Review – Heir of Sea and Fire

Heir of Sea and Fire (Riddle-Master No.2) – Patricia A. McKillip

Ace Books, 1999

Originally published in 1977

Prince Morgon of Hed, a man with a destiny that has roused unrest all over the realm, disappeared a year ago. Tired of waiting for answers, his promised bride Raederle commandeers one of her father’s ships to find out what happened for herself. Together with Morgon’s friend, the warrior heiress Lyra, and his determined sister Tristan, Raederle sails towards Erlenstar Mountain, where Morgon was last seen. But there is an uncanny war brewing in the realm, and wizards walking the world who were last heard of in legend, and Morgon is not the only one with a troubling heritage. In seeking him, Raederle may lose herself.

This book could have been written specifically to make me happy. I mean, three princesses get fed up with waiting around and go to wring some answers out of the world, becoming good friends on the way? SIGN ME UP. The Riddle-Master of Hed was lovely but not satisfying; Heir of Sea and Fire gives the insight into the mysterious Raederle that I wanted very much, with bonus wizardry and wraiths. The trilogy concludes with Harpist in the Wind.

Review – The Riddle-Master of Hed

The Riddle-Master of Hed (Riddle-Master No.1) – Patricia A. McKillip

Ace Books, 1999

Originally published in 1976

The last thing Morgon wants is a destiny, he already has enough to do – his remote island kingdom of Hed to manage, his argumentative siblings to keep in order – but a spur of the moment challenge from a time of grief is suddenly no longer a secret and the consequences spiral outward, creating unimaginable ripples across the world. Trained by the Riddle-Masters of Caithnard, Morgon has won a ghost’s crown and the hand of a princess. At the same time, he has unknowingly woken enemies from centuries of truce. The greatest riddle of all, he discovers, may be himself. He’ll be lucky if he lives to answer it.

I don’t read much high fantasy any more, but I would make pretty much any exception for Patricia A. McKillip, who is one of my favourite writers. Morgon is a very likable protagonist and I enjoyed the exploration of ideas about destiny, even if I didn’t agree with all of them. I would have liked more explanation for why so many characters are centuries old, but McKillip sweeps you off into a world of beautiful enigmas and her writing is so very lovely that she gets away with it. The Riddle-Master continues with Heir of Sea and Fire.

Review – Carry On

Carry On – Rainbow Rowell

Macmillan, 2015

Being a Chosen One is not all it’s cracked up to be. Simon Snow might be the most powerful wizard of his generation, but he has precious little control over that magic and it places him right in the middle of a brewing war between his mentor the Mage and the elitist old guard of magicians. He is supposed to defeat the nebulous nemesis of magic in Great Britain, but can barely escape their encounters with his life. As his last year at Watford School of Magicks begins, even Simon’s obnoxious roommate Baz lets him down by failing to even turn up and conclude their seven years of mutual tension. One way or another, this year will be the end – of more than Simon could ever imagine.

If you read Rowell’s novel Fangirl you’ll recognise the characters and possibly be confused by the meta-within-meta mindbend, but don’t think of this as fictional fiction or fictional fanfiction, this is an entirely separate story. It’s an entry to the enormous canon of magic school and Chosen One stories and so will probably remind you of Harry Potter. There are deliberate references, actually, some of them very amusing. I have such mixed feelings about Carry On, though! It was a fast, enjoyable read and I loved the magic system – drawing on the inherent power in popular phrases, with all the tricky intonation and evolution that involves, it’s delicious – but the plot was a bit messy and the ending didn’t satisfy me at all. (For spoilery details, see the paragraph below.) Much as I liked Simon and Penny, it was Agatha I found most interesting.

SPOILERS: The story was really centred around Simon and Baz’s evolving relationship, but while it is brilliant to see an LGBT romance like this and the chemistry between them was strong, the emotional balance was off. Baz kept claiming to be desperately in love with Simon but hardly ever showed it in his behaviour, while Simon had to keep explaining his own feelings and proving how much he cared, even right at the end. It didn’t feel healthy. I was also uncomfortable with how Simon’s sexuality was handled. Obviously he doesn’t have to figure out everything at once, but I would have liked the possibility of bisexuality to be at least referenced rather than it being presented as a binary between gay and straight. Lucy was another troubling character – she came back to tell her story to her son, who REALLY needed to hear it, but was not heard. And it kind of just ends there? Lucy deserved a lot better than that.

