A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

I’ve not been writing a whole lot of reviews outside LibraryThing Early Reviews lately and I loved this book series so much I figured it was a good time to write a non-LT review. I’m going to try to do equal amounts each month (so if I get two books from LTER, then two other reviews, too) from now on, but it all depends on how busy I am! I’ve had a lot going on and life always seems to be excellently good at getting busier.

So, onto the first book of the Lady Trent memoirs. I picked up this book for a multitude of reasons. Dragons, of course, were very high on the list of reasons, as basically NOTHING can match my love for dragons. The appeal of a female scientist main character held no small motivation for reading, as well. Also high on the list for reasons to read, this book was recommended by my best friend and an author I highly respect both gave high praise to the series. I’d been meaning to read it (my TBR is almost 900 books and counting), but those two recommendations were finally what pushed me over the edge. And let me tell you: the fall was worth EVERY SECOND.

Lady Isabella Trent is a PHENOMENAL woman of great sense and curiosity. I love that these books are written as memoirs from an older age, rather than journals written at the time. This allows for a good deal of perspective, delightful world building outside the events of the books (I LONG for some of the other works referenced by the narrator and would gladly pay Marie Brennan a comfortable wage to write them, had I the means), and simply GLORIOUS parentheticals peppered throughout the manuscript. And when I say glorious, I mean GLOR.I.OUS. Zounds, but Brennan can write a parenthetical. The narrative voice is business-like, practical, and descriptive without being overly embellished. I have rarely had such a lovely time in the head of a character. I think this is because the narrator spends so very little time on regrets, angst, or even celebration. She acknowledges them when appropriate, but the point of these memoirs are, ultimately, a true account of a life, not an emotional or needlessly nostalgic narrative, certainly never a maudlin one. I LOVE it.

The other characters are, of course, perceived through the lens of Isabella’s perspective, so that does limit our concept of them, but that does not prevent us from seeing growth. Often, the growth is in Isabella’s perception of the characters, which I find very true to life. She starts out seeing many characters less than complexly, and they all occur to her as more complicated than she initially assumes at different paces. I like that flawed, first-person perspective. Two particular relationships I enjoyed seeing come to a certain equilibrium were those of Lady Trent and Tom Wilker and Lady Trent and the local lady who serves as her handmaid on the expedition. The relationship between Isabella and her husband is especially tender and a joy to watch develop from a marriage of social respectability to one of friendship, love, and deep respect.

The Lady Trent memoirs are what the author describes as a 1.5 alternate history – that is to say, the names of countries and political relationships are distinct from our world, but the world does absolutely have analogs in this world. I’ll admit, that took some getting used to, as I kept having “ah-ha!” moments when I would make a connection. Perhaps more distracting were the times I would look at a word or a cultural system and think, “Really? Does the author think another world would have developed a nearly identical system/name?” It took me some time to accept the world for what it was: a close-but-not-quite sibling to ours.

I was delighted to discover the predominant religion in this book to be more like Judaism than Christianity. It was refreshing to see a difference in narrative. So often, fictional religions are similar to Christianity or the Greek pantheon – I like the change. I was a bit disappointed we didn’t see more of the religion, but as none of the main characters were particularly religious, it didn’t really suit the narrative. Perhaps that is another flaw I see in the book: the agnostic, culturally religious, and non-religious are all well represented, but the only truly religious characters are less present, or dismissed with impatience by the main characters who have little time for faith. I feel as if that is somewhere where the author could grow in future books.

I found the pacing of the plot very . . . efficient, I think is the best word for it. This first book covers a young woman’s scientific awakening, her marriage, and her first expedition. That is a LOT of ground to cover. Thankfully, Lady Trent’s no nonsense narration deals with this very neatly: what was important in the formative years, courtship, and early marriage were covered just enough to give a sense of events without dawdling. However, this did make the jump from overviews and summaries to a detailed (though just as efficient and practical) account of the expedition a little less than smooth.

As for the dragons, well, I want more of them. I’m used to the sentient dragons of fantasy, and these dragons were solely animals. That being said, the science Brennan spent the book setting up was absolutely fascinating. I am VERY excited to see how it develops. The references to the changes in scientific and cultural thought about dragons in the time since the events of the book and the time of its writing are tantalizing without being too distracting. The distraction that does come is one of anticipation, not frustration (although one might argue anticipation is an exercise in a certain, almost pleasurable, frustration). Specifically, I am DYING to hear about the taxonomic changes.

