Steampunk, the Middle Book

Alek is probably the worst person in this series when it comes to keeping secrets.  He can’t keep people from figuring out who his father was – if he doesn’t tell them himself – he can’t hide out until the war ends, and he seems to jump feet first into absolutely everything.  And this is before the whole world finds out who he really is.

Deryn, on the other hand, may seem to be almost as guileless, but then there’s the fact that she has yet to give herself away as a crossdressing girl.  So far only a couple people have guessed, but she hasn’t been forced to reveal herself.  And then there’s the amount of time she and Alek have spent together…

There’s a girl in this particular book named Lilit, who lives in Istanbul, where most of Behemoth takes place.  She makes a bit of a love triangle for a bit, and it’s fairly well done.  Since we can assume that the kids are in their low teens, the awkwardness can be brushed off on kids being just plain awkward at that age.  However, given how that triangle ends up, I do have to wonder if Westerfield is hinting at a slightly different orientation for her…

Behemoth is a middle book and it does show a bit.  The location changes to the Ottoman Empire, as I’ve said.  The Ottomans seem to be coming down on the Clanker side of the conflict, but they haven’t utterly forsaken organic life, choosing to fabricate their machines into recreations of animals.  The Central Powers such as Germany may choose to incorporate animalistic features into their machines, but none of them are actual representations.

I do want to tell you that I thought long and hard before creating a new “steampunk” category for this blog.  I don’t read a lot of steampunk.  Probably because I am not great with Victorian literature, and that’s the time period a lot of steampunk falls into.  I even asked some friends for opinions on where I should put these books – science fiction or fantasy?  One friend said fantasy, that alchemy or magic is usually involved somehow, and the technology is often run off of the idea or belief in magic.  The other friend said science fiction, which the Leviathan trilogy is very strong in, especially with the Darwinist creatures being genetically engineered.

I was torn because I do feel that Scott Westerfield’s books belong with science fiction on the basis of how they create and use their technology.  But many other steampunk stories I’ve read do feel more like fantasy.  I supposed I could have classified Leviathan as historical fiction…except it’s far more historical fantasy.  At which point I said “screw it” because this was getting ridiculously complicated and made the steampunk category.

I don’t really have much more to say tonight.  I’ll be starting on Goliath shortly and will either finish that tomorrow or Thursday.

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A Turn for Steam

I feel bad for this book.  Not the story or anything like that, but the physical book.  Somehow or other, my copy of Leviathan by Scott Westerfield had its cover put on upside down.  It’s an error I’ve never seen before, but it doesn’t actually affect anything relevant.  I just get confused momentarily most times I pick the thing up and go to read.

Leviathan is the first book in the best-selling young adult steampunk trilogy that shows an alternate World War I.  Here, our two factions are mostly demarcated by the type of technology they employ.  The Central Powers are better known as the Clankers for the preference of machines and the noises resulting.  The Allies are the Darwinists, who have learned how to manipulate genetics and breed entire ecosystems to suit their needs.  And much of our book takes place in the air, on the English ship Leviathan.

Clanker zeppelins are essentially the same as they were in our world, but the Darwinist answer to that are airships.  The Leviathan in particular is mostly a whale, but with a great deal of other species thrown in.  The gondola hangs from its belly, and within its body lives the ecosystem that keeps it airborne, from bees, to sniffer dogs (that find hydrogen leaks) to bats that poop spikes in attacks, message lizards, glow worms, and so many more.  From a more modern standpoint, the Darwinist method is much greener and more sustainable in the long run, though considering the issues on stem cell research, I don’t see anyone trying to bring this science to life anytime soon.

We have two main characters.  The first, Deryn Sharp, follows in a long line of heroines who disguise themselves as boys in order to pursue their dreams.  Of course, the unwritten rule for such cross-dressing is that the girl must be the absolute best, not only to assay any doubt of her masculinity, but to prove that she didn’t get her place by chance, that she earned it above and beyond all the boys.  Sadly, this is still necessary in our real world, though without the guaranteed acceptance in the end.  Not that Deryn (or Dylan, as she’s known) is revealed at the end of this book.

Our other main character is Aleksander, a young Hapsburg prince.  He is the son of Franz Ferdinand and his entire world has turned into a waking nightmare with the sudden deaths of his parents.  His identity is now his most valuable possession, but he must survive in order to use it.  Fortunately, his father planned ahead.  Unfortunately, war has a way of wrecking even the most carefully laid plans…

A nice touch is the map of Europe inside.  It is the one thing about this book that makes me wish I had a hardcover, because I suspect it might be full color there.  It is not a very useful map in the conventional sense: very few cities are marked, and you don’t get a good sense for how much terrain is covered.  But it is a beautifully crafted map in which every region is depicted as either a Darwinist creation or gears and machinery.  There are also illustrations throughout the book which allow readers to have a better grasp of the elements being described.  I don’t know about anyone else, but I’d be hard pressed to truly imagine the Leviathan or any of its creatures otherwise.

