Monthly Archives: July 2011

Provocative in Pearls, by Madeline Hunter

Title: Provocative in Pearls  (Rarest Blooms #2)
Author: Madeline Hunter
Year of Publication: 2010
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Regency romance
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 3 stars (though possibly just barely)

I didn’t like this quite as well as the first book in the series, mostly because I had some trouble connecting with the heroine. She came off as a little cold, and, honestly, a little dim. Her problems had many solutions that she just wasn’t seeing, and it sort of made me want to throw things at her. It’s still a decent read, though. I warmed to the hero more than the heroine, and Hunter continues to provide intricate, engaging plotlines.

Hawkeswell is a broke earl, nigh-impoverished by inherited debts. Two years ago, he made a deal to marry the daughter of a deceased iron baron — a wealthy heiress being exactly what he needed to set his affairs in order. What he didn’t know is that the girl in question had been abused by the cousin who had wardship of her until her 21st birthday, and that she had not freely consented to the marriage at all. Verity disappeared hours after their wedding, leaving Hawkeswell to deal not only with his debts, but with suspicions regarding her apparent death in a river as well. Unfortunately, since she can’t actually be declared dead without a body, Hawkeswell can’t find another heiress to marry.

So, imagine his surprise when he stumbles across his wayward bride at the Rarest Blooms, when he visits there with his friend Sebastian and Sebastian’s wife Audrianna (heroine of the previous book, Ravishing in Red). She is, in fact, the “Lizzie” who had been living there for the past two years. Hawkeswell wastes no time reclaiming his bride, but Verity, who’s grown accustomed to a certain degree of independence (and who has turned 21 in the meantime) presses for an annulment. Hawkeswell has no reason to give it, and decides he has to seduce his wife into staying with him. In the meantime, Verity keeps hatching plans to get away, none of them very well-thought-out, all naive, all demonstrating that she has no idea how the world actually works, and all of which fail rather spectacularly.

What bothered me about the interaction between Hawkeswell and Verity is that… I just felt like things should’ve come together much more strongly than they did. Verity gives in to his seduction and accepts that means she’s pretty much stuck with him, and though affection grows, you never quite feel the swell of overpowering love. And if that had been more pronounced, I think, maybe other things would’ve fallen into line better. Verity wants to retake control of her father’s iron foundries, to improve life for the people there who have been suffering under her cousin’s rule. She can’t do so directly, however, because she’s married now, and her (controlling) share in the company passed to her husband’s name. Now, what would seem obvious to me is for her to make clear to him how important these things are to her, and fix things up there with his help. Instead, we get a somewhat clumsy solution, which stems not from cooperative power, but from Hawkeswell beating her sinister cousin into submission. Literally. I’m not all that bothered by Hawkeswell’s temper and domineering manner generally — throughout the book, he’s very firm with Verity, but frankly, she needs it — but I don’t see this as a sustainable solution to the problem. It didn’t stem from them working together as a couple, and so it fell short of being satisfying. It never really got to a point where you got the sense that Verity was willing to work with Hawkeswell rather than against him.

I was also somewhat disappointed in the ending, if only because Hunter skips right over what would be the climactic moments of the plot. Something exciting’s about to happen (again, under Hawkeswell’s steam, with Verity entirely uninvolved), and then the curtain drops at the end of a chapter, and when it picks up again… everything’s over and settled and we didn’t actually get to see any of the action. Hunter does give it a nice twist, though, in the denouement, which somewhat makes up for it. I don’t want to give it away, but what I will say is this: these are both very practical people. Even their gushing romance has a very practical edge to it. I’m simultaneously a little bored by that (it not being my mode of operation at all) and impressed at the somewhat more realistic tone to put in a romance novel.

I have no complaints about the steamy portions of the novel. Hunter continues to be willing to kick the heat up and let her characters revel in sensuality. I just wish the sex had been paired with what felt like more honest depictions of growing love.

Overall, a decent enough read, though not one I’ll feel compelled to return to anytime soon.

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Lords and Ladies, by Terry Pratchett

Title: Lords and Ladies
Lords and LadiesAuthor: Terry Pratchett
Year of Publication: 1992
Length: 400 pages
Genre: fantasy / humour
New or Re-Read?: many times re-read
Rating: 5 stars

This isn’t just my favourite Pratchett book; this is one of my all-time favourite books. One of the books that will make the list if someone asks me for my Top Five.

Like Wyrd Sisters, Lords and Ladies spirals around a Shakespearean plot, although considerably more loosely than Wyrd Sisters does (there are, however, subtler quotes peppered in all over the place, which is a delight to as thorough a Shakespeare geek as I am). At the essence of it, though, we have fairies, and a wedding: Magrat “wet hen” Garlick is about to marry King Verence II, lately of the Fool’s Guild. Verence has determined to be the best king he can, based largely on advice out of books he’s had sent from Ankh-Morpork. His efforts are continually frustrated by his citizenry, who don’t think a king has any business telling them how to farm since they don’t tell him how to king, and who are so vehemently anti-democracy that they’ve opposed all his efforts at instilling a more egalitarian form of parliamentary government on them. Magrat is caught between witch and queen (aware that she can’t be both unless she’s willing to go the route of behaving wickedly and wearing low-cut gowns), and is fed up with Esme and Gytha acting like queen is second-best option.

