Sunday, January 01, 2006

Singer in the Snow by Louise Marley

I hate it when I discover a book that catches my eye for one reason or another, then find out it's the latest in a long-running series I've never heard of. Now that I've fallen in love with Singer in the Snow, I realize half the books Louise Marley has written about the world of Nevya are out of print, or at least impossible to get at my bookstore.

This is another book where the cover caught my eye when I was browsing for something to read during my lunch break. It's a beautiful cover, a great title, and it pulls you in very quickly.

The world Nevya is set in almost-perpetual winter. The deep cold is relieved only by summer, which comes once every five years, or by the magic of the Singers. Using music, including flutes, stringed-instruments, and singing, they focus their psi to create light and warmth.

The best part of the book is that you get the feeling that Marley has truly thought through the way such a world would work. From the design of the Houses, to the governmental and social structure. It's a detail most fantasy is lacking, as most people just take a period of Earth's culture and slap it in with magic.

Singer in the Snow centers around two Singers, girls who have "The Gift" but both have large challenges to overcome. Mreen is mute, born without a voice, but with so strong a gift she literally glows with her own magic. Emle has a beautiful voice, and is very accomplished with her music, but constantly fails to use her psi to warm, light, or heal anything.

The two are paired together and sent to a House where they are basically thrust into the middle of another story, that of the apprentice hrussmaster Luke, his sister Gwin, and their abusive step-father.

Throughout the story, the children act wiser than they should, and actually most of the adults act rather poorly. That's pretty common in young adult books, but at least there are positive adult role models in Magistrix Sira, who actually is a main character from other books in the series.

One very sensitive subject the book faces head on is Luke and Gwin's mother Erlys, and her reaction and choices regarding her new husband. He's emotional, angry, and physically abusive to her. Yet, she stands by his side. This is a hard subject to tackle, and making it accessible to younger readers makes it harder. I think Marley did an admirable job of trying, but in the end, I almost feel she knew someone like Erlys and was forced to give up on them, because the woman never has a moment of growth or change.

The one point I have to make that bothered me: I hate fantasy worlds where the author just makes up words seemingly for the sake of making up words. On the one hand, there should be a fancy word for the ceremony of creating light and heat for the house (the quiranha) and yes, on an icy world there could be no horses, so a new pack animal would have to be invented.

But the words are almost forced on the reader, in a way that seems to be going "look at the thing I made up!" by putting them in italics, and repeating them over and over. It becomes almost like name-dropping when the characters say "But maybe there will be an urbear!" and you want to say to them "Hush about the urbear, you have no reason to be talking about it.

The italics are really the worst part of it all, because it makes the made-up words very painfully obvious. If they had been in regular script, introduced subtly and used only when necessary, then it would have just been a fantasy world with new animals and words to learn. Instead it felt like a vocabulary lesson.

All of that is rather easy to overlook though. While I can't say it's the best book I've read, or even the best I've read recently, I can say that I'm very glad I found this series and I'll be digging around to get the rest of them as soon as possible. I can only hope that somewhere Marley has written the story of Isbel, Mreen's mother, who in the end was probably the most fascinating character in the story, and she'd been dead for a decade before it started.
The Blue Girl by Charles De Lint

This book is a shining example of why I prefer young adult novels to "real fiction" almost any day of the week. The Blue Girl is a very good book, and a very fast read. not to mention extremly engrossing. In a "grown-up" novel, the characters would be too busy worrying about how teenagers are supposed to act to actually be acting so completly like teenagers.

The story jumps around from the first meetings of Imogene and Maxine, two girls who are very different but make fast best friends. The two characters are interesting, and each bring out different aspects of each other. The only flaw I find actually is that while Maxine's mother is a tyrant who developes other aspects to her personality, Imogene's mother is often "the perfect mom" and that gets old.

You can count her mother to always say the right thing, have the right attitude, and react the right way. While Imogene complains about her, most of the complaints are "sometimes she drives me crazy but really she's perfect." I wish she had more to her, but I guess with Imogene around there's only room for so much character.

The story takes place in De Lint's often visited world of Newford, a place where our traditional reality and "Otherworld" often intersect. I haven't read most of his other novels, only a few short stories, so some of the recurring characters don't really ring bells with me. So I admit spending half the book going "I wonder if this guy has shown up somewhere else and that's why he's written this way." There's a distinct way a character gets written if they've shown up in another book, a "cameo technique" I guess. I've never liked it.

But the story is what drives this book, and it's a good one. There's a ghost with a crush, some faeries that aren't really faeries, soul-sucking shadows, and an imaginary friend that stops being so imaginary. It's urban fantasy, and it's done well.

Maxine is actually my favorite character, even though Imogene is technically the one the story is focused on.

It's a great, light, easy, story. There aren't any deep, profound life lessons and the very fabric of the universe itself isn't in danger. But the girl's have a large challenge to face, and it changes them. In the end, that's what good storytelling is.

I actually want these characters to come back in another story, because I think Imogene could use more development. While she was very intersting, and well-rounded, she also needs a few more flaws besides "I have a dark past." Maxine's relationship with her mother could only get more interesting, and now that the girls know and interact with Otherworld, I think they'd be great eyes to view it through. They're teenagers, irreverent in their own way.

Once, when I was trying to read another De Lint book, I started to think his way of writing was almost too difficult for me to just read on an afternoon when I'm bored. Sometimes, I'm just not in the mood for something that requires too much brain power, or is written too "scholarly." This book is exactly the type of thing I wanted, and I'm very glad I found it.

Bonus: the cover is really gorgeous.