Eragon by Christopher Paolini

eragon by christopher paolini

Publication year: 2002
Genre: Fantasy
Time and place: a fictional world, unspecified time
Narrated in: third-person limited
First sentence:Wind howled through the night, carrying a scent that would change the world.
Verdict: A promising start to a series.

Summary
Eragon is fifteen and out hunting to help feed his family, when all of a sudden a big blue round stone fell from the sky. He took it home hoping he’ll be able to sell it for a big sum, but no one knew how much it was worth, so the stone remained in Eragon’s possession. Not for long though: one night a small baby dragon hatched from it :)

Determined to keep the animal a secret, at least for the time being, Eragon hides the dragon, Saphira, away from the village. As time goes by the two become fast friends, especially since they can read one another’s minds. Not much time later, two mysterious strangers come to the village, chasing whoever had the blue stone. Luckily for him, Eragon was away with Saphira, but his uncle was killed and their house destroyed. Together with the village storyteller, an old man who clearly knows a lot more than he tells, Eragon and Saphira start tracking the two culprits, looking for revenge and having no idea that they will never see the small village again.

General impression
Most people say this book is heavily inspired from the Lord of the Rings, starting with the very name of the protagonist, but the similarities I noticed were with Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World1. An orphan boy who doesn’t know his parents and lives in a very remote village goes on a voyage where his party is periodically attacked by horned beings, led by a more powerful magical creature (a Fade in EotW, a Shade in Eragon). There’s also a special sword, a hand marked, the hero discovering magic within himself, a storyteller with a hidden past, and the list probably goes on. Would I go as far as to call the book plagiarism? Of course not. The hero-chosen-to-save the world story has been told countless times; the secret is in the details.

Some criticize this book because the author has started writing it at fifteen, and it was published by the author’s parents’ publishing house. This in itself doesn’t make it a bad book, however. Sure, I wouldn’t go as far as to call it brilliant, but I have enjoyed reading it, and I am planning to read at least one of the sequels. Sure, some times it’s obvious that shortcuts were taken — when it comes to Eragon’s love interest, for example: instead of building a believable characters, with flaws and all, the author has created this perfect, supernatural being that Eragon was instantly attracted to. I would have, of course, preferred it wasn’t so, but on the whole the sum of parts is a positive, and I won’t complain.

Setting
The book takes place in the fictional land of Alagaësia — a world where once upon a time ago men and dwarves and elves lived together in peace. Everyone was protected from the forces of evil by the Dragon Riders, powerful people who could wield magic. One of them however has gone mad and turned to the dark side, so he killed his brethren and proclaimed himself king. The dragons were almost extinct (only three eggs remain), the dwarves and elves each hid in their own worlds and wanted nothing more to do with humans.

As the book opens, King Galbatorix has been ruling the land for decades. One of the three dragon eggs has been stolen, and the king has called on the forces of evil to help him get it back. But when the Shade and his Urgals attacked the elf who was transporting it she used her magic to send it in a remote place — which is how it found Eragon, or how Eragon found it.

I liked the world building, and thought most of it is original (although, I know, elves and dwarves were also in Tolkien’s books, and others’). It is not perfect — for example the lore says that the dragon egg hatches in the presence of the one that is supposed to be its Rider; this is why people and elves came to see the egg, just in case one of them will be the chosen one, which implies that the hatching will happen instantly, or very close to that, when the Rider was there; but Eragon had the egg for a few days before it hatched –, but some bits of it were fun, and I really liked it. I liked the werecat, Solembum, that alternated between being a larger-than-normal cat and a shaggy-haired boy. I liked the way magic works, physically tiring one, and even killing one out of sheer exhaustion if one tries doing too much. I liked the way the dragons were connected to their Riders, and how one Rider could technically live a very long time because of its dragon’s influence on him. I am looking forward to exploring more :)

Characters
The dialogues are not, perhaps, the author’s forte, and yet I did like most of the characters — even Arya, who’s probably the sum of all cliches2. Everyone has their well established role: Eragon is the hero, Saphira the loyal sidekick (who just happens to be a dragon), Brom is the hero’s teacher, and Arya the hero’s love interest. There’s also Murtagh (the hero’s human companion, so he won’t feel lonely) and Angela (the mysterious witch). The former is my favorite character — a brave, loyal young man, having to bear the burden of his father’s sins. He keeps mostly to himself because of that, which is why I think his friendship with Eragon is so precious: because it’s earned. Brom would probably be a second favorite: a former hero, he’s been through much and knows a lot, and it is for Eragon the father figure he needed at this challenging time of his life.

Writing
The writing is what attracted me to the book in the first place. The descriptions in particular are the author’s strongest point. One of my favorite bits is the first description of Saphira:

“The dragon was no longer than his forearm, yet it was dignified and noble. Its scales were deep sapphire blue, the same color as the stone. [...] The wings were several times longer than its body and ribbed with thin fingers of bone that extended from the wing’s front edge, forming a line of widely spaced talons. The dragon’s head was roughly triangular. Two diminutive white fangs curved down out of its upper jaw. They looked very sharp. Its claws were also white, like polished ivory, and slightly serrated on the inside curve. A line of small spikes ran down the creature’s spine from the base of its head to the tip of its tail. A hollow where its neck and shoulders joined created a larger-than-normal gap between the spikes.”

Trivia
According to the author, he had spent a lot of time trying to pick the perfect names for his characters. He considers himself lucky to have thought of Eragon, as it’s “dragon” with a letter changed. Also, Angela the Herbalist is inspired from the author’s own sister, also named Angela :)

What I liked most
The first time we meet Angela the herbalist she is described as “holding a frog in one hand and writing with the other“. When asked about it, she said that the frog was in fact a toad, and that she was trying to prove that toads do not in fact exist. I loved the unexpectedness of the answer, and the reasoning that follows is funny too:

“If I prove toads don’t exist, then this is a frog and never was a toad. Therefore, the toad you see now doesn’t exist. And,” she raised a small finger, “if I can prove there are only frogs, then toads won’t be able to do anything bad—like make teeth fall out, cause warts, and poison or kill people. Also, witches won’t be able to use any of their evil spells because, of course, there won’t be any toads around.”

Which pinpoints Angela once and for all as a bit eccentric, if you will. But still I liked that :)

Also, although not directly related to the things in the book, here is a quote from an essay written by the author:

I hope that Eragon will leave you with the same sense of wonder that I had while writing it. I do believe in magic—the magic of stories to give you wonder, awe, and revelations. Such feelings can come from small things; in a fey vision of fairy dust swirling in marble moonbeams, or at the end of an epic where a wave of emotion washes over you, sweeping away the mundane world for a moment. Either way, I hope that you find something special in Eragon, something from the other side of the looking glass.

Enjoy the journey!

What I liked least
The author seems to have a problem estimating periods of time. This is most jarring when it comes to Eragon’s training — the guy goes from zero magic powers and zero sword training to unbeatable hero in just four weeks or so. Now, I can get there’s such a thing as a natural talent, and that helped, but still that was too much. Particularly as afterwards Eragon is the equal of Brom, who albeit older has spent most of his life in battle (and has killed at least one enemy hero, so by all means he was a good fighter), and a bit later Murtagh’s, who also has studied swordplay for most of his life.

Also, show spoiler

Thoughts on the title
Well, it is the story of Eragon :) So it’s a fitting, albeit unimaginative name. I am looking forward to see how come the 3rd(?) volume ended up being called Brisingr :)

Thoughts on the ending
Darn, knowing that the book was written in early 2000s I was hoping it had escaped the wave of ‘everything should be trilogy’ that plagues us nowadays3. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. Not only there are still untied threads left at the end of the book (I for one am very curious about who Eragon’s father may be — probably a Dragon Rider hero, but which one), but a new challenge is set for Eragon in the very few pages. Why yes, I still hate this scheme.

