Shelf Control #209: Over Sea, Under Stone (The Dark Is Rising, #1) by Susan Cooper

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Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: Over Sea, Under Stone (The Dark Is Rising, #1)
Author: Susan Cooper
Published: 1965
Length: 196 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

On holiday in Cornwall, the three Drew children discover an ancient map in the attic of the house that they are staying in. They know immediately that it is special. It is even more than that — the key to finding a grail, a source of power to fight the forces of evil known as the Dark. And in searching for it themselves, the Drews put their very lives in peril. This is the first volume of Susan Cooper’s brilliant and absorbing fantasy sequence known as The Dark Is Rising.

How and when I got it:

We’ve had a copy of this book in my house for at least 15 years or more!

Why I want to read it:

I was looking for something relatively happy and light for this week’s Shelf Control post (to contrast with how dismal and dark real life is these days…) — and while this doesn’t exactly scream sunshine and roses, it’s a classic children’s fantasy series, which sounds like lots of fun.

True confession time — I actually started this with my son about six years ago, and we quit after the first few chapters. Neither of us felt much interest at the time, but that may be because it just didn’t suit our mood or wasn’t a great pick to read aloud together. In any case, we put it aside, but I’ve always felt like I should go back to it and see it through.

What do you think? Would you read this book? 

Please share your thoughts!

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  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
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Have fun!

Book Review: The Secret Commonwealth (The Book of Dust, #2) by Philip Pullman

Title: The Secret Commonwealth (The Book of Dust, #2)
Author: Philip Pullman
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publication date: October 3, 2019
Length: 641 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Purchased

⭐⭐⭐

It is twenty years since the events of La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust Volume One unfolded and saw the baby Lyra Belacqua begin her life-changing journey.

It is seven years since readers left Lyra and the love of her young life, Will Parry, on a park bench in Oxford’s Botanic Gardens at the end of the ground-breaking, bestselling His Dark Materials sequence.

Now, in The Secret Commonwealth, we meet Lyra Silvertongue. And she is no longer a child . . .

The second volume of Sir Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust sees Lyra, now twenty years old, and her daemon Pantalaimon, forced to navigate their relationship in a way they could never have imagined, and drawn into the complex and dangerous factions of a world that they had no idea existed.

Pulled along on his own journey too is Malcolm; once a boy with a boat and a mission to save a baby from the flood, now a man with a strong sense of duty and a desire to do what is right.

Theirs is a world at once familiar and extraordinary, and they must travel far beyond the edges of Oxford, across Europe and into Asia, in search for what is lost – a city haunted by daemons, a secret at the heart of a desert, and the mystery of the elusive Dust.

How to describe this long, strange book, set in the world of His Dark Materials?

The Secret Commonwealth is very much a middle book. It’s packed with details and characters, most of whom are people on a journey or quest. There’s a lot of travel from here to there… but we leave off before anyone actually arrives at their destinations.

In La Belle Sauvage, the installment in The Book of Dust that precedes The Secret Commonwealth, we see Lyra as an infant. She’s the object of hot pursuit by nefarious agents of the Magisterium, the ruling religious entity, and a person to be protected by an assortment of good guys and heroes, chief among them young Malcolm Polstead, an 11-year-old boy with unflinching bravery and a very steady canoe.

Here, we re-meet Lyra at age 20. She’s a student at St. Sophia’s, and still lives at Jordan College, the Oxford college where she’s been sheltered under rules of scholastic sanctuary since infancy. Lyra’s life is difficult as the story opens. Her comfortable home at Jordan is no longer a safe place for her, the money supporting her has run out, and shady characters are once again intent on tracking her down.

Closer to home, Lyra and her beloved daemon Pantalaimon are not getting along, which is a huge deal, considering that daemons are the external representation of a person’s soul. Daemon and human are two halves of one whole; neither is complete without the other. It’s almost beyond imagining that Lyra and Pan should be so estranged. Pan believes that Lyra has come too deeply under the influence of literary and scholarly works that prize only what’s real and can be seen, discounting completely the value or even existence of subtlety, imagination, and unseen forces and worlds.

Meanwhile, there’s a movement behind the scenes within the Magisterium to consolidate power even further, pushing toward total religious authoritarianism, leading to fear, civil unrest, and a growing flood of refugees throughout Europe. There’s also a quest by the Magisterium to root out a particular type of rose oil that’s believed to have certain properties that are considered threatening and heretical, and the efforts to wipe out all roses is being conducted by force.

As Lyra is forced into a quest across Europe and into the Eastern lands, she faces incredible danger and constant pursuit, meeting some allies and encountering enemies of all sorts. We also see events through Pan’s perspective, as well as accompanying Malcolm and others on their own strange and dangerous journeys.

It’s a little hard to figure out just who the intended audience of this book is. It’s clearly a youth-oriented book, based on the publisher and where it fits into the greater world of His Dark Materials, but this book is different. For starters, it’s the first novel in either series with no children as characters. Lyra, at age 20, is the youngest, and she’s truly a young woman and not a girl any longer.