Because of said scientific observations and bases of the manuscript, I do have a bit of trouble classifying it as fantasy (which most would assume would be the classification for a book about dragons). I finally settled on Speculative Fiction as my classification, which I generally use when there’s simply too much science and too much fantasy for a book to be one or the other, or when dealing with alternate futures and histories. All of those seemed to be present in this book. Your mileage may vary, but do not go into this book expecting what is generally expected of a fantasy about dragons. This is a splendidly different sort of take.

Ultimately, I was more than pleased with this series debut. In fact, I was positively tickled. I rushed out to buy the next two books and have happily devoured them since. I highly recommend this series to a budding scientist with an active imagination.

A (amazing series launch, truly distinct narrative voice, glorious parentheticals, enjoyable main character, side characters well-developed, science of dragons fascinaating; somewhat distracting world similarities and differences, rough transition from broad overview to detailed accounts)

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What I’m Backing: MisSpelled by Lindsey McDowell (et all)

Okay, so there were only supposed to be two of these this week, and then a project in its last legs was brought to my attention and oh my gosh, this needs to happen. Yesterday.

MisSpelled: A Fantastical Witchy Web Series already has four episodes (plus a prologue) and a lot of bonus content from the creators and actors on their channel. But, now they need funding for the rest of season one. It’s a webseries about five new witches who just got their powers, who don’t know what to do, and who are just trying to figure life out, much less this whole magic thing. All of them are women, of varying shapes, sizes and temperments, and ALL of these women are women of color.

Let me tell you why that’s important to me: because I want to imagine my world more complexly.

So often, especially in fantasy, we see a white-washed world in our entertainment. We see a pseudo-medieval white dude world that isn’t actually an historically accurate reflection of anything (and what’s with historical accuracy in fantasy/fiction in general anyway), and that has bled into modern fantasy. It’s pervasive and poisonous. Women have always been there, at home and in combat, and so have peoples of many colors.

And I’m tired of my media making these people invisible.

So, I’ve made a conscious decision to seek out the media that popular media ISN’T showing me. And MisSpelled is a start. I love web-series, I love the platform, I love how the narrative is differently shaped. I’ve supported them in the past and will do so again. This is what I want to be watching, not just because it’s a world that reflects the true complexity of the world I live in, but also because it’s the kind of media I like. (I’m also SUPER hoping there are characters that aren’t straight in this narrative because THAT WOULD BE AMAZING. And because I bet they could do it.)

The prologue and the first four episodes show several different types, personalities, and shapes of women. I love that. I love seeing more than the sassy best friend or the love-lorn girl or the ditz or the book worm as the ONLY. FEMALE. CHARACTER. Heck, I love it because, while some of the characters have SHADES of those tropes, they aren’t trope-tastic. These women are reluctant and eager, funny and boring, shy and assertive. They are MORE than their femaleness or their coloredness or their magicness. And so help me, THIS is the standard I want ALL my entertainment to achieve: to imagine a world wherein people are people and the window dressing that makes the person up CONTRIBUTES but does not DEFINE so utterly that the person gets lost.

This project is awesome.

But there’s a problem: It’s nowhere near funding. Here’s where we get to the stats*, and it’s a bit depressing:

  • Goal: $75,000
  • Funding Status: partially funded; ~12%
  • Total Backers: 360+
  • Interesting Stretch Goals: None announced.
  • When Did I Jump In: About six days before closing.

As many of you know, I am VERY proud of the fact that I have never backed a project that has failed to fund. It’s not because I’m risk averse. I’m just very lucky. I mentioned in one of my write-ups last week, that streak may come to an end. This project ends sooner and, let me tell you, I would be honored if this project is the one that broke my perfect streak. I hope it does not, but this project is SO WORTH the effort to me, even if the effort ends up being in vain.

MisSpelled is an awesome step in the right direction. It helps me imagine my world more complexly**, which is vital to creating more complex art of my own, as well as treating people better in my day to day life. It’s entertainment that breaks down damaging assumptions and stereotypes. It is fantasy that actively promotes a better reality.

I dearly hope it comes to life – if not now, soon. Because the world needs stories like this. Now.

*As of posting, 9/23 at 12:00 Mountain Time

**Thank you to the Vlogbrothers for this phrase. It’s become a short-hand reminder for myself to do better at a LOT of things.

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Terrible, horrible, ugly weeds: Reading for (not-so) fun.

