Unnatural Creatures edited by Neil Gaiman & Maria Dahvana Headley

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Image credits: Decorative phoenix by Tanantachai Sirival from 123RF.com; banner by imyril of onemore.org

Yet again I haven’t quite read what I planned during Wyrd and Wonder month. In part, this is down to these being extraordinary times and my reading moods not being as predictable as they would normally be. Still, we roll with the punches, eh?

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An interesting volume of sixteen short stories, the earliest first published back in 1885 and the most recent in 2013, Unnatural Creatures has been lurking next to the bed for the last two months as my antidote to not being able to get to sleep. Every time I’ve found myself unable to get comfortable or my head’s been buzzing with worry, I’ve grabbed it and been introduced to another strange creature that has given me something else to think about.

While there’s not one story here that I’d say was bad, there were a couple I found disappointing, mostly because of my expectations of the author. Every story that wasn’t Disappointing went into the Good pile or the Best pile. (It’s been on my mind recently that I am not discerning enough as a reader. I love so much of what I read, but I am not great at defining what I love about it, which makes for rather vague, rose-tinted posts that don’t tell anyone much. And when I don’t enjoy what I read, but still manage to finish it and write something about my feelings, I get … spitty – see my thoughts on To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip Jose Farmer for an example. I’m not one of those fabulous people who can become eloquently vitriolic, although I aspire to be. I wonder if I’m not taking the right kind of notes?).

 

Anyway, let’s start with the Good, shall we?

I was pleased to see Nnedi Okorafor in here because I like the way she writes even when I struggle to parse what she’s saying. Her contribution to Unnatural Creatures is a story called “Ozioma the Wicked” that tells of young Ozioma’s ability to speak to snakes and how she is treated in her village because of it, until a snake deity comes to town. It’s a story told in quick, sure strokes and concentrated language, and Ozioma feels so quickly like a living, breathing character that I didn’t want this one to end. It’s a good ending though.

“The Cockatoucan; or Great-Aunt Willoughby” by E Nesbit is a tale from a completely different school of storytelling. It made me think of Carroll and Lear and their sort of madness. I loved the arch tone of this one and I loved Matilda, reluctantly clean and neat ready for her visit to Great-Aunt Willoughby, imagining what would happen if she were to speak to her aunt the way her aunt speaks to her. That she gets to go on an adventure to the Green Land instead, and that her cross nursemaid Pridmore saves the day has the same feeling as Alice in Wonderland – it might have really happened, or it might all have been a dream.

Larry Niven’s “The Flight of the Horse” and “The Compleat Werewolf” by Anthony Boucher are also fun, funny and a little madcap (if not quite on Nesbit’s scale). Niven’s story sends poor Hanville Svetz back in time to find a horse, with only a children’s picture book image for reference and no idea what he might be up against. The humour is all in the reader knowing what Svetz doesn’t and the ending is punchline funny. Boucher’s 1942 story is a different kind of romp again, involving a werewolf, some spies, a Hollywood star, a magician and a couple of German professors. It reads like an adventure story after the slow-ish set up, complete with a daring chase, a double-cross and a desperate showdown. I was reluctantly drawn in (Professor Wolf is a grumpy sod at the beginning), but ended up enjoying myself thoroughly.

And the last of the Good ones is Peter S Beagle’s “Come Lady Death”. I’ve only read two novels by Beagle: A Fine and Private Place and The Last Unicorn, both of which I enjoyed, but didn’t love. And it was the same here. “Come Lady Death” is a good story, I was interested from beginning to end, but I didn’t love it either. Something about the shape of the story didn’t work for me. I did like, however, that it felt like a fantasy version of Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.

 

In the Disappointing pile we have: the oldest story in the bunch, Frank R Stockton’s “The Griffin and the Minor Canon”, which just didn’t grab me in any way; Gaiman’s own “Sunbird” which I found a mite predictable; and “Gabriel-Ernest” by Saki (H H Munro) whose short stories I am a big fan of, except this one. Also, “Prismatica” by Samuel R Delany, which I was really looking forward to reading after loving Driftglass back in January, but found fairly bland compared to his scifi; and “The Manticore, the Mermaid and Me” by Megan Kurashige, which I thought was … muddled. Although I really liked the manticore.

 

Finally, the absolutely Best ones. The opening story of the collection has a title, but I can’t reproduce it here. It looks like an audio-visual line with a small ink blot in the middle – that’s the best I can do. I dubbed the story “Unpronounceable”, but apparently its official-unofficial title is “Inksplot” and it’s by Gahan Wilson, a writer-illustrator-cartoonist with a creepy cast to his imagination. “Inksplot” was written in 1972 and tells its story through both words and illustrations. It is, in a word, delightful. Reginald Archer appreciates a clean and well-run household and is distressed to find a small black spot on his white tablecloth at breakfast. He summons his butler Faulks who doesn’t know how the spot came to be there and apologises profusely. Reginald retires to his study for the morning. The spot follows him there. It never moves whilst being watched, but the moment they look away … Find it and read it for yourself to discover what happens. I love this sort of odd tale and Wilson himself sounds like a fascinating chap from what I’ve read about him so far. I’ve already added a volume of his short stories to my wish list, and I can’t wait to read more. His cartoons are pretty cool too – they make me think of Gary Larson:

Eye Doctor by Gahan Wilson

Next up is E Lily Yu’s “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees”, another story that sent me off to hunt for more information about the author. Yu has a novel coming out in Autumn this year called On Fragile Waves and on the strength of her writing in this one short story I am very keen to get my hands on a copy. “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” tells the tale of the inter-relations between a human village, a colony of wasps and a hive of bees. It makes the real phenomenon of anarchism in bees a part of its plot and looks at social harmony and disruption, violence and the nature of authority. The story is available online here at Clarkesworld Magazine if you’re curious.

