Book Review – Cold Fire

Cold-Fire

Cold Fire
Kate Elliott
The Spiritwalker Trilogy: Book 2

I enjoyed Cold Fire as much—if not more—than Cold Magic. Most of the things I said were wonderful about Cold Magic hold true in the sequel: light but not heavy-handed steampunk influence, intriguing magic, incredibly well-drawn characters, page-turning tension, an awesome culture to spend time in.

This time, the bulk of the action takes place in Expedition. Which is on an island near Cuba. It’s such a drastically different setting, and it has an effect on the kind of magic used, too: in warmer climes, fire mages are more powerful than cold mages.

It took me longer to get used to the prose style this time around. I gave it a pass in my last review, but right now I’m not sure of it. It might have a clumsiness to it? I don’t know. It confuses me. Still, Elliott’s a much more interesting writer at the prose level than many other fantasy writers I’ve read.

Beyond This Point There Be Spoilers
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Revisiting Harry Potter – Part 2

Revisiting Harry Potter Part 2
The Girl Who Reread Harry Potter and Ended Up Liking OotP A Lot More The Second Time ‘Round

This post contains spoilers. Ye be warned. Also, this post assumes you are familiar with the Harry Potter series.

Last month I reread the entire Harry Potter series. It took me about two weeks, give or take a couple days. (I read fast. I also had trouble putting the e-reader down. For reference, I have a Kobo Glo and I take it everywhere.) The books hit me with tidal waves of nostalgia. Oh yeah, I remember that! And that! And… not that. Omigosh, is that because of what happens there?

As you may remember from Part 1, I reread the first four books a lot in the three-year waiting period. I remembered nearly everything. However, having only read the last three once (twice in OotP’s case?) there was a lot I didn’t remember. I was fuzzy on quite a lot of details. That meant the last three were almost, almost like reading new books, except that I remembered all the important things, like who dies and what the horcruxes were.

I found that I didn’t quite dislike the latter three as much, this time around, without that angry three-year span between GoF and OotP. Actually, I liked OotP quite a lot this time around. Umbridge is my favourite villain in the entire series, and the scenes between her and McGonagall are sheer gold.

That being said, there are many things about HP that aren’t to my more refined taste. (Refined, in comparison to my 11 year old self.) The prose is serviceable and has no more artistry than that. The incessant adverbs are, for the most part, unnecessary, especially as JKR plays them straight and doesn’t surprise us with her word choice. Some of her descriptions are ridiculous. This can work as humour, but sometimes they’re not even funny. The three descriptions of the monster in Harry’s chest in HBP—referring to his feelings for Ginny—are ludicrous. How did she get those past an editor? Raking in the big bucks is not an excuse.

And, as far as I’m concerned, the books are too heavily plot-driven. I’ll talk about this in Part 3 more, as it’s very much an opinion as opposed to the more objective criticisms of JKR’s prose style.

I thought I’d split this part up book-by-book and mention my thoughts separately. Here goes!

 

PS

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Sometimes I feel like this is the weakest story, but then again it succeeded at what it needed to do: lure in the millions of readers that made HP such a historic series. The beginning is charmingly off-beat, with an omniscient third-person narrative painting Vernon Dursley as a very Roald Dahl-esque horror. Basically, it’s silly. It’s a silly romp of owls and horrible people and shooting stars and a cat that turns into a most excellent Scottish witch.

However, coming into it after reading the entire series—despite it being six years—added pathos I hadn’t really noticed before. The mention of Sirius Black and the motorcycle. The incredulous joy of the witches and wizards who haven’t been free of fear in years. The foreboding at the end of the chapter, because Harry is about to spend the first eleven years of his life horrifically abused.

It’s hard to distill my thoughts on the rest of the book. It just is, because it’s the first Harry Potter book. It’s so full of set up, and I don’t have strong feelings toward it. It cracked me up how suspicious our trio was about Snape. You have no idea, kids. It was hilarious when I realized that when the Weasley twins bewitched snowballs to hit Quirrell, they were actually hitting Voldemort in the face. This book, in comparison with all the others, whips by so fast. Suddenly there’s a troll, suddenly Hermione is friends with them, it’s fun and cheerful and the end is all mysterious and clever. It’s enjoyable, but it’s probably my least favourite, because it doesn’t really stand out to me. I did like the end, with all those magical tests to get past.

I think a lot of kids really latch onto this one because of that scene where Hagrid tells Harry he’s a wizard, intimidates all the bluster out of Vernon, and gives Dudley a pig’s tail with his pink umbrella wand. It’s that wish fulfilment. But I’d already been hooked on Tamora Pierce, and I always knew what I wanted to be: a knight, preferably in the service of Tortall. So I wasn’t nearly as interested in Hogwarts as wish fulfilment. And I’ve never really liked Hagrid much. He’s a well-written character, and obviously a very good person, but, eh, not really my type.

