Blood of Elves by Andrzej Sapkowski

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I have been enjoying myself so much this year reading whatever’s taken my fancy, writing about book covers and such things, that I didn’t realise I am super behind on my Book Bingo until last week when I added my “Achieved” banner to the ‘Scary Sci-Fi’ tile and counted only seven out of twenty tiles marked off. And only three and a half months left!! I’ve done the maths and it’s going to have to be Book Bingo all the way to New Year if I want to get my completion badge (yes, I’ve made myself a badge) … so, let’s get on this thing!

 

I had Blood of Elves pegged for my ‘Fantasy with a Green Cover’ category from the get go. I found it in a charity shop last year during my Great Stock-Piling of 2016 and was intrigued to see what Polish fantasy might be bringing to the game, so I made the Green Cover tile with this book in mind. I only found out last week, however, that Sapkowski’s series is the source material for the Witcher video games (I haven’t played them, but the trailers have always been pretty cool), so I guess that’s why I’ve picked it up now. I say “picked it up” but what I actually had to do was burrow into the mountain of books stacked in the corner of our living room and retrieve it after much cussing and book-balancing. Sweaty and dusty I brandished it aloft with a cry of glee when I finally dug it out. Thumbs just rolled his eyes and carried on killing skags (Borderlands 2). I truly am an under-appreciated heroine sometimes …

 

Blood of Elves is the first novel in the Witcher series, but there are two collections of short stories, The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny, that Sapkowski produced before this that I think I’d have benefitted from reading beforehand. I had the distinct feeling that I was coming into a series part way through and that I was missing significant knowledge that would help me understand what was going on. Having finished the book now it wasn’t as big a problem as it felt while I was reading, but I’m still going to find those first two collections before I go any further with Sapkowski’s saga. Which I really want to do because this was such an enjoyable read.

 

Geralt
Geralt. Professional badass.

 

Geralt of Rivia is a Witcher, a magically mutated human paid to kill the monsters of the world. He is in the book a fair bit, but he’s not really the main character. His story seems to have taken place offstage before the start of the book, (or perhaps in those two collections of short stories), and he has no real arc here. Instead he is a thread that binds the various characters and events together. He has taken in a young girl, Ciri, heir to the throne of Cintra, a country now under occupation by the enemy, Nilfgaard. Geralt believes Ciri to be his destiny and the subject of an elvish prophecy of which the reader doesn’t really learn many specifics. But there are a lot of different parties taking an interest in the girl’s whereabouts so Geralt and a number of old friends and colleagues work together to protect her. As far as there is a plot, that’s kind of it. There’s a lot of political stuff going on that is referred to here and there, but it’s all a bit difficult to follow as there are a phenomenal number of players, various rulers, wizards, countries, and races all being involved. And while it’s not a particularly long book at 315 pages, it feels very much like the start of something much bigger.

That’s not to say it’s not brilliant though. This is an awesome world. It’s peopled with fantasy-typical humans, elves and dwarves (and gnomes, but we don’t meet any in this first book), but it all feels really new. Sapkowski layers up this picture of a muddy difficult history where the various races have done violence to one another again and again, and every new act is coloured by what has gone before. It feels dirty and realistic, and it’s hard to root for any one group because everyone is as ambiguous as everyone else. What I really loved about the book though was that all this history and all these tensions aren’t explained in long prosy chapters, but through characters’ conversations. Sapkowski tells more of the story through these seemingly incidental pieces of dialogue than through straight description, and these exchanges are so alive with humour and feeling, that I positively zipped through Blood of Elves. There’s a fantastic discussion that Ciri eavesdrops on between a dwarf called Yarpen Zigrin (excellent name – Sapkowski gets full marks for all his character’s names) and Geralt about the impossibility of remaining neutral in the face of conflict, which is funny and eloquent. And maybe twenty pages later events make it desperately poignant too. Or the hilarious discussion between Geralt and Master Tutor Pitt while on board a barge about the (Pitt insists) impossible existence of a particular type of predatory water monster that then attacks their boat and kills several people. It’s all just so well done. The loose structure of the novel could have annoyed me a lot, but I enjoyed the way Sapkowski kind of pulls the reader over here to see this, then over there to see that, all the while threading the story with beautiful details and letting you draw it all together for yourself.

So, compelling writing, a deliciously grey and murky world, some fascinating characters (Yennefer the enchantress, Dandilion the bard-spy, and Ciri, to name my three favourites so far), and the promise that we’re only just scraping the surface – what’s not to love about this book? I thought it was a blast.

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The Explorer by James Smythe

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Well this was a big ball of grim and chilly darkness.

