Monthly Archives: January 2013

The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden (and) In the Cities of Coin and Spice, by Catherynne M Valente

Title: The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden and The Orphan’s Tales: In the Cities of Coin and Spice
Author: Catherynne M ValenteOrphansTales1
Year of Publication: 2006 / 2007
Length: 483 / 516
Genre: fantasy/folktale
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 5 stars

It’s probably becoming apparent that I’ve turned into a ridiculous Catherynne Valente fangirl. I feel no shame about this whatsoever.

These were actually the first Valentes I read, back a few years ago, and they were a lovely place to start. I’m reviewing the two books together because it really is all one story — but it’s also a thousand stories. Valente has given us a new Scheherazade, a girl with stories etched indelibly on her eyelids. Taken for a demon by the Sultan and his kin, the girl is abandoned in the garden and grows up half-wild and definitely a little eldritch. She reads the stories off of reflections, one eye at a time, and for years has nothing but them and the garden itself for company — until the day a little princeling encounters her and is brave enough to speak to her. Their unlikely friendship grows and coils around the stories she tells him.OrphansTales2

And I sort of don’t even know where to begin. I could never recap everything that happens in the girl’s tales. It’s the story of how the stars fell from the heavens, and some got murdered, and one gets revenge. It’s the story of a girl who was a goose. It’s the story of a fox-woman who captains a ship of monsters. It’s the story of a three-breasted saint. It’s the story of how cities can die and mutate into something else. It’s the story of a wizard’s evil deeds. It’s the story of a phoenix and his feathers.

I’ve described Valente before as steeped in mythos, and it shows here more clearly than in anything else of hers I’ve read. None of these stories are retellings of things you know; do not look here for Snow White or Aladdin or Rama. But the flavours are there. Indian and Arabian, Japanese and Russian, Finnish and German, African and Greek — layers on layers of cultural seasoning, mingling freely with each other. There is a familiarity even as everything is new and wonderful; these stories would fit in perfectly well among their elder siblings that have been told and retold for centuries. And like the folktales of old, they don’t pull their punches. These are stories with blood and bone at their core, and I adore them for it.

The language is poetic, and I’ve seen some reviews posit that as a negative. I don’t count it so at all. Valente’s words get into my head, and to me, that’s always the sign of a great writer — if my thought patterns start taking on characteristics of what I’ve read. You have to approach this book as the prince does — let the stories wash over you, don’t try too hard to connect the threads. Don’t worry; they’ll get there on their own. I love that at one point the prince reflects on how the earliest tales he heard already seem to be fading from his memory, that they will need revisiting, someday, if he’s to remember them. It does happen. There are so many intertwining tales that it can seem like ages since you read the first one, even if it’s only been a day — but I’m okay with that. It doesn’t trouble me in the least. The plotline isn’t the point. This is kaleidoscopic storytelling, where the patterns and the movement matter much more than any individual shape.

The frame narrative weaves through the girl’s stories, breaking back in every so often. The little prince returns again and again, wanting to hear more of the girl’s stories, but is often thwarted by his sister Dinarzad. In the first book, she appears nothing but a spiteful obstacle, but in the second, we learn more about the trials she faces, the trouble her brother’s actions cause for her, and she becomes much more sympathetic. She fears and hates the girl in the garden, but she becomes entrapped by the stories, too, enchanted by the possibilities plaited into them, a stark contrast to the lack of control she has over her own life. Dinarzad comes to provide a nice counterpoint — and a reminder of what power stories can have.

There’s also something wonderfully subversive in Valente’s writing. The strongest and most sympathetic characters are women and beasts, not men and boys. Heroes strike out on quests and find the situation to be far more complicated than “man-slays-beast”. She doesn’t beat you over the head with it, but the stories are definitely what I would qualify as feminist. I love that. I’ve always thought that if you write a story to make a point, it’s going to fall flat. That doesn’t make good fiction. But if you just tell the story and it happens to have that message nestled within it, then it succeeds.

I love these books and can’t recommend them highly enough. I don’t know if I’d consider them the best starting place for Valente, even though they were the first books of hers I read — the Fairyland novels might be an introduction with lower time and brainpower investment. But these, I think, really show her at her best.


