Gentleman Magicians: C. L. Polk – Witchmark

As someone who has never found their way into Urban Fantasy, I am more than delighted to see the different directions this sub-genre is going. Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning set familiar story tropes in a new and original setting, and this book here – while set in an alternate Edwardian England – also puts its own and rather wonderful spin on it. Go, Urban Fantasy! You may turn me into a fan just yet.

WITCHMARK
by C. L. Polk

Published by: Tor.com, 2018
Ebook: 318 pages
Series: The Kingston Cycle #1
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: The memo stank of barrel-printing ink and bad news.

In an original world reminiscent of Edwardian England in the shadow of a World War, cabals of noble families use their unique magical gifts to control the fates of nations, while one young man seeks only to live a life of his own.
Magic marked Miles Singer for suffering the day he was born, doomed either to be enslaved to his family’s interest or to be committed to a witches’ asylum. He went to war to escape his destiny and came home a different man, but he couldn’t leave his past behind. The war between Aeland and Laneer leaves men changed, strangers to their friends and family, but even after faking his own death and reinventing himself as a doctor at a cash-strapped veterans’ hospital, Miles can’t hide what he truly is.
When a fatally poisoned patient exposes Miles’ healing gift and his witchmark, he must put his anonymity and freedom at risk to investigate his patient’s murder. To find the truth he’ll need to rely on the family he despises, and on the kindness of the most gorgeous man he’s ever seen.

Doctor Miles Singer is in hiding. He works at a veterans’ hospital, trying to help his suffering patients as best he can and without the use of the magic he secretly possesses. When a dying man arrives at the hospital and knows about Miles’ magic as well as the cause of his own death (poison, he says), things get a little out of control. Together with the enigmatic Tristan Hunter, who brought the poisoned man to the hospital, Miles has to set out and figure out the mystery of this murder. But that also means he has to go out into the world, confront his estranged family, and discover secrets that range far wider than he would have thought.

Discovering the world of Witchmark was fun from the very beginning. The author doesn’t present everything on a silver plate but rather lets you figure everything out for yourself from context, from dialogue and description, from the way the characters act. This may not be everyone’s cup of tea but I love it when authors trust their readers to put things together for themselves. While set in an alternate Edwardian England, there are things that immediately stand out as fantastical, first among them the fact that there is magic. We learn early on that Miles possesses a magical gift and that he can use it to heal people. But it is only later that we find out how Miles fits into the larger world of magic and why he ran away from his family and his duties.

The plot starts out as a murder mystery and sticks to the tropes most of the time. Tristan and Miles investagate places and interview people, you know the deal. It could have been boring but with added bicycle chases and a wonderfully engaging sub-plot about Miles and his family, the book was exciting all the way. There are also two rather important plot twists, one of which I kind of saw coming (although not its details), the other of which made me gasp out loud. The only thing I didn’t really buy was the romance. I really liked where things where going but I felt there wasn’t enough there to base a relationship on. We should have seen more conversations, more moments between the two characters to understand why they fell for each other.

Polk also created some wonderful characters, not just in Miles and Tristan (who has his own secrets which I will not spill but you should totally read the book because it’s super cool), but also in Miles’ sister Grace. She is one of those characters that you think you’ve figured out from the first meeting but then she shows unknown depths. Her relationship with Miles is a very, very difficult one because of the way this society works and the way it deals with mages. Without spoilers, it’s impossible to talk about details, but rest assured that there is more to Grace than meets the eye and that she truly does love her brother.

What made the book work for me was mostly Miles as a character and finding out why he ran away to fight in the war rather than stay with his wealthy, respected family. He is yearning for freedom, for agency, for a place of his own even if it is tiny and he could afford something much larger and better. Understanding why he chooses a life that at first appears so much worse than what he could have had, was a lot of fun to discover and made both Miles and the world he lives in more interesting. There are also plenty of things that I want to explore more so I’m more than happy that this is the first book of a series.

Overall, I really enjoyed this read. It was charming and original, it sets up many things that will have repercussions in the sequel, and it made me really like the characters. While maybe not award-worthy (it’s nominated for a Nebula), this was a fun read that got better as it went along.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good!

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Great but not perfect: Naomi Novik – Spinning Silver

Like many other readers, I adored Naomi Novik’s first foray into fairy tale territory in the shape of her novel Uprooted. While not an actual sequel, Spinning Silver is the spiritual successor to that book and so had quite a lot to live up to. It wasn’t as amazing as Uprooted and there were some problems for me that could easily have been fixed, but it was still a great book overall. Not-so-good for Naomi Novik still means worlds above many other authors, after all.

SPINNING SILVER
by Naomi Novik

Published by: Del Rey, 2018
Hardcover: 466 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: The real story isn’t half as pretty as the one you’ve heard.

Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders, but her father’s inability to collect his debts has left his family on the edge of poverty—until Miryem takes matters into her own hands. Hardening her heart, the young woman sets out to claim what is owed and soon gains a reputation for being able to turn silver into gold.
When an ill-advised boast draws the attention of the king of the Staryk—grim fey creatures who seem more ice than flesh—Miryem’s fate, and that of two kingdoms, will be forever altered. Set an impossible challenge by the nameless king, Miryem unwittingly spins a web that draws in a peasant girl, Wanda, and the unhappy daughter of a local lord who plots to wed his child to the dashing young tsar.
But Tsar Mirnatius is not what he seems. And the secret he hides threatens to consume the lands of humans and Staryk alike. Torn between deadly choices, Miryem and her two unlikely allies embark on a desperate quest that will take them to the limits of sacrifice, power, and love.
Channeling the vibrant heart of myth and fairy tale, Spinning Silver weaves a multilayered, magical tapestry that readers will want to return to again and again.

If you’ve read the short story of the same name, collected in The Starlit Wood, then you’ll know exactly how this novel begins. Miryem, the daughter of a rather useless moneylender, takes matters into her own hands. After all, her father may be very good at lending money, but he is rubbish at collecting it – which leaves him and his family in poverty while others thrive with the money he lent them. Miryem will not stand for this unfairness, especially since her mother has taken sick. The way she hardens her heart to the people who owe her father money, the way she gets better and better at her job, it was just so incredibly fun to read. Because you know, as the reader, that although Miryem grows cold and hard, she is still a loving person.

The character I liked even better – although she was completely unnecessary for the entire plot – was Wanda though. She lives with her brothers and their abusive father who, as so many do, owes Miryem’s father money. Wanda sees her chance to get away from her father and starts working for Miryem. She even manages to save up some money for herself without letting her father know. This first act of friendship between Wanda and Miryem (who understands quite well what is going on but doesn’t always say so) made me think this book could actually be as good as Uprooted.

