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.
A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness
Walker Books Ltd., 2011
Just after midnight, Conor wakes to find a monster outside his window, and it is not the monster he was expecting. Ever since his mother fell sick, he’s had the same terrible nightmare, over and over again, the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming…but this monster inhabits the yew tree that overlooks Conor’s house. It doesn’t want to eat Conor, or rend him limb from limb. What it wants is something he finds much more frightening: it wants him to tell the truth.
This novel was inspired by an original idea by Siobhan Dowd, who died before she could write it herself and afterwards it was taken up by Patrick Ness. The library copy I have is shelved in the junior fiction, and the style of writing mostly does feel aimed at a younger audience. The content, though, is not easy to think about at any age. This is a sad, fierce story, circuitous yet unflinching, enhanced by Jim Kay’s smoky, sinister illustrations. I can’t say I liked it – I’m not sure it’s really the sort of story you like – but it’s well and powerfully told.
Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda – Becky Albertalli
Balzer + Bray, 2015
Sixteen-year-old Simon Spier likes to put on a show, but he prefers it when the drama stays on the stage. The only person in his life who knows he’s gay is Blue, his anonymous online friend, and the only one who knows Blue is gay is Simon. Their friendship is slowly evolving into something new when the wrong person finds out about the emails and Simon suddenly finds himself blackmailed into the role of reluctant matchmaker for the most annoying straight boy ever. He has to find a way to get out of this situation before he’s dragged any deeper into someone else’s disaster of a love life – and before it wrecks his own.
The premise makes this sound like a slightly darker book than it is. While Simon’s predicament is definitely treated as a serious one, Simon vs. the Home Sapiens Agenda is overall a light-hearted, witty and sincere story and all its characters are written with a warmth and sensitivity that makes even the less likeable ones very well-rounded. Simon is a delightful protagonist – I was particularly charmed by the relationship he has with his sisters – and the question of Blue’s identity is given some good twists. Albertalli’s next novel, The Upside of Unrequited, is slated for release in April.
Sparrow Hill Road (Ghost Stories No.1) – Seanan McGuire
DAW Books, 2014
Rose Marshall died in the summer of 1952 when her car was driven off Sparrow Hill Road, and that was only the beginning of her problems. Rose is a hitcher now, a ghost of the roads, and the rules that she doesn’t live by are as unforgiving as they are arcane. Over the years she has become a story – the Phantom Prom Date, the Girl in the Green Silk Gown – and sometimes stories draw the wrong sort of attention. From rookie ghost-hunters to drivers on their last hope, her fellow unquiet dead to the vengeful living, Rose has more to fear now than she ever did when she was alive. Worst of all is the man who killed her that night on Sparrow Hill Road. Given the chance, he is going to finish the job, and there are much worse things than death.
Sparrow Hill Road is written as if it was once a collection of ghost stories, a bit non-linear, which conveys Rose’s experience of the world incredibly well. I loved it. The layered mythology, from modern American ghost stories all the way down to Hades and Persephone, creates a complete and fascinating world, and Rose, with her good heart and bad attitude, is a marvelously flawed protagonist. I’m very much looking forward to reading more in this series.