Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Chalice by Robin McKinley

Robin McKinley's name always catches my eye at the bookstore, but try as I might I've never really fallen in love with her the way so many of my friends have. I didn't enjoy Sunshine very much, and while I found Deerskin to be an enjoyable book, I can't say that it was one that I'll pick up again and again either.

Of course, it was her name that jumped out at me when I saw Chalice at the bookstore too, but it was the beautiful painting on the cover that convinced me it was worth at least reading the inside flap. This didn't seem to be yet another fairy tale retelling, but instead a new world with it's own magic and characters. That finally convinced me to give it a try.

The highest praise that I have for Chalice is that the book takes all the things that I disliked about Sunshine and does them perfectly. It is again a first person narrator, but Mirasol is likable and interesting. She has important things to say and new observations about her surroundings. She learns and changes as the story progresses, but still retains the things that make her a good person and an admirable heroine.

Another thing that Sunshine attempted but didn't quite manage was resisting exposition about the world the story takes place in. Rae spoke matter-of-factly about the things in her life that we would find different and strange, because she didn't find them different or strange. When you use a first person narrator who is supposedly telling their story to a contemporary audience, then they wouldn't explain things that might confuse us because to them it's normal. If I were writing my own life's story right now, I wouldn't stop to explain or describe what a blog is, or email. These things are part of our world and it's taken for granted that everybody knows what they are. If I grew up in a world where man-eating ferns were a way of life, I wouldn't stop to say, "Now, the ferns...they ate people." I would just say, "I almost got caught by a fern that night."

In Chalice, this particular literary style is done exactly as it should be. While we get most of the information about what a Chalice is and how the system works, we're never treated to a history lesson or a flat explanation. Mirasol talks about listening to the "earthlines" but we're never told what they are, who can hear them, or how they work. We find out what we need to do when the earthlines don't behave as they should, and cause a catastrophe.

We learn what a Chalice does because Mirasol is new to the job and afraid she isn't doing it correctly. But because Mirasol is our narrator, we really only learn about the role of the Chalice, and a little about The Master because they are directly linked. But there is an entire political structure, a Circle of people with titles and tasks, that we never really learn about because it doesn't concern Mirasol at the time. What does Talisman do? Or Weatherauger? On the one hand, I desperately want to know, but on the other, if the book had told me it would have rang false.

The story itself is compelling, and it moves at a very fast pace. It isn't told in a strictly linear fashion, because it is more of a memoir, so it jumps from one occasion to another depending on what Mirasol would be remembering or trying to explain. This means that we start with a bit of mystery, some intrigue, and some brilliantly planted moments that come back again and again as the story progresses.

The only qualm I might have had with the book is that is very much a love letter to honey and beekeeping, which I'm sure some people will greatly enjoy. Since I personally don't like the taste of honey, that didn't grab me the way it was probably meant to. But, I have to say, the descriptions of the honey itself are so vivid and enticing that it made me wish that I loved it as much as McKinley seems to. I think that's a testament to the writing.

Chalice is easily the best book by McKinley I've ever read, and one of the best books I've read in a very long time. I hope that she returns to the world, the politics, and the magic system that she's created here so that I can learn more about it, even if she doesn't return to this particular set of characters.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Princess Ben by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

I first noticed this book because the title caught my eye at the bookstore, and the jacket design reminds me of Gail Carson Levine.

The book is a bit reminiscent of Gail Carson Levine, but for an older audience. It's the perfect book to give girls who loved Ella Enchanted so that they can stretch their reading skills, though there is a bit of violence that some parents might be wary of.

Let me get this out of the way: I adored this book. I'm going to be buying it as soon as I have money again. I finished reading it and immediately went back and reread my favorite parts.

Princess Benevolence is one of the best fairy tale princesses of YA literature. She makes a point of saving herself as often as she can, though sometimes her version of saving herself only lands her in more trouble than before. She's lived an indulgent life, but never before realized just how cushy her life has been.

The best thing about Ben though, is that she starts out behaving in rather unlikeable ways. Because she is the narrator, you're able to see what she thinks of her previous behavior, so instead of deciding to dislike her based on her actions and behavior, you continue reading to see how and why she transforms. And because you see the reasons behind her behavior, you know that she is just trying to remain herself as her aunt tries to reshape her into a perfect princess, so you're willing to cut her slack.

