Destination Elsewhere

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Books rock. I mean, who needs to travel when you’ve got books? When you can’t afford a holiday, are wary (read: petrified) of actual, physical travel and are really, really fond of your own bed, you need go no further than your bookcase or that stack of books posing as a bedside table to explore somewhere new, or to revisit somewhere amazing. When you’re having a bad day at work you don’t need to wait until the weekend to slip away somewhere, at lunchtime you can return to that magical place you just left at breakfast, and it will be waiting for you exactly as you left it.

I have a list of brain-holiday locations as long as my arm: Damar, Lancre on Discworld, Middle Earth, the planet Dune, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry (I’m a Hufflepuff, naturally), the Descrutinized Zone on the far side of the Moon, Oz, Bas Lag, Westeros … Some I’ve been visiting for years; others I look forward to revisiting again soon. So, being as I still haven’t finished the book I’d planned to write about this week, I’m going to write about five of my favourite imaginary locations instead.

 

  1. Pern

ALL the Pern books (but especially Dragonsong and Dragonsinger) by Anne McCaffrey

I recently wrote a bit of a gushy thing about Anne McCaffrey, (because she’s the most awesome author in, like, forever), and off the back of that I reread the first couple of Pern books and appreciated all over again just what a great creation Rukbat 3 really is. This planet and life on it is defined by a fascinating and deadly ‘weather’ condition called Thread, a spore from space that destroys any living matter it comes into contact with. Everything about Pern – how only the Northern continent was successfully colonised, how the Weyrs, Holds and Craft Halls developed, the semi-medieval way of life, the DRAGONS (squeeee!), and the interdependence between both riders and dragons and Weyrs and Holds – is because of Threadfall. I loved discovering the lost history of Pern with Lessa and F’Lar; I loved the cold in-between of dragonish time travel; I loved Dragonsdawn in which McCaffrey went back to the beginning and told how the colonists first worked to survive on the planet they came to call Pern (Parallel Earth, Resources Negligible). But I love the Harper Hall most of all, and when I visit it’s there that I usually stay. I catch up with Menolly, and later Piemur and Sebell, and I get to play with fire lizards. Menolly and I camp out in the wilderness. We visit the Gather where there are competitions and runnerbeast races and stalls of beautifully crafted things you don’t find out here in this world of throwaway mass-production. And I get to explore the Harper Hall and cheer Menolly on as she finds her place in the world. And then, I get to do it all over again.

 

  1. Fillory

The Magicians, The Magician King and The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman

Sheesh. Fillory. Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy blew me away. The parallels between Fillory and Narnia, and Brakebills and Hogwarts, have been made and don’t need to be repeated here, but this is darker stuff. Fillory feels magically, stunningly real and, at the same time, terrifying. I wonder if some fantasy-reading punk really upset Lev Grossman as a kid and now he is punishing us all with this B-E-A-U-tiful, awesome, gorgeous, exquisitely-realised gift of a world and then making truly horrible things happen there. I mean, reading the second book The Magician King actually broke something inside me. Forever. This is blood-spattered fantasy.

Nevertheless, Fillory is fascinating. It is full of wonders: talking animals, dryads, gods, dragons, centaurs, (incidentally, I’m waiting for some centaur-centred fiction; vampires, werewolves, mermaids and fairies have all had their turn, so when do centaurs get a go?). It’s a place for the child who loved fairy-tales after s/he’s grown up, gone out into the world, learnt that promises get broken and wishes don’t come true but still wants desperately to believe. When I think I miss the simple naivety of Narnia I return to Fillory. Don’t come crying to me though if you visit and discover you can’t hack it. There will be blood. You have been warned.

 

  1. Tasmarin

Dragon’s Ring by Dave Freer

When I’m not in the mood for the darkness-darker-than-a-moonless-night of Fillory, Tasmarin is my most recently discovered magical plane of existence. It satisfies my need for magic without doing anything unspeakable in front of me. If I’m lucky, and I always am, I meet a travelling gleeman and the young boy-who’s-really-a-girl that he’s taken under his wing (his rather leathery, black wing … hmmm …) and they introduce me to so many wonderful people. There are dwarfish Dvergar, elvish Alvar, more centaurs (hurrah!), sprites and elemental beings. We travel all over Tasmarin and get to stay with the giant Groblek in his mountain home (he’s just the best host). There are plenty of adventures and laughs and tight scrapes, and I’m always guaranteed to see dragons.

