Saturday, July 27, 2013

Book Review: Ombria in Shadow

Patricia McKillip is one of those writers who, much like Peter S. Beagle, makes the rest of us lowly wordsmiths want to hang up our words and call it a day. Maybe it's sentences like "The river narrowed, quickened, its surface trembling like the eyes of dreamers" or phrases like "but in that house who could assume that even fire and water would not conspire?" that make me melt into a puddle of envy. Or maybe it's the fact that I loved her characters better in the first five pages than I've loved other characters after entire books spent in their company. Whatever the case may be, from those first few twinkling words in Ombria in Shadow, I was enchanted. I wanted to pour those gorgeous words on the floor and roll around in them like a dog, hoping their scent would rub off on me.

 The cover art for Ombria in Shadow, featuring the lovely Lydea.
Buy it here.

The story begins with the death of the Prince of Ombria as his mistress, beautiful flame-haired tavern girl, Lydea, mourns with the child heir, Kyel. One by one, the young prince's guards and servants are sent away as his great aunt, Domina Pearl, seeks to isolate him and appoint herself regent. After Lydea is cast into the streets like rubbish, no longer having her royal lover to protect her, the bastard lordling, Ducon Greve, is left as the only person in the castle looking after his cousin, Prince Kyel's, interests. As the claw-like grip of Domina Pearl closes over the kingdom, the city of Ombria looks to be in dire straits. 

And yet, there is a legend of a shadow city beneath Ombria, filled with the ghosts of Ombria's history. Lurking among those ghosts is an ancient sorceress named Faey and her precocious waxling, Mag. While Faey isn't normally interested in the affairs of the world above, Mag is drawn to investigate the unfolding events in the castle, fascinated by Ducon and Lydea and disgusted by Domina Pearl. But her meddling puts the two parallel worlds on a collision course that could change the city of Ombria forever. 

Fan art of Lydea. (No pun intended.)
Original image found here

There isn't a person in this book that doesn't evoke a strong response in the reader. Lydea has a strong, sad grace to her, obviously stricken by the tragedy of losing her beloved, but channeling her energy into bravery and loyalty rather than disappearing into grief. Ducon Greve is intriguing and seductive as a beautiful, mysterious man fixated on drawing shadows with his ever-present piece of charcoal, seeming to see something in the ruins that others cannot. Devoted to his young cousin, Ducon is as quiet and steady as a marble pillar as he tries to "hold up the sky over the young prince's head," as one character put it. 

Fan art of Ducon Greve. Original image found here.

Much like the castle laundresses, a reader finds herself thinking she wouldn't
mind a little charcoal on her sheets, for this fellow.

And Kyel. Poor Kyel. The embattled young prince is so vulnerable and forlorn that you want to hug him and hide him away from the Black Pearl's menace. And then there's Mag, who is beginning to suspect that she might be human and not just one of Faey's concoctions. She is so curious, quick-witted, and warm that you'll end up wanting to scamper through the shadows of the city with her, hiding in plain sight as you explore the city's secrets. Even relatively minor characters like Lydea's father, who suffered the sting of having been abandoned by his daughter for her royal lover, tug at your feels until you're trying to convince yourself that there's just something in your eye. 

When it comes to Faey, with her changing faces and casual magical prowess, I get an impression that she had a little scary Galadriel-under-the-influence-of-the-One-Ring lurking under the surface of her graceful reserve. Yet as arcane and mysterious as she is, there is humanity in her, as well as humor and practicality. She serves as an elegant counterpoint to Domina Pearl's potent malevolence. As villains go, Domina Pearl is the creme de la creme of baddies. She comes on like an aged Lady Vader, complete with impeccable helmet-like hair and mysterious powers. Such was her badassery that every time somebody shook a fist and railed against her, all I could think was, "Good luck, man. I hope that works out for you. But, you know, doubtful.

Aside from her magical way with words, unmatched creativity, and engrossing characters, McKillip offers any aspiring writer a crash course in how to show rather than tell. I never needed to get a thinky inner monologue from Lydea as to how she felt about losing Prince Royce, because it sighed out hauntingly from her actions after his death such that I got tear-eyed over a love I never actually witnesses in its heyday. It's just one example, but I walked away from this book so captivated by her skill that I wanted to try some of these tricks, myself, and hope to be even half as good at them.

So, to sum, if you like beautifully written books that capture the imagination and make you fall in love with the characters, pick up a copy of Ombria in Shadow today!

Monday, July 8, 2013

Tamsin: A Book Review

If you happened to read my fangirl gushing about the wit, humor, and beauty of The Last Unicorn, then you're well aware that I'm a fan of Peter S. Beagle's writing. And given that my current"to read" list on Goodreads is pretty much everything he's ever written, it shouldn't surprise anyone that I've already found my way to another Beagle work. This time, it was Tamsin that thrilled me to the depths of my writerly soul, but in new and unexpected ways. 

