Tag 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

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

Bitterblue – Kristin Cashore

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The Queen of Monsea is eighteen years old and she has been trying to sort truth from lies since she was thrust onto the throne at age ten. Lies are the currency of her kingdom, a blighted, twisted, shifting land tortured into madness by her father, a man with a horrible gift for controlling people’s minds.

Bitterblue is the eponymous heroine of Kristin Cashore’s latest volume in the Graceling series. Bitterblue tells the story of her desperate attempts to sort truth from treachery, friend from foe, wisdom from the insanity that grips her kingdom. Closest to her daily and least explicable are her advisors, a small group of men who keep her plied with paperwork and never have a direct answer for any of her questions. Her true friends, gracelings who each have an odd and powerful talent, come and go, offering comfort and counsel, fighting for the rights of people in corrupt kingdoms, removing evil monarchs in the seven kingdoms from their thrones, and guarding Bitterblue from the deadly assaults that dog her every move.

She sneaks out of the castle at night, disguising herself to roam the city and discover what kind of people she rules. In her travels, she is nearly discovered, often endangered and falls in with some clandestine printers, a rakish Robin Hood, and a surreptitious literacy teacher. Some force is keeping the population in the kingdom illiterate and uneducated, although her advisors tell her the castle and kingdom is 90 percent literate. Someone else is killing the truthseekers, the people who search for what really happened during the murdered king’s reign of terror and collect evidence for remuneration and reparation.

Bitterblue’s inner circle, courts, guards and nearly everyone she deals with are not to be trusted and many are actively working to undermine her. The book is dizzy with uncertainty for as long as it takes Blue to begin sorting through the lies, half-truths and rewritten history. It is disorienting to read—the experience of the heroine is the reader’s as well. And the dawning clarity, even as it comes as a relief, reveals the perverse horrors of the real history of Monsea under Bitterblue’s vile father. Even the palace friend who helped Blue and her mother to escape the king before he could practice his sick atrocities on the child has layers of guilt and loathsome memories that devour him.

Blue deciphers a bewilderinging code her mother has embroidered into bed linens and carved into a keepsake chest. The disjointed information the messages impart can never be clarified–her mother was killed by her father as she sacrificed herself so that Blue could escape. But Blue’s persistence and her friends help her to dig for the truth, an unlikely friendship begun in deception evolves through betrayal into a lasting bond. There is not a boring passage in the book.

Bitterblue is a YA fantasy but I begin to think that is a convenience of marketing and shelving. A really good fantasy is suitable for adults and teens—it’s a story that engages and entertains and shouldn’t be pigeonholed. I like Cashore’s work and her worlds. Bitterblue is a strong story to match the others in the series. With any luck, Cashore will continue it.

Bitterblue (Graceling)   Kristin Cashore | Dial Books   2012

Spellbound – Jacqueline West

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Elsewhere is a mysterious world inside framed paintings in the haunted house where Olive Dunwoody and her wonky parents live. Olive is nearly twelve and pretty much on her own. Her mathematician mother and father teach in the university and are absentminded even when they are present at home. Olive is missing the math gene but she makes up for it with extreme right-braininess—she lives in a powerful imaginary world that is, unfortunately, not imaginary.

The house is as alive as those paintings. The three gigantic and ornery cats who came with the house are not actually cats—by any common definition, in any case. They speak English, for one thing. And they boss Olive around like crazy for another. She puts up with this because they have the ability to move in and out of the living pictures—into and back from Elsewhere dragging Olive along—and Olive is desperate to know more about that world.

Morton is a frail, apparently albino boy who was trapped in a painting decades ago by an evil witch and has gradually faded into paint. He isn’t precisely alive, in a conventional way, but he is lonely and Olive is the only kid he ever sees. She would like to figure out a way to return him to the world but even her imagination can’t solve that one. And there is the little matter of the deadly nature of a few inhabitants of Elsewhere. Olive was close to killed by one or two of them in her last adventure.

Rutherford Dewey is an irritating boy about Olive’s age who comes to live with his grandmother next door and invades Olive’s backyard and her half-haunted existence. He seems to be able to read her mind, whenever there is something she wants to hide from him. Mrs. Niven lives on the other side. She has the neatest yard on the block but there is something off about her, especially in bright sunlight. The McMartins no longer live in Olive’s house. They were inherently evil and met unhappy ends, abetted by Olive whom they nearly succeeded in murdering.

