I just counted, and it turns out I am 50 books in the hole.  Never fear.  I’m determined to philosophize at you every bit as oppressively as a garlic-eating professor in a small academic office for at least two more posts, but I’m kind of stuck at the end of my next post about death–you know, the part where I’m supposed to draw conclusions?  So I will take a break from that and tell you about a strange book I read, and make it 49.  It was a fantasy.  It was kind of good, it was kind of not, but I liked it.

The Poison Throne by Celine Kiernan

Orbit 2010, first published in Ireland 2008

read early March

This book puzzled me on so many fronts.  Once upon a time there were two delectable, expressive, agonized, sensitive-yet-warlike boys, both of them friends to a beautiful, artistic and exquisitely tenderhearted yet tough and politically savvy girl who is clearly going to get her choice of chocolate or vanilla sooner or later.  That was part of the point of the book, but I’m not sure what else was.  There was no physical throne.  There was a torture device shaped like a chair in the dungeons, but nobody said it was poisonous, and it didn’t cary enough dramatic weight to be The Throne of the title.  The atmosphere around the monarchy in Kiernan’s world was so oppressive that for a long time I believed she was planting clues toward something supernaturally evil attached to the kingship, poisoning the minds and morals of rulers.  By the time the book ended, though, I wasn’t so sure.

The most noticeable feature of The Poison Throne was the way every character was turned up to their full emotional volume all the time.  This was probably meant to reflect the unbearable tension of the situation in which they found themselves clear through the book.  In terms of pacing, picture this novel as wind sprint.  After five years roaming the world (why?), a skilled carpenter father and his apprentice carpenter daughter (predictably fetching in boys’ togs) who are also noble folk (noble carpenters?–not explained) return to their home kingdom only to find that the king (who is old friends with papa carpenter) is Being Bad and taking the whole kingdom with him.  Racial prejudice, gallows at the crossroads, all that.  Plus he’s disowned his teenaged son.  No one really talks about why this happened until quite late in the book.  By then you’d think it’s some terribly exotic crime, but no; it’s mostly just that the crown prince got rebellious and ran off with his uncle who objected to the king’s badness, reasonably enough.  So now the king wants to make his bastard son his heir, but his bastard son, who is a physician (though no less young and delectable for this), is loyal to his half brother.  So the king blackmails the bastard into doing his will by inflicting pain on his (the bastard’s) sexually-venturesome maimed gypsy best friend and horse-trainer who may or may not also be his lover.  PSYCHIC AGONY FOR THE BASTARD PHYSICIAN AND HIS FRIENDS!  ESPECIALLY THE GIRL!  WHO HATED THE SEXY GYPSY FOR A LITTLE WHILE WHEN SHE FIRST MET HIM BUT MAY ACTUALLY BE FALLING FOR HIM NOW!

Plus, papa carpenter is sick with a weak heart from rheumatic fever or something.  A surprising lot of the book is devoted to painful descriptions of him dragging himself around the castle trying to look normal because of fraught-but-vague political undercurrents, then collapsing, and the daughter and boys expecting him to die any minute.  In the very midst of their grief and worry and they must keep up appearances and go off and politick among the hostile nobles and bullying king.  More psychic agony.

The best things about The Poison Throne–though I know you won’t believe me when I say so–were the ghosts and the talking cats.  One of the baddest ways the king went bad was to *slight spoiler* kill the cats and make ghosts illegal.  The ghosts are a little bit like the ones in A Tale of Time City, except that they are semi-corporeal and can (if not too upset) converse intelligently.  Since the king can’t kill the ghosts, his subjects have to pretend they don’t exist–ignore them when they speak.  This paranoid fellow doesn’t like talking cats and ghosts because he thinks they will tell his secrets.

What’s the king’s secret?  I’m not sure.  I mean, there is one, but it’s still all mysterious at the end of the book.  Good thing there are two more volumes in the Moorhawke Trilogy to clear everything up.

