Audiobook Review: Blood of Elves by Andrzej Sapkowski

Title: Blood of Elves
Author: Andrzej Sapkowski
Narrator: Peter Kenny
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: 2009 (first published 1994)
Print length: 324 pages
Audio length: 10 hours, 55 minutes
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

For more than a hundred years humans, dwarves, gnomes and elves lived together in relative peace. But times have changed, the uneasy peace is over and now the races once again fight each other – and themselves: Dwarves are killing their kinsmen, and elves are murdering humans and elves, at least those elves who are friendly to humans… Into this tumultuous time is born a child for whom the witchers of the world have been waiting.

Ciri, the granddaughter of Queen Calanthe, the Lioness of Cintra, has strange powers and a stranger destiny, for prophecy names her the Flame, one with the power to change the world – for good, or for evil… Geralt, the witcher of Rivia, has taken Ciri to the relative safety of the Witchers’ Settlement, but it soon becomes clear that Ciri isn’t like the other witchers. As the political situation grows ever dimmer and the threat of war hangs almost palpably over the land, Geralt searches for someone to train Ciri’s unique powers.

But someone else has an eye on the young girl, someone who understand exactly what the prophecy means – and exactly what Ciri’s power can do. This time Geralt may have met his match.

Blood of Elves is the 3rd book in the Witcher chronology, although the book spine calls it The Witcher, #1. Which is just confusing. While Blood of Elves is the first novel in the series, it’s preceded by two story collections that form a crucial introduction to the world of the Witcher and the events in Blood of Elves. If you tried to start these books with Blood of Elves, you’d be hopelessly confused. So don’t do it — start with The Last Wish.

Got that?

Blood of Elves is loosely Ciri’s story — Ciri being the young girl who comes under Geralt’s protection after her family and her kingdom are destroyed by the invading Nilfgardians. Geralt of Rivia probably is way down at the bottom of men to choose as father figures, but Ciri and he are destined to belong to one another, and at the end of the previous book, he finally accepts this destiny.

In Blood of Elves, we follow Ciri’s education, first at Kaer Morhen, the stronghold of the Witchers, where she trains in the ways of Witchers, learning to fight with speed and cunning. But Ciri also has nightmares and spells where she seems to be channeling a magical voice, so Geralt calls on magician Triss Merigold to help.

Under Triss’s tutelage, Ciri learns more about herself as a person and as a young woman, and Triss is able to ascertain more about the strange trances that Ciri falls into. Eventually, Geralt brings Ciri to the Temple of Melitele to learn more formally, and finally, the enchantress (and Geralt’s true love) Yennefer arrives to train Ciri in the use of magic.

Meanwhile, Geralt is off on adventures, trying to both keep Ciri hidden from those who seek her for nefarious purposes and to discover who is behind the search for her.

While there are action sequences scattered throughout, Blood of Elves feels strangely static. There are long sequences where various parties just talk and talk and talk — mostly kings and advisors and magicians, deciding whether to go to war and what Ciri’s future might bring, if only they can find her and control her.

I enjoy reading Witcher books, but maybe because this one only follows Geralt about half the time, it didn’t quite feel compelling enough, especially in comparison to the terrific two books that precede it.

On the other hand, the narration of the audiobooks continues to be outstanding. Narrator Peter Kenny does a marvelous voice for Geralt — strong, sarcastic, understated — as well as very good voices for Ciri, Yennefer, Dandelion, and more.

Having listened to the audiobooks, I think it would be hard to switch over to print. There are so many scenes that are driven by dialogue, and these are exceptionally fun to listen to. And while action sequences can get confusing, there’s enough explanation to keep them comprehensible.

Blood of Elves was somehow not as great as I’d hoped it would be, but I still enjoyed it, and I’ll definitely keep going with the series.

