The meek shall inherit

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The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison, is a ridiculously optimistic story with a ridiculously decent protagonist. Good thing then that it’s a fantasy novel, or else, in all our cynicism, we would have dismissed it as being ridiculously unrealistic. That is not to say that we didn’t enjoy the book. We did.

Maia, the half goblin son of the Elf Emperor is too likeable a character, and the book too full of the twists and turns of political intrigue to not be enjoyable. The mixed race Maia, who has been kept in penury away from court, suddenly finds himself the Emperor after his father and all his half brothers die in an accident. Friendless and an outsider, that too of mixed race, he finds himself dealing with all the intrigue and political machinations of those who have been steeped in it their entire lives. And strangely, he comes out each time, doing the right thing for his seemingly ungrateful people.

There are no battles, in this book, with the forces of evil or any sword and sourcery or even dungeons and dragons. All the action comes from the political ambitions and scheming of the characters and Maia learning how to deal with his new situation. We particularly enjoyed his struggles in maintaining all conversation in the royal plural “we” as befits the Emperor.

Maia’s compassionate, non discriminatory, gender equalising, and basically ‘good’ route to power consolidation makes the book a heartening and refreshing read. A fantasy, truly. Just right for Christmas.

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A tale for winter

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A fantasy series based on Russian folklore is unusual and as such The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden is an intriguing read. Set in medieval Russia when it was still called Rus, the story is about Vasya, a head strong and free spirited girl, gifted with ‘sight’ and growing up in a small village in the northern provinces.

Arden has very atmospherically described the severity of winters, shortage of food, runny noses and chilblains. The freezing cold of winter is offset by the warmth of Vasya’s family kitchen where the entire family sleeps on the flattop of the oven and where Vasya’s nurse tells magical tales. The province is a place where the summer sun is watery at best and winter with its god, known as the winter king or Morozko, one of the old gods, is predominant. But Morozko is more benign than his brother, the bear Medvedev, who is forever in search of supremacy.

The book, through Vasya’s story, is really about the conflict between the old religions and the new. Vasya and those in her village, though Christians, continue to leave out food for the old gods and spirits of home, hearth, land and forest. This brings them up against the newly appointed priest in their area who wants to wipe away all the old beliefs. In the process of taking control and in his arrogance and self righteousness the priest falls under the sway of Medvedev and ends up strengthening the evil of a being he does not believe in. The story is allegorical in the sense that denial of something’s existence is the best way to fall under its sway, being unprepared to counter it. In Yoda’s (Star Wars) words “Named must your fear be, before banish it you can”.

We find that a lot of fantasy books have a combination of ridiculously old men (who look very young) and feisty young girls (who actually are young) developing a relationship. Is this the Twilight effect, we wonder? But it is getting a little creepy now and makes us worry as to what it says about society. At least in this book Arden has left the relationship between Vasya and the winter king ambiguous but the second book is already out and might have more clarity.

Overall a magical fantasy about winter, the old gods, a girl with magical powers and a horse that is more than a horse. We enjoyed it but we did not find it riveting.

Legions of Angels

EAA22AD9-21E5-4F57-8DED-2F4B1792DF12The House of Shattered Wings (Dominion of the Fallen) by Aliette de Bodard is a dark and intriguing speculative fiction book which won the BSFA (British Science Fiction Association)award for best novel in 2015.

Paris is in ruins because of a war that happened between the Houses of the Fallen but a tenuous peace is now maintained. Because rivalry cannot be entirely forgotten, the Houses continue to work against each other in more subtle ways. Other than the Houses, the city is overrun by gangs scavenging amongst the destruction and debris and occupied by magicians, witches and alchemists. In this backdrop comes Isabelle, a newly fallen angel who forms an inadvertent bond with Philippe, a former immortal from an eastern colony.
The angels all lose their wings as a consequence of the fall from, presumably Heaven, but is referred to as the City. None of them remember why they fell, only that they no longer exist in a state of grace. Isabelle and Phillipe are taken in by Silver Spires, the oldest house, set up by the original fallen, Morningstar, who had disappeared 20 years back.

