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Thursday, June 30, 2005

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cover of The Tower at Stony Wood

It took me a bit longer to get into this book than is usual with McKillip's work, but once I did, it was as if I had been ensorcelled-- rather like several of the characters in the book. There are several different towers in this book, and one of them is a tower where a young girl, Melanthos, goes to see things-- fragments of stories-- in a mirror, and then she embroiders what she sees. The reader of this book has a similar experience: you enter this tower, this book, and you glimpse fragments of several different stories, and slowly those stories are woven together until you become part of the story, too.

The main thread of this interwoven plot centers on a knight named Cyan Dag (whose emblem, incidentally, is three towers), who is sent on a quest by a mysterious woman bard-- but his quest is not quite what he thinks when he embarks. I had my doubts about the veracity of the reason for his quest early on, but I didn't guess the real reason for his quest. It is all the more beautiful and moving when you discover why it is that Cyan Dag, and he alone, was chosen for this quest. It is mentioned more than once that Cyan Dag sees with his heart, that he has ancient eyes. He could never have accomplished what he did if he'd been asked directly-- he would have thought it impossible for anyone, and perhaps his brain would have gotten in the way of his heart. The bard explains to him, after his quest is over:

We needed you... We wanted all your courage and your gentleness, your determination, your loyalty, and your gift for seeing and for doing, as when you heard the young boy crying in the rain, what must be done.

This is a beautiful book-- three towers (and more), three sisters, and one faithful knight bringing peace and magic back into his world.

Title:The Tower at Stony Wood
Author:Patricia McKillip
Date published:2001
Number of pages:304
Notes:This book was a birthday present.


Sunday, June 26, 2005

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cover of Spindle's End

Another delightful fairy tale re-telling from Robin McKinley, this time (if you couldn't guess from the title), we get her version of Sleeping Beauty-- although there isn't so much slumbering in this story. McKinley creates a new country so saturated with magic that it settles around like dust and has the potential to invade such ordinary, every-day tasks as boiling water or slicing bread. This also allows McKinley to set up a dichotomy between the more academic and intellectual wizards, in contrast with the wilder, and ultimately more powerful magic of the fairies, both good and evil.

As with so many of McKinley's heroines, the girl who should be a slumbering princess is instead a tomboy who talks to animals, hangs around the smith's yard helping him shoe horses, and learns to be a horse doctor. Rosie detests the silly fairy-gifts she was given by her fairy godmothers at her christening (things like ridiculously long eye-lashes, curly blond hair, and the like), and has a stubbornness familiar to those who have encountered some of the other women in McKinley's books.

Because we all know the fairy tale, I'm not giving anything away when I say that the evil fairy Pernicia is defeated in the end. But the way that Rosie wins out is largly due to the strength of her own individuality, and also due to the loyalty of her many friends, both human and animal. Pernicia's strength is clear, and it is very obvious that things could have easily gone another way. This is one of the more creative retellings of a fairy tale I've read; the ending is fresh, and the characters (especially characters who never come into the traditional version of the tale) are delightful and lovable.

Title:Spindle's End
Author:Robin McKinley
Date published:2000
Number of pages:354
Notes:Second or third reading, at least.


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Cover image of Fray

I don't read many comic books, but I am a big enough fan of Joss Whedon's work in other media that I thought it was worth giving Fray a try-- and it is well-worth the time. It doesn't take a long time to read, but it may take longer to process and think through the fascinating world and characters that Whedon (with the help of the visual artists, of course) have created here.

Melaka Fray is a street-savvy "grabber" who fetches (steals) things for a price. She lives in the darker part of the city, where the poor people live, and where mutated or deformed humans are common. There are vampires around ("lurks", in the street slang-- Fray doesn't even know them by the term "vampire"), but there hasn't been a Slayer for centuries-- so when the need for a new slayer arises and Fray is the chosen one, she doesn't get a lot of help. As was often the case for Buffy, there are always personal complications in the fight against vampires, and this story is no exception to that rule. I like that Fray is drawn fairly realistically (and not as some juvenile fantasy of what a woman might look like), and I also like the fact that she has a very particular and distinct style (there are some pencil sketches reproduced at the end of the book, and it is fun to see Fray next to Buffy).

One thing I wondered about is how Fray's world fits in with the end of the Buffy TV series, because at the end of the series they changed the rules about slayers-- and this seems to predate that rule-change, in a way. The story does reference a huge battle involving the last slayer, which banished all the demons (although if that is the case, why are there still vampires in the slums?). I suppose if it has been centuries since there have been any slayers, and even the watchers are a little bit crazy, there is a little bit of leeway for how the rules might apply to Fray-- after all, she doesn't seem like the type to follow them, anyway.

Author:Joss Whedon
Date published:2003
Genre:Science Fiction / Horror
Series:part of the Slayerverse
Number of pages:216
Notes:This is a graphic novel.


Tuesday, June 21, 2005

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cover of Sunshine

So far as I am aware, this is the first book by Robin McKinley to be found in the Horror section of the bookstore (I know because I had to look it up in the bookstore computer when I went to buy my copy and couldn't find it). No doubt Sunshine is classified as horror because of the strong presence of vampires-- but in spite of this, there is a clear continuity with McKinley's earlier books, which include mostly fantasy and a few re-tellings of fairy tales-- and there is a definite connection with McKinley's two previous versions of the story of Beauty & the Beast.

I love this book and the characters-- even though Sunshine's world is a dark one I might not want to live in, it is a very believable world. This is partly accomplished through the minute details that flesh out Sunshine's world, in particular the slang. If there is a slang word for vampires (they call them "suckers"), then you know that they've been around for a while and people have sort of gotten used to the fact. The same goes for all the different kinds of magic and charms and the like that are a part of Sunshine's everyday world-- there is an incredible level of detail and logic to how these things work. Sunshine herself is also such a matter-of-fact narrator, with a very individual, believable, and even humorous voice.