I recently discovered that I had missed discovering a series dedicated to re-writing faerie tales.  It was called, obviously enough, Once Upon a Time.  I was shocked and felt like I wasn’t doing my job (self assigned though it may have been) of keeping up on YA/Children’s lit, especially that concerning faerie tales.

Now that I’m about halfway through the series (there are 19 books so far, I can’t tell if they’re done or not as it’s more of a thematic series than a plot series), I’m seriously regretting my decision to read it.  Unfortunately, I’m not regretting the decision enough to stop.  Why?  Because the series has some redeeming factors.  I think I’ll talk about them first, because I do have something of an impressive rant to follow.

Once Upon a Time seeks to redefine the context of faerie tales into something that’s more relatable.  The magic is still there, the fantastic is still–in the main–kept alive and well in these tales, but they’re put in contexts that modern teens can better understand.  One story (“Rumpelstiltskin”) is set in the late 1800’s and the poor farmer’s daughter is recast as the daughter of an Irish immigrant fleeing the potato famine.  Another (“The Frog Prince”) is set mid-World War I.  There’s even a post-Camelot (and yes, Camelot counts as semi-historical) retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.”

However, the re-contextualizations I found myself enjoying most were not the historical ones, but the political ones.  Violet Eyes, which takes on “The Princess and the Pea,” sets up the purpose of the ridiculous tests of a “true princess” as a way NOT to offend every neighboring kingdom.  In this version, the current monarchy is first generation, choosing a wife for their son means picking the first of their alliances.  The tests were an arbitrary way to pick that alliance and to sidestep the ready-to-explode political bomb as well as pick a wife with a good character and an honest spirit.  The “Jack and the Beanstalk” novel includes a coup and Robin Hood sewn seamlessly together (AWESOME!!!!!).

If these had been the only elements of this series, I would recommend it left and right.  As it stands, I whole-heartedly stand behind my first assessment, which I recently offered to a friend: NEVER read this series.  Yes, I am writing a Weeds Review of an entire series as a warning.  Because it is of a series with multiple authors, I’m going to have to break my rule about providing the long passage of writing and just hope what I detail gives you a good enough idea of style.

Where Once Upon a Time succeeds, it does fairly well.  Certainly well enough for me to support it in the endeavor to re-introduce faerie tales to mainstream literature.  However, there are some things it does not do well.

ONE: Some of the novels are based on historical figures.  This is lazy.  There are plenty of faerie tales left out there.  What about the oft-neglected Tam Lin!? Anastasia Romanov is not a faerie tale character, neither is Hua Mulan, though I will give that they have been semi-mythologized.  This is insulting, not only to the original countries and cultures from which these real people stem, but also to the readers who are reading faerie tales and then must suddenly divorce fiction from fact.  If the reader knows better, this is merely annoying.  If they don’t, this is BAD.

TWO: After putting all this work and care into re-contextualizing the faerie tales, some of the stories are just lengthened versions of the tale.  The authors got lazy, again.  They didn’t feel like finding a historical or political setting.  They just went and did.  Thppppp on you.

THREE: This is my major complaint.  These books perpetuate what I consider to be the one, and only, damaging faerie tale out there: love at first sight.  It isn’t real, it doesn’t exist and training teenage girls to expect it out of every day romance is about the worst thing a book–which is supposed to be a wonderful source for escape, yes, but also a source for learning about life–can do.

Now, my little brother points out that just because I haven’t run across love at first sight doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist (this is the same little brother who recommended Heart of Darkness, he’s so good for me).  Granted.  That’s not the only reason I think love at first sight doesn’t–and can’t–exist, but I will admit to it being a decent part of my thinking (maybe 40%).  Even so, should I consider that forty percent of my conviction to be on shaky ground because my personal experience isn’t all-encompassing, the alarming frequency (sometimes three couples in one book!) with which love at first sight occurs in these books is still damaging to the target audience.  Teens, please forgive me for this, but teens are still at the stage where they are learning what to expect from life by what they are told in movies, literature, magazines, etc.  Is this wrong?  Yes!  Entirely!  Doesn’t mean it’s not true.  And, if they are told by the books that they read that love at first sight not only happens but happens so often that every hero and heroine across ages, countries, statuses, political situations, and economic levels can expect it to happen at some point in his or her life, the message is still HORRIFICALLY WRONG.