Not being a huge fan (or, indeed, a fan at all) of the scary, I dedicated a day to reading, and got The Explorer done in one sitting (to achieve my ‘scary sci-fi’ Book Bingo category … naturally). I’m glad I did. Outside it was sunny and children were playing. Inside people were dying, some of them quite horribly. If it had taken me any longer to read this book I might have forgotten about things like hope, and smiling, and cake, and all that good stuff. Which is to say that James Smythe does his job well with The Explorer. It’s not outright scary, but it is tense, and puzzling, and interesting. I’m not sure I enjoyed it exactly, but I needed to know what happened next right the way to the end.

I have three small (ish) grievances with this book, so let’s get them out of the way first. One, the science bits were the least believable parts of the book. I’m not a scientist, I don’t know much about the science of space travel, but I do have a pretty good nonsense-detector, and it went off a couple of times while I was reading The Explorer. Just because you’ve got a new favourite word/concept (piezoelectric for Smythe) does not mean you should use it every chance you get unless it is illuminating or relevant to your story. Two, I found it difficult to care about any of the characters. The reader’s closest ‘relationship’ is with Cormac, as he’s narrating, but the rest of the crew never quite popped out into 3-D for me (and I had trouble with Cormac too). Three, and this is the biggy, not all women fall apart or start crying when the shit hits the fan, and yet the three main representatives of my sex in this book were weepers (… and not only that, but I don’t want to give anything more away).

OK, moving on to more interesting things. The story launches (see what I did there? It’s about the crew of a spaceship … spaceships launch … seriously, I crack myself up) with a very quick, almost comedic run through of each crew member’s death. By page 14 everyone but Cormac is dead. By page 63, he’s a goner too. I started to wonder if this was going to be some kind of Robinson Crusoe story, and whether I’d be able to put up with Cormac for the remaining 300 odd pages. All I can say without spoiling the rest of the book completely is that things get interesting right after page 63. Part Two moves about in time as it shows both the hopeful beginnings of the mission, and the inevitable strains on the crew’s relationships farther down the line. We find out what sort of people Arlen, Quinn, Guy, Wanda and Emmy were and how they became the Ishiguro’s crew. And we discover more about the events surrounding their deaths. This may all sound very straightforward, but because of a rather large happening that I can in no way reveal, it’s the best bit of the book.

Part Three slows the pace right back down and this is where Cormac started to grate on my nerves a bit. Where Part One was a detached, level-headed recounting of events, Part Three is the same events seen through a different lens. We see a much less composed Cormac dealing with his impending demise. It’s a pretty clever plot structure, and I appreciated how it was done, even if I got annoyed with Cormac’s grief-sorrow-guilt-remorse merry-go-round. (Thumbs has just pointed out that my real problem with this book was the lack of hope, and he’s absolutely right. I want my fiction to celebrate the overcoming of odds, and the coming together of people for a common cause, or a character’s belief in themselves and determination to achieve something. All my favourite books have hope and The Explorer has very little. Good call, Thumbs).

The book talks about exploration and death and time, and it talks a lot about points of view. Cormac is the journalist along for the ride on this mission and he’s there to chronicle this momentous journey both in words and images. He films his ship-mates, conducts interviews with them, writes blog posts and sends it all back to Earth knowing that their voyage is of global interest. He thinks about their mission as if it were a movie, thinks about where the long-shots and close-ups would be, and which actors would play him and his fellow explorers. When we start working through events the second time round, there are big changes in perspective that show things in a different light, and at one point the fourth wall gets rather wobbly, although it never quite comes down. This focus on POV was far and away the best thing about the book for me, and I enjoyed two of the three big reveals mostly because of how they fed back into this preoccupation with POV. (I know, I know, could I be any vaguer?!)

So, let’s wrap this up. Don’t read this book if you get irritated by shaky space-travel science, or if you get annoyed (like I do) by female characters being presented as less able to handle pressure than their male counterparts, (sorry Mr Smythe, points off for that). Do read it if you enjoyed any of the following films: Solaris (either version), Moon, ­The Martian, or Interstellar (my quick-fire reviews: Solaris – long. Moon – Rockwell rocks! The Martian – the book was better. And Interstellar – no no no Christopher Nolan. Just No). Or if you like that kind of story that shows you things one way, then looks at them from another (more revealing) angle, like Sixth Sense only … not. Or if you want a book that’ll keep you occupied for not much more than an afternoon.

It’s not a bad book. It’s (thankfully!) not full-on scary, but it’s pretty tense and interesting (OMG! I really can’t think of another word, can I?). OK. One more time … It’s a good book. It’s absorbing and nail-biting and will keep you chilled on a warm summer’s day. Give it a go …

… If you’ve nothing else to read.

