Tag Archives: fantasy

Begone the Raggedy Witches by Celine Kiernan

Mup has always taken her Aunty’s rules for granted (don’t go into the forest, don’t talk about your grandmother). After all, she lives a safe, comfortable life with her parents and little brother Tipper. But then her Aunty passes away and the raggedy witches appear and Mup’s dad disappears. Suddenly nothing is safe or comfortable, and Mup and her family must be courageous and strong if they’re going to get their dad back.

Begone the Raggedy Witches (Candlewick, 2018) is written by Celine Kiernan, an Irish author. Although it’s not mentioned specifically, I believe the story is mostly set in Ireland. As far as I know, the story is not based on a specific folktale, but it does feel infused with deep folk beliefs and images (a bit like Tiffany Aching). Likewise, Kiernan trusts her readers to follow her into another world without specifically calling it fairyland. I liked this approach a lot; it allows the story to stand independently while also giving the imagery a feeling of depth and meaning. I also found it kind of a fresh take on a portal fantasy.

Mostly, I really loved Mup and her determination. When she knows she’s going into the realm of the raggedy witches, she dresses in her brightest, shiniest clothes in a little bit of defiance. And this moment is a nice example of the courage she shows throughout the story. But she also cares deeply about her family and the people she meets, especially those who have no one else to care about them. I got the sense that she really wants to understand people and why they approach the world the way they do. The character-building here is fantastic and since I am almost always a character-driven reader, I really appreciated this.

There is a lot of complexity in Begone the Raggedy Witches, between the fraught history between Mup’s mother and her Aunty and the political and social tensions in Witches’ Borough. And Kiernan doesn’t water this down for kids at all. There’s a lot of thought about what it means to be complicit in someone else’s horrible actions and what it happens when you take away someone else’s choices even out of good intentions. But it’s also a hopeful book, with an emphasis on renewal and regeneration. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, but there are some lovely scenes about the return of magic that worked really well for me.

Scary books seem to be popular with kids right now, and this one would be great to recommend to a kid who doesn’t truly want to be scared but doesn’t mind something a little bit creepy. The raggedy witches are pretty terrifying at first, and the evil Queen of Witches’ Borough (who also happens to be Mup’s grandmother) is spine-chilling. The consequences are pretty real and not everything is happily resolved by the end. But it would be perfect for the reader who’s comfortable with a mature look at power in a fantasy world, with some funny moments and an overall empowering feel.

Finally, I really loved Kiernan’s prose in this book. There’s a crisp vividness to the descriptions and everything stays grounded in Mup’s perspective which helps the reader discover the world as she does. It’s poetic in maybe my favorite sense: not necessarily flowery but with a turn of phrase that illuminates and makes everything strange and beautiful. This was just a lovely read, from the gorgeous cover through to the ending.

Other reviews:
Charlotte (who, unsurprisingly, also liked it)
Kate Forsyth
Celine Kiernan answers some questions

Previously, on By Singing Light:
Queen’s Thief Week: Myths in The Thief (2012)
Bujold Week: Brothers in Arms (2014)
The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein (2015)
Booklist: Books that have been helping me lately (2017)


Filed under bookish posts, reviews

Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand

cover of Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand

Sawkill Rock is an island and a world unto itself, but it’s also a place where girls keep disappearing. Marion, Valerie, and Zoey meet on the Rock, each containing her own secrets and desires. But an ancient evil is stalking the girls and they must face the price that stopping it will demand.

I haven’t read all of Claire Legrand’s books by any means, but I find her an interesting author and this title was getting some praise from people I trust, so I decided to give it a try.

Sawkill Girls is an interesting beast of a book. (I mean that fairly literally, as it’s almost 500 pages long.) It clearly has a lot to Say, about the violence and horrors that teenage girls face, the expectations and the boxes they are made to fit themselves into. At the same time, I felt that the book faltered a bit under the weight of that message. Like Legrand’s other 2018 release, Furyborn, it seems like this is trying to be a fiercely feminist book, and there are ways it hits that goal and ways that, at least for me, it falls somewhat short.

Part of it is the question I find myself asking a lot recently: who is this book for? Is it an empowering story for teenage girls? Or is it for adult women who want to read an empowering story about teenage girls? Who would find it resonant and who would find themselves left out? I don’t have clear answers to these questions, partly because neither group is a monolith, but I kept thinking about the ways that many teens are constantly aware of the world they face. Would this story give them strength, or would it point out what they already know?