“The Sage of Theare” by Diana Wynne Jones is a Chrestomanci story and if I’d read nothing else in Gaiman’s selection I’d have read this because everything Jones has written is pure gold. And while her writing is a reward in and of itself, it didn’t hurt that this story features an invisible water dragon. A story with a very different mood “Moveable Beast” by Maria Dahvana Headley is another ‘odd’ one that gave me vaguely Welcome to Night Vale vibes. Angela, who works at Bastardville Dreamy Creamy (runner-up names for her hometown were Awfulton and Suck) tells the story of the town’s Beast and of Billy Beecham the Beast collector. Her tone is snarky and funny throughout and the ending was dust-your-hands-off satisfying. Again, I was happy to find that there’s more to read from Headley, who has written four books so far and has her latest, Beowulf: A New Translation, coming out in August this year. At this rate we’ll have to sell the car to pay for all the books I’ve now got to buy.

The last two stories on the Best stack are “The Smile on the Face” by Nalo Hopkinson and “Or All the Seas With Oysters” by Avram Davidson. I recently enjoyed Hopkinson’s The New Moon’s Arms for its well-drawn characters and beautiful hints of magic and “The Smile on the Face” delivers the same again. Gilla is such an appealing heroine that I’d really like to read more than just this one short story about her, her Mom and her best friends Kashy and Foster. The story captured all the awkward self-consciousness of being a teenager beautifully, and I will always be here for writers who feel no need to over-explain the magic in their worlds.

Oscar in “Or All the Seas With Oysters” wasn’t half as likeable as Gilla and I wasn’t sure at first where this story was going. Meeting Ferd improved things, but it wasn’t until he started putting together his theory about safety pins, coat hangers and bicycles that I really got interested. Poor Ferd. It’s a more dangerous world than any of us realise. In looking up Avram Davidson I found that one of his books has been published by Gollancz in their Fantasy Masterwork series. The Phoenix and the Mirror is about the poet Virgil, author of the Aeneid and powerful necromancer … so, you know, I have to read it now, (tell me you don’t want to read something with that for a blurb!).

 

Anyhow, I’ve prattled on far too long. This is a strong collection that I’ll go back to. I enjoy the dip-your-toe-in nature of short stories and how they can give you a glimpse into the wonderful, myriad brains of authors. Right now I’ve enjoyed it more than usual, finding that reading this collection has jump-started my enthusiasm again, which was definitely suffering under the unpredictable nature of the world at the moment.

 

 

 

 

 

Read-along: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (Week 4)

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Banner by imyril of onemore.org

 

This is the homeward stretch of the Wyrd and Wonder read-along. Our host Lisa of Dear Geek Place has been our guiding light along the way, and here she leads safely home. But let’s not count our chickens just yet … and be warned that SPOILERS still litter this last leg of the path!

 

Week 4 – Chapters 27 to the end 

Let’s start with Maia’s grandfather! What do you think of the Avar and his budding relationship with Maia?

Oh my goodness, the Great Avar! What a dude! I love his bullfrog coach. I love that he arrives with his own thunder (made by those ten black horses). I love that after the spectacle of his arrival, he himself is actually more impressive in person – a huge, perfect, bright-eyed goblin, (I have been fascinated throughout by the goblins having orange or red eyes, compared to the rather boring blue or grey of the elves). I love that he speaks and laughs loudly and claps people energetically on the shoulder, but that when Maia immediately confronts him about not writing back to his daughter, Maia’s mother, he appears sad and admits to powerlessness.

I loved, too, the Avar taking a hand in getting Maia a horse and riding lessons as much for Maia to carve out a little time for himself and his own pursuits as for the Avar wanting to share a passion of his own with his grandson. Between these lessons and Maia’s dancing lessons with his empress-to-be I was made up.

That we learn that Maia has a handful of aunts he didn’t know about before, illegitimate daughters of the Avar, but all acknowledged (and one a sea captain, no less!), was also fascinating. There were so many instances in this book where I wanted to know more, and this was yet another one. I feel like a lot of the information I want is implied, but I’d still love to know the full stories of the Avar’s daughters, of Vedero and her friends, of Setheris’ life and Csevet’s. I want to spend more time in this world.  


Another plot against Maia is foiled… Were you surprised by the reveal that Tethimar was the one behind the late emperor’s murder? And what are your thoughts on this reveal in light of the way this part of the story played out?

