The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

Most of the books I review on this blog are ones that I can endorse, ranging from lightweight, pleasant entertainment to hefty tomes worth the effort for the emotional or intellectual impact. That has been a deliberate choice; I’d rather advocate for books I approve of than stomp on ones I don’t. With all the choices out there, why waste my time and airspace drawing attention to books that don’t deserve it?

That’s why I’m approaching The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne M Valente, with some trepidation. It’s an award winner, a best seller, and it has garnered praise from such luminaries as Neil Gaiman and Tamora Pierce. Lots of readers love it, and I can understand why they do. But it has also drawn a number of articulate negative opinions, not just the usual ‘This is soooooo boring’, and I understand those, too.

It left me deeply ambivalent. There are some things about it I loved and some that really annoyed me.

First of all, there’s the question of the target audience. It is marketed as a book for the middle grades, but many of the narrator’s comments seem targeted towards adults rather than children, and the breadth of the vocabulary will challenge many adult readers. Is this a book for children or for adults who enjoy reading children’s books? I don’t have an answer for that.

By the way, this Fairyland has little to do with the fae of myth and legend.  This is a Fairyland cut from the whole cloth of the writer’s imagination, like Wonderland or Oz, and that’s fine with me.

WARNING: Spoilers ahead. If you don’t want them, bail now.

Here are some of the things I loved:

  • That wonderful, mouth-filling title.
  • The illustrations, by Ana Juan, at the start of each chapter.
  • Her mother’s sword. What a wonderful idea! And if it sparks a bit of mother-daughter bonding from children trying to understand what their mothers’ swords are, that’s a good thing.
  • September’s hero’s journey, wherein she grows a heart, and loses it, because isn’t that what growing up is all about?
  • Her ship—a raft, actually, with a spoon for a mast—and the revelations that lead her to build it.
  • The strange characters peopling this Fairyland, from the Wyverary (the Wyvern whose father was a Library) and the civilised Wairwulf to the soap golem and the loyal key, plus a charming lantern, and many other strange and wonderful creatures.

On the flip side, my biggest complaint is over the messages another character’s ejection sends. Maud Smythe, the previous queen, had found her own way into Fairyland rather than being brought there as September was. Because of that, she couldn’t stay, despite being a wise and just ruler, and was thrown back into the hands of an abusive father in the mundane world. September, on the other hand, with loving parents, was invited in. When she left Fairyland she was given assurances she would be able to return.

Seriously, what kind of a message is this? Life’s unfair, too bad? Or that girls who work at getting out of a bad situation get the shaft, while the ones who are more passive are rewarded? Neither of those is a message I want to pass on!

A few other things I didn’t like included:

  • The intrusive narrator. While it is true that a story needs conflict—or there wouldn’t be a story—and the direction the story takes is up to the author’s whim, we don’t really want to be reminded of that in the middle of the action. Maintaining the illusion that there’s some inevitability to the progression of events gives a story more emotional weight.
  • The non-stop whimsy. Charming at first, it gets tiresome after a while. So does the narrative voice that’s patronising and a bit too twee.
  • The use of the word ‘ravished’ to describe September’s willing abduction to Fairyland. There’s nothing overtly sexual in the story but the connotations of that word made my skin crawl.
  • The scene where September sacrificed her shadow to save someone else. That came out of nowhere, with no foreshadowing or explanation. September’s choice seemed to have been a bad one, but I still don’t know why, because that plot thread was left dangling.

My daughter had a much stronger reaction to the scene with the shadow than I did. She was already annoyed because the story felt too much like travelogue to her; she couldn’t make out the plot and every new scene felt disjoint and unconnected to the preceding scenes. Then this scene upset her so much she refused to listen to me read any more it. She hardly ever does that.

If you love it, that’s great, but it wasn’t a good choice for me and my family.

Audience: Anyone with a high tolerance for whimsy and surrealism, and who doesn’t mind the things that bothered me.

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This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin

What is This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin about if it isn’t about Charles Darwin? The creative process, primarily, as the author, Emma Darwin, explores her failure to write a novel about the Darwin family, and the toll that failure takes on her, ultimately landing her in the hospital with a heart attack. Somewhat secondarily it also takes a look at the burdens and benefits of being a member of a large, prominent, and tightly-knit family.

