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 :)

Buy this from amazon.com | Buy this from bookdepository.co.uk | The series’ website | Christopher Paolini on Twitter

  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 Storyteller’s Daughter by Cameron Dokey

the storyteller's daughter by cameron dokey Publication year: 2002
Genre: Fantasy/Retelling
Time and place: 13th century Asia
Narrated in: third-person omniscient
First sentence:Once upon a time, there lived a king whose heart was heavy.
Verdict: Four stars out of five.

Summary
His wife’s betrayal has turned King1 Shahryar’s heart to stone. Afraid that history will repeat itself, he concocts a plan: on every full moon he will marry a young woman, and the next morning she will be put to death. His decision, of course, was not well received — people ran away with their families, or hid their daughters well. But Shahrazad, the blind daughter of the king’s vizier, thinks that this is the very moment she was born for: her duty is to revive the king’s heart and thus save her people. Despite her father’s entreaties she marries the king, and then on their wedding night she starts telling him a story…

… a story that she does not finish when the morning comes. The king, happy for the reprieve, promises her that she will not be put to death until her story ends. And the story goes on and on and on, for many days.

The king’s people however were less happy with the situation than they should have been. Rumors start circling around, that Shahrazad is actually a witch, and she is still alive because she has enchanted the king. The rumors are planted by the five brothers of the previous queen, who want revenge2. Their army is small and they cannot defeat the king in fair fight, so they send the youngest to the court, disguised as a kitchen boy, to gather info and discover the best moment for a surprise attack.

General impression
I have seen that a few reviews criticize the writing style for various reasons; in my case the writing was one of my favorite things. I loved the poetry of it all, with stone hearts, and hearts overflowing with feeling, and everything in between. I loved the idea of having Shahrazad be a cloth reader, who didn’t know the stories beforehand but found them hidden in bolts of cloth. And I loved the very idea of a retelling of the story of the thousand and one nights.

Characters
I don’t remember how the original Sheherezad found herself in her unenviable position (whether it was by choice or by design), but I liked very much that the Shahrazad in this story has taken matters into her own hands. Not only she is the one who decides she will take the risk, but she does so before the king has had a chance to put his threat into action (and in doing do she has rescued him from the consequences of his decision). This Shahrazad is the quiet, confident type, intelligent and with a courage I admired more than once. She is no damsel in distress — quite the opposite, she faces danger to rescue her prince.

Shahryar himself is by no means evil, he’s just a powerful man with trust issues and with his heart closed off. I wonder whether he could have gone through with his plan, putting a random girl to death if he found himself in the position to. The author has done a good job in explaining his inner conflict all the steps of the way. As a consequence, the king is never an unsympathetic character, he just feels terribly misguided at times, and I for one have read the book in a single day, so curious I was to see how he will get to know and accept what his heart wants once again.

Relationships
Another thing I liked is how the relationship between Shahryar and Shahrazad was built little by little. Ever since he was a child Shahryar has been intrigued by little Shahrazad, and now, seeing her for the first time as a woman, the last thing he wants to do is put her to death. He is torn between his initial decision and this reluctance he finds surprising (for hasn’t he already decided on a course? And he’s a king, his will must be steady!), yet still his heart is closed off and unfeeling. Actually, that wasn’t it: his heart was not dead, quite the opposite, but Shahryar, just like the king in Shahrazad’s story, was simply refusing to see what was in front of him.

And the same goes for Shahrazad, in a way, although she is smart enough to realize it sooner: she too falls in love with the king and does not initially realize it. Since it’s a short book, however, this trope is not prolonged for too many pages — another thing that I couldn’t but like.

What I liked most
The prologue, written in the words of a Shahrazad enticing the reader in, to listen to her story :)

Two of my favorite quotes:

“A story is alive, as you and I are. It is rounded by muscle and sinew. Rushed with blood. Layered with skin, both rough and smooth. At its core lies soft marrow of hard, white bone. A story beats with the heart of every person who has ever strained ears to listen. On the breath of the storyteller, it soars. Until its images and deeds become so real you can see them in the air, shimmering like oases on the horizon line.”

and

“I wished to be the one to truly see, to come to know your heart. At least, I wished to try.”

At her words, Shahrayar felt his stone heart give a crack, and the pain surged forth into his veins, scalding as lava. Too late. Your wish has come too late, he thought.

I so love the imagery in this last one :)

What I liked least
The ending. It had the potential to be great, but then something happened that it seemed to me broke the previously established rules, and I did not enjoy that a bit.

Thoughts on the title
While the title has a poetic ring to it, I don’t think it’s a particularly good fit. Shahrazad’s mother was indeed a storyteller, one of the best in her tribe. But Shahrazad herself was foretold to be the greatest storyteller ever, so she went far beyond being simply her mother’s daughter. “The Storyteller” would have perhaps been a better title, methinks.

