Thursday, January 27, 2022

Waking the Moon

Elizabeth Hand
Completed 1/27/2022, Reviewed 1/27/2022
4 stars

The last Hand book I read was Winterlong, almost eight years ago.  I liked it.  Now I’ve finally read what’s considered one of her best works, and loved it.  It has its problems, but I found it to be a fast-paced, well-written, well-conceived fantasy/horror story with mythology, cults, and a whole lot of gore.  I liked the fact that it had a female heroine and baddie.  And there was a great lesbian supporting character that weaves in and out of the story as well.  This book won the 1995 Otherwise Award and the 1996 Mythopoeic Award as well as being nominated for a few others.

The book begins with an ensemble cast of characters, though Sweeny is the protagonist.  She’s a freshman at a prestigious religious university in D.C. in the mid ‘70s.  Everything is pretty normal until she stumbles on the male-dominated Benandanti, a cult devoted to preventing the rise of an ancient destructive goddess.  Then she learns that her two best friends are the goddess’ chosen ones.  

That’s a short synopsis, telling you only what happens at the beginning of the book.  But to go further gives away too much.  The story actually spans twenty years, from college days to middle age of Sweeny and her friends.  A lot happens in the first half and actually could have ended there, but it continues to a rousing climax two decades later.  

I really liked Sweeny and her friends.  It reminded me of my college days and the eclectic group I hung out with.  Sweeny herself was really well-developed.  The story is told from two perspectives, third-person omniscient, and first-person Sweeny.  So we really delve into Sweeny’s personality.  I also really liked Annie, the lesbian roommate of Sweeny’s friend Angelica.  She was a bit stereotypical, wearing camo pants and sleeveless flannel shirts, but she was also a successful singer/songwriter and her getup became part of her image.  Some of the Benandanti were a little stiff, but still believable.

The big problem I found with the book is the battle between the evil patriarchy and the evil matriarchy.  There’s no healthy middle ground.  One has to win, the other has to lose.  To me, that’s a very patriarchal way of looking at things, black and white, rather than something inclusive.  Perhaps if this book were written today, Hand would have found a better grey area with which to resolve the story.  

That’s really too bad, too, because there’s a great amount of goddess anthropology and archeology that’s discussed in the book.  Hand goes into great detail about the Minoan culture and its influence on the Greeks and Romans.  It is suspected that the Minoans were goddess worshipers and the male gods were an import from the north.  While the Greco-Roman pantheon is drawn upon for a lot of fantasy and of course is the most well-known, the Minoan culture is only barely known.  I found it to be interesting and well-integrated into the story without coming across as too academic.

As for the gore, yeah, this book is a bloodfest.  It’s kind of a slasher film in print reminiscent of Clive Barker and early Stephen King.  And there’s bestiality and giant insects and human sacrifice.  This book is definitely not for the faint of heart.  At the same time, I thought it was all wildly entertaining.  I think this book would definitely make a good movie.  

I give this book four stars out of five, mostly because it was a highly readable thrill ride.  It does slow down for a while in the middle, but I didn’t find it boring.  The anticipation of how the plot would resolve was simply great.  I’m a little more inclined to explore more Hand in the near future after reading this book.  

Monday, January 24, 2022

Ombria in Shadow

Patricia A. McKillip
Completed 1/23/2022, Reviewed 1/23/2022
4 stars

I love McKillip.  Her stories are always rewarding.  Of course, I’ve only read her award winners, but I have no doubt I would like many of her others.  This is my fourth in this challenge and it’s another four-star novel.  This one combines art and magic with a shadow world beneath main one.  Every so often, a transformation occurs and events seem to be lining up so that another is on the way.  It’s very creative and simply told, though the politics and the plot’s climax are complex.  This book won both the 2003 Mythopoeic and World Fantasy Awards.  

When the Prince of Ombria dies, leaving only a five-year-old son Kyel as heir, the evil great aunt and sorceress Dominica Pearl positions herself to rule as regent.  She discards the Prince’s mistress Lydea and threatens his adult bastard nephew Ducon with the death of Kyel if he tries to interfere with her reign.  There are other cabals which want the throne and want to Dominica, Kyel, and/or Ducon dead.  In the underworld of Ombria, there is another sorceress, Faey, who is rather apolitical, making spells, potions, and poisons for whoever can pay.  Someone from one of the cabals purchases a poison from her to kill Ducon.  Faey has a ward, Mag, who was made of wax.  Mag wants to save Ducon from this fate.  Through her quest, she brings Lydea and Ducon together to try to find a way to protect Kyel and somehow eliminate Dominica.

