book review

The Graveyard Book

graveyard-bookI would like to say my fascination with The Jungle Book emerged out of some inarticulate desire for the wild and fantastic, but it’s probably just because it was the only Disney movie at my Grandma’s house. I loved it, as all kids love singing bears and dancing orangutans, but then in third grade I found the real thing: The Illustrated Junior Library edition of Kipling’s The Jungle Book. And oh, here was something much stranger and more powerful than the Bear Necessities—here was a story about revenge and love and growing up and the Law of the Jungle. Here were jackals and kites, panthers and snakes, and secret languages to speak to each of them.

The Jungle Book was also, as I discovered over the course of a couple of history degrees, a piece of colonial fantasy which perpetuated an image of Indians as “half devil and half-child,” and reimagined the jungle as a kind of unsettled frontier in need of wise governance.[1] But I can still reread it and find the bones of something much wiser and older in Mowgli’s story. It’s something like a changeling story, except it’s the parents rather than the baby who are switched at birth. And it’s certainly a border story, which happens in the fractured spaces between civilization and wildness, humans and animals, and the real and fantastic. And, of course, it’s the very oldest kind of story—a coming-of-age story.

Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book is The Jungle Book if Mowgli had been born in London and raised by ghosts rather than wolves, and if Kipling had possessed a much keener and kinder sense of humor. It begins, as so many children’s books do, with a brutal triple murder. One baby boy survives, and toddles to the nearby graveyard. The ghosts hide him from “the man Jack” who hunts him, and Nobody Owens grows up with the Freedom of the Graveyard. His teachers are Silas (“a solitary type” reminiscent of Bagheera) and Miss Lipescu (a Hound of God, something like Baloo), and his best friend is a ghost-witch named Liza Hempstock. It is very, very good.[2] (more…)

The Mapmaker’s War: A Utopian Fable

mapmakerswarIf you were to sit down to write a medieval fantasy novel that was the ideological and literary opposite of A Song of Ice and Fire, it might  come out something like The Mapmaker’s War. While Martin’s scope covers multiple continents and more characters than I could ever truly care about (I’m down to Arya and Tyrion, and godhelpme Jaime), Domingue’s world exists only through the eyes of a single woman. Where Martin glories in the grunge of sex and violence, Domingue contemplates the damaging social constructions that surround both practices. While readers are dragged through every grimy inn, every grueling mile, and every unfortunate wedding in Westeros, The Mapmaker’s War moves at a dreamy, almost fable-like pace that contains a woman’s entire life. The fantasy reader that would love both of these works is rare, so take this comparison either as a warning or recommendation.

The plot follows the life of Aoife, a woman who becomes the mapmaker to an ancient kingdom. I wish we’d spent more time here in Aoife’s youth, because the semi-magical, semi-mathematical process of creating maps was beautiful to read. But we don’t linger. Soon Aoife discovers a neighboring culture on one of her mapmaking journeys — peaceful, non-hierarchical, quite Utopian — and the new knowledge of their location and rumors of their wealth lead to war. (more…)

Avoiding Middle-Book-itis: Elizabeth Bear’s Shattered Pillars

shattered pillarsElizabeth Bear’s entire Eternal Sky trilogy is now sitting in a neat row on my bookshelf. I adored the first book and consumed the second one so quickly it went by in a blur of semi-divine horses and cool but unpronounceable names. Before I read Steles of the Sky (released on April 10th), it’s worth pausing to reconsider the middle book in what might be one of my favorite fantasy series in recent years.

In Shattered PillarsTemur and his band of loyal and enigmatic followers continue their quest. But the quest is stranger and less certain than it used to be. Temur wants to save Edene, his horse-riding lady-love, but also reclaim his grandfather’s throne and oust his rival Qori Buqa. In a vast and fractured political landscape dominated by independent city-states, this turns out to be rather difficult. Much of Team Temur’s time is spend navigating the labyrinthine politics of foreign cultures in an attempt to amass a power base. And getting periodically attacked by assassins. (more…)

The Girl Who Loved Fairyland Too Much, and Couldn’t Review it in a Meaningful Way

13538708I want to review Catherynne Valente’s The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There. Really, I do. But all my objectivity and good sentence structures have disappeared down the velvet-lined rabbit hole that leads to Fairyland.  I have nothing left but simpering sentiment and the ickiest, most unreadable kind of fawning.

I think I can summarize the plot without too much goo, though. In the first book of the series, twelve year old September was whisked away from Nebraska by the Green Wind to have high adventures in Fairyland. In the process, she bartered away her own shadow. In The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland, September is thirteen. She returns to Fairyland only to find that her shadow (which is a version of herself that is wilder, darker, and more selfish) has fallen into Fairyland-Below and begun to cause a great deal of trouble. (more…)

Moth and Spark: Cotton Candy for the Fantasy Soul

Moth-and-Spark-Headline-coverMoth and SparkAnne Leonard’s debut novel, is a member of a very specific and well-populated fantasy subgenre: a classic tale of high romance, sword fighting, dragon-riding, and faux-medieval politicking. It’s more or less the Anne McCaffrey and Patricia Briggs reading of my middle school years, read and re-read with all the critical discernment of a kid shoving cotton candy down her throat at the fair. Moth and Spark was cotton candy of the most typical sort — nothing but air and spun sugar, but still a sweet way to pass the time. (more…)