Thoughts on the ending
The ending is the reason why I did not give it 5 stars.

show spoiler

Recommend it to?
People who enjoy fairytale retellings :)

Buy this from amazon.com | Buy this from bookdepository.co.uk | Cameron Dokey’s website

  1. he is referred to in the book as being a king, but I would expect him to actually have been a shah. []
  2. …with a rather interesting motivation: first they were angry at their sister, who brought shame on the family, and then after a while they started thinking that it was all Shahryar’s fault for giving her too much freedom. []
  3. speaking of which, I loved the idea that everyone found the exact piece of cloth they needed, with a story addressed just for them. []

The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell by Chris Colfer

Publication year: 2012
Genre: Fantasy/Children’s book
Time and place: The Land of Stories, of course; some years after the events in Brother Grimm’s fairy tales took place
Narrated in: third-person limited
First sentence:The dungeon was a miserable place.
Verdict: 4 stars out of 5

Summary
Twins Alex and Conner’s lives have taken a turn for the worse when they were ten and their father was killed on his way to work. On an attempt to make their twelfth birthday special, their grandmother gives them a book called The Land of Stories, a book that used to be their favorite thing growing up. Later that night Alex looks longingly at the pictures, wishing she was in the fairy tale world, where everything is less complicated and good prevails. And then the book started buzzing and glowing…

Once in the fairy tale world however, both twins (as Conner has dutifully followed Alex in the pages of the book) realize that life in a land where trolls and goblins take people into slavery, and a descendant of the Big Bad Wolf roams the forests is not that much of a breeze either. Luckily they meet a friend who tells them about the Wishing Spell, a spell that makes one single, important wish come true. The kids make it their mission to find the items needed for casting the spell that is supposed to send them back home — but they don’t know that the Spell can only be cast once, and that a very powerful someone else is after it too.

General impression
I find it quite funny how all the reviews I read start with “I’m a big fan of Chris’ work on Glee”, or something of the sort. Now, while I have to admit that I too watch Glee and enjoy having Kurt as a character, I can’t say, like the others, that I started this book merely because its author was famous — the plot itself is one of my favorite tropes. Now, Chris C. is certainly a very talented young man, and with a sense of humor too, judging by the few interviews of him I happened to watch, but can he also write? Why yes, I think he can. Sure, this is not a book for adult readers, so the language is veering towards simplistic, and yet I have enjoyed it nonetheless. It has a certain descriptive quality that made me feel I was right there with the characters, and if there ever was something I considered the mark of a good reader, this is definitely it. I am definitely looking forward to his future books.

Oh, and the pictures (by Brandon Dorman) are quite a treat too.

Setting
The Land of Stories, as imagined by this author, has no less than six kingdoms, an Empire, and a bit of extra territory. Three of the Kingdoms are ruled by a King Charming — there are actually four Charming brothers: Chance Charming, Chase Charming, Chandler Charming, and Charlie Charming, and three of them are kings; one married Snow White, one married Cinderella, and the third married Sleeping Beauty. Then there’s the Corner Kingdom, ruled by Rapunzel, the Red Riding Hood kingdom, where Little Red Riding Hood, now grown up, is ‘the first elected queen in history’, and the Fairy Kingdom, ruled of course by fairies. There’s also the Dwarf Forest, where the dwarves live, the Goblin and Troll Territory, a set of underground caves where trolls and goblins live, and so on. During their quest the twins meet most of the characters in popular fairy tales, even the Little Mermaid, despite the fact that her story did not end well, and as a bonus some nursery rhyme characters, like Little Bo Peep.

It’s really an enchanted land, and the author has taken great care in imagining it in detail, and describing it accordingly. As a random example, here’s the introduction of a bridge troll:

A large troll had jumped right in front of them on the bridge. He was short and very wide with an enormous head. He was covered in matted fur with large eyes and a snout. His arms and legs were tiny, but his nails and teeth were sharp and long.

Also, I loved how the story went a bit more in-depth with some characters’ happy ever after: Cinderella is very happy with her husband, King Charming, but the first few years were hard on her because people at court had trouble accepting her and the fact that their prince has married a commoner; the people in Sleeping Beauty’s Kingdom are feeling the after effects of their century-long sleep, as they keep falling asleep most of the time while the fields remain fallow; and so on.

Characters
The book has plenty of characters, what with the plethora of fairy land people that the two children get to meet throughout the book, so it’s no wonder that none of them were actually well developed. I did like however how the author kept the general conventions of fairytales, making all princesses smart and kind and caring and very much in love with their respective Charmings. The one exception to this is Red Riding Hood, the only flawed character, but this doesn’t contradict her story at all if one thinks about it (after all, it all started when the little girl disobeyed her mother’s advice).

As for the twins, I liked the way they complement each other. Alex is book smart, doing extremely well in school, and is also very much in love with everything fairytale-related. Conner is quite her opposite: he keeps falling asleep in classes and he thinks that he simply cannot learn some of the stuff in school, yet he has an inquisitive mind and is quite smart too, despite his opinion of himself. Alex is the emotional one, who enjoys everything with the heart, while Conner is the one who analyzes his environment with a more critical eye.

