What can I say? I like fantasy. Here’s three new books and an old favorite. All but the old favorite are intended for adults, though I think the last one has universal appeal.
The Famous Flower of Serving Men by Deborah Grabien Did I enjoy this book? I stayed up past midnight – with Mr. Froggy Pants asleep on my lap – which is certainly a measure of enjoyment of sorts. The novel is the second of a series which turns traditional English ballads into mysteries/ghost stories. As in, the characters of the original ballad are now uneasy ghosts, and the main characters need to solve the mystery and find out who the people were to lay the ghosts to rest. This one was based on The Famous Flower of Serving Men, a ballad I’ve always enjoyed, where a woman is treated badly, but starts a new, successful life for herself and gets revenge in the end. I must not have been thinking too clearly past that – a scaredy-cat like myself has no business checking out ghost stories. And even less, as a new mother, when the trauma involves a new mother’s husband and baby being murdered in front of her. Also different – if you know the ballad, the source of the haunting is clear from quite early on, so the mystery revolves around how to appease the ghost, not in who or what the ghost is. The resolution of the story was also dissatisfying: after the ghost was established as being horrible and scary, resolving it as basically just a good person who’d gone a little crazy didn’t work for me. She’s supposed to be evil and I’d prefer that she stay that way. In spite of these flaws, the main characters, the director of a small theater troupe and her musician/restoration expert boyfriend, were quite likeable and the story compelling.
The Singer of All Songs by Kate Constable OK, this is another teen fantasy, though I read it before the teen fantasy project at work. Calwyn is a novice in a small matriarchal kingdom ruled by nuns, learning the chantments of ice. One day she finds a fugitive who made it over the wall of ice that protects the nuns, and she joins him in trying to stop the man who would become master of all nine Chantments. It’s the first of a trilogy (I’m not surprised, as fantasy books seem nearly always to come in trilogies.) I liked the world, obviously pagan and easy to slip into, and the sweet teen heroine. If you’re in to this kind of fantasy, you’ll enjoy it; if you’re not, this probably isn’t the book to convert you.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susannah Clarke This book got starred reviews in every journal I read, even for the audio version, though I was not about to attempt to listen to a 900 page book in a three-week loan period. It has a fascinating conceit: it’s Napoleonic England in a world where magic exists – maybe. Most of the people who call themselves magicians are only theoretical magicians, studying the deeds of the great magicians of the past. Only two men claim to be practical magicians, and they aim to restore the reputation of English magic by aiding in the war against Napoleon. The whole book sounds as if it were written by Jane Austen, if Austen had written fantasy. The first hundred pages or so were hard to get through – Mr. Norrell is not a sympathetic character, and Jonathan Strange is not introduced until later in the book. The language, while delightful, makes for slow going – it took me a full three weeks to get through the book, approximately three times as long as usual. But the story is compelling, the concept novel, and the descriptions of the fairy gentleman and his kingdom downright creepy.
Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones Once upon a time, in a kingdom far, far away, a girl named Sophie lives with her not-so-wicked stepmother and her two younger sisters. She’s resigned herself to a dull existence, because everyone knows that youngest sisters are the ones with the adventures. Then the Wicked Witch of the Waste comes into her hat shop and turns her into an old, old woman. Sophie decides that being nice is for the young, moves into the evil Wizard Howl’s castle and starts terrorizing him. It’s not a new book, but it is terribly funny and well worth reading.