Sawkill Girls is about three girls: Marion, Zoey, and Val. They are summed up as “the new girl,” “the pariah,” and “the queen bee.” Over the course of the book, we learn their many secrets and these roles become more complicated and fraught. But I struggled with this a bit because I didn’t see them ever become fully fleshed out people. The characterization just felt a bit thin, and although the way the girls inhabit those initial roles is called into question, I still felt that they were limited by them.

I do appreciate that although the Collector is the main antagonist, the Hand of Light–a group of men who uses up girls to fight monsters–also becomes a clear villain. It reminded us that sometimes the greatest danger is from ordinary people who seemingly have good intentions. But I wished that on the converse, we saw the strength of ordinary girls, not simply extraordinary ones.

I also appreciated that we see ways that women participate in harming other women and in some ways this is the most subtle part of the story. I was less entirely convinced by the turnaround we see with one of the characters, and the way the other characters accept her change of heart, but it’s still interesting to see this strand teased out across different characters and generations.

This is certainly a powerful story–it is genuinely creepy and terrifying and I am still thinking about it and arguing with it several days after finishing it. But I can’t help feeling that something about the literal en-monstering of dark violence against girls and the way the characters don’t ever quite shed the types they’ve been cast as doesn’t quite sit well with me.

This may be a result of the expectations the aim of the book sets up, and I may be unfair here. After all, there’s not only one right way to write a feminist story and what doesn’t resonate with me might easily be really important to another reader. And yet, I can’t help thinking that the empowerment shown here is just a little too easy and surface-level. So, I don’t know. Ultimately, I’m very torn on this one!


Other reviews of Sawkill Girls:

Ana Grilo at Tor.com

Mavesh Murad also at Tor.com

Faerie on the shelf


My previous reviews of Claire Legrand:

Some Kind of Happiness (2016)

Furyborn (2018)


Previously, on By Singing Light:

The Map of My Dead Pilots by Colleen Mondor (2012)

Bujold Week: Cordelia’s Honor (2014)

Reading Notes: Ivory by Doris Egan (2015)

A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston (2016)

Favorite adult books of 2016 (2017)

Recovery Reading: Sarah Caudwell (2018)


Filed under bookish posts, reviews

December 2018 reading

I was in the middle of a reading slump for most of December, so I really didn’t get as many books finished as I wanted. But I did go out with some pretty strong titles!

Also, some of you know that I had surgery last December–I finally wrote up everything that happened and shared it. If you’d like to learn more, that document is here.

Mistletoe and Murder Robin Stevens 12.27 175

Arabella Georgette Heyer 12.25 174

For a Muse of Fire Heidi Heilig 12.24 173

The Song of Achilles Madeleine Miller 12.22 172

Cousin Kate Georgette Heyer 12.18 171

The Word for World is Forest Ursula K Le Guin 12.18 170

Keeper of the Isis Light Monica Hughes 12.12 169

The House on Chicken Legs Sophie Anderson 12.11 168

When You Reach Me Rebecca Stead 12.7 167

Lumberjanes v. 7 12.6  164-166

Lumberjanes v. 8

Lumberjanes v. 9


Total books read: 12

Total rereads: 3 (When You Reach Me; Cousin Kate; Arabella)


  • For a Muse of Fire
  • The Song of Achilles

1 Comment

Filed under bookish posts, monthly book list

The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson and Keeper of the Isis Light by Monica Hughes

I’m still in the middle of a reading slump, but I wanted to write quick reviews for a couple of books that I did manage to finish recently. Neither were quite to my taste, just fyi!

Also, I wrote a newsletter recently about some 2018 favorites, not including books. If that’s of interest to you, check it out!

The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson

Marinka has grown up as a Yaga, traveling around the world with her Baba in their house with chicken legs. But that doesn’t mean she’s happy about becoming the next Guardian and guiding the souls of the dead. When she makes some rebellious choices and things don’t pan out the way she hoped, Marinka is left to figure what her place in the world can be.

I have a longstanding affection for the Baba Yaga stories, and therefore any take on that folktale has some interest for me. Also, I think some people I follow on Twitter liked this one, though now that I’m saying it, I don’t remember who they were.

Anyway, The House With Chicken Legs has an interesting premise and take on the folktale, with the Yagas becoming a loosely connected group who guide the souls of the recently dead to the next world. Within that premise, though, I struggled with a couple of aspects. First, if the Yagas truly travel through the whole world, I wasn’t sure why they would all have Eastern European names and apparent backgrounds. For myself, I really wanted some more depth and consideration when it came to the worldbuilding. Second, I found the general emotional tone and arc of this story to be fairly muddled. It wasn’t always clear to me why Marinka responded to events the way she did, and a lot of times she seemed to be rebelling against something without it being clear what that was. Because of this, the emotional payoff just wasn’t there for me, unfortunately.

