Monday, 31 December 2012

Review: DAYS OF BLOOD AND STARLIGHT, by Laini Taylor

This is a review of the second book in Laini Taylor's fabulous Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy, with thoughts on the first book (HERE BE SPOILERS!) and the construction of the trilogy as a whole, because I think Taylor is doing some really interesting series-crafting.

I loved Daughter of Smoke and Bone when I read it last autumn and included it on my list of favourite books read in 2011 (here).  I didn't review it at the time, however, because I felt I needed to think about it a bit more.  The novel is a fantastic take on what I suppose would be considered the paranormal romance genre - as the main character, Karou, is apparently human, and enters into a passionate romance with an angel.  Except that the novel also explodes that genre, leavening everything with a good deal of quirky humour and, ultimately, a tragedy of apocalyptic proportions, stretching across two lifetimes and two worlds.
In the first installment, Karou discovers that she is, in fact, not human but a chimaera and that her life as a blue-haired art student in Prague, running errands for Brimstone - a collector of teeth, seller of wishes - is really a second chance.  This is what Karou discovers when she and Akiva, the angel mentioned above, break the wishbone Brimstone always wore and Karou was never allowed to touch.

And this is where my one quibble came in.

Taylor makes a very bold move when that wishbone is broken.  A large chunk of the novel's third act is an extended flashback, in which Karou re-experiences her former life as a chimaera in the world of Eretz, when she fell in love with Akiva for the first time, even though the seraphim and chimerae are sworn enemies and have been at war for centuries.  It follows Madrigal (Karou's previous identity) through her capture and execution by the Warlord's son and then her salvation by Brimstone, who trades in teeth because he uses them to resurrect the dead.

When I first read the novel, I raced through this section as quickly as possible, trying to put together the clues to Karou's old life and figure out her relationship with Akiva.  It's very risky to introduce a flashback of this magnitude with new characters and, in this case, a brand new world.  It can backfire, as most would argue backstory section in Arthur Conan Doyle's first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, does.  In that case, it bogs down the properly interesting detective story with much less interesting narrative of Mormons in Utah.  Here, I think it works.  I especially think it works because it allows the second novel in the series to get off to a proper start, since Taylor has already laid the groundwork for the characters and conflicts Karou must deal with in Eretz.

But I felt and still feel that in both the backstory in Book One and the narrative proper in Book Two, Eretz is not drawn in as detailed a fashion as I might like it to be.  I'm not the kind of fantasy reader who demands incredibly intricate world-building, but I do feel like I would like more.  Eretz doesn't feel as real to me as Karou's life in Prague did or as the kasbah in Days does.

31/10/2013 Note: I recently reread Daughter of Smoke and Bone and enjoyed it possibly even more the second time.  The writing is beautiful, the characters are magnificent, the fated nature of Karou and Akiva's love is hinted at in ways that I totally missed the first time.  Also, I think I may have done a disservice in my little criticism of the world-building of Eretz - there is a fair bit of detail there, which I think I missed on my first read because the plot compelled me to read so quickly.

Now that my quibble is out of the way, I want to lavish some praise on Taylor's structuring of the trilogy.  Once Karou's previous life has been revealed, Akiva then makes the astonishing revelation that, in revenge for the chimaerae's killing of Madrigal, he has just been responsible for their genocide and Brimstone, the only father Karou ever knew, is dead.  Karou leaves Akiva and passes through a portal in the sky to Eretz, creating as jaw-dropping a cliffhanger as Lord Asriel walking into the sky at the end of The Golden Compass.

The ending of Book One blows everything wide open.  The mystery of the disappearing portals to Elsewhere that was such a big part of Daughter is nothing in relation to the much higher stakes of Book Two.  Where Daughter was in large part a romance, Days sees Karou/Madrigal and Akiva perhaps forever sundered because of Akiva's destruction of Karou's people.  As she puts it, it's as if Juliet had woken to find Romeo still alive - but learns that he has destroyed her family and city.  How can they possibly be together after a breakage like that?