Leviathan may seem simple because it’s not written for adults only, but you can’t really apply the term to any book that looks at the convoluted politics which turned the assassination of a single man into a war throughout the world.  Not only that, but we have the concept of Darwinist creations which is not at all common.  I won’t say it’s unique because I have read some similar ideas before.  “Seven Years From Home” by Naomi Novik (from the Warriors anthology I read) uses a similar idea, but at a much higher tech level, allowing for what is essentially forced evolution

You could even say there’s some similarity in the Dragonriders of Pern series.  I’m not simply talking about the dragons themselves, which were bioengineered from fire lizards to be the great beasts we know and love.  Kit Ping Yung was trained by the Eridani, who would introduce new species in groups of three.  Not only did she create the dragons, but she enhanced the fire lizards as well.  Her daughter completed the triad with the watch-whers.

As you can guess, next up is Behemoth and then Goliath.  After that, who knows.  Maybe back to new books.

Always a Game

“The ultimate love triangle: a guy, a girl — and a game.”

So sayeth the back cover of Matt Vancil’s PWNED, a novel that takes place in the same world as the Gamers movies.  Reading this book is a lot like playing the kind of MMORPG (massive multiplayer online roleplaying game) that it centers around – almost overwhelmingly immersive until you read the last page.

However, I have to suspect that not everyone reading this blog is familiar with the Gamers movies, or any of the works created by Dead Gentlemen and syndicated by Zombie Orpheus Entertainment.  Their motto is “fan supported, creator distributed,” meaning that they will make their content easily available to us, and thus if we like what we see, we’ll be inclined to give them the necessary money to make more, whether it’s through buying merchandise, donations, kickstarter, patreon, or other means.  If you play tabletop games of any kind, you should definitely check out their creations, most of which are available on youtube for free.  Here’s a link to the playlist for The Gamers: Dorkness Rising and The Gamers: Hands of Fate, movies 2 and 3.  You don’t strictly need to see the first one to appreciate these, and I think they’re a bit better.  But if you want to be stubborn, here’s the link for the first.

PWNED was created through a kickstarter, for the record, so I do have two copies of the book (hardcover and softcover) as well as an alternate jacket for the hardcover, an English-Orcish dictionary, and a bookmark.  At some point I’ll probably ditch one of the two books, but I’ve been able to make do on space thus far, though as I keep saying, it’s becoming an issue.

Our hero for the novel is Reid Underwood, someone who has not appeared in any of the filmography.  It’s worth noting that he works with Lodge, and a few of the other movie characters make cameos.  Reid’s girlfriend Astrid is obsessed with her computer game, World of Fartherall Online.  (Yes, think World of Warcraft.)  She barely works, and spends all of her time online, so much so that Reid can barely have any kind of conversation with her.  Until one day he does something drastic and she abruptly vanishes.  Stricken, Reid tries in vain to find her…but then he has a realization.

Wherever she’s gone in real life, Astrid is still in Fartherall.  He just has to find her.

So begins his epic quest to find the love of his life…

This is the second time I’ve read PWNED and my impression of it is like certain movies.  It’s a great ride, and when you finish it the first time, you’re filled with the adrenaline high of the totally new experience.  But, after a second time you begin to realize that, well, maybe it’s not quite that great – though still good!  Just maybe not as worth the hype you remember giving it.  The story is a bit simplistic, a bit predictable, but that doesn’t make it bad at all.  The writing is good and the book itself is immersive, even when some of the players complain that some n00b is breaking their immersion.  (A n00b, for the potential nongamers reading this, is a “newbie” player, someone who doesn’t know or understand anything about the world they’ve entered.)

I can better appreciate the foreshadowing that’s dropped here and there, now that I know where it leads.  And Vancil helps us see that while everyone’s the hero of their own story, not everyone else will view them that way.  This is unsurprising, considering that Matt Vancil helped write and direct all three Gamers movies, among other projects.  He brings a reality to his characters that helps them come alive for the audience, while also showing that even the biggest dick can be redeemed if he wants to be.

I have to thank my college gaming friends for introducing me to the Gamers series, because it’s always guaranteed to bring a smile to my face.  It’s great to share with my other friends who, even if they don’t understand all the humor, can still find plenty to laugh at.  They may not understand why Luster gets a -2 and then a -4 on his Seduction check, but they can certainly understand that Daphne is having none of it.

