King Arthur But Confusing: Catherynne M. Valente – Under in the Mere #WyrdAndWonder Review

The day has finally come when I pick up a Cat Valente book and end up… not really liking it. To be fair, I believe this book simply wasn’t meant to be just picked up and read. It’s meant for people who know a lot more about Arthurian legend than I do, and those who want to really dive into those knight’s inner turmoil. Alas, at this point in my life, that is not me, so the very short version of this review is: I didn’t really get it.

under in the mereUNDER IN THE MERE
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published: Rabit Transit Press, 2009
Paperback: 141 pages
Standalone
My rating: 5.5/10

Opening line: What damosel is this? What damosel is this?

Perhaps I am nothing but a white arm. Perhaps the body which is me diffuses at the water’s surface into nothing but light, light and wetness and blue. Maybe I am nothing but samite, pregnant with silver, and out of those sleeves come endless swords, dropping like lakelight from my hems. Will you come down to me and discover if my body continues below the rippling?

I thought not.
So begins the second release from the Electrum Novella Series, Under in the Mere, which takes Arthurian legend to the furthest limits of the imagination. Incantatory, labrynthine, and both playful and heartbreaking, Under in the Mere is a major new work from one of America’s premier writers of fantasy.

With full interior illustrations from renowned fantasy artist James Owen and Jeremy Owen.

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This little book was very, very hard to get! I have been on the lookout for copies for years and years before I finally found someone selling their used (but actually unread and super shiny) copy for more money than one should spend on a slim paperpack. But Valente is my favorite author and this was the last book of hers I didn’t have in my collection. Its subject matter – King Arthur’s knights – and the way it was made up – illustrated by James and Jeremy Owe also intrigued me. And did I mention it’s signed?
I knew that it was one of Valente’s older works and that those tend to be more labyrinthine, more word-focused, and oftentimes don’t have anything that qualifies as a plot. Well, that is pretty much exactly what this is. I do not recommend it for people who want to try out Valente’s writing to start here. Go with something more accessible like the Fairyland series, Deathless, The Orphan’s Tales, or the hilarious Space Opera.

So, what is this book about? I couldn’t tell you, but I’ll try. It is divided into chapters, each of which gets a beautiful Tarot card illustration and deals with one person from Arthurian legend. There are chapters for the more famous ones, like Lancelot or Mordred, but also Dagonet, Pellinore, and the Lady of the Lake get their say. While all of the chapters have in common the purplest of prose – seriously, they’re almost poetry – some are easier to read than others. I admit that in certain chapters I caught myself finishing entire paragraphs, not knowing what I had just read. There are plenty of descriptions, enumerations, similes and metaphors galore, and apparently all the knights are made up of nothing but angst on the inside. If I read it right, that is, and I cannot guarantee that.

A handful of chapters stuck postiviely in my mind, though. Unsurprisingly, they are the ones that I understood best, either because I felt more familiar with the particular character’s story or because they were written in a less flowery way. Sir Kay was the first to truly grip me and the reason I kept reading the book at all. Although his story, like most of the others, doesn’t follow any kind of plot, he muses about what it means to be him, to be brother to one so revered and so famous as King Arthur. Although I couldn’t tell you any details about his chapter, I remember that it made me feel for the character and that’s more than I can say for most of the others.

Balin and Balan’s chapter was also great because although I’m sure I missed lots of references and easter eggs, I got the gist of their story. There wasn’t much of a plot here, either, but instead, their chapter leads you thruogh an emotional plot, with a nice back and forth between the two. Sir Bedivere, teller of the book’s penultimate chapter, is the only one where I could detect something resembling a plot. There are things that happen in this chapter and these things have an impact on Bedivere’s feelings and actions. His and Morgana’s chapter finished up the novel and made me close the book on a satisfied note, at least.

I found it really weird, however, that the characters were talking like you’d expect from Arthur’s knights but then they’d mention California. As I found most of this book convoluted and hard to grasp, I can’t tell you if I just missed some crucial piece of information or if this was just an artistic choice. Valente “set” this book in California, mentions parts of the landscape and the Pacific ocean, but I didn’t really understand why. Maybe this is a super cool idea that perfectly fits with the King Arthur legends but I was definitely not smart or learned enough to get it.

So here’s the thing. I am certain that if I knew more about Arthuriana, if I had more than The MIits of Avalon and Disney’s The Sword in the Stone to guide me, I might have enjoyed this book a lot more. Because I did catch little references here or there, either to classic works, mythology, or literature. I just don’t have enough background information about most of these characters for the references to mean anything to me. This just isn’t a book that you randomly pick up and enjoy. It requires study and knowlege and then I’m sure it has a lot to offer.

As much as it pains me to give a Valente book anything but a glowing rating, I rate books by my own enjoyment and I can’t say I had much fun reading this. Her language is gorgeous and she paints pictures with every sentence but all those pictures fell flat for me because I’m not (at this point in time, at least) the right reader for this book. Maybe in a few years I’ll have turned into a King Arthur scholar and I’ll give this a re-read. I doubt it, though.

MY RATING: 5.5/10 – Meh

#Wyrd and Wonder Day 12: Desert Island Reads

I’ve always hated when people ask me about my one favorite book or which 10 reads I’d bring to a desert island. Why are you putting me thorugh the stress of even thinking about this?! I’m not making you choose your favorite child, am I?
Well, for Wyrd and Wonder, I’m embracing the anxiety and I know that, whatever I post here, I will immediately regret at least half of my choices and think of different, better ones. Let’s do it anyway. Because this is fun. Right?

You can find the rules here. The very basic summary is: Choose 8 books, 1 movie/TV show and 1 luxury item/whatever you want to bring to bring on a desert island with you. TV shows include all episodes, movies include all volumes if part of a fanchise. Book series count as individual books unless there’s a bindup version (Lord of the Rings would count as one book, for example).

IMAGE CREDIT: pegasus image by Svetlana Alyuk on 123RF.com

MY DESERT ISLAND READS… I’m not taking any chances here. Nothing that I haven’t read, unless it’s by one of my favorite authors.