Another question you may ask:  Why did I not hate this book?  Well, it was overwrought, but the emotions were real–unconvincing only in quantity, not quality.  Likewise, even as it wallowed in minutiae through every description of the boys’ bodies and expressions and injuries and gestures (all in a way to emphasize their hotness), and in its descriptions of the girl’s feelings, the story remained unforced.  Here is an author whose heart is whole and who believes in her world wholeheartedly and has thrown her whole self into it.  I love that; a lot of high fantasy lacks conviction.  I may be one of those people who finds emotion more potent when it’s contained in a mold of poetic restraint, but far more important that it’s there.

NESFA Press, 1995
Finished: early August 2010
Source: library browsing
Genre: fantasy
On the Scales: mixed

I wish I had been able to post my review of this book during actual Diana Wynne Jones Week (as opposed to the perpetual Diana Wynne Jones Week in my heart), since my sole purpose in reading it was to make everyone jealous.

No, no!  I swear it wasn’t!  Before I was even thinking about Diana Wynne Jones Week I was strolling through the adult fiction section of the library.  I spotted her name on the shelves at eye-height.  “What’s this?” I said cleverly (knowing Jones has only written two books my library might shelve in the adult section, and that it doesn’t own either of them), “A new book I haven’t heard about?  An old UK-only release that has finally come out in the States?  Or has a sensible magid taken pity on us for only having twenty- or thirty-odd books by Diana Wynne Jones to read in this particular dimension, and imported one by her counterpart in his home world?”

I knew I would want to read it, whatever it was, so I put it in my bag without opening it, checked it out without looking at it, and took it home.  That’s where I figured out it was a rare book.

Contents include:

Two novellas:
Everard’s Ride
The True State of Affairs

One essay:
The Shape of the Narrative in The Lord of the Rings

Five short stories:
nad and Dan and Quaffy
No One
Dragon Reserve, Home Eight
The Master
The Plague of Peacocks

The title novella strikes me as an early work because of its style.  Jones typically externalizes her characters’ thoughts and feelings, either through hints in the things they choose to say or through their facial expressions, manner, and movements.  Everard’s Ride employs authorial asides and makes forays into the characters’ thoughts.  This busy style is in keeping with the setting: high Victorian England, where a teenaged brother and sister make trips to an island accessible via a causeway at low tide.  The island is also the access point for a 15th century kingdom which (sometimes) occupies the same landscape.  One character is recognizable as serious version of Wild Robert, while the ever-so-slightly-sent-up Victorian family life is reminiscent of the Chrestomanci books.

It’s fun to spot the Jonesian details in the not-so-Jonesian prose.

Miss Gatly came back after taking the teapot to the parlour and told them some of the stories.  She sat by the range, knitting socks, needles clicking, cap rattling, and talked in the strange, formal way old country-people still use when they tell stories which may not quite be true.  She told them how the ghost-lights flitted through the island on foggy nights and were seen to go winding through the bay where no-one else dared to go for fear of quicksands.  She told of the dangerous kingdom of Falleyfell out in the bay and how those who saw it were as good as dead.

“And if,” she said, “a wise man hereabouts sees aught of this on a clear night, he will shut his eyes and turn away, making the sign of the cross for safety. . .”

Alex put his thin greasy hand under his pointed chin and leant forward with an eager sigh.  Cecilia had tucked her feet up under her green tartan skirt, with one hand holding down the bulging crinoline.  With the other hand she was absent-mindedly twirling and pulling a bright gold ringlet.  The draught sighed in the chimney and a sheep coughed outside.  Cecilia signed too, because the best part of the tale was coming.

You can find most of the short stores here in the collection Believing Is Seeing.  “nad and Dan and Quaffy” is DWJ tripping on I mean paying tribute to coffee and word processing in the life of the science fiction writer.  As with The Homeward Bounders and A Tale of Time City you’ll have to step lively if you want to keep up with her on this one.  “No One” is the name of a household robot I am pretty sure must have been a prototype for Yam in Hexwood.  “The Master,” is a frightening, dreamlike tale set in a wood, a rose garden, and a futuristic sorcerer’s den.  “Plague of Peacocks” features a satisfyingly tongue-in-cheek revenge on some neighborhood busybodies.  I particularly enjoyed “Dragon Reserve, Home Eight” which takes place on a frontiersy Nordic-themed planet with matriarchal steadings.  Non-anthropomorphized dragons are kept in game parks and witches (while fairly common) are illegal, so I’m thinking this may be the same world mentioned as “Lind” in Hexwood.  “Dragon Reserve, Home Eight” is not Jones’ usual sort of thing, and I would very much like to see it expanded into a novel.

