Archives for category: Young Adult Books

As we’re coming up to Valentine’s Day I should probably be recommending something romantic. Well, this week’s choice does contain two love stories but it isn’t romantic in a slushy, happy-ever-after kind of a way. “The Reader” by Traci Chee is a Dystopian Fantasy written for Young Adults. It came out in 2016 and is Book One of the “Sea of Ink and Gold” series. A sequel, “The Speaker”, was published a few months ago. “The Reader” is easy to find in paperback or as an ebook; just don’t get it confused with “The Reader” by Bernhard Schlink because that is a very different kind of novel.

Chee’s book is a complex multi-stranded story. It is set in Kelanna, “a wonderful and terrible world of water and ships and magic.” Many different races live in the five island kingdoms of Kelanna but none of them seem to have developed systems of writing. They remember their history by turning it into tales which pass “from mouth to mouth”.  One rare tale tells of “a mysterious object called a book, which held the key to the greatest magic Kelanna had ever known.”

The main story-line follows an orphan called Sefia who lives with the skilled thief she calls Aunt Nin. They are on the run from the people who murdered Sefia’s beloved father six years before. When assassins led by a woman in black catch up with them in the Forest Kingdom, Nin is carried off. Alone in the woods, Sefia opens a bundle which her father entrusted to her and discovers a book. Guided by memories of lessons from her late mother, Sefia teaches herself to read. She also learns how to enter a hidden world of golden currents which gives her strange powers.

In another strand of the plot, we meet a boy called Lon who also has the talent for dipping into this Illuminated World, where he is able to see past, present and future events. Lon is invited to become the new Apprentice Librarian in a secret Library run by by an order of Guardians dedicated to bringing “peace to an unstable world”. He forges friendships with other young Guardians and risks breaking the rules of the order by being strongly attracted to the Apprentice Assassin.

When Sefia rescues a prisoner from a crate it turns out to be a mute boy rather than her aunt. The boy, whom she calls Archer, has been tortured by the brutal Impressors and forced to fight other boys to the death. They travel on together. Sefia hopes to find and save Nin and she wants to investigate possible links between the woman in black and the cruel pirate who commands the Impressors. Her book sometimes shows Sefia stories about a very different pirate – Cannek Reed, the treasure-hunting, fame-seeking captain of  the Current of Faith. After an uncomfortably close encounter with a young assassin, Sefia and Archer are startled to find themselves on board the Current of Faith. They must win over Captain Reed if Sefia is to continue her quest for answers, redemption and revenge.

“The Reader” has sneaked onto Fantasy Reads even though I can think of a stack of reasons for not picking this book. For starters, the synopsis is a nightmare to write without giving away too much about the plot and structure of Chee’s novel. What begins as a fairly standard epic journey plus “teenager develops superpowers” plot soon deepens and divides. There are layers of stories within stories and Chee plays tricks with time and identity. Working out the connections between the various plot-lines and characters isn’t easy. By the end of this book some of Sefia’s questions about her heritage have been answered but there are revelations to come in the sequel which overturn most of what you think you’ve learned about Kelanna and the Guardians. If you prefer straightforward linear narratives, and don’t enjoy pitting your wits against an author, avoid “The Reader”.

Chee makes clever use of the traditional belief in a “Book of Life”, in which “everything that had ever been or would ever be” is recorded. Many of the characters in the “Sea of Ink and Gold” series challenge the idea that “What is written always comes to pass” and struggle to shape or reshape their destinies. The “secret library manipulating the world” part of the plot is not a particularly original idea. The less common libraries become in real life, the more popular they seem to be in fiction. There is Genevieve Cogman’s enjoyable but rather light-weight “Invisible Library” series and Rachel Caine’s grim and gripping “Great Library” series, which I’ve already recommended (see my November 2015 post on “Ink and Bone”).

Caine’s series has a more interesting central character than “The Reader” does. With her dark hair, golden skin and onyx eyes, Sefia is physically striking but she does seem a rather standard Young Adult Fantasy heroine. She’s brave, intelligent and compassionate but I did feel that I’d read about her before. Melodramatic problems which keep young lovers chastely apart (i.e. she’s human, he’s a vampire) are also standard in Paranormal Romance. There are plenty of obstacles for the two pairs of star-crossed lovers in this series but “The Reader” did score highly with me for its sensitive portrayal of a slowly developing relationship between two damaged young people – Sefia and Archer. Be warned that there is a lot of violence in this story. Some of it is comic-book style (high-leaping, bullet-stopping assassins) but Chee does explore the physical and mental effects of the horrific violence that Archer has both endured and inflicted.

You might assume that most of the violence in this story would be centred on the pirate-characters but the crew of the Current of Faith are the nicest, kindest, most equal-opportunity pirates ever to sail the seas. These freedom-loving outlaws never do anything as dreadful as the Guardians, who claim to be acting for the good of society. Captain Reed himself is an ambiguous character, obsessed with escaping the anonymity of death through daring deeds which will be remembered for ever. His adventures “for treasure and glory” at the edge of the known world are my favourite parts of “The Reader”. They are wonderfully romantic and inspire some of Chee’s best writing but also develop the theme of what kind of stories we choose to tell about ourselves and others.

