Tag Archives: historical fantasy

Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman

I am finding it hard to know exactly where to start this post, because I don’t know where to start with this book. So, okay: I read Tess of the Road because I loved Seraphina, and because I kept hearing people talk about how amazing Tess was. At first the story felt slow; I felt almost impatient with Tess and her hurt and anger, a bit confused about what all the people who loved this book saw in it. But as Tess kept walking, I kept reading. Something pulled me forward. And as Tess’s journey progressed, I absolutely fell in love with the book and with her. I’m not sure I’ve done at all a good job of conveying how much I loved this book and how much it means to me, even now remembering reading it. But it’s always harder to write about the books that you truly love, that work themselves into your heart.

For one thing, the writing itself is a delight. There are riffs on madrigals, sly allusions to the Psalms, Tolkien, and probably some others that I’ve now forgotten. While the descriptions of the landscape that Tess walks through never overtake the main narrative in importance, there are moments of real loveliness. Like this one: “The sun began to rise in earnest; Tess loved the way it illuminated treetops first, turning the foliage white-gold. The sky behind was warmly blue, and in the west a gibbous moon lingered in the branches like a pale fish caught in a net.” There’s a wit and warmth even in the narration that’s hard to put into words but which helps to make the story what it is.

I was also charmed and disarmed to realize how much of the book is about philosophy. I can’t think of another historical fantasy off the bat that shows the medieval/renaissance conflict of philosophies so clearly and considering how much time people of those eras spent arguing about Ideas, this seems wrong. There’s a whole section where Tess argues with a nun, Mother Philomela, about attitudes towards the body. It’s important from a character building perspective, but it’s also there because our underlying beliefs do influence our personal journeys, our attitudes towards others and ourselves. I love it.

(There are sort of vague emotional spoilers in the rest of this review; not specific plot points but some of the emotional payoff. If you would like to avoid them, stop reading now!)

At the beginning of the book, Tess is locked in a self-destructive and bitter cycle, fueled by her past and her mother’s dislike of her. The catalyst that gets her out of her parents’ house and onto the Road forces her into self-examination whether she likes it or not. Ultimately, this story is one of growth, of healing. It doesn’t take place instantly, nor does it feel finished at the end. And yet, the Tess at the end of the book is so much more herself than the Tess at the beginning. We see her unshrivel herself as she walks.

This is also a book about kindness, but not a passive “be nice” sort of kindness. One of the key things that keeps resonating in ways spoken and unspoken is that kindness is “hard to manage if you were filled with the brim to bitterness.” It’s not enough to be a Nice Person, or to be reflexively polite. Neither is it enough to make yourself smaller to make others feel better. What Tess of the Road posits is an active kindness, acts of kindness that come not because you’re doing it deliberately in order to be kind but almost exactly because you’re not. Because each small choice to reach out, to uncurl yourself a little bit from your own pain and see someone else is real and vital and echoes through the world.

At the same time, there is no simple happy ending. There is healing and courage and kindness and all kinds of lovely, vital things. But there are some wounds that aren’t fixed on the pages of this book; they may be some day, but for now they remain. It’s not that everything is fine now, but that Tess has the tools and the inner strength to deal with them. In that sense the ending reminded me a bit of the ending of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Mercy (also a story about healing and identity and companionship): “There is always more after the ending. Always the next morning, and the next. Always changes, losses and gains. Always one step after the other.”

This tension isn’t accidental, since the book contains at its heart this quigutl idea of -utl, a suffix containing the thing and its opposite. A life lived in joy-utl, which is to say joyful sorrow, or sorrowful joy. (Which are, as it happens, EXTREMELY Orthodox ideas.) No false promises of happily ever after here, but the next part of the journey and the next bit of the Road.

