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

Take A Peek Book Review: Elevation by Stephen King

“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)

The latest from legendary master storyteller Stephen King, a riveting, extraordinarily eerie, and moving story about a man whose mysterious affliction brings a small town together—a timely, upbeat tale about finding common ground despite deep-rooted differences.

Although Scott Carey doesn’t look any different, he’s been steadily losing weight. There are a couple of other odd things, too. He weighs the same in his clothes and out of them, no matter how heavy they are. Scott doesn’t want to be poked and prodded. He mostly just wants someone else to know, and he trusts Doctor Bob Ellis.

In the small town of Castle Rock, the setting of many of King’s most iconic stories, Scott is engaged in a low grade—but escalating—battle with the lesbians next door whose dog regularly drops his business on Scott’s lawn. One of the women is friendly; the other, cold as ice. Both are trying to launch a new restaurant, but the people of Castle Rock want no part of a gay married couple, and the place is in trouble. When Scott finally understands the prejudices they face–including his own—he tries to help. Unlikely alliances, the annual foot race, and the mystery of Scott’s affliction bring out the best in people who have indulged the worst in themselves and others.

My Thoughts:

I’m not sure what to say about Elevation, or even how to categorize it. Is it horror? Not in the jump-scare, things-that-go-bump-in-the-night, monsters-eating-your-face sort of way. But does the idea of losing weight without losing size, and with a day you’ll weigh zero pounds looming, scare you? Then yes, you might call this horror. Or fantasy, in that I’m pretty sure there’s no such documented case of a person being perfectly healthy, losing weight, and causing anything he/she touches to have zero weight — sounds pretty fantastical to me.

All that being said, my main take-away here is that Elevation is a truly excellent read — brief, spare, and finely crafted, with sharply defined characters, mounting tension, and an overall feeling of both well-being and loss permeating the entire story. Scott Carey is a likable guy stuck in a weird situation, who tries to make the best of things by doing his part to make a small difference in the lives of the people he cares for.

And despite the short length of the story, it was plenty of time to get emotionally involved. Was that a lone tear making its way down my cheek as I read the last few pages? I’ll never tell.

Beautifully written, Elevation is a quick, low-commitment read that will leave you feeling — dare I say it? — elevated.

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The details:

Title: Elevation
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: October 30, 2018
Length: 146 pages
Genre: Fantasy/horror
Source: Purchased

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Book Review: The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner

 

Captivating and boldly imaginative, with a tale of sisterhood at its heart, Rena Rossner’s debut fantasy invites you to enter a world filled with magic, folklore, and the dangers of the woods.

Raised in a small village surrounded by vast forests, Liba and Laya have lived a peaceful sheltered life – even if they’ve heard of troubling times for Jews elsewhere. When their parents travel to visit their dying grandfather, the sisters are left behind in their home in the woods.

But before they leave, Liba discovers the secret that their Tati can transform into a bear, and their Mami into a swan. Perhaps, Liba realizes, the old fairy tales are true. She must guard this secret carefully, even from her beloved sister.

Soon a troupe of mysterious men appear in town and Laya falls under their spell-despite their mother’s warning to be wary of strangers. And these are not the only dangers lurking in the woods…

The sisters will need each other if they are to become the women they need to be – and save their people from the dark forces that draw closer.

What a lovely and unusual debut novel!

Author Rena Rossner draws from folktales, fairy tales, and Jewish history and traditions to create an entrancing story of two sisters whose lives are informed by magic, yet who are deeply rooted among the Jewish villagers in the small town of Dubossary (located in modern-day Moldova).

Liba and Laya are very different — Liba, the elder, is 17 years old, with wild, dark hair and a rounded body. She loves to study with her father, learning Torah and Talmud and all sorts of scholarly Jewish subjects not considered fit for girls. Laya, the younger, is 15 years old, with white-blond silky hair, pale skin, and a lithe figure. She has no interest in studies, but prefers to dream in the sun, alongside their beautiful mother. The girls’ parents are semi-outcasts. While the father was descended from a respectable, revered Chassidic family, the mother is a non-Jew who converted to Judaism when she married the man she loved, yet the neighbors have never ceased to gossip and consider her an outsider.

When the parents are called away for a family emergency, the girls are left home alone in their small cabin at the edge of the forest, and immediately, strange things begin to happen around them. A group of brothers come to town and set up their fruit stall, selling exotic, exquisite out-of-season fruits that the townspeople can’t resist — and beguiling the young women of the village with their impossible good looks and flirtatious, wild demeanors. Liba and Laya have been told secrets by their parents about their own true identities, and each begins to experience her own set of changes — physical and emotional — as she grows into womanhood.

