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: 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.

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.

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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

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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Series wrap-up: Protector of the Small by Tamora Pierce

My year of reading Tamora Pierce continues, and I’m loving every moment! My most recent audio adventure was the Protector of the Small quartet, the 3rd quartet set in the fantasy world of Tortall. These book take place roughly a decade after The Immortals, and two decades after the Song of the Lioness quartet.

Protector of the Small follows a similar pattern to the Lioness books, covering a young girl’s progression through the stages of training to become a knight. In this series, the main character is Keladry of Mindalen, a girl from a noble Tortallian family who idolizes Alanna, the King’s Champion (and star of the Lioness books). Kel’s ambition is to become a knight, like Alanna, but there’s a big difference: Alanna disguised herself as a boy and kept her true identity a secret throughout her training years, only revealing herself as a woman once she succeeded in becoming a knight. While the laws of the kingdom were then changed to allow girls to seek knighthood, none have tried — until Kel.

Kel enrolls in her training as a girl, and refuses to hide her gender or pretend to be something she’s not. She’s out to prove herself, but also to help pave the way for others girls who, like her, have dreamed of becoming warriors and need only the opportunity to make it happen.

Kel differs from Alanna in another significant way: Alanna had the Gift — magical abilities — but Kel has none. If Kel is to succeed, she’ll do so powered only by her mind, her will, her drive, and her strength.

The story of Protector of the Small:

In book #1, First Test, 10-year-old Kel arrives at the palace to begin her training as a page, the first step in becoming a knight. Raised in a noble family, Kel has spent her most recent years in the Yamani Islands, where she learned discipline as well as a variety of fighting skills. Kel’s acceptance into the page training program is hotly disputed, with the training instructor, Lord Wyldon, being absolutely opposed to admitting a girl. Finally, he agrees to train her on a probationary basis — something the boys aren’t subject to, which Kel fumes over. Still, this is the condition for her remaining at all, so she grits her teeth and sees it through.

From the start, it’s clear that Kel won’t back down. She’s been told that it’s customary for the older boys to haze the new pages, but when Kel witnesses outright bullying and degradation going on, she intervenes and fights back, soon earning the friendship of other first-year boys to whom she’s given her protection. Her circle of friends expands to include a working-class maid who begins serving Kel, whom Kel then encourages to stand up for herself and pursue her dream of becoming an independent dressmaker. Lord Wyldon can’t help but be impressed by Kel’s utter devotion to her training, her grit, her cool under fire, and her ability to lead in times of unexpected danger. Kel officially ends her probation, and becomes a full-fledged page.

Book #2, Page, sees Kel continue with the next three years of her training, becoming one of the most skilled fighters among her class, proving over and over again that she’s strong enough and dedicated enough to have the right to try for her shield. In the 3rd book, Squire, Kel becomes squire to Lord Raoul, the Lord Commander of the King’s Own, a fierce group of fighters. At Raoul’s side, Kel learns the art and science of the battlefield, studying warfare and the skills of command, and again proving herself of high value to her comrades and the kingdom. At long last, Kel passes the Ordeal of the Chamber, the terrifying test required as a last ritual before knighthood, and becomes the Lady Knight Keladry.

Finally, in book #4, Lady Knight, Kel sets to work in defense of the realm. A war rages on the northern border of Tortall, as Scanra, the neighboring kingdom, sends raiding parties and killing machines to slaughter townspeople living near the border and try to drive Tortallans off their own land. Kel is assigned to set up and protect a refugee camp, which she at first resents: Do they not think she’s capable of being a warrior in battle? But as she comes to realize, protecting a group of untrained civilians is an incredibly hard job, one that tests her ability to lead, to plan, and to fight. Ultimately, it’s up to Kel to stage a showdown with the evil mage behind the devastating killing machines and to rescue her people from their captors. I won’t give away the details… but rest assured that the Protector of the Small quartet has a very satisfying ending!