Other than that I actually liked the ending more than I thought I would though. Of course there is a big battle, and of course the forces of good win. I really did like, however, the way this was accomplished: show spoiler

Recommend it to?
People who love dragon stories :)

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  1. and yes, I know that EotW itself draws heavily from LotR []
  2. well, at least she’s generally not the damsel-in-distress cliche, but the I-need-no-help-I-can-slay-anything-myself one, which I happen to love :) but she also needs rescuing at one time, so… []
  3. yes, I did know there were many books in a series, but I was hoping that the first one was written as a standalone []

The Dust of 100 Dogs by A.S. King

the dust of 100 dogs by as king Publication year: 2009
Genre: Fantasy
Time and place: seventeenth century Ireland and Jamaica / US & Jamaica in the 90s
Narrated in: first-person/third-person limited/third-person omniscient
First sentence:Imagine my surprise when, after three centuries of fighting with siblings over a spare furry teat and licking my water from a bowl, I was given a huge human nipple, all to myself, filled with warm mother’s milk.
Verdict: Liked it for the most part.

Summary
If I have no option to be happy and good, then why not be as bad as I can be?

The day she turned fourteen Emer Morrisey was sent by her uncle far away from her native Ireland. She had been sold to be a wife to a much older man, in Paris. Luckily for her, once she got there she managed to run away from her husband-to-be. After living for a year on the streets, she boarded a ship to Tortuga, hoping for a better life. She was wrong; she sailed again. The ship she was on was attacked, and she fought valiantly. And this was the turning point, the moment that set her on the path of becoming nothing less than a pirate captain.

Years later, having attained everything she wanted, she was planning to retire and start a normal life. She never made it though: not only she was killed right on the beach where she first landed, but she was also cursed to spend 100 lives reincarnated as a dog. And so she was reborn as a French poodle puppy…

Fast forward to the twentieth century. It’s the 70s, and, having finished her due, Emer reincarnates again, this time as a human girl. Now Saffron, she amazes everyone with her knowledge of past events. Everyone thinks she will have a wonderful career in any field she’ll choose. But Emer has a plan and one plan only: once she will turn eighteen she will go to the beach where she died and dig up the immense treasured she has buried there.

General impression
Well, the book was a tad more violent than I would have expected (the former Emer relishes imagining various gory ways to maim the ones she find annoying; which is basically everyone she talks to). I get that Emer had lived a violent life in violent times; I get that after being around for three hundred years she has very little patience with the people around her. And yet this part seemed to me a bit overdone.

The story is told in alternating chapters, some telling the story of Emer’s life and others narrated by Saffron. There are some pages dedicated to a third character, Fred, the modern-day owner of a house on the beach Emer is interested in; there are also small stories, now and then, about some of Emer’s lives as a dog, complete with lessons learned. Each of these has a different point of view, yet they manage to come together as a whole quite nicely. I wasn’t too fond of the contemporary bits, mostly because I didn’t much like the characters involved; Emer’s original life however kept me on the edge of my seat more than once.

I was sad to see that Saffron doesn’t really suffer any effects after having spent so many years as a dog. It would have been interesting/quirky to see her having trouble adapting to being a human again (after all, she has been a human for less than 50 years, and a dog for six times that). She has some memories left, of course, but it would have been interesting to see more of a “cultural shock”, if you will. If anything, modern day Emer, although she has now lived such a long time, feels even more immature than she ever felt before, and I didn’t enjoy that.

Characters
The story of Emer begins when she is five, a happy child in the middle of a happy family. By her sixth birthday she loses everything, as her village is destroyed and its people killed by Cromwell’s army. Emer has to go live with her uncle’s family, in a very poor area. The uncle is aggressive and beats everyone; the cousins aren’t particularly friendly either. Emer’s new life is anything but happy. And it’s not going to get much better for a long, long while. Under these circumstances I have to say I was quite fond of Emer, and the way she grit her teeth and powered through the adversities that life threw at her. I liked that she had a fiery personality and she wasn’t afraid to fight for what she wanted. Sure, she does enjoy killing people a bit too much for my taste (her signature move was tearing people’s eyes out of their sockets), but I do get that this can (sort of) be put down to the fact that almost everyone in her life has treated her bad.

Emer reincarnated however is nowhere near as interesting. Perhaps because her appeal consisted in her piratey ways, and of course she can no longer act as a pirate in the 20th century. She’s just… bland. Sure, she knows a lot, due to her having witnessed a lot of history first hand, and she has that quirk of maiming people in her mind; other than that however there is not much that can be said about her. The fifth child, she isn’t particularly close to anyone in her family, despite the fact that her parents were pretty okay people throughout her childhood. I sort of resented that about her — the way she thought of everyone, her parents included, as being her inferiors (now it is true that they weren’t particularly bright people, but up to a point they were doing their best, and I was sorry to see that Saffron/Emer did not appreciate their efforts).

Another character is the guy owning the house on the beach, Fred Livingstone. Kudos to the author, as she has managed to create the creepiest and most unlikable character I have ever read about until now. Even as I write this, a day or so after I finished the book, thinking about him makes me shiver a bit. It’s not just the way he treats his (good natured, albeit not very bright) dog, although just this and made me despise him and dislike him on the spot. It’s in the way he thinks about women around him. Ew. And to think that people like that do in fact exist.

The rest of the cast consisted mostly of placeholders, unidimensional people that play a single role and have no complexity at all. Take Seanie for example, the only man Emer has ever loved. He was just there. He has no trait of his own other than the fact that he loves Emer and is loved by her. The same goes for David, Emer’s first mate. He’s there to take care of all the jobs Emer, as a female, cannot do, and in the process he of course falls in love with her (since she is so very beautiful and courageous and one of a kind). And that’s all there is to him. When Seanie comes back and there’s no more need for David, the latter disappears without a trace. Emer’s uncle was abusive and treated her bad, to provide for a challenge in her early life. Saffron’s parents become addicted to pills, to provide for a challenge in her new life. And so on, most of the characters being there as plot devices and nothing more.

A detail that I liked
Emer’s first ship was called Emerald :)

Something I did not understand
If Saffron is Emer reincarnated, how come that as she arrives in Jamaica she complains about losing Emer?

Thoughts on the ending
The ending was the part that sort of ruined the whole book for me. I liked it that it was a nice, happy ending, but I thought that its plausibility left something to be desired.
show spoiler

Recommend it to?
People who enjoy YA books and are not afraid of some gore. There isn’t anything too graphic but it’s not overly tame either.

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At Drake’s Command by David Wesley Hill

at drake's command by david wesley hill Publication year: 2012
Genre: Historical Fiction
Time and place: one of Francis Drake‘s expeditions, 1577
Narrated in: first-person
First sentence:It was as fine a morning to be whipped as any I had ever seen.
Verdict: Interesting.

Summary
“I knew I was no hero. It was equally unlikely I was any braver than the next man.”

Punished for a crime he did not commit, young Peregrine James is encouraged to leave England for the time being. He manages to be hired as a cook’s help on Francis Drake’s Pelican, one of the ships in a small fleet getting ready to (secretly) sail to Panama. Having never been on a ship, Perry does not know exactly what to expect, but he is smart enough to realize that the adventure about to begin is one fraught with danger. His motto however is “If something is worth doing, it is worth doing well”; he decides that he will just do his best and hope that nothing bad happens. But you know how they say, if you want to make God laugh tell Him your plans…

General impression
As the author states in an interview,

“I am meticulous about historical accuracy. My aim in writing At Drake’s Command was to embellish history rather than to manufacture it. Most of the characters, with the exception of Perry and a few others, actually sailed with Drake. Wherever possible I use their very words to express the opinions they voiced while they were among the living.”