Meanwhile, there are rumors in the village of violence coming closer, as anti-Semitism rears its ugly head and pogroms begin to devastate Jewish communities across Russia. Dubossary has always been different, with Jews and Christians living in harmony, but when a beautiful Christian girl is found murdered in a Jewish family’s orchard, unrest, evil whispers, and soon real danger threatens the Jewish people of the town.

If the plot sounds a little jam-packed — well, it is. There’s a lot going on here, with Liba and Laya’s secrets and struggles, the mysterious fruitsellers and their addictive wares, the rising anti-Semitism, and the dynamics of Chassidic dynasties as well. Beyond plot, though, there are also so many little touches of loveliness. The book is filled with Yiddish, Hebrew, and Russian expressions (with a handy glossary at the end) that give the story an authentic, rich cadence. Likewise, the flavors and textures of this world come to life through the descriptions of the foods (borscht, mandelbrot, kugel, and more), the flowers and plants, the wildlife, and the natural beauty of the snow, the river, and the forest.

Each girl has her own voice, as we hear in alternating chapters. Liba’s chapters are in prose, and Laya’s are in verse. Each is compelling, and while Liba’s chapters are much more action-packed and immediate, Laya’s have a lightness that’s quite beautiful to read.

Come by, he calls out
after me,
come by, come by.
When moonlight sets itself high in the sky.

Sometimes the author’s notes at the end of a story really give me a different way to understand what I’ve read, and such is the case here with The Sisters of the Winter Wood. In her notes, author Rena Rossner describes her own family’s history in the region of the story and their immigration to America. She also explains the various sources of inspiration for her story, from fairy tales, Greek mythology, and even modern YA literature. She also mentions that the original idea for this book was to write a retelling of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market (which can be read online here) After I finished reading The Sisters of the Winter Wood, I went and read Goblin Market (which I’d never read before), and was so impressed by how well its elements are captured and transformed in Rena Rossner’s book. (I also discovered the connection between Goblin Market and the October Daye series, but that’s another topic entirely.)

Naturally, between the setting and the introduction of folktale elements, I was reminded of Katherine Arden’s excellent The Bear and the Nightingale, although the stories are very, very different. Fans of that book should definitely check out The Sisters of the Winter Wood. It’s a magical story filled with beauty and awfulness, balancing real and fantasy worlds, and above all celebrating the love between two devoted sisters and the sacrifices they make for one another. Highly recommended!

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The details:

Title: The Sisters of the Winter Wood
Author: Rena Rossner
Publisher: Redhook
Publication date: September 25, 2018
Length: 464 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of Redhook

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Book Review: Robots vs Fairies – edited by Dominik Parisien & Navah Wolfe

 

A unique anthology of all-new stories that challenges authors to throw down the gauntlet in an epic genre battle and demands an answer to the age-old question: Who is more awesome—robots or fairies?

Rampaging robots! Tricksy fairies! Facing off for the first time in an epic genre death match!

People love pitting two awesome things against each other. Robots vs. Fairies is an anthology that pitches genre against genre, science fiction against fantasy, through an epic battle of two icons.

On one side, robots continue to be the classic sci-fi phenomenon in literature and media, from Asimov to WALL-E, from Philip K. Dick to Terminator. On the other, fairies are the beloved icons and unquestionable rulers of fantastic fiction, from Tinkerbell to Tam Lin, from True Blood to Once Upon a Time. Both have proven to be infinitely fun, flexible, and challenging. But when you pit them against each other, which side will triumph as the greatest genre symbol of all time?

There can only be one…or can there?

This awesome story collection has a premise spelled out in the introduction by the editors:

“I, for one, welcome our __________ overlords.”

Assuming the mechanical and/or magical revolution has already taken place by the time you read this, we, the editors, always knew you would come out on top. Yes, you.

We knew this day would come. We tried to warn the others. It was obvious either the sharp rate of our technological advancement would lead to the robot singularity claiming lordship over all, or that the fairies would finally grow tired of our reckless destruction of the natural world and take it back from us.

And so, we have prepared a guide to assist our fellow humans in embracing their inevitable overlords. (If you are reading this and you are human, we are so pleased you found this book in time to ready yourself for the impending/current robot/fairy apocalypse. You are quite welcome.)

