An Update of Cosmic Alignment

So, I’ve spent the past few weeks down the rabbit hole of Veronica Mars, seasons one through three, and have emerged unable to cope with real life as I won’t be getting hold of the movie until sometime in June. I know, a whole month. How longtime viewers survived the gap between the season three finale in 2007 and the return of Neptune’s finest through Kickstarter this year, I do not want to know. Having ransacked the internet for other people’s rewatches, I’m strongly tempted to do one myself and take notes this time, just to sort out my thoughts on the series. There are too many thoughts!

I have also watched the first season of Being Human, the US version, and don’t wish to think about it at all.

In other news, I visited Logan Art Gallery’s exhibition Open Books last weekend and my admiration for makers of paper art has reached new levels. This installation, a leaf out of my book by Vikki Kindermann, is so perfect that I want to believe it grew out of the floor that way.

'a leaf out of my book' (2014) by Vikki Kindermann

‘a leaf out of my book’ (2014) by Vikki Kindermann

'a leaf out of my book' (2014) by Vikki Kindermann

‘a leaf out of my book’ (2014) by Vikki Kindermann


Review No.204 – Portal 24

Portal 24 – Meredith Stroud

Hot Key Books, 2013

When approached by a stranger in a suit, teenage grifter Darius’s first thought is that a con has finally caught up to him. Instead, he is offered a deal, so outrageous it can’t be true. If Darius agrees, he will be given a job, an identity, a new life. All he has to give in return is the life he has now.

This YA time travel adventure begins quite well but doesn’t flesh out its concept or characters enough to hold the story together. Too many obvious questions are left unanswered. Darius’s rapid ascendancy over more experienced colleagues deals another blow to Portal 24’s credibility and his relationship with Bianca is a mess of inconsistent behaviour and unfortunate cliches. The book’s central idea is a good one, but it’s executed too simplistically.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.92 – Rapunsel

This Dean & Sons edition of the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales might spell the classics its own way, but you can probably guess how this one starts: a woman living next door to a witch with a wicked temper and a spectacular green thumb develops a passionate craving for forbidden vegetables and convinces her husband to raid the witch’s radish patch. He is of course caught. The witch is not inclined to look kindly on intruders, but he pleads his case earnestly and she changes her mind. These are her terms: his wife may have as many radishes as she desires…in exchange for her first-born child.

The man agrees. Everybody is insane.

In time the woman duly gives birth and the witch whisks the baby away, naming her ‘Rapunsel’ for the uncontrollably addictive vegetable that started this whole mess. It sounds considerably prettier than ‘Radish’. When the child is twelve, she is shut up in a tower in the middle of a forest. The tower has no door and no stairs, only a single window at the top. The witch is not into sharing. She’s also not into pixie cuts – the only way for anyone to enter the tower is if Rapunsel lets down her long golden hair like a rope, which must be incredibly painful and also precludes her from ever getting down the same way.

A few years after her imprisonment in the tower, a prince rides by and hears Rapunsel singing. Enraptured, he searches for a way in. When that proves fruitless, he returns every day to hear the mystery girl sing and one day overhears the witch calling down Rapunsel’s hair. After she leaves, the prince tries the same trick, and is pulled inside.

Rapunsel has never seen a man before. Actually, she’s never had another visitor of any gender before, so it’s a bit of a shock. The prince, matching the beautiful voice to an equally enchanting face, switches on the royal charm and before he leaves, asks for her hand in marriage. As that means getting out of the tower, Rapunsel is all for it. She tells him to come back with silk so that she can make herself a ladder.

Project Outtahere is going quite well until Rapunsel gets annoyed with her adoptive mother’s clumsy ascent and thoughtlessly compares her to the more nimble prince. To say the witch is angry does not quite cover it. She signed up for an insular, agoraphobic nun, not a restless teenager with a secret boyfriend. Seizing a handful of her ward’s hair, she hacks it off close to the skull, then drags the girl from the tower and drops her in an empty wasteland to die.

Overreaction much? And she’s not done yet! When the prince arrives that night, the golden braid falls as always, but lying in wait at the top is a livid, obsessive witch. The prince falls. Landing in a patch of thorns, he survives more or less intact. His eyes, however, are ruined.

For years he wanders, lost and blind, until at last he reaches the wasteland where Rapunsel was abandoned. She is not only alive, she’s bringing up twins. Fairy tale princesses might be all sugar and sunshine, but there’s a backbone of steel in there too. When she sees her lost lover, Rapunsel falls on him and her tears miraculously mend his eyes. The prince returns to his kingdom with a fiancee, two kids and a lot of explaining to do. As for the witch, perhaps her revenge made her happy, but more likely it didn’t. An empty tower and a forbidden garden are all she has left.

