Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

March 15, 2010

Alex Bell – Lex Trent Versus the Gods

Filed under: children's lit,review — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 10:52 pm

This is a very fun book, and a very quick & easy read. It’s told by a seventeen-year-old confidence trickster and second-story man, who’s a horribly unsympathetic narrator, but it’s still a lot of fun being inside Lex’s head as we rush through a lightly but vividly sketched fantasy world.

Bell’s setting & worldbuilding imagination is wonderful—a world divided in two, with hundreds of ladders connecting the Realms of the Gods below with the Upper Lands, inhabited by humans, enchanters and their crones[1], and any number of strange animals[2].

On the one hand, this book is about overcoming a set of challenges and Humorous Mishaps in the course of winning one of the Games of the Gods for Lex’s patron. On the other, since this is YA, it’s about personal growth & repairing a relationship with family, and for once it isn’t the tedious dealing-with-your-parents’-divorce novel we’ve seen so many times before.

The Gods here are I think the one weak point of the book. Bell’s used the bog-standard Edwardian/TSR interpretation of the Graeco-Roman pantheon, with “X god of Y”—named deities with standard invariate portfolios. Which is simplistic and historically inaccurate.

Take Apollo, for instance. He’s “God of” music, poetry, healing, plague, colonization, and the sun. Animals especially associated with him include dolphins, ravens, roe deer, hawks, snakes, cicadas, wolves, and mice. He’s a pastoral shepherd, a great horseman, the Lord of Hounds, and a catcher of mice. He’s worshipped differently in nearly every site or text, and conflated or aggregated with any number of local deities.

I want fantasy gods with that much realism! Mostly, though, I want fantasy gods derived from ideas about real-world ones, rather than AD&D sourcebooks or half-remembered Edwardian mythology summaries.


[1] This is slightly troubling: old women are presented effectively as a separate species, and mostly the subject of mockery. “Crones need”, “Crones aren’t happy without”, “Poor crone, she thinks she’s a fairy godmother”…

[2] With an actual ecology, no less. Farmers have to wear protective suits, because the hay that drayfii eat (a drayfus is a shaggy hippo with wings, extremely placid and obedient) is a favourite habitat of nasal lice, which live inside nostrils and induce violent sneezing in order to find new hosts.

February 10, 2010

Catherine Webb – The Extraordinary and Unusual Adventures of Horatio Lyle

This is rather good Victorian adventure, starring eccentric inventor & Special Constable Horatio Lyle. And his dog Tate, which gives a neat summary of the level of humour involved!

The science involved is impeccable, and there’s something irresistable about a hero who carries dangerous chemicals around in his pockets. The two other protagonists, Tess the burglar and Thomas the young gentleman, are pleasantly sketched, but obviously will always be more interesting to actual young readers.

As is Extremely Traditional for stories set in the Victorian period, the villains are Chinese; this can get rather dodgy, but there are also Chinese third-parties who both aid and work against the protagonists at different times. The part I’m not sure at all about is the tseiqins’ allergy to iron & magnetism, a characteristic normally given to very Celtic creatures. That said, it’s perfect for an antagonist in this period.

Ebooks & DRM

Filed under: children's lit,meta — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 2:22 pm

Simon & Schuster are offering a free download of the first novel in their Vampirates sequence, for a month from today.

I’ve been vaguely interested in these, and a free ebook really caught my eye – it’s a marketing strategy that’s worked well on me in the past, when Tor gave away a series of first-books and I ended up buying a half-dozen more and not regretting it. And it’s nice seeing a publisher have the confidence in their books to give away a decent-length taster for free.

However, it’s DRM-laden, which means two things. First, there’s a complex process to go through before I can even read the book – I need Adobe Digital Editions, and/or specialised ebook reading software. This is something I’ve never had any interest in acquiring, because I like reading in PDF or HTML for preference.

And second, it presumes to control my reading experience – the link I skimmed to find out what on earth a .acsm file was said something about activation profiles, software used, and so forth. Unless I end up with a book I can freely backup, copy, change format, and read with any device I please, I’m not interested. This kind of DRM (like all DRM) is easy to break, but again, that’s unnecessary hassle – so the end result is that I still don’t have a copy of Vampirates: Demons of the Ocean, and I’m now slightly less interested in reading the series than I was before.