Another character I appreciated was the twins’ father. While he’s mostly absent from the pages of the book, everyone who knew him thought very fondly of him, and I grew to like him a lot myself. If only he wasn’t so irrevocably killed at the beginning of the book :( I would have loved to get to actually meet him in a sequel.

Plot
The plot, while starting out interesting and quite promising, ends up being a bit too simplistic. Many of the children’s problems are solved by mere luck, without leaving enough time for suspense to build. And then there’s also the matter of the journal the children were given, one that chronicles in detail every single step they should take (when you get to palace X use door Y, and what are you looking for is in the corridor Z). I understand that everything had to happen fast and there was simply no time for the children to learn all the ins and outs by themselves; however, a bit less guidance and a little more of having them contribute to the strategies themselves would have perhaps nicer. I would have preferred the Wishing Spell to need less items, with each of them being a challenge to obtain, rather than needing eight and make obtaining them simply a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

Regardless of the journal, the children find themselves quite often in sticky situations, and sometimes the ways they find to get out of it are surprisingly fun. My favorite such moment being right at the beginning, when they discover the gingerbread house and the witch wants to eat them; they manage however to make her grant them a wish, and their wish was for the witch to become a vegetarian :)

What I liked most
The motivation of Snow White’s Evil Stepmother for… well, for everything.

While it’s been ages since I first discovered the idea of having the Evil Queen (EQ) being misunderstood instead of evil, I am always happy to see how creative people are in bringing their own versions of the story to the table. In EQ’s own words:

“Your story will forever be romanticized,” she told Snow White. “No one will ever think twice about mine. I will continue to be degraded into nothing but a grotesque villain until the end of time. But what the world fails to realize is that a villain is just a victim whose story hasn’t been told.”

What I like about this version, besides its novelty, is that it has managed to make EQ’s actions understandable (of sorts) even when she wanted to have Snow White killed, without turning SW in a villain either. Extra points for explaining EQ’s obsession with youth and beauty too :)

show spoiler

What I liked least
There are a few minor slip-ups here and there, and I wonder how come a competent editor hasn’t caught them. A random example, when the twins first get to the fairytale land they notice on the path lots and lots of pencils — the ones that Alex kept throwing into the book as an experiment. And then a bunch of knights ride on the path and the horses step on some of the pencils and break them. But the pencils have been there for about a week and later we find out that the knights ride through the forest twice a week, so how come no pencils were broken before?

And yes, I am aware that there probably is a valid explanation, something along the lines that some of the pencils may have been broken when the twins arrived, but the author did not mention them2. My issue with it is that having to search for that explanation snapped me right back to reality, making me enjoy that particular scene and a few after it a bit less. And then there is the matter of the children being able to cover all. of. that. land mostly on foot in two days or so. And the part where the previous guy who had cast the Wishing Spell (and whose wish too was to be transported to the human world) had the time to go back to some of the kingdoms and return some of the things he’s taken before being whisked away. Minor stuff, but flaws nonetheless.

Thoughts on the title
I noticed that the book is being marketed both as “The Land of Stories” and as “The Wishing Spell”. I think that the first is more general, and a good name for a series (the Discworld comes to mind, again), while the second one is fit for this book alone. Anyway, I love them both to pieces — any of them would have piqued my interest even if I had no idea who the author was.

Thoughts on the ending
Now, I had guessed what the big secret twist was somewhere very near to the beginning, so the ending was rather predictable for me. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy it, especially when it came to the newly formed ‘happily ever after’ couples :)

show spoiler

Recommend it to?
Anyone who finds intriguing the idea of people from our world trapped in the world of fairytales :)

Buy this from amazon.com | Buy this from bookdepository.co.uk | Chris Colfer on Twitter

If you liked this you may also like
My Fair Godmother by Janette Rallison

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  1. in my country Mira is a girl’s name so I had a few moments when I wondered whether EQ will turn out to be gay :) was there ever a gay fairy tale character? []
  2. although I believe it’s quite relevant; if the twins had noticed a bunch of broken pencils they would have worried that the travel through the worlds may have been what broke them, and wonder about the effects of that same travel on themselves []

Dirklus by Ahsumma Beach

Genre: Fantasy
Main characters: Annah, Dirklus
Time and place: the kingdom of Archonia, unspecified time
First sentence:King Archon had a notorious reputation for ordering maids to his chambers against their will to satisfy his carnal appetite.

Verdict: Funny :)
It even made me laugh out loud in public.

Summary
For the last ten years casting has been prohibited in Archonia; the casters have been hunted down and killed. As the book opens Dirklus is a baby-soon-to-become-a-powerful-caster, and together with Annah, his also-baby friend, has been entrusted to pirates to be taken to safety. Thus they end up in the house of master Nilis, a capable albeit quite grumpy magician.