Bodard interestingly juxtaposes aspects of eastern belief systems against western beliefs and background. On the one hand there are the Fallen, the City, references to God but there is also the Court of the Jade Emperor, the Dragon Kingdoms, including the one below the polluted Seine, which all hint at the existence of numerous spiritual heavens. The reader is required to be open to multiple philosophies to truly appreciate the book.

The magic works differently for the adherents of each system; Philippe draws his from nature while the Fallen come with magical powers that dwindle as they age.
Not surprisingly, despite a number of characters, the reader comes away with the impression that the story revolves around the one character who is missing, and that is Morningstar whose aura and personality loom over everyone and each event in the book.

The unknowns are what make the book a compelling read. Most of the questions are not answered but it is a series so there is more to come. The Fallen of Silver Spires live around the ruins of Notre Dame Cathedral but it is not deconsecrated, some even attend mass. So there is no clear animosity as far as God is concerned. Hell is a devastated Paris and perhaps evil is not the causing of pain but the indifference to it and the lack of empathy. Despite the existence of magic and magical beings, the one truly powerful force in the book is a human’s desire for revenge.

De Bodard’s book is not like your typical dystopian, post apocalyptic fiction which revolves around one person or a group’s struggle to stay alive or create some order out of the chaos. Instead it is a re-imagining of faith, belief and politics, leaving the readers conflicted between their own conditioning and concepts of what define right and wrong and good and evil.

(The second book in the Dominion of the Fallen series is The House of Binding Thorns) 

 

 

Not a Fairy Tale Princess

 

imageWe all grew up with stories of princesses being perfect, beautiful and delicate as flowers. They were so sensitive that they could be disturbed by a single pea through layers of mattresses. They were forever in trouble and required to be rescued either by fairy godmothers or by handsome princes. Basically they were frail and a little empty headed. We don’t know if the fairy tales have changed at all but certainly princesses in fantasy novels are diametrically opposite to the stereotypes. So Kelsey Glynn in Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen presents quite a contrast. To start off with, the girl has no claim to beauty and is overweight. She is tough, outspoken, politically astute and rashly brave. The coronation scene in the book encapsulates the new age princess in a way like nothing can; despite being stabbed in the back, literally, she insists on completing the ceremony, bloodied and with the dagger sticking out of her shoulder and only permits herself to faint after it is over.

PS: Princesses, these days, are the ones who do the saving and the traditional saviours seem to be going out of business. I suppose that is an instance of woman power, accepted not just by readers, who had possibly been hankering for it for quite some time, but also by publishers who finally acknowledge that it sells.

LL: Kelsey’s is a fascinating character. Although she has been trained to rule and survive from the very beginning, interestingly the training happens in isolation. Despite that she has considerable empathy for her people.

PS: I like the fact that she is keen to learn bad words from her guards and hankers for books which are hard to come by in her world. I spent a lot of time while reading the first book, wondering exactly where the story was located in place or time. It initially seemed like another world but there were too many references to this one.

LL: I guess that becomes clearer in the next book, Invasion of the Tearling, the second book in the trilogy.

PS: Which I felt was one of those rare middle books that turned out to be better than the first one. It really raised my expectations of the third and final book which is out only at the end of the year.

LL: Well there is an element of magic, of other worldliness, another Queen from a neighbouring kingdom, who is the bad guy, who demands tribute in the form of slaves from Kelsey’s kingdom. And there are references to Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Not to mention the fact that despite the troubled kingdom, Kelsey loves to read. All of this provides for a sympathetic heroine and an intriguing story.

PS: It is quite common these days to find that the protagonist likes books. Most authors realise that it means instant likeability with the readers who identify with that aspect of the character.

The Queen of the Tearling has apparently been snapped up for a movie franchise, possibly because the story is relentlessly dramatic. It is a dark and gripping tale and yet it has a protagonist who instantly appeals because of her concern with doing the right thing. The rapid progress of the story however does not give away too much so one is left wondering about a lot of things which are only made clear in the second book. Erika Johansen has however, paced the story fairly well across the trilogy in that, at least so far, the reader does not feel let down at any stage. We would definitely recommend the book to readers of fantasy and post-apocalyptic fiction.