 

Flying Witch by Chihiro Ishizuka

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I am in love with this manga series. It is about Makoto, a trainee witch, who, just like Kiki in the Studio Ghibli movie Kiki’s Delivery Service, has reached the age at which she must go out into the world and start living independently. She moves to rural Aomori to live with her cousins Kei and Chinastu and their parents. She goes to school as normal, but the rest of her time is spent hanging out with her cousins and friend Nao, and working on her witchiness. She has a broom and she can fly, she has a small plot of land where she plans to grow crops and she has an older sister Akane, also a witch, who pops in occasionally to see how she’s doing and to offer up words of wisdom and new spells to try out.

None of that description captures the complete and utter loveliness of this story and the way it is told, however. The structure is episodic, each chapter a short story loosely connected to those preceding and following it, all told with gentle humour and a ridiculous amount of charm. And the artwork is sublime. It is so finely drawn that everyday details like the reflections in a roadway mirror, a view of rooftops and telegraph poles, or a crowd of Morning Glory in a hedgerow get as much loving attention as the adorable characters. This focus on surroundings and details draws attention to the importance of the natural world and the seasons to Makoto, and I kept flipping back just to kind of soak in the atmosphere.

 

FW Artwork
*sigh* So pretty …

 

I’m not a big manga reader. I’ve tried out a few, but the only other thing I’ve read through before now is Chobits by CLAMP, and that was a while ago. Recently however I kind of stumbled onto Princess Jellyfish by Akiko Higashimura while browsing (read: methodically scouring every shelf with hawk-like concentration in case something awesome was waiting for me to discover it) at my local book store. I bought volume one on a whim, thinking if I didn’t like it Thumbs might. I’m now on volume five, and volume six hasn’t been published yet. (Princess Jellyfish satisfies my desire for the cute and the occasionally absurd, and when I’m in a blue funk and can’t face reading – which happens – it’s an excellent medicine). Anyway, having enthused about Princess Jellyfish’s Tsukimi and company to those nearest and dearest to me, my other brother (we’ve all agreed that ‘in-law’ sounds mean, so I have a second mother and my other brother) bought volume one of Flying Witch for me for my birthday, (because family is awesome).

As soon as I’d finished volume one I ordered volume two online, and read that as soon as it arrived. Imagine my despair to discover that that’s all that has been published so far. Volumes three and four don’t come out until late September and late December respectively. I am not a head-of-the-queue/ riding-the-wave kind of person for many good reasons (1, I’m lazy; 2, I’m still catching up on all the stuff that was published before I was born in the mistaken belief that I can read everything SFF that has ever been written; 3, sometimes I can’t sustain my excitement about a thing … so many reasons), but the sensation I’m currently experiencing is perhaps the best reason why I don’t like to be in this position. It’s a kind of impatience-frustration-excitement-despair kind of feeling. I want to read more Flying Witch now. But I have to wait. And even when I’ve read the next instalment, I’ll still have to wait for the next one. I’m much more of a wait-until-everyone-else-is-done-then-discover-it kind of gal. That way I get the awesome thing all in one gulp, (and if there’s merchandise it tends to be cheaper – win!). Patrick Rothfuss and Jo Walton are the only other two authors that I watch, you know, the way a dog watches someone holding a ball: Write the thing. Are you going to write the thing? When will you write the thing? Now? Now? Now? *salivating*

Anyhow, if you love Studio Ghibli films, read this. Reading Flying Witch is like reading a Miyazaki movie. It’s gentle and beautiful, lingers on the incidental and the everyday, and has a similar humour that isn’t mean (nor is it based around boobs and panties, which is one of my biggest issues with manga – grrr); I’ve actually laughed out loud while reading this, and that doesn’t happen as much as I’d like. If I were to make a teaser-trailer-style list of all the things that are adorably-awesomely-wonderful about Flying Witch, it would go something like this: Makoto’s sense of direction, Kei’s sense of humour, Chinatsu, Uncle’s accent, pheasant-catching, Chito the cat, the Harbinger’s visit, Chinatsu, Akane and Kenny, Kei’s school bag, Nao’s good fortune, Inukai’s problem, Chinatsu *heart*, the candy spell, being wary of bears, and frogs … and did I mention Chinatsu yet?

And that’s only so far…

 

… Oh my goodness, waiting is so hard

 

Book Cover Matters/Book Covers Matter – Part 2

The Neverending Story
Would Bastion have started reading The Neverending Story if it had been a scuffed-up little paperback, do you think?