Esme and Gytha, meanwhile, are dealing with some young upstart witches — one of my favourite bits of satire in the book. Whereas Magrat is clearly inspired by New-Age-y, hippie type witches, what with the flowy garments and Eastern influences, the younger set — Diamanda (nee Lucy), Perdita (nee Agnes), Magenta (nee Violet), and the rest — are clearly inspired by the more recent Goth-type witches. I know what it’s like to be young and foolish, and while I flatter myself I was never quite so arrogantly obtuse as Diamanda, well, maturity’s memory does tend to gloss over the more shameful elements of years’ past. At any rate, reading about these girls is utterly satisfying, both as someone who has no patience with that sort of nonsense now and as someone who still retains a touch of nostalgia for that irreplicable feeling of being so young and so sure. It’s probably because Pratchett handles it so well, as he always did with Magrat’s brand of lunacy — it might be ridiculous and ludicrous, yes, of course, but it isn’t mocked in a truly cruel way. There’s still an indication that it either comes from the heart, from some place of purity (in Magrat’s case), or that it at least comes from a combination of youthful indiscretion and the near-painful imperative to know who you are and what you want to make of yourself, which may lead down absurd paths and rightfully earn some gentle ridicule, but which can’t be condemned, all the same, because we’ve all been there. I can laugh at Diamanda and Perdita and Amanita because I am, at least a little bit, laughing at myself, ten or twelve years ago.

Unfortunately, Diamanda’s wounded pride gets the better of her after she loses a witching contest against Esme, and she does something truly foolish — something that opens Lancre up to a fairy invasion.

And now we get to what I really love about this book. This book treats the Fae properly. Which is to say, as terrifying creatures who are the reason iron horseshoes are considered lucky, because we once needed it to protect us; as hypnotizing, merciless, pitiless, and unfeeling; as dangerous and carelessly destructive, thieves of children, slayers of cattle, ruiners of crops, who steal everything and leave nothing and take and take and take; as the dark truths behind a hundred nursery rhymes where, as Pratchett puts it, protective charms and cautionary warnings are passed down “from grandmother to grandchild in little bits of nonsense they won’t bother to forget.” In a way, the book is a nice satire of the transformation the Fae have undergone in the last two hundred years or so. The Victorians and Edwardians turned them nice, turned them into cute little things who grace stationary and can be portrayed delicately in watercolours. I don’t know whether I blame James Barry or the pre-Raphaelite painters more. It’s starting to swing back the other way, though (thanks in part to this book and to Neil Gaiman’s Stardust and Sandman), and the darker interpretation makes for much more interesting stories. A lot of those nursery rhymes and poems find their way, explicitly or not, into the story — the ballad of Tam Lin, Thomas the Rhymer, Arthurian legends, Cornish prayers. (I refer my Gentle Readers once again to the L-Space if you need a cheat sheet).

Then there’s the fact that this book hits on another of my favourite topics — parallel universes. Because Pratchett sums it up in a way that I think is pure genius:

There are indeed such things as parallel universes, although parallel is hardly the right word — universes swoop and spiral around one another like some mad weaving machine or a squadron of Yossarians with middle-ear trouble.

And they branch. But, and this is important, not all the time. The universe doesn’t much care if you tread on a butterfly. There are plenty more butterflies. Gods might note the fall of a sparrow but they don’t make any effort to catch them.

Shoot the dictator and prevent the war? But the dictator is merely the tip of the whole festering boil of societal pus from which dictators emerge; shoot one, and there’ll be another one along in a minute. Shoot him too? Why not shoot everyone and invade Poland? In fifty years’, thirty years’, ten years’ time the world will be very nearly back on its old course. History always has a great weight of inertia.

Almost always…

At circle time, when the walls between this and that are thinner, when there are all sorts of strange leakages… Ah, then choices are made, then the universe can be sent careening down a different leg of the well-known Trousers of Time.

I’ve taken to using the Trousers of Time metaphor when discussing this sort of thing, and it either goes over quite well or like a lead balloon depending entirely on how willing my conversational partner is to accept my madness and move along. I do feel rather like Gytha pausing to explain the essential fractal nature of reality.

The wizards of Unseen University make an appearance in this book as well, and we find out some interesting details about the youth of Mustrum Ridcully, and that of Esme Weatherwax. We get some great jokes about quantum mechanics and the perils of discussing physics in a world that hasn’t quite invented it yet. We also get to see the magic of witches contrasted with that of wizards, with the note that everyone may be right all at the same time (because that’s the thing about quantum).

We get more of the normal folk of Lancre: from Jason Ogg and his artisan brethren (even if they don’t what an artisan is, much less a rude mechanical), a group of morris dancers prepping a play for the royal wedding (and under no circumstances performing the infamous Stick and Bucket dance); Hodgesarrgh, the falconer whose birds are only adept at maiming him; a cook who doesn’t believe in vitamins; a beekeeper whose trade involves such deep mysteries that he doesn’t feel the need to bow to royalty; a darling chambermaid named Millie with a tendency to bob and mumble. In addition, Jason gets visited by Death, not for the usual reason, but to shoe his horse, Binky — because Jason is the smith of Lancre, and the smith of Lancre can shoe anything, thanks to mysteries passed down to him. (There are a lot of trade mysteries in this book, come to think of it — it’s one of the subtler themes that can get a little lost under the fairy muddle, but there’s definitely quite a lot about the value of collective and hereditary knowledge).

