Before he wrote The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman wrote a quartet of books based in Victorian London, the Sally Lockhart Mysteries. They feature another smart leading lady, the titular Sally Lockhart. However, the fourth book in the series, entitled The Tin Princess, actual stars another woman, Adelaide, who is incidentally one of my favorite heroines.
When we first met Adelaide, she was a small girl from the slums imprisoned by the evil Mrs. Holland in The Ruby in the Smoke, the first of the Sally Lockhart books, and she disappears without a trace at the end of the story. Ten years later, she turns up as an ex-prostitute, rescued from that life by her new fiancé, who turns out to be the Crown Prince of Razkavia (a fictional country somewhat like a tiny Austria). When the Prince is murdered during his coronation, Adelaide abruptly finds herself in charge of a country in the midst of a revolution.
Adelaide is a wonderfully interesting character. Having spent the first two decades of her life on the streets, she eagerly seizes the chance at a better life, without thinking about the repercussions of marrying a prince. But when she abruptly become Crown Princess and then Queen, she is thrust into a world of political intrigue and diplomacy that she is unprepared to face. Watching her progression from petulant street urchin to the leader of a nation is one of the great points of the novel.
Once aware of her new responsibility, she sets out to fulfill her duty as best as she can. From lessons in elocution and Razkavian, to state dinners and treaty-signings, she throws herself determinedly into the role of Queen of a country she had never previously heard of. Her slow mastery of the rules of diplomacy and statecraft is incredibly interesting to read, as is the occasional glimpse of the street urchin spine of steel that holds her up through it all.
Furthermore, while Pullman is nothing if not an incredibly gifted writer, this book stands out as a particular example of his detailed crafting. Razkavia, though fictional, has a hugely rich culture and history as encountered by Adelaide, and her maid (and the narrator of the story, Becky, a Razkavian native). Also, the lessons in political maneuvering are both incredibly detailed and incredibly true to life. It’s like what the Princess Diaries wishes it was.
My favorite scene is the coronation, after the Crown Prince/King’s murder while he carried the great flag of Razkavia up to the highest point in the city to cement his kingship. The flag cannot touch the ground, and as the Prince/King falls with a bullet in the chest, Adelaide automatically steps forward to grab the heavy flag. She carries the standard (which weighs more than she does) all the way to its resting spot, though she reaches beyond her physical limits to accomplish it. The scene is a beautiful melding of national pride, cheering for Adelaide, and just one of those great triumphant scenes of character glory.
However, despite the aforementioned scene of awesomeness, what I have always appreciated about Pullman’s writing, in addition to his descriptive and creative skill, is his fidelity to realism, even in the midst of fiction. His books always end as you would expect things to happen in real life. And even if you don’t get the triumphant-ride-into-the-sunset-happy-ending, there is beauty in having things end believably, as if it somehow breaches the fiction/real life divide. The Tin Princess is no exception, and thus for its historical realism and bomb-diggety leading lady, it rates an AJ on the PSA!
While the three main books in the series – The Ruby in the Smoke, The Shadow in the North, The Tiger in the Well – are fabulous themselves and well worth a read, The Tin Princess is by far my favorite. You should also check out the BBC movie versions of the first two books, starring Dr. Who alumna Billie Piper and the current Doctor, Matt Smith.
First off apologies for the dearth of posts in the last couple weeks. As you may have deduced, I recently moved to a new house in a new city, and as of Monday, I started my new job.
Needless to say, while I am very happy, I am also very overwhelmed, and even when I am less whelmed, I will be very busy.
But Pickychick is not going anywhere, don’t you worry 🙂 While I won’t be able to post as often as in the unemployed days of yore, I promise that there will be a fresh book up on the blog every Monday morning for your perusal.
So next Monday, after you slog to work, brew that first cup of coffee, and turn on your computer, take a moment to stop by and check out the next book on the list!
You know that simultaneously happy and sad feeling you get when you finish a truly good book? That’s exactly what I felt when I at last put down Kristin Cashore’s novel, Graceling. While I’ve read plenty of girl-is-really-really-really-like-magically-good-at-fighting books, I have honestly never read anything quite as ingenious and unique as this story.