Robots vs Fairies is an anthology of stories by an impressive assortment of sci-fi and fantasy writers, each focusing on either robots or fairies (or in a few cases, both). There are eighteen stories in all, ranging from silly to darkly serious. In each case, right after the story, the author declares him/herself “team robot” or “team fairy”, and explains why — and these little pieces are just as entertaining as the stories themselves, in my humble opinion.

As I’ve said in many a review, I’m really not a short story reader, so the fact that I made it all the way through this book is somewhat of an achievement. I did end up skipping 2 or 3 stories that just didn’t call to me, but otherwise read them all, even the ones that left me puzzled or disengaged or with a mighty shoulder shrug.

Still, the stories that I enjoyed, I really, really enjoyed. Best of the batch for me were:

Build Me a Wonderland by Seanan McGuire: Well, of course I loved the Seanan McGuire story! I’m been on a roll with Seanan McGuire books all year, so there’s really zero chance that I wouldn’t love what she wrote. In this story, we see behind the scenes at a theme park with really magical magical effects. Hint: They’re not CGI. The story is clever and intricate and very much fun.

Quality Time by Ken Liu: Ooh, a disturbing robot story! All about a young tech worker looking for the next big breakthrough, whose inventions have unintended consequences.

Murmured Under the Moon by Tim Pratt: About a human librarian given responsibility for fairy archives. Creative and magical and just a wee bit threatening — and hey, it’s about a library! What’s not to love?

The Blue Fairy’s Manifesto by Annalee Newitz: Not a fairy story! It’s a robotic version of Pinocchio, and asks all sorts of great questions about what it is to be real, and what it means to have choices.

Bread and Milk and Salt by Sarah Gailey: I loved Sarah Gailey’s American Hippo novellas, so was really excited to see her included in this collection. Bread and Milk and Salt is probably the creepiest story of the bunch, about a fairy captured by a sadistic human and how she turns things around. Dark and disturbing and delicious.

And perhaps my favorite, because I love John Scalzi and his humor, and this story left me rolling on the floor:

Three Robots Experience Objects Left Behind From the Era of Humans For the First Time: Oh my. This story is exactly what the title says it is — a dialogue between robots trying to figure out the purpose and functionality of human objects such as a ball, a sandwich, and a cat. Just amazing. And in case you’re wondering about our future overlords, it would seem clear that it’s cats for the win.

There are plenty more stories, some I found captivating, some weird, all original and entertaining and often perplexing too. It’s really a strong collection, and I could see enjoying it either as a book to read straight through, or as a collection to leave on the nightstand and pick up from time to time to read just one story here or or there, whenever the mood strikes.

As a side note, I had purchased an earlier collection from these editors, featuring some of the same authors plus several others whose works I love. The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales was published in 2016, and I have yet to open it. Maybe it’s time for it to come down off the shelf and sit on my nightstand, close at hand for when I need a story or two.

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The details:

Title: Robots vs Fairies
Authors: Dominik Parisien & Navah Wolfe
Publisher: Saga Press
Publication date: January 9, 2018
Length: 373 pages
Genre: Science fiction/fantasy anthology
Source: Purchased

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Shelf Control #118: Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Shelves final

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

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

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

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Title: Who Fears Death
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Published: 2010
Length: 386 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

An award-winning literary author presents her first foray into supernatural fantasy with a novel of post-apocalyptic Africa. 

In a far future, post-nuclear-holocaust Africa, genocide plagues one region. The aggressors, the Nuru, have decided to follow the Great Book and exterminate the Okeke. But when the only surviving member of a slain Okeke village is brutally raped, she manages to escape, wandering farther into the desert. She gives birth to a baby girl with hair and skin the color of sand and instinctively knows that her daughter is different. She names her daughter Onyesonwu, which means “Who Fears Death?” in an ancient African tongue.

Reared under the tutelage of a mysterious and traditional shaman, Onyesonwu discovers her magical destiny – to end the genocide of her people. The journey to fulfill her destiny will force her to grapple with nature, tradition, history, true love, the spiritual mysteries of her culture – and eventually death itself.

How and when I got it:

I bought this book last summer… so relative to some of the other books on my shelves, it hasn’t been all that long!

Why I want to read it:

After reading Binti and Lagoon, I knew I wanted to read more by this author, and then when it was announced that Who Fears Death was being adapted into a TV series for HBO, with George R. R. Martin producing — well, I ran right out and picked up a copy. I plan to take it with me when I travel this summer, and hope it’s amazing!

