the Little Red Reviewer

Posts Tagged ‘fantasy

The Emerald Circus, by Jane Yolen

Available Nov 17th 2017

Where I got it: Received advanced reading copy from the publisher (Thanks Tachyon!)

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Are kids still reading fairy tales and older stories? I wonder.  What need do the ten year olds of today have for Alice in Wonderland when they can play video games instead?  What use is a Hans Christian Andersen story book when you can watch a Disney movie instead?  I think a lot of younger readers who get their hands on Jane Yolen’s The Emerald Circus  will find themselves yearning to learn more about Hans Christian Andersen, Emily Dickinson, The Once and Future King, Charles Perrault, J.M. Barrie, Edgar Allan Poe, and more. My favorite kind of fiction is the kind that makes me want to read non-fiction.

 

The Emerald Circus showcases Yolen’s  range of talents in re-imagining classic stories and fairy tales,  and how being exposed to classics such as The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, Arthurian legends, and the works of Hans Christian Andersen, Emily Dickinson, and Edgar Allen Poe shaped the lifelong joy she finds in storytelling through prose and poetry.  If you are a fan of poetry, the story notes and poems section at the end will be your favorite area, as the vast majority of the poems showcased are new to this volume.  Long time fans of Yolen’s work will see many familiar friends in the Table of Contents, as a number of these stories were previously published in other anthologies over the years.   The gem of the table of contents most certainly is “Sister Emily’s Lightship”,  which means a whole new generation of readers will get to enjoy this famous award winning short story.

 

The collection opens and closes with the very strong Hans Christian Andersen origin story “Andersen’s Witch”, and the Nebula award winning short story “Sister Emily’s Lightship”.  “Andersen’s Witch” is an excellent set up for the rest of the collection, as the story takes place when Hans is but a child – poverty stricken, lonely, and unsure of his future.  He makes a deal that affects the rest of his life,  and he doesn’t realize the price of that deal until he lies on his deathbed.   I loved how ambiguous this story is – did these things really happen? Did Hans imagine them? Does it matter?  This beautifully told story gave me wonderful flashbacks of being a kid and reading The Snow Queen out of a massive (or it seemed massive at the time!) Andersen fairy tales book I had as a kid. The illustrations in that book got my attention, and the stories kept me coming back to it.

 

“Sister Emily’s Lightship” is the big draw for this collection, and although it appears last in the table of contents I’m sure most people will read it first.  Described by Yolen as “Emily Dickinson meets a Martian”, the story is told in a very different style than the other entries in this collection. Could an interaction with an alien have triggered Emily’s withdrawal from society?  What need would she have of salons and social calling, when she’s seen what the Earth looks like from space? How could local society possibly compete with her inner life that is so full of fireworks and supernovae?   These two stories make excellent bookends, as they have an odd mirroring of each other – the main character’s experience with something alien helps them to create unparalleled works of literature, but at the same time pushes them both towards a life of perceived  loneliness and reclusiveness.

 

And in between those two short stories any reader will find plenty more to enjoy:

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Wisp of a Thing – a Tufa Novel, by Alex Bledsoe

published in 2013

where I got it: gift from a friend

 

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If you enjoyed Alex Bledsoe’s first Tufa novel, The Hum and the Shiver you’ll be happy to hear that, Wisp of a Thing is more of that. Not more of the same (not by a long shot), but more magical realism, more mists in the mountains hiding secrets that aren’t there for you to find – secrets that will reveal themselves in their own sweet time and in turns tease you, ignore you, or use you, along the way. The Tufa know what and who they are, and they know who us mortals are. Masters of staying hidden, the Tufa people usually have no interest in letting strangers in on their secrets.

Rob Quillen is learning about hiding. A finalist on a televised talent show, his girlfriend was killed in a plane crash on her way to see him compete in the finals. Drowning in grief, Rob just wants to hide from the world for a while. And where else to hide than the Great Smoky Mountains? Rob has the Tufa look about him, which may be why another singer told him of the Tufa music of Cloud County, Tennessee, and that if Rob found the right Tufa song, his broken heart would mend. Did this other singer think Rob a lost Tufa?

Upon arriving in the rustic village of Needsville, Rob discovers the most amazing music he’s ever heard. He hears it and enjoys it, but he sure doesn’t understand what’s just below the music, or what just the right circumstances allow him to see. It’s funny, because Rob thinks the universe revolves around him. It’s kinda cute and endearing how he thinks all this is about him. Rob is about to have the most surprising week of his life.

You know how the right piece of music can pull you right in? Maybe you’re having a bad day, maybe you’re restless and distracted, and then you listen to the soaring brassy themes of some John Williams music or the railroad track rumble and sizzle of distorted guitar in a rock song, or whatever kind of music floats your boat, and suddenly you feel centered and grounded? Alex Bledsoe’s writing is a bit like that too. His prose pulls you right in, pulls you right into a forgotten mountain town, pulls you right into secret histories, family feuds, and the forests and mists that hide it all.