  • The Tiffany Aching Series by Terry Pratchett
    Yes, there actually is an omnibus edition of these five books and you can imagine how happy I was that I didn’t have to choose just one Discworld book for my desert island. Although I would have loved to take all the Witch books.
  • Mechanique by Genevieve Valentine
    I’ve been meaning to re-read this book forever. It’s rather short but Valentine creates a whole world within its pages. It’s got steampunk elements, complex character dynamics, secrets and mysteries, and it’s about a wandering circus in a strangely broken world.
  • Flora’s Dare by Ysabeau S. Wilce
    Choosing the middle book of a trilogy may seem weird but it’s my favorite. It has some really great twists, the characters have grown up a bit from the first book and I just adore Wilce’s world building and writing style. Her alternate California and clever protagonist Flora are just amazing.
  • The Tallow-Wife and Other Tales Angela Slatter
    I have read the first two story collections in this loosely connected series and they are both favorites of mine. This new one is probably just as amazing so I’m bringing it even though I haven’t read it yet.
  • Nation by Terry Pratchett
    Well, you can’t have too many Pratchett books and this one especially fits the island setting. It’s a non-Discworld book but it has made me laugh and cry and fall in love with its characters. Pratchett’s deep understanding of and compassion for humanity gets to truly shine here.
  • Bone Swans by C. S. E. Cooney
    For someone who doesn’t read many collections, I sure do love a lot of them. Cooney is a poet and it shows in her prose writing as well. Her tales are fantastical, bizarre, creepy, atmospheric, inspired by fairy tales but utterly original. I adore her!
  • The Fairyland Series 1-3 by Catherynne M. Valente
    Unfortunately, only the first three books exist in a collected format but I’ll take what I can get. I don’t think I’ll ever grow tired of Cat Valente, her writing, her ideas, and especially what she did in this series. Infinitely re-readable.
  • In the Night Garden by Catherynne M. Valente
    Yeah, it kills me that there’s no edition with both volumes of The Orphan’s Tales but, fine, I’ll take the first and that’s that. Unless I should take Deathless instead?! Have I mentioned that I hate this game?

TV, MOVIE OR PODCAST… This is just mean. I want to go with a TV show, simply because more episodes means more hours of entertainment. But leaving Willow off the island? Or The Neverending Story? I guess the smart choice would be Friends but that’s not fantasy and I’m not that smart anyway. Battlestar Galactica (2003) and Deep Space Nine also aren’t fantasy so I guess I’ll just have to choose my perennial favorite Labyrinth. I’ve loved this movie since I was a child and I’m still not tired of it.

I CAN’T DO WITHOUT… I wanted to bring my boyfriend but he is far from inanimate and the rules say to bring only things. Favorite foods will only last until they’re eaten, so I think I’ll pick something more useful. How about one of those Swiss Army knives that can do practically anything? I can open coconuts, cut some wood, gut all the fish I’m catching… Yeah, I’ll go with that. 🙂

Star Wars Anthology – From A Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back

This Star Wars anthology retells the events of The Empire Strikes Back from different points of view. That much is clear from the title and – if you’ve read it – its predecessor, but for me this was a first foray into the world of Star Wars anthologies. I had read a few novelizations many, many years ago but other than that, I just re-watched the original trilogy a lot. To get stories from minor, sometimes VERY minor side-characters is such a cool idea that I couldn’t resist. The result was mixed but the positives outweigh the negatives.

FROM A CERTAIN POINT OF VIEW: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
by various authors

Published: Del Rey, 2020
eBook: 561 pages
Series: Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View #2
My rating: 6/10

Opening line: A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….

From a Certain Point of View strikes back! Celebrate the legacy of the groundbreaking Star Wars sequel with this exciting reimagining of the timeless film.

On May 21, 1980, Star Wars became a true saga with the release of The Empire Strikes Back. In honor of the fortieth anniversary, forty storytellers recreate an iconic scene from The Empire Strikes Back, through the eyes of a supporting character, from heroes and villains to droids and creatures. From a Certain Point of View features contributions by bestselling authors and trendsetting artists.

This is quite a big book and no way am I going to tell you about each single story and how I liked it. As with any collection of short stories, especially ones by different authors, I liked some, loved others, disliked a few and felt meh about a handful. I’d say that’s a pretty normal reaction to a piece of writing that is made up of 40 different people’s ideas and styles. Nobody is going to like everything, but then again, there will be something for everybody.

I admit I picked this up primarily because I wanted to read Cat Valente‘s story about the exogorth (that worm thingy in the asteroid field) called “This Is No Cave”. I had heard wonderful things about it and those early reviews weren’t wrong. It is astonishing that Valente manged to make me feel for this creature that gets a full 5 seconds of screentime and whose backstory never really crossed my mind. But she gives Sy-O a backstory and it totally worked. I watched Empire again just yesterday – I knew so many side stories now, after all, and wanted to see if I recognized all the characters from this book (I didn’t) – and I felt a bit of a twinge when Sy-O appeared because now I had seen that part of the story from their perspective. And things aren’t as simple as they may seem.

But, and this is as surprising to me as it is to you, the Valente story was not my favorite in this anthology. In fact, three stories tied for my first place and they are all pretty different.
Django Wexler wrote “Amara Kel’s Rules for TIE Pilot Survival (Probably)” which delivers exactly what the title promises but with layers! Amara Kel is an Imperial pilot who knows how to stay alive. So far, at least. She lets us know her rules for survival not just by making a list but by telling us stories for each bullet point, stories that paint a picture of her life, her hopes and dreams, the woman she loves, and, almost as a side note, the events of Empire that happen to be going on at the same time. I loved everything about this story. The voice is lighthearted and funny, the protagonist is super easy to like, despite working for the Empire, and the story has a well-rounded ending. It got 4.75/5 stars from me.

