Women Are More Than Wives and Witches: Madeline Miller – Circe

I was worried that Madeline Miller couldn’t possible write another retelling of a Greek myth that was as wonderful as The Song of Achilles. In this book, Circe gets to tell her own story and paints a rather different picture than the one I had – which, to be honest, was only that she was that witch who turned men into pigs when Odysseus landed on her island after the war of Troy. But boy, is there more to her story!

CIRCE
by Madeline Miller

Published by: Little, Brown and Company, 2018
eBook: 393 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.

In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child—not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power—the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.
Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, the murderous Medea, and, of course, wily Odysseus.
But there is danger, too, for a woman who stands alone, and Circe unwittingly draws the wrath of both men and gods, ultimately finding herself pitted against one of the most terrifying and vengeful of the Olympians. To protect what she loves most, Circe must summon all her strength and choose, once and for all, whether she belongs with the gods she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.

Let me say right away that if you don’t much like the beginning of this book – don’t give up! The story is narrated by Circe herself and begins with her early life as a child of Helios in the Titan’s Hall. Her life isn’t exactly nice at first. She is bullied and ridiculed by her siblings for her strange voice and her plain looks, she can’t for the life of her make her parents proud, and she seems to stay constantly in the shadows. Until she finds out that there is magic in her and that she has the power to change things. After she changes a human sailor whom she has fallen in love with, into a god, she goes further and uses her gift with magical plants to change the Mean Girl into a monster.

And so begins her exile. Helios, in rare agreement with Zeus, decides to banish his witchy daughter to the island of Aiaia. Now I expected a long and boring exile because as I metioned, my prior knowledge of Circe was that Odysseus met her after Troy… I didn’t know if she came up in any other Greek heroes’ stories. But whether it’s part of the actual myths or whether Miller simply decided to give Circe more to do, there was definitely enough adventure to keep me intrigued.

Yes, for a long time, Circe is still only a side character who witnesses great things from afar. But reading about the birth of the Minotaur, meeting Daedalus, and of course later on Odysseus and his men, never felt boring. Instead, I was excited to see these other characters portrayed so differently from what I’d read many years ago in books of mythology. Although they may only be side characters in Circe’s story, they all felt fleshed-out, like real people, and that was enough for me, even if we didn’t follow their adventures in this story.

Odysseus does of course eventually show up on Aiaia’s shores and he convinces Circe to turn his newly pig-shaped men back into humans. As for what happens after that – it was easily the best part of the novel so I’m not giving anything away. You should all have the pleasure of finding it out for yourselves. Only let me say that the ending was a rare kind of perfection that made me close the book with a content smile.

This is sold as a feminist retelling of a Greek myth and while it takes a while to become apparent, it definitely is. The women in this book – Circe, Medea, Penelope, Scylla, Pasiphae – may not all be likable (in fact, some are quite horrible), but they are all so much more than someone’s wife, some monster, some witch who is only there to further the plot of the great adventurers. Here, they have agency, they make choices for their own reasons, whether honorable or not. And I loved, loved, loved the friendship that grows toward the end of the book between two women. It was unexpected but I cherished it all the more for that.

The only thing I disliked was the beginning. I understand why it was the way it was, but reading about Circe’s bleak early life with almost nobody to hold onto, to call a friend, with nothing to do but watch gods and nymphs be gods and nymphs (and let me tell you, that gets tired quickly!) – it just wasn’t fun. Her coming into her own, finding out who she is, takes some time, but the journey is all the more rewarding for her sad beginnings.
All things considered, I loved this book to pieces, and I can’t wait for whatever myth Madeline Miller tackles next.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

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Terrifying and beautiful: Maggie Stiefvater – The Scorpio Races

It’s been a long time that I felt like this after a book. The immediate need to tell everyone about it and how wonderful it was overwhelmed me so I texted my sister last night that she had to read this book as well. And so should you! The Scorpio Races might give you a major book hangover but it is so damn good you won’t even mind.

THE SCORPIO RACES
by Maggie Stiefvater

Published by: Scholastic, 2011
Ebook: 447 pages
Standalone
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.

It happens at the start of every November: the Scorpio Races. Riders attempt to keep hold of their water horses long enough to make it to the finish line. Some riders live. Others die.
At age nineteen, Sean Kendrick is the returning champion. He is a young man of few words, and if he has any fears, he keeps them buried deep, where no one else can see them.
Puck Connolly is different. She never meant to ride in the Scorpio Races. But fate hasn’t given her much of a chance. So she enters the competition — the first girl ever to do so. She is in no way prepared for what is going to happen.

I picked this up because I loved The Raven Cycle and trust Maggie Stiefvater as a writer enough to just buy her books without really checking what they’re about. I knew it was about horses – every cover of every edition lets you know that – but when I found out that it’s about water horses and that water horses are terrifying, flesh-eating beasts that come out of the ocean and want to eat you, I was a little on the fence. But not for long.

Kate “Puck” Connolly has lived on the island of Thisby her entire life. When her parents died, leaving her and her two brothers behind, it became hard to make ends meet, but Puck loves her island home more than anything and will do whatever it takes to keep the small family together. Which is why she enters the Scorpio Races, a yearly event promising lots of money to the winner, and lots of death all around. What’s more, Puck intends to enter with her regular island horse, Dove, when everyone else will be riding a water horse – much taller, stronger, and faster than any regular horse could hope to be. But also much more drawn to the ocean from which they came, much less easy to control, much more bloodthirsty…

Sean Kendrick knows water horses, none better than his-but-not-really-his Corr. As the reigning champion of the Scorpio Races, he and his water horse Corr have built up a relationship and Sean a reputation. While he works with horses everyday, he works for the rich yard owner Benjamin Malvern and yearns for freedom. He may not say much but Sean is one of those characters that show off Maggie Stiefvater’s writing gift so well – the quiet ones, the ones that speak more with glances, with body language, with actions, than with words, but manage to say so much anyway.

It took me a while to get into this book. The idea of killer horses seemed a little far-fetched even though I had read the myth of the kelpie before (another killer horse that drags you under the water to drown and possibly eat you). As someone with no experience of horses whatsoever (because sadly, allergies), I had this idea in my brain that they are mostly flighty, shy, scared creatures – so imagining one grinning at you with bloody teeth and actually wanting to bite your neck with them took a bit of imagination. But once I was there, I was all in.