What a series! I really loved these books, and the audiobooks (narrated by Bernadette Dunne) are really well-done and exciting to listen to. There’s a big cast of characters, but it’s not hard to keep up and keep them all straight. It’s quite fun to see the beloved characters from earlier books pop up here — Alanna, King Jonathan, Daine, Numair — although they’re relegated to mostly smaller roles. After all, they’re all adults now — not nearly as exciting as teen-aged Kel! (Kidding… but this is YA, after all.)

Keladry of Mindelan, from Deviant Arts webisite, by artist CPatten, https://www.deviantart.com/cpatten/art/Protector-of-the-Small-484097486

Kel is a fantastic main character. She’s noble and strong, and consistently puts the needs of the weak and less powerful first, devoting herself to serving those who need her help the most. She doesn’t tolerate bullies or tyrants or people who abuse their power, and she just doesn’t back down. Kel is far from fearless — she’s terrified of letting people down, worries constantly about whether she’s doing the right thing — but once she’s set on her path, she doesn’t let fear stop her.

I love that Kel achieves all that she achieves under her own steam, no magic or interference from the gods involved. She works for what she gets, and if she’s not great at something, she’ll keep working at it until she is. But Kel doesn’t stop with her own training and skills — she trains those around her, all the various people she protects, so that they too can defend and fight for themselves. It’s inspiring, truly.

Being a Tamora Pierce book, there have to be special animals, and this book has plenty. Animals who live in the vicinity of Daine, the Wild Mage (see my wrap-up of The Immortals for more on Daine) develop extra skills, including the ability to communicate with humans and interact with them. Here, Kel has a flock of sparrows who become her devoted band of guardians, as well as a raggedy dog who fights alongside Kel — all of whom came into her life originally as animals Kel fed and cared for. There are more along the way, including Kel’s horse Peachblossom, a baby griffin, and by the end of the series, a whole squad of cats and dogs who help protect the people of Kel’s fortress camp.

I’ve loved all of the Tortall books I’ve read so far. I’m tempted to say that the Kel books are my favorite — but I’ve been saying that as I’ve finished each quartet along the way! Tamora Pierce has created an incredibly rich and detailed world filled with remarkable characters, and I love the strong young women at the center of her tales.

I can see why my daughter has returned to the Tortall books so many times over the years! I have a feeling I’ll be doing the same.

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Book details:

First Test – published 1999
Page – published 2000
Squire – published 2001
Lady Knight – published 2002

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Series wrap-up: The Immortals by Tamora Pierce

Once again, I need to thank my amazing daughter for her never-flagging enthusiasm for Tamora Pierce and the world of Tortall. After seeing her obsession with these books, starting in her tweens and continuing into adulthood, past college and grad school, I just knew my involvement was inevitable. I re-read (and loved) the Alanna series over the summer (see my thoughts, here), and thanks to a reading-order list supplied by my helpful daughter, I decided to continue onward.

So, following the list, my next stop on the Tortall adventure was The Immortals, another quartet, set roughly a decade after the end of the Alanna books. The Immortals introduces new characters, settings, and challenges, but retains the familiar Tortall at its center and keeps some familiar faces in the mix — although it’s decidedly odd to see our previous teen hero, Alanna, through the eyes of a younger girl, so that Alanna is viewed as an accomplished, brave, grown-up. (Which she is, but it’s a big jump from hearing the story through her teen voice.)

The story of The Immortals:

In book #1, Wild Magic, we meet Daine (full name Veralidaine Sarrasri — isn’t that gorgeous?). Daine is a young girl of about 13, orphaned after raiders killed her mother, who signs on as an assistant to the horse trainer who supplies horses to the Queen’s Riders, an elite fighting force serving the kingdom of Tortall. Daine has an unusual skill with animals of all sorts. When she meets the mage Numair, she learns that it’s not just a skill — it’s magic. Wild magic, to be specific, a rare and unusual gift that allows her to connect with animals and speak with them mind to mind. Later on, as she learns to use and expand her magic, she’s even able to inhabit animals and shape-shift at will, giving her powers that enable her to triumph in the most dangerous of situations.