 

A Witch, A Wizard and Woods

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Not all woods may be ‘lovely’ but they are decidedly dark and deep. Fantasy writer Naomi Novik’s stand alone book Uprooted brings out the malevolence that can exit in the woods. Fairy tales and fantasy novels are replete with stories about the scary forests – the branches which reach out to grab you, the wolf waiting to make a meal of those straying from the path, the witch in the gingerbread cottage and the Old Forest in Lord of the Rings with Old Man Willow who devoured people. All such stories start off by being an argument in favour of deforestation but thankfully find their way around it by the end

This book begins like an ancient tale where a sacrifice has to be made every 10 years to the Dragon who lives in the area and of course the sacrifice, as always, is a girl. The only difference is that the Dragon is not really a dragon but is a wizard who is the lord and protector of the region where the protagonist’s village is located. The girl who is chosen each decade has to go and live with the Dragon in his tower and nobody knows what she does over there until she is replaced. They only know that she comes back changed, with a dowry and an unwillingness to stick around.

Agnieszka to everyone’s surprise is chosen over her friend Kasia who is perfect in every way as opposed to Agnieszka whose chief skill seems to be attracting dirt and tearing her clothes. But the Dragon sees her capability for magic. Unfortunately it is only later that he realises her capacity for exasperating him, assaulting his aesthetics and throwing his life totally out of gear. And so the story goes…the evil wood that wants to destroy the entire kingdom being held back, Agnieszka coming into her powers and her friend Kasia playing a prominent role. She, surprisingly, does not disappear from the story despite not being the ‘chosen one’.

PS: If a cover can tell the story, this cover can. It is a book that definitely should be judged by its cover which provides the requisite atmosphere. The main character Agnieszka is strong minded, loyal, obstinate and full of magic.

LL: Our kind of person!

PS: Except for her grubbiness, which is just annoying! The Dragon reminds me a bit of Diana Wynn Jones’s Howl. There is an image built by his aloofness and fed by rumours of possible evil and general scariness when he is only peevish and full of himself. Not to mention his liking for clothes and flamboyance.

LL: The story builds nicely and has strong female characters but for me it was an unexpected choice to win the Nebula Award 2015.

PS: Even Fantasy Faction voted it as the best book of 2015. The main reason I liked it is that it is stand-alone novel. I am fed up of trilogies and series of ten. I did not understand all the references to Eastern European myth but despite that Uprooted was unusual and enjoyable.

 

 

 

 

A Book that is an Ode

An ode to books but it is also so much more. Among Others by Jo Walton is a story that connects to all who love books but has even more of an appeal for those who submerge themselves in Science Fiction and Fantasy. That may make it sound like it is a nerdy book but it is also poignant in its exploration of grief and managing beyond loss, that too by a fifteen year old girl.
Set in the late 1970’s, the story is about a girl who, though brought up by her mother’s family in Wales is sent to a boarding school in England by her father after her twin sister dies. Written in the first person, Morwenna’s attempts to live a life after what she thinks is the end of the story, sort of like after Frodo has come back to the Shire at the end of Lord of the Rights. Her search for continuation through books is something many readers would identify with at some time or the other.

PS: Morwenna’s matter of fact acceptance of the existence of magic in the world juxtaposed with the science fiction that she reads is an interesting combination. And I really liked the way she connects everything back to the books she has read. The fairy/elves she see around her makes her certain that Tolkien too must have experienced them.
LL: She thinks even Shakespeare must have been able to see them in order to have written A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But I like the way after watching the Tempest she is convinced that if Prospero had not destroyed his books and stuff when returning to civilization, he would have turned into Saruman.
PS: That’s just it, the connecting of Shakespeare to Tolkien and many other similar cross references is reassuring for other readers whose thought processes are not limited to the physical world around them.
LL: The importance of books, reading and learning is celebrated through the eyes of a girl who discovers the possibilities of interlibrary loans for the first time in her life.
PS: The book is also a celebration of libraries and librarians. Morwenna a lonely outsider in her school spending time with books is befriended by two librarians. And though this association joins the science fiction book club at the local library and finds others like her who think that people’s opinion of Heinlein is more a matter of concern than their misdeeds.
LL: It is also a book about power and the responsible use of it. Morwenna’s mother after all is like the ultimate wicked witch and Morwenna herself uses power occasionally but is always concerned about the unintentional effect it might have on those around her.
PS: A book for all readers to read. But we probably felt such an affinity with it because the ideas in the book so neatly cover the words present in our Tags list for this Blog!