More than that, though, is the tone and feel of the book. This book is DARK. Really bad things happen. This rarely feels like fantasy-level danger, with mystical forces or supernatural threats. The danger in The Secret Commonwealth is from people, and it’s awful. Lyra suffers through terrible ordeals, and so do many of the other characters in the book.

The pieces that are revealed about human/daemon connections and certain things that can happen (being deliberately vague here) are pretty horrible too, and are really startling in the context of the series as a whole.

Finally, the Lyra/Pan relationship and where it is in The Secret Commonwealth is heartbreaking and demoralizing. There’s really no ray of sunshine in this book whatsoever.

I suppose that the bleakness of the story is appropriate to the political conditions of Lyra’s world, but it makes for a pretty dismal reading experience. Philip Pullman is masterful as always, and I do love the world he’s created.

However, The Secret Commonwealth is so unrelentingly dark and full of misery that it’s hard to consider it an enjoyable read at all. After 600+ pages, it ends more or less on a cliffhanger, with all threads still to be resolved. The book is building toward something, and I hope the final book in the trilogy is successful in tying it all together and, hopefully, bringing back a little of Lyra’s fire and optimism.

I will absolutely want to read the 3rd and final book in The Book of Dust, and hope the conclusion will make all the suffering of the 2nd book worthwhile. Meanwhile, The Secret Commonwealth has left me feeling sad, upset, and worried about Lyra, and that’s not a fun way to be left hanging.

Audiobook Review: The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski

Title: The Last Wish
Author: Andrzej Sapkowski
Narrator: Peter Kenny
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: December 14, 2008 (originally published in 1997 in Poland)
Print length: 360 pages
Audio length: 10 hours, 17 minutes
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Geralt of Rivia is a witcher. A cunning sorcerer. A merciless assassin. And a cold-blooded killer. His sole purpose: to destroy the monsters that plague the world. But not everything monstrous-looking is evil and not everything fair is good… and in every fairy tale there is a grain of truth.

A collection of short stories introducing Geralt of Rivia, to be followed by the first novel in the actual series, The Blood of Elves. Note that, while The Last Wish was published after The Sword of Destiny, the stories contained in The Last Wish take place first chronologically, and many of the individual stories were published before The Sword of Destiny. 

For anyone who developed an instantaneous obsession for the Netflix series The Witcher (*raising my hand*), the story collection The Last Wish is an absolute must!

The Last Wish introduces Geralt of Rivia, a solitary man who travels from place to place earning money by fighting monsters on behalf of the humans who hire him. He’s a Witcher, member of a profession of highly trained, magically enhanced people who take on the monsters of the world through their power with spells and swords.

Geralt is gruff, sometimes mean, straightforward, and never afraid of a fight. He has a strict moral code, and uses it to set his own path, even when men of power tried to oppose him or sway him with threats or bribery.

The book is structured as connected tales of Geralt’s adventures, with a through-story between chapters, called “The Voice of Reason”, where we keep up with Geralt after a particularly nasty escapade. Through the interwoven stories, we learn about his past adventures and how he got to this point.

The six stories in The Last Wish seem to be rooted in various fairy tales, but with some pretty big twists and variations along the way. This isn’t too surprising — as Geralt points out, all stories start from a grain of truth.

For viewers of the Netflix series, most of these stories will be at least partially familiar. We see the story of Renfri and the battle at Blaviken — which, by the way, is really a version of a Snow White story, which I totally didn’t get from watching the TV series. There’s also the feast at Cintra where Pavetta’s potential marriage is at stake (a great scene in both the book and the series), a Beauty & the Beast-inspired tale, and the story of the striga.

And, obviously from the title, The Last Wish includes the story of Yennefer and Geralt’s first meeting and the role of the djinn, although in many ways it’s pretty different from the presentation on Netflix.

Overall, I loved this book. There are pieces I missed, like Yennefer’s entire origin story, but so much added detail and explanation of various elements that it all evens out. Also, the fall of Cintra and the introduction of Ciri are not included in this book, but will be important in later books, from what I understand.

Jaskier, the delightful bard on the TV series who is responsible for the ultimate earworm, Toss a Coin to Your Witcher, appears in the books as Dandelion (pronounced by the narrator not like the flower, but as danDElion, which makes it sounds pretty charming). He’s still a totally fun character, but of course, I missed the singing!

Regarding the narration, I got off to a difficult start with the audiobook. I typically listen to audiobooks at 1.25x speed, and it took me a chapter or two to really accept that that just wouldn’t work for me in this case. Between the narrator’s speaking patterns and the heavy accents and rather incomprehensible names of certain characters, I finally realized that I’d need to either slow down the listening speed or give up and switch to print.

Once I took the speed down to 1.0x (normal speed), most of my problems were resolved, and I was much better able to follow conversations and narration. I ended up loving some of the voices, particularly the narrator’s approach to Geralt himself.

Fantasy character names can be tricky, so I ended up having to refer to a print version anyway because it drove me a bit batty not to have a clear idea of how certain names might be spelled. Nivellen, Coodcoodak, Eist Tuirseach, Drogodar, Crach an Craite… see what I mean?