Daine becomes a key player in the kingdom, working with the King’s forces and range of allies to combat enemies who wish to overthrow him. In book #2, Wolf-Speaker, a fiefdom within Tortall has taken disturbing steps to shield themselves from the rest of the kingdom, using the mining of unusual gems to establish a magical connection with the Emperor Ozorne of Carthak. And in book #3, Emperor Mage, Daine travels to Carthak with a Tortallian delegation to negotiate peace between the nations, only to find herself enmeshed in the Emperor’s sinister schemes.

Finally, in book #4, The Realms of the Gods, there’s the ultimate showdown between Tortall and Ozorne, although Daine and Numair spend much of it literally in another world, having been brought into the realms of the gods for their own protection. Much of the 4th book is spent on Daine and Numair’s quest to find a way back to their own world, in order to fight alongside their friends and defeat Ozorne once and for all.

 

I really and truly enjoyed this series, although (and I hate to say it), the fourth book was somewhat weak in comparison to the earlier three. I love Daine as a character: She’s fierce, talented, and strong. We see her development from a young girl who’s been wounded by life, full of guilt and self-doubt, into a young adult with the confidence to use and control her gift, but who never abuses her own power. She’s devoted to the animal world and respects all creatures, coming to understand that even animals that humans find repellant have a purpose and a right to their lives. Daine is a loyal friend, who loves unconditionally and pursues what she feels is right, even at risk to her own life.

My problem with the 4th book is right there in the title. By removing Daine and Numair to the realms of the gods, too much of the book is spent with them outside of the central arena of the story so far. They’re isolated, encountering new beings and places on their quest to return home. This takes them out of Tortall for way too much of the story, so that they’re only there for the final showdown. Yes, while in the realms of the gods, Daine learns important facts about her parentage and her own powers, but it’s not a great way to wrap up the series.

 

 

 

I can’t talk about these books without mentioning the amazing animals and gods Daine befriends. There’s Skysong, also known as Kitten, an orphaned baby dragon whom Daine rescues and raises; the badger god, who becomes Daine’s patron and mentor; Tkaa, the basilisk, a strong ally; Cloud, Daine’s pony, and so many more. Because Daine can converse with animals, we get to know all of these as people with their own minds and attitudes, and it’s quite fun and fascinating to see how the author chooses to portray them.

 

 

I listened to the audiobooks — such a treat! The Immortals was recorded by Full Cast Audio, who specialize in full-cast recordings of children’s books. Tamora Pierce herself serves as narrator for the series, and each character gets his or her own voice actor. This was a bit of an adjustment for me at first, as I’m not used to listening to audiobooks with more than a single narrator. Once I got into it, though, it was really a great experience. I particularly loved the voices for Daine and Numair, but also really enjoyed the voices used for their animal and immortal friends.

The Immortals was a terrific listen and a great adventure, and I will absolutely be continuing with my Tortallian quest! Next up (after a pause to catch up on some other audiobooks) — the Protector of the Small series!

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Book details:

Wild Magic – published 1992
Wolf-Speaker – published 1993
Emperor Mage – published 1994
The Realms of the Gods – published 1996

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Series wrap-up: The Song of the Lioness by Tamora Pierce

Sometimes, revisiting a series you read ages ago is just the thing for lifting your spirits. Or at least, that’s definitely true for me!

I first encountered the Alanna books (by Tamora Pierce) when my daughter, then a middle-schooler in her tweens, fell in love with the story. Naturally, I thought I’d better check out what had captured my 12-year-old’s attention so firmly. And while I was delighted by the girl-power message of the story, I’ll admit that there was slightly more bed-hopping than I felt entirely comfortable with my daughter reading at that point.

Years passed. My daughter, now an adult, has devoured ALL of Tamora Pierce’s books and treats them like comfort food, revisiting not just the Alanna books but all the other books set in the world of Tortall on a regular basis. She’s been urging the other books on me for years, but I had only so-so memories of the Alanna series, and didn’t remember much of the details. I just couldn’t see myself re-entering that world.

