Daughter of the Forest (Sevenwaters, #1) by Juliet Marillier

Rating: – – – – –
Date read: May 1 to July 15, 2017

I’m leaning toward 4 stars overall but with lots and lots of reservations which I can’t go into without hitting on spoilers. So beware of spoilers.

This book was Beth‘s pick for May and I just finished it today. In July. I’m not even sure where she is because we kind of let it drop after hitting a wall, but I think she’s still pushing on. I’d like to say it was my fault, because I’m usually the one dropping out of buddy reads, but this time it’s a combination of bad timing and a brutal rape scene that put a nail in this buddy read.

The story loosely follows the Six Swans fairy tale and it’s set in Medieval Ireland. There are druids, magic, and mysticism, and the writing does a lovely job of setting the scene and creating an otherworldly atmosphere. We follow Sorcha, the youngest and only daughter of a lord, and her six older brothers through their lives from when they lived at the castle in the middle of a strange magical forest to when tragedy struck and tore their family apart.

I had known of the rape scene going in–it’s part of some retellings of this tale–but I didn’t know about the aftermath, that the main character Sorcha had to live with it, alone and in silence, as she was in the middle of her vow of silence that she had to make to the fae in order to save her brothers. And then her dog, her only companion, was brutally killed. How much worse could it get, right? Not much worse, but bad things did keep happening. Sorcha had to continue knitting six sweaters from nettles to save her brothers and break the curse that turned them into swans.

I don’t like fantasies featuring the fae as it is, so when this scene happened, followed by the dog’s death and Sorcha’s suffering in silence and the fae’s meddling and the nettle knitting, I checked out. It was too much and the amount of brutality seemed somewhat unnecessary. But I get it–objectively, intellectually, whatever. I get why Marillier had Sorcha suffer in silence; I understand it from a big-picture perspective and see the need to portray the aftermath of rape, but still. It was too emotionally consuming, too close to real life, so I checked out and set the book aside. Every time I picked it up, I could only get through a couple of pages, and that’s why it took over two months to get to the end.

I’m glad to have read it because Juliet Marillier’s writing is always lovely and the stories she’s telling are much needed in fantasy. They exist in that tenuous border between folktale and historical fantasy, and Marillier weaves those elements so well, but this is one of those books I don’t think I’ll revisit. And I will pass on the rest of the series too, even though I know I’ll be giving up on an amazing world rich in history, culture, and magic.

Reading this book was kind of like a coming of age experience–I appreciate it and am glad I got through it, but I’m more glad it’s behind me now.

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My first Marillier was Heart’s Blood, a retelling of the beauty and the beast fairy tale, and I loved it. I went into Daughter thinking it was like Heart, and in many ways, it is. The setting, time period, prose, magic, and atmosphere are very similar, but the amount of suffering the main character is put through is incomparable.

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Date Read: March 25 to 28, 2017
Recommended by:
Recommended to:

This book gave me chills. Still does.

I went in knowing nothing about it. I mean, I did skim some of the reviews, so I knew it was highly rated and people seemed to love, but other than that, I had no idea what it’s about or what to expect, and I had never read Patricia McKillip before.

And that was the best way to approach because the writing blew me away. It is simply SO GOOD and has a beautiful fluidity to it that makes it so easy to fall into.

What impresses me most is that the prose is neither purple nor flowery; it’s just lovely to read. There’s a dreamy, poignant, lyrical quality to it, yet it’s so easy to read and so concise. There’s not an unnecessary scene or line or moment anywhere. Every word serves a purpose, and not once during the read did I feel like the story was wandering around aimlessly. Nothing is out of place, and so much happens in so few pages. And I just love that kind of writing–purposeful and minimalistic in execution.

So what is this book about?

Briefly: Sybel, a young powerful sorceress who knows nothing of the world below her mountain and wants nothing to do with it, is pushed into the affairs of two warring sides within a kingdom when a baby is brought to her to raise.

On one side, there’s an insecure king who fears being dethroned. On the other side, there’s family of nobles who would like to dethrone the king. Their animosity toward each other go way back. Both sides want Sybel and use her powers for their own, but only one seeks out a way to break and bind her to their will. What follows is an all consuming tale of near destruction.