 

Other reviews of Tess of the Road:
Amal El-Mohtar for NPR (honestly, read this one; she says basically everything that I wanted to)
The Book Smugglers
Caitlin Kelly at Hypable

My review of Seraphina (2012)

Previously on By Singing Light:
Star’s End by Cassandra Rose Clarke (2017)
Elizabeth Wein Reading Notes: A Coalition of Lions (2016)
Diana Wynne Jones Reading Notes: Hexwood (2015)
The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (2014)
Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein (2013)
 

 

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April 2018 reading

 

Down Among the Sticks and Bones Seanan McGuire 4.28
Blood Road Amanda McCrina 4.28
Aru Shah and the End of Time Roshani Chokshi 4.28
New Shoes Sara Varon 4.28
Be Prepared Vera Brosgol 4.26
Becoming Madeleine by Charlotte Jones Voiklis and Léna Roy 4.21
Binti: Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor 4.20
Hamster Princess: Whiskerella by Ursula Vernon 4.19
The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison 4.19 (reread)
White Road of the Moon Rachel Neumeier 4.16
Shadowhouse Fall Daniel J Older 4.15
Step Aside Pops Kate Beacon 4.9
Hark a Vagrant Kate Beaton 4.9
Emperor of Mars Patrick Samphire 4.7
Acquiring the Mind of Christ Arch. Sergius Bowyer 4.6
Rise of the Jumbies Tracey Baptiste 4.6
Bird Angela Johnson 4.2
Cobalt Squadron Elizabeth Wein 4.1

Total books read: 18
Total rereads: 3 (The Goblin Emperor, Step Aside Pops, Hark a Vagrant)

Favorites:

  • Cobalt Squadron
  • Rise of the Jumbies
  • Whiskerella
  • The Night Masquerade
  • Becoming Madeleine
  • Be Prepared

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Recover Reading: non-mysteries

I didn’t only read mysteries while I was recovering, even though it might seem that way. Here’s a quick round-up of some of the other books I went through!

I had read In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan in its original incarnation, as a serial published on her blog. So when the book was announced, I was excited to revisit it, but also curious about how the story might change in a different form. As it turns out, the heart of Elliot, Luke, and Serene’s journey remains unchanged, but the book is significantly revised and expanded from the original. It remains one of my favorite recent takes on portal fantasies and just as hilarious and heart-rending/warming as I remembered.

Then I picked up The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis, which I didn’t enjoy as much as I had expected. I was looking for a Hornblower/Aubrey-esque airship escapade, and I do think that’s what it wanted to be. But for me it seemed a bit too grim and the characters never quite solidified. However, several people I generally trust thought it was great, so I do recommend checking it out if a female captain of an airship sounds like a hook you’d be into.

I’ve been reading through Helen Oyeyemi’s backlist and–going strictly off of what was available on Overdrive at that moment–picked up What is Not Yours is Not Yours. While I think I prefer the spooled-out surrealness of Oyeyemi’s novels, this was overall a pretty strong short story collection. I especially liked the way characters from one story would appear in another, lending a sense of cohesion and purpose to the book.

Since Frances Hardinge is one of my favorite authors, a new book by her is always an exciting time! Her latest, A Skinful of Shadows, is strange and sad and lovely–not surprising, from Hardinge. Though I found the historical aspect of the setting less potent than Cuckoo Song or The Lie Tree, I loved Makepeace and her bear, as well as the shape the story took. Surprising and hopeful and lovely.

I had tried reading Emmy & Oliver by Robin Benway at least once before and hadn’t managed to finish it. This time I kept going and was mostly rewarded. I liked it quite a lot, except that the story seemed somewhat awkwardly caught between wanting to be a light teen romance and wanting to explore some deeper and harder relationships between parents and children. Ultimately I’m not entirely sure how I felt about it as a whole, but I don’t regret reading it.

Finally, I picked up Suffer Love by Ashley Herring Blake. I had mixed feelings about a couple of aspects of Hadley’s characterization, but overall I really liked the way Blake took a somewhat implausible plot and used it as a base to explore different kinds of relationships and growth. It wasn’t always an easy or comfortable read but I did appreciate it–a good one for teens looking for a story that’s a little challenging in terms of theme.

 

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The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar

There are lots of fine books in the world, but every so often there’s a book that just reaches out and grabs me in a very particular way: from start to finish, in a way that lingers long afterwards. The Winged Histories was one of those books, a thing so lovely that I’m still amazed by it, and moved by it in ways that I’m not entirely sure I can articulate.