If you want to know why the Grimm brothers have a bad reputation for the way they treat their female characters, this story would be an excellent example. In an older version of ‘Rapunsel’, the witch works out that her ward is pregnant, which makes considerably more sense than Rapunsel blurting out her secret so bluntly. Even in this version, though, that doesn’t make her an idiot. Suicidally naïve, certainly, but when you remember that the only presence in Rapunsel’s life before the prince was the witch, what experience would she have with keeping so momentous a secret? It’s natural she would feel conflicted, guilty, confused. She’s only stupid if you choose to tell her that way, and I don’t.

Of course, according to my retelling, there’s a very good reason she was locked away. I prefer the sinister to the insulting.

Review No.203 – The Rathbones

The Rathbones – Janice Clarke

Doubleday, 2013

The house of the Rathbones has been built in layers, each generation laying down a new foundation of mortar and secrets. Secluded within these walls with her distant mother and her distracted cousin, Mercy Rathbone knows almost nothing about her family. Her father sailed out of her life a long time ago; her brother disappeared so completely that now no one will acknowledge he ever existed. Then one night she witnesses a secret that sends her running from the house, out to sea – where the answers she seeks lie in wait.

The start of this book has a dreamily enigmatic feel that promised good things. Unfortunately, that feeling didn’t last. The plot is meandering and directionless, bogged down in extraneous detail; character interactions are inexplicable, unexamined and unspeakably depressing. I soon came to dread the entrance of new female characters – this is not a book that treats its women well, and what’s worse, never analyses the terrible things that happen to them, or even treats those things as significant. Judging from the glowing blurbs on the back of the book, there are many people who got something wonderful out of The Rathbones, but I am definitely not one of them.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.91 – The Lairdie with the Heart of Gold

This fairy tale is taken from Sorche Nic Leodhas’s collection Thistle & Thyme: Tales and Legends from Scotland and does not contain an actual metal heart. The lord of the title, having lost his mother at an early age, is sent away from home by his grief-stricken father to live with relatives in the north. Only when his father dies is he allowed to come home. The inheritance might look good on paper but the old lord, having devoted about as much attention to the ancestral estate as he did to his son, leaves behind only farmland gone wild and a ramshackle castle.

Instead of cutting his losses and selling off the lot, the young lord stays to fix what he can. Though technically owed rent from the villagers who live on his land, most either can’t afford to pay or pretend they can’t, and their kind-hearted landlord believes them all. What with looking after his elderly household staff, all too old to easily find new positions, that makes him about as poverty-stricken as everyone else.

After a long winter’s day collecting rent – well, collecting evasions and assurances, with the odd coin thrown in – the lord is returning to the castle on foot, having left his horse at home away from the bitter weather. At a crossroads he stumbles across what looks like a pile of toys but are in fact the worldly possessions of a family of brownies, who have been evicted from their mill by the owner’s new wife. She doesn’t believe in brownies and has mistaken her supernatural tenants for rats. Harassed by her guard dog and hunted by her cat, they have taken to the road but can’t agree on where to go next. The young lord, immediately sympathetic, offers up his castle as their new abode.”You’ll find we have not much to do with,” he confesses, “but what we have, we’ll gladly share.”

The brownies are sold. They gather up their things and follow their new friend home to the castle, where he explains to his dumbstruck housekeeper that he’s sort of adopted a clan of brownies while he was out and they’re moving in right away. One brownie makes for the world’s most reliable domestic cleaning service; a whole family of them turn the castle from a functional ruin propped up on optimism to a warm, economically efficient social hub.

Their leader, Lachie Tosh, also takes an interest in the lord’s financial affairs and doesn’t like the look of them at all. At length he stages an intervention, pointing out that the cottagers eat much better than the household at the castle. “But how would they come by the money?” the lord protests. “They’ve told me often that they can’t make ends meet.” “They get the money by not paying their rent,” Lachie Tosh explains patiently. He offers himself up a ‘factor’ – essentially a business manager, account keeper and rent collector rolled into one hard-headed individual – and is soon hard at work bullying the villagers into not only paying for their land, but looking after it to a brownie’s exacting standards too. Though this doesn’t make Lachie Tosh a popular name, it does get results. While the lord is still happy to listen to anyone’s problems, at the end of the spiel they’re told to take it up with the factor.

