The Farthest Shore is the conclusion to Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy (which was added to later). Sparrowhawk/Ged is now the archmage and he’s approached by a young prince who says magic is weakening. The two of them go on a quest to discover the truth of what is happening and set it right.
I love these beautiful little books. I think there’s something magnificent about these worlds that are conjured through these character studies hanging on bits of plot. I mean, the Kingkiller chronicle is great, but this series scratches a similar itch for the epic grand coming-of-age story without the length. Like the epic nature of these tiny paperbacks is folded in on itself, they feel so much bigger because they’re the length of a Robert Jordan prologue. It’s just great, and if you have any interest in fantasy literature there is no reason to not read it.
Every so often I get far enough behind in my book blogging I just declare bankruptcy and start fresh. This is one of those times. Here’s what I’ve read since my last book review:
The last book I read is one I really liked and will get a full review later this week.
I really liked W.D. Valgardson’s What the Bear Said: Skald Tales of New Iceland. It’s a collection of short stories about Icelanders, most of whom are living on the edge of Lake Winnipeg, but some happen back in Iceland. There are faeries and a sturgeon that looks out for the woman who saved it and good deeds going unnoticed by all but the being who matters and bad deeds being punished.
It was like a fairy tale book, but one set in the world I recognize. (I wish Mennonites had a tradition of magical tales so I could be digging these out of my own heritage. I guess martyrs’ stories are our equivalent? Lame.)
I’ve been hearing about Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind for years it feels like, but maybe that’s just because I read the blogs of writers who are friends of his. It’s a good fantasy novel that reminded me a lot of Ender’s Game, or a less postmodern The Magicians.
This is the first volume in a series about Kvothe, who is now an innkeeper named Kote, but was once much more. There’s an elaborate framing device wherein Kote is telling his story, the true story, to a Chronicler over three days. This first book is the first day of the story, and covers his boyhood to attending the magickal university. In the frame though we know that the Skraelings are being seen again and that people in his chosen hideyhole are ill-prepared to deal with them.
It’s all well-told, even if young Kvothe is a showoff asshole who has to assert his superiority at every turn. It’s a self-aggrandizing tale even as the innkeeper is trying to tell it warts and all, which is less than exciting to me. I just have a bit less patience for stories of people who are so obviously “better” than everyone surrounding them. And the flaw of pride in being awesome is an annoying kind of flaw in my books. The gender politics are really traditional, and though there are a few interesting economic interactions in the society fuelled by magic, the world doesn’t feel that fantastical.
But whatever. The story is engrossing enough, and in the end of this volume the idea of encouraging Kote to tell the story of his old self as heroically as possible is revealed to be part of the larger tale, which I found intriguing (I am a sucker for metatextual elements, I guess). This’d be a great book for a reader who’s read the Ranger’s Apprentice series and wants something a bit more sophisticated (and isn’t put off by the word-count of the tome).
The Tombs of Atuan is one of Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea books, and I have the vague feeling that it’s one she was less than pleased with decades later, which is why the main character returns in Tehanu. I confess I don’t know exactly why I think this is the case. It’s one of those things I read out in the digital wilds, I guess.
In this story, Tenar is a young girl who is raised to be a priestess of shadowy death in a nation ruled by god-kings (who are in competition with her older and more ineffable deities). She learns the ways of power and her labyrinth domain to such a degree that when Sparrowhawk the sorceror arrives looking for treasure and blundering into their traps she is in a much more powerful position than he is. But she abandons her life in the tombs and in the end she escapes.
Reading the story, I could see why LeGuin would want to revisit it later. Politically there’s a lot of reification of colonial and patriarchical themes in this story. Her backward ways are overturned by encountering the rational mage who liberates a girl who would remain trapped for all her life if he hadn’t happened along. This is happening to a heroine who’s already had her name stripped from her. I mean Tenar is a fine character but if you’re interested in feminism she’s not exactly an aspirational model.
It still strikes me oddly that I’m only reading these books as a 30-something-year-old person. I wonder why these weren’t part of my early sf education. They should be for kids today.
Peter Higgins’ Wolfhound Century is kind of a spy/detective novel mashed up with a fantastical element in a world whose moon has shattered and angels fell to earth. I liked it, but it didn’t grab my innards the way I’d hoped it would.
There are two parts to the book. The first is about an investigation in this fantasy-tinged Russian city filled with agents-provocateur, anarchists and artists. This stuff I loved. The powerful people are assholes and Lom the detective is a prototypical noir detective in this pseudo-Soviet state. It’s great.