So why am I still reading this series?  I don’t know.  Part of me recognizes the redeeming factors, even rejoices in them.  While love at first sight is most out of control in “Jack and the Beanstalk,” that is also one of the best developed political situations.  Some of the characters are good!  Some are horrible stereotypes.  The romances are chaste, which is another big benefit.  I think too many authors try to make teens adults too early.  I suppose I continue to read to try to weigh it out.  The scales currently hang in balance.  They have to tip soon.

Reasons why I chose this book series above all others:

  • It’s caused a lot of conflict in me–that’s good, right?
  • I worry about this one and DON’T want a friend of mine recommending it to a teen they know.
  • I do respect the re-contextualizing that’s being done and think the authors deserve recognition for what they are doing.
  • I want to explain all my tweet rants about love at first sight from the past couple weeks.
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College for kids.

I know, I know, it happened again.  I read a book and didn’t review it on time.  The good news is, I read it on time.  The better news is, I haven’t been avoiding the book because I don’t like it.  I just felt very anti-internets last weeks and there you have it: no blog.

The Fire Within by Chris D’Lacey is a fun book.  One of the reasons it is so very fun is that it’s targeted at ten and eleven year-old boys, but the main character is a college aged.  The only ten year-old is a girl.   It’s absolutely fantastic.

It was several years ago that The Fire Within caught my eye.  It couldn’t have been too long after the third book came out.  I don’t think the second book was even in paperback in the US yet (the author is British and let me tell you it takes ten kinds of forever for his books to get over here–grumpgrumpgrump).  I don’t know why this is important to tell you, but it is.  I read the first book and was impressed by the fact that the author made the main character twice the age as the target audience and at such a different stage of life than you’d expect.  Also, when I went on to the second and third books there were some seriously existential discussions in the text.  Of course, this bumped up the target age to thirteen or fourteen (writing was still at a ten to eleven level, but comprehension is what bumped it), but I appreciated that the author wasn’t afraid to treat his readers as intelligent beings.  Some eleven year-olds will be able to follow those discussions and that makes this a great series to consider.  I very much enjoy series that sit on the cusp of an age group.  It does make it difficult to recommend in some ways (well, the writing is a bit young for you but the content is just right vs the writing is right up your alley, but the content might be a bit over your head), but it also gives a chance for a reader to stretch or relax.  These are great books to have around!

I took it in an attempt to find a different sort of dragon book.  I was tired of the same old Anne McCaffrey books (though I love them) and Christopher Paolini gets boring fast.  I had read the Dragon’s Milk series half a dozen times (has anyone else read those?) and as sweet as the My Father’s Dragon series is, it’s not really very dragony.  It was time for something new.  Something different.  The Fire Within is certainly that.

Dragons are not a given in The Fire Within.  They appear to be statues created by the main character’s landlord, Liz.  Her eccentricity, if you will.  David, the college kid/main character, finds it strange, but charming.  He finds Liz’s squirrel-obsessed daughter, Lucy, much more interesting, and less of a mystery.  A friendship that Liz half-approves of, half-disapproves buds between the two “kids.”  It’s pretty adorable.

When I first read this book, I was exactly what the target audience wasn’t supposed to be: I was a twenty year-old female.  It was fun being David’s age and reading the book through the age of his eyes, but with many of Lucy’s emotions.  Reading the book this time around, I felt a lot more like Liz.  David and Lucy get into the most ridiculous shenanigans caused in part by her impatience, his too-rational nature, and an unhealthy desire for secrecy.  Bringing in Liz on everything would have been a much better idea, but I suppose that’s how everyone feels about their parents at one point or another.  And who wants to ask their landlord for help?  I certainly never did!

So, I suppose one of the things I like best is that this book can reach out to so many: boys, girls, young, old, somewhere in between.  It’s not so much about dragons this first time around, but it is enough about dragons to bring the reader back for the next book, which really jumps into the created dragon lore that D’Lacey works so hard on.  I’m very impressed with it, even if I don’t always love it.  It can get pretty out there some days.  And choosing a connection between bears and dragons has–so far as I can find–no mythological precedent.  It’s a bit radical for this stodgy mythologist, but it’s good.  I’ll give him that.

So far as the prose goes, I have to give a hats off to the editor who made this book America-ready!  THANK YOU for not taking out the colloquial British phrases!  I love it that those stayed in.  Children need to get used to deciphering meaning through context and these words are fun to do that with!  “Wuzzled off” is a wonderful phrase for dying.  Wish there was something so good on this side of the Pond.  Props to D’Lacey, too, for using language easy enough to determine via context so that the editor felt he COULD leave it alone.

