It wasn’t until I was doing research for today’s post that I realized how many of Cynthia Voigt’s books I have read. Homecoming, Dicey’s Song, The Callendar Papers, and the focus of this post, Elske. I originally picked up Elske about seven years ago because the cover illustration is Vermeer’s Head of a Girl. I re-read it for the blog because I remembered liking it, but was honestly surprised by how much I still enjoyed it this time around! However, it is a particularly adult novel for the YA genre. There are multiple references to graphic violence and rape, and it is probably not actually meant for a younger audience.
Elske takes place in the fictional Kingdom, which seems to be in the vicinity of the 14th century. The titular character has been raised among the Volkaric, a barbaric people to the North infamous for their brutality. She escapes her fate as a Death Maiden – destined to be sacrificed on the funeral pyre of the Volkking – and finds her way to a position as the maidservant of a deposed Queen, Beriel. Together, the young women set out to reclaim Beriel’s throne and save her country from invasion by the Volkaric hordes.
For all her barbaric upbringing, Elske is a true renaissance woman – as she describes herself: “I speak both Norther and Souther. I read and write in both tongues. I can figure with numbers. I know how to care for babies, and children, and something about cooking. I can snare small animals and skin prey of any size, dig over soil, plant it and harvest a crop. I can serve at table. I can launder clothing. I can mend with a needle and thread.” She is also so no-nonsense and clear-thinking that she makes stereotypical YA heroines look like melodramatic whiners. She faces each problem matter-of-factly and cuts easily to the heart of it.
There is also Elske’s mistress, Beriel, Crown Princess of the Kingdom. Her own family has taken brutal measures to ensure she never claims the crown, including repeated rape to impregnate her with an illegitimate child. But Beriel’s single-minded determination to gain her rightful throne holds her through the horror, despair, and long odds. Together, the pair of young women manage to reclaim an entire country from a usurping tyrant.
But this is not to say that either woman occupies the WW role that it would be so easy to cast them in. Beriel runs ripshod over anyone in her way (including Elske a time or two) and Elske is so matter-of-fact that she verges occasionally on utilitarian. In particular Elske’s ruminations on how to make sure Beriel’s illegitimate child is never discovered are both practical and chilling – though she wants to keep the newborn alive, she has considered the best way to quietly kill it if it shows signs of crying while she hides it.
At the end of the story, both Elske and Beriel find husbands, but instead of this seeming to be a typical YA ending reinstating either patriarchal rule or the chick-lit trope, in particular Elske’s man of choice is her equal and helpmeet. For example, while she plans to free a friend from Beriel’s guard, her paramour doesn’t caution her against it, or do it for her. Instead he slips her a blade “so we are both armed.” Without needing to overtly state it, Voigt crafts a mutually respectful relationship of equals.
However, the most perfect partnership is between Elske and Beriel, two independent young women making their way in a world ruled by men. Take for example this quote after their first meeting:
“She held her right hand out to Elske, as if they were two merchants closing on a sale, and she bowed her head to Elske, as if they were two swordsmen ending a match, and she looked Elske in the eye, as if they were Wolfer captains, about to risk their lives in battle.”
You see this co-opting of male position and language? They are bound by respect and honor, a female relationship crafted along traditionally masculine lines, and as the epilogue will tell you, they and their lines bring about a golden age in the Kingdom.
Last week’s mention of Tamora Pierce made me realize that I have only covered two of her multitude of awesome series. On a personal note, I have to say that her books sort of inspired this blog, because even though I have a long reading list filled with award-winning books, I still always end up re-reading Pierce’s books, even though I’ve read them approximately 239470239 times. They may not be ‘high literature’ but there’s something that draws me back – part of that is a personal enjoyment, and part of that I think is the craft.
The Circle of Magic series takes place outside of Pierce’s more well-known Tortall universe, and follows three child mages – three girls (Sandry, Tris, and Daja), one boy (Briar) – through their journey to adulthood. Most of the books are focused nominally around one of the main characters; the first series is their training in magic, the second finds them accredited mages who find themselves charged with students of their own, and The Will of the Empress is a thicker book focusing on all of them as they reunite after their separate adventures.