If the premise sounds interesting, I’d still recommend giving this one a try. It’s entirely possible that it caught me on a grumpy day, or just wasn’t the book for me.

Keeper of the Isis Light by Monica Hughes

Olwen lives on the planet Isis with her Guardian, the only two people in the whole world. The landscape is dangerous, but she follows her Guardian’s rules and plays with her pet, Hobbit. Then a ship full of new humans arrives to settle the planet, just as Olwen leaves childhood behind. Suddenly everything she thought she knew about her world, the Guardian, and herself are called into question.

I’ve been trying to read some of the older books on my TBR list, and I knew this one was considered somewhat of a classic.

As it turns out, I’ve got a bunch of problems with this one! It’s startling to me to realize that it was only published in 1980, as it feels much more old-fashioned–and not in a remotely good way. There’s literally a magical negro child (aka the only one who understands Olwen) who is also described in fairly racialized language, Olwen herself is sexualized in a way that reads as really, really creepy in this year of 2018. And of course Olwen’s awakening to the differences between her and the other humans happens in large part because she falls in love with one of the teenage boys who’s part of the settlement.

All in all, while there a few interesting ideas in the mix, this book mostly just felt regressive and frustrating to me. On the other hand, I revisited The Book Smugglers’ review and Thea had a much different perspective than I did, so if you’d like to check out a positive take on this title, read what she has to say.


Previously, on By Singing Light:
An Inheritance of Ashes by Leah Bobet (2015)
The Mountain of Kept Memory by Rachel Neumeier (2016)


Filed under bookish posts, reviews

November 2018 books

The Death of Mrs Westaway Ruth Ware 11.29

This was on the NPR Book Concierge and it sounded like the kind of mystery I’d like. It was! I’m always a sucker for the “assuming someone’s identity” trope, and Ware plays nicely with that here. I also liked Harriet a lot. It feels very old-fashioned on several levels, I think intentionally, and I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about that aspect.

Pride Ibi Zoboi 11.29  (review tomorrow)

Girl at the Grave Teri Bailey Black 11.25 [review]

Darius the Great is Not Okay Adib Khorram 11.17  [review]

The Language of Power Rosemary Kirstein 11.16  [review]

Mariam Sharma Hits the Road Sheba Karim 11.14  [review]

Making Friends Kristen Gudsnuk 11. 9  

The Witch Boy Molly Knox Ostertag 11.8 

The Proposal Jasmine Guillory 11.9  [review]

Titanic: Voices from the Disaster Deborah Hopkinson 11.7  [review]


Total books read: 10

Total rereads: 0


  • Darius the Great is Not Okay
  • Pride
  • Witch Boy

Weekly reading roundups:

I kind of stopped doing the weekly roundups towards the end of this month, but I could be persuaded to try them again if anyone is interested!


Filed under bookish posts, monthly book list, reviews

The Language of Power by Rosemary Kirstein

Reunited with her friend Bel, the steerswoman Rowan is once more on the trail of the wizard Slado. But when her enquiries lead her to the place Slado learned magic, she encounters another figure from her past and finally learns some of the answers to her questions–although the consequences are not what she expects.

The Language of Power by Rosemary Kirstein is the fourth and last published book in the Steerswoman series. I’ve read the first three previously, and wanted to get to the end of the current series to see if Rowan finally figures out what is happening.

Overall, this wasn’t a full resolution to the questions and conflicts of the series. But since I know that Kirstein is hoping to eventually release at least a fifth book, I was at least prepared for this to be the case. And there is enough of an answer that it doesn’t feel like wasted effort to read.

One of the things I’ve liked about these books is that Rowan is depicted as a competent character, overall assured of her purpose and place in the world. She knows what her values are and attempts to live by them to the best of her ability. Most of the tension comes from either her search for Slado or those moment when she’s not able to live by those values.

All of that adds up to a book and series which straddle genre lines–part fantasy, part science fiction, part mystery–and which is not quite plot-driven and not quite character-driven. This may sound like a criticism, but I mean it as an explanation; this is a story which embraces ambiguity and which keeps the reader guessing about its ultimate goals and intentions. It certainly won’t be for everyone, but I suspect the readers who have found it and love it do so with a quietly fervent passion.

That being said, I do feel that the plot was slightly annoying here because it relies on a twist that has been used several other times in the series. And while it could be that this is purposeful and significant, it felt more to me like lazy storytelling.

However, in terms of the broader picture, I do feel that enough of the lingering questions have been answered that I’m okay leaving the series here for now. Hopefully Kirstein will be able to release more books in the series, but if that doesn’t happen, the story still feel relatively complete.