Yes, the summary probably sounds very complex.  It is a lot of political intrigue, not something I usually like, but found, well, very intriguing.  I think it’s because the characterization is terrific and drawn superbly right at the beginning of the novel.  I immediately felt sorry for Kyel, Lydea, and Ducon and wanted them to win.  Kyel is adorable.  Lydea was an innkeeper’s daughter with no hope for a future outside the palace.  Ducon is the artist, trying to keep his head low with his charcoal, chalks, and paints.  Mag is also great character, strong and determined, as she learns to think for herself, though her decisions are not always the best.  Dominica, aka the Black Pearl, is deliciously evil and you hate her from the start.  These characters suck you in to the plot right off the bat and keep you going right up to the thrilling metaphysical ending.

The prose, as I’ve come to expect, is marvelous in its economy.  I never felt like McKillip was spending too much time on flowery description.  Yet she builds a marvelously complex world of shadow and light.  It reminded me a little of China Mieville’s The City and the City and a little of Neil Gaiman’s “Neverwhere” (which I read before writing reviews).  But McKillip makes the world her own.  

I give this book four stars out of five.  I think what I liked most about it is that the bastard, the waxling, and the mistress become the family none of them ever had, caring, loving, and protecting each other in the direst of circumstances.  Even Faey the sorceress comes into play in this ragtag family of misfits.  I also liked how McKillip used the power of art as the doorway between worlds.  At first you feel that it’s Ducon’s hiding place, but then you realize that it’s his superpower.  

I have one more McKillip book to read in my Mythopoeic/WFA reading challenge, and I can’t wait to get to it.

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Cards of Grief

Jane Yolen
Completed 1/22/2022, Reviewed 1/22/2022
4 stars

This book is the first of two Mythopoeic Award winners by Yolen.  I read the second, Briar Rose, just over two years before this one and really liked it, despite its disturbing setting.  I also really liked this one.  It’s sort of a science fantasy, mixing the two genres.  Yolen does it superbly, creating a narrative of a planet of people who grieve being studied and interfered with by Earthlings.  The prose is lovely and the culture that Yolen creates is amazing.  She wrote this story when she herself was grieving after the loss of her father who had lived with her and her family at the end of his life.  This book won the 1985 Mythopoeic Award.

On a distant planet is a sole small continent inhabited by the survivors of a global flood.  Their culture is based on the grief from this tragedy.  It is said that when they stop grieving, the world will end.  The story begins with the Queen telling an Earth anthropologist the story of the finding of Linni, aka the Grey Wanderer.  She is a child prodigy in writing grief poetry.  She becomes the Queen’s Master Griever.  The book shifts between transcripts, so the story continues via an interview with the succeeding King.  He tells the story from his perspective (I won’t go into all the shifting perspectives).  Then the Earthlings visit the planet and the anthropologist commits the grievous act of interfering culturally with native peoples.  But it takes the successive interviews to fully extract what really happened. 

The form of the book takes some getting used to.  As the Queen and the King only tell truth, even if it is only their truth, the narrators are unreliable.  Even Aaron the anthropologist has blurred memories of the incident because of his being drugged.  It is a tale of lies and betrayals.  It bounces back and forth between these narrators as well as the transcripts from Aaron’s court-martial hearing.  

The world-building is pretty phenomenal.  A world of grieving as a lifestyle is quite inventive.  It has a ritualized euthanasia.  Sex is constant as males are only fertile for five years, particularly for the queens who try to bear daughters anyway they can in this matrilineal government.  There’s no real concept of father as a result.  

The characters are pretty well developed with the demure and profound Linni being the main character.  She only narrates one small portion of the story at the very beginning.  We really learn of her through the other narrators.  Aaron is also interesting as the young and naïve anthropologist.  He maintains his innocence of the charge of cultural interference and only learns the truth of what happened at the end of the book.  I felt a lot of empathy for both these characters.  The Queen and King are both very conniving and it is hard to like them.  They are fleshed out pretty well too.  They are not simply the bad guys in this story, but have much more depth than you’d expect.  