Then it spins into something overtly mythical magical and blatant rather than tinged with magic. This big magical plot doesn’t resolve itself and I assume it’s planned as a trilogy at least. That bugs me. The change in Lom 3/4 of the way through the story also bugs me a bit. He starts off as a hard-boiled provincial detective out of his element but pursuing leads in the case he was given. By the end he’s definitely not that any more. There’s a lot of stuff that happens that undermines the “lone man against an impenetrable totalitarian fantasy state” vibe I wanted out of the book (and got from the beginning).
But it’s a decent beginning to a story that I’ll probably like when it’s all put together eventually. As it is, it’s too much of a first act for my liking.
Jo Walton’s book Among Others is a librarian’s dream book. It’s about a 15-year-old Welsh girl in a terrible English boarding school in 1979. But Mor loves science fiction. The book is about reading science fiction and fantasy and the power that these stories have. And holy shit does she read. The book is full of commentary on Zelazny and Delany and Tolkien and who might have actually seen elves and known something about how magic really was.
Because Mor’s mother is a witch. At least, she’s alluded to as being a witch. And her twin sister died trying to stop their witchy mother from doing witchy things. But Mor is not an entirely reliable narrator in this story about magic that can always be explained by coincidence.
The librarians in the book are heroes. They help Mor meet other bookish people and place countless interlibrary loans for her. It’s the kind of book that makes me happy when I fill out those forms for my library members.
I believe it won the Hugo and the Nebula awards, but a lot of that has to be because of its near complete immersion in classic science fiction which would be near to the hearts of those prize-selectors. But still. A very good book about books.
Tim Powers is one of those writers whose work I know I like, but don’t binge-read. I don’t know why. But I found a cheap copy of On Stranger Tides in a used bookstore and was happy to pick it up. It’s a story about vodoun and pirates in the waning days of the age of piracy in the Caribbean. Jack Chandagnac is a bookkeeper who is heading to Jamaica to confront his uncle (who stole his father’s fortune). He meets a young woman on the ship and then they’re attacked by pirates.
Jack becomes a magic-wielding pirate trying to save his true love from having her soul ripped out and replaced with the soul of her dead mother by her one-armed father who incidentally needs to head over to the fountain of youth.
It’s kind of awesome. If you like two out of pirates, adventure, vodoun, you should definitely take a look.
You might recognize the title from the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie. As I understand it they borrowed enough elements of the plot from this book it was easier to pay Tim Powers rather than risk weird infringement lawsuits, and they aren’t that similar. Basically I’m saying if you saw that movie and thought it was dumb, I’m more than positive the book is better. And for the love of spaghetti don’t read the novelization of the movie thinking it’s this (I don’t know if such a thing exists and definitely don’t want to link to it if it does).
Wildwood is Colin Meloy’s fantasy novel about Pru, a girl in Portland whose brother is stolen by crows. The crows take him into the Impassable Wilderness on the edge of town and Pru goes in to rescue him, along with a nerdy classmate. Within the wilderness there’s a world of talking animals and magic and politics, three nations plus bandits and coyotes and witches trying to destroy it all out of spite.
Meloy tells the story well, creating sympathetic characters who aren’t idiots. There are places where a lazier storyteller could have fallen back on cliches, but he generally avoids that kind of thing. Still, nothing feels terribly new. It’s predictable in the way an old story (or perhaps more appropriately for the lead singer of the Decemberists the way a song) is. The bandits aren’t as terrifying as they might seem, a hero is tricked but manages redemption, there’s military assistance when all seems lost.
It’s good. I enjoyed my time in the world of the book (whose atmosphere was helped by Carson Ellis’ illustrations). And though there’s a sequel, this didn’t end on a cliffhanger, so I can go about my life thinking of the story as its own little thing.
It had been a while since I’d read such a straight-up High Fantasy novel as N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. It was pretty fun. In the story Yeine is a young woman from a matriarchal barbarian tribe who is summoned to Sky, the centre of the titular empire. She is tossed into the line of succession to the not-a-throne of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and she isn’t sure why. Through the story she makes allies with gods and schemes and tries to do right by her people — all of them.
The book does interesting things with magic and the mysteries Yeine is trying to unravel. The backstory of the Gods’ War is woven in well and you do get the sense that the gods are alien beings, not just people with big egos. I’ll finish out the trilogy at some point.