Please feel free to comment! I have not read anything by any of these writers but Johnson.

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The Sword of Winter, by Marta Randall. In the cold and dangerous land of Cherek, emerging from an era of magic and confronted by technological advancements, Lord Gambin of Jentesi lies dying and chaos reigns.

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Fling
20 (55.6%)

Marry
6 (16.7%)

Kill
10 (27.8%)

A Rumor of Gems, by Ellen Steiber. Enter the port city of Arcato: an old and magical town set somewhere in our modern world, a town where gemstones have begun to mysteriously appear . . . gemstones whose mystical powers aren't mere myth or legend but frighteningly real, casting their spells for good and ill.

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Fling
15 (40.5%)

Marry
7 (18.9%)

Kill
15 (40.5%)

Travel Light, by Naomi Mitchison. The story of Halla, a girl born to a king but cast out onto the hills to die. She lives among bears; she lives among dragons. But the time of dragons is passing, and Odin All-Father offers Halla a choice: Will she stay dragonish and hoard wealth and possessions, or will she travel light?

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Fling
21 (40.4%)

Marry
24 (46.2%)

Kill
7 (13.5%)

Nemesis, by Louise Cooper. Princess Anghara had no place in the Forbidden Tower, and no business tampering with its secrets. But she did, and now the seven demons are loose and her world is cursed, prey to the wrath of the Earth Goddess.

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Fling
16 (40.0%)

Marry
6 (15.0%)

Kill
18 (45.0%)

Racing the Dark, by Alaya Dawn Johnson. Lana, a teenaged girl on a nameless backwater island, finds an ominous blood-red jewel that marks her as someone with power, setting in motion events that drive her away from her family and into an apprenticeship with a mysterious one-armed witch.

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Fling
34 (73.9%)

Marry
11 (23.9%)

Kill
1 (2.2%)

My Soul to Keep, by Tananarive Due. When Jessica marries David, he is everything she wants in a family man: brilliant, attentive, ever youthful. Yet she still feels something about him is just out of reach. Soon, as people close to Jessica begin to meet violent, mysterious deaths, David makes an unimaginable confession: More than 400 years ago, he and other members of an Ethiopian sect traded their humanity so they would never die, a secret he must protect at any cost. Now, his immortal brethren have decided David must return and leave his family in Miami.

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Fling
23 (53.5%)

Marry
10 (23.3%)

Kill
10 (23.3%)

The winner of FMK # 1! Alas, I did not fall madly in love with it, but I did enjoy it. FMK is definitely off to a good start, because God knows how long that book has languished unread on my shelves. I'm pretty sure at least five years and possibly ten. But I'm very glad I finally got to it.

Twelve-year-old Lucy returns to the small English village of Hagworthy, which she hasn’t visited since she was seven. There she stays with her aunt, reconnects with some childhood friends and finds that both she and they have changed, and looks on in growing alarm as the well-meaning but ignorant new vicar resurrects the ancient tradition of the Horn Dance, which is connected to the Wild Hunt.

The premise plus the opening sentences probably tell you everything you need to know about the book:

The train had stopped in a cutting, so steep that Lucy, staring through the window, could see the grassy slopes beyond captured in intense detail only a yard or two away: flowers, insects, patches of vivid red earth. She became intimate with this miniature landscape, alone with it in a sudden silence, and then the train jolted, oozed steam from somewhere beneath, and moved on between shoulders of Somerset hillside.

This is one of my favorite genres which sadly does not seem to exist any more, the subset of British children’s fantasy, usually set in small towns or villages, which focuses on atmosphere, beautiful prose, and capturing delicate moments in time. Character is secondary, plot is tertiary, and there may be very little action (though some have a lot); the magical aspects are often connected to folklore or ancient traditions, and may be subtle or questionable until the end.

You can see all those elements in those two sentences I quoted; the entire subgenre consists of inviting the reader to become intimate with minature landscapes.

This is obviously subjective and debatable, but I think of Alan Garner, Susan Cooper (especially Greenwitch), and Robert Westall as writers with books in this subgenre, but not Diana Wynne Jones. The settings are the sort parodied in Cold Comfort Farm. Hagworthy is full of darkly muttering villagers who kept making me think, “Beware, Robert Poste’s child!”

In The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy, Lucy’s parents are divorced, and her mother is now living in another country with a baby brother Lucy has never met. This is mentioned maybe two or three times, very briefly, which is interesting because so many books would make a much bigger deal of it. Lucy returns to Hagworthy for a vacation with her aunt, a botanist.

Of her childhood friends, the two girls have become horse-mad and have nothing in common with Lucy. The boy, Kester, is now a moody misfit teenager, and Lucy, who is also a bit of a moody misfit, becomes friends with him all over again. They wander around the countryside, fossil-hunting and stag-watching, periodically getting in fights over Kester’s refusal to discuss the thing hanging over the story, which is the new vicar’s revival of the Horn Dance to fundraise at a fete. This is very obviously going to awaken the Wild Hunt, and Kester has clearly been mystically targeted as its victim. Though there is a ton of dark muttering about what a bad idea this is, no one does anything about this until nearly the end, when Lucy finally makes first a misfired attempt to stop the Horn Dance, then a successful one to save Kester.

The atmosphere and prose is lovely, and if you like that sort of thing, you will like this book. Even for a book that isn’t really about the plot, the plot had problems. One was the total failure of any adult to even try to do anything sensible ever, for absolutely no reason, until Lucy finally manages to ask the right person the right question. This could have been explained as some magical thing preventing them from acting, but it wasn’t.

The other problem I had was that nothing unpredictable ever happens. Everyone is exactly what they seem: the blacksmith has mystical knowledge, the vicar is an innocent in over his head, the horse-mad girls have nothing in their heads but horses, and so forth. I kept expecting something to be slightly less obvious—for the vicar to know exactly what he’s doing and have a nefarious purpose, for the horse-mad girls to not be as dumb as they seem or to have their horsey skills play a role in saving Kester, for Lucy’s aunt to know more about magic than the blacksmith, etc—but no.

I looked up Penelope Lively. It looks like her famous book is Ghost of Thomas Kempe, which I think I also own.

There’s an album of music based on the book which you can listen to online. It’s by the Heartwood Institute, and is instrumental and atmospheric.

The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy
[personal profile] melannen has been culling her bookshelves by playing "Fuck Marry Kill" via poll. In the interests of doing the same, and also getting back to posting more book reviews, I have decided to join her. (I am doing "fling" rather than "fuck" just because my posts get transferred to Goodreads and I don't want EVERY post of mine on there littered with fucks.)

How to play: Fling means I spend a single night of passion (or possibly passionate hatred) with the book, and write a review of it, or however much of it I managed to read. Marry means the book goes back on my shelves, to wait for me to get around to it. (That could be a very long time.) Kill means I should donate it without attempting to read it. You don't have to have read or previously heard of the books to vote on them.

Please feel free to explain your reasoning for your votes in comments. For this particular poll, I have never read anything by any of the authors (or if I did, I don't remember it) and except for Hoover and Lively, have never even heard of the authors other than that at some point I apparently thought their book sounded interesting enough to acquire.

Poll #18415 FMK: Vintage YA/children's SFF
Open to: Registered Users, detailed results viewable to: All, participants: 50


The Spring on the Mountain, by Judy Allen. Three kids have magical, possibly Arthurian adventures on a week in the country.

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Fling
19 (48.7%)

Marry
10 (25.6%)

Kill
10 (25.6%)

The Lost Star, by H. M. Hoover. A girl who lives on another planet hears an underground cry for help (and finds chubby gray cat centaurs if the cover is accurate)

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Fling
22 (53.7%)

Marry
13 (31.7%)

Kill
6 (14.6%)

The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy, by Penelope Lively. Lucy visits her aunt in Hagworthy and is embroiled in the ancient Horn Dance and Wild Hunt.

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Fling
27 (61.4%)

Marry
6 (13.6%)

Kill
11 (25.0%)

Carabas, by Sophie Masson. Looks like a medieval setting. A shapeshifting girl gets accused of being a witch and runs off with the miller's son.

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Fling
19 (46.3%)

Marry
12 (29.3%)

Kill
10 (24.4%)

Of Two Minds, by Carol Mates and Perry Nodelman. Princess Lenora can makes what she imagines real; Prince Coren can read minds, but everyone can read his mind. (Ouch!)

