Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Alabaster: Wolves

I've always wanted to read something by Caitlin R. Kiernan. So when I saw the graphic novel Alabaster: Wolves go by, I decided that there was no time like the present.

Alabaster: Wolves is about a young albino girl named Dancy Flammarion. Directed by a seraphim angel with a flaming sword, Dancy fights all manner of monsters. But when she wanders into a South Carolina town infested with werewolves and demons, she is abandoned by her angel and must find a way to survive with only the help of a red wing blackbird and the ghost of a girl with questionable motives.

For the most part, I enjoyed Alabaster: Wolves. But I did feel like I was dropped into the middle of the story and that I would have benefitted from more information, particularly involving Dancy. While Alabaster: Wolves collects the first five issues of the comic series, a bit of research told me this is not the first Dancy story. Dancy first appeared in Kiernan's novel Threshold, and later in some short stories (which were later collected in Alabaster). So I'll probably go looking for them at some point.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014


I've had Hexed out from the library for a few weeks now.  I planned on reading it sooner than this, but got distracted.  But then someone put the book on hold, so I made a point of reading it before it was due back!

Hexed takes place a few weeks after Hounded.  Atticus has been working with the remaining witches, led by Malina Sokolowski, trying to create a non-aggression treaty that both parties will be happy with.  He's also been trying to deal with the demons that got away when Aenghus Og opened the portal from Hell. 

But when he and the remaining witches are targeted by a powerful hex, Atticus goes looking for answers.  Another coven of witches, die Tochter des dritten Hauses (aka the hexen) are looking to move into the territory now that half of Malina's coven was killed during the fight with Aenghus Og.  Their powerful hex managed to catch one of Malina's coven unawares, killing her; Malina and the remaining witches are now stuck in their homes, unable to come outside of their protections.  That wouldn't be so bad except that they'll be unable to drive off a group of Bacchants who are also on their way, or help Atticus fight off a fallen angel at Coyote's behest.  Plus the werewolves can't help him as per their Alpha's instructions (he doesn't want to lose any more members of his pack after helping fight Aenghus Og), and the vampire is upset because Atticus won't help him kill Thor.  So Atticus has his hands full!

Hexed was just as much fun as Hounded.  I can't wait to get my hands on Hammered!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Last Unicorn

I found out that the movie The Last Unicorn is being screened in my city in a few weeks time.  The author of the book (and screenplay of the movie), Peter S. Beagle, is touring along with the movie.  So in preparation for that event, I wanted to finally read the novel.  I've been wanting to read it for awhile now, but The Last Unicorn Screening Tour gave me that little extra push to finally sit down and do so.

The Last Unicorn is the story of a unicorn who overhears two humans speaking.  They say she is the last, and so she goes on a quest trying to find whether or not that is true.  On her way she encounters a diverse cast of characters, including the humans who cannot see her for what she is, the butterfly who gives her her first clue as to where the other unicorns have gone, the Magician Schmendrick who struggles to find his magic, the cook Molly Grue, the heroic Prince Lir, and the unhappy King Haggard.  Along the way she will discover not only what happened to the other unicorns, but what it means to love.

I want to say, it was really weird reading this book.  I've seen the movie many, many times, plus I read the graphic novel two years ago, so I know this story.  I knew what would happen and when it would happen, especially thanks to the graphic novel, which follows the novel even more than the movie.  So even though I've never read this book before, it was a really weird experience reading it.

That being said, I absolutely loved it!  Beagle's writing is beautiful; his descriptions were absolute magic!  I honestly wish I had read The Last Unicorn before I had seen the movie, but since that didn't happen, I am still very glad to have read the book.  This is the type of book that I most definitely plan on reading again one day.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Blood and Iron

I finished reading Jon Sprunk's newest book, Blood and Iron, last night.  I won the book in a contest about a month ago, which was pretty exciting (I rarely win free books).  I couldn't wait to read it, particularly because I enjoyed reading his Shadow Saga.

Blood and Iron follows Horace, a shipbuilder who joined his country's crusading army as a carpenter.  When his ship is destroyed in a storm, he washes up on enemy land.  He is quickly captured (no surprise there - he is dressed differently than the locals and does not speak their language) and then enslaved with an iron collar.  Along with Jirom, a mercenary who was enslaved after fighting on the wrong side of a war, Horace is brought through the desert by his new master, who intends to gift the slaves to a temple.  But a chaos storm breaks out, and it is Horace who dispels it with magic he didn't know he had. Suddenly, Horace finds himself a free man, brought to the Queen's city of Erugash.  There he finds himself quickly elevated to the Queen's protector, where he now must navigate through the dangerous politics of the Queen's court.