All these disparate pieces weave together so beautifully that you hardly notice until they’ve collided into each other in perfect orchestration. Lords and Ladies is, apart from hitting so many of my favourite buttons, one of the more beautifully constructed books I’ve ever read — mostly because you don’t even think about how beautifully constructed it is unless you really pause to step back from it and consider. It isn’t one of those books that hits you over the head with how precise and meaningful its arrangement is. It slides right by your conscious brain and into your background awareness.

Another thing I like about this book is that the prose gets so elegant in places. Pratchett may be a humour writer, but that doesn’t mean there’s anything unsophisticated about his style — and when he really lets loose, it’s just gorgeous. This post could easily be nothing but my favourite quotes from this book, and it would still be twice as long as any other review. There’s just that much good stuff in there. And he slips in and out of it with such ease, so gracefully — it becomes ludicrous and hilarious again so swiftly, but the poignancy still lingers, trailing on behind you as you keep reading. I can’t resist leaving you with another, so take this last snippet before I wrap things up:

There used to be such simple directions, back in the days before they invented parallel universes – Up and Down, Right and Left, Backward and Forward, Past and Future…

But normal directions don’t work in the multiverse, which has far too many dimensions for anyone to find their way. So new ones have to be invented so that the way can be found.

Like: East of the Sun, West of the Moon.

Or: Behind the North Wind.

Or: At the Back of Beyond.

Or: There and Back Again.

Or: Beyond the Fields We Know.

And sometimes there’s a short cut. A door or a gate. Some standing stones, a tree cleft by lightning, a filing cabinet.

Maybe just a spot on some moorland somewhere…

A place where there is very nearly here.

Nearly, but not quite. There’s enough leakage to make pendulums swing and psychics get very nasty headaches, to give a house a reputation for being haunted, to make the occasional pot hurl across the room.

So. I love this book. If you read only one Pratchett book ever, read this one. If you read only one book about fairies ever, read this one. If you read only one book I recommend, read this one. It’s a masterpiece.

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Ravishing in Red, by Madeline Hunter

Title: Ravishing in Red  (The Rarest Blooms #1)Ravishing in Red
Author: Madeline Hunter
Year of Publication: 2010
Length: 341 pages
Genre: Regency romance
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 4 stars

I really enjoyed this book. More than I’ve enjoyed a new romance (or a new author) in quite some time.

Ravishing in Red is a compelling read. It nicely balances a good, steamy romance with an interesting mystery plot. Audrianna (who I will forgive for having a bit of an excessive name) is trying to clear her father’s name, after he was accused of, either negligently or traitorously, passing along non-functional gunpowder to the British army during the Napoleonic war. Disgraced, he hanged himself, leaving his wife and two daughters in a rather tight spot. When Audrianna reads a newspaper ad from someone called “the Domino” claiming to have information for him, she decides to turn up. Unfortunately for her, so does Sebastian Summerhays, the MP and younger brother of a war-injured marquess, who led the investigation against her father. They get caught in a compromising position, Sebastian accidentally gets a little bit shot, and eventually the scandal starts to spread.

In what I think is a really great move on Hunter’s part, they don’t leap to the “We must marry to protect reputations!” solution immediately, as a lot of books will do. Quite sensibly, they rather hoped the incident would blow over without scandal — but when it doesn’t, they have to take action. I also like that it’s not just about her reputation. It’s very much about his as well. The scandal paints her as a poor, beleaguered innocent caught in a bad situation and him as a conniving cad, abusing his power and authority to seduce her. Her virtue may be seen as compromised (even though it wasn’t), but in a way that the public sort of sees as romantically tragic, whereas Sebastian’s political clout is very much in jeopardy. It was a nice rebalancing of the gender issues and assumptions you generally see in the compromised-into-marriage trope.

Neither one of them is willing to give up the chase regarding the truth about the gunpowder, though, even though it pits them against each other and uncovers quite a few nasty secrets along the way. They start getting unwittingly tangled in each others’ viewpoints and considerations, and it’s a nice way of drawing the couple together, as each eventually ends up pulling for the other team a bit.

The sex is really quite good. A lot of historical authors, particularly of Regencies, pull their punches a bit when it comes to the dirty stuff. Hunter doesn’t, and I’m thrilled about it. I don’t like reading contemporary romances, but I do like to see interesting, creative sex. (There was also a very naughty moment involving a secondary character, but one who I believe gets his own book later in the series — and I’m really looking forward to it, considering that his wickedness got me even more hot and bothered than anything the hero and heroine did). I also like the Hunter indulges in the descriptions a bit, both of the physical and the emotional. It would sound absolutely ridiculous read out loud, because it verges just a touch into the overblown and excessive, but read to yourself, it’s heady and entrancing.

Much as I enjoyed the book, there are some flaws. I think both the hero and heroine get over their issues regarding each other a bit too easily. I feel like Hunter glosses over some of the trust issues a bit, burying them beneath raw lust. There’s also something about her writing style that sometimes makes shifts in point-of-view a bit jarring and abrupt.

So, overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. So much so, in fact, that I went ahead and ordered the rest of the series before I even finished this one — and I’m already halfway through Provocative in Pearls. They’re not the most outstanding romance novels I’ve ever read, but they’re quite compelling. Hunter balances the traditional romance tropes with enough other twists, turns, and complications to make these books real page-turners.

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The Sleeping Beauty, by Mercedes Lackey

Title: The Sleeping Beauty (Five Hundred Kingdoms #5)
Author: Mercedes Lackey
Year of Publication: 2010
Length: 404 pages
Genre: fantasy
New or Re-Read?: New!
Rating: 3.5 stars

So, I was saying how I love retellings of fairy tales?