But when she has an opportunity to hear the unvarnished truth about her behavior from an outside witness, Ben wakes up and starts to see what her actions are costing both herself and her country.

I'll not spoil any more of the story here, but Ben takes her future into her own hands admirably. There's a lesson here, though it's not shoved in your face. It's a book where a young girl finds that obstinately "being herself" at all costs isn't what being an adult is about, but facing responsibility with maturity and grace. She finds that when she opens her mind to new ideas, that her aunt's instructions actually aren't as horrible as she assumed and serve a good purpose.

The other point to note, is that Ben consistently remarks on her own weight. Actually, her obesity is a very important point to the story, because her aunt's anger at her over eating are what leads to Ben's imprisonment in the tower, where she encounters her magic for the first time. Ben's relationship with others is mirrored in her relationship with food, and in the end, though her trials cause her to lose weight, she is quick to point out that she will never be described as slim, and that no man she'd ever want to meet would be able to put his hands around her waist. She just simply gets more feminine curves.

On the one hand, part of me feels like the story skirts just this side of condemning larger girls. There's something about the fact that Ben doesn't even accept herself until after she loses weight. But on the other hand, the book does a good job describing her relationship with food, and has some rather astute observations about emotional eating. Somehow, it manages to describe her overeating without falling into all the typical disparaging cliches. I identified with her, and her struggle. And I admire Murdock's choice to keep Ben overweight even after her transformation. Though there's a short section about Ben convincing people not to be superficial that seems a little preachy, it's message is true.

This book is downright fantastic. There are some throw away references to classic fairy tales (a pea under a mattress, trading magic beans for a cow, a enchanted sleeping princess who must be woken with a kiss) they aren't the focus of the story. This isn't really a retelling of a story, it just is a more realistic take on that world, which I appreciated.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Twilight Child by Sally Warner

The other book I picked up was one I just ran across on the shelf. I read the inside flap and decided to give it a shot. Twilight Child by Sally Warner is another story dealing with faeries and other mythical creatures like brounies and selkies. It was a book that delved into the history and mythology of Finland, which is not really a topic I would have come up with for a novel but it is a fantastic book.

The main character has the rare ability to see and speak to the mythical creatures she encounters, and because she crosses into many lands she meets several types. But they aren't the focus of the story, instead it is her journey from her homeland into Scotland, and the tale of how she lost her family and the land she loved.

Eleni is a good heroine for girls to look up to, though she can be a bit of a Pollyanna, looking for the best in everyone to a fault. The only fault I could find with the book is that it spends a lot of time with her voyage from Finland to Scotland, but then her time in Scotland seems to pass too quickly and with not enough detail. I wanted to know so much about all the people who help her there, but they don't get fleshed out nearly as much as I'd like. The book could have easily had an extra 100 pages to make these characters more alive and the plot wouldn't have had to change.

But I would still say that it is a good book for people who love fantasy novels to pick up, even if it is a bit off the beaten path.

The Ruby Key by Holly Lisle

I've decided to spend the summer at the library, because I honestly believe that the best cure for writer's block is reading. I also think my writing and my imagination have suffered lately because I haven't been reading as much lately.

For the first trip, I just browsed the YA section and picked up two books that looked promising. The first, The Ruby Key, is one I'd wanted to read for a while. The author, Holly Lisle, is a personal favorite of mine. I've had the pleasure of meeting her once, at a rousing Technicon a few years ago. I enjoy her work, and I think that The Ruby Key might be the best book of hers that I have ever read.

The world she creates is so beautiful, so layered, and so complete, that I felt at home there almost instantly. I admit, I don't actually enjoy stories about faeries all that often. I thought the series that contains Tithe (by Holly Black) was pretty enjoyable, but so many stories about the fae are about the courts and the politics. Court intrigue and politics don't really catch my attention most times.

But this novel didn't really have that problem. It had all the best things about faerie stories, and even some court intrigue, without any of the things that I normally find tiresome. I devoured it, refusing to go to bed until I'd finished it. When I got to the library the next day and a copy of the sequel, The Silver Door, wasn't readily available I got upset because I wanted to know so desperately what happened next.

I also want to add that I was very happy to find a story that had a cat who exhibited all the best and worst things about cats that I love. I'm very much a cat person, and the cat in this book was one that I'd love to sit and talk to. There were quite a few lines in the book that I think any cat person would love, so I would heavily recommend it to them.