure On the High Seas and made sure every point got in there somewhere--there is kidnapping, espionage, shipwrecks, slave revolts, an outbreak of plague, naval battles, pirate attacks, smuggling, big storms, seasickness, hardtack with weevils, a Portuguese pirate with too much jewelry and a cutlass, stowaways, a parentally disapproved-of romance, and even a dude with a hook for a hand, although the said dude is Fergus, who we actually met in the last book and who lost his hand long before becoming a sailor. At one point there is even a big hat. (Note: People for whom melodramatic pirate adventures are NOT catnip might find this half of the book frustrating, the way I find cartoon physics in non-cartoon movies frustrating, because it kind of pushes against one's suspension of disbelief sometimes. I'm just willing to overlook this because for me, melodramatic pirate adventures are SUPER CATNIP.)
On a more serious note, the looks we get into the British penal and colonial systems, in Scotland and elsewhere, are really, really well done, I think--they're very informative but also very emotionally engaging, and involve a lot of heavy stuff about power and identity, which is especially apt since the British relied even more heavily on eradicating people's identity to conquer them than they did on brute force (not like brute force wasn't a major component, of course). I particularly appreciate the looks at the basically decent English people who were still complicit in and perpetrators of these colonial systems that very definitely weren't at all about "helping" or "civilizing" any of the people in the lands the British took over and who the English definitely never saw as their fellow countrymen, even the sort of nice ones, no matter what the official imperialist rhetoric was.
This book's story arc never particularly wraps up--it just leads right into the next book, which I have dutifully added to my library queue. The line is shorter than it was for the last few books, so with luck I will have it within a few weeks.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
GOOD LORD AM I BEHIND ON MY MARK READS OR WHAT.
Anyway, last weekend I finally caught up on Witches Abroad, which I vaguely remember as being "the Cinderella one." Which it is! But I'd forgotten most of the rest of it.
Like many Discworld books, this one is about stories; like many of the Witches books in particular, it is about fairy tales; but this Witches Discworld book, specifically, is about Disneyfication.
The "abroad" where the witches go is a city-state called Genua, which seems to be based in part on New Orleans, but which is being sanitized and forced into basically becoming the Magic Kingdom (it also reminds me of the walled city in ´╗┐Shrek´╗┐). It's really just Magrat who is supposed to go, officially—after all, Desiderata Hollow left the magic wand to her when she died—but obviously Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax aren't going to let Magrat go off and do anything on her own, so all three of them go, with Granny complaining about "forn parts" the whole way.
While Granny is staunchly (and meanly) provincial, Nanny Ogg is a belligerently enthusiastic and clueless tourist, bulldozing her way through Genua with a hodgepodge of incorrect common phrases from a variety of languages, apparently under the impression that "foreign" is a language and she speaks it. It's hilarious, and probably very embarrassing for Magrat. Magrat is, as usual, ineptly well-intentioned, and can't figure out how to do anything with the wand except turn things into pumpkins.
The entity Disneyfying (Disnifying? Disnefying?) Genua is a fairy godmother named Lilith, who uses mirror magic. This Evil Queen trope makes her scary as hell because she can basically always be spying on people; her whole magical system bears more resemblance to George Orwell's Big Brother than anything else: She's always watching, and she can have you disappeared if you don't behave according to the exact code expected of you. Her goal is to provide everyone with a happy ending, whether they like it or not, which on second thought also has weird Communist dictatorship overtones. I think there's some underhandedly political commentary about authoritarian utopianism going on in this book, y'all. I always missed it because I was too busy focusing on the fairy tales aspect and the puns!
The fairy tale tropes are deconstructed mercilessly, especially once you find out more about Lilith. It involves more mirroring, in a way.
While the sanitized/gentrified/Disneyfied aspect of Genua is handled brilliantly, the New Orleans-y stuff underneath falls a bit flat sometimes—Pratchett is clearly very familiar with his fairy tale tropes and the way they differ from messy reality generally, but he's not as familiar with the voodoo stuff he's incorporating as he is with the rural British cultures he draws on in places like the Ramtops, so some of the jokes feel more obvious than I generally expect from Pratchett and some of them are just plain racially awkward. (Lilith's whitewashing of Genua would have been SUCH a powerful layer if it had been handled a bit better!)
Overall, though, it is basically everything you'd expect and want out of a Witches book, and then a little bit more.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Catching up on my Reading Stuff With Mark while cleaning, I belatedly finished the reread of Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters, notable for being the first proper Witches book. Granny Weatherwax is a returning character by this time, but this is the first time we get the full coven of Granny, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick.