Now, I don’t know very much about Drake and his voyages, quite the opposite, but this is exactly the feeling I got while reading: that the author has done his homework, not only when it came to historical accuracy, but also with the ship-related stuff. There were moments when I felt like I was actually there, sailing with Peregrine, and I really enjoyed it. You know you’re reading a well-written book when you lift your head and look at the room around you and wonder how you got there — and this has happened to me while reading ADC at least once. However, in this particular case this was for me both a pro and a con, as it turns out I am not very interested in the particulars of the life on board of a ship, so my reading got a bit slow-going now and then. For people into that kind of thing this book is probably a dream come true though :)

Characters
Perry himself was a character after my own taste: despite his youth he is anything but reckless, and he is genuinely concerned about doing the right thing whenever needed. I very much liked that he was very down-to-earth; whenever he’s in trouble he realizes that he’s on his own, as he’s the lowest in rank on the ship, and as such not worth the extra effort his rescue would cost any of the officers. While this sounds like a harsh approach, it felt nevertheless realistic; it works well in the book, not in the least because it gives Perry’s ingenuity more than one opportunity to shine :)

My one regret was that I, the reader, didn’t get to see more of Drake himself. There is of course a very good reason for that (Perry’s status as the lowest of the low would have occasioned him very little contact with the highest-in-command), but I was quite curious to see a bit of the man behind the myth. Speaking of which, another character I have had the pleasure of encountering in the pages of the book is Thomas Doughty, who, at the time the book ended, has just been given the lead of the Pelican (the peak of his fate before his downfall). He was actually one of my favorite characters because of his no-nonsense attitude, despite the fact that he is treating young Peregrine somewhat less than kind.

Relationships
Now that I think about it, the book is sorely lacking female characters — but this is only to be expected in a book about a 16th century voyage at sea.

However, this severely restrains the types of relationships available in the book. In the end, the only possible dynamic is the camaraderie developing between Perry and the rest of his mates. I was glad to see him adapt so well to the sea life, and I was even gladder to see how he interacted with the various people he runs into while doing his job. There is his “boss”, the Pelican’s cook, who can’t quite stand Perry because his (Perry’s) cooking is too fancy; there is a cook’s help that tries to sabotage Perry for taking his position; and there’s also (my favorite) a Spanish cook full of confidence in his skills, who treats Perry in a manner unexpectedly friendly under the circumstances. The first of these is the best written one as, while the other guy is mostly openly hostile, they do share at least a moment of mutual understanding, leading me to think that perhaps they will get on friendlier terms somewhere in the next books.

Thoughts on the ending
Gah! A cliffhanger ending!! I’m starting to get really fed up with those. Using this feels like an author is too lazy to get the reader actually interested in hes/her characters, choosing instead to focus on arousing the reader’s immediate curiosity and no more. Sad.

What’s even sadder is that in this case Perry was sort of interesting enough — I definitely wouldn’t have avoided reading a sequel, had a set of his adventures ended in this book. I do realize that since it’s all supposed to be one long trip it would have been a bit tough to separate the story in three different pieces in such a way that it would have had a semblance of a meaning, but in my opinion it would have been worth it. As it is now the ending feels sort of random (it could have been any number of scenes earlier on later, with the exact same effect), with an added bonus of feeling extra manipulative due to the cliffhanger thing. Ah well.

Recommend it to?
People interested in naval historical fiction are bound to love it, I guess :)
(I cannot say for sure since I am not one of them, but it seems to me it’s right down their alley)

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Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder

Genre: Young Adult / Fantasy
Main characters: Yelena, Valek, Commander Ambrose
Time and place: the Kingdom of Ixia, time not specified (fifteen years after the coup d’état that has deposed the old king)
First sentence:Locked in darkness that surrounded me like a coffin, I had nothing to distract me from my memories.
Verdict: Started out slow, but then got better.

Summary
Look around you, Yelena, I chided myself. The poisoned food taster who converses with ghosts.

No one can say that Yelena’s life is boring. A found orphan, she ended up killing the son of the man who adopted her. She was imprisoned and sentenced to death, but at the very last moment she was offered an alternative: become the Commander’s food taster. This of course means that she may die at any time, as Commander’s food tasters drop dead rather often,1 but hey, it’s a reprieve. The man whose son Yelena killed is quite unhappy with her being allowed to live though, and, as he’s one of the most powerful men in the kingdom, this is bound to be a problem sooner or later. As is the fact that Yelena discovers she has magic abilities, while living in a kingdom where such a feat is punishable by death. Not that the magicians in the kingdom nearby are happy with someone untrained tapping into their power source either.

Ah, and there is more…

General impression
I started this after reading some comments of the review of Grave Mercy over at Dear Author‘s. As there was more than one person saying this book is better than Grave Mercy, and I have liked Grave Mercy quite a bit, it was only natural for me to want to read it. The first bunch of pages were however terribly disappointing, as it seemed to me the writing style was even simpler than Grave Mercy’s (and I expected better, not worse). However, as the pages sped by and I became emotionally invested in the characters the book became more and more interesting. I still like Grave Mercy better, but this one is okay enough too.

Setting
Yelena’s adventures take place in the kingdom of Ixia, in a world different from ours (there are six seasons, for example). After the current leader took over the former king, the territory “had been separated into eight Military Districts each ruled by a General” (reminding me of the districts in Hunger Games). However, this is the first time I read about a military dictatorship in a medieval setting, and I found the idea in itself quite promising. And yet to me this regime was a mixed bag — ideologically, I think dictatorship is bad, a military one even more so. At one point Velek says something along the lines of how the only changes their taking over has effected in people’s lives were providing everyone with a uniform and a job. But there is more to it than that: bureaucracy is overflowing, the borders are closed, people with magic powers are killed on sight. Take this quote for example:

Every citizen of the Territory of Ixia had a specific job. After the takeover, everyone had been appointed an occupation. A citizen was allowed to move to a different town or Military District, but proper forms were required. A completed transfer request needed approval from the supervisor, and proof that a position was being held at the new address. Without the proper documents, a civilian found in the wrong neighborhood was arrested. Visiting other districts was acceptable, but again only as long as the proper papers were obtained and shown to the soldiers on arrival.

It felt a bit strange to have as characters people who defended this system. :)

Characters
Valek (“the Commander’s personal security chief and leader of the vast intelligence network for the Territory of Ixia“) is a study in contrasts. There is nothing combat-related he cannot do — he’s probably the medieval equivalent for a modern-day SEAL. He is a good strategist and a cold-blooded killer; to him most people are pawns. Yet he has a sensitive, artistic side too: his suite is filled with rocks, which he sculpts into beautiful, detailed shapes — and I liked that about him, it humanized him somewhat. On the whole however I had the same problem with him as with the regime: there are things about him that I did not particularly like (some of his traits are more appropriate to a villain), yet on the whole I did get emotionally invested in his welfare.

However, Yelena and I started out on the wrong foot, as she spends the first chunk of the book being dizzy/lightheaded for various reasons2. And then she treats Valek with what I saw as insolence (she loses patience in a moment I didn’t think she should have), and afterwards I had trouble respecting her, as I found her reaction on the downright stupid side. Remember that she and Valek were basically at opposing ends of the ladder, and he had the power of life and death over her, so angering him was… way less than ideal3. Luckily for me, Yelena turns out not to be the damsel in distress type I thought her at first. She is smart and resourceful and later on she even learns how to fight. She turns into a badass character (the good kind of badass), and I ended up actually liking her.

Relationships
I thought the dynamics between Yelena and Valek were pretty well done. With a few exceptions [see footnote 3], the relationship between them took a plausible course: they start out as enemies, wary of one another. Yelena’s life does not particularly matter for Valek [which makes the footnote 3 thing even more jarring], other than his wanting to be spared the inconvenience of having to train another food taster. Yelena sees Valek as an opressor — it’s true that he had saved her from her death sentence, but he had also poisoned her more than once, and even warned her he will do so again. As time passes however their rough corners smooth, and they become friends of sorts. Bit by bit Valek discovers Yelena’s qualities, and he starts seeing her as an actual person. Yelena also grows attached to him — I thought her reaction on hearing someone gossiping about Valek caring for her was particularly cute: “Valek was deadly, moody and exasperating. But for some reason, I couldn’t get that silly grin to go away no matter how hard I tried“. Aaaaaw.