I read Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria back in 2015 and I was excited when I heard there was a sequel coming out. The Winged Histories is actually a loose companion; it has a different feel and concern than the first book, but takes place in the same world and (if I’m right about this) about the same time as well. But whereas Jevick’s story is obviously about a stranger, and about a man, The Winged Histories is about four women in Olondria itself–though the issue of what is and is not Olondrian actually lies at the heart of the book.

The Winged Histories is divided into four sections, four books, four narratives from four different women. Each narrative has a different voice and perspective; they all sit near each other with the tension of stanzas in a poem, clearly connected and in conversation with each other, but not simply a continuation. The formality of the structure (each book has its own title, an epigraph which comes from within the narrative, and an impersonal relation of relevant history) contrasts with the incredibly personal nature of the narratives themselves.

Samatar is a poet, so it’s not surprising that I thought of poetic structure here, or that just now I thought of the connection between this kind of narrative and confessional poetry. That poetic quality is also very much on display in the sentence level writing which is so astonishingly beautiful in places that I can hardly stand it.

Also, the sense of history and politics and the way the personal and political interact with each other adds up to a world that feels so lived in and real. I believed in Kestenya and its desire for freedom; in the religion of the Stone and the complicated motivations of those who follow it; in the family dynamics that haunt the different stories. The balance of detail and scope can be a hard one to get right, but here it seemed right.

I know I pointed about above that this is a story about four women, but one of the things that I adored here is that it’s not just a story about these four women. There are men here, certainly, but there are women everywhere: mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, lovers. And they all have different views about the world and themselves and their place. One advantage of this overlapping narrative is the ability to show the tensions within a society, where the fault lines lie. This is not a story of simple female solidarity, by any means, but it is a story that’s centered on women and their lives, showing them in relationship to each other in a way that feel really true.

I kept putting this book down while reading it, not because I was bored, but because it was so much that I wanted to absorb it slowly. And I think the beginning could be a bit confusing, because Samatar drops us down into the middle of the world as Tavis herself experiences it. (There is a glossary in the back, which can help.) But mostly, I encourage setting the confusion aside and reading a little further, because the story here is wild and sweet and sharp and beautiful, with a sense of place and characters who make the work of reading entirely worthwhile.

Book source: public library

Book information: 2016, Small Beer Press; adult fantasy

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Masks and Shadows by Stephanie Burgis

masks and shadowsMasks and Shadows is Stephanie Burgis’s latest book, out this month. She’s a favorite author of mine–I absolutely loved the Kat Stephenson series–and someone I really enjoy on Twitter a well. Masks and Shadows is her first adult novel, and I was very curious to read it and see that switch.

Like the Kat books, this is a historical fantasy. It’s set in 1779, in the court of Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy–another reason I was interested to read this one, since I couldn’t think of many other historical fantasies set in Hungary. The story takes place against a backdrop of a tumultuous political era, with many of the tensions appearing in the microcosm of the Esterhazy court. But it also weaves in the personal stories of Carlo Morelli, a renowned castrato singer, and Charlotte von Steinbeck, a widow and a new arrival to court. And there’s some really creepy magic, which probably didn’t happen. (Right?)

At first I was a bit taken aback because my impression had been that this book was focused on Carlo and Charlotte. As it turns out, there are actually a number of narrators! Once I adjusted my expectations there, I ended up really liking this story. It’s a complex and twisty plot with different threads that all come together at the end. And I did like several of the characters (the ones we’re meant to) quite a bit, especially Charlotte.

One of the things I really appreciated was the way Burgis depicted the society of the time, with its arranged marriages, acknowledged mistresses, and intrigues, while also giving us a character who is both part of that society and who also longs for something different. Both Carlo and Charlotte are, in their own ways, dependent on others, and they have a similar journey to finding a way to each other and to the life they actually want to live.