Fantasy Authors

I decided that, after a trilogy, I needed something shorter.  But not an anthology (for once).  Instead, I went to one of my holiday presents from a friend (I got a lovely number of books this season, and appreciate every single one of them).  This was The Wand in the Word: Conversations with Writers of Fantasy by Leonard S. Marcus.  I thought it might be essays, but instead, as the title said, it’s literally a set of interviews that the author had with a number of famous fantasy writers.  When first presented with the book, I was thrilled to see some of my old favorites as well as those I’d discovered more recently on the cover.

When I picked it up last night, I had to wonder how many of these authors were still alive.  I knew that Brian Jacques, Diana Wynne Jones, and Terry Pratchett had passed on, but several of the others had to be pushing it.  I’d actually been thinking that while reading Meredith Ann Pierce’s books: The Darkangel’s cover bears a quote from Madeleine L’Engle while A Gathering of Gargoyles showcases Lloyd Alexander, both of whom were featured in today’s book.  But the era of their primacy has long since passed.  A Wrinkle in Time and Prydain are still widely regarded as modern classics, but I know these books were near the end of their time in the general public’s awareness when I discovered them as a child on the library shelves.  (Well, A Wrinkle in Time was on the basement shelves.  Same difference.)  Since most authors don’t seem to hit it big until they’re in their forties or so, it seemed logical to me that these two in particular would be quite old.  Possibly dead.

Definitely dead, as Wikipedia tells me.

Well, damn.  That’s five out of the thirteen authors within.  Kind of makes me wonder why not Anne McCaffrey – she was still alive when this was published in 2006 – and then I remember that McCaffrey’s work is predominantly science fiction, not fantasy.  Okay, why not Peter S. Beagle?  He’s not dead yet, though I hear his mind is going and that’s why they cancelled his appearances on the movie tour for The Last Unicorn.  Again, that was more recently, within the past few years, and not when this book was being compiled.  I would ask why not Andre Norton, but she wrote as much science fiction as fantasy, if not more so, and died in 2005.  I don’t know when all the interviews took place, but I would guess her health was probably failing when they did.

Still, there’s the actual content of the book.  The author takes the place of all the hundreds of millions of fans of these people and asks many of the questions we have always wanted to.  The end result is quite charming, as the responses have been faithfully transcribed from the recordings and emails and thus I get a sense of the normal voices of the authors whose work I’ve avidly devoured over the years.  Sometimes they sound very different from how I imagined.  Others, like Ursula K. Le Guin, speak in the same way they write.  It’s a fascinating game of compare and contrast.

There’s odd little anecdotes and facts strewn through each interview.  Lloyd Alexander talks of playing the violin – something he’s apparently terrible at.  Garth Nix relates that the real-life inspiration for the Clayr’s Great Library is in reality tiny.  Brian Jacques’ last name is actually pronounced “Jakes” (and they say we Americans mangle other languages!) and tells of how the owl in Mattimeo is based on a real friend of his.  Philip Pullman only read The Lord of the Rings once, and has an opinion similar to mine.  He said

I’ve only read it once. I tried to reread it later but gave up because there’s nothing that satisfies me in it now…There’s nothing truthful in it about human nature, or society, or men and women. Nothing true in it at all. It’s all superficial adventure.

Considering that I only managed to read the books once myself, finding them to be very dry among other things, this particular quote resonated with me.

Of the thirteen authors, there is only one whose work I’ve never read.  Two names were unfamiliar at first, but a quick check on my short story library assured me that yes, I have heard of Nancy Farmer and own three of her briefer works.  The other, Franny Billingsley, strikes no chords whatsoever in me, and the list of books after her interview is very short, with only two titles.  At this later date she now has four books available, making her the least prolific of the lot.  I suppose I should make a note to investigate her work when I spot it, but nothing in her interview struck me strongly enough to justify the effort of memory.

For the record, the authors included are Lloyd Alexander, Franny Billingsley, Susan Cooper, Nancy Farmer, Brian Jacques, Diana Wynne Jones, Ursula K. Le Guin, Madeleine L’engle, Garth Nix, Tamora Pierce, Terry Pratchett, Philip Pullman, and Jane Yolen.  It’s interesting to look at that list and consider when I enontered each of them.  Jane Yolen, Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper hit me right in the childhood – these are books I found on my own in the school library.  Though I never did finish reading The Dark is Rising sequence.  I can’t remember if I failed to touch the fifth or the fourth and fifth books.  I’ve never gone back and reread the Pit Dragon trilogy either for some reason, but Jane Yolen keeps popping up in anthologies and other places.  When I was at the used bookstore last, I found a picture book that I knew my friend had to own: How Do Dinosaurs Say Happy Chanukah? by Jane Yolen and Mark Teague.  I never reread Prydain either, though after I read it the first time, I could never again enjoy Disney’s adaptation of book two: The Black Cauldron.