The lord may be rubbish at keeping accounts, but spending money effectively comes naturally to him. From village maintenance to local employment, he works hard to make his lands thrive. With that well in hand, Lachie Tosh promotes himself from estate manager to general life coach. He insists the lord see a tailor; when he returns in a dapper new suit, Lachie Tosh advises him to start dating. The lord obediently sets off to meet and greet respectable young ladies all across the country, but every girl he approaches fails the key question: can she live with brownies? Most don’t even believe in the Fair Folk, taking an attitude reminiscent of the miller’s wife, which is the exact opposite of what the young lord is looking for.

Disheartened by his failure, he eventually returns to his lands. As he passes the brownies’ erstwhile home, he sees a pretty girl sitting on a bench outside the mill, looking depressed. She’s the miller’s daughter by his first marriage and is finding life with her urbane new stepmother something of a trial. The lord takes an immediate fancy to her and pops the brownie question. She beams. “Och, the dear wee things! There were always brownies at the mill when my mother was alive!” Smitten, the lord asks a second, more traditional question and brings her home that very day, much to the delight of Lachie Tosh. When they marry shortly afterwards, all the brownies are invited.

Stories about domestic fairies tend to end badly. Someone always offers them clothes in a misguided gesture of gratitude, or antagonises them in a less well-intentioned way out of jealousy or greed. This is an exceedingly rare instance of genuine harmony. Everyone is respectful of one another’s cultural customs! Stereotype-busting brownies are taking charge! And a hero whose weight in gold is not his weight in gold. That’s quite refreshing.

Review No.202 – Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children No.1) – Ransom Riggs

Quirk Books, 2011

There was a time when Jacob trusted that life could be extraordinary, but at the age of sixteen, he doesn’t believe his grandfather Abe’s stories of monsters and magic any more. He recognises them for what they are: a Holocaust survivor’s way to explain his experiences to a naïve grandchild. Then one night Jacob finds Abe’s body in the woods, and is the only one who can see what killed him. The horrific mystery forces him to retrace his grandfather’s footsteps back to source of his stories – a remote island off the coast of Wales, and a very peculiar children’s home.

This is Riggs’s first novel and has a very unusual format, constructed around vintage photographs that range from enigmatic to deeply creepy. These give the story a sinister patina that the actual plot can’t quite live up to. I didn’t find Jacob an especially engaging protagonist, and what he uncovers was a bit too simplistic for my taste. The ideas and design are very original, though, and Riggs has continued the story with a sequel, Hollow City.

Review No.201 – The Dream Thieves

The Dream Thieves (The Raven Cycle No.2) – Maggie Stiefvater

Scholastic Press, 2013

Ronan Lynch knew magic was real before the trees started talking Latin and his friend Adam made a dangerous pact to rouse the latent magic of a ley line. He knew, because when Ronan dreams he can sometimes bring things back. As he grapples with his gift, and Adam comes to terms with the consequences of his bargain, their friends Gansey and Blue seek different answers from the ley line – but they are not the only ones with plans for its magic.

The lead characters of The Raven Boys were Blue, Adam and Gansey. The sequel focuses more on Ronan, which is good, because Blue’s plot arc took the exact trajectory I had expected and that exasperated me immensely. Ronan’s development was less predictable, and rounded out his character in interesting ways. Not all the subplots worked very well and not much more was revealed of the plot, but to me this book felt richer than The Raven Boys. The series continues with Blue Lily, Lily Blue, slated for release in October of this year.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.90 – Sorcerer Kaldoon

This Transylvanian fairy tale is a Ruth Manning-Sanders retelling from the collection A Book of Sorcerers and Spells and begins with a farmer whose fortune has dwindled to the point of bankruptcy. His only hope is to try and recoup some old debts, but being so poor, he has no horse for the journey to his debtors. Instead he sets off on foot, and gets himself badly lost.

Ending up on the edge of a village he’s never seen before, he observes a revel in progress, with musicians playing and all the villagers dancing in the square. The crowds make any forward progress impossible. The farmer is about to leave when a gang of laughing boys catch him and drag him into the tavern, shouting remonstrances. “What the devil! Why aren’t you joining in the fun? You can eat and drink here to your heart’s content, there’s nothing to pay, our lord Kaldoon provides it all! And if you have no money, well, our lord Kaldoon will provide that too!”

Our lord Kaldoon will fix you up with whatever the village is on! is perhaps a more accurate statement. Certainly, nothing about this place is normal, but the farmer is not given any time to think. Someone starts tearing his clothes off, someone else gives him a fashionable new suit. Dressed to the nines and dazed by the insanity of it all, he is propelled inside to meet Kaldoon for himself. The village benefactor/drug dealer is a handsome young man dancing in circles around a table, tossing gold and silver coins like a cross between an obsessive conjurer and a reformed Ebenezer Scrooge.

