Review and Retrospective: The Raven Ring, by Patricia C. Wrede

Many of my readers will probably agree with the premise that Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles are among the best YA books in the history of ever. The wild, gleeful skewering of tropes, the preponderance of dragons (automatically and immediately improving any book), the best use of rebellious princess syndrome in recent memory, Killer the levitating blue winged donkey who used to be a rabbit… I don’t know if I could critique these books even now, but when I was an even littler Ginger Waif, a wide-eyed and peculiar nerdling with an impossibly fast and demanding metabolism when it came to devouring books, Dealing With, Searching for, Calling on, and Talking to Dragons were pretty much the alpha and omega of what was awesome.

So after I’d read them ten or twelve times, I went looking for more by Wrede and, at the time, found it all in the intimidating grown-up section of the library and enjoyed what little I found there. This was before Google and I had to make due with what I had. Later in life, when used book stores, Sci-Fi club libraries, and the internet were available I did all I could to track down the early works of Wrede, as well as following her more recent stuff. Somehow, the only one that eluded me was The Raven Ring. Until now. Bwahahaha!

The Raven Ring is a novel of Lyra, the world Wrede created and mostly wrote in in her early career. The edition I got (on my schmancy ereader that seems to have laid claim to me entirely) rather interestingly includes the first chapter of the first book by the author as edited for a rerelease. I do enjoy these little glimpses into the writer’s thought processes, and it’s pleasantly humanizing to see one of the voices that defined my childhood, well, editing. Books seem to not actually burst fully-formed from the firmament, and it’s always nice to be reminded that a combination of work and talent rather than magic is responsible for great fiction.

While Lyra contains all kinds of strange creatures, The Raven Ring focuses on humans, and while there are ancient temples full of magical traps and sweeping landscapes and exotic locales of all sorts, almost all of the action of the book happens in a city, resulting in a sort of medieval urban fantasy of a kind I quite like (see, um, half the titles previously reviewed). The story follows Eleret, a warrior maiden who strikes out to the distant city to claim her soldier mother’s possessions following her suspicious death. She’s pulled into a bizarre intrigue surrounding a mysterious artifact and acquires some sidekicks. The Big Bads are alluded to. Apparently nothing bad ever happens in Lyra without the ultimate evil having a hand in it somewhere. It’s a little like Sunnydale that way.

SoThe Raven Ring is a good example of my lifelong idol’s work for adults and as a mature writer. I’m willing to say right here that it doesn’t work for me on the visceral level that theEnchanted Forest Chronicles did. Some of that is no doubt pure nostalgia at work, of course. I’m not aiming to make this a comparative review but rather to see how the dewy eyes of third-grade love work when the veneer of obsession is gone.

The writing in The Raven Ring is solid but unremarkable. There’s no stunning narrative voice to point to, though the dialogue is well constructed. The pacing of this rather short book feels occasionally pinched. There’s a lot of setup and a hurried payoff in the larger story arc, but individual plot threads are better. As I compared Swordspoint to a highly political LARP with erratically intertwining stories that never quite paid off, The Raven Ring strikes me as an investigative tabletop run by a small, intimate group that knows each other well, plays pretty neatly, and prefers the journey to the destination. The final showdown with the nefarious villain piles into an infodump of details the players didn’t catch on the way there and is finished in one climactic session of game.

To continue my nerdy, nerdy analogy (and I’m allowed because you’re already reading a spec-fic blog), the characters play together well. Eleret could be a generic grumpy action girl in an inferior author’s hands, but she has motivations and moods rooted in herself and the bizarre situation she finds herself in. She feels like a real person. Her sidekicks verge a little bit on the caricature in both cases, the dashing aristocratic rake and the snarky rogue. Wrede pulls them off and I admire a writer who takes old archetypes and breathes new life into them, but Daner is a little too Prince Charming wannabe and Karvonen a little too gleefully clever. they’re goofy. But it’s Eleret’s story. The main villain never has much of a character, but for good reasons; I’d say not having a real identity is a big part of the spookiness. He has some good minions, though. The supporting cast is just kind of there, I must admit. There are some soldiers and magicians and noble ladies and they amuse, but most of them just deliver plot points or conflict on cue.