(I always find it fascinating that Lloyd Alexander and Susan Cooper both wrote quintets that are considered modern classics and the best-known book in each set is the second.  I also found these books within a couple years of each other, so they tend to be irrevocably meshed in my mind.)

I was introduced to Brian Jacques when one of my reading teachers took me aside, pulled a thick book out of a basket and said “you should be able to read this.”  It was The Outcast of Redwall and I loved every minute of it, remaining an avid reader of the series for years.  Later, by the time Loamhedge was released I realized that I wasn’t having fun anymore, that these were really just the same book over and over again.  Now I’d phrase that as “seeing the construct before the story” because that’s what the problem was – knowing the way Jacques laid out a story so well that I could no longer immerse myself completely.  I still have a few Redwall books though; the ones I loved best.

Tamora Pierce and Philip Pullman were both authors that my mom picked up for me randomly, like she did, so I read Alanna: The First Adventure and The Golden Compass.  I still have all my Tortall books, although The Magic Circle books simply aren’t for me.  I recently gave away my set of His Dark Materials because while the books are good and I enjoyed them when I was younger, I just don’t see myself rereading them ever again. I don’t care for Lyra very much as a person, Will is boring to me, and the scientist lady in The Amber Spyglass is by far the most interesting character in the series.  Also I took a semester long seminar on the trilogy in college.  It was utterly fascinating, but now I have even less reason to reread the books.

Madeleine L’Engle, as I mentioned, was in the basement, and I have my dad’s creepy early 80’s copies of the first three books to prove it.  At some point I do intend to reread them for the first time in more than a decade, and I can talk about the covers then.  I also added my own early 90’s copy of Many Waters to that set.  On the flip side, I’m sorry to say that Terry Pratchett ended up in the basement.  My mom picked up Guards! Guards! because it had a dragon on the cover, and I’ve been told it’s not a bad book to start with, as it’s the beginning of a Discworld cycle.  I…didn’t like it.  At all.  And I’m sorry to say it must be Pratchett’s writing because I didn’t like Good Omens either, and I’m a Neil Gaiman fan.

Diana Wynne Jones I picked up not too long after I saw Hayao Miyazaki’s adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle.  The paperback was sitting there in a rack at the library, and I saw no reason not to read it.  Aside from that series, it wasn’t until after Jones’ death that I began looking into her other work, and I’m still working my way through.  Garth Nix I started reading around the same time, I think.  I don’t remember if my mom picked up Sabriel or if I did.

As for Nancy Farmer, I checked my short story database and didn’t recall anything about the three I have: “Falada: The Goose-Girl’s Horse” in A Wolf at the Door, “Remember Me” in Firebirds, and “A Ticket to Ride” in Firebirds Soaring.  Still remembering nothing, I pulled out the anthologies and glanced at the stories.  The two Firebird stories I remember now as being good.  Not something that I think back on, but perfectly good reads.  It’s been longer since I last reread A Wolf at the Door, so I can’t recall anything there.  I don’t see myself as seeking out more Nancy Farmer, though I will probably use her name as a plus for picking up new anthologies.

The Wand in the Word wasn’t what I expected, but I really didn’t know what to look for.  Still, it was an enjoyable break from stories and novels, and I’m glad my friend thought to get it for me.

Many Thoughts are Provoked

Well, I finished The Darkangel Trilogy.  I had gotten through most of A Gathering of Gargoyles last night, and finished it this morning, leaving plenty of time to read The Pearl of the Soul of the World in its entirety.  I think, having reread The Darkangel, I was in a better position to make some predictions about the events of the second and third books.  I was usually right, but there were still a number of surprises in store.

I think the biggest surprise is that the trilogy doesn’t end on a completely happy note.  Don’t get me wrong, good triumphed over evil in a general sense, but “good” is defined as “that which benefits us.”  Evil is still evil though.  But the powers of the world aren’t necessarily good or evil, and they have a will of their own.

There was more evidence of the science fiction basis in these two books, and we even saw several ancient machines on Aeriel’s travels.  But by and large the trilogy still reads to me as fantasy.  In fact, the term “magic” is used nonironically by those beings who do understand technology.  So there are both in this world, though the tech is ancient and in great need of maintenance and generally unseen by the common people who live without it.