The cats, Horatio, Harold and Leopold, grow more eccentric by the day. Leopold guards a trapdoor in the dark basement 24-by-7. Harold is usually a pirate or a knight or a secret agent on a mission. Often this involves painting himself green or black so he can blend in with his environment. Horatio hangs around Olive but he is very grumpy and seldom wants to take her inside a painting. When Rutherford asks Olive if the house has a grimoire, a witches’ spellbook, she begins to see a way to help Morton and to tap into the peculiar powers around her. But what happens when Olive looks for the grimoire is way outside her expectations and puts her and every living and a few non-living creatures in the neighborhood in mortal peril.

Spellbound is well-written and full of surprises. The dangers feel real and the characters—feline and otherwise–are engaging and believable. Olive’s parents are as clueless and unavailable as any obliging parents in a children’s book so she is free to pursue her questionable escapades at all hours. Jacqueline West’s series is entertaining enough for anyone who likes a good fantasy based on an original premise.

Vol. 2 Spellbound (The Books of Elsewhere)   Jacqueline West | Dial Books   2011

Mistress of the Storm – M. L. Welsh

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Mistress of the Storm by M. L. Welsh is probably a middle grade book. It would be too difficult for a very young child to follow. But I think it would be difficult for anyone of any age to follow. I was 100 pages or more into the book and I still had no idea where it was going. It is written with eccentric grammatical ticks that are deliberate but wrong—a kind of misguided style. When the protagonist, Verity, is reading from a book, the text is italicized and indented—and then at the end of the first sentence, brackets enclose an aside such as [she read, in an early chapter] or [Verity read]. Odd and jarring.

The story is repeatedly telegraphed in advance. We are told at every opportunity that this or that object or incident will not bode well for our pudgy, bullied, not-as-pretty-as-her-blonde-sister heroine. Verity is actually relentlessly tormented, alternately ignored or dressed in ugly, funny clothes by her family, insulted by astonishingly vicious kids and callous grown-ups alike. Naturally, she has a few adult, non-family friends who take their sweet time about helping her. An equally outcast boy becomes her champion. There is the arrival of a mysterious ship in the harbor, the deliverance of a strange wooden talisman and an ancient red book, the revelation of scraps of some secret about smugglers and shipwreckers, a hideous fake grandmother who shows up out of nowhere and ejects Verity from her attic bedroom, one device that summons squalls and another that calms them. And all the while, no unambiguous clue to what the point of all this is.

All the information in the book is told—including Verity’s unspoken thoughts about caustic remarks or unhappy occurrences. There is a lot of plot but it’s like a scrambled puzzle—all in pieces that are presumed to make a coherent picture but are just jammed together in the end. Mistress of the Storm is magic but it’s very sloppy magic. A fantasy for children should be as carefully crafted, as beautifully written as any good story. This one is just a blatant mess, crammed with improbabilities and presumptions and some really, really thin characters and caricatures who pop in and out in a perfectly irritating way until the requisite blow-up at the conclusion. As the fate of a few of the actors isn’t entirely clear, I suspect there will be a sequel to this lumpy porridge. I won’t be reading it.

Mistress of the Storm   M. L. Welsh | David Fickling Books   2010

Over Sea, Under Stone – Susan Cooper

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Over Sea, Under Stone is the first book in Susan Cooper’s acclaimed fantasy series The Dark is Rising. It’s one I’ve been meaning to read for some time. The books were highly recommended on a gifted homeschooler list I followed for years but somehow we never put our hands on one. I was poking around the library shelves looking for novels to read and thinking I ought to reserve Susan Cooper’s books when, suddenly, there it was—the first volume in the sequence and a nice new copy that seemed barely read but had never been there when I’d looked before. Hmmm.

The praise is earned. Over Sea, Under Stone is the richly detailed, tense, quite prosaic but utterly fantastic adventure of three siblings living in a strange old house on the coast of Cornwall for their summer vacation. Their slightly distracted parents are along and the whole family has been invited by a dear friend who is close enough to their mother to be considered ‘Uncle’ Merry. Merriman Lyon is an eccentric and distinguished antiquities professor with a habit of disappearing for months at a time and then popping up with some fabulous discovery that changes history or flabbergasts the director of a museum.

