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9780670068395Last May I was a basket case.  I was working too much and, when I wasn’t working, I was studying.  Occasionally I tried to sleep but I was so wired that I was getting by on four hours a night.

Into this mess came a ray of sunlight: Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay was published on May 10th.  For a few days, I put aside my other concerns (and text books) and just read.  It was wonderful.  So wonderful, in fact, that I picked it up again on Christmas Day and reread it.

Kay writes historical fantasy with a focus on the historical and only a light sprinkling of fantasy (very light here).  My favourite of his books are inspired by Moorish Spain (The Lions of Al-Rassan), medieval Provence (A Song for Arbonne) and Tang-dynasty China (Under Heaven).  In Children of Earth and Sky, he takes his inspiration from Renaissance-era Europe, specifically focusing on the trading powers of Venice (Seressa) and Dubrovnik (Dubrava) and their complicated relationship with one another and the Ottoman (Osmanli) empire to the east.

Kay is fascinated by stories about borderlands – places where different groups of people overlap, where cultures and religions are in conflict, where anything might happen.  In other books, those people have been emperors and kings, individuals with the power to change and destroy lives.  Perhaps the most noticeable change about Children of Earth and Sky when compared to Kay’s other books is the relative anonymity of his characters.  These are not kings or generals but even their actions have consequences for the lives of many.

At the heart of the book are five characters: Leonora, the disgraced daughter of a noble family who has been plucked from the religious order where her family had left her to act as a spy for Seressa in Dubrava; Pero, a young and talented artist who, like Leonora, is being sent east by Seressa to  spy (in his case on the Osmanli grand khalif); Danica, a fierce young woman seeking revenge for the father and elder brother killed and the younger brother abducted by the Osmanlis; Marin, the youngest and cleverest son of a wealthy Dubrava family; and Damaz, a member of the elite Osmanli fighting force known as the djanni.  Each of their lives changes in ways they could never have imagined – and they in turn change the world around them in ways both big and small.

Kay seems even more philosophical than usual in this book, which is fine by me.  He is at his most lyrical when musing on fate or the fragility of life:

You lived your life in intimate proximity to its sudden end.  Prayers were more intense because of this.  Help was needed, under sun, moons, stars – and some reason to hope for what might come after.

Laughter was also necessary, and found, in spite of – or because of – these close and terrible dangers.  Simple pleasures.  Music and dance, wine, ale, dice and cards.  Harvest’s end, the taste of berries on the bush, tricking the bees from a hive full of honey.  Warmth and play in a bed at night or in the straw of a bar.  Companionship.  Sometimes love.

There were reasons to fear in every season, however, in every place where men and women tried to shape and guard their lives.

Maybe because of this interest, his secondary characters seem more developed (and plentiful) than usual.  The faded Empress of Sarantium, who has lost her empire, her husband and her son but not her wits or strength.  The proud, doomed pirates of Senjan who, loyal to their ruler, march inland to fight against the Osmanlis and meet their fate bravely and on their own terms.  The farm girl whose life is enlivened for a year by the arrival of a tall, handsome boy, giving flight to dreams of a life with him rather than the short, dull neighbour whose farm adjoins hers.  The aging fighter who has spent half his life roaming the countryside, fighting the Osmanlis who took his home from him.  Great or small, their stories are richly told and, whether they appear for a few pages or a few chapters, these characters lived for me.

It is a beautifully-told story and, with its focus very much on human emotions rather than grand events, a poignant one.  I revisited it with pleasure this week and I know I’ll reread it with joy in years to come.

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under-heaven-canadaI picked up Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay late Sunday night and every minute spent not reading between then and when I finished it this evening felt like wasted time.

Kay writes historical fantasies (or, perhaps more appropriately, fantastical histories).  He has used this to explore renaissance Italy (Tigana), medieval Provence (A Song for Arbonne), Moorish Spain (The Lions of Al-Rassan), Viking incursions in Britain (The Last Light of the Sun), the Byzantine Empire (in two books- Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors), and, most recently, China’s Song dynasty (River of Stars).  Each book is meticulously researched, densely plotted, and beautifully written.  I’ve spent the last few years reading them all and now, joyously, have begun rereading.  But for me, Under Heaven, Kay’s epic based on the An Shi Rebellion during the 8th century Tang Dynasty, is his best, most complete, most perfectly balanced work to date.

Across a sprawling empire, Kay tracks the fates of his characters: an aging emperor obsessed with escaping death; his brilliant, beautiful consort, the most influential woman in the empire; an arrogant general; an honorary princess sent to wed a barbarian; a female warrior with a tongue as sharp as her swords; and, at the heart of it all, a young man emerging from the mourning period following the death of his father into a world of ambition, corruption, and near constant danger.

Just writing that makes me want to start reading again from page one.

For anyone who has read Kay’s work, it should go without saying that his research into the period is immaculate.  The culture and values of the Tang dynasty are such an important part of the story, guiding the thoughts and actions of all the characters.  Somehow, with great artistry since even after a second reading I’m not sure how he managed it, Kay passes that strong sense of the culture on to the reader, which in turns informs our understanding of everything that passes.  Also, for history geeks (hello kindred spirits!), in his acknowledgements Kay includes detailed information on the books and experts he consulted during the writing process.

For almost six hundred pages, Kay weaves myths and superstitions, poetry and music into a story of political unrest and upheaval.  He is (always) unbelievably good a creating and sustaining tension.  Even though I had read this before and remembered it well, I still spent the last two hundred pages with my heart caught in my throat as the tension built and, inevitably, chaos erupted.

What makes this his best book though is his ability to balance that external tension with the human relationships between friends and enemies, servants and masters, brothers and sisters.  Who to trust, who to love, who to be wary of – in uncertain times these are important, life-defining questions.