 

  1. Wondla

The Search for Wondla, A Hero for Wondla and The Battle for Wondla by Tony DiTerlizzi

An alien planet teeming with life, Wondla is Tony DiTerlizzi’s greatest creation so far. And while it’s aimed at the younger reader, I see no reason why they should get to keep Wondla all to themselves – it’s way too awesome for them alone. It’s a world overgrown with the most fabulous flora and fauna that it would take lifetimes to catalogue and study, although I’m willing to give it a go. I have some favourite species: the six-winged turnfins used for fishing by the Halcyonus and as common a sight as a sparrow is here; the massive wandering trees that collectively make up the Wandering Forest; and the peaceful water bears, in particular Eva’s friend Otto who lets us ride him. I get to meet many of the myriad races of aliens that have settled on Wondla, a lot of whom are friendly and hospitable, thanks to Rovender being our companion and guide. We explore the ruins of a people lost from memory, meet a boy called Hailey who’s got an airship (and an attitude), discover Machiavellian plots to take over the world and help in the fight to overthrow these evil plans. It’s a blast from start to finish whenever I visit, and I’m always sorry to have to leave.

 

  1. Osten Ard

The Dragonbone Chair, The Stone of Farewell and To Green Angel Tower by Tad Williams

My final destination has been a favourite of mine for a long, long time. In fact, I’m due another visit soon, (especially as Williams has just written a new book set in this world called The Witchwood Crown which I am so, so excited to read).

Osten Ard doesn’t make for a relaxing getaway. This is another world chock-full of different peoples and cultures, not all of them welcoming to the outsider. In fact, it doesn’t pay at all to be a casual traveller in Osten Ard. This is another land of giants and dragons, a world haunted by memories, and while there are Hernysteri, Erkynlanders, Nabbanai, Thrithings-folk, Wrannamen and Rimmersmen to meet and mingle with, but they all have history and aren’t always on the best of terms with one another. On top of that, there are dark forces a-brewing – beware evil bald priests, for example, and anyone answering to ‘Storm King’ (dead giveaway, that). My favourite people to stay with are the elf-like Sithi and the trollish Qanuc, both of whom have fascinating customs. Anyway, if you latch onto a boy like Simon you get to meet all the best people and see all the best places; he has a knack for finding adventure and is pure of heart. I always travel with him myself. Additionally, teaming up with Simon means you get to be a member of the League of the Scroll, and you just know you’re on the side of right when you’re part of a league.

 

I was going to make a crack about flip-flops and sun cream when I got to the end of this, but I can’t. Interestingly (to me) all of my favourite imaginary places are cool or cold. All of my favourite Pern stories are set on the cold Northern continent; The Magicians Trilogy starts in a cold Brooklyn, and after than I remember mostly the bits where it’s cold, raining or snowy; Dragon’s Ring starts in early autumn and proceeds into winter; the Wondla books never mention it being overly warm, and Eva’s clothing is all tailored to keep her warm and dry; and winter is coming in Osten Ard (sorry – it had to be said!) because evil immortals called ‘Storm King’ are all about cold weather. So I like to holiday in cold places, it turns out. Flip-flops and sun cream not required.

Vicious by V. E. Schwab

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I am ashamed to say that this has been on my TBR pile for nearly five years, (guess which Book Bingo category I’m checking off this week, people!) and it feels like V E Schwab has exploded into popularity since then, (although I’m sure I’ve already mentioned that I am shockingly out of touch with, well, everything, so this is probably just me). When I first picked this book up I’d never heard of Schwab and couldn’t find anything else by her in the library or my nearest big book store. Now thanks to her recently completed Shades of Magic trilogy I see her books everywhere – which can only be a good thing, because she is – I have only just discovered – a mind-blowingly awesome author. Can’t believe I waited so long … *shakes head in disappointment at self*

So, Vicious. Oh my. Does it have two lonely, brilliant, beautiful boys in it? Yes, it does. Do they become best friends, recognising in each other a little of themselves? Yes, they do. Always interesting, but nothing out of the ordinary so far. Do they discover a way to gain super powers? Yes, they do … intriguing. Do they use their powers for good? No. No, they do not. They really, really don’t. Not even close. All aboard for the realm of awesome sauce! I read this book so uncharacteristically quickly I was completely unprepared for it to end; it dragged me in and held me down until the last word, and that doesn’t happen as much as I’d like it to.