 

CS

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

From what I’ve gleaned, the Internet thinks this is the weakest book in the series. Especially the plot and the climax at the end, being both too complex and too similar to PS. I can see that, yet I disagree. There’s things I don’t like—basically everything about the flying car. And Dobby. (Winky and Kreacher are fine, but I cannot stand Dobby.)

Otherwise, I like CS quite a bit. Gilderoy Lockhart cracks me up. Moaning Myrtle is great. Tragic, but great. The diary is fascinating to me. I wish we were in Ginny’s POV for this one, because the diary is so creepy and she clearly was traumatized by the experience. In a way, the end of CS is darker than POA: the school is about to be shut, so many people are Petrified, and until Harry actually gets to the Chamber, we don’t know who the Heir of Slytherin is. Also, Harry has to start dealing with fame in this book. The climax is chillingly creepy. I thought that Harry’s interaction with the memory of Tom Riddle was much more fascinating than his confrontation with Quirrell/Voldemort in PS. Anyway, I thought the plot made sense. I never had trouble with it.

 

POA

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

This was, traditionally, my favourite of the series. It’s the most tightly plotted. Remus Lupin is a fantastic character. Hermione is amazing and takes All The Classes. Hippogriffs are pretty! (It’s funny that I don’t like Hagrid more, actually, since he and I are similarly obsessed with dangerous animals. Though I tend to like mine a bit cuddlier than, say, Acromantula.)

I’ve always liked the big confrontation at the Shrieking Shack. Yes, it’s basically Sirius and Lupin talking a lot, but hey, I like it when characters talk a lot. It’s a dialogue rather than an infodump, though it serves the same purpose. I don’t even know what’s not to love in this book. As someone who has struggled with depression—as JKR did, herself—I instantly recognise the Dementors. They are exactly what depression is like. I don’t know if this is still my favourite, because I actually really like OotP now, but it’s up there. Oh, oh, and we get a better glimpse into how classes are taught, through Remus’s class. I appreciate it when my magical school stories are academic.

 

GOF

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Looking back on it, it’s nothing too special, even though I liked the addition of other magic schools. I still enjoy the Quidditch World Cup, the whole section is excellent. It’s a glimpse at the larger world. The Death Eater march is also interesting, because politically it’s… familiar. There’s some smart political commentary in Harry Potter. Especially in regards to house-elves. Before, I didn’t like or understand Hermione’s tirade on house-elf rights. It seemed silly. On reflection, it’s a really laudable thing for Hermione to do. The silliness I didn’t like as a teen I understand better now: Hermione never talks to the elves about it. She speaks for them, a privileged wizard. Much like if I started speaking for, say, Muslim women who wear the hijab, instead of listening and letting them talk. It’s presumptuous. But her heart is in the right place. The flawed depiction is spot-on. Hermione makes mistakes, frequently, but she’s so steadfast, intelligent and loyal. She’s my favourite of the Trio, for sure. Even if it was flawed, she still took a stand for what she believed. At 14. And she learns from it, and puts her feelings to good use in DH. She feels more for the disenfranchised, I think, because Ron and Harry are privileged by coming from wizarding families. Sure, Harry Potter might have been raised by Muggles, but that doesn’t matter when everyone knows his history. Hermione’s a ‘Mudblood’ and her empathy comes from the oppression she faces, and that she can extrapolate to others. It’s really important for that kind of a character to be in a children’s story.

 

OotP

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Ahah. I eat my words at 15.

Not all. I still feel like Grawp as a character is very poorly drawn, for example. Either cut him, or make his role less clumsy and tacked on. In theory, I want to see more non-humans and I want those smug pure bloods to eat their words. In practice, Kreacher’s role in DH manages that much better than Grawp ever has. While having a giant at the Battle of Hogwarts is useful, he could have been mentioned off-handedly and not given so much time when I never felt there was much pay-off.

But regardless of Grawp, this second time ‘round I really appreciate OotP. Without those three years of frantic speculation, OotP is delightful and creepy. Umbridge is a wonderful, wonderful villain. That detention quill is one of my favourite details in the series. (Ooooh the shivers!) ‘Dumbledore’s Army’ and the training sequences are so much fun. I love when we watch the characters actively learn magic, and for a series set in a school, there’s precious few of those scenes. The Weasley twins are fantastic. Harry’s raging is annoying but age-appropriate and, from my advanced age of somewhere in my mid-twenties, I can nod and sigh teenagers. Oh, and that thing with the brain at the Department of Mysteries? So great. Oh oh and Snape backstory! And the Noble and Ancient House of Black! And… you know what? I love how dark and yet bizarre it is. It’s just this fireworks explosion of carnival-esque colour and creepiness.

