Saturday, November 29, 2014

Book Review: Jackaroo by Cynthia Voigt

Order a copy of Jackaroo here.
This image was originally found here.

Long long ago in a galaxy far away (actually, in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, circa 1991 or 1992), my best friend's mother read us to sleep with a book called On the Wings of a Falcon by Cynthia Voigt. Although it shredded my baby feels into confetti, I developed an unreasonable fondness for that book. Later, as an adult, I remembered it with nostalgia and tracked down a hard copy for my library.

It was only in reading the back of the book that I realized it was number three in a series. My heart went pitter pat with delight. I had just gone through a Patricia McKillip binge and I needed a new author to read. As much as I love McKillip's ornate, poetic prose and her worlds that brim with magic, I felt the need for something a bit more grounded. If On the Wings of a Falcon was any indication, Cynthia Voigt would be just what the doctor ordered. 

Of course, because this is me we're talking about, I got distracted by something shiny and forgot about it for a while. Weeks later, it hit me in an avalanche of renewed joy when I was lying on my couch, suffering through the vagaries of cable TV. I turned off the TV and I downloaded book one, Jackaroo, onto my ipad.

The rest, my friends, is history. As in, these books have the feel of actual history, a time and a place that could actually happen. Instead of elves, fairies, orcs, and goblins (which definitely have their place), Cynthia Voigt's Kingdom is filled with hardworking people in a medieval society who live under the thumbs of the Lords, their lives filled with toil and difficulty, but softened by family and friendship. In this way, and so many others, the characters come across as real, relatable people whose problems don't feel so far removed from our own. And the best example of this principle is in the main character, Gwyn,

One of the original covers.
This image was found here.

Gwyn is the Innkeeper's daughter, and as such occupies a place of relative privilege when compared to the other common people. Times are hard because of a war going on in the south, but the inn's custom always thrives. While others may go without, Gwyn wears good sturdy clothes, always has enough to eat, and her father has the coin to give her a good dowry. 

But this does not mean, as some of her envious neighbors might think, that her life is a bed of roses. For one thing, Gwyn's life is filled with toil, and she is a good, strong, steady worker who is still not valued as much as her bratty younger brother, Tad, the Innkeeper's sole surviving son. Furthermore, she's at a crossroads in her life where she must make a difficult decision. The custom among the people is that when a girl comes of age, she must either announce that she is interested in marriage or declare she'll never marry. If she announces the intention of marriage and no one speaks for her in a set amount of time, she still ends up forever single, owing her labor to whichever male relative inherits her father's holdings. The same results follow from announcing her intention that she'll never marry. If a man speaks for her and she says yes, then it's to her husband's house that she goes, and adds her labors to his. 

Gwyn, unfortunately, has her heart set on a man who hates her father. Out of spite, he'll never ask for her. She doesn't want anyone else, so she's decided that she'll never marry. However, the marvelous thing about this book is even though the story does touch upon the fears of a woman who knows that if she doesn't marry, she'll be looked upon a certain way by society, and she'll have no one to support her as she ages, this is not the sum total of the story. It is not about whether or not Gwyn will have a man in her life, it's about the use she decides to put her life to instead.

Another cover.
This image was found here.

In this story, Gwyn sees the injustice that other people ignore and aches to do something about it. She is inspired by the legend of the Jackaroo, a daring highwayman who robs from the tax collector and gives to the poor, who saves innocent men from the noose, and punishes the greedy and corrupt. And when certain events make her realize how poorly she belongs in the neat little world that she's inhabited her whole life, she begins to look for ways to follow the Jackaroo's example and fight for those in need.

This is not your typical fantasy novel, brimming with magic and curses and fantastic creatures, but Cynthia Voigt's world-building has such depth and detail that the Kingdom still captures the imagination. There is something rich and compelling even in the quiet scenes of life at the inn, showing Gwyn at her tasks or interacting with her family and the Innkeeper's servant, Burl, that one doesn't pine after the clash of swords or the twinkle of fairy dust. It is a quiet story with moments of action and peril instead of an emphasis on breakneck pacing, a thoughtful story with excellent character development, and ultimately, it's a very satisfying story. 