It is a beautiful, complex, enthralling story and, much as I loved it the first time around, I think I love it even more now.  I can’t image a day when I would finish it and not be instantly looking forward to the next time I read it.

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Under HeavenI have made a bargain with myself: I have to review Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay before I can start reading Kay’s most recent book, River of Stars.  I am a harsh task master since there is nothing I want to do more right now that start reading the new book but one must have discipline.

Kay is the master of historical fantasy.  He began his writing career with the Tolkien-inspired high fantasy series The Fionavar Tapestry but his real success has been with fact-inspired novels like A Song For Arbonne (set in medieval Languedoc) and The Lions of Al-Rassan (which focuses on the tensions between Muslims, Christians and Jews in medieval Spain).  In Under Heaven, he takes Tang Dynasty China and the An Shi Rebellion as his inspiration and the results are spectacular, easily on par with The Lions of Al-Rassan, which, until now, I had considered his best work.

Shen Tai has spent two years among the dead.  Living alone on the plain between the kingdoms of Tagur and Kitai, where years before a great battle was fought, Tai spends his days burying the bones of the dead and his nights listening to the ghosts of those he has not yet buried.  A young man with many talents but no fixed career, Tai has chosen to spend the official two and half year mourning period following his father’s death burying the dead at Kuala Nor, to “honour his father’s sorrow” for what happened there.  But before his mourning period is ended, Tai’s quiet is disrupted; first by a gift of overwhelming and terrible generosity, then by an assassin’s attack.

The White Jade Princess, sent twenty years before from her homeland of Kitai to wed the ruler of Tagur and cement the peace between the two warring nations, has bestowed a gift on Tai in recognition of what he has done at Kuala Nor.  She has given him rare Sardian horses, called Heavenly Horses in Kitan, where “Tai’s people longed for them with a passion that had influenced imperial policy, warfare, and poetry for centuries”:

You gave a man one of the Sardian horses to reward him greatly.  You gave him four or five of those glories to exalt him above his fellows, propel him towards rank – and earn him the jealousy, possibly mortal, of those who rode the smaller horses of the steppes.

The Princess Cheng-wan, a royal consort of Tagur now through twenty years of peace, had just bestowed upon him, with permission, two hundred and fifty of the dragon horses.

A gift of two hundred and fifty Sardian horses can change a man’s life.  Or, as Tai knows, end it.

But desire for the horses is not the only reason people might want Tai dead.  Shortly after learning of the Princess’ gift to him, one of Tai’s old friends arrives in Kuala Nor to give him news of his family.  Before the friend can speak, he is killed and the assassin, who had masqueraded as his bodyguard, turns on her real target: Tai.  Tai escapes but it is clear to him that he needs to return to Xinan, the Kitan capital, and discover who wants him dead and why.  In the company of Wei Song, a Kanlin Warrior sent by his old lover, a courtesan named Spring Rain who is now under the protection of the prime minister, to guard Tai, and later the poet Sima Zian, Tai sets off to learn how the world – and his family – has changed in the two years he has been gone.

Meanwhile, Tai’s only sister, Li-Mei, is on a journey of her own.  Once a lady-in-attendance to the empress, Li-Mei has recently been named a princess and is accompanying the true princess, the thirty-first daughter of the emperor, to Bogü where Li-Mei is to become the umpteenth wife of the ruler’s second-son.  It is a great honour for her family, one engineered by her eldest brother Liu, but the canny, sophisticated Li-Mei is horrified that she is being sent against her will to live among barbarians.  A life among uneducated nomadic tribes people on the steppes is not what she had dreamed of during all those years at court, before the emperor fell in love with Wen Jian, the precious consort, and the empress and her attendants were sent away from Xinan:

Li-Mei has prided herself all her life (had been praised by her father for it, if ruefully) on being more curious and thoughtful than most women.  More than most men, he’d added once.  She has remembered that moment: where they were, how he looked at her, saying it.

She is skilled at grasping new situations and changing ones, the nuances of men and women in veiled, elusive exchanges.  She’d even developed a sense of the court, of manoeuvrings for power in her time with the empress, before they were exiled and it stopped mattering. 

She dreams that Tai will rescue her but Tai, by the time her learns of her fate, is too far away to reach her.  But in a way he does save her as Li-Mei’s rescuer comes to her aid become of a debt he feels he owes Tai.  Their journey and the dangers they face are much simpler than the ones Tai and his companions encounter, but no less fascinating.

Kay does everything perfectly in this book.  Really.  He is always so good at spinning complicated webs of political intrigue but here he excels himself.  Tai cannot plot and scheme the way so many of the people around him can, but he is clever enough to at least understand the different character’s motivations.  With the gift of the two-hundred and fifty horses, Tai returns to Xinan as an important man, no longer the insignificant student he had been when he had lived there years before.  He finds himself in the company of the most powerful figures of the day: Wen Jian, the emperor’s crafty concubine; Wen Zhou, the petty prime minister; and An Li, the aging general who soon launches a rebellion against the emperor that results in the deaths of millions.  Kay is masterful at building tension among these characters and the tragic scenes towards the end of the novel are brilliantly executed.

Kay’s female characters are always excellent but here they dominate.  As much as I was enjoying Tai’s journey, I was always so excited when I turned the page to discover that the story had shifted back to Li-Mei.  And the women who surround Tai on a daily basis are extraordinary.  Wen Jian, the Precious Consort, has already changed the empire: her beauty is captured forever in poetry and song, the face and form so perfect that the emperor banished his empress to make room for the younger woman in his palace and court.  But Wen Jian is more than just a pretty face; she has taken full advantage of her exalted position and is as firmly enmeshed in the activities that lead to the rebellion as any of the political leaders.  Spring Rain, the blonde haired, green eyed concubine from Sardia who Tai had loved as a student, keeps mostly quiet, sensitive to her fragile position in Wen Zhou’s household, but is admirably practical and level-headed when disaster strikes.  And it is she who sent Wei Song to protect Tai.  Wei Song, a Kanlin Warrior, is the quietest of the four main female characters but her presence and influence on Tai is inescapable and, after Li-Mei, I loved her best.  When she does speak, she is sharp and witty and certainly not afraid to tell Tai exactly what she thinks of him.

