March MiniReviews – Part 2

Still not feeling the whole blogging thing, so here are some more notes on recent reads.  Part 1 for March can be found here.

The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald

//published 1872 & 1883//

These are a pair of adorable little stories that follow the very traditional fairy tale format of the good being very good and the bad being very bad.  That said, I still quite enjoyed them, especially The Princess and the Goblin.  There is a lot of adventure here and some fun characters, even if the ending of the second book was a bit abrupt.

I also didn’t realize that these books were so old, because the edition I have is both stories in one volume, which was published around 1970.  But it turns out that the original stories are from the late 1800’s!

The Night Ferry by Michael Robotham

//published 2007//

This is technically a standalone novel, but I was quite excited to see my old friend Vincent Ruiz from the Joseph O’Laughlin series make an appearance.  Actually, Ruiz is what kept me reading a lot of this book as it didn’t always completely engross me.  For some reason, I just couldn’t get into the sense of urgency, and I didn’t really like Ali all that well.  Also, Ali has been dating a guy named Dave for quite some time when this book opens, and we continue to see a decent amount of him throughout the story.  But Ali tells us when we first meet him that his nickname is “New Boy” Dave (just like that, with quotations around “New Boy”)… and then proceeds to constantly refer to him as “New Boy” Dave for the entire rest of the book.  I can’t explain why this annoyed me, but it did.  Seriously, does Ali always think of this guy she is really serious about dating/is sleeping with/considering marrying as “New Boy” Dave??  It was SO annoying.   I decided to stop by and talk with “New Boy” Dave on my way home.  What.  Even.

Anyway, the story itself was fine.  I feel like it’s really difficult to write a book about immigrants/refugees without becoming somewhat polemic, and because it is such a complicated and nuanced topic, I don’t always appreciate reading books that turn it into something incredibly simplistic (e.g., all immigrants are precious innocents and if you don’t agree it’s because you are a money-grubbing fat cat), but this book handled the topic fairly well.  All in all, a decent read that I did enjoy, but not as much as some of Robotham’s other books.  3.5/5.

The Rumpelstiltskin Problem by Vivian Vande Velde

//published 2001//

Velde introduces her slim volume of short stories by outlining what she perceives as the big issues with the classic fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin:  basically, it doesn’t make any sense.  But she then presents five alternative retellings that help make a nonsensical story feel at least slightly more plausible (at least in worlds with fairies and magic).  While nothing earth-shattering, they were fun stories and a quick, entertaining read.

Beauty by Robin McKinley

//published 1978//

This is an old favorite of mine that I have reread many times over the year.  It’s such a fun retelling of Beauty and the Beast.  A lot of reviewers complain that it’s too slow and that too much time is spent on Beauty’s life before she meets the Beast, but that’s actually the part of this story that I love.  In this version, Beauty’s family is so kind and happy that I would have been perfectly content to spend the entire story just hanging out with them while they adjusted to their new life.  My only real beef with this version is that Beauty spends an inordinate amount of time talking about how plain she is, how ugly, how physically unappealing, etc.  I get really tired of listening to her run herself down, when it’s quite obvious that she just isn’t as stunningly beautiful as her older sisters – probably because she is only fifteen when the book starts and they are in their early 20’s.  Other than that, though, this is a really fun and engaging story, and even if it isn’t action-packed, it has a lot of characters that I love.  4/5.

Rescue Dog of the High Pass by Jim Kjelgaard

//published 1958//

This is one of the rare Kjelgaard books that I didn’t devour as a child, probably because the library didn’t have it.  Recently I acquired it as a free Kindle book, and while it wasn’t my new favorite, it was still an interesting story about Kjelgaard’s theory of the origin of the St. Bernard dogs (an event that is actually lost in the mists of time), which of course involves a young hero and his faithful canine companion.  Nothing amazing here, but an enjoying and interesting little story that I would sometime like to land a hard copy of for my permanent collection.

The Blue Sword // The Hero and the Crown // by Robin McKinley

These two books take place in the same world, although The Hero and the Crown is set many generations earlier.  I can see reading either book first, honestly.  I read them in published ordered (my default), and when I was reading The Hero and the Crown, it kind of gave me some The Magician’s Nephew kind of vibes – like yes, you get something out of it reading this one first, but to really understand the depth, you have to have read the chronologically later books before reading this one, if that makes sense.  (I hate it that the “official” order of Narnia now puts Nephew first.  Utter nonsense.  And don’t give me that line about Lewis wanting them to go in that order.  He offhandedly mentioned it to one person, and now it’s 100% the way people are supposed to read them.  Ridiculous.  Nephew is so much more magical when you read it later in the series and actually understand what’s happening.  Anyway.)

