This is a new feature I’ve been considering doing for a while – talking about a small portion of a book and why it works (or doesn’t perhaps in some cases).  For my inaugural post, I’m going to discuss the first chapter of the book I am currently reading and why it works.  What it does so well is setting up the book as being not-quite your traditional high fantasy novel and really making the characters involved interesting immediately.  This book is Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly, which was recently re-released as an ebook after being out of print for a while (along with several other books by the author).  It was originally published in 1986 and is the first book in the Winterlands series. (Note: I’ve actually seen the publication date listed as everywhere from 1985 – 1987, but I went with the date listed on the author’s website.)

In the first chapter of Dragonsbane, we are introduced to two people who are not your traditional fantasy hero and heroine – and not just because they have two very common names that are easily pronounceable, Jenny and John.  First, we are introduced to Jenny, a witch of rather mediocre powers.  Yes, you read that right – Jenny is not the most powerful magic-user in the land but actually not very powerful at all.  She’s also 37 years old instead of in her teens or early twenties.  Nor is she beautiful or even particularly noble as is shown when she defeats some bandits no thanks to Gareth, her would-be rescuer.

When Gareth startles some bandits, Jenny is forced to fight them and feels obligated to use her magic to finish one of the dying men:

 

Jenny sighed, feeling suddenly cold and weary and unclean, looking upon what she had done and knowing what it was up to her yet to do. She knelt beside the dying man, drawing the stillness of her magic around her again. She was aware of Gareth’s approach, his boots threshing
through the dew-soaked bindweed in a hurried rhythm that broke when he tripped on his sword. She felt a tired stirring of anger at him for having made this necessary. Had he not cried out, both she and this poor, vicious, dying brute would each have gone their ways . . .

. . .And he would doubtless have killed Gareth after she passed. And other travelers besides.

She had long since given up trying to unpick wrong from right, present should from future if. If there was a pattern to all things, she had given up thinking that it was simple enough to lie within her comprehension. Still, her soul felt filthy within her as she put her hands to the dying man’s clammy, greasy temples, tracing the proper runes while she whispered the deathspells. She felt the life go out of him and tasted the bile of self-loathing in her mouth.

Gareth is rather disturbed by this, but Jenny accepts it even though she didn’t like it. As soon becomes evident, living in the Winterlands isn’t easy and it’s all about survival.  It’s complicated, this line between morally right and self-preservation.

When Gareth recovers from his shock over Jenny’s actions, he comes to the realization that as a witch Jenny should have done something far more spectacular such as casting fireball, blindness, or polymorph.  So he asks Jenny why she didn’t, to which she responds simply, “Because I cannot.”  It upsets her deeply to admit this:

 

Even after all these years of knowing it, she found the admission still stuck in her throat. She had come to terms with her lack of beauty, but never with her lack of genius in the single thing she had ever wanted. The most she had ever been able to do was to pretend that she accepted it, as she
pretended now.

At this point, I already like Jenny – she’s showing human complexity and doesn’t seem like a stereotypical heroine, gorgeous or a superwoman.

It turns out Gareth is on a quest: a dragon is in need of slaying so he has come to find the one man alive who is a true dragonsbane, Lord Aversin.  He’s heard all the ballads about how courageous and honorable Lord Aversin is so he’s rather disappointed to learn he didn’t kill the dragon by facing him with a sword but with a harpoon dipped in poison, followed by an axe.  Alas, his hero did things the way least likely to get himself killed rather than the standard, romantic method.  But surely he’s still as handsome and imposing as the ballads say?

Not exactly…  When Gareth meets John, Lord Aversin, he discovers he is unkempt, medium-sized, and wears spectacles.  Oh, and he’s standing in a bunch of mud next to a pigsty.

So much for our would-be hero’s romantic notions of dragon-slayers.  The poor boy faints.  (The blood loss from the wound he got in the battle probably had something to do with this, but it was still good timing.)

The entire first chapter of this book and the way it set up the characters really intrigued me.  Right now I’m about 50% of the way through it and am still really enjoying it.

