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.