However, there is a third protagonist, Irina, who is also set on her path by her father’s actions. Come to think of it, every one of these girls has to fix things their fathers have broken. Miryem needs to do her father’s job properly, Wanda needs to work to pay her father’s debts, and Irina… well Irina needs to marry the tsar, a man who terrifies her and who may be way more than just an arrogant man – because of her father’s greed.  I liked all three of these girls very, very much. They are quite different but they share resolve and cleverness, something I appreciate much more in a protagonist than pretty looks. None of them are fooled by magic or tricks, and while they may not immediately find a way out of their predicaments, they at least work out a plan and fight for what’s important.

As it turns out, this important thing may be way more than just their individual freedoms. Miryem – who accidentally entered into a bargain with this world’s Rumpelstistkin, a Staryk, a creature of winter and cold, wants to return to the human world. Wanda wants to be free of her father and live a normal life with her brothers, Irina wants to survive whatever lives inside the tsar. Irina and Miryem have to work together to – drumroll – probably save the entire world. What started as a clever retelling of Rumpelstiltskin turns into an epic battle of fire and ice, evil and probably-mostly-evil. It was awesome and the way things are resolved made me cheer!

What I didn’t like and what really diminished the entire story for me were the randomly added viewpoint characters. It starts out with Miryem, Wanda, and Irina alternating chapters. Then suddenly, Irina’s old maid has a viewpoint, Wanda’s brother gets one, but in the middle of chapters so you often don’t know whose head you’re in. These added perspectives unfortunately don’t do anything to further the story and these characters (except maybe Wanda’s brother) are so unimportant that adding their view doesn’t make sense. It really took me out of the book a lot of times and made me almost angry. I don’t care what Irina’s nurse thinks and does – the action is somewhere else, the characters I care for are somewhere else. Get back to Irina and Miryem already!

Another thing I’m unsure about was the romances. There are several, yes, and I kind of really liked one of them (not telling which, though) but I’m unsure about the other. Both relationships start out rather abusive or at least unfriendly. While I could see a slow coming together and growing to know each other with one pair of characters, I felt that the other pair just stayed together for convenience. Don’t get me wrong, I really liked the ending, but I’m just not sure if I should like it.

All things considered, this was a very good book that shows the strength of women fixing problems men created, that puts female friendships front and center, and that has a wonderful layer of epic fantasy world building that I didn’t expect. I hope there will be more fairy tale retellings by Naomi Novik, even though I didn’t love this as much as Uprooted.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very, very good

Tansy Rayner Roberts – Love and Romanpunk

I’ve been wanting to read this ever since I heard it mentioned on the SF Squeecast. Oh, if only those guys knew how many recommendations of theirs I went out and bought. Seriously, I’m super sad the Squeecast is on hiatus for now. I hope they come back some day with more books and author guests and lots of squeeing.

love and romanpunkLOVE AND ROMANPUNK
by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Published by: Twelfth Planet Press, 2011
Ebook: 105 pages
Short story collection
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: Let us begin with the issue of most interest to future historians: I did not poison my uncle and husband, the Emperor Claudius.

Thousands of years ago, Julia Agrippina wrote the true history of her family, the Caesars. The document was lost, or destroyed, almost immediately. (It included more monsters than you might think.)
Hundreds of years ago, Fanny and Mary ran away from London with a debauched poet and his sister. (If it was the poet you are thinking of, the story would have ended far more happily, and with fewer people having their throats bitten out.)
Sometime in the near future, a community will live in a replica Roman city built in the Australian bush. It’s a sight to behold. (Shame about the manticores.)
Further in the future, the last man who guards the secret history of the world will discover that the past has a way of coming around to bite you. (He didn’t even know she had a thing for pointy teeth.)
The world is in greater danger than you ever suspected. Women named Julia are stronger than they appear. Don’t let your little brother make out with silver-eyed blondes. Immortal heroes really don’t fancy teenage girls. When love dies, there’s still opera. Family is everything. Monsters are everywhere. Yes, you do have to wear the damned toga.
History is not what you think it is.

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This story collection contains four stories that are all connected to each other, more like a small mosaic novel than a regular author collection you might find elsewhere. This is a thing I like, as I have recently discovered through Angela Slatter’s books. However, reading Love and Romanpunk so soon after falling hard for another short story writer may have been bad for Tansy Rayner Roberts. Because as charming as her stories are, as cute as her ideas may be, they pale in comparison to Angela Slatter. But that’s just me.

In the first story, “Julia Agrippina’s Secret Family Bestiary”, we meet said Julia – one of many – and  encounter many Roman emperors. Julia tells the story of her family, of their demise, and how not all (or many) of their deaths can be attributed to such mundane means as poisons or old age. No, in fact, her family is haunted by mythological creatures. I find the idea of manticores, lamia, griffins, and harpies wonderful but in a short story, this was a bit much. This story disguised as a bestiary still tells a nice tale, but there was simply an overload of monsters and instead of being terrifying or even very interesting, it became ridiculous pretty quickly. Also, if you’re not too familiar with Roman history (most of what I know, I have learned from the TV show Rome), the names and relations can get seriously confusing because people are born and die rather quickly. Before you get to remember this guy’s name, he’s already dead or married his own niece, or poisoned his mother or whatever… This was my least favorite story of the bunch.

The second story focuses on one creature, the lamia, and features a poet, his mistress, his sister, and mistress’ sister. This is a vampire story, but a pretty good one. There is a nice twist about who the characters really are that I won’t spoil here, and I was surprised by my attachment to them at the end of the story. They’re not exactly supposed to be sympathetic, feeding on the blood of the innocent and all, but I kind of liked them anyway.

My favorite story by far was “The Patrician” which features an immortal monster-killer named Julius who hunts down the last of whatever monster species is still around. Coincidence throws him in the path of Clea, a young girl, who gets tangled up in his monster slaying. Throughout her life, they meet again and again, forming a special friendship that was beautifully described. The monsters fade into the background in this character-driven, almost philosophical piece, whose ending was both beautiful and a little heartbreaking.

The last story which gives the book part of its title, “Romanpunk”, was just pure fun. A man gets stuck on an airship at a party with his ex-girlfriend that he really, really, really wanted to avoid. She’s not your typical crazy ex-girlfriend, though. Nope, she wants immortality at any price. Enter more lamias, more monster-slaying, and a fair amount of sass. The story even features another Julia – and Julias are powerful in Tansy Rayner Roberts’ world.