Have you ever read a first chapter that really drew you in and made you want to know more about the characters like that?  Or, have you read Dragonsbane or any other books by Barbara Hambly?

Apr
12
2011

I keep expecting this to happen since often when I close my Twitter while I’m working on a post, it ends up over the “Publish” button in WordPress.  A post I was revising for tomorrow just went up because of this.  I’ve removed it from the site, but of course it’s still showing up in my RSS feed.  Oops!  Look away, for it is unfinished!

In that case, I’ll try to put it up tonight instead of tomorrow.

Deathless by Catherynne Valente is a more modernized retelling of the Russian folktale about the death of Koschei the Deathless, often known as “The Death of the Immortal Koschei” or “Marya Morevna.”  It’s set in Stalinist Russia and is mainly about the aforementioned Marya Morevna, the woman who was sought after by both Koschei and Ivan in the story.  Deathless was released in hardcover toward the end of March and is also available as an ebook.

When she was six years old, Marya Morevna was first exposed to the “naked world,” the magic that other people did not seem to notice.  As she was sitting by the window, Marya saw a bird fall out of a tree and become a man.  This man came to her front door, saying he had come to marry the girl in the window, and left with her oldest sister.  Twice more Marya saw birds fall from their tree, turn into men, and take away her other sisters in order to marry them.  This left her waiting the day her own bird would come (and with a lot of curiosity about where exactly husbands come from).

As she grows older, Marya sees more and more of the magical parts of the world, meeting the domoviye of her household and Likho, the Tsaritsa of the Length of an Hour.  They all make mention of the coming of Koschei, and one day an owl drops out of the tree outside and turns into a handsome man.  This time Marya was not at the window to see it, and is taken by surprise when she answers the door to find Koschei come to take her away.  Yet she leaves with him, where she lives in his land and fights in his war against the Tsar of Death – at least until the day the inevitable happens and she meets her Ivan.

Ever since reading The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden, I’ve been a fan of Catherynne Valente’s writing and reading The Habitation of the Blessed cemented that belief in her skill as an author. She has a flair for gorgeous prose filled with imagery and imaginative, beautiful storytelling (and although her stories are not at all comedies, there are parts that exhibit a terrific sense of humor as well).  Although she has three (!) novels coming out this year and I’m looking forward to each of them, Deathless is the one I was most excited about since I love stories based on fairy or folk tales.  Also, I know very little about Russian folklore, so I was interested in learning more about these stories.  Although I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden by the time it was over, I did enjoy reading this novel, especially the first half.

Deathless was a little different from the other two books I’ve read by Valente.  While it contained the same creativity and wit I’ve come to expect from her work, the writing style was not nearly as elaborate.  The prose was still lovely, but it was less complex with less description and more dialogue than normal.  From the opening paragraphs in the first chapter, I was swept into it by the writing which was perfect for a fairy/folk tale:

 

In a city by the sea which was once called St. Petersburg, then Petrograd, then Leningrad, then, much later, St. Petersburg again, there stood a long, thin house on a long, thin street. By a long, thin window, a child in a pale blue dress and pale green slippers waited for a bird to marry her.

This would be cause for most girls to be very gently closed up in their rooms until they ceased to think such alarming things, but Marya Morevna had seen all three of her sisters’ husbands from her window before they knocked at the great cherrywood door, and thus she was as certain of her own fate as she was certain of the color of the moon. [pp. 15]

There are also some reoccurring patterns throughout the novel that I loved, particularly “long, thin” and the importance of the number three.  There are several times when a part of the story is told with three almost identical but slightly different parts, which lent well to keeping it feeling like a fairy/folk tale retelling.  Throughout the story the number three remained significant – from the marrying off of Marya’s 3 sisters to the 3 birds; to the 3 tests Baba Yaga made Marya undertake and her 3 friends she asked for help in each; to Marya’s meeting her 3 sisters later in the story.  Plus the story had 3 central figures: Marya, Koscshei, and Ivan.