I am not a classic comic book hero fan. Superman, Spiderman, Batman, they’re all a bit too big-white-male for me, (I am a big X-men fan though, which I feel is my most delightful character trait), but the villains that appear in those comics seem to have cooler origin stories than the heroes. Batman’s alright I suppose, but the Joker, the Riddler, Penguin, Poison Ivy, Catwoman, Two Face, Bane are all just so much more … compelling; (although I only really remember the TV cartoon and the Tim Burton’s movies, so maybe I’m wrong?). Spiderman has IMO a dreadful creation story, but (again I’m only going by the movies – and the Toby Maguire ones at that, not those other lads) Dr Octopus, that sand guy, and the black sticky man (Venom?) were way more interesting, even if I can’t remember their names. My point is, the darker side of human nature is more of a draw, perhaps because we all sense we’re capable of darkness, perhaps because we want to understand it.

So here, Schwab has created not heroes but two ‘villains’ with incredible (and telling) super powers, and then pitted them against each other. Not that any of the story is as simple as that makes it sound. Victor and Eli’s relationship is fabulously complex, and the whole time I was reading about them circling and preparing to kill one another I was thinking how much like a love story it read. If there isn’t any Victor/Eli fan-fiction out there (I haven’t yet checked) I’ll be surprised. Victor and Eli are friends and equals in intellect and in the dark, broken, little hearts that they hide from everybody else. They see themselves in each other, and are both attracted and repelled by the reflection. They both spur each other on and inspire one another. But if I have to choose (and I feel that I do), I choose Victor. He’s our way in and our POV and while he does some dreadful things, both unintentional and deliberate, you can’t ever quite hate him. Victor’s saving grace is that he doesn’t lie to himself (unlike Eli) – he knows that he has this darkness inside, he’s aware that he uses people and that he doesn’t feel morality the way he should, and that self-awareness makes him ultimately likeable. That and the fact that Eli is a too-smooth, too-slick, too self-righteous sod by comparison.

Nobody in this story is a hero though. Everyone is flawed and broken and human. And all the characterisation is amazing. No one is a cardboard cut-out filling space – Sydney with her too-big clothes, her truly awesome power and her innocence (love her), Mitch and his chocolate milk (love him), Serena with the scariest super power of the lot of them (love to hate her), Dominic the not-to-be-underestimated late arrival (love him too), even Dol the dog (lovelove him) all have distinct voices and personable quirks and charm. They were all totally engaging and I was left wanting more.

I was also left pondering things that I can’t write more about without spoiling the book. All I can say is: how could Victor be a good guy with the super power that he has? Is Sydney the only truly good person in the book? And how is that so? Is a hero even possible in Schwab’s Merit when you consider the way in which super powers are gained?

Finally, I have to mention the cover art. I read the hardback edition pictured, and I spent a lot of time when not reading just drooling over the beautiful image by Victo Ngai. So I looked her up and oh my! this is one very talented lady. If you are at all interested in the visual, go see her stuff here. She’s done some amazing stuff, and there’s a cool video posted on her site too where she talks about becoming an artist. Super super super awesome!

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin

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I’ve only read Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea and The Dispossessed before this, both of which I found thought-provoking and enjoyable, but not fast-paced. The Lathe of Heaven on the other hand, practically races from start to finish and was really hard to put down. It was apparently first published as a serial in Amazing Stories magazine, and I think that has a lot to do with the pacing; not that (at only eleven chapters long), it was ever going to be a slog to read.

 

Big fat SPOILERS all the way through from here on …

Anyhow, it’s set in a 2002 (thirty years in the future for Le Guin when she wrote it) where overpopulation and climate change mean that everyone lives with starvation and near-constant rain, and conflict is rife worldwide. (I was fascinated that the Greenhouse Effect and growing population were concerns as far back as the early 70s – I realise that makes me sound incredibly naïve, but I’ve always assumed these were issues that arose during my lifetime). There are three main characters: George Orr, a man who can dream “effective” dreams that change reality; William Haber, the psychiatrist whose help he’s obliged to endure after accidentally taking an overdose; and Heather Lelache, the civil rights lawyer whose help he seeks out when he starts to question Haber’s treatment. Le Guin’s character descriptions are clever – both Haber and Lelache are introduced to the reader as they see themselves: Haber through his jovial doctor act: all exclamation points, exposition and bluff positivity; and Lelache through her own imagined alter-ego of a Black Widow spider and her expletive-dotted speech. It kind of feels significant that we don’t ever meet George via his view of himself though, he too is introduced to us through Haber and Lelache’s POVs, as slight, fair and passive. He seems to provoke the bully in both of them initially, and it is only as the world changes around the three that he becomes more solid, more strong and real. I love everything about the way George has been written. I love his apparent powerlessness despite being able to change the world, the whole philosophy he develops as a reaction to Haber’s abuse of his ability, and his changing relationship with Heather Lelache across the many alternate realities.

