Monday, April 25, 2016

Children of Earth and Sky

by Guy Gavriel Kay.

Danica Gradek lost half her family at a young age, when their village was destroyed by allies of the Osmanli Empire, and now all she wants is to join the famous Senjan raiders to kill Osmanlis, even if that means sometimes raiding the ships of the republic of Seressa instead. Leonora Valeri was her father's favored child until she became pregnant out of wedlock, and now all she wants is to escape from the holy retreat he consigned her to, even if that means becoming a Seressan spy in the rival republic of Dubrava. Pero Villani, son of a famous painter and a struggling artist himself, wants to make a name for himself with his art, even if that means accepting a dangerous commission to travel to the Osmanli capital to paint a Western-style portrait of the khalif. Their lives become entangled with one another's when the ship carrying Pero and Leonora from Seressa to Dubrava is boarded by Senjan pirates, Danica among them. Meanwhile, the younger son of the merchant family that owns the ship is ambivalent about the path laid down for him by his family; and far to the east, a young man taken captive as a child when his village was destroyed by allies of the Osmanli Empire is raised to be a soldier for the Osmanlis, destined to march to war against the people he was stolen from.

A bare plot summary rarely does justice to a novel by Guy Gavriel Kay. His greatest strengths, I feel, are his use of language and his brilliant characterization; I always run across passages that are just so beautifully written I want to read them out loud to somebody, and I care about his characters to the extent that I generally find myself sitting up until two or three in the morning to find out what happens to them. I nearly always hit at least one scene that makes me cry.

It's particularly fascinating to me the way Kay will take a real historical setting and turn it just a little bit sideways; some of his history-based fantasies are almost like straight historical novels, without the weirdness of co-opting real historical figures to serve a fictional plot. Children of Earth and Sky has more mystical elements than some of the others set in this same universe, but the Renaissance intrigue plot doesn't depend on magic. It depends on the characters--their background, their motivations, their personalities, and their individual reactions to their circumstances--and the characters are so beautifully drawn and so true to life that I sat up until two in the morning to find out what happened to them. 

Many thanks to NetGalley and the Berkley Publishing Group for providing an advance copy! The book will be out May 10, 2016.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Deryni Rising

by Katherine Kurtz

When King Brion of Gwynedd is murdered by a sorceress with pretensions to his throne, his young heir Prince Kelson must rely on Duke Alaric Morgan, a member of the same race of sorcerers, to help him access his own kind of hereditary powers in time to face the pretender Charissa's inevitable magical challenge. However, the widowed Queen Jehana devoutly believes that all occult powers are intrinsically evil, and that to save his soul, her son must rule without magic--even if that puts his life at risk. And Jehana is well aware that to save Kelson from the taint of magic, she must first remove General Morgan.

Over at the blog that I like so much, Judith Tarr is doing a detailed reread of Katherine Kurtz, and I jumped at the excuse to pick these up again. I first got hold of Deryni Rising when I was fourteen (the same age as Kelson, which did not escape my notice), and I fell hard for Kelson and Morgan, not to mention Morgan's aide Lord Derry. I read the books over and over as a teenager, and I'm so steeped in the history and mythology of them that it was really hard to write a short paragraph of summary without going into the whole saga of the Deryni Interregnum, Haldane Restoration, religious persecution of the Deryni, the family tree of the Festillic Pretenders, and the hagiography of Camber of Culdi, patron saint of Deryni magic.

However, before the current reread began I hadn't picked the books up in at least ten or fifteen years, and reading the first one again after that long is a little odd. I still remember the plot and the characters, and even some of the dialogue, really well, so on one level it has no surprises for me. But maybe because of the length of the hiatus since my last reread, or maybe because I'm now older than nearly all the named characters (and considerably older than the author was when she wrote it), I have been able to read it with a more critical eye.

I can tell, now, that it's clearly the first novel of a fairly young writer. And it's a damn fine first novel, but there are some clunky bits--repetitious sections, a main character who inconsistently acts far younger than his actual age and life experience should warrant, another main character who consistently acts far older than his age. My favorite rookie move is that several times the action stops dead for a detailed physical description of a person or a place when the viewpoint character logically should be too familiar with both the faces and the floor plans to pause for an inventory at that moment. One such passage comes right out and says something like, "Morgan allowed himself to take in the familiar surroundings," just as if Morgan wasn't really stressed, exhausted, and pressed for time just then!

And I can't really argue with LeGuin's point that the prose could just as well have been lifted from a modern political thriller; she's right, it doesn't sound like Elfland. But here's the thing: as Tarr points out in her own remarks, these books aren't aiming for that. The Chronicles of the Deryni are historical fantasy (and have a good claim to be progenitors of that whole genre). We're not in Elfland here! The Eleven Kingdoms, of which Kelson's Gwynedd is one, are human kingdoms populated by thoroughly realistic human beings, even if some of them are quasi-humans with innate magical abilities. Homo sum, as Terence said (and it's a book in this series that introduced me to that quotation): humani nil a me alienum puto. There is nothing alien about the hearts and minds of the Deryni.