(There’s quite a bit more I could say but it would be full of spoilers, so I’ll leave it for now.)

All in all, while this isn’t a series I would push on everyone, I do hope that it finds more readers. It’s a fascinating look at a world that’s driven by ideas and knowledge, an interesting older female character who’s competent & assured and never punished for that, and some interesting twists and turns along the way. If that sounds like it might be your thing, do give these a try and let me know what you think!


Other books in the series:

The Steerswoman

The Outskirter’s Secret

The Lost Steersman


1 Comment

Filed under bookish posts, reviews

A Scholar of Magics by Caroline Stevermer

Samuel Lambert is an American sharpshooter who is hired by the Glasscastle College of Magic to conduct tests on a mysterious new weapon. Jane Brailsford is a witch of Greenlaw who arrives in Glasscastle to visit her brother and to call on the new warden of the west. When it becomes clear that someone means harm towards the college, Lambert and Jane must form an alliance to uncover the truth of what’s happening.

A Scholar of Magics (Tor, 2004) is a loosely tied sequel to A College of Magics, which I reread recently. So I thought I’d try rereading this one while the first book was still relatively fresh in my mind. It could probably be read as a standalone book, although it clearly happens after the events of A College of Magics and I think having the context of that book would probably be helpful.

Looking back over my reading history with this duology, I seem to have flip-flopped several times in my opinion about which of these books is better. I can’t say that I’ve made a final & forever choice, but I do know that I found myself significantly disappointed in A Scholar of Magics, mostly because of what it fails to think about or address.

First, and perhaps most importantly, this is a book that occurs at the beginning of the aeroplane, at the beginning of the automobile. Part of the plot is explicitly about the development of new and worse weapons. And not once does anyone stop to think that perhaps this is…a problem. There’s a steadfast looking-away from the results of the real weapons that were in development, in the fact that in a few years the real countries that are part of this world would be embroiled in World War I. It’s a weirdly regressive attitude that was very frustrating to encounter.

But it gets even worse, because the weapon that is being designed and tested (the mysterious “Agincourt Device”) is said to be necessary for the defense of the empire. And look, sure, I understand that Stevermer is to a certain extent replicating historical attitudes. But the British Empire was evil. Its effects were not benign. And the lack of any point of view characters to challenge that attitude, aside from a throw-away line at the very end about an excess of patriotism, is really troubling in a book that was published only fourteen years ago. We have no characters who push back on this, no characters who represent anything other than an upper-class British imperialistic view. Even Lambert, who supposedly acts as the underdog in this story (more on that later) is happy to go along with the whole idea. He never stops to ask who they’ll be using this weapon on.

So, that was all really frustrating and annoying and made me not really like any of the characters very much. And I don’t think this was an intentional choice. I think it was a flaw that historical fantasy often falls into: in attempting to recreate a time and place, the attitudes and prejudices that we associate with that time and place are also recreated, without thought or care for the readers.

Also, there are a lot of stereotypes of Native people in America which made me even more uncomfortable. It’s like Stevermer was writing in tropes and cliches in this book; although she theoretically makes gestures at subverting them, this never comes off. The whole treatment of America was a weird take, with Lambert feeling self-conscious simply because he is American, and Stevermer seeming to vacillate wildly between “we’re more cultured than you think” and “yes of course I should feel inferior to all of you civilized people.”

But also, this book really struggles under the weight of that sensitivity and self-consciousness of Lambert’s. The idea of that thread of the story–that an outsider comes to the college, feeling they don’t have a place and finding one for themself after all–is really lovely. But the fact that Lambert is a straight white man with education and marketable skills who keeps getting cast as the underdog sits uncomfortably with me. If Lambert had been in literally any other demographic, this could have been a lovely & empowering story. I don’t doubt that Americans were often looked down on, especially the non-millionaires. But really! There’s just so little self-awareness here that it made this storyline painful.

So, I think there are a lot of flaws with the parts of the story that go unsaid and operate underneath the surface of the plot (is there a term for this? It seems like there should be, other than subtext which is not exactly what I mean?). But I have to admit that I also just think this is not as well written as A College of Magics, which has truly beautiful passages of prose. I didn’t find that here, although it’s possible I simply wasn’t in sympathy enough with the book to feel them.

I guess it’s pretty obvious that this isn’t a book I’d necessarily recommend at this point. If you like the whole idea of being a scholar of magics but from a marginalized perspective, I highly recommend Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown.

See also:

Reading Notes: A College of Magics by Caroline Stevermer


Previously, on By Singing Light

A Brief History of Montmaray (2011)
Pegasus (2010)
The Queen of Attolia (2009)



Filed under bookish posts, reviews