Other things I enjoyed, relationship-wise:
I was happy to see that some people did not like Yelena, as too often one meets the cliché of the heroine that is so magnificent no one can resist her. Although it’s usually women that don’t like her, so the cliché may still be there after all.
Also, it was interesting to see how some people avoided Yelena because her life was always on the line and one did not want to risk getting to care for her, only to have her die afterwards :) (although to be fair there have only been five food tasters in the last fifteen years so they may still have a few years with her :P )

Plot
Once Yelena moves past her “dizzy at everything” phase, the plot is actually interesting and quite fast paced. Not only does Yelena have to keep track of the many people who want her dead, but there’s something strange going on with the Commander, and it’s up to Valek (with Yelena’s help, of course) to untangle it. The last few chapters in particular kept me on the edge of my seat :)

What I liked most
There were lots of small details that I have enjoyed :) Such as the “edible adhesive” that Rand the cook has accidentally invented, and that was both very tasty and used to suture wounds. Or the idea that the food poisoner should be able to identify even the most lethal poisons, so that if the worst came to pass they would be able to announce the name of the poison with their dying breath.

Or the answer that Yelena offered when she was offered a chance to escape in the nearby kingdom:

I remembered my last offer, to be the food taster or to be executed. “What could you possibly offer me? I have a job, color-coordinated uniforms and a boss to die for. What more could I need?”

(her boss being “to die for” as in she was expected to literally die for him, tee hee)

Another idea I have liked is this:

“What about the knife?” I pointed to the long blade hanging on the wall. The crimson blood gleamed in the lantern light. In the three weeks I’d lived in Valek’s suite, it hadn’t dried. Valek laughed. “That was the knife I used to kill the King. He was a magician. When his magic couldn’t stop me from plunging that knife into his heart, he cursed me with his dying breath. It was rather melodramatic. He willed that I should be plagued with guilt over his murder and have his blood stain my hands forever. With my peculiar immunity to magic, the curse attached to the knife instead of me.” Valek looked at the weapons wall thoughtfully. “It was a shame to lose my favorite blade, but it does make for a nice trophy.”

What I liked least
Whenever Yelena is in need of rescuing, there Valek is. Which would have been great in theory, but some of the times his being there is less than plausible. Sure, the author did add a part where Valek’s mind was supposedly connected somehow with Yelena’s (why? how? especially given Valek’s peculiar resistance to magic), but it still felt a bit contrived.

Thoughts on the title
Love it :) Especially as the next book is titled Magic Study (in this one Yelena studies poisons, and in the next she will get to study the best way for her to use her magical abilities, see? :) ). There is a third book too but I don’t remember the title.

Thoughts on the ending
Too sudden! I could have done with a few more pages. Other than that however it was nice, every plot thread tied up properly (well, there still remains the question of what will happen to the relationship between Yelena and Valek).
show spoiler

Recommend it to?
At the moment it has a 4.21 on Goodreads, so on the whole people definitely liked it more than I did :) I would say that any YA lover in search for a badass heroine could give this a try.

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  1. For the life of me I don’t get why anyone would try to poison someone that has all his food tasted prior to eating it, but apparently people do do that. []
  2. I get that she was weak after her months spent in prison, but still []
  3. Speaking of which, I also found far fetched the parts hinging on Valek spending time and effort to protect Yelena himself — someone with his rank and responsibilities had nothing better to do than follow a former prisoner around? []

The Thief of Always by Clive Barker

Genre: Dark Fantasy
Main characters: Harvey Swick
Time and place: the Holiday House — somewhere outside our reality
First sentence:The great gray beast February had eaten Harvey Swick alive.
Verdict: Loved it!

Summary
One bleak and boring February day Harvey Swick receives a surprise guest: a strangely dressed man who tells him about this great place to vacation in. Happy for the break in his routine, Harvey accepts to visit this mysterious place — so magic and mysterious that is hidden behind a wall impenetrable to the rest of the people. Everything turns out to be even better than he imagined and, together with two other children he met there, Harvey loses track of the days he spends happily playing one game or another.

The situation however is bleaker than the kids realize. One day Wendell, the other boy, gets sick of playing and wants to go home. And, as it was only to be expected, he finds no way out. He calls Harvey to his assistance — but can two kids defeat the magic guarding the house?

General impression
The book grabbed me with the very first sentence and it didn’t let me go until the last. It’s a short book (267 pages), easy to read in one sitting (which I did) and quite captivating too. And did I mention the beautiful writing?

Characters
The main character is a ten year old boy, Harvey Swick. He’s quite everything one would want in a hero of such a book: a bit reckless, yet smart and courageous and willing to help and do the right thing whenever the need arises. What’s more important, he does not give up easily — once he has noticed there is something wrong, he never lets go of the idea of escaping; later on, likewise, he does not let the house distract him from his purpose. Which is probably why he is the one child able to defeat Mr. Hood, all the others before him having been sidetracked :)

As for the villains, methinks the author has done a great job with them. Both their physical appearance and their behaviour made a perfect “wolf in sheep clothes” impression, as they cannot help giving off a disturbing, menacing vibe even when they want to seem friendly and nice. In my eyes the whole book has great cinematic potential, but if a movie were made it’s the villains I’d be most curious to get to see :)

Setting
Ah, the Holiday House. The very reason I like Clive Barker’s books is that at times he has some fascinating ideas :)

Imagine a house where four seasons pass every single day. In the morning the trees are blooming, for there is spring. Later on, the sky clears and the temperature rises, as summer has arrived. The clouds come back then, and leaves start to fall; each evening there is Halloween. And then, the snow starts falling and a huge Christmas tree appears in the middle of the house; and each day there are presents under it, and perfect ones too, as the house can read minds.

And let’s not forget that, of course, at Holiday House there’s always holiday — the children are free to spend their time playing and generally doing whatever they please. I don’t think it can get any better for a ten year old than that :)

Relationships
First of all, I liked that Harvey, although delighted with the prospect of a holiday in a magical place, has remembered to spare a thought about his parents, and even calls them periodically. Other than that, there is of course the friendship that forms between him and the other two visitors at the house, Wendell and Lulu. I didn’t feel it to be a central part of the story though (although they do matter for him, especially Lulu, after her change at the end). It seemed to me that Harvey’s motivations were a bit more general than just relating to his two friends — he wanted back what he lost, and he also wanted to help the rest of the children (the scores that have fallen prey to the house in previous years), not Wendell and Lulu alone. Or perhaps I am misremembering and it’s the other way around, he wanted to help Lulu and helped the rest as a side effect. :)

Plot
Ever since Harvey first sets eyes upon the house, the reader is treated to certain clues that all is not as it should be. The theme itself is similar enough to Pinocchio’s Toyland, so it is obvious almost right from the start that Harvey is about to learn that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”, most likely the hard way. However, this knowledge does not dim in any way the joy of reading — getting to discover the Holiday House’s domain is fun enough by itself. Not to mention that, while it is obvious that someone wants something from Harvey, I personally was very curious to see what that something is (this curiosity being one of the reasons I couldn’t put the book down). This mystery will be revealed halfway through the book, and then another will replace it: Harvey wants to take back what the house has stolen from him — will he manage to succeed? And if so, how?

What I liked most
The cats :) I liked the idea of having three cats named Stew-Cat and Blue-Cat and Clue-Cat, and the fact that Blue-Cat was blue and Clue-Cat had a tail shaped like a question mark was also a nice touch.

My absolute favorite moment however is somewhere near the end:
show spoiler

What I liked least
Clue-Cat’s accident :( I kept hoping that he will be resurrected somehow :(
Blue-Cat’s fate too :( :(

Thoughts on the title
Brilliant :) The very idea of a “thief of always” sounds quite cool to me. Even more so since both the hero and the villain are referenced as such inside the book, and I like the fact that we cannot be certain who the title refers to :)

Thoughts on the ending
Could the ending be anything but positive and cool? I knew that all along, of course, and yet still I was taken by surprise by how much I enjoyed it :)

show spoiler

I very much liked the last few sentences — the idea that one would treasure every moment from then on may be a bit cliche, but the wording is anything but:

He’d fill every moment with the seasons he’d found in his heart: hopes like birds on a spring branch; happiness like a warm summer sun; magic like the rising mists of autumn. And best of all, love; love enough for a thousand Christmases.

Recommend it to?
Everyone — kids in particular, but I bet it can hold the interest of adults too :)

I loved the first page so much I just have to quote it here:

Harvey, Half-Devoured

The great gray beast February had eaten Harvey Swick alive.