//published 1983//

Anyway, anyway, back to this actual review.  The Blue Sword focuses on Harry (female), recently orphaned, now traveling from “Homeland” (definite England vibe) to Damar (India/high desert vibe), where her only living relative, brother Richard, is serving as a soldier.  He has made arrangements for Harry to stay with Sir Charles and his wife, and older couple (Sir Charles is some kind of diplomat).  I never really understood why Harry wasn’t just allowed to stay at home, since she’s in her late teens and it seems like she should have been able to rustle up some kind of companion, but whatever.  Harry arrives in Damar, an arid and rugged country, and tries to adjust to her new life.

A while back, Damar was invaded and taken over by the Homelanders, who enslaved, employed, and displaced the natives – the Hillfolk.  Only a small part of Damar is not under Homelander rule, the northern desert.  This border region is where Richard is posted and where Harry comes to live.  Shortly after her arrival, and unheard of event occurs: the king of the Hillfolk comes to call.  But when he asks for help resisting the impending invasion of the Northerners (who live over the mountains beyond the Hillfolk’s desert), the Homelanders put him off with various diplomatic phrases that basically refuse to help him, and the king and his entourage leave in a huff.

There are many strange stories about the Hillfolk, and some of those stories even sound… magical.  Of course the prosaic Homelanders would never believe such tales, but…!!!

But the king’s visit accomplished one thing: when he saw Harry, he knew immediately that she had a role of importance to play for his people, even though he has no idea why or what it is.

Overall, this was a really enjoyable book.  I liked Harry and the Hillfolk king (Corlath) very well, and I liked how their romance was very secondary to the more imminent issue of our country is being invaded by demons.  (So often YA fantasy has a tendency to go off on long tangents where no one has any sense of urgency and plenty of time to lounge about snogging, which makes literally zero sense.)  I liked how not everything came naturally to Harry, and that her training montage took longer than like two days.  The world building was done very well, and I loved the culture of the Hillfolk.

However, the story did drag a bit in the middle, especially when they go to visit Luthe.  The pacing just felt rather slow.  Still, I liked the ending and felt like things came together well.  While this wasn’t an instant classic for me, it was still an easy 3.5/5.

//published 1985//

The Hero and the Crown is about Aerin, the daughter of the Damarian king many generations before the invasion of the Homelanders.  There is some question about her mother’s heritage, so Aerin is somewhat the ugly duckling of the palace, as some people say that her mother was a witch who enchanted the king, etc.  I actually liked this story a lot, but it felt like it was incredibly choppy in places.  McKinley starts the story and goes a couple of chapters, then goes back a few years to give us some backstory for a couple of chapters, and then goes back a few more years for a couple of chapters to give us backstory to the backstory… and then jumps back to the original time and goes from there.  In this instance, it would have made way more sense to start with the earlier time, because I honestly didn’t understand the seriousness of some of the initial conversations and events she described because I had no context for them.  The way she wrote it left me feeling a little confused in places as to whether or not different events had happened yet or not in Aerin’s life.

Eventually, Aerin rides off to become a hero, and the pacing seemed odd there as well.  She completely loses her sense of urgency while her country is being invaded by demons.  At one point, she learns some really important information, that through one incredibly simple task could make everything so much better for her father and the people who are fighting back in the City… and she’s just like, “Oh, huh, interesting,” and we don’t hear anything else about it until chapters later.  It seems like at that point I would have been like, “Whoa, that’s crazy.  Let’s like send a messenger or something to make sure they know about this thing!”

I also didn’t really care for the sort-of love triangle, which left me feeling weird about her marrying the person she marries in the end.

Still, an overall enjoyable book and a 3/5 read.

I definitely enjoyed these stories, but they didn’t really become new favorites of mine like some of McKinley’s works have in the past – her writing is really hit or miss for me.  I do recommend these if you enjoy fantasy stories, but they aren’t the most magical books I’ve read lately.

Shadows

001

 

by Robin McKinley

Published 2013

First off, Robin McKinley, what the heck are you doing publishing ANY book other than the next installment of Pegasus?!?!?!!?  (Sorry, I realize I rant about this pretty regularly, but I’m still sincerely frustrated that someone would purposely published HALF A BOOK in 2010 and then say that maybe she’ll get around to publishing the SECOND HALF in 2014?!?!!?)