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

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Shelf Control #115: Shifter’s Wolf by Patricia Briggs

Shelves final

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

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

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

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Title: Shifter’s Wolf
Author: Patricia Briggs
Published: 1993 (Masques), 2010 (Wolfsbane)
Length: 544 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Includes her debut novel Masques and its sequel Wolfsbane—together in one volume

Before there was Mercy Thompson… In a world far removed from the Alpha and Omega werewolves… There was the shapeshifting mercenary Aralorn. 

Masques 
After an upbringing of proper behavior and oppressive expectations, Aralorn has fled her noble birthright for a life of adventure as a mercenary spy. Her latest mission involves gathering intelligence on the increasingly charismatic and dangerous sorcerer Geoffrey ae’Magi. But in a war against an adversary armed with the power of illusion, how do you know who the true enemy is—or where he will strike next?

Wolfsbane 
For the last ten years, Aralorn has led a dangerous existence. Now she must return home, for her noble father, the Lyon of Lambshold, has passed away. But when Aralorn and her companion Wolf arrive, they find that not only is he not dead, but a darkness is very much alive within him…

How and when I got it:

I bought this book several years ago, after binge-reading the Mercy Thompson series.

Why I want to read it:

It’s so frustrating to binge on a favorite series… and then run out of books to read! I read all of the Mercy Thompson and Alpha & Omega books pretty much straight through, and then found myself at loose ends, wanting more. The two novels in Shifter’s Wolf are not connected to the world of the Mercy books, but when I realized that there were more Patricia Briggs books out there, I pounced.

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

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Shelf Control #114: Yarrow by Charles de Lint

Shelves final

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

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

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

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Title: Yarrow
Author: Charles de Lint
Published: 1986
Length: 256 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Cat Midhir lives in a land of dreams, crossing nightly over the borders of sleep into a magic realm. A land where gnomes hide among standing stones and shelties dwell beneath the waves, where the harper Kothlen tells tales of the ancient days and the antlered Mynfel walks by moonlight…

When Cat wakes she weaves stories around the Otherworld. Her books are labelled as fantasy, but Mynfel’s domain seems more real to her than the humdrum streets of the city.

Until a thief comes stalking—and steals Cat’s dreams away…

How and when I got it:

I have no idea where or when I picked this book up… but it’s been on my fantasy shelf for years.

Why I want to read it:

Maybe this is partially the influence of the Faerie world I’ve been inhabiting through other reading lately, but I love the sound of the plot, especially the idea of a fantasy writer who actually dwells in an Otherworld in her dreams. I’ve been wanting to read more by Charles de Lint (so far, I’ve only read The Mystery of Grace, which was amazing). His Newford series has so many books that I keep hesitating to dip my toes in, but Yarrow is supposed to be a stand-alone, so it could be a great choice.

Have you read any of this author’s works? Any you particularly recommend?

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

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Book Review: La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust, volume 1)

Eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead and his dæmon, Asta, live with his parents at the Trout Inn near Oxford. Across the River Thames (which Malcolm navigates often using his beloved canoe, a boat by the name of La Belle Sauvage) is the Godstow Priory where the nuns live. Malcolm learns they have a guest with them, a baby by the name of Lyra Belacqua . . .

Welcome back to the wonderful world first introduced in the amazing trilogy, His Dark Materials (which I recently wrote about, here). After 17 long years, Philip Pullman takes us back to the alternate reality of an Oxford, England in which the church is in control, people are accompanied by animal-shaped daemons who are really a part of them, like a visible soul that they can converse with, witches are real, and a strange particle known as Dust has everyone in a tizzy.

La Belle Sauvage, the first book in Pullman’s new trilogy (The Book of Dust), is a prequel to the events of The Golden Compass and the rest. Anyone who’s read His Dark Materials knows (and loves) Lyra, the preteen heroine who’s brave and clever and ultimately responsible for saving the world.

In La Belle Sauvage, Lyra is a baby — a helpless character, but still very much at the center of the action. The main character here is a boy named Malcolm, an innkeeper’s son with a heart of gold. Malcolm is a smart, inquisitive boy with the mind of a potential scholar, even though he’s probably destined to run the inn when he’s grown. Malcolm works hard at the inn, serving customers and helping his parents, and in his spare time also does whatever odd jobs are needed by the nuns of the Godstow Priory across the river. And when Malcolm has any time left over, he takes his canoe, La Belle Sauvage, out on the rivers and canals to explore and see all there is to see.