Days follows Karou and Akiva as they separately deal with the politics within their own peoples and try desperately to find a way to end the neverending war between the angels and chimaerae, a war in which both sides are culpable and both sides have suffered greatly.  Characters on both sides are revealed in all shades of grey; politics and stratagem are delineated with the subtlety of Megan Whalen Turner's Thief books; the prose is propulsive, while also being striking and often hilariously funny.

An important sub-plot is the romance between Karou's Prague friends Zuzana (who resembles a "rabid fairy") and Mik, which gives the otherwise quite dark book a necessary shot of humour and humanity.

The book has two separate and very big climaxes, one of which is especially brutal and visceral and had me tense with dread.  Book Three, due out in 2014, looks set to play out a war in heaven that could have grave impact on the human world.  I'm hoping that against all the odds, Karou and Akiva will somehow find their way back to each other.

Sunday, 30 December 2012

Review: BLACK SPRING, by Alison Croggon

 Alison Croggon is an author whose books I must own right after release, even though that usually means expensive shipping from Australia.  But it's always worth it.

I fondly remember the day I discovered Alison Croggon's first fantasy novel The Naming in the young adult section at McNally Robinson's Saskatoon store, one day in May or June 2005.  I will always remember reading it while listening to the Within Temptation album Mother Earth.  Strange how those associations stick with you.  If you have a chance to read the Books of Pellinor (The Naming/The Gift, The Riddle, The Crow, and The Singing) and you are a high fantasy fan, do it!  They're wonderful and work in some ways as a feminist, post-colonial corrective to Tolkien.

So, when Croggon posted on her blog a few years back that her next novel was a gothic fantasy take on Wuthering Heights, I was sold.  Wuthering Heights is, quite possibly, my favourite novel of all time and I figured that if anyone could do it justice, Alison Croggon could, especially since she, like Emily Bronte, is both a poet and novelist.

However, because this book has a complex relationship with Bronte's, it's a bit difficult for me to write about - because I love the source text so much, because I also have literary critical opinions about the novel and how its works, and because Croggon's take probably fits into the Neo-Victorian genre (think A.S. Byatt's Possession), a genre which often creates complex intertextual links with Victorian novels and which I have researched and written on in the past year.

That said, there are two important things you can take away from this review.

1)  This is a fantastic book.
2)  In my opinion, it is also a respectful, critical, fascinating reworking of Wuthering Heights.  If you like Bronte's novel, I suspect you will enjoy Croggon's too.

(As a sidenote, I would be curious to see how people who are decidedly not lovers of Wuthering Heights feel about Black Spring, as it is quite faithful to the source text and reproduces the love story that isn't really a love story, as well as the unsympathetic characters and violence and capital "R" Romanticism of the original.)

Alison Croggon’s Black Spring follows the layered narrative structure and overall plot of the original novel very closely, so that any deviation is significant.   The novel begins with an urbane, self-absorbed Lockwood figure readying to leave the city for a spell in the wild, brutal plain society to the north.  There, he stays over in the house of his landlord, Damek (Heathcliff) and sees a vision of a beautiful, desperate woman in a mirror (Cathy Earnshaw).  From Anna (Nelly), he learns the mysterious history of Lina, born a witch in a society where women cannot practice magic, her foster brother Damek and their love, and the unforgiving laws of vendetta that structure their world.

I could go on and on about the really interesting changes and tweaks Croggon makes to Bronte's novel, the ways in which vendetta externalises the very personal revenge carried out by Bronte's Heathcliff, how making Lina a witch allows her very real power in a patriarchal society and allows her agency Cathy cannot have, the way Anna and Lina's relationship as women and "milk sisters" shifts the core of the story away from Heathcliff/Damek or the "romance" that readers sometimes mistakenly see as central to Wuthering Heights.  Also, because I knew the plot of Wuthering Heights, I was expecting certain events going in (especially a particular death) and was pleasantly surprised when they did not occur.  Neo-Victorian novels sometimes play on this familiarity with the source text and defamiliarize the story by twisting the "knowledgeable" reader's expectations, thus making the narrative new.  Croggon's novel does just that.  But I'll leave it there.  The book is a brilliant gothic fantasy all on its own but it gains in complexity and depth through its relationship to its source text.