So many fantasy tropes can be seen here, including the Hero’s Journey and the Chosen One.  Let’s not forget the Prophecy that we’ve been gradually learning more of since book one.  It’s actually a very straightforward one, and once you understand that, you can easily predict how the book will go.  Still, I’ve seen so many books that didn’t handle their tropes well and this one does do better.  The Darkangel Trilogy is no literary masterpiece, but they’re good, strong books that have stood the test of time.  I mentioned back in August that these are over twenty years old – The Pearl of the Soul of the World was orginally released in 1990.

I also want to comment on the term “vampire” (or “vampyre” as it’s spelled here) and how it is part of what got me to pick up these books.  I can definitely be a sucker for vampire books (though I have standards), and will usually afford it a second glance (only outside the paranormal romance section).  And the vampyres of Pierce’s world do drink blood and souls…but they aren’t really vampires.  Yes, they are dead things, yes they destroy the living, yes they hate the light.  But the term “vampyre” is only used in the first book.  “Darkangel” is seen more often, but usually they’re referred to as “icarii” (singular: icarus) for their numerous black wings.

We know there are six after Irrylath is restored to himself, and we know that they make different choices, but in truth they are merely tools of the Oriencor, she who is known as the lorelai.  The icarii exist collectively, but not separate from each other or their mistress.  They’re an obstacle to be overcome, nothing more, which is not how I perceive most vampire books.  I find it hard to even consider The Darkangel a vampire book, simply because the vampirism is the least of the focus.

Before I get into spoiler territory, I’ll say that I did enjoy reading these books and will be attempting to shelve them shortly.  I say “attempting” because I am most definitely running out of space.  Unfortunately, I think space is going to remain short for the foreseeable future, which really makes me twitchy.

THIS REST OF THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS.  YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
There are three things I want to talk about here.  The first is the romance between Aeriel and Irrylath that we waited three books to be consumated.  And they did get to have sex – once.  It took the three books for them to overcome their mental blocks and admit that they loved each other.  I will admit that Aeriel did have a forboding from the second book onward, as if she knew that she was not meant to be with him.  The bit with Sabr though felt a bit…tacked-on.  As if “oh no, we must have a love triangle!” wormed its way into the author’s thoughts.  It does make me somewhat vindictively happy that, when the trilogy ends, Irrylath is still refusing Sabr, though who knows, she might wear him down in time.

I’m not sure that I approve of either pairing though, because it is made quite clear that Sabr is Irrylath’s first cousin on his father’s side, and Aeriel the same on his mother’s.  That just screams inbreeding and cannot possibly be good for the potential offspring of either pairing.  I suppose we should be glad they’re not siblings, but still, not a great goal.

Secondly, there’s the fact that just when Aeriel has finally achieved her goal, defeated the White Witch (hmm, wonder if that’s influence from C.S. Lewis?) and now is able to live her life freely, it turns out that she is, as I predited, Ravenna’s daughter in spirit and now has to go do Ravenna’s job of keeping the world going.  (Ravenna is one of the Ancients who came and terraformed the moon on which this all takes place.  She remained behind when the planet Oceanus recalled its people.)  And yes, as I also guessed, Ravenna rebuilt her body.  Not quite a clone, though she looks the same, but out of hardier materials.  Aeriel is still a biological creature, but she can survive a great deal more and for much longer now.

This is why I say the book does not have a completely happy ending – Aeriel must give up her heart’s desire to live with Irrylath in favor of fulfilling the duty laid on her by Ravenna.  True, we’ve seen her built up into as much a figure of myth as Ravenna herself, and most consider her to be a sorceress though from what we’ve seen, she doesn’t actually have magic.  Simply luck and a care for those around her.  Of course, depending on your magic system, luck can make or break a mage.  Luck can even be defined as magic.  But that’s beside the point.

You could even say that Aeriel is a Jesus archetype in some ways.  She was born a princess, raised a slave, became a demon’s servant, brought said demon back to the light and became his wife in name, gathered legendary creatures, met a woman who is worshipped as a goddess, tried to persuade said woman’s daughter with facts and her own innate goodness, then became the goddess’ heir after the daughter refused to believe or change and was slain for it.  There’s a lot of Christian imagery that you can pick out in that list, if you so choose.

Lastly, I do wonder if this book is meant to have homosexual undertones.  We meet Erin in A Gathering of Gargoyles and she attaches herself to Aeriel, becoming her figurative shadow (Aeriel’s skin is very light in color, while Erin’s is black).  Considering that Aeriel’s actual shadow is burned away at the end of the second book, and that Erin is referred to in prophecy as her shadow, it ends up being quite literal.  Erin is devoted to Aeriel above and beyond anything else.  She does not wish to live in the land she knew as a slave, nor does she wish to return to the people she no longer remembers.  Instead she clings to Aeriel.  We don’t get much information about Erin’s thoughts or motives for why she does this, and Aeriel herself doesn’t think of Erin in a sexual light, but that doesn’t mean Pierce wasn’t writing them with that in mind.