I was expecting Tethimar to do something, just not quite what he did. Although his attempt at assassination made Sheveän and Chavar’s behaviour look intelligent, I guess. It all made sense when it was explained, how he found himself in a corner after his plans went awry etc, but, honestly, I was far more disturbed by Narchanezhen and Shulivar. I am absolutely here for stories in which the workers join forces against the powers that be with the aim of improving their lot and/or destroying outdated traditions. What shook me up was how Narchanezhen used revolutionary rhetoric, but seemed utterly blind to the human repercussions, while Shulivar’s complete faith in his decision encompassed Maia’s own impact. Shulivar claims he “opened the way” for Maia and the change that he has brought and will continue to bring and when Maia argues that the cost was too high, Shulivar’s conviction that “it had to be done” left me chilly.

 


For all of the enmity that’s shown him, our emperor has a much more hopeful nickname by the end… Looking back, are you satisfied with/pleased by the way Maia handled all of the situations in which he had to make or break relationships? Was there anything you were left questioning or that you feel should have gone differently?

Right back at the beginning I expected this to be a lot darker and grimmer than it turned out to be. Opening as it did with Maia being bullied by Setheris, I felt sure he was going to have far more issues gaining respect and allies. That said, I am so glad it didn’t turn out how I was expecting. I loved that there were characters looking for the kind of compassion that Maia embodies, and that not everyone had thought his father such an amazing emperor that Maia was forever being overshadowed by his memory. At the end when Maia reflects briefly on the alliances he achieved, they outnumber the bridges he couldn’t build, and I really couldn’t ask for anything more. I would have hated to see him bend to Csoru, Sheveän, Chavar or Tethimar, because they’re all so unreasonable in their expectations.

And as for Setheris, Maia did what he could considering the hurt he carried. I was still expecting some awful final gambit from Setheris and didn’t really appreciate that last scene between the two back in chapter 25 for what it was. I had to go back and read it after I’d finished the book to see it for the impasse that it was, and to appreciate that there really wasn’t any other resolution. I forget sometimes that bullies are often cowards, only powerful because their prey is weak. Setheris really does not have any kind of power over Maia anymore. I’m glad of that.

 


Final thoughts or feelings?

Maia’s birthday! Oh, squeeee! Every time he couldn’t comprehend a kindness done to him my heart squeezed a little bit, but this was the absolute best. From the model airship given to him by the crew of the Radiance of Cairado – the crew that brought him from Edonomee to the Untheileneise Court and shared that first sunrise with him – to the incredible sunblade received from his empress-to-be, from the Corazhas session caricatures gifted to him by Lord Deshehar, to the emperor-clock from the Clocksmiths’ Guild, it’s all evidence of the impact Maia has already had as emperor. After all the awkward moments, bits of nasty gossip and attempts to usurp him, his birthday is like the much needed counter-argument. And just so squeeeeee!

 

 

You can find my previous read-along posts here:

Week 1 – Beginning to Chapter 9 inclusive

Week 2 – Chapters 10 to 17 inclusive

Week 3 – Chapters 18 to 26 inclusive

 

 

 

 

 

Dog and Dragon by Dave Freer

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Image credits: Decorative phoenix by Tanantachai Sirival from 123RF.com; banner by imyril of onemore.org

 

I read the first part of this duology back in 2017 and loved it. The black dragon Fionn and the unwittingly powerful mage Meb are both endearingly mischievous and delightful company. Add the unnaturally intelligent sheepdog Díleas to their little party and you’ve got the makings of a merry adventure, which is exactly what Dragon’s Ring was. Dog and Dragon picks up right where the previous book left off and Meb, thinking to save everything she loves, steps out of the world of Tasmarin and into the very different world of Lyonesse.

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The underlying structure of the worlds through which Fionn and Meb travel is very cool. Freer imagines many worlds, some with benign magic, some with dangerous magic, some with no magic at all. While not open to everyone, there are connecting paths and gateways between these planes, and Fionn, along with a handful of others, was created by the First at the beginnings of the universe to be a planomancer and keep the magical balance. In passing, Fionn refers to the Celtic and Nordic cycles of worlds, the inference being that there are hundreds more cycles, within which there are hundreds of worlds, in which every imaginable permutation of magic is presumably expressed. This is the kind of world-building that makes me grin from ear to ear because you can’t see all the way to the back. It’s beautifully huge and even if the story you’re reading only takes place in a tiny part of the world, you’ve still got that satisfying sense of things in the distance.

My problem now, however, is how to go on without spoiling Dragon’s Ring for those who’ve not yet read it (and you should). I shall do my best, but if it all gets a bit cryptic, not wanting to spoil things is the reason for it.

Meb’s arrival in Lyonesse appears to fulfil a prophecy in that world which puts her in the awkward position of being both loved and loathed at the same time by different groups. Loosely speaking, those with power hate her for the threat she poses, and those with none adore her for being nothing like the lords and ladies they serve. Her fantastic tendency to perform magic when afraid or absorbed continues unabated, and provides a lot of laughs, mostly because of the effect it has on those around her, but it’s funny too, for its peculiar logic: feeling unsafe, for example, she concludes that she needs a weapon, but as swords require a certain amount of skill, she summons an alvar axe of heroic proportions instead. And hides it under the bed.