So, I could probably carry on rambling about all the random things I think and feel about book covers indefinitely, but that would get boring and I would get tired. Instead, I decided I’d go back over my list of all-time-greats and pick out some of my favourite cover designs. This doesn’t really work that well (because these books mean so much to me that I sometimes feel love even for the bad covers) without some kind of criteria to work to, so I’m only going to pick out book covers that (a) were the primary reason for me reading the book, and (b) capture (for me) some of the book’s flavour, to the extent that, in my mind at least, the cover and the story have become synonymous.

Hurrah! Let the list begin!

 

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Wise Child by Monica Furlong – Cover art by Leo & Diane Dillon

This gentle, beautiful book was a library discovery I made one summer holiday when I was about eight or nine years old. I remember it being at the end of a shelf so that I could see the cover as I walked towards it, and I picked it up simply because of Leo and Diane Dillon’s artwork. I was at an age where I wanted every book I discovered to look like Bastion’s copy of The Neverending Story and to be filled with magic and/or portals to another realm (hmmm, I haven’t changed all that much …) and this glowing yellow hardback was about the closest I could get to that ideal. It fulfilled every promise made by the cover, and I loved it.

Incidentally, all her life our Mom was a big forager (way before it was a hip thing to do, because our Mom was awesome), and after reading this I started following her around asking her the names of plants and their uses in the very serious belief that she was secretly a witch and just hadn’t told us yet.

 

McKinley Covers

The Blue Sword & The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley – Cover art by Anon

These two books were bought for me by my best friend when we were around fourteen years old. She bought them on the strength of their covers (we had the same criteria in many ways: the more magical a book looked, the more likely we were to buy it/read it … although she was broader minded than me and also enjoyed horror). I remember starting The Blue Sword immediately. I read it at school, on the train journey home, and when I got off I decided reading while walking couldn’t be all that hard. I finished it that night at home in my room, crammed into a too-small chair and with a very numb bum. But I was full to the brim with Damar and believed that I too could be a warrior woman. After finishing The Hero and the Crown I spent a lot of time studying and copying the artwork on these two covers and I am irritated now that not only can I not find my copies of these two books (most of my books are still in boxes until we get some bookcases), but also I cannot find out online who the cover artist is to give credit where it’s due: This artist is responsible for Robin McKinley becoming one of my all-time-and-forever favourite authors. Thank you, whoever you are.

 

Pratchett Covers

Mort and Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett – Cover art by Josh Kirby

Pairing Josh Kirby’s work with Terry Pratchett’s was the smartest thing anyone ever did. Our school library bought a bunch of Pratchett titles (I like to think they mistakenly assumed these were junior/teen books because of the pretty colours – not that Pratchett was or is in any way inappropriate for a younger-than-adult reader), and my best friend and I, as school library assistants, got first dibs. She took Wyrd Sisters and I took Mort. I loved that Kirby had obviously read the book before he’d done the jacket design (it hadn’t occurred to me before that artists could also be readers – I was a very dumb kid), and that I could pick out bits of the story in his wraparound cover art. I know two people who collect the Kirby editions of Pratchett’s books, which means I know at least two people who also feel that book covers matter enough that only the ones they love will do.

 

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Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey – Cover art by Steve Weston

I have rhapsodised about McCaffrey quite a bit recently. Forgive me – I get sentimental occasionally. Anyway, while it was David Roe’s covers for Dragonsong and Dragonsinger that first got my attention (perfect covers), it is Steve Weston’s artwork that says Pern to me (I didn’t realise he was a different artist from Roe for a loooong time). I remember getting a book token for my birthday and using it to buy Dragonflight because Weston’s dragons were just so darn pretty. I know now that by the time I was reading McCaffrey she’d been around for a while and I was reading repackaged copies of her books, and I understand that McCaffrey herself felt that Michael Whelan was the artist for her books. I wonder if this is a US market versus UK market thing? The Whelan covers are gorgeous (they can be seen on his site here) but they are completely unfamiliar to me, and Roe and Weston remain my McCaffrey artists.

 

 

Chrestomanci

The Chestomanci series by Diana Wynne Jones – Cover art by David Frankland

Some books just shouldn’t be labelled as “junior” or “young adult” or “adult” because they are for everyone, and this applies to everything that Diana Wynne Jones has written. I remember these copies of Jones’ Chrestomanci series arriving brand new at the library I first worked in. I was smitten from the get-go. They’re covers that capture all of the mischievous magical fun to be had in these stories and have something of the appeal that sweet wrappers do. They are so thoroughly tied up in my mind with the books themselves that just seeing them on a bookshelf makes me salivate and I feel a sort of nostalgic tug to read them all again immediately. Diana Wynne Jones is one of my most re-read authors – she’s the ultimate pick-me-up when a person feels a bit blue, and don’t these covers promise exactly that?