Bildergebnis für faith in an old friend star warsJust like this next story, although for different reasons. “Faith In An Old Friend” by Brittany N. Williams is told from L3-37’s perspective, a droid-turned-part-of-the-Millennium-Falcon and for that alone, it feels more like a real part of Star Wars history, rather than just an aside to Empire. I had to look L3 up to remember exactly who she was but it honestly doesn’t make much difference whether you remember her or not. This story witnesses a few key events from Empire and while it was fun to watch Leia’s heartrate increase when Han is around, all while she pretends to dislike him, the heart of this tale was all about L3. Her history, especially with Lando, her consciousness, and her alliance with the rest of the Falcon’s droid brains. This story really touched me and it did a fantastic job of tying in movie scenes and quotes. Another 4.75/5 stars.

Lastly, “The Whills Strike Back”, the very last story in this anthology, ended up as my third favorite. It’s about the opening scrawl and that’s really all I want to say. It was hilarious and self-aware and made watching the movie again all the more fun.

So these three were my absolute favorites, but there were many more stories that I liked a lot. My overall problem with many stories in this anthology was that they were rather unimaginative. However, in the hands of a great writer, even a not-very-original story can be impressive. I’m thinking of Seth Dickinson’s “The Final Order”, a story which doesn’t exactly hold any surprises in store but which completely blew me away with its writing. I seriously have to read The Traitor Baru Cormorant soon if this is what Dickinson always writes like.
Charles Yu’s “Kendal” similarly impressed me, as did “Against All Odds” by R. F. Kuang. That wasn’t a surprise because Kuang is amazing but it’s still worth mentioning.
“A Good Kiss” by C. B. Lee was one of the few stories that stood well on its own. It’s about Chase Wilsorr, a human on Hoth who runs errands and feels like a loser because he’s not as heroic as, say, Luke Skywalker. He also has a crush on another man. Lee tells a full story here that happens during the evacuation of the Rebel Base at Hoth and while I didn’t think the writing was overwhelming, I loved how fun and altogether nice this story was.

I don’t want to focus very much on the stories that didn’t work for me. But I was a bit surprised to find some authors I knew among my least favorites as well as others that I hadn’t read yet but had been looking forward to. Mark Oshiro’s story wasn’t for me but I’ll probably still try one of their novels. Mackenzi Lee has written The Gentlemen’s Guide to Vice and Virtue which I found entertaining enough. Her short story for Star Wars left me cold and unimpressed.

Generally speaking, I enjoyed this anthology. Reading a story or two before bed was quite nice, even though some stories were better than others and even though at one point, I felt like we’d never get off Hoth. The stories are arranged in chronological order to fit the events of the movie. But given the amount (or lack) of side characters in any given scene, there are about a billion stories set on Hoth, hundreds on Imperial ships and in Cloud City, and a mere few set in different places. I understand why that is but I think that with a little creativity, more could have been done. I mean, there is a story here from the point of view of the cave on Dagobah! And remember Sy-O, the exogorth? Or the Millennium Falcon’s droid brains? Oh well, you can’t have everything I guess.

So would I recommend this book? Sure, if you like Star Wars. With most of the stories, I had no idea who exactly I was reading about but whether I ended up liking a story or not, it put me in a mood to watch the old movies again. I discovered some new authors that I’d like to read more of, and I enjoyed having a book to read in small increments. So unless you hate Star Wars, you can’t go wrong picking this up.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

 

Top Ten Tuesday – Favorite Bookish Quotes

Life has been a bit stressful lately, so I haven’t posted as much as I would have liked. But I’m still reading and catching up on 2020 releases, so you can expect new reviews soon. Pinkie promise!

Until then, I thought I’d participate in this week’s Top Ten Tuesday, which is all about bookish quotes. I dove deep into my reading history and, unsurprisingly, ended up with quotes from my favorite books and authors.

My favorite bookish quotes

LAINI TAYLOR – STRANGE THE DREAMER

Because Laini Taylor is a genius and Strange the Dreamer is full of beautiful quotes, I cheated and chose two:

“You’re a storyteller. Dream up something wild and improbable,” she pleaded. “Something beautiful and full of monsters.”

– Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor


CATHERYNNE M. VALENTE – DEATHLESS

It comes as no surprise that my very favorite author is featured on this list. She may make more than one appearance… Catherynne M. Valente’s Deathless broke my heart in so many ways, it’s ridiculous. And while there are many lines in that book that I can re-read over and over again without them losing their power, here’s my favorites:

“You will always fall in love, and it will always be like having your throat cut, just that fast.”

– Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente


LAINI TAYLOR – LIPS TOUCH: THREE TIMES

And I have to add another Laini Taylor book. Her collection of shorter works Lips Touch: Three Times is the reason I gave this author another chance when I bounced off another of her books hard. I’m so glad I tried again because now she’s one of my favorites.

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“There is a certain kind of girl the goblins crave. You could walk across a high school campus and point them out: not her, not her, her. The pert, lovely ones with butterfly tattoos in secret places, sitting on their boyfriends’ laps? No, not them. The girls watching the lovely ones sitting on their boyfriends’ laps? Yes.
Them.
The goblins want girls who dream so hard about being pretty their yearning leaves a palpable trail, a scent goblins can follow like sharks on a soft bloom of blood. The girls with hungry eyes who pray each night to wake up as someone else. Urgent, unkissed, wishful girls.”

– Goblin Fruit by Laini Taylor


CATHERYNNE M. VALENTE – THE FAIRYLAND SERIES

So, every single one of the five volumes in the Fairyland Series is filled to the brim with quotable lines. I have chosen only a few to give you a taste. If you haven’t yet, go try and read The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making and then devour the rest of the series because it is filled with the kind of wonder you last felt as a kid, plus Cat Valente’s trademark lyrical prose.

Summer Reading: Catherynne M. Valente's Fairyland Series — home | school | life

“A silent Library is a sad Library. A Library without patrons on whom to pile books and tales and knowing and magazines full of up-to-the-minute politickal fashions and atlases and plays in pentameter! A Library should be full of exclamations! Shouts of delight and horror as the wonders of the world are discovered or the lies of the heavens uncovered or the wild adventures of devil-knows-who sent romping out of the pages. A Library should be full of now-just-a-minutes and that-can’t-be-rights and scientifick folk running skelter to prove somebody wrong. It should positively vibrate with laughing at comedies and sobbing at tragedies, it should echo with gasps as decent ladies glimpse indecent things and indecent ladies stumble upon secret and scandalous decencies! A Library should not shush; it should roar!”