Twenty more years pass, Annah and Dirklus grow up. As their peninsula is threatened by the Archonian king, Dirklus is sent on a quest. He doesn’t go alone however — not only Annah comes along, but a large percentage of the villagers, having a bone to pick with the invaders, joins forces with him for most of the way.

General impression
There were some confusing moments but overall I enjoyed the writing style :)

The book definitely is perfectible, and yet it is funny enough to make me want to recommend it to people. It reminded me of T. Pratchett’s Color of Magic, his first Discworld book, entertaining despite being less polished than his future works. I hope this author keeps writing and finds a good editor to fix the lesser parts — there is quite a bit of potential in his (or her?) work. I suspect that won’t be the case, however, judging by the chosen pseudonym (rather close to “a summer beach”), but I hope I am wrong.

Full disclosure: I received this book as a gift from the author. However, anything I say about it is my own opinion, uninfluenced by that.

Setting
While the story starts out in Archonia, the part of the world most of the action takes place in Westburg, a city on a peninsula owned by a wannabe-reclusive caster, Nilis. The inhabitans — the Burgese — are shrewd business people with an interesting cultural quirk: prior to getting married all females work in brothels, calling themselves ‘wives-in-training’ :)

The most important product of the island are the Westburg Sweets, a very sought after type of… onions. These are very beloved to the inhabitants, being their main commodity but also their weapon of choice — expensive as these onions are, the Burgese never hesitate to rain them on the enemies when the situation calls for a fight. :)

Characters
Annah!! I love Annah :)

I think she is the perfect fantasy heroine. She’s independent, spunky, knows what she wants and she’s not afraid to reach for it, and more important none of these traits are present in excess, as she also knows when it is time to listen and obey. She seemed to have loved Dirklus since forever, despite the fact that Nilis told them they were related, and come hell or high water she is decided to get him.

Dirklus was clumsy and naive, in a sweet kind of way. He’s also very enamored with Nooki, the most profitable wife-in-training in Westburg, and dreams of one day marrying her. The fact that he’s a very powerful caster is unknown to him, as he cannot access any intermediate spell (nor any of those above intermediate, of course), plus he has trouble controlling his power. A detail that will of course change throughout the course of the book :)

Relationships
As it is mentioned in one of the first few pages that Annah and Dirklus are soul mates, it comes as no surprise that they end up together.

This is of the weak points of the novel (I wonder how old the author is; plus it makes me believe the author is a he), the way the relationship between Annah and Dirklus appears all of a sudden. One moment Dirklus wanted to marry Nooki, and the next one he was head over heels in love with Annah, simply because he show spoiler

I will say however that the parts prior to A & D’s becoming all lovey dovey were very funny, what with Dirklus ready to do anything for Nooki, and with Annah always jealous of this. Ah, her lines were at times priceless :)

Plot
Now that king Archon’s campaign to rid his lands of casters is at and end, it is time for the hunter — a caster herself — to share their fate. She disagrees to this idea, however, and she mercilessly finishes off the army that the king has sent for her. As the only two survivors return to the king with the news, they unknowingly bring into the castle something else: a species of vermin that ends up destroying the king’s cache of Royal Sweets (ordinary Westburg Sweets, but with a more imposing name). King’s men are sent far and wide, in search for new sources of Sweets, to replace the lost ones.

A ship ends up finding Nilis’ peninsula, and the army on board wants to annex it to Archonia. The Burgese fight valiantly, despite being hindered by Dirklus’ inability to cast a proper spell. The enemies flee, taking Nooki with them and swearing to return soon, with a bigger army, to make Westburg theirs. And here is how Dirklus’ quest begins, as Nooki must be rescued and the land defended :)

What I liked most
Ages ago, when the first few Harry Potter books came out, I ignored them altogether because I believed them a fad. And then curiosity got the best of me and I started on the first one, fully expecting it to let me down. And I still remember how surprised I was by the care JKR has taken in adding to her world all sorts of ingenious little details — the pictures in the newspapers that talked back at you, for example –, so unexpected and as such very enjoyable.

I am not saying this book will be the next Harry Potter, however I was delighted to find in its first few pages a bit of the same thrill I found then, a set of small, unexpected ideas that I have very much enjoyed. Examples:

“Those coins have ears. Breathe a word to anyone of our encounter, and they will find their way back to us quicker than they can be spent.” Adayla stepped toward the tavern door with Sunlit close behind. Ratsai slit his eyes to examine a gold coin and observed large ears embossed on both sides.

The large amulet around her neck glowed as mysterious symbols danced across its metallic surface. Murky checked Dirklus and found a nearly identical treasure. He concealed the amulets within the infants’ blankets and escorted Maulvin around the bar into the back office. “Did you get a load of all that gold? They’re rich,” Murky whispered. “We’re rich!” He dug through the blankets and took another look at the amulets. The mystic symbols reacted to Murky’s intense scrutiny and burrowed into the precious metal. Murky bit down on an amulet and his front teeth glowed.