“The Reader” isn’t a perfect book but it contains some dazzling scenes, such Sefia and Lon’s plunges into the rippling, shifting Illuminated World and Reed’s encounters with an island-sized turtle, the Cursed Diamonds of Lady Delune, and the ruby-red eyes of the dead. I’m still not sure if Chee will succeed in weaving all the strands of her plot together to create a satisfying conclusion but that uncertainty is part of what makes “Sea of Ink and Gold” an exciting read. Until next time…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

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For my first post of 2018 I’m recommending a novel by K.M.Briggs based on the British Fairy Tale known as “Kate Crackernuts”. The unusual thing about this story is that “ugly stepsister”, Kate, is the main heroine. In case you’re wondering, Kate’s nickname is due to her habit of hoarding nuts like a squirrel. The novel “Kate Crackernuts” was published in 1963 and reprinted in the Faber Finds Series in 2009. Katharine May Briggs (1898-1980) was an expert on the Folklore and Fairy Tales of the British Isles. The story of “Kate Crackernuts” probably originated in Scotland but was also known in the north of England. You can find a version of it in Dr Briggs’ wonderful scholarly book “A Dictionary of Fairies” (1976).

This novel is set in the mid 17th century and the story begins in a small castle in Galloway (south-west Scotland) which is the home of Andrew Lindsay, the Laird of Auchenskeoch. Andrew is a widower with one daughter, a beautiful fair-haired child called Katherine. At five years old Katherine first encounters dark-haired, green-eyed Kate, the only daughter of a haughty widow called Grizel Maxwell. The two girls seem opposites in every way but they become fast friends and see each other whenever they can. When Katherine is twelve, her beloved nurse leaves her to get married. Andrew feels that his daughter needs a minnie (mother) so he decides to marry Grizel Maxwell.

The two girls are delighted to become stepsisters but Grizel despises her meek stepdaughter. She resents the fact that Katherine has had a more luxurious upbringing than Kate and that everyone thinks the Laird’s daughter is prettier than her stepsister. Grizel is determined that the two girls shall be treated exactly alike but this only makes them happy because they love each other like real sisters. As time passes, Grizel’s obsessive hatred of Katherine increases. This frightens Kate who knows her mother’s dark secret – Grizel Maxwell is the Queen of the local witches. Grizel wants her daughter to become a witch too but Kate tries to resist the lure of the wild magic that is in her blood.

When Andrew leaves Auchenskeoch to fight for King Charles II in England, Grizel seizes her opportunity to harm her stepdaughter. She conspires with evil Henwife, Mallie Gross, to cast a cruel spell on Katherine. Can Kate help her stepsister without betraying her mother’s secret? Even when the two girls flee to England there is no escape from sorcery. Kate must defy the Seven Whistlers (the Wild Hunt) and risk entering a fairy hill in her battle to save two innocent souls from malign magic.

No 20th century scholar knew more about the Fairy Lore and Folktales of the British Isles than Katharine Briggs. She wrote a thesis on folklore in 17th century literature and published important books such as “The Anatomy of Puck”, “The Personnel of Fairyland” and her four volume “Dictionary of British Folktales and Legends”. If you can’t tell a boggart from a banshee or you want to find out about the King of the Black Art, the Gurt Vurm of Shervage Wood or the ghostly Drummer of Airlie, you need to consult Briggs’ work. She combined formidable scholarship with an easy to read style. Her reputation as a Folklorist remains high but few people remember that she also published two novels – “Hobberdy Dick”, the story of a hobgoblin who faithfully guards a manor house during the English Civil War, and “Kate Crackernuts”.

I suspect that these novels have failed to gain a wide readership because they were originally published as stories for children. When a scholar writes fiction about their academic subject there is always a danger that it may come out reading too much like a textbook. Briggs was determined to give her characters the mindsets of 17th century people and she was reluctant to simplify any aspect of their lives, even in the interests of good story-telling. Initially, “Kate Crackernuts” seems more like serious Historical Fiction than Fantasy. Children often enjoy reading about everyday life in the past (see my recent post on “A Traveller in Time”) but they’re less likely to be fascinated by a mass of detail about the history, religion and politics of 17th century Scotland. I love the use of Scots words in the dialogue (e.g. “The maid’s a silly fushionless tawpie” or “My poor wee whitterick!”) but young readers might find them baffling. So, I’m not sure that “Kate Crackernuts” works as a children’s story but it does now fit happily into a genre that hadn’t been invented in 1963 – the female-centred Young Adult novel.