Ladies of Legend: Fair Janet

References: Stories from the English and Scottish Ballads (E.P. Dutton &Co., Inc., 1968) by Ruth Manning-Sanders, The Ultimate Fairies Handbook (MQ Publications Limited, 2006) by Susannah Marriot, The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies (Vega, 2002) by Anna Franklin

I tend to back up the women of fairy tales, folklore and legend on the general principle of the thing – goodness knows they need the support – but I do have favourites. Fair Janet is the kind of girl who digs in her heels and her reaction to everything that gets in her way is pretty much ‘no, you move’ and I love her so.

In the woods of Carterhaugh there lives a fairy man called Tam Lin. The earl of the lands around forbids all the young women of his household to go there, including his daughter Janet, but Janet does not take well to rules and one day while she’s sewing curiosity abruptly gets the better of her. She abandons her needle and thread, braids back her hair, hikes up her skirts and runs off to explore the forbidden wood. After all, she reasons, it will be hers someday anyway, so she can do what she wants. In that spirit, she starts picking wild roses.

No sooner has she one flower in hand than a beautiful young man appears out of nowhere, the notorious Tam Lin, who upbraids her for taking roses without his permission. She coolly replies that as Carterhaugh is hers, a gift from her father, she’ll do as she pleases. So Tam Lin tries a different tactic, employing personal charm to lead her deeper into the wood. All the versions I have at hand are very tactful about what happens next; a version I know but cannot quote was much more explicit, with Janet returning home pregnant.

Either way, Janet is restless in her father’s house, quiet and sad as she puzzles over how to keep Tam Lin. Because she intends to keep him, fairy or no. So back she goes to Carterhaugh, plucking a few leaves and catching her lover’s attention. She demands to know who he really is. Tam Lin admits that he is not a fairy man by birth; he was born to a human lady and was trained as a knight, but during a winter hunt he was lost in a bitter wind and taken away by the Fairy Queen to her kingdom.

Before you get the wrong impression, Tam Lin is not unhappy about this. He likes Fairyland and would gladly stay there, but unfortunately there’s a catch: every seven years the fairies owe a knight as a tithe to Hell and Tam Lin fears he’s been chosen as the upcoming sacrifice. Only Janet can save him. On the midnight between Hallowe’en and Hallow Day (or, according to The Illustrated Enyclopaedia of Fairies, on Samhain Eve) she must go to Miles Cross with a flask of holy water and await the procession of fairy riders who shall pass by there. Tam Lin will be in the third company of knights, riding a milk-white horse. He will wear a crown of oak leaves marked with a golden star, his right hand will be gloved and his left bare. Beside him will ride the Fairy Queen on a horse ‘silver as the moon’. When Tam Lin passes, Janet must catch the bridle of his horse, pull him down and hold him tight no matter what shape he takes.

So off Janet goes to Miles Cross, marking a circle with holy water and waiting inside it for the fairy rade. The jingling bridles warn her of their approach. The first and second companies of knights go by unmolested but when she sights the white horse she dives forward and hauls her lover to the ground. The fairies all start shouting.

The versions I have all disagree on the shapes Tam Lin takes and the order thereof – the Illustrated Encylcopaedia has it as salamander, then snake, then bear and swan, while the Handbook quotes Francis James Child with wolf first, then flame, iron, an adder then a deer, and of all things a silk string. Ruth Manning-Sanders goes hardcore right from the word go, with Tam Lin turning into a pillar of flame, but Janet won’t let him go. Next he becomes a swan; after that, a wolf. A snake becomes a newt – next he becomes a stag, ramming his antlers into her chest as he tries to get free. Last of all, he becomes a red-hot bar of iron and this she throws into a pool at her feet, whereupon Tam Lin is restored to the shape of a naked man. She covers him with her green cloak.

The Fairy Queen’s response is also a subject of debate. In the Handbook she wishes aloud that she could have taken Tam Lin’s eyes and replaced them with those of a tree; in the Illustrated Encyclopaedia, she wants to tear out his heart and replace it with stone. In Ruth Manning-Sanders’ version, she threatens her lost knight with both, but her power over him is gone. She rides away, her band of fairies in her wake, leaving the human lovers alone together at the crossroads. Janet takes Tam Lin home with her, to general praise and rejoicing, and marries him.