And a bit that’s really fun to picture:

Haggle raised his hands and clapped twice. The Burgese merchants fell silent, as did the playful sounds from the brothel as the women peered out the windows. “Burgese! To the beach! New customers have arrived!” In an instant, Burgese merchants snatched back their wares from current browsing customers and packed up their stands, carts, wagons, and boutiques as fast as humanly possible. They mobilized for the beach in an orderly manner, marking up prices on the go.

Also, the sword that Dirklus is quested with finding is named Boots :)

What I liked least
The writing felt somewhat clunky at times, and in need of a good editor. It seems to me that while the author writes interesting, captivating, funny scenes in general, he or she has problems when it comes to transitioning from one scene to another. There were quite a few times that I had to go back and re-read the beginning of a chapter, because as the ‘stage’ changed it wasn’t always obvious into what, and my mental model differed from the intended one.

The same goes for the introductory scenes at the beginning. I spent the first quarter of the book wondering who Tinacia actually was, and why she was the only accepted caster (only to realize later that this wasn’t the case, since Captain Grave was a minor caster too). The peninsula’s whereabouts could have been a little bit better introduced too, as it’s not entirely clear how the Burgese first ended up on Nilis’ peninsula.

On a second read, paying a lot more attention, I admit that the Tinacia bit was explained, albeit in very few words, that made sense after I already knew all about her. The peninsula bit however remained a mystery.

Thoughts on the title
Well, it’s obviously a name :)

The mystery is… the name of who/what?

This may be both an advantage and a disadvantage, as each potential reader will affix to it a meaning, and then become interested or not in the book, accordingly. I thought at first it was a planet, or something sci-fi anyway, and since sci-fi is not among my favorite genres, had I seen this in a store I wouldn’t have taken a second glance at it. As it happens, it was sent to me by the author, and as such giving it a try was the very least courtesy expected; and then I discovered that Dirklus was actually a caster in a fantasy book, and oh, fantasy I do like.

Thoughts on the ending
To be continued…

Minor villains are defeated, major villains aren’t. I expect there will be a sequel one day. What is it with series nowadays, it seems like no one can ever write a single book :( (of course, I still stand by what I said, that I would like to read more from this author, but I am getting quite fed up with sequels nowadays; yet on the other hand there’s also the Discworld, as an example of books sharing an universe, so here’s to hoping this author plans something similar instead of a classical trilogy or whatever)

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Recommend it to?
Those with a great visual imagination. Those who love Pratchett and aren’t afraid of some imperfections.

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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).
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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? []

Moonstone by Marilee Brothers

Genre: Young Adult
Main characters: Alfrieda “Allie” Carlotta Emerson
Time and place: present day, Peacock Flats, Washington
First sentence:I’ve been wondering… is there a normal way to become paranormal?
Verdict: Just not my kind of book.

Summary
One minute, I was on a ten-foot ladder adjusting the TV antenna on the twenty-four-foot trailer behind Uncle Sid’s house [...]. The next minute, I sailed off the ladder, grazed an electric fence and landed face down in a cow pie.

Apparently a minor accident, no more. Allie is unharmed, and yet her life will never be the same: some part of what happened unleashed the paranormal abilities she never knew she had. What’s more, when she tells the story to Kizzy (her best friend, having Gypsy roots), the woman does not seem the least bit surprised. Later, she gives Allie a strange present: a pendant with a blue stone, called a moonstone, and she tells her about a prophecy that threatened death and disaster if Allie would misplace it.

Mere days later, Kizzy is found beaten almost to death. The message is clear, someone is after the pendant. Will Allie be able to protect it, and herself?

General impression
I am not sure how I feel about this book. I think it has some good parts, but somehow they are poorly tied up to one another. There were all sorts of jarring details that kept me from losing myself in it. The subject, while not a very original one — a prophecy, a Chosen One, secret societies — could have been the foundation for an interesting novel, but for some reason everything felt to me rather flat.

I have received this and the other three books in this series from NetGalley (thanks!), but at the moment I don’t think I will read the rest.

Characters
Growing up without a father and with a less-than-stellar mother, Allie has nonetheless turned out remarkably fine, given the circumstances. She’s a straight A student, and quick to intervene when someone is in need of help — and I liked her because of that. Her heart is in the right place (which is one of the things I like most in a character), and yet I couldn’t like her 100% because of her inner voice (the story is told in first person POV). Most of the time she’s okay, but sometimes her reactions were a bit odd — such as when she’s at Kizzy’s bedside, and Kizzy slips back into a coma. Allie’s inner monologue: “She closed her eyes and began to snore gently. Lights out! I continued to sit with Kizzy…“. It may be my not being a native speaker, but to me the exclamation did not make sense in the context (as an exclamation, I mean; as a normal sentence it would have been somewhat better).