Oh, it is all so good.  I only finished reading it last week (staying up later than I probably should have, but I defy you to put this down once you are within a hundred or even two hundred pages of the end) but already I’m eager to reread it.  But first, on to River of Stars!

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My excitement about having more time to blog while on vacation obviously hasn’t translated into actual blogging.  I should have anticipated this since, as always, Claire in holiday-mode is busier than Claire in work-mode.  But it has been a lovely break, if not a restful one.  The weather has been perfect, we’ve just had a fabulous party for my parents’ 35th wedding anniversary, and I have been reading like a fiend.  So far, unemployment is treating me very well.

I have been feeling guilty over the past few weeks for not blogging about the three books in Phillip Rock’s Greville Family Saga but just could not work up the enthusiasm to do so in detail.  The books, originally published in the late seventies and early eighties, have recently been reissued and are being marketed on the strength of their similarities to Downton Abbey.  The first book, The Passing Bells, opens in the summer of 1914 and follows the characters through the first half of the war.  Circles of Time picks up a few years later, looking at the impact of the war in both England and Germany, and the trilogy concludes in A Future Arrived, which jumps forward to the Second World War.

The Passing BellsI read The Passing Bells countless times as a teenager and still love it.  It is just as soapy as I remembered but it is great fun.  The writing is not brilliant and it feels very much of its time but it is an entertaining story and Rock is excellent at incorporating historical events into the story.  That is the real issue with the first book: the events and the characters’ experiences are generally better described than the characters themselves.   But Rock does manage to fit a lot of different perspectives in to this relatively short book, between the people at home, the frontline nurses, the career soldier who finds himself enraged by the waste of human life, the young romantic who goes mad after his experiences in France, and, most importantly, the young American journalist who records everything in clear-sighted journal entries that are the highlight of this volume.

circles-of-timeCircles of Time, perhaps because it doesn’t have any big historical events to structure itself around, is a much less eventful book and focuses more the personal lives of the characters from the first book.  It is a fine, entertaining story but the structure is a little uneven and I can’t quite put my finger on why that is.  The book takes a serious turn in the second half when Martin Rilke, the Greville’s American cousin, now a famous journalist, visits his Rilke cousins in Germany and witnesses firsthand the absurdities of the Weimar Republic (from mad hedonism in Berlin nightclubs to assassinations in the streets) and the beginnings of the Nazi party in Bavaria.

A Future ArrivedThe third book, A Future Arrived, is a mess.  Honestly, I wouldn’t even recommend reading it.  The structural problems that plagued the first two books completely finish this one off, and the situation is not helped by the introduction of younger characters who are either poorly developed or second-rate copies of their elders.  It is a messy, unsatisfying book that lacks the historical detail that redeemed the flaws of the earlier novels.  Just read the first two books and forget there is a third one.

Sorcery and CeceliaAs for other books, I enjoyed Sorcery and Cecelia, or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer but am afraid I don’t have all that much to say about it.  It is an epistolary Regency-era fantasy novel – and isn’t that a mouthful?  It is the kind of fantasy I like the least – magic has never done it for me – so I think I enjoyed it less than other reader might have but both main characters (Kate and Cecelia) are great and the book is really very fun.  There are two more books in the series and I’ve already got one of them loaded on to my Kobo.

More Baths Less TalkingMore Baths Less Talking by Nick Hornby, which I read just before Sorcery and Cecelia, is a collection of Hornby’s monthly columns for the Believer about his reading choices and I got some great reading recommendations from it.  I love Hornby’s picks – he mentions many books I have already read or which are already on my TBR list – but, ultimately, he is still Hornby and I still just don’t like him all that much.  I don’t dislike him, but I have very little in common with him and don’t find his viewpoint particularly engaging or his style particularly interesting.  It is entirely a matter of taste.  There are three other volumes of earlier columns that I will probably track down one day but I’m not going to rush out to grab them.

I have some more exciting books to review soon, ones that I want to do justice to with dedicated posts – an excellent Monica Dickens novel, a lacklustre Persephone, and two fabulous Georgette Heyers among them – but for now I’m headed back to the pool.  Work, work, work!

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I have reviews of three excellent children’s books for you today, each containing those magic elements necessary in all good children’s books: new surroundings, limited adult supervision, and unlimited imagination.

The Magic SummerThe Magic Summer by Noel Streatfeild actually made me understand why people love Streatfeild so much.  I had never read any of her children’s books before, just Saplings, which, though children feature as major characters, is definitely an adult book.  I had been told that Streatfeild wrote children’s voices exceptionally well, but there was little sign of it in that book.  Here, on the other hand, the children come alive.

With their parents in the Far East, the four Gareth children are sent to stay with an eccentric great-aunt in Ireland.  Great-aunt Dymphna has no interest in basic domestic chores or children and so, for the first time in their lives, the children are left to fend for themselves.  The two eldest, Alex and Penny (ages 13 and 12), do their best to keep up the standards they are used to a home while their younger siblings, Robin and Naomi (10 and 9), are much quicker to recognize and embrace the freedom their great-aunt is offering.  The summer is spent exploring and learning, occasionally terrifying themselves as they test the limits of their abilities.  There is nothing fantastical about their experiences, which is part of what I liked so much about this book: the Gareths’ experiences are the same ones any child could have, consisting as they do of decidedly mundane tasks like learning to cook or memorizing a bit of poetry.  No magic spell or secret portal necessary: just determination and a willingness to try new things.