One of my favorite scenes, stylistically, was one of dragon scenes (no surprise there).  It was the first time David actually communed with his dragon, Gadzooks.  Liz makes special dragons for certain people and Gadzooks was what occurred to her for David.  Gadzooks is a writing dragon (as if there were any doubt I’d like this book, this sealed it).  David finally suspends disbelief and communicates with Gadzooks in that special place in his heart and mind where Gadzooks is not only real, but alive:

Lucy, undeterred, had one last option.  “Can Gadzooks have a try [naming the squirrel]?”

“Pardon?” said David.

“Ask him,” said Lucy.

“How?” said the tenant, looking bemused.

Lucy paddled her feet. “Dream it,” she breathed.

What?” said David.

“Mom, make him do it.”

“I’m cooking sausages, Lucy.”

“Oh, Mom.  Please.”

“Do what?” said David.

Lucy threw herself into the chair beside him. “It’s Mom’s special way of telling stories.  You have to join in and tell what you see.  Then the story really comes alive.  Things happen, things you don’t expect.  Oh, Mom, make him do it.”

Liz sighed and gave in: “David, close your eyes and picture Gadzooks.”

He looked at her askance.  “You’re not serious?”

“I thirty seconds, your dinner will be burned.”

“That’s serious,” said David.  He closed his eyes.  “OK.  He’s on his windowsill, looking out over the garden.  I think he’s wondering if it’s going to rain.”

“No,” said Liz, “he’s biting his pencil, deep in thought, trying hard to thing of a name for you squirrel.  Dream it, David.”

David rocked in his chair and let his mind float. “He flipped a page of his notepad over.”

“Hhh!” gasped Lucy.  “It’s working, Mom!”

“Shush,” went Liz.

“He’s writing something.”

“What?” gasped Lucy, too excited to be shushed.  David let his imagination flow.  To his amazement, he watched Gadzooks take his pencil from his jaws and hurriedly scribble down a name on his pad.

SNIGGER

David’s eyebrows twitched in surprise. Liz prodded a sausage or two with a for.  Lucy bit a fingernail.  Bonnington yawned.  The whole Pennykettle household waited for an answer.

“Snigger,” David whispered.

From somewhere came a gentle hrring noise.

David’s dark blue eyes blinked open. “Yes,” he said, “his name is Snigger.”

I wish you could see what the publishing company did with the font for Gadzooks’ writing.  Even visually that scene was compelling.  I love how that was a step-by-step journey into the part of David that was the writer, the part he had been refusing to acknowledge until now.  Yes, Gadzooks is alive in this book, but he is alive because of the creative part of David that David had nearly killed with over rationalization.

Please don’t think I’m one of those crazy “art over science” people.  I advocate balance.  I think that the science and the arts have to work in tandem and one of the things I respect so much about D’Lacey is that he manages to split that balance so very well in this and his other books.  You don’t have to give up one to have the other.

This book is not what I’d call typical YA lit.  It takes a special kid for me to recommend it.  I like it because it pushes the boundaries of expectations.  These books treat kids intelligently, and I am a big fan of that.  I hope to do so well in my ventures into YA lit.

Why this book was challenging for me:

  • Even upon second (or third) reading, it goes way against my YA expectations.
  • There are so many different perspectives in the novel to see it from.
  • It’s designed to make you ask questions and think, which I still do second (or third) time around.
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Few more wicked than those who do nothing.

This past week’s book (I feel like I’m always saying that, how annoying) was The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff.  Be forewarned, there will be no quotes in this review as I returned the book to the library.  Sorry.  Honestly, there weren’t any quotes I could really think of that needed to be in the review as it was.  I’m sure, mid-review, I’ll regret that.  Oh well, no use crying over split milk, as it were.

This book was one of the first books recommended to me when I started this project.  My younger sister had just read it and said that it had an interesting treatment of the Fae in it.  So, I reserved it at the library back in mid-January.  It arrived just this past week.  Yes, that many people had it out on hold and were taking their sweet time reading it.  I hate waiting for things through the library.  I fully expect to be thirty before getting my grubby paws on the newest Brandon Mull book, which also is supposed to make an appearance on this blog.

Despite the delay in getting the book, my desire to read it had not been cooled, so I launched into it last Friday, determined to have it done as quickly as possible so I could catch up with the ridiculousness that is how behind I’ve gotten in my blogging (what can I say, my life never seems to slow down).  Well, I did finish it that night, but by the time I had, I did not feel up to reviewing any book, much less the one I had not had the time to sort through my feelings on.

