Way back in March I announced that I wanted to join Carl V.’s Once Upon a Time Challenge V just so that I could display the lovely banner on my blog sidebar. True to my word, I did so and enjoyed looking at it for several months. To all appearances, that’s all I did. Having signed up for The Journey I felt no pressure about choosing books or blogging about them (as the stipulation was to read “at least one”). I did intermittently poke around amid the reviews of other participants, but overall my own participation has been shockingly lax. However, “behind the scenes” as it were, I was on a bit of journey, and therefore a wrap up post of sorts is in order.
I think I mentioned that I wanted to read more Byatt and Crowley, and revisit Tolkien during the challenge. Although I did revisit a few other favorite writers, the only author I got to from the list above was Byatt. The collection Little Black Book of Stories was a bit darker overall than Elementals, which I read earlier in the year. Most of the stories are set in a reality tinted with the fantastic (two young girls encounter something in the woods, a frightening consciousness in leaf mold – after the death of her mother a woman slowly turns into stone) while some just have a gothic spookiness to them (a writing instructor is inspired by an an elderly student who comes to a sudden horrific end). I like how Byatt delights in the details, frequently taking time to describe how a stone carver carves or how to black a stove, or other odd bits of info. For the most part these digressions add to the stories instead of distracting, and the cool undercurrent of the bizarre keep the stories moving. They were uniformly intriguing, but in the end none of them entirely succeeded in grabbing me. I finished this collection with a bemused shrug. I’ll get back to Byatt eventually (I still want to read Possession) but I’ve probably had enough for this year.
One of my favorite books is The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold. I have read it several times (as well as the several sequels) and each time I am newly blown away by the world of Chalion, where medieval life coincides with gods and magic in a way that seems wonderful and terrifying and plausible. The characters are brilliant and the plot sweeps me up every time. However the last time I read it was at least 5 years ago, and my reading tastes have developed somewhat since then so I’m a but nervous about revisiting this book and finding it…changed. I opted to revisit Bujold, but via a new (to me) book – I ventured into the world of The Sharing Knife series (which I just discovered right now is 4 books, and not 2…huh…interesting). I read Beguilement and Legacy, in which I encountered a world where the Lakewalkers (a race of sorcerer-soldiers, although both terms are far too simplistic descriptions of their talents) live to protect the Farmers (a broad term that covers anyone and everyone who is not a Lakewalker) from the “malices”, and their zombie-like mud men. The Lakewalkers are locked in an ancient battle with these creatures, into which the high spirited and inquisitive Farmer’s daughter Fawn stumbles. Rescued from trouble by the one-handed and dry witted patroller Dag, she then proceeds to rescue him in turn and from there various fates are sealed and lives are forever intertwined, etc. Beguilement kicks off with a stretch of intense action, then downshifts into a character and romance driven story, before puttering to an end in family squabbles. Legacy is kind of a mirror image, starting with more family squabbles and then building to a climactic showdown with a malice to end all others. The story (thus far) is as much about fighting off those pesky (and terrifying) malices, as it is about love bridging the gap between two opposing (and equally prejudiced and suspicious) peoples, and what amounts to a battle to overcome racism and thick-headedness/small-mindedness (can’t we all just learn to live together?). The Lakewalkers must learn to value the Farmers and the Farmers must learn to trust the Lakewalkers if both their ways of life can be saved. If I ever venture further into this world, I guess I’ll find out if they succeed. However, I don’t feel particularly compelled. This world is not like Chalion – it is not beguiling, or very enthralling either. Bujold explores some interesting ideas and comes up with some fairly well drawn characters (although the ones I really liked didn’t get very much screen time), but I never felt very invested in the story. I couldn’t quite believe in Dag and Fawn, and since the whole story hinges on their relationship the whole story amounted to a door swinging stiffly on badly hung hinges… Oh well. I suppose I should just pull myself together and read The Curse of Chalion again. But I’ll probably wait until next year. Or the year after.
I’ve been on a Maggie Stiefvater kick this year, adding Linger to the pile that includes Lament and Ballad (what’s with all these one word titles Maggie?). Linger is the sequel to Shiver, which I read ages ago and enjoyed and considered “definitely the best werewolf story I’ve encountered yet” (a phrase that would make me shudder if I was locked in one of my ‘serious literary fiction’ moods…!). Linger returns to the small Minnesota town where a pack of wolves roam the woods in the winter and transform into human form as warmth and summer return to the world. In Shiver, Sam and Grace battled to keep Sam human. Now it appears that the tables are turned, and it is Grace who needs saving. Isabel, who was instrumental in Sam’s rescue the last time round, is now haunted by the death of her brother and intrigued by the appearance of Cole – a new member of the pack who can’t seem to keep his wolf form in spite of the freezing temperatures. These characters offer a respite from Sam and Grace’s continuing drama, but beg for further development. A new twist to the overall theories behind the workings of the werewolf virus is introduced. I didn’t care for this book nearly as much as Shiver, but I am interested enough in the story that I will read Forever, which comes out in July. Of course, considering that the rest of my summer will most likely be spent in a ‘serious literary fiction’ mood, I probably won’t get to Forever…until – you guessed it – next year.