Like Paama in Redemption in Indigo, George is a hero that prods the reader into re-evaluating what they expect from a hero. We are told again and again in novels, on TV and in movies that heroes and heroines are the people willing to stand up and do what others can’t or won’t. Heroism is defined by action. But here Haber is the active to George’s passive, and Haber’s activity, often self-aggrandising, definitely overbearing and ultimately aiming to take George’s power for himself, is terrifying. Haber is so driven by action that he does not know himself, he puts on masks, he performs, but he never pauses or reflects, and so when he dreams effectively he breaks the world. George, on the other hand, holding the power to bring about immense change but knowing he has no ability to control that power attempts not to act so as to do no harm.

Being able to change the course of history via your dreams sounds like a kickass super power, but the way Le Guin has envisioned it, it’s a bitch. When trying to explain why he is so afraid to dream, George tells Haber about one of his first effective dreams which caused the death of his aunt. Later on, when Haber tries to ‘fix’ the overpopulation problem via George, they wipe out billions. Dreams are at once limited by the dreamer’s imagination and beyond control because everything dreamed becomes distorted. Haber gets angry with George for some of the results of his dreams (I could’ve slapped him on numerous occasions – he’s pretty high up on the list of most annoying characters ever), even though George tries to explain repeatedly that he has no control. It’s that whole power at a price thing. The numerous dystopias that play out during Haber’s fiddling would surely have a sane man questioning whether he should continue to do what he’s doing and considering that it’s George who manages to keep his head, and Haber that loses his, it makes you wonder which of them really needs treatment. (Dr Haber, would you care to take the couch?)

What’s also very cool is that George holds all the realities in his head. He remembers the before and after for each change that is made and as the various versions of the city of Portland that occur during those changes accumulate, so his memory becomes this many-layered montage of broken realities. In an early reality George and Heather arrange a meeting that every alteration pushes them further and further away from achieving. The whole idea of this poor man remembering so many versions of the world and navigating through them (with Heather as his geodetic North) kind of blew me away.

Finally, the Aliens are awesome. The story follows a lovely progression from believable to surreal that feels authentic to the way a dream plays out, and the Aliens are almost a joke when they first appear, a dream-fix means of bringing about peace on earth, a threat from off-world that unites us as a species. So far so trite. But they get interesting. As a product of George’s dreaming mind they are beautifully benign and they speak in a kind of dream-speak that I just love. And while, once they are a reality, they are real beyond George’s imagination, they seem to have an affinity for him, or a sense of what he is. They are beings of dream themselves, and come out with odd, wise things, like:

“What comes is acceptable”

And

“There is time. There are returns. To go is to return.”

And after all the hub-bub, and all the realities, and George and Haber’s wrangling, I liked that there was no reset, that the Aliens remain and become a part of everyday life with their peaceful sea-turtle ways and their go-with-the-flow attitude.

 

 

N.B. Nobody cares about this but me, but The Lathe of Heaven is not only a SF classic (published as one of Gollancz’s SF Masterworks) nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula awards and winning the Locus Best Novel award in 1972, but it also has a truly awful cover IMO, and was recommended to me by my friend R. So I could tick off three of my Book Bingo categories with just this one book if I wanted to. If I were cheating. I’m not though, so I’m counting it towards the SciFi Classic category. Achieved! Yay me!

Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord

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At work we’ve been thinking of ways to promote ‘crossover’ titles between the teenage and adult sections, having recently made a display space for this purpose. It’s something that interests me a lot, each person’s reading path, and I love suggesting something to a customer when they ask for some advice or direction (especially if they reveal themselves to be pro-SFF, whereupon I get disturbingly excited …). So, we decided to try a fairly simply (definitely been done before) “If you love … then you’ll love this!” thing, with our first theme being “Super Awesome Female Leads”. And so that it doesn’t just become a heap of our favourite books, I took a look online for suggestions and, among others, found a post by Scott Walker usefully entitled “Your Favourite Female Lead Characters in Fantasy Novels”, where I was both pleased and surprised to see Paama listed – the heroine in Redemption in Indigo, which I had just finished reading.