While Deathless is technically a fantastic novel and I very much appreciated it, I had no emotional connection to any of the characters in the story.  Because of this, I didn’t love it the way I wanted to or felt it really deserved, especially later in the novel.  For the first half of the story, I was quite enchanted by Marya’s youth and glimpses of the magical parts of the world as well as her relationship with Koschei.  She had sort of a love/hate relationship with him – she did seem to truly love him but she also despised him for what happened to all the girls who came before her.  Yet even though he was a liar who tried to tell her there were no other girls, I also felt like he was not exactly unlikeable – he was the Tsar of Life, and as such he was what he was.  I loved the three tests Baga Yaga gave Marya to see if she was worthy and how Marya handled them.  I also loved Marya’s friends in Koschei’s realm. However, once Marya actually married Koschei I felt some of the magic from the first half of the story was gone.  This is actually perfectly fitting with the story since it’s true that at the point the awe and wonder of the discovery of this “naked world” was wearing thin, but it remains that my favorite part of the book was this sense of wonder the first half had.  In the second part, Marya became a harder woman involved in a war, and although I loved the fact that the story always must unwind a certain way (in this case with Ivan coming for Marya), I wasn’t as riveted by the story after Ivan arrived.  This is not to say I didn’t like the latter half of the story, just that I found myself loving the first half and not as absorbed in the second one.

Overall, Deathless is a darkly beautiful novel that keeps the feel of a folktale retelling with the repetition of the significance of three.  Its prose isn’t as densely ornate as other novels by Valente, but it still retains its elegance and the novel has the same clever artistry her work is known for.  In spite of my admiration for this, it never elicited the emotional response I like to have when I read a book or made me truly care for the characters involved.  In addition, I wasn’t as enamored by the second part of the novel as the first, which I thought was fantastic.  However, these hindrances to my total adoration of Deathless are fairly minor – and just prevent me from giving it the 10 I would have given it if these were not the case.

My Rating: 8.5/10

Where I got my reading copy: Review copy from the publisher.

Read an Excerpt

Read about the Origin of the Novel

Other Reviews:

This week I got the rest of my birthday books from the UK and one ARC.  The ARC is one I actually already had (Eona by Alison Goodman) and just mentioned not that long ago so I won’t include a photo and description here this week. I’ll be reviewing Eon, the book that precedes it, soon anyway and will hopefully be reading and reviewing Eona soon as well. Now that some of the busy events of the past couple of weeks are over, I’m hoping to get both that Eon review and the Deathless one up this week.

Castle in the AirCastle in the Air by Diana Wynne Jones

This is the first sequel to Howl’s Moving Castle, which I recently read and very much enjoyed.  I’m looking forward to reading it even though Sophie and Howl aren’t the main characters since it sounds fun.

Abdullah was a young and not very prosperous carpet dealer. His father, who had been disappointed in him, had left him only enough money to open a modest booth in the Bazaar. When he was not selling carpets, Abdullah spent his time daydreaming. In his dreams he was not the son of his father, but the long-lost son of a prince. There was also a princess who had been betrothed to him at birth. He was content with his life and his daydreams until, one day, a stranger sold him a magic carpet.

In this stunning sequel to Howl’s Moving Castle, Diana Wynne Jones has again created a large-scale, fast-paced fantasy in which people and things are never quite what they seem. There are good and bad djinns, a genie in a bottle, wizards, witches, cats and dogs (but are they cats and dogs?), and a mysterious floating castle filled with kidnapped princesses, as well as two puzzling prophecies. The story speeds along with tantalizing twists and turns until the prophecies are fulfilled, true identities are revealed, and all is resolved in a totally satisfying, breathtaking, surprise-filled ending.

A Tale of Time CityA Tale of Time City by Diana Wynne Jones

This particular book is out of print in the US, which would be why my husband ended up getting a copy from the UK.  I can’t find the cover I have anywhere (not even Goodreads has it and they always have my covers!), which is too bad because I think it’s the nicest cover of any of them.  This is the Diana Wynne Jones book my husband thinks I should read next – it’s one of the ones he already had but wanted to replace for me to read since it was so old and worn out.