I returned to Discworld in May with absolute pleasure. The last thing I read by Terry Pratchett was Nation, which wasn’t set in Discworld but which was still quite good. It has been quite awhile since my last Discworld adventure, but I was pleased to find out that I still enjoy myself there. After reading the first Tiffany Aching book (a series within the Discworld series) I immediately gathered my four younger sisters round me and proceeded to read The Wee Free Men again, this time out loud. We laughed, we cried, my mother overheard us and joined in too. Tiffany Aching, a witch-in-training and friend and companion of the Nac Mac Feegle (small blue kilt-wearing, fighting and stealing prone fairies with distinctly Scottish sounding accents) lives on The Chalk in a rural farming community. Throughout her childhood and teenage years she is plagued by adventures – rescuing her little brother from the Queen of the faerie with only a frying pan and the Feegles, keeping a hiver from overrunning her brain (with the help of the Feegles), and extricating herself from the unwanted attentions of the Wintersmith (again, there are Feegles involved) are only the BIG things in a life full of witch training, cheese making, and staying half a step ahead of the Feegles. The stories are always funny, charming, and slyly thought-provoking, and I Shall Wear Midnight – the fourth book in the series – was equally, if not more so. In this one, Tiffany is (at 16) on her own and the official “Hag O’the Hills”, the Chalk’s very own witch. She tends to the elderly and delivers babies and is generally very helpful, very under-appreciated, and very overworked. Her Feegle buddies worry about her between bouts of fighting and drinking, but she squares her shoulders, catches 25 winks, eats a crust of bread, and forges on. Her greatest foe yet soon appears, almost invisibly. Around her Tiffany starts to notice an increasing unease, suspicious glances and mutterings beneath the breath from the people she lives to serve. The Cunning Man – the terrifying ghost of a former witch-burner – is hunting her down, sowing seeds of fear and infecting the minds of the simple, uneducated folk of the Chalk. Tiffany has to use everything she’s learned plus a few new things to battle this most basic and ancient evil. Pratchett skillfully blends his trademark humor and cleverness with a rather poignant and powerful story that’s more than just good fun – although there is plenty of fun, and plenty of Feegles! This is officially the last of the Tiffany Aching books (sad…) but I think I’ll mix some more Discworld into that future of ‘serious literary fiction’ that I’m envisioning for the rest of this year!
And my final book read with the Once Upon a Time Challenge V in mind was Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones – another favorite book, and one what I wasn’t afraid to reread and which surpassed my expectations having done so. I was really bummed to hear of Diana Wynne Jones’ death this spring, and felt an overwhelming desire to revisit Howl. Glad I did – it’s so good! The premise is a little odd – the eldest of three girls, Sophie believes that she got the short straw and true to fairy tale form will not have a life of good fortune and adventures. Resigning herself to working in her family’s hat shop until she is old and grey, she is rather startled to find herself old and grey far too soon after an encounter with the Witch of the Waste. Perplexed about what to do next, she grabs a stout stick and some lunch and treks out into the hills, where she takes refuge in the mysterious moving castle of the sorcerer Howl, confident that because she’s old and ugly he won’t be tempted to eat her heart. Howl turns out to be a mad and magical young man, haphazardly attempting to escape a curse, find his dream girl, train up his apprentice, and get out of a contract with the equally discontented fire demon who lives in his grate and keeps the castle on the move. Into this chaos Sophie imposes some order in the form of cleaning and tidying and cooking, only to find herself caught up in the furious pace, learning spells, visiting kings, running away from possessed scarecrows, and all with more flair and determination than she ever dared display as a young woman. Taking advantage of her apparent age and appearance, she throws herself into life without worrying about being proper or presentable or polite, and thus finds herself really LIVING for the first time. And that turns out to be a pretty amazing thing to be around, as the apprentice, the fire demon, and even Howl soon find out. For all its magical trappings, this book is simply about finding out who you really are and embracing that. The characters are splendid, the setting is vivid, the pace barrels, and I always find myself cheering audibly by the end. Yay! Thank you Diana Wynne Jones. This is a book I could read every year.
And that was my journey for the Once Upon a Time Challenge V. Thanks is due to Carl V. for organizing it and prodding me to more thoroughly revisit my old flame, the fantasy genre. I now know that I still love it, that I can read literary fiction AND fantasy and not implode, and that some old favorites will always remain stellar. It’s been a blast, if a silent one up to this point, but I’ll complete the Once Upon a Time Challenge V with a BANG! See you next year fellow fantastic folk.