I picked up Redemption in Indigo to satisfy another of my Book Bingo categories (which I am getting a little obsessed about), one that I knew I’d find difficult – read a book recommended by a blogger. I’m not sure I can properly explain why this was going to be such a challenge, but I was super pleased that the completely-and-utterly-awesome Dina of SFF Book Review had just written a three-part post on her favourite diverse authors, all of whom are now on my to read list. The library has very few of the authors Dina writes about in stock (which is deeply frustrating), but Karen Lord was one of them, and I liked Redemption in Indigo because the title sounded like a poem and the cover was lovely.

And that’s how I got to here.

Karen Lord has written a brief but beautiful fairy-tale retelling of a Senegalese folktale. It’s a story that has a lot to say about storytelling and about human nature, with a cast of well-realised characters and set in a world where the walls between the everyday and the spirit realms are thin. For such a short book there is loads packed in, particularly some very cool magic I’d love to see more of, the undying djombi, who manifest as giant talking spiders (Yes!), men with indigo skin, talking insects or little girls as the mood takes them, and a wonderfully idiosyncratic narrator who throws in comment and opinion both about the story and about storytelling as the novel progresses. Ultimately it’s a story in which every character, human or otherworldly, is flawed in some way. It’s a story full of the mistakes and corrections and forgivenesses that make up any life. And while the magic in the story is big – beyond-space-and-time big – because the story is a human story, so too is that magic played out on a human scale.

Some books have a shape to them that you can sense going in, or after a few chapters. There are rhythms and patterns to stories that no doubt has a lot to do with the traditions that informed them. One of the things I really enjoyed about Redemption in Indigo is that I couldn’t see the shape of it. I had no idea what was coming next and was happy to just get swept up into it for a delightful few hours. Looking back on it now, it was a book of two parts, the first half having a very distinct shape compared to the second half of the story. This is not a criticism (as I’m sure I must have said before I will not do that). It gave the story a lovely organic feel, the feel of a story being told here and now, rather than having been written with all the shaping and editing that that entails.

 

So, I really enjoyed the book. And I loved Paama. But I’ve been trying to understand why I was surprised to see her on the list of favourite female leads in fantasy. And why I didn’t immediately add her to my own list of super awesome female leads for our display. Paama is an ordinary person who gets caught up in extraordinary affairs. Something I love. She is a woman who gets sick of her ridiculous husband, and so leaves him. Something I applaud. She is someone who can keep her head, make decisions and stay strong and sensible. Something I aspire to. In fantasy she is an anomaly … and I think this is the reason I didn’t think of her. At no point does she fight, or wield a weapon; she doesn’t have an inheritance or destiny to live up to; she does not feel herself different, apart or ‘other’. Paama is, in fact, the most awesome female character I have yet read. And this is proved conclusively when she goes back to Ansige when he is ill. She chooses when and if she will return to her no-good husband, and she does so out of compassion. Ansige doesn’t grow or learn from her return, but she still does it. She does the right thing. She doesn’t rely on magic or destiny or any kind of divine agency at any point, she just makes decisions and sees them through.

Paama. Is. Kickass. It’s a flaw in me that I didn’t see this immediately.

Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor

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I regret not taking notes while reading Welcome to Night Vale. I don’t actually know if they would have helped, but I’ve tried to write this piece four times so far, and got no further than saying, in a number of different ways, that it’s an odd book. In the absence of notes that may have helped me get some sort of perspective at least, I guess I should just start with that …

Welcome to Night Vale is an odd book.

It reads a little like something by Douglas Adams, written with that same straight-faced-ness while relating wildly fantastical events. The internet and the jacket blurb tell me that it’s based on an extremely popular podcast of the same name, which naturally I knew nothing about before picking up the book, (I am deeply uncool and so far behind the curve I’m paddling about in an unmapped backwater). I didn’t really feel the lack at all. It was a good book. After hitting a bit of a reading rut a couple of weeks ago this was the perfect antidote. It was plenty funny, it had a good mystery (more X-Files than Sherlock), great characters, and a soft and chewy centre.