 

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The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern – Cover art by Vania Zouravliov

For a while I forgot my SFF-loving self. I don’t know why it happened. I found myself reading a lot of general fiction (as in, not about anything) and crime and historical novels, often recommended to me by the people I was working with at the time (as in, not library people). Maybe I was trying to fit in, (I have since learned there’s no point even trying to do so as it’s far too tiring and is ultimately disappointing). Anyway, I shall call it my Grey Period because that’s pretentious and amusing to me. During my Grey Period I met a book in a library. It didn’t look overly fantastical, but there were stars and birds and a red ribbon worked into the cover design, and there was a certain whimsy to the whole thing. This book had black page edges and the casewrap beneath the dust jacket was red. It had a red ribbon bookmark. It looked like a world chock-full of magic disguised as a book. It looked like a way back in to something I’d lost touch with.

It was.

 

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson – Cover design by Anon (even on the dust jacket it says only “Shutterstock images”)

I’m finishing with Alif the Unseen because it would seem that after all my readerly-wandering I return to where I began. This simple, beautiful cover had just enough of a whiff of Bastian’s big old leather-bound tome to draw me in when I first saw it a couple of years ago. That lovely archway, the intricate pattern in gold and white and lilac, even the title font (Bembo?) carries a hint of the magical. I’d be happier if there were no cover blurbs at all (I’ve seen an alternative cover where there is an old book stand holding a book instead of Neil Gaiman’s hearty recommendation, and I prefer it), it’s hard to like other people’s opinions scratched into the covers of your favourite books, even if you like the authors doing the blurbing and agree with them. Nonetheless, the whole story is tinged purple because of this lovely design and the cover and story suit one another.

I do feel, however, that my list demonstrates the move from artwork to design in book jackets. I mourn the crazy-beautiful full-on artwork of 1980s fantasy, and I miss book covers that I could spend days exploring visually. It doesn’t seem to be so much of a thing anymore. I guess money comes into it, and visual trends, and the desire to draw in as many punters as possible (don’t go limiting your potential readership by looking too fantasy – and I guess I am talking mostly about fantasy here). I suppose I’m lucky I find fonts as interesting as I do pictures, since that’s where we’re headed at the moment – big fonts and bright colours. Don’t employ an artist, just play about with Photoshop … I know your game publishing people.

 

N.B. I am hyper-aware that there’s not much SF on this list. I kind of ruined any chance of SF appearing here with my criteria. I love Chris Moore’s covers for Alastair Reynolds’ books, but I discovered Reynolds through recommendation, so he didn’t qualify. I loved Ready Player One, but the cover was the last thing to get my attention (despite big font, bright colours). Dune came to me via the film first, as did 2001: A Space Odyssey, everything by Philip K. Dick and Boroughs’ A Princess of Mars, (it’s not in the slightest bit relevant, but John Carter of Mars is a deeply underrated film and Woola is the greatest not-a-puppy ever). None of those covers would have made the cut anyway, because while they were ok, they weren’t great.

 

Anyway, book covers = important. End of transmission.

 

A Scholar of Magics by Caroline Stevermer

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I loved A College of Magics and I was super excited when I found out there was another book set in Faris and Jane’s alternative Edwardian era. I’ll admit to being a little disappointed that it didn’t continue to tell Faris’ story, but Jane was in it so that was enough for me. I bought it. And last week when I sorely needed an antidote to the breath-taking Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman I finally decided to pick up A Scholar of Magics and read it.

It was everything I needed it to be. There was Stevermer’s fabulous magic at work again, Jane’s brilliant dialogue and healthy appetite for both food and adventure, a good sort of mystery and another cast of likeable characters. This time round Jane’s fellow lead is Samuel Lambert, an American sharpshooter who’s been working with the wizards of Glasscastle University on the mysterious Agincourt Project, which he knows very little about. Lambert isn’t really what you’d expect from an American adventurer-type: he’s humble, and perceptive, and is not a little in love with the magic of Glasscastle. He’s also a character who feels that he is on the outside looking in. None of this means he is not able to give as good as he gets when it comes to Jane, however. The banter between these two is almost as good as the Faris/Jane dynamic was in the first book, and there is a romantic undertone that, while it never gets in the way, keeps things interesting. On the whole I like Stevermer’s approach to romance. I am not, and never will be, a fan of the romantic (and love triangles are right out – ugh!), but she never lays it on too thick, and in both of these novels it’s an added extra; her plots don’t revolve around budding relationships, chance meetings, stolen glances or any of that mush.