“Kate Crackernuts” is a book in which the female characters are far more forceful than the males and the plot is driven by their actions. Free-spirited Kate, who loves to roam the countryside and hates being constrained by the conventions of lady-like behaviour, is a remarkably modern heroine. She has the courage and cleverness to protect her stepsister and rescue a young man who has been reduced to a helpless state by a curse. Pretty blonde Katherine gets most of the masculine attention in the story and it would have been easy to make her into an unlikable character. Briggs didn’t do that because “Kate Crackernuts” is primarily a story about female friendship. Katherine may not be feisty but she is utterly loyal to Kate and very much in charge when it comes to choosing a marriage partner.

The novel also features a difficult mother-daughter relationship. Kate and Grizel are shown as being very much alike but their wild streaks manifest in different ways. Grizel is a wicked stepmother you can admire as well as hate. She resents her poverty and despises the men around her, who are mainly much less intelligent than she is. Grizel claims to be indignant on her daughter’s behalf but seems mainly motivated by jealousy of the unbreakable bond between Kate and Katherine. Briggs makes memorable use of the wealth of 17th century material about belief in witchcraft. She weaves both humorous and horrible stories about witches into her narrative and makes you understand the attractions of witchcraft as well as its evils.

The spell placed on Katherine – which makes her believe that she is monstrously ugly – is truly chilling. Sadly it has a modern equivalent in the cruel bullying of young women which often takes places on social media. I wouldn’t be recommending “Kate Crackernuts” as my first book of the new year of it didn’t have a positive message about the power of female solidarity to defeat malice. This is a novel which deserves to win a new generation of readers. Until next time…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.demon.co.uk

This week I’m recommending a story which begins with a pig bursting out of what should be an empty cupboard. It makes for an unforgettable opening page and yet Penelope Farmer’s “A Castle of Bone” is no longer as well known as it should be. When this short book was first published in 1972 it was described as being for “readers of eleven and over” but “A Castle of Bone” could also be seen as a story about teenagers for adult readers. Thankfully, most of Farmer’s fiction remains in print. You can get this novel in paperback or as an ebook.

“A Castle of Bone” is centred on four school-age teenagers: Hugh and his sister Jean and their next-door neighbours, Penn and his sister Anna. Aspiring artist Hugh is in trouble with his mother for having too much clutter in his room. She decrees that he must have a cupboard, so Hugh’s father takes him out to look for one. In a local junkshop, Hugh spots an ugly wooden cupboard and, “Immediately he had never wanted anything as much as he wanted that, not even his first box of proper oil paints”. On the first night that the cupboard is in his bedroom, Hugh dreams about walking through a wood, meeting a strange black-haired girl and seeing a distant castle which he longs to reach.

Since Penn and Hugh are close friends, the four teenagers spend a lot of time hanging out together. They are in Hugh’s room when he hears strange noises coming from inside the new cupboard. All of them see the large white sow emerge and chase her into the local park. After this impossible pig evades them the friends can’t agree about what has happened. Anna points out that the only thing in the cupboard was a pig-skin wallet which she had tossed in there. Hugh is willing to believe that the cupboard has transformative powers but Penn and Jean are sceptical. When Anna puts a sweater inside the cupboard and reopens the door to find it reduced to a pile of wool, everyone has to admit that something very strange is going on. Over the next few days, Hugh tries putting different things in the cupboard. Each night, his dreams about the ominous wood and the white castle become more vivid and they seem to be affecting how Hugh experiences the world in daytime.

When the cupboard turns a cat back into a kitten, Penn doesn’t want to believe it out of pride and Jean out of fear. They all know that they ought to be more careful but a stupid quarrel leads to a shocking transformation of one of the group. The remaining teenagers are left with a major problem to conceal from their parents. As his dreams become ever more real, Hugh seeks answers from the old man who sold him the cupboard. Can its magic be reversed and what will happen when Hugh finally enters the Castle of Bone which haunts his dreams?

If this story was being published for Young Adults today, Farmer would probably have been pressured to make it longer, more sequel-friendly, and less intellectually demanding. The original novel packs a great deal into its 154 pages. I would call it more short and sour than short and sweet. The writing is full of sharp observation and unsparing character dissection. Many extraordinary things happen in “A Castle of Bone” but Farmer provides few explanations. She sets up parallels between contemporary events and the wilder fringes of Greek and Celtic myth and then leaves it up to her readers to notice and interpret the patterns.

This is similar to the way that Alan Garner used a story from “The Mabinogion” (see my post of November 2012) as the underlying plot in his famous novel “The Owl Service” (ditto). “A Castle of Bone” doesn’t have the powerful sense of place (a wet Welsh valley) which you get in Garner’s masterpiece but I prefer Farmer’s more fluid and elusive use of myth. The central image of the castle keeps changing, as the shadowy Spiral Castle does in Celtic myth. Inside you might find a magical apple tree, the Cauldron of Rebirth, witch-queens and goddesses, all of which make it a dangerous place for male intruders.