For a book with relatively little plot, this was really a riveting ride. I don’t think I blinked once throughout the second half of the book. I did not put it down, I may have stopped breathing every once in a while. Yeah, very little happens – Puck enters the races, trains for them, meets Sean, he trains as well, they run in the races… – but SO MUCH HAPPENS!! Their character development, not just as individuals but with each oather and with their horses is why I couldn’t put the book down. As much as with an action-packed thriller, I wanted to know what happens next. The stakes are immensely high for both Puck and Sean, they both have really good reasons to want to win, but they also come to care for each other in the process.

The more I read, the more I learned about the (fictional quasi-Irish) island of Thisby, its people, its customs, its problems and its beauties. I learned to love it almost the way Puck and Sean do, despite the terror horses coming onto shore every year, killing livestock, killing people, sometimes letting themselves be caught and trained, only to be raced in the Scorpio Races. It’s a magical place, although the only true fantasy element of this story is the fact that horses want to eat your face – so if you like magical realism, stories that could be real except for one tiny, little, magical detail, then you will like this.  The Scorpio Races themselves are the climax of the book and I don’t think I have ever nor will I ever again read about a horse race as exciting as this.

Many books have good endings, some even great ones. But it is a rare book that delivers such an emotional punch with the very last line, where the last line matters. I was absolutely devastated when I got to the ending. The entire tone of the book sets you up for a bittersweet one – you know you’re not going to get a fairy tale ending, where everyone is happy and everything turns out perfect, and that wouldn’t feel sincere after a tale like this. But Maggie Stiefvater truly hit the sweet spot with her ending of choice. I couldn’t think of a better suited one – or one that rattles my heart more.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection

Richard Parks – The Heavenly Fox

Sometimes, I get it in my head that I want a book. Okay, that happens many times. Several times on any given day, actually. But sometimes, I go out of my way to hunt down used copies of a book even if I don’t know the author. The Heavenly Fox just sounded so up my alley and, it was a Mythopoeic Award finalist in 2012 and used copies were actually not that expensive. If you are the kind of person who wants more pages for their money, you should go for the ebook. It is a very short book.

heavenly fox

THE HEAVENLY FOX
by Richard Parks

Published by: PS Publishing, 2011
Hardcover: 78 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: The main problem with achieving immortality, Springshadow reminded herself, is that you had to live long enough.

“A fox who reaches the age of fifty gains the ability to transform into a human woman. A fox who reaches the age of one hundred can transform into either a beautiful young girl or a handsome young man at will and can sense the world around them to a distance of over four hundred leagues. A fox who reaches the age of one thousand years, however, becomes a Heavenly Fox, an Immortal of great power, able to commune with the gods themselves.”

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Divided into three acts, or chapters, The Heavenly Fox tells the story of Springshadow, a fox who has lived to be 999 years old and is now waiting for the final three days until her on thousandth birthday to pass. We are introduced to Springshadow’s character as she lives with a human man, herself having taken the shape of a woman, and extracts some of his life force to keep herself alive. It’s a cruel beginning, demonstrating that, despite her appearance, Springshadow is not a human but a fox with her mind set on one goal – become immortal.

heavenly fox springshadowBut even foxes don’t live in a vacuum and, having almost reached one thousand years of age, she is visited by the goddess of mercy, Guan Shi Yin and another immortal. The immortal, Wildeye, gained his immortality through trickery, stealing and eating one of the peaches of Heaven. I know very little about Chinese mythology, but I do know Sun Wu Kong when I see him. And personally, I’m always happy to meet the Monkey King in any fantasy story. So major brownie points for Richard Parks.

In the second act, Springshadow has reached her goal and becomes immortal. Except now she faces the problem of what to do with this immortality. She goes to visit Heaven, which is disappointingly a lot like Earth, only with more magic. But what is her purpose? This is the part that reads more like a fable than an SFF story. Springshadow’s search for meaning and for something to do with her power, is as touching as it is frustrating. She didn’t think that far when she decided to become a heavenly fox… But she knows of another who has gone before her, a fox named Sunflash, who has mysteriously disappeared.

I won’t spoil the third act because it is where things come together beautifully, although I will say this much: Springshadow finds Sunflash and is shown a different way to look at life, both her own and that of other creatures in the world. Sunflash’s story, although told on very few pages, was deeply moving.

Although The Heavenly Fox is a simple fable-like story, I had several causes for loving it, Springshadow’s character being chief among them. So many times, anthropomorphic animals, talking animals, magical animals in fiction tend to be too human to be believable. Springshadow is not too concerned with the death of humans but she does have a great deal more empathy than other foxes. The concept of settling a debt, of self-sacrifice, is foreign to her because – well, she is a fox and why would foxes care? I also loved that Richard Parks takes time to give his tale a little humor. Whether it’s in dialogue with Wildeye (I love Wildeye!) or Springshadow’s trouble when dealing with her brand-new nine fox tails that constantly get in the way, especially when she’s trying to sit down, there is a beautiful balance of the serious and the light-hearted.

Most of all though, I like how important questiones are posed and there is no one right answer. As Sunflash’s story shows, every creature has to choose their own way and to do what’s right for them. But listening to others, seeing the world through their eyes, may help you gain more knowledge to make a decision that’s right for you. The Heavenly Fox is a very short, quiet book but at the same time, a highly engrossing one. I think I will read up on Chinese mythology (I am embarrassingly ignorant on the subject) and then definitely revisit The Heavenly Fox.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good!

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Second opinions:

Nalo Hopkinson – Brown Girl in the Ring

I love Nalo Hopkinson’s fiction but it’s taken me a while to go back and pick up her first novel. It’s won awards and everything! Having read some of her newer novels, it may not be quite fair, but Brown Girl in the Ring let me down a bit. It has several first-novel problems (puzzle pieces falling into place too neatly, mostly) but already shows what a great writer Hopkinson was to become.

brown girl in the ring

BROWN GIRL IN THE RING
by Nalo Hopkinson

Published by: Aspect, 1998
Ebook: 281 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: As soon as he entered the room, Baines blurted out, “We want you to find us a viable human heart, fast.”

The rich and privileged have fled the city, barricaded it behind roadblocks, and left it to crumble. The inner city has had to rediscover old ways-farming, barter, herb lore. But now the monied need a harvest of bodies, and so they prey upon the helpless of the streets. With nowhere to turn, a young woman must open herself to ancient truths, eternal powers, and the tragic mystery surrounding her mother and grandmother.
She must bargain with gods, and give birth to new legends.