This time things are a bit different. Uncle Merry wanders in and out but he doesn’t take off. He is very much present and closely involved with the children. Good thing, as inexplicable events endanger Simon, Jane and Barney as soon as they uncover the secret entrance to a dusty attic that holds a mysterious parchment, scribbled in cipher, with a hand drawn map. It is and it isn’t a treasure map. If Uncle Merry knows more about it than he is telling, so do some threatening characters lurking about the edges of the family vacation. When their house is ransacked while the family sleeps, the children confide in Uncle Merry about their find and an epic struggle between good and evil begins.

Some things are obvious—Uncle Merry could be none other than, well, that’s easy to figure out. Clues on the treasure map are a bit tougher and good guys and bad guys turn out to be mostly bad guys. Cornwall is the territory of Arthurian legend and still adheres to its old patterns of fishing, folk festivals and superstitions. All of them are woven into the unexpected quest that absorbs the children and places their lives in danger. Over Sea, Under Stone would be fine for a younger child, although it does get scary in parts so suitability depends on the kid. It’s a satisfying read for an adult and will have you glued to the page to see how various perils are resolved. I’m sorry I waited so long to read it and I will reserve the rest of the series to catch up on the adventures of Merriman Lyon and his troika of bright and eager apprentices.

 Over Sea, Under Stone (Dark Is Rising Sequence (Simon Pulse))     Susan Cooper | Aladdin Paperbacks 1989

The Night Circus — Erin Morgenstern

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Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus is really weird. The book is a series of linked vignettes, strung like a one-of-a-kind necklace from odd beginning to jarring end. The real name of the circus, which opens at dusk and closes at dawn, appears unannounced in an empty field and is colored entirely black and white,  is Le Cirque de Rêves—the circus of dreams. The entire story might be a dream—it certainly makes the point that the reality we apprehend is a construct of mind and that we can alter the dream at will or be captive of the nightmare that plays across our closed eyes when we sleep.

Near the end of the story, Morgenstern quotes Shakespeare’s Prospero; the passage would have been too instructive to include earlier in the book:

Our revels are now ended. These our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits, and

Are melted into air, into thin air:

And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,

The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on; and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.

How to re-cap this tale? Celia is the child of a magician who masquerades his skills as an illusionist. He trains her from age six to wage a challenge against the protégé of another magician, binding her to the wager with a silver ring that burns a permanent brand into her hand. The other magician plucks a boy, Marco, from an orphanage—apparently in late 19th-century England orphans can be selected like groceries—and trains him in the ancient ways of magic from books. Celia is an intuitive and can manipulate matter. Marco creates fabulous structures out of formulae and spells.

The circus is the brainchild of a wealthy entrepreneur who specializes in the highly iconoclastic and throws midnight dinner parties for a select group of collaborators. None of these characters is as straightforward as they might seem. The circus arrives without warning. It seduces, delights and subverts lives. It contains the most amazing and unimaginable acts. It is unlike anything anyone has ever seen—as improbable and fascinating as the richest of dreams. Within it, lives unfold, performances astonish, magical children are born, wonders never cease. Outside the black and white striped tents and the iron perimeter fence, lives unravel, people grow old, some die, fans exchange stories and travel the world to find the circus and bask in its glow for a few nights. Celia is the illusionist of the circus, performing nightly; Marco is the assistant of the circus owner, living in London. Both are essential to keep the fantasy of the tents and performers alive.

Meanwhile Celia and Marco discover that each is the other’s competitor. They also fall in love. This is a complication that was not in the script. It will wreak havoc with the careful plans of their puppet-masters. And the contortionist and the fortuneteller have their own agendas; magicians perform acts that go horribly wrong and leave them evanescent—not gone but not quite there; a boy who climbs apple trees takes a dare to break into the circus in the daylight and changes his life. No spoilers here—it is impossible to summarize this story without telling the whole thing.

The language is mesmerizing, the premise is hypnotic; the conceits are captivating. I liked the book but I did resist the forecast forced combat that promised to end badly and I am really unfamiliar with this brand of fantasy—it’s something like an extended drug-induced hallucination from the 60s.  I would read it again to puzzle it through more diligently. The Night Circus may be the most unusual book you read any time soon. Despite, or maybe because of, its episodic construction, it has the power to hold your attention.