Then it makes sense there would be music in this book, right? Oh yes, there is music! Wisp of a Thing is full of songs and verses, and these are words that have power. And people who have power tend to like to keep it, which means words have been hidden and buried. And the best person to find something that’s been buried is someone who is nearly a ghost herself.

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The Habitation of the Blessed, by Catherynne M. Valente

where I got it:  purchased new

published in 2010

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I first read and reviewed Catherynne M. Valente’s The Habitation of the Blessed in 2011, and it blew my mind. I had no idea jeweled prose like this existed, I had no idea stories could be told like this. I didn’t know an author could do these things in a novel. I remember trying to give someone a 30-second elevator pitch about this book, and I knew I couldn’t boil the entire book down into a few sentences so I simply said something like Have you ever come across a metaphor that wasn’t a metaphor, it was the truth? That’s this book. The person looked at me like I was crazy, but I think I did Habitation justice with that pitch.

This is a hard book for me to talk about, because reading it has become a sort of religious experience for me. Not religious in the way of temples or praying or god or heaven or any of that stuff, but religious in the way of looking up at the night sky, seeing the Milky Way, and feeling very small and realizing you had no idea the universe and everything in it could be this beautiful and understanding that you are a part of that beauty, you are in it, you are of it. Religious like that.

I don’t so much talk about this book as fan-girl about it.

The blurb on the back of the book reads:

“This is the story of a place that never was: the kingdom of Prester John, the utopia described by an anonymous, twelfth-century document which captured the imagination of the medieval world and drove hundreds of lost souls to seek out its secrets, inspiring explorers, missionaries, and kings for centuries. But what if it were all true? What if there was such a place, and a poor, broken priest once stumbled past its borders, discovering, not a Christian paradise, but a country where everything is possible, immortality is easily had, and the Western world is nothing but a dim and distant dream?”

I call it a “surface plot”, because this is not a book about some simple plotline. Is a book about the power of story, the power of time, the power of faith, and the beauty of being destroyed and created by those powers.

Prester John had originally been on a mission to find the grave of Thomas the Apostle when he found instead the land of Pentexore, and five hundred years later, Brother Hiob is on a mission to find the possibly immortal Prester John. Where Hiob’s journey ends, he finds a tree. A tree whose fruit are books. Hiob is allowed to pluck three books from the tree, and he finds to his luck one of the books is in the voice of Prester John himself. The second is from John’s wife Hagia, and the third is from the famous storyteller Imtithal. No matter how fast Hiob and his assistant copy and transcribe, the books turn to rot faster. The residents of Pentexore may have had immortality, but it only takes hours for their stories to decompose. (and what does it mean when someone’s story dies?)

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June, where did you go? Last I checked it was June 2nd, how is it already July??   I didn’t post many reviews in June, but I did get a lot of reading done.  Some of these I’ll write reviews for, some of them will get a capsule review in this post.  Here’s what I was up to this month:

 

I finished this fun little gem:

Spock Must Die is the famous novel where thanks to a transporter malfunction, the Enterprise now has two Spocks. Which one is the “real” one? What will they do with the other one? When war breaks out at the Klingon border, the importance of solving the mystery ratchets up. Even when Kirk is sure which Spock is the true, original Spock, he insists on calling his friend “Spock Two”. When questioned why, Kirk responds that by saying “two” every time he says his friend’s name, it forces him to remember how important it is to solve the problem at hand.  Fun little book, right around 200 pages.  Great beginning, satisfying end, a little slow in the middle.

 

then there was this other little gem:

Mightier than the Sword is the new novella out from K.J. Parker.  I’m not going to say much because I do plan to write a review, but it was fun, smart, snarky, and a joy to read. I’ve read it at least twice now, maybe three times?  I read these quick little novellas, and then I get ready to write a review, realize I don’t remember the details, so I read the whole thing again.  If you like Parker, you will love Mightier than the Sword.

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Penric and the Shaman (Penric and Desdemona #2) by Lois McMaster Bujold

published: Feb 2017

where I got it: received review copy from the publisher (thanks Subterranean Press!)

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Four years after the events of Penric’s Demon, Pen has settled into an insulated life in Martensbridge.  He’s grown in his maturity, and his relationship with Desdemona has somewhat settled down.  They’ve gotten used to each other, and settled into how their life together will function on a day to day basis. While Pen’s passion project is copying Learned Ruchia’s volumes on sorcery and magic so that it can be distributed to the other Temples, there is still plenty about magic and demons that he, and even Desdemona, don’t know.  There’s the magic that is taught in the schools and temples, magic education and knowledge that can be controlled.  And then there’s the hedge magic, magic learned by accident and never written down only passed around orally. There’s this neat undercurrent in these novellas about official scholars who want only the magic they teach (and control) to be seen as “good” magic, and anything outside these scholarly and proscribed is considered dangerous to the safety of all.