Here he was, buried in the belly of that smothering month, wondering if he would ever find his way out through the cold coils that lay between here and Easter. He didn’t think much of his chances. More than likely he’d become so bored as the hours crawled by that one day he’d simply forget to breathe. Then maybe people would get to wondering why such a fine young lad had perished in his prime.

It would become a celebrated mystery, which wouldn’t be solved until some great detective decided to re-create a day in Harvey’s life. Then, and only then, would the grim truth be discovered. The detective would first follow Harvey’s route to school every morning, trekking through the dismal streets. Then he’d sit at Harvey’s desk, and listen to the pitiful drone of the history teacher and the science teacher, and wonder how the heroic boy had managed to keep his eyes open. And finally, as the wasted day dwindled to dusk, he’d trace the homeward trek, and as he set foot on the step from which he had departed that morning, and people asked him-as they would-why such a sweet soul as Harvey had died, he would shake his head and say: “It’s very simple.” “Oh?” the curious crowd would say. “Do tell.” And, brushing away a tear, the detective would reply: “Harvey Swick was eaten by the great gray beast February.”

Buy this from amazon.com | Buy this from bookdepository.co.uk | Clive Barker’s website | Clive Barker on Twitter | Clive Barker on Facebook | Clive Barker about The Thief of Always

Written by the same author:
Books of Blood, Volume One

The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

Genre: Historical Fiction
Main characters: Grace Winter
Time and place: 1914, a little boat on the Atlantic Ocean
First sentence:Today I shocked the lawyers, and it surprised me, the effect I could have on them.
Verdict: Sadly, another one of those books that everyone loves but me.

Summary
It was not the sea that was cruel, but the people.

Grace Winter is 22 and she’s only been married for a few weeks when she becomes a widow. The ship that she and her husband were travelling on sinks, and Grace is one of the passengers of the few boats that were launched; sadly, her husband is not. The real trial is only now beginning though: there are 39 people in Grace’s boat, a bit more than its dimensions allow. As days pass, the hope of rescue dwindles and the weather becomes agitated; the boat’s load should be lightened — but how? Does some people’s chance of survival justify the death of others?

General impression
The premise of the book — thirty-nine people crowded on a tiny boat, a boat that spent twenty-one days at sea — reminded me of Life of Pi, which I loved, and this was the reason I ended up requesting it from NetGalley.

There are indeed similarities between the two books. This one starts out quite captivating, with the difficult choices that the people in the boat must make — their boat is overcrowded as it is, and so they have to steel their hearts at the plights of the people all around them. Particularly touching is a scene where they have to ignore a young boy, nicely dressed, whose mother has died after setting him on a plank. This moment will come back to haunt Grace, our narrator, now and then, and I can only imagine how unsettling the experience must have been.

Like Pi, the people in this boat have to make do with as little resources as possible. Their bodies grow gaunt, raw meat feels like a delicacy, the rains bring with it the blessing of sweet water. And also, like in Pi’s actual story, conflicts break out among the passengers, with some ending up dead. And this is where the book’s grip on my interest faded almost completely. Grace, as a woman, spends her time with the women in the boat, and so we know little to nothing about the talks going on in the men’s group. This is why my opinions/feelings only apply to the female travelers. And boy, they were a despicable lot. Scratch that, despicable probably is too strong a word — yet I cannot find any other right now, so it will have to do. The women spend their time gossiping, fabricating stories out of thin air, and then believing these stories themselves and reacting with indignation towards the ones the story’s about. Instead of wanting to keep peace — after all, they were all literally in the same boat — some of them sow dissent, while others are preoccupied with seizing as much influence and power as possible. While I do of course realize that this is the way things would probably happen in the given situation (as the average person has a tendency for all the things described), I cannot say I am fond of people acting in an average way in extraordinary circumstances. Which is why I spent half the book wanting to punch some of the said women in the face, and also why the moral ambiguity of most of the story was lost on me — to me there was nothing ambiguous about it, those women were in the wrong.

Consider that the people in the boat had one experienced sailor among them, just one. And he, albeit gruff and not very social, has done everything in his power to care for his little flock — he rationed the provisions, he instituted a schedule, he caught fish — and the idiots in the boat owed him their survival, such as it was. They themselves should have known that, as at one point they intersect with another boat from the same ship, and the people there seem a lot worse off. Now, this sailor, Mr. Hardie, may not have a completely clean character — he may have been a thief, but there is no proof of that, just stories upon stories upon stories, most of them fabricated as likely as not. But no, the women decided to hold him responsible for their situation (“He made his best guess, that was all, which was certainly better than mine. Yet I and others blamed him as if he knew the truth and kept it from us–capriciously, or as a form of punishment for our sins.“). They said he was a threat to them and he had to be killed. And this is supposed to be morally ambiguous? Not in my book it isn’t. It is one thing to kill someone to ensure your own survival and quite another to finish one off simply because you’ve grown tired of being under his command.

show spoiler

I should mention a few words about Grace. It’s interesting how, despite being the narrator, she didn’t feel that central to the book; she felt to me like yet another woman among those in the boat (although to be fair to her Grace did have the sense that the others lacked — or perhaps she just tells the story in such a way to make herself look good). I did like that she was a doer, not a talker; her motto is “God helps those who help themselves” and she considers hope “a weak emotion, a kind of pleading passivity or entrenched denial”. Her father went bankrupt and killed himself, and her mother, on hearing about this, went mad. Grace’s sister went on to become a governess, while Grace herself evaded this fate by marrying a rich guy (interestingly enough she considers her sister the weak one, the one who settled for less — I find the opposite to be true). Marriage seems to be Grace’s ‘weapon of choice’ (she finds herself a new husband before the book is done), and this has detracted from my initial opinion of her. I feel somewhat cheated in a way — I loved her motto, and a female character who believes in doing things herself can only be a likable one, I thought. But Grace spends the vast majority of the pages entrapped in an environment she cannot influence, regardless of what her philosophy may or may not be. The cases when she does find herself a mistress of her own destiny — after her father went mad and after the thing with the boat is fully over — her solution is marriage, which basically delegates the doing to someone else. Sure, she is very proud that she was able to secure her future by finding a rich husband — but is this really ‘doing something’?

Which brings me at last to the conclusion. Was this a bad book? I don’t think it was. Was this a book for me? Alas, unfortunately it wasn’t. I did enjoy it quite a bit at first, but as the characters revealed their true colors I became less than enthusiastic.

A quote (Grace recollects her former life):

“My mind was blank and terrified, unable to fathom what had brought my handsome and worldly lover to his knees in a patch of dirt that was not a rich and earthy loam built up through generations of natural processes, but a combination of horse dung and wash water and boot scrapings and kitchen scraps that were too spoiled for even the ragamuffins to eat. Then I realized with a shock that seemed to leap like primordial fire from Henry’s blazing eyes to my own that the thing that had brought Henry to his knees in that filthy courtyard was me.”

Recommend it to?
Anyone interested in reading a story of survival & psychological ambiguity. At the moment it has a rating of 4.05 on Goodreads.

Buy this from amazon.com | Buy this from bookdepository.co.uk | Charlotte Rogan’s website | Charlotte Rogan on Twitter | Reading guide questions | A review far better than my own, at Read React Review

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

Genre: Fantasy
Main characters: September Morning Bell, the Honorable Wyvern A-Through-L
Time and place: Fairyland, unspecified time (in terms of our world September is from Omaha, Nebraska, and runs from home sometime during WWII)
First sentence:Once upon a time, a girl named September grew very tired indeed of her parents’ house, where she washed the same pink and yellow teacups and matching gravy boats every day, slept on the same embroidered pillow, and played with the same small and amiable dog.
Verdict: Lovely :) (I gave up trying to quantify my impressions by stars)

Summary:
Readers will always insist on adventures, and though you can have grief without adventures, you cannot have adventures without grief.