What Stevermer is absolutely best at though, is magic, particularly the magic of places. Glasscastle University is protected by magical wards as was Greenlaw in A College of Magics, but here the wards are renewed and reinforced by the ringing of church bells and the Gregorian-style chants performed by the students. Lambert’s experience of the place, it’s tranquillity and age, is bound up with his experience of these bells and chants, overheard in the gardens to which he is often drawn. Glasscastle’s distinctive magic is wholly tied up with music, in fact. When Lambert is invited to the revered Upton’s room he likens the quality of the stillness there to the music of the chant, and there are discussions throughout the book about music, and to the silences and pauses within it. Glasscastle magic is the magic of people uniting – voices harmonising, bell-ringers working in time with one another – and it’s easy to feel as envious as Lambert does for being outside of it all. It is also interesting that this male magic is in direct contrast to the magic of the witches of Greenlaw. Where the men focus upon the strength of pulling together to work towards one goal, Greenlaw’s magic is in Jane’s words “a highly individual matter” and is all about not losing one’s peculiarities and autonomy. I like this a lot.

I also like that magic is not fully understood in this world. It is studied by the women and men of Greenlaw and Glasscastle, but it is never mastered. It can manifest itself as wild talent, it appears in very different guises in witches and in wizards, it can be domestic, sneered at a little, but powerful nonetheless. Magic can happen, but is not always acknowledged. Magic can be cantrips and strange devices, it can be cheap tricks, but it can also be a sixth sense, a vibe or an atmosphere. It is various, and hinted at, and underlies all things.

There’s plenty of adventure here too. Jane (ah, Jane, I do love you), ‘borrows’ her brother’s Minotaur to drive wildly around the local countryside at every opportunity, there are suspicious men in bowler hats trespassing on University grounds, a couple of kidnappings, Lambert’s trials in an enchanted labyrinthine wood, a magical device that falls into the wrong hands and a threat to the very foundations of Glasscastle. Fortunately, however, thanks to Jane, there’s plenty of food to go round, (and tea, tea in abundance). And there’s excellent company too. Jane’s brother Robert, and her sister-in-law Amy, Lambert’s friend Nicholas Fell, the stuffy Porteous, and the dynamic duo Herrick and Williams (a.k.a. string bean and potato), and of course Jane and Lambert themselves, bring warmth and humour to the story.

“Don’t come any closer,” he called. “I’m armed and I haven’t had any breakfast.So don’t cross me.”

So, if you’re looking for something light and gentle and beautiful to cheer you up, or maybe it’s raining outside and you want to read something warm and cosy; if you’ve read one too many dystopian novels and need to believe again that people can be good and funny, or you’ve just watched a scary movie and can’t settle, you could do a lot worse than read A Scholar of Magics. Unless you own A College of Magics, in which case, read that.

Book Cover Matters/Book Covers Matter Part 1

Book covers matter to me.

That’s not to say that I only read books that I find attractive, and I’ll read something recommended to me no matter what its cover looks like if I am intrigued and inspired by what I hear about it. But if we readers know nothing about a book, then it’s title, cover and blurb are, naturally, all we have to go on to decide whether we’ll purchase or borrow it, and ultimately read it. And I find myself in bookstores and libraries (far more often than is healthy) making massive and immediate decisions about books after just a casual glance at their covers. I’ve written off authors because I didn’t like the look of the one book by her/him that I’ve seen. In some instances this is no bad thing. I mean, I don’t think I’m wrong about Jilly Cooper for example, she’s not for me. But what if I’m missing something that is totally and completely my kettle of fish just for want of a cover that shouts, “Hey you! Yeah, you! You’re gonna love this …”?! That’s a lot of power that jacket artists wield, right there. (The whole publishing industry thing is interesting, but this bit of it fascinates me: Are jacket decisions made by one individual, or by a team? Who has final say over which design is used for a title? Are there alternative designs that don’t make the cut? Is more time and money spent on that first cover by a new author? Or is it saved for the big guns with established readers and sales figures? Do different publishers value cover design differently? Am I overthinking this whole thing?)

The very first book I wrote about here is a good example of what I’m trying to say. I had seen Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy around for a few years and had it recommended to me plenty, but the covers always left me cold. These covers were not aimed at me, and I knew it. When I did finally start reading The Final Empire, thanks to R and her husband, I loved it so much that the covers ceased to matter and I happily chugged through the trilogy without giving them another thought (well, that’s not quite true: I spent a lot of time studying all three covers – a habit I have when reading anything – and they definitely grew on me). It wasn’t until later, when tootling about on Goodreads, that I saw the 2006 jacket artwork that had been drawn for me. If I’d seen this cover I may have started reading the Mistborn books earlier. (I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m dissing the very classy minimalist covers designed by Sam Green. I’m really not. While checking my facts I found Sam Green’s website and he is an awesome artist that I really like – if you’ve any interest in such things, go see his stuff here – I just felt that his designs were aimed at someone other than me).