If I’d simply summarized the plot of this novel without trying to convey the tone, it might sound like a comedy. Spells that go wrong, or have unintended consequences, are common in light-hearted Fantasy fiction for children. Some of the events in “A Castle of Bone” reminded me of the kind absurd things which happen in E.Nesbit novels such as “Five Children and It”. In Nesbit’s work (see my March 2016 post on her “The Book of Dragons”) the magical mishaps are played for laughs but in Farmer’s novel they seem part of something sinister and increasingly dangerous. Some episodes in “A Castle of Bone”, such as the wild chase after the pig and an embarrassing  trip to the chemist where Hugh has to buy things that a teenage boy definitely shouldn’t need, are told with a humorous edge but they remain disturbing. The feeling of dread is closest to the surface in Hugh’s brilliantly described dreams which begin to bleed into his waking life, making him see new threats and possibilities in familiar places and people.

In “A Castle of Bone” the story is mainly told from Hugh’s point of view. We get an in-depth portrait of this rather uptight young man whose creative side is stimulated by the extraordinary potential of the magical cupboard. Farmer is more interested in psychological realism than in making Hugh likeable. He’s a believable self-centred teenager, who despises his irresponsible mother and finds his sensible sister boring. Hugh and his family seem emotionally repressed in a typically English way when contrasted with the flamboyant Celtic temperament of Penn and his family. The two boys are both friends and rivals. In the course of the story, Hugh comes to realize that Anna isn’t a nice person but there is latent attraction between them. For much of the book I was rather irritated by the way that Jean is portrayed as a timid traditional homemaker – a Good Girl to contrast with Anna’s daring and capricious Bad Girl. However, at the climax of the novel, it is decisive action by Jean which determines her brother’s fate. Anyone who is experiencing, or who remembers, the painful changes that all teenagers have to go through will find “A Castle of Bone” an interesting read. Fantasy Reads is taking September off but I’ll be back with Ghost Month in October.

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

I apologize that this post is later than planned but I’ve been unwell.  Now I’m recommending a Fantasy novel full of colour and warmth which was just the tonic I needed. “The Star-Touched Queen” is by Roshani Chokshi, an American author of Indian descent, and it taps into a rich tradition of female story-telling in India. This novel was published in 2016 and is available in paperback or as an ebook. A sequel called “A Crown of Wishes” has recently come out but this has different central characters.

“The Star-Touched Queen” is the story of seventeen year-old Princess Mayavati (Maya) one of the many children of Raja Ramchandra of Bharata. Her mother died shortly after she was born and Maya has been brought up in the royal harem by her numerous step-mothers. Due to a hideously inauspicious horoscope, Maya is treated like “a dead girl walking” and regarded as unlucky. Her only friend is her younger half-sister, Gauri, who loves the fairy stories that Maya tells her about extraordinary Otherworld places such as the Night Bazaar.

Raja Ramchandra, knows that Maya is exceptionally intelligent and that she understands how Bharata is suffering after many years of war. Maya longs for love but because she is “a girl with dark skin and a darker horoscope” she assumes that her fate is to become a scholarly old maid. Her father has other ideas and involves her in a ruthless plan to save his kingdom. When that plan goes wrong, Maya is carried off by a mysterious bridegroom called Amar. He takes her through supernatural realms to his strangely empty kingdom of Akaran.

Amar swears that Maya is his beloved and that they are destined to rule Akaran together but claims that he cannot yet tell her any of the secrets he is obviously hiding. Maya yearns to trust him but a woman who claims to be a friend from a past life warns her not to. During her search for the truth, Maya makes dark discoveries and is forced to go on a perilous journey with a flesh-eating demon. The fate of Bharata and many other realms will depend on whether Maya has the courage to survive her ordeals and recover everything that she has lost.

Chokshi is a captivating storyteller. If my synopsis is a little vaguer than usual it’s because I don’t want to spoil any of the surprises which she springs on the reader during the early chapters of “The Star-Touched Queen”.  However, regular Followers of this blog will probably have already spotted that the plot of this novel is loosely based on the romantic myth of  “Cupid and Psyche”. Elements of this myth, such as the princess who is sacrificed to save her country, the girl who doesn’t know whether she’s married a prince or a monster, the jealous sisters, a broken promise followed by exile and a series of magical ordeals, also feature in Fairy Tales from all over the world. I’ve already recommended one retelling of the Psyche story – C.S. Lewis’s extraordinary  novel “Till We Have Faces” (March 2013). As I wrote in that post, “Most authors would have used the Cinderella-like Psyche as the viewpoint character” but Lewis chose to make her “ugly sister” Orual the focus of his novel. Orual is one of the most complex and memorable villains in all of Fantasy fiction. She is well worth seeking out.