Sirius dying still bothers me though. I just feel like the steady murdering off of every parental figure, barring the Weasleys, Harry has is overdone. Actually, I think it’s interesting that his non-traditional father figures, Sirius the suffering-from-PTSD-and-claustrophobia convict and Lupin the angsty werewolf, are removed from the narrative leaving him with the very traditional and very loving Weasley family that he eventually marries into. I have very mixed feelings about what this says.

 

HBP

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

I’ve never disliked HBP. When it came out I thought it was a great throwback to Prisoner of Azkaban, with a similar level of grimness, pacing, and school-focussed hijinks. Hogwarts is back to normal (sort of), Dumbledore finally gets his head out of his ass and starts treating Harry like a real person, and there’s that textbook. Advanced Potion-Making. Party! More academic stuff! Actually, in some ways the textbook is a let-down, since basically everyone treats it like a cheat, even though, uh, potion-making seems to have been about following recipes anyway. I’m going to cover this more in part 3. Suffice it to say I love the ‘learning’ details and HBP had many of them. I liked the new face of Draco: suddenly we can sympathize with him while still thinking he’s a shithead. Complexity! I love that he hangs out with Moaning Myrtle. I bet she crushes on him. (What? Tom Felton at least is very attractive.)

Basically I liked this book a lot. I liked the pacing and the plot and the thing with the inferi in the cave was creepy and the ending was very dramatic, and since I knew Snape was on Dumbledore’s side, Dumbledore’s death didn’t trouble me unduly. Also, Ginny Weasley is badass and apart from the aforementioned ridiculously stupid description of the monster in Harry’s chest, I think they’re adorable together.

 

DH

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Well, I’m not really a fan of DH. It’s alright I suppose. (Look! High praise!) The Deathly Hallows themselves aren’t foreshadowed anywhere ever, and neither are the Tales of Beedle the Bard. No, Harry’s Invisibility Cloak doesn’t count as foreshadowing in this case. Maybe if we’d had an inkling that his is a particularly good Cloak, but until the scene at Xenophilius Lovegood’s, all we know is that they are rare and Moody has two.

Anyway, much of the book is the Trio camping with the One Ring locket horcrux being angsty, which is boring. It just is. I’ve always felt that this books suffers from lack of the Hogwarts framing device. Hogwarts imbues such a sense of place. One of the problems with DH is a complete lack of sense of place. Well, ok, for the most part they’re out in the wilds of Britain somewhere. But unless you’re familiar with the wilds of Britain… well, even then, there’s not much character since the drama is focussed on the Trio and setting wards and Snatchers and what not. They spend some time at many places from the previous books, but they’re constantly moving so everything feels a bit more like a cardboard cut out. Maybe another author could have pulled it off, but I don’t think the structure played to JKR’s strengths. The action setpieces—the raid on the Ministry, Gringott’s, Battle of Hogwarts—were impressive but never really felt like enough payoff to account for the boredom and tedium. Look, I have nothing against showing boredom and tedium in war: I’m given to understand that’s how war works. It’s just you shouldn’t bore your readers too. Tamora Pierce pulls this off in Squire and Lady Knight. Kel constantly chafes when she’s not taking action, but it’s never boring for the reader. Part of that might be because Tamora Pierce simply has wittier, more engaging dialogue (even if her prose style is occasionally awkward).

And during the Battle of Hogwarts, Hogwarts didn’t feel like Hogwarts. That could be put to good use, but introspective dialogue about how heart-wrenchingly strange Hogwarts seems is scarce-to-non-existent as the action mounts. It doesn’t became different-but-unique, it becomes stock. It’s a cardboard cut-out of a magic school.

My favourite part in the book, though, is how the Trio’s kindness wins over Kreacher. I think Kreacher is adorable in a creepy way.

I have mixed feelings about Harry … well, not dying. I still feel like the story would be stronger if he’d died and sacrificed himself like Lily for everyone he loved. (He does accomplish that, but it feels… cheap. Like he didn’t sacrifice enough, or something, but then again, his whole life he has been raised to be Dumbledore’s lamb—maybe it’s fair that he gets a chance at life.) And then again, resurrected heroes, from ancient myths to Jesus to King Arthur (the Once and Future King) are a trope and have strong cultural resonance and maybe that’s not so bad. I have no issue with Harry laying down his life, though. I like that well enough. I like that he chooses surrender over violence. Even when he fights, he embodies a gentility and honour that is reinforced by the people he surrounds himself: Ron, who cares strongly for those he loves and who also sacrifices himself (the chess game), and Hermione, who never ever leaves Harry and who also stands up for the rights of others.