Well… not exactly, but that was what it felt like during the read, like everything was coming apart at the seams, and I could not turn the page fast enough.

Sometimes, after a string of bland genre picks, I would forget what it’s like to read well written fantasy, but then something always comes along to remind me. McKillip was the perfect reminder.

“What, in years to come, will you have in your life but a silence that is meaningless, ancient names that are never spoken beyond these walls? Who will you laugh with, when Tam is grown? Who will you love? The Liralen? It is a dream. Beyond this mountain, there is a place for you among the living.”

[…]

“You can weave your life for so long–only so long, and then a thing in the world out of your control will tug at one vital thread and leave you patternless and subdued.”

[…]

“Be patient. It will soon be over.”
“Soon is such a long word,” she whispered.

Review: The Last Wish (The Witcher, #1) by Andrzej Sapkowski

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Date Read: August 12 to 20, 2016
Recommended by: Milda
Recommended to:

A fast fairytale-filled book of short stories that’s just right for anyone looking for subversive retellings with a wry humorous undertone. A big thanks to Milda for the rec.

Last summer, I had an odd, several-month long fairytale craving and just had to read my fill. The odd thing about it was I was specifically looking for Beauty & the Beast retellings, which led me to that boring Court of Thorns and Roses thing. Fortunately, I branched out after that and found Beauty by Robin McKinley, which was a nice pleasant read and a throwback to the days when I used to read Robin McKinley for fun–Beauty & the Beast retellings are Ms. McKinley’s specialty; then there was Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge, which was another pleasant read and a huge surprise because it’s got the same look and feel and marketing as ACoTaR but the writing was so much better; and finally Heart’s Blood by Juliet Marillier which was so lovely and amazing and easily the best of the bunch.

In the midst of that fairytale-filled summer, there was this Witcher book that a friend recommended. Fun fact: it’s actually the inspiration for the video games, not the other way around. I didn’t know that at the start, so I think I went in expecting something similar to Assassin’s Greed but with magic and magical creatures, and that’s basically what it is. But to my surprise, there was a lot of depth to the world and characters and an assortment of mythological and fairytale creatures, and the writing was good. I’m not a fan of short stories, unless they’re part of a series I’m currently following, but I enjoyed these short episodic adventures of the Witcher’s and found that they work really well for this particular character and the life he’s led.

A witcher is a magically trained and transformed exterminator of the supernaturally wicked. He travels alone from town to town getting rid of monsters, many of which are straight from fairytales and folklore. But the world is a different place now than it once was in the time of previous witchers, and these “monsters” are no longer a threat to everyday life like they once were, some of them even live among people.

Geralt is a witcher going through an existential crisis because he is one of the last of his kind in a world that no longer needs his expertise or services. We follow him through six stories in which he has to face down and defeat something supernatural, as well as confront himself and his dwindling place in the world. Each monster makes him question the purpose of his job and life. Sounds like a downer, but it’s not. It’s a fast, adventurous read, interspersed by unsettling bouts of an existential crisis, but you know, minor details.

I don’t remember what I expected–Assassin’s Creed with magic maybe–but I know I didn’t expect the writing to have any depth or to be a lot of fun, while at the same time quietly poignant. Existential crises in a high fantasy setting can ruin everything run the risk of being too maudlin or comical or both. It wasn’t the case here. I found both the short stories and Geralt to be engaging and strangely realistic, within the context of his world but also outside of it. There’s something about him that rings true.

“I manage because I have to. Because I’ve no other way out. Because I’ve overcome the vanity and pride of being different, I’ve understood that they are a pitiful defense against being different. Because I’ve understood that the sun shines differently when something changes.”

[…]

“Justice will be done!”
“I shit on justice!” yelled the mayor, not caring if there were any voters under the window.

[…]

“The demand for poetry and the sound of lute strings will never decline. It’s worse with your trade. You witchers, after all, deprive yourselves of work, slowly but surely. The better and the more conscientiously you work, the less work there is for you. After all, your goal is a world without monsters, a world which is peaceful and safe. A world where witchers are unnecessary. A paradox, isn’t it?”