Audiobook Review: Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor

Title: Akata Warrior
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Narrator: Yetide Badaki
Publisher: Viking
Publication date: October 3, 2017
Print length: 469 pages
Audio length: 12 hours, 43 minutes
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

A year ago, Sunny Nwazue, an American-born girl Nigerian girl, was inducted into the secret Leopard Society. As she began to develop her magical powers, Sunny learned that she had been chosen to lead a dangerous mission to avert an apocalypse, brought about by the terrifying masquerade, Ekwensu. Now, stronger, feistier, and a bit older, Sunny is studying with her mentor Sugar Cream and struggling to unlock the secrets in her strange Nsibidi book.

Eventually, Sunny knows she must confront her destiny. With the support of her Leopard Society friends, Orlu, Chichi, and Sasha, and of her spirit face, Anyanwu, she will travel through worlds both visible and invisible to the mysteries town of Osisi, where she will fight a climactic battle to save humanity.

Much-honored Nnedi Okorafor, winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards, merges today’s Nigeria with a unique world she creates. Akata Warrior blends mythology, fantasy, history and magic into a compelling tale that will keep readers spellbound.

As soon as I finished the audiobook of Akata Witch, I knew I had to listen to the sequel too. And after a lot of starting, stopping, and continuous interruptions, I finally made it through to the end!

Akata Warrior is a longer book and audiobook than Akata Witch. Akata Witch introduces us to the characters and world of the story, and does a lot of heavy lifting in terms of setting up the story and providing an exciting and dangerous quest for the main characters as they grow into their powers.

In Akata Warrior, a year has gone by, and the four friends — Sunny, Chichi, Orlu, and Sasha — are advancing in their magical studies. Their abilities are becoming more developed as they work with their assigned mentors. Sunny, our main character whose point of view we inhabit throughout the story, is being mentored by the formidable Sugar Cream, a regal older woman with unmatched powers, who sets rigorous standards for Sunny while introducing her to esoteric powers and abilities.

Sunny continues to have visions of a coming apocalypse, but doesn’t understand why or what her role is supposed to be. Danger to her older brother forces her to break Leopard Society (magic society) rules, and the ensuing punishment pushes her forward on a path toward a quest that she doesn’t fully understand.

As in Akata Witch, seeing the four friends together is a treat. They’ve all grown up, and their interactions and roles are more mature, yet they’re still in their teens and must abide by the rules set for them. At the same time, their magical abilities mean that they’re able to take on riskier tasks, and they show examples of ingenuity again and again throughout their adventure.

As I mentioned before, Akata Warrior is considerably longer than the first book, and it shows in the pacing. While the characters spend at least half the book on their quest, each episode along the way feels very lengthy and drawn-out, to the point where the action seems to sag a bit from time to time. It’s still engaging and exciting, but I would have preferred for a faster pace and less time spent on logistics.

Still, all in all, the world of Akata Witch and Akata Warrior is rich and fascinating. The author has an amazing ability to bring the Nigerian setting to life through her descriptions of sights, smells, colors, textures, and the food. Oh, the food! So many descriptions of eating and the dishes that sound amazing!

Akata Warrior has the same audiobook narrator as Akata Witch, and I just loved listening to her voice. Her accents and intonations for the different characters are wonderful, and each person comes across as an individual. For whatever reason, every time Chichi has a line of dialogue, it instantly brought a smile to my face!

I really enjoyed both of these books. I haven’t heard that there are plans for another book in the series, but a reader can hope, right? I do love these characters, and would love to follow along on further adventures.

Audiobook Review: Sword of Destiny by Andrzej Sapkowski

Title: Sword of Destiny
Author: Andrzej Sapkowski
Narrator: Peter Kenny
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: May 19, 2015
Print length: 384 pages
Audio length: 12 hours, 58 minutes
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Geralt is a witcher, a man whose magic powers, enhanced by long training and a mysterious elixir, have made him a brilliant fighter and a merciless assassin. Yet he is no ordinary murderer: his targets are the multifarious monsters and vile fiends that ravage the land and attack the innocent. He roams the country seeking assignments, but gradually comes to realise that while some of his quarry are unremittingly vile, vicious grotesques, others are the victims of sin, evil or simple naivety.