There is something hypnotic about Cynthia Voigt's writing. She isn't the dreamy, poetic writer that McKillip is, for instance, but there is a strong, steady craftsmanship in her words, and they are embroidered with just the right amount of beautiful imagery. They lead you inexorably from one plot point to the next, leaving you unable to look away, until the book is done. It is why I, who usually linger and mull over a book, strolling through the pages and sopping up every last word, was done with this book in two weeks, then promptly reread the ending over again to enjoy it a second time. I was done with the second book even more quickly, and I have plans to go back and reread the last half. I fell under the spell of the world, characters, and the strong writing, and I couldn't stop turning pages once I started. Further, although they can be read separately and they stand alone as distinct stories (with subtle connective tissue between the books, nonetheless), Voigt's Kingdom books are addictive, like potato chips: you can't read just one. 

All in all, I think this book excels at so many things, but it's the stunningly detailed and relatable main characters that really sell it for me. I loved Gwyn, how she was clever and knew her own mind, but never went into that perilous, over-the-top shrew extreme that sometimes gets mistaken for strength. She was competent and capable and brave and compassionate, but she was also headstrong and apt to make impulsive decisions. She wasn't always kind to her brother or the quiet and somewhat mysterious Burl, but never for even the smallest of moments was she unlikable. So I'd highly recommend that you pick up your own copy and spend some time with Gwyn in Voigt's Kingdom today!

Friday, September 5, 2014

A Few of My Favorite (Literary) Things

All right, I recently got tagged in one of those Facebook games where you're supposed to list 18 books that had an impact on your life. And of course I cheated and listed entire series for some, because I have too many favorite books to be tied down to a mere 18. #StickingItToTheMan! Anyhow, because this is a pretty comprehensive list of my very favorite books in the whole world and I hope to entice others into exploring these literary gems further, I thought I would post my list here for all to see. So here it is, in no particular order.

by TriaElf9

1. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
The first fantasy novel I ever read, it was my first step down a path leading to a lifelong passion for the genre. My love for this book is what made me start writing my own stories. In case you're not familiar with the story, it's about four children sent to live with a professor in the country during the London air raids of World War II. There, the youngest stumbles upon a magical wardrobe connected to a winter-bound world and sucks her siblings into a quest to help the talking animals of Narnia defeat the White Queen. Influences from the fairy tale, the Snow Queen, and from Lewis' own Christian faith abound.

Image: "A Spell for Chameleon" by BrokenApollo

2. A Spell for Chameleon by Piers Anthony
Piers Anthony was the guy who showed me that fantasy didn’t have to be all “throw the ring in the fiery mountain lest we all be doomed.” It reminded me that there can be fun in the genre, that characters can fight evil and there can still be laughter and nonsense. Besides, who doesn't love a good pun, especially a magical world filled with puns that just happens to be shaped like Florida?

3. Child of the Northern Spring by Persia Woolley
My childhood best friend's mom read this book to us one night while I was spending the night at their house. I think this is where I learned to love Arthurian legends, and I haven’t stopped hunting down good retellings since. Woolley's version of Guinevere is about the only version of the character I've been able to stand. She is a living, breathing, flawed character who I root for in spite of knowing her ultimate fate.

4. The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart (and all the ensuing books in that series)
Luckily, after Child of the Northern Spring created my thirst for Arthurian legends, I found stellar books like this to slake it. This historical, yet still legendary series is part of the reason that I love Merlin so. In Stewart's books, he's not just a wise old sage. You watch him grow from a shy child to an old man, and he feels like a real person. What's more, the likes of Arthur, Uther, Ygraine, and the gang come to life on these pages more so than in any other retelling I'd seen in ages by the time I discovered this series. I reread these books until they almost fell apart.

5. Merlin’s Harp by Anne Eliot Crompton
Another brilliant Arthurian legend that puts a relatable gloss on the story without losing its legendary feel. This is one of the most original takes on Mordred’s role in the story and on the Lady of the Lake's identity. The seamless way Crompton wove the pieces of the legend into a framework of her own creating is one of the many reasons I used to reread this book on a yearly basis. Add in her mastery of the language and it's a book I never hesitate to recommend.