“The Star-Touched Queen” is less original than “Till We Have Faces” but it’s still packed with interesting features. Chokshi has written her novel entirely from the Cinderella-like Maya’s point of view and I have to admit that it works very well. In Bharata, Maya is treated like an outsider in her own family and in the Otherworld she has to learn everything anew. This makes her an easy character for readers to identify with. In the original story (the earliest version is found in “The Golden Ass”, a Latin novel written in the 2nd century CE), Psyche is a rather feeble heroine who is easily influenced and makes stupid mistakes. Chokshi’s Maya is pleasingly strong-minded and cleve but she has been deprived of vital memories. In these circumstances, it’s understandable that “cursed” Maya makes some disastrous misjudgments.  “Till We Have Faces” is about leaps of faith; “The Star-Touched Queen” is more concerned with what is at the core of a person’s identity and how far we are able to shape our own destiny.

The unusual setting is an outstanding feature of “The Star-Touched Queen”. The story takes place in an Indian-based Fantasy world rather than in India itself. Chokshi is clearly very knowledgeable about the cultures and religions of the Indian subcontinent but she uses her sources with freedom and panache. Standard religious ideas such as the concept of Reincarnation and belief in horoscopes are crucial to the plot of “The Star-Touched Queen” but Chokshi has invented her own pantheon of supernatural beings. She’s also plucked dramatic incidents and exotic creatures from a range of Indian Myths and Fairy Tales. I enjoyed this novel because it reminded me of one of my favourite collections of Fairy Tales, a book called “Old Deccan Days or Hindoo Fairy Legends “. These are stories that a South Indian woman called Anna Liberata de Souza remembered being told by her grandmother at the beginning of the 19th century. They are full of magical transformations, terrifying Rakshas (demons), unlucky Rajahs and brave and resourceful heroines. Some of these heroines have to cope with a whole harem full of jealous or spiteful step-mothers and half-siblings – just as Maya does. Depth is added to this standard Fairy Tale situation late in the novel when Maya learns to see things from her most hated step-mother’s point of view.

Chokshi’s ornate prose style won’t please everybody but she has a wonderful visual imagination. “The Star-Touched Queen” is the sort of book which makes you wish that all novels came with illustrations. In the early chapters , Chokshi’s descriptions of the Raja’s court filled my head with vibrant images of multi-coloured silks and shimmering jewels. Maya is adorned for her sinister wedding with henna-patterns of mango blossoms on her skin, a blood-red sari, amethyst earrings, golden hair ornaments and bangles as heavy as shackles. Chokshi is even better at describing her Otherworld. Chapter titles such as “The Palace Between Worlds”, “The Garden of Glass”, “A Room Full of Stars” and “The Memory Tree” hint at the enchantments in store for readers of this novel. Best of all are the sights, scents and sounds of the Night Bazaar where daydreams that look like spun-glass, bones for telling the future, dancing conch-shells, and pearls that taste of “ripe pears and rich honey” are all on offer “beneath a split-sky leaking with magic”. This is a Fantasy world I wanted to explore further and I was pleased to learn more about Maya’s intrepid sister, Gauri, in “A Crown of Wishes”.

One small niggle – Author’s Acknowledgements are now getting as lengthy and emotional as Oscar acceptance speeches and Chokshi’s is a particularly gushing example. I love novels because they represent individual human voices rather than group efforts. Chokshi’s distinctive voice is hers alone and she should be proud of that achievement. Until next time….

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.demon.co.uk

 

This week I’m recommending `Ink and Bone’, a riveting Fantasy novel by Rachel Caine. I have never been tempted to try Caine’s Morganville Vampires or Weather Warden series but I was attracted to this book because it was described as `Volume One of The Great Library’. I am a sucker for stories which feature libraries and this one is set in a version of our world in which the Great Library of Alexandria was never destroyed. `Ink and Bone’ was published this year (2015) and is already available as an ebook or a paperback. Which of these you choose may influence how you feel about this novel. To understand why, you will have to read this review…

Jess Brightwell and his family are citizens of London in an England that has been at war with Wales for many years. The most powerful organization in the world is the Great Library of Alexandria, which has `daughter libraries’ in every country. Thanks to the magic of the Alchemists who dwell in the Iron Tower, these libraries are protected by animated statues. The `Doctrine of Ownership’ states that `the Great Library must, for the protection and preservation of knowledge in trust for the world, own all such knowledge.’  Printing seems never to have been invented and only branches of the Great Library are allowed to keep original hand-copied books and manuscripts. It is a crime for ordinary citizens to possess originals but the discovery of `mirroring’  means that permitted knowledge can be accessed through `Library blanks’. In addition, everyone must use their personal Codex to write a daily record of their life which will one day be deposited in the Great Library.

The Brightwells appear to be respectable but are actually black market book-sellers. Callum Brightwell has already lost one son to this dangerous trade but he still forces his identical twin boys, Jess and Brendan to act as runners, delivering smuggled books to `ink lickers’. Jess has a genuine love for books and learning and at the age of sixteen he passes the entrance test which entitles him to be trained in the Great Library itself. Callum threatens to throw his son out on the street if Jess doesn’t agree to be the family’s spy inside the Library. As he leaves London, Jess witnesses a suicide bombing by a member of the anti-Library terrorist group known as the Burners.