Time City – built far in the future on a patch of space outside time – holds the formidable task of overseeing history, yet it’s starting to decay, crumble …. What does that say for the future of the world … for the past … for the present? Two Time City boys, determined to save it all, think they have the answer in Vivian Smith, a young Twenty Century girl whom they pluck from a British train station at the start of World War II. But not only have they broken every rule in the book by traveling back in time – they have the wrong person! Unable to return safely, Vivian’s only choice is to help the boys restore Time City or risk being stuck outside time forever…
Apr
05
2011

So close to 5 books this month, missing it by just one day!  The past couple of weeks have been busy, but I’m hoping to get back to writing my review of Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente soon.  Especially considering I’m going to have another new review to write before too long at the rate at which I’m going through Alison Goodman’s Eon – I’m starting to think I’m going to be very glad to have Eona around when I’m done.

Books read in March were:

The Lens and the Looker by Lory Kaufman (Review)
The Native Star by M.K. Hobson (Review)
Badass: The Birth of a Legend by Ben Thompson (Review)
The Hero Strikes Back by Moira J. Moore (Review)

Favorite book of the month: The Native Star.  It really didn’t sound like something I would have picked up from the description – and I probably wouldn’t have if it hadn’t been a Nebula nominee and if I hadn’t been hearing such good things about it – but I’m very glad I did.  I had so much fun with it and I loved the two main leads and their relationship. I cannot wait for the sequel, The Hidden Goddess, to be released later this month.

What did you read in March and what did you think of the books you read?


This week’s edition consists entirely of books received as birthday presents (which is also why this post is a day late – I was busy most of the weekend with birthday stuff).  There are supposed to be more birthday books on the way as well since some are coming from overseas, and my husband also pre-ordered A Dance with Dragons for me.  I’ll have to be patient and wait until mid-July for that one!

The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Volume 1The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Volume 1 by Diana Wynne Jones

This year my husband got me a lot of books by Diana Wynne Jones to symbolize that I can still be young at heart even if I’m getting older.  Some of them are coming from the UK and are not here yet since one of the ones he wanted to get me wasn’t available here in the US.  Several of these are books he already had, but he’s had them for so long and read them so many times that they are falling apart so he got new copies.  Since I’ve only read Dogsbody and Howl’s Moving Castle by her so far, I’m looking forward to reading some of her other books, although it was also a little sad to receive them now due to her recent passing. The ones that did not come from overseas and were here on time were the 3 omnibus editions of the Chronicles of Chrestomanci.  This first volume contains the first two books, Charmed Life and The Lives of Christopher Chant.

In this multiple parallel universes of the Twelve Related Worlds, only an enchanter with nine lives is powerful enough to control the rampant misuse of magic—and to hold the title Chrestomanci…

The Chants are a family strong in magic, but neither Christopher Chant nor Cat Chant can work even the simplest of spells. Who could have dreamed that both Christopher and Cat were born with nine lives—or that they could lose them so quickly?

The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Volume 1The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Volume 2 by Diana Wynne Jones

The second volume contains books 3 and 4, The Magicians of Caprona and Witch Week.

In this multiple parallel universes of the Twelve Related Worlds, only an enchanter with nine lives is powerful enough to control the rampant misuse of magic — and to hold the title Chrestomanci…

There is a world in which the peaceful city-state of Caprona is threatened by the malevolent machinations of a mysterious enchanter…and another in which magic is outlawed and witches are still burned at the stake.

In two worlds the practice of magic has gone dangerously awry, there is only one solution — call upon the Chrestomanci.

The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Volume 1The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Volume 3 by Diana Wynne Jones

The third volume contains the fifth and sixth books, Conrad’s Fate and The Pinhoe Egg.  (If I had seen this book when I was a kid, I would have snatched it up just based on the cover.  A unicorn and cats?  Nine-year-old me would have been unable to resist it.)