Emma Darwin is an English novelist and teacher of creative writing. She also happens to be the great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin, along with 150 other great-great-grandchildren. This book—a blend of memoir, biography, and essay on the art of creative writing, plus excerpts from her fiction, including the failed work—has its roots in the Darwin Bicentennial (2009) when her agent began pushing her to take advantage of her name and connections, and write about the Darwin clan. She hadn’t wanted to capitalise on those connections, but since every review of her work included the connection to ‘The Ancestor’, it seemed a sensible thing to do. Why not?

Despite her own instincts which told her not to, over the next several years she explored her family’s histories, starting with Erasmus Darwin, the 18th-century natural philosopher and grandfather of Charles, and working her way down. She was looking for what she calls the white spaces, the gaps between the well-documented events in these famous people’s lives where a novelist could find room for invention. After much scrambling around in the family tree and some false starts, she made a serious attempt to write a story involving her grandparent’s generation (Charles Darwin’s grandchildren) spanning the two World Wars and the Spanish Civil War.

She describes the multiple iterations she made on the expanding story, and the reasoning behind each rewrite, as her agent tells her that each new version still isn’t working. She eventually had to admit that a serious lack of tension in her novel was due to the tensions she was living with as a writer: Her dread of showing off or offending her dozens of cousins. The constraints put on her imagination by the fact that the lives of the more notable members had already been thoroughly covered, often by multiple biographers, and by her own desire to stick to the essential core of the lives of these real people. And perhaps most important, her attempt to write what someone else wanted her to write rather than the stories she wanted to tell—stories that kept leading her away from the Darwins. How does one write a compelling story about people who generally led productive lives without a lot of drama?

She does eventually come to terms with failure, after recovering from her heart attack, and gives us this detailed example of one creative endeavour’s multiple metamorphoses. As another novelist who has ripped apart and rewritten one of my babies, I can sympathise, and appreciate the glimpse into someone else’s mind.

Personally, I’ll be looking forward to her next novel even if it has nothing to do with the Darwins. I didn’t read this book because I have a great interest in Charles Darwin. (I knew who he was, of course, but not much about his life outside of his contributions to science.) I read this book because I discovered Emma’s blog, This Itch of Writing, some time ago, and it was more helpful to me as a fledgling novelist than any other source of writing advice I have found.

Besides the story about her story, the tour of her family tree was fascinating, and I’m more interested now in digging further in, particularly regarding a few standouts: Gwen Raverat, artist and memoirist; Julia Wedgewood, novelist who appears to have fallen in love with Robert Browning after the death of his wife Elizabeth Barrett; and the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. (The man who wrote the gorgeous hymn tune Sine Nomine—a.k.a For All the Saints—was an atheist? I had no idea. I hadn’t connected him with the Darwins, either.)

There were a few other minor gems in this work. In one place, she says:

Women’s first names are the linguistic equivalent of mitochondrial DNA: transmitted through the mother, as surnames may be transmitted, like other DNA, through the father.

Yes, my family has passed down women’s names, too. In another spot she describes pain “on a scale from one to childbirth”. (Yes! Love that!)

To sum up, as another writer, I found this book very interesting, but it isn’t only for other writers. There’s enough meat here about creative thinking in general that it’s worthy of a wider audience.

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Mistborn

The Final Empire is a grim dark place, caught for a thousand years in the iron fist of the Lord Ruler, a god-like immortal with a squad of fanatical minions, the Steel Inquisitors, bent on rooting out heresy and enforcing his will. The technology is approximately late 19th century, with canned food and massive slums, although without rapid communication or transportation systems, but the society is strictly feudal. The peasants—the skaa—are regarded as subhuman by their noble masters, who can rape and kill them with impunity.

In fact, if any noble takes a skaa woman as a plaything, the law requires him to kill her before she can bear a child. Why? To prevent the noble’s magical powers—Allomancy—from leaking out into the skaa population and making them dangerous.

What the nobles and the Lord Ruler don’t know is that it’s too late. There are already skaa with allomantic powers, and one of them—Kelsier—is bent on revenge for his wife’s death.

Kelsier recruits a crew of thieves to organise and lead a skaa rebellion and overthrow the Lord Ruler. Can he succeed, when countless others have failed over the centuries? What price will he and his crew have to pay for his audacious plan?

And what will a successful rebellion mean for Vin, the teenage girl with powerful Allomantic abilities among Kelsier’s recuits? He and his crew teach her how to use her talents and how to act like a noblewoman, then dress her up and send her off the the nobles’ balls under an assumed identity to spy for them. At her very first ball, she draws the attention of a young nobleman, Elend Venture, the heir of one of the Empire’s most powerful houses, and before long she falls for him, rather hard.

