The Forgotten Beasts of Eld

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia McKillip

This short fantasy novel enchanted me thoroughly with its gorgeous formal language, imagery, scenery, and magical animals. The female protagonist, Sybel, cares for mythical creatures alone on a mountain, until she is given a baby prince to care for. When he grows up, she is thrown into the middle of the rivalry between the king and a competing court. She tries to keep herself out of the drama, until she is brought in against her will. It’s so cool and rare to find a strong woman character who knows who she is, who has power without the need to prove anything by wielding it. Watching Sybel almost lose that quality in a search for revenge was tragic; seeing her finally save herself and prevent a war, with the help of her loved ones, was triumphant. Except for the villain, who mostly acted in fear and desire, the characters all treated each other with such love and acceptance and forgiveness. The final twist was perfect and beautiful. If you like immersive fantasy and pretty sentences, this book is worth a try.

Mediocre Fantasy

Here are 3 quick reviews of some fantasy novels I wasn’t very impressed with. The last two of these books are very long, and may have been worth the time investment if it weren’t for that factor.

Fever by Lauren DeStefano

I enjoyed the first book in this series, Wither, because it seemed like a YA version of The Handmaid’s Tale, with drastically shortened lifespans to add extra stress. But Rhine, the protagonist, seemed to lose much of her spark and will to fight in this sequel. She spent much of the narrative ill or in a drugged stupor, and then got captured again at the end.

City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin

This book concludes The Passage Trilogy. It examines the series’ villain at length. I often found it needlessly violent and maudlin. I had a hard time buying into the ending, in which 700 people on an isolated Pacific island are all that’s left of humanity, then 1000 years later things are back to normal, almost exactly the same as they used to be before the virus, with technology and culture comparable to today’s. I found that absurd.

The Firebrand by Marion Zimmer Bradley

I remember loving The Mists of Avalon years ago, but Bradley’s version of the Trojan War is not as good as her version of the Arthurian legends. She chose Kassandra, the future-predicting daughter of Priam, as her protagonist. One perhaps understandable flaw, which may be inherent in the source material, is the idea of predestination and the will of the Gods, which makes the choices of the characters seem pointless.

The Wrath and the Dawn

The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh

The Wrath and the Dawn is the beginning of a trilogy retelling the story of Shahrzade. The language is good for a YA novel, if a bit breathless, with many paragraph breaks and emphatic sentence fragments. Shahrzade’s storytelling is less of a focus than romance and court intrigue. In this version of the story, the king who kills his wives is (spoiler alert!) compelled to do so by a curse, which does most of the work of turning him from a serial killer into a Byronic hero. However, in this novel, on his first night with Shahrzade, the king, Khalid, has very “perfunctory” sex with her. She submits, seething with hate. She notes that on the second night, she is getting good at dissociating during these encounters. They don’t have sex again until after they fall in love. But that is what I don’t get. How can she fall in love with a man who raped her?

On the other hand, maybe I’m just being prudish. Maybe it would be almost silly or unrealistic if they didn’t have sex. It makes sense that sex and marriages would work this way in this very patriarchal society, with sex a given. But there’s no way for this kind of sex to be anything but coerced at best, and coerced sex is rape. Khalid never apologizes to Shahrzade for it, although he does decide not to do it again until she consents fully. A question that’s left unanswered is whether or not Khalid slept with every one of the other murdered wives, and whether they consented. Were their final hours spent being violated? The book seems to lead me to answer, probably. Although it also seems possible that he simply stays away from the women, since he is so bad at emotional intimacy and didn’t seem to enjoy the impersonal sex he has with Shahrzade their first night anyway. Shahrzades’ honest gaze at their wedding ceremony is what intrigues him enough to visit her, but rather than asking her questions to begin with, he jumps right into bed, because he can and because he doesn’t have the skills or the guts to talk to her. He seems to begin their conversation with sex, because he doesn’t know what else to say–she says he seems to derive no real pleasure from it. His cowardice leads to her violation. And the narrative does not address this issue at all.