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Fling
22 (52.4%)

Marry
11 (26.2%)

Kill
9 (21.4%)

A little girl gets lost alone in the woods. But for better or worse, no one is ever really alone…

The world had teeth and it could bite you with them any time it wanted. Trisha McFarland discovered that when she was nine years old.

Sounds like Cujo, doesn’t it? Sometimes bad things happen and it’s nobody’s fault, just the way of the world. Sometimes all the courage and willpower in the world isn’t enough to save you.

And sometimes it is.

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon

Along with the Dark Tower series, this unique little book was my favorite of the new-to-me King books I read this year. While it has a lot of aspects that I like about King in addition to tropes I like in general, it’s different from his other books I’ve read (much pithier, for one thing) and a bit sui generis overall.

If you read survival memoirs, you’ll notice that many real people who got lost in the wild, in addition to their suffering and fear and physical breakdown, also had some kind of transcendent or spiritual experience. In between periods of misery and despair, they came to understand themselves, the natural world, and some kind of greater force in a way which felt deeply and lastingly important to them, though many say that no attempt at description can convey what it was really like. King delves into this phenomenon, giving the book an atmosphere at once delicate and powerful, full of realistic and suspenseful wilderness details balanced with a satisfyingly ambiguous exploration of that which is inherently unknowable and indescribable.

Nine-year-old Trisha goes with her mother and older brother for a short hike on the Appalachian Trail. When she steps off the path for a pee break, she realizes that she’s fallen behind and tries to take a short cut to catch up with them. One easy-to-make mistake leads to another, and Trisha is soon lost in the woods. Very, very lost.

That’s the entire book: the extraordinary journey of an ordinary girl. But Trisha is extraordinary too, in the way that anyone may become if they hit the exact right— or wrong— circumstances to bring out their full potential, whether to do right or wrong or simply endure.

If you’ve been following my King reviews and thinking, “Man, these books sound interesting, but so dark! Does he ever write anything that wouldn’t traumatize me if I read it?” Unless you’re very sensitive to children in danger, this could be the one.

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is way more emotionally realistic (and so harrowing) than something like Hatchet, but it’s more like that than it is like Carrie, and it’s a lot less traumatizing, to me anyway, than Julie of the Wolves. (No rape, no deaths of sympathic animals.) It’s a character and theme-driven adventure/survival novel with ambiguous fantasy elements and some scary moments, not a horror novel. There’s some snippets of Trisha’s family freaking out, but they get little page time. Trisha suffers, but she’s also very resilient. [If you just want to know if she survives, rot13.com for the answer: Vg’f n pybfr pnyy ohg fur qbrf, naq irel gevhzcunagyl ng gung.]

Trisha has no special woodsy knowledge. Brian from Hatchet she’s not. Very unusually for a wilderness survival novel with a child hero, Trisha doesn’t do anything that a smart and resourceful but untrained kid couldn’t plausibly have done. The average kid wouldn’t have survived as long as she did, but that’s just statistics. She doesn’t build her own snowshoes, start fires with flint, befriend wolves, or trap rabbits. She eats stuff she finds, she makes a primitive lean-to from fallen branches, and she walks. And walks. No matter how bad things get, she doesn’t stop.

She does it all with nothing but a little bit of food and water, plus her Walkman, which picks up the broadcast of a Red Sox game in which her favorite baseball player, Tom Gordon, is playing. As she gets more and more lost, and is forced to reach deeper and deeper into her mind and body and soul to survive, she calls upon others to help her out: her memories of her family and her parentally disapproved-of friend Pepsi Robichaud, who could only be considered a bad influence if you’re nine and sheltered, her crush and idol Tom Gordon, and various conceptions of God or Godlike forces.

As time goes on, Tom Gordon becomes Trisha’s imaginary companion, becoming more and more of a presence as she goes from simply needing him more to outright hallucinating from hunger and illness. So another of King’s perennial themes comes into play, the relationship of the fan to the fan-object, and how real and important it can be, for better or worse. (You do not need to know or care about baseball to read this book. I don’t. Technical details are minimal, and King tells you everything you need to know.)

But there are other things in the woods which Trisha didn’t call, except in the sense that she attracted them by being there and vulnerable. Maybe it’s whatever animal predator happens to be around. Maybe it’s a specific animal that’s tracking her. Or maybe it’s supernatural. This part of the story is exceptionally well-done and comes to a very satisfying conclusion.

Back to God, King’s perennial question of “Does he exist and if so, where is he and why does he let bad things happen?” is prominent in this book. While lost, Trisha considers and possibly encounters multiple concepts of God. One is the mainstream idea of an interventionist God, whom Tom Gordon petitions with a gesture during games; if that God answers an athlete’s prayers to win, will He answer Trisha’s to live? Another is the Subaudible, which Trisha’s father explained to her when she asked him if he believed in God:

"It had electric heat, that house. Do you remember how the baseboard units would hum, even when they weren't heating? Even in the summer?"

Trisha had shaken her head.

"That's because you got used to it, but take my word, Trish, that sound was always there. Even in a house where there aren't any baseboard heaters, there are noises. The fridges goes on and off. The pipes thunk. The floors creak. The traffic goes by outside. We hear those things all the time, so most of the time we don't hear them at all. They become... Subaudible.

“I don't believe in any actual thinking God that marks the fall of every bird in Australia or every bug in India, a God that records all of our sins in a big golden book and judges us when we die— I don't want to believe in a God who would deliberately create bad people and then deliberately send them to roast in a hell He created— but I believe there has to be something.

“Yeah, something. Some kind of insensate force for the good.

“I think there's a force that keeps drunken teenagers— most drunken teenagers—
from crashing their cars when they're coming home from the senior prom or their first big rock concert. That keeps most planes from crashing even when something goes wrong. Not all, just most. Hey, the fact that no one's used a nuclear weapon on actual living people since 1945 suggests there has to be something on our side."

Much of the book interrogates the idea of a Subaudible, particularly the question of just how conscious it is and if we're our own Subaudible. It also introduces the idea that the Subaudible may have a less benevolent counterpart. This is the God of the Lost, which may be the thing (if there is a thing) stalking Trisha through the woods. If so, is it malevolent or simply dangerous? Is it another insensate force, or conscious and concrete?

What will determine Trisha’s fate? God and the Devil? The Subaudible and the God of the Lost? No supernatural forces at all, just human beings and nature and Trisha herself? Or some combination of those?

I normally find religion the most boring topic on Earth. I did not find it boring in this book. It comes up naturally, and it’s in the form of open questions rather than preaching. I excerpted the part about the Subaudible because it’s easier to quote than to summarize, not because it’s presented as the One Truth.

The prose, which swings easily from King’s usual not-quite-stream-of-consciousness interspersed with bits of omniscient narration to some passages of striking beauty, doesn’t try to imitate a child’s speech. But though the language is adult, the content of Trisha’s inner world did mostly feel convicingly nine-year-old. That’s an age when many kids are thinking about God and why bad things happen. I’ve had children that age talk to me unprompted about those issues in simple language but using pretty sophisticated ideas. The Subaudible isn’t Trisha’s idea, it’s her father’s, but I believed that once he told her about it, she’d keep on chewing over it.

Cut for spoilers. I would not read these if you might read the book; they spoil the climax, which is quite beautifully orchestrated. Read more... )
Penric’s Shaman

A lovely novella about a young magician-priest in a world where Gods are real, the mostly-benevolent demon possessing him (actually, ten demons; it’s complicated), another priest who’s less uptight than he seems at first, a runaway shaman, several ghosts, and some very unusual dogs. It’s set in Bujold’s Curse of Chalion world, but you don’t need to have read those novels to read this. However, I would ideally read “Penric’s Demon” first for background.

This feels much more fresh, human, and heartfelt to me than recent Vorkosigan novels. The characters are well-drawn in a short space, with compelling predicaments both practical and moral/ethical. There are no real villains among the major characters, just people with different cultures, backgrounds, beliefs and duties. The climax was very touching. I love the way Bujold depicts the Gods. They are awe-invoking, worthy of worship without negating the value or meaning of human choice.

Penric's Mission

This one picks up ten years after the last. Penric is older but still his essential self, no less sweet for being a little more world-weary. I liked Shaman a little more but mostly because I was more intrigued by the magic and loved the climax of that one so much. Mission is also very good, just different.

Penric's mission, a bit of secret letter delivery, goes pear-shaped almost immediately, tossing him into a particularly nasty dungeon (and enabling an inventive escape). He then assigns himself a new mission involving some difficult medical magic (warning for graphic eye injury) and an understated romance.