Reading the book made me even more impressed with the Netflix series, because it made me appreciate how well they wove together so many different storylines into one cohesive whole. In fact, now that I’ve finished this book, I may have to watch the series all over again to see what I missed the first time around!

The Last Wish was a really fun, enjoyable listen, and I will absolutely be continuing with The Witcher books, either in print or via audio. After all, what else am I supposed to do with my time between now and whenever season 2 comes around?

Book Review: The Cruel Prince (Folk of the Air, #1) by Holly Black

Title: The Cruel Prince (Folk of the Air, #1)
Author: Holly Black
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Publication date: January 2, 2018
Length: 370 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Of course I want to be like them. They’re beautiful as blades forged in some divine fire. They will live forever.

And Cardan is even more beautiful than the rest. I hate him more than all the others. I hate him so much that sometimes when I look at him, I can hardly breathe.

Jude was seven when her parents were murdered and she and her two sisters were stolen away to live in the treacherous High Court of Faerie. Ten years later, Jude wants nothing more than to belong there, despite her mortality. But many of the fey despise humans. Especially Prince Cardan, the youngest and wickedest son of the High King.

To win a place at the Court, she must defy him–and face the consequences.

As Jude becomes more deeply embroiled in palace intrigues and deceptions, she discovers her own capacity for trickery and bloodshed. But as betrayal threatens to drown the Courts of Faerie in violence, Jude will need to risk her life in a dangerous alliance to save her sisters, and Faerie itself. 

The Cruel Prince is a book that practically everyone but me had already read. But now…

I’m in! I finally read The Cruel Prince, and I can see what all the fuss is about. Call me late to the party, but guys! This book is good!

The book starts off with a horrifying, sad scene: In a normal suburban home, 7-year-old twin sisters Taryn and Jude and their older sister Vivi are lounging about watching TV, when a strange man enters, murders their parents, and steals them away. The man is Madoc, and he is Vivi’s biological father. The mother of the three girls used to dwell in Faerie with him, but she ran off years earlier with the mortal man who became the twins’ father. Now, years later, Madoc has taken what he considers his.

The girls are brought to Faerie and raised among the fae gentry. Vivi, half-fae herself, fits in pretty well, but the twins are always aware of how other they are. They’re mortal, and have no powers. Even worse, they have no innate ability to fight off the magical compulsions and other torments directed at them by their fae classmates.

As the story kicks in, Jude and Taryn are seventeen, still trying to find a way to belong. Madoc has raised them with riches and privilege, but they can never forget that he murdered their parents. Jude wants strength — she wants to prove she belongs in the fae court by becoming a knight. Taryn, on the other hand, wants to secure her place through marriage. And Vivi? She, the one who should belong, wants no part of it at all, instead preferring to sneak back to the human world whenever she can to see her mortal girlfriend and plan a future with her.

Jude and Taryn are constantly tormented by their classmates, especially Prince Cardan and his cronies. But when the king decides to step down and pass along the crown, the intrigue and the danger escalates.

I’m not going to go further into the plot, but let me just say… I was hooked! I could not put this book down once I started. I loved the depiction of Faerie, its beauty and wonders, and how utterly alien and hostile this world would feel to children who didn’t belong.

The casual cruelty of the ruling class is scary and heartless, and I felt awful for Taryn and Jude for having no defenses and no way to stand up for themselves in any meaningful way. And even when some of the crowd appear to be more inclined to be friendly, it seems obvious that no one can be trusted.

Jude is our hero, and she’s awesome. She’s smart and brave, and refuses to scrape and bow, even when that’s the most obvious way to get the bullies off her back. She’s devoted to protecting her family, and doesn’t take the easy way out. I like how she goes through the book having to figure who to trust, and even when forced into pretty bad situations, how to turn those situations to her advantage and achieve her goals.

I definitely want more! I’m really looking forward to reading book #2, and feel pretty safe in predicting that I’ll want to read straight through to the end of the trilogy!

**Save

I also really enjoyed The Lost Sisters, a novella that tells about some of the same events from The Cruel Prince, but from Taryn’s perspective.

It’s really interesting to get the other side of parts of the story, and I’m glad I stumbled across it!

And now, on to The Wicked King!Save

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Book Review: Imaginary Numbers (InCryptid, #9) by Seanan McGuire

Title: Imaginary Numbers (InCryptid series, book #9)
Author: Seanan McGuire
Publisher: DAW
Publication date: February 25, 2020
Length: 448 pages
Genre: Urban fantasy
Source: Won in a Goodreads giveaway!
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐

The ninth book in the fast-paced InCryptid urban fantasy series returns to the mishaps of the Price family, eccentric cryptozoologists who safeguard the world of magical creatures living in secret among humans.

Sarah Zellaby has always been in an interesting position. Adopted into the Price family at a young age, she’s never been able to escape the biological reality of her origins: she’s a cuckoo, a telepathic ambush predator closer akin to a parasitic wasp than a human being. Friend, cousin, mathematician; it’s never been enough to dispel the fear that one day, nature will win out over nurture, and everything will change.

Maybe that time has finally come.

