Category Archives: Fantasy

An Acceptable Time – Madeleine L’Engle

Madeleine L’Engle is a great storyteller so I saved her book, An Acceptable Time, for last. It’s a different kind of wrinkle in time. Polly has moved in with her grandparents, both distinguished scientists, who live in an old farmhouse in New England on land that has been inhabited for thousands of years. It’s a very different world from the Carolina coastal island where her marine biologist parents live with the rest of their large brood. Polly is meant to study sciences and prepare herself for college but empirical science intervenes. She encounters a strange man and a dog in the woods and then an acquaintance from her summer job in Greece. Later she sees a frantic young girl with a long dark braid in her grandparents’ pool house.

When a neighbor, a retired Protestant bishop, brings Ogam stones, with their ancient carved alphabet, to her grandparents’ house, Polly’s story catches his attention. Because he has seen the same people–and traveled back in time just as Polly accidentally has, and suspects there is a tesseract, a fold of time that opens worlds, and that the whole thing has something to do with Druids. It’s very interesting if you like all things Druid. L’Engle circles and circles back to build her case for this opening in time. The charming but completely self-absorbed summer acquaintance inserts himself into Polly’s life.  The scientists are skeptical but they can’t discount independent testimony entirely. Samhain, the Druid holy time when the veil between worlds is thin, is approaching and every attempt to protect Polly from some danger in the time slip, including sending her off on a date with the summer boy, fails.

As Polly becomes enmeshed in a three-thousand-year-old society on the land where the farm now sits, her life is threatened in horrible ways and her trust in people is severely tested. There are brave hearts and blackguards in this tale and Polly will deal with each as she tries to mend hostilities, fractured psyches and an environmental catastrophe that could mark her as a blood sacrifice. The story never condescends to the ancient people in the time travel and, in the end, Polly is no Pollyanna, although I was exasperated by her even-tempered treatment of idiots from time to time. But the science is fun and the adventure is lively and the worlds L’Engle builds are convincing ones.  An Acceptable Time was a good choice for a last book. And now to bed. No more late late late nights finishing the story of the day. Or not too many anyway.

An Acceptable Time (Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet)   Madeleine L’Engle | Farrar, Straus and Giroux   1989

Glamour in Glass – Mary Robinette Kowal

Napoleon has abdicated and the Continent is at last safe for Jane and Vincent to chance a honeymoon in Belgium. The two are glamourists, magical illusionists who can create living scenes at will and cause people to disappear in a bubble of invisibility. The French-Belgian world is more open and more intrigue-filled than anything Jane is accustomed to but she quickly resuscitates her shabby French and tries to understand why her husband seems to be hiding something from her. Glamour in Glass is a fantasy set in the language and era of Jane Austen by Mary Robinette Kowal, who goes to some lengths to excise most words that wouldn’t have existed in Austen’s day.

Newlywed Jane is not as accomplished as David but she is the one who comes up with the idea to trap a glamour in glass, inventing a bauble which does magic, although the beta model only works in direct sunlight. It also takes so much energy from her that she falls ill and is nauseous and exhausted for days. Meanwhile Vincent rides out to meet with clients daily without Jane and she is frantic to know what is going on.  As the reason for her illness becomes clear, she makes a shocking discovery about the man she married and the dangerous secret he has kept from her.

And then Napoleon escapes captivity and marches back to Paris and Brits Jane and Vincent are trapped in political intrigue and betrayal, a torturous captivity and a life-threatening bid for escape.  The whole glamour thing is so unusual that it takes some energy on the part of the reader to maintain the illusion. But Glamour in Glass is worth the work. It’s a terrific story with a few surprising twists and turns, characters who behave uncharacteristically to add surprises to the plot and reasonably accurate enough history to be convincing. Good book. Odd but good  idea. Kowal published a well-received prequel to this adventure and it’s probably worth hunting for so I’ll put it on my non-urgent library list for the day when I have the time to read purely for pleasure and escape again.

Glamour in Glass   Mary Robinette Kowal | Tor Books   2012

Princess Academy: Palace of Stone – Shannon Hale

I read Princess Academy: Palace of Stone on the recommendation of a trusted source for middle grade and YA lit. It was good. Shannon Hale is a wonderful writer and her novel, the second in a series, ventures into the murky and dangerous world of popular uprisings. Heroine Miri Larendaughter of the mountain village of Mount Eskel joins her former classmates in the Princess Academy to travel to the capital, Asland. There they will study and apprentice to learn medicine, music, ironwork, stone carving and scholastics. Miri has been accepted at Queen’s Castle, the college for academics. And the ladies of the academy will support and help their friend Britta to prepare for her marriage to the prince.