So, for your own private amusement, if you had to choose between the left-hand and right-hand covers below, which would you choose? Do you know why?

Mistborn TFE covers comparison

There are so many things that will inform your decision. Your age, background, sex, personal taste, the movies you like, what mood you’re in, will all have a bearing. There are people out there no doubt who won’t be bothered about either cover, it just won’t be on their radar. I can’t imagine who those people are, but they’ll be out there … and I’d love to know how they pick books.

If a book jacket’s role is to capture something of the book’s content and to attract and entice readers, then I get that a lot of decisions about a book’s visuals will be based on who is perceived to be the audience. If we’re still looking at the Mistborn covers, I’d say the right-hand cover is aiming itself at established lovers of high fantasy who’ll pick up books with dragons, swords-persons and unicorns on the cover (me, in short), whereas the left-hand cover is trying to get the attention of those readers who maybe don’t consider themselves fantasy fans, or people who’ve read and enjoyed Game of Thrones or anything by Joe Abercrombie or K J Parker (I’ve heard the term ‘low fantasy’ to describe this more gritty, realistic strain … ?). This potential audience would likely be put off by anything too romantic or overtly magical (no sparkles, please), but Green’s cool clean-lined cover might just grab their attention.

There is an established visual language for fantasy at least. Dragons, unicorns, witches, wizards, elves, dwarves, castles can be easily expressed visually. We have history and folklore, myth and legend, to draw upon (‘draw upon’! Ha! Unintentional smart-assery!), to flesh out any artistic impression of a fantasy world. So, let’s take a moment to salute science fiction cover artists/designers who don’t have it quite so easy. While I have nothing whatsoever against hostile and/or alien environments and spaceships, it’s got to be difficult to be original when those are the easiest parts of a SF story to express visually:

 

Variations on a theme SF1
Variations on the theme ‘hostile and/or alien environment’

 

 

Variations on a theme SF2
Variations on the theme ‘spaceships’

 

(Please note: I have been using all my favourite authors/books/covers here so far and am in no way criticising or mocking these authors/books/covers. I can’t stress this enough).

When science fiction deals with concepts, technology and lifeforms we have yet to encounter, how difficult must it be for the cover designer to convey any real sense of the story? I went back to some of my favourite older sci-fi just to see if any of their many covers ever tried to capture some of the less tangible ideas that those books dealt with:

Dune Covers

Nope. But I suspect the environment in which this book is set will be hostile and/or alien … maybe sandy.

Let’s try again:

Day of the Triffids Covers

OK, Triffids. And idea that didn’t exist until John Wyndham put it out there. Artistically rendered on the first edition jacket by Patrick Gierth, and then stuck to pretty loyally throughout most reissues. That’s a successful imagining of a previously unknown concept, if you ask me. Incidentally, I had bad dreams about Triffids for YEARS.

Finally, possibly my favourites were these covers (1976, 1982 and 1995 respectively, as far as I can verify) for Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang:

The Ship Who Sang Covers

I love the literalness of a woman’s eyes in the cockpit of the spaceship in the centre picture, it’s a kind of natural progression from the cover on the left, (for those that don’t know The Ship Who Sang is about a woman’s brain being implanted into a spaceship, creating a sentient vessel). Not an easy idea to render, but the artists tried.

The picture on the right was the edition I bought and I remember pouring over that cover a lot while I was reading the book, taking in the details of this pretty unusual spaceship (does anyone else feel that this cover feels a bit underwatery?) even though I didn’t really feel any connect between this image and the ship McCaffrey describes. The cover had nothing to do with my decision to buy the book, Anne McCaffrey was my Favourite Author Ever by the time I got round to reading this, and I couldn’t have been choosey even if I’d wanted to be, this was the only copy I could find (I was in college, had very little money and I bought my books from a second-hand stall at my local market).

 

I will probably never be done with the things I have to say about book covers, so I will continue with these ramblings another time, (the beautiful thing about it is that you don’t have to read it if you don’t want to!). In the meantime, if book covers are something that interests you, and you enjoy gentle fun-poking, take a look at Good Show Sir which pays homage to some of the more adventurous book covers in the world of SFF.

 

To be continued …

The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman

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It took me nearly a month to read this. At 629 pages it’s nowhere near the longest book I’ve read, but it has been the most exhausting and emotional journey I’ve taken in a while and the crazy-beautiful language had me taking in each and every detail, and feeling each and every hurt. I know book choices are often deeply personal and just because I love this book not everyone will, but right now, while I’m still in the emotional fallout, I feel like the world will be a better place if everyone just reads this one.