If the magic has gone out of the Vorkosiverse, at least to my taste, it's very much alive in these stories. They're inventive, thoughtful, and heartfelt.
I did end up reading the third book, hastily skimming the animal torture sections. Thankfully, they are clustered toward the end. However, the first part contains a tragic unicorn stillbirth.

This book had similar flaws and virtues as the first, and resembled that more than the incredibly depressing second book: 60% heartfelt and charming tale of vets in fantasyland, 40% torture, OTT tragedy, and whisker-twirling villains who kill people because they’re homicidal maniacs.

It introduced a number of new characters (possibly because so many were killed in book two), some of whom seemed potentially interesting but got little screentime, and some of whom were marvelous. I adored the earnest young griffin and his best buds, who decided to model themselves after the ideals of chivalry and so named themselves Roland, Oliver, and Clark Kent. Everything involving the junior and senior griffins was great. The obligatory incursion of a new genocidal bloodthirsty sadistic tortures-for-fun sociopath was not great.

This one has a happier ending, except that… Read more... )
A pair of '90s portal fantasies about veterinary students who travel to a fantasyland called Crossroads to treat centaurs, unicorns, griffins, and other magical beasts. I read these years ago and re-read recently with the intention of finally reading book three, which I had either failed to find or failed to read previously. Now that I have re-read, I understand why I never read the final book. I had remembered the fun parts (vet students figuring out how to treat magical creatures, and that is both accurate to my knowledge and very fun if you like that sort of thing) and forgotten about the truly amazing amount of awesome depressingness surrounding them.

I also have to mention that O'Donohoe also wrote an sf novel in a dystopian future, Too Too Solid Flesh about androids programmed with the personalities of the characters of Hamlet. This was also fairly depressing (though with way less torture), but more appropriate to the subject matter and I recall liking it a lot, despite a manic pixie dream girl.

He doesn't seem to have written anything in over ten years, which is too bad. He's obviously got a lot of talent and it would be interesting to see what he'd come up with if he had either more or less editing. (The Crossroads books either would have been improved by some editorial guidance ("Skip the Dark Lord stuff" or the editorial guidance caused the problem ("Fantasy books need a Dark Lord.") No idea which.)

Too, Too Solid Flesh

The Magic And The Healing

Under the Healing Sign

The Magic and the Healing

BJ Vaughan, a vet student, is understandably depressed. Her mother committed suicide out of the blue, leaving a note saying that she was dying of Huntington's Chorea (a horrific, fatal genetic disease) and BJ should be tested to see if she's going to get it too. BJ, who has been having mysterious symptoms lately, gets tested. Sure enough, she has it. She tells no one, but begins planning her suicide. I will cut to the chase and say that she continues telling no one and planning her suicide for the entire book, and in fact by the end of the second book, though she is no longer planning suicide, she has still told very, very few people and has not informed the people who most need to know.

But! Something more cheerful happens, and about time. BJ and some other students are invited on to a special exotic animal rotation, which of course turns out to be in Crossroads. The magical creatures, their cultures, and their ecologies are sketched-in but interesting and convincing. My favorite for cuteness was the flowerbinders, which are kittens the size of German Shepherds who catch their prey by winding flowers into their fur and camouflaging themselves as a bush or hillock of wildflowers. My favorite for interesting worldbuilding were the several sentient species which remain the prey of other sentient species, and how intelligent beings evolved cultures, laws, and rituals which account for that. There are a handful of human inhabitants of Crossroads, most of whom are essentially refugees who stumbled in while fleeing for their lives, but it's mostly populated by centaurs, fauns, griffins, etc.

As BJ and the other students ply their trade, they learn more about how the magic of Crossroads works, and BJ realizes that though traumatic injury and some diseases exist in Crossroads, cancer and degenerative diseases don't. If she stays, can she arrest or even cure her own degenerative illness? Is she willing to give up her entire previous life for the chance at a new one?

I think this is plenty of story for a novel, and if this had been the entire story, the book would have been much better, much less grim, and also much less ridiculous. Unfortunately, there is another plotline involving one of the most moustache-twirling villains I've ever come across. Her name is Morgan, and she is a sadistic genocidal sociopathic mass murderer whose hobbies include torture, mass graves, bathing in blood (literally), invasion, getting people hooked on drugs, slaughtering her own minions in front of her entire army just for the fun of it, and slaughtering everyone in sight. She plans to invade Crossroads, slaughter everyone, and then go to another world and slaughter everyone there. Rinse, repeat. Inexplicably, her army does not desert en masse despite her periodically torturing her own soldiers to death. Oh, yeah, and did I mention that she's immortal and invulnerable, so no one can just whack her?

She has a backstory. Sort of. It's the sort which introduces more plotholes than it resolves. Why is she the way she is? She's angry. NO SHIT. What's she angry about? Who knows! Why is she immortal? Because it was somehow a condition of booting her out of Crossroads earlier, when she was just a non-immortal homicidal maniac. Why the hell would you make a homicidal maniac immortal? Uh... the magic works that way! Why not kill her when you had the chance? Because the king was in love with her! WHY? Because she didn't seem evil right away. I realize this sort of thing happens in real life (the charming sociopath, I mean) but 1) we never see the charm, 2) if your choice is "kill the genocidal maniac you still kind of love, or make her immortal so she can come back and murder you and every citizen of your country," you need to suck it up and break out the guillotine.

Nobody in Crossroads thinks they have a chance of fighting her off, though they're planning a hopeless last stand anyway. Periodically Morgan sneaks in, tortures or kills some animals or people, and sneaks out. I don't mind reading about hurt animals in the context of veterinary medicine, but I draw the line at animal torture. Anyway, eventually the good guys beat her back, but it's just for now. They're still doomed. (Until book two! No, wait. Still doomed.)

There is also an extremely unconvincing romance between BJ and a faun named Stefan. They have no chemistry and nothing in common other than that they both like animals. They never have sex because BJ doesn't tell him she's dying but doesn't want to commit when she's dying. This entire plotline really didn't work for me. Alas, it continues in exactly the same vein in book two, except BJ is no longer dying and they do have sex... but she still doesn't tell him and continues to angst in the exact same way.

Approximately half of a pretty cool book melded to half of a pretty terrible book. Perhaps this was meant to be symbolic of Crossroads' many chimera-creatures... Nah.

Under the Healing Sign

My feelings about the sequel are summed up by an Amazon reader who wrote, "On the whole, it [the third book] is much better than the second book of the very same series, "Under The Healing Sign", which made me wish to commite suicide immediately upon reading the last chapter of it."

Despite the charmingly pastoral cover, what actually happens in this book is mostly death, despair, defeat, torture, animal and child harm, and the least triumphant "happy ending" I've ever read in a fantasy book. It does have some sweet scenes a la the good parts of the first book and introduces a really awesome character(who, shockingly, does not die), a gay and fabulous cross-dressing, swordfighting veterinarian, Dr. Esteban Protera, who needed to star or co-star in a cheerier book. But overall, I'm with the Amazon reviewer.

Spoilers, if anyone cares. I'll just hit a few of the grimdark highlights. Read more... )
A pair of '90s portal fantasies about veterinary students who travel to a fantasyland called Crossroads to treat centaurs, unicorns, griffins, and other magical beasts. I read these years ago and re-read recently with the intention of finally reading book three, which I had either failed to find or failed to read previously. Now that I have re-read, I understand why I never read the final book. I had remembered the fun parts (vet students figuring out how to treat magical creatures, and that is both accurate to my knowledge and very fun if you like that sort of thing) and forgotten about the truly amazing amount of awesome depressingness surrounding them.

I also have to mention that O'Donohoe also wrote an sf novel in a dystopian future, Too Too Solid Flesh about androids programmed with the personalities of the characters of Hamlet. This was also fairly depressing (though with way less torture), but more appropriate to the subject matter and I recall liking it a lot, despite a manic pixie dream girl.

Too, Too Solid Flesh

The Magic And The Healing

Under the Healing Sign

The Magic and the Healing

BJ Vaughan, a vet student, is understandably depressed. Her mother committed suicide out of the blue, leaving a note saying that she was dying of Huntington's Chorea (a horrific, fatal genetic disease) and BJ should be tested to see if she's going to get it too. BJ, who has been having mysterious symptoms lately, gets tested. Sure enough, she has it. She tells no one, but begins planning her suicide. I will cut to the chase and say that she continues telling no one and planning her suicide for the entire book, and in fact by the end of the second book, though she is no longer planning suicide, she has still told very, very few people and has not informed the people who most need to know.