During the train journey to Alexandria, Jess makes friends with two of his fellow `postulants’, gentle giant, Thomas, and Khalila, `the smartest girl in the world’. Scholar Wolfe, the formidable proctor in charge of the international group of students, makes it very clear that few of them will be good enough to be offered a contract by the Library. Jess works hard but lives in constant fear of being sent home for failing one of Scholar Wolfe’s tests or of being exposed as a book-smuggler. He falls for Postulant Megan, who has her own dangerous secret, but it isn’t clear whether he can trust her. When Wolfe is ordered to take the whole group on a perilous mission to war-torn Oxford to rescue some original books, nothing goes to plan. Wolfe and his students struggle to survive as they try to work out who it is that wants them dead…

Although it is set slightly in the future, `Ink and Bone’ has a Steampunk feel because the rulers of the Great Library have only allowed a limited number of technological developments. Instead Library-controlled Alchemy is used for tasks such as transmitting messages, tracking fugitives on maps and even transporting objects and people. Sometimes Caine’s magical equivalents of modern technology seem rather strained but she has obviously done her research on Ancient Egypt. Not many people know that Alexandria was once renowned for the mysterious art of theurgy – the summoning of divine manifestations – which could involve bringing statues to life. The lions, sphinxes and Horus falcons which guard Caine’s libraries are genuinely scary. Right from the first chapter we are left in no doubt that they will kill intruders. In this London,  royal statues can be threatening automatons and St Paul’s cathedral has been brilliantly reimagined as a `beautiful and deadly’ Serapeum – a temple of knowledge.

After a grim prologue, which illustrates the dangers and rewards of book-smuggling, `Ink and Bone’ tricks the reader into a false sense of security by imitating the opening chapters of the first Harry Potter novel. Like Harry, Jess is summoned to a London railway station to catch a special train which will take him to the school where he will study magic. However, Harry Potter didn’t have to cope with seeing someone burn themselves to death during his first visit to Platform Nine and a half. Jess’s train journey and the way that he befriends one boy and one girl and makes an immediate enemy of Dario, his aristocratic room-mate at Ptolemy House, all seem comfortingly familiar. Then Scholar Wolfe sets his students a potentially lethal test on their very first day. This is a dark and violent book, which paints a realistic picture of the horrors of war, terrorism and repressive regimes.

Given the plot of `Ink and Bone’, I should warn you against getting too attached to any of the characters but you probably will anyway because they are so well drawn. None of the teenagers is a mere stereotype. Dario, for example, is not just a snobbish bully. He’s allowed to be clever, brave, and loyal to his own honour code. Some of the postulants have hidden agendas, which only gradually come to light, and all of them change in the course of the story. Enigmatic Megan could have been written as a straightforward heroine but her fear of being forced into a life she doesn’t want makes her ruthless towards others.

`Ink and Bone’ has two outstanding heroes – yes, two. The first is viewpoint-character Jess; the second, more surprisingly is Scholar Wolfe. Jess has plenty of normal teenage problems to cope with, such as a dominating father, sibling rivalry, first love, and finding that he’s no longer the cleverest person in his group. He is also a reluctant spy and thief and a loner who longs to trust people and serve a worthy cause. At first, Jess only thinks of Wolfe as a harsh and terrifying teacher but he gradually comes to perceive the Scholar as a courageous fighter for truth and a man with a complicated family and love life of his own. Imagine what the Harry Potter books would be like if Professor Snape was the co-hero all along and you’ll get the picture. It is a clever way of making sure that this series can be enjoyed equally by teenagers and adults.

The other feature which makes this book stand out is Caine’s balanced treatment of the Great Library and its opponents. The Library’s motto is `Knowledge is all’ . Between-chapters quotations show that over the centuries an organization founded to preserve knowledge for all humanity has come to control and even supress knowledge. Through Jess’s eyes, we see what a great instituition the Library could and should be and that many of its staff are dedicated and selfless. So it is all the more horrifying when Jess discovers just how far the ruling elite of the Library will go to preserve their power. The anger of the Burners, whose motto is `A life is worth more than a book’ becomes understandable but their methods still seem pointlessly destructive. This is a novel which deals with very contemporary issues of freedom of information and mass surveillance. It reminded me that nothing I read on my Kindle is private, so I switched to a print copy half way through the story. In either medium, this is a series worth trying. Until next time….

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

Necromancers are Fantasy’s favourite villains but there are both good and bad necromancers in this week’s recommendation  – a new book in the popular `Old Kingdom Series’ by Australian writer, Garth Nix. `Clariel’ was published in 2014 and is easy to find in paperback or as an ebook. The first three novels in the series – `Sabriel’, `Lirael’ and `Abhorsen’ featured two courageous heroines, two captivating magical creatures, a unique form of magic involving seven bells, and more zombies than `The Walking Dead’. `Clariel’ is a prequel, set around 600 years before the start of `Sabriel’, so it provides a good introduction to Nix’s Old Kingdom – a country where technology doesn’t work and there is a constant threat from the returning dead and Free Magic elementals. Only Charter Magic can protect the living.