Also, the horcruxes… I wish this hadn’t been dumped on us near the end of HBP. It feels late in the game to bring that about. It’s hard to get really invested in horcruxes. Instead of one McGuffin, now we have seven. Usually liches have one phylactery, but no, Voldemort-by-way-of-JKR has to make everything more plotty and annoying. This compounds my annoyance at how we don’t spend any time in school learning things. Please, throw out your strengths, JKR, and just write all-out action. Sigh.

Also Remus Lupin + Nymphadora Tonks = Ted. Ted. WHY? I hate the name Ted.* Ever seen that Buffy episode?

Look, we’re just going to not talk about the twins. For me, the grief is still too near.

Oh, and the epilogue. It sucks. It shouldn’t have been printed.

*My apologies to any Teds out there.

List of abbreviations that you’re probably already familiar with but in case you aren’t here’s the handy dandy guide:
HP – the Harry Potter series
JKR – J. K. Rowling
PS – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
CoS – Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
PoA – Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
GoF – Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
OotP – Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
HBP – Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
DH – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Revisting Harry Potter – Part 1

PS - UK

Part 1 – The Girl Who Discovered Harry Potter Only To Dislike Him (But Only For Six Years)

This post contains spoilers. Ye be warned.

I haven’t reread Harry Potter since Deathly Hallows came out in July 2007. Since both my dad and I enjoyed them, we’d bought it right on the day it was released, as we had with Half-Blood Prince. As I had with Order of the Phoenix and HBP* before it, I read the entire thing before dinner time.

And I didn’t like it. I felt DH was a poor ending for a variety of reasons.

So I called it quits with Harry Potter, stopped reading fanfiction, refused to talk about it, and decided that as of summer 2007 I was now a university student—taking creative writing, no less—and therefore HP was beneath me. It’s YA fiction anyway.

(Please politely overlook the fact that I reread at least one Tamora Pierce series every one or two years. I thank you for your discretion.)

Now that I have a university degree under my belt, and I’ve levelled up my reading skills considerably, I decided that it’s high time to revise my opinion.

However, let’s jump back in time. I started reading Harry Potter a month or so before Goblet of Fire was published, when I was 10. A friend of mine had Philosopher’s Stone lying around and, having seen it at school when they passed the Scholastic catalogue around, I picked it up and read the first chapter. Seemed charming and British and I liked British children’s fiction, so that was good. I borrowed it. I got the rest from the library and liked them very much. I enjoyed Harry, didn’t much care for Ron or Hagrid, I adored Hermione and McGonagall and Snape and Sirius and Lupin (my favourite characters). I was charmed as so many children and adults are, by the little details that JKR uses to bring her story to life. I can’t say I ever cared to get a Hogwarts letter (I still would rather have trained to be a knight with Tamora Pierce’s Keladry), but I enjoyed the atmosphere. PoA was absolutely my favourite of the four.

Later that year, in 2000, my Oma was dying of pneumonia in Slovakia. We flew overseas to be with her. My parents bought me Philosopher’s StoneChamber of Secrets, and Prisoner of Azkaban (but not GoF, because it was only in hardcover and we had to worry about luggage weight) at the Tesco in Bratislava. I spent most of time either drawing, exploring the apartment, eating good Slovak cheese, and rereading and rereading and rereading Harry Potter. Since there were two more years before OotP would be released, I built up a whole headcanon of what would happen, based on the hints from the books.

cos-uk-kids-jacket-artpoa-uk-kids-jacket-artharrypotterandthegobleti

The major reason I disliked OotP in particular is due to those three years I had to wait between GoF and OotP. Three years is a ridiculously long time to a young kid. In those years, I discovered fanfiction. I made up Mary Sues, discovered the existence of slash fiction (by way of LotR), read the infamous Draco Trilogy that (helped) spawn the Draco in Leather Pants trope, and read a hundred or more versions of how the end game would play out—and discussed the end with family and friends in real life, on top of that.

ootp-uk-kids-cover-artOotP is, in some ways, relentlessly depressing. Harry Potter becomes capslock!Harry, an angry 15 year old. Since it came out the same year I discovered Mercedes Lackey—and more importantly, Vanyel—you’d think I’d have had more sympathy with his teenage angst. But I didn’t. Harry annoyed me. The whole book, minus the Weasley twins’ magnificent escape, annoyed me. The Quidditch sequences, which I’d always enjoyed, were scarce. Grawp was the worst thing that had ever happened, ever. Oh, and then Sirius died. I was not impressed.

It was insufferably frustrating that for three years the entire world had known Voldemort is back, and that speculation on how the war would progress had been all over the internet, and now we had to deal with a whole book where the chief conflict is the Ministry’s suppression of something that everyone I know already knows.