Epicly Satisfying

A world, a wall, a hero, a sword, a helm and a shattered shield. The stuff of epic fantasy in a truly traditional style. But is it? Helen Lowe’s Wall of Night series comprising of Heir of Night, The Gathering of the Lost and the latest instalment, Daughter of Blood have all the necessary ingredients but woven into a wonderfully complex and surprising tapestry of characters and events. The Derai are a race who have settled on the world of Haarth, after an inter-planetary struggle with their traditional enemy, the Swarm. The nine houses of the Derai hold the Swarm back by guarding the Wall of Night and thereby protecting the rest of the planet and its indigenous population from it. And of course there is a prophecy about a hero who will unite the Derai and ultimately destroy the Swarm.

LL: The story has so many facets to it that you need to read it over and over again.
PS: But the good thing is that you don’t get bored of doing that. The complexity keeps you engaged. I am amazed at how Helen Lowe has managed so many layers in the books. And yet it is not just the story but also the language and descriptions which are almost lyrical.
LL: At first glance it may seem like a typical good versus evil story but after a while you start questioning whether there is any such thing as evil and that ultimately it is a question of survival and the hard decisions you need to take.
PS: But the heroes stay true to their nature. What I really liked about the books is that so many of the warriors and heroes, including the protagonist, Malian, are women and that Derai society, although bigoted in other ways, doesn’t prescribe separate roles for women.
LL: The Commander of the House of Night is one of the coolest characters ever written and she is a woman.
PS: So is the legendary hero with the unpronounceable name, who, though dead, keeps popping in to talk to Malian once in a while. It is her helm, sword and shield which Malian must find in order to fight the Swarm effectively.
LL: I know it is fashionable to compare books with other more popular series but I think it is unfair to compare Wall of Night with Game of Thrones as some people have done. Despite the presence of so many characters in GRR Martin’s book, Helen Lowe has written a more subtle and surprising series which isn’t just about sudden deaths and blood and gore.
PS: It truly is epic storytelling and doesn’t look to scandals and shocks to hold up the reader’s interest.
LL: Although there is going to be one more book in the series, at no time in the Daughter of Blood does the reader feel the middle book or penultimate book syndrome. At all times the book retains the pace and continues to hold interest.
PS: I just wish there was more of Malian in the third book. Although there are so many things that have been explained, in the explaining, the reader has been left with more questions. That, I suppose, is the true mark of a gripping series but I do not like the idea of waiting to find out.
LL: I don’t know if I can wait for another two years for The Chaos Gate to be published. I don’t think I am going to ever again start an ongoing series. It is not good for my health. I am so glad I read Lord of the Rings when all three books had been published!

So here are the questions we have to live with while waiting for the last book (spoiler alert)
1. Who named Malian?
2. Is the next book going to jump seven years so that Faro can come back and claim his inheritance?
3. There is some mystery behind Asantir, what is it? You can’t be so cool and just be a supporting character.
4. Is the shield not going to be remade?
5. Can Raven/Aravenor just be a supporting character?
6. Is Taly really Kalan’s sister?
7. Why does Tirael feel an affinity with Kalan?
8. Will Kalan manage to free Myrathis?
9. What form will the Golden Fire take?
10. What role will the rest of Haarth play?
11. Will the Heralds join the fight again?
12. We really, really hope that Malian and Kalan survive.

What strikes the reader through the books is Helen Lowe’s ability to simply and yet appealingly describe the natural world: the countryside, the woodlands, the hoot of the owl, the march of the stars across the night sky, the song of the earth. We wondered if that is because she is from New Zealand and therefore in some ways more connected with nature. Had she lived in Bangalore it is more likely she would have ended up describing traffic, traffic, noise and pollution.

As is evident, we are quite caught up in the series. Most fantasy these days depends on blood and gore and sex in order to stand out but Helen Lowe has written a series about people who, despite being flawed, want to do the right thing. In a world where there is power and maybe even the planet is sentient, the true magic comes from the dignity displayed by the characters who are willing to live and act for a larger purpose.