I started out not liking this collection too much, then it kind of grew on me, and now thinking back on it, it’s actually quite lovely the way it moves through time, ties one story to the next, and doesn’t take itself too seriously. Apart from Julia Agrippina’s mess of a bestiary, all the stories had good pacing, intriguing characters, and a plot I was happy to follow along. Maybe a few more pages to flesh out certain parts wouldn’t have hurt but I’ll definitely try more books by Tansy Rayner Roberts. Aside from reading more short story collections than ever before, I also seem to be developing a thing for Australian authors.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

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Second opinions:

 

 

Catherynne M. Valente – Radiance

[Insert obligatory line about copious amounts of upcoming fangirliness here]
Good, now that’s out of the way, let me talk about Cat Valente’s newest book. It is the BEST THING EVER! The cover, the planet drawings as chapter headers, the literary styles, the characters (Oh my glob, the characters!), the plot… reading this was pure bliss. I drew it out as long as I could but, in addition to being absolutely stunning, it’s also a mystery and keeping away from the book for any amount of time an impossible feat.

radianceRADIANCE
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by: Tor, 2015
Hardcover: 432 pages
Standalone
My rating: 10/10

First sentence: Come forward.

Radiance is a decopunk pulp SF alt-history space opera mystery set in a Hollywood—and solar system—very different from our own, from the phenomenal talent behind the New York Times bestselling The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.
Severin Unck’s father is a famous director of Gothic romances in an alternate 1986 in which talking movies are still a daring innovation due to the patent-hoarding Edison family. Rebelling against her father’s films of passion, intrigue, and spirits from beyond, Severin starts making documentaries, traveling through space and investigating the levitator cults of Neptune and the lawless saloons of Mars. For this is not our solar system, but one drawn from classic science fiction in which all the planets are inhabited and we travel through space on beautiful rockets. Severin is a realist in a fantastic universe.
But her latest film, which investigates the disappearance of a diving colony on a watery Venus populated by island-sized alien creatures, will be her last. Though her crew limps home to earth and her story is preserved by the colony’s last survivor, Severin will never return.
Aesthetically recalling A Trip to the Moon and House of Leaves, and told using techniques from reality TV, classic film, gossip magazines, and meta-fictional narrative, Radiance is a solar system-spanning story of love, exploration, family, loss, quantum physics, and silent film.

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Mars has cowboys, Venus has space whales. The moon is Hollywood and Earth is so passé. Come visit Cat Valente’s very own solar system, full of old-timey sense of wonder, of planets that can be inhabited no matter what science says. It’s a child’s idea of our solar system but at the same time reminiscent of old pulp science fiction novels. And this version of the solar system is completely internally consistent. You may find breathable air on every planet, but that doesn’t mean that they are all equally welcoming to human inhabitants. What makes the world go round (this world’s spice melange, if you will) is callowmilk from the callowhales of Venus. I could go on a huge tangent about the brilliance with which Valente inserts her world-building into the story, but finding out little snippets about this planet’s culture or that planet’s flora and fauna, is part of the fun.

Radiance tells the story of a mystery. Famous movie director Percival Unck’s daughter, Severin, has lived her life in front of camera lenses. Breaking free from her father’s idea of what movies should be like, she started making her own movies, true movies. Her last trip took her to a mysterious village on Venus, whose people just disappeared one day. But Severin herself never returns from the trip and it is her disappearance (maybe even her death?) that is the big secret of Radiance.

Valente’s strongest suit, in my opinion, has always been language. The things she does with language in Radiance are like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Take a seat, lean back, and let me tell you why this novel seven years in the making is such a masterpiece.

The prologue is the mother of the tale and the governess of the audience.

Through gossip colums, movie transcripts, interviews, and radio play scripts, we see a story through many lenses. Not only does Valente use different media to tell Severin’s story, she also lets a cast of characters tell snippets of a much larger tale. Almost like a non-fiction book stuck together of individual people’s accounts. Whether it’s Severin’s lover, their adopted son Anchises, one of Severin’s many stepmothers (my glob, how I love Mary and her ingénue’s handbook!!), or a quick peek at Percival Unck’s private reels, Valente lets her characters shine through their actions as much as through the medium they use to tell their story.

I like thinking about a version of you that doesn’t look for a camera all the time.

Severin Unck may be the single most intriguing character I’ve ever read about. Her relationship to her father, to movies, to the fact that they are black and white and usually silent (unless you have enormous amounts of money to pay Edison for the rights to use sound in your film), and Severin is rebelling against all of that. She wants to make her own kind of movies, yet she doesn’t really know how to live without being constantly filmed herself. A natural in front (and behind) the camera, she is always aware of being captured on celluloid, and so we – the readers – can never be quite sure whether her emotions are real or just for the cameras. This makes Severin nothing short of stunning. The only other character somewhat like her, that I could think of at least, was Suyana from Genevieve Valentine’s Persona. But she didn’t get nearly so close to me as Severin.

The second most interesting character is Anchises, Severin and Erasmo St. John’s adopted son. They found him in the strange village on Venus and promptly took the child home with them. Anchises is the perfect noir hero, broken inside, bitter and cynical, always searching for something and not quite getting it. Which leads me to the way his story is told. It all begins your typical noir detective story..

[…] noir isn’t really a new thing at all. It’s just a fairy tale with guns. Your hardscrabble detective is nothing more than a noble knight with a cigarette and a disease where his heart should be.

But as we go through his tale, the style changes. There are chapters that read like gothic romance, there are chapters straight out of a children’s book, and all of them are beautiful. Valente shows off her talent with Anchises. We know that she can be poetic, we know she has a gift for writing for children as well as adults, but she dives in and out of so many different styles with such ease, one can’t help but feel jealous.

I am not the least bit surprised this book took so long to develop from a short story – The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew – simply because of its ambition and scope. It spans years, a dozen important characters, fictional movies that sound and feel right, mysteries upon mysteries, and actual hard science facts (you kind of have to finish the book to get to that part). Any single character from Radiance has enough flesh and bone on them to be worthy of their own book, any of the many styles used could be used for its own story, but Cat Valente managed the unmanageable. She meshed it all together in a beautiful, perfect love story to movies and movie making, to pulpy space adventures, and to stories in general. If she wasn’t already my favorite author, this would be the book that would make me go out and buy her entire backlist in one go.

So really, make yourself comfortable, grab a cup of something hot to drink, bring a blanket and maybe a snack, and read this book. If this doesn’t grab a Hugo and Nebula nomination, I’ll be very surprised.

MY RATING: 10/10 – Absolutely perfect!

Also, watch the beautiful book trailer.

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Second opinions:

Zen Cho – Sorcerer to the Crown

Well, this was charming! The first time I read Zen Cho (The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo), my main gripe was that the story was too short, that the scenes didn’t have enough time to unfold, that danger was averted too quickly and too easily. Well, Zen Cho has now produced a novel that has none of those problems, but delivers a huge dose of charm and humor.

sorcerer to the crownSORCERER TO THE CROWN
by Zen Cho

Published by: Macmillan, 2015
Hardcover: 416 pages
Series: Sorcerer Royal #1
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: The meeting of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers was well under way, and the entrance hall was almost empty.

The Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, one of the most respected organizations throughout all of England, has long been tasked with maintaining magic within His Majesty’s lands. But lately, the once proper institute has fallen into disgrace, naming an altogether unsuitable gentleman—a freed slave who doesn’t even have a familiar—as their Sorcerer Royal, and allowing England’s once profuse stores of magic to slowly bleed dry. At least they haven’t stooped so low as to allow women to practice what is obviously a man’s profession…
At his wit’s end, Zacharias Wythe, Sorcerer Royal of the Unnatural Philosophers and eminently proficient magician, ventures to the border of Fairyland to discover why England’s magical stocks are drying up. But when his adventure brings him in contact with a most unusual comrade, a woman with immense power and an unfathomable gift, he sets on a path which will alter the nature of sorcery in all of Britain—and the world at large…

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Zen Cho has her language down. Open up Sorcerer to the Crown and you will feel like you fell into a Jane Austen novel. Except there’s magic, and sorcerers, and social commentary. For the first few chapters, I was reminded very much of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell but this would be a much more lighthearted version, a book that doesn’t take itself too seriously. This lightheartedness is at the same time strength and weakness of the story.

Zacharias Wythe has just become Sorcerer Royal and with that role inherited a number of problems, only some of which can be traced back to people’s prejudice about his skin color. Less and less magic is in the air for magicians to use, ambitious gentlemen wish to gain Zacharias’ position for themselves, he has to hold a speech at a young ladies’ school for (or rather for the suppression of) magic, and he caught a small case of making a bargain with the Fair Folk – which is never a good idea unless you are the fairy.

Enter Prunella Gentleman. What a charming, delightful, practical creature she is! Zacharias may be the protagonist of this book but, honestly, Prunella steals the show on every page. And Zacharias is fine with that, I’m sure. Not only does Prunella actually want to explore her magical talent, despite society (and her school) preaching that women aren’t strong enough to support magical currents, to use magic, and thus must be trained to suppress it entirely. But Prunella just gets it. She understands the society she lives in and she understands her place in it. Naturally her number one goal is to find a wealthy husband – as any Jane Austen heroine will know, this is no laughing matter, for without one, a woman would be quite dependent on her parents or the kindness of strangeres. Prunella wants security, and only then does she have time to pursue her ambitions as a magician. It’s not only her attitude that makes her so wonderful, it’s also her honesty. Reading about Prunella was the best thing!

Zen Cho also does some interesting things with world-building in her alternate England. I loved that Fairyland is a place you can visit and that fairies aren’t cute, but dangerous (if not evil as such, they do like to trick humans). The idea of a sorcerer needing familiars to grant him status and power was interesting, although I believe not done well enough. The same goes for the use of magic. We learn that hedge witches (not respected magicians, of course, but mostly servant women in rich households) use magic to help them do their chores, but what the actual Unnatural Philosophers do is a mystery – which also might be a nod to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell again. There are ghosts, but it’s not clear when somebody turns into a ghost and what exactly the point is. This world is stuffed full of ideas and I can’t help but think that picking only a few of them and focusing a bit more on these would have been a better idea.

Similar things bothered me about the plot. It starts as one thing, introduces Prunella, and instantly turns into another. But with so many side plots, it was difficult to know what the story is supposed to be about. I chose to read for Prunella. Her storyline was a true pleasure, but the rest of the plot suffered for it. Prunella is just too center stage (and that’s a good thing) for me to care much about anything else. Zacharias’ curse is mentioned several times but only becomes revealed at the end. It all meandered a bit and felt overloaded.

Speaking of the end. Predictable as certain aspects were, Zen Cho genuinely surprised me with how she got there. I had some ideas in my head of stuff that just HAD TO HAPPEN and it did happen. But what Prunella and Zacharias have to do to achieve this end was quite original. Damerell, a side character who stole my heart a little, does his part and grows into more than just comic relief. I quite adored the ending, especially considering what it means for the next novel in the series.

So despite the slightly too ambitious approach to the plot, I believe Zen Cho has created a world that is worth revisiting. And if there is more Prunella in the next book, you can definitely count me in. What an utterly, utterly charming character.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good

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Mervyn Peake – Titus Groan

It’s taken me long enough to pick up this classic fantasy book and explore the vast hallways of Castle Gormenghast. I couldn’t tell you why I waited so long to read this. The language is so up my alley, I ended up underlining half the book. Who’d have thought there’s a word for the amount that’s missing to fill a container (it’s “ullage”)? But discovering words was only a small part of the pleasure I got from reading this.

titus groanTITUS GROAN
by Mervyn Peake

Published by: Vintage Classics, 1998 (1946)
Paperback: 477 pages
Series: Gormenghast #1
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architecturial quality were it possible to have ingnored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls.

Mervyn Peake’s gothic masterpiece, the Gormenghast trilogy, begins with the superlative Titus Groan, a darkly humorous, stunningly complex tale of the first two years in the life of the heir to an ancient, rambling castle. The Gormenghast royal family, the castle’s decidedly eccentric staff, and the peasant artisans living around the dreary, crumbling structure make up the cast of characters in this engrossing story.
Peake has been compared to Dickens, Tolkien, and Peacock, but Titus Groan is truly unique. Unforgettable characters with names like Steerpike and Prunesquallor make their way through an architecturally stifling world, with lots of dark corners around to dampen any whimsy that might arise. This true classic is a feast of words unlike anything else in the world of fantasy. Those who explore Gormenghast castle will be richly rewarded.

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Every character in this book is nuts! Not knowing what I was getting into, I expected some kind of protagonist to hold on to, some sensible soul wandering the crazy halls of Gormenghast with me. Neither did I find a protagonist nor anyone sane – but that was just as it should be.

Mervyn Peake takes his time introducing Gormenghast and its inhabitants. This old castle, seemingly cut off from the outside world, leads a life of its own. Inhabited by the Earl of Groan, his family, and a slew of servants, Gormenghast is elevated from a stoney building to a hive of pure crazy. Every chapter offers a glimpse into a new part of the castle, and shows it through the eyes of a different character. Only after everybody has been introduced do we return to them in other chapters, and by that time, their mannerisms, dialogue, and look has grown so familiar that you feel like you’re part of them. Soon I realised that this story is unlike any I’d read before. It’s hard to speak of plot when most of the fun comes from simply watching these deranged beings be themselves and when most of the writing is descriptions, either of the surroundings or of the characters themselves. Whether it’s Lady Gormenghast – the ultimate crazy cat lady – or cunning Steerpike, no matter if you follow Fuchsia and Nannie Slagg or the Twins, you will find that all of them are in serious need of a psychiatrist… sadly, even the castle’s Doctor Prunesquallor seems muddled at best.

So if this is not a traditional story, why is it so intriguing? Oh, for so many reasons. The language, the names, the characters, the castle itself, its traditions, the intrigue… I can’t pick just one.