In the multiple parallel universes of the Twelve Related Worlds, only an enchanter with nine lives is powerful enough to control the rampant misuse of magic—and to hold the title Chrestomanci. . . .

Cat and Christopher Chant make the most unusual friends. Christopher befriends a boy with terrible karma in a mansion where everything keeps changing. Cat meets a girl whose family of rogue witches is hiding shocking secrets. Will the Chrestomanci be able to sort out the tangle of mysteries and magic?

Nights of VilljamurNights of Villjamur by Mark Charan Newton

This is the first book in the Legends of the Red Sun series.  I’ve been wanting to read it for a while, but I’d been planning to wait for it to release in paperback this summer to pick it up.  So I was thrilled to get a copy now because I’ve heard so many great things about it, and seeing this post on the second book in the series and its themes yesterday just made me more excited about reading it. The second book in the series, City of Ruin, is available.  The Book of Transformations, the third book, will be released in June (and sounds awesome from the author’s website – superheroes in an epic fantasy setting!).

Following in the footsteps of writers like China Miéville and Richard K. Morgan, Mark Charan Newton balances style and storytelling in this bold and brilliant debut. Nights of the Villjamur marks the beginning of a sweeping new fantasy epic.

Beneath a dying red sun sits the proud and ancient city of Villjamur, capital of a mighty empire that now sits powerless against an encroaching ice age. As throngs of refugees gather outside the city gates, a fierce debate rages within the walls about the fate of these desperate souls. Then tragedy strikes—and the Emperor’s elder daughter, Jamur Rika, is summoned to serve as queen. Joined by her younger sister, Jamur Eir, the queen comes to sympathize with the hardships of the common people, thanks in part to her dashing teacher Randur Estevu, a man who is not what he seems.

Meanwhile, the grisly murder of a councillor draws the attention of Inspector Rumex Jeryd. Jeryd is a rumel, a species of nonhuman that can live for hundreds of years and shares the city with humans, birdlike garuda, and the eerie banshees whose forlorn cries herald death. Jeryd’s investigation will lead him into a web of corruption—and to an obscene conspiracy that threatens the lives of Rika and Eir, and the future of Villjamur itself.

But in the far north, where the drawn-out winter has already begun, an even greater threat appears, against which all the empire’s military and magical power may well prove useless—a threat from another world.

Garden SpellsGarden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen

For some reason, I never heard anything about this New York Times bestseller, and then I started hearing a lot about it, especially with the release of Allen’s latest novel, The Peach Keeper.  Now I keep hearing about it and it sounds both delightful and different from what I normally read so I’m really looking forward to it.

The women of the Waverley family — whether they like it or not — are heirs to an unusual legacy, one that grows in a fenced plot behind their Queen Anne home on Pendland Street in Bascom, North Carolina. There, an apple tree bearing fruit of magical properties looms over a garden filled with herbs and edible flowers that possess the power to affect in curious ways anyone who eats them.  

For nearly a decade, 34-year-old Claire Waverley, at peace with her family inheritance, has lived in the house alone, embracing the spirit of the grandmother who raised her, ruing her mother’s unfortunate destiny and seemingly unconcerned about the fate of her rebellious sister, Sydney, who freed herself long ago from their small town’s constraints. Using her grandmother’s mystical culinary traditions, Claire has built a successful catering business — and a carefully controlled, utterly predictable life — upon the family’s peculiar gift for making life-altering delicacies: lilac jelly to engender humility, for instance, or rose geranium wine to call up fond memories. Garden Spells reveals what happens when Sydney returns to Bascom with her young daughter, turning Claire’s routine existence upside down. With Sydney’s homecoming, the magic that the quiet caterer has measured into recipes to shape the thoughts and moods of others begins to influence Claire’s own emotions in terrifying and delightful ways.

As the sisters reconnect and learn to support one another, each finds romance where she least expects it, while Sydney’s child, Bay, discovers both the safe home she has longed for and her own surprising gifts. With the help of their elderly cousin Evanelle, endowed with her own uncanny skills, the Waverley women redeem the past, embrace the present, and take a joyful leap into the future.