Along with Horace, Blood and Iron follows the stories of a couple other people.  Chief among them are Jirom, the aforementioned former mercenary, and Alyra, a spy who is serving the queen as her personal slave.  The book also has several chapters from Queen Byleth's perspective, among other characters. 

I found the world of Blood and Iron rather interesting.  I believe it is another part of the same world Jon Sprunk wrote for his Shadow Sage (people kept mentioning the Nimean Empire, which I'm pretty sure is where Josephine ruled).  Erugash was part of the Akeshian Empire, which seemed to be rather Egyptian- or Mesopotamian-like.  It was a corrupt Empire beset by a rather interesting religious divide (several cults were fighting each other in the Godwar, which happened before the events of Blood and Iron take place).  There was also a rather interesting magic system that the Akeshians had, using the four elements plus a fifth, rare element, the void.

But despite the interesting setting, I had a really hard time getting through this book.  It took about 70 pages before the story started to get interesting.  A guy washing up on shore and unable to speak the language isn't very exciting when the reader doesn't know what's happening, either.  I didn't really like Horace as a character, which made it even harder to believe that he could be this magical superman.  And I do mean that literally.  The magic system worked in such a way that practitioners get little cuts (known as "immaculata") when they use magic; the longer they are using magic at a time, the larger and more numerous the cuts become.  Horace doesn't have to worry about any of that though.  He is more powerful than the magic wielders who have been studying from birth, commanding that fifth element (which no one has been able to for hundreds of years) without fear of those immaculata.

I thought Jirom was an interesting character.  But his story wasn't that interesting to me.  He was sent to train for the Queen's army, becoming a disposable "dog soldier."  The training for the dog soldiers was practically death (many men were killed daily), but once these fearsome soldiers graduated into the main army, they were literally used as cannon fodder in a siege (which seems quite odd - why bother training them in the first place?  Just send them straight to the front lines!)  Jirom also ended up working with a group of rebel slaves who were rebelling against the queen and the larger empire.  This story might have been interesting, but without fail, Jirom's chapters showed up every time I was getting interested in things happening around Horace, making me resent them.

For her part, Alyra doesn't show up until around 100 pages into the book.  And I was never really sure what was going on with her (beyond that she was spying on things).  Which is weird to say; I knew Alyra's backstory pretty much right off the bat.  But I didn't get a good sense of what her spying was actually doing for anyone, herself most of all.

I was originally going to write something else about Byleth, but upon reflection, she was probably the most interesting character of the lot.  Byleth was powerful (being Queen), but weak (she was being forced into marriage, at which time she would become merely the wife of the king).  She seemed to be one of the bad guys (sending her own brother to be drained of his magic), but at other times she was a good guy (she cared first and foremost about her people).  I think she was a bit bewildering because it's very unusual to see such a well-rounded character, especially when that character is female.

Having thought a lot about Blood and Iron (especially before and while writing this review, I think a large issue is that too much was going on.  There were so many characters to jump between, that details got missed.  Like with Alyra, she and Horace started spending a lot of time together once she became his slave girl, but I felt like I was only told about their relationship, not shown it.  Or even when Byleth lets her brother's magic be drained - one minute the prince is in the court, saying he disproves of the enemy savage being in their ranks, and the next he's strapped to her vizier's strange device, accused of treason?  That didn't make sense to me.

And then there were other issues, like Horace's meteoric rise within the Akeshian Empire.  Why would the Queen make a foreigner her chief of security when he is just learning the language of the people?  How will he be able to navigate the deadly politics of her court when he can barely talk to anyone?

I really wanted to like this book.  Like I said, I loved the Shadow Saga.  Heck, Shadow's Son caught and held my interest from pretty much the first page.  And while Blood and Iron has some great things going for it (from the world to the characters of Jirom and Byleth), sadly, the story just never came together for me.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Fairy's Return

I saw Gail Carson Levine's The Fairy's Return and Other Princess Tales at work the other day.  I've previously read Ella Enchanted, so I know that Levine is an excellent author.  I've never heard of these other stories, and I was in the mood for something silly and fun, so I decided to give them a shot.  The Fairy's Return and Other Princess Tales is made up of six Princess Tales, all set in the land of Biddle.