I can’t say the same for The True State of Affairs because it is perfect as it is.  Unless you have begged, borrowed, or stolen Everard’s Ride (or can get your hands on the UK-only collection Minor Arcana), you will not find it easy to get a copy of this story, but it’s worth a try!  At just 90 pages, this is (I’m dead serious) one of the best things Diana Wynne Jones has ever written.  It is simply masterful.  If you don’t think of Diana Wynne Jones as a “literary” writer, you are wrong.  The True State of Affairs is a study of power, personality, communication, love, and loneliness that compares favorably to work by the likes of Eudora Welty or Katherine Anne Porter for emotional depth.

The plot is simple.  A modern day Englishwoman finds herself, through no real fault of her own, a political prisoner in a fantasy world (Dalemark).  The action takes place in her tower room–she is not allowed to leave it–in a medieval-style fortress.  Her confusion with the language, her privations, her desperation, and her growing dependence on her journal and her daily over-the-rooftops glimpses of a fellow prisoner who is allowed a brief walk in a distant courtyard, all come together in a pressure-cooker of personal narrative, scribbled on a diminishing supply of paper that is always in danger of being confiscated…

Strong stuff.  Actually, on second thought, I do want it to be a full length novel.  I’m greedy and willful that way.

Next to The True State of Affairs, “The Shape of the Narrative in the Lord of the Rings” was my favorite piece. One of the the things that pleases me most about Tolkien is the shared arena he provides for people who want to hash out the theory and practice of fantasy.  Having read this essay, I reeeeeealy wish I could put Ursula Le Guin and Diana Wynne Jones in a room, and then they would start talking about Tolkien, and I could be a fly on the wall.  I could listen to either one of them for days.  I could listen to both of them for weeks.

Diana Wynne Jones studied at Oxford when, according to her online biography, “C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien were both lecturing . . . Lewis booming to crowded halls and Tolkien mumbling to me and three others.”  Tolkien’s mumblings failed to reveal his narrative intentions, but Jones draws them brilliantly from his books.  “The Shape of the Narrative in the Lord of the Rings” reminds me more of an energetic guided tour than a scholarly dissection.  Like an actor giving you a backstage tour of a theater, Jones knows what she’s talking about, and her excitement is contagious.

To make your envy complete, I leave you with her thoughts on the Elves:

. . . Legolas has been there for some time now, hinting at these mysteries, and yet, since he is one of the Fellowship, kidding you that Elves can be human and approachable.  This is not the case.  Tolkien lets you see much, but still leaves the Elves almost as mysterious and alien as they were before you saw it.  They are genuinely not human.  Their concerns seem other, even when they help.  The reason seems to be their intense, abiding melancholy . . . The Elves are dwindling, we are told.  The dwarves awakened evil and forced many Elves over the Sea.  This could be the explanation, but it is not really.  You get the real reason by hints, which you pick up mostly subconsciously: the Elves, by reason of their apparent immortality, are widowed from history.  They are forced back on their own, which is merely living memory, unimaginably long.  Tolkien conveys quietly, without ever quite centering your sights on it, the immense burden immortality would be.  He uses women to do it: the Morning Star, Arwen Evening Star, and Galadriel herself.  I daresay Women’s Lib could make destructive points here, but it is entirely appropriate in a Romance, in which woman grieves for ever.  Women are generally more often widowed than men.  But this stands for the situation of all the Elves.  When they enter the temporary brawls of history, they pay for it by having to endure its horrors for ever.  So they are forced for the most part to stay withdrawn among their yellow trees, never dying, but never quite coming to maturity either.  The yellow trees vividly express their state.  Are mallorns the yellow of spring, or autumn?  Both, but not summer or winter.  I find them profoundly saddening.

Does anyone else remember that place in Daddy Long-legs when Jerusha Abbot has just read Wuthering Heights for the first time, and she cries from the heart: “How can there be a man like Heathcliff?”