When the nuns take in baby Lyra and offer her sanctuary, Malcolm becomes her instant protector, madly in love with the adorable baby and her equally adorable baby daemon. But the Consistorial Court of Discipline (CCD) is out to get Lyra, along with a deranged former scholar with a criminal past, and Malcolm comes to believe that only he can keep her safe and get her to her father, Lord Asriel, for protection. When a huge storm unleashes massive flooding, Malcolm and Alice, a girl who works at the inn as well, rescue Lyra from the waters engulfing the priory and set off in the canoe, with all sorts of dangerous foes determined to catch them and take Lyra away, no matter what it takes.

Oh my, is this a good book! The adventure is top-notch. We have spies galore, and Malcolm first becomes involved when he inadvertently witnesses the capture of a member of the anti-Church spy ring by agents of the CCD. We also see the creeping terror as the Church’s iron-fisted rule takes over school and society, as school children are encouraged to join a religious league and inform on their parents, friends, neighbors, and teachers — anyone who steps away from the approved teachings of the Church or dares to break the increasingly harsh rules imposed by the CCD.

Malcolm is a terrific main character. He’s smart and daring, always looking to learn, but loyal to his parents and the nuns, and not afraid of working hard. He’s kind and patient, but ready to step up and be fierce when needed. He and Alice start off as enemies, but as they flee with Lyra, they become allies and then true friends.

Lyra, of course, is adorable. She doesn’t do much, but all the action swirls around her. It’s fascinating to see an infant in this world — something we never see in the original trilogy. What we learn in The Book of Dust is that babies have baby daemons, who are also rather helpless and cute and dependent on others for care. Lyra’s daemon Pan takes the form of various small animals — among them kittens and chicks — and curls up to nap with Lyra, each giving comfort to the other. Lyra and Pan babble together in their own language, and somehow it’s just amazing to see how Pullman plays out the concept of daemons in the context of early childhood development.

I wondered how Pantalaimon got his name — I’d assumed while reading The Golden Compass that the person must name his or her daemon, but in La Belle Sauvage, one of the nuns tells Malcolm what Lyra’s daemon’s name is. So is the daemon named by the parent at the same time as the child? I guess it must be so, since the daemon has a name before the child can talk, but it struck me as surprising — I kind of expected the naming of the daemons to have something to do with the person’s inner truth, or some such thing, rather than to be imposed from an external source. This is something I’d definitely like to know more about!

There are some cool connections to the world of His Dark Materials. I thought Malcolm’s name was familiar… and with good reason. In the novella Lyra’s Oxford, which takes place a couple of years after The Amber Spyglass, Lyra encounters a Professor Polstead, who is described as “stout, ginger-haired, affable; more inclined to be friendly to Lyra than she was to return the feeling.” It’s Malcolm! I’m so happy to know that he’s still a part of Lyra’s life later on, even though she doesn’t know his significance or how he saved her life. I hope we’ll learn more in later books in The Book of Dust. Other familiar faces are (of course) Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter, Lyra’s parents, as well as the gyptian Farder Coram and the scholar Hannah Relf.

I absolutely loved the world-building in La Belle Sauvage. Even though this world is familiar from the earlier trilogy, we get to see aspects of the society that are new, through new and different sets of eyes. As I mentioned, the characters are phenomenal, especially Malcolm, but even the more minor characters are distinctive and memorable.

The action is thrilling, especially once the flood comes and Malcolm and Alice begin their adventure on the river. The two show amazing courage and stamina, sacrificing everything for the sake of little Lyra. Their experiences are often truly terrifying, but their essential goodness and bravery keeps them going even when it seems like they’ll never reach safety.

The author never talks down to his audience, and as in the original trilogy, brain power is required. There’s talk of physics and theology and particles and matter, and scholars are among the most esteemed characters. Philip Pullman’s characters value intelligence and curiosity, and reading his books is anything but a mindless pursuit. The ideas and concepts here demand that the reader put some effort in — all well worth it.

Ah, such a good read! Really, what more can I say? I cannot wait to continue the trilogy, and will be eagerly stalking The Book of Dust‘s Goodreads page for the first hint of a publication date for the second book (which, according to Goodreads, will be called The Secret Commonwealth).

If you read His Dark Materials, you simply must read La Belle Sauvage. And it probably goes without saying, but for anyone who hasn’t read the first trilogy, go do it now! Get thee to a bookstore or library and grab a copy of The Golden Compass! It’ll rock your world.