 

If while reading Penric’s Demon, you had hoped for more explanation about how the magic system worked, and what exactly demons are, you’ll be pleased to know that there is a fascinating conversation near the beginning of Penric and the Shaman where Pen takes the opportunity to explain the difference (now that he understands it himself!) between magic that descends from gods and demons and hedge shamanic magic, which is believed to be taken up from the earth and mortal animals. Penric’s Demon is the shortest and most focused of the novellas in this series, and I appreciate that Bujold waited until a little later in the series to explain how everything works, rather than bog down the opening novella with it.

 

The Princess-Archdivine tasks Pen with travelling with Locator Oswyl to assist him with investigating a Shamanic murder. A less skilled writer could easily have taken this story down the road of standard police procedural starring two unlikely partners. Luckily, it was written by Bujold, so while yes, there is an investigation of sorts, and yes, Pen an Oswyl are absolute opposites and aren’t sure what to make of each other, there is nothing standard about this story and it doesn’t feel like a procedural.   It feels more a ghost story, and a story about knowing how and when to let go, actually.

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Penric’s Demon, by Lois McMaster Bujold

published in May 2016

where I got it: received ARC from the publisher (Thanks Subterranean Press!)

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Everyone has heard of Lois McMaster Bujold. Creator of the beloved and long running Vorkosigan space opera series, and creator of the World of the Five Gods fantasy series, among other series and stand alones. I imagine she has multiple mantles in her house to display the myriad awards she has won during her long career.
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When Subterranean Press sent me advanced reading copies of her new novellas that take place in her World of the Five Gods series, my first thought was how many additional novels will I have to read for these to make sense? New novels and stories in the Vorkosigan series make me nervous because I am so under read in that series that I miss more than half the jokes. So as more Penric novellas showed up on my doorstep, I got more and more nervous. But? The first one was scarecly 200 pages, and if I read 20 pages and nothing made sense, I could always put it down, right?
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So, the good news is that I had nothing to worry about, because Penric’s Demon is a pleasure to read, and requires zero knowledge whatsoever of the world.
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The better news is that there are now four novellas in this group (not exactly a series?), so if you like what you read in Penric’s Demon, there’s plenty more for you to enjoy.
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Ok, I lied. You need to know a smidgen about the World of the Five Gods for Penric’s Demon to make sense. You need to know it’s a medieval secondary fantasy world with a feudal government and sorcerers receive formal educations to best use their powers. Also, there are five gods. There. That’s all you need to know to go into these novellas and enjoy yourself.
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Penric, the son of a country baron of dwindling fortune, is nineteen and naive. On his way to his formal betrothal ceremony, he stops by the side of the road to help an ailing old woman. She doesn’t make it, and this is the end of Penric’s boring provincial life. She wasn’t just any old woman. Learned Ruchia of Martensbridge was a physician, high sorceress, and she was carrying an old demon. When she died, the demon had to go somewhere. It went into Penric.

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City of Miracles, by Robert Jackson Bennett

published May 2017

where I got it: purchased new

 

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All artwork (other than the book’s cover art) in this post is by the very talented Chanh Quach. You can view the rest of her Divine Cities character portraits here.

 

This is the third book in a trilogy, and I’m a little jealous of people who will read City of Miracles as their first Divine Cities book.  How different would City of Stairs be if you already knew Sigrud’s secrets, if you already had Vinya’s backstory?  I imagine those early conversations would read much differently and have layers of subtext.

 

Picking up twenty years after the events in City of Stairs,  City of Miracles feels slower, more introspective, and less subtle than the previous installments in the trilogy.   The pace and quietness reflects Sigrud’s personality – he’s not slow by any means, but he’s self contained, doesn’t waste words, and comes to things on his own terms.  Still wanted by the government for his actions after his daughter’s death, he’s been living in hiding under an assumed name. At his age, he should be slowing down, but to Sigrud one day is timelessly much like the next – he patiently waits for Ashara Komayd to contact him, he keeps to himself, and if anyone suspects his identity, he disappears.  In the first two Divine Cities books, Sigrud stole every scene he was in, so it is nice to have an entire novel where he is the star of the show.

artwork by Chanh Quach

As with other Robert Jackson Bennett books, the world building in City of Miracles is fantastic. Gorgeously rendered city scapes,  barren hinterlands, everything in between, and more importantly everything has a history. When you close your eyes, you see it, you are there, you can hear the breeze through the trees, you can find someone nearby who can tell the story of those ruins.  In the twenty years since we first met Shara and Sigrud, the world has changed. A young industrial revolution, of sorts – more automobiles, a sky gondola contraption that goes over the mountains instead of through them, more telephones, etc.   As the younger generation is excited about these new technological developments, the older generation is still getting used to a changing world.

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.