But! Something more cheerful happens, and about time. BJ and some other students are invited on to a special exotic animal rotation, which of course turns out to be in Crossroads. The magical creatures, their cultures, and their ecologies are sketched-in but interesting and convincing. My favorite for cuteness was the flowerbinders, which are kittens the size of German Shepherds who catch their prey by winding flowers into their fur and camouflaging themselves as a bush or hillock of wildflowers. My favorite for interesting worldbuilding were the several sentient species which remain the prey of other sentient species, and how intelligent beings evolved cultures, laws, and rituals which account for that. There are a handful of human inhabitants of Crossroads, most of whom are essentially refugees who stumbled in while fleeing for their lives, but it's mostly populated by centaurs, fauns, griffins, etc.

As BJ and the other students ply their trade, they learn more about how the magic of Crossroads works, and BJ realizes that though traumatic injury and some diseases exist in Crossroads, cancer and degenerative diseases don't. If she stays, can she arrest or even cure her own degenerative illness? Is she willing to give up her entire previous life for the chance at a new one?

I think this is plenty of story for a novel, and if this had been the entire story, the book would have been much better, much less grim, and also much less ridiculous. Unfortunately, there is another plotline involving one of the most moustache-twirling villains I've ever come across. Her name is Morgan, and she is a sadistic genocidal sociopathic mass murderer whose hobbies include torture, mass graves, bathing in blood (literally), invasion, getting people hooked on drugs, slaughtering her own minions in front of her entire army just for the fun of it, and slaughtering everyone in sight. She plans to invade Crossroads, slaughter everyone, and then go to another world and slaughter everyone there. Rinse, repeat. Inexplicably, her army does not desert en masse despite her periodically torturing her own soldiers to death. Oh, yeah, and did I mention that she's immortal and invulnerable, so no one can just whack her?

She has a backstory. Sort of. It's the sort which introduces more plotholes than it resolves. Why is she the way she is? She's angry. NO SHIT. What's she angry about? Who knows! Why is she immortal? Because it was somehow a condition of booting her out of Crossroads earlier, when she was just a non-immortal homicidal maniac. Why the hell would you make a homicidal maniac immortal? Uh... the magic works that way! Why not kill her when you had the chance? Because the king was in love with her! WHY? Because she didn't seem evil right away. I realize this sort of thing happens in real life (the charming sociopath, I mean) but 1) we never see the charm, 2) if your choice is "kill the genocidal maniac you still kind of love, or make her immortal so she can come back and murder you and every citizen of your country," you need to suck it up and break out the guillotine.

Nobody in Crossroads thinks they have a chance of fighting her off, though they're planning a hopeless last stand anyway. Periodically Morgan sneaks in, tortures or kills some animals or people, and sneaks out. I don't mind reading about hurt animals in the context of veterinary medicine, but I draw the line at animal torture. Anyway, eventually the good guys beat her back, but it's just for now. They're still doomed. (Until book two! No, wait. Still doomed.)

There is also an extremely unconvincing romance between BJ and a faun named Stefan. They have no chemistry and nothing in common other than that they both like animals. They never have sex because BJ doesn't tell him she's dying but doesn't want to commit when she's dying. This entire plotline really didn't work for me. Alas, it continues in exactly the same vein in book two, except BJ is no longer dying and they do have sex... but she still doesn't tell him and continues to angst in the exact same way.

Approximately half of a pretty cool book melded to half of a pretty terrible book. Perhaps this was meant to be symbolic of Crossroads' many chimera-creatures... Nah.

Under the Healing Sign

My feelings about the sequel are summed up by an Amazon reader who wrote, "On the whole, it [the third book] is much better than the second book of the very same series, "Under The Healing Sign", which made me wish to commite suicide immediately upon reading the last chapter of it."

Despite the charmingly pastoral cover, what actually happens in this book is mostly death, despair, defeat, torture, animal and child harm, and the least triumphant "happy ending" I've ever read in a fantasy book. It does have some sweet scenes a la the good parts of the first book and introduces a really awesome character(who, shockingly, does not die), a gay and fabulous cross-dressing, swordfighting veterinarian, Dr. Esteban Protera, who needed to star or co-star in a cheerier book. But overall, I'm with the Amazon reviewer.

Spoilers, if anyone cares. I'll just hit a few of the grimdark highlights. Read more... )
On the excellent rec of [personal profile] egelantier, who has a better (non-spoilery) intro with photos., I recently watched a 54-episode Chinese historical drama, Nirvana in Fire (Lang Ya Bang). It was awesome.

The plot is very complex, but it's basically the wuxia version of The Count of Monte Cristo. Twelve years before the story begins, the crown prince, his general, and the general's military genius teenage prodigy son, Lin Shu, went to fight on the emperor's behalf. Something went horribly wrong, and they were falsely accused of starting a rebellion. The paranoid emperor had them all killed, along with their 70,000-man army. Now it's a completely taboo topic which no one even dares to mention to the emperor.

But Lin Shu is not dead! Exactly. Due to a near-death experience, he survived at the cost of his martial arts skills, his physical strength and health, and his entire previous body and face. No longer the strong warrior he was, he is now completely unrecognizable, an extremely beautiful but physically weak strategist dying of magical consumption. Going by the name of Mei Changsu (also Mr. Su), he returns to the capital to clear the name of the supposed rebels, bring down the two princes currently maneuvering for the throne, institute his own former best friend (the disfavored Prince Jing) as the crown prince, and restore justice, set up good rule, and get revenge.

He does this by means of incredibly intricate plotting and the power of the sarcastic eyebrow lift. Here is a typical moment: Mei Changsu is smarter than you.

Mei Changsu/Lin Shu is a fascinating character whose motivations are slowly revealed over the course of the story. I don't want to spoil what's going on with him other than what I already said (and some of it is a matter of interpretation) but in addition to being really fun to watch (his body language is amazing), there's a lot more to him than the perfect genius who immediately meets the eye. If you're interested in issues of identity, I'll just say that there's a lot to enjoy in that direction. His refusal to tell almost anybody - including his former best friend - who he really is, even if they guess and confront him, starts out seeming to have legit plot reasons, but ends up clearly being much more about his psychology. It's frustrating to watch at times, but also really interesting and uncompromising.

On a less elevated level, his illness provides an immense amount of satisfying hurt-comfort carried to sometimes hilarious extremes, as literally everyone in his vicinity gets sucked into worrying about his health, helping him walk, providing him with fur cloaks and fluffy blankets because as apparently everyone knows and is very very concerned about, his health is very delicate and he cannot take the cold. (At one point he actually has an enemy providing him with fluffy blankets.) Also, he has really beautiful hands and a great array of sarcastic/cranky/smug glances.

But this is really an ensemble story, and it has a huge array of fascinating characters, all with their own motivations and stories. Just a few of my favorites were Consort Jing, Prince Jing's 50-something mother, who has spent nearly her entire life locked in the palace but slowly reveals a talent for intrigue which is the match of Mei Changsu's own and probably better in some ways; a pair of very different warrior women, one a general and one a sort of ninja detective, who served together in the army and whom I shipped; Mei Changsu's teenage bodyguard Fei Liu, who is developmentally disabled but great at kung fu, and has a really sweet relatationship with Mei Changsu which gets more and more heartbreaking as his death gets more imminent and Fei Liu can't accept or even really understand it; the antagonist Prince Yu, who is not a nice guy at all but has understandable motivations and solid, loving relationships with his equally scheming mother and concubine/strategic advisor; Mei Changsu's kung fu doctor buddy who turns up in the last five episodes and completely steals the show.

I could go on and on. I had to stop myself or I'd name twenty favorites. In general, I liked the large number of badass middle-aged moms and the multiple interesting and important mother-son relationships, which made a nice change from western media's ubiquitous daddy issues. Though there are also a lot of daddy issues. The emperor is terrible but a really great character and gave one of my favorite performances. He's responsible for all his own woes and a lot of everyone else's too, but if I had to sit there and watch all that scheming, I'd probably start throwing paperweights too.

The story is structured as a lot of careful set-up and dramatic or funny character bits (punctuated by kung fu battles - I swear, there must have been some contractual thing saying that no more than five episodes could go by without an attack by flying ninjas) building to spectacular pay-offs; the pay-offs are sprinkled throughout the story, but more frequent in the second half. I thought it got better and better as it went along, so if you're potentially interested, I would keep going for a while even if it's confusing/slow at first.