So, if you don’t already know, Night Vale is an American desert town in which all manner of weird things both happen and exist. It’s a pretty cool place, (not in a Ooo-let’s-move-there-and-start-a-family kind of way, more in a that-sounds-cool-as-long-as-it-never-happens-in-my-actual-life kind of way … you know, like bungee-jumping, parties, plane journeys and circuses). The book opens with an explanation of how pawning an item works in Night Vale, which is the perfect way to warn you about what you’re letting yourself in for, and from there it’s pretty much a rollercoaster of strange through to the end. After that initial introduction there’s no further exposition on the town’s rules, you just have to roll with it as the two main characters Jackie and Diane, begin their – at first separate – investigations into two strands of the same mystery. The cast of characters was almost my favourite thing about the book: Jackie, who works in the pawnshop, is nineteen, but she’s been nineteen for a very, very long time; Diane is the only person who remembers a man called Evan who used to work in her office, and her party trick is being able to accurately guess peoples passwords; Diane’s son Josh is a shape-shifter, although that doesn’t do justice to the sheer variety of forms he takes during the course of the story; old woman Josie appears to be exactly that, but she is accompanied by a number of angels, all called Erika, that do not exist; Carlos is a scientist, but the kind of science he does isn’t like anything we’d call Science; and there’s a faceless old woman living in Diane’s house who moves things around and crawls on the ceiling like something out of a Japanese horror movie.

While Jackie and Diane do not particularly like each other, they come to work together as they realise that they both hold pieces of a larger puzzle. I feel like anything I say about the mystery they’re involved in will somehow spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read the book and wants to, so I’ll skirt round that, saying only that it was great fun to read and that the solution was as satisfying as the investigation. Over the course of the story Jackie and Diane make their way from a mutual grudging respect to a more genuine affection for each other that I thought was well done. They are very different people, Diane a single mom on the PTA who doesn’t break rules, and Jackie a cool, independent teen with a slightly tough-girl attitude, but they’re also both tenacious and strong, and can recognise that in each other. I basically read the book because of them, they drew me in, kept me interested and I wanted to see them both win through. I can think of tons of characters that are more exceptional, larger-than-life, and basically more ‘wow’, but Jackie and Diane are enjoyable (without once making me feel bad about myself).

My absolute favourite thing about this book though, was the Librarians. They get mentioned a few times before you actually meet them, and every time I just cracked up. The Librarians of Night Vale are dangerous, terrifying beings; a trip to the library a dangerous, terrifying prospect. (How could this not stir the heart of any library worker? To inspire such fear is something I dream about deep in my dark little heart!) I half expected it to be some sort of elaborate joke and that the Librarians would turn out to be totally inoffensive after all the hype. But no. Night Vale’s Librarians are scary. I’m not a huge fan of horror because I’m scared of enough things in real life without having to worry about all the imaginary things out there as well, but Welcome to Night Vale was really pretty darn scary. It’s a great adventure/mystery that has some surprisingly beautiful episodes surrounded by a lot of creepy ones, but that library? Scary. I’m just going to say ‘the Biography section’, and leave it at that. Make your own minds up.

“She drove home and grabbed the things she would need to check out a book: strong rope and a grappling hook, a compass, a flare gun, matches and a can of hair spray, a sharpened wooden spear, and, of course, her library card. She couldn’t remember exactly, but she made a silent prayer that she had no outstanding fines.”

Dragon’s Ring by Dave Freer

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I am a fan of dragons. A big one. And I have plenty of fantasy on my TBR pile that have dragons on their covers, in their titles, and as part of their storylines. I added the ‘Dragons!’ category to my Book Bingo card because it was an easy win, but when it came down to it I figured I should at least challenge myself a little. So, instead of picking any of the dragon books I already own, I chose Dragon’s Ring, which I found while browsing in one of our smaller libraries while working there back in January (sometimes my job is just the worst!). The awesome cover art by Bob Eggleton and the early-90s vibe of the jacket design instantly appealed to my most nerdy self and while I’ve seen Dave Freer’s name around, I knew nothing about him.

I am ridiculously pleased that I picked this book up. Not only was it a rip-roaring, rollicking read, but I now have a new author to obsess over who’s written plenty more for me to go hunt down, (which is the best kind of author to find). It was also not at all the story I was expecting. It has humour and a tightly plotted, fast-paced story, but on top of that it is written beautifully. Tasmarin has become my number one fantasy holiday destination. Freer writes it completely into being and by the end of the story I couldn’t quite get my head around the fact that it’s not a real place. It is a plane on which all manner of magical creatures exist, but is unstable, as the magics that hold it together and separate it from other planes of existence degrade. And as the plot unfolded, it became very important to me that Tasmarin not be destroyed … something that Fionn, the black dragon and anti-hero of the book, intends to do. Meb on the other hand, our heroine, holds the key to saving Tasmarin, but she quickly falls in with Fionn, and hilarity and high-jinks ensue. So far, so straightforward. However, Freer is not a one-idea kinda guy, and so there are plots and counterplots among the many vying magical species who have all been tied up in a wonderfully complex arrangement that has prevented any one of them from getting the upper hand over the others. Besides humanity’s overlords the dragons, there are the rather serious centaurs, the mischievous merrows, the elegant alvar, the craftsmen dvergar, the cold, single-consciousness, many-bodied Lyr, the dangerous creatures of smokeless flame and (my favourite) the tricksy giant Groblek. There were also once human mages, but dragons systematically exterminated them all … or at least, they thought they had.