The noble ladies actually point to a slight tonal issue in a lot of Wrede’s books, especially the older ones. As a rule, the positive characters are the ones who have swords or magic and go around doing useful things as far as the plot is concerned, and as long as they’re active and busy, the villains are generally at least interesting, if not sympathetic. People who prefer to ignore the tides of plot tend to get derided, which is fair enough, I suppose. Usually there’s a world or at least a large landmass and attendant population to save. Wrede likes high stakes. But while people who are mildly detrimental or wholly neutral as a whole just get made to look ridiculous, when these characters are female, they’re not just putting stupid stuff ahead of what’s important. They’re putting stupid girl stuff ahead of what’s important. Feminine heroines are alright, but if you’re a pesky sister or a courtesan with not much to do with furthering the story, you’re a stupid, dumb, girly girl who likes girl things.

As it happens, the Ginger Waif understands this issue. When one happens to be a girl, one is expressly and implicitly told over and over that these things over here are girl things for girls to like. If one happens not to be disposed to like the majority of those things (like, say, the color pink, ruffles, shopping, and so on), one becomes resentful, and that resentment can spill over onto the perfectly neutral totems of cultural femininity. And that in turn can spill over to the people who like those things. It’s clear to you that shoes and sequins are stupid and no one likes them (ah, self-centeredness), so people who seem to take honest joy in fashion and romance novels must be either disingenuous or stupid. I still have to remind myself every so often that there’s nothing wrong with happening to enjoy being what you’re expected to be.

I’ve heard Wrede speak at length on the subject of her female characters, but she dwelt on the heroines. Apparently, her stock answer to “How do you write such strong women?” is “Do you know any women?” Or something close to that. The talk was years ago. I don’t object to writing so that characters who are ambivalent to the plot are jerks, but I do object to using femininity as shorthand for shallowness.

Wow, that was… a tangent.

The story can’t be called generic, but it is a tad bit predictable as it unrolls. I can’t claim it’s the old “brave but naive warrior woman comes to the big city where various forces seem to coalesce around her and she makes friends with some entertaining weirdos and magic happens” yarn, but the mystery is far more for the characters than the genre-savvy reader. Karvonen injects a little chaos that the story badly needs, but even he can’t offset the predictability. That said, it’s a good story. It has all the important bits. Ennobling and base emotions at war, sword fights, intrigue. All the necessary elements, and it’s fun to read.

It’s hard to fairly assess the worldbuilding of The Raven Ring. I know a lot about Lyra and I suppose most readers of the book will as well, what with all that came before. That said, the Lyra books are all stand-alone stories, united only by universe, so the sense of place should be strong by itself. The city at the heart of the plot is fairly well explored, but it seems to consist entirely of inns, alleyways, maybe a market, and various buildings with NPCs waiting to dispense plot. It doesn’t have a lot of unique personality. Eleret’s homeland holds some interest, but so little of the action takes place there that all I know is that it’s mountainous and everyone there is warlike. The scary evil from beyond time is a little underwritten here (it makes a very oblique appearance, after all), so there wasn’t anything really scary going on. Though you might have a hard time finding a fantasy regular who’s easily scared by a bunch of ancient evil things that are evil and also evil rar. The magic at work is the most unique part. There’s a peculiar spin on tarot cards, some creepy and effective magical skullduggery, and some genre-standard magic-school sorcery, and it all works together well. The idea of superstition in a world with active magic is an interesting one, the same as mixing magic and gods, another idea that always draws me in.

So, altogether, The Raven Ring is a perfectly okay book with some real strong points. It’s nothing like as awesome as The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, though. What’s the moral of the story? Well, could be that the books that define us are stuck on a pedestal and there’s nothing to do about it. There’s the observation that some authors are more suited to one voice than another. Or maybe it’s just that there weren’t any dragons and it’s just a fatal flaw.