I think everyone who might possibly have any interest should watch it so I can talk about some spoilery aspects. The first episode was really confusing and the series picked up a lot as it went along and I started figuring out who everyone was (and stopped thinking stuff like, "Is that the favored prince, the disfavored prince, or the non-prince dude whose status I'm uncertain of, and is he talking to his girlfriend, his advisor, or his sister?" It doesn't help that a lot of people have multiple names.

Maybe you could start with episode two. I think most of what happens in episode one just sets up some stuff. Skip this paragraph if you don't want to be spoiled, read it if you might skip episode one. There are two contenders for the throne, the Crown Prince (a total tool) and Prince Yu, and that younger Prince Jing is not considered a contender. Mei Changsu is associated with Langya Hall (a sort of martial arts and strategy consulting firm)which puts out the Langya List (a sort of Forbes List of great martial artists, strategists, and rich people), and comes to the capital under the easily broken identity of "Mr. Su." (Most people investigate him, quickly find that he's really Mei Changsu, the brilliant strategist ("The Divine Talent"), and don't think to look farther.) As Lin Shu (aka Xiao Shu), he was engaged to the general and princess Nihuang, and was best friends with Prince Jing (Jingyan).

The only person who knows that Mr. Su/Mei Changsu is actually Lin Shu is General Meng, who helps him find an appropriate mansion and build a secret passageway so Mei Changsu can meet with Prince Jing (aka Jingyan). This leads to this hilarious exchange:

General Meng: "The passage is ready. Now you may have your secret midnight rendezvous with Prince Jing."

Mei Changsu: "Could you try phrasing that differently?"

(If you legit ship them, there is plenty to support that and it's really angsty and epic. I had what seems to be a minority ship, which was Mei Changsu/Lin Chen, the late-appearing doctor buddy who is the one person who actually calls him on all his asshole behavior and is the only person other than Fei Liu who ever gets him to smile. I liked his relationship with Nihuang, his ex-fiancee, but I couldn't ship it because even though she does extract a few hugs from him, they are hilariously awkward. He pats her on the back like he has no idea what he's supposed to do in such a bizarre situation. That had to be deliberate, because he otherwise uses his hands so beautifully that they sometimes distracted me from reading the subtitles. And while I'm on shipping, Nihuang and Xia Dong would do a lot better with each other.)

If I have sold you on starting, I suggest using the handy photographic character guide and some patience. The show is really rewarding once you get your bearings.

Watch on Viki

Watch on Youtube

Character guide with photos.

Has anyone seen this? I would love to discuss some spoilery aspects, but only if you've seen the whole thing.
Pamela Dean has a Patreon to enable her to edit and release the book she's been working on for years, Going North, and also to write new books. If you're a fan of her work, here's your chance to see more of it.

She and Patricia Wrede also released a collected edition of their Liavek stories, including two new stories. Points of Departure. Pamela Dean's Liavek stories are some of my favorites of her work. They're set in a shared world, but I think this edition makes sense on its own. Some stories are co-written with Patricia Wrede, but the majority were written separately.

The Wrede stories mostly concern a sharp-tongued old woman magician, and her travails trying to save her city from incursions by ill-intentioned Gods and magicians while (equally annoying to her) get her incredibly dysfunctional family to shape up. Dean's stories are about the dysfunctional family, some following the most resilient member, some backstage comedy-dramas about the brother who ran away to become an actor and playwright, and some (this is the main storyline) about the depressed daughter who is only living because she has a responsibility to her cat and is drawn into an odd religion, the Way of Responsible Life, which on the surface is an order of suicides but is actually much more than that (though it is also that.) I won't spoil it but I will say that despite the content, it is not depressing (though sometimes sad) but is also uplifting and often quite funny.

She also started up a press which has released two of her hard-to-find books in e-editions, The Dubious Hills and Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary, at Blaisdell Press. If you have not read either of those books before, The Dubious Hills is where I'd start. It's a small-scale fantasy set in a very strange village in which all knowledge and understanding is magically parceled out to individual citizens, so they have to, say, go to the person in charge of feeling pain to know if they're hurt. The premise sounds like a thought experiment but it reads more like lyric fantasy a la Patricia McKillip, beautifully written and with a cozy atmosphere; I've never read anything quite like it. I would especially recommend it to Asakiyume, if you haven't read it yet.

ETA: Click on the author's name tag to read my previous review of the stories collected in Points of Departure and a novella, "Owlswater," which is upcoming if the Patreon works out.
This post is about the ending of the series, and by that I mean mostly the very end, the one that comes after King basically says, “You can stop here if you want to just imagine what happens next, and by the way that’s probably a good idea.” (It's a little complicated but there's at least two clearly marked "you can stop here" points. One is before the end, one is the actual end.) So, this entire post is hugely spoilery and not interesting if you haven't read everything there is to read. [Except for The Wind Through the Keyhole, which is a prequel that I haven't read yet either.]

If you just want to know how I felt about the conclusion or are trying to decide how far you want to go without getting spoiled, I liked both endings, and they work together in the sense that the second continues the story farther without contradicting the first. The second is darker, but there’s room for interpretation and I didn’t find it grimdark or invalidating anything that went before. However, other readers might disagree and I have the vague impression (vague because I was trying not to be spoiled) that the majority of readers did not like the ending.

Read more... )
The cover is gorgeous, the title is perfect, and the concept— a boarding school for teenagers who visited different fantasylands via portals, and are now misfits because they can’t get back— is fantastic.

Unfortunately, the book doesn’t live up to its concept, except in lovely but brief and scattered flashes: a line, an image, a bit of dramatic irony. It was an incredibly frustrating read, because the idea was so great and every now and then it would actually be what I wanted from the idea. For one or two lines. And then it would go back to not being very good. The execution was simultaneously extremely shallow, underdeveloped, and full of uninteresting padding. (It’s a short novel, possibly technically a novella. It STILL feels both rushed and padded.)

The problem starts with the plot. The main character is Nancy, a girl who visited an Underworld and wants to go back, but whose parents are baffled by her disappearance, her return, and her insistence on wearing goth clothing. So she’s sent to Eleanor West’s Home For Wayward Children, which turns out to be a refuge for teenagers who lived a portal fantasy, then went home and are still seeking a way back. (There’s one character who doesn’t want to go back, but he’s the exception.)

The bewildered Nancy, who hates the fast, hot, bright world above and longs to return to the peace and stillness of the Halls of the Dead, is also baffled by the other teenagers, most of whom went to either some version of Fairyland or a wacky nonsense world a la Alice in Wonderland. But worse, a serial killer begins to stalk the school! Or is it one of the students!?

…what?

At least half the book consists of a poorly-executed and gruesome murder mystery. The incredibly obvious solution, which is postponed to the end of the book by the characters’ total failure to apply basic logic or make any normal investigations whatsoever like search the place, does turn out to be relevant to the concept. But I wanted to read a book that’s actually about its premise, and half the book consists of characters acting exactly like teenagers from an early slasher film, the ones pre-metafictional-awareness where they actually did stuff like know a serial killer is murdering them all one by one, hear creepy noises, and go alone into the basement. And because the characters are so flat, they seem weirdly unmoved by the slaughter of their classmates or the possibility that they might be next. So a big chunk of the story has nothing to do with the premise, is much less interesting than the premise, and is badly executed for what it is.

The parts of the book that deal with the premise are a mixed bag. All the good parts involve that, and if the whole book was like the good parts, I would have loved it. They’re mostly spoilery (Eleanor West’s heartbreaking plans for her own future; the tragic irony reveal of what was going on in one of the murder victims’ homes before and after her death) but there’s also some good lines and images involving the portal worlds. Sumi and Nancy’s conversation about masturbation was hilarious, and I was very intrigued by the little we saw of Christopher’s Dia de los Muertos world.

But they’re only snippets. We never get any solid sense of what most of the portal worlds were like. Nancy’s is the most solid, and even that is really vague and lacking in detail. It does explain for a few of the characters what drew them to specific worlds, but the explanations are mundane rather than interesting (a girl who was stereotyped as “the pretty one” got a chance to be smart) or lacking in depth (Nancy wanted stillness rather than movement. Why? The book sure isn’t saying. Other than that it had nothing to do with being asexual because that would be a stereotype.)