After spending the last several years recuperating in Ohio with her adoptive parents, Sarah is ready to return to the world–and most importantly, to her cousin Artie, with whom she has been head-over-heels in love since childhood. But there are cuckoos everywhere, and when the question of her own survival is weighed against the survival of her family, Sarah’s choices all add up to one inescapable conclusion.

This is war. Cuckoo vs. Price, human vs. cryptid…and not all of them are going to walk away.

It makes me so happy to have a new InCryptid book in my hands, especially since I won this one in a Goodreads giveaway, which pretty much never happens for me!

In Imaginary Numbers, the ongoing InCryptid series turns to two new point-of-view characters, Sarah Zellaby and Artie Harrington. Sarah and Artie are both members of the sprawling Price-Healy clan, a group of cryptozoologists dedicated to protecting non-human species from the persecution of the deadly Covenant, and equally dedicated to protecting humans from the deadlier of cryptid species. To that end, the Prices are all highly skilled with weaponry of all sorts, learning to become excellent shots and to throw knives with precision from childhood.

Sarah is the first non-human main character in this series. She’s a cuckoo, the common term for Johrlacs, which are a human-appearing species that are more or less descended from telepathic wasps. Cuckoos are apex predators. They can take over anyone’s mind and make them do whatever they want, and the effects can be fatal. Sarah was adopted into the Price family as a child, and so was raised with a different set of influences than a typical cuckoo, making her more aware of her responsibility to respect others’ boundaries and giving her a deep, true love for her family. As well as a different and very strong love for her cousin Artie, which the two of them have been too shy and awkward to ever acknowledge.

In this book, Sarah’s return to the family compound after a lengthy recovery from injury brings the attention of unknown cuckoos, who want to use her for their own purposes, and don’t care who they have to kill to make it happen. The action is intense and fast-paced, with a plot that’s occasionally confusing but always fun.

The InCryptid books tend to be a little less dire than Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series, which regularly rips out my heart. This series is generally light-hearted, not that there aren’t perilous situations and heartbreaks here as well. Still, with a family that includes a sorcerer whose boyfriend is a human-sized monkey, a grandfather who’s patched together from dead bodies, and a time-traveling grandma who appears to be in her teens, things can’t get all that serious for too extended a time.

The author’s trademark quippiness and cleverness is on full display in Imaginary Numbers:

It wouldn’t stop the cuckoos on the lawn from pouring into the house if they got the signal — it would barely even slow them down — but every little bit helps when you’re going up against telepathic killers from another dimension.

… [T]hat made it better than standing around waiting for the invisible floor to drop out from under my feet and send me plummeting into the void. I am not a big fan of plummeting. If I had to commit to a position, I’dd probably have to say that I was anti-plummeting.

“She seems nice.”

“No, she doesn’t,” I said. “She seems like an unstable old lady who somehow keeps aging backward, and who carries grenades that are older than I am way too frequently for comfort’s sake.”

Normal people get meet-cutes. I get crime scene cleanup.

Imaginary Numbers ends with a sort-of cliffhanger — the main plot is resolved, but ends up dumping a few key characters into a brand-new situation in the last lines… and I’m dying to know what will happen! It sounds as though the next in the series, Calculated Risks, will pick up where this one leaves off. Too bad we have to wait a year for it!

As an added treat, Imaginary Numbers includes a bonus novella, Follow the Lady, which takes place chronologically between books 8 and 9. It’s fun, not earth-shattering, and a nice way to de-stress after the high-pitched excitement at the end of Imaginary Numbers.

This series is a delight, and I’ll echo my previous advice to start at the beginning. These books do not work as stand-alones, not if you want to have any hope of getting what’s going on and the complex, convoluted family trees. All of the InCryptid books are fast reads, so even though this is the 9th book in the series, it really won’t be too hard to catch up.

I love these books! Check ’em out.

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Book Review: Come Tumbling Down (Wayward Children, #5) by Seanan McGuire

Title: Come Tumbling Down (Wayward Children, #5)
Author: Seanan McGuire
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: January 7, 2020
Length: 206 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

The fifth installment in Seanan McGuire’s award-winning, bestselling Wayward Children series, Come Tumbling Down picks up the threads left dangling by Every Heart a Doorway and Down Among the Sticks and Bones

When Jack left Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children she was carrying the body of her deliciously deranged sister–whom she had recently murdered in a fit of righteous justice–back to their home on the Moors.

But death in their adopted world isn’t always as permanent as it is here, and when Jack is herself carried back into the school, it becomes clear that something has happened to her. Something terrible. Something of which only the maddest of scientists could conceive. Something only her friends are equipped to help her overcome.

Eleanor West’s “No Quests” rule is about to be broken.

I adore Seanan McGuire. I adore everything she writes. I adore the Wayward Children series.

So is it any surprise when I say that I loved Come Tumbling Down?

In this, the 5th installment in what I hope will be a long, ongoing series of fantasy novellas, we return to the events of book #2, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, and finally find out what happened next.

Which, right off the bat, tickles me pink, because Down Among the Sticks and Bones is — no question about it — my favorite in the entire series. So I was thrilled to return to the world of the Moors, the war between mad scientists and vampires, and the struggle to resurrect and reanimate that which has been lost.