Mercedes Lackey’s Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms series is that, precisely. She’s created an Earth-analog world where a powerful force, called the Tradition by those in the know, manipulates human lives quite literally, shoehorning them into stories wherever possible. Her books chronicle the lives of some of those in the Five Hundred Kingdoms who fight the Tradition, who warp it, who bend it to their own needs — knowing that The Tradition doesn’t just like happy endings. It likes tragedy just as much. All it cares about is the dramatic quality of the story being lived out; the ultimate end is a null set, as far as the Tradition is concerned.

The Sleeping Beauty is the fifth in the series, and a return to more traditional Western-European-centric stories (books Three and Four, Fortune’s Fool and The Snow Queen, explored Russian, Scandinavian, Japanese, and Arabic tropes, among others). As the title suggests, the character in question, Rosamund, seems destined to be a Beauty Asleep — except that the godmother of her nation steps in way ahead of time. Godmother Lily, in charge of the tiny but effusively wealthy kingdom of Eltaria, has had centuries of practice manipulating the Tradition, and she heads off the trouble at the christening early on. Unfortunately, nothing she could do could stop Rosamund’s mother dying when Rosamund is sixteen, setting off a chain of potentially disastrous events. Her father, the King, goes off to try and prevent all five of Eltaria’s neighbors from invading simultaneously, and in his absence, Rosamund is nearly kidnapped and flees into the woods — only to be snatched up by the “Snowskin” (or Snow White) tale rather than Beauty Asleep. The seven dwarves she ends up with, though, are not at all as nice and cheerful as the Tradition would generally require them to be. Godmother Lily has to extricate her in a way that the Tradition will find suitable, but without accidentally marrying her to a rescuing prince who she might not actually be compatible with. And from the back of the book, you’d rather think this was the whole plot, but I was presently surprised — it zips through this in the first few chapters, bringing us to the real meat of the story: Godmother Lily, after the King gets himself killed, decides to hold a contest for Rosamund’s hand, inviting princes from all over (including from the invading neighbors) — thus providing herself with an awful lot of well-born hostages. This keeps anyone from invading, lest they bring the countries belonging to the other princes down on their heads, and buys the ladies some time to figure out how to end Rosamund’s story both happily and in a way that will satisfy the Tradition.

We do also get a healthy dose of Norse mythology as well, brought to us by Siegfried, who is desperately trying to escape his fate as a Doomed Hero — doomed, in this case, to fall in love with his Shieldmaiden aunt, then betray her, leading to a round of homicides and suicides and possibly the twilight of the gods. Siegfried happens upon Rosamund (while Lily’s freeing her from the Snowskin entrapments) at the same time as another princeling, Leopold. Siegfried is the stoic warrior type, a lot of brawn but a fair bit of brain as well. Leopold is a dark and handsome charmer, a preternaturally talented gambler, kicked out of his own kingdom by his father for being too popular. They decide to join the competition for Rosamund’s hand. They also decide to team up to help each other through the first few rounds of challenges, agreeing to part amiably when it comes time for the final test, and it creates a wonderful Odd Couple dynamic. Their interactions are some of the best moments in the book — quick, funny, and clever.

One of the flaws of these books, especially as they’ve gone along, is that there can be a lot of telling and not a lot of discovery. When your characters already know how the Tradition works, when they’re so adept at avoiding its entanglements, what you get is a lot of explanation. I can understand how Lackey wouldn’t want to re-introduce the Tradition each time, because reading as characters discover it over and over again could be just as tedious in a different way, but, it is a narrative flaw, in my opinion. I wanted her to show more, tell less.

I also find myself wishing that the romance were a bit more pronounced — which isn’t particular to this book, it’s how I feel about the series as a whole. It’s marketed as a fantasy romance, it’s published under the fantasy wing of freaking Harlequin, for heaven’s sake… but the romance is always very lightly handled. Certainly not any heavier (or steamier) than in Lackey’s Elemental Masters series (which is not similarly categorised). So I always feel it’s a bit misleading to promote these as having a romance angle. This one was, for very PG-rated romance, actually better than others in the series, as we do get to see Rosamund considering her suitors — but there’s definitely no sizzle whatsoever, and Rosamund spends less time with her suitors (Siegfried, Leopold, and another talented-but-unsettling stranger named Desmond) than she does with Lily, figuring out how to thwart Tradition. There’s also an odd and only ever half-explained romance between Godmother Lily and the spirit in her magic mirror.

Lackey does avoid another of her usual flaws, though; her books have a terrible habit of cramming the climax and the denouement all into about the last five pages. She draws things out more nicely here — still a little rapid at the end, still crashing into the climax rather abruptly, but at least she gives the wrapping-up bits enough space to breathe in. (Apparently she also continued the story of two of the side characters in a short story, which I now sort of want to locate).

Overall, this is a fun, light read. It’s not particularly outstanding, but it’s not entirely forgettable either. If you like fairy tale retellings, you’ll enjoy this (and the rest of the series) — finding all of the references is a fun game to play while reading, and if your head works anything like mine, you’ll like thinking about the twists and turns of the Tradition and following along with how a clever, knowledgeably person might outwit it. Probably on sheer technical merit, this book only deserves 3 stars, but I laughed out loud a few times and it left me feeling happy, and I’m proud of Lackey for avoiding some of the problems that have irritated me in the past, so I bumped it up another half star on credit.

