Saturday, 3 April 2010

Fantasy Book Reviews for Once Upon a Time 4

One of the joys of challenges is reading books that I'd otherwise keep putting aside for a rainy day. Well, we have Carl's Once Upon a Time IV challenge on, and here are reviews of some books I've put aside for 20 years and finally read this year! and some newer books as well:

The Face in the Frost
- John Bellairs

First published in 1969, The Face in the Frost deserves to be much more widely known than it is. John Bellairs published a few other novels for children, and so he has suffered the plight that many children's authors suffer from, never mind authors of children's fantasy. The Face in the Frost tells the story of Prospero, and Roger Bacon, who are wizards of some reknown, and good friends. The names of the wizards will tell any reader that Bellairs wrote a humours fantasy, filled with gentle wit and sarcasm at the world. Roger Bacon of course spends most of his time in England, while Prospero lives in the world of North and South Kingdoms, somewhere near an imaginary border with England. This vein of mixing pure fantasy and delight with real trials and horror continues through the book. It is delightful, funny, imaginative, with an evil magician villain who is, as always, a cautionary tale on being consumed by power. Even more, there are illustrations peppered through the book, pen and ink drawings that reminded me how much a good illustration can add to the text without giving anything away, and without changing my own inner impressions of the story.

I loved The Face in the Frost. Here is a sample of how precise his writing is:
Meanwhile, the strange early winter drew thin rags and fingers of gray snow over the dirty, fast-decaying leaves that clotted the suddenly dry beds of strams; on the empty plain Prospero and Roger had just passed through, the snow moved in eerie swirls, falling into spirals and long lines too regular to be natural. People were terrified of the open spaces at night; in their homes they sat with blankets over their windows so that they would not see the mask of frost. Windows broke in the night, and the wind that blew through them had a voice.

Roger and Prospero have to find a way to defeat the evil magician who is seeking Prospero, who holds the one thing that can prevent the magician from taking over the known kingdoms, only Prospero doesn't know what it is or where it can be found. So begins their quest. This is pure delight and wonder, and I would reccommend this to everyone to read. 5/5

God Stalk and Dark of the Moon - PC Hodgell (collected in one edition, The God Stalker Chronicles, recently re-released in paperback)

These are another pair of books that were written over 20 years ago. I owned one and then the other but never at the same time, and I could never get them read in order, so eventually put it aside as a series to read later. For years and years I haunted used book stores, looking for them. So when I saw in February that it had been re-released - they both had been published by a publishing company now out of business - I grabbed the book. Both novels! together! One edition! No way was I letting go of the Chronicles, and as soon as I got home, I began reading it. After 20 years, I couldn't wait for the OUAT challenge!

How were they? Were the two books worth it? Yes! Yes! These are excellent fantasy books, complete with a new religion, a new universe, and a heroine who is so fiesty and spirited and determined, that she changes the lives and course of history around her. This is a fascinating work of fantasy, with religion, politics, history, and the right to self-determination key elements in the story. Our heroine, Jaime, is a Kencyr, one of the people chosen to stand against the Perimal Darkling, an ancient evil from the darkness that has destroyed many worlds and many universes, the Kencyr the last stand on each world against the Darkling. God Stalk opens with Jaime fleeing her foe, and landing in a city where the Kencyr have not been seen for many years, and where the gods of all the races vy for attention and belief.

In true heroic fashion, Jaime wins some friends around her, protects the down-trodden, defeats all manner of corruption and villains, and discovers who she is, for she has no memory from before she awakens in flight on the plain. God Stalk begins the story, and Dark of the Moon continues her journey as she leaves Tai-tastagon to go to find her long-lost twin brother Torisen. Who they are, and the role their namesakes played in their religion 3,000 years ago, and what Jamie has to do now to become fully herself and not live under the shadow of the ancient Jamethiel Dream-Weaver, is what the second book is about. There is also a war amassing on the planet - not against the Perimal Darkling, although we discover they are there, voices in the darkness of men's souls.

I really enjoyed these two books, and I was very happy to discover there are three more in the series, although they have been out of print also and have not yet been re-released. Seeker's Bane, and Bound in Blood. I thought Dark of the Moon ended rather abruptly - I can't say how, but I really really wanted more of the story, so I will be looking for the next two books in the series. I really enjoy Jaime, she is a marvellous heroine, stubborn, funny, intelligent, persistent, who has lived through an enormous betrayal and come into her own as her own person. I really want to know more about her twin brother Torisen. Does he survive the plots against him as leader of the Kencyr, now that he has the belongings Jaime was bringing back to him? Will he trust her, and what changes will she bring to her own people now?

I found the religious aspects fascinating, alot of thought went into creating a world where such a variety of religions could exist, and what it would mean about the civilization that could let so many exist at once. Do gods need people, in order to survive? is one of the questions Jaime strives to answer for herself. Loyalty plays a big role in these books, honour, and the ways these can be betrayed. Very, very good fantasy books, and highly reccommended. 4.7/5

Drink Down the Moon - Charles de Lint (reissued under the newer edition Jack of Kinrowan, bringing together Jack the Giant Killer and Drink Down the Moon) *read for the Canadian Challenge also

I read the first book, Jack the Giant Killer, and reviewed it at the beginning of this challenge. These were both published in the 1980's, and ones I just didn't get around to reading until now. I think I cheated myself out of two good books long ago!