For those new to this series, the basic idea is this: Eleanor West runs a boarding school for children who’ve returned to their parents’ homes after an absence which has left them strange and unmanageable. What the parents don’t understand, but Eleanor West certainly does, is that these missing children found doors to other worlds — world of logic or nonsense, worlds of virtue or wickedness, and all sorts of points on the compass between extremes**. Whether kicked out or voluntarily returned, the children no longer fit in their mundane lives, but find solace and shelter with the other misfits like themselves at the home for wayward children.

In Down Among the Sticks and Bones, we learned about twins Jack and Jill and their time spent on the Moors. We pick up their story in Come Tumbling Down as one of the twins returns to the school – but which one?

Oh, I really don’t want to give anything away! This book, like all the others, is filled to the brim with fantasy and danger and challenges, but rooted deeply by its unique and memorable characters. There’s Sumi, a nonsense girl who knows her destiny lies in the world of Confection; Cora, a mermaid who longs to return to the sea; Kade, a Goblin prince who accepts that his chosen world may not choose him any longer; and Christopher, who dreams of life in the land of Mariposa with his true love, the Skeleton Girl.

When the missing twin returns and needs help with her life-or-death quest, the friends are quick to stand by her and venture through the door to the Moors, risking their own lives in an attempt to right the balance so crucial in that world.

As in all of the Wayward Children books, Seanan McGuire’s writing is lyrical and magical, infusing every moment with otherworldly flavors and fantastical elements, some menacing, some magical, some downright funny.

I’ll share some chosen selections here, although narrowing it down to just a few is hard. Here’s what my book looked like by the time I got close to the end:

 Sometimes Christopher thought any chance he’d had of falling for a girl with ordinary things like “skin” and “muscle tissue” and “a pulse” had ended with the soft, moist sound of Jack driving a pair of scisors through her sister’s horrible heart.

“My parents,” she said. “They were like Nancy’s but the other way around, chasing monochrome instead of spectrums. They didn’t understand. Thought if they threw enough gray and gray and gray at me, I’d forget I’d seen rainbows and learn how to be their little sparrow-girl again. She died in Confection and I rose from her ashes, a pretty pastry phoenix.

Sumi looked up and smiled serenely. “Look at the moon,” she said. “It’s like the sugared cherry on the biggest murder sundae in the whole world.”

Indoor lightning storms, resurrected girls, and giant, bloody moons were terrifying enough without throwing in headless corpses, vampire lords, and something called a “Drowned God.”

And another from Sumi, because she’s awesome and so are her sundae analogies:

“This is terrible,” said Sumi brightly. “I mean, we knew it was going to be terrible when we followed a mad scientist and her dead girlfriend to a horrifying murder world, but this is bonus terrible. This is the awful sprinkles on the sundae of doom.”

Ah, I’ll stop here. I loved this book, and I love this series wholeheartedly. Each of the books is lovely on its own, and Come Tumbling Down is a worthy, enthralling addition to the series.

Beautiful, haunting writing, a creep-tastic setting, mad scientists and Drowned Gods, and the bestest friends squad you’d ever want at your back. What more could we ask for?

A note of advice: If the events of Down Among the Sticks and Bones aren’t fresh in your mind, then definitely pause for a re-read (or enjoy the excellent audiobook version) before diving in to Come Tumbling Down.

**Want to know more about the worlds of the Wayward Children books? Check out this excellent guide!

Illustration by Rovina Cai from Come Tumbling Down.
You will love these two horses. Promise.

Top Ten Tuesday: A Selection of Favorite Fantasy Books and Series

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Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, featuring a different top 10 theme each week. This week’s topic is Books From My Favorite Genre. I bounce between genres quite a bit, but thought I’d focus here on fantasy. My list includes stand-alones as well as series, and because I’m sticking to just 10, I ended up not including three that pretty much go without saying: of course I love the Narnia, A Song of Ice and Fire, and Lord of the Rings books! (See? I managed to mention them after all!)

My top ten, in no particular order:

  • The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley
  • Codex Alera (series) by Jim Butcher
  • The Immortals (series) (standing in for ALL Tortall books) by Tamora Pierce (review)
  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik (review)
  • The Enchanted Forest Chronicles (series) by Patricia C. Wrede (review)
  • Wayward Children (series) by Seanan McGuire (review)
  • The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King (review)
  • The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner (review)
  • His Dark Materials (series) by Philip Pullman
  • Stardust by Neil Gaiman

What genre did you pick this week? If you wrote a TTT post this week, please share your link!

Take A Peek Book Review: That Ain’t Witchcraft (InCryptid, #8) by Seanan McGuire

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Crossroads, noun:

1. A place where two roads cross.
2. A place where bargains can be made.
3. See also “places to avoid.”

Antimony Price has never done well without a support system. As the youngest of her generation, she has always been able to depend on her parents, siblings, and cousins to help her out when she’s in a pinch—until now. After fleeing from the Covenant of St. George, she’s found herself in debt to the crossroads and running for her life. No family. No mice. No way out.