Wyrd Sisters is, basically, Macbeth. But Discworld-style, of course. It takes place in the tiny sad mountainous microkingdom of Lancre, where the villainous Duke Felmet—at the urging of his ruthless wife—murders King Verence, who was not really so much a good king as he was a not-particularly-bad king, and more importantly, he was a king who cared about Lancre. Duke Felmet does not care about Lancre, and Lancre can tell. Felmet is also all squidgy about anyone finding out that he killed Verence, which slowly drives him into a complete mental breakdown.
Granny, Nanny, and Magrat hide Verence’s baby boy with a troupe of traveling actors, a troupe which includes a dwarf playwright plagued with incessant inspiration. His name is Hwel. It’s probably pronounced “Will” because he’s definitely Shakespeare. Obviously, the baby has a destiny to come back and defeat Felmet and reclaim his throne. The witches have a plan to make this happen, but also obviously, nothing ever goes quite according to plan.

A lot of this book, like all the best Discworld books, is about stories, with the theater featuring quite heavily, but also a lot of awesome jokes about the tropes of witchcraft. As someone who grew up reading a lot of witch books and seeing a lot of Shakespeare performed, this is 100% right up my alley and unendingly hilarious to me. I also identify a lot with Magrat, the youngest witch, whose idea of witchcraft is much more Gothicy and druidessy and generally Wiccan than the older witches, and who has a mad case of impostor syndrome, and who is generally a gigantic dork.

The funny bits are, as usual, hilarious, but Pratchett is definitely starting to develop and further work in his serious opinions about things like power and stories and human nature, even if most of it is lumped under the amusing label “headology.” There are also many rather thought-provoking, if joke-laden, discussions about what constitutes “meddling.” The real thing that brings Pratchett a cut above most other comic writing, of course, is the characterization, which is often very absurd and very real at the same time, and the characters never run together. Granny, Nanny, and Magrat, in particular, are all very different, all larger-than-life characters in their own way, and there’s no way to have trouble keeping them apart, unless, apparently, you’re the typesetter, who seems to have mixed up a few “Nannys” with “Grannys,” but nobody’s perfect.

There is probably doctoral-thesis-level amounts of Stuff going on in this book that I could write about all night, but it’s too much and my brain would collapse. Just going to leave it at saying that the witches are some of my favorite of all the Discworld characters.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
After nine years, I have finally gotten around to reading Monica Furlong’s Colman, the third and final book in her Wise Child series. Wise Child was one of my favorite books when I was a young wannabe-witch (as opposed to now, when I am an old wannabe-witch), but I always thought of it as a stand-alone (mostly because it was during the period when I was rereading it frequently) so Colman was never really on my radar as a real thing. But after I reread Juniper earlier this year, I figured it was about time.

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.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Reading Equal Rites along with Mark Does Stuff did something odd this time—I think I actually appreciated the book somewhat less than I remembered. This may be because it’s been a good eight years or so since I last read the damn thing and since then I’ve read too many other Discworld books and too many other books about feminism/women’s rights/smashing the patriarchy sort of books, so this one just doesn’t hold up as well as what I’ve gotten used to. I also think, in direct opposition to The Color of Magic, where the spaced readings helped ameliorate the episodic nature of the book, for this one, they just sort of dragged out a book that’s a lot more fun if you just zip through it all in one sitting, because frankly, a lot of Equal Rites is kind of abrupt, particularly the ending.