The relationships between the children were especially wonderful.  Though they all, to some extent, strike out on their own, mostly we see them together.  They try to support one another but they also snap and bicker.  With none of the pastimes they are used to available in their new surroundings, they become bored and bad-tempered.  They act selfishly and then are ashamed when they realise they ought to apologize (but really don’t want to).  They feel, in short, like real children.

Tom's Midnight GardenYou want to know who doesn’t feel like a real child?  Tom from Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce.  I know people adore this book and will hate to hear any criticism, however minor, but they will have to forgive me.  He is flat but the book is not.  It is a magical story, about a boy who, while staying with his aunt and uncle, discovers that when the clock strikes thirteen each night in the lobby of their apartment building he is able to slip into the past.  Rather than the dreary, rundown apartment building of modern times (“modern” here being the 1950s, as the book came out in 1958) he finds himself back in the days when the building was a family home, when it was surrounded by a large garden instead of other buildings, and when a young girl, Hatty, lived there.  Most people cannot see Tom when he appears in the past but Hatty can and they become playmates.  Night after night, Tom visits her but with each visit she grows a little older, years passing in what for him is a single day.  Thought the ending was clear from the very beginning of the book, it still made me tear up a little.  I am so glad I finally read this.

The Secret World of OgBut the book I am most glad to have read, the one that entertained me the most, was The Secret World of Og by Pierre Berton.  Until recently, I had no idea that Berton, a Canadian historian, had written a children’s book.  Apparently, my father could have told me as much: this was one of his childhood favourites, having been published in 1961 when he was six years old.

When “The Pollywog” (otherwise known as Paul) disappears from the playhouse, his four older siblings set out to find him.  A manhole has been sawed in the playhouse floor and, lifting it, they find a tunnel descending into a mysterious underground world, full of green creatures who can only say “Og”.  Or can they?  As Penny, Pamela, Peter, and Patsy explore this foreign land, their fear and suspicion lessens with the more Ogs they meet.  Not only are the Ogs wearing familiar clothing – dress-up items that had gone missing over time from the playhouse, in fact – but some even appear to speak English, learned from the cowboy comic books that the children love so much and which, like the clothing, had been stored in the playhouse.

I loved everything about this book.   I loved the world of Og itself, with its giant tree-like mushrooms and its citizens who are happy to play make-believe all day, but mostly I loved the five Berton siblings.  Like any children, they love the idea of a world devoted to imaginative play and, even more, adore being authorities on subjects the Ogs are most eager to learn about.  But they also realise that sometimes fantasy needs limits and it can be just as exciting to discover real things as imaginary ones.  This book is so fun and clever and well written that I can understand why Berton considered it his favourite of his works and why it has remained a favourite among readers for fifty years.

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Noah’s Ark – Currier & Ives

I have not one but two books for you today that are essentially biblical fan fiction.  Both Before the Flood by A.A. Milne and Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle are (as their titles might suggest) based on the story of Noah’s ark but that is all they have in common.

Before the Flood by A.A. Milne is a one-act play but not, I think, the kind of play most churches would pick to perform at any of their events, despite the biblical origins of the story.  Milne imagines the domestic affairs in Noah’s home in the months between him receiving his divine instructions to build the ark and the day when the rains begin.  The question hanging over them all – Noah’s wife, his three sons and their respective wives – is whether the floods will actually come and be quite as extreme as Noah has been ‘told’.  It can be quite amusing at times, as the family debates the ark-related logistics that Noah’s divine instructions do not account for: how can they bring all those animals on board and prevent the predators from eating their natural prey?  If the animals aren’t going to eat one another, what are they going to eat?  Does the family need to bring extra animals on board for catering purposes?  On the whole though, it is not the best of Milne’s work and easily my least favourite of his plays.  I only laughed once, when, after Noah tells his family that they will be the only ones to survive the coming flood, one of the sons turns to his wife and says “Aren’t you glad now that you married into this family?” (or words to that effect).   The book ends when the rain starts to fall, leaving the question of whether Noah is a prophet or a madman unanswered.

Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle, on the other, leaves no doubt as to the veracity of Noah’s claims.  In fact, Noah is but a minor character and he and his ark are ignored for a large portion of the book.  The focus in this children’s book from 1986 is on the interaction between the earthly and divine in this imagined pre-flood world where angels walk among men.  As soon as I started reading, I remembered why I found this book so weirdly fascinating when I was young.  Not good, necessarily, but fascinating.  It is the fourth book in the “Time Quartet”, the series that begins with A Wrinkle in Time, L’Engle’s most famous book, but it was the only one I ever felt compelled to reread.  The mechanics of L’Engle’s idea of time/space travel never appealed to me but seraphim and nephilim, for some reason, did.

Sandy and Dennys Murry, the teenage twins who find themselves transported back to (they eventually realise) biblical times after disturbing an experiment in their parents’ home lab, are not remotely interesting.  They are flat and really unbelievably stupid at times.  Stuck thousands of years out of their own time period, they are remarkably relaxed, even with their knowledge of what is about to happen.  Having befriended Noah and his family, they are perfectly content to work in the garden, help build the ark when the time comes, and pine after Noah’s youngest daughter, Yalith.  Yalith is far more developed than either of the boys – all the female characters are – but still not very compelling.  Still, she doesn’t need to be.  This is not a book that requires in-depth characterization.  Instead, we get to read a lot about sex, which some might find slightly surprising for such a religious book.  There is a worrying but not entirely consistent tendency to equate sexual promiscuity with evil but the real message is that sex is a good thing for those in a loving relationship (not necessarily marriage) and a lack of emotional involvement cheapens what should be an intimate experience between two people.  That, as well as a general opening of the twins’ minds to outlandish possibilities, seems to be the main lesson they learn over the course of the book.