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Fables #2: Animal Farm, by Bill Willingham

Title: Fables #2: Animal FarmFables2
Author: Bill Willingham
Illustrators: Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha
Year of Publication: 2002-2003
Length: 128 pages
Genre: graphic novel: magical realism, fairy-tale/folklore
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 3.5 stars

I know most people prefer this volume to the first, but I diverge from popular opinion here. The concept here is quite good, but I find the execution rushed and a little lacking.

As punishment for faking her own death — and ostensibly so the sisters can spend some quality time reconnecting — Rose Red has to go with Snow White for her annual visit up to the Farm, a protected area in upstate New York where all those Fables live who cannot pass for human. This includes the menagerie of talking animals as well as sentient bits of clothing and crockery, Lilliputians, mythical creatures, and other assorted beings. Some few “passing” humans live there, as well — the Old Woman has chosen that location rather than give up living in her Shoe, for example — but by and large, the population is bestial. And their forced segregation is causing problems. Snow White arrives unexpectedly in the middle of a highly suspect meeting, where the animals are purportedly discussing the prospect of returning to their Homelands — and she discovers that Weyland Smith, who had been in charge of the Farm, has mysteriously decided to “retire” without telling anyone.

Things take a swift and sudden turn for the worse when Colin, one of the Three Little Pigs, turns up murdered. Unlike in the first volume, Willingham doesn’t play coy with the mystery here — the reader learns quickly that Goldilocks and the Three Bears are behind it. Goldi has turned into quite the reactionary, guiding the revolt of the Farm community not out of any real idealism but simply because she seems to have gotten a taste for violence. (There’s also a pretty disturbing revelation regarding the nature of her relationship with Baby Bear). She musters the troops with a bloodthirsty enthusiasm that would do any third-world dissident proud, and Snow finds herself on the run, pursued by half the predators in legend.

My favourite character in this volume is definitely Reynard the fox, suave trickster but loyal friend to Snow, who plays a vital role in tamping down the insurgency. I also enjoy that this volume introduces a concept that becomes quite important later on — that the more popular a Fable’s story is, the more resilient the character is to destruction. Some, as you can imagine, are nigh-indestructible — while others, whose stories have faded from mundie culture, have more to worry about.

Not much happens back in the city while all of this is going on, but Willingham drops a lot of tantalising hints, both about other characters and about the way the Fables community functions — again, all things that will be important later. I appreciate this for the sense of wholeness that it gives. I love world-building, and I love when all the details and side stories are well-thought-out, even if we don’t get to see them in their entirety yet.

The art is nice in this volume — full of details, especially in the crowd scenes. The violence and gore are appropriately disturbing. These are not Bowdlerized fairy tales — but a lot closer to the spirit of the original tales, to be sure. Everything has a price, and sometimes that price is blood. Fables doesn’t pull its punches in that regard.

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Rules to Catch a Devilish Duke, by Suzanne Enoch

Title: Rules to Catch a Devilish DukeRulestoCatch
Author: Suzanne Enoch
Year of Publication: 2012
Length: 343 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 4.5 stars

Well, this is one of the best historical romances I’ve read in a long time. I really mean that. I tore through this in about 24 hours because I just couldn’t stand to be parted from it.

Sophia is exactly the sort of heroine I have been yearning for: cheerfully independent, even in the face of difficulties; not a virgin and not ashamed about it; knows what she wants sexually and isn’t afraid of her passions; good-natured and forgiving but not a pushover; decisive and undeterred from pursuing what she wants out of life. Of course, the reason she can get away with being all of these things is because she lives a life outside the bounds of the good ton. Sophia White is the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Hennessey, sired on his wife’s maid. Raised in obscurity, Sophia eventually finds a comfortable place at the Tantalus Club (a gentlemen’s club owned by a woman and staffed entirely by ladies, if you haven’t read the earlier books in the series or my reviews of them) — and she appears in both of the previous books in the series as a supporting character. This was going along well for her until her father randomly chose to care about her existence again — not to acknowledge her, but to threaten her. Tired of being ribbed by his peers about his by-blow’s occupation, he’s arranged for her to marry an alarmingly pious vicar in Cornwall; if Sophia doesn’t agree, he will use his power to destroy the Tantalus Club and everyone Sophia cares about.