Her arrival in Lyonesse also awakens many magical creatures that have lain dormant since … for some time. One of my favourite things about the first book was the throngs of alvar (elves, essentially), dvergar (dwarves), merrows (mer-people) and the creatures of smokeless flame (demons) that Fionn and Meb had to deal with, and it was with glee that I met spriggans, piskies, muryans, knockers and grundylows in this volume. And the cameos from Groblek the giant and the Lady Skay made me very happy.

But the hero of the story is, without a shadow of a doubt, Díleas. He steals every scene he’s in, whether wearing red booties to protect his paws, attacking three-headed giants, or riding in a basket carried by a black dragon. Meb is his mistress and since she cannot come to him, he is determined to go to her. There is just something about non-speaking characters that seems to skip past my thinking brain and speak directly to my feeling brain, something about a character (whether animal, human or other), who can only communicate with eyes and body language that makes me love them indiscriminately; (My husband Thumbs occasionally makes puppets of two toy bears we have, and just by tilting their heads and waggling their ears he has me feeling all protective towards them, which is ludicrous, I know). This is the effect Díleas has on me. He tips his head to one side, or stands poised, a paw lifted, sniffing for Meb, and I’m all gooey. He is, in every way, a Good Dog.

Hmmm … have I really told you anything that might make you want to read this book and it’s partner? It’s just been a lot of waffle really. Let’s see if I can salvage this post in any way. What’s to love? Great world-building. The kind of world-building that has enough scope for far more than just two books. Great characters. Fionn, Meb and Díleas are in both books, obviously, but otherwise each volume has a unique cast of deftly drawn characters. In the first book the dvergar artificer Breshy, the tricksy merrow Hrodenynbrys, and Groblek lord of the mountains, among many others, charmed me utterly. In this second book Meb’s young tirewoman Neve, the adorably gloomy spriggan (but no spriggan takes an individual name and they’re all gloomy, so I can’t tell you which one) Jack the knocker (but all knockers go by the name of Jack, so that doesn’t help you much either) and little Owain, son of Earl Alois, had me rooting for them. And great plot. Freer plots twisty-turny storylines and only neatly plaits together all his threads at the end, (I will say that I think Dragon’s Ring beats Dog and Dragon by a hairs breadth in terms of storyline, the second book being ever so slightly disappointing because one big threat to Fionn and Meb seemed to just fizzle away when I was expecting more of a bang).

Should you read these books? Yes, because I don’t think enough people have and they’re great fun. You can thank me later.

 

(Finally, and of no interest to anyone but me: Having read Dog and Dragon means I have actually finished something on my Great Series Read Project list – Hurrah Harroo!! Achievement unlocked! Cake all round! Woo!)

 

 

 

 

 

Read-along: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (Week 3)

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Banner by imyril of onemore.org

 

It’s week three of the Wyrd and Wonder read-along and our host Lisa of Dear Geek Placeyet again helps us to steer a path through the dangerous, winding ways of the Untheileneise Court. Things have ramped up considerably this week and there’s no way I’ll be able to avoid SPOILERS so please tread carefully!

 

Week 3 – Chapters 18 to 26 inclusive

These chapters open with a very candid, yet significantly warmer than most, conversation between Maia and Arbelan, and from there things begin to change as Maia learns to act with more confidence. Do you think Arbelan’s kinder treatment of him is what sparks this, and if so, how much of an impact do you think it had?

Maia has seemed determined from the first to do things as he sees fit, driven by compassion and empathy, which is a lot of the reason why I love him. Nevertheless, I think Arbelan’s kindness encourages him. Between his meals with her and his first meeting with his heir Idra, Maia is beginning to see that not everyone hates him, and that not everyone loved his predecessor.

I suspect some of his increasing confidence also simply arises from his growing familiarity with things. This role is to be his for life, without escape, so if he is not going to be a puppet for someone else, he has to stand up for what he believes in.

 

The river bridge scheme proves to be a delightful plot point to push a lot of character interaction forward, as well as opening up the scope of this world. Were you surprised by the developments involving Lord Pashavar?

I am loving this so much. I adored Maia’s meeting with Merrem Halezh and Mer Halezh from the Clocksmiths’ Guild, where they sat on the floor together looking at drawings. And I was totally surprised by the dinner party hosted by the Presider of the House of Blood, the Marquess Lanthevel, but in the best possible way. That Lanthevel is a scholar was unexpected and interesting, but even better than that was the discussion about the ‘Barbarians’ of the steppes, their way of life and, more particularly, their beliefs and the reasons for the Evressai Wars. It was like having a light shone on the world beyond Cetho and the Untheleneise Court.

And the bridge itself – or rather, the model of it – sounds so frigging cool. I’ve enjoyed the light steampunk touches that Addison has thrown in so far, but with the unveiling of the bridge I’ll admit to clapping my hands with glee. This isn’t just a regular old bascule bridge, it sounds more like a work of art. It feels so important that Maia be able to make this happen. Like, if he can just get this bridge approved, everything might be OK. I’m sure that sounds daft, but I so want him to believe in himself and this bridge could be the thing that empowers him (a symbol of what he can achieve).