The farmer is very poor and the extravaganza before his eyes is too much temptation to bear. Filling his pockets, he turns to go, only to find Kaldoon between him and the door. “Don’t go away, old man,” the young lord tells him. “I’ve been expecting you for a long time.” He then makes the farmer an offer: as much money as he wants in return for his daughter Anna’s hand. “Am I not rich?” Kaldoon asks, rhetorically. “Am I not handsome? Am I not a fitting bridegroom for any maiden?”

It doesn’t take the farmer long to decide. Picturing full barns and abundant fields, he accepts the offer on Anna’s behalf, and Kaldoon certainly comes good on the terms. The farmer returns home in a golden coach, trailed by twenty one ox-carts, some bulging with sacks of money, others piled high with beautiful clothes. The carriage is Kaldoon’s own. In seven days time it will come back for Anna.

At first, the farmer’s wife and daughter are petrified at the sight of the lordly procession, assuming that some wealthy lord has come to collect on unexpected debts. Instead, the farmer jumps out, brimming over with excitement, and shares his story. His wife is over the moon. Anna, less so. She’s appalled that her father could sell her life away like this, as if she’s just another commodity. GOOD ON YOU, ANNA.

Her parents do not see things from her perspective. When Anna won’t sleep or eat, her mother shouts that she is ungrateful, and frets that spoiling her beauty might make Kaldoon renounce his bargain. Fortunately, they are not the only advisers in Anna’s life. Her old nurse Maria lives in a nearby cottage with her three grown boys: Seppi, Curran and Flores. Hearing of her neighbours’ abrupt change in fortune, she goes to offer her services, and finds her erstwhile charge sobbing in the courtyard. “Nurse, nurse! I believe my father has sold me to the devil! For surely no human being behaves as that Kaldoon has behaved, throwing about gold and silver, and all of a sudden producing a golden coach that makes music, and such piles of money.” She noticed the weirdness. Anna, you may be the most perspicacious person in a fairy tale ever.

Maria goes inside to talk the matter over with Anna’s mother, only to find her sick in bed with the manic excitement of the past few days. So Maria kindly feeds her some broth, then goes home to think and talk things over with her boys. The brothers are immediately fired up with heroic indignation. “Nothing untoward shall happen to her!” Flores exclaims. “I’ll kill that Kaldoon first!” “What, and be hanged, my son?” Maria points out. Curran suggests they just show up to the wedding and take it from there, so when on the seventh day the golden coach returns to collect the very unwilling bride, the boys are waiting.

Anna has taken measures of her own, hiding in the hayloft. Her father has to physically drag her out and shove her into the coach, and she cries all the way to the village. A grand reception awaits her there, all Kaldoon’s minions having turned out as a welcoming committee, led by Kaldoon himself in a crown and glittering robes. After all that effort, he’s not expecting a white-faced, tear-streaked girl covered in hay who screams at the sight of him. Bribing a girl’s father doesn’t mean she wants to marry you. Who knew?

Outraged, Kaldoon hauls her into the tavern. “So you don’t fancy me, my lady,” he sneers. “Very well, for today I will leave you. But tomorrow is our wedding day, and if you won’t come willingly, I’ll drag you to church at the end of a rope!”

Some time later, a pretty young man sneaks into the tavern with food and wine. He introduces himself as ‘only a poor lad’, but offers to spirit Anna away from the sinister Kaldoon’s clutches if she will accept his love. She decides to take her chances. Unfortunately, he is not one of Maria’s sons; he is in fact Kaldoon, disguised with sorcery, with plans to humiliate and torment the girl who screamed at the sight of him. It turns out you can’t always trust a handsome hero.

Fortunately, there are other options. When Anna and her ‘rescuer’ depart in the dead of night, the three brothers follow with axes and coils of rope, prepared for anything. Seppi and Curran are looking out for Anna as a favour to their mother; Flores, the one who wanted Kaldoon dead from the first, is in love with Anna and sure her suitor is up to no good. He’s perfectly correct. Coming to a ravine, Anna asks how they are to cross and the pretty youth reveals himself not only to be Kaldoon, but a horned, clawed demon sorcerer. He seizes Anna and leaps directly into the ravine.