When September is asked by The Green Wind whether or not she wants to take a trip to Fairyland with him, she jumps at the opportunity to leave her boring home and get to have adventures. She soon stumbles upon a quest, being asked by the witches Hello and Goodbye to bring them the spoon that the Marquess, the evil ruler of Fairyland, has stolen from them. She also makes some friends among the way, such as A-through-L, the self-proclaimed Wyverary (a cross between a Wyvern and a Library, that is), and Saturday, the blue skinned Merid child who can fulfill wishes if defeated in fight. She also meets her Death, almost gets turned into a tree, loses her shadow and, of course, circumnavigates Fairyland in a ship of her own making.

General impression
When I started this book it had a 4.11 rating on Goodreads, so one can say I had quite a few expectations from it.1
I opened it with a flutter of anticipation and a slight fear of disappointment. And then I read the very first words (a chapter title), and I just knew I was going to love it.2

And I was right. The writing style was lovely, with a beautiful prose and a beautiful turn of phrase. The events were just the right blend of fantastic and plausible, with just enough grief thrown in3 to make it more than an average children book. At times it reminded me of Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland, while at others it had a touch of The Neverending Story mixed in :)

Setting
Ah, Fairyland. Prey to an evil ruler, who tries to impose bureaucracy and other nonsensical — for Fairyland — things. People still remember fondly the previous Queen, Mallow, who was nice, and gentle, and loved by all. The world building is one of the things that bring magic to the book, as Fairyland turns out to be a place full of whimsy and wonderful things. There is a house that takes anyone looking for the capital city by surprise, appearing suddenly in front of them. There are migrating herds(?) of bicycles. There are… ah, so many enchanting things. And everything is enveloped in a beautiful language that is a pleasure by itself.

Characters
September is twelve, and born in May. Her favorite color is orange, as “[o]range was bright and demanding. You couldn’t ignore orange things.“. She’s also described as being an “ill-tempered and irascible enough child“, right at the start. However, as time goes by and her adventures in Fairyland unfold, September, although she tries to take courage from the fact that someone once considered her ‘ill-tempered’ turns out to be nothing of the sort. She is smart, and kind, and brave, and loyal to her friends, and ready to make sacrifices in order to help others. She turns out to be quite my ideal character, and I couldn’t but love her as the pages rolled on.

My favorite ‘castmate’ was the Wyverary, A-through-L, who had a brother and a sister with names like M-through-S and T-through-Z. He was convinced that his father was a Library, and when he meets September he was just on the way through the capital, to find his grandfather, the Grand Library. He’s also quite an expert in all things with names starting with letters A through L :) Although a Wyvern, he looks just like a dragon, being big, red, winged and able to breathe fire; yet on the inside he is a very gentle creature, a bit shy even, and loyal to the core.

And then there are the (supposedly-but-not-so-much) inanimate objects, which are, in this world, infused with a personality of their own. Such as the green jacket, who tries her best to protect September from the weather, changing its shape and size when necessary to do so. Such as the little key brooch that followed September everywhere, just in case she (September) might find herself in need of a key :) Not to mention the Tsukumogamis, who, albeit not friendly, there were quite a nice touch:

But when a household object turns one hundred years old, it wakes up. It becomes alive. It gets a name and griefs and ambitions and unhappy love affairs. It is not always a good bargain. Sometimes we cannot forget the sorrows and joys of the house we lived in. Sometimes we cannot remember them. Tsukumogami are one hundred years old.

And let’s not forget Saturday, the Marid boy. We do not get to find out much about him, other than his being peaceful, and shy; however I was enchanted by the very concept of Marids and the way they relate to time:

Our lives are deep, like the sea. We flow in all directions. Everything happens at once, all on top of each other, from the seafloor to the surface. My mother knew it was time to marry because her children had begun to appear, wandering about, grinning at the moon. It’s complicated. A Marid might meet her son when she is only eleven and he is twenty-four, and spend years searching the deeps for the mate who looks like him, the right mate, the one who was always already her mate. My mother found Ghiyath because he had my eyes.

Just one last tiny quote and I will move along :) this one fascinated me because it managed to make me fond of the character it refers to, in just a handful of words:

Now, jackals are not the wicked creatures some irresponsible folklorists would have children believe. They are quite sweet and soft, and their ears are clever and enormous.

The last six words did the trick. I don’t remember ever being drawn to a new character after a mere six words, but this is precisely what happened here. Unfortunately for me this was a character that appears only briefly, but I am very hoping to see her (it was a girl) again in a next book.

Relationships
At first, September is Heartless. All children are, explains the author, as they have not yet grown a heart. Faced with a choice later, at a crossroads, she chooses the path with ‘lose your heart’ as a consequence, without thinking too much about it.

And this is how we, the readers, see September grow throughout the book. Bit by bit, adventure by adventure, she transforms — from a child who did not much care about others, and who did not think twice before leaving home without saying goodbye to her mother, into someone aware of others’ plights, someone who cares and cannot remain indifferent. In short, she grows a heart. One of my favorite things in the book.

Plot
The plot is not that much taken by itself — a classical tale of a questing hero that faces the villain with the help of some friends. However, everything else in the book (the characters, the world itself) is so very fascinating that I don’t think anyone will be bothered by that. Alas, many things may be said of this book, but accusing it of lack of originality is absolutely and definitely not one of them.

What I liked
I liked that the author does not overly protect the main character, as September does have some difficult things happen to her. Sure, everything turns out all right in the end, but I think that this shade of grey sometimes cast upon September makes the book one that is addressed to adults too, rather than being oversimplified for children’s (sort of) sake alone.

Huge list of quotes to follow. Alas, this is one of those books where I have to restrain myself to keep from quoting half the book, if not more.
Starting with some small ones:

It is well known that reading quickens the growth of a heart like nothing else.

Short yet irresistible :) (I share the same opinion but I could never have put it so beautifully)
About the earth:

The earth, my dear, is roughly trapezoidal, vaguely rhomboid, a bit of a tesseract, and altogether grumpy when its fur is stroked the wrong way!

About the Marquess:

“You may be ticketed, or executed, depending on the mood of the Marquess.”
“Is she very terrible?”
The Green Wind frowned into his brambly beard.
“All little girls are terrible,” he admitted finally, “but the Marquess, at least, has a very fine hat.”

Next, the inspirational ones:
One about courage:

“When you are born,” the golem said softly, “your courage is new and clean. You are brave enough for anything: crawling off of staircases, saying your first words without fearing that someone will think you are foolish, putting strange things in your mouth. But as you get older, your courage attracts gunk, and crusty things, and dirt, and fear, and knowing how bad things can get and what pain feels like. By the time you’re half-grown, your courage barely moves at all, it’s so grunged up with living. So every once in awhile, you have to scrub it up and get the works going, or else you’ll never be brave again.

And one about dreams/wishes:

“For the wishes of one’s old life wither and shrivel like old leaves if they are not replaced with new wishes when the world changes. And the world always changes. Wishes get slimy and their color fades, and soon they are just mud like all the rest of the mud, and not wishes at all, but regrets.”

One of my favorite things is the oblique reference to Schrodinger’s Cat and the observer effect:

The casket is really quite clever. I received first marks for it. How shall I explain? It is both empty and full, until one opens it. For when a box is shut, you cannot tell what it might contain, so you might as well say it contains everything, because, really, it could contain anything, see? But when you open it, you affect what is inside. Observing something changes it, that’s a law, nothing to be done.

And then there is something that makes one think of Plato’s theory on soulmates:

A lady stood uncertainly by, looking as if she might run at any moment–if indeed she could run, for the lady was truly only half a lady. She was cleanly cut in half lengthwise, having only one eye, one ear, half a mouth, half a nose. It did not seem to trouble her any. Her clothes had been made to fit her shape, lavender silk trousers with only one leg, a pale blue doublet–or singlet–with only one padded sleeve. Half a head of hair tumbled down her side, colored like night.
[...]
The lady ran full tilt towards a young man, tall and half-formed just as she was. His trousers, too, were silk and purple, his collar yellow and high. The two joined–smack!–at the seam, and she turned to face September. A glowing line ran down their bodies where the join had been made.

