book reviews by Althea

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The Fairest of Them All – Carolyn Turgeon *****

Wow! This book exceeded my expectations! (And, after following Turgeon’s ‘Mermaid’ blog, I had reasonably high expectations.)
Ignore the teenage-oriented cover art. This story would fit in perfectly with Terri Windling’s ‘Fairy Tale Series,’ legendary for its dark and complex renditions of classic tales by the likes of Kara Dalkey, Charles de Lint, Patricia Wrede, and Tanith Lee, among others.

The tale meshes ‘Rapunzel’ with ‘Snow White,’ adding in other classic elements such as the enchanted stag, &c. But the familiar elements here twist into a more complex tale of bitterness, manipulation, jealousy and revenge – while maintaining the readers’ sympathy and understanding, even though the characters may be driven to horrible things.

Turgeon perfectly grasps the kernels of the stories she’s working with, and remains true to them, even while building up a lovely filigree of literary embellishments around that original gem. Her other novels are going straight to my must-read list.

I received a copy of this book from NetGalley. Thanks to both NetGalley and Touchstone.


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Blades of the Old Empire – Anna Kashina **

If mercenary Ninja Assassins are your thing, then this is a book not to miss.

The ‘Majat’ warriors are the ninjas. Sworn to the strict code of their order, they have a thousand-year reputation for being strictly neutral in every political struggle – until now, I guess, when emotional and ethical considerations get them breaking their vows left and right.

King Evan is on a mission to nullify the law that says that anyone born with magical power should be put to death. (He’s particularly motivated to do this because his son and heir, Kyth, has recently been revealed to have such power.) He is opposed by the traditional priests of the realm – who have recently been revealed to be harboring – perhaps even led by – a cabal of dark demon-worshippers with sorcerous powers themselves.

Both sides want to hire top Majat wariors to help them in their struggle. But, as I mentioned, love gets in the way – the plot prominently features two romances – one between prince Kyth and the young-but-unbelievably-talented warrior Kara, and one involving the young truthseer Ellah’s infatuation with the warrior Mai.

There’s also some nature/forest magic going on, and quite a few other things.

Overall, the story is a quick read, fun and entertaining, in the classic fantasy vein. It doesn’t really add anything remarkably new to the genre, or transcend any preconceptions, but not every work has to break new ground. I was reminded more than once of sword-and-sorcery movies from the 80’s. I like those, so I don’t mind. It’s not realistic: if you demand a believable description of martial arts (or of medical procedures after people are wounded by those martial arts), you’ll find things to nit-pick. Nope, the ninja stuff here is over-the-top fantasy fare. The writing style is unremarkable, sometimes a bit too overly-colloquial or awkward, but it gets the job done. The romance aspects got to be a bit much, though. There were some eye rolls as kisses ‘drown people, then bring them back to life and drown them again,’ &c, &c.

I’ve seen some other complaints about this book that say that some aspects are confusing, or that the character development is insufficient. After wondering about a few things, I looked at the author’s bibliography. This is actually the second book in the series, although it’s not being marketed as such. These characters were introduced in Kashina’s 2012 release, ‘The First Sword.’ I have a feeling that if I’d read that first, I would’ve felt like I already knew the characters a lot better, and some references to prior adventures would’ve made more sense.

I received a copy of this book for review from NetGalley. Thanks to Netgalley and Angry Robot!

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The Reapers are the Angels – Alden Bell ****

Re-read – this time for post-apocalyptic book club. I appreciated the novel more, this time around. After finding myself recommending it to quite a few people, as well as my book club; it definitely deserved a re-read, either way. Bell’s use of language is wonderful, and he convincingly creates the voice of an uneducated, illiterate young woman who, though scarred, is intelligent and sensitive.
Her random wanderings through a zombie-filled wasteland are given shape by her ‘fated’ encounter with Moses Todd, her nemesis and reflection. (Is there a Moby Dick / Ahab dynamic going on here? Maybe, if you look at it from the whale’s perspective.)
In many ways, Moses is like what Temple might have grown to be. But their bond is based on the fact that in extremis, people can desperately hang on to things, certain principles, to give continued life meaning – but the things they hang on to can be wrong and ultimately meaningless.
I still think the mutant hillbillies in the woods were a bit much, and the weakest part of the book. But there’s enough going on here that a second look is worthwhile. There’s a lot of symbolism (Jewish/Old Testament-style), and more going on than the surface indicates.