– The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two by Catherynne M. Valente

 

“A book is a door, you know. Always and forever. A book is a door into another place and another heart and another world.”

– The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There by Catherynne M. Valente


TERRY PRATCHETT – REAPER MAN

And another infinitely quotable writer appears on this list. Terry Pratchett was a treasure and a fountain of insight into human nature. The fact that he holds up a mirror to our society with humor only makes his books better! Reaper Man is one of his books that touched me particularly because even though Death takes a vacation in this story, his job is never really done, is it?

“No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away…”

– Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett


THEODORA GOSS – IN THE FOREST OF FORGETTING

I discovered Theodora Goss via Cat Valente because they both write mythpunk. The short story collection In the Forest of Forgetting blew me away with its imaginative stories, deep themes, and of course, beautiful quotes.

“This is the sort of thing people like: the implication that, despite their minivans and microwaves, if they found the door in the wall, they too could enter fairyland.”

Pip and the Fairies by Theodora Goss


MAGGIE STIEFVATER – THE RAVEN BOYS

Maggie Stiefvater is one of those author who can pull you into a story that you follow along nicely, and then she hits you with a line so perfect it’s like a punch in the guts. But, you know, in a good way. I urge you to read her entire Raven Cycle, and then throw in the Scorpio Races and have your heart torn out. Because why should it just be me. I would have added my favorite quote from that book as well but it’s the very last line and I don’t want to spoil it for you.

“Gansey had once told Adam that he was afraid most people didn’t know how to handle Ronan. What he meant by this was that he was worried that one day someone would fall on Ronan and cut themselves.”

– The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater


TERRY PRATCHETT – NATION

Come on, let me have another Pratchett quote! This is a non-Discworld novel so if academic wizards, headology-using witches, or cynical city guards aren’t for you, pick this one up. Nation has so many layers and all of them are beautiful. Ever since I read it, I’ve been giving this book as a gift to everyone I could think of.

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

 

“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.”

– Nation by Terry Pratchett


YSABEAU S. WILCE – THE FLORA SEGUNDA TRILOGY

This criminally underread trilogy is such a gem! Flora Segunda, Flora’s Dare, and Flora’s Fury are the kind of books that make you feel like coming home after a long trip. You fall into this world’s alternate Calfornia and follow young Flora and her best friend Udo on crazy adventures. There’s twists and turns and quite a few emotional moments. Wilce’s use of language is quite brilliant and sets this series apart from other Middle Grade/YA tales.

Paperback Wonderland: August 2013

“I lit the lantern, ate a bar of chocolate, put on dry socks, and felt much better. You’d be amazed, said Nini Mo, how much dry socks matter.”

– Flora’s Dare by Ysabeau S. Wilce

 

“It’s like Nini Mo said, They may be snapperheads, but they are my snapperheads.”

– Flora’s Fury by Ysabeau S. Wilce


GENEVIEVE VALENTINE – MECHANIQUE

This was one of those surprise books that I didn’t expect too much of and then it swept me away with its prose, its intricate characters, and the story it tells. Putting it on this list makes me want to re-read it immediately. Mechanique was so good, you guys! And it didn’t get nearly the attention it should have.

One day the wolf was wild enough to run into the forest near their camp, hunting something only it could sense. A week later when they pulled down the tent, the wolf had not come back. “Call it, if you want,” Boss told Jonah. “We’ll wait.”
That night Jonah stood for an hour at the edge of the camp, looking into the darkness of the woods. He came back empty-handed.
Ayar frowned. “It didn’t come?”
Jonah said, “I didn’t call.”

– Mechanique by Genevieve Valentine


 

Who Knew This Would Be So Much Fun: Catherynne M. Valente – Minecraft: The End

I have never played Minecraft. I know of the game’s existence and I’ve seen some of the very impressive buildings people have created in it, but I still have no idea what the point of the game is. It just never appealed to me. But when my favorite author writes a Minecraft novel, there is simply no way around trying it. And holy smokes, it turned out to be excellent fun!

MINECRAFT: THE END
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by: Del Rey, 2019
Hardcover: 256 pages
Series: Official Minecraft Novels #4
(but can totally be read as a standalone)
My rating: 9/10

First line: It is always night in the End.

For as long as they can remember, the twin endermen Fin and Mo have lived in the mysterious land of The End. On the outskirts of the great enderman city of Talos, they explore ancient ruins under the watchful gaze of the mighty ender dragon. They have everything they need in the end ship they call home, and know everything there is to know about their world—or so they think until the strangers from another dimension arrive.
The invaders are called humans, and they’ve come to steal artifacts and slay the ender dragon. Fin and Mo are ready to protect their home from the trespassers, but when they come face-to-face with the humans, they discover that they aren’t as prepared for battle as they’d thought. Caught off guard, the twins are trapped in the middle of a war between the endermen and the humans, with the future of their home at stake.

For someone like me, with no familiarity with the game whatsoever, the entrance into this world may have been a tad harder than for those of you who’ve played Minecraft. But Cat Valente does an excellent job in setting up the world, describing the countryside, the endermen, and of course ED – the Ender Dragon. I did look up shulkers on the internet, but even that wouldn’t have been necessary.

Fin and Mo are two outcast enderfrag twins who live on a ship with their shulker Grumpo (who is indeed very grumpy) and a lot of loot. Their only true friend is Kan, another enderman who isn’t fully trusted by others because unlike all other enderman, his eyes aren’t magenta, they are green. You can see why it’s easy to love those three. Everybody loves an underdog, and Fin and Mo are even more likable because their biggest desire is to just fit in, to belong somewhere, to have an End of their own. With their parents gone – presumed dead by rain or human in the Overworld – they are by themselves, however, and forbidden to train with the other ender children.