As for Lord Pashavar himself, he may be stubborn and grumpy, but he doesn’t seem to hold any grudge against Maia and I feel like he is dealing with his new emperor without prejudice. I think Maia’s got his measure at any rate. I tentatively feel that Pashavar is a good (but so grumpy) egg.

 

 

Like a train gathering steam, a great deal of plot drama happens here. Let’s talk about Sheveän and Chavar. Were you surprised by their gambit? And how do you feel about the way it all played out (ie. Idra’s decision to put his foot down)?

I didn’t call this at all (it really shocked me, actually), but once they’d done it I decided Sheveän and Chavar are both stupid enough that I should have seen it coming. Sheveän seems to have allowed her emotions to run away with her to such an extent that she didn’t think to prepare her son for what she intended to do, or even try to gauge what his feelings might have been beforehand, (which makes me think she doesn’t see people as anything but pawns). Chavar, on the other hand, was just plain stupid for falling in with her hot-headed plan. I can’t imagine how they thought they would succeed, even as I am aware that it was only Idra’s response (and Nemer and Csevet’s quick reactions) that saved our emperor. Idra’s putdowns to his mother and the Lord Chancellor were perfect. He has earned a little heart next to his name in my notebook for being so thoroughly kickass.

And the scene in the nursery afterwards where Maia goes to see Idra and his two younger sisters was interesting, not only because none of them really care quite as much for their mother as they do for their tutor and their nursery maid (seriously, Sheveän, you poop head, your children are not tools), but also because Maia has to confront that Sheveän’s fate would have been his own – whether she is sent away or killed for her traitorous actions.
So yeah, I didn’t call that the Princess and the Lord Chancellor would attempt to remove Maia by force, but I was even more shocked by Dazhis’ betrayal. That was something else. Part of me assumed that Maia’s nohecharis must all naturally love him as much as I do because they see more than anyone else what he is struggling with. That someone could have seen his difficulties and judged him negatively kind of blew my mind. I still don’t know how I feel about what Dazhis did, or about his death.

 

 

We get another surprising turnaround from Ceredin, Maia’s intended empress-to-be, as well. What are your thoughts on her by the end of these chapters, compared to her initial impression?

I loved her letter about duelling Sheveän! Before that, when she confronted Maia about Min Vechin I felt a little itty bit of hope that she might prove to be more than just a prim and proper empress-to-be, especially as she is one of the few people Maia could possibly safely be friends with. Her fierce letter has given my hope tiny wings.

She now has a little heart next to her name in my notebook too.

 

The story, and perhaps the danger, is not quite over yet … any thoughts on what might be in store in the final chapters?

Csevet’s deep dislike of Tethimar and his memories of Eshoravee – the fortress Tethimar has suggested Maia take shelter in until the court has been “purged” – has made me very nervous about what that dude’s deal is. Why does he want Maia to come to his fortress, a place staffed entirely by locals and cut off from the court? Danger Will Robinson! Danger!

It’s hard not to see danger everywhere, but I think that now Sheveän and Chavar have played their hand we only really need to know where Setheris stands. I don’t think he is dangerous in the same way that they have been, but I feel that he needs to be confronted in some way (how can Hesero not know about his abusive nature?) and dealt with, even if all that means is that he is given a post away from my Maia.

 

 

The rest of my read-along posts can be found here:

Week 1 – Beginning to Chapter 9 inclusive

Week 2 – Chapters 10 to 17 inclusive

Week 4 – Chapter 27 to the end

 

 

 

 

 

 

Abhorsen by Garth Nix

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Image credits: Decorative phoenix by Tanantachai Sirival from 123RF.com; banner by imyril of onemore.org

 

OK. One last letter and we’re done …

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Dear Abhorsen,

So, here we are. I have to say I didn’t think things would end quite like this …

You’re not a believer in hanging around, I’ll give you that. Sure you take all that incredible world-deepening that Lirael worked so hard on, you even add a whole heap more, then you bring everything to the boil in real end-of-the-world style as you finally reveal what the Big Bad has been up to while the necromancer Hedge and his agent, Chlorr were distracting everybody.

At least you begin where Lirael left off, in the temporary refuge of Abhorsen’s House. I mean, OK, yes, you have Lirael and Sameth surrounded by the dead minions of Chlorr, but at least they’re in relative safety in the middle of the Ratterlin River.

And I do find Abhorsen’s House incredibly attractive. More so because none of you linger there long. And I suspect a lot of the attraction is that it is a protected, safe place in an otherwise sinister world. You surprised me a little, proving the House to be quite a bit bigger than I had first imagined it with Sabriel. There’s room for an orchard, kitchen, herb and rose gardens, and a paperwing landing platform. The house has three floors, and the tower holds a study and an observatory. It is peopled by a small army of magical ‘sendings’ who do all the work, from food preparation and laundry to house and grounds upkeep, which is probably the only slightly creepy thing about the place, (I have strong feelings about servants). It is a self-sufficient residence with or without its magical slaves however, and as I fantasized for much of my childhood about such a place, I am a little (a lot!) in love with it.