The language is breathtaking. I already mentioned that I learned a bunch of new words but even without that added bonus, it’s just immensely enjoyable to read Peake’s long, beautiful sentences. For a book consisting mostly of description, it’s important that the description is somehow interesting. Mervyn Peake creates vivid images of Castle Gormenghast, not only – but also – because he uses the perfect words to make every room and person come to life. Sure, he takes his sweet time describing everything, but what the reader gets out of this is a fully-formed image, almost like a movie in your head.

swelterAnother part I absolutely loved was Peake’s original way of naming his characters. Names are important, names have meaning and, in a lot of fantasy literature, power. In this case, every name fits its owner so perfectly that it hurts. Flay – scrawny, creaky, sickly-looking – or Swelter – obese, sweaty, loud – Doctor Prunesquallor (Fuchsia calls him Prune, Lady Gormenghast calls him Squallor, and that says as much about them as it does about him)… I could go on. The names fit the personalities, or maybe the characters were formed by their names? Either way, the language made for a melodious read, even if it was just in my head. (Come to think of it, I must look if there’s a good audiobook version of this.)

So what’s this collection of crazy characters up to all the time, you ask. Castle Gormenghast is ruled by its traditions. With the birth of young Titus, the family line is secure but the young heir also requires a lot of traditional celebrations and rites that must be done exactly as they were always done. These ceremonies are as strange as they are funny. In fact, after a few chapters, I found the entire book quite hilarious, in a dark, creepy kind of way. It doesn’t take long for a character to do something and for me to go “oh, that’s so typically them”. After a while, you stop questioning the sense or purpose of these celebrations. They don’t have to make sense, they just have to be done by the book.

Titus Groan would have been excellent if it were just about following the characters around the castle, but there is more to it than that. Young kitchenboy Steerpike wants to get to the top and he is willing to do whatever it takes to reach his goal. His schemes are ruthless, but I followed them with interest nonetheless. I could also tell you long stories about the chapters involving him and the twins – probably the two dumbest people in the entire castle. Flay and Swelter have their own feud going on that keeps readers on their toes, and Fuchsia (one of the saner people) is just a young girl trying to find her place in the world. If I’ve scared you off with my ramblings, let me assure you – there is a plot. It’s just not the most important aspect of the book.

All characters, with their varying degrees of insanity, grew on me in a way. I couldn’t say that I gained more pleasure from reading about either of them because they are all unique. I did have a particular dislike for Swelter but reading about him was just as much fun as the rest of the cast.

While the castle seems to be self-sustaining and doesn’t interact with the wider world, there are people living just outside the castle walls. One of them, Keda, was quite interesting, if only because she seems slightly less crazy than the rest. For a while, at least. But she also made my literary spidey-sense tingle, in that I think her actions will have greater repercussions on the larger story. I may be wrong, but even so, Breda was fascinating in a less creepy way than, say, Steerpike.

If this sort-of-review lacks focus, that’s because whenever I think of this book, a billion thoughts come to my mind, none of them organised. It was an explosion of the weird, a challenging read that is truly unique. With its atmospheric setting, its vibrant cast, and their strange motivations, you have everything for a firework of the awesome. I read this on a tropical beach (so the setting couldn’t have been less fitting) but I still get chills when I think of Steerpike first following Flay through the stone corridors.

It took me a long time to finish reading this book, mainly because the language was so challenging, but in the end, every slowly-devoured page was worth it. I will wait for a week off work before I dive into the second book, Gormenghast, because this is the kind of story you want to savor. It’s not a book to read on train rides to work. I understand why this is a classic of fantasy literature, despite its complete and utter lack of actual magic.

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Excellent!

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Terry Pratchett – Nation

So… the blog is a bit Pratchett-heavy lately. The simple explanation is that I have finally discovered the man’s genius and my mood demands his particular mix of hilarious humor, social satire, and seriously clever, thought-provoking themes. There you have it! At this point, I’d read Pratchett’s shopping list, but because it is summer and I have a lot of his novels here (and unread), I went for the one with the prettiest and summeriest cover.

nation1NATION
by Terry Pratchett

Published by: Doubleday, 2008
ISBN: 9780385613712
Hardcover: 410 pages
Standalone

My rating: 9/10

First sentence: Imo set out one day to catch some fish, but there was no sea.

Finding himself alone on a desert island when everything and everyone he knows and loved has been washed away in a huge storm, Mau is the last surviving member of his nation. He’s also completely alone – or so he thinks until he finds the ghost girl. She has no toes, wears strange lacy trousers like the grandfather bird and gives him a stick which can make fire.
Daphne, sole survivor of the wreck of the Sweet Judy, almost immediately regrets trying to shoot the native boy. Thank goodness the powder was wet and the gun only produced a spark. She’s certain her father, distant cousin of the Royal family, will come and rescue her but it seems, for now, all she has for company is the boy and the foul-mouthed ship’s parrot.
As it happens, they are not alone for long. Other survivors start to arrive to take refuge on the island they all call the Nation and then raiders accompanied by murderous mutineers from the Sweet Judy. Together, Mau and Daphne discover some remarkable things – including how to milk a pig and why spitting in beer is a good thing – and start to forge a new Nation.
As can be expected from Terry Pratchett, the master story-teller, this new children’s novel is both witty and wise, encompassing themes of death and nationhood, while being extremely funny. Mau’s ancestors have something to teach us all. Mau just wishes they would shut up about it and let him get on with saving everyone’s lives!

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When Terry Pratchett says in interviews that he gets better with every book, he is not lying. He seems to pour his heart and soul into his fiction, and while the writing has always been good, it became nothing short of remarkable in these last few books I’ve read. Whatever else you may think of Sir Terry and his sense of humor, nobody can dispute that he is a master storyteller who truly understands people and translates real humans onto the page.

This book starts with a tragedy. Mau is in the middle of his manhood ritual – getting safely back home from the Boy’s Island – when the wave strikes. It is the biggest wave he has ever seen and he only survives because he is in a canoe when it hits him. The Boy’s Island? Gone. Mau returns to his home to find his entire tribe – the Nation – gone. The last survivor of his people, he sends their dead bodies to the sea and grieves. But there is another human on the island. Daphne, whose true name is Ermintrude (but who’d want to be called that?), survived the wave aboard the Sweet Judy, a ship now stranded on the island, and mostly in pieces. Mau and this strange, white ghost girl have to try and build up a new Nation, and new lives for themselves.