In The Fairy's Mistake, twin sisters Rosella and Myrtle look alike but are polar opposites personality-wise.  Myrtle is the spoiled favourite child while Rosella is the sweet and kind sister.  When Rosella goes to fetch water from the well, she gives an old lady a drink.  That old lady is actually the fairy Ethelinda, who rewards Rosella for her kindness; every time Rosella speaks, jewels will fall from her mouth.  When Myrtle hears of this, she runs off to the well in search of the same thing.  But Myrtle is mean and ends up cursed; every time she speaks, snakes and bugs fall from her lips.  But things go awry when a greedy prince spies Rosella; he whisks her off to the castle and makes her keep talking so he can fill chests with the precious stones.  Meanwhile Myrtle terrorizes her village, threatening to speak unless people give her things!

The Princess Test was a retelling of "The Princess and the Pea."  The blacksmith's daughter, Lorelei, is the fussiest baby in the village.  Nothing can be too hot or too cold; everything must be perfect.  To make matters worse, she easily gets sick or hurt while playing or doing chores.  Her loving parents do their best for her, but after her mother dies, her father brings on a housekeeper, Trudy.  Trudy finds the girl useless, and soon plots to kill her.  Meanwhile, Lorelei catches the eye of Prince Nicholas.  The prince loves her and wants to marry her, but his parents have decreed that he can only marry a princess that passes all of their tests, including feeling a pea through twenty mattresses.  How can a blacksmith's daughter possibly pass such tests?

Princess Sonora and the Long Sleep is a particularly funny retelling of "Sleeping Beauty."  At her naming ceremony, the fairies bless her to be beautiful, graceful, and brilliant, meaning ten times smarter than other humans.  So Sonora grows up as a very a-typical child - she speaks perfectly when she is still a baby, she reads all the books in the library, and generally spends her time coming up with ways to improve the lives of those around her.  Of course, no one really wants to listen to a child telling them how to do their job.  Sonora was also cursed to prick her finger on a spindle and die, which gets softened to meaning she and her castle will sleep for 100 years.  So Sonora grows up refusing to sleep, figuring she will have more than enough time to sleep once the curse happens.

Cinderellis and the Glass Hill is of course Cinderella, but with a twist.  Ellis is a boy who grew up with his two older brothers, Ralph and Burt.  He earns the nickname of Cinderellis when he is testing out one of his inventions near the fireplace.  All Cinderellis wanted was the love of his brothers, but they barely seemed to notice him.  So he grows up inventing things, all the while hoping that one of his inventions will earn their love and respect.  When their fields of hay are eaten, Ralph and Burt blame goblins, but Ellis knows it's actually a horse.  Over the course of three years, he ends up finding three beautiful mares, one copper, one silver, and one gold.  By touching their bridles, he breaks the spell binding them to an evil magician; the mares love him for it and will do anything for him.  Ellis would have gladly given the mares to his brothers, but as usual, they won't even admit that he had anything to do with the hay problem.  So Ellis keeps the mares happily fed with his horse treats in a special stable he made by his workshop.  Meanwhile, Princess Marigold is also lonely.  Her father goes off questing for things, staying for maybe a week before he is off again.  He was planning on looking for a suitable husband for her, but when he is cursed by an imp to stay put for five years, he comes up with a crazy scheme to bring the eligible bachelors to him: Marigold will be placed on top of a glass pyramid with three golden apples.  If anyone with armor and a horse can ride up the pyramid to get the apples, he will become a prince and marry Marigold. Of course, Marigold isn't too keen on this arrangement, and brings her own secret weapon to stop people from making it to the top!  Cinderellis and the Glass Hill was a really cute take on the classic "Cinderella."