The boys come running from the cover of the forest. Seppi catches and ties up the horse; Flores tries to leap after his beloved, but Curran pulls him back to plan a more considered descent. The axes come in handy for hacking out footholds. They come at last to a candle-lit cavern, but if they jump down, there is no easy way to get out again. The older brothers lower Flores by the ankles to scout. Kaldoon is within sight, bathing himself and getting into a bed, all the while being served by Anna and screaming abuse at her. When he is at last asleep, Flores calls softly to bring Anna over.

At first she urges the brothers to go away, sure that Kaldoon will wake and tear them to pieces, but they lower a rope to pull her up and somehow all four reach the surface alive. Thanks to Seppi’s foresight, they have a horse for the getaway. Unfortunately, there are rather too many of them to fit on its back. Seppi lifts Anna up and they take it in turns to ride with her, the others running behind.

It’s said there’s no rest for the wicked, but nobody ever told the sorcerer Kaldoon. He sleeps straight through the night, and it’s only when he shouts for Anna’s attendance in the morning that he realises she’s gone. Infuriated beyond belief, he bursts into flames, setting everything within the cavern alight. When the flames die down, all that is left of him is ash. That’s why anger management is so important.

Anna reaches home safely with her trio of heroes and tells the story to her duly repentant parents. The farmer, whose newly gained fortune is still intact, offers the boys any rewards they may choose to ask. Seppi and Curran politely ask for new tools, but Flores cannot articulate what he wants. He just looks at Anna, who is still covered in hay and had no sleep last night and is so beautiful she leaves him speechless. Anna has had two close calls with proposals of late; it’s just as well he doesn’t ask. She does that for him, and her father cannot deny her. “For I think you are both wiser than I am,” he admits, and the right wedding finally takes place.

I adore fairy tale meta and this story bubbles over with fabulous inversions of the norm. Even a tradition as universal as the three brothers is different here, with the boys working as a team to rescue the girl, and the youngest brother being the least sensible of the lot. Anna, of course, is marvellous – she knows from the start there’s something bizarre about her father’s benefactor, and tries repeatedly to escape her fate. It’s because of her good sense, sharing her problem with a friend, that she gets rescued at all. I loved this one the first time I read it and I love it even more now.

Review No.200 – The Ill-Made Mute

The Ill-Made Mute (The Bitterbynde No.1) – Cecilia Dart-Thornton

Tor, 2003

Originally published 2001

In recent years, I’ve read very little high fantasy. It doesn’t resonate with me the way it once did, at least right now. There was a time, however, when my pre-teen self drew maps of fictional worlds to cover my wardrobe doors and ransacked Norse mythology for character names, and this was when I first discovered Australian author Cecilia Dart-Thornton’s The Ill-Made Mute. It influenced the way I wrote for years afterwards and remains one of the most beloved books on my shelf. I can think of no better choice to celebrate my 200th review!

In the wilds stands Isse Tower, an isolated outpost of the Stormriders. In the upper chambers the nobility dance and scheme, while in the depths of the fortress the servants gather against the dark to exchange stories of the dangerous world beyond their walls. Their lives are unexpectedly disrupted when a foundling is rescued from the wilderness – a voiceless, disfigured amnesiac too akin to the phantoms they fear to be trusted by anyone in the Tower. Lost, alone and unloved, it seems the foundling will remain buried in the vaults of the fortress forever…but hope may lead to the strangest path of all.

Dart-Thornton draws on obscure European folk lore in a way I think is genuinely comparable to J.R.R. Tolkien in terms of imagination and world-building, but takes a very different direction. While she has a tendency to get lost in description and the plot moves at a sometimes frustratingly slow pace, her writing is some of the most exquisite use of language I’ve ever read, and the story that gradually unfolds is dazzlingly constructed. It has become a part of me, this book, and will always be the standard to which I compare other high fantasy. The trilogy continues with The Lady of the Sorrows and concludes with The Battle of Evernight.

An Update from the Storyteller’s Tower

May is the month of much Mudgeness! In honour of my Ditmar Awards nomination for Best New Talent (squee!) FableCroft Publishing is offering two of my short stories to read for free on their website – ‘Winter’s Heart’ and ‘Oracle’s Tower’. There are a range of FableCroft works up for Ditmar contention too, plus Tehani Wessely’s excellent shared blog project ‘Reviewing New Who‘.

Also: my stories will be appearing in two more forthcoming anthologies! Fairy tale retelling ‘Twelfth’ will appear in FableCroft’s Insert Title Here, while urban fantasy story ‘Signature’ is in Twelfth Planet Press’s Kaleidoscope. Both are scheduled for released in August of this year. Added to Ticonderoga’s Kisses by Clockwork, which will feature my story ‘Descension’ and is expected to come out around the same time, that part of 2014 is looking decidedly literary!