There’s a reason Girl Scouts sing about circles…

17 Jan

Sandry's Book - I picked the UK covers because they're so gorgeous instead of the more familiar US versions.

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.

Tris's Book

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.

Daja's Book

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.



On Fire

10 Jan

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.

Alas, Shivers No Timbers

3 Jan

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.

Pickychick Notes: FAIL

27 Dec

Traveling until late Sunday night, slept through my alarm Monday. Post coming soon…



20 Dec

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.

This cover shows Adelaide placing the standard in its base above the city

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.

Pickychick Notes: Joys and Concerns

16 Dec

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!

A New Post! (I know, I know)

14 Dec

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!