At first I thought For Biddle's Sake was based off of "Rapunzel."  While the beginning might have been, the story was actually based off of "The Frog Prince."  Of course it was with a twist, for this time it wasn't the prince who was the frog!  As a baby, Parsley (Patsy by birth) would only eat parsley.  Her father had to get it from a fairy's garden.  Eventually the fairy, Bombina, came home to find him stealing her parsley.  She demanded to see the baby, and promptly fell in love with Parsley's green smile.  She adopted the girl and brought her to live in her fairy castle.  Bombina was good to Parsley, but had a habit of turning people into toads.  She promised the girl she wouldn't turn any more people into toads in an effort to get Parsley smiling again.  But when Bombina sees Parsley smiling at the three princes of Biddle, she grows jealous.  Preparing to turn them into toads, she is horrified to discover Parsley went in front of her spell; Bombina turned her beloved girl into a toad!  And plead as she does with the fairy queen, Bombina discovers that the only way the spell can be undone is if someone proposes marriage to Parsley.  Meanwhile, the three princes are sent on three quests: first to find linen fine enough to fit in the King's ring, second to find a dog small enough to fit in a walnut, and third to find the most beautiful bride.  The king believes that his youngest son, Tansy, is a terror and doesn't want him to participate, unaware that his older twin sons have been blaming all of their mischief on him for years.  He reluctantly allows Tansy to participate.  While the tasks are impossible, Parsley, discovering she can do magic like Bombina because she is now a magical creature, helps Prince Tansy with the tasks.  All the while, they discover they have much in common, and Tansy falls in love with the toad's beautiful smile.

The last story, The Fairy's Return, was probably my least favourite.  Robin is the baker's son.  On a routine trip to the castle with his father and two older brothers, he wanders into the Royal Gardens and befirends the princess.  Princess Lark has always had people behave very carefully around her - they don't want to anger her, and they don't want her to lose at games.  So when this commoner comes in and starts telling her jokes, treating her like a real person, she finds herself falling in love with him.  But neither of their fathers want them marrying. Because robin makes her laugh, King Harrumphrey decrees that any prince who can make his daughter laugh will have her hand in marriage.  As a baker's son, Robin cannot compete.  But with the help of Ethelininda, who has lost all confidence in herself after her reward and punishment went so awry in The Fairy's Mistake, ad a golden goose, Robin sets out to win the hand of his princess, all the while dodging the arranged marriage his family has set up for him!

Overall, The Fairy's Return and Other Princess Tales accomplished exactly what I wanted: it was both silly and fun, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the land of Biddle.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Cruel Beauty

I honestly don't remember how I initially discovered Rosamund Hodge's Cruel Beauty.  But the library ordered it, so I put it on hold.  I found it to be an interesting book, so I'm going to talk about it with some spoilers.

Cruel Beauty is the story of Nyx Triskelion.  Before she was born, her father made a bargain with the Gentle Lord, prince of the demons, for children; the price was that one of those promised daughters would wed the Gentle Lord when she became 17.  Nyx grew up knowing that she was the sacrifice because her younger twin, Aststraia, is the splitting image of their deceased mother.  Under the instruction of her father, she trained to kill the Gentle Lord, feeling always like a weapon and never like a loved daughter.  And so she grew up with poison festering within her heart.

Nyx lives in Arcadia, a continent torn out of the real world and forced under a false paper-like sky.  She was raised knowing that if you stare in the shadows too long, the shadows will stare back.  It was the Gentle Lord who tore Arcadia out of the real world, and so the scholars of the land surmise that killing him will set the world right. Or at least stop the demons so they can figure out how to bring Arcadia back to the Earth.

But once Nyx is married and in the Gentle Lord's castle, she finds that the demon prince, Ignifex, is not what she expected.  And though she has trained and sworn to kill him, she finds herself falling in love with him.  For Ignifex is the only one who has seen the poison in her heart, and yet he loves her still.

The plot of the story is very "Beauty and the Beast" (referring to thJeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont version rather than the Disney one).  Even though it is clothed in a new skin, I knew the story beats Cruel Beauty would follow.  And so I found it good but relatively predictable.

Or at least until the end.  The end had what I call "time-travel shenanigans."  The spell on the Gentle Lord is undone, and so Arcadia returns to the real world, with the 900 years of its time in the shadow realm undone.  But of course, after Nyx is born and becomes 17, she manages to remember Ignifex and so save him.  The initial bargain stated that if he looked in Pandora's Box, Arcadia would go back to the real world and he would be imprisoned in the Box forever.  But the Kindly Ones (the beings who made the deal with him), allowed him out of the Box once every year to ensure that Arcadia remained safe from harm.  It was on this day that Nyx found and saved him from his eternal torment.  

Overall, I really did enjoy Cruel Beauty.  While the end was a bit too weird for my liking, I think the book gets points for being unpredictable.  Cruel Beauty was a fun and different take on "Beauty and the Beast," full of interesting characters like Nyx, Ignifex, and his shadow, Shade; if you like new takes on classic fairy tales, then Hodge's book is definitely for you!