That these were meta gripes and not particularly related to how the story hung together as a story completely passed me by. I beg your indulgence. I was 13.

hbp-uk-kids-jacket-artI enjoyed HBP, published the summer I turned 16, much better. There was more Quidditch. Finally Dumbledore was talking to Harry. We were getting answers. There was a sense that we were moving into the endgame. The darkness suited me fine: at this point, I was going through my own capslock!Amber stage. My main critique was that for a story where Snape was the second title character, we didn’t really see him enough. But that’s more the complaint of anyone who has a favourite character who is not a main character: I need more! More!

And now, forgive me, readers, as I must indulge in a bit of smugness. At no point during HBP did I ever doubt Snape was on Dumbledore’s side. It seemed pretty obvious to me. PS had foreshadowed it; not to mention the way Dumbledore’s voice changes as he begs Snape to kill him. It would have been out of character for Dumbledore to beg Snape to not kill him. (Additionally, many of the reasons we learn in DH felt adequately foreshadowed by what we learn about Snape in the first six books.) Clearly, however, JKR’s second Snape fake-out really persuaded some people: my comfortable, smug security in Snape having acted on Dumbledore’s orders led to frustrated people yelling at me as we argued about it. “HOW can you THINK he’s not on Voldemort’s side?! SNAPE KILLED DUMBLEDORE!”

And so, we come to the Deathly Hallows.

I don’t think I was as mad at DH as I was at OotP. I liked Sirius better than most characters, so it was especially upsetting when he died. By DH I was sort of numb. I cared less. I figured there would be casualties and I hoped they would be characters I didn’t like, like Hagrid or Grawp or something. (In retrospect killing off Hagrid would probably have the a worse ‘break faith with the readers’ effect that Sirius’ death had for me, since people who are not me really like Hagrid; to which I say, enjoy! and I shall be over here in an alternate unidh-uk-kids-jacket-artverse where Sirius and Lupin are living in a flat together, alive and best buddies.) I expected Snape to die, so that was fine. Anyway, 17 year old world-weary Amber stopped liking Harry Potter after Deathly Hallows, mainly because of how radically this book deviates from the previous six. In terms of the story, many of the events do make sense. I’ll cover this in Part 2, but at the time I really thought the book suffered the lack of Hogwarts as a framing device. Hogwarts has had its own character throughout the series. In Book 7, out in the real world, the ministry, the many different wilderness campsites, #12 Grimmauld Place, all felt rather like a cardboard background compared to Hogwarts’ vitality. And in the big set-piece of a final battle, it… didn’t feel like Hogwarts. It felt like a generic Anycastle, in Anywhere Scotland. Disappointing. The locket Horcrux felt very much like the One Ring. The epilogue is unbelievably awful. Furthermore, I was rather upset that Harry didn’t die at the end, as it felt too much like a cop-out.

I’ve changed my mind about a lot of these things, or refined my opinion at least. But I’ll save that for Part 2!

 

*List of abbreviations that you’re probably already familiar with but in case you aren’t here’s the handy dandy guide:
HP – the Harry Potter series
JKR – J. K. Rowling
PS – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
CoS – Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
PoA – Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
GoF – Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
OotP – Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
HBP – Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
DH – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Comic Book Review: Aya – Life in Yop City

Cover

Aya: Life in Yop City
Marguerite Abouet
Clement Oubrerie

I like comics like this a lot: a glimpse into another culture made especially rich by the blending of word and art. I think that’s why there seems to be a whole subgenre of comics that are basically cultural memoirs or travelogues. Pioneered, perhaps, by Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis? Either way, I see a lot of these on the comic shelves and they’re usually much more enticing than the latest issue of Musclebound Uberdudes.

Marguerite Abouet states that one of the reasons she wrote Aya was to give another view of Africa than the unceasing misery and poverty we’re fed on TV. It’s hard to be interested in culture and history and miss how diverse Africa is, and since ‘real Africa’ isn’t exactly heavily represented in Canadian media, it’s great to see this snapshot of another time. Set during an economic boom in Ivory Coast in the 1970′s, the action of Aya could easily have happened in any North American city. It’s not the plot that keeps the attention, though it skips along through the drama of affairs, teenage love and beauty pageants—it’s the rich details, the extraordinary colours that artist Clement Oubrerie uses to bring Yop City to life, and in the loving, compassionate way that Abouet writes her characters.

The action largely revolves around the antics of the main trio on the cover: Adjoua, Aya and Bintou. It is a soap opera. There’s a lot of love in Aya, close relationships between family and neighbourhood. The reality, that people are make bad choices that have repercussions but in the end they are still human and family, is the sensibility that underlies interactions. I found myself feeling very affectionate towards nearly everyone (even hidebound, philandering Ignace, the titular Aya’s father). I kept reading because I cared. I wanted everyone to be alright, and most especially I wished people would wise up!