This premise could have either been very metafictional, or done very realistically. (It dabbles in both, but commits to neither.) Either way, developing the portal worlds more would have been a good idea. For metafiction, I would have loved interstitial chapters set in various portal worlds, done in different styles, so, say, Sumi gets a chapter written in the style of Lewis Carroll, Nancy gets in the style of Tanith Lee, and so forth. For a more realistic take, it would have needed more depth to both the characters and the worlds. Instead, we get a taxonomy of worlds that makes no sense (this is not helped by the characters saying it makes no sense) and is never explained, developed, or deconstructed beyond a couple lines saying maybe it’s more complicated than that. But how isn’t explained.

The characters have approximately one characteristic each, and some have zero beyond “He went to a world where everyone is skeletons.” There’s a lot of sexual and gender diversity, handled with mixed success. Nancy is asexual, resulting in several blog-like explanations of asexuality and aromanticism; a trans character has a really interesting-sounding backstory which is, of course, only given in tantalizing, undeveloped snippets.

A lot of the better-written lines, in terms of prose style, are social commentary or commentary on portal fantasy; they tend to sound clever but be nonsensical if you think about them. Most of the characters are girls, which I am all for, but this is explained by boys not being portal fantasy characters (incorrect in any era of fiction I’m aware of; there are ovewhelmingly girl-dominated fantasy genres but portal fantasy isn’t one) and society paying more attention to and caring more about boys so they’re not allowed to explore alone the way girls are (WHAT?) and people notice when they go missing (except everyone noticed when the girls went missing.) Sounds cool and feminist, does not match either reality or what is actually depicted on the book.

And while I’m complaining about metafiction, it kept seeming weird to me that so many characters went to childish nonsense worlds as teenagers, when in real fiction that’s a children’s book rather than YA thing, and so few went to darker worlds and most of the teenagers disapproved of that, when vampires and other dark elements are common in YA fantasy and in real life, teenagers are often into dark stuff.

In short, the book frustrated the hell out of me; I will probably buy at least one of the sequels to see if I like it better (probably not, I think I’m just not McGuire’s audience; I really disliked Rosemary and Rue) because the concept is so cool and I’m curious to see if a sequel will be more about the concept. If it has another murder mystery, I’m done.

Spoilers OK in comments.

Every Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children)

ETA: Short story by Jo Walton that goes into similar themes. It also doesn't get into detail about the fantasy world, but it feels like the right level of detail for a short story. http://www.strangehorizons.com/2000/20001023/relentlessly_mundane.shtml
I want to write more about these books at my leisure, but for anyone who is wondering if I was still reading or what, I finished the sequence, and I'm really glad I did. It's weird and flawed and probably would have been better if King hadn't taken it in some of the directions he did, but I agree overall with Swantower's assessment: it really is his masterwork, not in the sense of "best book" (though I think it's among his best books, taken as a whole and certainly individually for some of them) but his key work, his most ambitious, possibly his most personal, and apparently what he thought of as his most important.

All my favorites of his books are flawed and weird and go on too long and have parts I don't like, and none but Firestarter have endings that I 100% love. This is all true of Dark Tower, but I liked the endings (yes, I read both) a lot more than I expected to. I especially want to talk about the second ending because it's such a fascinating example of a lot of spoilery writing/storytelling things, but I'll do so in another post; please don't spoil it here.

(At the end of Wizard In Glass, I thought I knew what the ending would be, or at least I knew how I'd write it. Then events went in a different direction, and the ending we got felt at least somewhat inevitable based on everything that went before. I might write my imagined ending as an AU fic spinning off from that point.)

As I mentioned before, I really like King's narrative voice even when I don't like the book otherwise, and in the books of his that I love, it's because I like the story, his voice is at its best, and I love the characters. Once I got past the first book, I loved the voice (his use of language and dialogue and made-up words is really impressive here, if sometimes uneven), loved a lot of the story and found it compelling even when I didn't like some of the places he took it, and I loved the main characters. I'm really glad I read it, there are parts I'm sure I'll re-read many times, and this was a good time for me to find something immersive.
An abused wife, Rose, flees her psychopath husband, Norman, who unfortunately for her is a cop, and starts a new life. Because this is a Stephen King novel, her husband comes after her… and she finds an odd painting in a pawn shop that calls to her, depicting a woman in a chiton in front of a temple, and which slowly reveals magical properties, both of a helpful and a dangerous nature.

The opening scenes of Rose’s marriage, and then her flight, are an astonishing piece of writing, horrifying and gripping and completely psychologically believable. So, warning for horrific violence against women (and also against men, eventually, as Norman starts taking out people standing between him and her.) Sure, most domestic abusers are not also serial/spree killers, but I regret to say that absolutely none of the horrifying violence he does to her within their marriage is stuff that doesn’t happen in real life.

This is an odd book, of parts that don’t quite mesh together and aren’t all equally well-done.

Rose herself is a wonderful character, and I loved all the parts that are just her fleeing, learning to be her own person, and exploring the magic of the painting. Unlike most thrillers with abused women, she actually goes to a women’s shelter. That part is also very well done and there are a number of great characters there. The one part of Rose’s story that didn’t quite work for me is her romance. On the one hand, I did like that finds love with a non-abusive guy. My problem is that he’s too idealized and doesn’t feel as real as a lot of other characters in the book – he feels like Rose’s wish-fulfillment reward rather than a real person.

There are a lot of sections from Norman’s POV. They are really unpleasant to read, for obvious reasons, and I ended up skimming them and reading just enough to keep track of what he was doing. Those could and should have been edited down to the absolute minimum. I often don’t mind King’s lack of editing – like, I was perfectly happy to read abou Rose decorating her apartment – but only when I like the characters, and there is absolutely nothing likable about Norman. He’s also not that interesting compared to other King villians. Like, Annie Wilkes is also hard to read, but she’s a great character with interesting motivations. Norman is just a horrible, vicious sociopath.

Then there’s the world of the painting. I don’t want to spoil it (though you can in comments) but it went in some directions I expected and some I didn’t. It’s a thing of power that is never really explained, but makes sense on its own terms, some drawn from our world’s myths, some original. It’s darker than I expected; helpful to Rose, in general, but a dangerous thing and not one that she controls. A lot of it has the same “wellspring of myth” sense that I got from parts of The Dark Tower and is explicit in Lisey’s Story. It feels both dreamlike and real, nightmarish but also a source of power that can be used for good, if you’re clever and well-meaning and determined and wise.

Those, of course, are the qualities of a fairy-tale heroine on a quest. Rose Madder has some interesting fairy-tale references as well as mythic ones; the gap between the prologue and the first chapter could be read as an incredibly dark take on “Sleeping Beauty,” in which the heroine rescues herself by means of a single drop of blood, though it comes from something much worse than the prick of a thorn. There’s a lot of red and roses in the story: Rose herself, roses, the painting called (or signed?) Rose Madder, the color “red madder,” the chiton, blood, pomegranate seeds. For a book that in some ways feels like two or even three books stuck together, the themes (as opposed to the plot and tone) are extremely coherent.

I liked it a lot but it’s an odd book and I’m sure not for everyone. King himself said somewhere that he didn’t think it succeeded, but the parts that work really work; it does feel like he was pushing at his limits as a writer, so maybe he felt like he was over-ambitious and failed. If nothing else, I bet he learned a lot from writing it. As I mentioned, I skimmed Norman’s POV as much as possible and would skip it entirely on a re-read. Lisey’s Story, in contrast, benefits from completely omitting the villain’s POV.

Rose Madder
So this is King’s giant fantasy magnum opus. As you can see by clicking his tag, I did not much like the first book. However, if you read comments (they’re not spoilery) you will see many people suggesting that I give the second one a try because it doesn’t have the stuff I disliked about The Gunslinger, which was that it had a one-note tone, was overly grimdark, and the characters didn’t feel like real people and were almost universally unlikable, and did have the qualities that I like about King (varied tone, good dialogue, likable and real-feeling characters, great set-piece scenes, contains horror elements but not primarily horror) in addition to what I see as flaws but also seem to go with his books that I like best (sprawling, needs editing, all over the place, story falls apart to some degree or another toward the end.)

Upon advice, I started the second Dark Tower book while my knee was being iced at PT and was instantly sucked in. King, like Dick Francis, is excellent for when you really want to read about people having a worse day than you are. I usually have to care about characters to care about their predicaments, but this opened with such a compelling situation that I cared anyway. And then Roland got way more human and likable, and other likable and human characters were introduced. I was hooked.

I liked it SO MUCH more than The Gunslinger. In fact, if you didn’t like The Gunslinger, but you do like the sort of thing I’m about to describe, I would definitely recommend at least starting the second book. (You could even start The Gunslinger, and if you hate it you could read the summary in the front of the second book and just move on to that. If you don’t like the second book any better, give up, you probably won’t like the series.)