Equal Rites is about Esk, a young girl from a tiny hamlet in the Ramtop Mountains called Bad Ass, because somehow Terry Pratchett knew that in about 25 years someone was going to have to read this on camera. Esk, being the eighth child of an eighth son, is bequeathed a wizard’s staff on her birth, under the misconception that she was an eighth son of an eighth son. Although it is strict tradition (i.e. “the lore”) that women are witches and men are wizards, attempts by the fearsomely provincial Granny Weatherwax to train Esk up as a witch start to go a bit wahooni-shaped as it becomes apparent that Esk very definitely has wizard magic, not witch magic (the two are pretty distinctly different). In a long and typically hijinks-riddled adventure to get to Unseen University in distant Ankh-Morpork, Esk meets a variety of interesting characters, including Simon, a geeky young wizard with a great ability for figuring out the theoretical underpinnings of magic, an ability that also manages to attract the Things from the Dungeon Dimensions every time he starts up science-ing about magic. Esk and Simon have to defeat the Things in the Dungeon Dimensions while, back out on Discworld, Granny Weatherwax and Archchancellor Cutangle have to put aside their differences and figure out how to help them. It’s all very heartwarming but mostly it is a vehicle for jokes and for Granny to boss people around.

The biggest disappointment of this book, though, is that Death doesn’t show up at all. But at least there is plenty of the Librarian.

Don’t get me wrong, Equal Rites is still better than 99% of other fantasy out there, especially of the stuff written by white dudes in the eighties, and I had many laughs while rereading it. On to Mort!
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Finishing out the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, Mark Oshiro, and therefore I, just got through the fourth volume in the series, Talking to Dragons.

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.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Calling on Dragons was possibly my favorite one of the Enchanted Forest Chronicles books when I was younger. It’s a little bit darker and a little bit weirder than the other ones, but this is offset by a heightened number of sassy talking animals.

Calling on Dragons is told from the perspective of the witch Morwen, who has been previously established as totally awesome in the first two volumes. While it’s great to hear a story from Morwen’s perspective just because Morwen is awesome, the real treat here is that Morwen is the only human who can understand her cats when they talk. Morwen owns nine cats—none of whom are black—and they are fantastically catlike, filling the whole range of cat personalities from lazy to snobbish to hungry. (Fiddlesticks in particular reminds me of our own lovely dumb cat Khaleesi.)

Morwen is dealing with her usual witchy business—namely, planning a garden show and trying to avoid the whinings of a cranky traditionalist named Arona Michelear Grinogian Vamist who thinks she’s not stereotypical enough—when her cats find a six-foot-tall white rabbit named Killer. Killer is not actually supposed to be six feet tall; he has accidentally gotten enchanted. In investigating Killer’s size issues, Morwen also finds evidence of wizards, who are supposed to be banned from the Enchanted Forest. With the help of the nerdtastic mage Telemain, one of the architects of the spell that is supposed to stop wizards from causing trouble, Morwen reports to King Mendanbar and Queen Cimorene of the Enchanted Forest, where they discover two very important things: one, Queen Cimorene is pregnant, and two, Mendanbar’s magical sword is missing.

You might think Mendanbar would be the most obvious member of the royal household to go a-questing for his sword, since it’s his sword and he’s not pregnant, but this is impossible due to nerdy magic reasons. (Mendanbar is predictably unhappy about this.) So Morwen, Telemain, Cimorene, Killer (who is now a floating blue donkey), Kazul the King of the Dragons, and two of Morwen’s cats go a-questing to get the sword back from the Society of Wizards instead. Killer picks up a few more unfortunate enchantments, we run into a lot of characters that make amusing meta references to other fairy tales (including one Farmer MacDonald), that annoying Vamist dude turns up again, and eventually, after many wacky hijinks and parody/metahumor/deconstruction of fairy tale conventions, the sword is retrieved. Unfortunately, they do not live happily ever after; they are instead mercilessly CLIFFHANGERED and then you have to go read the fourth book.

Rereading this book again as an adult (and being helped along by the perspective of someone who has no idea what’s going on… this person, as usual, being Mark Oshiro, my #1 source of cheating on my annual book challenge and of not passing out from boredom at work), I got to re-appreciate how clever a lot of the jokes are (you know how jokes start to seem more obvious than they are when you’re familiar with them), but also how some of the stuff dealt with in this book is a bit more… heavy? Real-world-y? There are a lot of ways in which this book is a little bit less about fairy tales and more about, like, regular bad people. The first two books were full of the heroes temporarily melting wizards; in this one, Kazul finally loses her patience giving them chances to regroup and starts actually eating them. Up until this point the series had really shied away from characters the reader has met actually dying. Arona Vamist is very much a garden-variety bully, conformist, and authoritarian; he’s not a magical creature in any way, just a busybody using fear, lies, and social pressure to screw innocent people over in the name of abstract ideas like “tradition.” And, of course, there’ s the ending, in which it turns out that it will take years to undo the mess the wizards left them in, rather than everything getting wrapped up in a nice shiny bow at the end of a few weeks. There’s also a strong message of “don’t eat random shit that you don’t know what it is, particularly when people tell you not to eat it.”