In this collection of short stories, following the adventures of the hit collection THE LAST WISH, join Geralt as he battles monsters, demons and prejudices alike…

Ready to toss another coin to your Witcher?

Geralt is back! In this second collection of Witcher stories, Geralt of Rivia once more battles monsters, saves people who can’t save themselves, fights his inner demons — love and destiny — and returns again and again to the people who are central to his life.

This set of six stories covers a lot of ground, some already familiar from the Netflix series, some new to me, and all delightful. As with the previous collection, The Last Wish, there are some fairy tale references included that make these stories extra fun.

While each story stands on its own, there are key characters (Dandelion, Yennefer, Ciri) who appear repeatedly. While the stories seem to be presented roughly chronologically, they’re only loosely connected — yet I’m guessing as a whole that they’re important in laying the groundwork for the novels that come next in the book series.

As for the stories themselves, the book opens with the wonderful The Bounds of Reason, which corresponds to the 6th episode of the TV series, “Rare Species”, aka the one about the dragons. The plotline isn’t exactly the same, but the main points hold true, and it’s awfully fun.

There’s also a story that focuses on Geralt and Yennefer, a story set in Brokilon Forest where Geralt and Ciri meet for the first time, a Little Mermaid-ish tale, and more. Throughout, the recurring theme is Geralt’s struggle to understand destiny — does it exist? Are we obligated to follow it? Is destiny enough to bring two people together, or does it require something more?

I had the pleasure of listening to the audiobook, as I did with The Last Wish, and I loved it. Narrator Peter Kenny does an excellent job of bringing the characters to life. I just love his voice for Geralt, although all are quite good, and even when there’s a crowd scene or a big action sequence, there’s never any doubt who’s speaking.

As an added plus, the narrator SINGS in the story about a mermaid, since that’s what mermaid language sounds like. It’s amazing.

Now that I’ve finished Sword of Destiny, I abolutely intend to continue with the series, and most likely I’ll stick with audiobooks. Blood of Elves is up next. Can’t wait!

Audiobook Review: Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

Title: Akata Witch
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Narrator: Yetide Badaki
Publisher: Viking
Publication date: April 14, 2011
Print length: 349 pages
Audio length: 8 hours, 49 minutes
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Sunny Nwazue lives in Nigeria, but she was born in New York City. Her features are West African, but she’s albino. She’s a terrific athlete, but can’t go out into the sun to play soccer. There seems to be no place where she fits in. And then she discovers something amazing—she is a “free agent” with latent magical power. And she has a lot of catching up to do.

Soon she’s part of a quartet of magic students, studying the visible and invisible, learning to change reality. But just as she’s finding her footing, Sunny and her friends are asked by the magical authorities to help track down a career criminal who knows magic, too. Will their training be enough to help them against a threat whose powers greatly outnumber theirs?

Stories about Chosen Ones seem to be very much on my mind these days, and so I’m glad I finally decided to give Akata Witch a try. Akata Witch is by Nnedi Okorafor, author of the fantastic Binti trilogy. This novel is aimed at younger readers, either advanced middle grade or young adult.

The main character, Sunny, is 12 years old, and her three classmates and best friends are around 13 – 14 years old. (I say around, because no one is actually sure how old Chichi is, and she’s not telling!)

At the start of the story, Sunny considers herself mostly ordinary, except for how much she stands out because of her albino coloring and her American birth and upbringing. She does know that something’s a bit off — one night, she has a vision while staring at a candle, and it scares her deeply and indelibly.

Soon, Sunny becomes closer to her neighbors Chichi and Orlu, along with the new boy Sasha who’s just arrived from Chicago after getting in trouble back home. Sunny is amazed to learn that the other three have magical abilities, and even more amazed to find out that she does as well.