Any illusions I had that this book would be filled with the same dignified elegance as The Last Unicorn vanished with the use of the word "period" on the very first page. And no, it was not in the context of a grammatical discussion. At first, I was so jarred by how different the voice of the main character, Jenny Gluckstein, was from anything I would have expected from Beagle that I had to take a minute before I could move on. But I'm glad I did. It was worth getting over the culture shock.

The voice of the main character in this novel turned out to be just as magical as anything in The Last Unicorn, but with a sense of sense of reality and tangibility to it. You see, the narrator is a 13 year-old girl from New York City whose mother, Sally, is getting married to an Englishman. Unfortunately for Jenny, this means that she is being uprooted from her life in Manhattan and transplanted with her new family to an ancient farm in Dorset, where her new stepdad has been hired to get the farm yielding crops again.

Nothing could have thrilled Jenny less. Awkward, pimply-faced Jenny had a hard enough time making friends in New York. She is apprehensive about moving to a foreign country, inheriting two stepbrothers she's never met, and has the general aversion that most children posses to seeing their parents change. Jenny recognizes that Sally is happier with her new husband than she's ever been and that she is doing everything possible to make things easier for Jenny, but she resists her mother at every turn. She is confused and overwhelmed, and it makes her behave badly. Her life in New York may not be perfect, but it's familiar and comforting and she doesn't want things to change.

But change it does, and in ways that Jenny could never have expected. The farm in Dorset has a rich history, you see, and that history isn't exactly lying dormant. Rather, it's rifling through the pantries at night, breaking the refrigerator, and sending a lingering smell of vanilla through the house. Led to investigate by her mentor in the study of coolness, Mister Cat, Jenny ends up coming face-to-face with ancient beings lurking in the secret world of Stourhead Farm, including a gentle, lovely ghost named Tamsin.

"An Ill Wind" by Dashinvaine
Original image found here.

Through the course of the story, Jenny finds her destiny linked to Tamsin's. If she doesn't figure out the connection between Tamsin's past and the eerie night world of Stourhead Farm, her new friend may be doomed to a fate far worse than death. 

I think the thing that struck me as most impressive in the beginning of the book was how believable and relatable Jenny was. For a grown man to inhabit the mind of a 13 year-old girl so ably and with such sensitivity is no easy thing, and Beagle pulls it off with more skill than some writers who actually once were 13 year-old girls. And the real feat is that, given her disgruntlement with the way her life is changing, Jenny says and does some unpleasant things to blameless people in the beginning and is not one bit less likable. Between the clear portrayal of what was so upsetting to Jenny about her circumstances and the fact that the story is  told by a 19 year-old Jenny with the regret brought on by hindsight, you understand where she's coming from and see that she did come to repent for her past transgressions. In fact, the way she uses her crankiness to hide her sadness and discomfort actually becomes endearing, an accomplishment that could only be pulled off by the same man who once made a unicorn's arrogance seem charming.

An artist's depiction of the Wild Hunt.
Original image found here.

And Peter S. Beagle does for English folklore what he did for the unicorn, and just as cleverly. It would be easy to read about boggarts and pookas and the Wild Hunt and to not be able to take them seriously, thinking of them as silly fairy tale beings with no weight or depth. But in Beagle's world, they have a reality to them, a seriousness and a grandeur that makes them both intriguing and intimidating. They feel almost historical, like details that the history books overlooked that truly capture the richness of English culture. So complex and wonderful was the world he created in the pages of this book, with it overlay of historical facts, that I was reluctant to finish it as I drew near the end. I didn't want to leave, to go back to my mundane life where a knock in my kitchen was just my dishwasher clicking to rinse and a storm was just a storm.

All of the characters are people you'd gladly spend time with, except where they're not meant to be. From good-natured stepfather Evan, to loving mother Sally, to quiet stepbrother, Tony (who is apparently quite the dancer), and that sweet bundle of curly-haired energy called Julian, you find yourself knowing and welcoming these people into your life, page after page. And Mister Cat makes me wish I had a creature in my life who could ooze unflappable competence that way, being more of a caretaker and companion than a mere pet.

And Tamsin. Oh, Tamsin. I don't wish to spoil you, dear reader, but prepare to fall in love. This whole book will make you fall in love, with the plot, the characters, and the vivid beauty of the writing, but Tamsin nestles atop this pile of literary achievements like a twinkling jewel.

So if you are looking for a beautifully written novel as relatable as a conversation with your best friend, but as surreal as waking up in the middle of a fairy tale, pick up your copy of Tamsin today. And I shall envy you the privilege of being able to read it for the first time as I go back for my second and third reads to soak in all the nuances!

This novel is mini beagle-approved!