Honestly, neither book is particularly excellent.  Many Waters can feel stilted in its need to over explain both its scientific and religious elements and Before the Flood, though it asks the questions any skeptic ponders while reading the story of Noah, does not do so with Milne’s usual energy and so the story drags along.  Both author’s approaches are interesting but their execution is lacklustre.

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I loved Doomsday Book by Connie Willis and am so relieved to be able to say that.  After being amused but not impressed by To Say Nothing of the Dog and incredibly disappointed by Blackout and All Clear, I was ready to write Willis off completely.  But not before reading Doomsday Book, which has been on my TBR list since I was fourteen.  That is twelve years.  I may have taken my time to get to it but it was worth the wait.

All Kivrin Engle wants to do is visit the Middle Ages.  In 2054, Oxford is sending historians back in time to all sorts of events and periods to observe history first hand.  But not the 14th Century, the period Kivrin is so anxious to visit.  Her tutor, James Dunsworthy, reminds her over and over of all the reason it is unsafe – widespread disease, lawlessness, etc – and how difficult it would be for a 21st Century woman to blend in – she would need to grow her hair, to be familiar with religious customs, and understand contemporary farming practices, among other things – but none of it persuades Kivrin.  She devotes herself to studying everything she could possibly need to know, gets all her medical inoculations, and prepares to go back to 1320 in a drop run by the – in Professor Dunsworthy’s opinion – criminally irresponsible Medieval department.  Dunsworthy may be plagued with worries but Kivrin, with the energy and optimism of youth, can’t wait to begin her long-anticipated adventure.

But something goes very wrong.  The technician who set the drop coordinates, Badri Chaudhuri, is able to tell Professor Dunsworthy that much before falling deathly ill.  And then others begin to get sick, one after the other, and it is not long before all of Oxford is under quarantine with everyone trying to figure out what the illness is and where it came from while Professor Dunsworthy goes half-mad trying to figure out what went wrong with Kivrin’s drop.

All of Kivrin’s preparations, her carefully prepared backstory about being robbed on the road, prove useless once she is dropped in the 14th Century.  By the time she passes through the net, she is delirious, struck down by the same illness devastating modern-day Oxford.  She awakes to find herself in the household of Lady Eliwys, whose reasons for being in this remote house outside Oxford with her two daughters while her husband and sons are back in Bath it takes Kivrin far too long to piece together. After she is fully recovered and has befriended both of Lady Eliwys’s daughters (five year old Agnes and twelve year old Rosamund) as well as the local priest, Father Roche, Kivrin begins to notice the inconsistencies between her studies of the period and what she is witnessing.  Some are scholarship issues, sources having been few and inconsistent, but she eventually realises that something went seriously, disastrously wrong with her drop.  She is in the wrong year: it is 1348, not 1320.  The year the plague arrived in England.

As two mysterious and deadly diseases progress in both time periods, Professor Dunsworthy struggles to find out what happened to Kivrin and to reach her while Kivrin, inoculated against the plague, fights to save those around her from the disease that killed half of Europe, knowing that by staying to nurse them she has missed the net’s opening and her only chance to return to her own time.

This book got to me in a way that, based on my previous frustrating experiences with Willis, I would never have expected.  Certain sections gave me chills and I found myself in tears more than once.  Kivrin’s experiences of loss are more detailed and numerous than what Dunsworthy encounters in the 21st Century but somehow it was his sections that upset me the most.  Kivrin is equally helpless but at least she knows that those she loves in her own time are safe (even though the reader knows they aren’t).  Dunsworthy has no such comfort.  He is losing friends on a daily basis and knows that a student he loves is in danger, though, with Badri sick, he spends most of the novel not knowing what exactly that danger may be.  He lives in fear that she is sick and helpless, feeling abandoned and scared, lost to them forever.  Kivrin’s logs – her verbal recordings of her experiences – are all addressed to Dunsworthy and his thoughts are mostly of her; it is a very intimate look at their close relationship and it was the moments when Kivrin spoke directly to Dunsworthy, certain that she would die without ever returning home but wanting to make him understand that she regretted nothing, that touched me the most:

I don’t want you to blame yourself for what happened.  I know you would have come to get me if you could, but I couldn’t have gone anyway, not with Agnes ill.

I wanted to come, and if I hadn’t, they would have been all alone, and nobody would have ever known how frightened and brave and irreplaceable they were.

I loved every single page.

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Having now read five of Jo Walton’s books, it’s probably time I said something about them.  But what to say?  They are all solidly entertaining and competently written yet, with each one, there was always something just a little off.  Sometimes I could pinpoint what that was; other times it was just a niggling sense while reading that something wasn’t working properly.  It wasn’t entirely distracting (except in Farthing, which I’ll talk about later) but it was certainly something I felt while reading each book.  Before I start picking things apart, do know that I did enjoy reading these and think they are fun, intelligent novels that I would heartily recommend to any reader.

I started with Tooth and Claw, which is absolutely my favourite of Walton’s books.  Both Ana and Marg wrote excellent, detailed reviews when they read it and it was their enthusiasm that led me to it in the first place.  Inspired by Anthony Trollope’s works, particularly Framley Parsonage, Walton has created a loyal tribute to the Victorian novel, opening at the deathbed of the family patriarch then moving on, like any good Victorian novel, to the ensuing feud and lawsuit over the will, the romantic concerns of the maiden daughters, the tense political machinations in one son’s city workplace and the crisis of conscious faced by the clergyman son, troubled by his father’s last confession.  The twist, as you’re almost certainly aware, is that all of the characters are dragons.