That was not at all what Kelsier had in mind.

Vin is the primary viewpoint character in all three books of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy, and it’s largely her story as she grows from a fearful, solitary street waif to a self-confidant, respected, and heroic adult. The first book, The Final Empire, chronicles the skaa rebellion. The second book, The Well of Ascension, could have been subtitled The Education of Elend Venture, as he learns some hard lessons while trying to prevent societal collapse in the rebellion’s aftermath. The third book, The Hero of Ages, is driven by a serious mistake Vin makes at the end of the second book, a mistake that threatens to bring about the end of their world.

I need to say something here about the magic, which is strikingly original (or at least, unlike any I’ve encountered elsewhere). There are three main branches: Allomancy, Feruchemy, and Hemalurgy. (We only find out about Hemalurgy in the third book.) They are all powered by metals, either pure elements or alloys. Allomancers “burn” (metabolise, somehow) the metals to power changes in their perceptions (tin enhances senses, bronze allows discovery of other Allomancers, etc.) or abilities (iron and steel power pushing and pulling on metals from a distance, pewter provides greater strength and endurance), while Feruchemists use the same metals as stores for their own bodies’ capabilities (memory, strength, etc.).

I found this system intriguing, but in fairness I’m not sure it’s accurate to call it a “magic system.” It has supernatural origins, and it doesn’t follow the rules of science as we know them, but it does have clearly defined and apparently consistent rules of its own, so in this alternate reality maybe those rules are consistent with that universe’s science? Certainly the Steel Pushes and Iron Pulls obey the laws of physics, and there’s a fair amount of drama in Vin’s training regarding her having to be aware of relative masses and angles of attack, among other things. For example, if this small woman pushes on a large soldier’s metal breastplate, she’s going to throw herself backwards, not push him aside.

This makes for some cinematic descriptions of fight scenes, with Allomancers flying through the air, using mass and momentum to confound their less adept foes.

Besides the magic system, there are other things I liked about this trilogy:

  • Kelsier’s crew like each other (mostly) and work together well (mostly). Trust and teamwork are rewarded. Having a sense of humour is important.
  • The main characters are all struggling to do the right thing. They wrestle with doubt, frustration, and limited knowledge and resources, but accept help from friends and struggle on. They believe that individuals can make a difference. Their world is dark and grim, but they hold on to hope, because that’s the one thing the Lord Ruler can’t take from them.
  • Vin and Elend meet cute, and their romance is sweet and absolutely clean. I can’t help it that I have a soft spot for geeks and bookworms.

But there were some things I didn’t like:

  • It’s flabby. My edition totals 2100 pages, not counting the appendices. There’s a lot of of repetition and excess verbiage. Even where the characters have to communicate by scratching words into a steel plate, for reasons explained in the third book, they ramble on and on, apologising for their brevity. (Yeah, right.) There was, perhaps, some excuse for the first book being 640 pages, as Vin and the reader have a lot to learn,  but there weren’t nearly as many new ideas introduced in the second book, and it was even longer. Instead we get far too much political wrangling and replays of banter between crew members.
  • The writing is serviceable but not particularly good, the dialogue tends to be rather lame, and the author doesn’t seem to have ever bothered reading his own work aloud. (Try voicing “Sazed said” hundreds of times. It gets old.) The vocabulary is limited and some quirks are repeated ad infinitum. (Characters ‘pause.’ They are occasionally given a different way to indicate that they have to stop and rethink, but far too often they just ‘pause.’)
  • There’s a lot of violence. A lot of people die, some of them in nasty ways. Mouse over for spoiler. The fight scenes are interesting early on, while Vin is learning how to use Allomancy, but they get tedious after a while. And while the romance is clean, I’ve never understood why some people seem to think depictions of loving physical relationships should be more harmful to young minds—or old minds for that matter—than unstinting brutality.
  • The ending of the trilogy, with a blatant deus ex machina resolution, left me cold. In most cases, deus ex machina comes into play when the author can’t find a better way out of a plot hold they’ve written themselves into, but here this was evidently what Sanderson and intended all along. Mouse over for spoiler.