Lucky for her, she’s always been resourceful, and she’s been gathering allies as she travels: Sam, fūri trapeze artist turned boyfriend; Cylia, jink roller derby captain and designated driver; Fern, sylph friend, confidant, and maker of breakfasts; even Mary, ghost babysitter to the Price family. Annie’s actually starting to feel like they might be able to figure things out—which is probably why things start going wrong again.

New Gravesend, Maine is a nice place to raise a family…or make a binding contract with the crossroads. For James Smith, whose best friend disappeared when she tried to do precisely that, it’s also an excellent place to plot revenge. Now the crossroads want him dead and they want Annie to do the dirty deed. She owes them, after all.

And that’s before Leonard Cunningham, aka, “the next leader of the Covenant,” shows up…

It’s going to take everything Annie has and a little bit more to get out of this one. If she succeeds, she gets to go home. If she fails, she becomes one more cautionary tale about the dangers of bargaining with the crossroads.

But no pressure.

My Thoughts:

Seanan McGuire can pretty much do no wrong in my worldview, and That Ain’t Witchcraft is a prime example of why. The InCryptid series is relatively light-hearted, although bad things do happen, but overall these books maintain a whimsical, wise-ass feel that keeps the mood more on the fun end of the urban fantasy spectrum.

Eight books in, the series continues to rock and roll. The beauty (or I really should say, one of the beauties) of this series is the focus on the sprawling Price family, which gives the author plenty of characters to share the spotlight from book to book. So far, we’ve had three books with Verity as the lead, two with Alex, and now three with Antimony, the baby sister of the family. (I understand that the spotlight will be moving to a different family member in book #9 — I’m already on pins and needles to see what happens next!)

That Ain’t Witchcraft continues from the ending of book #7, Tricks For Free, with Antimony and friends on the run from the Covenant, the globally powerful cryptid-hating organization that would also like to track down and annihilate the entire Price clan. Looking for a hideout where they can rest and catch their breaths for a while, Antimony and the gang instead find themselves in a small town with a big problem involving the crossroads, the otherworldy entity that makes bargains that never seem to work out well for the human side.

The writing, as always in Seanan McGuire books, is snappy and snarky and full of pop-culture references and overall geekiness, and I love it all to bits. Random example:

“He’s a delicate boy. He doesn’t need some loose woman coming from out of town and getting him all confused.”

I blinked. “I… what? I don’t know whether to be more offended by you calling James ‘delicate’ or you calling me ‘loose.’ I assure you, I am the opposite of a loose woman. I’m a tightly wound, sort of prickly woman. Hermione Granger is my Patronus.”

Need I say more? In case it’s not perfectly obvious, the 8th book in an ongoing series is NOT the place to start. So, I encourage you to go find a copy of book #1, Discount Armageddon, and dive in. If you’re like me, you’ll be hooked, and will want to keep going until you’ve gobbled up all eight books and are panting for more.

InCryptids rule. Check out this series!

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The details:

Title: That Ain’t Witchcraft (InCryptid series, book #8)
Author: Seanan McGuire
Publisher: DAW
Publication date: March 5, 2019
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Urban fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Series wrap-up: The Beka Cooper trilogy by Tamora Pierce

Last year, I began a journey through the lands of Tortall, the incredibly rich and exciting fantasy world created by Tamora Pierce. This year, I continued the adventure by listening to the audiobooks of the Beka Cooper trilogy — and now that I’ve finished, I thought I’d share some thoughts.

The Beka Cooper books take place about 150 years before the beginning of the Song of the Lioness quartet, Tamora Pierce’s first Tortall books, which introduce the young squire who would grow up to become Lady Knight Alanna. The Beka books were published after the Alanna, Daine, Kel, and Aly books, yet they are chronologically the first books in terms of the kingdom of Tortall. I’ll admit that I wasn’t sure about going back into the kingdom’s past and the pre-Alanna days… but I can tell you now that these books are very much worth it!

Beka Cooper herself is a wonderful lead character, everything we could hope for in a young female protagonist. In terms of how these books relate to the (chronologically) later books in the Tortall universe, Beka is George Cooper’s ancestor. That’s about all you need to know, but it does tie together quite nicely.

The story of Beka Cooper:

 

In book #1, Terrier, Beka is a young woman just starting out as a “puppy” (trainee) in the Provost’s Guard — the kingdom’s law enforcement department, whose members are referred to as “dogs”. Beka is smart and strong, from the poorest neighborhood of the capital city of Corus, raised in poverty until she and her siblings became wards of the Lord Provost himself, Lord Gershom. As an untested puppy, Beka is paired with Tunstall and Goodwin, two highly respected and experienced dogs, and before long she proves herself in a variety of street fights and arrests. Besides her fighting skills and sharp eye for clues, Beka has a touch of magic: She converses with the spirits of the dead, who come to her attached to the city’s pigeons, and she can also converse with dust spinners — the funnels of swirling dust that show up on street corners, collecting and then sharing with Beka the random bits of conversation they pick up from passers-by. Over the course of her puppy year, Beka becomes embroiled in a life-threatening search for a murderer, digging into the corruption polluting the highest levels of money and power in the lower city.