These series are of particular interest because I feel that they grew in maturity and scope with each successive book. The first series – The Circle of Magic – is thoroughly enjoyable, but not challenging in the least and meant for younger readers. The second, however – The Circle Opens – begins to challenge each mage with adult situations and the tribulations of teaching. In particular, Daja faces a friend who turns out to be a serial killer, and Tris disagrees with a strict and illogical caste system. And finally, The Will of the Empress introduces petty jealousy among the formerly tightly-knit group, as well as sexuality and questions of duty.
While all of the girls are strong and interesting characters, each of them have different situations: a noble, a merchant, and a foreigner. Furthermore, they have different points of conflict: Sandry must stay behind while the others go on adventures in the second series, Tris’s student is a man much older than her, and Daja realizes she is lesbian. There is nothing generic about any of these books, and they escape Pierce’s normal WW rating.
It’s not often a series from your childhood can grow with you, but Circle of Magic has managed to keep itself current and addressing larger issues, which is extremely rare in the genre of fantasy YA. Perhaps it is not the most realistic or complex treatment of the issues in question, but the simple inclusion is a giant step for this sub-genre. Take for example, Daja’s sexuality – everyone immediately accepts it and she feels comfortable with the realization. While this is a rare case in real life, that Pierce makes the acceptance so unquestionable as to be almost mundane, actually fits it easily into your consciousness too. She even casually reveals that Lark and Rosethorn, two of the children’s teachers in the first series, are also homosexual. This is an interesting twist on the genre because I’m used to accepting that mage teachers would live in a house together with their students, and never thought to question whether there was another element to it.
While individually some of the nine books in the series (ten if you count Melting Stones) might rate lower, overall The Circle of Magic gets a AJ on the PSA.
Though I normally try to avoid sequels, I feel that this book is diverse enough from its predecessor to stand alone, plus I just loved it so much I have to share. You may have expected this for a while, seeing how much I raved about Graceling, but here at last is the sequel/prequel/standalone in the same universe, Kristin Cashore’s Fire.
Okay, this universe is kind of complicated, but here’s my best stab at describing it. In the Dells (a land across a huge mountain range from the Seven Kingdoms of Graceling) there exist humans, but also Monsters, who can be strange beings like raptors or ordinary ones like mice – but always they are more beautiful and intensely desired by normal species, sometimes beyond rationality or restraint.
Fire is the last human Monster, and the prodigy of a cruel father who nearly brought about the destruction of the Dells. She has the power to access others’ minds, to influence or interrogate, but being accustomed to the necessity of hiding from everyone, it is only at the command of the king that she voyages to the capital to unravel a plot of regicide.
Firstly, my favorite thing about Cashore is she uses these gorgeously-wrought fantastical stories to present tough questions, and to stare them in the face. This means that if this book were a movie I would rate it R, because it deals with some horrible themes and events. But they are handled with dignity, and really resonate deeply. There are characters whose goodness is like a knife, and the horror of the villains does more to make you think than make you hate.
Fire delves much more into the fear of oneself that Katsa’s character only probed. Fire is wary of her power and avoids using it when not in self-defense (which ends up occurring often anyway). This fear comes from both the evidence of her father’s cruel misuse of it, and also the knowledge of what she has done with it herself. I won’t spoil the surprise, which is wrought in stunning Cashore fashion, but suffice it to say that it is as compelling and challenging as you could hope.
Fire doesn’t suffer from self-loathing, but rather the acute knowledge that a part of herself is horrifying, the Monster she must keep locked away. Towards this point, take a scene towards the end where she takes herbs to render her infertile, though she weeps for the future children she cannot allow to live. The goal of this book is not to bring Fire to a place where she accepts her power and herself. If it is about acceptance at all, it is about acceptance of one’s capacity to do horrible things, and there really isn’t a lot of acceptance in that.
Instead it is the story of Fire’s adventures – finding love and revealing her secrets and discovering her past. And there’s a little something refreshing in that, maybe a gesture back towards Tamora Pierce’s great stories of unapologetic feminine might. (Of note, Cashore loves Pierce too – of course, she’s a breathing human – for proof check out her blog here).