There are plenty of disguises being worn throughout Dragon’s Ring, which is another thing I enjoyed very much. As a teenager I couldn’t get enough of stories where girls had to dress up as boys to achieve their goals/hide their true identities/find out secrets, and Freer satisfies that not-at-all-dead part of me by having Meb disguise herself as a boy after raiders attack her village. She spends most of the book in this disguise, leading to plenty of the usual (and some more unusual) mistakes and confusions that can be caused by a girl in boy’s clothes. Freer’s dragons are also creatures capable of diguise. They’re shape-shifters, although most of them look down their noses at taking on other forms, a snobbery which Fionn doesn’t share. Before this I have only read one other author who writes dragons that can shift between human and dragon form – Rachel Hartman, author of Seraphina and Shadow Scale – and I loved her vision of dragons as much as I do Dave Freer’s. It opens up new relationships between dragons and humans, and both authors take full advantage of that. In Dragon’s Ring it results in a quite touching almost-romance between Fionn and Meb that had me hooked. Usually romance either makes me feel nauseous (smooching, sex-scenes, unnecessarily long and detailed descriptions of a character’s physical traits), or makes me angry (love-at-first-sight and love-triangles: I mean, really? S/he’s just not that into you, move on, stop embarrassing yourself … love is something that develops over time, there’s no way you’re that far gone after one glance across a crowded room you empty-headed nincompoop …. Ooo, sorry! OK. Deep breath …), but Freer has a very light touch and an affection grows between Meb and Fionn as they travel across Tasmarin that remains unacknowledged until quite near the end of the book. And the ending itself? Crikey, it actually had me a little choked up … no mean feat! (I cry at the drop of a hat actually, but don’t tell anyone).

All the secondary characters are as beautifully realised as Fionn and Meb and I was particularly left wanting more of ‘Brys the merrow, Breshy and Motsognir the dvergar and Groblek the giant/mountain in love with the sea. And, of course, Díleas the dog, challenger of waves, worshipper of Meb, and friend to dragons (well, one dragon, anyway). The magic of Tasmarin is equally lovely. This is a magic that doesn’t rely on incantations or complex recipes, but works through desires and the energy running through all things. Much of the humour in the story comes from Meb’s unconscious use of magic to achieve either what Fionn has instructed her to do or what she herself wants to do. She learns to read in an afternoon because no one has told her it can’t be done, and she directs her magically-aided will towards doing so. She may not be the most kickass of heroines, but Meb has a fabulous determination that you just have to love.

All in all, Dragon’s Ring ticked all my boxes. It’s a book I will definitely read again, and an unsung treasure of our library that I will now go on to pester a great many customers to read … Man, I hate my job!

The Best Library Book I Ever Read!

It’s a special date on a UK library worker’s calendar when the CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenaway Children’s Book Awards shortlists are released. For me this is because (a) I lovelovelove all things list, and (b) I get to play with promotional materials – posters, bookmarks, stickers … all my favourite things. And this year, the two medals celebrate their 80th and 60th anniversaries respectively, so we got some extra interesting stuff, my favourite being some promotional postcards. There’s a whole bunch of different ones, but this is the only one I’m interested in:

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I know these things are for kids; I have been promoting these things to kids; but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to snaffle one of these for myself and fill it in at home, and feel no shame in doing so.

A fairly smart part of my brain was already thinking about how I’d like to blog about this and that I could write about the best library book I ever borrowed being the first one, the one that opened the door for all the others. The part of my brain that always has to go one better suggested that really it’s always the library book I’m reading right now, because as long as I’m reading a library book that means that libraries are still going, which can only be a good thing. And behind these two, the favourite part of my brain was waving a huge placard on which was pasted a very familiar, very precious (to me) book cover, and it was obvious to me there’s only one truthful answer I can give …

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I grew up in a fairly small English village. The library was (and still is) housed in a one-storey late 60s/early 70s building, low and square, with big windows at the front and back. Inside it was kind of an ‘L’ shape around the entrance and the staff desk and when we first joined it was presided over by a very strict, archetypal lady librarian of whom I was absolutely terrified. The rule was that children remained (quietly!!) in the children’s area. If you tried to pass the desk into the vast and tantalising unknown of the adult area she became a quivering tower of rage.