When this story begins, the Old Kingdom is enjoying a time of relative peace and the importance of Charter Magic has almost been forgotten. Seventeen-year-old Clariel has been forced to leave her beloved forest, and accompany her parents to Belisaere, the capital city of the Old Kingdom. Lady Clariel is a very well connected young woman. Her mother has just become a High Master of the Goldsmiths Guild and Clariel is related to the reigning king and to the current Abhorsen, the powerful Charter Mage whose task is to banish the dead and defeat demons. Clariel wants to become a Borderer and spend her life patrolling the Great Forest but her parents insist that she goes to an elite school where she will mix with the `best people’, including her friendly cousin Bel.

At school, Clariel begins to understand that the Guilds are now more powerful in Belisaere than the royal family and that the Abhorsen and his clan no longer practise their hereditary magic. Bel is the only member of the family striving to be a true Abhorsen. When Clariel is sent to Magister Kargrin for some token lessons in Charter Magic, he discovers that she has an affinity with Free Magic and a powerful rage within her. Kargrin enlists her help to track down and capture a Free Magic creature which is loose in the city but the encounter does not go as planned. Clariel is warned that the whole kingdom is in danger but she focuses on avoiding an arranged marriage and getting back to her chosen way of life.

When the power-struggles in Belisaere erupt into violence, Clariel flees the city with the help of Bel. Clariel is taken to the ancient House of the Abhorsens where she meets Mogget, an elemental being in the form of a cat who is compelled to serve each Abhorsen. The House is staffed by ghostly servants known as Sendings and protected by powerful magics. Clariel is safe there but she doesn’t want safety – she wants action and revenge. She decides to risk using Free Magic; a choice which sets her on the path to an extraordinary destiny.

This is a difficult review to write because I can’t tell you about some of the things which make this novel so good without spoiling the story. I shall have to choose my words as carefully as Mogget does. Anyone who enjoyed the previous `Old Kingdom’ books will be delighted to meet the charming but utterly unreliable Mogget again. He may look like an ordinary white cat but he is something very different if anyone is foolish enough to remove the collar which binds him. Without breaking the rules of his servitude, Mogget can deceive and beguile innocents like Clariel into very deep trouble but he’s also capable of forming real attachments to some humans. You never know which way he’ll jump and that is what makes him a fascinating character.

Nix usually writes as if all the monsters he’s invented were snapping at his heels, so he daren’t pause for a reflective moment. Most of his novels are packed with thrilling non-stop action scenes, leaving little room for character development. The one exception is `Lirael’ , which describes all the formative events in the shy young heroine’s life before sending her off on a difficult and dangerous mission. `Clariel’ is similar in that the reader is allowed plenty of time to get to know the central character and understand her hopes and dreams. Clariel’s unhappy relationships with her weak father and dominating mother, her frustration at the lady-like role she’s expected to play and her fear of being manipulated, are all very well portrayed. It is because we see the politics of Belisaere through her naive eyes, that the descent into  extreme violence is particularly shocking. Clariel suddenly finds herself fighting to survive.

I suspect that some readers of this blog will be thinking, `Please, not another story about a feisty teenage girl finding her true destiny and saving the world!’ I have several responses to this complaint. Firstly, Fantasy Fiction was dominated by male characters for a very long time, so now it’s the girls’ turn to take the leading roles. Secondly, it is every teenager’s job to discover their destiny and save the world because they have reached the age when they can see what the previous generation has done wrong. Teenagers burn to put it all right but they may end up making things worse. There are two teenagers in `Clariel’ who seize the initiative because they think that they know better than their elders but their actions have very different results. This is a `finding your destiny’ story with a bitter twist.

If you are not yet convinced that `Clariel’ is worth reading, here are more reasons. Nix takes risks with the character of Clariel. She isn’t particularly likeable and she is definitely not your typical Fantasy Romance heroine. She has tried sex and didn’t think much of it and she isn’t interested in relationships. Clariel is critical of everyone around her but blind to her own faults and the mistakes she makes aren’t the sort which teach neat life-lessons. The motto of the `Old Kingdom Series’  is `Does the Walker Choose the Path, or the Path the Walker?’ `Clariel’ is a serious exploration of the question of how much character shapes destiny. At the end of this novel you will probably look back at the choices Clariel has made and wonder whether things could have turned out differently. So, if you want a change from the usual `follow your dream and save the world’ format, try this introduction to one of modern Fantasy’s darkest domains. Until next time…

Geraldine

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This week I’m recommending a book published for Young Adults – `Forest Born’ by Shannon Hale (2010). Nowadays there is a huge amount of Young Adult Fantasy written about and for, and occasionally by, teenage girls. People who aren’t inclined to be young or female often avoid this type of fiction as if it was a sparkly pink plague, which means that they sometimes miss out on a good book. `Forest Born’ does feature a teenage heroine but it’s a novel worth reading whatever your current age or gender. Available in paperback or as an ebook, `Forest Born’ is the fourth of Hale’s `Books of Bayern’. The series began with `The Goose Girl’, which was inspired by the Grimms’ Fairy Tale of the same name  (see also my recent post on `Thorn’) and continued with `Enna Burning’ and `River Secrets’. Each of the `Books of Bayern’  is a complete story centred on a different viewpoint character, so there is no need to have read the other three before trying `Forest Born’.