I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s pretty great story telling, reminiscent of the different perspectives of the same tale as Kurosawa’s film “Rashomon”.  I was surprised by the book considering this is a Mythopoeic winner though it leans a little more heavily on the science fiction side.  However, this whole culture based on grief is really amazing with its history and rituals.  Yet the book isn’t really depressing.  I guess I viewed it anthropologically, as a matter of fact rather than emotionally or morally.  But it can be cathartic as even I reflected on the experiences of grief in my own life.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye

A.S. Byatt
Completed 1/20/2022, Reviewed 1/20/2022
3 stars

This book contains four short stories and the titular novella.  They are all fairy tales.  The short stories are more or less traditional, the Djinn story has a modern setting.  I liked a couple of the short stories but felt the others were meh.  For the most part, the prose is terrific, which I’ve come to expect after reading (many years ago) her Booker Prize winning “Possession” and the short “Matisse Stories”.  Some of the stories, though, just didn’t work.  This book won the 1998 Mythopoeic Award.

“The Glass Coffin” is sort of a traditional fairy tale.  It features a traveling tailor looking for work.  He comes across a man in the woods who offers him one of three items.  The item he chooses, a glass key, sets the tailor on an adventure which features a sleeping woman in glass coffin.  It’s not simply Sleeping Beauty, but a little more complex.  I liked this story.

“Gode’s Story” follows a sailor who is obsessed with a miller’s daughter.  He offers to marry her after he returns from his next voyage.  When he returns, she refuses because she hears a little thing dancing.  She continues to refuse him and the story escalates to a tragic ending.  While well written, I didn’t like it, not because it was too dark, but because we never find out the why of the little thing dancing.

I liked “The Eldest Princess”.  It was sort of a variation on Red Riding Hood, as well as other woods stories.  The eldest princess goes into the woods to find something, but she realizes that she will fail, as will her younger sister, leaving the youngest sister to accomplish the task.  She decides to take matters into her own hands and is rewarded in the end.

“Dragon’s Breath” was kind of strange.  It was about a quiet town living beneath a non-volcanic mountain that suddenly starts oozing lava.  However, it looks like there are six giant worms coming down the mountain, devouring everything with fire.  Three siblings who feel they never have excitement in their lives finally get some.

“The Djinn…” is the modern tale.  It’s about a renowned woman who studies the art of storytelling.  She goes to a conference in Istanbul where she comes across a type of bottle known as the Nightingale’s Eye.  Even though it may be a fake, she buys it, and low and behold a djinn appears when she washes it.  Somehow she is not surprised and takes her time trying to make intelligent wishes.  

The basic premise of this story is good.  My biggest problem with it is that it was as academic as the main character.  We hear a large part of her presentation on a Chaucer story, as well as that of one of her colleagues.  We also hear her keynote speech at a different conference.  It becomes meta as these speeches analyze fairy tales.  Her relationship with the Djinn reflects some of the lessons learned by these analyses.

I also wasn’t fond of the writing style of this story.  It felt muddled and over-descriptive with lots of repetition of words.  I got that this was what was in her head, her way of thinking and processing, but I found it really annoying and sometimes difficult to follow. 

I give the book as a whole three stars out of five.  All the stories captured the essence of fairy tales.  It’s just the execution of a few was not pleasant.  “Djinn” could have been a five-star story if it weren’t for this.  Instead, it was just meh.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

When Voiha Wakes

Joy Chant
Completed 1/17/2022, Reviewed 1/17/2022
3 stars

This was an interesting read.  I had a lot of trouble getting into it.  In the middle, I kind of finally got into the main plot.  Then I loved the last forty pages.  This is a short book, only 160 pages, and it takes most of it to the get the punch it packs.  It’s basically a love story in a world where men are only meant for the crafts (pottery, carpentry, etc.) and women do everything else including govern.  Most importantly, music is not valued, and is not seen as a viable craft for a man.  It’s set in the same world as Red Moon and Black Mountain, but it is a self-contained story.  It won the 1984 Mythopoeic Award.  I don’t believe it was so good to win an award, but there are no other nominees listed for that year.  I checked the Mythopoeic Society’s website and for 1984, it says that the other nominees are not available.  I would have liked to have seen who else was considered that year.  