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Review: Knight and Rogue Series, Hilari Bell

Isn’t it nice when you discover a new subgenre? A kind of story, a shape that recurs and gives you neat new way to relate? Sure, the completely unique is still to be treasured and cultivated, but it’s such a comfort to know there will be more if you look for it. There are the ones that are so common you forget they’re a specific form at all and not just the way stories are, like, say, “young individual (usually male) discovers themselves to be super special all along and goes off with their wise mentor to save the kingdom/planet/dimension/whathaveyou.” There are more particular forms, of course, like “girl goes off to court and is subjected to intrigue and almost always swordplay” or “some kid learns how to be a sneaky rogue from a slightly older and extremely handsome sneaky rogue.” It’s good to meet old friends in new clothes, or maybe it’s familiar old clothes on new friends. Either way, I love finding new ones. And I have recently discovered that “a naive and distinctly virtuous young man and his disreputable friend wander around having adventures” is a subgenre in itself. I first encountered this tale under the auspices of Mickey Zucker Reichert’s Nightfall duology, which like most of her work is amusing and kind of cute but not particularly rereadable. I much prefer the Knight and Rogue series. It’s my new best friend.

I’m not the only one who makes friends with books, right?

Anyway, there are three books so far in the Knight and Rogue series; The Last Knight, Rogue’s Home, and Player’s Ruse. They follow the adventures of Michael and his squire, Fisk, who live in and kingdom whose technology and social mores are roughly those of Early Modern Europe, though it’s a little squidgy. (I apparently didn’t make up that word. I love English.) You might infer that that makes being a knight errant kinda weird. So does everyone else. Yes, there’s an affectionate Don Quixote thing going on, if the Don were self aware and Sancho Panza better educated and grumpier. There’s also an interesting system of magic, which is identified as “magica” for… some reason. I often have mixed feelings about this sort of linguistic twist. On the one hand, it does sound more momentous and mysterious and more like a proper name, which jives with the way the metaphysical works in this universe, but on the other, you’re just saying “magic.” Go ahead. There’s a perfectly good word already. You run into this one a lot. Random spellings and added syllables on magic are outstripped in fantasy only by random spellings and added syllables on titles of nobility.

But I digress. Magic is an inborn property in this world, found in essentially random individuals in the animal and plant kingsdoms. Being a biologist I wanted to know if there were magic fungi and protists, and I make no apologies. Suffice it to say, the flora and fauna are commonly imbued with power that enhances their natural attributes. Medicinal plants are more effective, poisonous plants are more deadly, and presumably, magica Brussels sprouts are more retch-inducing. Magica rabbits can turn invisible, magica dogs are better at smelling things and learning tricks, magica horses run and jump more effectively. You get the idea. If you’re me you wonder a bit about the specificity of the properties enhanced by being magic, whether there’s a sort of Platonic ideal and why, exactly, the aspects that humans immediately think of are what gets better. There are more important things about being a rabbit than not being seen, if you ask a rabbit, I’m sure.

I digress again. And there’s a reason. Knight and Rogue makes for a wonderful little world and I’m inclined to explore it, and if I’m poking at the boundaries, it’s because I love it and want to understand all the more.

Plants and animals each have a god protecting them, and if you annoy a magic– sorry, a magica critter or herb, you get in trouble. Certain humans who are all secretive and shaman-y can help you fix that by means of sacrifice. Humans, however, don’t get a deity. They’re on their own. This leads to a rather interesting perspective on social contracts and a society in general. It’s a rare success at spinning a religious worldview in fantasy that I think really makes sense and makes the right sort of impact on story and character. Religion in spec fic can get so bloody contrived and it’s awfully problematic in terms of story, and I really like this handling of the subject.

I’ve talked too much about the magic, so with one quick explanation I’ll move on, though I love it so. Some humans have little twitches of Gifts, most notably the ability to sense magica, but also including a knack for handling animals or predicting the weather or knowing when they’re in danger. The story insists that these aren’t magic proper, just, um, exactly like magic in all respects. I’m not so sure about this aspect. Also, Gifts can only be passed down the female line and it comes and goes, so I guess it’s an X-chromosome recessive thing?