To summarize: 10/10 for intentions, 3/10 for execution, FAIL for marketing.

February 1, 2010

The Magic Thief – Sarah Prineas

Filed under: children's lit — Tags: , — Sam @ 2:56 pm

This is about a street urchin who becomes a wizard’s apprentice – or more accurately, demonstrates Destiny Powers when picking the wizard’s pocket, and gets taken on as a servant before convincing the wizard that he really ought to be an apprentice instead. Conn is pleasantly direct and active for a child (pre-teen, I believe) and the fact that he’s used to controlling his own life comes out well in his actions & narration, which is refreshing. Whilst it’s Conn who saves the day, as is traditional in children’s lit, for once there are perfectly good in-universe explanations why adults are useless.

Prineas’s magic system is a well-executed and -explained implementation of the standard flow-and-channel Language-of-Control setup, internally consistent and suitably uncomplicated. It would have been nice to have seen more of the magical academy, but perhaps that’s planned for the next few books.

September 17, 2009

The Dread Pirate Fleur and the Ruby Heart

Filed under: children's lit — Tags: — Sam @ 9:05 pm

By Sara Starbuck. This is a YA novel (flagged 9+) about a young female pirate, earning her place in her fierce uncle’s crew. She’s feisty, it’s rollicking, it’s generally Rather Good. The story moves on nicely, the characters are boldly drawn but interesting, and it’s packed with juicy nuggets of pirate-based infodumping.

It’s a pleasant, if mild, subversion of the classic “magic weapon” trope – Fleur focuses on the Hart staff, which apparently contains a piece of the sea’s soul, but her conviction that she’s the one the prophecy talks about comes to nothing. Well, nothing yet; the last chapter is definitely setting us up for a sequel, and I look forward to reading it.

September 15, 2009

Frances Hardinge – Verdigris Deep

This book is difficult to describe. It’s about families, mostly, but not in the everything-is-a-metaphor-for-your-parents’-divorce sense so tiresomely common in children’s lit. There is a divorce, but it isn’t where we think it’s going to be, and the well spirit is just that.

It’s a book about learning to connect and to value friendships, and about forgiveness – about learning to tell what we, and each other, really want. The well spirit does some monstrous things, and gets described using some really grotesque imagery, but that doesn’t make her a monster to be opposed utterly in the way a less skilled writer might have done.

August 29, 2009

Ithaka

Filed under: children's lit,review — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 10:38 pm

A children’s book by Adèle Geras, telling the story of those Odysseus left behind on Ithaka when he went to war – Penelope, his queen; Telemachus, their son; Klymene, her handmaiden, with whom the gods converse; and Ikarios, her twin brother.

I read this courtesy of Second Judith, or to be more accurate I was asked to carry it back to her and accidentally read it myself instead.

It’s a good book, with lots of warmth and vitality; the characters are fairly lightly sketched, but with a myth I (and most of us) know so well then it’s easy for us to flesh them out. On the other hand, this is the same familiar myth from a very different standpoint. The Greek myths are very much Hero Tales – stories of musclebound idiots throwing spears at each other and setting fire to things for the sake of a local beauty queen and the hope of undying fame. Of course, one of the reasons Odysseus is so popular is because he subverts this stereotype; he’s the classic trickster hero. I remember seeing a really interesting adaptation on stage at the Lyric Hammersmith a while back, with Odysseus as a scrawny guy with a dodgy beard and bags of charisma, trying to get his war-weary troops home and ending up stuck in a refugee detention camp with a bunch of Trojans.

The thing about having kings turn up and drag the menfolk off to war, however, is that that leaves the womenfolk at home to mind the house, bring in the harvests, milk the goats, and generally keep life going while the men muck around with their little toys. And since they’re culturally discouraged from violence or effective self-defense, Penelope’s in a sticky position when a whole bunch of suitors show up and start making comments like “Νιγε πλαγε ιου ηαυε ηερε”.

Of course, since this is like Ultimate Patriarchy, Telemachus is also in a sticky position. He wants to toss all the suitors out on their collective ears, and feels he won’t get any respect unless he does, but he’s just a teenager, not a hero, and since he’s a smart lad (he’s Odysseus’s own son, he’s got smart and plenty to spare) he knows he won’t manage it.