The story is about Rahike, confidante of the Queen and Younger Mistress of the small city in which she lives.  She finds a lover in Mairilek, a potter apprentice who is not good at his craft.  Before they were lovers, he gave her money to buy him a musical instrument when she went on one of her travels.  She brought him back one which he learned to play.  When they connected, he played music for her which moved her immensely, but was complicated, and she didn’t understand it.  She became the subject of gossip, fostering music in a city where music is not appreciated and not seen as a viable craft for a man.  So she must choose: keep him here where his soul may starve as a general laborer since he’s a terrible potter, or let him leave for where he can become the music master that she knows he is.

The story raises interesting points about identity, music in society, gender roles, and fear of change.  Chant weaves them into the story nicely, not really bashing you in the face with them.  I liked how she played with gender roles.  Women wore pants while men wore kilts.  The objectified men wore jewelry, flowers, and kept themselves shaven to look boyish.  At one point, Mairilek asks Rahike if she would have loved him if he weren’t beautiful.  I appreciated that it was done cleverly and made me chuckle often.  She handles the other issues the same way, making it very realistic and often tongue-in-cheek.  

Unfortunately, I felt the characters and dialogue were wooden, suffering from the same problems as Red Moon did.  I did like the main characters, but it took me an awfully long time to get warmed up to them.  And it took me a long time to get the characters and places straight in my head.  Like in Red Moon, Chant’s names and place names mostly begin with just a few letters, this time, R, K, M, H, and T.  And if they don’t begin with them, they have them in the name.  

The world building was hit or miss.  The religion of the people is thrown at you early on.  Voiha is one of the goddesses.  She sleeps and dreams, and things won’t change until Voiha wakes.  Hence the title.  I thought it was clever, I just didn’t like how it was written.  And I never got a good sense of the locale.  The book begins with a caravan, which makes me think of a desert, but they don’t live in a desert.  And the houses have porches, though I never got a sense of how the houses really looked otherwise.  If all this was explained in the beginning, I missed it while I was struggling to get into the book.  Where the world-building really succeeded was in the culture of this city: the matriarchy, the oppression of the men, and the disdain for change.  

I give this book three stars out of five.  Although I really liked the ending, I thought it took too long to get there.  The beginning and the middle just weren’t that interesting.  The book had the feel of a golden age of sci fi pulp novel of the fifties, but for fantasy.  It had some strong points, but didn’t hold my interest for far too long into it.  And for such a short work, that spells trouble.  

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Breath and Bone

Carol Berg
Completed 1/16/2022, Reviewed 1/16/2022
4 stars

This concluding volume of the Lighthouse Duet was much better than the first, Flesh and Spirit.  I think it’s because the first book was a lot of setup while this book was mostly action.  The plot moved along pretty rapidly, with the main character bouncing in and out of the fae realm.  I’m much more impressed with the author, particularly her imagination.  It wasn’t a traditional tale of faeries and the situations in which the characters found themselves was very different from many of the books I’ve read recently.  I now see why this duology won the 2009 Mythopoeic Award.  It’s creative, exciting, and very complex.  

Warning:  The plot summary has spoilers for the first volume.

The story picks up with Valen being sold into the service of the notorious Oriel, the Bastard Prince, potential heir to the throne.  Oriel is very much feared as a powerful sorcerer, delving into its evil side.  Valen discovers there’s more to Oriel than meets the eye and daresay, becomes his friend.  At about the same time, Valen discovers that he is part pureblood, part Danae, that is, faerie.  He enters the tutelage of this Danae uncle, Kol, to help him embrace and grow into that part of him.  There he learns of the mystery of why the world is on the brink of destruction and works in both realms to fight the evil that is trying to destroy everything.

Valen is still the narrator in this book.  He’s a terrific character, battling his addiction to the dangerous drug navet, while learning to be a decent person in both realms.  He’s intelligent and passionate.  He learns to put aside resentment and do the right things.  I really liked him in this book.  I also liked all the other characters.  That’s a big statement, but by the end of the book, I realized how much I empathized with almost all of them.  They really grew between the two books.  The exceptions were his abusive father and alcoholic mother.  The evil characters were also well developed.  They weren’t just one-dimensional baddies, they had depth to them.  I have to say that I’m really impressed with how Berg could juggle so many characters without making them flat.  

The world building continued to be terrific, particularly the land of the Danae and its relationship to the real world.  One plane overlays the other, but it’s not confusing.  The magic system is done really well.  I think it helped that Valen only had some magical ability and Oriel only used a bit of magic in the book, so it didn’t get too complicated.   

