Kingfisher – Patricia A. McKillip
Ace Books, 2016
Once upon a time, a heartbroken sorceress vanished and took an entire cape on the coast of Wyvernhold with her. Only when a trio of lost knights stumble into her sleepy haven does Heloise Oliver’s son start asking inconvenient questions and discover the truth: the father he has never met is still living, a knight himself in the royal court at Severluna. Pierce Oliver takes off for the heart of the kingdom, unaware of greater and darker mysteries rising to the surface around him. In a crumbling inn, a strange ritual cannot ever be questioned; a chef spins beautiful, irresistible nothings in a restaurant that cannot be found by those who want it most; and in Severluna, the king announces a quest without the least idea of what is really at stake.
I always adore Patricia A. McKillip’s writing, which is at its elegantly enigmatic, exquisitely wry best in Kingfisher, but the infusion of Arthuriana into a world of modern day alternate world fantasy is so brilliantly done I think this may be one of my favourites of her books, as well as one of my favourite books in general. The richness of the worldbuilding is entrancing, the familiar bones of legends and fairy tales woven into a setting that includes mobile phones, river gods and knights riding motorcycles. I would be thrilled if she wrote more in this world.
Norse Mythology – Neil Gaiman
From the emergence of Ymir, ancestor of the giants, from the first waters of the worlds, to the end of all things at Ragnarok – from the tricks and treachery of Loki to the wisdom and wickedness of Odin, the adventures of Thor and the betrayal of Balder, these are the legends of the Norse gods as you have never known them before.
I have a long-standing love of Norse mythology and while I knew many of these stories, some I didn’t. It was a delight to read Gaiman’s vivid retellings, all infused with his recognisable wry wit. I particularly loved a twist on the story of Balder that gave a more prominent role to – avoiding spoilers! – a shadowy female character I’ve always been fascinated by. Gaiman has a wonderful turn of phrase and by making all references to Ragnarok in future tense, the stories have a fresh shock of immediacy. This is a book I’m certain I’ll re-read.
Every Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children No.1) – Seanan McGuire
Everyone knows that sometimes, children get lost. And the ones who come back with strange stories about other lands, where they wore crowns and fought their enemies and fell in love…well, if they’re lucky, they find their way to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, where everyone is re-learning how to live in this world and hoping against hope they’ll find their way out again, back to the worlds that they now call home. Nancy knows that she belongs in the silence and shadows of the Halls of the Dead, not in this quick and waking place. But someone else is even more desperate for escape – and willing to bring death into the school to get it.
If you ever finished Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe with an immense sense of frustration, this is the book for you. It takes on the genre of portal fantasy with the simple question: what happens when the children come home? With an asexual protagonist and a cast of diverse, unpredictable characters, Every Heart a Doorway is both a murder mystery and a sharp, intelligent overturning of some very familiar tropes. The next book in the series is Down Among the Sticks and Bones, which is slated for release in June of this year.
Crown Duel – Sherwood Smith
Originally published as Crown Duel (1997) and Court Duel (1998)
When the nobility of Remalna won’t act against the growing greed and corruption of their king, the penniless young Countess Meliara Astior of Tlanth and her peaceable older brother Branaric decide they must take action themselves – but the king is quick to bring the war to their door. With the mysterious Marquis of Shevraeth leading the royal forces, Meliara’s beloved mountains become a battleground and she is soon embroiled in a perilous game of cat-and-mouse, where the rules are always changing and nothing is as clear-cut as she thought it was.
Though Crown Duel was originally published as two separate novels, it works much better as one divided into two distinct parts. Meliara is an enjoyably spiky, defiant protagonist, but the narrative works against her – she’s sidelined from some of the big events in the story and there’s a constant irritating emphasis on her getting into trouble by misunderstanding situations, even when her reasoning is logical and the fault really lies with others. The world-building is strong, with a distinct sense of a different culture and lovely little references to the history and literature of Remalna. It’s also very refreshing to see a fantasy world where sexism barely exists.
The Rebirth of Rapunzel – Kate Forsyth
FableCroft Publishing, 2016
In this mythic biography, Australian author Kate Forsyth traces the famous fairy tale of ‘Rapunzel’ from its earliest recorded origins down through centuries of retellings into the inventive, irreverent and exciting incarnations of the modern day. How well do you really know the maiden in the tower?
I was given a hardback of this book, with its gorgeous cover by Kathleen Jennings, as a Christmas gift from my sister, because she knows me well and fairy tale biography. It is a brilliant concept that Forsyth has researched meticulously and presented in a way that is immensely readable. Though I disagreed with some of her interpretations, the history and context of this fairy tale’s growth and change is so well presented that it allows the reader to form their own opinions based on those facts. Included in this book are some of Forsyth’s other essays about fantasy, science fiction and writing. There are spoilers for her ‘Rapunzel’ retelling Bitter Greens, so I would advise reading that first. I love fairy tales and have strong feelings about ‘Rapunzel’ in particular because I wrote a retelling of it myself; The Rebirth of Rapunzel is a book I am delighted to have on my shelf, and I would be thrilled to see more ‘mythic biographies’ like it.
Dreams of Distant Shores – Patricia A. McKillip
What is impossible, really, when stories come floating out of strange magic? A witch misplaces her name and her face, and gives a wooden mermaid an unexpected lease of life. Besieged lovers share a dangerous secret, Medusa reveals her true face, and the sea washes up truths so bitter and beautiful they might wash your heart away.
I am always bewitched by Patricia A. McKillip’s writing. It reads with a glorious poetic elegance, but she has a finely tuned sense of the absurd as well that gives it vibrant life. All except one of the seven stories in this collection were new to me, ranging from the light-hearted Mer and urban fantastical Which Witch to the darkly enigmatic Weird and the eloquently passionate novella Something Rich and Strange. It takes a lot to live up to a title as good as this one, but McKillip does so with style.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe – Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Simon & Schuster, 2012
Aristotle – better known as Ari – is a boy defined by the things he doesn’t say. His family don’t talk about his father’s experience in the Vietnam War; they don’t talk about why Ari’s older brother is in prison, or why they seem so afraid that Ari will follow him there. Then Ari meets Dante, a boy who defines himself by talking about everything. He loves birds, poetry, art, words – and he loves being Ari’s friend. With Dante around, Ari finds himself beginning to unravel the mysteries that have kept him quiet for so long. Maybe eventually, Ari will even understand himself.
Aristotle and Dante is set during the 1980s and both main characters are Mexican; there’s a thoughtful and nuanced exploration of culture, family and identity woven through the novel, but never slowing it down. While very different characters, Ari and Dante are both vividly written and incredibly engaging. The rest of the cast, particularly the boys’ families, are equally well-rounded, with a wonderful warmth and realism. There was one moment that jarred me – without including spoilers, towards the end of the story Ari discovers something about his brother that I personally felt should have had a greater narrative impact. Overall, though, this is a beautiful story about friendship, love and truth. Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s latest book is The Inexplicable Logic of My Life, published earlier this month.