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Witches Abroad, by Terry Pratchett

Title: Witches Abroad (Discworld Witches)WitchesAbroad
Author: Terry Pratchett
Year of Publication: 1991
Length: 384 pages
Genre: fantasy / humour
New or Re-Read?: Re-Reads
Rating: 4.5 stars

There is almost nothing I’m so much a sucker for as a retold fairy tale.

It’s why I love the graphic novels Fables. It’s why I love Catherynne Valente’s work. It’s why I like Mercedes Lackey, despite her faults, for her Elemental Masters series and her Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms. It’s why I like a lot of the romance novels that I do.

Fairy tales emphasize, as few things do, the power that a story has. And when it comes to that point, no-one, but no-one, hits the nail quite so firmly on the head as Terry Pratchett. I’m so grateful to him for giving me the phrase “theory of narrative causality”. It explains so much of what I believe about stories and about life (and about how little difference there is between the two, sometimes — and how much). For anyone not versed in the concept, I inflict up on you this rather long but vitally important excerpt:

People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around.

Stories exist independently of their players. If you know that, the knowledge is power.

Stories, great flapping ribbons of shaped space-time, have been blowing and uncoiling around the universe since the beginning of time. And they have evolved. The weakest have died and the strongest have survived and they have grown fat on the retelling… stories, twisting and blowing through the darkness.

And their very existence overlays a faint but insistent pattern on the chaos that is history. Stories etch grooves deep enough for people to follow in the same way that water follows certain paths down a mountainside. And every time fresh actors tread the path of the story, the groove runs deeper.

This is called the theory of narrative causality, and it means that a story, once started, takes a shape. It picks up all the vibrations of all the other workings of that story that have ever been.

This is why history keeps repeating all the time.

So a thousand heroes have stolen fire from the gods. A thousand wolves have eaten grandmothers. A thousand princesses have been kissed. A million unknowing actors have moved, unknowing, through the pathways of story.

It is now impossible for the third and youngest son of any king, if he should embark on a quest which has so far claimed his older brothers, not to succeed.

Stories don’t care who takes part in them. All that matters is that the story gets told, that the story repeats. Or, if you prefer to think of it like this: stories are a parasitical life form, warping lives in the service only of the story itself.

Witches Abroad explores this concept to the hilt. When Magrat, youngest and wet-henniest of the Lancre witches, finds herself unexpectedly a fairy godmother to a girl called Ella, with the specific instructions that Ella not marry a prince. While this may seem easy enough — as the witches point out, plenty of girls don’t marry princes — things being what they are in the Discworld, there is, of course, a trick to it. The godmother from whom Magrat inherited her magic wand, knowing that Esme Weatherwax and Gytha Ogg need to be part of the story in order to help save the day, instructs Magrat not to let them come along under any conditions — thus assuring that, once they hear about the mandate, nothing in the universe will stop them from going with her.

The middle section of the book is less about narrative causality and more a good old-fashioned road trip (a sort of story which, after all, has rules of its own), and it’s a delightfully fun romp. We get to see Discworld’s versions of the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, of Transylvania (more fully explored as Uberwald in Carpe Jugulum), Mississippi riverboats, Caribbean cruiselines, and Pratchett throws in some wonderful tongue-in-cheek references to The Fellowship of the Ring, The Sound of Music, and urban legends as well. During this journey, however, the trio starts to become aware that someone is forcing stories to happen, meddling in rather nasty ways to get the ends she desires. As such, in additional to the geographical allusions, the reader also encounters a hail of fairy tales, folklore, and classic children’s stories. Again, if you’re passionately interested in the references (as I am), I refer you, Gentle Reader, to the L-Space.

Things get more serious when the trio finally makes it to Genua — a Discworld combination of Venice and New Orleans, which someone is trying to shoehorn into being as squeaky-clean and seemingly perfect as Disney World. At least on the inside — outside, there’s still a bayou, and a woman well versed in swamp magic, and she figures into the tangle of things as well. Our Lancre witches have arrived (as the needs of the story dictate) just in time for Mardi Gras, or maybe for Samedi Nuit Mort, or Carnivale — all more or less the same thing, really, there’s a party on and even someone‘s machinations can’t stop it.

This is also a story about mirrors.

Because that interfering someone is Lily, Esme’s long-lost sister — a wanton, power-hungry thing who went bad, and, as Esme tells us, after Lily left, Esme had to be the good one. Each woman is a dark reflection of the other in some ways, and a shimmering temptation as well. Pratchett has some great things to say about what mirrors can give you and what they take away.

I love this book. Next to Lords and Ladies, it’s my favourite of the Discworld Witches series, because it mixes together so many things that are just wonderful treats for me — fairy tales, folklore, the power of stories, the ambiance of New Orleans, the family dynamics. It’s also just so much fun. I love when you can tell that an author must have just had a blast writing a book, and that gleeful sensation permeates Witches Abroad. It’s a wonderful book that gets better each time I revisit it, because I’m always noticing something new. As with the whole of this series, I heartily recommend it — particularly if you’d like to have some deep thoughts and ponder some meaningful things without having to read a particularly dense book to get there. Part of Pratchett’s magnificent skill is his ability to treat matters of considerable weight with such a light hand, blending the truisms in with the humour, deftly slipping in philosophy and metaphysical conjecture amid the parodies and romps. It’s a quick, easy read, but no less meaningful for that.