I give this book four stars out of five.  It was very close to being five stars, but I didn’t get as emotionally involved as I do other books of that rating.  Nonetheless, I was swept away by the grandeur of the story, reading most of the book in two days.  I definitely recommend this series.  It’s smart, funny, well-crafted, and well-written. 

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

The Firelings

Carol Kendall
Completed 1/12/2022, Reviewed 1/12/2022
2 stars

Another mixed bag of a book.  This one is considered young adult; some even consider it children’s lit.  I felt like I was the wrong audience, even though I usually enjoy books for teens and even younger.  I didn’t connect with it.  I eventually got caught up in the plot, but not really the characters.  The writing is kind of okay and the concept is okay, but that’s about it.  Despite winning the 1983 Mythopoeic Award, it hasn’t lasted in popularity.  And I’m not sure if should.  It was just kind of okay.

The story follows several Firelings (who I think are teens) as the volcano on their island, known as Belcher, shows signs of an impending eruption.  In the past, they sacrificed a young person to appease Belcher.  The last time this happened, they sacrificed a child with webbed toes and some Firelings think this was not acceptable, which is why Belcher is at it again.  So they become intent on sacrificing the teen who should have been selected those years ago, Tacky.  But maybe there’s an alternative: escaping via the Way of the Goat.

Tacky wasn’t that interesting to me, nor was his friend Life, probably the two main characters of the book.  The character I liked most was the shaman’s young assistant, Skarra.  He had low self-esteem from the abuse he took under the shaman and hadn’t really even learned much yet.  But with Life’s help, he very slowly comes into his own.  I also liked Joke Eye, the mother of the little boy who was sacrificed five years before.  She has a statue of her son Hulin which she talks to, pretends to feed, and interacts with it and her family as if he is still alive.  The character is sad but colorful.  

You’ve probably noticed the strange names of the characters.  They all have strange names, as do the places in the story.  And there are a lot of made-up names of things.  This all was very confusing for most of the book.  The person names and place names could have been interchangeable.  This book was a prequel to another book by the author and I wonder if I would have been better introduced to the names in the first book.  Instead, it made my head swim.

The world building was okay.  Every part of the island had a name.  The land features resembled a person from above, so Belcher had eyes, a nose, a mouth, arms, and legs.  The author also had glyphs and illustrations of goat hides with the glyphs which was nice.  

I give this book two stars out of five.  I didn’t really like it.  I thought the writing left something to be desired.  There could have been more descriptions of the places and the Firelings.  While there was some, it didn’t create a world or very realistic people.  When I looked at the other nominees, I was shocked that this book beat Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “The Mists of Avalon”, as well as eight other books.  Even though I haven’t read it, its celebrity and respect are much greater.  And I bet Bradley’s prose is much better.  I’m betting it won because it was much different than most of the previous winners, having nothing to do with magic or faeries.  

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Flesh and Spirit

Carol Berg
Completed 1/9/2022, Reviewed 1/9/2022
3 star

This book was kind of a mix for me.  I thought many of the parts were excellent, the world building, the prose, the characterization, the narration, but as a whole, I found I didn’t care for it.   I had a sine wave of interest, liking parts and not finding other parts interesting.  The premise is good, a man with the gift for magic hides in a monastery as the world around him seems to be collapsing.  The world is getting colder, the harvests are failing, and the sons of the deceased king are at war.  There’s even some kind of angels or faeries weaving in and out of the story.  Nonetheless, it left me a little cold.  This book is part one of a duology that won the 2009 Mythopoeic award.  

Valen is a twenty-seven-year-old pureblood, that is, from a family that can wield magic.  He’s also a drug addict, self-medicating for a strange affliction which causes him seizures and intense pain.  He keeps his identity hidden as he has run away from home and is eking out a life in various ways.  The book begins with him being left for dead after running away from the losing side of a battle.  He’s found by monks from a monastery who take him in, giving him sanctuary, medical attention, food, and rest.  He says he’ll join the order, though he’s only using it as a temporary place to hide from the world.  There he finds multiple mysteries.  When the war comes to the monastery, he is in danger of being discovered as first, a deserter, and two, as a pureblood.  Purebloods need family approval before joining a religious community.  