It is also where you give us our first clues as to the nature of the bells that both necromancers and the Abhorsen use, and the natures of Mogget and the Disreputable Dog. A lot of what you divulge about the character of the Charter and its beginnings, pulling together all those threads and strands belonging to your older sisters, could fill another volume at least.

You’re not one for letting anyone rest too long, however. Lirael and Sam have discovered their roles now, and while Sam is pathetically relieved to find he is not the Abhorsen-in-Waiting, I liked him much better once he was free of the immobilising fear he suffered in Lirael. Even while I could appreciate how traumatic his experience with Hedge had been I found it hard to like him, but I feel that that was the point Lirael was trying to make: people are at their best when doing what they’re good at/what they love. When we first met Sameth at the cricket match he was a confident, shining youth, and the confrontation with Hedge destroyed that boy. Sam could never go back to what he was before, but with a newfound purpose he can move forward now.

And for Sam, saving his Ancelsteirran school friend Nick from the clutches of Hedge and the Big Bad is the number one priority. Poor Nick. You give him a heck of a rough time. Not only does he not believe in magic of any kind, but he also happens to be possessed by a magical being. His predicament highlights one of the greatest things about you and your siblings, though. The interaction and contrast between the countries of Ancelsteirre and the Old Kingdom gives your stories so much of their energy. Neither place on its own is as interesting as the two existing in the same world. Ancelsteirre has got a kind of 1920s England sort of vibe with its girls’ and boys’ prep schools, and horse-drawn carts and early automobiles, but without the Wall (and its garrison of men forced into accepting that magic is a real threat) it’s a bit lack lustre. Likewise the Old Kingdom would be a little less interesting, just another pre-industrial fantasy setting, without Ancelsteirre right next door creating guns and cars and telephones only to find that these things don’t work close to the Wall, and in the Old Kingdom not at all. The frisson between the two is all important.

Ultimately what Lirael, Sam and the others are fighting for is relevant on both sides of the Wall. Death in and of itself is not a negative, but the false life after death of the possessed and the reanimated and their desperate clinging, clawing attempts to extend their existence beyond its natural span, threatens everyone, (because even if you don’t believe in magic, doesn’t mean – Nick – that it doesn’t believe in you). As your sisters did before you, you give the reader and the characters brief moments that remind us all what’s being fought for: sunlight and refuge, friendship and family, “Life” as Mogget succinctly puts it. I have only one criticism for Sabriel’s story and for Lirael’s and that is that neither woman gets to enjoy what they work so hard to save. It is implied, I guess, by Sameth and Ellimere’s existence that Sabriel has had some time at least to appreciate her life with Touchstone, but Lirael, who agonised that much more over her place in the world, is never given the page space to be embraced by her new found family. I hate those movies that don’t show people happy after they’ve survived a natural disaster or a stabby psychopathic killer, too, I need to know that all the struggle was worth it, you know? I know you can’t change your nature and I’m not asking you to, but I want you to understand why you’ll never quite be as dear to me as Lirael is.

And you ending near killed me. On the one hand, Mogget’s reason for weighing in and getting to see the Ninth Gate were beautiful moments. On the other, the cost was just too great, (and someone being brought back to Life didn’t make up for it either). I owe you an apology for the state of your last few pages, I haven’t cried that hard in quite a while.

 

I know I’ve criticised you, but for all that I am happy here, right now, having read the story you had to tell. If I never read another new word about the Old Kingdom, I will still cheerfully visit you again, if you’ll have me. Between Sabriel, Lirael and yourself it’s been a terrifying, funny, absorbing and deeply satisfying journey. Thank you.

 

With love

Book Forager

 

“I have never known what to tell anybody. Except that it is better to do something than nothing, even if the cost is great.”

Sabriel in Abhorsen

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read-along: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (Week 2)

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Banner by imyril of onemore.org

 

So, we’re into the second week of the Wyrd and Wonder read-along and oof, it’s been a heck of a week. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve run the emotional gamut from despair to hope and back again. Fortunately, that most marvellous of hosts Lisa of Dear Geek Place has provided prompts that have helped me get my thoughts into some sort of order.

Please be warned that, as before, there will be SPOILERS!

 

Week 2 – Chapters 10 to 17 inclusive

So many verbal encounters. So much political muck! Let’s start with Princess Sheveän, who seemed so very outraged at the idea of the late emperor’s body being ‘desecrated’. Do you buy that as her reasoning? Or do you think she was making a scene for another reason?
Ooooooooo, I don’t like Sheveän at all. I think all her uppity-ness is more to do with Maia using the widow empress’ cousin Celehar as Witness for the Dead and thus conferring favour on Csoru, than any real concerns over desecration. I am, however, one of those slightly stupid readers who needs to be told what to think, so if there are other implied reasons for her strop, I haven’t picked up on them. I sort of feel that she just wants to make it plain from the get go that she doesn’t like Maia and considers herself of enough consequence that she doesn’t need to curry his favour. Perhaps she hopes, by making her position plain, to draw other malcontents to her?

All I know for sure is that if she hurts my Maia she better watch her back … *spit*

 


Cala and Vedero both have some hard but pragmatic advice for Maia here: Cala’s concern is for the emperor being seen to be weak for treating his nohecharei as equals when their job is to protect him; and Vedero’s situation is different but her concern is basically the same as Cala’s. She seems alarmed at the idea that Maia might go against society and tradition by refusing to bargain for a marriage for her. How do you feel about these scenes, and the conversations between them? Are they being too harsh and/or cynical, or is Maia simply being too naive?
Oh my goodness, the scene with Cala killed me! My hope is that Maia will eventually win Cala and Beshelar over that they can be friends, but I’m pretty sure that’s just wishful thinking. But if he can’t be friends with them, nor with Csevet, then who can he be friends with? He spends more time in their company than in any one else’s, and at least when he’s with them he can’t be accused of favouritism. It just seems like one punishment too many – Maia is struggling with so much and then Cala delivers that killing blow: “We cannot be your friend”.

Maia’s dealings with Vedero have been interesting so far, and I’d like to think she might warm to him, or at least realise he’s nothing like their father. I get the feeling she is distant to protect herself. She doesn’t want to be married, but is aware that she is a valuable pawn in the game of empire whose own desires cannot be taken into account. That Maia startles her out of her armour, even if just for a moment, gives me hope that she might come round. Whether she does or not, I cheered Maia for sending his note. In fact, every time he does something that makes another character splutter, rage or protest I wave my little imaginary Edrehasivar VII flag and cock a snoot at the court.

 


Setheris attempts to come at Maia from his more abusive position, clearly intending to railroad his cousin into giving him a position at court he feels is worthy of him. Yet Maia sticks to his intention of sending Setheris somewhere he will not have so much easy access to the new emperor. Do you think, with that, that Setheris’s days of troubling Maia are over?
Setheris has been lurking in the back of my mind since this scene, it was fraught. He’s the character I would most like to see destroyed, not by Maia, but as a result of his own self-love and his bullying nature. Part of me thinks that there really is no way that Setheris can get at Maia now that he is forever in the company of some witness or another. But there’s a little voice in my head that keeps saying it can’t be that easy. There will be trouble from Setheris yet, I think. That he’s going to work for the Lord Chancellor doesn’t bode particularly well, being as Chavar seems to hate Maia too, and Setheris knows Maia in a way that no doubt Chavar could use.

I am very worried for Maia right now.

 


A discovery is made that the sabotage of the Wisdom of Choharo may have been caused by the Cetho Workers League – a “dissident group”. Do you think this will lead to a resolution of the investigation, or did the plot just thicken?
The plot just thickened. I could stand a spoon up in it it’s so thick.

 


Maia’s grandfather is coming to court for Winternight, though this seems to please Maia far more than it pleases Chavar … What do you make of Chavar’s open disagreeableness during the dinner at the ambassador’s home? Is it plain arrogance (albeit the racist kind), or do you think his disapproval of goblin folk runs deeper than that?
I am so excited about this! I can’t wait to meet the Great Avar of Barizhan and see how he will treat Maia. I don’t want to get my hopes up, but elves seem, in general, to have a low opinion of goblins, and so I’m inclined to believe that the goblins will be better people than the elves. I know it’s a ridiculous assumption to make and I’ll probably be disappointed, but there it is. When Maia thanked the goblin ambassador Gormened for the nesecho and Gormened said that he wanted to convey to Maia the reassurance that not everyone is against him, I nearly cried. That Gormened’s wife also takes the trouble to provide a small distraction after Maia’s very brief speech at the dinner made me feel all warm and fuzzy. It may not yet mean much, but these small things could become friendships of a kind.

As for Chavar’s behaviour … I think he is just a racist asshole. I feel now that he won’t be the most dangerous threat to Maia. He’s pompous and overbearing, but I don’t think he’s going to be able to play against Maia because Maia is’n following any of the rules Chavar understands. I don’t know if that makes sense, but I’m feeling now like Chavar is too obvious an enemy and that there’ll be something worse than him to deal with.

 

 

Any other thoughts and feelings?

What’s Csethiro Ceredin, Maia’s chosen empress-to-be, going to be like? Friend or foe? Help or hindrance? I am both dreading meeting her, and I can’t wait.

Lord Berenar’s offer to tutor Maia in the proceedings of the Corazhas and more generally in the ways of the court seems generous. First it made me feel that Maia now stands a chance, until it occurred to me that Lord Berenar may be doing it for some nefarious reason I can’t see yet, then I went straight back to worried. This seems to be the pattern with every new event – I’m hopeful then suspicious, or suspicious then hopeful, and never for more than five minutes at a time before I’m back to the first emotion again. Seriously, I’m up and down like a yo-yo with this story!

And we’re about half-way through and I never want this to end!

 

 

 

The rest of my read-along posts can be found here:

Week 1 – Beginning to Chapter 9 inclusive

Week 3 – Chapters 18 to 26 inclusive

Week 4 – Chapter 27 to the end

 

Lirael by Garth Nix

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Image Credits: Decorative phoenix by Tanantachai Sirival from 123RF.com; banner by imyril of onemore.org

 

So, it turns out I’m continuing the letter format here, but only because it felt rude to write to Sabriel and then not to write to Lirael and Abhorsen. Sorry if it gets annoying, but, as I’m sure you all know, books have feelings too.