But all is not serene in the kingdom nor in its capital. The shoeless are hungry and desperate and there are salons to foment revolution. Hired assassins are in the city to dispatch the royal family. Britta becomes their main target through a careless move on Miri’s part. But there is nothing Miri can do to repair the damage. Her mind and her heart are in turmoil. She fears that the brutal tributes demanded by the king will plunge her village and her family back into starvation and despair. She is frantic to protect Britta. She finds herself stepping back from her lifelong love, Peder, who has come to Asland with her to study sculpture, even as she is attracted to a fellow student, the son of a noble, who covertly works for the revolution.

And there is the mystery of the stone. The king’s palace is made of linder, the stone quarried with great difficulty from Mount Eskel. People from Mount Eskel can speak quarry, a memory-thought language transmitted silently through the stone. But linder has other, little-known properties. Miri discovers a secret lost to the current monarchy  in a dusty tome in the palace library–a secret about the stone that could cost them their lives, or save them.

Hale has written a high-stakes adventure for a girl who knows how to ask questions but can’t sort through the conflicting answers. The story is very inventive and full of intelligent surprises that keep the plot racing along. This is one of those books that kids love and grown-ups read straight through to the last page–well, grown-ups who know that a well-made fantasy is just a good read, no matter what your age.

Princess Academy: Palace of Stone   Shannon Hale |  Bloomsbury   2012

Dark Goddess – Sarwat Chadda

Dark Goddess is an action movie–it even has car crashes. But crunched vehicles with damaged people crawling out of them is the least of it.  Sarwat Chadda’s YA fantasy is thick with werewolves, avatars, evil cackling crones, nuclear dead zones, medieval weapons, blood soaking through clothes, blood staining the snow, blood boiling to meet the moon. It’s exhausting.

Billi SanGreal is a fifteen-year-old Templar who basically does battle. All the time. Her life is one bloody battle. She has regrets about the people she has been forced to kill but she understands the larger mission. She is a Templar, set against the dark forces that threaten to overwhelm the planet. She gets very little sleep. She heads into battle on a moment’s notice. The Templar herbalist is kept busy brewing a stinky antidote to werewolf bites, Billi is always in Mortal Danger and most of the characters in the story are traitors.

Early in the book, Billi and company save a child from a monstrous attack on a remote farmhouse. The little girl’s parents are savagely ripped apart. The kid has powers–she may be a powerful weapon, actually. And Baba Yaga, the most terrible dark goddess of all, wants her. Billi loses the kid in the subway. Vesuvius erupts live on television. Buries Italy alive, again. People are freaked. Baba Yaga plans something even bigger for an encore. So Billi and the Templars head to the Russian steppes to find the kid, destroy Baba Yaga and save the world. Romanovs. Chernobyl. Bloody, bloody battles. Matryoshka dolls.

There’s a little love interest–very chaste–and a lot of chase scenes and many snarling, really painful encounters with lycanthropic shapeshifters. Battle. Battle. Battle. Boys will like this, I think. I am not so certain of the contemporary convention to cast strong independent girls as eager and relentless warriors. Mini-men or fully-empowered females? Not sure. But Dark Goddess is okay. You’d probably have to be a bit bloodthirsty to love it. And I thought everything wrapped up a little too neatly. No character jumped out at me and made me want to crack another book in the series to see what happens to them. Characterization isn’t the point. But there’s a vicious thunderstorm and a plane crash in the woods. Prop plane is totalled. No one dies. It’s a fantasy. Deus vult.

Dark Goddess (A Devil’s Kiss Novel) (Devil’s Kiss Novels)   Sarwat Chadda | Hyperion   2010

Witchlanders – Lena Coakley

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Witchlanders is a fantasy about black, white and the red of spilled blood and witches’ clothes. In Lena Coakly’s imaginative world the Witchlanders and the Baen are mortal enemies, their wars have decimated populations, destroyed families and embittered the survivors. Ryder struggles to bring in the harvest after his father dies, leaving his grief-stricken mother half-mad and addicted to a hallucinogenic plant that grows in the river. She was a bonecaster, able to see visions of the future in the bones. But no more. Now she is desperate and spouting crazed prophecies of doom and his two younger sisters are dependent on him for survival.