Adam Baswich, Duke of Greaves, unwittingly provides Sophia with an opportunity for one last hurrah before her sentencing. He invites her to a Christmas house party at his estate in Yorkshire, ostensibly to keep Camille and Keating (see Taming an Impossible Rogue) company. But as Sophia is traveling to the estate, the bridge over the river collapses, dunking her in it. Adam rescues her, but that leaves them as the only people on the correct side of the river until the bridge is repaired, except for Adam’s unbelievably snotty elder sister. (And I do find this a bit of a plot stretch — I mean, really, no one could build a raft or a pontoon or something? I mean, this is the River Aire they’re talking about — not exactly a huge impediment — but I’m willing to forgive it because of what it leads to). Now, why was the Duke giving such a large house party? Apparently it’s his custom at Christmas, as he’s someone who clings to company so as not to be left alone with his own mind (I empathise, Adam); but this year, there’s something more pressing: he also invites a dozen eligible young ladies so that he can choose a bride from among them. His father’s will stipulates that he marry by age 30 and produce an heir by age 31, or else all the property and money goes to his sister’s son. (Side note: I know I’ve read another book in the past year with that exact same stipulation. I think it might’ve been one of Mary Balogh’s? I don’t appear to have reviewed it, if I did, but regardless — I find it very odd and improbable. The requirement to marry makes sense, but surely any English peer would know what a dicey thing getting an heir is, and would not set a time limit on that). But since none of the eligible ladies can get across the river until the bridge is repaired, Adam has to settle for Sophia’s company. And what company it turns out to be.

The most excellent thing about this book is that Adam and Sophia are so beautifully well-suited for each other. Their interactions while they’re alone at his estate are just gorgeous — warm and funny, passionate and teasing, thoughtful and challenging — everything that a marriage should be. But they can’t see it, bless ’em. They do build a real friendship, which is so important and honestly pretty rare in romance novels. Adam is astonished to discover that there’s a woman he actually enjoys spending time around and conversing with, and Sophia is pleased not to be treated like a leper or a whore. They are so gorgeous together. The friendship is there, but powerful attraction is as well, and it doesn’t take long for them to fall into bed together — but the way it happens is sort of fantastic. They’re playing cards and wagering kisses, until Sophia — Sophia! — suggests playing strip piquet instead. I thought it was brilliant. Enoch does a great job turning up the heat in that scene, too — not just giving in to the hormones immediately, but letting it simmer, then bubble, then broil over. I know that feeling, the long tease, knowing precisely where the night’s going to end but suspending gratification to make it all the better — and Enoch captures the tantalising delight of it so well. The sex scenes throughout this book are magnificent, not least because we don’t have to deal with any of that “teach the virgin to accept pleasure” nonsense. Nope, Sophia knows what she wants and grabs at it, quite literally in a few cases. It’s so refreshing.

But, the bridge gets repaired, and Adam and Sophia have to face the music. Adam sets to trying to pick a bride out from the herd he invited over, but though he tries to reconcile himself to the idea of Lady Caroline Emery, least offensive of the bunch, he of course can’t stay away from Sophia. Sophia, meanwhile, is having to fend off all kinds of gross behaviour from men and women alike. If she’s not getting sneered at and insulted, she’s being propositioned. The men all want to know if she’s Adam’s mistress — and I actually really enjoy the interplay around this. Because she isn’t. She doesn’t want to be, and she lets Adam know that right from the start. A lover, but not a mistress, not someone who’s kept and paid for. Unfortunately, because of the circumstances of their world, that also leaves her unprotected. And that creates quite a bit of drama for them both.

I knock half a point off because the end is a little unsatisfying — it all crashes together very quickly, with literally no denouement whatsoever. I want to know more, to be assured of their future happiness! How do they deal with the vicar? How do they handle life back in London? Does Adam manage to get the heir he needs in the fourteen months remaining to him? Enoch had better wrap those details up with a cameo in the next book, or I might have a bit of a hissy fit. And I also dock for an unflattering portrayal of Cornwall, which really is a lovely region with gorgeous landscapes and the nicest people I’ve ever met anywhere in the world. On the whole, though, Rules to Catch a Devilish Duke is a lot of fun, and I highly recommend it.

I’m excited for the next book in the series to come out in a few months. I’m curious who the next heroine will be (as Enoch’s website doesn’t say and I haven’t looked it up elsewhere yet) — my money is on Emily Portsmouth, because far too much has been made of her keeping her true identity a secret for her to just be a side mention, but I also wouldn’t mind seeing Lady Caroline Emery get a story of her own. She seems a likely sort.

