12.26–Shadowfell

12.26–Shadowfell

Remember how I said the next blog would be about the Doctor Who book? I lied.  I just couldn’t get into that one while I had a Juliet Marillier book waiting to be read.  So, today’s blog is about her latest novel for teens, Shadowfell.  While I much prefer the depth and challenge of her novels for adults, I still felt the satisfaction that I always get from reading her novels.

This novel is set in a fictional land called Alban–one that much resembles Ireland in its landscape and its lore.  It once was a place of happiness and beauty, but a tyrannical king named Keldec has turned it into a place of suspicion, fear, and death.  He has clamped down on his kingdom with an iron gauntlet, forbidding his people to use their “canny” abilities or to question his rule.  Anyone who shows the least sign of magical talent is hunted down and brainwashed to enter Keldec’s service. Every autumn, bands of his Enforcers scour the land, rooting out rebellion or canniness and burning down entire villages for the sins of one.

Neryn is a 15-year-old girl who has been on the run for years, ever since her grandmother and brother were murdered by Enforcers and her canny abilities made her a prize for Keldec’s cause.  Neryn’s powers are more than just keen sight or musical ability.  Neryn can see and speak with the Good Folk, and Keldec wants her bent to his will, for anyone who controls Neryn holds a powerful weapon–the power to harness the spirits and magical beings of the land of Alban itself.  Neryn must find a hidden, legendary stronghold called Shadowfell–a haven said to be safe for people with magical abilities or rebellious leanings.  She is aided on her journey by a mysterious and stony-faced stranger, who she has great difficulty trusting, and her powerful Good Folk friends.

Everything that Marillier writes is infused with the magic and mystery of folklore. Her prose is stunning in its loveliness.  She constructs beautiful plots that always entail a heroine who must find her courage and undertake a journey most girls would shrink from.  They also always end with these girls finding love in strange and unexpected ways.  This novel was no exception.  From what I can recall, it is the first novel she’s written that isn’t set in the world we know.  Alban is a mythical land with its own geography, history, and lore. However, like I said, this lore very closely resembles Irish folklore, and it’s for this reason that I was mostly in fits the entire time I was reading.  For those that don’t know me, I’m absolutely obsessed with Irish folklore, and being in Ireland this summer and getting to learn about it first-hand was pretty much a dream come true. But I digress.  The beauty with which Marillier writes about this lore, the magic of the land, the land itself, and love, are all things that make me adore her writing.

Of course I struggled to find flaws with the book. It was predictable, sure, but I couldn’t tell if it was because I know her body of work so well, or a genuine lack of creativity.  Somehow I very much doubt that it’s the latter.  And there were parts that surprised me, pleasantly and not-so-pleasantly.  Ultimately, I was once again awed by her writing.

Her characters are always pleasing. She often blurs the line between good and evil, and when it comes to the Good Folk, she never really clarifies that line. They are, rather, mostly neutral, choosing to remain aloof of the petty squabbles of mankind. Until, that is, they affect the fate of the Good Folk as well, and that is very much the case in this novel.  Though they are beautiful, elusive, and powerful, they are also arrogant, most of them believing they are better than humankind (and rightly so).  Neryn, however, does manage to form a bond with a few of them, and earns the grudging respect of others.  Always, they are the self-possessed, regal beings that they always are in Marillier’s body of work, and I receive the most delight in reading about them in all of her novels.

The only thing that bothered me was the ending. Being a teen book, and therefore, naturally, a series, it did not have a true ending. It bothers me when authors do not wrap up a book well, leaving the reader impatiently waiting for the next installment of the story. It is, perhaps, my biggest pet peeve in writing. Still, I will anxiously await the next chapter in Neryn’s journey to free Alban from its tyrannical king.  Other than that, it was a delight to read, and I recommend it highly, as I do with all of her books.


12.25–Labyrinth

12.25–Labyrinth

For those of you hoping I’d be reviewing the David Bowie movie or something along those lines, I’m sorry to disappoint you! No, this is definitely a book.

The novel jumps back and forth between 2005 southern France, and the same location in the 13th century.  Alaïs and Alice are the same person living in two entirely different times–Alaïs in the ancient past and Alice in modern France.  While volunteering at an archeological dig, Alice discovers artifacts in a cave that launch her on the path toward her destiny–a picture of a labyrinth painted on the cave wall, a stone ring, and the skeletons of two people long-deceased.  The story then takes off almost like a Dan Brown novel (a bunch of baddies going after an ancient and mystical secret and leaving a huge trail of bodies that somehow no one really notices), centered around several things, namely the quest for the Grail and the Inquisition in Europe.

