As a librarian, I am bound to respect all genres and to tell you that I will help you find whatever book it is that you want to read next. As a gift-giver, however, romance is a challenge: most romances are designed to be read only once, while I like to give books that can be enjoyed again and again. So, in choosing one for the previously mentioned Oldest Niece, we cheated, and gave her our favorite Sarah Zettel. It’s published by Harlequin, which makes it a romance, but there’s a whole lot going on outside of the romance than is typical for romances, and she doesn’t really follow the strict romance formula.
For Camelot’s Honor by Sarah Zettel This second book in Zettel’s Camelot series starts off a whole lot darker than the last one, as we begin with Elen being called off to Faerie and coming back to find that her home has been attacked and much of her family slaughtered. Her family holding is the entry point to Wales, attacked because they didn’t refuse to listen to Arthur’s ambassadors. As she rides off to Caerlyon to find help, she meets with a disguised Morgaine. Morgaine offers Elen power and training if she will follow her. As punishment for her refusal, Elen’s heart is put into a falcon, and both she and the falcon are given to Urien, the very man who slaughtered her family. Although she must obey whoever owns the falcon, Elen manages to send a dream to Merlin, asking for help. Geraint, who was one of the ambassadors, rides off with his brother Agravain to rescue her… and this is only the very beginning of the story.
As before, this is based loosely on an old Arthurian romance, in this case the legend of Enid and Geraint. Geraint has been promoted to Gawain’s brother, and Enid’s name changed to Elen. Finding a life partner for each sibling in a family is a fairly common device in romance, and it works really well here, as people new to the series can drop in without missing too much, but, as Morgaine and Arthur are still there as a major part of the background, continuity is maintained. I looked up the original story on line (easy enough to find) – and I am even more impressed with Zettel. She took Geraint and a few basic elements – the dispossessed lady, the hawk, and a tournament – and turned a fairly flat, standard tale of courtly love into a tale of struggle between deep magics, filled with powerful imagery drawn from Celtic myth. Particularly compelling are the images of the blind blacksmith continually forging an endless golden chain; and of the weeping pregnant woman pouring milk out of a pitcher that is never empty.
Now I wonder two things: how will Zettel make Agravain, the least sympathetic of the brothers, a believably attractive romantic object? And, more seriously, how will she blend the ultimately tragic nature of Camelot with the romance format, which requires a happy ending? Book three is coming out in April.
The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall This is the children’s book that I wanted to be able to give someone for Christmas, but alas! All of the nieces and nephews are now too old for this sterling piece of children’s literature. Four girls, Rosalind, Skye, Jane and Batty rent a cottage for a summer vacation with their widowed father and their dog, Hound. The cottage turns out to be on the grounds of a large mansion. The girls befriend both the teenaged gardener and eleven-year-boy whose mother owns the place. The mother, however, likes neither children nor dogs, so that all sorts of adventures occur as the children try to stay out of her way. The characters, from responsible Rosalind to the four-year-old Batty, who wears her fairy wings at all times, are all distinct and delightful. Unlike the many children’s books today that deal with serious and depressing issues, the perils of our heroines are usually resolved by the end of the chapter. I heard the author on NPR, who said that she wanted to provide the children of today the kind of refuge she sought from the real problems she dealt with as a child. This, my friends, is realistic yet escapist children’s fare at its best.