Having had the chance to sort for a bit, I’m delighted to say that I’ve accomplished something: I’m only four days late on writing a review for a book that I didn’t like a lot!  That’s a significant improvement over the one to three weeks of the last couple times!

Now, as to why I did not like this book:  The writing felt pretty stilted.  That’s not to say that the subject matter and tone didn’t warrant an abnormal writing pace/style, but The Replacement didn’t just feel off, it felt off-kilter.  Something wasn’t connected about the writing.  I will admit, I may have been biased in this regard.  When my sister recommended this book to me, I went and read up on it a bit on Amazon.com and read an interview with the author.  She described her writing process, which includes writing down the “right” words with ellipses in between where there were words to be filled in.  I instinctively balked at the idea, but almost immediately admitted that each author did things very differently.  This is clearly what worked for Yovanoff.  However, I don’t feel like it worked for me and I suspect I wouldn’t have noticed the jilty flow to her writing as much had I not known about the way she went about it beforehand.

I did appreciate that, though this book is clearly teen fiction, she didn’t treat teens as hormone-controlled (borderline addicts) monsters who do nothing but drink and swear.  When the kids swore, I felt that the swearing was justified nine times out of ten from the emotions of the scene.  The recreational drug use (mostly, if not exclusively, alcohol) wasn’t brushed off as healthy, but neither was it made a big deal of.  Teens drink.  A lot.  That’s how it goes.  Do I like it?  No. Does ignoring it/not writing about it make it go away?  Not in the least bit.

Of course, I can’t talk about this book without getting on my sex soapbox.  But this time, it’s a really happy time on the soapbox!  Sexuality was treated with a healthy dose of humor.  Hallelujah!  I suppose what I so dearly hate about “adult” novels and their treatment of sex is how humorless it is, besides being unnecessary most often.  Sure, are there times when sexual scenes are a good idea in a narrative?  Yup!  I felt like Yovanoff found one of them: both her characters were desperate to feel alive and wanted and they did so by finding each other.  But the book also treated sex as something to laugh at.  As someone who recently graduated from college, this is how sex was treated by my friends all through school (and yes, that means through a good deal of elementary school as well).  The act of having sex itself is serious decision and we young people make it so much less intimidating by poking fun.  I feel, in many ways, this is actually more mature.  To realize that even the most serious of things cannot be taken too seriously or problems arise.  Also, there’s no way to survive Sex Ed without humor.  It’s either that or be scarred for the rest of your life.  Boils down to this: FINALLY!  A book that deals with sex in what I feel to be the “mature” way!

Now, onto the thing I did like, quite a bit: the villains!! >) *MUAHHAHAHAHAH!!!!*

Before I get into the book’s villains, I have a generic question:  Why is it that it seems the villains always get the best lines/songs/theme music/personality quirks/physical features/sidekicks/powers/etc.?  Seriously!  I’m not complaining, but I am wondering.  As an aspiring writer, I do know how fun/challenging it is to take myself there.  Two of my favorite characters are Vouivre and Jason Stern, and they’re only my favorites because of how fun it is to write them.  Vouivre because of her warped obsessiveness and Jason Stern because he just doesn’t give two hoots and a holler what other people think or what he says.  But these two aren’t very hard to write, just fun.  The hard villains to write–like the prison guards in a piece set in Nazi Germany–those are the more rewarding villains.  I had to write those with a certain playlist blasting in my skull, or it came out horrifically wrong.  As it was, the scenes came out only okay.  But they were definitely the scenes I put the most work in to and despite the quality, it showed.

So why is this, I ask?  I want to know!  Because this same thing seemed to happen in The Replacement.  I felt, very distinctly, that the Lady and the Morrigan (the two villains) were easily the best written characters of the bunch.  I wish this much effort had been put in to the main character!

The Lady is easily the most identifiable villain.  She’s downright evil.  She sacrifices children every seven years because she likes to.  Not because she has to, but because she likes it.  And, to make it worse, she could use the children of her community, but she uses the children of the town to keep them cowed.  She’ll also cause catastrophic “accidents” when she feels like the town doesn’t believe enough in the Fae (which is just a name I’ve given them, as she and the Morrigan prefer their race not be names, as naming takes away some of their power–it defines them too much (I have a feeling Yovanoff likes LeGuin, which is awesome)).  To add insult to injury, sometimes, in the middle of these seven years, the Lady will take a child as a pet, because it is beautiful.  The Lady keeps a servant who is a sadist, a masochist, and more than a little bit off his rocker as her personal torturer.  She is the nightmare of every sane child and a few insane ones.