Ice Cream Fifteen Star lives in a world of feral children some 80 years after the collapse of society as we know it. No one survives into adulthood because of a deadly disease called ‘posies’ that manifests itself around about a child’s eighteenth or nineteenth year. Ice Cream’s days are taken up with hunting and scavenging with her ragtag ‘Sengles’ family, and taking part in all the little dramas and petty squabbles within that family, and between the Sengles and other neighbouring groups of children like the Christings, the Nat Mass Armies and the Lowells (the names in this book are so cool!). But then Driver Eighteen Star, Ice Cream’s brother, starts showing the first signs of posies. And during a scavenging trip, a ‘Roo’ soldier is found – a grown man in his thirties – who talks about a cure. And Ice Cream’s journey begins …

So far, so typical of almost any intended-for-teens dystopian novel on the shelves at the moment. The Country of Ice Cream Star is most definitely not for teens, however, and the over-used kid-survivors-in-a-ruined-future theme is only a starting point for Newman to jump off from. Ice Cream’s story is phenomenal. It takes some wild twists and turns, both actually, and within the heart and mind of our protagonist, and while she does get a star-crossed love story in true teen fashion, it’s by far the least of her concerns as she tries to keep her family together and save her brother, her people, and her country, (because she doesn’t dream small). So while it maybe sounds a bit like something else you’ve read, I promise you this book is nothing like you’re expecting, for two very awesome reasons: Ice Cream Star herself, and the amazing language in which the book is written.

“Ever I scold my nonsense heart, it beat its same direction.”

Let’s talk about Ice Cream first, because she is rad. She could kick both Katniss’ and Tris’ behinds before breakfast; heck, she could kick Hermione’s behind too, and not even break a sweat; (please note: I don’t want her to, I’m just saying she could. If provoked). Ice Cream is possibly my perfect heroine. She is strong, bold, loyal, flawed of course, smart and funny too, has a massive capacity for love and compassion, and will not quit. She’s like the Terminator, only she sees beauty in the world around her, and reason for hope always. She never lets her fears override her. As the story moves from a local to a national scale, and Ice Cream’s mission to save her brother’s life becomes tangled up in all the complications and machinations of the various groups and factions she comes into contact with, she doesn’t lose sight of what she wants to achieve. Even when it seems that all is lost, still she does not stop. And because of this utter determination, she drags the story forward. Newman has realised this broken-down world beautifully and the detail is fantastic, but you never get to stop and admire the scenery for too long before Ice is heaving the story onwards. It is her story.

And the language perfectly reflects that. The whole book is written in a slangy patchwork English patois with French undertones that you pick up as you read. There is a logic to it, or rather a sense of the way language might break down as structured schooling is lost and the generation gaps shrink down to nothing. A sense of the way children pick up words, sometimes abbreviating them or turning a sound slightly because they can’t quite get their mouth to make the right shape yet; (we had an awesome English teacher who spoke a lot about where in our mouths different sounds are made, and the sets of sounds that belong to the different languages that have fed into English – I totally owe him for making those lessons so interesting). So, in the way that ‘drink’ can become ‘grink’ and ‘grandma’ can become ‘gram’ … in Ice Cream’s world ‘grateful’ crumbles down to ‘gratty’, ‘potato’ to ‘tato’, and most appropriately, the ‘United States’ becomes the ‘Nighted States’. This reminds me of Jack Womack’s Random Acts of Senseless Violence, in which main character Lola’s language transforms over the course of the book as near-future Manhattan society breaks down and riots and street gangs take over. The language in Random Acts is integral to the plot, Womack uses it as a visceral tool so that the reader feels the collapse into chaos. In The Country of Ice Cream Star Newman also uses language to communicate a feeling of what this new world is like, only she dunks you in headfirst. What Ice Creams’ language does is give the reader an appreciation of the creativity, wit and inventiveness of these children who have survived. It also slows the reader down to an appreciative pace, and I found myself reading and rereading sentences as often to get the meaning as to enjoy the poetry of them. That Ice Cream’s voice and language don’t waver once throughout the 600 odd pages is a heck of a thing.

I enjoyed this book so so much and nothing I say can really do it justice. Sure, it has problems (I’m not sure I can stretch my credulity so far as to accept the whole Marias episode without question), but it was impossible not to see it through to the end alongside Ice and Pasha and the Sengles. I could go on and on about the beautifully damaged Pasha, or dear Crow (could we maybe get a book just about Crow? I loved him), about the lifestyle choices made by the Nat Mass Armies versus the Lowells, about the world itself and how Newman has brought it so completely to life that I feel that if I were to visit Massachusetts I could find Ice Cream’s Massa woods and the Lowell’s mill and the Christings house without a map. But really all I have to say is this: this book be bone. Be gratty that I found it, and all my heart is rain now that it done.