I didn’t care for Heathcliff.  In fact, when I first read Wuthering Heights at age fifteen or so, I remember asking pretty much the same question in disgust.  Whatever floats your boat.  It’s just one of those things.  Wuthering Heights, or Jane Eyre.  Heathcliff, or Rochester.  A jar of Miracle Whip that has been left out in the sun for five hours, or fresh-whipped French egg mayonnaise made with real lemons.

Now that I’ve alienated half of you, I would like to bring up the delicate subject of CUTE SHY GUYS or perhaps, SULKY SMART GUYS WHO ARE SO COOL, or even NAKED WIZARDS IN THE BATHTUB in the fiction of Diana Wynne Jones.  I didn’t want to be the first, but . . .

I’m just going to assume that none of you (now that all the Wuthering Heights lovers have left the room; and at this point the straight men can go too, and anyone else so inclined) are so silly as to think I want to leave my my husband for 12-year-old enchanter in training.  What I’m talking about isn’t a fantasy roll in the hay, but personal magnetism.  Diana Wynne Jones does male mystique like no one else!

You will find very little overt romance or love in a typical Diana Wynne Jones novel.  Characters learn about each other, become friends, admire one another, understand one other (sometimes) and have adventures.  Then, rather abruptly from the reader’s perspective, they occasionally announce their engagement–or in the next book they happen to be married.  You could just say Jones doesn’t do lust and standard romantic conflict because her books are written for children who would say ick to those things.  I don’t think that’s the case.  I think she is simply inclined to hang her characters’ relationships on a more equivocal framework than “love story” because she finds that more interesting.

Writing about young people (and others whose lives are ruled by forces greater than themselves, like magic-users) gives Jones’ a lot of scope for this preference.  Some writers forget that not only are teenagers They of the Raging Hormones, but also They of the Raging Ideas, They of the Raging Anxiety As To How They Can Possibly Find A Place In The Adult World, Raging Creativity, Raging Independence, and the Raging Need Not To Turn Into Their Parents.  Most real teenagers aren’t looking around for a Prince or Princess Charming and a happy ending; they are too busy negotiating the relationships in front of them, doing battle with evil, and generally surviving.  These are the ones Jones writes about.

Teenagers!  All that raw energy going off in all directions!  A lot like magic.  As readers of fantasy know, unharnessed magic can be very dangerous.  It comes on you without warning.  You must learn to harness it.  You must learn how to live with it.  Remind you of anything else?  Despite the lack of overt romance and desire in her fiction, Jones’ books are not asexual.  Drama (good drama, not melodrama) is sexy.  The raw energy of adolescent self-definition is pure aphrodisiac.  Magic is hot.  Why?  Because like the best sex, each of these things creates a raised pitch of emotion, a sense of revelation, and a feeling of commonality.  A metaphor made in heaven.

I will not harp on the mallet-over-the-head trend to capitalize directly on this connection in certain popular fiction.  Diana Wynne Jones’ fantasy characters are a different breed.  They are real people first and foremost; they weren’t created as vehicles for magical sexiness, and they never do the same song and dance twice.  Jones can write a novel that appeals to a third grader for its sly humor and inventive plot.  An adult can read the very same book and find deep wells of motivation, multi-faceted characters, scenes full of teasing undercurrents.  That is Jones’ virtuosity.

In her essay (from a 1992 lecture) on heroes, she remarks, “I do find, myself, that the Hero, the protagonist, is the story. This is not to say that the other people in it are of no importance. Before I can write about anyone, I have to consider them as my close personal friends, even the Baddies.”

The more I read Diana Wynne Jones, the more flattered I am by her good opinion of her readers.  Whatever our age, without fail she treats us as if we were smart enough to take as much as we like from her books, be whoever we like in them, and scratch under the surface as deeply as we please–trusting us to find the way (or one of the ways) she has laid out for us.  She repays our enthusiastic blundering by packing her stories with ideas and crafting them on multiple levels.  Reading her comment on submerged alter egos in the essay mentioned above, I suspect she would take it for granted that it is possible both to want to be an eccentric wizard and find him hot at the same time.

Because it does not revolve around wanting a guy to ask you to the prom or turn you into a vampire, the sexiness in a Diana Wynne Jones novel not does not depend on your identifying with one character and desiring a different one.  (Readers aren’t known for their compliance in this department, but still.)  The sexy intensity is embedded in the story and everything that comes together to make it.  When the story is the hero, and the story is sexy, that makes the hero sexy too.

