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

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

My top ten, in no particular order:

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

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

Funny? Or is it a cultural thing?

I saw a book blurb this week that cracked me up, and my initial reaction was a combination of giggles and a bit of Inigo Montoya (substituting “phrase” for “word”, of course):

Okay, here’s the culprit: I just received a book I ordered in the mail – a guide to the world of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books. So exciting! I’d seen this book in a used bookstore a while back, but when I returned to buy it, it wasn’t there. Thanks to the glory of near-instant gratification via online shopping, I was able to find it from a used book site, et voilà! My book arrived this week.

The book looks amazing, full of info on characters, places, social structures, and more. Check out the table of contents:

Okay, so here’s the cover of the book. Notice the sticker that says “Exclusive at Waterstone’s”? (It was published by London Scholastic in 2007.)

Excuse my messy desk!

So now that my long-winded introduction is out of the way, here’s what cracked me up. Let’s zoom in on the bottom right of the cover, shall we?

Does this have a different meaning in the UK than in the US? Because when I read “I can’t recommend it too highly”, it sounds like a negative to me. “Hmm, it was okay. Not great. I mean, you might feel differently. But for me, I can’t recommend it too highly. Maybe just a little bit.”

Which I’m sure was not Philip Pullman’s intent! I’m assuming it was meant to convey: “This book is amazing. Astonishing. Super-duper-fantastic. There is no amount of superlative recommending I could do that would be too much.” I’ve been known to say things like “wow, I can’t say enough great things about this book!” in a review here or there, and I assume that’s what this blurb is supposed to convey. But to me, it doesn’t.

So what do you think? Am I guilty of misinterpreting? Being too literal? Is it a cultural thing? Or just awkward phrasing, or perhaps a line taken out of context?

Whatever. It made me laugh today, so I guess that’s a good thing.

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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Audiobook awesomeness: His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman

Over the last two months, I’ve had one of my most delightful experiences with audiobooks. I decided to revisit the world of the His Dark Materials trilogy, since (a) it’s been many, many years since I read the books, and (b) a new book is coming out this fall. (THIS WEEK! NOW!!!)

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 17 years (!!) since the publication of The Amber Spyglass, the 3rd book in the trilogy (following The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife). I remember being blown away by these books upon first read, but after all these years, I was fuzzy on the details.

Side note: I choose to disregard the existence of the Golden Compass movie, which utterly failed to capture the essence of the books and characters. But that’s an issue best left in the past…

So what was so special about these audiobooks?

For starters, they’re full-cast recordings. Oddly enough, full-cast audiobooks don’t usually appeal to me. When I’ve tried them before, I tend to feel removed from the story — maybe because it’s more like listening to a dramatization than like reading an actual book.

Whatever the reason, this time around, I just loved it. Philip Pullman takes the role of narrator, and he’s marvelous. His reading of his own work is nuanced and expressive, and he infuses his lines with wit, humor, and when needed, sorrow and intensity. Beyond Pullman himself, the rest of the cast is simply terrific. I don’t know who these voice actors are, but their talent is huge! The voice of Lyra was perfect — young, intense, brave, emotional — and Will was spot-on too, fierce, loving, worried, daring. Probably most magnificent was the voice of Iorek Byrnison — I don’t think I’ve ever heard such a deep, rumbly voice on an audiobook. If a polar bear could speak English and deigned to have a conversation with one of us puny humans, I bet that’s exactly what he’d sound like. Other stand-outs are the voices of Texas aeronaut Lee Scoresby and the often wicked but strangely sympathetic Mrs. Coulter.

Now, if you’ve read these books, you know that an important part of Pullman’s world building is the presence of daemons — a corporeal, animal being who represents each person’s true inner being. Every human in Lyra’s world has a daemon, and the shape they take is often quite representative of the nature of the person. Children’s daemon’s can change shape at will, until they child reaches puberty, at about which time the daemon settles into his or her final shape. Worth noting, too, is that a daemon is always the opposite gender of the person it’s attached to — so Lyra’s daemon Pantalaimon is male. On the audiobooks, the daemons who have speaking roles are voiced in ways completely appropriate to their personalities. The absolute best is Lee’s daemon Hester, a jackrabbit with a feminine Western twang.