In sum, I enjoyed this trilogy, as did my family, but it’s flawed and seems quite overhyped. (176,000 5-star ratings on goodreads.com. Seriously? Take those swooning reviews with a grain of salt. It’s fun, but certainly not the best fantasy I’ve ever read.) The first book in the trilogy is the best, with some tedium but building up to a great climax. The second was disappointing, and the third started off slow but picked up, and was better than the second. I’m glad I read the whole thing, mainly because I did want to find out what happens to Vin, but it hasn’t left me eager to pick up another doorstop any time soon.

Audience: adults, older teens. No sex or bad language but lots of violence, brutality, and gore.

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Trip Diaries

Years ago, when I was single, I always travelled with a trip diary: a small notebook to record anything I wanted to remember about my experiences. I carried a camera, too, and took photos, but there are many things a camera just can’t capture: overhead comments on a famous painting, the sound of an organist practicing Handel in a nearly empty cathedral, the scent of roses in an English country garden, … Words can’t fully capture those fleeting moments either, but between the two—the photos and the words—I have the triggers to evoke memories years later.

In those days, I usually jotted down the day’s events in restaurants, while waiting for my dinner or while enjoying a cup of coffee or glass of port after the meal. Now, travelling with family, I turn my trip diary into a sort of game, partly to jolly the family along in the sometimes interminable interval between giving our order and getting our food. “What,” I will ask, “do you want to remember about today?” And then I’ll scribble frantically while they call out things that mattered to them—sometimes things I had completely overlooked. Often we’ll have a good laugh, and just as often go off on tangents, talking about history or science or any of dozens of other topics.

So it’s a shame I forgot my little notebook on our short trip down to the South Island last week. Instead, I’ll jot down here a few things that stood out on our circuit from Christchurch to the West Coast and back:

The waterspout over the road to the west of Arthur’s Pass. 

Bruce Bay, where the road runs right along the edge of white surf, and I was glad we passed through in good weather.

Mist rising from a river, along nearly 180 degrees of our field of view, as a cold front moved in.

Driving through rain and dimming light at the end of a long day, frantically searching for our motel on a secondary road twenty minutes from the nearest town, and the cattle lowing at us from the neighbouring field when we finally found it.

The waterfalls along Haast Pass where other tourists had piled up rocks in the streams just for play, and where our legs were covered with bug bites after a five minute walk.

Bliss over udon, tempura, and pork katsu at the Sasanoki Japanese Kitchen in Wanaka.

The contrast between the temperate rain forest on the west side of the Southern Alps and the arid Mackenzie Basin a few kilometres to the east.

The pleasure of setting out on the open road at the start of the trip, and the equally valid pleasure of coming home to familiar surroundings and a firm mattress.

Of course, I haven’t had time in decades to go through those trip diaries. I have cracked them open on a few occasions to check when we went to a particular spot or to give recommendations to friends. I hope when I’ve been retired a few years I’ll have a chance to get them out and relive those experiences.

Posted in A Writer's Life | Leave a comment

Witch

The old house is perfect. Ellen March falls in love on first sight with the pre-Revolution farmhouse, sitting in a clearing surrounded by lilacs, apple trees, dogwoods, oaks, and maples. It doesn’t matter to her that the locals say the house comes with the ghost of a witch, or that the rural Virginia setting is miles from anywhere, the nearest town the isolated community of Chew’s Corners. The house has what she wants: solitude. With her daughter and the three nephews she had helped raise all nearly fledged, it’s time she took care of herself for a change. Her only near neighbour, Norman McKay, is a handsome, wealthy bachelor. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, for starters, there’s Norman’s sullen nephew Tim, the town’s despised delinquent. When Ellen comes to his defence in an incident with the town’s teens, it doesn’t endear her with their parents, and while he awakens a maternal response in her, she’s not happy when her daughter Penny falls for him.

And then there’s a string of events, possibly coincidences, that provoke gossip that Ellen herself is a witch. With the town dominated by a fire and brimstone sect—The Earthly Church of the Wrath of God, no sentimental schlock about love preached there—she makes enemies when she speaks up against intolerance and superstition. The townfolks reactions are discomforting but not frightening, at least, not at first. Ellen proves she is quite capable of taking care of herself when she can deal with them one-on-one.

She just never expects to be trapped in her own house, along with Penny and Tim, by an armed mob…


Witch, by Barbara Michaels, is an old favourite. It was published in the 1970s, and I loved it when I first read it, probably in the early 1980s. I re-read it again recently, and still enjoyed it. Younger readers will probably consider it dated, but I don’t care. A cell phone would have saved Ellen a lot of grief, and her occupation for the last ten years was housekeeper for her widowed brother-in-law and his three boys. She doesn’t  look for a job, but the book never explains how she can afford to buy and refurbish the old house.