Valen narrates the story, which is interesting because he has a learning disability; he can’t read.  Letters are a jumbled mess of inkblots.  But he has an amazing memory, which he has developed to help him pass as literate.  His character is really well-developed.  Besides the illiteracy, he’s the black sheep of his family.  He fought his responsibility as a pureblood since childhood.  As a result, he was abused by his father and siblings and ignored by his alcoholic mother.  He even refused to develop his magical abilities, remembering only how to do the basic divination.  He has a book of maps which his crazy grandfather gave him, a book with spells to find hidden places of the Danae, the angel- or faerie-like creatures of this world.  He tries to downplay it when he is found by the monks, but the Abbot knows the significance of the book.  Valen spends the whole story carefully balancing lies with the truth to stay out of trouble and give himself the ability to hide and split whenever the situation calls for.

The other characters are pretty well-developed as well, particularly some of the monks.  The young Jullian is wonderful.  He’s twelve, and quite full of insight and passion.  When he begins to find out the truths about Valen, he becomes distant and sullen.  Valen’s family also shows up later in the story.  They are all haughty and antagonistic toward him.  You fully get it as you come to know Valen and his past choices.  

The world-building is quite amazing.  The world is on the brink of collapse.  Everyone believes it is the end of times.  Two of the three sons of the dead king are warring for the throne.  The third, the Bastard Prince, has aligned with the god of the Underworld, mutilating the bodies of the dead soldiers and stealing their eyeballs, which is tantamount to condemning their souls to the hell.  There is a mystery pretender to the throne, but we do not get much info about that.  It just adds another level to the complexity of the succession.  While all this is going on, a radical evangelical group has emerged calling for the purging and purification of anyone who does not worship their particular god.  They go about burning and murdering the non-believers, the religious, and the purebloods.  

The prose is also exceptional.  It is descriptive without being overwhelming.  And being told by Valen, it rolls naturally off his tongue.  It goes hand in hand with his characterization.

Despite all these positives, I often found the story plodding.  It might be because this book is mostly a setup for the second volume.  Reading other reviews, people compare it to setting up a chessboard while the important action takes place in the second book.  Since both books won the Mythopoeic Award as a duology, I’ll be reading the second as well.  I’m hoping that the other reviewers are right.  I feel pretty invested in the story and would like to see how it all works out in the end.  I give this book three stars out of five.

Wednesday, January 5, 2022


Neil Gaiman
Completed 1/3/2022, Reviewed 1/3/2022
4 star

This is a lovely fairy tale by one of my favorite authors.  It’s another adventure in the faerie realm, as many of these Mythopoeic winners are.  It’s a short book but leaves a delightful taste on the reading palate.  It has the warm prose of most of Gaiman’s shorter works.  In fact, this reminded me of the style of one of my favorites, The Graveyard Book.  This one is an adult fairy tale, though it is also found in the YA section of the library.  I saw the film version many years ago, for which I’m grateful because I didn’t remember a thing about it.  I had no preconceptions going into this book.  So I was surprised and delighted by it, enjoying it on a cold, rainy day off from work in bed under a couple of quilts.  This won the 1999 Mythopoeic Award and was nominated for the Locus Fantasy award as well.

The town of Wall is so named because it contains a wall that separates it from the faerie realm.  There is a gap in the wall that is guarded so that no one passes into the realm from human world.  Only once every nine years can people pass through, when a faerie market sets itself up on the other side.  Tristan is a boy who is in love with Victoria.  One night, they see a shooting star and Victoria promises Tristan his heart’s desire if he brings it back to her.  It landed in the faerie realm, but his father bargains with guards who lets Tristan through.  It turns out that the star is not just a rock.  Together he and the star must travel back through the dangerous realm while the star is also being pursued by a witch and fighting princes.  

Despite this being a short book, it’s easy to fall for the gentle, naïve Tristan.  He easily falls for the more worldly Victora and courageously sets out to find the star.  He doesn’t know his true parentage, though we the readers are let in on that secret early.  So he knows his way around the realm without knowing why.  He cares about the star even though she hates him, even saving her life once.  He handles himself throughout the journey with a simple graciousness that is just adorable.  

The prose is simple, but lovely.  The book is an easy read, yet produces wondrous images in your head.  Gaiman’s ideas for this book were inspired by the art of Charles Vess, and I believe there’s an illustrated edition with art by Vess.  I’ll have to pick this up one day.