And then the terrible day dawns when Ryder discovers his mother may have been saner than he realized, and more gifted with terrible magic, and his damaged world is rent apart. His sisters go to live with the witches up on the mountain–the mediums and hags who foresee what the village will face and who take a quarter of all the farms can produce as tithe. Ryder sets out to find his real enemy as voices in his head tell him about a strange life, a Baen life. When he meets a Baen youth his own age, their enmity and their improbable bond set events in motion neither believes he can control. 

Excellent fantasy. Completely thought-through world–and one full of surprises. In places, the motives of a few key characters were muddier than I might have liked. Much of the power in this book belongs to the women but so does a fair amount of the chaos and destruction. A dread mythical animal isn’t as fearsome as it might have been and some of the horrors are targeted to the typical audience for fantasy, middle grade kids, so not so horrible.  But, on the whole, Witchlanders is a satisfying Book One of a series–it seems clear that it is designed to be an ongoing story as the end is left open. The book was recommended to me by a connoisseur of fantasy novels and it lived up to its glowing review. I’d probably read a Book Two if Lena Coakley decides to write one.    

Witchlanders   Lena Coakley | Atheneum  2011

Fifty Shades of Grey – E.L. James

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This post will be brief because Fifty Shades of Grey was long. Too long. I thought it would be as unreadable as those bestsellers that boggle the mind with bad writing as soon as you crack them open. It was not. It was perfectly readable.  And it was certainly titillating, for a while. But, in the end, it’s just Twilight with all the dirty bits left in–not very dirty bits, mind you. The story hypes itself about being way out there and so depraved. It isn’t. What it is is another  deluded-woman-believes-she-can-save-an-abusive-screwed-up-guy-who-is-all- about-himself story, even as she’s subsuming her own life so she can be all about himself, too. And there is plenty of money and first-class-high-end everything–because this flawed human heartthrob is richer than the vampire Cullens. Extravagant gifts appear at every turn, swag that Our Heroine is morally bound to refuse because she has Too Much Self Respect and Integrity to be bought off. Huh?

The plot is a tease about sex that is a tease–tiresome. Ana, the Bella of the fanfic from which the three Fifty Shades books developed, creates complications and problems like a deranged spider spinning useless webs in mid-air–just to stretch things out. Because Not Much Happens. For 500 pages. And then it all goes to hell in about a page and a half. End of book. Buy the next one to see if she stumbles back into his bed, bondage, whatever. Oh, sigh.  The protagonist, Ana, is alleged to have a fantastic GPA. Not believable as she is too stupid to get off the seesaw of Mr. Fab Rich Guy with Amazing Good Looks Who is Tortured by Incidents from His Past Which He Cannot Bear to Reveal. He smiles. She relaxes. He frowns. Her world goes to sh*t in a heartbeat.  They have nonstop, high-intensity, earth-shattering, orgasmic sex every couple of pages and barely exist between encounters. The e-mail repartee is the best thing in the book–and it is clever.  

But Fifty Shades of Grey is erotica so what did I expect? Emma? Although I would rather have stayed up until 4 in the morning reading Emma.  But now I know what is burning up Kindles faster than global warming wildfires. So I can relate to the zeitgeist. Even if it is at least a hundred pages too long.

Fifty Shades of Grey: Book One of the Fifty Shades Trilogy   E. L. James | Vintage Books  2012

Tibet Through the Red Box – Peter Sis

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Peter Sis creates a spellbinding tale of magic and terror, the memories of a small boy filtered through the journal of his father during a remarkable experience. Tibet Through the Red Box tells the story of the invasion of Tibet as witnessed by a filmmaker and revealed in the book locked away in the red box. When Sis was very young his father was hired by the Chinese government to teach documentary filmmaking to students in Beijing. He left his wife and two young children in post-war Prague, a city in  a country occupied  by the Soviet Union.

It was the mid-1950s–many things observed could not be spoken aloud.  Sis’s father did not return home that Christmas, or the next Christmas. Nothing at all was heard from him. He disappeared. And then, when the boy was drifting in and out of consciousness after a serious accident, his father was suddenly at his bedside, bringing him back to health, telling him endless stories to explain his absence. The stories were connected to the mysterious red box that no one opened.  