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Toronto, after the Riots that ruined the inner city, is not a nice place to live. The rich have fled to the suburbs, leaving the inner city to fall apart, ruled by drugs, poverty, and the posse. Ti-Jeanne, a young woman who just had a baby, lives with her grandmother, Mami, but refuses to learn what she wishes to teach her. Mami wants Ti-Jeanne to become a healer like her, to learn about plants and their properties, how to treat wounds and diseases, and how to care for her new baby.

Ti-Jeanne was a difficult character to like and what kept me from taking to her the most was how she treated her baby. She neglects to feed him for extended periods of time, considering he is a new-born. So new-born in fact, that he doesn’t even have a name yet. When he cries, Ti-Jeanne gets annoyed more often than not, and she generally didn’t show the affection I’d expect from a new mother. Now, I know nothing about having a baby but surely hormones make sure that there is some instinct to protect your child. That was completely lacking in Ti-Jeanne. The only thing that girl is sure about is her ex-boyfriend, Tony.

Ti-Jeanne left her drug addict boyfriend Tony when she found out she was pregnant with his child. So far, so responsible. Of course, being responsible doesn’t stop her feelings for him. But Tony is stuck very deep in the posse’s machinations and has to procure a donor heart for a member of government if he doesn’t want to be killed. Posse leader Rudy is capable of horrible things and Tony is desperate, asking Ti-Jeanne and her grandmother for help.

brown girl in the ring2The plot takes a while to get started. When Ti-Jeanne’s grandmother involves her and Tony in a ritual to ask the gods for help, that’s when the story finally kicks off. I loved the use of mythology and magic in this story, because it is not clean magic, the gods aren’t predictable. You may ask one god for help, yet some other god may answer and not be inclined to help you at all. And even when they do, you don’t know how exactly they plan to help you. Ever encounter with the gods, every vision Ti-Jeanne has of the other world, was wonderfully dark and a treasure to read.

Once it becomes clearer just how evil Rudy is and how he became the leader of the posse, the book becomes quite sinister. There is a lot of blood and torture, and many secrets about Ti-Jeanne’s family are revealed. One too many, if you ask me. You can only put in so many plot twists without making them cheap. However, each of these twists is vital to the plot, so I understand why they are there. Ti-Jeanne has to find all her courage and cleverness to save her life and her loved ones, and whether she wants to or not, has to grow up in the process.

I loved the relationship between Ti-Jeanne and her grandmother in this book. Neither is able to express her feelings well (or at all) and yet it is so clear from reading the book that these two care deeply about one another. Ti-Jeanne may be still a child at heart who doesn’t know what she wants in life, but it is obvious that there is a lot of love in their small family. Ti-Jeanne and Tony’s relationship paled in comparison, consisting mostly of lust and passion (which, you know, is good but not enough in my opinion). In the course of the novel, Ti-Jeanne has to work closely with her family in order to save all their lives and it was those moments of pure teamwork that I adored to read.

This is part futuristic mafia-novel, part mythology, and part coming-of-age. The book is quite short and I felt the first half lacked focus, but the second half and the ending make up for those shortcomings. I am left a bit underwhelmed and wanting more, but overall, this quick read is a good introduction to one of the most exciting fantasy writers I know. I just fear it might not be very memorable. I’d recommend reading Midnight Robber instead.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

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Second opinions:

Angela Slatter – The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings

Well, this is how long I could keep away from Angela Slatter’s stories. A bit more than a week, which I used to order a paperback copy of Of Sorrow and Such… now that I’ve read The Bitterwood Bible – which is a sort of prequel collection to Sourdough – I am even more in love with Slatter’s style and ideas. I really hope that her Tor.com novella will expand her readership and get more of her stories into my hands.

bitterwood bibleTHE BITTERWOOD BIBLE AND OTHER RECOUNTINGS
by Angela Slatter

Published by: Tartarus Press, 2014
Ebook: 280 pages
Short story collection
Illustrated by:
Kathleen Jennings
My rating: 9,5/10

First sentence: The door is a rich red wood, heavily carved with improving scenes from the trials of Job.

Welcome back to the magic and pathos of Angela Slatter’s exquisitely imagined tales.
The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings returns to the world of Sourdough and Other Stories (Tartarus, 2010), introducing readers to the tales that came before. Stories where coffin-makers work hard to keep the dead beneath; where a plague maiden steals away the children of an ungrateful village; where poison girls are schooled in the art of assassination; where pirates disappear from the seas; where families and the ties that bind them can both ruin and resurrect and where books carry forth fairy tales, forbidden knowledge and dangerous secrets.
The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings is enhanced by eighty-six pen-and-ink illustrations by artist Kathleen Jennings.

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What is it about Angelas and fairy tales? In both forewords to Angela Slatter’s two collections, she is mentioned in one breath with that other famous Angela who did fairy tales her own way, Angela Carter. While I’d say Carter is a tad darker, I understand the comparison. But because of what this Angela (Slatter, that is) does – namely, connecting all of her short stories and using them to paint one large picture of a time and place – I must admit, I actually prefer her over Angela Carter.

bitterwood - badgersIn The Bitterwood Bible, we see what things were like before the events of Sourdough (reviewed here). Familiar names pop up, well-known settings are used, and one object that was almost a gimmick in Sourdough becomes quite important in these new stories. Since Slatter continues the trend of taking fairy tales and myth and folklore, and using them to build her own stories on top of them, I hardly need to say I loved this collection. But it was striking how much the author has developed, how much more crafty her tales are. What little critique I may have had for Sourdough can’t be repeated about Bitterwood. If there are twists to these new stories, such as in the first story “The coffin-maker’s daughter”, then these twists really hit home.

bitterwood - maiden in the iceI am absolutely in love with “The Maiden in the Ice” which, apart from being a wonderful story in and of itself, ties in nicely with the first story in Sourdough and made me immediately want to re-read it. I haven’t had the time yet but I believe that I will like that Sourdough story much more and see it in a very different light after reading “The Maiden in the Ice”.

Her perfume is earthly, rich and dark, like rotted roses; a sweetness at first, then a potency, then grown too strong, and finally the hint of decay as she moves past the folk in the streets, those in the markets.

If you didn’t think there could be a new and interesting way to update vampires, well, you are wrong! So wrong! Angela Slatter takes vampires and just… does strange and interesting things with them. Hers are neither only sexy and dark, nor purely tortured innocent-ish beings. They are a bit of everything and something different entirely. And they certainly don’t sparkle. I’d say the vampire craze is mostly over and lots of readers may even go out of their way to avoid vampire stories, but lend me a bit of your trust and just try this one. It’s really something else.