Still, while I’m waiting, I figured I may as well check out whatever book it was that McKinley deemed more important than finishing Pegasus.  Shadows was a solid read.  While I didn’t love it as much as Spindle’s End or Beautyit was still a lot of fun.

Per usual, McKinley does an amazing job with world-building.  What I love about her books is how she rarely bothers to explain what the world is like.  As you read, more and more things fall into place, but it’s through casual reference more than actual explanation.   Some things she never does explain, leaving the reader to put his own interpretation on what is happening.  In this book, we have this sort of alternate universe where magic is a thing, but in New World (read: United States), magic has been outlawed, and, two generations back (from our heroine), everyone who could do magic (it’s a sort of instinctive, natural talent) had that gene removed from their being, so that magic-doers will no longer be born in the New World at all.  What our heroine (whose name I can’t remember… sorry, it’s been over a month since I actually read this book) discovers is that magic is perhaps not as eradicated as the government would like everyone to think.

While I’m not always a fan of first-person narrative, McKinley usually does a good job with that voice (Dragonhaven, for instance …  a book I’m planning to read again if my sister ever returns it HINT HINT), presenting a protagonist who is easy to relate to and isn’t stupidly obnoxious.  I DESPISE reading YA books in first person where the narrator is constantly swearing and thinking about nothing but sex.  I’m not actually interested in everything you’re thinking – I’m interested in the story you’re telling so please TELL IT.  McKinley strikes the balance of keeping her first-person narrator personable without dragging us down into every single emotion that flashes through her being.

Here’s the thing that gets me about McKinley: she basically never does sequels.  (Yet another reason that Pegasus was such a betrayal.)  But this book truly felt like the beginning of a trilogy or something.  The story finished strong and undisappointingly (new word for today), but at the end, it really felt as though she had pulled together a team that was going to be fighting the government, except we just have to imagine how that goes because she’s never going to tell us.  (I also think I read somewhere that she is really against people writing fanfiction about her characters, so there isn’t even that small comfort.)  Far more so than some of her fairy tale books, Shadows left me with a slight feeling of dissatisfaction, simply because I wanted to know what everyone was going to do next.  There were also some nagging unanswered questions about why the government was so against magic and that sort of thing as well.

Still, overall this was a book I had trouble putting down (obviously, since my main complaint is that there isn’t more of it!) and definitely enjoyed.  4/5.

Spindle’s End

002

by Robin McKinley

Published 2000

The magic in that country was so thick and tenacious that it settled over the land like chalk-dust and over floors and shelves like slightly sticky plaster-dust.  (Housecleaners in that country earned unusually good wages.)  If you lived in that country, you had to de-scale your kettle of its encrustation of magic at least once a week, because if you didn’t, you might find yourself pouring hissing snakes or pond slime into your teapot instead of water.  (It didn’t have to be anything scary or unpleasant, like snakes or slime, especially in a cheerful household – magic tended to reflect the atmosphere of the place in which it found itself – but if you want a cup of tea, a cup of lavender-and-gold pansies or ivory thimbles is unsatisfactory.  And while the pansies – put dry in a vase – would probably last a day, looking like ordinary pansies, before they went greyish-dun and collapsed into magic dust, something like an ivory thimble would begin to smudge and crumble as soon as you picked it up.)

This is another well-loved book.  It’s a vacation book – I always buy at least one book on vacation; this one was purchased in Traverse City, Michigan, in September of 2003, and has probably been read at least ten times since then.  I think I fell in love with this book because almost the entire first paragraph is a parentheses.  As a parentheses addict myself, I love it.  If parentheses annoy you, steer clear of this book, as it is riddled with them.

What I love about McKinley is her ability to create a completely different world, yet one to which I can relate and one that I can understand almost immediately.  Although new rules reveal themselves as the story wends on, she doesn’t make any giant illogical leaps.  I also love the way that this story encompasses the entire 21 years of Sleeping Beauty’s life pre-spindle, but does it in a way that flows and is easy to read.  The book starts focused on Katriona, who becomes Princess Rosie’s foster-mother, but seamlessly flows into a focus more on Rosie when she is old enough to think interesting thoughts.  McKinley also does a wonderful job with the animals – although some characters can understand what animals are saying, it doesn’t make the animals less animal-like – it almost makes them more so.  (Like the movie Up where we can hear the dogs talking, and what do they say?  Exactly what we would expect dogs to say!)

I am not a 100% fan of McKinley; some of her stories aren’t my style.  But Spindle’s End is one of my very favorite books, and if you’re a fantasy fan and haven’t read this one, I highly recommend it.