6. The A Man of His Word series and the sequel series, A Handful of Men, by Dave Duncan
I had been writing my own stories for years by the time I read these books, and they influenced me heavily. I was awed both by Duncan’s brilliant imagination, which created one of the most interesting worlds and magical systems I've ever read about, and by his ability to juggle dozens of plot threads and then handily tie them all up at the end in a way that felt right and natural. And seldom have I been as engaged by any set of characters as I was by his. I still love Rap beyond speaking to this day. Notably, Rap was one of the first fantasy heroes I'd ever read about who wasn't described as ridiculously good-looking, too, and was, in fact, a bit on the unattractive side.

7. Deerskin by Robin McKinley
There are a lot of worthwhile McKinley books to seek out, but this one stands out to me as the best of them all. It takes a shallow French fairy tale that makes light of a father’s interest in marrying his daughter (insert this face here: O_o) and gives that plot weight and consequence. It takes the wronged princess on a journey from victim to survivor that was meaningful and moving using language so beautiful it's worth reading just for the effortless descriptions, alone. I have never been so torn apart by a fairy tale retelling, only to be put back together into a better version of myself. Every time I put the book down, smiling through my tears, I immediately want to go through it all again.

"Royal Assassin" by AlbinoNial

8. The Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb
These books came along when I was getting bored by the fact that every fantasy hero seemed like a noble, studly piece of beefcake with wicked fighting skills and a flawless mind. People who never do the wrong thing are kind of hard to relate to. Then Fitz came walking into my literary life. Fitz may be a good-looking sort, but he is far from perfect. Leaving aside that he’s the bastard son of a disgraced prince and ends up becoming a royal assassin, he’s a mess of a human being. His intentions are generally good, but he often acts selfishly or impulsively and makes his situation worse. Which is actually infinitely more interesting to read about than a bunch of perfect people who don't know the meaning of the word "mistake." The world Hobbs created in these books is one of the most well-developed and fascinating ones I've ever seen and her writing is beautiful.

9. The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede
These books also came along to save me when I was getting bored with the same old tropes and  Super Serious Plots. They were also a ray of light in a world that seemed crammed with people trying to write spunky heroines who ended up coming across as annoying or overbearing. Cimorene was my ideal heroine: smart, capable, tired of being underestimated, but never beating you over the head with a sign saying, “I am woman, hear me roar.” The books were charming and light, but with just weight enough to be satisfying. One of the first novels I ever wrote that I was proud of when it was finished, The Humble Abode, was heavily influenced by these books.

10. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
I didn’t discover that Neil Gaiman until I was in my early twenties. I don’t know where his books had been all my life before that, but clearly, I had been missing out. And though I love just about everything he's ever written, this is, by far, my favorite of his books. It’s so dark and rich and inventive, and Croup and Vandermar are my absolute favorite literary villains. I could've stayed in London Below forever, even if it slightly terrified me.

"The Red Bull" by Dreoilin

11. The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle
Though I had known and loved the movie since I was a child, I was skeptical about reading the book. Growing up in a My Little Pony world had convinced me that unicorns were silly and girly. But Peter Beagle’s unicorn is not a My Little Pony unicorn. There’s magic and majesty and tragedy about this creature, mixed with a charming vanity and vulnerability that make her relatable. And Beagle's use of the language is some of the most gorgeous, imaginative, poetic writing I’ve seen. Not to mention the fact that the love story twists up my feels in the most glorious way. This book reminded me of why I wanted to be a writer at a time when I was wondering if it was all worth it. If there's a shot in Hell that I'll ever write anything as half as good as this, it mostly certainly is.

(Read my full review of this book here. Also, check out my review on Tamsin, which is my second favorite Beagle book!)

12. Ombria in Shadow by Patricia McKillip
I’m gonna be honest: I did not like the way this book ends. And you know what? I don't even care a little bit, because it was the first McKillip book I’d read and it was so gorgeously written I’d have forgiven her if she’d just stopped writing halfway through. Within 6 pages, I was so heavily invested in the characters that I couldn’t look away. I’ve read whole books and not cared that much! Domina Pearl has also joined Croup and Vandemar in my villainous hall of fame, a sort of old lady Darth Vader to their pair of well-spoken brutes. And I swooned harder over a romance that was only mentioned in flashbacks in this book than I have about detailed romantic plots in other books. The world McKillip created here was absolutely fascinating, and there are too many characters that I loved to describe them all briefly. (I wrote a full review on this book, and you can read it here.)