It’s really a wonder that Allie has turned out to be a decent kid given her mother, Faye. She loves her daughter, but that is the one good thing I can say about her. Alas, we probably started out on the wrong foot, as the book opens with Faye trying to collect social security for a non-existing illness, and words cannot say how much I despise people who do that. At least her request was declined (yay!). Her reaction to that was kinda strange — she took a mail-order catalog with pictures of bulls (in her defense, that was the only catalog she had available), tore it to pieces, and wrote “I HATE BIG ED1” on each bull(!), then sent Big Ed the pieces. Was that reaction supposed to make any sense? Had she forgotten she had no actual right to social security, not being sick? In her defense, she does say that this was a wake-up call, yadda yadda, and then she promises she’ll stop pretending she’s sick and will get a job, but by now the harm was done and I couldn’t be bothered to like her.

There’s also a guy present in the story — Allie’s ‘love interest’ of sorts. Junior Martinez is quite interesting, a reformed gang member, and I liked how there was a sort of intensity to him, in some of the things he says or does. Unfortunately we only get to see him through Allie’s eyes, and she knows little about him (when the book starts rumor has it that Junior has a baby, and Allie thinks “apparently he’s already reproduced. Extremely uncool.“); the things don’t get much better later on, as Junior is not the type to talk about himself other than explaining the very basics2, and so I, the reader, had quite a limited view of him too.

Relationships
While the two main characters are not in love by the end of the book3, they do end up a lot closer than they initially were. Which would have been nice for me, as I liked them both, only there’s little to no transition between their initial state (acquaintances, on speaking terms but not much more than that) and the state things are in near the end (close friends, most likely a bit more — they even talk about one dumping the other, despite their not being actually an item). The day Allie finds out about Kizzy’s accident Junior follows her in his car, having left classes for her (why? no explanation for his sudden interest in her is given) and gives her a lift to Kizzy’s house. After that it’s like he no longer has a life of his own — he’s either with Allie or doing some arrangements to help Allie. While of course I was happy to see Allie having someone to help her, the relationship between them did seem a bit… not optimal, and forced.

Setting
The world Allie lives in is pretty much our own world, so there is not much world-building involved. The difference is that some people have psychic abilities; magic is infused in some objects too. Some people are born with “a star located somewhere on their palms” — they’re part of a secret society called the Star Seekers, a society set on protecting the world from evil. For centuries their word of mouth tradition included the story of a prophecy, “the story of a powerful gemstone and the maid who is meant to have it“, and they are determined to see the prophecy fulfilled (although, funnily enough, the prophecy says nothing about what the maid is supposed to do with it, or anything at all that might give a clue why in the world is it so important for everybody that the moonstone stays with Allie). The ‘counterpart’ of the Star Seekers are the Trimarks, whose palms bear the sign of an inverted triangle. These Trimarks’ apparently want wealth above all (I cannot but wonder in what way their being present at the crucifixion of Christ helped their purposes), and they would stop at nothing to get it. What they want now is the moonstone4, and it is up to Allie to protect it (because, while the Star Seekers are so very determined to see the prophecy fulfilled, they are apparently not determined enough to actually care what happens with the stone or the maid).

Plot
The plot is more or less the classical good vs evil struggle. The good side has something (the moonstone) that evil wants, and, of course, the evil will stop at nothing to get its hands on it. The conflict felt somewhat artificial though. At one point, the bad guys have concocted a story according to which the reason they are after the moonstone is that it can make them rich — now that is a tangible motivation, that I can understand; I may or may not agree with it, but I can understand its appeal. However later on we’re told that no, it was all a lie, the real reason why the Trimarks want the moonstone is… for evil. “Hoping that they’ll profit from it“. That’s it. An idea that was so overly simplistic I could not resonate with it. And then, of course, Allie knows that, were she to lose the moonstone, there will be chaos, death, and destruction. A single person standing between the world and its destruction — so cliche, especially as the details, those that could have brought the idea to life, are almost completely missing. Which isn’t to say that the plot was completely boring — I liked Allie and as such I rooted for her and was curious to see how she will pull through –, it’s just that it was way less that it might have been, had the flesh of the story been filled in.

What I liked most
There have been a few nice touches, like Allie reading the mind of a boy she liked (actually, the mind reading parts in general were cool, my favorites, I was sorry to see so few of them), or the part where Trilby, the one who had the moonstone a few decades earlier, was punished to spend her time in the SeaTac airport for using the moonstone for selfish purposes * insert long discussion about free will, and was it really Trilby’s fault that she did what she did? either way, I thought the punishment quite funny and original :) *.