Despite the book’s age, Ellen is a strong female character—strong in the sense of acting on her own, rather than being passively buffeted through life. She is misled and manipulated for a while, but once she realizes her error, she doesn’t dither around.

The publisher’s blurb gives the impression that this is a ghost story, but that’s misleading. The supernatural element is minimal; this story is more in the vein of Mary Stewart’s suspense thrillers than Micheal’s other supernatural thrillers like Ammie, Come Home or The Crying Child. This story is about mass hysteria, driven by a culture clash between a sophisticated ex-urbanite and an isolated rural community, and manipulated by a man who has much to lose when busybody Ellen sticks her nose in. There’s romance here, too, based on something much more important than mere sexual attraction, and a functional extended family. (They actually like and help each other! How shocking!)

Audience: Adults and teens. No sex or bad language. Some violence and psychological abuse.

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The Spirit Ring

Lois McMaster Bujold’s noblebright fantasy The Spirit Ring, set in Renaissance Italy, opens with a young woman, Fiametta, assisting her father, Prospero Beneforte, master craftsman and mage, in putting the final touches on a magical poison-detecting salt cellar. Their richly decorated creation is intended as a gift from their duke to the duke’s daughter’s husband-to-be, Lord Ferrante. But when the betrothal party goes bad, with their duke murdered and their city of Montefoglio overrun by Ferrante’s men, Fiametta and her father flee. Ferrante’s men track them, murder Master Beneforte, and take his body away to be used in black magic enslaving the powerful mage’s unshriven spirit.

Fiametta, naturally, is horrified. With the assistance of Thur Ochs, a young Swiss metalworker, she returns to Montefoglio determined to free her father’s spirit and see justice done.

On first dipping into The Spirit Ring, I wasn’t thrilled with Fiametta, who seemed like a flighty teenage girl with her mind on romance and an overly generous assessment of her own abilities, but she grew on me as the book progressed. She is a bit naive but brave, and the author shows us that she is talented, as she steps up to accomplish things her older and wiser advisors say can’t be done.

This isn’t a story with great depth, but it is a fun read, with kobolds, ghosts, and asides into mining and metalworking. There is also a gentle romance, but the love-at-first-sight trope is subverted, at least on Fiametta’s side. Thur does fall for her immediately, but when her magic tells her he is her one true love, she is aghast. A big, stupid Swiss lout is not at all what she had in mind. But of course he’s not as much of a lout as he appears.

There are other appealing characters in this story, including an abbott who is competent, caring, and a voice of moral authority, and a maybe mad, maybe not castellan. Even the power-hungry Ferrante is brave and in some ways likeable. Only the evil magician working for him is irredeemable, despite the abbott’s valiant efforts to redeem him.

And finally, when the story is over, you’ll never be able to view Benvenuto Cellini’s bronze statue of Perseus in quite same way, ever again.

Audience: teens and up. Violence, but no sex or bad language.

Posted in Noblebright Fantasy, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The Silence of Medair

I cried over Andrea K Höst’s noblebright fantasy novel, The Silence of Medair. That’s a compliment, you understand. To become so engrossed in a story that the real world gets put on hold for a few hours, to identify so strongly with a character that I can feel how much it costs her to keep her chin up and her voice steady when she would rather throw herself onto her bed and sob—that’s the magic that keeps me coming back for more.

Medair an Rynstar, herald for the Palladian Empire, is on the losing side. With her country on the verge of disaster before the invading Ibisians, she goes on a quest to find a legendary horn that, when blown, will repel the invaders.

We’ve heard this story a million times, right? Well, no, not quite.

Medair does find the horn, and makes the fatal mistake of resting in the enchanted vault. When she wakes five hundred years later, the war is long over, and her side lost. A legitimate and respected ruler, heir to the combined bloodlines of both Palladian and Ibisian royal families, sits on the Palladian Silver Throne. The natives and invaders have interbred for so long that sounding the horn would rip the country into shreds.

That’s all backstory. The Silence of Medair begins with Medair hiding in the mountains, overcome with hatred of the Ibisians and shame for having returned too late.

War is again on the horizon. A king of a neighbouring country, Decia, is sponsoring another claimant to the Palladian Throne, and wants to use Medair and her treasures to finish what she set out to do so long ago: drive out the Ibisians. Medair wants nothing to do with this conflict, but in trying to evade capture, she runs into a high-ranking Ibisian mage in trouble after the failure of the mission he was on. Unaware of who she is, he enspells her to assist him in returning to the Palladian capital—a place she empathically does not want to go to. Confronting the changes wrought to her former home by invaders and five hundred years comes at a high emotional cost to her.

As the two countries draw closer to war, she is forced to take sides, but do the Ibisians living in Palladium today deserve her hatred? Are the Decians liberators or just another round of invaders? Whichever side she chooses, innocent people will die, and many survivors will hate her for her choice.

Medair is an appealing character: intelligent, honourable, fair, observant, wry, and capable. Not herself a strong mage, she has an awesome back of tricks, and is more often rescuer than in need of rescue. She spends a fair portion of the book angst-ridden over her choices, both past and future, but she actively makes choices. Even when she is furious over being compelled to aid the Ibisians, she chooses how she will respond.

Besides the character study, the story addresses issues of colonialism and the impacts of nurturing centuries-old grievances. There is also just a hint of romance.

The book does have a few defects: lamentable cover art, an out-of-character suicide attempt, a slew of confusing Ibisian titles, and, most serious, a magic system apparently without rules, where anything can happen. Towards the end, a world-changing magical event occurs with unforeshadowed results. The purpose seems to have been to leave the powerful Ibisians feeling as disoriented and ineffectual as Medair, but it jarred me, too. Not enough, however, to keep me from enjoying this fast-paced, engaging story.


As you can tell by now, I really like The Silence of Medair. The bad news is that it’s the first book in a duology, and the second book, Voice of the Lost, doesn’t live up to the standard set by the first. The first book ends with a semi-resolution, answering the biggest question facing Medair, and I probably should have left it there. Where the first book had just a hint of mutual attraction, the second book turns into a soppy romance novel. Her love interest didn’t appeal to me in the slightest, and the end had way too much of a squick factor for my comfort. Worse, the author robs Medair of her agency. In The Silence of Medair, she acts. In The Voice of the Lost, she turns her bag of tricks over to her lover, and that’s pretty much the end of her as a driver of the action. So, boo.


Audience: Adults down to mid-teens. Some violence, but no bad language. Off-screen sex in the second book.

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2018 Recap

Out of the six dozen or so books I read (or started and abandoned) this year, here are the ones that were most successful in capturing my attention and drawing me into that state of willing suspension of disbelief long enough to enjoy the ride. That kept me entertained, in other words.

The list includes a couple I haven’t gotten around to writing reviews for yet, and only a few were published recently. (I make no claims to being up-to-date.)

In no particular order:

  • Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks: Ordinary people coping with catastrophe as plague rips through their English village in 1665.
  • Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke: Rich fantasy/historical novel crossover. Dense and slow-paced but worth the effort.
  • Matters Arising from the Identification of the Body by Simon Petrie: Science fiction/crime fiction crossover set on one of Saturn’s moons.
  • The Traitor and the Thief by Gareth Wood: The Artful Dodger goes to a school for spies in this steampunk fantasy.
  • Cunning Devil by Chris Underwood: Dark urban fantasy with a likeable protagonist.
  • The Lord of Dreams by C J Brightley: Explores a young woman’s character growth as she’s pulled into the land of the fae.
  • Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch: Mayhem in Police Constable Peter Grant’s London with chimeras and jazz vampires.
  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik: Fantasy war story rooted (pun intended) in Polish folktales.
  • The Spirit Ring by Lois McMaster Bujold: War in Renaissance Italy with magic, murder, invasion, and a sweet, clean romance.
  • Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson: Cross-cultural romance between two mature adults in contemporary Britain.
  • The Silence of Medair by Andrea K Höst: Fantasy with an appealing heroine faced with an impossible choice, coming to terms with hatred and shame.
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Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

The match is entirely unsuitable. Everyone in the small British village of Edgecombe St Mary agrees on that. He, a retired career army officer, rubs shoulders with the titled and the wealthy; she’s the village shopkeeper. He’s a respected member of a family with a long history in the community; she’s the widow and daughter of Pakistani immigrants.

Except that Major Ernest Pettigrew was born in Lahore; Mrs Jasmina Ali was born in Cambridge and has never been further afield than the Isle of Wight. Brought together by sympathy for each other’s recent losses—her husband, and for him, first his wife and more recently his brother—they enjoy each other’s company, and share an appreciation  for classic literature.

Most of the plot in Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, by Helen Simonson, is driven by the indignities inflicted on the Major and Mrs Ali by their respective families and friends as their friendship deepens into something much more serious. The Major’s remaining family—a tactless, selfish son with bad taste and a money-grubbing sister-in-law and niece—want him to sell the family heirlooms: a matched pair of hand-crafted sporting guns given to the Major’s father by a maharaja, and then handed on, one apiece, to the Major and his now-dead brother. Mrs Ali has no children, but is under pressure from her controlling brother-in-law and his wife to turn over her shop to their son, since obviously a mere woman can’t keep it going on her own. She resents their interference, but will act against her own self-interest when her love for family demands it.

Throw in a cringe-inducing holiday gala at the Major’s golf club catered by friends of Mrs Ali, an arrogant American attempting to “develop” the village, and a fierce young single mother with a four-year-old son, and the story gets delightfully complicated. This novel is much more than a simple romance between two mature characters, although that’s appealing enough. The Major has to come to terms with his buried resentment of his father’s gift of one of the heirloom guns to his brother, and with his prejudices and blind spots towards immigrants and shopkeepers. It’s lovely to watch his senses of honour and fairness force him to grow as he is pushed out of his comfortable routine time and time again. His steps towards greater involvement with Mrs Ali’s troubled extended family are at first reluctant, but at the end he throws himself in wholeheartedly, for a bravura skirmish with a distraught youth.

Actually, the climax was rather over-the-top melodramatic, but I still enjoyed it. For me, the weakest part of the story was the character of the Major’s son, Roger, who grated on me. He was so blatantly selfish and un-self-aware that I wondered what either of the two young women he was involved with saw in him. His behaviour called into question the Major’s competence as a parent—a blot on an otherwise fine character—in making me wonder how Roger could have absorbed so little of the Major’s values.

Roger did have some merit, though, as comic relief. There is a lot of humour in this story, especially in the details about small-town life.

Audience: Anyone interested in character-driven romance. Clean, and almost violence-free.

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Why does fantasy have to be so long?

Why is so much speculative fiction so long?

In the past year I have read several stories that were more than 500 pages: Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (782 pages), Brandon Sanderson’s Well of Ascension (763 pages), Eric Flint’s 1632 (592 pages), and Jo Spurrier’s Children of the Black Sun trilogy (more than 1300 pages). I enjoyed them all, for different reasons, but each one dragged at some point, making me wonder if I would ever finish.

I’m not saying I don’t like long novels. I do, although generally not back-to-back or side-by-side. If a story is complex and compelling enough to justify a 2.5-inch brick, as Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is, I’ll keep reading. But most are not that compelling or entertaining. In far too many, I slog through, hoping the pace will pick up. More often lately I give up. There are at least a dozen books on my shelves of 600+ pages that I may never get around to reading because I just don’t want to commit the time needed.

Publishers are partly to blame. Baen, for one, in their submission guidelines, states that they prefer manuscripts between 100,000 and 130,000 words long, and are uncomfortable with manuscripts under 100,000 words. At somewhere between 250 to 300 words per page, their minimum is 330 to 400 pages long.

Why? Because the world building needed to transport the readers to imagined worlds needs the extra space? Sometimes, yes. But some authors pack a lot of colour and description into tight spaces. Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, less than 200 pages in my edition, is one of the most atmospheric and haunting fantasy worlds I have ever been privileged to visit. Other oldies on my shelves communicated their stories and exotic settings in under 350 pages. Here are a few: Ringworld by Larry Niven, The Hobbit by J R R Tolkien, The Thrall and the Dragon’s Heart by Elizabeth Boyer, Watchtower by Elizabeth A Lynn.

Far too often, writers use guidelines like Baen’s 100,000 word minimum as license for self-indulgent excess, padding page after page with digressions and repetitions that drag the story to a halt rather than building complex, multi-layered but still-tight narratives. With so many book being published these days, why should I spend my time with ones that don’t keep me captivated?

Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy was the trigger for this post. The first book, The Final Empire, was a bit long (643 pages), but with all the main character had to learn—the magic system, the politics, how to deal with her new crew, etc.—the story kept moving along (mostly). But the second book, The Well of Ascension, is even longer (763 pages), with not nearly as much excuse. The amount of new world building and character development doesn’t justify the bloat. I would have liked the book twice as much at half the length.

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