I can only speak from where I’m standing, so you will notice all of the following characters are male.  I don’t doubt there are readers crushing on Mig and Polly, but Jones happens to have a particularly fine hand with men and boys (for reasons that may become clearer if you read the essay I mentioned above), and she has written a lot of them.

So get comfortable and channel your inner fourteen-year-old.  Without further ado I bring you an incomplete list of–

The Hotties of Diana Wynne Jones

Jamie:  An intelligent urchin who gets handed the rawest of raw deals and turns out to have a backbone of steel and a heart of gold.  Triumphs over the odds then gives up his winnings.

Tom Lynn:  Shadowy, prickly professor who refuses to pull his intellectual punches, never condescends to youth, and still knows how to enter unabashedly into the delights of a pretend game.  The man with a secret sorrow.

Nick Mallory:  Here is a cocky trickster who, as a teenager, is willing to dance an impromptu witchy dance in public with his older girl cousin.  Astoundingly healthy self-image, clear goals, good sense, and no illusions about his mother!

Howl:  Gorgeous, mercurial, preening wizard who shelters his shrinking heart behind a multiplicity of just-barely-self-conciously humorous personae, and conceals his virtues from everyone, including himself.  The most powerful sorcerer, but off-handed with it.  Surprisingly good with kids.

Sirius:  Dispossessed angel.  Kindness perfected through suffering.  The empathetic sweetheart.  The otherworldly, perceptive male.  And sometimes is a dog.

Chrestomanci:  Ah, Chrestomanci!  (If I said it a third time I’d be in trouble.)  I am rendered nigh speechless.  Frock coat, I blurt.  Dressing gown.  Tangled mess all better.  Will recklessly risk his life(s) and his impeccable dignity in the pursuit of Sweet Magical Reason.  The steady hand on the pull-rope of the Deus Ex Machina.  The Maestro.  If you find competence sexy . . .  (Unfortunately also a married man.)

Conrad:  Harried, responsible teenager.  The underdog.  The good guy.  The unwilling rebel trying not to get taken for a ride.  Everyman.  With good hair.  In footman’s togs.

Dagner:  Unreliable artist.  The young tragedian with the fatal flaw.  If you ever went through your parents’ or older sibling’s record collection, found an old album with the face of a long-haired young man, played it, and suddenly understood that you were grown up and that the world was a sad place and poetry was its only hope . . .

Moril:  Down-to-earth mystic.  The worried, hardworking soul who attracts the Profoundest Magic.  A boy with his own concerns who tries, but will never quite be able, to give you his whole attention.  The craftsman.  The humble Lancelot.

The Ghost in Aunt Maria:  Harlequin.  Refracted personality.  A self-abnegating jester who knows all the tricks and tries to do what good he can, under the radar.  The martyr.

Charles Morgan:  Mastermind.  Cipher.  The Cold Face of Vengeance. . . and he wears glasses with the same threatening air as a shoulder-holster!

Rupert Venables:  My most recent addition.  I re-read Deep Secret a few months ago.  This time I was struck by his capacity for accurate self-assessment.  A bit of a stuffed shirt, but he knows it.  Prejudiced against tiresome people, but owns up to it as prejudice, and is willing to have his mind changed.  Proud of his magical ability, but justifiably so, and equally aware of his limitations.  I had no idea this quality could be so endearing!

So now my big question is: Who is your top Diana Wynne Jones heartthrob?  Is he on the list?  Did I miss one?

And one last:

How can there be an enchanter like Chrestomanci?

Harcourt, 2008

Finished: Feb 21?

Source: Fyrefly’s book blog

Genre: YA high fantasy

On the Scales: welterweight

I could have written an enthusiastic review when I first put this down–but that is several books ago now, and I am typing this in the middle of the night.  Insomnia is only bad if it it looms over you as an everyday fear.  I have it so rarely, it doesn’t bother me.  It helps that mine isn’t the awful “can’t get to sleep” kind, only the “eyes pop open at three in the morning” kind.  I used to lie staring into the dark for four hours when this happened, but this time I was smart.