In the great Forest of Bayern lives a girl with six brothers. Rinna (Rin) Agget loves her forest-home and feels a strong affinity with its trees. She helps to look after the whole Agget clan and is her mother’s favourite child but Rin has a secret. Sometimes she can make people do things they don’t want to do. Convinced that she has a `bad core’ and that even the trees have turned against her, Rin is desperate to leave home before her family discover what she is really like. She cannot confess her fears even to her favourite brother, Razo, but he and his foreign girlfriend, Dasha, can see how unhappy Rin is. They take her back with them to Bayern’s capital city. Razo was once just a shepherd but he became a loyal friend to a Goose Girl who turned out to be a princess in disguise. Now the Goose Girl, Isi, is married to King Geric of Bayern and Razo belongs to the elite regiment known as Bayern’s Own.

Razo gets his sister a job in the palace helping to look after Geric and Isi’s young son. Rin adores the little prince and comes to admire the gentle queen but Bayern and its royal family are under threat. Villages near the border with Kel have been burned and when Geric goes to investigate he and his men are attacked by fire-speakers – men or women who can summon fire and use it to maim and kill. Queen Isi, who is a wind-speaker, is determined to find out who has trained these fire-speakers and ordered them to destroy Bayern. On her secret mission she takes her friend Enna, who is a very powerful fire-speaker, and Dasha, who is a water-speaker. Rin yearns to be like these `fearless women’ and runs away to join them. When they encounter a formidable enemy from Isi’s past, Rin must choose between using the powers she hates or losing the people she loves.

Acting on a hint in the original `Goose Girl’ story about the princess being able to summon a wind to do her bidding, Hale has created a mythical Golden Age in which all beings and elements of the universe could communicate with each other in the divine language. By Rin’s time, that age is long past but there are still people born with the gifts of people-speaking, animal-speaking or nature-speaking. Nature-speakers like Isi, Enna and Dasha can communicate with forces such as a air, fire and water and wield them as weapons. Hale has worked out the details of this well, but superficially nature-speaking sounds like one of those convenient powers that people acquire in Fantasy role-playing games. What makes Hale’s treatment of these powers stand out is the sensitive way she describes the drawbacks and long-term emotional effects of using this kind of magic. Enna, for example, has never recovered from the horror of having to use her fire-speaking to destroy an invading army. Isi, Enna and Dasha`balance’ their power by learning each other’s magical languages. It’s a lesson in avoiding extremism by following more than one path.

Another distinctive feature of the `Books of Bayern’ is that people-speaking is presented as by far the most dangerous and corrupting gift to have. People-speakers can make other people `listen to them, and believe them, and love them’. In `Forest Born’ the consequences of this are shown to be toxic. A people-speaker who is obsessed with gaining power ruthlessly manipulates her followers into doing terrible things for her unworthy cause. It is all too easy to think of contemporary parallels. This novel is honest about how difficult it can be to help victims of such brain-washing to recover from it. No wonder poor Rin is horrified by the idea that she might be a people-speaker. She is overcome by the kind of self-loathing that so many teenage girls now seem to suffer from. Fortunately Rin has the three women she thinks of as the `fire sisters’ – Isi, Enna and Dasha – to hearten and inspire her. This is a book in which there are lots of interesting conversations between women which aren’t about men.

The novel also contains plenty of action and suspense but essentially `Forest Born’ is about the inner life of  a young woman who wants to be a heroine but fears she’s a villainess. Rin wonders if everyone secretly feels lost and like a stranger in their own home. It’s a state of mind which many people will be familiar with. Rin thinks she’s only `half a girl’ in comparison to brave Isi, Enna and Dasha but the `fire sisters’ are far from invincible. Discovering their vulnerabilities in a crisis helps Rin to accept her own weaknesses and to build on her strengths. When talking about storytelling, Queen Isi says that `in order to see the story it has to be a bit removed from what is actually real’. Hale’s story of magical gifts gives a clear picture of some dangerous psychological states and the strength of will needed to overcome them. Teenagers can be fascinating to read (and write) about because their characters are still being formed, or deformed, by internal and external pressures. Everything is still to play for, so please don’t reject a novel simply because it’s about a teenage girl. Until next time….

Geraldine

 

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