Many years later, Sis gets a letter from his father telling him the box is now his. He returns to Czechoslovakia, to his father’s room, and opens the box with a rusty key. Inside he finds a book–a cross between a field journal and a diary, with entries in pen and specimens of flowers and butterflies pressed between the pages. His father spent the missing time in Tibet, in the tense period of the Chinese invasion, lost in the mountains, trying to reach Potala and tell the boy-God-king about the threat to his kingdom, magicked by all manner of apparitions and legends.

Tibet Through the Red Box is an oversize book filled with exquisite art and a kind of poetry. There are beautiful mandalas and terrible Tibetan dieties and pages of cursive on parchment and the boy’s memories of the gentle stories his father told him to help him heal. In those times, events the father lived through could not be discussed, so he turned his adventures into fables. The art is Tibetan-inspired, the musings on colors, deities, enchanted characters and a confusing and sometimes frightening world seen through the eyes of a small boy, are dreamlike and reflective.

This isn’t a children’s book although you could easily explore it with a child who is curious and–well, intelligent, open to the unexpected,  maybe a bit of an old soul. It’s a book full of lessons and information but it is first an experience–of words, colors, textures, dreams and sorrows. Very, very beautiful and intriguing–impressions of a lost place and time. The Dalai Lama is there and not there in the pages of the book. But it called him vividly to mind and made me wish I could see him again and hear him laugh.

Tibet Through the Red Box (Caldecott Honor Book)   Peter Sis | Farrar, Straus and Girous  1998

The Keeping Place – Isobelle Carmody

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The fourth volume in Isobelle Carmody’s Obernewtyn Chronicles was going to be my last for a while. I found the first four books at the library so decided to try them–and they are a really good fantasy. This latest one leaves so much hanging that I wish I’d found all eight. In The Keeping Place, war comes to the land and the Misfits reluctantly agree to aid the Rebels in an elaborate plan to take over the Council Lands in a carefully orchestrated series of maneuvers. But traitors have infiltrated the Rebels, treachery among the Rebel factions threatens mayhem, Rushton, the lord of Obernewtyn has gone missing, and Elspeth is under pressure to find the machines that destroyed most of earth in the Great White before they can be used again.

That’s the short version. Elspeth is in charge during Rushton’s absence and Obernewtyn’s protection is beginning to unravel. The various guilds are inventing new ways to perform their duties–one has created diving gear to explore an underwater ruin from the Beforetime, another is split in two groups and part of the guild is training itself to be knights and spies. Dragon, the powerful feral child Elspeth found on a previous journey, is still in a deep coma but her tortured dreams transfer to everyone in Obernewtyn and no one can sleep easily. Maruman, the old cat-medium who is devoted to Elspeth and her fated quest, delivers more urgent exhortations to find the clues to the whereabouts of the deadly machines. Ariel, the angelic sadist who left Obernewtyn to join the religious cult, the Herders, appears in Elspeth’s dreams and threatens her life and all she holds dear.

When Elspeth receives disturbing news about Rushton, she knows it is time to act. The Misfits had voted to abstain from any rebellion and pursue a path of peace in their mountains but they are drawn into the battles and into grave danger. Many things don’t seem quite right and suddenly real horrors and betrayal rip apart fragile coalitions and unimaginable depravity comes to light. Elspeth re-connects with Swallow, who is now king of the elite band of gypsies who are indebted to her. She travels the perilous dreampaths to search for clues and to attempt to heal Dragon and bring back Rushton. Her dreams are increasingly troubled, increasingly violent and increasingly real. Being in charge means having the power of life and death and Elspeth is a reluctant but decisive leader.

When a daring move uncovers a major clue to the location of the death machines, the impact is muted by the terrible human tragedy a different search unearths in a Herder cloister. It seems as if many more Misfits will die before Elspeth can disable the system to destroy the planet for good–and those who are left are damaged, possibly beyond repair. So I’m quite curious to see what happens next. Obernewtyn is a complex and well-drawn world full of compelling characters, unexpected plot developments and chilling detail. I’ll have to prowl the YA section to discover 5-8 so I can learn the ultimate fate of a heroine whose journey equals that of any male protagonist in a fantasy/sci-fi fiction.

The Keeping Place: The Obernewtyn Chronicles 4   Isobelle Carmody | Random House   2008

Ashling – Isobelle Carmody

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An ashling is a dream that calls you to a task. That is wisdom from the language of the beasts whom Elspeth can communicate with through a silent mindspeak that is one of her Talents. Elspeth is a Misfit, a human with powerful mental abilities that make her a pariah to the untalented people who rule her world. What is left of earth after a blinding holocaust called the Great White is a poisoned, treacherous, mistrustful and power-mad place in which anyone who is different is at terrible risk. Rather like our own civilization, as a matter of fact.