As for the story, I’m kind of assuming that anyone bothering to read this post is already familiar with the amazing world of His Dark Materials. For those who aren’t familiar, here are the brief plot summaries from Goodreads:

Book 1 – The Golden Compass (also published under the title Northern Lights):

Here lives an orphaned ward named Lyra Belacqua, whose carefree life among the scholars at Oxford’s Jordan College is shattered by the arrival of two powerful visitors. First, her fearsome uncle, Lord Asriel, appears with evidence of mystery and danger in the far North, including photographs of a mysterious celestial phenomenon called Dust and the dim outline of a city suspended in the Aurora Borealis that he suspects is part of an alternate universe. He leaves Lyra in the care of Mrs. Coulter, an enigmatic scholar and explorer who offers to give Lyra the attention her uncle has long refused her. In this multilayered narrative, however, nothing is as it seems. Lyra sets out for the top of the world in search of her kidnapped playmate, Roger, bearing a rare truth-telling instrument, the alethiometer. All around her children are disappearing—victims of so-called “Gobblers”—and being used as subjects in terrible experiments that separate humans from their daemons, creatures that reflect each person’s inner being. And somehow, both Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter are involved.

Book 2 – The Subtle Knife:

Lost in a new world, Lyra finds Will—a boy on the run, a murderer—a worthy and welcome ally. For this is a world where soul-eating Specters stalk the streets and witches share the skies with troops of angels.

Each is searching—Lyra for the meaning of Dark Matter, Will for his missing father—but what they find instead is a deadly secret, a knife of untold power. And neither Lyra nor Will suspects how tightly their lives, their loves, and their destinies are bound together… until they are split apart.

Book 3 – The Amber Spyglass:

The Amber Spyglass brings the intrigue of The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife to a heart-stopping end, marking the final volume of His Dark Materials as the most powerful of the trilogy.

Along with the return of Lyra, Will, Mrs. Coulter, Lord Asriel, Dr. Mary Malone, and Iorek Byrnison the armored bear, come a host of new characters: the Mulefa, mysterious wheeled creatures with the power to see Dust; Gallivespian Lord Roke, a hand-high spymaster to Lord Asriel; and Metatron, a fierce and mighty angel. So, too, come startling revelations: the painful price Lyra must pay to walk through the land of the dead, the haunting power of Dr. Malone’s amber spyglass, and the names of who will live–and who will die–for love. And all the while, war rages with the Kingdom of Heaven, a brutal battle that–in its shocking outcome–will uncover the secret of Dust. Philip Pullman deftly brings the cliff-hangers and mysteries of His Dark Materials to an earth-shattering conclusion–and confirms his fantasy trilogy as an undoubted and enduring classic.

It’s funny how certain things stick in your mind — or my mind, anyway. I absolutely remembered about Dust and daemons, about Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter, the Mulefa, Metatron, and more. What I didn’t remember was the sheer power of this story. What starts out feeling mostly like a children’s book (albeit a children’s book with gifted-level vocabulary) by the end has transformed into an epic tale that shares universal truths about love, honesty, the nature of good and evil, devotion, betrayal, friendship, and freedom.

The emotional impact by the end is enormous. I clearly remembered being devastated by the end of the trilogy, and yet I was still pretty much hit over the head with an anvil all over again while listening by the intensity of the heart-ache the characters experience. It’s simply lovely and tragic and uplifting, all at the same time.

As an added bonus, Pullman later published two shorter works set in the same world: Lyra’s Oxford, which takes place two years after the conclusion of The Amber Spyglass, and Once Upon a Time in the North, which is set about 35 years earlier, showing the first eventful meeting of Lee Scoresby and Iorek Byrnison. Both of these novellas are available as audiobooks, and like the main trilogy, are highly enriched by the full-cast recording. (It’s definitely worth getting the hard copies as well, as the physical editions include wonderful woodcut illustrations and all sorts of bits and pieces of ephemera related to His Dark Materials — writing scraps, maps, ballooning guides, postcards, and even a board game.)

Finally, there’s a short story available either as an e-book or audiobook. The Collectors is very creepy, and I’d say listen to the audio version. Bill Nighy does a fabulous job with the narration, and it only takes about a half hour, but is definitely worth it.

I realize that this is by no means a comprehensive book review of His Dark Materials and the associated works. And it’s not meant to be. Really, I’ve just gotten completely swept away by these wonderful audiobooks, and I couldn’t keep it to myself a moment longer!

Especially for anyone thinking about reading the upcoming new release, La Belle Sauvage, going back to His Dark Materials via audiobook will be a huge treat, absolutely worth the time.

Needless to say, for anyone who hasn’t read these books at all yet, please do! His Dark Materials is one of those trilogies usually shelved with children’s fiction, but which truly transcends the age or genre labels. These books are just plain good fantasy literature; they transport us to multiple alternate worlds but never lose their human heart.

 

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Books in the series:
The Golden Compass (1995)
The Subtle Knife (1997)
The Amber Spyglass (2000)
Lyra’s Oxford (2003)
Once Upon a Time in the North (2008)
The Collectors (2014)
NEW: La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust, book 1) – to be released 10/19/2017

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