In the 2nd book, Bloodhound, Beka is no longer a puppy but a fully qualified dog. Here, she is assigned with her partner Clary Goodwin to track down the influx of counterfeit coins that threaten to undermine the entire kingdom. Beka goes on the hunt with Goodwin to track down the counterfeiters, along the way making enemies of the criminal kingpin of a nearby town, but also finding herself romantically involved with a handsome gambler who may or may not be trustworthy.

Finally, in book #3, Mastiff, we rejoin Beka a few years later, still working as a dog and with the reputation of being one of the most talented and determined. She’s committed to fighting injustice and keeping people safe, especially those who can’t fight for themselves. When an attack is made on the royal family, Beka and Tunstall are sent out to track the evildoers, in a case that involves high treason and the realm’s most dangerous and powerful mages.

These books are long and complicated… and I just can’t say enough good things about them! My daughter has pushed me to read them for years, but the first few times I picked up Terrier, I was put off by the language. Tamora Pierce gives her characters a street language that’s rich and flavorful, but which at first glance seemed too out-there to me. When I finally gave it a chance, though, I ended up loving it. Probably listening to the audiobooks helped — I was able to get the feel of the words and their rhythm without getting too stuck on reading written dialect. It’s helpful, though, to keep a hard copy of the books on hand even if listening to the audio version, since the printed books include a glossary at the back, and it’s essential, especially when first entering Beka’s world.

Beyond the amazing language of the books, Beka herself is a wonderful character. Like many of Pierce’s heroines, she has an affinity for animals, and cat Pounce and dog Achoo become major characters in their own way over the course of the three books. Likewise, the supporting characters are fully developed, so we’re left in no doubt about their essences, values, skills, etc — except for the cases where someone’s motive are meant to be questionable, of course.

Pierce doesn’t shy away from sexual relationships, although thankfully she doesn’t seem to feel the need to give us anatomy lessons. Beka and others have sexual relationships as part of their natural lives, not a big deal, no moralizing or agonizing over whether to do it or not. Young women like Beka get charms to prevent pregnancy when they become sexually active, and that’s that. No fuss, no muss. Beka retains full agency over her body and her choices, and it’s a low-key message of empowerment that’s woven into the overall story.

By setting the books so much earlier than the other Tortallian books, we get a glimpse of how certain facets of life in the later (chronologically; earlier by publishing date) books came about. In the Beka books, women are well represented in law enforcement as well as among the knighthood — yet in the Alanna books, it’s considered unheard of for women to become knights, something that hasn’t happened in centuries. So how did the kingdom go from a fairly progressive stance toward women in combat or physical roles toward the idea that women must be proper ladies relegated to fashion, etiquette, embroidery, and other ladylike pursuits? We get a hint of the origins of this change in Mastiff, as Beka travels to one of the kingdom’s fiefdoms where the cult of the Gentle Mother seems to be taking hold — setting the standard that fighting is for men and that women’s greatest joy lies in hearth and home. Likewise, we see how the kingdom moves from a land that tolerates the slave trade to one where slavery is outlawed, thanks to the events initiated in this trilogy. It’s really fascinating to see the seeds here for the changes that are so apparent in the books set later in the kingdom’s history.

The audiobooks are narrated by Susan Denaker, who does an amazing job with the character voices, capturing the regional accents of characters from different geographical and ethnic backgrounds, as well as the language and slang differences in the dialogue of characters from different social strata, from street thugs to children of lower city slums to the nobility and even royalty.

Lots of Beka books in my house!

I really, truly adored getting to know Beka, who instantly jumped onto my ever-growing list of favorite fictional characters of all time. I’m absolutely loving my adventures in the world created by Tamora Pierce. Fortunately, I still have a few books to go!

Want to read my other Tortall series wrap-up posts? Here are the links:
Song of the Lioness (Alanna)
The Immortals (Daine)
Protector of the Small (Kel)
Daughter of the Lioness (Aly)

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Book details:

Terrier – published 2006
Bloodhound – published 2009
Mastiff – published 2011
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Disappointment between the covers: On reading Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen by Tamora Pierce

If you’ve visited my blog at all during the last few months, you’ve probably seen me gushing over the series of fantasy books by Tamora Pierce that I’ve been listening to obsessively. These three quartets, all set in the kingdom of Tortall, feature brave young women finding their own unique strengths and showing courage under fire as well as compassion to those in need. I loved, loved, loved these books, and vowed to keep going until I’d read EVERYTHING set in Tortall.

That vow still holds, but this post will be a temporary break from the gushy lovefest.

I’ve been following story as well as publishing chronology, so after finishing the outstanding Protector of the Small quartet, my next adventure was to be the Daughter of the Lioness duology, starring Alianne, the 16-year-old daughter of Alanna, Tamora Pierce’s first heroine (and Tortall’s first Lady Knight).

I knew I was in trouble almost immediately. I’ve been listening to the audiobook for all of these series… but within the first few chapters of listening to book #1, Trickster’s Choice, I was hopelessly lost. So much exposition! It felt like I was being bombarded with thousands of names (people, places, historical figures), with no firm grounding in action to help keep track. I made the quick, tactical decision to switch to print, hoping that having the ability to flip back and forth and to refer to the maps and cast of characters listing in the print edition might help. Well… I suppose it helped a bit, but the essence of the story didn’t change, and that became a problem for me.