Aya alone seems… not uninteresting, but she has a severe case of MainCharacteritis, where the side characters are much more colourful and interesting. Aya’s main role is confidante. She’s level-headed and calls her friends and family out for their bullshit, and not always nicely. But she’s always there to help out. Her ambition is to be a doctor, and it’s clear that’s a great profession for her. Her father, Ignace, isn’t for it, being old-fashioned, but that’s not going to stop Aya. She alone of nearly every character in the book has no love interest. I’d like to spend more time with her, and maybe less time with her friend Bintou, whose relationship with the Parisian Gregoire is rather like a slowmotion trainwreck.

Aya Panel

I’d be remiss not to bring up the art. While I’m not usually a fan of very stylized cartoons (common, I believe, in French comics?), the style here worked for me. I really enjoyed the action and movement. The characters are easy to differentiate by body and face shape. I had a very good idea of what these characters would look like in real life. I also really enjoyed the variety of skintones. While every character is black, the variety of tone added to the realism and brought home just how often there’s only a token black character in the media I’m exposed to.

Then there’s the landscapes and colour choices. The way colour is used just blew me away. The times of day radically effect the colour choice in each panel. Night scenes are blueish black and so dark that it’s hard to make out the characters—which is important as the characters mistake their lovers in the ‘Thousand Star Hotel’. At least one page has a scene taking place at dusk, and the colours change accordingly. Though I’ve never been to Ivory Coast, I imagine the various incredibly bright and beautiful colours of sky in Aya are representative. The atmosphere feels different: hotter and brighter and dustier than Vancouver Island—heck, even the rendering of the rainy season doesn’t look like the rain we get here (and we get a lot of rain!). Masterfully done.

I enjoyed Aya and I’m glad that the library has the next two books. I wouldn’t say it’s dramatically altered my life, or made me think very hard, but it was a fun read, it had terrific atmosphere, and I care very much about the characters—and I learned a whole bunch about Ivory Coast. I definitely recommend it.

Assorted Thoughts on The Lord of the Rings

This is my editionAfter rereading the Valdemar series, I guess I’ve got a big rereading bug. After finishing the Owl books, I jumped right into The Lord of the Rings.

J. R. R. Tolkien is rightly regarded as the grandfather of the modern fantasy genre, as he inspired hundreds of authors. The downside to this is that he also inspired a legion of clones. (Sword of Shannara, I’m looking right at you.) Fantasy is theoretically limited by nothing. Unfortunately, the Tolkienesque Quest Plot more often than not takes over. The simple existence of shabby imitations, however, does not change what The Lord of the Rings is—an incredibly detailed work of the imagination, that despite being an entirely made-up world down to the language, nevertheless has resonated with millions of people for at least two generations. (Am I old enough now that kids ten years younger than me are older than I was when I first read LotR? Oh gosh!)

I’m not going to lie, part of my preteen/teenage obsession with LotR is due to the movies. I started reading the trilogy when I was 11; when I was 12 The Fellowship of the Ring movie hit cinemas. It literally changed my life. Suddenly I cared about movies when I’d never liked them much before. Suddenly the world of audio-visual media came alive for me in a way that no prior—or subsequent—movie ever had. I wrote fanfiction, I saved screencaps and browsed them regularly, I reread the books. I mooned endlessly over Orlando Bloom’s Legolas—suddenly I cared very much about boys (certain kinds of boys, anyway). I was, after all, 12.

Pretty!The best part was that it didn’t detract from my pleasure of reading. My skill at visualizing was aided by the movies, but I still had my own ideas. I simply accepted different canons for both media, and fanfictions labelled as ‘movieverse’ or ‘bookverse’ helped. As the real delight of Tolkien is the language, much more so than plot or characters (shabby imitators cannot do what he has done, for they are not linguists who could read the Old English and Norse epics and tales that inspired Tolkien). So in the movies language is celebrated in the dialogue and poems, and the beautiful descriptions are replaced with sweeping shots of New Zealand, incredible matte paintings, and masterful CG—not to mention for the most part excellent acting. A different language for different media, so to speak. Complementary but not competing.

That being said, LotR’s writing style went over my head at the age of 11. I read them, but I found them difficult. I liked them, but as a sheltered suburban child with fuzzy visualization skills, not to mention a penchant for skimming, my reading comprehension suffered a little. I’m still embarrassed that in my first read-through I imagined the Council of Elrond taking place in a red-brick warehouse. Regardless of my occasionally poor imagination, I was rather pretentious about my LotR knowledge in high school, even though I still found the books difficult. I also read The Silmarillion twice in my mid-teens. Definitely flew a bit over my head both times, though I remember the important things.