I’ve just discovered that there’s now a sequel, as well – ‘Exit Kingdom’ – I’m going to look for it.

Read from October 28 to November 01, 2012
NOT a post-apocalyptic book club selection – but I felt like it ought to have been! It really fit in with most of the books that get selected for my club meetings… except, of course, the guy doing the selecting is not a big fan of zombies, and well, There Are Zombies.
Zombies aside, the book reminded me a little of Marcel Theroux’s ‘Far North,’ and I know I’ve encountered that grotesque, bloated, frighteningly insectoid caricature of a mother figure before…

Told from the point of view of a young girl who’s never known anything but a violent, post-apocalyptic landscape full of zombies; the book successfully captures both her grief and trauma, and the way in which she takes bizarre and threatening occurrences in stride.

Like many books in this genre, the plot follows a meandering and circuitous path through wasteland, allowing the reader to encounter a series of odd situations, along with the protagonist. Temple (the girl in question) is wracked with an inarticulate grief over the loss of a boy who may have been her brother, and feels compelled to try to become the temporary guardian of a mentally disabled man she encounters. The attempt to get him to safety becomes her guiding force.

Overall, it was quite good, but I felt that the latter portion of the book went a bit over the top and got off track.(One supernatural premise is good. Throwing an extra layer in as a twist toward the end of a book just strains it a bit.)

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Selected Fables – Jean de la Fontaine ***

Jean de la Fontaine is a must-read for anyone interested in folktales and fables throughout history.

The 17th-century poet took various tales from Aesop, Greek myth, and various other sources and set them to verse. Here, they appear in English translation. While the presentation of the stories and their social commentary is witty; I didn’t find the ‘poetry’ of the language to be that engaging – the rhyme could be distracting, and the phrasing was often clunky. I don’t know if this has to do with the original or the translation; I suspect a combination of both.

For French poems in translation; I tend to prefer a side-by-side presentation – even if one understands little of the original language, one can read to get an idea of the sound and rhythm of the original. However, I’m sure the originals are available freely online, for those motivated to look them up.

The selected fables presented here (apparently, the book includes about half of de la Fontaine’s fabulist output) are prefaced by a very nice academic essay on the author, which really helps place the writing in context. There are also liberal endnotes mentioning the source (if known), and references found in each fable. I might’ve preferred if the notes relating to each story were found adjacent to the relevant section, but overall, this was fine.

A recommended volume.

I received a copy of this title through NetGalley. Thanks to NetGalley and Oxford University Press.

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Under My Hat: Tales From the Cauldron – Jonathan Strahan, ed.

*** “Stray Magic”, Diana Peterfreund
A sentimental and cute story with a message – about a kindly animal shelter worker, and the magical dog that comes into her care.

*** “Payment Due”, Frances Hardinge
After an uncaring agent repossesses her grandmother’s belongings, a young witch decides to take revenge into her own hands. A sense of street justice and a vein of real creepiness runs through this.

*** “A Handful of Ashes”, Garth Nix
A tale of a plot to overthrow the administration of a witches’ college comes with a message about bullying and sticking up for oneself. Definitely one for Harry Potter fans.

**** “Little Gods”, Holly Black
I’m sure that many people who were drawn to pick up this book will be able to relate to this story of a young woman who’s just joined a Wiccan coven. The message here, as I see it, is that although religion may disappoint, there’s true magic to be found in friendship.

*** “Barrio Girls”, Charles de Lint
A couple of bad-ass young women get their revenge on the witch who did them a bad turn. Brings new meaning to the term, ‘killing them with kindness.’

**** “Felidis”, Tanith Lee
Lovely, classic-feeling fairy tale of a young man, out to seek his fortune, who meets an unusual cat lady (in multiple senses) in the woods.

*** “Witch Work”, Neil Gaiman
a poem

*** “The Education of a Witch”, Ellen Klages
You can read this for free, here:…
Previously read in: “The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 7″ – In this exploration of sibling jealousy, a young girl takes Disney’s Maleficent as a role model – with unexpectedly dramatic results. I can’t say I can’t relate…”

*** “The Threefold World”, Ellen Kushner
Not so much a story, as an introduction to Elias Lönnrot, the 19th-century Finn who created the definitive collection of his country’s folklore, the Kalevala. It’s also an argument in favor of folklorists, and the importance of myth – even non-canonical, overlooked stories and legends.

**** “The Witch in the Wood”, Delia Sherman
A fairy tale in the classic style, telling the story of a lonely woman who uses her inherited magic to cure an enchanted prince. The traditional elements are presented in a fresh and unique way, creating a thoroughly enjoyable tale.

**** “Which Witch”, Patricia A. McKillip
I challenge anyone to read this story and not wish they were a part of the rock band described. This tale would fit in really well with Terri Windling’s ‘Bordertown’ series. However, the plot elements are very slight, and cry out for further development…

** “The Carved Forest”, Tim Pratt
In search of his rebellious teen sister, a young man discovers a witch who holds a truly creepy secret about his town. Some nice imagery here, but deducting a star for the truly annoying message that young people should have to wait until they’re 18 to make any responsible decisions about their lives.

*** “Burning Castles”, M. Rickert
A teenager sabotages her free-spirited mother’s new relationship. Does she have reason, or is it just jealousy? Disturbing and ambiguous – and sad, either way.

** “The Stone Witch”, Isobelle Carmody
Well-crafted tale, but points deducted for the assumption that anyone who chooses to remain independent and child-free must be a ‘damaged’ person in some way, who needs to be ‘fixed’ by the insertion of a needy child into their life.

*** “Andersen’s Witch”, Jane Yolen
Beautifully written, like everything Yolen does. She’s one of the few who could legitimately tackle a fairytale about the life of Hans Christian Andersen himself. However, points deducted for the totally unnecessary insertion of Jesus.

** “B Is for Bigfoot”, Jim Butcher
This is a story about standing up to bullies in school and sticking up for yourself. The supernatural elements are wholly gratuitous.

**** “Great-Grandmother in the Cellar”, Peter S. Beagle
Previously read in: “The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 7” “Excellent, traditional-feeling fantasy story. A young woman is cast into a magical sleep by her no-good suitor, and her brother must call on his deceased but magical great-grandmother to help remedy the situation.”

**** “Crow and Caper, Caper and Crow”, Margo Lanagan
A fairy godmother (or, more accurately, witchy grandmother) comes to bestow magical gifts upon a newborn child – but finds more than she bargained for. Very nicely done; great imagery here. Classic fairytale elements are seamlessly woven in to a contemporary story.

3.16 average equals 3 stars.

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Strandloper – Alan Garner ****

A short novel very loosely based on the experiences of William Buckley, a British man transported to Australia who lived among the Aborigines there.

It’s an impressive piece of literature; but the ways in which Garner’s tale differs from the historical events is very illuminating of Garner’s concerns.

One of the main themes of the book is drawing a parallel between the ‘primitive’ rituals and beliefs of the Aborigines and those of rural Britain – this is done masterfully. It’s the sort of goal that, described briefly, sounds doubtful – but Garner describes individuals whose ignorance, from a modern perspective, is shocking – but does so in a way that gives a sense of a deep and abiding respect for human dignity.
(This theme of rural ignorance tempered with an ancient dignity is also found in Garner’s novel, Thursbitch.)

Does it reflect reality? That’s another question. Garner is deeply interested in linguistics and the power of language. In his tale, Buckley’s ‘crime’ is accepting lessons in reading and writing from a local aristocrat’s son. (In truth, he was accused of receiving stolen goods, and was illiterate throughout his long life.)
Garner is also a folklorist, specializing in the traditions of the British Isles. The English village that he describes is suffused with ‘pagan’ rituals, coexisting with Christianity. The rhymes and language of these traditions, as well as the dialect of the villagers, is vivid – the reader can practically hear the songs and the speech of the people. This depiction’s convincingness depends on showing a remote, isolated population. Buckley is described as never having been 10 miles from the place of his birth. History records that, on the contrary, he’d been in the army, fought in the Netherlands, and was arrested in London.

This is not to say that I appreciate any less a story which is in large part about the magic of words. But Garner’s ‘wise fools’ are, in a way, as mythical as the folkloric legends he studies.

The bittersweet romance of the story, with Buckley being sustained by the token his sweetheart gave him, and his dream of returning home to his true love, is heartbreakingly effective. The truth, of course, is that Buckley never returned to England (nor was he ever so naive as to think that he would walk home through China). But it makes a good tale; and rings true, in the way that folk tales can often be more true than history.