The Morrigan can stop things and doesn’t.

You tell me, who is more evil?

Ultimately, if you’re a fan of the creepifying, I’d say give this book a whack.  You might like it, you might not.  I feel like the teen interactions are genuine and the magic isn’t so over the top that The Replacement feels like it’s set in a different world.  I didn’t really like the book, but I don’t feel like I wasted my time either.

Why this book was challenging for me:

  • The writing style was way off what I expected.
  • The true villain isn’t apparent at all.
  • The concept of naming as power.
  • The blood sacrifice vs love/adoration struggle.

Signed and sealed, and witnessed, and attested.

The White Deer by James Thurber is a treat to read.  There’s something about his simple ridiculousness that frees the soul to enjoy any strange thing he has to offer.  I love it.

As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, I grew up on another of Thurber’s books.  That book informed my future in ways I’m not even sure I know the full extent of.  I discovered this book, which was written five years before The 13 Clocks, much later.  I was seventeen and about to go to college.  I quickly ran about the house, wondering why this book hadn’t taken it’s rightful place alongside The 13 Clocks.  In response, I got a resounding, “Meh.”

It was then that I confiscated this book from the unworthy library that housed it and put it in my library, where it would be appreciated.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t appreciate The White Deer for long before I went to college where the options were to let the book gather dust in my bookshelves where it would be isolated or let it gather dust in the family bookshelves where it would be under-appreciated, but visible.  It occurs to me now that I could have taken it with me to college and no one would have missed it, but I felt bad about completely stealing the book from my family (even if they didn’t really want it).

Soon after arriving at college, I discovered two things: Amazon.com has out-0f-print books for sale and I missed a certain three books (The Maze in the Heart of the Castle by Dorothy Gilman being one and the two Thurbers being the others) far more than I cared to admit.  So I hopped on Amazon and bought my own copy of each book.  Since then, I have refused to move anywhere without those three books, plus The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster (and many’s the time they’ve come on vacation, too).  They are my lifelines to reality.

So what does this have to do with reviewing the book?  I suppose I wanted to share a bit of it’s power–after all, I was an “adult” when I realized I couldn’t live without it.  The White Deer, for all it’s quixotic silliness, is a book that I find I appreciate more as an adult than I ever could have as a child, or even as I did as a young(er) adult just going to college.

The title for this blog comes from the very last line.  The full quote (no spoilers, promise) is this:

I find no cause to doubt the [scroll’s account], for it is signed and sealed, and witnessed, and attested.

Considering that the Royal Scribe ran around the entire book claiming the magic that made the princess a deer couldn’t exist because a record of it didn’t exist, this little nod to the pedants of triplicate seems the perfect ending to this fractured faerie tale.  After all, could we really believe the account of some magic that was never properly recorded if the effects of it weren’t at least appropriately witnessed (in triplicate)?

I mentioned in my mid-book review of Saturday (posted yesterday due to an ID-10T error), this book has a vague Arthurian connection.  The witch who cast the spell is named Nagrom Yaf.  Spelled backwards, this is Fay Morgan.  Once I figured that out, which took an embarrassing amount of times, it intrigued me that Thurber used the witch from Arthurian tales.  I’ve never taken the time to really sit and think how this tale related or whether this was the one reference in the entire book.  So, that was my goal this time around.

What I found:

  • The tales of the brothers’ quests (Thag, Jorn, and Gallow) are set up in the middle of The White Deer very much like the knight’s quests are set up in Le Morte D’Arthur by Malory.  This is awesome!
  • The magical characters that inhibit these quests are men, rather than women, following the backwards (or opposite, if you like) pattern set up by Thurber with Nagrom Yaf.
  • King Clode (the father) has a round table of sons and servants, and–excepting his son, Jorn–they are inept bumblers.  It was quite the opposite with the knights: Arthur’s knights well trained and good men, his (illegitimate) son was the epitome of ineptitude.
  • Addressing the romancing of Guenivere (here the deer/princess), the danger was in the relationship for Arthur.  In The White Deer, the danger lay in NOT making the relationship happen.
  • The court magician is one of paltry tricks, not a sage advisor.  The sage advisor is a dwarf named Quondo (Italian for “when,” which proves to be particularly apt), who is neither purposeful in his advice, nor is he asked for it.  Also, he doesn’t disappear mid-story.  A very anti-Merlin.
  • There is a distinct separation of kingdoms with almost a friendly enmity to it–none of this unite or suffer the consequences stuff.
  • All the quests were for objects that were supposed to have value, but turned out to be falsely elevated.  I suppose the easiest way to put it is: the quests’ objectives were obtainable.