Honesty, I would have enjoyed this without the dragons (for I do love a nice, busy Victorian family drama) but the dragons add a touch of brilliance to an otherwise familiar story with even more familiar stock characters.  Around them, Walton has created a rich, rigid fantasy world, with social conventions every bit as strict as the Victorians’, a world made so much more fascinating by its originality.  I had been so sceptical going in (because, really, dragons?  In a Victorian-style novel?) but I was shocked by how quickly Walton pulled me into their world.  Within a few pages, it seemed perfectly natural that yes, these were dragons and of course this is how they behave.  Admittedly, a little more energy was put into creating a fascinating society than into original characters but I think it was a wise choice.  The characters and the dilemmas they face are familiar which, in a novel so full of the unfamiliar, anchors the reader.

From there, I moved on to Walton’s most recent book: Among Others.  Now, the first thing to love about this book is that the heroine, Morwenna Phelps, is a reader.  Before anything else, that is how she defines herself, which means the novel is full of glowing passages about books and libraries and their general wonderfulness (example: “Interlibrary loans are a wonder of the world and a glory of civilization”).  Can’t complain about that.  Specifically, Mori is a huge fan of science fiction and there are a number of book-specific discussions that I am sure would delight anyone who shares her reading tastes.

The story begins with fifteen-year old Mori preparing to head off to boarding school while currently living with a father she barely knows and sinister, disapproving aunts.  Her twin sister is dead, Mori is crippled, and her mother is an evil witch, all of which adds something distinctly different to this story.  It is not every heroine who can commune with faeries.  The real interest and virtue here, though, lies in Morwenna’s intellectual development, mostly through her reading and her discussions with the book group she meets at the public library.  At school, she is a conscious outsider, generally happy to maintain her distance from and her prejudices about her classmates, but among her fellow readers, people who share her tastes in books, she comes alive.

I found Mori’s reading, her search for friends and her adjustment to her new school and her unknown father all very interesting but I’m not sure if the fantastic element of the book (encounters with faeries and her mother the witch) really added anything.  Mori spends a lot of time explaining (the book is in diary format) how evil her mother is and how she and Morganna had to stop her but the reader never really sees the evil Mori is so determined to destroy.  When Mori’s mother does appear, it felt bizarrely out of place.  In a novel that is so much about internal development, this external villain seemed awkwardly tacked on.

It is a gripping read – Walton has a special genius for writing in a way that makes it impossible to put the book down – but there was nothing about it that resonated with me, no character I became attached to, nothing that stood out as particularly memorable or special.  I know a lot of other readers adored this and found it amazing but that did not happen for me.  The only thing that really stands out in my memory is my frustration with Mori’s need to constantly assert that, though she attends a nice boarding school and her father lives in a nice house, they didn’t have money.  Why was it necessary to a.) make Daniel poor and dependent on his sisters, and b) have Mori be so ashamed of the appearance of wealth?  All the wealthy girls at the school are, unsurprisingly, disparaged.  I am so frustrated and disappointed when a writer stereotypes in this way.

Somewhat more sceptical after that, I started in on Walton’s Small Change trilogy.  Beginning in 1949, these books take place in post-war Britain but not as we know it.  In 1941, Britain made ‘Peace with Honour’ with Hitler, handing over complete control of the Continent, allowing the Reich to devote its energies to war with Russia, and creating a very different world from the one we live in.  British civil liberties have been distinctly curtailed, anti-Semitism is, if not officially condoned, then at least more blatant than ever before, and, within parliament, a set of politicians sympathetic to the style and aims of the Third Reich are seeking to gain more power, by any means – even murder.

Farthing, the first book in the trilogy, begins with the death of Sir James Thirkie, who, in 1941, was the architect of the Peace, at Farthing, the country house where the influential, semi-fascist politicians of the so-called Farthing set gather.  The married daughter of the house, Lucy Kahn, and her husband David had been unexpectedly invited to join the house party that weekend.  After the murder, it quickly becomes clear that David was invited so that the murder could be blamed on him.  As a Jewish person in an increasingly anti-Semitic Britain, he is the perfect scapegoat.

The book alternates between two perspectives: that of Lucy Kahn and of Scotland Yard Inspector Peter Carmichael.  Lucy’s babbling first-person narrative overwhelms the reader with significant details that the police are completely oblivious to, as Carmichael’s steady approach to the case turns up all the logical but misleading answers.  The two perspectives merge into one engrossing story, revealing not just the murderer but a society even more disturbing than the reader had imagined, where justice and truth have very little place.

But if Walton is clever with her pacing and her entwining of Lucy and Carmichael’s stories, she is completely lacking in subtlety.  If a point is going to be made, it is best to hammer it in five or six or more times in the most blatant language possible.  The most ridiculous example has to be Walton’s ‘casual’ insertion of homo- and bi-sexual characters (pretty much every second person who showed up).  Oh dear, it’s awkward and clumsy.  And the hilarious significance attached to how characters took their tea made me wish desperately that they would all switch to hard liquor.  In a country-house mystery, you can imagine how many times tea is served.  When Carmichael isn’t rhapsodizing about his favourite tea (I wanted to drown him in it by the end) someone else is making suggestive remarks based on his choice.  It was just so heavy-handed that it became almost embarrassing.

However, as usual, Walton has created a very real world and, despite my frustrations with Farthing, I immediately moved on to Ha’penny, eager to be back in this menacing alternate Britain.  Here, Carmichael is still our detective and Lucy Kahn is traded in for a new female narrator: Viola Lark.  Viola is an actress from a privileged background who is rehearsing a new production of Hamlet, to be performed in front of the Prime Minister and Hitler, on the German leader’s much-anticipated Friendship visit to London.  When her co-star is killed by a bomb, Viola suddenly finds herself back in contact with one of her estranged sisters and pulled into a plot to assassinate the two leaders.  Carmichael, while investigating the other actress’ death, slowly begins to uncover the murder plot and even more of the conspiracies at the heart of the government.