On the other hand, there’s also cranky magic mirrors and an always-hungry floating blue donkey who keeps getting insulted by sassy cats, so it’s not like the book is overall much of a downer.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Following up Dealing with Dragons, Mark has read the second book of Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles, this one titled Searching for Dragons. And so I have reread it as well because I could read this series all day every day.

Searching for Dragons has a different protagonist than the first book, although Cimorene is still in it, being sensible and awesome. Apparently it is considered a risky move to have the protagonists differ in the books of a series? I don’t get it; I have read a lot of good series with each book being from a different person’s POV. POV changes are awesome.

Anyway, our new protagonist is Mendanbar, the young King of the Enchanted Forest, a slightly awkward dude with little patience for much of the formality of kinging. Mendanbar is smart and effective but has a somewhat fuzzy grasp of the magic he uses, which is tied directly to his role as King of the Enchanted Forest—as King, he is the only person with the sort of access to the Enchanted Forests’ magic that he has, and the ability to manipulate it directly. It’s a really cool magic system, too—basically, the forest is full of threads of power, and Mendanbar can see and manipulate the threads. Mendanbar’s main failing as king seems to be his inability or unwillingness to delegate, meaning he does basically everything himself and has no time to get his hair cut. He has rather excellent advice-giving skills but seems to only be able to use the on other people. He is generally just super adorkable and I am pretty sure he was my first literary crush, and he is PERFECT for Cimorene and all other love stories are boring.

The plot in this one is a very odd sort of quest. Mendanbar finds a huge patch of his forest reduced to dusty wasteland and stripped of its magic, and goes to try and find someone who can tell him about it. This leads him to Morwen, who sends him to Kazul, except he meets Cimorene instead, who tells him that Kazul is missing and she was about to go looking for her. Mendanbar decides to accompany Cimorene, since he has to talk to Kazul, and his other option is going home to try and deal with wizards, who are being sneaky and possibly troublesome and who Mendanbar suspects are attempting to deliberately start a war between the Enchanted Forest and the dragons. Wizards are terrible. Magicians, on the other hand, are big nerds, and we meet one in the form of Telemain, a magician prone to going on long intellectual jargon-laden monologues about magical things. I remember thinking that Telemain’s lines were funny and unintelligible when I was wee, but now, after several years of reading billions of pages of academic-speak in a variety of disciplines, I understand basically everything he’s saying (even though he’s talking about magic and magic isn’t real!) and it kind of makes the rest of the cast—who are all ostensibly adults, even if young ones—seem a little dense. But that is really the only part of the book that has not grown up well. Other interesting personages they meet include a giant who has a cold and is getting a bit too old for marauding, a dwarf who can spin straw into gold and keeps getting stuck with people’s firstborn children, and a flying carpet repairman. It’s all metahumor all the way, mashed-up fairy-tale edition. (I believe this series was highly formative in turning me into the type of person who hosts a costume party for the season premiere of Once Upon a Time, which I did yesterday because I am a big dork.) (I went as Evil Queen Regina because she brings new meaning to the phrase “gothy fabulous”.)

Watching Mark read this was just as fun as the first book, whether he was tsk-ing at Mendanbar for being a princess bigot (he kind of is, although I kind of sympathize, because nothing makes a group of people seem more annoying than when they continually want something out of you that you don’t want to give… I feel like Mendanbar hates princesses kind of the way everyone else hates Jehovah’s Witnesses) or calling the wizards all sorts of nasty names, like comparing them to bronies. Sadly, there was no “Ford of Whispering Snapes” in this book, although his enthusiastic shipping of Cimorene and Mendanbar makes up for it.