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Dear Lirael,

If I enjoyed the tense, non-stop adventure of your sister volume Sabriel I am nonetheless grateful that you are a very different kind of book. Not only were you published six years after Sabriel, you also tell the story of the Old Kingdom fourteen years into the reign of King Touchstone and his Abhorsen queen Sabriel. And while there is yet another Big Bad brewing in the background, you are much more concerned with broadening our view of this incredible world, and then introducing us to all the newly relevant characters and manoeuvring each of them into the correct place for Abhorsen to deal with.  

Which is to say, Lirael, that you are my favourite of these first three Old Kingdom books.

 

Mostly because I really like your namesake Lirael herself. It’s her fourteenth birthday when you introduce us to her and it’s not a happy occasion, serving only to remind her that she has yet to gain the Sight that will make her truly one of the Clayr and an adult. Already unusually dark-haired and pale-skinned amongst the white-blonde, brown-skinned Clayr around her, Lirael feels her difference keenly. She’s a quiet, introverted type, prone to despair, without friends or closer relatives than an aunt she feels no fondness for. I don’t know if it’s the way she’s written, or the mood I was in when I read this, but she’s a character I immediately felt heaps of empathy for. She seems very real to me.

 

“… it was not uncommon for librarians to lay down their lives for the benefit of the Clayr as a whole, either in dangerous research, simple overwork, or action against previously unknown dangers discovered in the Library’s collection.”

 

And, like many of we odd types, she finds a place working in a library. A Great Library no less, where climbing ropes and swords are as much a part of a librarian’s daily kit as pens and keys, (seriously, you couldn’t have enticed me in any more successfully had you been offering free cake!). In the Library she finds work that enables her to forget more easily all that she isn’t, as she satisfies her desire for knowledge and hones her Charter Magic skills. She explores mysterious and forbidden areas and reads dusty, forgotten tomes, and if you had been about nothing more than this, I’d have been happy. But you’re not one to be outdone by Sabriel and you soon have Lirael accidentally releasing malevolent creatures and, far more importantly, a benevolent one called the Disreputable Dog.

(The Disreputable Dog is fabulous. A joyous, impatient, adventurous, funny and affectionate delight. And the friend that Lirael sorely needs. I could go on and on about just how much I loved her, but it really would be indistinct ramblings, so let’s just say I love her, and she is another big reason why I love you, and move on, shall we? All the hearts).

You’re a lovely chunk of a book and you’re generous with the time you allowed me to spend getting to know Lirael, her people the Clayr and the Disreputable Dog, before introducing me to Sabriel and Touchstone’s son Sameth, and daughter Ellimere. I’ll admit I struggled to like Sam. He’s a well-drawn character with his own set of concerns and he is interesting, but I didn’t warm to him until I moved onto Abhorsen. This is absolutely not your fault. Your young characters are beautifully drawn, and you give both Lirael and Sameth plenty of room to wrangle with the problem of inherited expectations. Maybe I simply don’t like Sameth as much as Lirael because if I were in his position I would have been just as afraid.

I love how much more I’ve learned about the workings of Charter Magic in reading you. The magic of the Old Kingdom feels like it should be real and I am not a little in love with the idea of a net of magical symbols running through and around everything, both describing the world and binding it. I am fascinated by this magic wrought by creating chains of these symbols, using them to illustrate what the magic-worker wants to happen and how, with master marks used to increase the strength or efficacy of the spell. You have left me wondering how the more dangerous Free Magic is performed, however, and I’m not sure you ever plan to enlighten me, do you?

The necromancers and Free Magic creatures within your pages are the most perilous enemies Lirael, Sam and their friends face, when they’re not dealing with the reanimated Dead in one form or another and I enjoyed that you took your time to build up the tension. You introduce us to the necromancer Hedge and sorcerer Chlorr of the Mask in your prologue, but then use them sparingly and to great effect to create a sense of menace. The political situation across the Wall in Ancelsteirre does this too. The situation involving Southerling refugees and the growing strength of the ‘Our Country’ party at first seems to have little to do with the brewing trouble, except as a possible distraction, but it soon becomes clear that the two countries are more entwined than anyone realised.

 

If Sabriel was a terrified full-tilt dash for safety, you are a strenuous hike that allows your reader time to appreciate the scenery. You are also a two-part climb. Sabriel stands alone, but you and Abhorsen are sharing your story between you. Thankfully, being a reader who is always late to the party is an advantage here: I was able to put you down, stretch, go and get another drink and dive straight into Abhorsen. Don’t feel abandoned, I have only left you temporarily. I promise I’ll be back. Like I said before, you’re my favourite.

Hugs and Kisses,

Book Forager

 

PS

I don’t know whether it’s just the blue of your cover, but you’re my favourite volume visually as well. You’re moody and dark, and you feel heavy in my hands. You are, in all ways, a Quality Book. Don’t ever change.