The tone is almost a 180 from that of The Gunslinger (the tone is all over the place, but I tend to like that), and likable characters appear THANK GOD. What it does keep from the first book is the sense of epicness, the western archetypes, and the density of references to all sorts of stuff. It and the next book are exciting, funny, and I just adored them.

I loved the characters. I loved the many brilliant set-pieces, including one sequence which I would use in a class to teach the use of suspense in which characters have to do something difficult while under extreme pressure and handicapped, with very high stakes if they screw up – I don’t think I’ve ever read anything better along those lines. It was the written equivalent of the climactic stunts in the Mission Impossible movies, only much more narratively complex. And also demonstrating how humor can add to rather than subtract from suspense.

These are HARD books to discuss without spoilers, but I want people who haven’t read them to get a sense of why they might be worth reading unspoiled. So I will use a spoiler cut for the opening scenes of book two. Read it if you’re not willing to just take a chance on it, don’t if you’ll take my word that you might really enjoy it.

Rushthatspeaks described Book Two as “it feels to me like a very specific kind of seventies movie, usually containing Pacino and/or De Niro, if you put that in a blender with high fantasy and hit frappe.” Sholio called it a hurt-comfort extravaganza. Both descriptions are absolutely correct. Those are both things that I like very much, so it is unsurprising that I adored the book. The sequel leaves behind the seventies movie aspects, and is about a sort of found family traveling around a fantasyland and having AWESOME adventures of AWESOMENESS. The fourth book concludes the hanging plotline of book three, and appears to mostly be a flashback to Roland’s past.

I have not begun the flashback, so please do not spoil me for it or anything past the part where his flashback begins in comments. But you may comment on or spoil anything up to his flashback (that is, through the first few chapters of Wizard in Glass which conclude the “Blaine” storyline and is as far as I've read.)

This cut spoils about the first fifth of The Drawing of the Three. It has minimal spoilers for The Gunslinger - really just the premise.

Read more... )

FUCKING AWESOMEST SCENE EVER WRITTEN. Except for the multiple, equally awesome scenes that are all over the next two books. I loved those two books (and the first few chapters of the fourth, which is all of the fourth I've read so no spoilers beyond that point) as much as anything I've ever read. It's not so much that it's perfect - it's not - it's that it contains so much that I happen to personally love. Those books just spoke to me, and I'm so glad to have something like that right now.

There are two more characters who show up in this book and become main characters and they are GREAT, but they are also hugely spoilery. You can discuss in comments, though. I will try to write more on them tomorrow.

Caveats: Book one is sexist. Book two is politically incorrect– I’m using that term deliberately because unlike book one, where the issues just seemed to be King’s unconscious issues, here he’s clearly thought about them, they make sense within the story, and they don’t involve sidelining the characters who are political minorities. The issues are there, but they may or may not offend you, depending on how much weight you place on context.

One of the main characters in the second two books is a black woman who has some spoilery things that on the one hand, are problematic to the max if described out of context, but there are in-story reasons that make sense. She is not sidelined by the men, and is badass and a great character, at least up to the point where I’ve read. (Though there are three male and one female protagonists, so not much interaction between women.)

The problem with explaining the issues is that they are hugely spoilery and if you can stand them, are also pretty cool to discover unspoiled. So, general warning and if you want to know, read the spoilers in comments here or in later posts I'll make. If you’re familiar with King, you can probably guess the general substance.

That being said, most of the main characters have a disability of some sort or another, and while they’re not done with total realism (for instance, the wrong label is used for a mental illness but it’s a mistake that a lot of writers made at that time) I generally liked how they worked within the story. King does not conveniently forget about them, ever. (Or yet, anyway.) He also clearly thought a lot about how the characters would deal with stuff given their disabilities – it’s a huge part of the story overall.

…and I will stop here or I will write all day. I will try to continue later, but again, feel free to discuss anything up to the flashback section of Wizard in Glass in comments.
Stephen King has written one of my favorite books ever (The Stand) in addition to one of my favorite psychic kids books (Firestarter) and also lots of books that I just like a lot, or are worth reading even if I didn't love them.

He is one of my exceptions to generally not liking horror and, in fact, I tend to enjoy his books in direct proportion to how horror-ish they actually are. This is why, unlike some fans, I tend to not like his short stories and prefer his novels. Yeah, sure, his novels tend to be flawed and sprawling and in need to editing while he can turn out an absolutely perfect little horror story… but I don't really like horror, and if I like the characters, I'm fine with unnecessary passages in which they go shopping and encounter random dangers and have lengthy discussions that aren't all that relevant to the story.

The other thing about King is that I tend to like him proportionally to how much I like his characters: hence my adoration of The Stand and why I like It quite a bit despite its weirdness and the fact that it has a fucking evil clown that makes me really hesitate to re-read because, sorry to be a cliche, but I am scared of clowns. But it has wonderful characters.

But I stopped reading him when he was writing some of his worst books (I might have given up at Tommyknockers), but then after reading his nonfiction book On Writing (one of the very few books on writing which I actually recommend, which explains that he was an addict for a while and it had a bad effect on his writing) and re-reading Pet Sematary for Yuletide (the definition of an objectively good book that nobody wants to read again) I checked up and found that popular opinion said he got good again once he sobered up. This turned out to be correct, and I am happily reading my way through his very large back catalogue.

I am currently engrossed in The Dark Tower and will shortly be blogging that. I just started book four, so DO NOT SPOIL anything about the series in comments here. I didn't like book one much, but loved the second and third books as much as I have ever loved anything written, so I want to wait to write them up for when I have a little more time. (I am about to take off to the Farmer's Market).

Meanwhile, I give you my brief thoughts on The Long Walk. It's a relatively short book in which a America has a Norman Rockwell surface but is clearly a dystopia, because it has an annual event in which one hundred boys must walk without stopping across America. If they stop for more than the count of three, they get shot in the head. The last boy standing wins something good, though no one has ever met a winner so clearly the last one is whisked off and then shot too, I assume. No explanation of why this is done. No one seems to think any of this is weird.

It manages to have an even more implausible premise than The Hunger Games by making this a voluntary event in which many boys volunteer, and the winners are selected by lottery. No one is starving, though some could use the supposed prize money, so I found this implausible. I mean, I believe that teenage boys would do it. I find it implausible that their families would be generally okay with it.

What The Long Walk does incredibly well is portray the walk itself, which happens essentially in real time. The boys are under-characterized for the most part, but the depiction of their slow physical and psychological disintegration under pressure is incredibly intense and well-done.

As a whole, the book falls in the Uncanny Valley for me of being too allegorical/implausible to work as fantasy but too realistic to work as allegory. Still, I give it major props for the sheer relentless atmosphere even though it's not really enjoyable to read for that exact reason.

I had a similar issue with The Gunslinger-- not the Uncanny Valley issue, but that the characters didn't feel three-dimensional/likable and while the atmosphere was very well-done, it was also so relentlessly unpleasant as to not be fun to read. The first part of The Stand is my perfect version of people reacting to an extreme event - it feels incredibly real, and the characters are human and likable enough to make it fun to read. It has a varied tone, which I prefer to even the most well-done one-note when the one note is "This sucks."

(The second two Dark Tower books have EXTREMELY varied tones. Probably too much so for some readers. I loved it.)
Strange fantasy by Stephen King, one of his earlier books. He later revised it to correct some minor-sounding issues of consistency with later books in the series; I read the revised version, which has a fantastic short essay by King at the beginning. I love his nonfiction writing.

It has a justly famous first line: The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

Like it says: a gunslinger relentlessly pursues a man in black who is very bad news. That’s not to say that the gunslinger has clean hands himself.

It’s a weird western, somewhere on the border between dark fantasy and horror, in an incredibly bleak, post-apocalyptic landscape. It has a lot of elements I like and does capture the epic, mythic, movie Old West atmosphere he was going for, but it’s also overly gloomy for my taste— the atmosphere felt very oppressive, which was clearly deliberate, but still— and, very unusually for King and me, I was not grabbed by the characters. He was clearly going for archetypal (the gunslinger’s name isn’t revealed till something like halfway through), but for me it just read as flat. His characterization tends to work via specific details and unique speech patterns, and this had few details and most people spoke more or less the same way. The characterization made sense given the overall conception, but it didn’t play to King's strengths as a writer.