There’s also a lot of lovely writing about opera here. I happen to be an opera fan, personally, so I’m not sure how this would read to someone less interested in that aspect. Haydn is a minor character, and the whole plot hinges on the performance of one of his operas. Music is also the way that Charlotte and Carlo initially connect, as Charlotte’s talent allows Carlo to see beyond her conventional facade. There’s a clear sense of the love of music, especially opera, and its power, which I really liked.

[this paragraph is maybe slightly spoilery] I found the secret society that is the main magical force and the main antagonist a little less compelling. Although their presence makes sense given the fact that there were secret societies in Europe throughout this period, they never seemed entirely real as a threat to me. However, their magic is quite creepy!

That minor issue aside, I ended up really liking this book and the story it tells. It weaves different threads together in an expert way, but I found the central love story between Charlotte and Carlo, their slow recognition of the other’s worth, remained my favorite part.

Book source: ARC from the author

Book information: 2016, Pyr books; adult historical fantasy

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Recent Reading: comics + fantasy

I’ve been reading a lot over the past couple of weeks because I was sick and spending large amounts of time lying down. However, I was also feeling very picky about what I wanted to read and that boiled down to: comics or adult fantasy.

cloud roads fandemonium thor troubled waters

Comics

  • Thor: The Goddess of Thunder: I loved this. So much. My background here is that I haven’t read any of the original Thor (and am not planning to go back and try), so this relaunch was a perfect place to enter. I’m really intrigued by the premise and I loved the characters. In particular: FREYA. NEW THOR. OLD THOR. I also snickered over the “you mean she won’t be Lady Thor? Thoress? Lady Hammer Pants?” thread that runs through. At any rate, this is smart, engaging comic writing, with some nice visuals and a thoughtful approach to its source material. Sign me up!
  • Captain Marvel: Higher, Further, Faster, More: I really like Captain Marvel. While the start of this collection was a little confusing to me (they’re doing a framing thing that maybe doesn’t entirely work?) I kept going and was rewarded with a story that delves a little deeper into the tensions and divisions that run through some of the characters we’ve already seen. Also, I love Chewie.
  • The Wicked & the Divine: Fandemonium: I remain unsure about how I feel on this series. I wasn’t a big fan of the first volume but decided that I should give the second one a shot. And I did like it at least enough to read the third one! I think my main problem is pretty close to Jodie’s [spoilers at that link]: “Part of my disconnection with Laura’s feelings come from the fact that I’ve never felt like I would trade life for artistic immortality. However, I feel like the comic should still be able to make me understand her point of view or, at least, provide textual clues that can help me pinpoint what her views actually are.” At any rate, I will give the next volume a go and see what happens.

I also tried the first of the recent Catwoman comics but while I was really liking the story and characters, I hated the art to the extent that I didn’t actually finish it and doubt I’ll go on. Which makes me sad! But also: why, DC, why.

Fantasy

  • The Mirador and Corambis by Sarah Monette: [mild spoilers!] Third and fourth of the Melusine books. I have so many emotions about Mildmay, and Felix, and Mehitabel, and Mildmay, and Kay, and Mildmay. I think Corambis is my favorite of the series because by the end of it I actually was hopeful that the main characters would eventually be okay. I think this starts in The Mirador, when we get glimpses of who Felix actually is when he’s not in crisis and get a sense of his kind of hard-won integrity. I’m not sure that’s exactly right? but close? He has no morals, but the morals he doesn’t have are on his own terms? Anyway, Corambis is both lovely and satisfying and SLIGHTLY FRUSTRATING because all of a sudden we leave the Mirador completely behind. I would really like to know what happens to Mehitabel! Also Simon & Ronaldo! Argh! Lastly, my ships in this series are really weird, AMA. (NOT Felix/Mildmay, though.)
  • A Companion to Wolves, The Tempering of Men, An Apprentice to Elves by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear: I glomped through this trilogy pretty quickly because I really wanted to know what happened. (How is Sarah Monette so good at writing heart-breaking characters? ow.) I loved the first book and felt that the second one was definitely a bridge book; the plot didn’t quite hold up to the weight of being its own book in my opinion. I did really like the third book, and I was happy to see Alfgyfa becoming a character in her own right! I think I wanted a bit more personal resolution for Isolfr, but overall this was an interesting, intense trilogy.
  • Troubled Waters and Royal Airs by Sharon Shinn: I’m partway through the third book in this trilogy. The first book was a complete joy for me–I always want to like Shinn’s books just a little more than I do and Troubled Waters may well be the book that’s resonated the most for me. Royal Airs was just fine, an enjoyable read, but I wasn’t quite as invested in the characters. Overall, I find the idea of the blessings & personalities really fascinating and I absolutely recommend the first one! It would work just fine as a standalone if you wanted to go that route.
  • The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells: The first Raksura book. I think I had read it several years ago, but I didn’t remember much about the plot or even characters. I thought I should reread it before going on to finish the series. I think the problem is simply that I don’t connect with this world in nearly the same way as I connected with the worlds of the Ile-Rien books. There’s no particular reason for this: Wells is a gifted writer and there are no problems here. It’s simply personal preference. I would like to read the rest of the series just so I’ve read all of her books, and also in case I connect more with a later book.