Drink Down the Moon is the second Jacky Rowan fantasy faerie tale adventure, picking up a year after Jacky wins the role of gruagah for her Laird of Kinrowan and his Court, which covers much of the territory in Ottawa and surrounding area. Gruagah means she watches the ley lines of the magic running through the area, to make sure the faerie are well and strong. Jacky is new at her job, and unbeknownst to everyone, someone is coming who is destroying the fiaina sidhe, which in Charles de Lint's fantasy world here, are the faeries who do not belong to the Seelie or Unseelie Courts - organized faeries who owe allegiance and live under their lord, or Unseelie Courts, those faeries who destroy mankind at every chance. The Faina sidhe have a moon dance called a rade, they do that gathers strength and power from the new moon, along their own moon paths that their Pook can see when music is played. If a human fiddler plays, then it is the best music and magic for the fiaina sidhe of all. Only the Pook has just been killed, her half-sister has lived more in the human world than the faery one, and the only human fiddler they knew about has just passed away from old age. How Jemi learns to accept who she is, how Johnny Faw who inherits his grandfather's fiddling ability and love of music helps Jemi, and the one who surprisingly leads the eventual rade as the Unseelie Court gathers for the last battle, makes for a fabulous journey to Ottawa and faerie.

Once again Charles has woven another story blending music, fairy myths, and a city setting, to make his own brand of fairy tales distinct, moving, fun, delightful, and scary. I always forget how dark he makes the Unseelie Court - rightly so, for they are the nightmares of the faerie world, after all, the bogeymen, trolls, and fae folk who would as soon eat us as soon as we seen them, and sometimes before we see them. Beware the night shadows, because sometimes there are somethings alive out there in the darkness, in the rustlings and whispers.....and the true heroes are those who face those fears and discover their strengths in doing so, like Johnny and his friend Henk, like Jacky and Kate, like Jemi.

I have long enjoyed Charles' work and consider him underappreciated in Canada, and these two books by him have only reaffirmed my view. Canadian fantasy writers in general are ignored in Canada except when a specialty interview is run in the newspapers; they are never mentioned along with Atwood, or Munro, who appeal to a broader audience. This is the struggle for fantasy, of course, and up here even someone as prolific and well-known in the fantasy fields as Charles de Lint, still has most people wondering who he is. And that's a shame, because Charles is one of the best in his field. As a Canadian writer, we should be celebrating his work and achievements alongside our better known fiction writers. He has created a body of work that is unmatched for how it blends music, folk and fairy tales, into our contemporary world. He also creates some of the best female heroines in fiction. I really enjoyed reading about Jacky Rowan and Kate Hazel, and I want to know more about Jacky as a gruagagh. It's a scary world, and Jacky and Kate are people I want to hang out with, especially on that third floor in the grugagh's Tower that holds all those special books..... 5/5 for both books.

Bone Crossed - Patricia Briggs.

Sigh. I love this series. Every time I think Briggs can't come up with something different and as thrilling as her previous books in this series, I am surprised. Bone Crossed is the 4th in the Mercy Thompson series, and it is just as good, if not better, as the previous ones. In this one, Mercy has to face Marsilia, Queen of the local vampires seethe, for killing a member of the seethe. The vampires deface her garage door with crossed bones, marking her as no longer under the vampire's protection. She is wanted for a crime against the vampires. However, Mercy is now under the local werewolves' protection because of her relationship with it's alpha, Adam. So her friends are the apparent target. Except, as Mercy is drawn into investigating a haunted house in Spokane, she discovers she is the target for another reason altogether - her special skill as a shape shifter. How Mercy discovers who her friends really are, and what they will do for her, as she fights for her life at the end, makes for another thrilling, exciting, hard-to-put down supernatural book in the series. Caution: read this when you have 8 or so hours to yourself, it really is a book you won't want to put down for anything but to get some food ready - I read while I eat, so that's all the time I wanted to take away from this novel. It was really hard at work to have it in my bag, waiting for my work to end so I could get back to it. I would say I read past my lunchtime alloted time, except one of my bosses might accidentally find out......