However, I gather that the sequels go in very different directions. Should I read them? Am I more likely to like them? I also have a vague impression that the series ending was widely disliked. If you read it, without getting too spoilery, 1) did you hate it if you got that far, 2) did you hate it enough to retrospectively ruin the entire series, 3) if yes to both, is there a good pre-ending stopping point?

There have been rumors of a movie for forever, but it’s now actually happening and Idris Elba plays the gunslinger. This ups my interest in the series quite a bit. Of course I could just see the movies, but that’s a long wait for a lot of installments.

The Gunslinger (The Dark Tower)
Lisey is a middle-aged woman whose husband Scott was a famous writer. When the story begins, Scott has been dead for two years. Lisey is a reader, not a writer, but Scott’s writing is nipping at her heels in the form of academics and fans who want his papers, stalker fans, and the very real fantasy land from which Scott drew his inspiration, which Lisey once visited, and which she may need to visit once again.

The book interweaves the present-day story of Lisey, widowed but not alone (she has sisters) with the story of their marriage. I was all ready to say, “This book really isn’t horror at all and people who aren’t into horror might really like it,” but then I hit a horrific act of violence (not lethal, but seriously wince-inducing) and also Scott’s childhood turns out to be pure horror in both the abuse and fantasy sense, so I guess not. It’s mostly not horror, though.

King is often autobiographical, though in that odd way of fantasy writers in which either completely real incidents or characters are dropped into contemporary fantasy, or by metaphor, so that drug addiction might appear as addictive and destructive alien powers. King additionally often has writer characters who seem based on himself to some degree or other, and not always flatteringly; I am pretty sure I’ve read him saying that the most autobiographical character in The Stand is Harold Lauder. (Harold isn’t a villain, exactly, but he’s villain-ish, and about the opposite of a Marty Stu.)

Lisey’s Story is about what might have happened to King’s wife if he’d been killed in that bizarre van accident. (His memoir/how-to On Writing, which I highly recommend, contains a vivid account of that.) Sort of. If the van accident had been a shooting by a crazed fan or a weird illness, and if he’d had a childhood that was not only horrific but magically weird, and if his stories were partly drawn from a real fantasyland he can visit. And, of course, Lisey isn’t really his wife and her sisters, who play a major role, aren’t really her sisters. But I have a feeling that to some degree, they are. And that their marriage, which is largely mediated by a shared language of words and sayings, both is and isn’t their real marriage. Lisey’s Story is an extremely real-feeling book, even for King, who built his career on making the fantastical real and grounded and specific.

It’s a book about grief, but not about the initial shock, which is most commonly written about; this is about grief that’s been lived with and adjusted to and become familiar, that’s starting to heal at the same time that it’s finally sunk in that someone you loved is really gone and that is a wound will never really heal. It’s a book about marriage, and the intimacy of years and years together. It’s a book about language and storytelling; Scott’s writing is important but the language he and Lisey use with each other, the mortar and bricks of their relationship, is even more important. It’s a book about family— Lisey’s sisters are much more prominent in the narrative than I expected.

But most of all, it’s about Lisey. All things considered, I expected the story to be more about Scott, but it really is Lisey’s story, even though he’s the one with the fame and the magic. But Lisey has grit and practicality and her own creativity, though it’s not of the artistic sort, and she plows through stalkers, grief, family troubles, crazed fans, and a fantasy world with a stubborn determination that made Scott love her, kept her with him when another woman might have fled screaming, and just might defeat some very serious opponents.

I loved Lisey and I loved the metafictional nature of the book. The very first chapter is about how Lisey got erased from a news article about Scott— she was incredibly heroic, but the male journalist ignored her, credited her heroism to some random dude, and the photo shows nothing of her but the heel of her shoe. The rest of the book is about putting Lisey back in the story, but in a way that she wants— not as a flashy hero in the eyes of the world, but doing what needs to be done and is important to her, in her own way.

I’ve never been married, but I’ve seen a lot of married couples and observed how they often do seem to have their own language. This was the first book that made me feel like I got what it felt like to be in that sort of relationship and have that language. (Some of the language is silly or annoying, but mostly in the way that couple’s and family’s language and in-jokes really are silly and annoying to outsiders— it captured a real thing that I haven’t seen most fiction even attempt.) Similarly, the sisters’ relationships were also very real-feeling in a way that, again, was of great interest to me because I don’t have siblings. As a whole, the book is more about intimacy than it is about fantasy worlds and monsters and stalkers— the latter (especially the stalker) are more sizzle than steak.

That being said, warning for horror elements and one moment of cringey violence. Also, it deals with mental illness in a way that’s sometimes realistic and sometimes fantastical/metaphoric and sometimes both. I’m happy to discuss any of that or anything else about the book in comments, so general warning for spoilers in comments.

I liked the book a lot and it made me want to catch up on King’s later work. I haven’t read any of his other more recent books, so feel free to rec anything within the last 20 years or so.

Lisey's Story
Note: This was written by Sholio, a friend of mine, and I was one of the betas. The sphinx ship was my suggestion.

A gecko shifter secret agent joins forces with a dragon shifter gambler to fight crime aboard a ship shaped like a giant sphinx, while also playing in an underground, I mean illegal, high-stakes poker match. Cue hijinks and every trope ever.

A charmingly over the top fantasy adventure with a bit of romance, but definitely action with romance rather than the reverse. Great action, great characters, utterly cracktastic, and really, really funny. Part of a series about shapeshifter secret agents, but the books are all standalones and you can easily start here. If you liked Marjorie Liu’s Dirk & Steele series, you will like this.

The heroine, Jen Cho, is an adrenaline junkie caffeine addict gecko shifter secret agent who enjoys rock climbing in her spare time and spends much of the book clambering over unlikely places in both human and gecko forms. Jen is hilarious and her unflappable POV is the best.

The hero, Lucky, unsurprisingly has the power to influence luck, which is one of my favorite mutant powers and is played out in consistently entertaining ways. (He can apply it with a purpose, but unless he’s trying for something vey specific, he doesn’t know how it will work. For instance, “Leave the window open” will make the window get left open. But “help me win this fight” could do just about anything.) He is also a dragon shifter, but the way this works is pretty original and clever, not to mention often quite funny.

I don’t want to ruin the hilarity of their meet-cute, but it is truly hilarious. I’ll put it behind a cut, but if you think you might want to read the book, don’t click.

Read more... )

Most of the book is set aboard a giant floating sphinx on which a secret, illegal, incredibly high-stakes poker game is being played. Despite the total ridiculousness of this, so much thought went into the details of how all of that might actually work that it feels weirdly credible.

The supporting cast all feel like real people with lives and motives of their own, down to ship workers who appear in one scene and have two lines.

During the climax, almost everyone aboard the ship is high as a kite for plot reasons, and while the heroes and villains are having their dramatic final battle, they keep having to dodge random people attempting to pet their hair or tell them all about the pretty pink bubbles.

Fluffy and delightful. Definitely a read-in-one-gulp type of book.

Dragon's Luck (Shifter Agents Book 3) is only 99 cents on Amazon!
A novelette set in the Chalion world, in which Gods and demons are real, though powerful and supernatural forces rather than representatives of the concepts of good and evil. (People do generally think that Gods are good and demons are bad, but it’s more complicated than that.) It’s set about a hundred years before The Curse of Chalion. (This isn’t obvious in the text, or at least it wasn’t obvious to me; I think I found it in the author’s afterword.) You can start the series here; it’s unrelated to the other books, and a complete story.

A young man on a mission finds both his task and his entire life unexpectedly diverted when he becomes possessed by a demon. In this case, demon possession means having another personality sharing your mind and talking to you, not having your own personality displaced. In the process of learning about his demon in the hope of divesting himself of it, he learns a lot about himself, his world, and what he really wants from life.

The characters and story are likable and engaging, and the magic system and cosmology, which I enjoyed in the other books in the series, continue to be interesting. It’s a pleasant story with a cozy feeling, but a little slight, especially compared to the novels set in the same world. I was unreasonably distracted by a major character having a name that I have previously only encountered in a Shakespeare play, in a world which seems to have no relationship to ours, but this may not bother anyone other than me.

But if you like small-scale fantasy about well-meaning people, in a world in which altruism is neither stupid nor the sign of an approaching cement truck, you will probably like this. It reminded me a bit of The Goblin Emperor, though with a much more down to earth and informal tone. Bujold's Sharing Knives books also have something of this cozy, domestic feel, though they are romances and this is not.

Penric's Demon
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