This particular idea will develop into something else than I initially thought, but I still find it brilliant :)
One last concept I found too interesting not to mention here, this time in a spoiler box, just to be on the safe side:
show spoiler


And to think that all these are but a few of the interesting things in the book :)

Thoughts on the title
While this has to be one of the longest titles I have encountered, if not the longest, it is nonetheless a very intriguing and also descriptive one. I love it, although September gets to experience a lot more than simply travelling around Fairyland on a ship4 :)

Thoughts on the ending
The book ends hinting to a sequel, and it does so in a beautiful language:

“All stories must end so, with the next tale winking out of the corners of the last pages, promising more, promising moonlight and dancing and revels, if only you will come back when spring comes again.”

While I already knew a sequel is in the making, and am very looking forward to it, I am somewhat against this ‘buy my next book’ practice some authors engage in. I do admit that as far as these things go this is a very tame attempt, but I was a bit sad to see it nonetheless, on principle.

As for the rest of the ending, long spoiler to follow:
show spoiler

Recommend it to?
Everyone. It is so nicely written and has such imaginative elements that I think everyone will find at least something in it to enjoy.

Buy this from amazon.com | Buy this from bookdepository.co.uk | Catherynne M. Valente’s website | Catherynne M. Valente on Twitter | A sort of a prequel to the book (the story of Queen Mallow) | how the book came to be (an inspirational moment in itself)

  1. I usually try to avoid looking at ratings ever since I discovered my tastes aren’t precisely similar to the general trend, seeing as I found some titles (Shiver, Graceling, The Iron King) not as enjoyable as their surrounding hype made me believe. And yet when I do see the ratings I cannot quite ignore the fact that the mixed opinion of almost 2000 people marks this as a way above average book. []
  2. “Exeunt, on a leopard”. Why, ‘exeunt’ is one of my favorite words. And a leopard is even better than a bear, is it not? :) []
  3. one cannot have adventures without grief, remember? []
  4. a ship she herself has fashioned out of fairy gold scepters tied together with her own hair, no less []
  5. this was one of the moments I was looking forward to the most, having Ell’s chains removed from his wings :) and when it happened it turned out to be even nicer than I imagined it, due to the involvement of the travelling Key []

My Fair Godmother by Janette Rallison

Genre: Fantasy, YA
Main characters: Chrysanthemum Everstar, Savannah Delano, Tristan Hawkins
Time and place: “Herndon, Virginia, early twenty-first century”; also, a land of fairytales, called Pampovilla, in the Middle Ages
First sentence:Dear Professor Goldengill, Thank you for allowing me to raise my semester grade through this extra-credit project.
Verdict: Five stars.

Summary:
The prom is approaching and Savannah, recently dumped by her boyfriend, has no one to go with. Which is why, approached by a fairy saying she’ll grant her three wishes, Savannah thinks aloud about how nice it would be if her life would have a prince to take her to a ball, you know, just like in a fairytale.

Next thing she knows, she’s Cinderella. Eight months before the ball. And the fairy, Chrysanthemum, is nowhere to be seen.

General impression
I loved this! The writing style (I would have quoted half the book if it were possible), the ideas, the characters, the world building, everything. I would never have thought I would like so much a book about an airheaded high-schooler who doesn’t care much about books, but I did! I am so looking forward to the sequel :)

Setting
Somewhere outside our world there is a school of Fairy Godmothers, where teenage fairies are studying various topics meant to help them in their future career. The criteria that makes a fairy become a particular someone’s godmother were not expounded upon; suffice it to say that a fairy is assigned a person, and they have to grant that person three wishes (because that’s how the story goes, right?) :)
Getting to live in a world where a fairy can poof into one’s existence at any moment, offering to grant three wishes, is bound to lead to some interesting adventures — as is the case with this book. Now, while fairies (and leprechauns, and computer gremlins) do exist and take their Godmothering responsibilities very seriously, their assignments are spread around in time and space, so very few people know about them at a given moment.

This is the case in Pampovilla too, actually. While there is plenty of magic there, complete with knights and ogres and dragons to be vanquished, most of the atmosphere is classical Middle Age-y, with folks going around their business, most of them knowing about the magic and the likes from stories only, not having direct contact with it. This made the characters transition from their own world to Pampovilla as seamless as possible in the circumstances, especially as even Savannah knew enough about the fairytales she found herself in to know what to expect.

Characters
The main reason I liked this book so much are the characters, whom I found likable and relatable, despite the difference in age and, well, everything else.

The book starts out focusing on Jane, the straight A student and the serious one (“The way the teachers loved her, they could have erected a statue in her honor. They would entitle it The Student the Rest of You Should Have Been“). And also, as was somewhat to be expected, the one in love with a guy that doesn’t even know she exists.

And then the POV switches to Savannah, the beautiful, airheaded sister, the one who thinks high school exists merely as an opportunity to socialize, preferably with cute guys. I did not know what to make of her at first but, somewhat to my surprise, she turned out to be a very likable character. I was happy to see that, despite her lack of interest in school-related stuff, Savannah never acts dumb, or ditsy. She is smart, brave, kind, and never takes the easiest way out just because it’s the easiest; she always tries to do the right thing, and I can never resist that :)

The fun part is that the fair godmother, Chrisantemum (Chrissy from now on), is very much of a teenage girl herself: good looking, loves flirting and pretty clothes, and is able to spend countless hours shopping at the mall with her friends. Alas, these activities keep her too occupied to actually pay attention to her charge, which is how Savannah ends up in all sorts of situations in the first place. Chrissy is, in a way, too much of a teenager for my taste, and, while it was fun meeting her and all, I am not sure I would have liked interacting with her for a longer period of time (alas, I may be too old and grumpy to get her). To be fair, her lack of patience regarding other people may be related less with her being a teenager and more with her being a fairy, and as such thinking herself way above humans (her paper about her assignment is named “How I Used Magic to Grant Wishes, Make Mortals Happy, and Rescue Them from Their Dreary Lives” :) ). However, when all is said and done I cannot say I did not like her; quite the opposite actually, I am looking forward to reading the next book she stars in.

As for Tristan, I think it was a very good idea to have him spend a few months in the Middle Ages before meeting the narrator/reader again. He must have taken it quite hard at first, but after a while he ends up adjusting very well to the day and age he finds himself in. I very much liked his resourcefulness, how he managed to find a way to earn his bread (by telling stories — according to him people turned out to be great fans of Battlestar Galactica :) ), and how he has formulated a plan to get out of his predicament. A difficult plan too, but he doesn’t waste any time complaining about what he cannot change, he just does his best with whatever tools he has at hand. And to think that in his own land he was a rather shy teenager :)

Relationships
The book starts out in Jane’s POV, so we get to see the way her relationship with her sister’s then boyfriend has begun and evolved from a sympathetic standpoint. Which was quite a nice touch, in my opinion. Jane’s situation is not easy, but she is indeed a far better match for the guy she’s been interested in all year (far before he met her sister) than Savannah is. And deep, deep down Savannah herself knows it, although she is disappointed and heartbroken and lacking a date to the most important social event in the near future. I liked the relationship between the two sisters, although it’s not much dwelt upon. I liked how each of them cared and worried for the other, despite there being a world of difference between them and despite the recent event that has pushed them apart.

As for Savannah and the guy she’ll end up with (I’m not saying who that is :) ), I liked the way their relationship develops. Sure, he has been interested in her all along, and yet she never noticed him until very recently. Drawn to him by a sense of duty, little by little she starts noticing him as a person, the way he looks, the jokes he makes, the way he acts. Just the kind of relationship I like seeing in books :)

Plot
About a decade ago there was a movie called Bedazzled, with Brendan Fraser starring as a guy who’s granted seven wishes by the devil. However, each and every time he makes a wish, the devil (Elizabeth Hurley) takes it literally, making each wish’s fulfillment something to get rid of rather than something good. It’s one of my favorite comedies, and it is the one this book reminded me of over and over again. :)

What I liked
My favorite part was when Savannah found herself in the middle of Snow White story, and everyone was treating her condescendingly because it seems that the original Snow White wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. Apparently, she is the one who has nicknamed the seven dwarves Grumpy and Doc and Dopey and the rest, because she couldn’t keep track of their actual names.
On the whole I found the dwarves’ reactions to her to be laugh-out-loud funny, and I am really sorry I cannot quote that whole part here :) They are all quite fond of her, and try to humor her as much as possible (e.g. they all still wear the misshapen caps Snow White has made them when she learned to knit), and yet somehow that always turns out to be quite hard to do (even now, as Savannah has replaced Snow White, because although she is smart enough she still knows too little about the new environment to act like a person who truly belongs).