My brother and I were content to potter about in the junior section. It was where all the good stuff was. I discovered Asterix and found a very cool Usborne book on Greek myths and legends that I borrowed a number of times; I worked my way through Roald Dahl, and met Roger Llancellyn Green’s Robin Hood and King Arthur and Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch; I tried Enid Blyton, but she and I didn’t see eye to eye, so I made friends with Monica Furlong and Tamora Pierce instead; I was able to try whatever I wanted without worry or cost, (I actually made an exhaustive list of everything I ever remember reading a couple of years back, and then searched out pictures of the book covers for every single one – and yes, I know Goodreads would have been quicker, but I didn’t know about it back then, and I was enjoying myself anyway). The library became not a place but many places, all places, to me and that feeling you get when you find just the right kind of book, a book written just for you, kept me coming back again and again. I’ve never done drugs (assuming chocolate is not yet considered a drug) and I blame libraries! (Ha! I should totally get that printed up on a Tee-shirt).

At first Mom would take us to the library on weekends and in the holidays, but when I was eleven I started catching the train to secondary school and on my way home I would duck into the library on my own. A teen section had appeared by then (it was probably always there, but I didn’t notice it until it became interesting) and a new librarian too, who was a lot more relaxed about a young person’s movements around the shelves. And one evening after school a few years later, when it was very quiet, I remember (heart beating, palms sweating) walking past the staff desk and into the adult section. I live in fear of breaking rules (I blame libraries), but I wasn’t stopped or shouted at or paid any attention to at all. It was wonderful. I kind of scurried half way down the fiction bookshelves and hid in M to P. And when the sky didn’t fall in I started pulling out anything that looked like it might have magic in it. There’s a lovely subconscious thing that part of the brain does when you’re browsing bookshelves: while present you is looking for something interesting, past you and future you are casting about for old friends and sometimes you’ll find just as you start to move away that you’ll reach for something and it’ll be exactly what you were looking for. That evening, when I was beginning to think adults didn’t read anything good at all, my eye snagged on the word ‘dragon’. I pulled out two small paperbacks together, Dragonsong and Dragonsinger with beautiful wraparound artwork featuring the most delicate, elegant dragons I’d ever seen*.

I don’t remember anything about taking my haul to the desk, although I’m sure I was nervous about doing that too. I only remember that I started reading Dragonsong as I walked home, and that I was immediately in love. Smacked in the face with love for this world of dragons and fire-lizards, the dreadful Thread and the sanctuary of the Harper Hall. Absolutely head over heels for Menolly and Piemur and Masterharper Robinton. There are those who might think I’m being dramatic and hyperbolic and there are those few who will know exactly what I mean when I say it was like coming home. Better, it was like finding home just when I thought I’d never find it. Anne McCaffrey became a sacred name and I hunted out anything and everything she’d written. The library satisfied many of my demands, and her books became a perennial gifting period request. I read her over and over again. Because of her the adult section wasn’t forbidding or boring, instead it was where I went on to discover Terry Pratchett and Piers Anthony, Mary Stewart and David Eddings, Frank Herbert and Michael Swanwick. And on and on and on right up to now without pause or deviation.

I am reading a couple of great library books right now. I have a stack more by the sofa waiting to be read. That they’re there means libraries are still going, and that can only be a good thing. The very first library book I ever read opened up that world to me. I wouldn’t have got to here without starting there; in that way all my library books past and present echo back and forth to each other. But there was also a moment – for me as for everyone who loves libraries – when the library presented me with a gift, a book, written just for me at that moment in time, and I learnt that it wasn’t just a building, or a place, but a friend.

 

*I’ve just been hunting the web for the name of the artist (because I totally judged these books by their covers). The most excellent Internet Speculative Fiction Database which catalogues all things SFF bookish, including uncredited cover art, tells me that the artist was David Roe (you can find him by Googling ‘David Fairbrother-Roe’, in case you decide to do so). Thank you Mr Roe for your artwork, it will remain forever imprinted on my memory.