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A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston

a thousand nightsA Thousand Nights is a loose-ish retelling of the Scheherazade story. It’s E.K. Johnston’s third book, and it’s firmly cemented her as a go-to author for me. I got the ARC for this one just before the Cybils started, so I set it aside until now. And while I’m sorry I had to wait this long, I’m happy that I had a chance to really savor this lovely book.

First, I think it’s worth stating upfront that Johnston is really thoughtful about how she changes the Scheherazade story. She resists romance here, which I appreciated. This is not the story of a girl falling in love with her captor, and it so easily could be.

The narrator of A Thousand Nights is never given a name–in fact, many of the characters aren’t. They’re defined in relationship to the narrator, or to the each other, which gives the story an immediacy and intimacy that I think works really well here. In fact, I felt that the narrator’s voice throughout the story, and the authorial choices that Johnston makes in terms of the way language is used, are one of the major strengths of the book.

Despite the fact that she’s not given a name, I found the narrator’s character–the way she experiences the world–worked in a really powerful way. This story is about some big themes and ideas, but it’s driven by the narrator and her choices.

One of the things I most appreciated about the book is the way it centers the relationships between the women in the story. The narrator is motivated by  her love for her sister, and she has strong, important connections with her mother, her sister’s mother, and Lo-Melkhiin’s mother. Even more so, the story explicitly honors and talks about women’s stories, women’s secrets, and women’s lives in a way that I found really refreshing. The place of handcrafts and traditional women’s work in the story is also really great; they’re shown with respect for the work and knowledge that goes into them and shown to have power, even if that power is often overlooked or misunderstood by men.

Moreover, the women in the story are not set in competition with each other. The narrator and her sister love each other, and their mothers are dear friends. Even Lo-Melkhiin’s mother and the servants in the qasr are shown to have relationships with each other and with the narrator that are supportive and nurturing, rather than competitive.

There’s also a great exploration of pride in who you are and where you come from. Many of the narrator’s images and similes grow out of her life in the desert, and she’s shown to draw much of her sense of self and her sense of strength from that identity. In the end, the story makes that a bittersweet thing, and yet I found that it really grounded the narrator and gave her a sense of purpose and the readers a sense of who she is. I had a sense of tradition and culture that’s very deep, even if we don’t see all of it.

Finally, this is a book that’s all about choices. The narrator faces hard choices again and again, and she has to choose rightly and see clearly in order to keep herself alive and to keep her family and country safe. The narrative deals really well with this, making it seem natural, while at the same time drawing attention to this theme and to the narrator’s sense of being on a knife’s edge.

In case it’s not clear, I really loved this book–I found it a joy to read and I was consistently surprised and convinced by Johnston’s choices, and by the narrator and her story. It combines a sense of being rooted in a sense of family and history and self, with a strength and purpose that’s shown to be how the narrator saves herself in the end.

Book source: ARC passed on from Brandy

Book information: 2015, Hyperion; YA historical fantasy

Other reviews: Brandy, Kirkus, Kaye, you?

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