In part, it was this that confused me. I didn’t particularly enjoy the novel that much, and now that I think about it, it may have been the fact that I couldn’t pin down a central focus.  The jacket text makes it seem as though it’s more about the persecution of a sect known as the Cathars in France in the 13th century, who were considered heretics by the Catholic Church and were hunted down and burned.  In reality, this is merely setting for the shadowy, secretly-embarked-upon quest for the Grail, the truth about which is known by a very small group of people.  I suppose, though, that there was too much detail about the Cathars, and it got confusing keeping track of who wanted to kill the main characters because they were heretics, and who wanted to kill them because they were the protectors of the Grail.  There was too much conflict coming from every side, and it made me go cross-eyed.

It was a decent story, but I didn’t love it.  Alaïs and the people in her time were well-written and interesting, but Alice and the modern counterparts of the people from the past were somewhat lame.  Alice herself was a bit of a bimbo, and I didn’t really feel her personality matched all of the actions she was required to take.  If it had been real life, she would have been the first to give up her secrets and die…just saying.  The bad guys, with the exception of maybe one, were also kind of…not scary.  There was no moment when I was like, “Oh no! They’ll find the Grail first!” or “Oh no, he’s actually going to kill that dude!”  It was more like, “Ok, I know exactly where this is going…” and I ended up being right.

Overall, I thought the premise and the period in history about which Mosse chose to write were interesting and unique.  I appreciated that about the novel, at least.  But the rest of it–plot, characters, believability–all fell flat for me and made it difficult to get excited about picking up the book and reading more. And those are the most important parts of the books, so that super stinks :/ Sorry guys! Hopefully the next book will be a humdinger! It’s about Doctor Who! How could it not be?

I cried when I found out he was married


12.21–The Princess Bride

12.21–The Princess Bride

After years of wanting to read this book, I finally got around to it! Sadly, it was the e-reader version I bought when I was going to Ireland and planning on not buying books/lugging books in my backpack (which I did anyway).  This was the first real e-book I’d ever read, and it really took away from the reading experience. I cannot stand them! It also took me five months because I didn’t want to pick up my stupid phone and “read.”

Anyway, the book was pretty good, but I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I thought I would.  I know I’m going to get a lot of flak for this because a lot of people love the book as well as the film. Since everyone has seen the movie at least 500 times, I won’t go too deeply into the synopsis.  Everything that happened in the film happened in the book, though obviously in much more detail.  A few include:

My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.

The dialogue in the book is fairly close to that of the film.  You get a lot more backstory on all the characters though. Much more on Inigo, for instance. The reader is privy to the death of his father.

Mawage

This guy was actually written with that hilarious speech impediment that we all love to imitate.

Here is the kiss that blew all other kisses away.  Don’t you just love them?

Ok, enough of that.  The novel is a lot more political than the film. Goldman writes as if he has simply abridged the narrative of the famous S. Morgenstern, the Florinese author who wrote The Princess Bride as a political and social satire. This gets really confusing at times.  Of course, the reader figures Goldman’s asides are also fictional, but he is extremely convincing, mostly because he tells anecdotes from his own life and the events leading up to his decision to abridge the old text.  He screws with reality  throughout the book and it frustrated me at times. It did, however, make it memorable.

I was really impressed that the movie was so close to the novel. I suppose that’s because Goldman worked on the movie too.  But the dialogue, especially the most famous lines, were almost exactly the same.  It gave the novel the same whimsy and frivolity of the movie.  The story, too, is the same we know and love, though more in-depth histories and rivalries of Florin and Guilder are present.

If Goldman had ended it with the escape of Westley, Buttercup, Inigo, and Fezzik from Prince Humperdink, it would have been the perfect ending.  However, there is the epilogue, or sequel (I’m not sure which), called “Buttercup’s Baby.” It’s a stupid name, for one.  Secondly, the plot is ridiculous. It plays with time entirely too much.  And it goes virtually nowhere. Also, there’s a pseudo-sex-scene between Westley and Buttercup and it sort of shatters their image of youthful and pure romance.

In the end, I did enjoy it, simply due to its similarities to the film that I adore.  But there are things that distracted from the story itself and I really wished they hadn’t been there.  While it was a clever way to write the novel, and I’ll admit I’ve never seen anything like it before, it was still fairly irritating at times.  I gave it 4/5 stars on Goodreads, but only because I felt guilty for rating it any lower. However, no matter the weird narrative, The Princess Bride will always hold a special place in my heart.

 


12.18–The Lady of the Rivers

12.18–The Lady of the Rivers

I am such a huge fan of Philippa Gregory. I just think she is the bee’s knees.  The Lady of the Rivers is the third book in The Cousins’ War series, which follows the War of the Roses. This novel is the prequel to The White Queen–the first of the series.