All this to say that I picked up LotR this year with trepidation. Did I really want to deal with boring prose? Nearly every one of my friends, not to mention acquaintances at the UVic writing program, say that Tolkien bored them, that they stopped at some point in either The Two Towers or The Return of the King, invariably at some point where Sam and Frodo are tediously walking walking walking to/in Mordor and getting nowhere. Very few people I know offline have read all of LotR once, not to mention three or four times as I have. (And for me, that’s full rereads, not counting rereading certain passage over and over.) And don’t even get them started on the poems.

Too funny!Perhaps my university degree was good for something. After Frodo finally gets out of the Shire (I don’t like Hobbits much), I was blown away. I did not remember ever enjoying LotR quite like this: the rhythm of the prose in my head lulled me straight into Tolkien’s imagination. The Hobbits, that I had never really cared for, were suddenly charming in a way I’d never noticed before. And the descriptions made everything so real. In one or two deft sentences, Tolkien exactly describes the quality of dew on grass in the morning, or the way fog hangs about a dense forest, or how footsteps sound on different kinds of ground. I vividly remembered forests I’d been in, drawing on my experiences and Tolkien’s writing to build a Middle-Earth in my head that was more detailed, incredible and stunning than even the movies (sorry, Peter Jackson, they’re excellent, but you can’t feel the breeze or smell rain in a movie). Part of this is that I simply have more memories than an 11 year old does. Part of this is that after six years of carefully reading poetry, philosophy and prose at a university level, I have greater patience. I no longer skim descriptions, eager for dialogue and action.

For the first time, I was struck by how easy it is to read Tolkien. His excellent grasp of rhythm guides the mind’s ear. Sentences flow. There’s nothing clunky about his prose. I simply do not understand how I never noticed before.

I’ve always enjoyed the poems, too. While Tolkien’s style gets a bit repetitive (moon, stars, etc, not to mention the similar meter) I do appreciate his imagery. I wish more poetry was included in fiction, blended in. That being sad, I’d prefer it from people who can actually write poetry, and the overlap between fantasists and poets seems sadly small.

I suddenly want to run up to all my friends and say, “Hey, hey, we’re older now, we’ve read dense and hard books, come try Tolkien again! You won’t be disappointed!”

That being said, I do feel the second and third books drag a bit. That Tolkien may have included too many names of people we don’t care about. The racist undertones are uncomfortable. (Whether or not Tolkien meant his orcs and Haradrim to be racist is moot; the imagery of black as evil has racist origins, his lack of POC (people of colour) on the side of light and fluffy bunnies is frustrating, and there was framework in the 50s to understand underlying racism that he could have drawn on. One does not need to be racist to have racist thoughts and concepts; they are embedded into culture. But they must be questioned and discussed.) His female characters are few and far between, and very much set on a pedestal. They are all beautiful and exceptional (unless they are old and mortal, like the woman healer at the House of Healing in Gondor). Galadriel is an ancient, powerful Queen, one of her kind; Eowyn is the only Shieldmaiden mentioned, and while I think it’s very powerful that part of her motivation is a death wish, her curing by the hands of men and then subsequent desire to lay down arms forever is disempowering. For her, it is a binary state: either heal or fight. Aragorn does not need to give up Anduril to heal, nor Faramir his arms. To be a healed woman, she has to shed ‘manly’ tendencies.

In french!Problematic things aside—most works are problematic in one way or another—I still think there’s a lot to learn from Tolkien. Sometimes we can learn from his mistakes or shortcomings: include better representation of women and POC, spend less time on the logistics of endless walking, have fewer characters with stronger, more distinct personalities. I think the most important thing to take away from Tolkien is the rhythm of sentences, his deft and evocative way with description, the attention to detail, a way to show immensity and power.

I’m really glad I read these books again. At 11 they were an overwhelming world that I felt I could never understand; at 16 I understood the characters better, and The Silmarillion gave me a better understanding of the history of the world. And now, at 23, I got something entirely different out of them: a delight with the prose and workings and structure of the story. I suppose in another five or ten years, I’ll find something entirely different. The road goes ever on and on, after all.

As I could not possibly show you all the covers of every edition of LotR, here’s a few links to cover galleries.

Book Review – Cold Magic

Cold-Magic

Cold Magic
Kate Elliott
The Spiritwalker Trilogy: Book 1

This book blew me away! It had exactly the right blend of action, character development and worldbuilding to keep me utterly enthralled.