This tension is basically what the novel’s about – that space where the family left at home try and maintain their lives in the face of bullying on one hand and abandonment on the other. Of course, just because Odysseus has abandoned them doesn’t mean his actions don’t still affect them; Poseidon, in his grief for his child Polyphemus, goes to the sea strand and the taverns of Ithaka to mutter about his Plan and prepare his revenge.

Because we know that the myth is going to end well – for values of well that include a lot of blood and guts everywhere, and Penelope staying with the man who took ten years to get home from Troy to Ithaka, a distance of about 1,000 miles or three months’ leisurely hike – then we have the liberty, as readers, to focus on Klymene’s coming-of-age story, her relationships with the other Ithakans and the separate peace she forges with one of the suitors’ men, instead of the mythic backdrop. It’s a really good book, and definitely recommended.

July 31, 2009

Silver on the Tree

The Dark is Rising Sequence, by Susan Cooper. Book 5.

In many ways, this is a wonderful book. But in a lot of others, it makes me really angry.

Written in 1977 (when mass immigration from the Commonwealth was still relatively new in most of England) it’s explicitly anti-racist, which is wonderful. Will’s family defend a Sikh child (and correctly identify his ethnicity) against a racist bully and his racist father, and the racism is explicitly linked to the Dark. On the other hand, it still doesn’t give active roles to women – Jane’s only task is to avoid being eaten by a lake monster – and demonises people with red hair.

It’s set in Wales again, both in the real and immediate landscape of West Wales and in Cantre’ Gwaelod, the Drowned Hundred – the land lost when the dykes failed and the sea came in, between Llyn[1] and Gower, that now forms Bae Ceredigion. On the other hand, the cast take a train (an antique steam train, in fact, that the Light sends when it’s needed, and which then turns into a boat – I’m reminded of the dream travel sequences in the first and next-to-last Sandman books, though of course they were much later) back to the Chiltern Hills for the arbitrary finale.

It’s arbitrary, because we hadn’t heard about the Midsummer Tree before, nor that the mistletoe on it opened its flowers once every seven hundred years and that the side whose champion cut the mistletoe at the instant of its full flowering could permanently banish the other from Time.

For that matter, we didn’t have (or at least, I didn’t see) any foreshadowing that one of the supporting cast had been a stealth Lord of the Dark until she gets suddenly unmasked and banished on the train.

The Light never tells its champions what’s going to happen, any more than it tells the readers, so this ties in well with the single thing about the book that angers me most.

At the end of the book, after all they’ve gone through, after being chased around and stalked and threatened by the Dark, everyone who’s not a wizard-by-predestined-birthright is made to lose their memory for their own good. The one grownup is given a choice, but resigns it, and asks the Light to choose for him; the children aren’t even given that choice. It’s not even that they go Susan, and think it was all a game; they can’t remember any of it. And John Rowlands, the one mortal adult at the finale – who is a really good character – gets to live out the rest of his life in the comforting illusion that his wife was nothing more than the ordinary loving woman she seemed, and forget everything about the Light and the Dark and the Old Ones, forget that he stood firm against the greatest darkness that ever was, forget that victory hinged on his judgement.

Going back to the bright spots for a while, when Will and Bran go through Cantre’ Gwaelod we see guest appearances from Gwion[2] and Gwyddno Garanhir, and we get a long section all about craftsmanship, which I can’t do better than to quote.

‘It was made by one who was close to the Light,’ Gwion said, ‘but who was neither a Lord of the Light nor one of the Old Ones – there are none such bred in this land… He was the only one who had the skill to make so great a wonder. Even here, where many are skilled. A great craftsman, unparalleled. But the Riders of the Dark, they could roam freely through the land, since we had neither desire nor reason to keep any creature out – and when they heard that the Light had asked for the sword, they demanded that it should not be made. They knew, of course, that words already long written foretold the use of Eirias, once it was forged, for the vanquishing of the Dark.’
Will said, ‘What did he do, the craftsman?’
‘He called together all the makers in the land,’ Gwion said. He tilted his head a little higher. ‘All those who wrote, or brought life to others’ words or music, or who made beautiful things. And he said to them, I have this work in me, I know it, that will be the peak of everything I can ever make or do, and the Dark is trying to forbid me to do it. We may all suffer, if I deny them their will, and I cannot therefore be responsible alone for deciding. Tell me. Tell me what I should do.’
Bran was gazing at him. ‘What did they say?’
‘They said, You must make it.’ Gwion smiled proudly. ‘Without any exception. Make the sword, they said.’