Actually, that ending reminds me of how Legend of Korra ended, with Korra and Asami walking hand in hand into the Spirit World.  I didn’t pick it up for myself watching the episode for the first time, but it seems the creators meant for this to be read as a potential lesbian relationship.  Again, there wasn’t anything sexual in the gesture, but does it really have to be about sex?  I may be aromantic, but there’s plenty of asexuals out there who do seek out relationships, even if they don’t go further than cuddling.  (Please note, some aces do have sex and asexuality is a spectrum of individuals making the choices that are best for themselves and their lives.)  Regardless, if I hadn’t known that about Legend of Korra, I might not be reading this into The Pearl of the Soul of the World.

A Small Milestone

Today is a first for this blog, and yet still a day we all knew was coming.  This is the first time since I started tracking my reading here that I’ve reread a book I have already posted about.  Five months is a bit shorter than usual for the time between readings, but there have been [rare] occasions when I finished a book and immediately reread it.

It was The Darkangel by Meredith Ann Pierce to which I returned today.  Since I last read it (August 25th, if you’re curious) I have acquired the rest of the trilogy, and today was simply the refresher of what this world is, and where I’ve left off.  As you may have noticed, it is very unusual for me to read the new book in a series without first rereading its predecessors.  Though again, not unheard of.

Now I am in a better position to appreciate how subtly and early Pierce laid the foundations for the climactic scene, calling back to elements of narrative she’d offered before.  I suppose if one is reading more analytically than I tend to, you could have seen these things sooner.  After all, why have a story within a story if it isn’t going to be significant in some way?

Both times I’ve read The Darkangel I’ve had this weird feeling.  Sort of that I’m reading an awful young adult paranormal romance, but then I relax as I remember and re-experience the fact that this is simply a well written story of fantastical science fiction.  Again, this is a book that is science fiction at its base – the world is a moon which was seeded with life long ago by people from the planet Oceanus, which hangs in the sky above.  Of course, aside from the occasional reminders of this origin, the story reads more like a fantasy.  The first time I read this, I compared it to Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern, which reads like a fantasy for the first several entries, despite the prologue describing why mankind colonized this distant planet.

As I sit here, on the verge of starting the next book in the trilogy (A Gathering of Gargoyles), I have to wonder if we’ll get into more 0f the underlying science, or if it will still read predominantly as a fantasy and a romance.  For the record, romance is far from one of my favorite subjects, considering that I do not myself experience that attraction.  I can tolerate it, and sex scenes, but heartily prefer that they contribute to and further the plot, rather than simply existing for the teeny-boppers and housewives to fantasize.  In the case of The Darkangel, as it was for The Sun is Also a Star, the romance is central to the plot, so I am willing to allow it some leeway.

It still has to be a damned good book beneath the romance, or I won’t consider rereading it.  Again, I do not read out of the romance section.  That doesn’t mean I haven’t found myself reading books that would fit there if not for the fantasy (not usually sci-fi) elements, but it does tend to mean I’m a bit disgusted when I realize what I’m reading.

Let me reassure you, The Darkangel is a good book.  It is what the paranormal romance books of today wish they were in quality.  (The truth is, paranormal romance books wish they were a certain vampire quartet by a certain terrible author because said books and movie adaptations and fandom have made quite a tidy profit.  Quality often falls by the wayside in books that are simply seeking to make a quick buck.)  I wish more books would strive for this, and that we’d get fewer pieces of crap like Queen of the Tearling.  Regardless, I’m looking forward to starting A Gathering of Gargoyles this evening.  I may have to bring The Pearl of the Soul of the World with me tomorrow – just in case.

Expanding a Story

When I was in Florida last month, I read a number of books that had been accumulating.  This included an anthology titled The Fair Folk which had only six stories, and a third of them I didn’t care for.  The best of the lot was “Except the Queen” by Jane Yolen and Midori Snyder and frankly it’s one of the reasons why I kept the book.

Imagine my surprise when I was in a used bookstore this month and saw a nice hardcover with that same title.  It even had the same authors.  Clearly someone decided that while the tale in The Fair Folk was good, there was a great deal more story that could be told, if it was only given more space to work with.  The letters between the sisters remain, but they’re no longer the main part of the book.  Instead, we get to see things from Sparrow and Robin’s viewpoints as well, with occasional glimpses by others, including the Queen herself.

I still enjoy the fact that this story is not about opening our perceptions to what exists in the world we think we know, but instead that it’s about the fey sisters having to adjust to the world.  They understand some things, but technology in particular is a foreign language to them.  And when I say “technology”, I mean anything that a medieval society wouldn’t have.  This includes the post office, which the two refer to as “eagle mail.”