“St. Dymphna’s School” merges seamlessly from one type of tale – at least the type I expected it to be – into quite another. It follows a heroine both determined to do what she came for, (almost) no matter the cost, and yet compassionate and understanding that the people surrounding her shouldn’t be hurt just because they don’t help her achieve her goals. In this tale, another character makes a reappearance from Sourdough, or more accurately – an appearance after being mentioned in Sourdough.

bitterwood - st dymphnas kiss

I said above that Slatter isn’t quite as dark as Carter, but that doesn’t mean that these stories are for children or light-hearted. There is one story that  never explicitly mentions the terrible things that happen to its protagonist, but it will break your heart a hundred times over. Even stories with a quirkier, lighter tone manage to twist a knife in you at the end, leaving you filled with horror and shock.

“By the Weeping Gate” is the only story that’s a bit slow to start but it wouldn’t be in this collection if it didn’t deliver the same powerful punch at the end that Slatter’s other stories do. The last story in the collection presents almost a seamless sequel to “By the Weeping Gate” and not only ties these two stories together, but connects the entire book into one big whole beautiful thing.

If Sourdough was about the story of a place and the women living there over the course of several generations, then Bitterwood is about The Little Sisters of St. Florian, women who collect and preserve knowledge, who copy rare (and not so rare) books, some of them mundane, some dangerous, and what happens to their order. The recounting of their last days made me cry a little, as it combines powerful writing with a heart-wrenching story.

One last raving paragraph must go to illustrator Kathleen Jennings, whose work I knew from Catherynne Valente’s The Bread We Eat in Dreams. The style is immediately recognisable and her little drawings are full of detail (albeit a little small on an e-reader). She did excellent work, choosing what to depict – sometimes objects, sometimes animals, and sometimes the characters. I was always a bit giggly when I swiped to the next page and saw an illustration come up. Really wonderfully done!

The longer I read this book, the more superlative my exlamations about it became. From “Hey, I really like this” I went quickly to “This is amazeballs” straight on to “I fucking adore everything Angela Slatter writes!!!” – I gather from other people’s reviews that these are the natural stages of book love when reading Angela Slatter. I kept Of Sorrow and Such for last, because chronology, but you’ll probably be seeing a review of it in December, despite all my well-laid plans for reading exactly what’s on my challenge lists… sorry reading challenges.

Next year promises the publication of Slatter’s first novel Vigil. I don’t even know what it’s about. All I know is that I need it yesterday, and the sequel too!

MY RATING:  9,5/10 – Oh my God, so close to perfection!

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Second opinions
(because you know I’m not completely trustworthy when I adore a book this much – although it did win the World Fantasy Award. Just sayin’…)

 

Benjanun Sriduangkaew – Scale Bright

Some books are best approached without any prior knowledge, without even reading a blurb or recommendation. Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s Scale Bright is not one of those books. At least not if – like me – you have no knowledge of Chinese mythology. A cozy sort of buzz surrounds this novella but it was Little Red Reviewer’s recommendation that gave me the final push and made me buy my own copy. Thank you, Andrea, for a shining new author on my bookshelf.

scale brightSCALE BRIGHT
by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Published by: Immersion Press, 2014
Ebook: 162 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Julienne is in a crowded train when a man whose skin gleams smooth as stone appears to inquire after her heart’s desire.

Julienne’s aunts are the archer who shot down the suns and the woman who lives on the moon. They teach her that there’s more to the city of her birth than meets the eye – that beneath the modern chrome and glass of Hong Kong there are demons, gods, and the seethe of ancient feuds. As a mortal Julienne is to give them wide berth, for unlike her divine aunts she is painfully vulnerable, and choice prey for any demon.
Until one day, she comes across a wounded, bleeding woman no one else can see, and is drawn into an old, old story of love, snake women, and the deathless monk who hunts them.

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Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s fiction is an adventure. When Andrea compared her style to Catherynne M. Valente’s, I was as sold as I could be. Quickly bought and quickly read, I am once more happy that book bloggers exist and nudge me in the right direction at the right time.

Disregarding the advice given by Andrea, I picked up the book and started reading without really caring what it was about. But soon I discovered that certain characters had more than one name, and names fraught with meaning that I didn’t understand. A few pages in, Wikipedia saved my butt. The short paragraphs on the Chinese myths surrounding Houyi, the Archer who shot down the suns and Chang’e, the woman who lives in the moon, are really all you need to get the gist of the story. Thus prepared, I could finally really enjoy the magic that Sriduangkaew weaves on these pages.

It’s hard to choose what to rave about first. But as I’ve already mentioned Cat Valente’s name, let’s begin with the writing style. Simply said, it is gorgeous.  Sriduangkaew definitely falls into the vague sub-genre of mythpunk, with her poetic language and beautiful, beautiful descriptions. Her characterization seems effortless, the settings vibrant, and all without overdoing it. There isn’t a single line out of place, not one description too flowery. Opening this little book is like falling into a different world, made up of dreams and gods and a young girl coming of age.

Julienne, ostentatiously the protagonist, goes through an interesting growth. Her actions aren’t always obvious, her past unravels slowly, as does her personality. I enjoyed discovering who she was immensely, but the real stars for me were Houyi, the Archer, and Olivia, the Snake-Woman. None of the characters are what you’d call an open book. You have to discover each of them in turn and that was part of the pleasure. Houyi made the biggest impression on me, simply because she was such an entity of power. The tall woman who wears men’s clothing and is married to the woman in the moon has a tender core, especially when it comes to her niece, Julienne. Olivia, at first a pretty straight-forward baddie, becomes more three-dimensional along the way. And Julienne, who was sort of pale to begin with, turns out to be a fully-formed human being with a past and hopes and dreams.

I spefically didn’t talk about the plot because, (1) I don’t want to ruin anyone’s reading experience, and (2) I thought it was one of the book’s weaker points. Yes, there are twists and turns that are surprising and wonderful. But the breaks between certain points happened too harshly. I was comfy in one scene and, suddenly, in the next we cut to somewhere completely different. Following the time frame was difficult for me, but I always found back into the story relatively quickly. It’s a minor point but, ever since reading this, I’ve been wishing for a full-sized doorstopper novel from Benjanun Sriduangkaew – I’m sure the breaks would be much smoother if she had more time setting up each scene and time period.