Morwen’s cats are also amazing. They are much smarter than my cat. I can’t wait to see more of them in the third book—I vaguely remember them as being hilarious and awesome but other than that it’s been so long since I’ve read it that I don’t remember what was awesome about them!
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Today in the wonderful world of “Mark Reads My Entire Childhood,” somebody commissioned Mark to read the first chapter of Patricia C. Wrede’s classic work of fairy tale deconstruction and metahumor, Dealing with Dragons. This first chapter is entitled In Which Cimorene Refuses to be Proper and has a Conversation with a Frog. I have eerily distinct memories of the first time I ever heard this, on audiobook in Pam’s car when we were in second grade. It turned out to be one of those Changed My Life moments because I have literally never stopped being wildly in love with this book.

It turns out that I am not the only person following Mark as he reads Tamora Pierce’s all-the-things and Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted that turned out to be a big The Enchanted Forest Chronicles fan, and next thing I knew, the entire book was commissioned. Mark Reads community, you are truly magical.

So, Dealing with Dragons, the first book in the Enchanted Forest Chronicles quartet, follows the adventures of Princess Cimorene, youngest princess of Linderwall, as she runs away to volunteer to be princess for a dragon in order to escape an arranged marriage to a golden-haired twit named Prince Therandil. Princess Cimorene is one of my favorite protagonists of all time, a rebellious, “improper” princess who doesn’t fall into that sort of “I’m so feisty and sassy, I do what I want!” kind of ham-handed rebelliousness that people who don’t understand feminism or characterization always seem to write when they’re assigned to write Strong Female Characters. Dealing with Dragons has strong elements of a comedy of manners (I’ve heard it called a fantasy of manners) and Cimorene’s characterization more resembles a Jane Austen heroine or my forever homegirl Flora Poste from Cold Comfort Farm. Cimorene has a strong practical streak and tries to keep things sensible and tidy; she’s domestically competent and the thing she hates about princessing is how little useful work it involves, not that it’s coded feminine—for Cimorene, cooking, cleaning, organizing, and other domestic and administrative work is just as much an escape from the uselessness of princessing as fencing, Latin, and magic lessons.

Cimorene is hired by a dry-witted, thoroughly awesome lady dragon named Kazul, and has a grand old time getting the caves in order, sorting treasure, organizing the dragon’s library, and all sorts of cool stuff. Obstacles soon crop up, though—first in the form of a bunch of irritating knights who try to rescue her, then her even more irritating fiancé Therandil who tries to rescue her and will not be dissuaded, then some creepy, condescending wizards who keep sneaking around and seem to be up to something. Also, Cimorene and her fellow princess Alianora are trying to perform a fire-proofing spell, and they can’t seem to find powdered hen’s teeth anywhere.

With the help of Morwen, a no-nonsense witch who lives in the Enchanted Forest, and the Stone Prince, a not-entirely-twitty adventurer burdened with expectations of greatness due to a prophecy (and additionally burdened with having turned into stone), Cimorene and Alianora discover, and manage to foil, a dastardly plot by the wizards and one particularly nasty dragon to seize the role of King of the Dragons. I’m obviously not going to tell you how, but it’s one of those satisfying endings that neatly incorporates elements from a gamut of amusing little subplots and episodes that happened earlier in the book, so everything fits together quite neatly and tidily, which is what you want in a fairy tale.

After nearly twenty years you’d have thought I’d be able to come up with coherent words for talking about how awesome I think this book is, but mostly I just squee and flail a lot. (Morwen would think me very silly.) It takes a good sharp look at a lot of the more silly, sexist, and harmful fairy tale tropes, but it does it with charm and humor and in a simple way that’s easy for small children to grasp. It has all the feel of a delightful fluffy merengue of a Disney movie but there’s some real Valuable Life Lessons, like what fairy tales were invented to teach, buried in there.

Mark is now on to Searching for Dragons, the sequel, so expect a review flailing about how awesome King Mendanbar is sometime in the next few weeks.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
So far I have been reading some pretty short books this year! My latest was a reread of Monica Furlong’s Juniper, which I got out of the library several times when I was younger. It’s a prequel to Wise Child, which I owned and read dozens if not hundreds of times, and which I still own; and it’s the story of how Wise Child’s teacher Juniper became a doran—a witch, essentially.

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!

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