In their parlance, they’re all leopard people — people with magical powers from all over the world, not just Africa. The world of the leopard people is very secretive, and non-magical folks (“lambs”) have no idea that it exists. Sunny is what’s known as a “free agent” — a girl whose parents aren’t leopard people, but who still has a connection to the world of spirits and magic.

Sunny begins learning alongside her friends, from the basic of juju to more advance spells and the nature of the leopard power structure. Meanwhile, a ritual murderer has been preying on Nigerian children, and the leopard community suspects that he may be one of their own.

Akata Witch is a wonderful story, and the audiobook narration is absolutely lovely to listen to. I love how the narrator conveys the spirit of the different characters, and uses Sunny’s American accent as a way to really show how “other” she feels in her daily life in Nigeria.

I was fascinated by the magical systems of Akata Witch, with the different meanings of symbols and secret transportation and hidden villages and libraries, as well as the elders and the large gathering and the special leopard events.

My main quibble with this book comes back to the Chosen Ones trope. Why is it always the untrained, inexperienced children who have to go fight the big bad? This isn’t confined just to this book, of course — I mean, really, wouldn’t Dumbledore have been a better choice to confront Voldemort than a bunch of schoolkids?

Okay, prophecy seems to always end up dictating who is Chosen, but at some point, it seems silly. Sunny has only the bare minimum of training, yet the most advanced magical elders of the community send her and her three friends up against the evil bad guy?

It’s not really a spoiler to say that they survive — there’s no chance that that wouldn’t be the outcome. But is it logical? Not really.

Still, looking beyond my issue with teen Chosen Ones as a whole, I did really love Akata Witch. The characters are wonderful, the setting is so vividly portrayed, and the plot just zips along.

I’m so glad that there’s a sequel, Akata Warrior. I will definitely be listening to this one too!

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:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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: 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:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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.

Take A Peek Book Review: Ivory Apples by Lisa Goldstein

“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)

Ivy and her sisters have a secret: their reclusive Great-Aunt is actually Adela Martin, inspired author of the fantasy classic, Ivory Apples. Generations of obsessive fans have searched for Adela, poring over her letters, sharing their theories online, and gathering at book conventions. It is just a matter of time before one fan gets too close.

So when the seemingly-perfect Kate Burden appears at the local park, Ivy knows that something isn’t right. Kate has charmed the entire family, but she is suspiciously curious about Ivory Apples. And Ivy must protect what she and her Great-Aunt share: magic that is real, untamable, and—despite anyone’s desire—always prefers choosing its own vessel.

My Thoughts:

In Ivory Apples , four young sisters end up at the mercy of an outsider who charms her way into their family and then takes over. Kate is a clever but overly obsessed fan of the classic children’s fantasy book Ivory Apples — not just because she loves the story, but because she suspects that the author, Adela Martin, had access to real magic as she wrote the book, and Kate wants some of her own.

Oldest sister Ivy is the only one not fully taken in by Kate’s schemes, and breaks away from the family in order to keep her aunt’s secrets, only to return in desperation when she realizes that her sisters need rescuing. Meanwhile, Kate is right about one thing — there IS a source of real magic, and Adela and Ivy both have access to it.

I enjoyed the family dynamics and Ivy herself, as well as the central role played by the book Ivory Apples and its secrets. Not all of the magical aspects made complete sense to me, and the sense of urgency throughout lagged from time to time. Still, the book is different and unusual in all sorts of ways, and Kate makes for a devious and menacing bad guy beneath her pleasant and child-friendly exterior. I’d definitely like to read more by this author.

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: Ivory Apples
Author: Lisa Goldstein
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Publication date: October 15, 2019
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Tortall and Other Lands: A Collection of Tales by Tamora Pierce

My journey through Tortall continues! For the uninitiated, Tortall is the fantasy kingdom created by Tamora Pierce and explored through her terrific series, all of which focus on strong, determined young women who find a way to make their own mark in the world. I’ve been reading my way through Pierce’s Tortall books since the middle of last year, and now find myself approaching the end. *sniff*

Continuing onward by publication date, I now come to Tortall and Other Lands, a collection of stories set in and around Tortall. Actually, most are “around” rather than “in”, but that’s okay. In this set of eleven stories, we explore different times and places related to the world Pierce created in the Tortall books — and also get to read two contemporary stories, which really surprised me. More on that later.