What can I say about Graceling?  I waited for this book so long on the library queue, I kind of expected a let-down.  But it was really good.  I had some issues with the diction and rhythms, but I think that is just Cashore’s natural voice.  She isn’t tone deaf, her style just isn’t an English Folk Song.  There’s a bit of intentional dissonance.  What I would call verbal anachronisms, if she were going for that Renaissance Faire atmosphere.

I could tell you it is about a teenaged female assassin/warrior in a European-themed fantasy kingdom.  Katsa gets her powers through the delightful expedient of being “graced”–i.e. she doesn’t have to go through any rigorous, all-consuming martial arts training in order to be able to kill and/or disable crowds of strong men with little more than a few kicks and maybe a flick of her hair (though she does train, for fun), she can just do it.  Magically.  Because she has one blue eye and one green.  That’s how you know someone is “graced”  Other than not needing to train to get her magical fighting skills, she is basically a ninja in a dress.

She’s also a princess (though not a royal princess), and therefore the tool of her uncle, which she hates.  She’s not a killer or a torturer at heart.  She’s a Robin Hood.  She’s started a secret Robin Hoody organization to right injustices–not just in her uncle’s kingdom, but in the others, too.

The book isn’t about the Robin Hood stuff.  That’s just background, although it is a great device for explaining the pitfalls in autocratic forms of government, which is an interestingly handled theme throughout the book.  No, after the first section, in which the relevant man-boy shows up (he’s also “graced”) and gets to know Katsa, it a traditional survival trek fantasy, with a quest.

This makes it sound dumb.  It’s not!  I have a special admiration for stories that bring new life to old plots by populating them with rounded characters.  Judging by most first novels, it’s much easier to come up with an edgy concept and kill it dead in the telling.

Katsa’s tough-mindedness really stood out.  I loved it that she didn’t pull the “oh, love is the only thing that matters, I’ll never leave you” stunt, only to be tricked, cajoled, or bodily wrestled to safety, like most heroines.  Certain things do matter more than love, even in YA fantasy novels.  Katsa was true to her character to recognize it.  Cashore was true to herself for making her so.

And Katsa is the first girl I’ve ever seen in a YA novel who has decided that she does not wish to have children, and we are actually meant to believe her.  Are there others?  If so, tell me about them!  When girls in books say they don’t intend to be mothers, it’s never framed as self-knowledge.  Of course it can only be a temporary aversion to a stage of life they’re not ready for.  Adolescent hyperbole.  Sometimes a reflection of mental instability.

Intentional childlessness almost never comes up in adult novels, either.  Not explicitly.  For gay characters the issue is portrayed as one of many coming-out hurdles.  Once they’re out, friends and relatives stop assuming they are just being poky about settling down and starting a family.

Heterosexuals who decide not to have children are invisible.   This is true both in fiction and in life.  No wonder.  Why look for trouble?  The choice can be a minefield of social discomfort and misunderstanding.  Partly this is because people are much more familiar with childlessness as a result of infertility.  The deep grief this problem brings with it can make intentional childlessness feel like a slap in the face to those who long for a child.  It can erode a friendship even when both parties have the best intentions and are being terribly nice.

Aside from not wanting to go around unsuspectingly slapping people in the face, there are a lot of good reasons for the childless by choice to take the same option open to infertile couples, and simply decide to be private.  When most people hear the words, “We’ve / I’ve decided not to have children,” the words they really hear are:  “I’m emotionally damaged.  I hate kids.”

Adults deal with this the best they can.  There are helpful books.  The real shame is that, like Katsa with her deadly Grace, girls who truly know they are not interested in motherhood are left to assume they are monsters.

Po tilted his head at her.  “Do you dislike children?”

“I’ve never disliked the children I’ve met.  I’ve just never wanted them.  I haven’t wanted to mother them.  I can’t explain it.”

Katsa is an especially welcome role model because she does like kids.  Her relationship with the ten-year-old princess was great: a strong young woman and a strong young girl.  Although she is certainly emotionally damaged, I didn’t get the feeling her wish not to have children was a reflection of that.  Rather, it was the result of taking a look at who she was and what she wanted in life, and that is a good thing for teenagers to be doing.  I was convinced her preference was a forward-looking one that went along with her Robin Hooding and her will to make a place for herself in the world, not her regrets about her past.  Or maybe I am wrong: Cashore is going to take it all back, and Katsa will end up with a passel o’ young ‘uns that she secretly wanted.