Original image found here.

13. In the Forests of Serre by Patricia McKillip
Yeah, I put her on here twice. And it’s not the last time, either. This book showed how cleverly one can take folklore and twist and combine different stories to make something utterly and gloriously unique. With Baba Yaga and her chicken-legged hut in one corner and the enigmatic and beautiful firebird in the other, one hardly knows what to gawk at first as one wanders across the pages of this book.

And Ronan. Oh Ronan. I have such a huge literary crush on tragic Prince Ronan, who went off to war in the hopes that he’d perish because he couldn’t live with the loss of his wife and child. McKillip takes him through a beautifully written physical and emotional journey through the forests of his kingdom and the haze his grief and brings him out of the other side. 

14. The Changeling Sea by Patricia McKillip
I could go on and on about Patricia McKillip. Stylistically, she’s probably one of the best writers I’ve ever encountered, and I have trouble finding anything I like half as much now that I’ve found her. This book is McKillip at her best. It’s short and romantic and tragic, yet so beautifully written that I’m glad to take the shots to the feels. And Peri is one of McKillip’s most relatable heroines. I loved her, I rooted for her, and I found her irresistably charming.

15. The Tower at Stony Wood by Patricia McKillip
You know, I thought I could keep it to the three, but this book just knocked my socks off, too. The interplay of the various legends was incredible, especially the way she used the selkie legends. You also get a dashing knight worth throwing hankies at, a dragon to make other literary dragons tremble in terror and awe, and more of her unbelievably beautiful words. But lest ye think a tale of dragons and knights means there’s nothing an ordinary person can relate to, you get characters like Melanthos, who is an everywoman type with a goodly dose of spunk. (Also, her boyfriend sounds dishy and sweet.) Plus, you have concepts like loyalty and brotherly love woven throughout, which we can all relate to.

"Burning Heart" by Maripose-Nocturna.

16. Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
I saw the movie before I read the book, and that worked out well for me. Watching the movie first helped me enjoy it without punishing it for not being quite as clever as the book. Then I read the book, and it was captivating, a fairy tale with a lot of clever twists and a very relatable main character. And yes, Howl is one of my literary boyfriends. Cowardly though he may be at times, I’d live in his moving castle any day!

17. Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
I don’t even know how to explain this book. Its wacky patter, the hilarious plot involving the antichrist being misplaced at birth (along with the resulting the identity crisis of his Hell hound), and the captivating characters (angelic, demonic, and human) make this one of the best pieces of brain candy I’ve ever savored.

18. The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley
Deerskin may be my favorite McKinley book, but this book is nipping at its heels. It’s another great example of a heroine who is strong and compelling without being obnoxious. And despite the fact that the main character, Aerin, is not only a princess but a dragon slayer, she is STILL one of the most relatable heroines I've ever read about. The mechanism by which she fights dragons actually makes it believable that a princess is able to kick some reptilian bum, and the romance involved, while secondary to her heroic journey, is utterly swoonworthy.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Nerdgirl State of the Union Address

I like that blog title. Makes me sound all presidential and junk. Not like someone who almost lost a toenail tripping over a pile of shoes yesterday. Ah, gravity and my own messiness: trying to kill me since 1985. 

This image was found at this site.

So, I haven't posted recently. I have been reading a lot, I've simply been too lazy to review things as they come up. However, I am excited to report that I have recently discovered the magical world of comic books, so that's claimed a lot of my attention lately. Now, they're not wholly unfamiliar to me. When I was a kid, I did whatever my brother did because my brother was wicked cool, so I read comics because he read comics. In particular, I remember digging Spider-Man, Daredevil, and X-men. I also branched out into some Cloak and Dagger at some point, but I actually remember nothing about those comics other than the fact that I liked them.