Most of the stories in this collection have been published in other anthologies, with publication dates from 1986 up to 2011. I ended up listening to the audiobook, which was fun. The audiobook has different narrators for each story, with the final story read by Tamora Pierce herself, always a treat.

So what’s inside? Here’s a little overview of the stories in Tortall and Other Lands:

Student of Ostriches: A girl from a desert tribe learns to become a warrior by observing the animals in the wilderness surrounding her village and emulating their fighting styles. While the characters and places in this story are new, there’s an appearance by a Shang warrior, which is a nice connection to the Song of the Lioness books.

Elder Brother: A strange but moving story that connects to the Immortals books. This story shows the aftermath of a particular spell cast in The Immortals, and what happens to the unintended victim of that spell — a tree who is forced to become human.

The Hidden Girl: The Hidden Girl connects with Elder Brother, following up on the events in that story by showing what happens next to a girl located in the same strictly religious community, as she and her father begin to work against the traditions that keep women apart and uneducated.

Nawat: Weirdly enough, I really liked this story, even though it relates to my least favorite books in the Tortall universe, Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen. In those, a human girl falls in love with a crow-turned-man (weird, I know). Here, we find out what happens after the HEA. Nawat is the crow/man, whose human wife has now given birth to triplets. Nawat has to figure out how to be a father, how to remain connected to his crow flock, and when he must go against the crow way for the sake of his wife and babies. I didn’t expect to care all that much — but I really, really did.

The Dragon’s Tale: Oh, I loved this story! The dragon in The Dragon’s Tale is Kitten, the baby dragon (now more like an adolescent dragon) adopted by Daine and Numair in the Immortals series. Here, Kitten has accompanied her humans to travel through the land of Carthak, visiting different towns and villages with the Carthaki emperor, getting to know the locals and studying the magic they encounter. Because Kitten is bored, she sets out on her own to explore, and ends up discovering a woman with secrets and much, much more. It’s so much fun to see the world through Kitten’s eyes, and extra enjoyable because Daine and Numair feature in the story.

Lost: In the Aly books (the Trickster books, mentioned earlier), the most unusual of Aly’s spies and helpers are the Darkings, small creatures who are more or less animated inkblots that can connect telepathically with each other, change shape, grow and shrink at will, and act as sources of information and assistance to the people they interact with. They’re also awfully darn cute, and their voices in the audiobooks are adorable. Lost, in this story, is a darking who befriends a lonely young woman, Adria. Adria has a brilliant mind for mathematics, but she’s bullied by her father and demeaned by a new teacher. When she meets Lost, new worlds open up to her, including the chance to meet and study with an unusual woman working as an engineer in her town.

Time of Proving: A relatively short work, Again, a young woman meets an unusual creature and finds the door opening on a fresh new adventure.

Plain Magic: A girl whose village is ready to sacrifice her to a dragon, and the outsider who provides a new way of thinking about both dragons and girls.

Mimic: Ah, another really fun one! A girl who guards the sheep flocks of her village finds a strange injured reptile and nurses it back to health, against her family’s wishes. As the creature — called Mimic — grows, it exhibits all sorts of talents and magical gifts, and turns into something very unexpected.

Huntress: A mystical story set in contemporary New York — what a change of pace for a Tamora Pierce tale! In Huntress, a girl descended from a family of goddess-worshipping women gets the opportunity to attend a prestigious private school on scholarship. What she thinks is acceptance into an elite group of athletes becomes an initiation rite where she ends up at the mercy of a pack intent on hunting her. The story is entertaining, although it feels like it could be something out of Buffy or Charmed or any of a handful of other teen-centric supernatural tales. Still, a good listen/read.

