Intrigue and faeries

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A brutal faerie court, a human girl and her twin sister brought up by a ruthless faerie general who lives by his own set of morals, an elder, half faerie sister who wants to live in the human world while the human girls want to be accepted in faerie. Holly Black‘s The Cruel Prince (Book 1 in the Folk of the Air trilogy) has intrigue, politics, faeries of all colours and varieties and the High Court of Faerie. Though the other courts, the Seelie, Unseelie and the court of the Alderking, also make an appearance. There is also the eponymous cruel prince. But then there are three of them in the High court and each one a contender for the title.

Despite the story being about faerie, fantasy writers, Black included it would seem, cannot get away from the school setting (or Hogwarts hangover) with the different kids, in this case the human Jude and her sister Taryn, being reviled and set upon by the elite groups. Prince Cardan (Draco Malfoy?) and his cronies spend their time targeting and playing vicious tricks on Jude and her sister even though the two human girls try to maintain a low profile. Thankfully this typical high school scenario does not take up too much of the book which really picks up in the second half. The book is essentially a bildungsroman story charting Jude’s growth from a girl intensely aware of her fragility and mortality at the court of immortals. It is about her desperate need to gain power by being appointed as a knight in order to feel safe but instead becoming a spy and slowly evolving into someone who feels the need to protect not just herself but also the boundaries of the human world.

  There is violence which Jude experiences at times but deals with it in a matter of fact way, similar to the way in which she slowly accustoms herself to faerie poison by imbibing small quantities of it. Incongruously, no real violence comes her way from the one character who has been her antagonist from the beginning of the book.

  The Cruel Prince is the second book of Holly Black’s that we have read recently. Having enjoyed The Darkest Part of the Forest(see our review here), we had high expectations of this one and we were not disappointed. Black likes to write about young girls who want to be knights, which must be empowering for young girls reading her books. But at the same time her characters are not black and white and no one is either really good or encapsulating all knightly virtues. They are just doing what is expedient. Even Jude’s human ethics do not stop her from lying, deceiving and killing when necessary.  Ultimately The Cruel Prince is a book about political power and  gaining strength at court by whatever means possible. The ending has enough in it to make the reader await the next book in the series eagerly. Unfortunately The Wicked King is out only next year.

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A different spin

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  It seems that that there are a number of books in the fantasy genre these days, inspired by eastern European folk tales. Or perhaps it’s just that we are picking them up in our desire to read about the snow and cold winds which we never see here. Spinning Silver is Naomi Novik‘s second such book after Uprooted (and the second one that we have read – see our review) and is very loosely inspired by the Rumplestiltskin story.

  Novik’s stories are filled with strong female characters who know their minds and don’t look to others to tell them what to do. Spinning Silver has three strong female protagonists who, despite coming from different backgrounds and being very different people, are very similar in the strengths they exhibit. They each have an innate ability to take hold of a situation and do what is required, without looking to others for help.

  Each chapter in the book is from a different character’s point of view and is, strangely enough, not at all confusing. The book starts with Miryem the daughter of a kind hearted and unsuccessful Jewish money lender in a small town. It is important to mention here that her family were Jews, because of the antisemitism exhibited by the surrounding characters in the story. The impact comes from the almost matter of fact way in which the prejudices are written of and also from the familiar attitudes of ‘them and us’ which still exist in any society. When Miryem finds her family close to starvation, she takes over her father’s business, hardens her heart and becomes known for turning silver into gold. As a result, she attracts the attention of the cruel and arrogant Staryk (supernatural elvish beings) King who wants her to turn silver into gold for him.

  Then there is Wanda, the battered daughter of a drunk poor farmer. Her mother who was buried under a magical tree manages, to some extent, to protect Wanda and her brothers but ultimately it is Wanda who has to protect herself and her brothers from their father and from a marriage that she does not want. Lastly there is Irina, the daughter of a Duke. She is married off by her father to the Tsar who is possessed by a demon who wants Irina for her part staryk blood. She then takes it upon herself to keep the demon at bay and somehow save her people from it.