Jacquetta is a descendant of Melusina, a river goddess, and therefore possesses special gifts–namely the second sight.  An early experience with Joan of Arc and her untimely demise gives Jacquetta a life-long fear of using these gifts, though she is occasionally ordered by her sovereign to do so.  Her marriage to the Duke of Bedford and her early widowhood yield her great privilege throughout her life, but also put her in great danger as England’s political cauldron boils over into chaos.  Standing by her side through all of these troubles is her second husband Richard Woodville, who she married for love, and her innumerable children.

Philippa Gregory does extensive research on all of her novels and this one is no exception.  Jacquetta was a real woman whose life occurred right at the beginning of the War of the Roses. Gregory became fascinated by this relatively overlooked woman and expounded on her story.  As ever, I am astounded by Gregory and her capacity for creating beautiful stories out of minor characters from history.  Jacquetta is an easy heroine to love.  She does all she can to protect her husband and children during this dangerous period in English history.  She is a close friend and confidant of Margaret of Anjou, the wife of King Henry VI.  Henry comes to the throne as a boy and never quite becomes a man. He is always naive, and Margaret is no help in that vein.  Jacquetta and Richard attempt to herd them in the right direction, but the monarchs’ petty quarrels with the Duke of York evolve into all out war within their lifetime.  Jacquetta, thrust very close to the throne by circumstance and some family meddling is caught in a vise from which she cannot escape.  Her instinct for self-preservation and diplomacy make her one of the most admirable women in the court of Gregory’s creation.  She is gentle and loving to her husband and children, and sweet to a fault with the queen.  The fact that she’s descended from a goddess and possesses supernatural powers is just a bonus.

The love between Richard and Jacquetta had me burning with envy throughout the entire novel.  As with Gregory’s other books, The Lady of the Rivers spans a very long period of time–from Jacquetta’s childhood to her twilight years.  Richard loves Jacquetta from the moment he sees her as his lord the Duke’s new bride until his death decades later. Though they spend much of their life apart, their passion never fades and neither of them strays from the other.  Each time they are separated, Jacquetta is frantic for his safety, and they fall into each others’ arms like young lovers on his return, even after she has borne him 14 children (ouch!).  In a genre in which it seems like everyone sleeps with everyone (at least according to our favorite juicy historical fiction) it is really refreshing to read about a couple that is still happily devoted to one another.

Gregory’s novels can sometimes be a bit repetitive, especially in this time period.  She does a lot of jumping forward in time, and skims over events that she deems less important to her stories.  During this war, the power switches sides a lot, and everyone accuses everyone else of treason.  Though a lot of people cry foul on each other and it can seem rather trivial and petty, Gregory does a fine job of reminding the reader that this situation is constantly life-and-death for Jacquetta and her family.  It adds tension to the story and keeps the reader engaged despite the repetition.

This is by far one of my favorite Philippa Gregory novels.  Though I try not to read books in a series right next to each other, I may have to go pick up The Kingmaker’s Daughter, just because this novel left me craving more of her writing style.  Definitely read it!

12.17–A Clash of Kings

12.17–A Clash of Kings

This novel, in case you don’t know, is the second in the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin.  By no means as interesting as the first, much of it feels rather like filler.  It takes a very long while for the events to get moving. For a novel that’s 969 pages long, reading through 400 pages in which mostly nothing happens is pretty difficult.  Still, the events of the latter half of the novel make pushing through the first part worth it, and I very much look forward to starting the next novel.

As ever, the story of the Seven Kingdoms is told from multiple third-person points of view, following a large number of different characters.  One of the most frustrating things about this series is the sheer number of characters (I believe I read somewhere that throughout the series of five books so far there are over 1,000 named characters).  Their names are unusual and some of them are very similar, making it extremely difficult to keep track of everyone.  At times I only followed the story based on some vague concept of a person’s character–this man is bad, this woman is benevolent, this man can’t be trusted, this one can be bought for gold–instead of attempting to memorize all the names. It helps to read the appendix at the back, and keep referring to it as the novel progresses.

I will say this for Martin: with his main players he takes a great deal of care, crafting them into multi-faceted, many-sided characters.  My favorite in this novel is Tyrion Lannister, a witty man whose lack of brawn has turned him into a clever schemer–the man who really controls the country, though from the shadows so that no one knows it. Arya, my favorite in the last book, lost most of her spunk for this one, though she gained it back at the end to reclaim her place in my heart. Sansa, whom I hated in the first novel, certainly earns the reader’s sympathy in this one, as her mad betrothed, Joffrey, abuses her horribly, both emotionally and physically.  Cersei Lannister and her son Joffrey are both evil to the core–Joffrey a spoiled, mad child who has been given a crown, and Cersei the mother who will do anything to protect her son and see him hold on to the Iron Throne.  Each of these characters, and the others, evoke specific emotions within the reader, and once the chapter ends and we don’t know how soon we’ll see them again, there is a little bit of disappointment.  I’ve considered skipping ahead to the next chapter belonging to a character I’m particularly interested in, but I know that by the time the novel gets around to that next chapter, so many things have changed that nothing will make sense.