The Night Circus   Erin Morgenstern | Doubleday  2011

Chalice – Robin McKinley

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Chalice is a different reading experience from the Robin McKinley versions of classic fairytales like Beauty and the Beast. It really is another world and it takes some time to sort out what is going on and what it means. Once you work your way in, you are hooked, though, and it’s a fast clip through the action of the plot to the very satisfying finish.

In the demesne of Willowlands, Mirasol is a beekeeper from one of the old families. She hears the earthlines murmur and protest and her abilities land her the position of Chalice when the Master and the Chalice die in some disaster of disharmony with the forces of nature they govern. The demesnes are kept whole and balanced by the Master, Chalice and Circle—each has a specific role. The Chalice must bind the land and people and the Master together to create a profound harmony but Marisol despairs because there is no Master and she does not have the long years of apprenticship that prepare someone for her role. As she struggles to absorb myriad arcane rules and protocols and provide the service required of a Chalice, she takes frequent refuge in her small woodright and tends her bees. Bees and honey she knows better than anything else—Marisol’s honey is the best in Willowlands and it has energizing and healing powers.

And then the Circle sends for the old Master’s younger brother to be the new Master. The younger son of another old lineage, he was shipped off to become a Priest of Fire when his arrogant brother became Master. Now he returns to protect the land and no one knows if someone who is far into the process of becoming Fire can even be around humans or safeguard Willowlands. An accidental touch from him will sear flesh right to the bone.

Intrigue abounds. Outsiders arrive to wrest control from the half-Fire, half-human Master.  Marisol tries to win the trust of the people and perform the Chalice rituals that keep the land from tearing apart. The story is amazing, unexpected, beautifully written and engaging. It’s fantasy but not a classic fairytale. There is trickery, romance, challenge, cataclysmic upheaval and villainy to deal with. Marisol inadvertently commits a grievous error that could destroy the land and will certainly wreck her own life. It’s an odd story but never a dull one.

Robin McKinley must live in another realm entirely when she writes these books. Chalice is such a completely realized world—and such a complex and foreign one—that I can’t imagine how she moves into that space to write and then emerges to have lunch or talk to ordinary people. Bravo to her for pulling it off, though. The bees are a force to be reckoned with and so, in the end, is the beekeeper. You can almost taste the honey, feel the fire and the fear, and see the spells that heal villagers and rifts in the land as the Chalice works her uncertain magic, hoping somehow it will be enough.  

Chalice    Robin McKinley | Firebird  2008

Graceling — Kristin Cashore

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Katsa can attack faster than the eye can track and kill a man with her bare hands. From early childhood, she has been a prodigy with every kind of weapon, able to outguess and out-fight any opponent. She is a Graceling, born with one blue eye and one green, and a skill that makes her dangerous and nearly invincible. And she is the ward of her uncle, a king who uses her to instill fear and groveling subservience in his subjects.

On the night that she and a small crew of clandestine Council members–a secret band of plotters and warriors throughout the seven kingdoms who try to right the abuses of power–rescue a kidnapped old man from a corrupt neighboring king, Katsa encounters another Graceling, a prince with a silver eye and a gold eye, who identifies her. The discovery will place her life and the rescue in danger but some impulse prevents her from killing and she leaves him unconscious as the Council members make their escape.

The kidnapping is the tip of a horrible mystery that unravels amid murder, power-grabs, abuse and perversion. Katsa refuses to carry out an order from her uncle to torture a man who will not hand over his daughter and a large dowry for a doomed arranged marriage. She stuns herself by walking out of the palace, reclaiming control of her life and her deadly Grace. But she is now a hunted enemy of King Randa, forced to leave behind her faithful serving woman and her best friend, the king’s son Raffin, who has no stomach for his father’s greed and oppression.

And Katsa has gained an unwelcome ally—Po, a prince of Lienid, grandson of the kidnapped old man and the Graceling who identified her on her mission to free the grandfather. Po’s Grace is sensing—he has an uncanny ability to know what someone is thinking about him and to feel when something or someone is approaching. Katsa considers Po’s gift to be a direct threat to her autonomy and resists her growing feelings for him.