  Spinning Silver is ultimately a book about the courage of these three women whose stories eventually link up during the course of the novel, though it may not be evident to the reader at once. All three of them have the ability to grit their teeth and get down to doing not just what was necessary but also empowering themselves. It is about taking care, not just yourself, but of others around you. It is also a book about families and about paying your debts.

 We enjoyed Spinning Silver much more than Uprooted (although we did love Uprooted when we read it). It is a much more layered tale and though the story was magical and at times fantastical, yet the tone of it was so practical. Just like the protagonists.

The satisfaction of binge reading

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  While everyone is busy binge watching TV series on Netflix and Amazon Prime, we spent this month enjoying a bout of binge reading. When we started Maggie Stiefvater‘s The Raven Boys, the first book in the series, we hadn’t realised that all the four books in the The Raven Cycle had already been published. Oh the joy of finding out that one can read the entire series in one go! It just added to the excitement. So there were the two of us indulging in a serious case of parallel binge reading, getting irritated with anyone and everything taking our attention away from the books and messaging each other about parts that we really liked.

  The first book seemed to fit more into the paranormal genre but along the way the series converted into outright fantasy. Such fun! The Raven boys (Gansey, Ronan, Adam and Noah) are a foursome who attend a private school situated near the small town of Henrietta, Virginia. They end up forming a friendship with Blue, a local girl who’s the only non psychic in a family and house full of psychics. Henrietta lies on Ley lines which give the town and surroundings volatile magical energy and a mythology about a buried medieval Welsh king and members of his court who had possibly travelled to Henrietta through the Ley lines, or ghost road as Blue’s family call it. One of the boys, Gansey, is obsessed with searching for the buried king who is supposedly only asleep and the others get caught up in the search since it is believed that the king will grant a wish to whoever wakens him. In their search for the king and his court the five of them become a court of sorts of their own; with Gansey being the leader, Ronan the dreamer and poet and Adam the wizard. As such they form a little knot in the middle of everyone else, a part of the whole and yet separate.

  Stiefvater very beautifully juxtaposes modern kids with their cell phones, modern vocabulary and their obsession with cars, with the search for a medieval king, forests that speak Latin, boys that can bring objects out of their dreams and zany psychics. Her characters have quirks which makes them likeably weird. Stiefvater offsets the very dark portions in the books with the main characters’ staunch loyalty to each other and the affection of people around them. Without that we felt the books might have been too dire a read for us. We also learnt a lot about different types of cars which are mentioned repeatedly in the books, almost as if they were characters themselves (like Gansy’s orange Camaro).

  We also really liked Stiefvater’s use of Latin through the books which made it different and interesting. Strangely this did not distract from the story, despite us having to look up the meanings, since  not all of them were obvious. The style of writing makes the books more than just the story, which for us, as always, provided the likeability factor. A series one can truly be absorbed in.

 

A Sleeping Beauty, kind of…

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Deep within the forest near the town of Fairfold there is a glass casket with a beautiful horned boy sleeping in it. Hazel and her brother Ben along with their friends and generations of Fairfolders before them  have been fascinated by him and dreamt of breaking him out. This boy is very much a part of the town’s life and also brings in tourists who come to Fairfold not only to see him but also because the town is known to have a connection with the Fae. Holly Black‘s ‘The Darkest Part of the Forest’ is a dark and layered fantasy in  which the modern world of today with its technology overlaps with the tricksy and beguiling world of faeries.

The people of Fairfold are on the one hand living and working regular lives, using cell phones, the internet and watching Star Trek but they also remember to carry iron or rowan wood in their pockets and wear their socks inside out.  The court of the Alderking overlaps the woods near the town and a pact keeps the residents of the town of Fairfold safe-ish. Not so the tourists, who are considered fair game.

As stories go, The Darkest Part of the Forest is dark and unsettling. Pact or no pact, the Fae are uncomfortable neighbours. Either they take the form of monsters or they are out to trick the unwary for their own fun. But this is also a book which is all about changing the narrative of fairy stories that one is brought up with and for us that was the best part about it.

(Spoilers ahead for those who haven’t read it.)

In the story it is the girl, Hazel, who takes on the mantle of saviour of everyone. Like a knight she feels compelled to fight the monsters and protect those around her. She is the one who frees the sleeping prince. But neither she nor the prince choose each other in the romantic sense. Instead the prince chooses the brother who has been in love with him right from the beginning. The story tells us that the knight does not have to be a man; the boy who you have been friends with all your life can be a prince; and  despite all the human fascination with faeries and their world, it can go both ways – a faery child can choose to live a human life.

It took us some time to get into the book and accept the alternate narrative but once we did we found ourselves gripped by the story and all its subtle and diverse messages.We would say it is worth reading the book just to appreciate the last paragraph. People always talk about the first sentence or the opening paragraph of books, but this book is our pick for having the best last paragraph and in fact the best last sentence.

The winter traveller

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 It’s rare that a second book in a trilogy not only manages to stand on its own but is in fact, far better than the first book. The Girl in the Tower  (Winternight Trilogy) by Katherine Arden came as a pleasant surprise. We had read and reviewed the first book, The Bear and the Nightingale, last year. Though interesting because it was so different, we had not found it riveting. But the second book was gripping and fascinating in equal measures and we found we couldn’t to put it down and became resentful when forced to.

The setting of  the tale in Russia and much of it in Moscow, during a period we don’t know much about, makes the book an intriguing read. In medieval times Rus was a vassal state of the Khans in Sarai and the story is set some years after the death of Genghis Khan. Culturally Rus was more influenced by the east rather than the west, which possibly explains the system of enclosing noble women in terems and not allowing them out in public. There was also considerable conflict between the old traditions and Christianity. Arden has added fascinating little details such as the different looks that people wear in different seasons; in winter they were wan and thin as opposed to the fuller cheeks of summer. And the descriptions of the bathing houses where people would sweat in hot steam and then jump into freezing cold water. As a result of these details, the book reads like a mix of fantasy and history.

  In the story, Vasya, who is now grown up, decides that traveling holds more appeal than joining a convent or getting married. Disguised as a boy and along with her faithful nightingale/horse Solovey, she sets out to discover the world. But while rescuing girls kidnapped by bandits she gets caught up with court of the Grand Prince of Moscow whose adviser is her brother Sasha and she travels to Moscow with them. She is also reunited with her sister in Moscow and ends up battling supernatural forces once again. To some extent her relationship to Morozko the winter king is shaping up and we particularly liked the fact that she insists on standing her ground even with him and is herself unhappy about not knowing where precisely he figures in her life. But we have a feeling there is more to come.

  Compared to the earlier book, this story is much more gripping mainly because Vasya can be more free and has Solovey to back her up. We are still wondering what the connection is in old Russian folklore between horses and birds. The glossary does not clarify this point but is otherwise an integral part of the book, we read it with as much relish as we did the story. Arden’s writing has matured since the last book with the story flowing a lot better in this one. And we definitely cheered when we found out that the third book is out in August this year. Not much of a wait.

A mixed bag

  What happens when Netflix/Amazon/Hulu or any of the regular TV channels produce a series based on a little read book which was published 20 or 30 years back? Or even a more recently published one, popular mainly with genre readers? The answer to that question is that suddenly the books start flying off the shelf, much to the publisher’s delight. In the case of the authors, the feelings are probably mixed as new found popularity will have them scrambling around in their brains to explain to interviewers why they wrote what they did. After all, thirty years is a long time and who remembers?

  Terry Brooks wrote the first book in the Shannara Chronicles forty years ago and now finds his events packed with very young people who have watched the series and as a consequence have discovered his books. The libraries have huge queues for books which had indolently been sitting on the shelves for a long time. Margaret Atwood’s amazingly thoughtful and disturbing book, the Handmaid’s Tale is being considered the story for this age although it was published in 1985. People who had never heard of Margaret Atwood are now reaching out for her books and attempting (or pretending) to read them. If nothing else, they look good on the book shelf or the side table. Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman wrote Good Omens in 1990 and it is being made into a mini series to be released on Amazon Prime next year. Amazon has already released the TV series of Gaiman’s American Gods.

  This happens with classics all the time, with each new movie or TV series, the author is back in fashion. Not that people like Gaiman ever went out of fashion but their readership is limited because of their books being classified, ridiculously so, as genre books. For the writers, to find books they had written years ago as the hot topic of conversation and reviews, it must surely be a surreal experience. Though no doubt a very pleasant one. Readers who never read fantasy are watching these series and then getting drawn to the books. The flip side is that those who have read the books and loved them are sometimes up in arms about the depiction of favourite characters and vent to the author. This happens particularly with fantasy books as the fandom tends to be vocal and strident. And it is a rare director or scriptwriter who can truly understand the essence of the genre and deal reverently with the book. Not many realise that fantasy is not just sword and sorcery or dungeons and dragons. Sometimes, even if they do, they are too lazy to explore the depths. This happened catastrophically in the series adaptation of the Earthsea books. The readers were horrified at the clueless and careless production based on an amazing series of books. As indeed was the author, Ursula K. Le Guin, who called it a ‘generic McMagic movie’.

  As fantasy readers, the increasing trend of adapting fantasy books to the screen is exciting because we are wondering what’s next and keeping our fingers crossed that a complete hash would not be made of a much loved book. After all, there is only one more season left of Game of Thrones and there are so many, many books that could fill that slot. More power to the magicians.

A roller coaster to nowhere

9793AEDD-156B-4F54-B3BE-AD1C60F87CFD.jpegCaraval by Stephanie Garber is a good example of why one should not go by covers and reviews when picking up a book to read. Although, there is little else to go by these days. It was a good thing that we borrowed the book from the library instead of buying it.

A magical game on an isolated island to which you need an invitation and you can choose to either participate or watch, had so much potential. The main character Scarlett had been writing for years to Legend, the mysterious game master of Caraval, requesting an invitation. From the time she and her sister were little girls, they hoped that a participation in the game and the chance to win a wish would help them to get away from their tyrannical father. After years of no response forthcoming, the invitation finally comes just before Scarlett’s wedding. But she is now reluctant to participate and her sister Tella pretty much abducts her and takes her to the island where Scarlett finds herself unwillingly drawn into the game.

The rest of the story is a roller coaster where the reader along with Scarlett does not know what is real and what is part of the game. The game takes place within what seems to be a large amusement park type setting, which can be, at times, quite frightening. Everything gets turned on it’s head at some point and none of the characters are what they seem. The descriptions of Caraval are lavish and Garber successfully  brings out the decadence of it all. The story  could have been exciting had it been strung together a little more tightly and had the characters not been so shallow. Events are just randomly put in without much explantion to make the story move to the author’s convenience.

There were no plausible reasons given to explain the intense cruelty of the girls’ father or their grandmother’s obsession with Legend. Scarlett’s haste to get out of the game after having spent her entire life trying to get there and her constant guilt for one thing or another becomes irritating. There was no real sense of a competition taking place and the ending was just too convenient and contrived.

While reading, the book moves at a rapid pace and the reader goes along willingly with it, accepting the twists and turns, with the expectation that all will be explained and answers will be found. It’s only once the book has ended that one feels cheated and hence irritated since there are no answers. Unless the author has left everything to the sequels, which in itself seems unfair. Besides, even fantastical magic should have some rules and explanation for the way it works. world building for a fantasy novel is of the utmost importance. This was truly a YA book in the sense that it lacked depth and the numerous comparisons to The Night Circus are totally unwarranted. Frankly we can’t understand why the book got such amazing reviews and was mentioned all over the place last year. It can be read if one has nothing better on hand.