This being such a short book, I don’t have too much to say other than it is a wonderful, light escape from the everyday.  It was the perfect book to read after Little, Big, which was brilliant but ponderous.  I give this book four stars out of five.  I recommend it to just about everyone who likes a good fairy tale, and it’s a must read for any Gaiman fan.

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Little, Big

John Crowley
Completed 1/2/2022, Reviewed 1/2/2022
5 star

The first book of the year may be my favorite for the year.  I was a little concerned going into it because I was a little mixed in my feelings toward Crowley’s Ka and thought I might be getting the same style, this time for over 500 pages.  Well, it was kind of the same style: amazing, sprawling prose with a complex, sprawling narrative, and only a little plot.  Actually, lots of little plots that wove in and out of each other.  But this book really blew me away.  While the prose was overwhelming at times and the jumping back and forth in time often confusing, I found the experience to be exhilarating.  This book won both the 1982 Mythopoeic and World Fantasy Awards and was nominated for slew of others, including the Hugo and Nebula. 

The basic plot is straightforward.  Smokey, an anonymous guy who makes his way from the suburbs into the big city, falls in love with a rural woman, Daily Alice, from upstate.  He marries her and becomes part of a Tale, one in which generations of her family have interacted with the Faerie world in both subtle and overt ways.  Later, their son goes to the big city to make his fortune.  There he falls in love with a woman who eventually disappears.  As time goes on, the great Tale of the family seems to come to a close and their ultimate fate is revealed.

There is so much more to the story, though, than the plot.  There are a ton of characters, mostly Daily Alice’s children and close and distant relations.  The book also goes back to the meeting of John and Violet, the founders of this faerie influenced family, and comes up to the present.  At first, it’s all a little overwhelming.  Fortunately, there’s a family tree at the beginning of the book that you can refer to help you with all the people.  Despite there being so many characters, I thought their development was quite good.  I empathized with both Smokey and his son, Auberon.  This is probably because they saw themselves as outsiders, which is an easy role for me to identify with.  Daily Alice was a little distant, but I think that was intended as she is the one with the closest faerie ties in her generation.  I really liked her sister Sophie and her Great-Aunt Cloud.  I think I liked them because they tried to make sense out of their family using a bizarre card deck, sort of like Tarot, peering into the past and the near future.  Despite their use of the deck, they were both the most grounded of the people in the family.  

One of the main characters is the house they live in.  It’s an architectural wonder: five houses built into each other in a sort of star shape which itself is at the center of a pentagram of five towns.  The number of rooms, steps, floors, etc., is like a calendar.  Inside is like a maze.  It also seems to be the doorway to the faerie realm, although generally, everyone tries to ignore the coincidences.  Even when one of the babies is replaced with a changeling, it is little discussed.  

There is also a rather peculiar subplot with a distant relation to the family.  A woman who is a powerful wizard tries to find out about a strange charismatic man who seems to be headed for the White House.  I have to admit that was the storyline that lost me.  I had to look up the plot details on Wikipedia to figure out what she and this man were about.  It didn’t ruin the story though, and tied in with the family as time went on.  

This was quite a long book, but I was happy to discover it’s written in long chapters with lots of titled short sections.  It didn’t make reading it seem as laborious as I thought it would be.  The physical trade paperback edition is oversized and has a small font.  When I got it from the library, I thought it would be a two-weeker.   I also think this would be a tough book to listen to.  There are times the prose goes on and on.  It’s beautifully lush, giving great insight into the characters minds and emotions, not just landscape descriptions.  But I think it could be confusing because of it.  That’s just my opinion.

I give this book a resounding five out of five stars.  It has a huge cult of fans and a legion of detractors, so it has mixed reviews on sites like Worlds Without End and Goodreads.  The biggest complaint is that it doesn’t seem to go anywhere and is hard to follow.  I think the thing to remember is that it is a rambling multi-generational saga that pulls you into the uncertain nature of the world of faerie, beginning in the 1800s and ending in an alternate near future, told in exquisite detail, almost like a character study but with lots of characters.  It’s a book that you must read with intention.  It cannot be picked up for five minutes here, five minutes there.  Every time you sit with it, you have to give it time and space.  I thought it was superb, drinking in every sentence, every phrase, even when I wasn’t sure what exactly was going on.  I loved how it ended even though I wanted it to keep going.  This book ranks up there with Digger as one of my favorites of the Mythopoeic winners.