One final note: The book is marketed as young adult fantasy and is published by the children’s division of the publisher, but as with His Dark Materials, I have a hard time defining this book by its intended audience. It’s a great book, period. For anyone. And for anyone who cares about such things, I’d say the tone here is skewed slightly older, as there are hints of more adult content in the context of the actions of a terrible villain, and there’s even an f-bomb, which I don’t believe occurs at all in His Dark Materials. Regardless, La Belle Sauvage is beautifully written and is another excellent chapter in an exciting series of fantasy novels — and should be read by adults and smart kids of all ages!

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The details:

Title: La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust, volume 1)
Author: Philip Pullman
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publication date: October 19, 2017
Length: 464 pages
Genre: Fantasy/young adult
Source: Purchased

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Book Review: Sleeping Beauties

In this spectacular father-son collaboration, Stephen King and Owen King tell the highest of high-stakes stories: what might happen if women disappeared from the world of men?

In a future so real and near it might be now, something happens when women go to sleep; they become shrouded in a cocoon-like gauze. If they are awakened, if the gauze wrapping their bodies is disturbed or violated, the women become feral and spectacularly violent; and while they sleep they go to another place. The men of our world are abandoned, left to their increasingly primal devices. One woman, however, the mysterious Evie, is immune to the blessing or curse of the sleeping disease. Is Evie a medical anomaly to be studied, or is she a demon who must be slain? Set in a small Appalachian town whose primary employer is a women’s prison, Sleeping Beauties is wildly provocative and gloriously absorbing.

 

Sleeping Beauties has one simple message:

Men bad. Women good.

It takes 702 pages to get there, but that does seem to be the point. Not that it’s not fun along the way, but subtle, this book ain’t.

In the town of Dooling, somewhere in the Appalachias, the women’s prison is the main local employer. Between the town and the prison, we meet a heap of characters — so many characters, in fact, that the book opens with a four-page listing of characters and their descriptions — which, believe me, is necessary if you want to make it through this massive book with any shred of sanity remaining intact. The vast cast of characters includes the sheriff and her husband (the prison psychiatrist), sheriff’s deputies, prison guards, prisoners, high school bullies, and all sorts of other townsfolk.

The onset of the Aurora plague (named for Sleeping Beauty in the fairy tales) is pretty fascinating stuff. Worldwide, women are falling asleep, and once they do, they become encased in a filmy cocoon. They sleep, seemingly permanently, in these cocoons unless someone foolish (usually a man) decides to try to get them out, in which case they awaken with homicidal intent, murder whoever disturbed them, and then fall back to sleep as the cocoon reestablishes itself around the sleepers.

Major freak-outs ensue. What’s causing this, and what can be done? While some women give in to the inevitable, others become determined not to sleep at all, turning to all sorts of legal and illegal stimulants to stay awake, from super-powered coffee to crystal meth. As the days wear on, regular life all but disappears, and the men who are left behind turn to violence and chaos.

Small town dynamics suddenly take on huge significance. Sides are drawn up, and to a certain extent, the law of the jungle takes over. Those who are strong, survive. The physically or mentally weaker of the men are pushed aside, and as power is extended to those who should never, ever have it, we can feel the threat-level creep up into the danger zone.

I can’t say I was ever bored while reading this book, but really, it’s much too big for its own good. “Overstuffed” is the word that came to mind, especially as I neared the halfway point and realized that the amount left would be equivalent to reading yet another full novel. I don’t think we need quite so many backstories for quite so many characters. Not all of it is important, and a more honed narrative might have helped the narrative feel sharper and more focused.

I’m not sure that the end makes a whole lot of sense, but I often feel that way with Stephen King books (and yes, I’m a big fan). There are many unanswered questions about the why and how of the Aurora plague. Why do we get the resolution that we get? Because we do. Why is this the answer to Aurora? Because it is.

Still, Sleeping Beauties is filled with small and big moments of adrenaline-pumping suspense, with everyday scenes carrying extraordinary hints of menace and violence. As is typical of King novels, the huge number of characters comes together to give us the flavor of the community — although I’ll be honest and admit that I stopped bothering to distinguish between handfuls of the more minor characters as the story progressed.

Overall, I enjoyed Sleeping Beauties, but don’t think it’s Stephen King’s best work by a long shot. The message, as I mentioned at the top of the review, is really pretty basic and obvious, and at times I felt like I was being beaten over the head by the senseless need for violence exhibited by men in crisis, especially as contrasted by the peace and cooperation shown on the women’s side of the equation.

For a look at how Stephen King and Owen King worked together on Sleeping Beauties, check out this piece in a recent Entertainment Weekly.