So yes, I still love this book. Even knowing the story as well as I do, I fell right into it again (and leaped ahead of the pace of the reread to finish it and go on to the next one). It's still my benchmark for high fantasy taking place in anything like a historical setting.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Over Sea, Under Stone

by Susan Cooper

Simon, Jane, and Barnabas Drew come to Cornwall on a summer holiday with their parents and their great-uncle Merry, a noted historian. While exploring their rented house on a rainy day, they find a hidden door leading to a neglected attic, and under a floorboard in the attic Barney comes across a mysterious manuscript, written partly in faded and obscure Latin, and partly in a language none of them can read. They don't want to tell their parents about it, as that would probably mean it would be taken away from them on the ground that it belongs to the owner of the house and they shouldn't disturb it; Barney in particular, having recognized the names of King Arthur and King Mark amongst the Latin, is adamant not only that the manuscript represents a quest but that the quest is theirs and no one else's. Fortunately Great-Uncle Merry is in a different class of grown-up, and not only supports their right to follow the map, but translates the instructions for them and watches over them when other parties start to show too much interest. Then Merry is decoyed away, and the children are left to follow the clues and avoid the competition on their own.

Of course the one I really wanted to read over the Christmas holiday was the second in the series; the summer vacation described in the first book was thoroughly unseasonable, and it was hard to feel too bad about Barney's sunburn. I seem to remember that this was another series where as a kid I read the second book first, and I don't think it matters much until you get to book three or four, but I'm not sorry to have started with the first in the sequence this time.

It strikes me that although both are thoroughly worthy of their beautiful Folio editions, this is probably a better book than The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. That one is a perfectly good and entertaining children's book, but I was aware the whole time I was reading it that as an adult, I was not the intended audience. I had the same feeling reading The Box of Delights, by John Masefield, a few weeks earlier; I never got hold of that one when I was a kid, and I couldn't help feeling that I'd have liked it a lot better if I had. Now, I have nothing against children's books on principle; I hold that a good story is a good story no matter where in the library it happens to be shelved, but there are books kids love that don't necessarily hold up well for adults.

And there are children's books that don't condescend, that adults can also read again and again and get more out of them every time because you bring more to them.  Over Sea, Under Stone and the rest of its series are like that.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase

I can already tell that 2016 is going to be a year of rereading. I used to do a lot more of that than I have done recently; when I was a kid I would read favorite books over and over, but somehow in recent years I came around to the idea that I have less time to read now, so any time spent on a book I've already read is just time taken away from all the fabulous new books that I claim I've been looking forward to.

I suspect it's closer to the truth to say that the time I spend on video games is just time taken away from rereading the books that I love, and that reading those books again would make me happier than getting a new campaign high score in Kingdoms of Middle-Earth.

I'm putting it to the test this year. In the first two weeks of January I've already reread four books. Granted, one was because I'd simply forgotten I already read that one, so it might as well have been new to me, but the other three I loved as a kid.

On New Year's Day I reread The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, by Joan Aiken.

I actually stumbled across the second book in that series first, at the library where my mom took me to stock up on books every Saturday. I forget now why I picked up Black Hearts in Battersea; probably something to do with the Edward Gorey cover. Looking back on it I think this may have been my first introduction to the concept of alternative history, though at the time I wasn't familiar enough with the history of England to notice what was different about the Hanoverian pretenders.

When I realized that there was an earlier book in the series, I thought that because the library didn't own that one I would never get to read it. I had never heard of the concept of interlibrary loan back then, and in any case, I was the kind of library patron who makes me really sad now that I work in a library: if I couldn't find something on my own, I gave up instead of asking the librarian for help. I'm not sure what I thought the librarians were there for, but I didn't want to bother them.

Imagine my shock when I subsequently stumbled across a copy of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase on a bookshelf in my own house. Apparently it had belonged to one of my older siblings, and though I had cheerfully read their copies of Winnie the Pooh and Black Beauty and The Adventures of Robin Hood, I had overlooked this book year after year. Probably because it didn't have an Edward Gorey cover.

It's a simple enough story: the orphaned Sylvia comes to stay at Willoughby Chase with her rich cousin Bonnie just as Bonnie's parents, Lord and Lady Willoughby, depart for sunny foreign climes for the sake of Lady Willoughby's health, leaving a distant relation, Miss Slighcarp, as Bonnie and Sylvia's governess. However, Miss Slighcarp has nefarious plans to take over the estate; she promptly dismisses the servants, sells off the furniture, and ships the girls off to the kind of boarding school that makes Jane Eyre's school look like a holiday in the south of France. With the help of Simon, a boy who raises geese at Willoughby Chase, Bonnie and Sylvia run away from their school and make their way to London, where they hope their aunt Jane and Lord Willoughby's lawyer can sort everything out.

I wasn't as thrilled by it all as I remember being as a kid, but it was still a thoroughly enjoyable story, especially Bonnie's frequent displays of temper. There's not much alternative history in this one, aside from the fact that in the early 1800s there's already a Channel Tunnel, and wolves from northern Europe have used it to recolonize the island of Britain. The actual starving wolves are a constant lurking presence in the first half of the novel, but it's the metaphorical wolves that pose the real threat.