Getting back into comics has been overwhelming, if enjoyable. I simply don't remember how they work. It reminds me of my frustration with Greek mythology and Arthurian legends when I was younger and more naive. I wanted there to be a RIGHT version of these stories, the accepted version. I'd still read the variations, I just wanted to know which one was more legitimate than the others. I have no idea why. I guess I crave canon in all things, perhaps to create order from the chaos that comes of stories being retold in a thousand different ways. But the truth of the matter is, in some things, like myths and legends, canon is hard to come by. You might find repeating themes, common characteristics, and recurring plot developments, but when something springs up from a largely oral tradition, that shit is gonna vary. Every teller wants to add a flourish, which is why we end up with fairy tales like this that just go on with the "and then this happened... and this happened..." until you have enough material for three fairy tales. People who swapped stories back in the day did NOT understand the notion of a sagging plot hat.

Comic books... aren't that different. I was immediately confused, coming into the comic realm, as to where I'm supposed to begin reading about any particular character. Some of them had recent reboots, like She-Hulk or Nightcrawler, so that made it simple. I just hopped onto those trains as they left the station. But then I read "Night of the Living Deadpool" and fell head over heels for the merc with the mouth. I ran to my Marvel app for more, and... and... I have too many options. *sits down in the corner and cries.*

This image was found on this site.

Deadpool has had so many runs and miniseries and teamups that I have no idea where to begin. It's like coming to a place in a trail that branches off in nine directions, with a sign next to each branch that says, "go this way." It's okay, though, I'm working on figuring it out. I suspect Deadpool's humor translates well without a lot of background knowledge, so I really just need to decide where I want to jump in. I have a similar issue with Dr. Strange, who seems to have quite a lengthy history, but I love him enough to figure it out. His backstory fascinates me and he seems like an intriguing character. Plus, I hear he's getting a movie.

What helped me to get hooked on comics initially without being overwhelmed by all the iterations of the stories was that I began my foray into comics by choosing two series that have one linear storyline to follow: Sandman and Fables. While I know Fables has a few spinoffs and Sandman seems to have some bonus stories, it's pretty easy to find and follow the main thread. I've only read volume one of Sandman so far, but I did enjoy it. The stories got a bit gruesome, but not enough to deter me, so I've ordered volume two. As to Fables, I made it up to volume 10 and stalled. Volumes 1-5 were solid, with volume 4 being one of the best things I've read. Then my ship started floundering in a weird way and my favorite powerful, independent female character got turned into Donna Reed, so I threw my hands up in the air. I don't think I'm done with the series, but I need a break to think about things. Hopefully, this doesn't turn into the pre-breakup timeout I took with "Castle" years ago... 

In any case, I've found this article, "How to Buy Comics: A Beginner's Guide," to be helpful as I traverse this new territory. It also certainly doesn't hurt that the two comic book stores I tend to frequent, the Book Shelf in Tallahassee and Superhero Beach in Jacksonville, are magnificent places where newbs are welcomed and the staff is friendly and helpful. I heart the Book Shelf in particular, not only for the long conversations and helpful hints I've gotten from the owner, but for the fact that it is filled to brimming with rooms of used books. Even as I feel overwhelmed by my newbness, wading into a sea of comic books, the mountains of books across the room feel like a life preserver.

This image originally pinned here.

Of course, I haven't been just reading comics these days. I also read Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which was quite good, and I've been rereading Robin McKinley's Deerskin, albeit very slowly. Now, I say slowly because I used to reread Deerskin on a yearly basis, and it always tore me apart. I'd weep and snuffle through the pages, wanting to rescue the main character from her hardships, and then promptly smile and sigh and want to do it all over again. Now that I'm about 200 pages deep into my reread, I'm hitting some seriously heart-wrenching moments, so I've developed the habit of reading for a while and then stopping to feel all of the feelings. However, please don't think that this talk of weeping and being torn apart means that you should avoid this book. You should only avoid this book if you want to be deprived of the beauty of an exquisitely written and emotional fairy tale retelling that brings both mysticism and relatability to the old French yarn, Donkeyskin. So, you know, it's your life, if you want to do it wrong, I'm not going to judge you. 

This image found on this site.

