The Runaway Princess and The Runaway Dragon

These two children’s books take a lot of fairy tale tropes and give them a feminist spin. I’d recommend them to any parent of a princess-obsessed girl.

The Runaway Princess by Kate Coombs

This story begins with a typical princess setup: the king and queen lock a princess in a tower and call for princes to compete for her hand in marriage. But this princess isn’t having it: she escapes and works to complete the tasks set by the king so that she can win her own hand. She befriends the witch and the bandits that the princes were told to defeat, and reveals the cheating committed by the princes. She finds a baby dragon, that becomes her pet. It’s a bright and happy story with a satisfying ending.

The Runaway Dragon by Kate Coombs

This sequel begins with the almost grown, somewhat neglected dragon running away, and Meg going off on a quest to find it. Her parents make her take a bunch of royal guards, and the party gets lost in an enchanted forest, where a dwarf who is knowledgeable of fairy tale tropes gives them lots of advice. Meg’s friends end up in a giant’s castle, while she and her magician outwit an evil sorceress. I like how a romantic subplot is a bit of an afterthought, rather than the main point. The focus is on Meg’s desire for adventure, her worry for her pet dragon, and solving the problems that she and her friends get themselves into.

The Darkest Part of the Forest

The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black

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This fairy story begins with a vision of a horned boy asleep in a glass coffin, and a small town’s troubled relationship with the fairy world at its border. The sleeping fairy prince in his unbreakable box is a tourist attraction and a site of illicit high school revels. The action gets started when one morning the horned boy is gone, his coffin shattered.

The main characters are brave Hazel and Ben, her gay brother who has an amazing musical talent, gifted from a fairy. As children they made a game of protecting the town from dangerous fairies and hags. Years ago, Hazel made a bargain with a fairy, the results of which are revealed slowly and dramatically. Their friend, Jack, a changeling, also becomes involved as the fairy court intrigues are uncovered.

This is just the kind of YA fantasy I love. A mystery. Two love stories. A dangerous but enchanting fairy world hovering just below the surface of reality. Complex relationships and moral questions and issues of guilt and complicity and unintended consequences. Nontraditional gender roles. A story that works on a metaphorical level as well as literally. Startling, strange, and fantastic descriptions. Sparkling sentences. Highly recommended to anyone who likes this genre.

The Alchemist

The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho

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I had heard a lot of good things about this short little book, and was happy to finally pick it up. A lot of people, including Brene Brown, whose work I find persuasive and inspiring, call it wonderful. I was sorry to be disappointed with it.

The story works well if you think of it as a fairy tale and don’t try to derive any deeper significance from it. It’s a simple quest narrative about a boy who goes looking for a treasure. But what bothers me about the book is that it clearly seems to be trying to teach a life philosophy, and many of its readers like it for precisely that reason. I guess my problem is just that I don’t particularly like its philosophy. Here’s a quote that sums it up:

“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

I guess I just don’t believe the world works like that. It would be nice if it did. This philosophy seems to say that if you don’t achieve your dreams it’s your own fault because you didn’t follow “your Personal Legend” with enough faithfulness and tenacity, regardless of circumstances. It’s a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” philosophy, exemplified by the boy’s quick success in the crystal shop, starting with nothing and earning back double the money he’d lost to a thief in less than a year. The boy is always reading omens to help him make decisions, and I don’t think omens happen in this world. Again, if you think of it as a fantasy world where the wind and desert talk to him through magic, it’s fine. But if it’s supposed to be a metaphor for real life (and I think it very clearly is), I don’t find it persuasive because I don’t think life is that easy. There are definitely nuggets of wisdom, like the part where the boy talks to his heart and finds that it is too scared to go forward, but he chooses to go forward anyway. This particular idea about fear is said better or at least equally well by Elizabeth Gilbert in the opening of Big Magic.

I also had a problem with the way the book treated love and the boy’s relationship with Fatima, a “woman of the desert” who is content to wait for him while he searches for his treasure. What about her “Personal Legend”? Apparently her role is just to sit at the oasis and wait for him to return. It seems pretty convenient for the boy that “love never keeps a man from pursuing his Personal Legend.” Exactly. He’s a man. For women in our unequal society, it is a common experience that love and family get in the way of, or, at best, delay the realization of professional and personal aspirations. Fatima is one of two female characters, and both are just love interests with no real personality. The story would have been about the same without either one of them in it. It seemed they were only there to give the boy something to sacrifice or a way to prove he can delay gratification, on his way to finding his treasure.

Winter

Winter by Marissa Meyer

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This is the last book in the Lunar Chronicles, a cyberpunk series of fairy tale retellings. This one is a new take on Snow White, set against the backdrop of a revolution on the moon. It’s a worthy conclusion to the series and lives up to the promise of the other books, Cinder, Scarlet, and Cress. Cinderella as a long-lost princess turned cyborg revolutionary, her prince captive by the evil queen, Rapunzel as a master hacker–I love the way this series makes passive princesses into skillful leaders and team members, taking control not just of their own destiny, but changing two worlds for the better. The books are all action-packed, with intrigue, plotting, surprises, and high stakes. They’d make a great TV series.