When a portal to the End is opened, many endermen come together and decide how to deal with the coming threat of a human army, bound to destroy them and their beautiful chaotic way of life. When some humans do show up, however, things turn out quite different than expected, and Mo and Fin find themselves not just between the fronts of two warring sides, but also questioning everything they know about themselves and the world. And there’s a zombie horse. That I completely and utterly fell in love with. If that isn’t a sign of great writing, I don’t know what is. But Loathsome the zombie horse will always have a place in my heart.

The beginning of this novel is mostly spent setting up the world and characters, and for that I was immensely grateful! With no knowledge of the Minecraft world or any of its lore, I could still just dive in and slowly learn what there is to know. I quite loved that endermen serve the Great Chaos while humans are said to be creatures of Order (what with putting blocks on top of each other quite neatly to make buildings and beds and other such nonsense). We get to meet the dragon ED, who is a whole mystery unto himself and seems to know a lot more than he lets on, we see the adorably hateful Grumpo whom I also loved despite his constant comments about hating everything and everyone, and the music-loving Kan, who desperately wants to learn what’s wrong with him and his eyes. And then the story truly kicks off.

One of the elder endermen – a cruxunit named Kraj who is known for telling long, sprawling tales that nobody wants to hear – mentions that the human army might already be assembled in the End, hiding as spies among all the real endermen. Because when humans put a pumpkin on their head, endermen cannot distinguish them from their own people. And then the twists start coming! I won’t give any of them away, but assuming you have spies among your own trusted people is such a great trope that Valente uses and turns on its head several times here. But trust me, things are never what you expect. All my suspicions were wrong and I am so happy when a book offers plot twists that seriously surprise me.

I can’t even express how much I loved this story. The characters grew on me, the mysteries became more and more intriguing and every time we learned something new, more questions popped up that kept me turning the pages. Valente paints a surprisingly vivid landscape considering there isn’t all that much to describe in the End, but I felt like I was there and I felt just as torn as Fin and Mo, trying to decided who were the monsters and who were the good guys. Or if it’s even as simple as all that.
There is action and adventure, there are trips to different places, secrets to uncover, there is magic and potions and clues all along the way. And there are two young endermen still just looking for their place in the world.

The ending is a thing of pure beauty. Don’t let anyone spoil this for you, because the surprises just keep on coming. I sat there with my mouth literally agape, surprised and thrilled that the story had gone the way it had. You can tell Valente trusts her readers – be they middle-grade kids, young adults, or adults like me – to follow along and wrap their heads around what’s happening. But she definitely doesn’t dumb her plot down because this is supposed to be for children and I love that so much!
If you’d told me that someday I’d read a Minecraft novel, let alone end up loving a Minecraft novel, I would have laughed at you. Not because I look down on the franchise but simply because Minecraft has never really caught my interest. But this story is such a perfect adventure with great characters and fantastic worldbuilding that I can’t help but give it a high rating. I loved every page and I can only imagine people familiar with Minecraft will love it even more.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Damn near perfection!

Eurovision in Space: Catherynne M. Valente – Space Opera

I read this book in July 2018 and I adored every page. But – as with many of Cat Valente’s books – I find it very difficult to write a coherent review. Some of my Valente reviews are gushing, fangirly, quote-filled posts that I hope will convince some people to pick up her books. But I would understand if you guys just think: “That girl is crazy, but good for her for liking this book, I guess.” and moving on with your lives. With Space Opera, Valente garnered a much-deserved Hugo Award nomination (although I’ll repeat what I’ve said many times before: She should have been nominated and won for her novel Radiance!), so I’m giving this reviewing thing another try.

SPACE OPERA
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by: Saga Press, 2018
Hardcover: 294 pages
Standalone
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: Once upon a time on a small, watery, excitable planet called Earth, in a small, watery, excitable country called Italy, a soft-spoken, rather nice-looking gentleman by the name of Enrico Fermi was born into a family so overprotective that he felt compelled to invent the atomic bomb.

A century ago, the Sentience Wars tore the galaxy apart and nearly ended the entire concept of intelligent space-faring life. In the aftermath, a curious tradition was invented—something to cheer up everyone who was left and bring the shattered worlds together in the spirit of peace, unity, and understanding.
Once every cycle, the civilizations gather for the Metagalactic Grand Prix—part gladiatorial contest, part beauty pageant, part concert extravaganza, and part continuation of the wars of the past. Instead of competing in orbital combat, the powerful species that survived face off in a competition of song, dance, or whatever can be physically performed in an intergalactic talent show. The stakes are high for this new game, and everyone is forced to compete.
This year, though, humankind has discovered the enormous universe. And while they expected to discover a grand drama of diplomacy, gunships, wormholes, and stoic councils of aliens, they have instead found glitter, lipstick, and electric guitars. Mankind will not get to fight for its destiny—they must sing.
A band of human musicians, dancers, and roadies have been chosen to represent Earth on the greatest stage in the galaxy. And the fate of their species lies in their ability to rock.

Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes are a has-been glam rock band, currently in sort-of-retirement. But when alien life pops up on Earth – all over the place, all at once, I might add – and informs us that we have to compete in an intergalactic music competition to prove our sentience and, therefore, our right to continue living on as a species, Decibel is ripped right out of his stupor and has to make music again.

There is a reason why this book has been compared to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and that reason is very simple (and if you read the first sentence above, you’ll know it). The style is similar, it has a silliness to it that will remind anyone of Douglas Adams’ hilarious trilogy of five, and it is filled to the brim with ideas, with original alien species, with deep thoughts about life and what makes humanity worthy of living. But like any comparison, it’s not exactly the same. Any book by Cat Valente will feature her signature style, although I admit she departed quite far from it for this novel. But you’ll still get flowery descriptions, long sentences,  clever inside jokes, and references to real-world things. Except, you know, with a wink and a smile.