Although I can identify less with Katsa’s views on marriage, those are interesting too:

[Spoiler Alert]

Alone in the forest, Katsa sat on a stump and cried.  She cried like a person whose heart is broken and wondered how, when two people loved each other, there could be such a broken heart.

She couldn’t have him, and there was no mistaking it.  She could never be his wife.  She would not steal herself back from Randa [her uncle] only to give herself away again–belong to another person, be answerable to another person, build her very being around another person.  No matter how she loved him.


What was the difference between a husband and a lover?  If she took Po as her husband, she would be making promises about a  future she couldn’t yet see.  For once she became his wife, she would be his wife forever.  And no matter how much freedom Po gave her, she would always know that it was a gift.  Her freedom would not be her own; it would be Po’s to give or withold.  That he never would withhold it made no difference.  If it did not come from her, it was not really hers.  If Po were her lover, would she still feel captured, cornered into a sense of forever?  Or would she still have the freedom that sprang from herself?

[End Spoiler]

Hm.  “Steal herself back,”  “give herself away,” “belong to another person.”  For Katsa, committed love seems to carry the danger of being owned.  I am married.  I like it.  I have never thought of it that way.  Maybe she is not such a good role model in the “nature of relationships” department.  She’s insisting on an an oddly passive, static definition of marriage for such an independent young woman.

I am also pretty disturbed  that she rates her freedom as something that it is in someone else’s power to withhold.  But I think it is awesome (and kind of cute, really) that she is is agonizing about these things before anything at all–ahem!–happens.  It is good to see characters making decisions about love for a change, instead of approaching it with an ideal of being swept away.

Which reminds me of something else.  Even though it’s distracting, I can’t help giving an amused mental cheer whenever a YA novel stops in the middle of getting all hot and bothered to make a nerdy point of mentioning birth control.  How do you feel about that?  Do you think it’s just annoying?

One thing that defintely annoys me is how every traditional YA fantasy world that addresses such things seems to have some common leaf to chew or some berry to eat that infallibly prevents conception, with no side effects. Credulity is strained.  If only it had ever been that easy on this planet.

Another minor annoyance: I guessed the result of the Prince Po’s fall at the earliest possible moment.  Earlier than was intended.  The irony it promised with his particular Grace was just too shiny for an author to resist, and too obvious for a jaded reader of YA fantasy not to see coming.

Hero’s Song by Edith Pattou

February 12, 2010

Harcourt, 1991

Finished: February 11, 2010

Source: library shelves

Genre: YA high fantasy

On the scales: featherweight

I have been falling asleep to this book on and off since December.  In a nutshell, Hero’s Song is YA fantasy culled from Tolkien and a jumble of Celtic–particularly Irish–mythology.  Perhaps that’s why I couldn’t give up on it: there’s something so fresh and fearless about Pattou’s authorial hero worship.  If you’re going to imitate, why not imitate the best?

Writers of fantasy have been pillaging Middle Earth as long as its been around.  They joke and bluster and spatter blood to cover their tracks, but the one thing they never manage to get their hands on is the one thing they could really use: Tolkien’s cadence.  Pattou is different.  She grasps the mythic style.  She borrows reverently and (I think) unconsciously.  Hero’s Song was her first novel, and reading it was a bit like watching a baby fantasist taking her first steps.  It’s a book I would have liked to like.

Here’s the problem: I read Fire Arrow, the sequel to Hero’s Song, when my life was in post-college chaos.  You know how the right fantasy novel at the right time can give you an escape and a grounding the same time?

I wouldn’t mind repeating the experience, but it’s not going to happen.  Pattou selects formidably rich source material.  It overshadows her storytelling.  She also has a tendency to lay on the “realistic” details.