I love how the werewolves are shown and how the pack works. I like how she and Adam form a bond, and what happens to her after. I like how she learns about herself finally enough to understand that it is her fear that she has to overcome. I completely understand her fear - and I'm not going to tell what it is, because it is integral to how Mercy operates in her life - I suffer from the same fear myself. I'd like to think that if I were a shapeshifter coyote I could be as cool as Mercy, but I doubt it. She is one of a kind, and I love her. I can hardly wait for the next adventure - it's out in hardcover now, called Silver Borne, and if I can't wait, my birthday is approaching.....I do wish they would do something about the awful covers, since Mercy is anything but the buxom babe featured on the covers, but thankfully we buy the books for what's inside. At least it's the same woman they are featuring, so those of us collecting these can have that satisfaction that the covers are part of a series. 5/5

Finally, the last books so far read for Carl's Challenge, I finished last night:
Tooth and Claw, by Jo Walton. *Also read for Canadian Challenge

This won the 2004 World Fantasy Award. It's a stand-alone book, not part of her current alternate England series (Farthing, Ha'Penny, and Half a Crown). Tooth and Claw is a Victorian novel of manners, featuring.......dragons. It is very, very good. The novel centers around the four children of the dragon Bon, who is dying as the novel opens. There are the two sons, Penn, who is a parson, and Avan, who is a clerk in the Planning Office for the Beautification of Illrieth, the dragon city. The two daughters are unmarried, Selendra, and Haner, and the problem of what to do with them, as they are landed dragon gentry and so unprepared to work for a living, and are dispersed to two relatives, one a married sister, makes for a fun book involving a court case, the dangers to dragons of laying eggs, what happens when a male dragon gets too close to an unmarried female, and a fearsome potential mother-in-law who is a ........dragon. Those of you who are married will get the pun! This was such an enjoyable fantasy to read. I love how the dragon houses are described, how they still sleep on their treasure, how they eat their dead, and how despite their civiliation - and how they became 'civilized' is told as a back story, in myth and religious overtones, that makes this believable. This is a dragon book of manners. It is also about religious freedom, and the rights of servants whose plight one of the sisters, Haner, takes up. Tooth and Claw has a very satisfying dragon-like conclusion in a dragon court, complete with tooth and claw. This is a well-thought out book about how dragons might have some kind of organization to their society, if they were so inclined.

For anyone who enjoys Anthony Trollope especially, and Victorian novels, this book will be a delight to read. For anyone who loves dragons, this book can't be missed. For anyone who wants to catch up on their World Fantasy Award winners, this book is deserving of the award. It is original, charming, and I really enjoyed all the dragon characters.

I would give this novel a 5/5 but I kept thinking about Smaug, who for me is the original, and best of dragons. In my imagination, he thought this was amusing, but missed something essential: a riddle or two. So 4.7/5.

I hope you are enjoying your Easter weekend, we are having fabulous summer-like temperatures, and it's making it difficult for me to do anything but read! Which wouldn't be a bad thing, except we have Easter dinner at our house tonight.......happy reading, and Happy Easter, my Gentle Readers!


Ana S. said...

I've wanted to read The Face in the Frost for years! I'm glad to hear you enjoy it. Did you know that Ursula Le Guin named it as one of her favourite fantasies? That was the first thing that made me add it to my wishlist.

Also, Tooth and Claw sounds SO much like my kind of book it's not even funny :P

Have a wonderful Easter, Susan!

Susan said...

Hi Nymeth: I thought you had read Face in the Frost, I remembered something about John Bellairs on your blog so I was checking this morning for this post, and it was his short story that you reviewed! i have to read those still. I hope you can find a copy of Face in the Frost, let me know if you can't - it keeps popping into print and back out again, so I will gladly watch for a copy for you :-D it's that good a fantasy!!

and please get a copy of Tooth and Claw, I was thinking of you and Eva when I wrote that review because both of you like Victorian novels! lol

I'll come leave a comment on your blog, I should have earlier but I was trying to get the post done. Happy Easter, dear friend!

Cath said...

Excellent clutch of books! You've made a brilliant start to the challenge - I've only read one so far. Will add Tooth and Claw to my 'try to find' list as it sounds amazing!

DesLily said...

Utoh! looks like I have to look into The Face in the Frost!.. geez, between extremely slow reading and wanting new books my tbr will never get down!.. thanks susan~ (I think! lol)

Hazra said...

You've got a great selection of books! Though I'm off challenges, I've decided to take this opportunity to start Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. I have no hopes of finishing it, of course (13 books!), but at least I can make a start.

Susan said...

Cath: with any luck, you should be able to get it there - she is originally from Wales, so fingers crossed your libraries have it! lol

DesLily: Don't worry! I just discovered a huge pile of books I did read last year but never reviewed! that was a shock.....and my TBR pile is growing faster than what I'm reading, thanks to the Year's best reading lists that are coming out - especially from Locus, which always picks really interesting fantasy books. I added 5 right there!

Hazra: I stopped reading around book 8 or 9 because I couldn't lug them all to England when I moved there. Lately I've been thinking it's time to get back to reading the series and maybe finishing it! So let me know how you do - it really is very very good fantasy, and one of my favourites. I am going to start over from the beginning when I do start reading it, I think. I have George RR Martins' series to finish too, that one is also good.

Memory said...

I can't wait to read TOOTH AND CLAW. I feel like it's following me around lately; everyone's reading it, and everyone seems to love it.

Susan said...

Memory: oh, I hope you get to it soon! It really is one of a kind, and so enjoyable to read. I mean, it has dragons!! :-D

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