First, my reading on Saturday at KGB bar went really well. There were tons of people, and my fellow readers, Matt Kressel and Eugene Myers, were great. Here are some pictures from the event, for the curious.
I figure I might as well make this reviewing thing regular. Thus, every Monday I’ll put up capsule reviews of stuff that I’ve read recently, and maybe a few of my older favorites. This week features…
Skin Hunger by Kathleen Duey – Well, this book came so highly recommended to me that I could barely wait to get my hands on it. The recommender described it to me as a dark, “anti-Harry Potter” wizard school book, and it delivered the goods. I mean, I like Harry Potter and everything, but there were a lot of unsavory implications about the supposedly “good” side of that world that Rowling never explored. Well, Duey gets down and dirty with it here. The plot follows two apparently independent threads, separated by several hundred years. In one, Hahp, a young merchant’s son, is essentially disposed of by his abusive father into a wizard school. His father knows full well he will probably die. After all, only one boy from each “class” survives to become a full-fledged wizard. This is dark, dark, dark but the imagery is lovely and the relationships very deftly drawn. I adored the slow, creeping friendship between Hahp and Gerrard, his ambitious peasant boy roommate. Also, the magic was oddly enough some of the most realistic-feeling I’ve encountered in fantasy. I’m increasingly fed up with the “wiggle your nose, chant a few Latin words” variety of magic I so frequently see, but I really felt like Duey had thought through her magic system to an unusual degree. The other story line follows Sadima, a young woman with magic in an era where magic was forbidden. She falls in love with the servant of Somiss, a rich lord who wants to resurrect magic in the world. But his desire for power drives Somiss completely insane and their story starts to get darker and more desperate as well. The alternating story lines do eventually find some connection, but not very much, and I was frequently desperate to get back to Hahp and Gerrard. Sadima is an interesting character, and I probably would have enjoyed her story more if it had just been its own book– but not much can compete with the intensity of the evil wizard’s school. I mean, Hahp is in the middle of essentially a medieval, magical Battle Royale, and he’s watching every one of his classmates die. What can compete with that? Still, very recommended. Be warned that this is the first of a trilogy, and it ends on a cliffhanger. I can’t wait for book 2.
The Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine – I’ve probably read Ella Enchanted four or five times (it doesn’t take that long) and it’s probably my favorite Cinderella retelling ever. The only other of her books I’ve read was Fairest, a snow white retelling that I liked, but not nearly as much as Ella Enchanted. Two Princesses isn’t quite as good as Ella Enchanted, but it’s vintage Levine and very enjoyable. It’s about two princesses who grow up in a kingdom beset by a strange plague that kills whomever it infects. One is brave and the other timid and domestic, and they both dream of the time when the brave one will save the kingdom and the timid one will marry and have children. But when the brave one falls ill with the deadly plague, it’s up to the shy princess of Bamarre to find herself and defeat all the dragons she never intended to face. A simple set-up, but deftly done and very sweet. Not genius, but a fun read.
The Naming and The Riddle by Alison Croggon – These are the first two books of the Pellinor series, which I’d read good things about and so decided to check out. I was almost ecstatic when I saw how big and fat they were, settling in for a nice and long YA fantasy read. Unfortunately, after a few pages I realized what I’d actually gotten myself into: a big fat epic fantasy novel, for some reason dressed up as YA. I mean, on some level all epic fantasy is YA (there’s a reason why the age almost everyone I know first read Tolkien was between nine and twelve), but I object to people labeling this as different in any fundamental way from, say, David Eddings or Terry Goodkind.
These books are literally by-the-numbers epic fantasy, faux-author’s notes about the discovery of the “lost epic of Pellinor” and an invented bibliography and supplementary materials notwithstanding. Usually I like those sort of metafictional touches, but in a world as basic-generic-fantasy as this one, they struck me as a bit of handwaving, attempting to distract the reader from realizing that Croggon had written an utterly pedestrian fantasy novel. The writing is serviceable, but not much more inspiring than that. Maerad, as the lead character, seems to have some potential at the beginning (typically humble slave girl beginnings, with hints of grandeur in her lost childhood), being very fierce and determined, if utterly humorless, but she quickly devolves into a typical whining teenager. And yes, I know that teenagers whine a lot, but spending over eight hundred pages with one doing it with very little introspection or leavening humor started to make these two books a slog. The one bright spot in this utterly rote tale of the forces of the generic “light” being corrupted by the generic “dark” (replete with plot coupons, lost wisdom in ancient civilizations, wizard schools, evil wizards in deep dark hoods, fierce northerners, lush dark-skinned southerners, pre-literate faux gypsies and every other stock fantasy cliche you can toss in) was Cadvan, Maerad’s mentor. He has a dark past, and his relationship with her does not work quite the way you’d expect. He’s less Obi-Wan Kenobi than an actual three-dimensional human with a checkered past and his own, somewhat contradictory reasons, for wanting to help her. Of course, she’s also The Chosen One ™ and beautiful and and multi-talented and, like, everyone totally falls in love with her. Did I mention that in addition to being whiny, Maerad becomes a bona-fide Mary Sue about halfway into The Naming? I skimmed the end of The Riddle and just gave up. I can’t handle another one of these slogs. I don’t what the hell everyone is praising. Even if you wanted to read generic YA fantasy, in many ways you’d be better off reading Eddings. But really, I think someone should have sent Croggon a copy of The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, so she could have spared me all this trouble.
Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt – I got this on the strength of reviews and the beautiful cover. And, yippee, no disappointment here. I enjoyed pretty much every minute of this ethereal romantic fantasy. In some ways it reminded me of Patricia McKillip’s work, in the way it focuses on a relatively small, almost domestic, story filled with realistic characters in situations that still feel very true to their fairy tale roots. Keturah isn’t “hip” or “kick-ass”– she’s a girl who has grown up as a serf in a realistically detailed medieval village, with those sorts of attitudes and personal expectations. The basic story: Keturah follows a stag too deep into the forest and gets lost. She wanders for three days, and then lays down to die. She sees Lord Death approach her, and she attempts to forestall him by telling him, Scheherezade-like, a tale. This tale sounds suspiciously like her own, and Death is curious enough that he agrees to let her go for one day, if she promises to finish the tale. She returns home, and discovers that if she can find the man she truly loves, she can evade Death’s claim on her. So, Keturah goes through all the men in the village, but her thoughts keep returning to her strange bond with Lord Death…this was lovely. The sort of book you’d like to re-read by a fire over the holidays.
As always, please recommend books for me to read! I actually have a few (gasp!) adult novels coming to me from the library, so next week you will probably have a wider variety of reviews.