In the Seven Kingdoms, there are those who are Graced – bearing a singular supernatural talent that could be for climbing trees, cooking, or reading minds. Katsa, a minor princess of the Middluns, killed a man with her hand when she was eight. Because of her Grace, she has become the King’s assassin and enforcer, while struggling to secretly undo the damage of kingly caprice. That is, until she meets a foreign prince with a Grace to nearly match her own, and the plots of kings and countries force Katsa to not only take charge of her life, but to set out on a voyage across the Seven Kingdoms that will threaten her self-knowledge, her Grace, and her life.
Katsa is a powerful character in the literal sense: because of her Grace, she can’t even be beaten by a troop of armed knights and archers. But also because of her Grace, she begins as a weak character, ashamed of her violent Grace and controlled by a vindictive king. Throughout the course of the story, she comes into contact with her self-worth in an increasing number of challenging ways. Take, for example this passage from about a quarter of the way into the book:
[Katsa] knew her nature. She would recognize it if she came face-to-face with it. It would be a blue-eyed, green-eyed monster, wolflike and snarling. A vicious beast that struck out at friends in uncontrollable anger, a killer that offered itself as the vessel of the king’s fury.
But then, it was a strange monster, for beneath its exterior it was frightened and sickened by its own violence. It chastised itself for its savagery. And sometimes it had no heart for violence and rebelled against it utterly.
A monster that refused, sometimes, to behave like a monster. When a monster stopped behaving like a monster, did it stop being a monster? Did it become something else?
Perhaps she wouldn’t recognize her own nature after all.
Fear of her own strength and anger is all tied up with her own moral certitude, but she slowly comes to realize that her Grace is not actually what she has been so convinced of all these years. (Was that vague enough for you? Sorry.) She avoids the annoying WW status of either being totally at peace with it, or facetiously upset about it, and instead battles to a place where she doesn’t have to balance her disgust and her joy.
The book is tripartite – the first part sets the stage and Katsa eventually on her path, the second part is self-discovery and reclamation, and the third is all action – at least this is how it seems to me. Each part has a big revelation/twist and a twist/climax so there’s never a dull predictable moment. Even when I, in my exalted reviewer status, thought I saw a plot device coming, I was undermined. At last!
A genuinely interesting and enchanting book, very refreshing to read something so original and well-written! Needless to say, Graceling rates an AJ on the PSA. One prequel (though written later) published, Fire, and a sequel, Bitterblue, in the works. Thoughts on Fire coming soon, as it is on hold for me at this very moment!
“I’m Luna.” He smiles shyly, dropping his eyes to the floor.
“Okaaay,” I say slowly.
She lifts her eyes and adds, “I’m a girl.”
Julie Anne Peters’ novel Luna, a National Book Award Finalist, follows Regan O’Neill as she struggles through the regular troubles of a high school sophomore: boy drama, tough teachers, being the only one to know her brother is transgendered (or TG, as he calls it). To a stranger, Liam seems to have it all: he’s a straight-A student with plenty of friends, a lucrative job, and a nice car. But in the safe darkness of three AM, he becomes his true self, a girl named Luna. But as Liam’s eighteenth birthday approaches, Luna’s presence squeezes Liam and Regan out of their own lives as the subterfuge necessary to maintain the façade grows increasingly complicated. But is Luna ready for the world? And is the world ready for Luna?
There are two female protagonists in this novel, as you might imagine, Regan and Luna. Luna isn’t a gay male who likes to dress up. She was merely born into a body of the wrong gender, thus her preference for boys is heterosexual (which I hadn’t realized about TG orientation). While Liam is pressured by his father to try out for baseball and get a girlfriend, Luna is doing research on the sex reassignment surgery and other transgendered youth, getting ready to step into the world as her true self. But as carefully as she applies her makeup, she still doesn’t “pass” perfectly, and constantly must battle negative reactions from strangers, family, and friends; people who just see her as a man in women’s clothing. In the end, the book isn’t about being accepted by the world; it’s about gaining the confidence to be yourself, accepted or not.
Regan is clumsy, fashion-blind, and incredibly self-conscious; but she has been faithfully keeping Luna’s secret since fourth grade. When Luna decides it’s time to make her debut into the world beyond the midnight of Regan’s bedroom, Regan is half-terrified and half-relieved. She accepts Luna and wants to protect her from the surely judgmental eyes of the world. But she has been the only line between Liam and suicide and between Liam and the pressure of their parents for so long, often at the sacrifice of her own life and happiness.
Honestly, I don’t know much about the TG population, so Luna was certainly an informative book, plus it dealt super-realistically with both the feelings of Luna, of Regan (who will never truly understand), of the rest of the world (who mostly don’t want to understand). While homosexuality is on the way to being widely recognized if not accepted as established at birth, being TG is much more likely to be considered a choice. For Luna, and indeed for most of the TG population, this is not the case.