I eagerly await Croggon's next novel, a prequel to the Pellinor series about Cadvan's earlier life.

Review: THE DIVINERS, by Libba Bray

North American edition
 I've been a fan of Libba Bray's since discovering and devouring her Victorian boarding school/secret society/alternate world Gemma Trilogy during my undergraduate degree.  Since then, she's written two standalones, Printz award-winning Going Bovine and Beauty Queens, neither of which I have read yet (though I may need to rectify this soon).

I was really pleased when I found out Libba Bray was returning to the realm of historical fantasy and doubly pleased that she was setting her new trilogy in the 1920s.  The Roaring Twenties seem to be making quite a comeback, what with Boardwalk Empire and the upcoming Baz Luhrman adaption of The Great Gatsby.  In an interview with the UK group Booktrust, Bray explains the sometimes disturbing parallels between the America of today and the 1920s:
"xenophobia, anti-immigration fervor coupled with a nasty nativist streak, fears of terrorism/anarchism, a backlash against labor, a rise in evangelicalism, the creation and worship of a youth culture, and the lionizing of American business and businessmen as sort of the standard bearers of ‘Americanism.’ And, of course, there’s the run up to financial collapse."
Also gorgeous Australian edition.
 So, there are many reasons to write about the 1920s today.  Plus, all the fun stuff: flappers, speakeasies, Art Deco stylings, etc.  (The era also makes for lovely book cover design, I must say).

The novel begins with flapper Evie, stuck in the back of beyond in Ohio, who is sent to stay with her uncle in New York City after she causes a scandal after doing an object-reading, a talent she must keep hidden.  Her uncle is the curator of the The Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult, which seems dull, until Evie, Uncle Will, and friends attempt to solve a series of occult-based killings by a mysterious figure named Naughty John.

British edition (which I own)
The novel sets up a great cast of characters: Evie (whom I didn't especially like for a chunk of the book, as she seeks the limelight and rushes from one excitement to the next, never thinking much about other people, but she developed wonderfully), her much more staid friend Mabel, daughter of Socialist campaigners, Jericho, who has a secret and is Uncle Will's ward, Theta and Henry, who live in the same building as Uncle Will and are part of the Ziegfield follies, Sam, a pickpocket searching for his mother, and finally, Memphis, a Harlem numbers runner and poet, who once had healing powers. 

Most of these teenaged characters have visions of a storm gathering over empty fields and a man in a stovepipe hat.  The are Diviners, people with special abilities who are making a comeback.  Not all of them are centrally concerned with the Naughty John killings, a plot which is wrapped up in this first installment, but I'm sure they will come into their own in future volumes.

The Diviners is intricately plotted and historically detailed, with some quite scary horror sequences, great characters, and a real sense of American history, especially in terms of religion and superstition.  I am very much looking forward to the next two books.

Coming (Very) Soon

I'm going to make up for not blogging for most of December by posting a bunch of year-end (and year-beginning) stuff in the next few days, including:

1) Book reviews!  I've read a bunch of fabulous YA novels in the last two months and I want to share them with you (Libba Bray's The Diviners, Laini Taylor's Days of Blood and Starlight, Alison Croggon's Black Spring, and Rachel Hartman's Seraphina)

2) The now unavoidable Music of Michaelmas 2012 post, which will feature a retrospective of my favourite Within Temptation songs, as I spent a lot of time listening to their back catalogue in the lead up to their anniversary concert in Antwerp.

3)  An annotated list of my favourite books of 2012.

4)  And finally, a 2012 retrospective with, possibly, goals/resolutions, etc. for 2013.

Hold onto your hats!

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Fun December Things: A List

  1. Mulled wine, my new favourite hot drink
  2. Seeing Florence + The Machine live in London
  3. Visiting Dr Johnson's house
  4. Seeing the new digital restoration of Lawrence of Arabia at the BFI (with an actual and much-needed intermission)
  5. Scottish country dancing at Tim's work Christmas party.  Very Jane Austen, while simultaneously being very Scottish.
  6. Snow before Christmas (unlike last year's snow in February)
  7. This morning's hoar frost-covered spider's web

Sunday, 2 December 2012

The Next Big Thing

Right, so I'm a bit slow to join this meme.  The lovely Sally Poyton (who is responsible for my joining SCBWI) tagged me for The Next Big Thing ages ago and I, being slightly suspicious of internet memes, foolishly declined.  Having read a bunch of other writers' excellent posts on what they're writing (and learned more about some great upcoming titles), I decided to hop on the bandwagon and tell you a bit about my work-in-progress.