The culture clash is expected but deftly handled. Neither Mau’s gods nor Daphne’s prim manners are portrayed in a way that makes them seem superior. They have each grown up in their own culture and now they have to find a way to understand each other and question what they’ve been taught all their lives. For Daphne, it may begin with not wearing 7 layers of clothing and actually showing her naked toes to strangers (gasp), for Mau – ever since the wave wiped out his family – it is the Big Question. Do the gods really exist? And if they do, how could they have let this happen?
As they both struggle to come to terms with their beliefs and their loss, more survivors appear on the island and a new, albeit small, Nation comes alive.

nation pratchett

There is so much beauty on these pages and I am not sure where to begin. Daphne and Mau are wonderful protagonists. Mau’s self-doubt – for he is not a boy but never went through the proper manhood ritual, so he believes himself to have no soul – and Daphne’s keen scientific mind are not really all that different. The themes in this book may be obvious, but the characters are still at the center of the story, and I continued reading as much for Mau and Daphne as I did for the valuable life lessons. Pratchett doesn’t hit you over the head with a hammer of science. In this alternate Pacific Ocean nation (and it is alternate), neither Daphne nor the author find Mau’s culture and belief to be ridiculous or primitive. Yes, Daphne likes proof for the supposed miracles she sees – such as poison turning into beer – but she takes Mau’s gods seriously. This is a wonderful story that shows that different isn’t inferior – and to wrap this message in a wonderful, emotional, and funny story is the best way to deliver it.

The characters are vivid and real, they have gone through something terrible and deal with the aftermath in their own way. Mau thinks about giving himself to the darkness, Daphne tries to act the brave, proper lady. But inside – and the reader knows this – they are hurting and wondering about the future. As they slowly build their lives on the island, ideas start popping up. I loved the protagonists most of all because they enjoy thinking and through that learn more about the world and about themselves.

Someone had to eat the first oyster, you know.
Someone looked at a half shell full of snot and was brave.

Little asides like this may at first strike you as comic relief, a little fun to lighten the serious tone. But the thing that struck me over and over was that, despite being funny, there is so much truth in it as well. That is how people evolve, that is how inventions are made – by somebody doing something seemingly stupid or crazy, being brave, and discovering something new about the world. And in working together, amazing things can be achieved – such as the construction of a new Nation, even if it is different from the one before.

Take one strip of the vine lengthwise and yes, it needs the strength of two men to pull it apart. But weave five strands of it into a rope and a hundred men can’t break it. The more they pull, the more it binds together and the stronger it becomes. That is the Nation

Any book, for me, is carried by its characters and their growth. Both Mau and Daphne go through immense changes, not only because of the wave but out of sheer necessity. Daphne’s courage in the face of tragedy goes to show just how much she has grown. When this young girl with a passion for science performs an amputation, even Mau is surprised.

“[…] Those captives were treated very badly.”
“And you’ve been sawing the bad bits off them?”
“It’s called surgery, thank you so very much! It’s not hard if I can find someone to hold the instruction manual open at the right page.”
“No! No, I don’t think it’s wrong!” said Mau quickly. “It’s just that… it’s you doing it. I thought you hated the sight of blood.”
“That’s why I try to stop it. […]”

I have a fondness for pratical people and maybe that is why Tiffany Aching speaks to me so much. One thing I’ll definitely take away from this is that Terry Pratchett is made of Magic. I hope he will continue to write for many, many years and share his wisdom about humanity with us, in the shape of fantastic stories, peopled by lovable, wonderful characters.

Nation has also been adapted for the stage and while I’ll probably never get to see it, the pictures look beautiful. Of course the actors look much older than I picture the characters but I love how small details have been taken into account. On the right, Daphne – still rather proper in her dress – is wearing the grass skirt the Unknown Woman made for her. And Mau is trying out trousers in order to understand what makes trousermen so excited about them (turns out he’s quite fond of the pockets, if nothing much else).

Terry Pratchett's Nation (stage play)

This is marketed as one of Pratchett’s books for young people and while it definitely can be read by children and young adults, I believe it is even more suited to an adult readership. I remember, as a child, I read books for the pure pleasure of story. I didn’t care about messages, or the exploration of themes, or even world-building. I watched characters I liked do things that were interesting, and on that level, Nation succeeds. But it is the message that form the heart of this novel, it is the encouragement to think for yourself, and to go through the world with open eyes and an open mind.

THE GOOD: Wonderful characters who live through a sad but beautiful story. Brilliant exploration of serious themes with just a pinch of Pratchett’s trademark humor.
THE BAD: Takes a while to get into, some story elements (the Navy plotline) could have been left out.
BONUS: The filthy-mouthed parrot.
THE VERDICT: Highly recommended to Pratchett lovers or newcomers, to scientists and religious people, to those who have suffered through loss and pain, and those who are simply interested in a good story.

RATING:  9/10  – Beautiful. Close to perfection.divider1

Second opinions:

Mary Robinette Kowal – Glamour in Glass

Why did I read this? I had mostly lukewarm feelings about Shades of Milk and Honey, the first part in this series. But Mary Robinette Kowal is so likable and seems so clever in her interviews and podcasts that I wanted to give her a second chance. If the first novel was – and such a thing is possible, I’ve learned – too much like Jane Austen and read like all the characters were ripped off, this one has its own voice and mood to it. Unfortunately, it was a mood that bored me almost to death.

glamour in glassGLAMOUR IN GLASS
by Mary Robinette Kowal

Published by: Tor, 2012
ISBN: 1429987286
ebook: 213 pages
Series: Glamourist Histories #2

My rating: 6/10

First sentence: There are few things in this world that can simultaneously delight and dismay in the same manner as a formal dinner party.

Mary Robinette Kowal stunned readers with her charming first novel Shades of Milk and Honey, a loving tribute to the works of Jane Austen in a world where magic is an everyday occurrence. This magic comes in the form of glamour, which allows talented users to form practically any illusion they can imagine. Shades debuted to great acclaim and left readers eagerly awaiting its sequel. Glamour in Glass continues following the lives of beloved main characters Jane and Vincent, with a much deeper vein of drama and intrigue.
In the tumultuous months after Napoleon abdicates his throne, Jane and Vincent go to Belgium for their honeymoon. While there, the deposed emperor escapes his exile in Elba, throwing the continent into turmoil. With no easy way back to England, Jane and Vincent’s concerns turn from enjoying their honeymoon…to escaping it. Left with no outward salvation, Jane must persevere over her trying personal circumstances and use her glamour to rescue her husband from prison . . . and hopefully prevent her newly built marriage from getting stranded on the shoals of another country’s war.

dividerAfter Shades of Milk and Honey, I was hoping for many things to happen in the second novel. I wished Mary Robinette Kowal would be a little less like Jane Austen (who but Jane Austen can really pull it off, after all?) and more like herself. Check. I was hoping that the characters weren’t such obvious copies or amalgamations of Austen’s own Elizabeth Bennet or the Dashwood sisters. Check. I was hoping that her magic system, Glamour, would be further developed. Check.
Despite all of these good things that were delivered as per my personal order (or so it seems), there was one element this book was missing. Badly. It was drive, it was that thing that makes you go “wow” and get really immersed in a story. Frequently, the five-year-old that I secretly still am on the inside, wanted to shout out “This is BOOOORING” while I was reading. I shushed her and everything, pointed out the nice writing and the depth of research that must have gone into the novel. But five-year-old me didn’t care. She wanted a good story. And that’s where Glamour in Glass was truly lacking.

glamour in glassIt opens on a dinner scene where Jane, who, with Vincent, has just finished a magnificent glamural commissioned by the Prince Regent, describes the dinner conversations, all the rules of propriety that go with such and the separation of the sexes once the whisky and cigars are brought and the discussions start going in a political direction. This may be very interesting from a historical point of view but it lacks any wit that Jane Austen always provided in her work. And the plot (if you can call it that) meanders along in the same manner until the last quarter of the book, when finally something happens that requires action. I am by no means averse to slow-moving books that focus on characters. But let’s take a look at the characters we meet here.