Regan’s clumsiness extends beyond just character cuteness; in fact the scenes with her crush, Chris, read like something out of a Three Stooges sketch—which I have to admit is a little hard to buy. She also spends some time being whiny and self-pitying, though I suppose that being the only line of support for your older brother (sister?) for nearly a decade entitles you to a little whining. She faces down a topic that many adults have trouble wrapping their heads around, and she does it with empathy and strength. Occasionally the gender-bending pronouns were confusing, particularly when the shift from Liam to Luna occurs midsentence, like when Regan explains “he’s going to change into her girl role.” This is especially problematic when there are other girls in the room.
The book was interesting, though it was more of an exploration of Luna than it was a story, if that makes sense. Thus, Luna makes a JG on the PSA.
“Luna,” she repeated softly, more to herself than me. “Appropriate, wouldn’t you say? A girl who can only be seen by moonlight?”
In the world of Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan, 1914 Europe is perched precariously on a knife-edge. On one side are the the British “Darwinians,” whose world is made-up of fabricated mutant species bred to specific tasks—the greatest of which is the Leviathan, the titular airship which is actually a functioning ecosystem built around a hydrogen-expelling floating sperm whale. On the other are the Eastern European “Clankers” who rely on kerosene-driven machines instead. Enter Alek, the (fictional) son of the (very real) Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary; and Deryn, a Scottish girl with a passion for flight. Add the advent of WWI and stir well.
Added bonus: this book is full of beautiful black and white illustrations by Keith Thompson–a color version of one of them is featured on the cover above!
When Alek’s parents are murdered, he is spirited away by the small but loyal crew of a Stormwalker (a walking war machine) in the hopes of reaching safety in Switzerland. Across the ocean, Deryn has disguised herself as a boy named Dylan in order to take the British Air Service Academy tests. Deryn ends up as a midshipman on the Leviathan, and the Leviathan ends up crashing in the Swiss Alps near where Alek and his protectors have taken refuge, and both are catapulted into the swiftly shifting international situation on a desperate trip to the Ottoman Empire.
Deryn/Dylan is an interesting character in that she’s not only under threat as a junior officer in the British Air Service during wartime—the scene in which she weathers a German airstrike on the hull of the Leviathan is of particular gritty realism—but also must be on guard for constant exposure as a girl. She struggles to adapt to the idiosyncrasies of her fellow male crew members: shoving and throwing knives and shaving. She’s fully as capable as her fellows, and it’s obvious that she truly loves to fly just as it is obvious she’s not meant to be confined to skirts and knitting. Very reminiscent of L.A. Meyer’s intrepid adventurer, Jacky Faber.
In addition, Deryn doesn’t always react in the way you’d expect a heroine in a YA novel to act. When Alek appears with medicinal supplies after the Leviathan crash, she doesn’t accept his help unquestioningly. In fact, she captures him as a hostage, gratitude be damned. While she’s certainly got an ego, she’s also a quick thinker who can save herself without help, thankyouverymuch. The book actually opens on her daring one-man trip into a storm front that she successfully navigates to safety, and is rewarded with a place on the Leviathan.
Scott Westerfeld is known for writing things I feel like I’ve read already, even within his own bibliography (I’m pretty sure the ‘Uglies’ series was the same book four times). But that’s not to say his stories aren’t engaging.
In ‘Leviathan,’ he jumps on the steampunk bandwagon, following Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn series, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, and even channeling Jacky Faber’s piratical adventures. All of which came first and are written better.
HOWEVER. This is still a really interesting book with plenty of original innovation on Westerfeld’s part. Of note, the British ‘Darwinian’ creations like the Leviathan, an ecosystem of symbiotic organisms (whale, jellyfish, glow worms, bacteria, bats, etc) that still functions like an airship. Also, the story takes place at the onset of WWI, and in Alek’s case in particular, there is lots of lovely political intrigue to interest you history-type folks.
Familiar storyline or not, the book is a lot of fun and I read it in one sitting. Westerfeld switches between his two protagonists intermittently, so it’s really difficult to put the book down, even at the end of a chapter. Leviathan rates somewhere between an AJ and JG on the PSA—I honestly couldn’t decide and considered creating another rating but I think we’ve got enough as it is! The next book, Behemoth, was just released at the beginning of October.