The single best thing about this book is Viola’s family.  A family of six sisters, the Larkins (Viola changed her name for the stage) are clearly based on the Mitfords (though they too exist in the Small Change universe).  Tess’ progression from the politically naive and disinterested woman on the first page to willing accomplice only a few chapters later was an unconvincing stretch but, oh well.  She was Mitford-esque and I can forgive any number of sins for that.  Just see how the family is described:

We were strange obsessive children, and we became strange obsessive adults.  Tess went to Oxford and had her debutante year and got married appropriately, safely, to Sir James Thirkie, baronet.  Pip demanded, and got, a finishing year abroad to learn German, did learn German, contrived to meet Hitler and managed to hook a leading Nazi as a husband.  During the war, when German bombers were flattening London, and killing poor Tess in her shelter for government wives, we felt bad about Pip’s position, but all was forgiven later, as all was forgiven the Germans generally.  I became an actress. Siddy came out, married, had a baby, divorced, caused scandal by leaving the baby with her husband, visited Moscow and became a real communist, married again, and rapidly divorced again.  Dodo paints, and has the occasional exhibition, is married to a prominent scientist who has something to do with atomic research, and has two delightful children.  Rosie, whose obsession was the most normal, came out, rode to hounds, met and married the Duke of Lancashire and produced sons…My sisters – I don’t necessarily like them, and I’d rather be stuck with pins than spend a week alone with any of them, but I love them.

Yeah, subtlety: not really Walton’s thing (further proof of that: the ‘leading Nazi’ husband is no one less than Himmler).  It’s all amusing nonetheless, particularly for Mitford-loving readers.

Finally, there is Half a Crown, the strongest of the three novels, made so by its convincing female narrator and much more logical progression.  There is a lamentable return to tea as the prime topic of conversation but I can just about forgive that.  The contrast of Carmichael, now head of the Gestapo-like Watch as well as the leader of the secret Inner Watch (which rescues and ships Watch detainees and Jews to safety – a sort of underground railway) and Elvira Royston, his debutante ward who begins the book oblivious to the evils of the government, believing fascism is ‘fun’, is the most effective juxtaposition of the series.  Both characters develop more over the course of the novel than anyone in the earlier books and do so, more importantly, in a rational manner.  Set in 1960, the tension, after more than 10 years under an intrusive and constructive government, is far more extreme than in the earlier books and much more terrifying.

Of all the characters we are introduced to in the three books, Elvira is the only one I felt real sympathy towards.  Elvira is granted no extraordinary powers.  She is intelligent but young and trusting, a product of the society in which she was raised.  She knows that if you see something suspicious, if you hear someone disparaging the government, you should report it.  That is what keeps society ordered and safe.  She even believes that after she is arrested and interrogated.  It isn’t until after her second arrest, having committed no crime, that she begins to really understand just how sinister and dangerous the establishment has become.  She is not cunning but she is brave and capable and the dramatic ending is rather magnificent.  A bit absurd and optimistic in the world Walton has created and wildly contrary to the tone of the series, but magnificent nonetheless.  Elvira still has faith and trust that at least one person can put everything to right again and that person does.  It is completely wonderful and ridiculous and I loved it.  Half a Crown rewards the reader’s investment in the first two, less impressive books with an outstanding conclusion that makes full use of the terrifying society Walton crafted.

I’ve voiced a lot of my annoyances with these books but I really must stress how much I enjoyed reading them.  Some authors, very few, have the talent of plotting and executing stories in such a way that the reader can’t tear him- or herself away.  Walton does this brilliantly.  I am not sure I’ve ever come across someone who is as effortlessly readable.  Even when I was cringing during Among Others and Farthing, I could not put them down.  One sentence flowed into another, I flew from one page to the next, and so on until I came to the end.  Sometimes Walton’s and my tastes and styles did not align but I remain convinced that these are solidly good books and imaginative, entertaining reads.

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When is a children’s fairy tale not for children?  When is a comedy for adults also a tale for children?  Once On a Time by A.A. Milne was introduced by the author with the note that:

This is not a children’s book.  I do not mean by that…’Not for children’, which has an implication all its own.  Nor do I mean that children will be unable to appreciate it…But what I do mean is that I wrote it for grown-ups.  More particularly for two grown-ups.  My wife and myself…

It is a children’s book that any adult can enjoy, which I certainly did.  It’s not wildly brilliant but it is clever enough and certainly funny enough to be ranked well above most of the other fantastical stories meant to entertain adults as well as children.

The story is very simple: the neighbouring kingdoms of Euralia and Barodia go to war, leaving Princess Hyacinth to rule over Euralia in her father’s absence.  Princess Hyacinth is counselled by the clever Countess of Belvane, a beautiful, cunning woman who the King of Euralia is in love with and whom Hyacinth, somewhat jealously, cannot bring herself to trust.  So Hyacinth writes to the kingdom of Araby and requests that Prince Udo come to assist her.  Belvane, knowing that Udo has been called in, makes a very bad wish that something might happen to him on his journey.  It does.  When Prince Udo arrives, he appears not as a prince but as a cursed and very confused creature, unsure of what exactly he is.  This light, amusing tale develop delightfully and absurdly from there, with the war between Euralia and Barodia being waged in the background.

I loved everything to do with the ‘war’ between the two kingdoms.  The only casualty of this war is a pair of royal whiskers and the Euralian army, having set out with 500 men, comes back with 499 only because one stayed behind to marry the daughter of the Chief Armourer of the Barodian army.  The rest of the time is spent preparing or, even more wonderfully, sending both kings off under invisible cloaks to spy except, of course, they stumble across one another.  Each cleverly pretends to be a swineherd (well known for possessing magic cloaks) and they hold a learned discussion about swine herding (and milking) to conceal their true identities, greatly impressing themselves with their knowledge on the subject and their ability to communicate as an equal with the true swineherd they have stumbled across.  These sections were the most marvellous parts of the novel for me, perfectly skewering the dramatic and pointless posturing of armies.