I've also been writing, of course, because that's what I do. [1] I finished my novel, Ash, a while back, and I'm querying it. I also wrote several short stories that I've been shopping around. I've gotten three rejections so far on the short story front, with the jury still being out on two others, but at least one rejection actually turned out to be a positive development. One of my stories, "The Turning," had been bothering me. I felt like I had a cool setup, but maybe not enough of a "so what?" in the end. Sitting there, staring at the rejection in my inbox, I suddenly knew what the answer to the "so what?" was. It all clicked into place like some kind of magnificent Lego castle, and I could've hugged the editor who rejected me for giving me the kick in the pants I needed to think it through properly. So I put my nose to the grindstone to rework the ending. 

It was tough going for a while. I kept thinking, "Well, I was in a very specific mood when I wrote this beginning, and it's very dreamy. I'm not there anymore, so I'm afraid if I mess with it now, the tone will be inconsistent. I should wait to be in the right mood again." Then I read this blog post on "Not-Writing" by Patricia C. Wrede, which explains the difference between true writer's block and just plain not writing, and it hit me kinda like this: 

This image is also pinned here.

Ahem. So. No excuses. I kept on working. And in the end, I think my perseverance paid off. I finished the story and I'm pretty pleased with it, so it's off to the beta reader for feedback and then the final spit-shine. And in fixing that story, I actually figured out how to solve a plot problem in my novel, Beauty. So essentially, I'm walking on sunshine right now. Mind, I still have another story languishing in mid-process that I'm supposed to be working on right now instead of blogging. But given as this was how I felt the last time I attempted it-- 

This image is also pinned here.

-- I thought a little procrastination was in order. Besides, my blog was looking lonely and unloved. Something had to give. 

Anyhow, I hope you enjoyed the nattering, and will make good life choices and read Deerskin. Uh, also, if you have tips on how to dive into a comic book series with a long history, I am dying to have them. Until next time, gentle readers!

[1] Footnote: Does anyone else mentally finish the sentence, "that's what I do" with "it's what I live for, to help unfortunate merfolk like yourself"? No? Is it just me? Rats.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Book Review: The Riddle-Master Trilogy by Patricia McKilliip

"The Harp No Longer Sings" by Gold-Seven.
 You can check out the artist's work here.

I have a confession to make. I actually tried to read Patricia McKillip's Riddle-Master trilogy once before and failed. Despite the glorious things I had heard about the books, I got lost in a maze of odd names and confused about who was who, and I stopped reading about 20-some pages in due to an information overload. But I promised myself that I'd come back to it one day, because some of the things I'd been told about the books made them sound like a story that should not be missed. 

Buy your copy of this magnificent book here.

To say that I'm really glad that I did is an understatement. Once I learned to focus on the important things and allow the story to tell me which details were important, things went much more smoothly. All the place names and people that were mentioned slid off my mind like beads of water while I fixated on the main character, Morgon of Hed, his funny, brawling family, and his high-tempered friend, Prince Rood of An. And of course, once I realized that there was a romance in this book, I was hooked. (I'm a sucker like that.)

As the story unfolds, we learn that Morgon is the Prince of Hed, a tiny, inconsequential farming kingdom where very little happens of note. That is, until Morgon decides to challenge a ghost in the land of An to a riddle match. When his sister finds the crown he won under his bed, Morgon discovers that he's stirred up a hornet's nest by quietly winning a contest so many men have died trying their hand at. He also discovers that the crown was not the only prize for besting the ghost: King Mathom of An also promised his daughter, Princess Raederle, to whoever beat the ghost's riddle game. Raederele is the sister of Morgon's friend, Rood. Morgon has known and admired Raederle for some time, and he's quite smitten with her. With visions of a beautiful, amber-eyed redhead dancing in his mind, he sets out from Hed with the intention of coming forward with the crown and seeking Raederle's hand.

As much as Morgon would have been perfectly content to take his princess back to Hed and return to farming, making beer, and bickering with his siblings, the universe has other plans for him. No sooner does he leave his little island than do strange enemies come out of the woodwork, endangering not only Morgon, but those he loves best. In fighting and fleeing his foes, Morgon finds himself faced with a host of riddles even he can't answer that all seem to revolve around the mark of the three stars that has been on his face since birth. Those stars seem to mark him for a destiny that is larger than life, one set in place thousands of years before he was born. He must either give in to it or perish, even if embracing his destiny means giving up all of the things he holds most dear.