If you’ve hung around me enough, you might have noticed that I don’t care for Europe as a setting (especially unrealistically white Europe). Kate Elliott averts this: her Europe is populated with Celts and West Africans fleeing a plague, and the culture that emerges—a culture where the Roman Empire was fought to a standstill by the Phoenicians, allowing the Celts to take back their land (I love this detail, everyone who knows me well knows I harbour a fairly irrational hatred of the Roman Empire)—is a fantastic tapestry of various cultural beliefs living in relative harmony. Most of the population is mixed race, with a variety of hair types and colours, skin colours, facial features and backgrounds. This refreshing, deeply researched world is an absolute pleasure to spend time in.

The minimal steampunk influence is excellent. There’s an airship, social agitating, the excitement of discovery, mention of a city across the ocean in ‘Amerike’ called Expedition—thrilling and integral, but not overwhelming. I imagine actual steampunk fans may want more, but, eh, this is perfect for me.

Right away, this world pulled me and didn’t let me go. When I realized the main character’s people, the Phoenicians or Kena’ani, were traditionally enemies of the ‘lying Romans’ I got so excited I actually had to stop reading. I needed to just process that delight before I could give the narrative my full attention. Look, everyone I know adores the hell out of the Roman Empire for some reason, and I just feel so validated, ok? VALIDATED.

Our main character is Catherine Hassi Barahal, of the Kena’ani, not yet the age of majority but a loyal daughter of a house that spies and keeps knowledge close. Her fealty to her house, and especially to her beloved cousin Bee with whom she’s very close, is a defining characteristic, as is her cat’s curiosity. She and Bee are thick as thieves, and not averse to breaking rules. They attend college together, learning about combustion and aerodynamics and history, the politics of princes, and the mysterious cold magic the Mage Houses wield.

This book starts with tension, and the tension never lets go. The stakes are only raised, first as Cat sneaks books around her uncle, then as she and Bee get into trouble at college, and beyond. The tension holds throughout. The book moves at a good clip, but doesn’t neglect description and necessary exposition, which are a delight to read.

At times I found Elliott’s prose a little clunky, until I realized that Cat’s voice (the book is written in first person) mirrors the stodginess of Victorian prose without becoming unnecessarily dense. It’s a good way to keep a sense of time in place without replicating the out-of-date style of a 19th century novel. In addition, there are poetic turns of phrase and a boldness in metaphor, which I absolutely delight in. So many modern books so tediously resemble movie scripts. I can picture what things look like in Elliott’s world, and it’s vivid and brought to life. But I don’t want to scare off anyone who likes streamlined prose: Elliott’s not dense, nor is language at the forefront in the same way, say, a Catherynne M. Valente book would be.

Seriously, do yourself a favour and read this book. It’s incredibly difficult to put down, it’s that good. It’s the best new-to-me book I’ve read this year.

Below the cut I’ll talk VERY spoilerifically about what I loved best, and what I wasn’t as keen on.

BEYOND THIS POINT THERE BE SPOILERS

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Heralds of Valdemar Overview

FoundationWhew! This year had a lot of Valdemar in it. I was a bit more hesitant to say negative things when I started this blog series, and then I became increasingly frustrated with certain things that cropped up in the Valdemar books over and over.

  • Telling instead of showing was the huge one. Narrative summary and dull internal monologue comprised most of each book, which seemed like padding at best, and simply bad or cowardly writing at worst. Single brooding characters are much less interesting and do not carry the plot in the way two or more characters discussing and changing due to actions and discussions do.
  • Her characters’ voices were all quite similar. There wasn’t much to distinguish one from the other, apart from superficial things. Many plots relied on misunderstandings, which are tedious. I’m looking at you, Arrows books.
  • Good and evil are irritatingly simplified.

That being said, these books have strengths. I would recommend them to middle school kids or teenagers, for the most part—sex is glossed over but is treated in a sex-positive way, there are plenty of strong female characters, and I think it’s healthy and cathartic to read about angsty characters when you yourself are angsty, as many teens are. The fantasy elements are often silly, but then that’s part of the charm. Wish fulfillment is necessary in fiction to a certain extent. It gives hope.Pretty cover!

As adult books, they fail simply due to their lack of complexity. That being said, adults can and do enjoy YA all the time (I still read Tamora Pierce, I liked Kristin Cashore’s Graceling books, I’m currently reading Kate Elliott’s Cold Magic and am enjoying it immensely so far). If I were in charge of marketing the Valdemar books I would market them as YA. Furthermore many people I know read the Heralds of Valdemar in early high school. This isn’t meant as a slight; I just think they do teenagers good, but a more refined and/or practiced taste will long for something … more. (Though, in my honest opinion, one Tamora Pierce book probably contains more nuance than the whole Valdemar oeuvre.)

A note on the Collegium Chronicles, since you’ll note I didn’t write about them. There’s a reason for that. I could barely read them. There are things I want to like about them… but for the most part they’re fluffy books full of filler and not much else.

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