Too much detail would spoil a fast-paced, surprising plot full of adventure, terror, difficult lessons about trust, struggles to gain control of lethal Graces and to survive, dawning awareness of the evil and perversion masked by a hideous Grace in one of the kingdoms. The major characters are all extraordinary for their times, respected and feared by the general populace, strong, plucky, beleaguered, and challenged at every turn by impossible tasks they must complete to defeat the darkness creeping over the kingdoms. Katsa sheds some of her defenses to uncover her real Grace and to save an appealing child princess who is tough and wise beyond her years. Po breaks through the walls around Katsa but cannot save himself from a wrenching sacrifice to protect the child. The journeys are epic and full of danger—the characters are very decently drawn and sympathetic. The story is an exceptionally dark fairytale with pain, heartbreak and determination replacing magic spells.

Graceling is labeled a YA book but it’s an engrossing, convincing and terrific read for anyone who loves a good story. Kristin Cashore has written a prequel of sorts—Fire, published second in a 3-book series, precedes the events in Graceling but it isn’t the story of the Graceling characters. Bitterblue, scheduled for May 2012 publication, is the sequel to Graceling, a more conventional sequel that tells the story of the small princess from the first book as she becomes the queen of her land. Both Fire and Graceling are award-winning bestsellers so my recommendation of Cashore’s work is just an echo of her wide market appeal and solid ability to tell an absorbing tale.

Graceling   Kristin Cashore | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt   2008

The Hero and the Crown — Robin McKinley

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Robin McKinley does literate fantasy with enormous intelligence and a sure command of story. Her re-imaginations of Beauty and the Beast and Sleeping Beauty are revelatory and emotionally satisfying. Her heroines are strong and believable in ways more female protagonists should be. The Hero and the Crown won a Newbery Medal for its characters as much as its flawless craft. The story draws you into a world that seems real from its first detail to its last litter of puppies in the middle of the royal featherbed. It is Aerin’s story but it is a classic hero’s journey and every girl who reads it should get a few ideas. Every boy who reads it should re-examine a few.

Aerin is the king’s daughter, child of a mother who died at her birth, a mother who was considered by the good folk of Damaria to be a witch. So Aerin’s place in the kingdom is far from assured and she is the merciless taunt of her gorgeous and shallow cousin who schemes for power and position. The people believe Aerin may be a witch-child, a sol who has no apparent magical gifts, uncommon blazing red hair and white skin and a tendency toward unladylike pursuits.

From earliest childhood, Aerin has been inseparable from her friend Tor, the appointed first sola or heir to a king with no male children. Tor teaches her swordplay and confides in her but even Tor can’t define where Aerin fits in and what she is meant to be. She heals and tames her father’s injured war horse who has been turned out to pasture, teaching herself to ride hands-free and wield sword and spear on horseback. When she discovers an old formula for a fire-shielding ointment, she determines to perfect the recipe and become a dragon-killer—the dragons being fiercely volcanic vermin that terrorize the countryside, although they bear little resemblance to the legendary flying monsters that are long gone from Damaria.

Arlbeth, the king, refuses to take his daughter to battle with threatening dissidents from the North so Aerin sets out in secret to destroy Maur, the horrifying Black Dragon now returned, a massive evil presence laying waste to villages and farms at the outskirts of the kingdom. Her adventures are epic, her encounters deadly and the consequences of the lethal struggle with Maur set events in motion that spin wildly through tragedy, deep magic, heroism and destruction to the story’s conclusion.

McKinley has written another terrific tale, a fantasy with no fairytale princess but a tough, smart and battle-scarred heroine who shies away from the people who mistrust her and is desperate to prove her place. Aerin is funny, irreverent and brave. She is also impulsive, awkward and a miserable dancer. Her uncanny empathy with animals and the powerful magic she doesn’t realize she has propel her on a journey into a Tolkienesque hell that she undertakes as if fate compels her. Fate does. Aerin is no ordinary mortal but she is an extraordinary heroine and her quest captivates us. I rooted for her, even as I wanted to shout, “Go back! This is a really bad idea!” But there is no turning back. The losses are losses that can’t be redeemed; the victories are bittersweet. The story unspools as intensely visual as a film and I was sorry to leave the world McKinley created as I turned the last page.

 The Hero and the Crown    Robin McKinley | Firebrand 2002