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After the novella, Scale Bright also includes the three short stories that precede it chronologically.  My favorite was “The Crows Her Dragon’s Gate”, which tells the story of  Xihe, her unhappy marriage and her becoming the mother of suns. The entire story was gripping and gorgeous, the characters filled with strength and anger and hope, I couldn’t stop reading. Considering how short it is, I am also amazed at how much character growth happens. The author really knows how to use language in its most effective way.

“Woman of the Sun, Woman of the Moon” tells the love story of Houyi and Chang’e and is probably the one you should read before Scale Bright, as it gives a good background on who Julienne’s aunts are. Even gods, it seems, don’t have an easy time when they want a same-sex marriage but Houyi has some awesome lines about why she refuses to wear women’s clothes or change her appearance into that of a man. I really giggled at her comebacks to some of the stupid things people say to her. Altogether, I must admit this was my least favorite of the short stories (which doesn’t say much as it’s still pretty damn good).

“Chang’e Dashes from the Moon” was my second favorite, because Houyi totally rocked her part of the story. It must be a taste thing because I’m suspicious of how much I adored Houyi every time she showed up. This is supposed to be Chang’e’s chance to shine, and she does, but in my opinion Houyi steals the show.

This review was very rambly and not exactly coherent but I’ve noticed that all the best books end up with this kind of review from me. It’s because my head is so full of thoughts that I can’t write a straight sentence. But, as you also know, it is the mark of an excellent book that it evokes so much emotion. I’ll be watching out closely for Sriduangkaew’s next publication, whether it’s a short story, another novella, or – please, please, please – a novel.

RATING: 8/10 –  Excellent

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Nalo Hopkinson – Sister Mine

Last year, I was pretty blown away by Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber as well as her short story in Unnatural Creatures. I couldn’t wait to read more by this amazing author, especially anything that involved gods and mojo and a cover as stunning as this one.

sister mineSISTER MINE
by Nalo Hopkinson

Published by:  Grand Central Publishing, 2013
Hardcover: 346 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: “Score!” I said to the scruffy grey cat sitting on the building’s loading dock.

We’d had to be cut free of our mother’s womb. She’d never have been able to push the two-headed sport that was me and Abby out the usual way. Abby and I were fused, you see. Conjoined twins. Abby’s head, torso, and left arm protruded from my chest. But here’s the real kicker; Abby had the magic, I didn’t. Far as the Family was concerned, Abby was one of them, though cursed, as I was, with the tragic flaw of mortality.

Now adults, Makeda and Abby still share their childhood home. The surgery to separate the two girls gave Abby a permanent limp, but left Makeda with what feels like an even worse deformity: no mojo. The daughters of a celestial demigod and a human woman, Makeda and Abby were raised by their magical father, the god of growing things–a highly unusual childhood that made them extremely close. Ever since Abby’s magical talent began to develop, though, in the form of an unearthly singing voice, the sisters have become increasingly distant.
Today, Makeda has decided it’s high time to move out and make her own life among the other nonmagical, claypicken humans–after all, she’s one of them. In Cheerful Rest, a run-down warehouse space, Makeda finds exactly what she’s been looking for: an opportunity to live apart from Abby and begin building her own independent life. There’s even a resident band, led by the charismatic (and attractive) building superintendent.
But when her father goes missing, Makeda will have to discover her own talent–and reconcile with Abby–if she’s to have a hope of saving him . .

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This is going to be one of those love/hate reviews. If I were a better organised person, I would split it into two neat parts, but the way my brain works I’ll just throw the good, the bad, and the ugly at you all mixed up. Which is pretty much how this novel works, too.

Makeda’s story starts out with her seeking independence by moving out of the house she has shared with her sister. She moves into a building called Cheerful Rest (yes, really) whose inhabitants aren’t only a pleasure to meet but have so much potential for later. However, all except the attractive Brie are dropped completely. One side character gets to show up once more for a brief cameo but Brie’s bandmates, whom I liked immediately, are never seen again. But I liked Makeda enough to overlook that waste of character potential. Being the daughter of a human mother-turned-seamonster and a celestial (a sort of demigod), her life is far from ordinary. However, when she and her conjoined twin sister Abby were separated at birth, Makeda got two working legs, and Abby got all the magic. You see where this is going.

The two sister eventually grew apart, because jealousy and feelings of inadequacy, etc. I would have loved if this had been the center of the novel. Two sisters who used to be closer than anyone can even imagine, and who have to find a way to grow close again. But here’s the thing: This novel had no focus. It starts with one thing, then jumps into another (and don’t get me wrong, both these things may be awesome), then drops both of them in favor of something completely different.

So we jump from one type of story – Makeda’s coming-of-age, if you will – into another. There is even one chapter that shifts character perspective. One sole chapter right at the beginning of the book introduces a little girl named Naima, whom I loved immediately but who – again – never really shows up after her job in that chapter is done. Then there are infrequent flashbacks that show us Makeda and Abby’s past, that tell the story of when they were born, their first sexual experience with a pair of demigods (and also each other). It all felt very haphazard and just needed some structure.

When their father disappears suddenly, the sisters and their friends must try and find him – so now there is a McGuffin, some sort of red thread to follow. But even on their quest, for lack of a better world, they still seem to forget about it and suddenly Makeda is all about finding her mojo again. If she has any. At random, family truths are revealed, by Abby or the girls’ awesome Uncle Jack. Jack, the god of birth and death and some other things in between, was a fantastic character who gets to show up pretty consistently throughout the book. I was also rather fond of Lars, an inspirited instrument… look again at that book cover. See the guitar? Yeah, that’s Lars.

As great as the ideas were and as much as I loved the writing style, I still don’t quite know what the author wanted to achieve with this book. Is it supposed to be the story of two estranged sister growing up and trusting each other again? It kind of failed in that. I found the bickering and sisterly fights utterly realistic but there weren’t any moments of bonding as far as I’m concerned.  Or was it maybe supposed to be a coming-of-age and coming-into-your-magic story for Makeda? Because that plot also got lost along the way. The growing up part is what started the book, with Makeda thinking about how to pay rent on her burger flipping job. After a while, that doesn’t seem to be an issue anymore and it’s all about I MUST HAVE MOJO TOO – WHAT IS MY MOJO?!

sister mine snippet

There is also a very understated potential romance developing between Makeda and Brie. I quite enjoyed that part because it’s just there on the sidelines and never takes center stage. A smile here, a compliment there… What I did find a bit strange was that Abby and Makeda were once lovers. Or did I read that wrong? Now I would totally dig if either or both of the sisters had been lesbians. Having a foursome with their two celestial god-cousins (who are about 10000 years older than them) – fine, I’ll suspend my disbelief. But having sex with your own sister? Regularly? Uhm… that made me feel uneasy, to say the least. If gods do it (just look at Greek mythology) it’s different than if humans do it.
Apart from that, I loved the way Abby and Makeda deal with sexuality. It’s something they enjoy, there’s no problem in loving more than one person at once, and it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking straight or queer relationships. But the incest still leaves me queasy.