Do not expect a very plot-heavy book. Stuff happens at the beginning and at the end. In the middle, the time where Decibel and the Absolute Zeroes prepare their intergalactic musical number, is spent mostly with character development, world-building, and ruminations about what makes life worthwhile. That could go either way for you, but I personally loved it. I don’t need big epic things to happen on every page, or at least not in every book I read. Discovering all the crazy aliens Valente came up with felt pretty epic to me. While some of them are just weird creatures – like giant, talking flamingoes – others are not corporeal at all. I don’t want to spoil the fun for you, but rest assured that there are a lot of aliens to be discovered  and that some of them are absolutely hilarious, especially if you remember Microsoft Word from The Olden Days. 😉

But despite the humor, this book also has depth. Decibel Jones is a Bowie-esque has-been rock star and that alone would make him an interesting enough character study. But the band is missing a member and figuring out what exactly happened and why is a nice sub-plot to the main story that may help readers who want more plot get over that rather quiet middle part. I  loved getting to know Decibel and slowly finding out why there is so much tension between the band members and what went wrong in their past.

As this is marketed as “Eurovision in Space”, you can be sure that there will be an epic competition of music (in its broadest definition) at the end. If you go in knowing that the song contest only happens at the very end of the book, maybe I can keep you from being disappointed. The way I read this book, I loved the journey to the ultimate plot climax as much as the ending itself. Even if I hadn’t, the ending would make it all worthwhile.

Because it is nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Novel, let me say that it’s at the top of my ballot (I know, shocking, right?). I don’t think it will win because as with any humorous book (especially humorous science fiction or fantasy), it’s polarising. People either love it or bounce off it hard. And I get it. I came to this book totally biased because Cat Valente is my favorite author of all time. All I can do is recommend it to you and give you a heads-up of what to expect. If you’re in the mood for something funny but with depth, a wild ride through space (with red pandas!) or if you liked the “SHOW ME WHAT YOU GOOOOOT” episode of Rick and Morty, then you should give Space Opera  a shot. And then, of course, go on to read everything else by Cat Valente.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Nearly perfect!

Reading the Hugos: Best Novel

What a ballot! When the nominees were announced, I had already read four of the six nominated novels and I thought I was doomed. How was I supposed to choose my favorites among these excellent books? Couldn’t there at least be two or three that weren’t as good? Well, I’m all caught up and while the ballot is still filled with fantastic books, at least I know somewhat how to arrange my list now.

The nominees for Best Novel

  1. Catherynne M. Valente – Space Opera
  2. Naomi Novik – Spinning Silver
  3. Yoon Ha Lee – Revenant Gun
  4. Mary Robinette Kowal – The Calculating Stars
  5. Rebecca Roanhorse – Trail of Lightning
  6. Becky Chambers – Record of a Spaceborn Few

At this moment, I’m certain about my number one spot and the bottom two spots. But the three books in between could switch places a hundred times before the voting period ends. Because I just don’t know! They are incredibly difficult  to compare, they did such different things, they were all brilliant, and I really don’t know at this point what my final ballot will look like.

Cat Valente’s Space Opera is my number one for several reasons. First, I have adored Valente’s writing for years, she has never let me down, and while I think she should have won a Hugo already for Radiance, I believe this book is just as deserving. Humorous science fiction is rarely taken into consideration for awards so I don’t believe it will win. But when you pick up a book that everybody has compared to Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and it doesn’t let you down? That’s already a winner for me. I mean, who could stand up to that comparison and come out not just with “yeah it was okay” but with a nominateion for a Hugo Award?  Valente not only made me laugh out loud with the premise – Eurovision In Space – and the hilarious invasion scene as well as many silly moments, she also showed her originality with the alien species she invented. And, most of all, the story is full of heart and a deep love of humanity, warts and all. I can’t remember the last time a book made me laugh and feel all warm and fuzzy inside like this. If Redshirts can win, than Space Opera should have a chance as well! I sincerely hope it does.

Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver was a beautiful book. It suffered from too many unorganized POV characters and it wasn’t quite as good as Uprooted but that’s about all the negative things I can say about it now. I adore fairy tale retellings (as you may have guessed if you stop by here occasionally), so I’m putting it in second place for now. Novik turned a Rumpelstiltskin retelling into an epic fantasy, which is already a feat, but she also created memorable characters and great romances – I know many people didn’t like them, but I stand by my minority opinion.

Yoon Ha Lee’s Revenant Gun concludes the Machineries of War series. In order to read this, I had to first catch up on the second volume, which suffered from middle-book-syndrome a lot. This, however, was a worthy and exciting finale to an epic series. It started with a bang, made me think I knew where it was going, turned the other way, then swerved around yet again. It was clever, had great characters (Jedao must be one of my top ten characters ever!) and a satisfying ending. Seriously well done. I can’t wait for whatever Yoon Ha Lee publishes next.

Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars is easily the best novel of hers I’ve read. It was thrilling, despite being so character-focused and lacking in space battles. It made me uncomfortable and excitied and angry all at the same time. I loved that the protagonist lived in a stable, happy marriage, I loved how the book dealt with mental health issues. There were so many things I loved about it. And seeing how it won a Nebula Award, I wasn’t the only one. As I’m having such a hard time ranking these books, I’m going to use that win as an excuse to rank it a bit lower. It’s already won an award, after all, and while there have been several books that won both Hugo and Nebal awards in the same year, I didn’t think this book was quite amazing enough for that.

Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning was on the bottom spot of my ballot for a long time. Not because it’s bad but because it was too ordinary for an award. A fun Urban Fantasy story in an original setting may be entertaining to read, and I did enjoy how Native American mythology gets woven into the plot, but I still don’t think this book deserves an award. Many, many other books are published every year that do the same thing: sassy, kick-ass heroine solves mystery while working through her dark past, meeting potential love interest, betrayal, battles, magic, etc. etc. Neither the writing nor the characters were good enough for me to want to give this an award.

However, Becky Chambers’ Record of a Spaceborn Few, which I expected to love, goes even below that (for now). In reality, this book was better written than Trail of Lightning, but it had absolutely no plot for such a long time that I kept asking myself why I was even reading it. It’s the equivalent of a married couple discussing who’s going to do the dishes tonight… except in space. For a few hundred pages! Although once the plot does start (very late in the novel), the book becomes really, really good, by then I was too fed up already with the hours I’ve spent reading about nothing (in space).