I like to think that Carterhaugh remains hers for life and she very occasionally lords that over him by filling the house with roses.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!

Wicked, Golden and Wise

Being a girl in a terrible world was akin to being a princess, wicked queen, heroine, ugly stepdaughter, witch and fairy and child and mother in one fiery package, a bomb beribboned like a beautiful gift and left to tick tock tick tock behind high castle walls.

– Allyse Near, Fairytales for Wilde Girls

Stories change because we do, because that’s what everything does in order to survive. Ancient kings become mythical heroes. Goddesses become saints, or queens, or witches. And stories build on each other, endless towers rising from almost forgotten foundation stones, formed from names with a half-understood resonance centuries old.

I started both fairy tales and feminism at an early age, before I had the language to express myself properly in either, and let me assure you, if you would like to lose a few teeth to rage-grinding, you could do worse than contemplate the gender politics of myth and legend. Double standards abound. But I would not write what I do, would not be who I am, if those stories hadn’t sunk under my skin and entered my mental lexicon. I’ve always known witches. The Ruth Manning-Sanders witch-maidens who steal eyes from the unwary, the enigmatic sorceresses of Greek myth, Russia’s Baba Yaga with her flying house and fence of bones. The queens with vengeance on their minds and spellbooks at their service. The girls with magic in their veins and crowns on their heads. The women who are wicked, or golden, or wise – or all three. The stories that told me, we exist. This is power. This is possible.

My first blog project, Fairy Tale Tuesdays, allowed me to revisit many of those women and discover quite a few more. Tatterhood, Tokoyo, the Princess Blue-Eyes, Nadya, Kate Crackernuts. Last year’s Sharazad Project gave me more women to admire. Sitt al-Husn, Dhat al-Dawahi, Abriza, Nuzhat al-Zaman, among others. It’s the names I have been thinking about lately, what it means to know those names. There is power in archetypes – queen and princess, witch and sorceress and fairy godmother – but it means something more to have a name. You can keep that. You can give it to a protagonist or a pet. For that matter, to your firstborn, in true fairy tale fashion. Most of all, you can remember it. You can retell it.

For this year’s blog series, Ladies of Legend, I will be posting monthly articles on the women whose stories are interwoven into myth, legend and folklore. It is likely to be Eurocentric, because these are the names most familiar to me, but if you have a favourite lady you think might be overlooked, by all means tell me in the comments! Bring me your witches, your queens, your damsels and fairies, wives and warriors.

There’s so much more to legends than a man with a sword.

The January Illusions

I am a sucker for the new page, be it the blank white sheet of a notebook or the empty squares of a new calendar. You can argue that all beginnings are illusory because calendars are something humanity invented to make time less scary, but isn’t it beautiful, that as a species we gave ourselves so much space to hang hopes on? Of course, you can make resolutions any time, but somehow I find it easier to make good intentions stick with the formality and tradition of New Year. Consider this to be a somewhat unreliable contents page for 2016.

With the conclusion of last year’s Sharazad Project, I am starting something new. A childhood inhaling my local library’s mythology section gave me a half-remembered back catalogue of queens and sorceresses and this year I intend to share their stories in a monthly series called Ladies of Legend. That will kick off this coming Tuesday with Fair Janet, who stole fairy roses and rescued a knight in distress. My second blog project of 2016 will be rewatching and reviewing each of the seven Star Wars films, starting with The Phantom Menace in February. (I saw The Force Awakens a few weeks ago and have SUCH FEELINGS.) I won’t be signing up to this year’s Australian Women Writers Challenge – I have a lot of international authors on my list for 2016, and not enough time for everything – but I’m hoping to read and review at least six, which fits with the Miles level of the Challenge.

As always, if you want to know how to find my published stories, just check the Publications page on this blog. You can look under Extras for free content, such as the Chandler & Musgrave series, or under Fairy Tale Meta for previous blog projects, including Fairy Tale Tuesdays and the Sharazad Project. I’m also on Tumblr, and have the worst attendance rate ever on Goodreads. Feel free to contact me or leave comments, I write what I love and I love to talk about it.

Happy new year, everyone! Let’s see what 2016 is made of.