Jane, for the most part, is incredibly sulky and passive throughout the novel. Until said event in the last bit makes her come out of her shell and become pretty awesome. I liked her a great deal in Shades of Milk and Honey, but here I found myself not caring very much about her and actually being annoyed with her a lot of the time. Vincent has lost his brooding mystery and what little we see of him didn’t excite me either. This may be entirely my fault or it may be due to the inconsequential conversations the newlyweds have. I don’t know. It just didn’t grab my attention at all.

What Mary Robinette Kowal does brilliantly is paint a picture of the era. I’m no expert, not even an amateur, in the field, but everything just feels right. The way people behave, the differences between England and France and Belgium, the clothing, the carriages and horse-drawn carts… simply guessing from what I’ve read in her two Glamourist Histories, I would say, Mary has a firm grip on her research. The afterword gives us a clue of how thorough she has been, creating a list of words with all the words Jane Austen used in her works, and eliminating or rephrasing any words Mary used to fit the vocubulary of 1815.

I was also very happy to learn more about Glamour and see Jane come up with new ways to use it. It is like reading steampunk – you read about inventions that could have been made in the past. Only this is glamourpunk. The scenes where Jane and Vincent work on their theory and try to put it into practice were the first ones that got me really hooked and that offer a myriad possibilities for future novels in the series.

What did I think? In the end, the story left me rather cold. The fact that I didn’t particularly like Jane or Vincent for most of the book is surely a large factor in this. The lack of a driving force behind the plot made this, to say it in my five-year-old self’s words, simply boring. I need something to want to read on, be it characters, action, magic or world-building. None of these things were interesting enough to hold my interest. I am somewhat surprised to see this on the Nebula shortlist and I have the strong suspicion that, like with the Hugos, sometimes authors just make it onto that list because they are very present. Or because “it’s kind of their time to get an award”. Mary is a great writer, no doubt, and has a firm grip on her research and craft. But for this second Glamourist History the elevator pitch “Jane Austen with magic” does not work anymore. There may be magic in the shape of Glamour, but there is none of Austen’s wit or clever critique, there are none of her ridiculously funny characters. And so, for me, there wasn’t really much magic at all.

The Good: Well-researched, with perfect French (that made me squee a lot) and an ending that redeems some of the earlier problems I had.

The Bad: Three quarters of the story were painfully boring, except for one scene involving Glamour. Lacks the Austenesque humor and fun characters.

The Verdict: Slow burning historical piece with threads of magic woven into it.

My Rating: 6/10 – Okay

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The Glamourist Histories:

Review: Gail Carriger – Etiquette & Espionage

Gail Carriger gives the YA genre a try in her new Finishing School series. Despite my misgivings about the later Parasol Protectorate books, I was as excited about this as anyone. Some of my hopes were met and we do get a new lovable cast of characters but we also get a lot of things we’ve already read in her previous books. All things considered, however, this book offers fun on every single page and I’ll happily continue reading this new series.

etiquette and espionageETIQUETTE & ESPIONAGE
by Gail Carriger

Published by: Little, Brown, 2013
ISBN: 031621521X
ebook: 320 pages
Series: Finishing School #1

My rating: 7/10

First sentence: Sophronia intended to pull the dumbwaiter up from the kitchen to outside the front parlor on the ground floor, where Mrs. Barnaclegoose was taking tea.

It’s one thing to learn to curtsy properly. It’s quite another to learn to curtsy and throw a knife at the same time. Welcome to Finishing School.
Sophronia Temminnick at 14 is a great trial more interested in dismantling clocks and climbing trees than proper manners — and the family can only hope that company never sees her atrocious curtsy. Her poor mother, desperate for her daughter to become a proper lady, enrolls the lively tomboy in Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality. But young ladies learn to finish…everything. Certainly, they learn the fine arts of dance, dress, and etiquette, but they also learn to deal out death, diversion, and espionage — in the politest possible ways, of course. Sophronia and her friends are in for a rousing first year’s education.

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I love books about schools. Even before Harry Potter, there was something about fictional characters going through the same ordeals I had to, only they get to do it in awesome fantasy worlds and learn magic – or in this case, the fine art of finishing. At Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing School, Sophronia not only learns how to curtsy properly or the language a fan can speak, she is also instructed in obtaining secret information, killing silently, and sneaking about. Personally, I wouldn’t have minded reading more about the actual lessons, but Sophronia manages to teach herself enough sneaking about and investigating to make up for an entire school year.

What I liked about this was that the writing is clearly recognizable as Gail Carriger, yet it has its own distinct voice. It is set in the same world as the Parasol Protectorate, some 20 years earlier, but because we get a new protagonist, an entirely new setting, and a few new steampunk inventions, Etiquette & Espionage has a freshness to it that I’ve been missing in Gail Carriger’s latest books. The only thing that classifies this as young adult fiction is the lack of sex and the protagonists’ age. Other than that, it pretty much feels like coming home into a hilarious universe of werewolves, vampires, high tea, and the art of eyelash fluttering.

etiquette and espionageMy misgivings are few and negligible. I felt a little cheated that the author borrows so heavily from already established ideas and that some others felt almost anachronicstic. In this alternate universe we’ve got to know in the Parasol Protectorate, we are travelling into the past. To find out there were robots everywhere? If people had invented mechanical household servants, then why does nobody in Alexia Tarabotti’s time seem to have them? A useful thing like that wouldn’t just go out of fashion, would it? Like I said, it took me a little out of the flow but it wasn’t a big deal, overall. The mechanicals are handled in such a fun way that I’ll suspend my disbelief a little more.

A wonderful bonus for old fans is that we get to meet two well-known character’s younger selves and that’s all I’m going to say about it. It was a pleasant surprise and said characters grew on me even more than in the Parasol Protectorate. As characters go, Sophronia was a likable, flawed heroine who is far too blunt for her own good, but all the more endearing for it. Her friends – excepting the two mentioned above – felt more like charicatures than real people. Dimity was clearly a rip-off of Carriger’s own Ivy Hisslepenny, with a tendency toward the ridiculous, but her constant fainting fits made for some truly funny scenes. I was also thrilled to find a dark-skinned character who, because Sophronia just isn’t a society lady, is treated just the same as everybody else – at least by her. The issues are not ignored, it’s just that the protagonist doesn’t see any issues with having a friend who’s skin is a different color than her own.