I’m sure there are more, but these are what occurred to me while reading this time around.  It seems to me that Thurber was trying to write a “what if Arthur hadn’t been so noble after all” tale.  Frankly, things turned out astonishingly well for this Anti-Arthur.  Maybe the hero should have left well enough alone.  It’s a thought.

I also mentioned in my mid-book review that the prose of Thurber was another reason I was so attracted to the book.  Once again, the rhythm of it is so incredibly melodious that it seems to jump off the page and whirl around you.  Since I’ve already introduced you to the book with the end, it seems only fitting that I should end with the beginning:

If you should walk and wind and wander far enough on one of those afternoons in April when smoke goes down instead of up, and nearby things sound far away and far things near, you are more than likely to come at last to the enchanted forest that lies between the Moonstone Mines and Centaurs Mountain.  You’ll know the woods when you are still a long way off by virtue of a fragrance you can never quite forget and never quite remember.  And there’ll be a distant bell that causes boys to run and laugh and girls to stand and tremble.  If you pluck one of the ten thousand toadstools that grow in the emerald grass at the edge of the wonderful woods, it will feel as heavy as a hammer in your hand, but if you let it go it will sail away over the trees like a tiny parachute, trailing black and purple stars.

There’s even a tale, first told by minstrels in the medieval time, that rabbits here can tip their heads as men now tip their hats, removing them with their paws and putting them back again.

I fully confess to looking for smoke that goes down every April.  Oh how I hope one day to find that enchanted forest somewhere.  Somewhere.

____________

Reasons this is challenging for me:

  • There are so many little clues about characters that I’m still discovering (ex: It was only this time around that I connected Quondo the character with the meaning of his name).
  • The book requires multiple looks and a not a few reviews of my studies to understand it’s frame as an Anti-Arthur tale (and I’m sure I haven’t found them all).

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Mid-Book: And then there are the days I feel stupid.

When I read The 13 Clocks a few weeks ago, I immediately got a hankering for The White Deer, James Thurber’s other brilliant children’s novel.

I remember when I first read this novel.  Thurber was still illustrating (they’re so charming!) and it was as whimsical as Clocks without being tiresome or repetitive.  It was also much like the fractured fairy tales of my youth (mostly provided by Rocky and Bullwinkle), which made it appeal all the more.

Unfortunately, it was not supposed to be this week’s book.  If you look at my updated Books page (which, by the way, has been a bear to update regularly, but I’ve done it!), it says this week was Heart of Darkness.  Unfortunately, the person I was borrowing the book from promised to get it to me on Monday, but didn’t get it to me until Thursday.  I couldn’t even do a mid-book review on Wednesday like I had so carefully planned!  I felt stupid–I should have known to switch over to a different book much earlier.

Now, could I read Heart of Darkness quickly and get it reviewed by tomorrow?  Yes.  Do I want to?  No.  I’ve heard so many good things about the book and the subject matter that it really does deserve a week.  So, I went to a different book.  Having delayed so long, I was unable to finish it tonight.  Hence the mid-book review today.  On Sunday, I’ll post the review.  I hope.

In re-reading this little piece of whimsy, I’ve remembered what it is I love about fairy tales (their enduring nature) and Thurber (his prose).  Each brother in this book has his own fairy tale within the fairy tale and there is a sense that, with enough time, the recursive tales would have been continued by Thurber forever.

There is a small Arthurian connection that’s always made me wonder if there’s more that I’m missing.  I cannot tell you how dumb I felt when I discovered the connection on my fifth or sixth reading.  This reading is dedicated to find the backwards connections.  I don’t know that there will be anything to find, but I’m going to go through with a fine-toothed comb (or just my normal reading eyes) to capture those connections.

Hope to see you Sunday!

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P.S.  I SWEAR I pushed post on this Saturday night!  I have NO IDEA why it didn’t post!  Now the title of this blog is particularly apt. *grumpgrumpgrump* Clearly I didn’t make the Sunday deadline, but I’m working on the review right now.