"Vesta" by Dusksong.
The original image is found here.

The journey Morgon undertakes makes this Patricia McKillip's most traditional fantasy novel yet, as it has the quest structure and some of the familiar high fantasy archetypes. However, what elevates it and makes it extraordinary is her rich, imaginative world, filled with golden horned vesta bounding through the snows, land-rulers who are bonded to their lands such that they share an empathy with the earth itself, and odd, beautiful magic, where even the gentlest harping may hold great power. Once I started traveling with Morgon into these other lands, I couldn't have put the book down if I'd tried. Each new place held such marvels that I couldn't wait to see where he went to next or who he would meet. There is no doubting after you read this book that Patricia McKillip's imagination is a national treasure.

The characters are another strong draw. Morgon, himself, is a sympathetic and flawed hero. He is not entirely willing to be sucked into the role of a legendary hero, but when duty calls, he has enough honor to step up. He's a kind, gentle man and a good brother, and relies on wit and intuition rather than pure brawn. And it also speaks well of him that he respects his lady love. Even though he has won the right to marry her by winning the riddle match, it is never Morgon's intention to show up and claim her like lottery winnings. No, Morgon's first through is to ask her if she would be willing to marry him, and then and only then will he take her back to Hed. 

"Pepper Breeze" by Artgem
Original image found here.

Raederle, herself, is absent from the first book, but takes on a very nontraditional role in the second book. And that's the other thing that is so spectacular about these books. This fair princess is not sitting somewhere knitting booties for her future offspring while the hero does all the work. Raederle is an active heroine in the story herself, a fiery, spirited, independent, strong-willed woman who knows what she wants and goes after it. After all, Morgon is not the only one with a destiny here!

I could go on about how beautifully McKillip handles Raederle's interactions with Morgon, keeping a legendary tone to the story, but also with a thread of realism and relatability, but I don't want to get too spoilery. Suffice it to say that this is not your typical fantasy story, though it's every bit as lovely and magical as you would hope it to be. 

Even without Morgon and Raederle earning gold stars for awesomeness, there's a whole host of supporting characters who shine in these books. Deth, the High One's harpist, is an intriguing riddle of a man who kept me on my toes throughout the books. King Har of Osterland, Danan Isig, Astrin Ymris, the Morgol, and Mathom of An also earned my respect and devotion in their time on the pages. I loved every one of them like they were old friends and anytime any of them had cause to grieve, I wanted to wade into the story and hug them. 

"Raederle" by CaithnardStudent
Original image found here.

And did I mention how beautifully McKillip writes? You've heard me wax on about this before, if you've read some of my other reviews about her books. Still, it cannot be said enough: this woman has a poet's soul and a novelist's mind. Her words glitter and glint on the page, filling your mind with gorgeous, dream-like images. When describing a character's impatience, we are told that she feels that "even the dead of An, their bones plaited with grass roots, must be drumming their fingers in their graves." And then you have passages like this, that make me want to hang up my keyboard and stop pretending like I can share the name "writer" with someone like McKillip:

In the end, as the pieces of the story came together, I could clearly see what McKillip had been building to from the beginning. Even the small patches where I doubted, thinking she was meandering a bit, snapped into focus as crucial moments that shaped the ending. In other books by this author, I've had to spend time mulling the rightness of the ending, wondering if the plot points truly lined up in the direction she had chosen. Usually, I come around to appreciate it, though I sometimes find myself wishing that things had played out a little differently here and there. This time, I didn't even have to think about it. I felt the rightness in the story, even though parts of it broke my heart.

Ultimately, these books will resonate in my memory as some of the best I've ever read. So, to put it mildly, I'd recommend them. To put it less mildly, why are you still sitting here reading this review? Quick, order your copy now! And then come back and tell me how much you loved it in the comments! :) 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Literary Fortune

I've been rejected a lot in my 34 years of life, both in literary endeavors and personal ones. But since it's a lot less embarrassing, today's blog will focus on my literary rejections.