I could barely finished her third novel East of the Sun, either.  In East of the Sun the protagonist is a weaver.  I am a weaver.  I hadn’t yet learned to weave when I read the book, and even then–just because I sewed and liked cloth–I could tell Ms. Pattou didn’t know what the heck she was talking about.  She strewed craftswomanly sounding jargon with such a free hand that it immediately rang false, and the time frame for completing projects was just plain bizarre.  Anyone who had done a smidge of needlework, or even thought about how it might be done, would have realized as much.

It’s no fun being embarrassed for an author.  Has that happened to you?  I’m not saying writers need to become experts on a thing before they can put it in a story, I just wish they would read a couple of books about it and be careful.

In Hero’s Song, the Hero Raised In Obscurity is a teenaged gardener and a self-taught herbalist.  Setting aside for a moment the notion of a boy herbalist producing cures for third degree Fire Wurm burns and full-body sword slashes out of such everyday plants as comfrey and mallow, let me just say the gardening itself is really silly.

It’s like one of those bad old movies where the actor is supposed to be playing a musical instrument he has no idea how to play in real life, and he just waggles his hands around it.

Pattou knows the words “mulch” and “heliotrope.”  And she knows you bend and sweat a lot.  She’s definitely watched someone gardening.  But I don’t think she was paying much attention to what time of year it was, why they were doing what they were doing, or whether a country boy in what looks a whole lot like ancient Ireland would be staking tomatoes at all.

Reluctant to leave his gentle gardener’s life, Collun must go in search of his missing sister.  What follows is a lot of not-very-well-planned questing with a variety of companions: the love interest, the young poet Talisen, Crann the wizard, a stray member of the lately-reclusive elf race known as “Ellyl” (with a tame giant cat-wolf), and a prince.  There are episodes at a tavern, in malevolent woods, in elfland (which reminded me of Pope’s Perilous Guard), at court, and in a labyrinth.

Collun and his companions do their best to evade the band of Scathians and “morgs” who are mysteriously tracking them.  The morg are a race of monstrous creatures whom Queen Medb has welcomed into the unfriendly neighboring kingdom of Scath.  When I reached the set piece where Collun first meets the bad guys, I almost chucked the book:

The Scathians were thick and muscular and wore rough, travel-stained clothing.  They spoke in loud, slurred voices, punctuated by bursts of coarse laughter.  For the most part they used the language of Eirren, though with the gutteral accent of the Scathian dialect.

But there was one among them who did not speak at all.  He wore a long cloak.  Despite the warmth of the room.  He had the hood pulled up over his head.  It kept his face shadowed.  He sat back in his chair, almost motionless.  Now and again he lifted a long black cheroot to his shadowed moth.  Collun could see that his skin was gray, and he had only three fingers.

Pattou’s writing grows less clichéd as the book progresses. Talisen may have been lifted wholesale from Celtic literature, but his good natured boasts kept charming me when I least expected it.  In one poetic passage, the wizard Crann explains the world’s theory of magic.

The book has its moments, but while the writing grows less clichéd, the action doesn’t.  Another almost-chuck point was when Crann plummets over an precipice locked in mortal combat.

You can get clues from her choice of names.  There’s a whole etymology.  Just convert unvoiced C to voiced G and vice versa from time to time.




Scythia was the area of ancient Eurasia inhabited by the nomadic Scythians–ancient Greeks saw them as barbarians.  To Scathe is to hurt or wound.  Scath, Scathians: Pattou’s bad guys.

Medb is the same as Maeve from the The Ulster Cycle

Ellyl for elves may reach a little farther.  Aillil is the name of that bad queen Maeve’s lover and second husband in the Tain.  No apparent connection to the fairy race, except that the name may have stuck in the author’s head.  But there’s also Lilith, Adam’s first wife in Jewish and Christian folk tradition, related to the Sumerian “lil” or air, and from there to a whole host evil storm goddesses, demons, and sexy things that fly in and get you while you’re asleep with similar sounding names.  People of the air.  Fairies.  Elves.  Ellyl.

Morlocks, Michael Moor(g=c)ock, Morgan Le Fay, Morgana, The Morrigan (bad Irish goddess with evil crows, which show up as “scald crows” in Hero’s Song).  Or even more likely:




I could go on and on.  Once I started making spurious etymologies I could drum up enough interest to finish the book.  I am a naughty reader.  I take full blame for my time wastage.  I should have been reading Proust.