Like Geralt, I too had to spend a lot of time questioning my job and purpose in life and whatnot, etc etc. So I empathize with him on many levels. And if I had to kill monsters to make ends meet but the rest of the world no longer needed to have that done, then I’d probably empathize more.

Review: The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Date Read: June 20 to 27, 2014
Read Count: 1
Recommended by: Martha
Recommended for: horse lovers

This book is everything YA mythological fantasies should be but aren’t, at least not for me. The writing is great, the characters are memorable, and the plot actually leads to a climactic ending. There’s an actual race, not just a staring contest style stand-off. Jokes aside, The Scorpio Races is one of those books that the less you know about it the more you’ll enjoy it.

The writing is what impresses me the most. It’s better than I expected and far better than the usual stunted YA prose. The narrative is atmospheric and magical, the characters are well-developed and sympathetic, the setting is a character itself, and the water horses are angry and violent, yet strangely alluring. Every scene and every confrontation is written so precisely that the action is pushed right up to the edge without going over into melodrama. Every moment leading up the Scorpio Races takes the story that much closer to inevitable chaos and death. After reading this book, I actually felt like I’d spent some time on the cold misty shores of Thisby.

 

On to the actual story:

The time is the turn of the century and the place is the fictional island of Thisby, a hard place to survive, surrounded mostly by cliffs and rocky ledges and one long stretch of cold beach where the Scorpio Races take place every year. Nothing grows on this island, and so most families are struggling to get by. For orphans like Sean Kendrick and the Connolly siblings, life is even harder, and they’re barely hanging on. Sean is a skilled horseman and a sort of capaill uisce (water horse) whisperer. He’s a novelty on the island, but chooses to live a quiet life and plies his trade at the Malvern stables, where he trains and races capaill uisce for the Malvern family. He dreams of earning enough to run a stable of his own one day. Puck Connolly and her brothers lost both their parents to the sea some time ago. Now at the risk of losing her older brother to the lures of the mainland, Puck decides to take her chances in the Scorpio Races to keep what’s left of her family together. Since she’s the first girl ever to run in the races, she faces opposition from the “traditional” factions of the island, but she also has a few quiet supporters. The winner of the race gets a hefty cash prize, and it’s implied that he or she would be taken care of for life.

What Thisby lacks in resources, it makes up in an abundance of blood-thirsty sea monsters that only look like regular horses but have a tendency to be…carnivorous, quite carnivorous actually and unpredictable. Riders of the Scorpio Races have to either buy or catch a capaill uisce, train it (while avoid getting eaten themselves), and train it well enough so it could run in a race. For Sean, this is hardly work, but dedication and a life-long love for horses, both land and water kind. For Puck, it’s a matter of survival and obligation. Her parents were most likely killed by these things, and their deaths hang over her head every time she gets near a capaill uisce.

Puck, on her love for Thisby

I realize then that I can’t remember how it is that we found out that our parents were dead. I just remember them going out to the boat together, a very rare occasion indeed, and then I remember knowing they were dead. Not only can I not see the face of who told us, I can’t even remember the telling. I lie there with my eyes tightly closed, trying to bring the moment back to focus, but all I can call up is Sean’s face and the sensation of the ground rushing by beneath Corr.

I think that’s the mercy of this island, actually, that it won’t give us our terrible memories for long, but lets us keep the good ones for as long as we want them.

It’s inevitable for these two kids to get together. They share similar past experiences and a love for horses which only bring them closer together. But the romance, though light and implicit, takes a backseat to the races, the capaill uisce, and most of the story. Both Sean and Puck have a lot riding on the races this year, and they both have to win because their livelihood depend on the prize money, but many obstacles stand between them and the finish line, mainly jealous vindictive son of a wealthy man and Puck’s inability to handle a capaill uisce.

Puck again, on her uncertainty

I balance my cakes in one hand and take Dove’s reins with the other, leading her toward the cliffs. I think about George Holly’s comment about food tasting better in memories. It strikes me as a strange, luxurious statement. It assumes you’ll have not only that moment when you take the first bite but then enough moments in front of it for that mouthful to become a memory. My future’s not that certain that I can afford to wonder what will become of the taste later. And in any case, the November cake tastes plenty sweet to me now.

Lovely story, beautifully told.