Back in Euralia, Princess Hyacinth is a bit of a drip and Prince Udo, though he takes his misfortune very nobly, is too adaptable to be of much interest.  Belvane, on the other hand, is magnificent:

The Countess of Belvane!  What can I say which will bring home to you that wonderful, terrible, fascinating woman?  Mastered as she was by an overweening ambition, utterly unscrupulous in her methods of achieving her purpose, none the less her adorable humanity betrayed itself in a passion for diary-keeping and a devotion to the simpler forms of lyrical verse.  That she is the villain of the piece, I know well; in his Euralia Past and Present the eminent historian Roger Scurvilegs does not spare her; but that she had her great qualities, I should be the last to deny.

I must agree with Milne’s narrator rather than Roger Scurvilegs (respected though his opinions are): Belvane is fantastic.  Yes, she made up a fake, all-female army of Amazons who supposedly are there to protect Princess Hyacinth and takes all the funds allocated to them for herself but, I assure you, the money is put to very good use.  Belvane is vain and shelfish, but not greedy.  And she is only truly bad for a little while, the course of the novel in fact, turning good again once reunited with her beloved King.  She is a wonderful unsinister villain.

But the real fun of this novel though comes from the way it is told, rather than the story itself.  Milne’s narrator is very present in the telling and his prejudices and preferences, his quest to redeem Belvane in the public eye and his joy in correcting Roger Scurvilegs, that authority on Euralia’s history, gave me no end of delight.  Take, for example, his preamble before Prince Udo’s monstrous transformation from Prince to…something else:

This is a painful chapter for me to write.  Mercifully, it is to be a short one.  Later on I shall become used to the situation; inclined, even, to dwell upon its humourous side; but for the moment I cannot see beyond the sadness of it.  That to a Prince of the Royal House of Araby, and such an estimable young man as Udo, these things should happen.  Roger Scurvilegs frankly breaks down over it.  ‘That abominable woman,’ he says (meaning, of course, Belvane), and he has hysterics for more than a page.

All in all, I think Milne succeeded in writing a fairy tale with characters and situations developed enough and humourous enough to entertain adults as well as children.  It’s not a masterpiece but it is a very fun book to spend an evening laughing over and has only made me more confident that Milne’s style of humour is exactly suited to my tastes.

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While I’ve loved GGK’s historical fantasies (A Song for Arbonne, The Lions of Al-Rassan), there is something so irresistible about Tolkien-esque high fantasy, which The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay definitely is.  Indeed, there may be too many Tolkien references for some but in a novel like this, where an entirely new world has to be explained to the reader, it is actually quite useful to encounter such familiar features. 

The Summer Tree (1984), the first book of the trilogy, begins at the University of Toronto in Convocation Hall, where the reclusive Professor Lorenzo Marcus is giving a lecture.  Later, our five main characters – Kevin Laine, Paul Schafer, Dave Martyniuk, Kimberly Ford, and Jennifer Lowell – find themselves in conversation with the professor, only to be told that his real name is Loren Silvercloak and that he wishes to take them back to Fionavar, his world, as guests, to the celebration of the King’s 50th year on the throne.  Five strangers, one for each decade of the King’s reign.   I love the idea of five U of T students being transported into this other world but I find it more than odd how willing they are to go (except for Dave, making him my immediate favourite).  But go they do, into a world very different and far more dangerous than the one they have always known.

The first book is mostly a set up for the rest of the trilogy, introducing characters and creating the tense standoff between dark and light that provides the focal conflict.  Important work since this is a plot-driven story and it is vital that the reader have a good understanding of everything that is at stake.  Tension and atmosphere are more important than characterization (again, reminiscent of Tolkien and just about everyone who has ever written an epic fantasy series).  The Wandering Fire (1986) and The Darkest Road (1986) continue the story and with each volume it only gets more complex and more intriguing.  There are some logical leaps that I wasn’t quite able to make or crucial events and actions that seemed to make no sense in any kind of context but I found it was best to just suspend my disbelief and enjoy the journey.  Kay is masterful at pacing – probably his most remarkable skill in these books – and I was constantly breathless while reading, always eager to turn the page and to continue on the journey.

Since plot is the focus here, it seems a shame to give too much away.  But there are elves, dwarves, an exiled Prince, a chilling villain, a child of dark and light who truly controls the fate of Fionavar, and, as if that weren’t enough, an overwhelming dose of Arthurian legend, with King Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot playing significant roles.  With so much happening, there is no chance to ever be bored.

But the characterization was a problem for me.  I cared deeply about the fate of Fionavar and came to love many of the characters from that world but never felt any real affection for most of the five travellers from my world.  The only one whose fate I was really concerned about was Dave.  The other four find themselves wrapped up in mystic, magical plots and I was concerned and intrigued by the challenges they faced but Dave was the only character whose emotional reactions and responses registered with me, the only one who felt authentic through all three books.  And perhaps most tellingly, he is the only one who truly evolves over the course of the story, going from a reserved, insecure young man to a confident member of a close-knit clan, able to accept the love of others and express his own.

While there were many things I loved about this story, I think it is clear in his later books how far Kay has come in terms of characterization and his writing style.  There are a few too many Yoda-esque passages here and far too many moments where characters suddenly understand or see what sad fate awaits them and where all the reader is told is how sad it is, not what the fate is.  Alright and vaguely intriguing the first dozen times, quite irritating every time after.

But Kay does write truly magnificent action scenes.  I would be perfectly happy just reading about one battle after the other, even though that would make for a ridiculously illogical plot.  But he writes them so well, paces them so perfectly, and never focuses too long on any one place or person.  They are magnificent and they are done just as well here as in any of his later works.

A wonderful, entertaining read, certainly one of the best fantasy series I’ve ever read, but not quite as brilliant as Kay’s other books.

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