In any case, Fire’s Monsterness (whatever, it’s a word if I say it is) assures that her day-to-day is interesting enough to carry a whole 462-page novel. Just the simple logistics of living with the simultaneous desire and hatred of everyone around her; when an unwary moment may lead to an attack, when her period means more Monsters hunting for her blood, when she can never be sure of the true love of her friends, are plenty to base a story on. Add into the mix several characters with uncertain and intermingled parentage, a kidnapping, and lots of political intrigue and you’re in business.
While both Cashore’s books ostensibly take place in the same universe (there is only one crossover character, Leck, the villain of both books) and both deal with a female protagonists blessed/cursed with incredible power that cannot be used for good without also chancing horrific terror, that’s pretty much where the similarity ends. Unsurprisingly, Fire rates an AJ on the PSA. I am waiting impatiently for Bitterblue, which isn’t set to pub until 2012 at the very earliest.
I have been attempting to read Maggie Stiefvater’s Shiver since a friend brought it to my attention last July. In true post-Twilight style, it follows the story of normal duck (or maybe not) Grace, living in rural Minnesota, and a wolf that has been shadowing her since she was attacked by his pack as a girl. Turns out, her wolf is actually a werewolf by the name of Sam, struggling to fight his final and ultimate change back to wolf form at cusp of winter.
Grace has always thought of the yellow-eyed wolf as “hers.” Ever since he rescued her from being attacked by his own pack many years ago, he has watched her from the woods every winter. But this year, it’s different, this year she finds a wounded boy with the same yellow eyes lying on her porch. Yep, you guessed it. Werewolf. Sorta. These wolves change with the season, or rather the temperature. As the mercury drops, they change into wolves, and when it rises in summer, they regain their human forms — but only for a finite space of years, and Sam is at the end. When he shifts into a wolf this year, it will be for good.
Poor Grace, she’s been in love with a wolf for sixteen years, only to find out she’s not crazy because the wolf is actually a cute human guy, only to find out that when winter shows up, she’s back to being in love with a wolf again. For such a bizarre situation, she takes it remarkably well and without question (too well, in my opinion), and her determination is impressive. She functions as a nexus of stability and normalcy in a maelstrom that also involves her volatile and recently werewolfed classmate Jack, his suspicious sister, Sam’s werewolf pack, and Grace’s best friend and also newly werewolfed friend, Olivia.
However, this book did not live up to my expectations. While Grace is certainly stronger and more interesting than Bella Swan, Stiefvater is not the writer that Stephanie Meyer is, alas. For 98% of the book, nothing really happens. We watch Sam and Grace bond and pine over each other, while wandering around in the vague vicinity of doing something. There’s even a bit in a clearing reminiscent of the meadow scene from Twilight, as well as a bookstore that reprises the restaurant in Port Angeles scene — but nothing happens in either.
Furthermore, Stiefvater’s writing is clunky, and fits awkwardly in her characters’ mouths. Observe: “wondering, with the constant irritation of a scratchy sweater” or “we walked with a giant’s strides.” But even worse, she makes Sam into a songwriter, and features snatches of his lyrics, which don’t help the poor guy out. The lyrics are awkwardly integrated and jarring, plus utterly pretentious. For example: “Sloughing my skin / escaping its grip / stripped of my wit / it hurts to be me” which is terribly emo and also just plain terrible, but is outclassed by “Close to the sun is closer to me / I feel my skin clinging so tightly” — which doesn’t even have a consistent meter.
On the upside, however, Sam also likes poetry a lot, in a really realistic and accessible way — watching him try to explain it to the down-to-earth Grace is particularly amusing. Stiefvater includes several poems and excerpts that the pair reads, and she has flawless taste in poetry. Mostly Rainer Maria Rilke, from his fabulous book, Poems. There’s a particular moment in which Grace reads a a beautiful and sad poem after Sam has left, and simply remarks, “I was beginning to understand poetry.”
Alas, poor Grace still rates a JG on the PSA. So read this if you’re looking for an easy distraction that doesn’t require your brain, but don’t get your hopes up for the next Great American Novel. It’s is the dog lover’s Twilight, but without the love triangle and action, I don’t think it will ever have the pull. Reviews of the second book, Linger, are mediocre, and the final book, Forever, pubs in July.