Alright, I’m really done about the world and its mechanics now. I’d like to run a game in the universe and see what I can make of it, so I’ll vent my nitpicking there instead. On to the characters. Michael and Fisk are some of the very bestest heroes of all time. Michael is a twist on a twist on the white knight. He’s not particularly effective, generally stumbling and lucking and leaning on Fisk all along the way to the ultimate mostly victory that sometimes comes. He’s completely aware that everyone he meets thinks he kind of sucks or at least is a nutcase, and while he keeps on keepin’ on, he does get discouraged, as anyone would. He is a super woobie, to speak TV Tropes at you.

(I’ll just take a moment to say that if Hilari Bell were of another generation, I suspect these two would be a couple. It’s awfully hard not to slash them with extreme prejudice. And with all the times Michael is injured and/or emotionally wounded and Fisk has to pick up the pieces… Well, there’s an app for that, is all I’m saying.)

Fisk is a cynic in theory, but an idealist in practice even before he and Michael are besties for life. As I learned back in a high school lit class sometime or other, you learn about a character first from what they do, then what everyone else says about them, and only lastly from what he says.  Fisk pushes himself as a hardened and irredeemable bastard, to which I say, Ha. And then pat him on the head. In my imagination. Fisk acts as a slightly more selfish Robin Hood even when he’s being all criminal, and thereafter he annoys bad guys with Michael and they bicker a lot.   He dwells a lot on injustices done him, and that’s a whole lot of injustices, granted, but aside from making him a tad bit bitter, he seems to have come out of being betrayed and neglected with a slightly bad attitude. He’s about as evil as an iguana in a funny hat.*

So yeah, they’re both fundamentally good hearted and deeply tragic and attractive and they always win at great cost and they’re super special awesome. It’s a YA book and it’s lovely. I can live with that. Being YA books, they have slightly disconcertingly large print and white space, which I know is wholly irrelevant to the content, but which always weirds me out a bit. The stories are at a good level for early teens, rating-wise, most of the gore described more in terms of emotional impact and sex mostly absent from the main characters’ consciousness. The story switches between Fisk and Michael’s first-person narratives, usually going along chronologically but occasionally skipping forward or back when the story calls for it. No stylistic leaps, but it’s very effective and these are two heads I like spending time in while they solve mysteries.

That’s most of what they do, solving mysteries. There are certainly episodes of swashbuckling and making acrobatic escapes, but the target is generally to determine who’s the the root of whatever evil’s afoot. The stories don’t really work as whodunits, in that the clues are either deeply obscure or super obvious, so you can generally guess who’s at the root of the wickedness but not why or how, just because they’re presented and dwelt upon. Though Bell does love red herrings. Fisk and Michael spend half the books eliminating suspects with actual detective work and the reader goes along eliminating based on whether there seems to be a reason for a character’s continued presence. If you were to chart the story, the books would seem a bit formulaic. Michael and Fisk go to a place. Someone they like describes something that is not as it ought to be. They investigate using their various strengths and eventually stumble to a conclusion, and there’s a battle of wits, wills, and weight, and then they wander into the sunset, presumably to return next books for brand new tales of daring-do.

But it’s the journey, not the destination, and there’s always enough new and strange material to keep you busy. Bell isn’t addicted to tying up every loose end in the world and the endings are never unreservedly happy. In fact, they’re usually more bitter than sweet. And sometimes some element of the climax does come barreling out of an alleyway yelling for your attention, having arrived a bit late. It’s a small flaw, though, and even the Attack of the Sudden Plot Element is fun and wacky and adventurous.

Knight and Rogue is the kind of series that could go on forever, assuming the heroes never actually find a way to solve their problems and settle down happily. The books are episodes of wild activity as the heroes wander from place to place with their ever-expanding and very silly menagerie (currently a drunk horse, a loud, gimpy horse, and a mute dog, playing lovable misfit counterparts to their lovable misfit owners). For reasons I won’t explain for fear of spoilers, but which result in this pattern of Adventure>Go to New Place>Adventure, settling down isn’t bloody likely, and I hope to dip into the incompetent bumbling and thrilling escapades of Michael and Fisk** for many years to come.

This Ginger Waif review was brought to you by the letter F, the number 16.7, and the Society for the Promotion of “They” as a Third-Person-Singular Gender Neutral Pronoun in the English Language.