This one is the longest in the series by far because it has so many plotlines to tie up. It’s like with each book in the series Meyer added a ball to the ones she was already juggling, and it takes her a while to put them all down. Perspective shifts between at least eight characters. Each of the series’s love stories had its own satisfying conclusion, sometimes even with a fairy tale touch. The over-the-top evil villain might be a weakness of the series, one Meyer had a chance to remedy through introducing more nuance in Fairest, but didn’t. Despite that, it was thoroughly enjoyable, tons of fun to read.

WWII novels

Here are two books concerning WWII and the Holocaust that I’ve read recently. These books are hard to read because of their brutally intense subject matter, but they’re educational, entertaining, and uplifting.

Briar Rose by Jane Yolen

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A woman goes to Poland to investigate her late grandmother’s origins and finds that she was a survivor of a death camp and her grandfather was a resistance fighter who rescued her. The story is framed by the grandmother’s retelling her own personal version of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, which served as a metaphor for her near death experience and was her way of telling her grandchildren about her own history.

When I picked up this book I had no idea it would be about the Holocaust, and thought it was just a fairy tale retelling. However, I thought the fairy tale frame was the least effective part of the story, and the Holocaust narrative was much more compelling. I thought it was interesting how the book highlighted the resistance fighters and some of the less well-known classes of Holocaust victims, like the gay man who narrates much of the story.

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

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This sequel to Code Name Verity is about Rose Justice, friend and bridesmaid of Maddie, the surviving protagonist from that book. Rose is an American pilot who joins the Air Transport Auxiliary. She is intercepted while flying over Germany and is put into a women’s concentration camp at Ravensbruck. There, she befriends the “rabbits,” women who were maimed as part of “experiments” by the Nazi doctors. It’s near the end of the war, and the Nazis are concerned with covering up their atrocities by destroying the evidence, while the prisoners band together to survive so that they can tell the world what was done to them. It’s a satisfying story because Rose and her friends achieve some small victories over the Nazis by hiding to avoid being gassed, causing riots over bread, and eventually even totally escaping. The story ends with the Nuremburg trials, which Rose attends as a reporter. Rose is a poet as well as a pilot, so she makes up some very moving verses about her experiences, with aerial flight as a metaphor. Another remarkable aspect of the book is its inclusion of a former concentration camp employee as a sympathetic character.

The Buried Giant

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

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Ishiguro is best known for understated novels like The Remains of the Day, in which a British butler contemplates his life of service to a politician who colluded with and appeased the Nazis, and Never Let Me Go, in which a group of young people quietly accept slow, painful deaths because they are clones meant for organ harvesting. Many fans who eagerly awaited this novel were surprised that it fit into the fantasy genre, with its post-Arthurian setting, its knights, ogres, and dragons. Since Ishiguro is considered Literary, some looked askance at his foray into fantasy, a genre often derided as juvenile. Ishiguro had a fascinating discussion with Neil Gaiman on the topic here.

Personally, I like fantasy, and I like Ishiguro, and I agreed with everything he and Gaiman said in their discussion, so I was super excited to be reading a fantasy novel by a Literary author. The main theme is memory, both individual and collective, and what happens when we forget. The story is about an elderly couple who set off in search of their son. They have been living in the amnesia-inducing fog of a dragon’s breath, and don’t remember much of their pasts, or their son. As they journey, they meet Saxons, Britons, monks, orphans, and knights. They discover their own pasts, as well as the history of their country and its wars of conquest. The prose feels as spare and exact as any of Ishiguro’s other work, with a sweet, rich fairy-tale flavor. It’s thought-provoking and open-ended, a pleasure and a wonder.

Stardust

Stardust by Neil Gaiman

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As always, Neil Gaiman is amazing. As far as I’m concerned, everything he touches turns to gold. This fairy tale is about a boy who grew up in a town just outside Faerie. He sees a falling star, and tells a girl that he will go find that star and bring it back to her. So he sets off into Faerie, and has many adventures along the way, of course. He finds that the star is a person, and that a witch is after her, and meets two brothers questing for the rock that knocked the star out of the sky. The world of this tale is slightly sexier and more violent than in most children’s books (which is why it’s marketed for adults), while also being whimsical, colorful, and slightly silly at times. If that seems a strange mix, a delicate tone to set, that’s because it is, and it works because Neil Gaiman is just that good.

I listened to the audiobook of this novel, which was read by the author. Neil Gaiman really has a great voice for storytelling, very soothing and atmospheric and humorous. At the end of the book, there was a recording of an interview with him, where he talked about writing across several genres, the story behind Stardust and its different versions, as well as the process of making an audiobook.