So this is it, my Best Novel ballot. I may yet switch the bottom two novels around, depending on how my feelings change in the next month or so. I may also change my mind about my slots 2 through 4, but for now, I’m okay with the way I ranked these books.

I’m sure everyone has their own way of deciding how to rank a certain book. As I’m not a professional critic, all I have to go on is my own enjoyment of any given book. And – as was the case here – if I enjoyed many of the books, I try and find other criteria such as originality, writing style, potential for rereading, etc. For example, I’ll probably never reread The Calculating Stars because although it was a very good book, it was not exactly a fun book, but I may give Spinning Silver another go and I will most definitely reread Space Opera someday. It’s a total comfort read.

How about you guys? Are you voting for the Hugos this year? Do you agree/disagree with my list? Let me hear your thoughts in the comments! 🙂

Catherynne M. Valente – The Refrigerator Monologues

It is a good year when a new Valente book comes out. This year, we are extra lucky because in September, we’ll get another new Valente novel which is about the Bronte children and the fantasy world they made up together – so exactly the kind of book you’d want from Cat. In The Refrigerator Monologues, Valente leaves her usual turf of fantasy, myth, and fairy tale and delivers something new, fresh, angry, and beautiful. Although it may lack the emotional punch of her fantasy tales, it will leave you uncomfortable and thoughtful in the best of ways.

THE REFRIGERATOR MONOLOGUES
by Catherynne M. Valente
illustrated by Annie Wu

Published by: Saga Press, 2017
Hardcover: 160 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: I’m dead. The deadest girl in Deadtown.

The lives of six female superheroes and the girlfriends of superheroes. A ferocious riff on women in superhero comics

From the New York Times bestselling author Catherynne Valente comes a series of linked stories from the points of view of the wives and girlfriends of superheroes, female heroes, and anyone who’s ever been “refrigerated”: comic book women who are killed, raped, brainwashed, driven mad, disabled, or had their powers taken so that a male superhero’s storyline will progress.

In an entirely new and original superhero universe, Valente subversively explores these ideas and themes in the superhero genre, treating them with the same love, gravity, and humor as her fairy tales. After all, superheroes are our new fairy tales and these six women have their own stories to share.

In Deadtown, the underworld, whatever comes after death, six women meet to talk about their lives, their involvement with famous superheroes, and what led them to Deadtown (read: killed them horribly) anyway. With superhero movies still going strong, the trope of the refrigerated woman has become quite well known – it’s when a superhero’s girlfriend, wife, or even a villainess is brutally murdered for the simple reason that our hero needs a kick in the ass to make his own story move forward. Whether it’s to avenge a beloved (and now very dead) girlfriend or whether the girl is just a pawn in the boys’ superpower games, it’s never about her and she doesn’t get a voice. Cat Valente gives these women that voice.

Framed by the women meeting in Deadtown – which, although the book doesn’t spend much time on world building, a really cool place to read about – each gets to tell her own story. And – surprise! – it turns out they all had a story before whichever superhero entered their world. While all heroes and heroines, villains and the six women themselves have new and original names, anyone who has read a comic book or seen a few Marvel or DC movies will recognise most of them immediately. There’s your Gwen Stacy and your Harley Quinn, Mera (whose name I had to look up because all I knew about her was that she was Aquaman’s wife, which goes to show just how important this book is.) and Phoenix, as well as the original refrigerated woman from Green Lantern.

Each gets to tell her story in turn and here’s where my love for this book begins. Because it may be fun figuring out which superhero you’re reading about, but it is even more fun how every woman tells her story in her own voice. Pretty Polly (the Harley Quinn of this universe) talks just like you’d imagine she would. Kind of sweet-ish and girly, with a fair bit of madness added to the mix. Blue Bayou sounds angry, Paige Embry is just totally endearing, and Julia Ash (whose villain’s is aptly named Retcon) felt kind of resigned. The voices always fit and the stories these women have to tell are engaging and intriguing for more than one reason. First of all, they’re just interesting stories. Secondly, they would have fit so beautifully into their respective universes – why isn’t there space in a Spider Man movie to show Gwen Stacy as more than just the hero’s girlfriend. She had a life before him and she had a life with him, just like all the others. Their demise was incredibly heartbreaking, although obviously we know from the start that they die and if you remember the original comic books how they die. To me, that’s just another sign of how amazing a writer Valente is. If you know what happens and how it happens, and all she does is give you a little background info, give the character who is about to die a little agency and personality, and it hits you deep in the guts anyway, then yeah… that’s a great writer!

Other than the stories themselves, I loved what little we get to see of Deadtown. Like everything that is there has to be completely dead in the world of the living. So Deadtown citizens eat extinct animals and only get to read books that are gone from our world. And I loved the little aside how Deadtown is never gonna get Harry Potter. Because despite the dark subject matter and the inevitable horrible deaths of the protagonists, there is also a lot of humor in this book. At 160 pages, it runs very short and I would have loved to get more of the same (then again, when I talk about a Valente book, when do I ever not say that?), but I urge you to buy yourself a hardback copy anyway because the stories are accompanied by beautiful illustrations by Annie Wu. Each character gets an illustration of her own and the style is just perfect. Like an old comic book but with amazing character design. The book itself is also a lovely object that will sit proudly on any shelf. I know I’m a broken record but CAT VALENTE IS THE BEST AND I LOVED THIS BOOK WITH EVERY FIBER OF MY BEING!

My rating: 8/10 – Excellent!

Second opinions:

 

Bees and Books and Keys and Trains: Catherynne M. Valente – Palimpsest

A sexually transmitted city. Four protagonists, each hurt and broken in their own way, and a ton of gorgeous imagery, lush descriptions of an amazing city, and Valente’s trademark poetic prose. Yes, I am about to tell you again why Cat Valente is one of the best writers out there and why I love her so, so much!

palimpsest-origPALIMPSEST
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by: Bantam, 2009
Paperback: 367 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: On the corner of 16th street and Hieratica a factory sings and sighs.

Between life and death, dreaming and waking, at the train stop beyond the end of the world is the city of Palimpsest. To get there is a miracle, a mystery, a gift, and a curse—a voyage permitted only to those who’ve always believed there’s another world than the one that meets the eye. Those fated to make the passage are marked forever by a map of that wondrous city tattooed on their flesh after a single orgasmic night. To this kingdom of ghost trains, lion-priests, living kanji, and cream-filled canals come four travelers: Oleg, a New York locksmith; the beekeeper November; Ludovico, a binder of rare books; and a young Japanese woman named Sei. They’ve each lost something important—a wife, a lover, a sister, a direction in life—and what they will find in Palimpsest is more than they could ever imagine.

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Catherynne M. Valente – The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All The Way Home

This is it. It’s over. No more Fairyland stories with September. I took a good long while reading this book because if there’s ever a time to draw out a story, this is it. The Fairyland series has grown so dear to me that it was incredibly hard letting go, even though Cat Valente ended her series in the most perfect way imaginable.

fairyland 5

THE GIRL WHO RACED FAIRYLAND ALL THE WAY HOME
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by: Feiwel & Friends, 2016
Ebook: 308 pages
Series: Fairyland #5
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: Once upon a time, a country called Fairyland grew very tired indeed of people squabbling over it, of polishing up the glitter on the same magic and wonder and dashing dangers each morning, of drifting along prettily through the same Perverse and Perilous Sea, of playing with the same old tyrants and brave heroes every century.

Quite by accident, September has been crowned as Queen of Fairyland – but she inherits a Kingdom in chaos. The magic of a Dodo’s egg has brought every King, Queen, or Marquess of Fairyland back to life, each with a fair and good claim on the throne, each with their own schemes and plots and horrible, hilarious, hungry histories. In order to make sense of it all, and to save their friend from a job she doesn’t want, A-Through-L and Saturday devise a Royal Race, a Monarckical Marathon, in which every outlandish would-be ruler of Fairyland will chase the Stoat of Arms across the whole of the nation – and the first to seize the poor beast will seize the crown. Caught up in the madness are the changelings Hawthorn and Tamburlaine, the combat wombat Blunderbuss, the gramophone Scratch, the Green Wind, and September’s parents, who have crossed the universe to find their daughter…

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This is the last book in the Fairyland series and with it, the series comes full circle in many ways. September and her friends must participate in the Cantankerous Derby, a race for the crown of Fairyland, but of course, this being Fairyland, it’s not just any old race. Because what they have to find is the heart of Fairyland and you all can imagine that it’s not an actual heart lying around somewhere under the Perverse and Perilous Sea or deep in the Worsted Woods. But with Ell, Blunderbuss, and Saturday, September follows every lead she has to win a crown she’s not even sure she wants.

I felt sad the entire time I read this book, even when Blunderbuss made me smile and Saturday filled my heart with joy. Nailing the ending of a series is always difficult, and with this one especially I was wondering how it could possibly end without tears. But Cat Valente has proven herself to be a trustworthy author who knows exactly what she’s doing. After a wonderful adventure, with a particularly delightfull chapter under the sea (I want a Bathysphere, that’s all I’m saying), a trip to the land of Wom, and several encounters with bloodthirsty tyrants, we do get an ending and it is that rare sort of perfection that I wouldn’t have believed to be possible.

In many ways, it reminded me of Peter Pan, where Wendy’s story in Neverland may come to an end but that doesn’t mean that Neverland’s story is over. As the beginning of this book tells you, Fairyland has become a character of her own and she will live on, even after all the changelings and heartless children are done with their adventuring.

[…]a door is a door, and a door is always an adventure

I could tell you about all the wonderful new places and creatures we meet in The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All The Way Home, but that would take out part of the fun. We meet old friends (and foes, and in-betweens), we see lots of new faces, we discover new places in Fairyland and revisit some well-known ones.  The last Fairyland novel still keeps up that sense of wonder that’s made it so beautiful in the four previous books.

But what really makes this instalment shine is how clever everything falls into place. There are hints about the ending strewn all over the place but I, at least, didn’t make sense of them until I had read the ending. My biggest worry was always how September could possible unite the two worlds living in her heart – her family are waiting for her back in Omaha, after all, and September loves her parents. But come on, it’s Fairyland. Who would ever want to leave? It’s a big conundrum and I’m glad that Cat Valente solved it because so many others have failed before her.

fairyland 3 aroostook

Aroostook is back!

I always hated stories where kids get swept into a magical world and the only thing they can think to do is find a way back home. Like, really? Is home always such a perfect place? Dorothy left Oz, Wendy left Neverland, and yes, I understand that these are all metaphors for growing up, leaving childhood behind you – that doesn’t mean I have to like it. Valente understands this and she also sends a powerful message with her book series. You don’t have to leave wonder and fun and silliness to be a grown up. Yes, there are difficult decisions to be made, and yes, the grown-up world can be an adventure as well. But there can still be stuffed combat wombats, and marids, and wyveraries. This is really all I can say without spoiling the ending.

There is one scene (there always is one, isn’t there) that was so beautiful and thrown in so seemingly carelessy, that made me well up again. September and Saturday’s relationship has been sort of fortold from the very beginning. With marids living all times at once, September has seen several Saturdays, at varying ages, throughout the series. But this Saturday, her Saturday still delivers the gut-punchiest speech of the book, and part of it only makes sense after you’ve finished reading all of it. Maybe I’m just a crybaby when it comes to books – yes, okay.. I definitely am – but man, that bit tugged at my heartstrings. I want to jump up and down and giggle and cry all at the same time.

The one thing I do have to say, however, is that the book felt a bit rushed at times. With the introduction of a TON of new characters, things get hectic. September’s journey through Fairyland also feels a bit too fast at times. While a nice number of pages lets us marvel at the underwater world that Saturday knows so well, other places and people barely get a full chapter. But it’s a minor quibble considering Valente has written such an amazing book series that can appeal to people of all ages. I have endless love for Fairyland… there’s a reason these books live next to Harry Potter on my shelves.

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Most excellent!

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Second opinions:

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