The plot moves swiftly and the fortunes of characters change in a flash.  In this novel, as in its predecessor and presumably its sequels, nothing is certain–life or death, good or evil, victory or defeat.  Even when it looks as if a battle can have only one outcome, Martin surprises us with some new trickery.  With five kings vying for one throne, and two more self-styled monarchs eyeing the throne from a distance, there is no well-defined line in the sand, no clear hero for which to cheer.  In this, Martin creates realism far beyond what most authors will do.  These people could be walking around in an alternate universe, where fate does not always favor the noble or the good.  Though the world he created is very thorough, complete with topography, geography, history, religion, language, culture, and the previously spoken-of characters, it is this ability of his to not give us the happy ending we want that truly brings the story to life and makes it believable.

Though I did not enjoy this novel nearly as much as the first, I still had difficulty putting it down, especially the nearer I drew to the end.  The simmering pot of the Seven Kingdoms explodes into a boil, and it gets to be a very exciting read.

12.5–The Pillars of the Earth

12.5–The Pillars of the Earth

As promised, a review on a bestseller. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett is fantastic. It took me forever to read because it’s nearly a thousand pages long and I worked 12+ hour days all last week. What time I didn’t spend working I spent sleeping, so I did not accomplish much on the book. Still, I read every spare moment I had, including the ride to work and a little bit after shifts when I should have been sleeping (more).  It was fantastic, and I hated putting it down as much as I was forced to last week.

To give a synopsis is an incredibly difficult task, as the novel is long and covers almost the entire lifespan of the characters.  The entire plot is based around the construction of a magnificent cathedral at Kingsbridge Priory in England.  There is no end to the political intrigue and clerical corruption, and the lines between good and evil are very clearly defined.  William Hamleigh, the most notorious baddie I’ve encountered in ages, is an ever-present destructive force, and repeatedly obstructs the process of the cathedral and the happiness of the good characters. Among those we root for are: Prior Phillip, Tom Builder, Ellen (Tom’s wife), Jack, and Aliena.  Tom especially is a character that invites the reader to love him. He is strong and sweet and honorable, though perhaps a little too naive and trusting at times.  Ellen and Aliena are strong women who blaze their own trail, and are smarter than most of the men around them.  Jack inherits Tom’s sweetness and gentle strength, and becomes one of the most lovable characters in the entire novel.  All these characters’ stories begin apart from one another’s, and Follett slowly brings them together to entangle them irrevocably.

Follett’s characters are well developed and beautiful.  His plot is intricate and masterfully crafted.  I was disappointed, however, with the slight predictability of it.  Please do no misunderstand. I adored this novel and wanted to read it every spare second I had, even if I only accomplished one page.  But I found myself being able to predict what would happen, or at least that something would happen.  I understand that an author must do things to keep his novel interesting–one cannot fault Follet for that.  Still, the pattern of up, down, up, down, up, down was a little too formulaic and regular.  I found myself frustrated that the characters I loved could not simply settle down and find happiness.  None of the evil-doers were given what they deserved! I wanted William Hamleigh to die painfully and shamefully, but this hope was repeatedly foiled.  Follet kept me on the edge of my seat, but half the time it was out of anger and the desire to see the enemy brought low.  I have mixed feelings about these emotions he evoked in me.  One the one hand, they made me mad, but on the other, they kept me engaged in the story and enticed me to learn more. Perhaps this is the mark of a truly masterful author?

Another thing that did very much impress me was his research and knowledge of the time period about which he is writing.  I learned so much about medieval life, architecture, and engineering.  I learned what I flying buttress is! I had no idea that early cathedrals were thick, stocky structures with tiny windows.  Nor did I ever think about the origins of stained glass.  Sounds nerdy to get excited over such things, perhaps, but I’ve never denied the fact that I’m a nerd.  Any new opportunity to learn something about history or the development of humankind and its technologies, especially if it’s in the form of narrative, is welcome to me.  I truly enjoyed this book not simply for its plot, but its heavily researched descriptions and its ability to teach me something new.

If you can take on the daunting task of reading through 983 pages of minuscule text, I highly recommend this book. It has a little bit of everything: history, romance, drama, violence, corruption, and the enduring promise that good will always trump evil, even though the odds seem impossible and hope is often lost.  A great read, and well worth its popularity.  Thanks to Lauren for bumping this up to the top of my reading list!