What I liked least
This is more of a minor squabble but it nagged at me all throughout. At one point Allie receives a mysterious package, containing a cell phone with a pre-programmed number that, when called, recited the story of the two secret societies (good vs bad) in existence. And I couldn’t for the life of me understand why had the author chosen to use a cellphone (with a pre-programmed number, no less), when a simple tape player/CD player/iPod would have done the job quite as well, or better. Especially as there is no mention of the said cellphone later on (and keep in mind that Allie is a poor kid, that has never had a cellphone of her own — yet she treated it like it was nothing out of the ordinary at all). A minor thing in itself, but it made the story feel… half baked, as if the author couldn’t be bothered to think everything through, jumping instead at the very first idea that crossed her mind.

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Thoughts on the ending
The ending was, predictably enough since this is part of a series, the classic you-have-won-a-battle-but-you-have-not-won-the-war trope. Quite an okay one, if it weren’t for one thing.
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Recommend it to?
People who like Young Adult books featuring prophecies and a Chosen One. There are many positive reviews out there so if the summary sounds to your taste by all means do give it a try.

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  1. Big Ed was the lawyer that was supposed to help with her case []
  2. It wasn’t his kid. He left the gang. Nothing at all about his thoughts/feelings on matters. []
  3. a good thing too, since Allie is only fifteen []
  4. how come they didn’t want it until now? It’s been centuries since the prophecy has surfaced []

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 []

How To Slay a Dragon by Bill Allen

Genre: Juvenile Fiction
Main characters: Greghart the hero & his sidekick Lucky Day
Time and place: the planet Myrth; time unspecified
First sentence:Greg Hart’s name had never caused him trouble before.
Verdict: It has its faults but I give it four stars because it shows some promise. :)

Summary:
Somewhere, in a kingdom on a distant planet, there is a prophecy saying that Greghart from Earth will slay the dragon and rescue their princess. And the prophecies can never be wrong.

Greg Hart is a twelve year old with quite an unimpressive physique. He’s never beaten anyone in his life, and he probably would not be able to if he wanted. Could tackling a fire-breathing dragon ever be a good idea under the circumstances?

General impression
Try as I might (my own TBR list is over 700 books long) and still I find myself reviewing NetGalley books. That is one hard to resist site :)

Looking at the bright side, this particular book was already on the said TBR, after reading about it on Reddit a while ago, and finding the blurb to be quite promising. A prophecy, and an unlikely hero. Ah, plus dragon slaying. I liked the sound of that :) And now, having read the book, I can say it has delivered: it is a fun book, mostly fast pacing and with interesting elements.

A thing I have found worth noting was the way the author’s writing style, intentionally or not, sounds like Terry Pratchett’s (who is one of my favorite authors). Mr. Allen does not have the same facility with words that Mr. Pratchett has (those are some big shoes to fill), but that is hardly surprising given that this is Mr. Allen’s first book. He does manage to ‘nail it’ at times, which is why I will be very looking forward to his next book, to savor the improvements experience will (hopefully) bring.

Setting
The planet of Myrth is, just as I was expecting, a version of our Earth in medieval times, with a bunch of fantasy elements thrown in. Some of those are well-known and well-worn (trolls, ogres, the witch, the dragon himself), and some are quite original and enjoyable (the Shrieking Shrub — a shrub that shrieked, adding to the tension of a scene — and the Enchanted Forest — a forest that opened up paths at the feet of unsuspecting travelers in order to lure them inside –, to name but two). The geography of the place is not particularly clear to me (I may have gotten a bit confused, geography was never my forte), but on the whole is a rather interesting place, and I will be glad to visit it again, in the next book.

The Myrth people are very much like ordinary people (there are a few who can wield magic, but only about a handful), except for their firm belief in prophecies. Interestingly enough, the prophecies have never let them down, although their prophet is very old and his clarity of speech isn’t what it (probably) used to be.

Characters
Our hero, Greghart, ends up surrounded by a wacky cast of characters I have very much enjoyed. There is Lucky (short for Luke) Day, who thinks himself too lucky to ever fail; no one around him can decide whether he really is that lucky or he just puts a positive spin on any event :) There is the Princess Priscilla, who, albeit small, thinks herself quite the adventurer and goes off to slay the dragon on her own. There’s Melvin Greathart, coming from an old line of dragonslayers, and resenting Greg for barging in and messing with the family business. Simon Sezxqrthm, the prophet, coming from an old line of prophets and now quite old himself. King Peter Pendegrass the Third, one of my favorites, with an easy manner and insisting on being called by his first name. Bart the Bard, composer of epic ballads about heroes’ mighty deeds — quite a good one at that, his song about Greg was quite catchy, I would have liked to hear it myself; a part of me wonders if he is not the real prophet (since he is the one that brings Simon’s words to people + at one moment he says something about his songs being never wrong, he just writes them prior to the events because that’s when the people’s interest in said events is at its peak). Last but not least, there’s Yoda… I mean Nathaniel Caine, the one who will teach Greg the fighting skills that will help him survive; and also the one who knows a lot more than he normally should, I am so very curious about him and who he really is — did I mention I’m looking forward to the next book? :)