And then, I did.

I’m not sure why I decided to finally jump in, but I ended up listening to the audiobooks of the Song of the Lioness  quartet this summer… and loved them. Narrated by actress Trini Alvarado, the audiobooks were a low-stress, low-commitment way for me to dip my toe back in to the world of Tortall and see if I felt the need to truly swim deeper. Turns out, the answer was yes.

I became immersed in the story almost immediately, and continued listening all the way through until I finished the fourth book. Along the way, there were some surprises, such as the fact that I hadn’t actually read the 4th book when I first encountered the series. I was certain that I’d read them all, until I commented to my darling daughter that I didn’t remember certain of the characters or plot points from that book, and she informed me that I’d stopped before I ever got there! Silly me.

Let me now backtrack and explain a bit about the books, for the uninitiated.

In book #1, Alanna: The First Adventure, we meet Alanna of Trebond and  her twin brother Thom, two motherless 10-year-olds with a father who doesn’t particularly care about his children. They’re sent off to follow the prescribed path for noble children — boys to the capitol city to train as knights, and girls to the convent. But Alanna and Thom have different plans: Alanna dreams of knighthood and adventure, and Thom wishes to pursue a study of sorcery through the convent’s magical teachers. They switch places, and Alanna becomes Alan of Trebond, entering the palace as a young boy embarking on the training to become a knight, starting by serving as a palace page.

As Alan/Alanna grows up, she earns her place among the boys who are her peers through her toughness and her absolute determination to become the best. She’s loyal and fierce, and forms tight friendships with the pages and squires around her, including Prince Jonathan, heir to the throne. She also meets and becomes fast friends with George Cooper, a young man of the streets who presides over the lower class’s thieves and rogues. Between Jonathan and George, she has two allies and advocates who will stick with her no matter what.

Over the course of the series, we see Alanna advance to squire and finally to knighthood. She ultimately reveals her true gender, and sets out on a series of adventures, becoming a member of the Bazhir desert tribes, learning advanced magical skills as a shaman, and ultimately setting out on a quest that will either save the kingdom or end her own  life. There are romantic entanglements a-plenty (along with the bed-hopping that shocked me on behalf of my 12-year-old — although really it’s tame and non-graphic compared to today’s YA fare).

What I love about this series is the ongoing development of Alanna as an individual who refuses to adhere to the predetermined roles available to someone o f her social status and gender. She embraces her strengths, acknowledges her weaknesses, and never stops trying to improve and grow. She also refuses to be all one thing or another: Yes, she wants to be a knight, and to get there must hide her true gender, but she still manages to find kindly women to go to with her questions about women’s bodies, menstrual cycles, clothing, and relationships. Alanna remains true to herself throughout, and proves to be not just brave and skilled as a warrior, but a trustworthy friend, a beloved surrogate daughter, and a devoted lover.

Beyond all that, the Alanna quartet is quite simply a great fantasy adventure. There are sword fights and horseback adventures, battles and feats of chivalry, and all  manner of court dramas and  formalities. The world-building in the Alanna books is terrific, including not just the knighthood aspects but also its own brand of magical powers, sorcery, and a history of gods and goddesses with powers over the land. The pieces all come together brilliantly, and left me entirely satisfied by the awesome climax and conclusion of the final book, but also wanting more of the characters and this particular kingdom and world.

Luckily, there are plenty more books set in Tortall for me to explore, and my daughter has been kind enough to provide me with her recommended reading order. Next up is the Immortals quartet, starting with Wild Magic, which I’ll begin once I finish up the next couple of audiobooks in my queue.

I’m so happy to have finally revisited the Alanna books, and recommend them highly!

But please, not this set of covers. I can’t even.

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Book details:

Alanna: The First Adventure – 274 pages, published 1983
In the Hand of the Goddess – 264 pages, published 1984
The Woman Who Rides Like a Man – 284 pages, published 1986
Lioness Rampant – 308 pages, published 1988

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