While the story does a great job of describing the couple’s physical attraction, it doesn’t sufficiently explain how Shahrzade deals with these rapes or makes sense of them in the context of their growing relationship. How does her attraction overcome her resentment? When they do finally make love, how do their previous coercive encounters color the act? Does Shahrzade continue to dissociate, even though she no longer needs to escape? Is Khalid still emotionally distant and perfunctory, because that is how he is used to behaving in bed, even though he is trying to express real love?

Ahdieh gives us no answers, but I guess these are my questions: In fiction, is rape a crime that puts a character beyond redemption? Or is there such a place as beyond redemption? What is necessary for that redemption? Can that redemption happen in the same relationship as the rape? Even if a rapist gets redeemed, can he ever deserve a true “happy ending”? Is it exploitative for an author to use this rape–>redemption narrative as a form of character development for a male character? Is it ok for a narrative to gloss over rape and its effects? In stories set in the past and in patriarchal societies, is it realistic to expect that characters act as we 21st century readers would wish them to, with regards to sex and consent? Or is setting irrelevant since all of this is imaginary anyway? I’m not sure what the answers are, and maybe that hesitation is a sign of some thinking I need to do on my own, but I suppose the fact that I felt uncomfortable and unsatisfied around this issue shows that The Wrath and the Dawn didn’t answer these questions sufficiently or convincingly.

The Dark Days Club

The Dark Days Club and The Dark Days Pact by Alison Goodman

This YA fantasy trilogy is set in the Regency period in England (think Jane Austen). Lady Helen learns she is a Reclaimer, gifted with the strength and talent to fight Deceivers, people possessed by demonic spirits who feed off the life energy of others. Some of the fantasy elements struck me as just silly, especially when I tried to picture them visually, or say the made-up words aloud, but if you just go with it (an approach necessary for enjoying much fantasy) it pays off. The period language is fun, as is the juxtaposition of proper speech with scary, violent situations. Lady Helen is an admirable heroine, brave and selfless. She spends a significant portion of the second book in men’s clothes. Details like period dress, locations, and history are well-researched and informative. Lord Carlston, who inducts Lady Helen into the Dark Days Club and teaches her to be a Reclaimer, qualifies as a classically inscrutable and intense Byronic hero. Supporting characters, especially Darby, Lady Helen’s stout maid, are well-drawn and interesting. The plots are structured around mysteries that Lay Helen ably solves–at considerable personal cost.

I was particularly impressed by the ending of The Dark Days Pact. Goodman set her climax inside a real historical murder, explained the mystery of Lord Carlston’s illness and his strong connection with Lady Helen–and then revealed a complication that will keep them apart. Goodman is currently working on the third book in the trilogy, which doesn’t yet have a release date.

And I Darken

And I Darken by Kiersten White

I liked White’s paranormal romance series, so I was interested to pick up this historical/fantasy series as well. This story is about a brother and sister, children of an Eastern European prince in the Middle Ages. They are sent to live in the court of the Ottoman Empire as assurance of their father’s cooperation. There they befriend the sultan’s son and take part in many intrigues and adventures, from an aborted coup to a failed siege. The story is dark and violent, with Lada, the sister, as a particularly prickly and tough warrior-princess. Her insistence on receiving military training, and on assuming command of a regiment, pushes gender boundaries. The climax is exciting, and the ending bittersweet. It’s YA, but probably on the ‘mature’ end of the genre.

The sequel, Now I Rise, comes out this year.

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.

Armada

Armada by Ernest Cline

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I picked up this book because I liked Cline’s first novel, Ready Player One. This story has a lot of the same nerdy inspirations, but without the post-apocalyptic darkness and incisive critique of corporate tyranny. This sci-fi novel is about an alien invasion and a far-reaching conspiracy to ready humanity to fight it off through training an army of video gamers to operate drones. The narrator is Zack Lightman, a top gamer recruited by the Earth Defense Alliance to pilot spaceships remotely. Through observing that the real aliens act a little too much like simulations of themselves, he uncovers a conspiracy within the conspiracy and saves planet Earth. It’s fun, sprinkled with lots of pop culture trivia, and structured self-consciously around Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. It felt like a novelization of one of the summer blockbusters so frequently referenced–definitely light reading. The ending seemed a little bit open, so that I wondered if there is a sequel in the works.