 

I really like Maggie Stiefvater’s writing and will definitely look for more of her work in the future. I think she has a uniquely easy way with words and the story just pours off the page effortlessly. I’m most impressed by her control of the story and the ways in which she incorporated the water horse mythology into the narrative. And I like that she deviated from most YA fantasies by not letting the romance subplot take up too much time and space. It’s more part of the setting than the plot, and that’s something we don’t see much in YA.

Review: The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Date Read: June 16 to 22, 2014
Read Count: 1
Recommended for: connoisseurs of dark fantasy

A children’s book not suitable for children should be a tagline somewhere on the cover because it’s necessary.

That aside, I really like this book and John Connolly’s writing. Fairy tale retelling is one of those things I stay away from because in general these stories are either not well conveyed or they don’t bring anything new to a classic narrative or they rely too much on the existing tale and world to carry the book. Also, I find many retellings boring and predictable, not because I already know how they end, but because the writers fail to bring in new or unique perspectives to keep the tales fresh and interesting. The Book of Lost Things is different in that regard, and I think it has a lot to do with Connolly being aware of and having control over the dark subject matter in which he chose to take on.

What to expect in varying degrees: abuse, neglect, isolation, jealousy, betrayal, manipulation, despair, deadly consequences, the pains of growing up, and of course cannibalism, to keep with fairy tale traditions.

Stories were different, though: they came alive in the telling. Without a human voice to read them aloud, or a pair of wide eyes following them by flashlight beneath a blanket, they had no real existence in our world. They were like seeds in the beak of a bird, waiting to fall to earth, or the notes of a song laid out on a sheet, yearning for an instrument to bring their music into being. They lay dormant, hoping for a chance to emerge. Once someone started to read them, they could begin to change. They could take root in the imagination and transform the reader. Stories wanted to be read, David’s mother would whisper. They needed it. It was the reason they forced themselves from their world into ours. They wanted us to give them life.

The story takes place during the bombing of London. David and his parents live under the threat of war, but being a fairly young child he isn’t yet aware of the situation. He’s only aware of his present surrounding and his gravely ill mother who soon succumbs to her illness. After her passing, his father begins seeing a woman named Rose. Some time passes and they have a child, Georgie, and David and his father move into Rose’s estate outside of London to escape the bombing.

Things get worse for David after moving in as he and Rose don’t get along, he can’t stand the baby Georgie, he and his father also don’t get along and begin to drift a part, and on top of all that, he’s still struggling with his mother’s death. Not long after settling into his new bedroom, he begins hearing her voice calling him to the sunken garden out in the back of the estate, and he follows the voice a few times but finds nothing there. One night after a fight with Rose and his father, David escapes the house and makes his way into the sunken garden to be alone only to find himself in another world, trapped in a place where nightmares come to life. He must find a way to return to his world, but first he must embark on a long journey through the land of living nightmares–Elsewhere–in search of The Book of Lost Things to help him get back.

The premise is so similar to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that I’m sure many people have bought this book for a child thinking it’s basically an updated version of C.S. Lewis’ beloved tale. It’s not. If you’re thinking about getting this book as a gift (for a child), I suggest you read it yourself first. Instead of judging it by the lovely but misleading cover art and brief summary, experience the story for yourself.

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Review: Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
Date read: July 08 to 17, 2013
Read count: 1

What more can be said other than everyone should read it. At least once. You won’t be disappointed. Kay is a great prose writer. It doesn’t even matter if fantasy isn’t your thing because this book does not read like fantasy. It reads like the sort of well-written historical fiction that weaves in myths to tell the tales of a lost time. A personal favorite combination, I must admit. Also, I’m coming off of a dramatic final battle/confrontation scene… so this is a hugely biased review.

There isn’t much that can be said about this book without giving the story away, but I’ll try to sum up the foundation on which the story is built.

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Review: Grendel by John Gardner

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Date read: September, 2004
Read count: 3

One of my favorite books, by one of my favorites authors, about one of my favorite tales. Absolute favorite.

I’ve always preferred this retelling of the old Danes tale to that of Beowulf. Gardner’s prose gives this misunderstood monster a redeeming personality, a life and struggles of his own.

Original review can be found here.