Arctic Dreams

I learned this week that Barry Lopez, the American scientist and nature writer, died on Christmas Day 2020 at the age of 75. His magnum opus, Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire is a Northern Landscape, is a classic work of nature writing, and won several awards the year it was published (1986), including the National Book Award for Non-Fiction. Arctic Dreams drew on his experiences over five years working as a biologist in the Canadian Arctic, but as one literary critic* said, it “is a book about the Arctic North in the way that Moby Dick is a novel about whales.”

In his own words, Lopez described Arctic Dreams as a narrative with three themes:

The influence of the arctic landscape on the human imagination.
How a desire to put a landscape to use shapes our evaluation of it.
And, confronted by an unknown landscape, what happens to our sense of wealth.

What does it mean to grow rich? Is it to have red-blooded adventures and to make a ‘fortune,’ which is what brought the whalers and other entrepreneurs north?

Or is it, rather, to have a good family life and to be imbued with a far-reaching and intimate knowledge of one’s homeland, which is what the Tununirmiut told the whalers at Pond’s Bay wealth was? Is it to retain a capacity for awe and astonishment in our lives, to continue to hunger after what is genuine and worthy? Is it to live at moral peace with the universe?

The book covers a large range of topics in its 400-odd pages. The early chapters focus on the wildlife (narwhals and right whales, muskoxen and polar bears, snow geese, …) described in carefully observed and finely written detail. The middle chapters talk about the impacts of the landscape on vision, imagination, and the arts. Physics and geography get their turns, too, with explanations of the season-long days and nights; aurora borealis, mirages, and sundogs; stages in the development of pack ice. The final chapters turn to the history of Western (European, American, and Canadian) exploration and exploitation. The native peoples, their adaptations to the harsh environment, and their relationships to the other inhabitants and the newcomers are woven throughout. Woven throughout, also, is Lopez’s own relationship with the arctic and what it meant to him.

I read Arctic Dreams soon after it was published, 35 years ago, and it burned in my imagination for a long time afterwards. Revisiting it now, with global warming bringing irrevocable changes as the polar regions warm faster than the rest of the globe, it reads like an elegy. I’m sure there have been many books and essays published since then that update the science or cover individual topics in more depth, but I doubt there has been anything that ties them all together so nicely, or that surpasses its descriptions of human relationships with the natural world.

The prose is dense and beautifully written, the kind that benefits from a slow, reflective read to let your imagination roam and to ponder the questions Lopez raises.

*Michiko Kakutani, in the New York Times

Posted in Science (non-fiction) | Leave a comment

2021 TBR

Before the holidays I owned five of the books in Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London/Constable Peter Grant series. I had added the next book to my wishlist, and my family gave me four books in the series (from three separate people). They had not coordinated with each other or checked on which ones I already had, but there were no duplicates among either the old or new ones. How awesome is that? That stack should keep me entertained for a while.

There are several other books I’m particularly looking forward to this year:

    • A Curse of Ash and Embers by Jo Spurrier: I read Spurrier’s Children of the Back Sun trilogy a few years ago, and loved it.
    • A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine: Due out in March, this is the sequel to 2020’s Hugo Award-winning novel, A Memory Called Empire.
    • Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger: Monsters and magic based on Lipan Apache mythology.
    • Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells: The next instalment in the Murderbot Diaries, due out in April.
    • The King of Faerie by A J Lancaster: The fourth and final book in the Stariel series, due out in August.
    • A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T Kingfisher: Just because it looks like fun.

And of course there will be new books by New Zealand writers, and lots of books already in my TBR pile by writers like Lois McMaster Bujold, Zen Cho, Anne Perry, Dick Francis, Elizabeth George, W R Gingell, Georgette Heyer…

Somehow, my TBR list only seems to get longer, never shorter. So many books, so little time.

Posted in A Writer's Life | 2 Comments

2020 Recap

The Icelandic tradition of Jólabókaflóðið (literally, Christmas Book Flood) warms my heart, since it involves settling into a comfortable spot,eating chocolate, and reading books. The custom, as I understand it, of giving books (books are, apparently, the default Christmas gift) comes from both Iceland’s long literary history and, more recently, from limited imports of nearly everything but paper during World War II.

Christmas is almost on us, but it’s still not too late to encourage spreading this tradition, and given the state of the world, enjoying Jólabókaflóðið may be the most sensible thing to do in 2020.

With that in mind, here are the books—some old, some new, some well-known, some obscure—that were most memorable for me this year. In no particular order, they include

  • A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine: A superb science fiction novel exploring questions of identity and cultural imperialism, with a likeable, competent, and proactive female protagonist.
  • The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison: An enchanting story about the shock power of kindness upending a rigid, Byzantine court when an unwanted, unloved heir ascends to the throne.
  • Deltora Quest by Emily Rodda: Middle-grade fantasy filled with good stuff: unusual creatures, challenges requiring cooperation and trust to overcome, heroism and self-sacrifice for the greater good, and puzzles.
  • Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson: Highly atmospheric mystery/courtroom drama that’s a deep dive into bigotry against Japanese-Americans during and after World War II.
  • The four-part Murderbot Diaries and the full-length novel Network Effect by Martha Wells: Action-packed roller-coaster ride with a protagonist who is easy to relate to, despite being a cynical, traumatised, paranoid part-organic/part-machine A.I.
  • From a Shadow Grave by Andi C Buchanan: Several variations on a ghost story, all derived from a real 1930’s murder in Wellington.
  • The Prince of Secrets and The Court of Mortals by A J Lancaster: Books 2 and 3 in the Stariel fantasy series (along with book 1, The Lord of Stariel, which I reviewed last year), continuing the saga of Henrietta Valstar, Lord of Stariel.
  • The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern: Lovely, hallucinogenic, and non-linear story about two unwilling competitors trapped in a years-long contest, taking place in a magical circus.
  • The Silver Path by Caitlin Spice: Fourteen fairy tales for adults, full of loss, regret, guilt, terror, obsession, and horror.
  • Gideon the Ninth by Tamsin Muir: Lesbian necromancer murder mystery/space opera with swordplay.
  • The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry: Historical novel set in 1895 Britain exploring the conflict between reason and faith in the context of mass hysteria over a supposed monster.
  • Provenance by Ann Leckie: Science fiction set in the same universe as Leckie’s Imperial Radch/Ancillary Justice trilogy, exploring questions of identify and social cohesion.
  • The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E Harrow: A portal fantasy focused on the creation and control of the portals themselves.
  • The Clockill and the Thief by Gareth Ward: Further hair-raising steampunk adventures of Sin and his fellow trainee spies as they take to the skies to retrieve a stolen airship.
  • Newt’s Emerald by Garth Nix: A Georgette Heyer-inspired romp with a stolen magical emerald, mistaken identity, romance, and a cross-dressing protagonist.
  • Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho: Another breezy Heyer-inspired Regency fantasy with a farfetched plot and a lovely romance.
  • Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang: A collection of mind-expanding sci-fi stories using high tech to explore human nature.
  • The Black God’s Drum by P. Djèlí Clark: A female-dominated steampunk-flavoured atmospheric novella set in an alternate late 19th-century New Orleans.
Posted in A Writer's Life, On Reading | 1 Comment

The Ten Thousand Doors of January

January Scaller, a seven-year-old girl with coppery-red skin, finds a Door and slips through into another world. She’s called back into this one by her guardian, Mr Cornelius Locke, who destroys the Door and does his best to drive all thoughts of it from January’s head. She is, he claims, a difficult child—too difficult, certainly, for her grim, rigid German nanny—and overstimulated, in need of a calm, structured environment without distractions.

This is the beginning of The Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alix E. Harrow, one of 2020’s Hugo contenters for Best Novel. January has no mother; Locke employs her father, Julian Scaller, to roam the world for him, looking for archaeological discoveries (or, in less euphemistic terms, grave robbing, among other things), leaving her in Locke’s care. When Locke shuts January away for three days in a bedroom stripped of all colour and entertainment, I was rooting for January to stage an epic rebellion scene. But no, she really does love Mr Locke, and meekly settles down to be an obedient, good little girl.

The story then skims briefly over the next ten years, until January is seventeen. January’s father disappears, and she finds a book titled The Ten Thousand Doors by Yule Ian Scholar. This book within a book talks about Doors and describes the travels of January’s mother and father, separated by closed Doors, as they search for each other across multiple worlds. The two stories are told in alternating chapters, with January’s father’s story being the more typical portal fantasy, concerned with exploring exotic worlds, and the transformations the characters go through while there. January’s story, on the other hand, is more about the nature and control of the Doors themselves, with January discovering her abilities as a Wordworker, who can open closed Doors and create new ones. This puts her in direct and potentially deadly conflict with Mr Locke and his New England Archaeological Society (NEAS), who are bent on closing all the open Doors.

The alternating chapter format, unfortunately, breaks the narrative drive, and the structure is a bit convoluted, so the story bogs down quite a bit in the opening chapters. The flowery writing style doesn’t help keep the momentum going, either. It’s beautiful in small doses, but it does amble a bit, and frequently has more the languid feel of a memoir than the immediacy of a well-paced novel. On the other hand, it did work very well for producing a vivid impression of Yule Ian’s world, once we get there.

When January openly rebels against Mr Locke—finally, nearly a third of the way in—the story takes off, and then there are narrow escapes, a harrowing sojourn in an insane asylum, and enough other adventure to make up for the plodding beginning.

The moral of the story is pretty obvious, and the political message is overt and heavy-handed. Open Doors represent possibilities for positive change and growth; closed Doors represent stagnation and suffocation. The members of the NEAS aren’t simply ordinary people frightened of and resisting changes they don’t understand; they are wealthy, greedy, egotistical criminals who have benefitted hugely from the open Doors, but who will destroy them rather than let anyone else reap those benefits. Hissable villains certainly, but a bit more nuance would have been more satisfying.

There were a couple of other things that bothered me:

  • It’s obvious to the reader from the beginning that Mr Locke does not have the Scallers’ best interests at heart. It’s painful how long it takes both January and Yule Ian to understand that. We’re given explanations of the hold he has over them late in the book, and hints early on, but the hints aren’t strong enough, and when January caves in and acts like a model “good girl” for ten years, I nearly gave up on it. Passive, obedient women don’t interest me.
  • Yule Ian was annoying in other ways, too: a victim of InstaLove (love at first sight), and obsessed with finding his lost wife to the neglect of his daughter when she needed him. Love’s powerful and all that, but his wife was a capable adult and his daughter wasn’t. Grrr.

Despite those problem, by the time I was halfway in I was glad I had stuck with it. There’s a lot to like: January’s friend Samuel, who gives her pulp fiction and a puppy; the dog, Bad, who is good dog; and January’s mother, who is definitely not passive. Neither is the ferocious Miss Jane Irimu, successful ogre hunter, with two husbands and a wife. And most importantly, there is January herself, and her growing confidence in her abilities as she discovers the power of her pen.

Posted in Fantasy | 1 Comment

Thanksgiving 2020

The American Thanksgiving holiday is this coming Thursday. We have made some adaptations to our celebrations since we moved to New Zealand, but we continue to observe it, even though celebrating a harvest festival in spring does feel a bit odd sometimes. There have been many times during this horrible year when I have been frustrated, unhappy, angry at the state of the world and the obtuseness of my fellow human beings. It is useful to occasionally step back from the day-to-day stresses and reflect on the good things we do have, and I have found that I do have much to be thankful for:

  • I live in New Zealand, where a functional government respects science, where most of the residents approve of the government’s handling of the pandemic, and where campaigning for the next election doesn’t start the day after the previous election.
  • The U.S. election is finally over, with a clear victory for a president-elect who will restore some much-needed sanity and dignity to the office.
  • My friends and family are (mostly) in good health and good spirits.
  • I have a good job that I can do from home. I have congenial company (husband and daughter), a well-stocked pantry (thanks to the aforesaid companions who do all the grocery shopping), and an overflowing personal library, both physical and electronic, to keep me entertained.
  • My collection of plot bunnies keeps breeding. I may die of old age before I run out of story ideas.

Those are the major points on my list. I hope that you, too, may find things to be thankful for.

Posted in A Writer's Life | Leave a comment

Trixie Belden

With all of my psychic energy tied up in the U.S. election for the past few weeks, I just haven’t had the time or attention for anything new or challenging. I’m going on a nostalgia trip today; hope you don’t mind…

Trixie (Beatrice) Belden is a teen with insatiable curiosity, a vivid imagination, and and a strong sense of fair play. Add in an extroverted personality and a talent for finding trouble wherever she goes, and you have the star of an engaging series of mystery novels.

I read the Trixie Belden books decades ago, when I was a preteen, and loved them. If I had to name the sources of my ongoing love for mysteries, these books would be at the top of the list. I thought then, and still do, that they were better than the more well-known mysteries starring her literary cousin, Nancy Drew.

Trixie is a much more believable character than Nancy. Except for solving mysteries, she’s a pretty normal adolescent, meaning she’s sometimes bright, kind, and in other ways appealing, and sometimes dumb, grumpy, or annoying. She lives with her middle-class parents and brothers in the small town of Sleepyside-on-Hudson, New York (fictional, but based on the real town of Ossining, NY). The stories include a wealth of detail that ground them in that specific place and draws the reader into the hilly terrain of a small town overlooking the Hudson River. The Beldens keep Trixie on a loose rein that gives her plenty of time to search for clues, but she gets into trouble if she neglects her chores, including weeding the vegetable garden and minding her lively six-year-old brother.

In the first book, The Secret of the Mansion by Julie Campbell, Trixie is thirteen and bored over summer vacation with her brothers away at camp. Her interest picks up when a new girl moves in next door. The two of them investigate odd happenings at the old and supposedly empty mansion up the hill from Crabapple Farm, the Belden’s home. What they uncover outrages Trixie’s sense of justice. Trixie solves the mystery, but the book ends on a cliffhanger, leading directly into my favourite in the series, The Red Trailer Mystery. (Don’t worry, that’s the only book-spanning cliffhanger, IIRC.)

The first six books by Julie Campbell, written between 1948 and 1958, are the best. They take us through six months of Trixie’s life; she turns fourteen, gains new friends, proves her worth as a detective, and undergoes significant character growth.

Then, unfortunately, Campbell didn’t want to continue the series. The publisher turned it over to a series of ghostwriters under the pseudonym Kathryn Kenny, and it was never quite the same after that. There were another thirty-three books in the series, written between 1961 and 1986, but Trixie and her friends stopped growing up. She was an eternal fourteen-year-old for the rest of time. Worse, in book seven, this jeans-wearing (in the 50s!) hard-core tomboy got significantly feminized, having to ask her brothers for help on things she would have done herself in earlier books, getting shoved into dresses more often, and having her solid friendship with the boy next door turned into a budding romance. Sigh.

The first time around, I didn’t even notice the change. It bothers me a lot more now. They aren’t all as annoying as book seven; several different writers worked on the later books, so they vary in quality, consistency, and adherence to Campbell’s original characters. Most of the individual books under the Kathryn Kenny name are still pleasant reads, if you like formulaic cosy mysteries, but they just don’t have the same vigour and ongoing character development the first six had.

Some readers will consider the books dated, but I prefer to call them ‘old-fashioned.’ Trixie and her friends live in a white-bread world of (mostly) intact families with stay-at-home moms, but they do address some serious issues, such as a teenage boy running away from an abusive stepfather. Given that they are still (or again) in print, and that the goodreads entry for The Secret of the Mansion includes dozens of ratings from 2020, I’m obviously not the only one that finds them still appealing. In fact, I was nudged to do this blog post by a shout-out to both Trixie and Nancy in Seanan McGuire’s recent (2019) novella, In an Absent Dream.

Audience: mystery-loving preteens and older adults looking for a dose of nostalgia.

Posted in Children's Fiction, Mysteries | 2 Comments

The Black God’s Drums

Creeper—who doesn’t want to be called by her real name, Jacqueline—is s 13-year-old living on the streets in New Orleans. She’s an orphan, but she’s not alone; wherever she goes, Oya, the goddess of winds and storms, is with her, speaking to her, protecting her, and sometimes sending her visions. Creeper’s used to that, mostly, but the vision she’s just had of a monstrous skull, rising over the city like a lethal moon, is making her panicky. She keeps her ears open, and overhears a Haitian scientist selling a powerful weapon to the Confederacy. The weapon—the Black God’s Drums—is a sort of unilateral Mutually Assured Destruction device, capable of unleashing storms of such intensity to wipe out everyone on both sides of a conflict. Creeper takes her information to Anne-Marie St. Augustine, privateer captain of the airship, Midnight Robber, and together they set out to find the the rogue scientist before his customers can unleash wholesale destruction.

The Black God’s Drums, a fast-paced and atmospheric novella by P. Djèlí Clark, is set in a steampunk-flavoured alternate reality. In this late-19th century world, the American Civil War ground to a halt after eight years of fighting, exhaustion driving both sides to agree to an armistice. Haiti is apparently a technological powerhouse, and the free city of New Orleans exists as an independent political entity on the edge of the Confederacy. Magic abounds and African gods, among them Oya and her sister Oshun, the goddess of water, were carried across the Atlantic Ocean on the slave ships by their worshippers.

With the exception of a few Confederates and one wild girl, nearly everyone in this story is obviously or implied to be Black, without the author making a belaboured point of it. Even more remarkable for a male author, the two main characters and nearly all the named minor characters are women. The women, including the goddesses and a pair of outrageous nuns, are recognisably female without being sexualised; they simply get on with saving the world, driving the action and working together competently without fuss. How satisfying.

The climax is blatant deus ex machina, but given the prominent role the Orisha (minor gods) play throughout the story, that’s neither unexpected nor inappropriate. The narrative voice—Creeper, in first person—takes a bit of getting used to, with occasionally off-putting dialect and some word choices that are either unfamiliar (to me, anyway), invented, or alternate spellings (Maddi grá for Mardi Gras, etc.). But that’s a minor quibble.

The Black God’s Drums was a contender for the 2019 Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards. The author, an African-American historian, has written a number of other speculative fiction short works, including The Haunting of Tram Car 015, a contender for the 2020 Hugo Best Novella. (Neither won, unfortunately, but The Haunting…, set in early 20th century Egypt, is also a fun read. Check it out, too.) I’m looking forward to reading more of his writings.

Most people don’t bother reading Acknowledgements, but occasionally there is something in them worth noting. In this case, Clark does the usual thanking various people—friends, family, editors, etc.—for there help, and for introducing him to New Orleans. But then he adds,

Thanks also to the NOPD who pressed a loaded pistol to the back of my head as I lay facedown on a posh French Quarter hotel floor in a case of “mistaken identity”—you introduced me to the city, too.

And some people still refuse to believe there’s such a thing as systemic racism? Oh, please.

Trigger warning: violence, slavery, voodoo, racism (The villains’, not the author’s!), and implied sexual activity and prostitution (a couple of rather innocuous scenes inside a brothel).

Posted in Alternate History, Fantasy | Leave a comment

Sorcerer to the Crown

England’s magic is dwindling. It is a matter of great concern to the members of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, and contributes to the finger pointing, rumour mongering, and agitation in the ranks that is complicating the work of the one man who has a chance of actually doing something about it: the new Sorcerer Royal, Zacharias Wythe.

The diminishing magic is not the only cause of the general unhappiness. Despite being raised by the late Sir Stephen Wythe and his wife as if he was their own son, Zacharias is indisputably a Black man, born into slavery and freed by Sir Stephen. Nor does Zacharias have a familiar, a fact that is perhaps even more shocking. The Presiding Committee of the Society has accepted Zacharias as Sorcerer Royal—they had little choice after the Fairy King vouched for his qualifications—but even they do not know what happened on the night the previous Sorcerer Royal, Sir Stephen, died, or what became of his familiar. There is gossip that things are not as they should be, and of course they aren’t, but not in any way the gossips could have imagined.

Adding to Zacharias’s woes, the British government is pressuring him to use his magic in the war against Napoleon, despite a long-standing agreement with the French sorcieres to remain disengaged; no sorcerer on either side wants the Mutually Assured Destruction that would follow their participation.

Zacharias didn’t even want to be Sorcerer Royal. His passion is for scholarship, not politics. He already has far too much on his mind when he acquires an apprentice, the troublesome, independent, and highly unconventional Miss Prunella Gentleman.

The first few chapters of Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown are engaging but not overly exciting, especially as it takes a while to become comfortable with the author’s writing style. My interest in the story intensified considerably when the biracial Prunella is introduced. Self-taught and original, her organic magic is a match for Zacharias’s carefully studied and controlled spellcraft. And that’s even before her actions upend the stuffy and very privileged white male world of English magic.

Prunella is a treat: active, intelligent, competent, ruthless, and not in the least intimidated by pompous bullies. Zacharias is equally appealing: polite, principled, and courageous. They are the sort of characters you might find in one of Georgette Heyer’s novels (ignoring Heyer’s racism). Heyer’s Regency romances are an obvious influence, as is Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell, although Sorcerer to the Crown moves along at a much faster pace than that doorstop, lovely as it is. (Comparisons between the two are inevitable, with some reviewers expressing disdain for one or the other. Me, I like them both, for different reasons, and see no need to judge either one “better.” They just suit different moods.) I also see some parallels to Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, with its friction between the rule-bound male magician and the intuitive female, although I am grateful that this story has a more believable romance.

The plot is a bit convoluted, involving someone blocking the flow of magic to put diplomatic pressure on the British, without anyone actually informing the British why the blockage is in place. (Nice touch there about diplomatic miscommunications.) Some of the machinations and plot twists were so far-fetched as to have me rolling my eyes, but that didn’t stop me from getting engrossed in it. The book touches on some tough subjects—racism, sexism, colonialism among them—but the tone is breezy and light-hearted. I thoroughly enjoyed this clean, funny romp.

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Banned Book Week 2020

I was not thrilled when I realised that this year’s Banned Books Week (September 27 – October 3) was coming up. I have been making annual forays into the arena of banned or challenged books since I started this blog, but I couldn’t get up much enthusiasm for it this year. I’ve been paying way too much attention to the news coming out of the United States lately, and it’s depressing as hell. In my free time I want to read something cheerful and optimistic, and I didn’t expect to find that in the American Library Association’s list of most challenged books. Oh sure, there are some charmers there, like George, and Drama, but the subject matter of many books that have been challenged—Black Lives Matter in Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, violent revolution in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, difficult family relationships in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, etc.—does not tend to lead to cheerful and optimistic.

And then I found this:

This story made me laugh. And, by God, I needed that laugh.

Laughter is not something I usually associate with either Banned Books Week or politics, but this children’s picture book is a delightful surprise.

Before describing the book itself, let me give a little background. There is a real rabbit named Marlon Bundo, who lives with Mike Pence (yes, that Mike Pence) and his family at the Vice Presidential residence on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory. In 2018, Pence’s daughter wrote Marlon Bundo’s A Day in the Life of the Vice President, an educational children’s book explaining the Vice President’s job, with the proceeds going to a couple of innocuous-sounding charities: Tracy’s Kids and the A21 Compaign.

I’m not a fan of Mike Pence. I probably never would have heard of these books or Marlon Bundo if the staff at Last Week Tonight with John Oliver hadn’t been inspired to write the parody, A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo, with text by Jill Twiss and illustrations by E. G. Keller. The proceeds from this also go to charity, but LGBTQ+ supportive ones: The Trevor Project and AIDS United.

Unusually for a parody, this one stands quite well on its own. A knowledgeable adult will have no trouble spotting the gentle pokes it takes at Mike Pence, but someone who doesn’t know or care about politics (like, say, a beginning reader) can enjoy the story, too.

On this special day, Marlon Bundo, a.k.a. BOTUS: Bunny Of The United States, finds love—love for another boy bunny who keeps his heart hopping. When they announce they are getting married, their friends say “Hooray!” because that is what friends do.

But not everyone says “Hooray!” The Stink Bug In Charge (although no one is quite sure how he got to be In Charge) says that’s not allowed. Boy bunnies can only marry girl bunnies. Boy bunnies marrying each other is different, and Different Is Bad.

The other animals stand up for the two bunnies, volunteering how each one of them is also different. (Although as differences go, some of them are not so divergent. I share a trait with Dill Prickles the hedgehog, who reads the end of his books before the beginning, to make sure they are not too sad for him.) When the stink bug continues to be stinky about it, they hold an election, and vote him out.

And so, in one slim picture book, we have several powerful messages: about democracy in action, about tolerance, and about love. The two bunnies get married because they enjoy each other’s company enough to want to spend the rest of their lives together, and that’s a healthy view of love for any age.

Although the political slant also plays a part, the LGBTQ+ theme is, of course, why this book has been challenged. It and seven other LGBTQ+-themed books make up the majority of this year’s ALA list of the top ten most challenged—a trend that would seem really sad if it weren’t so dangerous. When A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo came out, the company publishing the Pences’ book got a little huffy, but Marlon took it in stride, saying,

Not gonna lie, I do look pretty fly in a bow tie. The only thing better than one bunny book for charity is…TWO bunny books for charity.

Hard to argue with that.

On a completely different subject, I recently did an interview with Nikky Lee, another New Zealand writer. Check out the result on her blog.

Posted in A Writer's Life, Children's Fiction | 2 Comments

The Prince of Secrets

The Prince of Secrets, the second book in the Stariel series by New Zealand author A J Lancaster, takes us deeper into the world of the fae we were given only glimpses of in the first book, The Lord of Stariel. This review contains spoilers for the first book; if you don’t want them, bail now.

Where the first book focused on Hetta Valstar and her human family and neighbours, the second book splits the focus between Hetta and her family’s faithful butler, Wyn Tempest, now revealed to be a fae prince. With his cover blown, the two factions in a long and bitter struggle among the fae become very interested in his refuge in Stariel. On one side is the Court of Dusken Roses, whose Princess Sunnika he was pledged to marry at the command of the High King, in an attempt to end the war. On the other side is the Court of Ten Thousand Spires, whose King Aeros, Wyn’s father, has no interest in ending the war. With his magic diminished by Wyn’s broken promise, he has no compunction about murdering his own son in pursuit of power. Why should he? He has nothing but contempt for his son’s indulgence in those mortal weaknesses: empathy, compassion, and kindness.

With Hetta established as Stariel’s new lord, the estate’s boundaries are secure. No member of either fae court can cross into Stariel unless invited in. Hetta and Wyn, now assuming the role of steward, are paying less attention to fae intrigues than to recovering from the previous steward’s embezzlement and restoring Stariel to a sound financial footing. Once they have worked out a solid plan, they approach their bank manager for a loan, a task that requires leaving Stariel to visit the bank offices.

That journey, of course, kicks the story into high gear. The action weaves in and out of Stariel, eventually taking us into the Court of Ten Thousand Spires. Wyn’s eldest sister tries to kill him, and his other siblings, if not quite fratricidal, will use him and Hetta against their father if they can. There are monsters, a kidnapping, two unwanted and antagonistic ambassadors, and a fae land that is very, very protective of its lord.

Most of the issues I had with The Prince of Secrets are minor quibbles. I was a little disappointed that the other Valstars, Jack in particular, didn’t have as much to do in this book, but the new fae characters, Princess Sunnika and Prince Rakken, Wyn’s brother, are interesting. I didn’t like Wyn as a viewpoint character as quite much as I liked Hetta, there was a bit too much of Hetta’s raging hormones trying to break down Wyn’s self-control, and the resolution was not tremendously satisfying. This had more of a feel of a transitional chapter in a longer story arc, setting the stage for further conflict with Wyn’s family, than as a good standalone novel.

I did have one serious complaint with it, though. The scene with the bank manager’s wife jerked me right out of my wilful suspension of disbelief. Mouse over for spoiler.

Despite these problems, I enjoyed the book. I like the world the author has created. After all, what could be wrong with a world that contains cute half-fae kittens? I’m looking forward to reading the third book in the series, The Court of Mortals.

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