I cannot help but quoting a part, although I am not sure how much it works outside context:

[...] I thought of the perfect way to learn the dwarfs’ names. I’d just call out a name and see which
dwarf answered me. It would be easy. Ha — and they thought I wasn’t smart.
“Dopey?” I asked.
“Of course you’re not,” the one in the brown cap said. “You’re just not used to cooking yet.” He went to the cupboard, took out a stack of bowls and spoons, and handed them out.
A dwarf in a blue cap went to the soup pot and stirred it. He kept poking the spoon through it as though
searching for something, then sighed, disappointed.
“Well, bring over your bowls and we’ll say grace.”
The gray-capped dwarf looked into the pot. “Aye, it needs praying.”
“Sleepy?” I called out.
“I am now,” the gray-capped dwarf said. “Think I’ll turn in for the night instead of eating.”
I tried one more time, searching the dwarfs’ faces.
“Doc?”
“Don’t be a pessimist,” The brown-capped dwarf said and handed me a bowl. “No one’s gotten sick from eat-
ing your food for days now.”

Fun bits aside, I liked how the author has managed to strike a balance between a clear, readable writing style and beautiful prose. Consider this quote for example:

Guys can smell desperation. It triggers an instinct in them to run far and fast so they aren’t around when a woman starts peeling apart her heart. They know she’ll ask for help in putting it back together the right way — intact and beating correctly — and they dread the thought of puzzling over layers that they can’t understand, let alone rebuild. They’d rather just not get blood on their hands. But sharks are different. They smell the blood of desperation and circle in. They whisper into a girl’s ear, “I’ll make it better. I’ll make you forget all about your pain.” Sharks do this by eating your heart, but they never mention this beforehand. That is the thing about sharks.

It makes me want to go out and find some other book of the author’s, to get to enjoy her writing some more.

What I did not like
Five stars = there’s nothing I want to complain about, I have liked everything well enough.
Which is definitely the case here. :)

Thoughts on the title
The title is the thing that has first piqued my interest in this book. Its explanation is funny in itself: Chrissy is a fair godmother because her grades are only fair, not good. And, according to Savannah, it shows :)

Thoughts on the ending
I cannot help but wonder whether Chrissy knew all along how things will eventually unfold (that everything will end well and everyone will benefit from the experience) or she was just lucky enough to have things work out in the end. I am leaning towards the former, although Chrissy does seem enough of an airhead most of the time to make the latter very plausible too.

The moral of the story is “nothing worth having comes easy”; in Chrissy’s own words:

“Did you think wishes were like kittens, that all they were going to do was purr and cuddle with you?” She shook her head benevolently. “Those type of wishes have no power. The only wishes that will ever change you are the kind that may, at any moment, eat you whole.But in the end, they are the only wishes that matter.”

Recommend it to?
Anyone who doesn’t really and truly hate YA. And who knows, you might like it even so (I myself am not crazy about some of today’s YA tropes, and this book managed to steer clear of all of them; and did I mention it’s fun? :) )

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Part of the same series:
My Unfair Godmother

The Golden Volcano by Jules Verne, Michel Verne

Genre: Travel Fiction
Main characters: Summy Skim, Ben Raddle, Jane Edgerton
Time and place: 1898-1899, Canada (mostly Klondike)
First sentence:On March 16, in the antepenultimate year of this century, the letter carrier whose route included Jacques Cartier Street in Montreal delivered a letter addressed to Mr. Summy Skim, at house number 29.

Summary: Summy Skim and Ben Raddle are two cousins living in Montreal. When they find themselves, out of the blue, the owners of a claim in Klondike, the adventurous side of Ben takes over. He manages to convince Summy, and the two of them travel together to the place where Ben hopes he will become a rich man. But the river floods their patch of ground and everything seems hopeless… until one day when they rescue a man that, with his dying breath, left them instructions to reach a place where a volcano filled with gold was to be found.

This is my third time reading this book (I’ve read it twice as a child). I have come to it with a bunch of expectations, given that I already knew I was going to like it, because, of course, I had already read it. Twice. Well, as it happens when it comes to expectations, I was wrong. I simply couldn’t believe this was a book I have actually liked. Everything seemed cardboard-like, the situations, the characters, everything. So disappointing.

Summy Skim for example. He loves quiet life (so mostly he complains about wanting to go home), but he also has feelings for one of the girls (so wherever she goes he goes too). Loves hunting, he’s a good shot, that’s about it. Nothing deeper than that. Edith is simply gentle and good at keeping everything in order. Ben Raddle is an engineer who wants adventure, and Jane is almost his female counterpart (just as adventurous yet shallow as he is, with a dash of feminism blended in). As for the antagonists, they felt more like literary devices than fully fledged characters, as they are two vicious people with no background and no qualities at all.

Mr. Verne is mostly famous for his “Extraordinary Voyages” series, and I believe this book is one of those. The characters are uprooted from their familiar environment (Montreal), and brought at the (almost literal) end of the world. Some say Mr. Verne’s descriptions of travelling in cold weather are very well-done, making one feel like he/she were actually there. Unfortunately all I can say about it is that even those parts seemed bi-dimensional to me.

As a bit of trivia, I have read this book in my native lanaguage (Romanian), and, while I own two separate translations, both of them have the same opening sentence, which differs from the one in the English version in two places: the date in the English version is March 16, when in my versions it’s March 17; the century is “this” instead of “the previous” one. I have checked Google books and found a copy of the original French book, and it was the same as the English one. However, the fact that I have two translations I think implies the fact that somewhere out there there’s also a French text with March 17 instead of March 16 — but why would that be? At least the case is a bit more obvious when it comes to the century issue, since the book was released in 1906, if I remember correctly (post-1905, anyway), so “the previous century” is by far the correct version, rather than “this”. But why is there a French version of the book with “this century”, when it all happens in 1800s, but the book was published not in that century but the next?

After a bit of digging I have found out the explanation for the century dilemma (but not for the date change, which is what has intrigued me the most). The version published in 1906 was a post-mortem one, heavily edited by the author’s son. I already knew that, but what I did not know is that the original version of the text, originally finished in 1899 (the same century as the events in the book), was also published in 1989 (yup, 90 years after). I have first read this book, in its Romanian translation, with March 17, far before 1989, which means that my copy is a translation of the initial version, the edited one (waaaah!), while the English version is straight after Jules Verne’s.

The differences between the original version and Michel Verne’s are very important (hence my adding Michel as a co-author): show spoiler

So many things I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t searched for the first sentence of the book in English :P

Thoughts on the ending: Predictable and somewhat unlikely, but nice :) show spoiler

What I liked most: It was interesting to find out about the meridian marking the border between Canada and Alaska, and a bit of what the search for gold entails — about rockers (a cradle-like piece of equipment that could be rocked like a cradle to sift sands through screens) and sluice boxes (sluices that have transverse riffles over a carpet which trap the heavy minerals) for example. I knew a bit about them before but I had no interest in them before (not that I have any grand interest now but I did spend about an hour clicking around Wikipedia in search of information regarding gold mining back then :) ).

What I liked least: The character that annoyed me the most was Naluto, a guy who never gave a decided opinion on anything. His answers to questions were something like “It’s [something]… unless it’s not” and “There are probably twenty miles ’til there… or more… or perhaps less”. Each and every time he talked like this and it became mightily bothersome after a while. To think that this is a character written in by Michel especially for comic effect! Ugh.

Recommend it to? I didn’t much like this book so I do not particularly recommend it to anyone.

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Also written by Jules Verne
(The Extraordinary Adventures of) Foundling Mick