Add to all of this yet another subplot of switching parts when Abby suddenly loses her voice before a big music show, and you’ve got the crazy melting-pot that is this book. It comes complete with motorcycle chases, flying carpets, and feeding oranges to your polyamorous seamonster mother.
Despite the lack of structure and order, Nalo Hopkinson’s writing style is still exquisite. She gives her characters personality just through the way they speak, her protagonists are Women of Color, people with disabilities, and generally people of all shapes and sizes. As a bonus, she doesn’t shy away from a bit of humor. Uncle Jack made me laugh on more than one occasion, and even Brie gave me a chuckle or two:

Tiny LED bulbs in the sconce lights lining the walls of the entranceway. The sconces themselves were black mesh in the shape of small pouched triangles. “Those seem kind of Martha Stewart for you,” I said, pointing at one of them.
“So I have a gentle side. I made those things out of screen door mesh, though, all manly-like.” He made fake bodybuilder muscles.

The characters and prose have earned all my love but the plot was all over the place. I would have really liked, after this rollercoaster ride, to end up with a bigger picture that makes sense. Instead I got snippets of great story ideas, some of which never got to develop their full potential. I’m still hoping for a spin-off novel about that little girl Naima. The fact that she grew on me so much during the short chapter that she shows up in speaks for Hopkinson’s writing ability.

While it was too chaotic for me, this is still a good book. I look forward to reading more by Hopkinson. I only hope the next novel I pick has more focus.

MY RATING: 7/10  – Still very good

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Other reviews:

Catherynne M. Valente – The Bread We Eat in Dreams

You know what’s coming.

bread we eat in dreamsTHE BREAD WE EAT IN DREAMS
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by: Subterranean Press, 2013
Hardcover: 340 pages
Story Collection
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: She walks into my life legs first, a long drink of water in the desert of my thirties.

Subterranean Press proudly presents a major new collection by one of the brightest stars in the literary firmament. Catherynne M. Valente, the New York Times bestselling author of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making and other acclaimed novels, now brings readers a treasure trove of stories and poems in The Bread We Eat in Dreams.
In the Locus Award-winning novelette “White Lines on a Green Field,” an old story plays out against a high school backdrop as Coyote is quarterback and king for a season. A girl named Mallow embarks on an adventure of memorable and magical politicks in “The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland—For a Little While.” The award-winning, tour de force novella “Silently and Very Fast” is an ancient epic set in a far-flung future, the intimate autobiography of an evolving A.I. And in the title story, the history of a New England town and that of an outcast demon are irrevocably linked.
The thirty-five pieces collected here explore an extraordinary breadth of styles and genres, as Valente presents readers with something fresh and evocative on every page. From noir to Native American myth, from folklore to the final frontier, each tale showcases Valente’s eloquence and originality.

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I’m still not a big short story reader, and I have found I prefer anthologies that collect many authors’ works surrounding a certain theme, rather than stories by just one writer, covering more topics. But Catherynne Valente turns everything she touches into gold. The variety of styles, themes, and characters collected in The Bread We Eat in Dreams shows off her unique talents and that she is one of the brightest stars in SFF writing at the moment.

As I say, I haven’t read many short story collections but never have I heard of one that starts so perfectly on the right note as The Bread We Eat in Dreams. In “The Consultant”, the titular character explains how we are all part of a fairy tale, we just don’t see it. How the popular cheerleader can be Cinderella, how the college professor’s student girlfriend can be the Little Mermaid, how any couple trying to have a baby can be Sleeping Beauty’s parents. It may be about fairy tales and how the pervade our lives but the style is that of a noir detective, solving desperate dames’ problems for them. It works beautifully.

She walks into my life legs first, a long drink of water in the desert of my thirties. Her shoes are red; her eyes are green. She’s an Italian flag in occupied territory, and I fall for her like Paris. She mixes my metaphors like a martini and serves up my heart tartare. They all do. Every time. They have to. It’s that kind of story.

The second story in the collection was also my favorite. It’s about Coyote, the trickster god, as a quarterback in high school. I loved everything about this story and would gladly nominate it for a Hugo if it hadn’t been published a few years ago. You can read “White Lines on a Green Field” on Subterranean Press’ homepage. I highly suggest you do.

Some of the stories and novellas I’ve read before. The poem “The Melancholy of Mechagirl” is the only piece of poetry by Valente that’s ever really gotten to me. I’m not much of a poetry fan. The other poems in the collection didn’t impress me much but that may be much more my own fault (for not understanding them or clicking with them properly) than Valente’s.
“Fade to White” and “Silently and Very Fast” (which I’ve written about here) as well as  “The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland – For A Little While” are still as hauntingly beautiful as they were when I first read them.

bread we eat in dreams illustration2Among the stories that were new to me, some really struck a chord.  “How to Raise a Minotaur” reads like a metaphor for a childhood of abuse, living with parents who don’t understand you. “Twenty-Five Facts About Santa Claus” is as funny as it is touching, and – another favorite – “We Without Us Were Shadows” tells of the Brontë siblings stepping into their own wild imagination.

There is a story about a teenager who played the (non-existent) fairy Fig in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There is a brilliant take on Red Riding Hood that shows something Cat Valente keeps saying in interviews: If you are in a fairy tale, if you are Hansel or Gretel, Red Riding Hood or Rapunzel, even after you survive the terrible things that happen in the fairy tale, you will never be okay afterwards. Valente’s Red Riding Hood is just that character. She survived but she is broken, she carries the wolf with her wherever she goes, but she doesn’t want it to define her. It’s a beautiful piece of writing.

bread we eat in dreams illustration1Stefan Raets reviewed the collection for tor.com and he keeps mentioning author’s notes that accompany each story or poem. These don’t exist in my edition (I got the 40$ trade edition instead of the limited one, maybe that’s the reason?) and I would really have enjoyed them, especially with the stories whose mythology I’m not already familiar with. I’m fine with Greek and Norse gods, some African and Native American mythology, but I’m completely lost when it comes to Japanese spirits and gods and fairy tale creatures. A little help would have been appreciated. EDIT: Aaaaand I found them online. Should have looked there before I read the entire damn thing.