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Taming an Impossible Rogue, by Suzanne Enoch

Title: Taming an Impossible Rogue (Scandalous Brides #2)TaminganImpossibleRogue
Author: Suzanne Enoch
Year of Publication: 2012
Length: 352 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 2.5 stars

I still enjoyed dipping into the world of the Tantalus Club, but this one just didn’t do it for me. I found the heroine lackluster and the hero hard to like, and that impeded my enjoyment.

The basic outline of the story isn’t bad: Camille Pryce ran away from her wedding a year ago on the sudden realisation that she did not want to spend her life with the groom. Not hard to believe, considering that the marriage was arranged when she was three days old, and yet the groom, the Marquis of Fenton, never saw fit to so much as introduce himself to her at any point in the past twenty-one years. Turned away by both friends and relatives, Camille eventually ended up at the Tantalus Club, a scandalous gentlemen’s club owned by a woman and exclusively staffed by women (see Scandalous Brides #1, A Beginner’s Guide to Rakes). It takes Fenton a year to decide he would still like to marry Camille after all — and his reasoning here is less-than-flawless. He’s tired of his peers poking fun at him for the runaway bride, but I can’t imagine that any Marquis with a stick up his rear as large as the one Fenton seems to have ramroding his spine would take a supposedly fallen woman back rather than dissolving the betrothal and finding someone else to marry. So the rationale is a little odd, but whatever his justification, he wants her back — but he can’t get into the Tantalus Club to see her, as Camille has had him barred. Fenton decides to send his cousin, Keating Blackwood, instead, for reasons that are equally unclear. You’d think Fenton could convince somebody to help him out who didn’t have such a thorough reputation for seduction, and probably for less than the ten thousand pounds he promises Keating. But Keating is charming and therefore that will lure Camille out or… something? Like I said, Fenton’s powers of decision-making are really far from flawless.

It doesn’t help matters that Keating, apart from being a notorious rake, is also a sot and a murderer. Yes, you read that right. Six years ago, he had an affair with a married woman, her husband found out, pursued him back to his house, and Keating shot him in self-defence — but definitely killed him, and has been skulking outside of polite society ever since, apparently at the bottom of a vodka bottle. It’s hugely unattractive. For the first few chapters, most of what we know about Keating is that he has an unpleasant attitude, is constantly either drunk or hungover, and doesn’t bathe or change his clothes often enough to mask the odor of alcohol. And this is our supposed hero. Now, don’t let anyone think I’m saying that alcoholics can’t change or aren’t deserving of love — but none of that is ever addressed, except that he just magically stops drinking once he starts falling in love with Camille. The entire problem — and at the beginning of the book, it’s a huge problem — is glossed over. It’s like Enoch wanted to give herself a huge challenge and set out to make as thoroughly unredeemable a hero as possible, but then instead of actually going through the effort to work through his manifold flaws, just sort of hand-waves them all with The Power of Love. It’s unconvincing and wildly unfulfilling.

Anyway. Keating needs the ten thousand pounds to pay off the woman whose husband he kills, not for herself but for the son she claims is Keating’s. He takes Fenton up on his offer and starts trying to reconcile the couple — but, of course, starts falling for Camille himself. Honestly, this book might’ve been better if Fenton was a little less of an overt jackass. If he hadn’t been totally unsuitable, Camille’s dilemma might’ve made more sense. As it was, I could really see no impetus whatsoever for her to go back to him. Clearly she had already gotten used to living outside the bounds of proper society, and clearly she did not really want to go back to a life where she would be continually punished for her supposed “error in judgment”. This book might’ve been more interesting if she’d had more of a spine and done something wonderfully shocking and unexpected, like proposing to Keating rather than waiting for him to come to his senses about her. She almost looked like she might’ve been headed on that road, when she decided to sleep with him because, hey, if everyone figures she’s ruined anyway, why not? But no. Instead, she endures all manner of insults, first from Fenton, then from her family and other ex-friends, about her “shameful” actions. It’s perfectly clear that no one in her life will ever let her live this down, even if the public scandal subsides, but she — for no good reason whatsoever — agrees to go back to Fenton and be downtodden forever.