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Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, by J K Rowling

Title: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood PrinceHBP
Author: J K Rowling
Year of Publication: 2005
Length: 768 pages
Genre: magical realism / young adult
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4 stars
Spoilers: for the series

I haven’t re-read this book as many times as the others. Next to Chamber of Secrets, it’s my least-favourite book of the series. Which is not to say it doesn’t have its moments — it does, some spectacular ones, and I actually like it a lot better when read in conjunction with Deathly Hallows. As a prelude to Book 7, it does a decent job. As a book on its own, though, I have trouble enjoying it — not least because I feel it’s a step back from Order of the Phoenix in a lot of ways. I’m not sure if this was maybe intentional — a sort of “calm before the storm” — but it feels odd. To have all the intensity of OotP, the ramp-up, the revelations… and then, in HBP, we lose so much momentum.

For example, it will never not bother me that the DA stops having meetings. What sense does that make? Just because Umbridge is gone? There is now actually a war on, and yet Harry stops dispensing his wisdom to the people who looked to him for support and guidance. I think the DA was also incredibly useful as a method of inter-House bonding, for forming networks and relationships. My heart breaks for Luna, when she obliquely calls Harry out on his dropped interest: “It was like having friends,” indeed.

And then there’s the amount of time this book spends on the fluctuations of teenage hormones. With a war on, with people disappearing and dying, with the near-deaths at Hogwarts itself… and yet our main characters spend far more of their energy on snogging, or arguing about snogging. Now, I realise this is entirely realistic. I remember being sixteen, and so I know that sixteen-year-olds do not always have the most appropriate priorities. But, to me, it doesn’t make for entertaining literature.

It is nice that we get to see more of Hogwarts-as-Hogwarts in this book. In a lot of ways, this is the least disrupted year since Harry’s first — what with the Chamber of Secrets, patrolling Dementors, the Triwizard Tournament, and then Umbridge’s reign. I always wanted to see more of just what goes on in the classrooms (and am hoping for some more of that on Pottermore), and Half-Blood Prince delivers. (Except, oddly, in Defence Against the Dark Arts, of which we see comparatively little, considering that Snape’s in charge of it now). We also get to see more Quidditch, which makes me happy. I know JK got tired of writing it, but Quidditch is about the one sport I would actually follow, so I enjoyed it.

I also remember this book throwing me for a loop right from the start, the first time I read it. In the previous five books, anytime we got information that wasn’t from Harry’s point of view, it was still because he was “seeing” it somehow — through a dream, or a vision, or the Pensieve. Half-Blood Prince opens with not one, but two chapters detailing events that Harry knows nothing about. And I’ve never been quite sure how to feel about that. On the one hand, it’s great information to have. (Spinner’s End, incidentally, is one of my favourite chapters in the entire series, largely because a friend and I had that exact conversation between Bellatrix and Snape while RPing, long before this book was ever released. It was nice to feel so thoroughly validated in our views on the characters). But on the other hand, it’s a jarring derivation in style, this far through the series. It changes the narrative rules.

One development I do think is interesting is that Harry spends this entire book being 100% correct about Draco Malfoy, and yet… no one listens to him. Everyone, including his friends, dismisses it as a product of their long rivalry. (There’s also an interesting parallel there, with Bellatrix and Snape at the beginning of the book — Bella is, of course, 100% correct about Snape, and she damn well knows it, even if she doesn’t know why and can’t prove it). It’s frustrating to read, and I can understand Harry’s lack of patience with the whole mess — Dumbledore spends half his time treating Harry like a grown man who not only deserves but needs to know crucial information, and the other half still telling him to blindly trust and not to question.

So, overall, this is not among my favourites of the HP series — but, as I said with Chamber of Secrets, even one that’s weak in comparison to the others is still a sight better than a lot of books out there. It improved on re-read, and it improves read in conjunction with Deathly Hallows.

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A Dance with Dragons, by George R R Martin

Title: A Dance with DragonsDance With Dragons
Author: George R R Martin
Year of Publication: 2011
Length: 959 pages
Genre: fantasy
New or Re-Read?: New after a six-goddamn-year-wait
Rating: 3.5 stars
Spoiler Warning: Enormously. I will have one general reaction paragraph that is non-spoilery, and then everything else will be stuffed to the gills with spoilers.

I don’t know how to feel about this book. I don’t know that I like it any better or any worse than A Feast for Crows, which was my least-favourite book of the series thus far. And I was, if not expecting, at least hoping to like this one a lot better, because I so many more of my favourite characters were in this one. And there were certainly parts I enjoyed a lot. But there were a lot of parts that frustrated me, a lot of parts that bored me, and a lot of parts that felt completely extraneous. It’s definitely in need of judicious editing. I sort of get the feeling that his editors, so happy to have him finally declare it finished, didn’t actually spend much time editing before sending it to print. Apart from a lot of unnecessary repetition and a lot of extraneous material, I also found five typos.

Spoilers Begin Here

My biggest disappointment in this book was Dany’s plotline. She spent 95% of the book pissing me off. I’ve been saying for years that if Dany didn’t wake up and get out of Meereen in this book, I was going to throw an epic hissy fit, and, well, I did. Because she spent almost this entire book not only staying in Meereen to try and rule, but making horrifically stupid decisions while doing so. And she totally lost sight of herself. She forgot her goals, she forgot her history, she forgot who she actually owes loyalty to, she forgot what she’s trying to do. She let other characters manipulate her into poor decisions. It sort of felt like she just gave up on being herself.