*Funny hats in reptiles are known to decrease evil by at least two degrees of magnitude.

**It has come to the reviewer’s attention that Fisk’s first name is Nonopherian.

With all due respect… Neil Gaiman was wrong (eek!)

This comes of discussing Coraline with my sister again. She who prefers not to be known as the Ginger Waifling was enamored with that particular book and, in fact, led us both to the awesomeness of its author that way. Coraline, for those who neither read creepy books nor watch passable silver screen adaptations, is the story of a little girl who discovers a way to another family. They seem to answer all her dreams of what a family ought to be, but then it goes from sour to dreadful and our heroine barely escapes. It’s a theme he touches on again in The Sandman: A Game of You, wherein Barbie’s Dream world (pun unintended but unavoidable) is destroyed by a villain known as the Cuckoo. Spoiler here: The Cuckoo is an odd manifestation of Barbie’s childhood dreams of being a foundling from another family, presumably royal. Without going into detail about that plot, the Cuckoo does expound at length on Gaiman’s theory. Unfortunately I don’t own the book and it’s long past time that bad rabbits and ginger waifs should go to bed, but I’ll try and summarize without access to the quote.

Little girls dream of being someone else. Of being the long lost princess, usually, but always of having another family, another place to belong. Boys, on the other hand, just dream about being knights and driving trucks and stuff.

Bullshit, says the Waif.

It’s not that little girl story. It’s not even that story. It’s the, story, to be a stickler for articles. It’s the story that drives all the others, the story that makes a teller of tales, the story of the misfit who’s really someone cool. Once upon a time there was a boring, everyday person who didn’t fit in. But then it was Uncle Bilbo’s birthday. His uncle bought some used droids. A letter was delivered to #4 Privet Drive. And those are just modern uses. Was once this time in Bethlehem when three wise men made a visit to a house and bestowed gifts on the baby there. Ever since we got past the idea that the only people worth talking about were born fighting dragons and died with all the gold and enemy skulls and who were kings and demigods, we produced the secret hero. He’s all those things, only no one knows it, and generally everyone’s mean to him and won’t they all be sorry?

Ahem. Now, notice how all my abovementioned examples are united in chromosomes? The misfits who only need to be discovered to be the chosen ones to take on the world aren’t the dreams of boys. They’re the dreams of misfits. But while not every boy needs that escape and that dream, just about every girl in societies like humanity’s produced so far generally do. Girls are socialized to compromise and nourish and subsume their own desires to everyone else’s until they’re not the least bit at home in their own skin. But they’re also socialized to know they don’t get to have a sword and save the kingdom. So the secret person they really are becomes tied to family with the rest of their identity. Leia needs to be a princess. Does anyone in real Star Wars ever point out that Luke would then, presumably, be a prince? (Never mind that they’d be royalty of a planet that somehow elected its monarchs, because that’s dumb and beside the point.) It’s cool to be a prince, sure, but you don’t need to be one.

In some parts of the world, at least, that socialization for little girls is changing. Or at least it’s being challenged. When the Ginger Waif was even smaller, the bedtime stories followed the adventures of a princess, but the point was mostly having dragons and her parents simply became a king and queen as well. And the littlest member of my family gets stories about a girl who lives with some mad scientists. No royalty necessary, a few decades later.

Though you know, when I think back to the heroines who really defined my youth, no one got a freaking Gandalf. Cimorene wandered out one day and signed up to be a dragon’s assistant. Alanna tricked her own way into knight school. Sabriel let herself over the wall. Deeba took over when the anointed one was knocked out of the game.

No wonder the boys get so ansty around wicked girls rescuing themselves. No need to be a princess nowadays, and no one needs to be the chosen one, either. Everyone’s in charge of finding their own adventures.

Review: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne M. Valente

I was an avid Oz reader once upon a time. I didn’t just read the first book, or the first few. I read every single Oz book L. Frank Baum put out, and they got strange toward the end. Yes, strange in the context of a world that gave us the Gump, the Cuttenclips, and Dunkiton. I read a lot of his other stuff, adventures in Mo and Yew and so forth. I hated the musical as a child because it was so dreadful to the real content of the book (less of an idealist in my old age, I now hate the movie because it’s godawful, instead). I felt about the non-Baum books the way the Council of Nicea did about the Arian heresy.