Just last year, I finally completed polishing and editing The Humble Abode, a fun and quirky fantasy novel I had been writing off and on for ten years. I spent a good deal of time painstakingly crafting my query materials with the assistance of my lovely and talented beta reader and, with my heart in my mouth, I launched my opus out into the world. 

Then I watched it get shot to ribbons in a 21-rejection salute. BOOM! Too light-hearted. BAM! Doesn't fit my list right now. POW! Form rejection letter. FIZZLE! An ominous lack of reply than can only be construed as a rejection.

I tried sending it EVERYWHERE. I sent it to several small publishers and just about every likely literary agent who represented fantasy and did not operate on a street corner with a sign reading "will agent for food." Nothing. No one wanted it. I got some kind words in response from agents who took the time to tell me that they liked my writing and my characters, even if they didn't feel like it was a good fit for them, but all in all, I walked away empty-handed.

I could have done a lot of things in response to this utter failure of my greatest dream in life since I was eight years old. I could've been childish. I could've replied to rejection letters with this gif:

But I didn't. Because, maturity. Because, professionalism. But mostly because I know "not now" actually may mean, "not right now."

As well we all know, the published market is ever-changing. It trends in one direction, then corrects and goes in another as people start to get burned out on carbon copies of the same old thing. For a while now, we've all seen the thousands of YA novels about brooding but sexy vampires, Hunger Games-esque dystopian works, and the many dubious Fifty Shades of Grey fan fiction stories being published as works in their own right. And now we begin to see the backlash against some of these trends. I see a lot of agents saying things like, "Don't send me anymore paranormal romance. The market is crammed, so unless it's awesome, I can't sell it." I'm also reading that folks are getting tired of first-person YA meant to emulate the Hunger Games. And I don't know if people are getting tired of the Fifty Shades of Grey fan fiction being treated as legitimate creative works, but I am, so you know, fingers crossed.

Ultimately, it's a numbers game and a waiting game. You have to hold onto hope and keep trying, or you won't even have the possibility of something good happening, right? 

Maybe someday, quirky madcap fantasy will be in vogue, and when that day comes, I'll be ready and waiting with The Humble Abode in my hands. And in the meantime, I'm gonna keep on keeping on. Right now, I’m polishing up my query materials for yet another novel, a post-apocalyptic fairy tale called Ash. I've also got another novel in progress and I’m continuing to write short stories. I've even submitted two to paying markets to try and get my name out there. (I've gotten one rejection out of that so far, but bygones. The venue with the longer response time is the one I sent my absolute best story to, so I have high hopes!) I'm going to keep tapping the keys, rattling my solitary writer's cage to try to get people to notice what I'm doing, and dreaming of the day it all works out. Because it can happen, but only if I'm trying. What matters is that I don't give up.

And my day of triumph comes someday, as I just know it will, I imagine it will look something like this: 

A clip from the episode "The Excelsior Acquisition" of "The Big Bang Theory"

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Book Review: Song for the Basilisk by Patricia McKillip

Buy the book here.

So I just finished reading Song for the Basilisk, and once again, Patricia McKillip blew me away with her mastery of the English language. Her words wove a beautiful dream from which I never wanted to wake, even when that dream turned unnerving or heartbreaking in places.

The plot follows a young boy who is rescued from the ashes of a fireplace after witnessing a tragedy and spirited away to a rocky island to hide among the bards. He's given a new name, Rook Caladrius, and taught to forget the life he left behind. But though he's happy to hide from his past in the bards' school, the music sometimes rouses painful memories of fire and sorrow. When the danger he left behind begins to close in on him, Rook will have to face his past or perish.

This story starts with a bang, with a beautifully macabre and tragic scene unfurling that thrills and horrifies at the same time. From there, there is romance, music, magic, and adventure. What more could a reader ask for?

I will admit, I'm still mulling the ending. It was satisfying, but I can't decide if I didn't see it coming because it wasn't built to smoothly or because I just wasn't paying close enough attention. Either way, I'm still delighted to have read this book and chances are, I'll reread it again and find that I'm wholly on board with it. That's usually where I end up with McKillip's trickier endings. Regardless, I would recommend it to anyone who loves beautifully written, richly imagined fantasy novels.