At least, at the end, there’s a sense that she’s realised this — that she feels ashamed for having tried to be something she’s not, that she recognises she’s going to have to start over with a different approach — but that doesn’t make this book any less of a waste of time as far as her plot was concerned. She’s going to start The Winds of Winter in more or less the same place as she started A Clash of Kings, only with larger, uncontrollable dragons and more people trying to kill her. It’s pretty obvious that Dany’s is the story that most would have benefited from GRRM’s original plan of jumping five years of story-time between books. Having decided not to have that time lapse, he had to fill the space with something… and that something really isn’t very good. The only moment of her story that I really enjoyed in this book was when she subdues and then flies Drogon. That felt good. That felt like my Dany. Nothing else in the book did. And it so pains me to say that, because I’ve defended her against the Mary-Sue accusations, she’s my pick to win the whole series, and I so badly want to stand by her… but it was difficult to like her in this book. Not only that, her chapters started to bore me in this book. I could not care less who ends up in control of Slaver’s Bay. They can slaughter each other till the cows come home, as far as I’m concerned. My emotional investment is in Westeros. I don’t want to have to care about an entire other continent’s worth of politics — particularly not when this story is already over-large and in desperate need of trimming and tightening.

On the bright side, more characters are starting to find Dany, which means that her part of the story is getting more POVs… Except those also weren’t very well-used. Quentyn Martell, who I had high hopes for, turns out to be completely and utterly pointless. His entire story could’ve been cut from this book with no detrimental effect whatsoever. And it pains me to say that, because I really wanted him to turn out to be a cool character, possibly a dragonrider, possibly one of Dany’s husbands. Instead, he’s inoffensive but ultimately pretty uninteresting — cute and sweet, but more pitiable than enjoyable. He’s hard to root for — and he doesn’t get enough chapters to allow the reader to make a real connection with him. His boldest action is also his stupidest action, and the one that leads to his premature death. We also get some POV chapters from Barristan Selmy, and here, I think the main flaw is how underused he was. Even though he’s with Dany the whole time, his chapters don’t start coming in until about halfway through the book, and I think it could’ve been beneficial to have his voice throughout — especially to give opinions on Dany making highly questionable decisions.

Tyrion’s story briefly crosses Dany’s, but not for very long. Fleeing after having murdered his father, Tyrion first meets up with Illyrio Mopatis, erstwhile keeper of fugitive Targaryens, and then crosses the continent, aiming for Dany. Unfortunately, along the way he almost dies a couple of times and then gets sold into slavery. His chapters were the other ones that irritated me almost past my ability to endure them, as Tyrion spends at least 75% of this book mentally whinging about his daddy issues and his not-really-a-whore first wife. The refrain — where whores go — is repetitive in the extreme. I know he’s had some trauma, but so has everyone else in the damn series, and I feel like Tyrion should be tougher than that. He’s also putting far too much stock in his father’s last words — he won’t ever be free of Tywin if he keeps letting Daddy control him from beyond the grave.

Tyrion’s story also intersects that of one of our new POVs — Jon Connington, aka Griff, one of Rhaegar Targaryen’s best friends, who happens to be the guardian of someone who, we are at least led to believe, is Aegon Targaryen, Rhaegar’s son, who is generally believed to have had his head smashed in as an infant by Gregor Clegane. I say “led to believe” because a lot of fandom has already decided he’s a pretender, the “mummer’s dragon” of Dany’s House of the Undying vision. I don’t know how I feel about it one way or the other, although the pretender angle makes sense (particularly considering GRRM’s English Wars of the Roses inspiration). Mostly I’m going to be annoyed if this kid who gets introduced halfway through the series ends up winning, just because we haven’t had as much investment in him. So far he’s making a good go of it, though — he and Griff hired the Golden Company of sellswords and have already made landfall in Westeros, retaking Connington’s ancestral home.

Meanwhile, up in the North — Jon showed wins the Westeros Most Improved Award. Until his last two pages, when he makes a monumentally stupid decision, which apparently gets him killed (though I feel relatively certain Mel’s going to show up just in the nick and bring him back from the dead — thus indebting him to her). Up until then, though, he was kicking ass and taking names — and heads. Seriously, Janos Slynt sasses him one too many times, and for his outright insubordination, Jon does what someone should’ve done a long time ago and takes the jerk’s head clean off. Jon spends most of the book leading at the Wall — making really tough (and, in many cases, unpopular) decisions, sticking to his metaphorical guns, and all towards what seems like it’ll be the greater good. And then he gets word that Ramsay Bolton (see below) has claimed to have killed Stannis and intends to come after wh0-he-thinks-is-Arya and then after the Night’s Watch — and instead of framing this was “the Watch has been threatened; we need to deal with this,” Jon decides to make it about him and his family and declares he’s taking off to protect his baby sister (who he doesn’t know his a fake), which makes the Lord Commander of the Watch involved with politics in violation of his vows, which gets him stabbed.

Melisandre’s much-anticipated POV wasn’t nearly as mind-blowing as I’d hoped — and she only got one chapter. Bran also didn’t get nearly enough time, although he makes it to the three-eyed crow (who turns out to be long-ago Targaryen Bloodraven, who has more or less turned into a weirwood tree) and starts learning how to greensee. This provides a few exciting flashbacks, but ultimately, I was just left wanting more. I’m also excited about Davos, who does not die (as posited in A Feast for Crows), but who Lord Wymen Manderly (a previously barely-there background character who controls the biggest harbour in the North) sends off to Skagos to search for Rickon Stark. Manderly’s story is actually the bigger draw in those chapters, for me — he’s sort of turning into the Doran Martell of the North, plotting in the background and executing subterfuge while keeping himself outside of the realm of suspicion. It’s also strongly hinted that he serves several of the Freys to their kinfolk, baked into pies, which I highly approve of both for the bloody vengeance and for the classical/Shakespearean reference.