As for Greg himself, he starts out as a scrawny boy of twelve, who could run really fast (a skill honed in years of escaping bullies) and with an overactive imagination. His favorite pastime is writing stories describing his defeating fairytale creatures, becoming a kingdom’s hero and winning a princess (although he realizes that even finding a princess shorter than him would be quite a challenge). Alas, Greg gets to find out quite soon that reality is somewhat different that his imagination, when he finds himself straight in the middle of one of his stories: he is the hero of a land, and he is supposed to save a princess by slaying a dragon. A huge, fire-breathing dragon, living at the half way of an infinite spire. Naturally enough, Greg started out with a very healthy attitude: being deathly afraid of everything, and I liked the way he was realistic about his chances of survival. However, he doesn’t have much choice on the matter, as everyone around him pushes him towards his ‘destiny’: the dragon’s lair, where he’ll fulfill the prophecy.

You know, one of my favorite sayings is “Courage is not the absence of fear. It is acting in spite of it.“. And I loved the way it applies perfectly to Greg’s attitude in this book. Greg is afraid of a fire breathing dragon, who wouldn’t be; but he also realizes he is the princess’ only chance, so he pushes himself forward despite everything.

He was anything but a hero. After all, would a real hero weigh his chances of sprinting past the spirelings and all of Ryder’s men to reach the forest before anyone could tackle him? Yet in spite of his fears, Greg thought of Priscilla. He didn’t know if it made him a hero, but there was no way he was leaving here without her.

I liked the way Greg developed throughout the book, both physically (his travelling making him more muscular) and mentally (when running was no longer an option he found within himself the resources to stand his ground, and it has given him confidence). Alas, this may turn out to be quite a hurdle for the author later — developing an already developed character even more — but, done well, it may be quite a fun journey too.

And can I just say I loved the dragon? For some reason I liked him ever since first reading his name in the blurb :)
Sure, Ruuan is a dragon’s dragon, hell bent on destroying mortals, just as a dragon is supposed to do. And yet his manner was… noble, for lack of a better word (he reminded me of Pratchett’s Death, and not only because he too talks in caps).

What I liked
Some of the passages did sound rather Pratchett-esque :) My two favorites:

“Wait a minute. Are you telling me your prophet’s name is Simon Sez, and you go around doing anything he tells you?”
“Well, his name’s Simon Sezxqrthm, actually. Most of us just call him Simon Sez. And it’s not like we do whatever he tells us. He only tells us what we’re already going to do.”

Actually, the second one is a bit of a spoiler:
show spoiler

The fact that all the names of the chapters had Hart in them was also well-done and even quite poetic :)

What I did not like
A touch more editing would have been useful, as some phrases were trying too hard to be clever and were veering towards incomprehensible instead. Example:

The blackness emanated from something far worse. It was somehow related to the witch, and Greg knew he was already closer to it than he ever wanted to be. Then again, so was his living room sofa back home.

I had to read this twice to realize what the sofa had to do with everything :)

There’s also a flat-out contradiction at one time:
Scene: Greg and Lucky are trapped in the Enchanted Forest. Greg takes to sword the king gave to him earlier and starts carving a path:

Greg snatched the sword from Lucky’s hand and whirled toward the nearest vine. The blade buried itself halfway and lodged so tight it took Greg two full minutes of diligent puffing to wiggle it free.
“I thought you said this was a magic sword.”
Lucky shrugged. “It’s also a magic vine.”
A dozen chops later the vine finally severed.

A few pages later, Greg takes a look at the sword and finds it almost to heavy to lift (although he had no problem doing so earlier on) :

The blade was nearly as tall as he was, and so heavy, Greg could barely lift it. He knew if he let the tip drift even an inch or two out of vertical, he’d never be able to hold on, and if he tried and failed, he might be catapulted from the forest.

Things like this (together with mentioning one princess instead of another at a later time) make me sad because they suggest the book is less polished than it might have been. Which is a pity, as it has so many things going for it.

Thoughts on the title
Ahem. It’s an attractive title but does not particularly relates to the events in this book. Basically any book where there is dragon slaying might have been called this. It reminded me of ‘How to Train Your Dragon’, which is a movie I loved.

Thoughts on the ending
Cute :)
show spoiler

I was fairly amused at the way the author chose to introduce his family at the end: we are shown five pictures (a woman, a man, two cats, and a plush bear) and asked to identify Bill Allen (an obvious choice), while on the next page we are told who the rest of the pictures represent (Bill’s wife, Kiki the cat, Kiki’s sibling, and … I forgot the bear’s name). It sure beats the usual ‘Bill lives in … with his wife and their two cats’ sentence that is customary to use at the end of a book :)

Recommend it to?
As this is Juvenile Fiction I recommend it to kids, of course :) Which isn’t to say the parents would not enjoy it, quite the opposite.

Buy this from amazon.com | Buy this from bookdepository.co.uk | Bill Allen’s website