In the past, when I've discovered a new book by Robin McKinley in my local bookstore, I've purchased it immediately without knowing anything about it (this actually happened with Spindle's End). That is how much I love McKinley's work (I own most of her books-- I think I probably have every full-length novel she's written). But when I first found out about Sunshine, I read some unflattering reviews on, which made me doubt this book. As a result, I didn't immediately pursue getting a copy, and forgot about it for a while. Somehow I was reminded about the book, but since I still had my doubts, I actually read a public library copy of Sunshine the first time... But I tore through the book, and I could hardly wait to get a copy of my own when the paperback edition came out.

I haven't read a lot of vampire fiction (in fact-- I'm not sure I've really read any besides Sunshine), but I'm familiar with Buffy & Angel, and I like the way McKinley spins the vampire tradition-- again, McKinley has thought things through and the details are completely fleshed out and logical. The character of Con, of course, is fascinating, and I love the idea that there are different ways of being a vampire. I think I prefer McKinley's descriptions of vampires-- It seems like vampires ought to look obviously different from humans (unless they are "passing"), although I can imagine that would be much more difficult and expensive to do on film or TV. In this world, vampires are clearly creatures of the night who are inimical to humans; their senses work differently, they travel differently, even though they are also very wealthy, powerful, and clever (they even have their own technology that hooks into this world's version of the internet).

The whole book is a treat to read, and even though it's a decent length book, it reads pretty quickly. The ending is perfectly suited to the rest of the book... but it also leaves me with some hope that perhaps McKinley will return soon to this fascinating world and the wonderful characters of Sunshine and Con.

Author:Robin McKinley
Date published:2003
Number of pages:405
Notes:Third reading.


Sunday, June 12, 2005

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cover of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

G & I wanted to prepare ourselves for the release of Harry Potter book 6, and when G found an unabridged book-on-tape edition of book 5 at the library right before a long road trip, it seemed like perfect timing. Normally, I don't do books on tape very often (if at all); G does more since he has a long commute to work right now. At first it took me a while to warm up to the reader's voice, but he did such a great job with all the different character's voices that it was delightful to listen to. It was also fun to enjoy the book together and talk about what we remembered and didn't remember, or speculate about things. As long as our road trip was, The Order of the Phoenix was longer-- we didn't have time to finish the book on the road. But that worked out fine for me: G listened to the rest on his work commute for the next few days, and I just read the last few chapters in our copy of the book.

Reading this book made me want to go back and read all the other Harry Potter books, too (the practical part of me realizes both that I don't have time for that right now, and that there are lots of other books I want to read-- maybe I will re-read them all before book seven comes out). Sometimes I think that Rowling's writing is not so fabulous (on the level of wording or style), but somehow the characters she creates are so memorable and likable-- which is a far more powerful literary gift than perfect style.

One of the interesting things about this book is the different kinds of evil Rowling presents. Umbridge is clearly an awful woman, and she is evil-- she uses dark means to what she considers to be "good" ends, and she is very interested in power and control (without even the wisdom or the skill to be able to manage them well-- it's made quite clear she's not nearly as talented in magic-practicing as the other Hogwarts teachers, as exhibited by her inability to clean up the portable swamp Fred & George created in a hallway). Umbridge is clearly evil-- she is both like and un-like Voldemort. And, just as in the real world, Harry has to learn that not all evil people are in league with each other. There are plenty of evil people even in supposedly good institutions.

Title:Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Author:J. K. Rowling
Date published:2003
Genre:Fantasy / Young Adult
Series:Harry Potter
Number of pages:870
Notes:Second "reading".


Tuesday, June 07, 2005

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cover of Alphabet of Thorn

The more I read Patricia McKillip, the more I think that she knows just where to end her stories. She doesn't tie up all the loose ends, she leaves you wanting more of the world & characters she's created. The main conflict is usually resolved (or begun to be resolved), but the other pieces are left more open-ended. At the end of Alphabet of Thorn, the Queen is wondering how she can possibly explain the recent, extraordinary events to her people in language they will understand. Her advisor, the Mage Vevay, says, "Just begin at the beginning and proceed whichever way you can into hope." I wonder if McKillip operates that way for her own work?

As might be expected from the title, much of this book is about language and writing; the main character is a foundling who has been trained as a translator, and she is a gifted one. Nepenthe finds a magical book written in thorny letters, and it ensorcels her so she spends every waking moment working to translate it. Similarly, as a reader, I found it easy to be drawn into this book of Nepenthe's world. This thorny alphabet also conveys a powerful message about the power of writing to communicate and connect people.

There are plenty of interesting characters and history in Nepenthe's world; I would have been pleased to read more about many of them. The forest and the floating Wizard school are delightful; the student of magic, Bourne, is just beginning to discover the extent of his powers; the mage Vevay has had a long lifetime, doubtless full of adventure; the young queen Tessera, who is trying to discover how to rule without being her father; the ancient first King of Raine, who awakes to warn Tessera of danger, and who turns out to be a warrior queen; and of course the fascinating legend and history of Axis & Kane.

Ultimately, the mystery behind the magic of the alphabet written in thorns is compelling, and does not disappoint. It is fascinating to see Nepenthe's story connect with the legends she is translating, and the resolution, while perfectly believable, is not the one you might expect.

Title:Alphabet of Thorn
Author:Patricia McKillip
Date published:2004
Number of pages:291
Notes: This book was an early birthday present.


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