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The details:

Title: Sleeping Beauties
Author: Stephen King and Owen King
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: September 26, 2017
Length: 702 pages
Genre: Horror/fantasy
Source: Purchased

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Guest Post: Fantasy Authors – Why You’ll Believe Their Lies

I’m thrilled to welcome Sarah Zama to Bookshelf Fantasies! Thank you, Sarah, for providing this terrific guest post.

FANTASY AUTHORS: WHY YOU’LL BELIEVE THEIR LIES

by Sarah Zama, The Old Shelter (see author bio below)

Tell me. Are you a fantasy reader?

As a fantasy writer (and reader) I often hear readers say  they don’t care for fantasy and prefer to read stories that are realistic.

Let’s talk about it.

What is storytelling?

As Flannery O’Connor said, everybody knows what a story is until they try to write one. Defining storytelling is harder than one would think, but years ago I came across a fascinating definition. It answered the question, what’s the difference between chronicling a true event and telling a story? The chronicle and the story largely adopt the same elements and can even concern themselves with the same events, what then is the difference between the two forms of telling?

Let’s say there is a car accident. A journalist will try to relate events as close as possible to how they happened, trying to replicate the dynamics and the cause-effect evolution, adding all relevant info.

We already have a ‘problem’ here: how does the journalist decide what is relevant? How does she describe events that happened at the same exact time? We have two cars moving towards each another, there are people on both of them, and things are happening inside both cars. How does a journalist decide what to relate out of all this info?

The obvious answer is that she will have to make choices. Choose which event to tell first and which tell later. Choose what details she will actually mention and which she will leave out altogether.

This will colour her account of a personal flavour… and that’s where storytelling begins.

Where a chronicler will try to leave her personal judgment out as much as possible, a storyteller will push it at its utmost consequences, with the goal to give a meaning – a very specific, personal, carefully chosen meaning – to  those events. When recounting that car accident, a storyteller will put special care in choosing who are on board those cars, what they’re doing and where they’re going. She will carefully decide what events she will tell first and what later and how they will intertwine, the chain of events and their timings, she will decide whether and how to tell the impact that accident will have on those people. And her goal won’t be to just recount how the accident happened, but it will be a carefully chosen message about something she thinks it’s important for her and for her readers.

Storytellers make choices all the time and every choice intentionally lends a meaning to the story.

So we could say that while chronicles try to manipulate events as little as possible to present them ‘how they happened’, stories intentionally manipulate events with the specific goal, the specific purpose to send out a chosen ‘message’. Where the point of the chronicle is the events, the point of the story is the message, or if you prefer, the theme.

 

Mimic and fantasy stories

Stories are generally divided into two big categories:

  • Mimetic stories which mimic life as closely as possible. They may be based on actual facts, but even when they aren’t, they depict the world, people and the workings of life as we are accustomed to see them play out every day around us
  • Fantasy stories which adopt elements who aren’t experienced in our everyday life. These fantasy elements may range from slight deviations from what we know (magic realism) to full-fledged reimagined worlds that look like nothing we’ve ever or would ever experience (high fantasy)

Readers and writers familiar with one realm are normally very hesitant to wander over to the other realm because they think they won’t fit in. Readers of mimetic fiction, in particular, think that what a fantasy story would ask them to believe is really too weird and unrealistic and so they will be unable to immerse themselves in the story the way they like to do.

 

Why would I suspend my disbelief?

Now, dear reader, be honest with me. You don’t believe for a moment that the novels you read are in any way true. They may be ‘realistic’ but they aren’t true. Beside, the fact that they are realistic is the important factor, because if they are, you can happily pretend they are as good as true and you can pretend that you can be part of that story.

This is a specific phenomenon called suspension of disbelief.

The term and concept  of suspension of disbelief was coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817, and refers to readers’ willingness to accept the story as it is, even when they recognise elements that challenge reality as they know it. Since Coleridge was a Romantic (by this I mean he was a member of the Romantic movement), he referred specifically to any fantasy elements present in the story. Since then, the concept has taken up a larger meaning encompassing the totality of storytelling.

The core concept is that authors can employ any element in their story, unlikely as it may be (being it fantastic creatures or very daring chains of coincidences) and the reader will accept it as long as the author makes it plausible.