The one tiny thing that annoyed me was this German passage in “The Red Girl” (the Red Riding Hood story):

Die Wahrheit ist ich laufen immer und der Wald beendet nie. Die Blätter sind rot. Der Himmel ist rot. Der Weg ist rot und ich bin nie allein.

Now would it have killed you to have someone who speaks German proof-read that? At least conjugate your verbs… for goodness’ sake, I’d have fixed it for you for free. And for those who are curious about what it means, here’s my ad hoc translation:

The truth is I’m always running and the forest never ends. The leaves are red. The sky is red. The path is red and I’m never alone.

That minor flaw aside, I believe Subterranean Press have outdone themselves with this collection. It not only combines some of the best, mostly myth-inspired tales by a phenomenal writer, it’s also simply beautiful to look at. The illustrations by Kathleen Jennings may be small but they capture each story’s essence. And don’t even get me started on that wrap-around cover. It’s gorgeous. As is the entire book. It now sits proudly on my Cat Valente shelf where I believe it in the best company possible. The shelf is overflowing with longing and myth and love for all things magical.

divider1Table of Contents:
  • The Consultant
  • White Lines on a Green Field
  • The Bread We Eat in Dreams
  • The Melancholy of Mechagirl
  • A Voice Like a Hole
  • The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland—For a Little While
  • How to Raise a Minotaur
  • Mouse Koan
  • The Blueberry Queen of Wiscasset
  • In the Future When All’s Well
  • Fade to White
  • The Hydrodynamic Front
  • Static Overpressure
  • Even Honest Joe Loves an Ice-Cold Brotherhood Beer!
  • Optimum Burst Altitude
  • The Shadow Effect
  • Gimbels: Your Official Father’s Day Headquarters
  • Flash Blindness
  • Blast Wind
  • Ten Grays
  • Velocity Multiplied by Duration
  • Aeromaus
  • Red Engines
  • The Wolves of Brooklyn
  • One Breath, One Stroke
  • Kallisti
  • The Wedding
  • The Secret of Being a Cowboy
  • Twenty-Five Facts About Santa Claus
  • We Without Us Were Shadows
  • The Red Girl
  • Aquaman and the Duality of Self/Other, America, 1985
  • The Room
  • Silently and Very Fast
  • What the Dragon Said: A Love Story

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

I almost thought I could write a somewhat nuanced review for a Cat Valente book, just this once. But after finishing the third Fairyland adventure, I find myself looking for words to match my feelings. Prepare for another not-too-eloquent but all-the-more-gushing love letter to Fairyland and September and a certain marid called Saturday.

fairyland 3THE GIRL WHO SOARED OVER FAIRYLAND AND CUT THE MOON IN TWO
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by: Feiwel & Friends, 2013
ISBN: 1250023505
Hardcover: 248 pages
Series: Fairyland #3
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: Once upon a time, a girl named September told a great number of lies.

September misses Fairyland and her friends Ell, the Wyverary, and the boy Saturday. She longs to leave the routines of home, and embark on a new adventure. Little does she know that this time, she will be spirited away to the moon, reunited with her friends, and find herself faced with saving Fairyland from a moon-Yeti with great and mysterious powers.

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September is now 14 years old and trying very hard to be a grown-up. That means keeping her emotions in check when they try to run away with her, but it also means looking to the future. Knowing that her Persephone visa requires her to revisit Fairyland every year, she starts saving money from the odd jobs she does around the neighborhood. Her father is back from the war and while his leg still ails him, the little family seems much happier and well-rounded.

But September is like us voracious readers. She desperately wants to return to Fairyland and see her friends, Ell and Saturday. She spent all year missing them, keeping her secret, and preparing, as best she could, for the journey to Fairyland. But this summer, no Wind shows up to whisk her away. Summer goes by and not a Wyverary in sight. Of course, the one thing we can be sure of is that September does make it back to Fairyland and, after being officially named a Criminal and Revolutionary, goes straight to the Moon.

fairyland 3 aroostook

As anybody who follows my meandering reading life will know, I have the highest expectations for a Cat Valente book. I expect them to enchant me and touch me and deliver wisdom in the most beautiful language while telling a riveting tale of adventure and fun. Let’s get the fangirling out of the way first and then I’ll try and talk like a sensible human being about what is another phenomenal book by one of the best fantasy writers of our time.

I didn’t warm to The Girl Who Soared immediately, as I did to its two predecessors. Much like September, I found the real world bland and painful compared to the colorful Fairyland, and I longed to return there. In my opinion, it took entirely too long to get to Fairyland and – especially – to find Ell and Saturday again. September is a heroine who can very well go adventuring by herself. She doesn’t need a wyverary or a marid to survive the fairie’s jokes or the Blue Winds’ cruel words. But I need them! I hadn’t realised just how attached I had grown to A-Through-L and Saturday, but passing almost the entire first half of the book without them was torture.

September does find her friends again, eventually, and where else would Ell be found than in a library…

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!

Once I got Ell back, I was immediately happier – if a little worried about the curse that has been put on him. But it was the reunion with Saturday that really broke me. “All the feels” does not begin to cut it. The author has slyly built up emotion over the course of these three books, and I thought I was clever enough to catch her doing it, to anticipate her next move. But I didn’t expect certain things to hit me as hard as they did. I have to be very vague about this or else I’ll ruin your reading pleasure. But trust me, if you think the first half of The Girl Who Soared is a bit slow, keep reading. It pays off a thousandfold by the end. I definitely cried a tear or two.

We have come to know that mixing mythology and original ideas is one of the author’s specialties and she continues to do it rather well. Be it a moon-Yeti, a whelk that is also a city, a taxicrab (check out Ana Juan’s gorgeous illustration below) or two Lunaticks, one gets the sense that these strange creatures are somehow old friends that we’ve met in fairytales and mythology books and fantasy movies from the 80s. Yet at the same time, their strangeness adds another layer to Valente’s version of Fairlyand.

fairyland 3 taxicrab

And it is this brilliant, coy kind of world-building that makes it so hard for me to let go at the end of every book. We readers understand how it works. A year passes in our world, September goes to Fairyland, comes back, waits another year for her next trip. This was hard enough to bear in the first two books. There was never enough time in Fairyland to spend with her friends, without having to save the world or staging a coup or fixing her own mistakes. This time around, the ending was particularly shattering, and I honestly don’t know if the book hangover I’m feeling will go away until the next volume is out.

And now has come the time to confess that I lied. As hard as I try, I cannot form a rational sentence or start a sensible discussion about Valente’s books. They are too close to my heart to think about like an adult. So the gushing and fangirling and undiluted love is all you’re going to get.

THE GOOD: Plot-twists galore, heartbreaking reunions with well-loved characters, beautiful prose and a world full of colorful and fantastic creatures.
THE BAD:
A sluggish and slightly episodic beginning.
THE VERDICT:
Just read all the Fairyland books, will you?

MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection!

divider1The Fairyland Series:

  1. fairyland 1-3The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making
  2. The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There
  3. The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two

Sarah Zettel – Dust Girl

I must congratulate myself on my choice of summer reading material. It has been so hot and dry this last week that I find myself desperately wishing for rain to cool down the city. Dust Girl takes place in Kansas which, I admit, may be just a bit dustier and drier than Vienna, but the atmosphere of the book went well with the stifling heat I’m experiencing in real life.

dust girl 2DUST GIRL
by Sarah Zettel

Published by: Random House, 2012
ISBN:9780375983184
ebook: 304 pages
Series: The American Fairy Trilogy #1

My rating: 6/10

First sentence: Once upon a time, I was a girl called Callie.

Callie LeRoux is choking on dust. It settles on the food in the kitchen. It seeps through the cracks in the hotel that Callie and her mother run in Kansas. It’s slowly filling her lungs. Callie’s begged her mother to leave their town, like their neighbors have already done, but her mother refuses. She’s waiting for Callie’s long-gone father to return.
Just as the biggest dust storm in history sweeps through the Midwest, Callie discovers her mother’s long-kept secret. Callie’s not just mixed race—she’s half fairy, too. Now, Callie’s fairy kin have found where she’s been hidden, and they’re coming for her.
While red dust engulf the prairie, magic unfolds around Callie. Buildings flicker from lush to shabby, and people aren’t what they seem. She catches glimpses of a tail, a wing, dark eyes full of stars. The only person Callie can trust may be Jack, the charming ex-bootlegger she helped break out of jail.
From the despair of the Dust Bowl to the hot jazz of Kansas City, from dance marathons to train yards, to the dangerous beauties of the fairy realm, Sarah Zettel creates a world rooted equally in American history and in magic, where two fairy clans war over a girl marked by prophecy.

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Callie LeRoux hast two secrets. The one she knows is that her father is dark-skinned, which is why she isn’t allowed out in the sun too much. Her mother does her best to keep Callie’s skin as pale as possible. The second secret is that Callie is a half-fairy. The story starts out very well with Callie witnessing the biggest sandstorm ever, loses her mother in that storm, and returns to the hotel to find the Hoppers waiting to check into some rooms. That family rivals any thriller writer in creepiness. I guarantee chills down your spines when you read about the Hoppers, especially the children (why is it that children in horror movies are always the scariest things?).

When Callie meets Jack and decides to go and find her mother, he joins her on a journey through Kansas and the dust. They find out about Callie’s heritage as a half-fairy, about fairy politics (and real-world ones) and are on the run from one person or another throughout the rest of the book.

What I loved wdust girlas how several strands of story are set up throughout the beginning, how side characters were introduced that pushed all of my mythology buttons, and how Callie and Jack are portrayed. I did have a huge problem placing them age-wise. Callie behaved like a 12-year-old but was treated more like a girl of 15 or even 16. Jack being described as “no older than Callie” didn’t help either. Goodreads tells me Callie is supposed to be 13 and that’s what I settled for. But it was not apparent through the writing and my brain wasn’t sure whether to picture a little girl or a young woman.

While I enjoyed the ideas and themes in Dust Girl, I was sad that they were left mostly unexplored. As for world-building, the author kind of wrote herself into corners. The magic is never really explained but it seems to follow no rules at all – a matter of taste, surely, but I like boundaries to my magic. Otherwise, the heroine is all-powerful and where’s the fun in reading about someone like that? Callie being mixed race should have had a much deeper impact on her life. After a few days on the run, being exposed to the hot desert sun, Callie’s skin grows visibly darker and she receives sidelong glances. It is mentioned but not really explored. So yes, racism exists, and it existed in the 1930s. But I was hoping for much more than a few throwaway remarks.

Sarah Zettel writes action really well. Callie and Jack stumble from one problem into the next, a repetition I didn’t mind because every time they were being hunted, I was on the edge of my seat, worrying for them and hoping they would get out of it. I expect that young adults will enjoy this book a lot because it is fast-moving and engaging and keeps things simple.

That simplicity is one of my qualms. I realize that, as an adult, this book was not written for me or my age-group. But all the best children’s fiction can be read by adults and enjoyed on a different level. Take Harry Potter or Terry Pratchett’s YA novels – children will mostly read for pure story, adults may choose to look deeper and find what additional levels the author has hidden in what only seems like a simple story. I was missing that element completely in Dust Girl.

Towards the end, I felt like the plot strings and world-building were a big fat mess. Not only does Callie not know whom to trust and what to do with her powers, the readers are left hanging as well. It is clear that this is the set-up for a trilogy or series because 90% of the story arcs introduced are left unresolved. The ending is rounded enough so you don’t want to throw the book against a wall and scream because you want to know what will happen next. But of all the strange things that happened to Callie, of all the things she has found out about herself, the Seelie and Unseelie people, where her mother and absentee father are, we don’t really get any answers.

This sounds a lot more negative than I actually felt about the story while reading it. It is competently written, was very engaging and fantastically creepy at times. For me, the style was a bit too child-like, the story a bit too messy in terms of structure, and while I did enjoy it and read it quickly, I was left feeling a little underwhelmed. I will pick up the second book and see where Callie’s story leads me but I’m in no hurry to do so.

THE GOOD: Great ideas, wonderfully creepy, a page-turner. Nicely atmospheric.
THE BAD: Plot strings get tangled, no clear rules for the magic-system, messy world-building. Unresolved ending.
THE VERDICT: Recommended for younger readers (11+) or as a quick read between meatier books. It’s not a highlight, but it was fun enough to keep reading.

RATING:  6/10   Good.

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The American Fairy Trilogy:

  1. Dust Girl
  2. Golden Girl

Other reviews: