Violent colours of a bleak island

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  Maggie Stiefvater’s  The Scorpio Races is all about magic, subtlety, myths and violence.  Magic of the stormy autumn seas that throw up the Capaill Uisce, the wild, meat eating water horses, straight out of Celtic myths; magic of the remote little island of Thisby which inexplicably holds some people and lets others go; the magic of the Scorpio Races held in November each year and which are the source of the islands identity; the magic of colours and the magic of love – of both humans and animals. Woven into it all is the magic of Stiefvater’s subtle writing which at times is poetry in prose. Except for the violence, nothing else is in your face. All emotions and feelings  are alluded to yet the reader gets a clear picture of each character. And somewhere within it all, it is a book about the strength of the women on the island which is the bed rock of island life.

  Thisby is probably an Irish island, but it’s exact location is not specified and it is famous for the Scorpio Races that are run on its main beach. The locals catch the capaill uisce which come ashore during the autumn storms and train them for a period of two weeks in order to race them on the main beach. This is no meant feat since the horses are constantly drawn back to the sea and also drawn to kill.

  The book is narrated from the point of view of two teenagers – Kate (Puck) Connolly and Sean Kendrick. The latter is the winner of the last four races, having a knack, partly magical, with the water horses and a special relationship with his winning horse Corr while the former in many ways is representative of the spirit of the island – isolated yet plucky and  self reliant. Puck and Sean come up against each other when Puck decides to participate in the race to save her house and prevent her elder brother from leaving Thisby.

  It’s amazing how Maggie Stiefvater weaves myths into normal day to day life where they are accepted in a matter of fact way. Hers is not a world on another planet or in another dimension, it is this world but only that some of the stories are real. This is the appeal of her books because who doesn’t want the mundane world to be laced with magic and for the myths to be true. The atmospheric writing manages to draw the reader in despite the deceptively mild pace of the story which meanders through the descriptions of various island inhabitants and their quirks. Ultimately it is the descriptions of the island and its bleakness, offset by the colours of the sea and the horses as well the red of Puck’s hair which stand out vividly. Not to mention Puck herself who is vibrant against the closed and taciturn Sean.

  Like Stiefvater’s Raven Boys series, The Scorpio Races is a book that slowly gets under your skin and weaves a spell. A story to be savoured.

 

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An Epic Door stopper

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Its long time since anyone has written a solid, big, standalone epic fantasy. Samantha Shannon certainly deserves credit for giving us The Priory of the Orange Tree in one complete package. In this age when most epic fantasy novels come in parts, to sink ones teeth into a big, solid chunk of a book without having to worry about having to wait for the next instalment makes for a very satisfying read. Of course, we feel that this may be a book better suited to the Kindle in order to save the strain on ones wrists and also it is less daunting if the reader is not constantly reminded visually of how much is still left while reading. We understand the contradiction of this since on the one hand we like the chunkiness of the book yet we felt daunted by the size. This is how readers are.

There are dragons and then there are dragons. It would seem that we have inadvertently become stuck in a dragon loop for some time. Every other book we pick up has dragons in it! Not that we are complaining too much as dragons make for good tales (or tails). It could also be that for us if there be dragons, it is reason enough to pick up the book. So, in PotOT the Nameless One is the bad, evil dragon, asleep for a thousand years but about to wake, his minions are already about. There are water dragons in the east who are friendly to humans. Most of the kingdoms follow Virtuedom, a religion based on defeat of the nameless one and the saints who had originally bound him. Into this mix comes comes Ead Duryan appointed secretly to protect Sabran, the Queen of Inys who would become the main target for the Nameless One and his followers because of the legend that it is her bloodline that keeps him bound. Ead is actually from a mysterious and secret order, the Priory of the Orange Tree, which wields magic in a world where it is not permitted. In the east is Tané the counterpoint to Ead, and who is a dragon rider. The book shifts back and forth chiefly between the viewpoints of Ead and Tané but there are also others which at times makes it disorienting for the reader but perhaps it was necessary for the writer to cover all the ground.

None of the characters behaved in expected ways in their morality or orientation which at times is very unsettling for the reader. Every book requires at least that one fixed compass when it comes to the major characters which was lacking in the book. The readers find themselves  unsettled through the hugeness of the book, trying to figure whose shoes they want to be in and hoping for one of the characters to settle down into that relatable person.

The story took some time introduce all the characters but it didn’t drag and like we have already mentioned, it was a satisfying read. We only wish that the ending had not been so hurried. Perhaps it was necessary in order to limit the book to its eight hundred odd pages.

 

Race relations

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Dragons have fascinated the human mind from time immemorial. There’s no denying that. Whether they are to be slayed or sought out to provide sage counsel or  sought out for their hoards of gold, dragon’s and their stories are bound to capture the imagination. 

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman is a slightly different dragon story. Seraphina the protagonist has a big secret, she is herself a half dragon but in human form and has scales on parts of her body. She thinks she is alone. On her world dragons and humans had battled for centuries but finally a peace was brokered and dragons who could take human form were allowed to enter human countries as such. The peace is tenuous at best because of people’s suspicion and the nature of dragons who are a bit Vulcan like in their lack of emotion and dependence on logic. They think in ‘higher’ maths! The dragons have moved away from their gold hordes and now instead horde knowledge and books. Some of them live in human cities but have to be monitored by other dragons to ensure they do not become too human like. The humans in turn think they are too dragon like, so are always wary of them.

Though most people want to get on with their lives and want peace, the malcontents on either side, as always, are looking for opportunities to use the suspicion and brew trouble. Seraphina finds herself caught in the midst of this with her unique viewpoint from both sides and seeks to find her own unique place in a world where she neither belongs nor can be accepted on either side.

In its own way this is a book for our times when we are constantly struggling with accepting the ‘other’ and identity is restricted by the familiar and by conditioning. Suspicion is rife and even small differences are used to fan resentment. Very few are willing to accept anything beyond their own comfort zone. Though Seraphina is a fantasy set in a different world, it could well stand as an allegory for race relations in this one. Ultimately the realisation has to come that there is good and bad, well intentioned and ill willed creatures on all sides. People will be people, no matter what form they come in.

Middling

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The Wicked King (The Folk of the Air book 2) by Holly Black – A review in two parts.

Before reading the book(but after reading one sneak preview chapter:

We could not wait for the book to be published; daily counting down the waiting list in the library. The preview chapter was fabulous and took off from the end of The Cruel Prince (read our review here). Jude, through political machinations has become the power behind the faerie throne as the king’s seneschal. Cardan, as the king who has to obey Jude for a year and a day, spends his time enjoying the other perks of wearing the crown while Jude does the actual ruling. The whole of faerie is rejoicing and in a festive mood. We couldn’t wait to see what Jude, a human, would do to shape faerie. Also, having read the short novella – The Lost Sisters, we were looking forward to Jude and her twin sister Taryn joining forces and giving the fairies a tough time on behalf of humans. The excitement built up over time with speculation as to whether the book would tie in with the standalone book The Darkest Part of the Forest (our review here). We looked forward to Jude continuing to manipulate things so that her foster younger brother Oak could enjoy a childhood before he ascending the throne of fairie, of Jude kicking ass along with her group of spies known as the Court of Shadows and overcoming all obstacles in her path.

Having read the book:

Caught by the typical middle book syndrome, the story goes nowhere and in fact rehashes a lot of the issues from the first book. Taryn is still Taryn and Jude is less Jude. She is still trying to deal with her foster father issues; the fairie general Madoc is still trying to control her and despite everything she is still pleased with even a hint of approval coming from him. Cardan is still wishy washy except for maybe right at the very end. The book starts with a prologue which sets a very different tone from the preview chapter that had been provided to whet the readers’ appetites. The fairie half sister Viv was a more supportive and stronger personality in the previous book. In fact everyone felt ‘less’ in this book. The reader is constantly reminded that Jude is eighteen and inexperienced and dealing with fairies who have been around for centuries. The constant refrain of power being easy to get and difficult to hold onto becomes tedious. The only thing that is accomplished is that the reader is made aware of how alone Jude is. Even her flashes of brilliance and her ability to lie, unlike the fairies, do not manage to save the book from being anything other than a middling middle book setting up for the grand showdown in book three.

  We are aware that a lot of people will not agree with us and the book does have five stars on Goodreads but it is what it is. We also got the feeling that perhaps Holly Black had been rushed through the writing of the second book by her publishers to capitalise on the success of the first one in the series. We did however love the illustrations at the beginning of each chapter and elsewhere in the book.

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From a younger perspective

It’s always great to talk to someone who enjoys the same books as you and when it’s your favourite author that they like – it’s that much more fun.  We have never had a third party interaction on our blog posts before, so when, because of an unexpected school holiday, we found ourselves chatting about Terry Pratchett with a fourteen year old, over ice cream on a Monday, it was both envy raising as well as fascinating.

Why envy? You may well ask. When we start reading TPs books, it was an anxious wait every year for the release date of the new book but the younger generation have had the pleasure of binge reading all the books without need for pause or wait.

But it is fascinating and also great to known that the younger generation has the capability to appreciate TP. Which is why we we ended up grilling the kid and bought her a second ice cream so that we could continue. So here is a conversation all about Terry Pratchett.

Us: Which was the first Terry Pratchett you read and how old were you?
Kid: I was 12 when I read the first two Tiffany books – Wee Free Men and A Hat Full of Sky.

Us: Which would you say is your favourite Discworld book?

Kid: I don’t know… wait… Hogfather and Monstrous Regiment, I think. Hogfather because of the idea that belief makes the Hogfather real. Small Gods has a similar theme but Hogfather has Susan in it. In Monstrous Regiment, it’s the dystopian feel and female empowerment that I liked.

Us: Of all of the amazing characters TP has introduced us to who is your favourite?
Kid: Susan with the hair (Susan has light blonde hair with one streak of black) and Tiffany with her rather violent cheese that wears a kilt and goes mnam mnam. What I like about both of them is that they are very sensible and don’t put up with any nonsense from anyone.

Us: If you could live anywhere on the Discworld, where would you choose to live?
Kid: I would want to live in Lancre, because that’s where Nanny Ogg is. (Oh, the appeal of witches!)

Us: And if you were living on Discworld, what do you think you would like to do?
Kid: I would love to be a witch but I am not practical enough so maybe I would join the Watch.

Us: What is your go to series? Since you are wearing a Marvel T-shirt?
Kid: Definitely TP and Discworld! I wish there was any Discworld merchandise available. Because then that is what I would be wearing. Also if I had 15 mins I would pick reading a Terry Pratchett book over watching Marvel movies any day.

Us: what draws you to TPs books?
Kid: It’s an entirely new world that is relatable but yet detached from ours. It’s not dependent on any thing that happens here but has everything that we don’t have like dragons, imps, goblins, vampires, witches, wizards and elves. What appears good is not necessarily good and what is bad is not necessarily evil. Because everyone is shady. Except for Carrot (In the Nightwatch series) who is so good that he seems off.

Us: What is your favourite food on Discworld?
Kid: Nanny Oggs suspect recipes.

Us: So which series do you prefer, Harry Potter or Discworld?
Kid: Discworld, because it’s funnier and more relatable. TP makes you think more and you can’t ignore the darker shades. Although Harry Potter is great too.

Us:  Do you feel reading TP changed your reading habits in any way?
Kid: I discovered at it at the right age. It supported the direction I was already going in.

So that’s it, another one is quite obviously bitten by the bug. And probably the bug will last life long.

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 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.