And the Dark’s revenge on the craftsman was to bring a great depression on him –

Fear of age, of insufficiency, of unmet promise. All such endless fears, that are the doom of people given the gift of making, and lie always somewhere in their minds.

Don’t we all know it…


[1] The y there should have a circumflex, but HTML 4.0 does not support Welsh very well. “Llyn” without a circumflex means “lake”, and this particular geographical feature is a peninsula, which is rather different.
[2] Yes, that Gwion. And when he packs lunch for the children, he gives them apples and hazelnuts.

July 29, 2009

The Grey King

The Dark is Rising Sequence, by Susan Cooper. Book 4.

Very Welsh, and feels right to me. Given that I spent a lot of my A-level science lessons looking out of the window at Cader Idris, if I’m happy with it then anyone should be.

I can’t find any Welsh spelling mistakes – though Welsh is a language with a lot of stratification and regional variation – and Bran’s Welsh pronunciation lesson to Will is pretty much spot on.

It does well on Welsh mythology, too; at one point, Bran and Will are asked riddles, the answer to which are Triads – Who are the three wise elders of the world?[1] Who are the three generous men of the Island of Britain?[2]

As far as plot goes, this one lives out the first prophetic verse we heard at the end of Greenwitch, and emphasizes very pointedly that the Light is Not Nice. Unpleasant things have to happen to good people, or the Dark will win and everyone will be vastly more unpleasant to each other. To be more specific, the Light has to do unpleasant things to good people, and there isn’t any mention in the text of alternatives being considered & rejected – the things the Light do are the right things to do because the Light did them. On the other hand, victory is by no means predestined[3], so the idea of just treading out the predestined steps is a little problematic. Of course, it’s not the only problematic thing – it’s heavy on the “birthright” angle. Anyone trying to reach the plot coupon who wasn’t born to do so will be killed, and all that.


[1] The owl of Cwm Cawlwyd, the eagle of Gwernabwy, and the blackbird of Celli Gadarn. Oddly, the romance of Culhwch and Olwen lists five – the ouzel of Cilgwri, the stag of Rhedynfre, the eagle of Gwernabwy, the owl of Cwm Cawlwyd, and the salmon of Llyn Llyw.
[2] Nudd the Generous, son of Senyllt, Mordaf the Generous, son of Serwan, Rhydderch the Generous, son of Tudwal Tudglyd. And Arthur himself was more generous than the three.
[3] Well, except in the sense that we’re reading 1970s children’s fantasy.

July 26, 2009

Greenwitch

The Dark is Rising sequence, by Susan Cooper. Book 3.

I remembered this one as being rather weak compared to the other three (obviously, I’m not counting Over Sea, Under Stone in here, because that’s by far the weakest of the five) but on re-reading it stacks up well.

Will Stanton, from TDIR, meets the three children from OSUS for their followup quest. The grail they found has been stolen from the museum, so they need to get it back and retrieve the leftover part – an extra scroll which was hidden inside the grail, and fell into the sea. Interestingly, there isn’t any arbitrary puzzle solving involved here – instead, Susan wins by going to the ancient local ritual of constructing the Greenwitch (a wicker effigy) and making an unselfish wish for her to be happy, whereupon the Greenwitch decides to help her and give her the plot coupon.

The Dark’s purpose for the Grail isn’t frustrated; instead, it gets characterized as something necessary but unexplained, which will ultimately serve the Light. There’s a lot of middle-book syndrome going on.

Interesting use of unsympathetic resonance: the Dark’s agent in this book is a painter, who does nasty, scary work… but it’s still good art, interesting and creative and Artistic. And it’s a spell (technically, three spells – the spell of Mana, the spell of Reck, and the spell of Lir – and the same three spells the Light were going to use) which Merlin had forgotten was possible.

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