What I mean to say is that I’m well-versed in turn-of-the-century American fairy tales, and I must admit I’m impressed  that Catherynne M. Valente managed to write one about a hundred years off the usual target. (I guess it was the turn of a century. Does that count?)

I speak of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. I am of the belief that it needs no introduction, if only because it’s the kind of book you can get along with just fine without being on a first-name basis, and it won’t mind when you have to ask at the end of the evening. The internet loves it some Fairyland. If you need to know the history, Cory Doctorow will gladly tell you.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is about a little girl named September, who has read a great number of books and is a little on the heartless side. September is a brave and troublesome child with an eye to adventure who’s quite willing to hop out her window and follow the Green Wind to Fairyland, atop the Leopard of Little Breezes. There, she accepts a mission of import from some witches, befriends a Wyverary (his mother was a wyvern and his father was a library, and he sort of steals the book), develops a more complicated relationship with her shadow than is at all usual, and, well, so forth. She matches wits and swords (eh, sort of) with the wicked Marquess, who has a very fine hat and is a leading cause of harrowing quests. If that makes sense to you, you’re entirely my sort of person.

But it’s being vastly unfair to The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (I just never get tired of the full title) to present it as merely a wonderful and surprisingly late contribution to the Victorian fairy tale lexicon. It has a host of bizarre creatures and a world that’s deeply wonderful and deeply frightening and charming, verbose turns of phrase and altogether everything it would need to hang out with the works of Baum and Carol. But it’s by no means confined to those circles.

This is a great book for Valente Monsters, some of my favorite things in the world of books. Like the monsters who turned up in The Orphan’s Tales and Dirge for Prester John, most of the creatures of fairyland come right out of myths, as opposed to the critters of Oz and Wonderland, who principally came out of the author’s imaginations. I love the way Valente plays with stories, not to mention draws on a whole lot of non-European traditions. One of the book’s heroes is a very aquatic sort of marid (blue djinni being variable creatures even in their own stories) and another major figure is a golem, and there’s a pooka and any number of tsukumogami. The dreams of the whole world are solid things in Fairyland.

And everything about fairyland is pretty solid, all told. Magic works wonders, but so does plucky cleverness and clockwork. It’s a very real world, wyveraries notwithstanding, and things tend to happen exactly as they ought. Little girls who are wont to be adventuresome and difficult get to have difficult adventures.

The text of fairyland has been around a long time, as the book first came to be online, but it looks very lovely in its shiny red book. There are beautiful illustrations that really capture the tone of things by Ana Juan that mix the old Oz-ish influences with the new worlds to be found in Valente’s writing. There’s also a shiny audiobook, read by the author, which I have yet to acquire. (I know when I read it to my youngest sister, something of a September herself, the Green Wind sounds like an antebellum southern aristocrat and Saturday the marid glugs a bit, and I’ll be interested to see how well my ideas match up.) there’s an awesome little scavenger hunt of a story, “Nine Lessons from a Wyverary Governess,” with bits and pieces hidden around the internet. S.J. Tucker, who has collaborated with Valente on projects before, has already put out one Fairyland song, and there are more to come, I believe. There seems to be no end of Fairyland goodness (sequels are planned!), and thank whatever powers that be for that.

Altogether, it is my firm opinion that all things Fairyland cannot be appreciated enough, and you should go and acquire some immediately, if you haven’t already done so. The writing is top-notch, melding Valente’s always poetic language to a perfect encapsulation of the ebb and flow of a Victorian fairy tale. The characters are all excellent, from the everygirl heroine with a missing shoe to the scheming overlady. The story is everything a fairy story ought to be, all full of quests and monsters. And the world? Oh, Fairyland! I gave up on getting to Oz when I was about September’s age, I’m sorry to say. All my attempts failed and it got very discouraging. But now I’m looking out for any notably breezy leopards.