Testing: The only non-fantasy story in the collection, Testing is the story of girls living in a group home, who manage to scare away every new housemother assigned to them — until finally one comes along who seems to be able to withstand the girls’ need to test her. On the audiobook, this story is read by Tamora Pierce, and there’s an introduction in which she talks about her own time working as a housemother in a group home. Really interesting — this is a good story, although it’s weird to read a Pierce story without the slightest shred of magic in it!

Tortall and Other Lands is a great read for fans of Tamora Pierce’s Tortall works. I think many of these stories would work on their own as well, for readers who aren’t familiar with Tortall… but if you want a taste of Tamora Pierce, I’d strongly suggest starting with the Song of the Lioness books. And if those grab you, keep going!

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The details:

Title: Tortall and Other Lands: A Collection of Tales
Author: Tamora Pierce
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: February 22, 2011
Length: 369 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased

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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Book Review: In an Absent Dream (Wayward Children, #4) by Seanan McGuire

 

This is the story of a very serious young girl who would rather study and dream than become a respectable housewife and live up to the expectations of the world around her. As well she should.

When she finds a doorway to a world founded on logic and reason, riddles and lies, she thinks she’s found her paradise. Alas, everything costs at the goblin market, and when her time there is drawing to a close, she makes the kind of bargain that never plays out well.

For anyone . . .

Every Heart a Doorway was the first book in the Wayward Children series of novellas by Seanan McGuire, and ever since reading it, I’ve been captivated by the dreamy nature of the worlds portrayed. Now, here with the 4th book in the series, In An Absent Dream, the author once again works her magic through her lyrical, otherworldly writing.

In the Wayward Children books, we meet various children and teens who discover portals to magical worlds — but each door is unique to the particular child, taking him or her to a world that (in most cases) is exactly where that child belongs. We’ve seen people go to the halls of the dead, to a world made of cakes and sugary treats, to a world of monsters and haunted moors. In each case, the children involved may choose to stay, or may find themselves thrust out unwillingly — and when they’re forced out, they may spend the rest of their lives yearning for a way to get back “home”.

In this newest book, we’re reunited with a familiar face from the first book in the series. There, we met Lundy, a teacher at the boarding school inhabited by these wayward children. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that Lundy is highly unusual and memorable, and is a favorite character for many readers of Every Heart a Doorway.

In An Absent Dream treats us to Lundy’s backstory, introducing us to her as a young child named Katherine who learns about fairness and independence and fitting in through the casual cruelty of other children. Lundy finds a door for the first time at age eight, and ends up in a world known as the Goblin Market. It’s a place of rules and absolute commitment to fairness. The most crucial rule is “always give fair value” — for every favor granted or assistance given, something of fair value must be given in return, or else a debt may be owed… and those who owe debts find themselves facing odd, disturbing changes.

As in the other Wayward Children books, the writing itself creates the magic — sometimes brooding, sometimes ethereal, sometimes menacing or full of foreboding. I simply can’t get enough of the delicious language. A few random samples:

It is an interesting thing, to trust one’s feet. The heart may yearn for adventure while the head think sensibly of home, but the feet are a mixture of the two, dipping first one way aand then the other.

They ran through the golden afternoon like dandelion seeds dancing on the wind, two little girls with all the world in front of them, a priceless treasure ready to be pillaged.

They held each other, both of them laughing and both of them weeping, and if this were a fairy tale, this is where we would leave them, the prodigal student and the unwitting instructor reunited after what should have been their final farewell. This is where we would leave them, and be glad of it, even as Lundy had long since left a girl named Katherine behind her.

Alas, that this is not a fairy tale.

These books are just too beautiful to miss. Read them, re-read them, maybe listen to the audiobooks, savor the lovely language… the Wayward Children books are not long, but they don’t need to be. In An Absent Dream and the other books in the series are must-reads. Start at the beginning and read all four!

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The details:

Title: In an Absent Dream
Author: Seanan McGuire
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: January 8, 2019
Length: 204 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased