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Genre: fantasy

Among Us by Jo Walton

Jo Walton’s Among Others tells the story of 14-year-old Mori Phelps, who has fled her home in the hills of Wales to escape her half-mad and magical mother.  Still reeling from the death of her twin sister and learning to live with a crippling injury, Mori finds herself dropped on her father’s doorstep by the foster care system, even though she has never met him before.  When his sisters insist on sending her away to an upper-class boarding school, Mori finds herself removed once again from all that is familiar, including the fairy companions that she grew up with.

As a Hugo and Nebula award winner, you would expect Among Others to be something quite different and new.  It absolutely delivers.  Admittedly, I don’t read a lot of fantasy any more, but I’ve certainly read my share of farmer boy adventure novels.  Mori is no farmboy; her journey is the metaphorical one of adolescence.  Left alone in an English town where her Welsh accent marks her permanently as an outsider, Mori struggles to find connections with others.  Alone and lonely, she wishes that she had people that she could talk to, who understood her the way that her family in Wales does.  Like many lonely children, she turns towards books to entertain her as she tries to survive the last few years of her education.  And it is books that provide salvation for her, as she finds her way into a science fiction book club at the library, where she finally meets some other young people worth talking to.  Although I did not recognize most of the books that Mori discusses with such passion, Walton provides enough context that it was easy to follow along.  Mori certainly provides an education for the reader of most of the major science fiction authors and I’m certain that serious science fiction fans will enjoy that element of the novel.

For all that the book is somber, Mori’s analytical nature keeps the pages turning.  A naturally academic, Mori seeks out answers to the world around her.  When she returns to Wales for a visit, she goes seeking the fairies that she grew up with, looking for answers to the ethical questions that she has about magic.  But fairies are unreliable — instead of helping her understand, they bring Mori the sight of her sister, who has not yet progressed to the underworld.

I took a step towards her, and then I remembered her clutching me and dragging me towards the door into the hill, and stopped.  “Oh Mor,” I said.

She didn’t say anything.  She couldn’t, any more than the robin.  She was dead and the dead can’t speak.  As a matter of fact, I know how to make the dead speak.  You have to give them blood.  But it’s magic, and anyway, it would be horrible.  I couldn’t imagine doing it.

Mor’s shade gives Mori more questions than answers.  Although Mori knows that her struggle with her mother was not ended the night that her mother killed her sister, seeing Mor again makes Mori realize that she will have to confront her mother again some day.  When her mother starts sending her letters filled with magical malevolence, Mori burns them and tries to befriend the fairies in England in order to figure out what to do.  But fairies being fairies, they don’t cooperate, and Mori is left to discover enough about magic to stop her mother once and for all.

Although Mori has lost so much — a family, her health, a home, a twin — her reflections often have a delightful optimism and love of life.  While reality is dour, her secret, magical world and love of science fiction fill her wonder and keep her intellectually engaged.  It is a delight to read small nuggets like this:

And I thought all that was wasted, all that time practising up there, because Mor is dead and I can’t run and neither can Grampar, not any more.  Except it wasn’t wasted, because we remember it.  Things need to be worth doing for themselves, not just for practice for some future time.  I’m never going to win Wimbledon or run in the Olympics…but I wouldn’t have anyway.  I’m not even going to play tennis for fun with my friends, but that doesn’t mean playing it when I could was a waste.  I wish I’d done more when I could.

You can’t help cheering for a young woman that has lost so much, but still maintains hope.

There isn’t another book that I can think of that is quite like Among Others.  For the rest of this, Among Others is an enjoyable journey of a young woman that I would certainly like getting to know.  Distinctly creative, it is well worth a read, even for readers that don’t typically read fantasy or science fiction.

 

  • Publisher: Tor Books
  • Publish Date: January 3, 2012
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • ISBN: 0765331721
  • Language: English
  • Rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Genre: fantasy
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The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

ocean_at_the_end_of_the_lane_us_cover

When The Ocean at the End of the Lane came out in 2013, I thought it was a fine book.  I am a long time fan of Neil Gaiman’s work, which blends mythology with contemporary stories in a fine example of modern magic realism.  I like magic realism a lot, so this isn’t a very hard sell for me at all.  So when my book club voted in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I said…sure, why not.  I’d better reread it, I thought, and since it is a short book, I left it for a few days before we were due to meet so that it would be fresh in my mind.

But sometimes, when you go and read a book that you read a long time ago, you find that it is different.  And so, in my second reading of novel, no one was more surprised than me to discover that the book gutted me.  I read it slowly, pausing to re-read a passage or twist my tongue over a phrase in the book.  Sometimes it is just that when you know the ending of a book that you read it differently.  And other times, it is because you’ve changed.  Your life has changed.  In 2013, I admired the beauty of the novel, particularly in the passages where Gaiman wrote about his father, who had just passed away.  I read the second chapter and paused, because it had only been a few years since I had lost my mother, and lingered over the passages of an adult child who has become lop-sided, because their frame of the universe has just been stripped away.

I slowed the car as I saw the new house.  It would always be the new house in my head.  I pulled up into the driveway, observing the way they had built out on the mid-seventies architecture.  I had forgotten that the bricks of the house were chocolate-brown.  The new people had made my mother’s tiny balcony into a two-story sunroom.  I stared at the house, remembering less than I had expected about my teenage years: no good times, no bad times.  I’d lived in that place, for a while, as a teenager.  It didn’t seem to be any part of who I was now.

I backed the car out of the driveway.

What I did not see until 2016 was the beauty of the rest of the book.  A boy, a nameless boy, lives in a large and rambling old house in rural England.  His father’s business is failing and, to keep money coming in, the family begins letting out rooms.  One of these lodgers is an aggressive opal miner from South Africa, who runs over the boy’s cat on his way to the house.  The next night, he steals the family’s car and drives it to the end of the road and kills himself.  When the car is discovered, with the body in it, the boy is sent to the neighboring Hempstock farmhouse while his father calls the police.

Any fan of mythology will immediately recognize the Mother, Maiden and Crone in the Hempstocks.  Lettie Hempstock appears as an 11 year old girl and takes in the boy and makes a friend of him.  Her mother, Ginnie Hempstock, and her grandmother, Old Mrs. Hempstock, keep an eye on the farm and fields as they have always done.  It doesn’t take them long to notice that an ancient creature was wakened with the lodger’s suicide.

The Hempstocks are magical, but they are of the old and wild magic of the ancient stories.  When Lettie takes him with her to go banish the creature that the miner’s death awakened, the boy is drawn into a dangerous world of primeval monsters, with only the Hempstocks at the end of the lane to protect him.

The plot sounds something like any fantasy journey novel, but The Ocean at the End of the Lane reads differently, largely because Gaiman writes with a Hemingwayesque simplicity.  He throws in zingers that feel incredibly true and familiar, particularly for those of us that feel a kinship with the lost and lonely boy.

Nobody came to my seventh birthday party.

There was a table laid with jellies and trifles, with a party hat beside each place, and a birthday cake with seven candles on it in the center of the table.  The cake had a book drawn on it, in icing.  My mother, who had organized the party, told me that the lady at the bakery said that they had never put a book on a birthday cake before, and that mostly for boys it was footballs or spaceships.  I was their first book.

I kept stopping to admire Gaiman’s paragraphs, because his writing is so elegant.  The story itself is simple — it is the tale of a boy on an adventure that takes him no further than the end of the road that he lives on.  His world is a child’s world, small and intense in detail.  The protagonist’s voice is so good, rarely slipping out of the understanding of a seven-year-old and it feels very, very real.

I was shivering convulsively and I was wet through and I was cold, very cold.  It felt like all my heat had been stolen.  The wet clothes clung to my flesh and dripped cold water onto the floor.  With every step I took my sandals made comical squelching noises, and water oozed from the little diamond-shaped holes on the top of the sandals.

When the biggest monster of the story appears, she appears as the boy’s nanny.  As such characters usually are, she’s entrancing to the boy’s parents and sister, but terrible to the boy.  The unfairness of his treatment grates, particularly as she becomes more and more threatening to the boy’s survival.

“Everybody wants money,” she said, as if it were self-evident.  “It makes them happy.  It will make you happy, if you let it.”  We had come out by the heap of grass clippings, behind the circle of green grass that we called the fairy ring: sometimes, when the weather was wet, it filled with vivid yellow toadstools.

“Now,” she said.  “Go to your room.”

I ran from her–ran as fast as I could, across the fairy ring, up the lawn, past the rosebushes, past the coal shed and into the house.

Ursula Monkton was standing just inside the back door of the house to welcome me in, although she could not have got past me.  I would have seen.  Her hair was perfect, and her lipstick seemed freshly applied.

And then it gets worse.  And then better, because the boy has made a friend in Lettie Hempstock.  The Hempstocks are entrancing, as old as the earth itself, and their ways are straight out of a thousand fairy tales.  The Hempstock farm is a place that you can’t help but want to visit, with it’s roaring wall-sized kitchen fireplace and good-smelling stews and roasted carrots.

Lettie’s mother was already hauling a tin bath from beneath the kitchen table, and filling it with steaming water from the enormous black kettle that hung above the fireplace.  Pots of cold water were added until she pronounced it the perfect temperature.

“Right.  In you go,” said Old Mrs. Hempstock.  “Spit-spot.”

I looked at her, horrified.  Was I going to have to undress in front of people I didn’t know?

The Hempstocks remind us that a world that is filled with evil must also be filled with love.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a simple story, but a beautiful story, in the way that only simple stories can be. I highly recommend that you read it through, then turn around and read it again.

I’ll meet you at the end.

  • Publisher:William Morrow and Company
  • Publish Date: June 18, 2013
  • Hardcover: 178 pages
  • ISBN: 9780062255655
  • Language: English
  • Rating: 5 of 5 stars

Genre: adventure, fantasy, fiction, magic realism
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The Gate to Women’s Country by Sheri S. Tepper

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As a feminist, I can’t help but wonder what the world would look like if the governments of the world were female dominated.  Would we still live in a world dominated by men with guns?  Would we work more collaboratively and more empathetically?  Or would we make the same mistakes as the men who have given us this world?  Would we, perhaps, create worse monsters?

One of the most enjoyable aspects of speculative fiction for me is its ability to ask these questions and then play them out.  Sherri Tepper’s had a long career of novels that take a hard look at gender and environment; The Gate to Women’s Country is certainly one of them.  Tepper’s setup in The Gate to Women’s Country was so interesting that I stayed up late night after night to see how the social experiment would work out.

Written in 1988, the novel is quite contemporary to the politics of the late 80s, when the Cold War was still very much a part of the national conversation.  The setting of The Gate to Women’s Country is post-apocalyptic, after nuclear war has destroyed the landscape and decimated the human population.  Some technology survives, but the ability to use it is challenged by the knowledge of the surviving population and the wide radioactive minefields that surround the towns.

The story opens in Marthaville, one of a series of sister towns that is run by a powerful set of all-female Councils.  The Councils set the ordinances that govern Marthaville life, which create separations between the men and women by dictating that all boys must be trained as warriors and separated from their families at the age of five.  When they are fifteen, the boys are given a chance to return to Women’s Country if they desire it, though the warrior culture shames and abuses any boy who chooses to leave and become one of the servitors that work with the women.

We meet Stavia, the youngest member of the Council, who is on her way to see her fifteen year old son Dawid.  Dawid has summoned her in order to inform her that he has decided to stay with the warriors, which Stavia knows, but goes to the garrison in order to act out the ritual.

How could she have forgotten he was fifteen? Well, she hadn’t. She was thirty-seven, so he was fifteen. She had been twenty-two when… when everything. All this pretense that the summons was unexpected was really so much playacting, a futile attempt to convince herself that something unforeseen might happen despite her knowing very well what the plot required. Despite Dawid’s ritual visits on holidays, his twice-yearly homecomings—during which the initial shyness of the original separation had turned to fondness, then to shyness again, finally becoming the expected, though no less wounding, alienation—despite all that, she had chosen to go on thinking of him as she had when he was five and had gone into the hands of the warriors.
So, now, she must guard against speaking to that child, for this was no child confronting her in his polished breastplate and high helmet, with pouted lips outthrust. No child anymore.

The early part of the novel is filled with the sorrow of mothers and sisters, as they sacrifice their children to the garrison.  We learn, too, that with the majority of the men sequestered that family life has also dramatically shifted.  Marriage is an archaic concept — one that Stavia reads about in books, while shaking her head at the foolishness of it.   Instead, biannual carnivals are held in the sister towns, when soldiers and women have trysts in carefully monitored assignment houses.  All pregnancies are planned, so that the scarce resources available to Marthatown can supply the town and so that venereal diseases remain a historical problem.  Instead of a nuclear family, Stavia and her sister are raised by their mother Morgot and their servitor Joshua and given all the educational opportunities available to women in this new world.

The plot thickens when young Stavia meets the young warrior Cheron, who is being used by the older warriors to infiltrate Stavia’s home in the hopes that Morgot may have shared Council secrets with her youngest daughter.  Cheron, who is often a pathetic and vulnerable figure, asks Stavia for books, as the ordinances prohibit education to the warriors so that no town’s garrison develops a technical advantage over any other town’s garrison.  Stavia takes pity on Chernon and begins breaking the ordinances to supply them to him.  Before long, she begins to feel a sense of pity and obligation to him that I think most women can empathize with, even as she begins to distrust him.

The Council is a hereditary oligarchy that is dedicated, on the surface, to preserving a meaningful way of life.  And yet, the decisions that they make cause wide-scale pain and segregate the society, isolating the warriors into a competitive and brutal culture. This segregation pits them against the women who control their lives, begging a question of nature versus nurture.

 He was not tricking Stavia out of the city entirely for his own purposes; she had been going anyhow. He was not risking her life or health for his own gratification; he had no diseases, and had no intention of acquiring any. Michael had promised that when the time came that the warriors took over Marthatown, Stavia would belong to Chernon, if he still wanted her. Chernon supposed that he would still want her, and this assumption made his conscience clear. He was doing nothing, planning nothing which would not continue in the future time. In the end, she would be glad of it. Michael had assured him of that.

Tepper zings with these passages that seem to comment on the folly of all societies that allocate power based on gender.  There’s a sadness that permeates The Gate to Women’s Country, which often feels like a sorrow about unnecessary pain.  We feel Stavia’s true mourning at the loss of her son, even as she provides the context and meaning behind why she feels that it is necessary.  And it is perhaps this contrast that makes the novel so haunting.

Although Women’s Country is contrasted with a neighboring society where women have few rights at all, it is clear that there are significant costs to the freedoms that Stavia and the other women of Marthatown enjoy.  When Stavia ventures into Holyland, a town to the south of Marthaville, it’s an relentess horror of the subjugation of women.  We begin to understand that Women’s Countries garrisons are both to protect the town from outsiders and from the warriors themselves.  Freedom from an oppressive patriarchy is worth significant sacrifice.

Baby had no name. If he lived to be a year old, Papa would give him a name. If he lived to be six, he would go over to Papa’s house every day and attend school. Boys had to be able to read and write so they could discuss the Scriptures. They had to be able to calculate some, as well, in order to be efficient shepherds for All Father, who wouldn’t tolerate lack of discipline or diligence. Until the first year was over, however, babies were only “Baby.” “Sweet’ums,” sometimes. “Honey child.” Not when Papa could hear, of course. Baby names and displays of affection were trivial things, unworthy of All Father. Anytime during the first year, a baby could disappear, just up and vanish, with nobody knowing a thing about it. That’s what had happened to the two girl babies between Faith and Baby. Most always, it happened to girls. Hardly ever to boys unless there was something wrong with them. Though, sometimes, an Elder might sell a boy baby to some other Elder desperate for sons. Not that anybody would ever let on.

There are some appalling choices that are made by the Council of Marthastown, dreadful choices that are made in the hope of creating a better way of living. As is to be expected of good speculative fiction, there are several powerful questions in the novel that have lingered with me since I put it down.Although The Gate to Women’s Country was written nearly twenty years ago, it felt modern and pertinent to current politics.

While The Gate to Women’s Country felt a little sparse on the characterization from time to time, the world that Tepper kept me deeply involved with the novel from the very first page to the last.  It’s definitely a good read for anyone that’s as fascinated with societal structure and gender relationships as I am.

  • Publisher: Voyager Press
  • Publish Date: November 1, 1987
  • Paperback: 315 pages
  • ISBN: 0006482708
  • Language: English
  • Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Genre: fantasy, speculative fiction
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A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin


A Dance with Dragons hb fI have reached a sad point in my life, which is to say that I have finally caught up with George R. R. Martin’s writing in The Song of Ice and Fire series.  I was disappointed with the previous novel in the series, A Feast for Crows, because it only told the story of half of the characters in the series and finished by leaving several of the important characters in limbo.  A Dance of Dragons had the same format, but it was the second half of the story that A Feast for Crows began, so it was vastly more satisfying.

In A Dance of Dragons, Martin moves forward the stories of Tyrion Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow.  Jon is maturing as Lord Commander and balancing the armies of the wildlings and Stannis Baratheon, while also trying to draw the support of the Night Watch as he challenges their long held traditions of keeping the wildlings to the north of the wall.  Meanwhile, Tyrion is doing his best to survive in the Free Cities, where he has become a political pawn that is being moved towards Daenerys. It quickly became clear that she is become a nexus of the action, but also that this is not the novel where the central action will begin.

The beginning of the novel has jarring moments if you read it directly after A Feast for Crows, because some scenes are repeated in order to orient the reader to the fact that the action of the two novels are occurring simultaneously.  Yet we are launched into Tyrion’s story, as Tyrion finds himself shipped to Magister Illyrio, who we first met when we were introduced to Daenerys in A Game of Thrones.  Tyrion is still coming to terms with his fall from power and the murders of his father and Shae, while trying to figure out how to make a new life for himself.  In the beginning of the novel, he is moving in a wine-dulled haze through the world of the characters around him, but through Martin’s imaginative misadventures, we see him emerging back into the witty and brilliant planner that made him such a successful King’s Hand.  After a full novel without him, Tyrion’s return alone would have made To Dance with Dragons a satisfying read.

Yet, Martin also gives us Jon Snow and Daenerys Targeren, who are two young people that are maturing as rulers.  They are both faced with conflicting factions of people that they need to make operate well together, with their own deaths as the price of failure.  It is a compelling narrative, though readers who are easily turned off by politics in fantasy novels may struggle.  There are many scenes devoted to political meetings and the military threat of both the Yunkai’i and the Others.  We sit in the throne room of Daenerys and follow Jon as he walks the line between Stannis Baratheon, the wildlings and the Night Watch.  There is very little time spent on the north side of the Wall, so we lose the mysticism that we saw in the previous novels.  We know the Others are a gathering threat, but we are less aware of them than we are of the Yunkai’i, who line up at  Mereen’s gates and blockade the harbor.

Perhaps the most haunting narrative of the novel is that of iron born, who operate as minor characters in this novel, but are narrating the happenings of the War of the Five Kings from their placement.  Given the amount of page time that they received in A Feast of Crows, it is not surprising that Martin put them in a less pivotal role in To Dance with Dragons, but both Asha and Theon become important pawns in the North. Theon’s narrative relieves the potential of the novel to turn into endless political meetings.  Martin’s great strength is showing the humanity of these strong personalities that dare to play the game of thrones.

Certainly this was another adventure novel of the same quality that Martin always puts out, with the excellent characterization that we are used to seeing from him.  Although the larger story arc is left incomplete, the subplots that the novel narrates are compelling enough to make it a page turner.  Although the novel was titled A Dance with Dragons, and we do see more of the dragons and the Targaryens than we have since A Clash of Kings, the novel still feels misnamed.  The story of Westeros is inching forward in Winterfell, while Daenerys keeps learning painful lessons about the sacrifices required of a dragon queen.  Winter has finally arrived and I, for one, can’t wait to see what that means.


Genre: fantasy
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