My worst complaint about the book is that I have a hard time telling the sisters apart.  To the point where, once they’re both employed, I can’t even remember who works where when it’s not part of the story at that time.  You’d think I could remember that the sister living in Baba Yaga’s chicken-legged house works at the Co-op (or Coop, as she says it), but I can’t even do that.  I know one is older than the other, but I can’t remember which.

For all that, I still found Except the Queen to be just as enjoyable a read as its short story incarnation.  I think that the older version is tighter and more focused due to its shorter length (the short story was published in 2005, the novel was released in 2010) whereas the newer is able to go into far more depth and introduce more characters.  Not to mention allowing us to get to know additional characters.

On the other hand, this extended version uses even more mythical creatures, as well as several I’m not especially familiar with.  If I had that knowledge, I’m sure I’d get even more out of this book.

I’m not entirely certain what age group The Fair Folk was trying to attract, though I’d guess standard adult readers.  Except the Queen is a distinctly young adult book.  The focal point characters, Sparrow and Robin, are either teenagers or in their early twenties, and one of the themes is of their growing into adulthood and accepting who they truly are.

Yes, you can say that Serana and Meteora (the sisters) are the main characters, but the plot is driven by Sparrow and Robin.  Plus the cover itself reminds me most strongly of young adult books.  It’s not as…simplified…as the section would become in the next several years, but it has many of the same elements.  On that note, I leave you a picture and bid you good night!

exceptthequeen

The Matter of Arthur

It seems to be a requirement of fantasy writers in particular to tackle the issue of King Arthur at some point in their career.  I’ve read forwards and prefaces where said authors complain heartily about this fact – yet the stories still exist and keep coming.  Some even return to the subject more than once and showcase a different aspect of the tale.  They range from attempting to be fairly factual, while still telling a story, to completely fantastical and using only the same names and roles we all know so well.

Black Horses for the King is Anne McCaffrey’s take on the tale, and she chose a facet that is utterly unique in my reading of Arthurian lore.  Sure, Mercedes Lackey has talked about the White Horses of Britain as a symbol, and everyone assumes that the Companions (Knights) of the Round Table rode around the country, but this is the first time I’ve actually seen someone look at the horses in and of themselves.  After all, the equines native to Britain would be the tough little ponies, which are not exactly the same as thoroughbred horses.  Thus Arthur (or Artos as he’s called in this particular book) has to import horses large enough to carry big men in armor.

It’s a simple story that leaves out many classic Arthurian elements and characters.  No Merlin, no Mordred, no Nimue, no Avalon, no Excalibur, no Guinevere, etc.  However, that is the beauty of having so many different takes on a single story: there is no right answer and the elements can be used or left out as needed to tell whatever tale the author desires.

After all, what is commonly known about Arthur’s story?  We know he was a leader in Britain, after the Romans pulled most (or all) of their forces off the island to deal with troubles closer to home.  We know that Arthur had a select group of Companions who were his friends, his captains, and his troubleshooters.  We know that Christianity was a relatively recent development, likely tied to the Romans, but that much of the island still worshipped other gods.

Frankly, that’s all that I’d say is for sure.  Even the rest that is usually part of the tale, such as Guinevere and her betrayal, Excalibur, and Merlin are things that we can’t swear to easily.  It’s entirely possible that there was no special sword or wise advisor, that these were fabricated by Arthur’s enemies as reasons why he’d managed to defeat them.  After all, if the gods are on your side, your victorious enemy must have cheated, right?

I could make a list of books and short stories I have that tie into the Arthurian mythos, but it would be incomplete and would encompass so very much.  There’s a reason why a number authors grumble and point fingers at friends and editors whom they blame for the existence of their own take on King Arthur.  In McCaffrey’s place, she blames Jane Yolen.

To be honest, if I was Jane Yolen, I’d be damned proud to be the reason Black Horses for the King exists.  It’s a good little book.

More Circus

I usually read these two books in reverse order, Wonder When You’ll Miss Me followed by Water for Elephants.  I think this is the first time I’ve read them the opposite way, and a couple elements did make themselves known that I hadn’t noticed before.  But I’ll get to that later, maybe.

Wonder When You’ll Miss Me by Amanda Davis is another book I found through my highschool summer reading.  For Contemporary Fiction we had a choice between this and a book that took place at another highschool in the area.  I picked this one because I felt it would be the less popular choice, not that it actually mattered.  I still haven’t read the other, but I have no regrets, because this one is strong on its own.