The other exciting story up North is that of Theon. I still don’t like him, but I’ve started to pity him (rather like how I feel about Sansa, really). Ramsay Bolton — currently vying with Walder Frey for the Most Destestable Character award — first turns Theon into Reek, a whinging, cringing, mangled shadow of a man. During the course of the book, though, Theon starts putting the pieces of himself back together. This ultimately leads to him rescuing Jeyne Poole (disguised as Arya Stark and forcibly married to vicious, abusive Ramsay to cement his claim on Winterfell) and his sister Asha (taken captive by Stannis Baratheon). These chapters are probably the best written in the book — even if you don’t like Theon, as I don’t, his story is pretty compelling.

Then, entirely separate from all those stories, we have a smattering of chapters from folk we saw in A Feast for Crows – Jaime, Cersei, Arya, Asha, Areo Hotah, Victarion. I know this is probably going to be a minority opinion, but I really wish none of those chapters had been included at all. For one thing, it makes the timeline even harder to get straight, because it puts the narratives even more out-of-joint than they already were. For another thing, with the possible exception of Arya’s, they don’t feel as thematically linked together as many of the other stories in A Dance with Dragons, which have fairly strong connections of disease and decay (both literal and figurative, both of physical and mental health), as well as of quests-for-identity. (A Feast for Crows, by contrast, was much more about the mechanics of politics: maneuvering for control, filling in power vacuums, and setting up the pieces for the next play). And for a third, I think it was just more mean than anything. Nothing from AFFC gets resolved — you just end up with more dangling ends. It’s kind of a dickish tease.

The best of that set is definitely Areo’s chapter, which shows us what the Dornish are up to — lots of plotting that could turn out for good entertainment in the future (assuming, of course, that these plans don’t fizzle out as anticlimactically as Quentyn’s story did). I also enjoyed Jaime’s chapter, partially because he’s become (against all odds) one of my favourite characters — but it really didn’t satisfy, since it was, again, only one chapter. I’m also going to be severely irritated if Brienne really has sold him out to save her own skin, because I don’t care for her at all, and Jaime deserves a better ending than that. We need him to strangle Cersei before he goes. Speaking of whom — Cersei’s chapters were pretty painful. That bitch deserves all kinds of pain and suffering, in my opinion, but the glorious celebration of misogynistic abuse that the Faith heaps on her is just awful. She confesses to fornication (though not to incest or treason), and the Faith forces her to take a walk of penance through King’s Landing — naked, shaved bald, and barefoot. Public humiliation is what religion turns to when it’s gone sour and rotten, and it makes me distinctly uncomfortable. I now want to hold off her inevitable death long enough for her to exact retribution on those pious jackasses. Arya’s chapters were just kind of nothing — only a couple of them, and they didn’t so much feel like they had an arc of their own in this book so much as they got left off from her arc in the last book, and GRRM only got around to finishing them now. As for Asha and Victarion, theirs are the chapters that upset the timeline the most, I think, because it sort of implies that everything from the Greyjoys in A Feast for Crows happened really quickly, in a much shorter span of time than everything else in that book. Asha has been forcibly wed to some Ironborn lord who I probably should remember from AFFC, but totally don’t, and has run off to hold Deepwood Motte on her own — except then she gets besieged, loses, and gets taken captive by Stannis. Victarion does nothing in this book except sail towards Dany and prove what a disturbing creeper he is. If that horn of his really can control dragons, I’m going to be so irritated, because of all the characters who don’t deserve one, he’s damn well near the top of the list.

In the epilogue, we see Varys taking rather more direct and definitive action than we’ve witnessed before, outright murdering Grand Maester Pycelle and Kevan Lannister, who had been serving as Regent with Cersei imprisoned. He flat-out says that he couldn’t have Kevan restoring peace between the Lannisters and the Tyrells, because he needs everything still broken and chaotic for a Targaryen reconquest. Specifically, for Aegon. Interesting, considering we’d more or less assumed he was clearing the way for Dany. I don’t know if I think he’s intended for Aegon all along, or if he’s just not putting all his dragon eggs in one basket, as it were. The other interesting thing about the epilogue is the revelation that the maesters of the Citadel have officially declared it winter. Someday, I’d like to find out how they know/determine the change of seasons.

So, overall — I’m giving this 3.5 because I just sort of don’t know what to do with it. There were quite a few moments that genuinely excited me. But there were a lot of things that frustrated me, that needed editing, or that should’ve been held off till the next book. And there are some things still left unanswered — What has been going on with Rickon and Osha? And what about Maege Mormont and the others that Robb, back in A Storm of Swords, sent off to find Howland Reed? Between those questions and the many, many arcs that began in this book or in Feast that have yet to see any kind of fulfillment whatsoever… Well, I guess we’re in for another five or six frustrating years until The Winds of Winter comes out.

If anyone’s interested, I kept record of my play-by-play reactions to the book while I was reading over on my personal journal — the entry is unlocked and available for public view (or at least will be for a few weeks).

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