Prof. J.R.R. Tolkien went even further. He theorized that an author needs to be able to create a fictional world that not necessarily adheres to reality (he was after all talking about true speculative/fantasy fiction), but that works in the same way reality does. This ‘secondary reality’ may be very different from reality as we know it, but the rules that governs it must be as stringent and logic as those governing our real world. It must have the ‘intimate consistency of reality’, no matter what it looks like on the outside. It must be plausible in that context. At that point, the author won’t even need to ask readers to suspend their disbelief, because given the rules that govern that secondary reality, the readers will accept this is exactly how that reality should work.

Along these lines, Prof. Rosalba Campra went as far as saying that all stories with a perfectly functioning secondary reality should be considered realistic whether they have fantasy elements (like Middle Earth) or not.

Have I messed up your ideas well enough? Good!

Now tell me, why would you suspend your disbelief in regard to any story? Well, as a reader, I have an answer: because – as it’s for storytellers – when we read fiction we are more concerned with themes then events. If events sustain the theme convincingly and plausibly, then we are willing to play along even if the element is in itself unlikely. If the story is worthwhile in terms of themes and involvement, if it enriches us as persons, then we are willing to believe the lie.

Why then, some readers think that fantasy is more a lie than any other story? Why some readers think that ‘it doesn’t exist, it’s not realistic, so it can’t give me any worthwhile experience.’

As a writer of fantasy stories, I often wonder: is the appearance of the story really so important to obscure its theme?

 

Commissar Montalbano: a case study

Ragusa Ibla (main setting for Il Commissario Montalbano)

Years ago I read an interview with Italian mystery novelist Andrea Camilleri about his acclaimed series Il commissario Montalbano. If you are unfamiliar with it, this is a series of mystery novels set in Sicily, Camilleri’s homeland. Salvo Montalbano is a police detective who investigates murders in his little town, Vigata, following Italian police procedures… if sometimes interpreting them in his personal way, and juggling himself between strict magistrates, shadowy mafiosi, young ambitious entrepreneurs projected in the future and old Sicilians living the traditional way and only speaking dialect. The novels themselves are written in a mix of Italian and Vigata dialect.

All perfectly mimetic, wouldn’t you say? Especially if you think that the Siclianity radiates from every little element of Camilleri’s stories and he has often been praised for how vividly his stories depict the reality of Sicilian life.

So let me tell you that Vigata doesn’t exist. Montelusa, the province to which Vigata depends, also doesn’t exist. And even the dialect the novels are partly written in doesn’t exist.

Camilleri made it all up, just like Tolkien made up the Shire, in Middle Earth, and all its languages. Vigata works perfectly well and it sounds like reality because it mimics it so well and so close that readers are deceived into believing it is reality itself, when in fact it’s a very well crafted secondary reality, just like The Shire.

But there’s more. What I find particularly interesting is why Camilleri decided for a fictional place. He initially wanted to set his stories in an actual place, Porto Empedocle (which is indeed the set of the tv series), but because he knew from the beginning that he wanted to write a series of novels all set there, he quickly realised the murder rate of this town would soon exceed the actual murder rate of Porto Empedocle by far.

He could have played along anyway, pressing on the readers’ suspension of disbelief, ignoring that if that murder rate turned up in Porto Empedocle in real life, it would cause all kinds of political and social alarm. Or he could create a completely fictional place, although recognizably Sicilian, where he would be free to create his own custom made reality where he could decide whatever was best for the stories and their themes.

So yes, Camilleri created a fantasy reality so to make his stories more realistic. Although not true, Vigata does have the intimate consistency of reality more than Porto Empedocle would have had.

 

So tell me. Are you a fantasy reader?

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About the author:

Sarah Zama was born in Isola della scala (Verona – Italy) where she still lives. She started writing at nine – blame it over her teacher’s effort to turn her students into readers – and in the 1990s she contributed steadily to magazines and independent publishers on both sides of the Atlantic.

After a pause, in early 2010s she went back to writing with a new mindset. The internet allowed her to get in touch with fellow authors around the globe, hone her writing techniques in online workshops and finally find her home in the dieselpunk community.

Since 2010 she’s been working at a trilogy set in Chicago in 1926, historically as accurate as possible but also (as all her stories are) definitely fantasy. She’s currently seeking representation for the first book in the Ghost Trilogy, Ghostly Smell Around.

Her first book, Give in to the Feeling, came out in 2016.

She’s worked for QuiEdit, publisher and bookseller in Verona, for the last ten years.
She also maintain a blog, The Old Shelter, where she regularly blogs about the Roaring Twenties and anything dieselpunk.

CONTACT INFO AND LINKS

Email: oldshelter@yahoo.com
Blog: www.theoldshelter.com
Websitehttp://sarahzama.theoldshelter.com/