The “twist” ending for Keating is something I saw coming two hundred pages away, and the climax is a hastily thrown together jumble. Overall, Taming an Impossible Rogue was a huge disappointment. The side characters were more interesting and more likeable than the main characters — Keating enlists his friend the Duke of Greaves as a support, and Camille clings to Sophia, a friend from the club. A lot of what propelled me through this book was the promise of getting on to the next in the series, where those secondaries become the main characters. On its own, Taming is skippable.

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A Beginner’s Guide to Rakes, by Suzanne Enoch

Title: A Beginner’s Guide to Rakes (Scandalous Brides #1)BeginnersGuidetoRakes
Author: Suzanne Enoch
Year of Publication: 2011
Length: 352 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 3.25 stars

Okay, so this book was actually closer to 4 stars until about the last thirty pages.

A Beginner’s Guide to Rakes is the first book in Suzanne Enoch’s latest series, Scandalous Brides. Though, having glanced at the back covers of the other two, I suspect it would be better named the Tantalus Club series, since that seems to be the common thread yoking them all together. What is the Tantalus Club? Precisely the question that Diane Benchley wants you asking. The lovely widow has just returned from abroad, where her bankrupt husband died, leaving her with a mountain of debts to settle. She managed to do it by selling off almost all of his unentailed property except one location, a home in London. That, she gets into her own hands with a bit of clever forgery — illegal, but deserved, she feels, since her husband ignored her and then left her with nothing. She intends to transform the house into an upscale gaming hall, staffed entirely by women — but she needs some cash to get the enterprise started. So she approaches one of the wealthiest men she knows — Oliver Warren, Marquis of Haybury, who also happens to be her ex-lover. She and Oliver met in Vienna just after her husband’s death. They entered into a torrid affair, but after two weeks, he fled back to England, leaving her heartbroken. Why go to him? Because she has a sworn statement from another man labeling him as a cheat, an accusation which could ruin him. Oliver agrees to loan Diane the money — but with some hesitations and stipulations.

This book actually reminds me a lot of another Enoch book, The Rake — the focus on wagering, the antagonistic former lovers reuniting, the odd living circumstances — but it is, on the whole, more tightly plotted than that book. The characters’ decisions and reasoning, on the whole, make better sense, and they at least seem aware of their own hypocrisies and ulterior motives. It lacks some of the sharp comedy, though, which is why I still think I like The Rake better, but A Beginner’s Guide to Rakes is still thoroughly enjoyable. Diane is smart and savvy, and if she hangs onto her belligerent dislike for Oliver rather longer than I expected — well, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Oliver really has to work to get her affection and her trust back, and to his credit, he realises that. Ultimately, you really do get the sense that they suit each other very well — they’re both far from perfect people, but they’re imperfect in similar ways and in ways that work well together. Diane’s club meets with both success and condemnation, as is probably to be expected (and here it also reminds me of Kathryn Schmidt’s A Game of Scandal, another romance where the heroine runs a gaming club, and of Lisa Kleypas’s Then Came You, which features another deliberately scandalous heroine), and she has to negotiate both her business and her rediscovered romance. Trouble comes when the brother of her dead husband makes a play for her property — and Diane has to choose to trust Oliver and rely on him to help sort things out. It’s a good plot, not standard fare, and the characters are, if a little bit brittle and sharp with each other, at least unusual and well-rendered.

All of that said, there are some flaws. Enoch seems to have discovered the word “chit” and refuses to let it go; it got distractingly repetitive usage in this book. More significantly, however — remember how I said the plot hung together better than that in The Rake? That was true until the last thirty pages. Diane and Oliver’s plot to entrap Anthony makes… almost no sense. I had already thought of about six better ones before it was revealed. It sort of seemed like the convolutions of the plot got away from Enoch, and she wasn’t quite sure how to tie them back together. The solution is haphazard at best, and if we’re meant to believe this is the best two very clever people could come up with? It definitely falls short.

On the whole, though, I enjoyed this book, and I’m excited to see where the rest of the series goes. The Tantalus Club provides an interesting backdrop, and there’s a lot of potential there for out-of-the-ordinary heroines. (I’m hoping for more non-virgins; bonus points if they actually had *gasp!* pre-marital sex; and even more bonus points if that sex was *gasp!* not an earlier “indiscretion” with the eventual hero; and even more bonus points if they *gasp!* don’t regret it. But that may be hoping for far, far too much).

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