In Ashling, Isobelle Carmody continues the fantasy saga of Elspeth and a cast of original characters, including a cat who has visions and a horse who styles himself Elspeth’s protector. The Misfits live in a remote mountain compound called Obernewtyn, led by a latent Talent named Rushton who is a direct heir of Obernewtyn estate’s founders. His ancestors include people who ived before the Great White and seemed to know about, and likely possess, some of the Talents. Elspeth is the Seeker, the one selected to find the death machines used centuries before to destroy much of the planet and disable them so they can never be used again. She is not the only one interested in those machines.

But this heroine’s journey is a long and winding road and in Ashling Elspeth saves a gypsy woman about to be burned at the stake by Herders and is sent by a prophecy in a dream to a stronghold of the Council to return the comatose gypsy to her people. The adventures that ensue cost lives and threaten hers, put her in the crosshairs of some extremely nasty people, see one good friend sold into slavery and badly damage the mind of another, and connect Elspeth with a mysterious gypsy who holds her to a mutual pledge of support in the coming wars and rebellions.

The Misfits from Obernewtyn end up traveling to a desert culture to participate in fierce battles with some cruel and hostile rebel factions who regard them as worthless freaks. They fail to win the support of the rebels. But the experience reveals who and what the Misfits are meant to be and shows them there will be no easy solutions to their problems. Elspeth learns that her life is driven by the portent and burdens of her calling but that her challenge is to find the courage to live in-between the dangerous quests. She develops some odd method of healing grievous wounds to her own body, doubtless a useful skill as she seems to get bloodied and battered a lot.

I do think this third book ratchets up the tension nicely and the series is convincing and worth reading. One more book to go of the first four I checked out of the library in a batch. I do want to finish all eight but I’ll probably take a break and read some different novels before I go looking for the remaining Obernewtyn Chronicles.

Ashling: The Obernewtyn Chronicles 3   Isobelle Carmody | Random House  2007

The Farseekers – Isobelle Carmody

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In the second of Isobelle Carmody’s Obernewtyn Chronicles, The Farseekers, Elspeth leaves Obernewtyn on a quest to find a mysterious new Talent, a Misfit so powerful that the hidden community will not survive without it. The stakes are sharply higher in this book, as the ragged band of people with extraordinary mind abilities battles the Herders and guardsmen of a repressive regime, a settlement gathered around a patriarchal figure, Henry Druid, that contains secret Misfits of its own, the violent storms and unpredicatble weather that is the result of the Great White that nearly destroyed the planet, and the treachery of a renegade Misfit with a murderous grudge against Obernewtyn and its inhabitants.

Most of this book is a journey through tainted lands, perilous settlements and the events of deadly prophecies. Elspeth discovers that the beasts, the animals of the Obernewtyn farm and the surrounding countryside and mountains, have minds and abilities as formidable as the humans. In a library buried by ruins and ash for centuries, she finds evidence that the Misfits are an evolution of humans that was underway before the Great White, and not a freak result of the destruction that occurred as a result of the cataclysmic detonations from poisonous weapons. She also finds out that Rushton, the heir of Obernewtyn and the leader of the community there, harbors felings for her that go far beyond collegiality and admiration.

But Elspeth is the Seeker, the one who is fated to find the old machines that caused the Great White and destroy them before they can be used again. She permits herself no thoughts of a personal life while that terrible fate controls her life. The journey to the coast is full of misadventure, heroic rescues, astonishing discoveries, treachery and painful death. Evil is often outwitted but inevitably exacts a high price in suffering. Some appealing characters don’t survive. Other characters are revealed as unexpected allies.

The Obernewtyn Chronicles are an accomplished mix of fantasy and science fiction–with Tolkienesque rhythms and themes, believable characters and enough surprises to keep things interesting.  As I am overwhelmed by too much Real Life right now, and finding hours each day for reading is a challenge, I’ll probably finish the four I have–I might not recommend reading all of them in a marathon but they are entertaining and go quickly. By the time I finish (and I am not hunting for the rest of the books in this series just yet), I’ll be able to knock out a futuristic fantasy of my own. The pattern isn’t hard to discern, a fact that might inspire me to space the books more if I had the time.

The Farseekers: The Obernewtyn Chronicles 2   Isobelle Carmody | Random House  1990