At the center of the plot are several mysteries that Sophronia and her friends are trying to solve. But there are also classes, supernaturals to be dealt with, the usual school girl enmities and rumors floating about the school. Being a lady and an intelligencer at the same time proves to be harder than expected. But for us, who get to read about the insanity that is the Finishing School, it is first and foremost great fun. And I do have to mention that Sophronia is by far the coolest name the author has come up with so far. Frowbritcher, Mrs. Barnaclegoose, and Lord Dingleproops were tough contenders, but Sophronia is still my favorite name.

This may not be a groundbreaking book for Gail Carriger, but it was insane fun to read. Her sense of humor, although we’ve all heard it before, doesn’t fail to amuse and I actually preferred some of the ridiculous lessons Sophronia has to take to Alexia’s investigations. I don’t expect to be blown away by any of Carriger’s books anymore but if I have a couple of spare hours, they are wonderfully silly fun and well worth the read.

THE GOOD: Gail Carriger’s hilarious voice is back. The Finishing School and its classes are wonderful, Sophronia a great protagonist and I loved the “reunion” with characters we’ve previously met as adults.
THE BAD: Some rehashing of old ideas and gimmicks.
BONUS: Bumbersnoot the mechanimal. Oh, and flywaymen.
THE VERDICT: A hilarious and charming story set in a very steampunk-y world. The endearing characters and the sense of humor make up for any problems with the plot I may have had. Rcommended for fans of Gail Carrigers or those completely new to her writing.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

dividerThe Finishing School Series:

  1. Etiquette & Espionagecourtsies and conspiracies
  2. Curtsies & Conspiracies
  3. ?

A word on the covers:
I hated the Parasol Protectorate covers. Not because I disliked the design. The black and white background with a lady in a colorful dress was actually a brilliant idea. It’s just that I personally found the cover model to look neither like Alexia nor in any way pretty.

This time, the designers flipped it around and we get a colorful background with a (very pretty) young lady in black and white. I love the design and the different patterns on the wallpaper. The dresses are wonderful and the scissors/knife are a nice touch that give you a feeling of what you may find inside these books. Well done, Little, Brown!

Review: Marie Brennan – A Natural History of Dragons

Will you look at that cover! 2013 is not yet here but I am fairly certain it will remain my favorite cover of the year. The artist, Todd Lockwood, is responsible for this gorgeous image as well as the beautiful illustrations inside the book. Thankfully, the beautiful cover/bad book curse did not follow me to the end of the year and the story inside lives up to what its wrapping promises.
NOTE: I had published this review at the beginning of December already but the publisher asked me to postpone publication until closer to the book’s publication date. It’s just a little over a month now until it comes out and we can all hold that gorgeous hardcover in our greedy little hands.

Marie Brennan - A natural history of dragons

A NATURAL HISTORY OF DRAGONS
A Memoir by Lady Trent
by Marie Brennan

Published by: Tor, 5 February 2013
Illustrated by: Todd Lockwood
ISBN: 978-0-7653-3196-0
ebook (DRM-free): 336 pages
How I got it:
review copy via NetGalley

My rating: 7/10

First sentence: Not a day goes by that the post does not bring me at least one letter from a young person (or sometimes one not so young) who wishes to follow in my footsteps and become a dragon naturalist.

THE BLURB: You, dear reader, continue at your own risk. It is not for the faint of heart—no more so than the study of dragons itself. But such study offers rewards beyond compare: to stand in a dragon’s presence, even for the briefest of moments—even at the risk of one’s life—is a delight that, once experienced, can never be forgotten. . . .
All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons defied the stifling conventions of her day.
Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever.

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Isabella, Lady Trent, is recording her memoirs in this and – if her promise holds true – suceeding volumes. We enter her life as seven-year-old Isabella wants to know why all birds have wishbones, and promptly chops up a dead pigeon to find out. This charming, if very improper, little girl is easy to sympathise with and her struggles to rise above what society has planned for her sex are all too understadable. Isabella’s childhood is defined by her passion for dragons and even though her family do their very best to raise her into a proper lady, she never loses her love for dragon studies. When her husband agrees to take her on an expedition to the Vystrani mountains, Isabella will uncover far more than dragon anatomy…

© Todd Lockwood

© Todd Lockwood

Marie Brennan captured my interest with her whimsical voice. Set in Scirland (which I read as an analogue to Victorian England) and Vystrana, society forces a set of rules upon our heroine that stand in the way of what she loves. I always enjoy reading about scolars and scientists, about how they experiment and research and try to prove or disprove their own theses. And there is a good amount of studying dragons in this book. But there is also a mystery at the heart of it, conspiracies to be unraveled, and a somewhat larger-than-regular life to be lead. Isabella’s tale may not have been as adventurous and exciting as she leads us to believe in the first chapter but it was a fun journey nonetheless.

If you wish, gentle reader, you may augment your mental tableau with dramatic orchestral accompaniment. I suggest something in a minor and ominous key, as that is what went through my own head as I realized just how thoroughly I had outed myself as ink-nosed.

I felt the beginning of this book was much stronger than the time spent in Vystrana. While quick-paced, the second half of the novel could have been tightened even more. Since we spend so much time getting to know the humans Isabella meets, and rather little time interacting with actual dragons, I would have welcomed a bit more world-building. All we really learn of Dustanev, that Vystrani city, is that it’s on a mountain, that it’s cold there, and that its inhabitants speak in a Slavic sounding tongue. It was enough to build atmosphere and served for the story told here, but in order for me to understand the complexity of its politics, a little more explanation would be in order.

© Todd Lockwood

© Todd Lockwood

I cannot write a review without mentioning the stunning cover art and illustrations throughout the book, by Todd Lockwood. It fits the tone and theme of the novel perfectly, showing not only dragons in cool poses, but using a pseudo-scientific approach. The cover is by far my favorite but the illustrations inside the novel are equally as beautiful – and the reason why I will buy a hardback paper copy of this book once it’s published. A book this beautiful will make you happy just sitting on your shelf, and if your taste is anything like mine, it will make you happy reading it as well.

THE GOOD: Whimsical language, funny remarks by the narrator, and a love for science and dragons that touches the reader as much as the heroine.
THE BAD: Some pacing problems in the middle part, could have used more thorough world-building.
BONUS: Stunning illustrations that make it worth buying (even if you don’t like the story)
THE VERDICT: Recommended to people who liked Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell or the Parasol Protectorate. And dragons, of course.

MY RATING: 7/10 Very good

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natural history of dragons wallpaper

A Natural History of Dragons – art © Todd Lockwood (click for different wallpaper formats)