I mentioned it last post, Wonder When You’ll Miss Me is my other circus book.  Our main character is Faith Duckle, a sixteen year-old highschool student who runs away and joins the circus under the assumed name of Annabelle Cabinet.  This isn’t some dream of making it big though, but a grittily realistic look on life.  Faith was in a mental institution after her suicide attempt and had trouble fitting in at school.  And being in the circus isn’t all that glamorous – she shovels elephant shit much of the time.

Still, the book is about Faith remaking her life as Annabelle and finding the strength within to do so.  It’s also about the details and looking beyond the surface.  We find out early on that one of the characters is gay, but there’s no stigma against it, simply a fact of who he is.  There’s kind people on the highway and creeps as well, but the most danger our main character finds herself in is from herself.  I find Faith/Annabelle to be a very believable character, as well as likable.  I want her to succeed, to find her place in the world where she can be happy.

Sadly, Wonder When You’ll Miss Me is the only novel written by Amanda Davis, coming out not too long before she died in a plane crash.  There is a collection of her short stories available titled Circling the Drain, but nothing else full-length.  It’s a tragedy because not only was she planning more books, but because Wonder When You’ll Miss Me is so well-written and enjoyable.  Well, I have a hard time reading some parts, but that’s because I find those actions distasteful personally.  They’re logical choices for the characters and fit the story, regardless of whether or not I would do such things.

I’m thinking back on whether or not Water for Elephants was a better follow-up to Lillian Boxfish or if I’d’ve done better to read Wonder When You’ll Miss Me then.  There’s a lot of parallels between them all, not the least of which is that all three are written in first person.  Most of the books I read are in third, so it is worth mentioning as far as I’m concerned.

It may be a bit late at night to really dissect Wonder When You’ll Miss Me and I’m yawning as I type.  I intend to go on to something new tomorrow, and try to reduce the Pile a bit.  We’ll see how that goes in the morning.

To the Circus

Like many people, I was saddened to hear that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey is shutting down.  Of course, I can’t say I was surprised by the news.  There’s so much competition for people’s time and money, and so much of it can be accessed without leaving the house nowadays.  I’ve seen the show, what person hasn’t?, but I know for a fact that my experience was distinctly different from the experience my mother had as a child, and especially from when my grandmother was a child.

I was very young and I barely recall anything.  I’m quite certain it was held in a stadium or arena, rather than a tent outdoors.  I remember standing in long lines on a concrete floor.  I remember sitting high up and my mom pointing towards the floor where there were people and animals and things.  That’s about it.

Still, what better way to mark the announcement of an ending era than to read a book or two celebrating it?  That brings me to today’s book, Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen.  Like so many exceedingly popular books, I did not read this one when it initially came out.  I remember that my mom had a copy, a pass-along book that I think she got from my grandmother and I think passed from her hands to mine and then to my sister’s.  Between my mom and me though, there were a number of years spent on a shelf in the basement.  I know I didn’t read it when it first became big, and I certainly didn’t read it when the movie came out.  In fact, I have never seen the movie once in my life and intend to keep it that way.  I’ve been told by such reliable sources as my grandmother that it was mediocre at best, and she has always regretted that the last movie my grandfather saw in theaters was not at all worth it.

I believe that I finally ended up reading Water for Elephants after tomorrow’s book: Wonder When You’ll Miss Me.  Because it was also a circus environment, I became curious about this much more famous novel.  And I was enthralled on that first read.  So when my sister asked about it, I was happy to give her the pass-along book.  I did regret that later, when I wanted to reread it.  On the flip side, I was able to buy myself a brand new copy which would withstand far more abuse.  Unfortunately, that means my version features the leads from the movie on the cover, instead of the simpler, more generic circus image of the old.  I would care a lot less about the cover if it wasn’t oversized and therefore could be hidden by my book covers.  I don’t usually think about it when I’m not reading it because I only see the spine on the shelf.  So it’s just a passing annoyance.

The story is that of Jacob Jankowski and his experience with the Benzini Brothers most Spectactular Show on Earth.  It’s also the story of Jacob in the nursing home seventy years later, remembering his youth more vividly than the previous day.  It’s a fictional story, but there’s a number of notes and such in the back detailing the various true stories that Sara Gruen drew on to fabricate her novel.  Each chapter also features a photograph from circus archives.

Traveling shows are communities unto themselves, and that’s what makes Water for Elephants such an entrancing read.  It draws us into the community, teaches us the terminology, and allows us to peek behind the curtains.  It also made me think about rewatching Dumbo the last time I saw it randomly on TV.  Unfortunately, while I had more fun in some respects based on what I’d learned since the last viewing, it had been so long that I had forgotten how incredibly cruel the other elephants are to him.  I couldn’t stand watching the bullying and had to turn it off.