1.  What is the working title of your book?

The working title is Belladonna, referencing a poisonous flower in the nightshade family, the translation from the Italian: beautiful lady, and (extremely tangentially) Stevie Nicks's 1981 solo album Bella Donna.

2.  Where did the idea come from for the book?

I was riding the bus home from university on my 20th birthday and I thought of a witch and of a spoiled girl who had to be the witch's servant.  I knew that I wanted it to have fairytale elements; I knew that the spoiled girl (Hazel) and a boy had broken the witch's window in the woods (Hansel and Gretel-style) and that it was set in the nineteenth-century and that my heroine wore white.  It all came to me quite quickly on that bus ride home.  I knew the ending by the time I got off the bus and I think I also knew that the heroine's father was an important part of the story.

So, the answer is sort of "out of the ether".  But it also relates back to the fact that a teenage boy on the bus behind me was chatting away very courteously and kindly with an elderly woman.  And I thought to myself how awkward and shy I would be in the same situation, because I was quite shy with strangers then (I think I'm better now).  Hazel and the witch build their relationship through conversation, some of which is very awkward, and some which of allows for growth on both sides.

3.  What genre does your book fall under?

Young adult fantasy.  More specifically, young adult historical fantasy with fairytale elements.

4.  Which actors would you choose to play your characters for a movie rendition?

Gah!  This is the hardest question ever.  I have visuals of the characters in my head but I've never tried to match them to anyone before, with one exception.  Also, because the novel is narrated in the first-person, I spend an awful lot of time in Hazel's head but haven't bothered to try to picture her facial features, for instance.

The exception to the rule is Melicent, one of the fairies in the novel, who I picture as a young Christina Ricci or Catherine Zeta Jones.

There's a Puritan preacher Tim and I have decided could be played by Benedict Cumberbatch, becasue I describe him as having a really powerful, distinctive voice.

Other than that, I'm drawing a blank.  Maybe someone who's read the book could help me out with suggestions?  

5.  What is the one-sentence synopsis for your book?

 One day late in Queen Victoria’s reign, spoiled Hazel Linwood escapes from her governess, raids an apple orchard, kisses the stable boy, and breaks a witch's window; for her thoughtlessness, the witch curses Hazel: she must be the witch’s servant and cannot return home until she speaks the witch’s one True Name.

6.  Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I hope to be represented by a literary agent.  Not sure I would attempt self-publication at this point.

7.  How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

About ten months.  I had the idea for the novel in March and collected bits and pieces of ideas for a few months.  I started writing the first draft on 17 August 2006 (after being inspired while reading Wuthering Heights one afternoon) and finished the draft in late June of the next year.  I've been revising on and (quite a lot) off ever since.

8.  What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Books that feel similar to me include Chime by Franny Billingsly, Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt, I, Coriander by Sally Gardener, The Merrybegot by Julie Hearn, and A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce.  They are all YA fantasies in historical settings and draw on fairytale and/or folklore.  I think they all have quite strong narrative voices as well.

9.  Who or what inspired you to write this book?

See above.  Also, see the books I've just listed.  I read most of those either before or during the composition of my novel and I'm sure they've left creative imprints on my work in one form or another.  Also, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince had a big impact on me in the months leading up to writing this book.

10.  What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?

Let's see.  Witch hunts.  Incredibly dangerous fairies.  Love.  Revenge.  Victorians.  A flawed heroine.  A dreamy (but also considerate and sweet) stable boy.

I'm not tagging anyone (as I'm afraid many of my writerly friends seem to have been tagged already), but please check out these other Next Big Things for upcoming books that look great!

Elizabeth Wein on the companion book to Code Name Verity, happily due for release next fall!

Erin Bow on her second novel, Sorrow's Knot.