So what’s it all about?

Here’s the Goodreads summary for Trickster’s Choice:

The Future is in the hands of the next generation.

Aly: a slave with the talents of a master spy, a fabled lineage she must conceal, and the dubious blessing of a trickster god.

Sarai: a passionate, charming teenage noblewoman who, according to prophecy, will bring an end to a cruel dynasty.

Dove: the younger sister of Sarai; she has a calculating mind and hidden depths that have yet to be plumbed.

Nawat: a magical young man with a strangely innocent outlook and an even stranger past; Aly’s one true friend in a world where trust can cost you your life.

Aly is short for Alianne, daughter of Alanna the Lioness and George Cooper, Alanna’s husband and the spymaster of Tortall. Aly has been taught the tricks and secrets of the spy trade since infancy, but at age 16, she’s restless and wants to get out into the field, which her parents oppose. She sneaks out on her own to go boating and promptly gets kidnapped by pirates, who sell her into slavery in the nearby kingdom of the Copper Isles.

The Copper Isles are plagued by centuries of unrest between the ruling luarin (white) nobility and the down-trodden (brown-skinned, native) raka people. Aly becomes a slave in a noble household under suspicion from the reigning monarch. The trickster god Kyprioth, the god of the Copper Isles, enlists Aly in a plan to help raise a rebellion. And the adventure is underway.

I had a very hard time with this book. I was half-bored through most of it. As I mentioned, it’s a lot of people and places, but I didn’t connect with most of the characters. For a story about rebellion, the plot has some seriously slow points. But the chief problem I have with the story is Aly herself. She’s just too skillful and knowledgeable about being a spy. Yes, she comes from an espionage family, but she’s never been an agent or seen active duty. She never falters, never lacks the ability to carry out her ideas, and pretty much never screws up.

One of the things that makes the other Tortall quartets so special is seeing the main characters evolve from young, untrained youths who work and fight to fulfill their potential. Here in Trickster’s Choice, Aly already is who she is. There’s no learning curve, no doubt, and very little introspection.

And that’s not even addressing the social issues that are so problematic, which are talked about quite a bit in the many reviews to be found on Goodreads. Basically, this white, privileged girl from noble background has to swoop in to lead the native people to an uprising, which they apparently couldn’t manage without her. On top of which, when given the chance at freedom, Aly chooses to maintain her enslaved status in order to provide better cover for her mission from Kyprioth, which seems to imply that being enslaved maybe has a purpose. All of this made me very uncomfortable.

Oh, and the love interest is a crow who’s turned himself into a man and is learning to be human. Awkward.

I finished this book with a great sense of frustration and discontent… so why did I continue? Yes, despite my fairly unhappy time reading Trickster’s Choice, I went straight on to Trickster’s Queen, hoping for a stronger second act in the Daughter of the Lioness story.

In Trickster’s Queen:

The stage is set for revolution…

Aly: no longer just a master spy, but a master of spies. Can she balance her passion for justice and her compassion for others, and at what cost?

Sarai: beautiful, dramatic, and rash – will she fulfill the role chosen for her by destiny?

Dove: she has always stood in Sarai’s shadow. Can she prove to the world that she herself is a force to be reckoned with?

Nawat: half crow, half man. He wants Aly for his life mate, but will the revolution make that impossible as they step into new roles to change the future?

Suddenly, Aly is a spymaster. She pulls the strings and directs her pack of spies and their recruits, teaching spycraft and strategy, plotting with the raka rebellion leaders, and instigating high-stakes sabotage throughout the kingdom in an effort to undermine and destabilize the ruling monarchs.

And my frustration continues. How does Aly possibly have the skills to do all this? It makes no sense. And if I had to see Aly referring to her spies as “my children” or “dear ones” one more time, I was going to smack her.

I won’t go too far into story developments or resolutions. The book is sloooooow for a very long time, basically just a recounting of spy tactics and information gathering, over and over and over, until the actual battle takes place at the very end. Meanwhile, there’s a lot of bloodshed (and I’m not sure how we’re meant to feel about that), the fairly casual murder of children, and a befuddlingly huge number of named characters, when frankly, not every single spy, servant, or noble who shows up in a scene needs a name. It’s all just too much.

Argh. It’s so crushing to go from absolutely amazing books (like Protector of the Small) to such a let-down in the continuation of the overarching story.

I really did come close to quitting quite a few times, but I do want to continue with the Tortall books, and I still have a trilogy, a book of stories, and the 1st book in a new series to go. What if the people or events from the Trickster books end up mattering down the road? Call it bookish FOMO, but I forced myself… unhappily… to finish.

I will be moving on to the Beka Cooper trilogy fairly soon, once the library’s audiobooks become available. And once I get through all of my Tortallian TBR list, I’ll be able to better state whether Aly’s books are skippable. For future readers’ sakes, I hope that they are!

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Book details:

The Daughter of the Lioness duology:
Trickster’s Choice – published 2003
Trickster’s Queen – published 2004
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